Writers’ Retreat at Aldinga Beach

One of the many perks of participating in the Fiona McIntosh Masterclass is the growing network of writers you get to connect with. Fiona has set up a closed Masterclass Alumni facebook group, where we can share successes and coordinate state based meet-ups. It’s through this group that I was fortunate enough to be invited to a South Australia Writers Retreat, hosted by two of Fiona’s early masterclassers. It was located at a gorgeous 1960s Holiday House overlooking the beach at Aldinga.

For anyone familiar with South Australia’s landscape, Aldinga is a far cry from my home region: the Barossa Valley. But the retreat started on a Friday night so I only had to drive from work in the city; about half the distance compared to coming from home.

The weather was horrendous. Autumn finally decided to show up, and she did so with gusto. The wind and rain whipped my car around and it was far too dark to see the house numbers by the time I arrived. Thankfully, someone else stopped ahead of me and looked to be scouting the area, and with two sets of headlights on the road below, our hosts braved the wind and rain to stand on the balcony and wave us down.

Once I was inside, dry and wearing my ugg boots, we all sat down to a lovely dinner of homemade pumpkin soup and bread rolls. The perfect accompaniment for cold weather and getting to know everyone. There were six of us in total that first night (plus the dog and cat), with another to join the following day for the write in.

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The balcony between showers

With full bellies, we moved to the lounge to settle in and watch, The Last Masterclass on DVD. For those of you that don’t know, Fiona took over the masterclass schedule from Bryce Courtenay after he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2012. It was wonderful to see the master himself, his passion and humbling attitude towards his life, work and ultimately his death. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend watching it.

It was an early night for me, being wiped from a day at work and the long drive. The next day would be all about writing.

I woke at 7.30am, a wonderful sleep in for me, being used to a toddler waking me much earlier most days. The other guests were up and it wasn’t long before we all congregated in the kitchen to stare out of the window between downpours to get a glimpse of the ocean. We had free reign to help ourselves to tea, coffee, toast, cereal and loads of fruit. There was no schedule, it was simply an opportunity for us to concentrate on our work without the interruptions of home.

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Not a bad backdrop to work to.

I dove straight into the revision of draft #4 of my manuscript. However, I found sitting for long periods of time quite intense, so like a fidgeting child I kept getting up to walk around, stretch or make a cup of tea. When sitting at the table got too much, I moved to the couch with a rug and read through a couple of chapters of the manuscript I am beta reading at the moment. By half past twelve, tummies were grumbling and it was time to make a sandwich and have some more soup.

I settled down to review another chapter after lunch, but by halfway through I was getting fidgety again. So when Sandy mentioned she was going for a stroll outside, I decided to join her. Wind or not, I needed to stretch my legs.

It was a brisk walk as the rain picked up again, but it did the trick. I was certainly awake after being blown about for 15 minutes. The rest of the afternoon flew by and before I knew it, I’d revised five chapters.

 

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We headed out to a cafe for dinner and had a lovely time. Once back at the house, we settled in with tea and fruit and lazed on the couches to chat. I was the first to bed again that night, relishing the chance for undisrupted sleep.

I woke at 6am Sunday morning after a lovely long sleep, but feeling famished. I got up and made myself some tea and toast, and pottered about, mostly eyeing the view. The rain had finally eased off!

Because I was keen to get back to my family, I headed off at 9am. It would take me an hour and forty minutes to get home, and I knew I’d have lots to do when I got there, so no time to dawdle.

Overall, the weekend was really valuable. I met some wonderful, supportive women whom I know I will be able to call on in future if I ever need advice or someone to read over my work. Though a full day of writing was intense, it forced me to be productive and to keep the rhythm of writing going. And though we were at a beach house, I’m secretly grateful that it was a blustery time, as it kept us inside and focused.

