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How to be Happy with a Book Part 2: Does the book deliver?

Does that book make you happy?

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about reading happily, and how to choose a book that was most likely to please you. That was Part One of my meanderings about How to be Happy with  Book (click the link if you’d like to refresh your memory about that).

First, a reminder about the things I consider when faced with that delicious choice – which book next:

Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

Today’s post looks at the second list of criteria. That is, does the chosen book deliver what you expected? Let’s look at the writing quality and think about whether the book matches its promise.

Two books

Choose your next book to make you happy

Writing Quality Matters

There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.

Production values

We like the book to look and feel good in our hands or on our screens. I talked about covers last time, and I want to add that I often look again at the cover while I’m reading. Does the cover represent a specific scene? Perhaps it shows me what a character looks like. Maybe it simply sets the mood.

If you don’t refer often to the cover, or you’re not really into visual mood-setting, this may not bother you. But…

When a cover doesn’t match what’s inside in any of those ways, I feel let down.

Writing values

What is it about good writing? To me, it’s a bit like listening to speech. When I was a speech pathologist, I used all sorts of cues and markers to diagnose speech problems. However, most listeners wouldn’t even hear what I was hearing. For example, it’s not until a speaker is less than 96% fluent that ordinary listeners might think they are stuttering.

The same with writing. I have studied the craft, and although there are much better editors than I am, I can spot writing problems – especially in other people’s writing! Not so much in my own… Many readers will be made uncomfortable by ungrammatical writing or too many swear words. They may not be able to pinpoint the problem, but they will say that the book is not well-written, and they will ditch it.

For us writers, getting it right means endless rounds of editing and polishing.

open book

Reading is one of life’s joys

Editing values

Poor layout and frequent typos present another barrier to the enjoyment of a story.

To some extent this is due to the disruption of the publishing industry and the rise of self-publishing. But that’s a long discussion for another day.

If typos and shoddy layout don’t bother you, you’ll be fine with anything. That’s not what I hear or see in the world of books, though.

Let’s just say that too many typos are a big turn off for dedicated readers. Look at the review websites to see the loathing. Hmm.

Genre matching

Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.

On first reading, you might expect that the story will follow the traditional hero journey of mainstream fantasy. There, good triumphs over evil, after a series of horrendous trials, strange meetings and sad events. Well, the death of Ned Stark at the end of the first GOT book put paid to that expectation. Not to mention the random slaying of baby dire wolves early on. Eek!

Millions of readers were enthralled about the reversal of the typical storyline of the genre, thrilled by the way the story played with fantasy conventions, and excited by loads of extraneous sex and violence that raised the stakes higher and higher. Other readers not so much, because they invested heavily in Ned Stark and felt short-changed.

I’m not going to decree whether meeting or flouting expectations is good or bad. However, if you particularly want a certain type of reading (such as a happily-ending Regency romance), you probably shouldn’t choose one with zombies included.

Levitation in historical fiction?

When to DNF

I try my very best not to choose books that I can’t finish. As I said previously, a DNF is a disappointment for both the reader and the author. I can generally judge whether I’m going to enjoy the book by using all the cues I mentioned in the first post about How to be Happy With a Book, and reading the first page/few pages/chapter.

I am so excited when I realise that YES, this book is going to be fabulous!

I hope you get that feeling often too.

Next time, let’s talk about how to reflect on the book … and a little bit about reviewing.

 

 

How to be Happy With a Book: a guide for readers and reviewers in three parts. PART ONE

In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?

*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.

How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE

I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.

*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
Pile of books I have read this year

Some of the books I have read so far this year

As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.

As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.

Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.

*We do (read reviews of our books)

 

I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s  a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?

Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:

  1. Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
  2. Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
  3. Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow

 

This post is Part One: choosing a book*

*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.

 

First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.

Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.

*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!

You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!

Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.

Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.

Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.

PART ONE SUMMARY:

So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!

Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?

Until then, happy reading!

 

Courage, hope, and hopepunk: Veronica Strachan

Veronica Strahan is magnificent at sharing words that mean a great deal to others. Whether writing non-fiction, children’s picture books or the fabulous high-fantasy-dystopian-hopepunk Opal Chronicles, Veronica ‘s books will affect how you see the world and yourself. Her memoir Breathing While Drowning is a message of courage and hope that speaks to grief and recovery.

Author Veronica Strachan/VE Patton

Author Veronica Strachan/VE Patton

Welcome, Veronica. You have quite a catalogue of amazing works. Why is writing important to you?

VERONICA: Though my creative writing was delayed by a few decades (okay four or so), due to the frustrating and often challenging interruptions of life, I’ve always felt compelled to write and share my stories—even if it was only with myself. When I spent years mired in producing formal clinical and business writing, my creative outflow was journalling. I love the power words have to change your life, to draw you into other worlds, to make you think, feel, and believe differently. Journal writing kept me sane and functioning until I found my story writing voice again. Once I’d turned on the tap, it was impossible to turn off.

