On handwriting and Hemingway

Power of the pen

I have written in an earlier blog about how I occasionally resort to writing parts of a story by hand when it starts to become bogged down. Not so much writer’s block as uncreativity. In other words, it sounds boring.

Modern-ftn-pen-cursive

So I was interested to see the results of a survey of 2000 people undertaken by a Deakin University (Australia) researcher in conjunction with the retail firm Officeworks, which found that those who handwrite their thoughts and feelings were two and half times more likely to experience relief from anxiety, fear and worry than those who use a keyboard for the same purpose.

I don’t know that I’ve noticed any improved emotional level in myself, but I do think that the kinaesthetics involved in writing by hand do help to stimulate my creativity (eventually anyway!).

I often find that, when handwriting, I cross out bits, put arrows up and down to show where text might best belong, and write notes or queries to myself in the margin to help guide my second effort when I go back to the keyboard. It can look pretty messy.

keyboard 2

I know that technically I could do the same things on my laptop or my tablet, but the scribbling and scrawling by hand seems to free up my thinking.

That second effort, at the keyboard, then becomes an editing process because I invariably change what I handwrote, hopefully for the better.

rowling handwritingI understand J K Rowling writes her novels by hand first. I wonder if she feels relief from anxiety, fear and worry when she’s finished? Richer in some way, at any rate 🙂

 

Papa Hemingway on writing

ernest-hemingway-typewriterThe American novelist Ernest Hemingway (often called ‘Papa’ by those who knew him) once said he wrote thirty different endings to A farewell to arms. He told this to a distinguished Australian journalist and war correspondent, Alan Moorehead, when the two met in Italy in 1949.

In a biography of Moorehead by Thornton McCamish (Black Inc, 2016), the Australian writer says: ‘I do not know how [Hemingway] talked to other people, but with me he talked books, always of writing, and with the humility and doubt of a writer who reads for five hours or so every day, and who writes and rewrites for as long as his brain will work, knowing that it is only by a miracle that he will ever achieve a phrase, even  a word, that will correspond to the vision in his mind.’

our-man-elsewhere

Fellow writers will know the feeling about getting it right. But how many of us read for five hours a day? And produce 30 different endings?

Clive JamesIn a recent critique of Hemingway’s writing (Yale University Press, 2015), the Australian-born author and literary critic, Clive James, praised the American’s early novels but suggested that Hemingway’s later work was ‘ruined’.  James said that Hemingway, ‘having noticed how the narrative charm of a seemingly objective style would put a gloss on reality automatically, he habitually stood on the accelerator instead of the brake. … He overstated even the understatements.’

Lesson: Don’t overdo it.

 

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

Finally you get to an age when a book’s power to make you think becomes the first thing you notice about it. You can practically sense that power when you pick it up.

~ Clive James, Latest readings.

 

Plotter or pantser? The debate continues

Are you a plotter or a pantser? I start off as a not very systematic plotter and end up as a pantser.

In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, these are categories of writers – plotters develop their story plan or plot in advance and then begin to write; pantsers write by the ‘seat of their pants’, making the plot up as they go along. There’s ongoing debate about which is best.

I’ve been thinking about these two approaches recently because I’ve been writing short stories to enter in competitions, and finding that the story develops as I write it, even when I have a ‘sort of plot’ in my head.

I first came across ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ when I did the ‘Year of the Novel’ course with Kim Wilkins angel of ruinauthor Kim Wilkins at the Queensland Writers Centre about ten years ago. Kim is a keen plotter, and showed us her planning journal, in which she’d detailed information about plot and characters for every chapter of a book already published.

I was pretty impressed at the time, and I’ve tried to follow that example, but have discovered that my fiction stories seem to develop as I write.

If you’re a writer, the question of course is: does it matter which approach you take? Will being more structured initially mean a better book, a better chance of publication?

If you look at well-published writers, you’ll find there’s no easy answer to that question.

J K Rowling, probably the most well-known and most-published author in recent years, is basically a plotter. She’s been quoted as saying ‘I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.’

This suggests she’s neither one nor the other, but a look at some of her planning for Harry Potter books suggests she’s well and truly in the plotter’s camp, as in the example below.

