From Hook to Book

Archive for the category “Reading and Writing”

Baggage limit? But there are books to buy!

Bartrums Hay-on-WyeHow can a travelling author be given a baggage weight limit when there are books to buy? Lots of books. Plus lots of amazing new book shops to visit, not to mention literary museums and quirky stationery shops! And when one location turns out to be the very setting and inspiration the author was searching for, complete with printed histories, background info and individual (published) stories…

P1000641 Chris Hay on Wye

Eek, the conundrum! Especially when said author has a small domestic flight from Belfast to Inverness that insists on only 20kgs of baggage and a stop off first, in Hay-on-Wye – national book town of Wales – where every second shop is book related – plus they have the incredible Bartrums & Co Stationers. How was I possibly going to gain less than 3 kgs before flying?


Of course, I couldn’t leave Hay-on-Wye empty handed and I picked up several books including two novels The Miniaturist and The Little Paris Bookshop at the wonderful Richard Booth’s Bookshop. I know I could get both of these novels at home, but I do have to say it, books are cheaper in the UK – even applying the horrifying June 2015 exchange rate of the Aussie dollar to GBP. Here The Miniaturist sells in the three majors I checked for A$19.99. I paid £7.99 (equiv approx. $16.00). The Little Paris Bookshop sells in Australia for $29.99 and I paid £12.99 (equiv approx. $26.00).

Isn’t it good when one can make an almost reasonable excuse for one’s passions (read obsessions)?

Admittedly, I did have to add 67 euros postage in Ireland to post my purchases and paper paraphernalia back to Oz pre domestic flight. But by then I’d also found my potential story setting and acquired a lot more accompanying research literature besides, so the novels didn’t substantially affect the 7 kilo cost.

Books bought os

The hoard pictured above is the greater majority of my book and literature purchases this trip, bar a couple lent out already. Alas, most of it purchased pre domestic flight! Hence the hefty postage charge.

It doesn’t include all the associated brochures, maps and sight-seeing site literature one picks up along the tourist trail. I can’t believe how much paper stuff I discarded. Tourism sure takes a hefty chomp out of the world’s tree population. In fact, I think I think it should be mandatory that every castle, museum, place of interest, provide recycle bins at exits for visitors to dump printed paraphernalia. Most tourists probably bin it before stepping back on the plane anyway. Except writers, of course, who often want to study the minutiae later, on the look out for that elusive idea, word, name, inspiration that they may have missed whilst taking in the vista. Or while saving their concentration for climbing and descending the multiple x multiple stairs UK/Europe insist upon to earn your rite of passage!

Yet I could’ve bought so much more, especially post small domestic flight.

P1020477 Chris Bell Foyles LondonFoyles in London, is reader heaven. I practically had to be dragged out of the place. I was incredibly well controlled though, as I wouldn’t buy anything I could buy at home once back in England. But the range in Foyles, spread over four levels, is incredible. I was possibly too overawed to even think much about purchasing. I was also too busy plotting how could I move to Charing Cross Road, work there/write there. At least for a year or two!

Book buying is almost always as much part of my holiday pleasure as reading. I’m not sure if I should be worried that I spent more time buying books while away than actually reading them.


The BIG Question in your Novel?

Big ProblemThe first time I was asked: “What is the big question in your novel?” I responded with a blank look.

BIG question??? Hmm! Hadn’t really thought about a BIG question. I was just writing what I hoped was a cracker of a story and following my main character’s journey through a testing and changing time for women during the era of The Great War.

“Wrong. No! You must be writing to answer a question,” insisted my uni research tutor.


Turned out, I was actually asking and exploring quite a few questions, but it took me some considerable effort to seek them out and, even more so, to articulate them and find the core question.

Being an historical novel, I thought, at first, that my questions would be very different to those that might be posed in a contemporary story. I considered them to be all about a woman’s right to happiness and did they have any rights to it, over duty, in the era of 1912 – 1920? I thought the question not relevant to young women in western society today, who often have so many choices.

Eventually I worked the major question in my novel through to:

At what point do we question the rightness and rationale of what we’ve been taught? (Or should we?)