 

Those words just keep coming, I know. What advice would you give an aspiring author?

VERONICA: Write what you’d love to read, the book that contains everything you ever wanted in a story. This is the story that will speak to other people. Let the creative juices pour out first, and then spend time on your crafting, and finding your audience. Take some creative writing courses and follow people who are writing things that you enjoy, or who are successful in their writing business.

Give yourself time. It’s a bumpy ride, but so worth your effort. You will change someone’s life with your story.

 

Oooh, that’s quite a concept! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

VERONICA: I’d given my daughter a draft of my first fantasy to read. She was reading it as a favour to her mum, but this was the text I received…

‘Noooooo!!!! That can’t be the end! I need more! What happens next?!?! Right are you finished writing book two yet? It is so freaking good!!! I literally got only a few hours sleep because I couldn’t stop reading and couldn’t wait to wake up and keep reading. Holy shit – you have written something truly fantastic! (In both senses of the word!)’

That made me very happy.

And since I’ve been writing children’s picture books… the videos and photos of kids tucked up with a copy of Chickabella are wonderful. They’re often accompanied by anecdotes from parents about how Chickabella is now a part of their family! One little boy wants his mum and dad to buy a rainbow house.

 

How fabulous! Great responses. How do you feel about reviews?

VERONICA: I find most reviews incredibly helpful. They tell you how readers are connecting with your stories and where improvements may be needed. A complimentary review can give you an incredible boost, especially when someone is moved by your words.

And reviews are vital to self-published authors like me. Without the machinery of a publishing company to assist and connect you to readers, it’s all up to you. Reviews from readers help put your story in front of more readers, spreading the word about your work. I like to tell readers that someone else who needs to read the book may find it by reading their review.

 

What do you think about covers, and what say do you have in yours?

VERONICA: Books are absolutely judged by their covers, particularly these days when so many people are scrolling rapidly on mobile devices. Covers needs to entice the reader into your world. I’m incredibly lucky that my daughter Cassi Strachan is a creative soul who creates beautiful covers to my very sketchy requests. She always exceeds my expectations. Cassi and I teamed up for The Adventures of Chickabella series (words by me and pictures by her) and that has been a lot of fun too. We get so excited when we hear that kids love the books and recognise Chickabella on the cover.

 

Do you have launch parties for your books?

VERONICA: I had a launch party for my memoir Breathing While Drowning, a few years back which reunited me with a bunch of wonderful people who had helped us over the years – and gave me excuse to have a book cake. But it was at a fabulous launch party in 2019 for my first fantasy novel, Ochre Dragon, Book 1 in The Opal Dreaming Chronicles (read Clare’s review here), that I felt I had really arrived as a writer – I had made the whole thing up after all. We had a delicious dragon cake (there must be cake), champagne and nibbles, book signing, and some reading from the story. Lots of friends, family, and other writers came to celebrate the book’s long-awaited birth. It was brilliant!

Launch party cake: The Ochre Dragon

Launch party cake: The Ochre Dragon

Yes, I sigh for the good old days of book launches! One day we’ll have them again. Do you write in more than one genre?

VERONICA: One genre – never! I’m definitely a multi-genre writer, sometimes with a genre mashup in the same book! I like messing with the usual suspects and deepening the characters and worlds. My favourite reads are fantasy and scifi, so that’s my main focus in creative fiction under my pen name V. E. Patton. I’m also completing the final edits of a co-authored, contemporary, action adventure with a supernatural twist.

As Veronica Strachan, publishing my memoir was the door opener into writing. I just had to write the story of my long healing from grief following the death of my second daughter Jacqueline Bree. It was incredibly cathartic. And as well as being a writer, I’m a leadership coach, health management consultant, and facilitator. So, as requested by some of my readers and clients, I wrote and published a self-discovery workbook and journal as a companion to the memoir. It felt very much aligned to my work with women who want to find ways to live a more remarkable life.

Veronica is also a life coach and motivator

Veronica is also a life coach and motivator

 

The first of my children’s picture books was originally written as a legacy for my sister Mary, who was a kindergarten teacher and told the best stories. I always nagged her to write a book, but she was our family’s oral storyteller. When she died in early 2019, I wanted to honour her love of children. My own children still remember their favourite read aloud stories, and I wanted to help make good memories for other children.

 

 

That’s wonderful. I’m sure Mary is glad that you are now putting stories onto the page. Thank you so much for talking with me today, and I look forward to the next book launch Opal Dreaming #2 is coming soon, I hope.

 

Veronica’s LINKS

I had to spend a semester in France: Patricia Worth

Patricia J. F. Worth is a French-English translator and private tutor of English and French. Trish received her master of translation studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, where she focused on nineteenth-century French literature and recent New Caledonian literature.

Apparently this degree forced her to spend copious amounts of time in France!