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Fred the Cat

 

On my book shelf this summer

I haven’t posted much about what I read, mostly because I’ve been so focussed on my writing for the last six months. As my draft is coming to the real pointy end, I’m looking forward to taking some time out to read a bit more. My book club, which has been really quiet this year, is also reconvening. For a change, I thought I’d share what’s on my To Be Read (TBR) pile.

I read a relatively wide variety of books, though my favourites are usually contemporary fiction. On my bedside table I always have a stack of books that I want to get through. Always fiction, maybe a re-read, sometimes a memoir or non-fiction and quite often, something a little spiritual or thought-provoking.

At the moment, I have three books on the bedside table, another three eBooks on my phone and four I need to track down over the coming months. So, here’s my list:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This was a book club pick from months and months ago. I’ll admit, I started it some time ago but I just couldn’t get into it. I’ve seen the TV series and I think it was done so wonderfully that I can’t help but feel let down by the book. However, had I read the book first I probably would have loved it as well as the show.
  2. Those Faraday Girls by Monica McInerney. I’m a huge MM fan and have read most of her books. I’ve actually read this one, too, but it was years ago. I found it at my parents house recently and decided to bring it home to devour again. I’d like to model my own writing on MM. I think she’s a master story teller; I’ve got a long way to go.
  3. Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez. This is the sequel to a book we read in the first year of my book club, some four years ago now. I’m not sure I’ll get to it anytime soon. When I do, I know it’ll be quick and easy, and wonderful to be back in the Middle East with a group of strong, intelligent and resilient women.
  4. True Refuge by Annabelle McInnes. This post-apocalyptic romance was written by my fellow masterclasser and friend, Annabelle. I’ve only just started it and though it’s not the type of book I’d usually pick up, I’m enjoying the fast pace and unnerving premise. It’s only the first in a trilogy so I’ll no doubt be dipping into this world for quite a while yet.
  5. The Tea Gardens by Fiona McIntosh. I love tea and the kind of fiction that takes me on an armchair journey across the world (and into the past). I’m sure I’ll love this.
  6. A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester. This came up as a free eBook through iTunes just the other day and I couldn’t resist snapping it up. I’ve long followed Natasha on Twitter and her blog, and I’m sure I’ll love her books. I bought her most recent, Her Mother’s Secret, for a friend earlier this year (and I’m waiting for it to boomerang back to me ;P).

Upcoming Book Club picks:

Mine is See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. I read an article Sarah wrote about the research that went into this book, including a stay at the house where the murder actually took place (it’s now a BnB), and I just knew I had to read it.

My other clubbers have chosen, What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton, History of Wolves by Emily Fredlund and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

 

Phew! That’s my list… What’s on your TBR pile at the moment?

Plot vs Prose aka the fight to be taken seriously

I recently read an article criticising, well, critics, for labelling Liane Moriarty’s books as “best selling fluff.” To be honest, I was surprised that Moriarty’s work was even considered fluff. I’ve only read Big Little Lies (pre-miniseries) and I really loved it. The book dealt with some very serious topics, in what I thought was a clever, sensitive and entertaining way. Though the plot is framed by a murder that’s not what the crux of the novel is. It’s about women, friendship and motherhood. It touches on domestic violence and bullying in a very realistic way. It’s a best-seller yes. But it’s hardly what I would consider “fluff.”

So why are the critics hating on Moriarty?

Well for one thing, Moriarty writes commercial fiction. *Gasp*. I say this tongue in cheek of course, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with CF. It’s my preferred genre to read, and it’s what I hope to be published in someday soon.The problem is that it seems literary critics think CF isn’t worthy of the time of day it’s given. According to a great number of articles and reviews, it seems that commercial fiction is synonymous with simple sentence structure, poor prose and a lack of seriousness.

On the other hand, literary fiction is said to be the opposite of all of the above. It is serious. Its words are carefully selected and arranged into sentences that read like poetry and make the reader want to bleed the very blood of which it was constructed. In my opinion, literary fiction is actually less focused on plot and far more derived of powerful, poignant prose.

