Well hello again Monday, it's the 2nd newsletter
... we're in December now, time for my annual 'go-slow'
December is complicated for me. To start with, there are far too many family and friend birthdays, including my own. While I think Saggitarians are just the best — and when younger really appreciated their/our energy — these Covid days, I just can’t be at it. I’m feeling like an old woman, I don’t have my spark (not that I was super sparky before, I just feel TIRED and SORE in my body and brain). But as far as I know I haven’t had the virus, I’ve been sick of course, and earlier this year it seemed to match the Covid symptoms but RATs and PCRs have never returned a positive. So I think it’s more a malaise that an Austen sister (not Jane, never Jane) might have (oh looked it up, she only had one: Cassandra) or a Bronte sister, you know that kind of dragging ennui mixed with physical lethargy and you just don’t want to do anything except eat toast and read?
So, December. A history of not loving or enjoying my birthday which falls in the first week; being a disappointed or grumpy child at Christmas. Being too hot. Being too bored. Having no one to play with. What a difficult customer. As a result, when December rolls around I go to ground. I don’t see friends (other than the ones I really really love — I don’t do any obligation catch ups. You know, the hard work ones). I minimise my work. I anticipate Christmas and tell myself it will be fine it will be great but often on the day I find myself just wanting to be alone, and that doesn’t work when you have a family. And I find myself wondering — again — how other people feel about this time of year.
Enough moaning. To my three things!
1 » horses
In recent years I’ve started riding again. There was a time, probably about 18-20 years ago, when I thought I’d had my last ride. It was down at Ocean Grove, there’s a place there called Koombahla Park where we used to ride as kids (trail rides and I had a few lessons). My grandparents lived in Barwon Heads and my dad would take us there for a ride (and sit in the car and read). Anyway, this most recent time, the last time I rode there, it was late in the day and windy. The horses were skittish and it made me scared for the first time ever on a horse (and I’ve ridden a lot and fallen a few times, including one famous time at the age of 7 when I ended up with 12 stitches in my leg. And it didn’t put me off). But my daughter was back at the car with my dad and I thought: if I fall and break a leg how am I going to look after her? Or what if I die? So it put me off. Until a few years later of course I wanted to get back up. There’s nothing like it, going fast on a horse and not being scared.
As a child I was obsessed with National Velvet, on TV. It was not based on the book, other than the idea of a girl riding in the Grand National steeple-chase (weird, because the show was set in mid-west America and the original book was set in England). But the idea of living in a house, with a trellis at the front that you could climb up or down from a bedroom; a stable with an enormous yet gentle horse ‘King’ — my favourite type of colour, a bay with a blaze — was an even more compelling fantasy than having (or being) a genie in a bottle.
It was my dream to have a horse as a child, and I would literally dream that I had one, in the back yard. Another dream was to ride a horse in the water. I never got my own horse but did get to ride in the sea a few months ago in Corfu. It was magical. (Below that’s my daughter in front and me behind. We were on ‘matching’ horses for the photos. Again, new additions to the riding place. Lovely horses, not the Standards we have here, seemed to have a touch of Arabian in them.
And now I’m back riding again. There’s a place half an hour from home, going north, and it has lovely countryside to ride through and the people are nice and the horses are good. My second-last ride I was on Dasha, who was new at the place. (They take a lot of ex-pacers which means their gait can be pretty rough on the trot). Dasha was the sweetest guy. Not institutionalised. All the other horses lined up at the fence once their riders were on, but not Dasha. He wanted to get going and moved from the fence to the middle of the saddling up place. I decided not to push him to stand at the fence, and that was the only time he ‘got one over’ me during the ride. I didn’t let him eat grass when he wanted to. And he was a lovely ride. Had a lot of go. Was very soft in the mouth and responsive as hell. Then a few months went by and the recent ride I requested Dasha because I’d fallen in love with him. The riding place people were making comments like ‘Dasha, are you going to behave?’ and ‘Dasha you’re a naughty boy’ and it turned out that Dasha wasn’t the same and it broke my heart. I’m sure no one was cruel to him, but like a kid in the playground or a hated child whose parents make snarky comments and who feels the lack of love, I wonder whether Dasha — being such a sensitive boy before — felt outcast. On the ride he was sluggish. At one point he wouldn’t move out of trot to canter and it was like riding a washing machine on spin cycle x 10, so much that my back was jarred and pinging the next day. One of the staff told me he’d bitten her earlier that day. That he was grumpy. In a bad mood. So I’m like: why is no one trying to work out this kid/horse? There’s always going to be a reason? Someone said ‘we need to work with him but no one has’. So he’s been labelled the bad kid and no one wants to ride him.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Dasha for days afterwards, and will ride him again. I want to see if he was just having a bad day or whether he has had his spirit somehow changed. So sad!
2 » The Crown
I’m talking the TV show. I liked the first season (and possibly the second) but after that it lost me. It became so expositional and heavy-handed, with them shoe-horning in all the contextual historical stuff. Parts were interesting, such as the tragedy of the school and houses in Welsh mining village Aberfan being engulfed in a landslide, caused by having the tip from the colliery too close to the village. But following the day-to-day of the man who eventually broke into Buckingham Palace to sit on the end of the Queen’s bed? No. Super silly and lots of padding IMO. I gave up when in the recent season Prince Philip starts explaining some point of history to someone at a function, it was just ugh. And I felt the casting was WRONG. (To be honest, once they put Helena BC in as Margaret I started to disengage for some reason. And Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher — I found her rendition hideous. A caricature. Unwatchable.)