I’m very glad to be able to speak with Trish today about the complex mind games she plays with 19th century French fiction, because translation for an English-speaking audience of the 21st century is a mammoth feat of writing in itself. Read on to discover the heavy-lifting required to bring these books to life for us.

Welcome, Trish, to the Last Word of the Week. Can you tell me why is writing important to you?
Trish: Because I don’t like talking.

Ha! Great answer! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
Submit short stories to journals, keep submitting them until they’re accepted. If a story is rejected, send it to another journal the same day. Don’t wait.

Oh, that’s such good advice. There is a home for quality writing somewhere, and persistence really counts. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
A reviewer of Spiridion, my translation of George Sand’s novel of the same name, said:

“I feel that someone needs to point out what an important publishing event this English translation of George Sand’s Spiridion (1839) constitutes.”

Since I didn’t ask for this review, it’s even more precious as a word of praise. And it confirms that my chosen life-filler – to find and translate some of the fantastic forgotten French writing of the 19th century – is worthwhile.

Spiridion by George Sand, translated by Patricia Worth

Spiridion by George Sand, translated by Patricia Worth

It’s a fabulous niche to get busy in. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
Once when a former French lecturer read my translation of a story (after having harshly critiqued a dozen earlier), he was uncharacteristically generous in his comments, and finished by saying “You’re a writer.” That was when I knew.

It does help to get that sort of feedback, I agree. How much research is involved in your writing?
More than anyone (other than another literary translator) would believe. Since I can’t make anything up and my words have to mean precisely what the author meant, the research is never-ending. After reading the original text and deciding firstly that I’m capable of translating it and secondly that other readers will love it as much as I do, I then read everything available about the author, I read some of his/her other works, I search for any of them in English translation. I have to buy books from second-hand bookshops in France because they’ve often been out of print for decades. There are always obscure or outmoded words and expressions that send me digging deep to find their original definition; this can involve not only Internet research but visits to libraries and visits to French experts. And as I work my way through the translation there are countless occasions when I stumble across a word that the present English equivalent doesn’t seem to fit. This is when old dictionaries are opened, to find how the words have changed their meaning over time. And then there are the many trips I’ve made to France to walk and write in streets resembling those in my stories. When translating more modern literature, specifically from New Caledonia, I read a lot about the colonial history and the ongoing social tensions, I read all the arguments for both sides, the indigenous Kanak and the French settlers, and watch interviews and read news articles relevant to the story I’m working on. The New Caledonian author whose writing I translate lets me ask her questions. But I’m on my own when it comes to long-dead authors.

Stories to read by Candlelight, Back Cover

All about Stories to read by Candlelight, by Jean Lorrain, translated by Patricia Worth

How do you get feedback about your book before it’s published?
Until now, for the past eight years, I’ve had a trusty and willing reader, a retired academic with time to read my drafts (for free) and spend an hour or two with me discussing the changes needed. But he has just died. Over the years, to give him a break, I’ve asked a few other French speakers to help, but they always stress they have limited time available. It looks like I might have to start paying someone for their time…

Oh, and it sounds like you need someone quite specialised, too. That must be tricky  What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
To do the Honours year in French I had to spend a semester in France. I was middle-aged and hadn’t been overseas for 20 years, and now I had to go to a strange country and live alone, leaving my husband and three teenage sons here to fend for themselves. I feared my undergraduate-level French would not be good enough. I was scared out of my wits before I left. But if I had chickened out I would not be translating French literature today.

Stories to Read by Candlelight, by Jean Lorrain, translated by Patricia Worth

Stories to Read by Candlelight, by Jean Lorrain, translated by Patricia Worth

That’s an amazing achievement, I’m impressed. What kind of reader would like your books?
Readers of quirky old writing. Those interested in 19th-century France, 19th-century fantasy. Readers looking for delicious French writing (in English translation) from the era of Baudelaire, Flaubert and Hugo. Readers interested in New Caledonia and Vanuatu and stories from colonised Pacific islands.

Thanks so much for speaking with me today, Trish. Your work is absolutely fascinating!

 

Trish’s Links

Website: patriciaworthtranslator.com

Facebook: Patricia Worth

Amazon buy links

Stories to Read by Candlelighthttps://www.amazon.com.au/Stories-Read-Candlelight-Jean-Lorrain/dp/1925652580

Spiridion: https://www.amazon.com.au/Spiridion-George-Sand-ebook/dp/B00VF0YK5K/

Is my teenager an alien? Ask Steve Harrison

Steve Harrison writes witty, clever, profound and tender stories about life. Mostly these stories are encased inside an innovative plot that involves speculative fiction and turning the world upside down. Earlier this year, I reviewed Steve’s new novel Blurred Vision (a YA sci-fi adventure story featuring Polly Hart) for Aurealis Magazine, and I used words like witty and action-packed. But my favourite quote from my review is this:

Every parent knows how it feels to look at their teenager and not quite recognise them. An interstellar lookalike is a hilarious explanation.

