Amping Up …

After a sad week I’ve set aside the tissue box and pulled myself up by my bootstraps, thanks in no small part to the rush of sympathy and consolation offered so generously by family and friends. There will always be a small, grey, fur-shaped hole in my heart, but I know that in time the pain will subside and I’ll just be left with happy memories of Bentley and our time together.

My restoration was given a massive boost yesterday when I plunged back into literary waters and attended my very first writer’s workshop. For a couple of year’s I’ve been a member of Writing NSW, a centre where would-be authors can come together for inspiration, professional development and solidarity, but living in Narooma I’ve had little chance to partake of the array of writerly support on offer.

As I finish pruning and polishing my manuscript, I know that I’m going to have to get to grips with the realities of publishing and the gurus all say that finding and fraternising with a tribe of like-minded compatriots is of significant benefit. So I signed myself up for a one-day course on Writing Women’s Fiction.

Writer’s haven

Writing NSW is housed in a lovely old home in the grounds of what was formerly Sydney’s largest lunatic asylum, the Callan Park Hospital for the Insane. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that there is a certain irony in this location – many might suggest that aspiring writers are mad, or at least seriously deluded, when they decide to take on the arduous and challenging journey towards publication.

Callan Park Hospital for the Insane

Far from feeling deluded, the moment I passed through the doors I was enfolded in an atmosphere of camaraderie and possibility and realised I was in for a treat.

The workshop was led by Dianne Blacklock, a highly successful Australian women’s fiction writer with an impressive ten books under her belt. I liked her at once – she was funny, frank and full of fascinating insights into what makes women’s fiction work and I scribbled furiously trying to capture her words of wisdom.

Dianne with her latest offering

We ranged through the hot trends in today’s publishing market, explored character development and plot formation, contemplated the mysteries of dialogue and examined the do’s and don’ts of opening lines and rousing finales. It was wonderful to hear how the other workshop participants have tackled these challenges and to share stories from the trenches about the many different approaches writers take to navigating the creative process.

I particularly enjoyed the session on writing sex scenes. Without going into detail, writing the sex scene in my book was one of my most difficult moments. I really wrestled with it. I knew I didn’t want to mention throbbing members and nipples like bullets, but I also knew I had to create something compelling, exciting and magical. Dianne captured this dilemma and its potential resolution in one pithy slide (my notes below). I hope I have met the criteria with my ‘close the door’ solution.

I was less comfortable with Dianne’s continued exhortations to resist the urge to reach for flowery and complicated language and instead stick to plain, familiar words. That fact that I’ve used the word exhortations in the previous sentence is probably is a case in point …

My ruthless editor friend, Rachel, said much the same thing to me many a time during the drafting of my book, and saved her most scathing criticism for my use of the word susurrus. I love that word! And for describing the sound of waves lapping the shore I am firmly of the view that it can’t be matched. However, I am now sadly convinced that it will have to go, along with many other gorgeous embellishments in my current draft. I love the word susurrus, but I love the idea of being published even more, so I am going to have to take a cold hard look at my manuscript and deflower it mercilessly.

Another point that Dianne stressed was the classic ‘less is more’. What she was talking about was the clinical removal of extraneous scenes/characters/dialogue/descriptions/sentences that don’t add either to character development or the plot. Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, described this in a literary maxim that is now so famous it’s known as Chekhov’s Gun.

Wise but daunting words

We’ve all heard of ‘less is more’, but applying the knife to your lovingly crafted creation is not so easy. That said, I’m girding my loins, sharpening my scalpel and planning for major surgery next weekend.

By the end of the day I was inspired, excited and galvanised. And I’m particularly grateful for Dianne’s generosity in agreeing to take a look at the opening of my book and to offer me some feedback. Thanks Dianne!

Me and Dianne

Dianne says that getting published is a combination of luck, discipline and talent. I think I’ve proved my cred in the discipline department, and if my beta readers are to be believed then I may be permitted to claim a small modicum of talent. Here’s hoping the luck runs my way as I approach the knee-trembling reality of sending my manuscript out into the real world …

Vale Bentley …

I’m heartbroken. Today HWB and I had to say goodbye to our beautiful Bentley.

Last photo …

He was never quite himself after his illness while we were in France and last week things took a sinister turn for the worse. Between bouts of weeping, I’m grateful for the few weeks we had together and the chance to share some final purrs and cuddles.

Bentley Hunter Bunter Bunny Baby (to give him his full array of names) was a very special cat, and that’s not just my partiality speaking.

Fifteen years ago I had been through a series of love disasters and I’d resolved to institute a Man Ban and instead get myself a little feline companion. Bentley, under his pedigree alias of Barcoo Rusky was then midway through his career as a show kitten. When he retired from the circuit as the Australian British Shorthair Kitten of the Year he was ready to come home with me.

