The Unusual and Irrational Obsessions of Writers

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Miranda Margulies: We can get the Times to write something. Or that nut from the Observer.
Kathleen Kelly: Wait, what… what nut from the Observer?
Miranda Margulies: Frank something? The one who’s so in love with his typewriter. This is just the sort of thing that would outrage him!
You’ve Got Mail

Most writers have unusual obsessions. For Frank Navasky in You’ve Got Mail, it was his typewriters (yes, plural – he had several). For me, it’s my dictionaries (yes, plural – I have more dictionaries than Frank had typewriters). I’ve written previously about how my dictionary is the one book I can’t live without, specifically my Macquarie International English Dictionary.

But the version I have was published in 2004 (which was when I bought it), making it twelve years old and meaning it doesn’t contain any of the words invented in the intervening period or reflect changes in how English is used (and as much as pedants would prefer there weren’t, there are always changes).

Last year, when I was using it to ensuring spelling accuracy and consistency as I edited Project December: A Book about Writing, I thought it would do the job well enough. But it was in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to put off buying a new dictionary for much longer. And this year, when I was hired (and subsequently paid) to edit an autobiography, I knew the time had come. Continue reading

Book Review: The Bee Hut by Dorothy Porter

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Back in May 2016, I reviewed poetry – some books, some poets – en masse but they were books and poets that I knew and loved. This is the first time I have chosen to read and review a book of poetry by a poet and with poems I’m not familiar with. Reading poetry can be very hit and miss. Something that speaks in whispers to one person might speak to another in a scream or not speak to them at all. For the most part, this book was like a recording that needed the volume turned up. Sometimes I could make out what was being said but mostly it was too quiet.

Dorothy Porter died in 2008 and The Bee Hut was published after her death, bringing together poems from the last five years of her life. Because it was published after her death, I wondered if part of the reason why I couldn’t find as much magic in these poems as I want to find in poetry is because she never had a chance to review, to revise, to change her mind, to exclude, to re-order the poems, that maybe they were simply abandoned rather than finished through no fault of her own. Continue reading

All Things in Moderation and Some Things Hardly Ever

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When it comes to character development, there are certain things that have so much more impact when a character does them sparingly instead of frequently. Here are a few things that I think pack more punch when they aren’t happening all the time.

Smoking
Smoking has to be the number one activity that has more impact when it’s used infrequently. A cigarette to settle the nerves. A cigarette to show how the smoker’s hands are shaking uncontrollably. One last cigarette before the execution. Apart from anything else, if a character has enough time to be a pack a day smoker, then I doubt there is enough going on in the story. And it’s such a clichéd affectation for the bad guy, we might as well just put him in a black hat. Continue reading

How readers choose what to read

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There are so many books to choose from that sometimes readers can be overwhelmed by the choice. So how do they end up making their decisions?

There are a number of factors and individual readers will rely on a unique combination of each. As writers, having an awareness of these factors may help us as we attempt to write and market our books. Continue reading

Book Review: Shopgirl by Steve Martin

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Steve Martin is well known as a comedic actor but he is a jack of all trades, including music and writing. Shopgirl was his first novella, published in 2000, although Martin has been writing for most of his life, winning an Emmy when he was 23 as part of a comedy writing team.

The titular shopgirl is Mirabelle, although like most artists, she is a shopgirl only so she can pay the bills because the few drawings she has sold aren’t enough to support herself with. She mans the glove counter in Nieman’s and is rarely disturbed by customers. She meets Jeremy in a laundromat. He’s an artist, too. Sort of. He stencils logos on amplifiers for musicians. He hardly inspires her passion but most people think she’s weird so she agrees to go out with him. They have a few awkward encounters before Jeremy disappears. Continue reading

Recycled writing: breathing new life into old words

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When I was studying for my master’s degree in writing, each week students were required to write a five hundred word piece on whatever topic was occupying the class at the time. I did eight subjects that were each twelve weeks long, so by the time I graduated, I had ninety-six pieces of writing.

If you’ve read the 2007 writing journal I published on this blog in July, you’ll know that as far back as then I was already thinking about how I could use all those pieces to create a book about writing (with the very unoriginal title “Everything I Know About Writing”). You’ll know I was trying to get out of having to write that writing journal by creating a book about writing. You’ll also know it didn’t work out and I ended up writing the writing journal anyway. But the idea never really went away. Continue reading

Writing the book or character that will headline your obituary

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Earlier this year, while scanning news headlines (as I do frequently each day), I came across the following:

Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison dies aged 78”

Even though I’ve seen the movie of Legends of the Fall, starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, I didn’t know it was based on Jim Harrison’s book. In fact, I didn’t know who Jim Harrison was.

Now I know (because I did a little research before writing this blog post) that Jim Harrison started writing while he was recovering after falling off a cliff, that he was rather prolific, that Legends of the Fall is actually a novella, that he specialised in novellas and that I’ve never heard of any of his other works. Which explains why the writer of the headline felt it necessary to include the name of his most famous work. Continue reading

Book Review: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

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“Girl with a Pearl Earring” is a reasonably famous painting by Johannes Vermeer and Tracy Chevalier has used it and a lot of historical research to imagine the circumstances – the people and the place – under which it might have been created. The girl is Griet. Her father, a skilled artisan who used to hand paint tiles, has been blinded in a kiln explosion and is unable to support his family anymore. His son, Frans, is already apprenticed at a tile factory and so Griet is forced to become a servant in the Vermeer household. Continue reading

Why writers should call out other writers when they do poor work

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Earlier in the year, my stepmother was dragged into a PR nightmare when the founder and owner of a program for gifted children became the subject of an article in a major Australian newspaper. My stepmother is a licensee of the program and a teacher, taking it into primary schools and offering additional educational challenges for children who have been assessed as gifted. The owner had made the mistake of posting opinion pieces on the business’s website and a concerned parent, upon seeing the controversial posts, immediately contacted the newspaper wanting to have it exposed.

That concerned parent had a point. The posts weren’t just controversial and inappropriately featured on the business’s website, they were also completely unacceptable in the context of the program being offered in schools. However, instead of the journalist making these points in a balanced piece of reporting, she instead decided to target and ridicule the elderly owner of the program. Continue reading

Why writers should support other writers when they do good work

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This might be the most obvious statement ever expressed on this blog but there are a lot of writers out there. From those who’ve achieved enormous wealth and fame and those who manage to eke out a mid-list career to those who publish their own work and earn virtually nothing and those who secretly tinker away on novels without telling a soul, there are many of us including those who fall somewhere between the four descriptions above and those who fall somewhere outside of them but still consider themselves writers.

With so much competition in such a small pond, so many competing voices in which writers shout over each other and still struggle to be heard, it’s never been more important for writers to support other writers. Readers are all well and good – in fact, they’re very good – but when a writer is struggling for readers, the one thing that can keep their self-esteem in positive territory is support from other writers who know all too well what they’re going through. Continue reading