I’m so pleased that Steve has dropped in for a chat today.

Author Steve Harrison

Author Steve Harrison

Hi, Steve, lovely to meet you. Can you tell me why is writing important to you?

Steve: Writing simply keeps me sane by providing an escape from reality. It’s a bit like meditating.

Yes, an inner journey to another place. What would readers never guess about you?

They might be surprised to hear I partnered a young unknown actor called Hugh Jackman in the chorus of an amateur musical production of Paint Your Wagon in 1989. I made him look and sound so good he went on to be a star!

That’s a great fact to pop into your bio! What’s the first book you bought for yourself?

I hardly read before I was 16, just compulsory books at school, but at that age my family migrated to New Zealand from the UK and a 30 hour flight without screens or electronic devices in those days made the trip a horrifying prospect. So I bought The Exorcist, which got me hooked on reading.

Nothing like a few hours of terror to grab a reader, hey? You’re not the first author to tell me that you were not a dedicated reader as a youngster – I think it’s a trend, and shows that you don’t need to be the nerdy kid to become a writer. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

I consider all writing advice to be opinion, so I’ll give my thoughts about what I wish I had known starting out. There are no short cuts and writers should test all writing advice/opinion by trying to prove it wrong. Finding out what does and doesn’t work for you, and especially why, is incredibly time consuming but invaluable (in my opinion!). My theory is that the best writers are the ones who have made the most mistakes, so avoiding them isn’t a good idea.

Oh, that’s really good to hear. I’m knee deep in mistakes of my old stories! Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?

I had a close friend many years ago who reacted to my intention to write a novel by saying, “you will never write a book.” We lost contact by the time I started writing, but the insensitive and definite way he made that statement constantly rankled – it still does – and inspired me. I’d thank him if I saw him, but I still don’t like what he did.

That obviously hurt. I hope he sees your success from afar, and it makes sense that you’re no longer in contact.

Time Storm by Steve Harrison

Time Storm by Steve Harrison

How much research is involved in your writing?

Very little at first. My general knowledge is pretty good (and I have a head for useless knowledge, too) and I like to write using what I think I know about a subject. This prevents facts getting in the way of my first draft and spoiling my ideas. I find it easier to amend a story I have already written than sabotage it in my head by researching before I write.

I think that’s especially important for speculative fiction. The creative mind needs some free-wheeling away from Wikipedia, though like you I sometimes have to throw in a few catch-up stitches to make a plot stick together. How do you deal with plot holes – if you ever have any!

I never have any plot holes. OK, I wish I never had any plot holes. If I can’t fix them as much as I would like and have to leave them there, I try to write the scenes with absolute conviction and certainty and hope they won’t be questioned!

Great idea, I must try it. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

I plan to finish the sequel to BLURRED VISION, titled OUT OF SIGHT, and start on the third book, FUZZY LOGIC. I am currently preparing a proposal for a TV series adaptation of my first novel, TIMESTORM, a time travel adventure, including the script for the pilot episode and a series ‘bible,’ which I will pitch to production companies. I also hope to sign with a US or UK literary agent for my contemporary New York-set crime thriller, OVERKILL.

I’m so glad to hear that there will be more Polly Hart stories. And you write in more than one genre, I see?

My two published novels have been time travel and science fiction, but I don’t have a preference. I have written a crime thriller and lots of different genres when screenwriting, including a family animated feature. I also have a WIP novel about a man going through a mid-life crisis. I get an idea for a story first and the genre is secondary. I like to describe myself as a genre-fluid writer…

I think that’s the way to go, if you are writing from story ideas and not trying to write to a specific market. It’s a much more organic approach, and besides, stories have been told since long before genre labels were invented. Thank you so much for chatting with me today!

 

LINKS

Website:  https://stormingtime.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/worldtimestorm/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/StormingTime

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hscope/

Elsewhen Press: https://elsewhen.press/index.php/catalogue/author/steve-harrison/

Steve’s books are available in ebook from all major booksellers (see the buy links on Steve’s website). The paperback versions can be ordered from bookshops or online from Elsewhen Press. Australian orders are printed in, and posted from, Melbourne.

 

19 and a half spells disguised by Josh Donellan

Today I’m talking with the lively Josh Donellan, author of 19½ Spells Disguised as Poems, the outrageous mystery novel Killing Adonis, and more.

Josh is an author, poet, musician, music journalist, teacher, voice actor and event manager, and a very entertaining interviewee. His CV includes being almost devoured by a tiger in the jungles of Malaysia, nearly dying of a collapsed lung in the Nepalese Himalayas, and once fending off a pack of rabid dogs with a guitar in the mountains of India. He has an unnatural fondness for scrabble and an irrational dislike of frangipanis.

Naturally enough, Josh’s answers to my questions are particularly amazing, and this interview reflects his clever sense of the absurd and the precious. Josh is a wordsmith worth noting, because you will never look at the printed page in quite the same way. 