Of course, this turned out to be a timeless question, relevant to as many women/people in the world today as much as a century ago. A right of passage and a question that – in some form – has  been explored and debated in books the world over – through every genre.

Bunyips Don'tI remember having a debate with my Writing for Children tutor, several years ago, when I wrote a glowing review on the picture book Bunyips Don’t by Sally Odgers and illustrated by Kim Gamble. My tutor maintained how could the book end with a celebration when Young Bunyip had moved to the sunny side of the swamp with new friends leaving old Bunyip alone? To her, Young Bunyip was bucking his heritage and a selfish creature for deserting Old Bunyip. I argued that Young Bunyip tried to encourage miserable Old Bunyip, living in the dank and dark, that he could dance and play (be happy) on the sunny side of the swamp and to come with him. Old Bunyip chose not to just because Bunyips Don’t dance and play and live on the sunny side. He chose to live the same old unhappy life rather than make a choice to change. In the end, my tutor was more convinced but still struggled with Young Bunyip “abandoning” his heritage and his kind’s way of life.

Doesn’t enjoyment and love for a book often come down to reader perspective?

If I hadn’t been going to uni, would I have ultimately learned as much just in the writing of my novel and formulated the same BIG question? Perhaps!

But the scope of my Master’s degree insisted I explore and articulate the social context and big question of my novel leading me to discover and thrill to what I discovered were the many layers to my story. Many intentional but some that I found had emerged organically too.

Chris pre-grad (Large)So last week, I walked the ramp to the RMIT graduation stage with a huge grin on my face and grasped my degree, very pleased and proud to be a Master of Creative Media (Creative Writing) with Distinction.

Now – onward to get my novel published. And discover the BIG question in my new manuscript/s.

Often I hear writers asked, did your idea spring from plot, character or setting? Not, what question are you asking. So I’m asking you: Do you write with a BIG question in mind?

Chris post graduation (Large)

Not All Writers are Born, Some are Made in Writing Courses

I find the current TAFE arts funding cuts and fee increases so sad and disappointing.

Fifteen years ago, I drove past a sign down on the Mornington Penninsula with a screaming headline, DO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?

Yes, yes, yes, I had always wanted, dreamed, aspired to be a writer, but I’d always believed that writers were somehow born – not made, taught, trained. The poster provided a website to a TAFE Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing course and to my absolute excitement told of a program that was hands-on, learning to write for publication and at an accessible fee rate. (At the time I was working one day a week to help supplement the family income and busy with three young children and what seemed then a hefty mortgage.) Uni was out of the question for me financially. Besides I wanted to write and be published. Theory was a luxury I could not afford to pursue. Not then.

I feel a deep sadness for all those with a writing dream and unfostered talent that may now not get to explore their creativity or potential to produce publishable work. (Many writers need such a supportive, encouraging environment to get started and gain confidence not to mention learn crafting techniques.) The destruction of TAFE is short-sighted on so many  levels and destroys so many employment pathways that I won’t attempt to go into here.

I thank God that I saw my future on that billboard and raced to chase the call. It screamed to me and I feel so sad for all those who will not hear the cry, because without it some will never have the confidence, craft or encouragement to answer.

So many of my writer friends and colleagues graduated through the TAFE Professional Writing & Editing Diploma. Many like me believe it was a fantastic grounding and beginning to our lifelong writing apprenticeships. I’d love anyone reading this to leave a comment and let me know how they and their writing careers benefitted from TAFE or any formal writing courses.

A bookshop worth travelling for – the iconic Shakespeare and Company!

Stepping into one of the most iconic bookshops in the world is an almost holy moment, whether you’re religious or not. And a visit to Shakespeare and Company was one of my “must-dos” during my research trip to Paris.

Shakespeare and Company bookshop has existed in Paris in two forms; the first was opened by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and frequented by such masters as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce and Ezra Pound. The shop closed in 1941 during the German Occupation after Beach refused to sell a book to a German Officer. He threatened to return and remove every book, but hours later, thanks to Sylvia’s friends, she had emptied the shop of every book, painted over the front, and closed the doors permanently. The second store came into existence after Beach’s death in 1964 when George Whitman renamed his “Le Mistral” bookshop, on rue de la Bûcherie, in her honour.

Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company, situated on the left bank opposite Notre Dame, also became an iconic cultural institution as bookstore, lending library and home to writers and poets, both published and not. Today, Shakespeare and Company is run by Sylvia Beach Whitman, George Whitman’s daughter, who maintains his creed allowing writers to live-in, read and write,  in exchange for a couple of hours help a day in the shop. (George died only recently in December 2011 aged 98.)

Books of every genre and description cram the floor-to-ceiling shelves and cluttered corners. Stacks of books line the staircase leading upstairs to the reading room and lending library – available to the public to read – including thousands of hardback biographies and histories.

Time poor, I didn’t get to attend a weekly reading or any of the frequent workshops or writers’ meetings. It was enough to climb the narrow stairs to the tiny room available free to writing/reading groups and imagine myself with hours to spend sitting reading and absorbing the spirit of the great writers who’ve also visited such as Anais Nin and Henry Miller. I could so imagine curling up, notebook and pen in hand, writing in this space. Sigh!

The shop sells mainly literary and contemporary fiction, both new and used books, and offers an incredible selection of mostly English print books. (Though they do sell some Russian, Spanish, German and Italian.) I picked up several, restricted sadly by the weight limit of an internal flight, including George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Fitch’s Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation (A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties – both which I can’t wait to read. Especially since I plan to set a small part of my WIP in this era and these settings. Both books promise  birds’ eye views to put me in the mood and mindset of the day. Books like these are gifts to writers who can revisit the place but not capture the minutiae of  moments so long past.

Another small book I bought and love is The War Poets, an anthology of poems from both World War One and Two featuring works by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and W.B. Yeats. (Pitkin Publishing 2009) Already I’m a fan of Sassoon, particularly the sincerity in the images conjured in his Died of Wounds and the reality of the last line. I hope you’ll love it too.

Died of Wounds

His wet white face and miserable eyes
Brought nurses to him more than groans and sighs:
But hoarse and low and rapid rose and fell
His troubled voice: he did the business well.

The ward grew dark; but he was still complaining
And calling out for ‘Dickie’. ‘Curse the Wood!
It’s time to go. O Christ, and what’s the good?
‘We’ll never take it, and it’s always raining.’

I wondered where he’d been; then heard him shout,
‘They snipe like hell! O Dickie, don’t go out’ …
I fell asleep … Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed.

Siegfried Sassoon

In these days of too many independent bookshops closing, it was a joy to visit this thriving icon. We have no such delight located near to where I live, but if you have one of those rare gems in your neighbourhood that you can recommend, I’m prepared to travel. Just leave a few details or why you love your local bookshop in the comments. 

Newsflash: If you’re into writing novellas, Shakespeare and Company run The Paris Literary Prize an international novella competition, open to unpublished writers and offering a substantial €10,000 prize.

Dumb Economy – What are we doing to our libraries and librarians?

Good grief, people.

I’m dismayed.

A trip to my local library and they’ve installed an automatic book checkout. What the…? What is the world coming to? I can understand auto checkouts in hotels. I’ll even say (after my initial refusal to use them) that auto checkouts at the supermarket can be real handy for one or two items. BUT NOOOOOOOOOOOOOT in my library. When I go to the library – I want help. I want discussion, a meeting of like minds and some advice. I’m not buying a packet of peas. I’m researching facts and looking for fiction to inform on my writing. I want to talk to someone who knows about genre, resources, writers and literature.

Yeah, I’m a writer. I make things up. Story, I make up. Details like history, technology, culture – those I need to ground in reality with facts. More specifically – verified facts. And that’s the difference between “real” hold in your hand, paper, published by a reputable source books and the internet. The facts in books are verified.