I like to read great prose. I read literary works because I think it will make me a better writer. Because it makes me think and feel in a different kind of way. I take down notes in the margins of literary books. But I don’t become immersed in them. I don’t finish a page and feel a rush of emotions. Sometimes I even struggle to finish them, because the engagement of a great story just isn’t there.

But that’s just me. Someone else might revel in the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Zadie Smith and Ernest Hemingway.

I couldn’t get into the Twilight books either, and even a recount of any shade of grey makes me cringe. But again, that’s just me. There are millions of people who loves those books. People who are serious about reading, and love those books.

And to that I say, great.

At least they are reading. Because at the end of the day, isn’t the reason we write because we want to be read? Isn’t being read by someone (other than your mum/best friend/partner) the greatest achievement for a writer? That’s what I consider being taken seriously.

No matter what or why people read, whether it’s to escape, to laugh, to think or to feel, we should be grateful that there are still millions of people buying books and reading ferociously. Because without readers, there would be no reason for us to write.

Why I love Big Magic (and you should too)

Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame has copped a lot of flak by way of negative reviews of her books. But, as an artist, this is to be expected. Creativity is subjective, and not everyone digs the same thing, right?

One only needs to scroll through the reviews on Goodreads to note that plenty of people didn’t appreciate Gilbert’s memoir about spending a year abroad in Italy, India and Indonesia. Despite that, she is one of the most famous authors of our time. The book was turned into a movie and Gilbert continues to write and mentor other creatives. Every. Day.

Needless to say, when Gilbert’s non-fiction book, Big Magic came out, I was eager to get stuck into it. Especially since it promised to be filled with sage advice about living a creative life. If she could build such an amazing career being a writer, surely then, this book would have all the answers?

Not surprisingly, plenty of reviewers loathe this book, just like Eat Pray Love. But a negative review has never stopped me from picking up a book I have an interest in. So I pre-ordered it and devoured it in a single sitting (I’m not a fast reader, so take that as a sign that this book is easy to read).

I dog-eared pages of advice I really loved and I left this book in my bedside table drawer, knowing I would come back to it time and time again. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing ground-breaking to be said in Big Magic. So if you’re expecting the next Don Quixote, well, you may want to look elsewhere. What it is is a common sense approach to living up to your full creative potential. This doesn’t necessarily have to equate to becoming a world-famous author, poet, artist, singer, etc, it just means doing what makes you happy, making time for the creative aspects of your life and not having such high expectations of yourself, your art, or the people around you. Failure is OK and persistence is key. Also, don’t quit your job to pursue the creative life on a whim, because you’re setting yourself up for bankruptcy. Dah.

Though the book is supposedly targeted at anyone seeking more creativity in their life, I do think it is very much pointed at writers, more so than anyone else. There are a few anecdotes regarding poetry and ice skating, etc, but the crux of the book is really only relatable if you’re in that world of words.  

Some of my favourite snippets include:

“The arts are not a profession, in the manner of regular professions. There is no job security in creativity, and there never will be.” p.106

“Writers are told to write what they know, and all I knew was that I didn’t know very much yet, so I went forth in deliberate search of material… I kept two notebooks in my back pockets – one for my customers’ orders, and the other for my customers’ dialogue… I learned that not only does everybody have a story that would stop your heart, but everybody wants to tell you about it.” p.111

“I like that feature in men – their absurd overconfidence, the way they will casually decide, “Well, I’m 41 percent qualified for this task, so give me the job!” Yes, sometimes the results are disastrous, but sometimes, strangely enough, it works… I only wish more women would risk these same kinds of wild leaps. But I’ve watched too many women do the opposite. I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”” p.168

“If the only thing an idea wants is to be made manifest, then why would that idea deliberately harm you, when you are the one who might be able to bring it forth? (Nature provides the seed; man provides the garden; each is grateful for the other’s help.) Is it possible then, that creativity is not fucking with us at all, but that we have been fucking with it?” p.217

Dear reader, I’d love to know, have you read Big Magic, and if so, what did you think?