You probably won’t be able to, because there’s every chance it will self-detonate before your very eyes. Either that or turn into a not-very-helpful imp.

19.5 Spells disguised as Poems by Josh Donellan

19.5 Spells disguised as Poems by Josh Donellan

Great to meet you, Josh, and congratulations on the publication of 19½ Spells. And thanks for reading some of them on your website here – that’s great! Can you tell me why is writing important to you?

Josh: Ani DiFranco once said “I was a terrible waitress, so I started to write songs.” I think I feel the same way, except I write stories instead of songs and instead of being bad at hospitality I was bad at (insert many different jobs here).

Ah, that means you really are a writer. Great. What was your favourite book as a child?

The Voynich manuscript.

 

In a language that only you can speak, no doubt. That one had me reaching for Wikipedia: ‘an illustrated codex written in an unknown writing system’! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

Yes, if you read everything I’ve ever written you’ll find I’ve encoded the secret to eternal life using a secret cypher that can only be understood once you’ve posted really nice reviews on goodreads and recommended my books to all your friends.

 

That sounds like a good plan! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

 

 

“This is the best book I’ve ever read, but it should have had Dr Who in it.”

That’s the way I feel about most books, truly. Why are you the perfect person to write your books?

Because everyone else who has tried has descended into madness and now spends their days rocking back and forth, murmuring about eldritch horrors and the heinous price of printer refill cartridges.

 Or the scarcity of flour and toilet rolls, possibly. What would be a dream come true for you?

Having Taikia Waititi direct an adaptation of one of my novels, with the soundtrack by Explosions in the Sky.

That’s a movie I would definitely see. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Josh – more power to your marvellous way with words.

 

Josh’s Social Links

https://twitter.com/jmdonellan (@jmdonellan)

https://www.instagram.com/jmdonellan/ (@jmdonellan)

https://www.facebook.com/jmdonellanauthor/

Josh’s Book Links

https://www.jmdonellan.com/

http://sixcoldfeet.com/

Odyssey Books

Stendhal Syndome by Josh Donellan

Stendhal Syndome by Josh Donellan

Eleni Hale’s heartfelt Stone Girl

Eleni Hale’s stunning debut novel, Stone Girl, burst onto the scene in 2018, and was instantly recognised for its outstanding quality and its direct emotional engagement with a difficult topic – society’s forgotten children. Published through Penguin Random House, Stone Girl won the prestigious 2019 Readings YA (Young Adult) Book Prize , and has been short and long listed for a number of other awards. Stone Girl tells the story of one child’s journey through institutional care.

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Eleni describes herself as a survivor of the system, and she campaigns for the recognition and rights of children who are in, or have now left, the care of the state.

My review of Stone Girl is forthcoming. I can’t wait for the book to arrive!

Welcome, Eleni, and thank you for speaking with me today. I know you have quite a background as a writer across different media and genres. You’re now working on your second novel. Is writers’ block ever a thing for you?

Eleni: It’s not really a ‘block’ for me. I think it’s a message that something isn’t right in the work. It took me years to figure this out but it’s completely changed the way I approach that horrible moment when my fingers are suspended over the keyboard and I have nothing to say.

Writing isn’t just about writing. it’s about thinking and dreaming and problem-solving and that ‘block’ moment is when I step away from the keyboard to go for a walk or take a shower or clean the car.

I think about where the story is and how the characters feel about it. That’s how I figure out what to write next. And sometimes that means going back and deleting what I never should have written because those characters would never do that or it was leading the story to a dead end.

Sometime deleting sections is the kindest thing you can do for a work in progress, I agree. What would readers never guess about you?

I am addicted to documentaries, especially true crime. In another life I would have liked to be a criminal psychologist.

Never too late! And there’s always your next reincarnation. When did you fall in love with reading?

I discovered the escapism of books when I was about nine or ten. My mum let me read whatever I wanted and once I devoured all the Sweet Valley High series I quickly moved onto Judy Blume. Then, at about twelve years old, I discovered Virginia Andrews and Anne Rice.

Books opened up new worlds up for me. I was no longer living my life and grappling with my difficulties but sharing in the troubles of my characters. It was magical and empowering.

Always, I was attracted to dark-subject books.

Eleni Hale, writer

Eleni Hale, writer

Yes, I see that. Dark stories can be very affirming, in strange ways. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?

Yes. Writing course offer parameters and structure for the creative mind to build upon. I remember starting Stone Girl and my brain was the wild wild west. I had no idea how to write a book, what the elements were or the structure required to hold it all together.

Courses teach a novice writer the tools and secrets of those who’ve been writing for years. This is a fast-track method to enlightenment. Obviously, some courses are more valuable than others so do your research.

That sounds right. I learned so much from my creative writing studies, though I had been writing for a lifetime already. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?