J K Rowling planner

Rowling is joined by thriller writer John Grisham, who said, ‘I don’t start a novel until I have lived with the story for a while to the point of actually writing an outline and after a number of books I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book.’

Stephen King, on the other hand, said, ‘Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.’

And he’s also sold a few books in his time J

Siding with King is Margaret Atwood: ‘When I’m writing a novel, what comes first is anMargaret-Atwood-2 image, scene, or voice. Something fairly small. Sometimes that seed is contained in a poem I’ve already written. The structure or design gets worked out in the course of the writing. I couldn’t write the other way round, with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.’

So, it seems, there is no agreement, even among our most published writers, about planning ahead or developing the story as they go.

I’ve discovered that I’m essentially I’m a pantser, when it comes to fiction. I now know what writers mean when they say that a character ‘takes over’ during the writing process.

Perhaps I’m a hybrid, what’s been called a plantser.

As for non-fiction, well, that’s another story…

If you’re a writer, which category do you fit into?

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

[Some quotes above are taken from a blog post on Goodreads by Hayley Igarashi.]

 For my blog about returning to the workforce, please see: confident4work.wordpress.com

What writers say

Jane Graves‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. ~ Romance author Jane Graves.

 

Dying to be well-read

Did you know that the more you read the less likely you are to die? That’s the claim made by a writer in a recent issue of Wellbeing magazine.

heart-monitor-blips

An item headed ‘Better read than dead’ reported a study of the reading habits of 3635 men and women aged 50 and older over a 12-year period. With such a large sample and a longitudinal study, the results promised to be interesting for both readers and writers.

According to the Wellbeing writer, the results showed that ‘adults who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week were 17 per cent less likely to die than those who did not read books…’.

Wow! That’s awesome. Reading books means you’re less likely to die?

Let me work out the implications of such a finding: If reading books for 3.5 hours a week, gives you a 17% chance of not dying, then reading books for around 18 hours a week should guarantee you immortality!

When people hear about this, there’ll be a rush for books. What a boost that’ll be for booksellers and libraries.

Later in the article, we discover what the Wellbeing writer meant to say: ‘In all, book readers survived almost two years longer than non-book readers [i.e within the 12-year period].’

In other words, this particular bit of research indicates that if you’re over 50, reading books is one way that may help you live a couple of years longer. But no amount of reading is going to make you ‘less likely to die’.

Of course, there may factors other than reading at play in promoting longevity. For example, book-reading and lifestyle might be linked.

bearded-old-man-book

By the way, the researchers also concluded that reading newspapers and magazines is also linked to longer life, but not nearly as much as book reading. Perhaps reading magazines and newspapers is linked to increased coffee intake …?

The ultimate message from the research is: if you want to live a bit longer, reading might help you do so. See you at the library.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

In the best stories, the odyssey from complication to resolution changes the character profoundly. In fact, the resolution often results not directly from the action but from a growing enlightenment – often a sudden flash of inspiration – as the character finally realizes what he [or she] has to do to solve his [or her] problem. ~ Jon Franklin, Writing for story.

The ups and downs of publishing

Digital decline? 

Towards the end of 2016, two of my recent publishers, Hachette Australia and Xoum, sent me their annual updates on their publishing experience in the previous 12 months.

Both reported the same trend: a decline or plateauing in e-book sales. Rod Morrison at Xoum said that the global digital market ‘retreated’ to 20-25% of total sales.

Not all that long ago, there were predictions that e-book sales would swamp sales of print books, but it seems that there has actually been a very small increase in purchases of print books world-wide.

Publishers seem to be struggling to predict the trends. On the demand side I know some independent bookshops in Australia had a tough year in 2016.

Another interesting piece of news was that, after a burst of enthusiasm in 2015, and a brief bonanza for publishers, sales of adult colouring books fell away in 2016.

I’m neither surprised nor sorry to see the demise of that particular fad. It would be interesting to know how many colouring books purchased were actually coloured in by adults.

Books on the move

Whenever I travel, I’m always on the lookout for examples of writing and literature in local communities. In 2016, I came across two quite different examples:

Book crossing

In Italy, boarding a train in the small mountainside village of Santa Maria Maggiore in the north-west, I saw a collection of ‘swap’ books at the station, using the English term, ‘Book crossing’, and an explanation (I assume) in Italian below.