And upcoming: Harry and Meghan’s Netflix special — a limited series of six episodes, apparently coming this week. That will be interesting. Or not.
3 » Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge
Over the last weeks I’ve been in Elizabeth Strout world. First I read the new Lucy book, Lucy by the Sea. Then re-read the first Lucy Barton book. Then re-read Olive Kitteridge, and now am re-reading Olive Again. I don’t often re-read but this has been lovely. And reading them all so closely together I’m noticing more how the two worlds overlap, in Crosby, Maine. I have in mind to map it all (characters), which would entail re-reading AGAIN but what is life if not a series of hours that we fill with either stupid internet bullshit scrolling or some sort of meaningful projects? I’ll google first and see if anyone’s done it yet but I think this idea of fictional worlds that go beyond just what’s on the page in terms of spotlighted action or characters moving about on the ‘stage’ is fascinating. In these books (one of the Olive ones) there is a chapter (short story, really) where a woman is playing the piano in a restaurant and then you see her, you follow her. Then another chapter Olive is at a restaurant with her husband, and a woman is playing the piano. And then I’m pretty sure there’s another chapter, in the other book (Olive Again) where a third perspective is given.
I’ve spoken with authors who like to build into their work little connections or ‘Easter eggs’ (more for themselves than readers). One Miles Franklin winner told me they are connecting all their works in a way that isn’t obvious to readers but it gives them great pleasure. In my books too I have connections that could be traced but would only be apparent to someone looking super closely and may even then be missed. And then there’s playing around with other stuff; for example in my second book Little Gods, while there’s an actual play in the storyline — where characters ‘put on a play’ — I also chose to extend that motif across the whole book, with the first section being called ‘Beginners’ (which is a technical term in theatre) and I inserted a whole lot of other terms to do with lighting etc. The antagonist ‘bad boy’ family was called ‘Sands’ which is used as code in theatre: ‘Mr Sands is in the foyer’ means there’s a fire. In my mind my whole first novel was a Turkish carpet. Sometimes authors need something else going on to maintain momentum and interest in a project, especially when it takes years to complete (mine do anyway!) And I’m laughing at myself talking about this here because obviously NO ONE picked up on ANY of it, and I want people to know that I did it. That what readers might have seen as an incongruous word choice was deliberate. It reminds me of reviewers (you know, those beautiful Goodreads people?) saying ‘the author’s 2nd book is so much better than the 1st book — her prose is just so much more poetic, you can see how she’s developed as a writer’ not realising that the prose was deliberate, that in the first book perhaps the writer chose a language and tone that fit the work better; and similarly for the second. And that in fact the 1st book was the 2nd one written, oh I could go on but it’s not a good look.
» notes «
Today’s index card piece of wisdom comes from Syd Field, who is an American ‘screenwriting guru’. I’m thinking carefully about endings at the moment. I’ve never had a problem with them (lol, ‘never’ = two books), and my current one has an ending but I want to make it a better ending. John Irving said he never starts writing until he knows the ending, and sometimes he has the ending first and works back. I have a writing friend who — when they pick up a new book to read or in the shop to buy — they flip to the ending first and read it! And another writer (Australian I think, but I can’t remember who, again I’ll come across it and reference properly later) said the ending should be an echo of the beginning, or more accurately, the ending should be seen in the beginning (in some way). This same writer said all of the novel should be in the opening paragraphs, which sounds confounding but I think I get it. For me, it means you should not read the opening paragraphs and know everything about what is to follow because that’s nonsense, but that looking back at the beginning you can see traces of what’s to come in tone and in focus if not in actual words. Suggestions. The feeling that you are in good hands. Something of where the story might go. In other words, get into it! Don’t circle, stop the throat clearing (I think that one is Andrea Goldsmith’s).
Okay this one is turning into more about writing and craft than I’d planned. But let’s continue, off the topic of endings and more about Syd Field, pinch points and turning points.
I found a PDF of one of Field’s books online, and it was something I leaned on heavily while redrafting The Secret Son (which was my second manuscript, but first published novel). I really wanted to do it to the best of my ability and I literally placed certain ‘turning points’ at the correct spot in the ms. Eg you have inciting incident at 5%. You have first turning point at 25%, next at 50% and last one at 75%. You have what’s called ‘pinch points’ (this actually might not be Syd Field — I read other screenwriting ‘gurus’ at the time lol. Everyone’s a guru). Pinch points are when something or someone threatens.
Now in genre, these pinch (PPs) and turning points (TPs) would likely be obvious. But I write literary fiction (I know I know. The two most boring words in English, according to… someone I’ve forgotten who — I have it written down on one of these bloody index cards. I’ll mention it here when I come across it again). In literary fiction, these points can be tiny. They can be interior. They can be psychological, so you don’t have a villain with a black moustache barrelling in from stage left to cause havoc. I think my pinch and turning points worked well. I’d used them also in the first novel (TSS) and so went back to second novel (LG) and completely ripped it apart and wrote new words, about 2/3 worth. And identified and put in pinches and turnings.
My third novel, coming in 2024 (I said previously next year. There was a mistake — not mine — and it’s 2024 which actually gives me some breathing space which is good. I suppose… ) doesn’t have any PPs or TPs, or not consciously. This one is a lot more organic in a way, and I didn’t want to be so constrained and formal. It’s a completely different book to the others and I fully expect people who loved Little Gods to HATE IT.
That’s it from me. This is the second edition so I’m pleased to get it out to you. Maybe one more before Christmas, I’ll see how I go. No promises! Sagg’s are notoriously commitment shy of course.
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