From my personal experience (I can’t talk for others), writing appealed to me because it was a way to express an active imagination. The world around me was shrill, triggering and inspiring. I wanted to capture it and, in this way, find some control.

Aspiring authors are told ad nauseum to read lots and write constantly. Create a character, find the plot and the voice and set it in a place. I concur that this is all vital.

However, don’t forget your imagination. It is completely unique to you. Don’t constrain it too much in rules and structure or worse, trying to write like someone else. Particularly with your first and second draft, allow your writing to be free and trust the muse. After that, apply the theory.

Imagination is the basis of each writer’s own voice, I think. Do you have a go-to routine for writing?

I enjoy writing in the morning but since I’ve had kids, I am an opportunistic writer. Pre kids I wrote for about six hours in the morning before university or when I worked as a journalist, I’d write on the train on the way to work.

Now, my husband and I negotiate terms and times and I inform everyone I’m working and to only interrupt me when it’s absolutely urgent. But, as I have a three and a five-year-old ‘urgent’ can mean pretty much anything! Yes, I’ll get you a snack/peel your banana/give you a hug. I’m starting to insist though that they understand this is important. Being a mother and a writer has taught me to be pretty great at shutting out distractions.

And excellent practice for pandemic lockdowns, too. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

I’m not sure about ‘secrets’ but I hate being bored. My writing needs to involve a level of emotional intensity and a constantly progressing plotline to keep it interesting. I often need to go back and stretch out the action to make sure it’s not too much too soon.

Pacing is important, but I’m sure you have that down pat. Congratulations on the great reception for Stone Girl, and many thanks for speaking with me today, Eleni.

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

 

Stone Girl is available through all good booksellers (the link at the start of this sentence is to Booktopia), and many bookshops are providing free postage during the COVID-19 restrictions. Or buy an e-book – guaranteed germ free 🙂

Eleni’s Links

Eleni Hale – Writer – elenihale.com

Facebook: EleniHaleauthor

Twitter: @EleniHale

Insta: eleni_hale_

Goodreads: Stone Girl

The Stars and Anzac Day

This week, we will mark Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in over a century, there will be no attending official services. The pandemic changes how we mark historic events, just as it changes how we celebrate or grieve personal events. I’m aiming to be up at 6am next Saturday, to watch dawn from my front garden and to think about the enduring legacy of war, and how world events affect us here Down Under.

Just in time, there is a fabulous new review of my WWI Anzac story.

My heartfelt thanks to Baffled Bear Books for this brilliant, thoughtful review of The Stars in the Night.

The Stars in the Night is indeed a tale of enduring love. This review is well worth a read. I’m very grateful to find such wonderful readers!

https://baffledbearbooks.com/2020/04/18/stars-in-the-night-by-clare-rhoden-a-story-of-broken-lives-and-enduring-love/

Christine Bell, No Small Shame

Christine Bell’s historical novel No Small Shame has just been released, making hers the first fully online book launch of my experience. Christine has 35 short fiction books published for children including picture story, chapter book and YA titles. Her short stories have won national writing competitions and been published in various anthologies. No Small Shame tells the story of immigrant Mary O’Donnell who arrives in Australia on the brink of WWI. Meticulously researched though it is, the story’s strongest points are its engaging and relatable characters.

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

No Small Shame by Christine Bell

Welcome, Christine, and congratulations on the excellent reception of No Small Shame. Thank you for sharing some words with me today. Let’s see what set you off on your writing journey. What was your favourite book as a child?

Christine: When I was in grade four, our teacher Miss Yule possessed the most beautiful illustrated story book I’d ever seen. It was a large, full colour book called Best Scandinavian Fairy Tales. Every couple of days she would read from our current story and hold up the divine full-page illustrations. Once a week, a child was allowed the very special privilege of taking the precious book home overnight to read. It seemed an interminable wait until it was my turn. I could barely breathe for excitement that evening while I turned the pages and read as much as I could. Later, I read surreptitiously by torchlight, carefully turning the pages under the sheet. It broke my heart when at the end of the term, Miss Yule left our class to get married, taking her beautiful story book with her and depriving me of a second overnight read. I’ve never forgotten that book.

Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales

And never forgiven Miss Yule, no doubt. Or those conventions that made marriage and teaching incompatible! Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?

There are no secrets as such, but there are always guns on the wall. Small moments that may not mean much at the time of writing, but must inevitably have a purpose. I have a scene in No Small Shame, aboard ship, where Mary is forced to have her hair cut off due to a plague of nits. The scene shows the conflict with her mother, but Mary’s hair also comes to have a deep symbolism throughout the novel. When I first wrote the scene, it was more to show shipboard life and I was concerned in the early drafts if it was earning its place. But as the novel progressed, Mary’s hair became a metaphor that echoes right to the final scene.

Guns on the wall! Eek! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?