And… that’s not the worst of it. When I asked what this meant for the librarians’ jobs, I was glumly told that, though no jobs have gone YET, they will not be replacing anyone who leaves. This sucks and is so short-sighted. Ten years from now there’ll be screams about the literacy rates in our schools and how Australia has sunk down the international literacy standards. Millions of dollars will need to be spent to try to and educate our children to read more vocab than on a Twitter post or Facebook status. Come on, who is responsible for this?

When I did my Diploma of Prof Writing & Editing back in the nineties, the push was on for readers and the focus on raising literacy standards. What happened? Aim achieved, so now we don’t need to bother.

The lack of forethought and projectivity stuns me. I feel mad and sad. I’m not sure what to do about it, but I do know this is tragic and stupid.

I’ve signed petitions to save Librarians in schools, but, instead of seeing an improvement, everything I read says it’s getting worse. What can be done? Is there anything we can do? Because this is NOT progress. This is destructive and doing a great disservice not only to our children but the whole of our society.

If you’d like to read a more indepth, definitive view on the importance of libraries and librarians, check out 33 Reasons Why Libraries and Librarians are Still Extremely Important by: Will Sherman

Reading to Write

I’ve recently read two marvellous though very different books.  Both shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, one in 2010 The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster, and the second a current contender Bereft by Chris Womersley.

Almost all of my reading over the past three years has focused on either non-fiction research into era, settings, lifestyle, history; and/or fiction written either during or about the era of my current work-in-progress. Lately I’ve moved on to works that inform on other aspects addressed in my novel to see how authors accomplish tension, pacing and balance in their works. I feel secure in doing so now that my style, voice and story are firmly set and complete.

Bereft is Chris Womersley’s fictional account of a ww1 soldier’s post-war return to Australia. Returning to the shattering family murder and subsequent accusation he ran away from years before the war. All the old misbeliefs, biases and issues still exist as if not a day has passed, when into the man’s path steps a young, fanciful girl giving the young soldier a chance for redemption in saving her as he could not save his sister.

Womersley’s beautifully wrought prose weaves through the era and transported me to the harsh bleakness of the times.

An amazing telling. (And by that I mean showing in the best sense.)

Deborah Forster’s The Book of Emmett, set half a century later, is a grab-you-by-the-throat page turner with unrelenting tension gripping from page one until I was begging for release. If I’d not been reading as a writer to see how Forster has so brilliantly achieved this breath-taking effect, I think I’d have had to put the book aside. Just in time, the pace and setting shifted to allow me to catch my breath.

TBOE is a vivid, heartbreaking look at domestic violence in the suburbs; realistic and chilling, and made worse because you well believe it’s authenticity and can imagine it still many families truth.

I recommend both unreservedly.

My reading makes me ponder a point I’ve troubled over. During various course and workshops I’ve participated in, I’ve heard the occasional writer comment that they don’t read while they’re writing, or don’t read in the genre they’re writing. Most state that to do so might overly influence them or that they fear they might subconsciously plagiarise something in the book they’re reading.

It is an interesting point. One I’ve not worried about because, firstly, I have to read, and, secondly, during the initial drafts of my WIP, my reading tended towards non-fiction and the research needed for my novel.

I only really began to immerse myself in fiction written in or about the era once my initial story was complete. I did this deliberately more because my main character and novel has a unique voice and one I wanted nothing to influence or disturb until it was fully established. It’s the voice and accent running through my head when I’m writing. It’s the voice I’m painstakingly aware of as I redraft now in fear I’ll mess it up or risk editing it out.

Last night, as I read the final chapters of my latest novel choice, I nearly dropped the book to read of a character doing something identical to one of my characters. A common enough way of the times to try to dislodge an unwanted pregnancy, but I was so disappointed to see someone else had used it. I learned of it through an older person telling of a girlhood friend. Do I take it out because I’ve now read it in another book? No. It’s a tiny reference in my story, plus I wrote it two years before I read this book. Most importantly, it’s written in a very different way from my fellow writer’s story.

Getting back to reading. I still follow the three rules, I was taught for good writing:



So fellow writers, do you read in the genre, era, area you write in? If yes, why? If no, why not? I’d love you to leave a comment and share the benefits or pitfalls as you see them.

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