I know there’s are organisations (e. g. http://www.booksontherail.com/) that promotes the idea of leaving books behind on trains and buses for someone else to read, and exchanges pop up in communal rooms in hostels etc, but this was the first time I’d seen one at a railway station. Later I discovered there’s an organisation called ‘Book Crossing‘, that promotes this idea.

Blind date with a book

In Fremantle, Western Australia, Elizabeth’s, a second-hand bookshop (also in Newtown, Sydney) is selling ‘blind dates with a book’. Books are wrapped in brown paper (which was once the sign of a certain sort of book, but no longer), with just a few words on the wrapping to indicate the kind of book it is.

The idea apparently started with some libraries in Australia to celebrate Valentine’s Day. It’s a sophisticated version of a lucky dip for people who like surprises in what they read, but with a few clues in advance. You can find them online here.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

Imagery for me is of paramount importance in a text, not complex imagery that jumps up and down and demands to have its hand shaken, but a more subtle web that weaves its way throughout, often enigmatically, and knits everything together.~ Kate Atkinson

 

 

Roly Sussex Short Story Award Success

Less than two weeks after the launch of my book, The Chalkies: Educating an army for independence, I received a phone call to tell me that I had won first prize in the Roly Sussex Short Story Award for 2016. What’s more if I turned up at Government House, Brisbane, the following Tuesday, the State Governor would present me with the award. And so he did. Paul de Jersey AC shook my hand at an impressive ceremony on 18 October and congratulated me as he presented me with the trophy and a cheque.

My short story, The space between, is a fictionalised account of a woman waiting for her husband when he fails to return from an attempt to be first to fly across the Atlantic, and is based on actual events, as they say in the movies. The title comes from a Celtic belief that there is only three feet between heaven and earth, and that in ‘thin places’, the distance is even less.

The national competition is run by the Queensland Branch of the English Speaking Union, and the award is named after a well-known Professor of Linguistics at Queensland University, Roly Sussex. I am honoured to have won the award.

Unfortunately, no photography was permitted inside Government House, but the photo below shows me with Ann Garms, the ESU (Qld) President, on the steps of this impressive building, after the ceremony. (The sight of me in a suit may come as a shock to family and friends, but that is indeed me.)

It was good to meet with other writers who were runners up or had been highly commended in the competition, which has both adult and school student categories.

The English Speaking Union said it intended to publish the selected stories in an anthology sometime next year.

Meanwhile, The Chalkies made the bestseller list at Avid Reader Bookshop, where it was launched, and also featured on the back page of their Summer Reading Guide (next to the butterfly!)

 

All writers live in hope of being published and then well received, so for a couple of months this author was doing okay in that regard. As all writers also know, however, this is no guarantee that the next piece of writing will be successful. We just keep beavering away, and keep on hoping …

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

‘You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.’ ~ Stephen King

 

Chalkies book launched

A sizeable and enthusiastic crowd gathered at Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane, on 8 October, 2016 to hear Colonel Katrina Schildberger launch my book, The Chalkies: Educating an army for independence.

It’s amazing how many will turn up when free wine and nibbles are on offer 🙂 Everyone I’ve spoken to said they had a good time, and lots of books were sold.

Colonel Schildberger is Head of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and travelled from Sydney for the occasion. She gave a great speech to launch the book.

The Chalkies tells the little-known story of some 300 teachers who were conscripted into the Australian Army between 1996 and 1972 and quietly sent to the then Territory of Papua New Guinea while Australian troops were fighting in Vietnam. It is published by Australian Scholarly Press, Melbourne.

The conscripted teachers, colloquially known as ‘Chalkies’, were posted to the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps, and their task was to upgrade the educational levels of indigenous troops of the Pacific Islands Regiment in what turned out to be critical years leading up to the country’s independence. For many it was their first year of teaching and their first time out of Australia.

The Director of Army Education at the time, Brigadier Ernest Gould, described the initiative as ‘an educational scheme which for magnitude, scope, intensity and enlightenment is without parallel in military history’.

Yet most Australians have never heard about it.