Just before No Small Shame was officially released, a writer friend emailed me from the bookshop carpark after getting caught up reading it. She emailed again, a day later, half-way through, to say how much she was loving it, and that I’d painted such a picture with words and drawn the characters so well that she felt she knew them. The next day she contacted me to say that she’d cried through the final five chapters, loved the book, and how could we get it made into a movie. It’s an author’s dream to have a reader connect so emotionally to your story and to have it come alive in their mind.

That’s wonderful feedback. Do you write full time?

I write virtually full time. My children have all grown up and left home, and I’m most fortunate to have the financial support of a partner. Royalties from my many children’s short fiction titles, together with my annual PLR and ELR payments* help financially too, even all these years after the titles were published. I work in our business part-time too, but the majority of days I can be found at my writing desk.

*Note: public and electronic lending rights, from when books are borrowed from libraries. Note 2: Support authors! Borrow books from libraries!

Excellent! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?

I’ve had lots of opportunities to meet many fellow writers through writing groups, events, conferences, masterclasses and workshops. I’ve also completed two tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Creative Writing, where I met writers who’ve become good friends. I also served as the Assistant Co-ordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Vic (SCBWI) for five years where I made a lot of friends and connections in the kid-lit community. I’ve connected with lots of writers through Facebook and Twitter. My social media is predominantly all about writing, publishing, books, and related topics, and I’ve always found the online writing community incredibly supportive and friendly.

I agree, the #WritingCommunity is great. Where do you write?

My office looks over our rather lovely, tranquil back garden where I can hear the birds, see them playing in the bird bath, and watch the change of seasons. A couple of years ago, after a spinal surgery, I purchased an electric standing desk and combined with another long desk, it forms a fabulous L-shaped workspace. One full wall is floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, and, adding a red filing cabinet and splashes of red on the bookshelves and desk, I have a bit of a colour theme going. The wall opposite features a huge framed map of the Somme, the setting of my current work-in-progress; plus a large original illustration from my children’s book, Snozza; a messy corkboard of memorabilia and treasured mementoes; as well as various artefacts related to my current work . It’s a lovely space that I had such fun decorating to truly inspire and reflect what I’m writing.

Do you have launch parties for your books?

I never had a launch party for my children’s books, so I was very excited to plan an instore event at Readings Hawthorn to release No Small Shame. It was rather a large shame that the event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but I quickly became aware of the possibility of launching the book online, via Facebook. I was still very keen for acclaimed author and writing buddy Alison Goodman to launch the book. This was a little problematic since we were to be in separate houses due to this time of isolation. We decided that a pre-recorded launch was probably the only way to go. I really wanted a live, spontaneous component though. But even as I advertised it, I wondered if the live stream would work. Short story, with a little tech advice and after a practice mock event, it worked very well and No Small Shame was launched on the 2nd April. I was really thrilled that I was able to see so many friends, family and fellows present in the event comments, questions and congratulations. For anyone who’d like to view the launch, I’ll include the Youtube links: Book launch https://youtu.be/LHXC4OJvKTI. Live stream https://youtu.be/c4sJ9vamIzI.

Ooh, and readers can have a little look at your writing office on the YouTube link! Thanks, Christine; I’m very much looking forward to reading No Small Shame, and to your next book, which is also set around the time of the First World War.

Christine’s links:

Website:              https://christinebell.com.au

Twitter:                https://twitter.com/chrisbellwrites

Facebook:            https://www.facebook.com/chris.bell.77377

Instagram:           https://www.instagram.com/christinembell

Book links:

Readings: https://www.readings.com.au/products/30505748/no-small-shame

Dymocks: https://www.dymocks.com.au/book/no-small-shame-by-christine-bell-9781920727901

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/no-small-shame-christine-bell/book/9781920727901.html

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/No-Small-Shame-choice-forever-ebook/dp/B07WQYNC2G

Meg Mundell and ‘the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence’

I first met Meg Mundell during last summer’s Australian bushfire crisis – a virtual meeting as we looked around at the devastation of the land, livelihoods, homes, habitat and wildlife, and the deaths. We engaged in a group called Writing for the Environment. Now I’m speaking with Meg again, in the early stages of another unprecedented, life-changing event, this one the global Covid19 pandemic, now so close to everyone’s home.

Author Meg Mundell - Joanne Manariti Photography

Author Meg Mundell (Joanne Manariti Photography)

Meg Mundell is a writer and academic. Born and raised in New Zealand, she lives in Melbourne with her partner and young son. Her second novel, The Trespassers  was named Readings ‘Fiction Book of the Month’ for July 2019, and has been optioned for a TV series. Her first novel is the  critically acclaimed Black Glass (2011), and Things I Did for Money (2013) is her debut short story collection.

Meg also runs the project ‘We Are Here’, using creative writing to explore understandings of place with people who have experienced homelessness (www.homelesswriting.org). She’s the editor of We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press, Nov 2019), a world-first collection of writings by people who have known homelessness.

A fascinating guest!

Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Meg. Can you tell me why writing is important to you?

MEG: Writing helps me to make sense of the world – the whole strange, confusing, wondrous and mysterious mess of existence. I also enjoy the craft of knocking out words, with all its frustrations and small satisfactions: the feeling of making something. Putting letters on the page, wrangling with a line, breathing life into a character, hacking out a parallel universe using the beautiful tool of language…it makes me feel alive.

How wonderful – great writing images there. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, more something I just knew from very early on. There’s one vivid memory. When I was a preschooler my parents would sometimes take me to work with them, and at my dad’s workplace there was this room full of typewriters. I’d sit there for ages banging out misspelled words, just enjoying the sight of the letters slamming onto the page. One day my dad’s workmate poked his head in. “You’re very busy,” he said. “Are you going to be a secretary when you grow up?” I remember the question annoyed me. “No,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”

A secretary, LOL. How much research is involved in your writing?

A lot! I love research. But it’s easy to get sucked down wormholes. Sooner or later you have to stop researching, just dive in and write the damn thing. Working on my latest novel, The Trespassers (UQP 2019), I spent hours researching sailor’s tattoos, sea monster myths, marine pollution, Irish and Scottish slang, future fuel scenarios, pandemic containment strategies, bioterrorism, the psychology of germophobia… My browser history looked so dodgy: how long does a body take to rot at sea? What drug stops hallucinations? How do you kill someone with a crowbar?

Early on in the research process, I also visited the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It’s an amazing site – beautiful, idyllic, but with this undercurrent of trauma, grief and sadness. Echoes of all the suffering this place has seen, especially in the immediate aftermath of its creation back in 1852. Visiting that site was a key moment that inspired me to write the novel.

Port Nepean Quarantine Station (Meg Mundell)

Port Nepean Quarantine Station (Meg Mundell)

Perfect preparation for the world we live in, too. I love your search history. What five words would best describe your style?

Vivid, pacey, voice-driven, multi-layered, empathic.

Great words. What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

Crewed a boat from New Zealand to Australia in my 20s, with zero sailing experience and a sleazy cowboy of a captain who refused to let us wear life jackets. Two friends invited me along. For the whole nine days I was seasick, and so heavily dosed up on Scopolamine that I started hallucinating: I heard mermaids singing and had long conversations with flying fish.

Each of us did an 8-hour watch, steering over these huge ocean swells, 8 or 9 metres high at times, with only a thin wire clip-line connecting us to the boat. Out on the open sea, you’re nothing. Steering up and down those waves, trying to keep the boat upright, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Sheer terror, but hugely exhilarating. That trip planted the first seeds of The Trespassers.

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

That sounds absolutely terrifying, but what a fantastic basis for a story. Congratulations on the TV option for The Trespassers, too. A thrilling achievement  What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?

Figure out a plan for my next book – non-fiction, I think. Publish some academic articles, a couple of essays, maybe some long-form journalism. And like always, write some dubious poetry nobody will ever lay eyes on.

It’s great that you have something just for you. I believe writers have private voices too. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?

Covers matter a lot to me: my brain really latches on to images. So far I’ve been extremely lucky to have been allowed a lot of input on this front. I love the cover we ended up with for The Trespassers: that jellyfish is so eerily gorgeous, almost otherworldly. Menacing, but delicate too. It suggests so much.

Yes, it’s absolutely perfect. Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?

Places: their different moods and atmospheres, the things they’ve witnessed. Human beings: their words and actions, their hidden selves, the things they come up against and how they cope. Love and compassion: the way they’re thrown into stark relief during dark times. Injustice: things that make me angry. Dreams, memories, poems, photographs, paintings. Exploring old abandoned buildings. Glimpsing other lives through a train window. Words and phrases, mysterious patterns. A certain slant of light, a strange doorway, a word carved into a tree. A funny incident. It all goes into a big compost heap in my brain. It’s a mess in there, but there’s always material if you dig around.

That’s a beautiful piece of writing in itself – a prose poem about inspiration. Thank you! Do you write in more than one genre?

Always. In my fiction I like to plunder elements from different genres – literary fiction, thriller, crime, spec fic, even historical fiction. I tend to resist rigid categories, and enjoy playing with genre conventions – using those tools to create something slightly off-kilter, something fresh and hopefully surprising.

And succeeding. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Meg, and more power to your pen.

 

Meg’s Links:

Website: megmundell.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/megmundell.writer/

Twitter: @MegMundell

Buy links for Meg’s books:

Readings bookshops (free local delivery during pandemic: Carlton, Doncaster, Hawthorn, Malvern and St Kilda, VIC): https://www.readings.com.au/products/27274538/the-trespassers

Sun Bookshop (free local delivery during pandemic: Yarraville, VIC): https://shop.sunbookshop.com/details.cgi?ITEMNO=9780702262555

UQP: https://www.uqp.com.au/books/the-trespassers

Booktopia: https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-trespassers-meg-mundell/book/9780702262555.html