With the aid of an Army History Research Grant, I drew on the recollections of more than 70 former Chalkies and archival sources to tell the story of how these conscripted teachers (one of whom was me) responded to the challenges of a life most of them never wanted or imagined for themselves. A small go group of ex-Chalkies gave me feedback on my research to help keep me on track.

It was very appropriate that Colonel Schildberger launched the book, because not only is 1966 the 50th anniversary of the scheme’s beginnings in PNG, it is also the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Army Education in World War II.

The jacket blurb says The Chalkies is ‘a unique tale of the good, the bad and the unexpected, told against the background of military and political developments of the day’.

A former Australian Governor-General, Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery, who served two terms in PNG, wrote the foreword.

If you’re interested in reading The Chalkies, in Australia you can order a copy through your local bookstore, or direct from Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane. Alternatively, you could ask your local library to buy a copy. The ISBN is 978-1-925333-77-0.

Till next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say

By the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it.                                                                                                                 ~George Orwell

 

 

 

What’s the point you’re making?

‘Two years isn’t a long time in your life, but at age 20 it can be significant.’

That’s one of the comments I received in response to a survey I did last year of 180 ‘Chalkies’, conscripted Australian teachers who were sent to Papua New Guinea as part of their two-year compulsory National Service between 1966 and 1973.

Papua New Guinea flag

Papua New Guinea flag

My survey of that 180 resulted in 73 returned questionnaires, a 40% response rate, which any researcher would be pleased with. Those 73 Chalkies provided such rich replies that I’ve been working for months (in between other commitments and travel) on pulling their story together.

Actually, I should say ‘our’ story, because I am also one of those Chalkies. And one of my dilemmas in writing the Chalkies story from those years was whether I was writing ‘their’ story (as an informed insider) or ‘our’ story. After listening to me present part of that story at an international adult education conference in the UK last year, a colleague persuaded me that it should be ‘our’ story. So now I’m in it too.

The advantage of having an ‘outsider’ read or listen to any story we write was brought home to me recently, when I read a short extract from the Chalkies account to two work colleagues. It was, I thought, a pretty interesting non-fiction ‘short story’, involving possible military intervention in a civil dispute that seemed to be getting out of hand, and a prime minister intent on getting his own way.

When I had finished reading the story aloud to my two friends, about 2000 words, one of them said, ‘So what point are you trying to make’? I was a bit taken aback. Wasn’t this a good story in itself, which people would be interested in hearing, especially as they may not have been aware of the machinations that went on at the time? My research had found that detail.

My colleague said he didn’t know how my story fitted with the rest of the book, but was I just going to ‘hang the story out there’ and let people make of it what they will. He asked me again, ‘What point are you trying to make?’

I didn’t have a ready answer but as I drove home from the meeting, I thought about his question. What point was I making? Why was I including this anecdote at all? How did it add to the overall story? I ruminated on this the rest of the journey, and came to a decision.

Back in my study, I scrawled on a square of paper: ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ and stuck it above my desk. Then I sat down at my laptop and wrote a heading: ‘What point are you making in this book?’, followed by my dot point answers to that question.

I then went to each draft chapter and typed: ‘What point are you making in Chapter 1?”, and so on. I then provided dot point answers to that question for every chapter. In most chapters, I thought I had made the point sufficiently clear; in a couple of them, I felt I needed to spell out more clearly the point of the chapter, and not just leave it ‘hanging out there’. I was able to shape the final chapter with the question in my head.

As for the anecdote that had started the process, I cut it back considerably, so that it had a sharper focus within the chapter it was part of. I think it now has a point.

So, I am arguing that the question ‘What’s the point you’re making?’ should apply to the whole book, and to each chapter. In this case it was for a non-fiction book, but it seems to me that it wouldn’t hurt for a fiction writer to ask, ’What’s the point I’m making in this chapter?’ as a way of keeping focussed and also distinguishing the discrete purpose of each chapter within a cohesive whole.

My Chalkies book is now a draft manuscript of some 68,000 words and I’m exploring publication options with my agent.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

‘And if a man would ever sit down and study his life in a practical good-sense way, he would … understand that nothing in his life ever ended. Things only changed and grew up into something else.’ ~ Richard Ford: A piece of my heart (Bloomsbury, 2006)