Only a couple of weeks earlier, I had met HWB and while still maintaining my Man Ban I had agreed to go out with him for dinner. When HWB called for a second date I told him I had a prior commitment – to collect my new cat – and HWB asked if he could join me on the expedition. I didn’t know it then, but HWB is a dog man and had never been at all fond of cats, so this was a significant mark of his early regard. Happily for me I ended up with both cat and man 🙂

Bentley stole our hearts from the moment he came home.

Honey

A couple of years later I was posted to New York for work, and such was our devotion to Bentley that we decided to take him with us. Thus began Bentley’s career as an international cat of mystery. He took to New York apartment life with aplomb and used to sit up on a window sill and survey the pulsing city with great interest.

On one particularly memorable occasion I had my boss, Charles, round to dinner. Charles was not a cat fancier, in fact he had disclosed to me his active dislike of feline creatures. Bentley, sometimes shy in company, took one look at him and leapt on to his knee. Charles was converted and for years afterwards always asked after Bentley whenever we spoke.

Charm offensive

Bentley had the softest fur in the world. British shorthairs have a special double layer of fluff and he was a perambulating bunny rug. Being used to top class salon treatment from his show-kitten days he loved being brushed and having his nails done. He was a tart for tickles and an irresistible cuddler.

Magical fur

After some initial shyness in his early years, Bentley became a very sociable puss and would parade about eliciting adoration from visitors, giving them coquettish looks from his huge golden eyes. Cat lovers swooned.

And like most cats, Bentley was endlessly curious and would always be sticking his nose and paws into anything new happening in the home. He was particularly fond of craft activities, especially if ribbons and crackly paper were involved.

Bentley was a pernickety eater, and most fastidious in his tastes. But it was in the matter of beverages that he developed a particular preference. He had a perfectly adequate water bowl, but he insisted on drinking the water from the fish bowl. Bentley and the fish always lived in symbiotic harmony.

Drinking the fishy water

Pets are one of the most wonderful things in the world. They make you laugh, they comfort you when you are sick, they are steadfast companions, they offer unconditional love. And when they die it breaks your heart.

Many times Bentley sat purring on my knee while I typed away at this blog. Today my lap feels achingly empty. Farewell, little Bentley …

Inspired by LMM …

I’ve been pegging away at mundane tasks preparing my book for the next phase of its journey, but it’s not the stuff of which blogs are made. What, I pondered, could I write about that would be a little more interesting than the nuts and bolts of editing? Then it occurred to me that this week is somewhat of an anniversary. Two years ago it marked the beginning of a very special journey.

All writers draw their inspiration from the reading they’ve done throughout their lives. For me, a formative influence was the work of LM Montgomery (LMM), author of Anne of Green Gables and a dozen other perennial favourites. Fans of the Anne books are a somewhat special breed, as I first discovered when my primary school bestie, Rachel, revealed her own Anne passion.

Rachel and I bonded over our shared devotion to these books, frequently reading and re-reading them, and I was agog for each Christmas, birthday and Easter when my Nana would give me the next book in the series.

When we turned sixteen, Rachel and I solemnised the moment with a scared vow and promise. If we lived to be fifty years old (which then seemed extreme decrepit old age) we would go on a pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island in Canada, worship at the shrine of our literary idol and visit all of the scenes immortalised in the books.

Plotting …

We began planning immediately but preparations really cranked up as our half centuries approached. We decided that we would have to be suitably attired and we out-did each other in creating, sourcing and sharing Anne-themed hats, scarves, shirts, bags and gloves. We pored endlessly over our itinerary, ensuring that we could cram in as many Anne experiences as possible during out visit.

Finally the long-awaited moment arrived and we landed on the isle of our imaginings, donned our regalia and set off on our adventure.

Fully equipped!

The first port of call, of course, had to be the resting place of our beloved author. We reverently laid two single white rose buds upon LMM’s tomb and paused in a moment in thankfulness for the many years of reading pleasure she had bequeathed to us.

Then it was off to Green Gables itself. Only a true Anne devotee can imagine the quivering excitement with which we approached this long-awaited moment. The reality didn’t disappoint.

Green Gables!

The home that is modern day ‘Green Gables’ is of course an imagined reconstruction, but it was perfect in every point, down to the brown gloria dress with puffed sleeves hanging in Anne’s bedroom, a purple amethyst brooch on Marilla’s dressing table and the red geramium adorning the kitchen windowsill (all finer points which would only be appreciated by the true Anne aficionado).

We reveled in every detail, tiptoeing through the haunted wood, and renewing our vow of eternal friendship over the babbling brook that ran alongside Lovers Lane, much to the amusement of passing visitors who showed their Anne credentials by being instantly aware of what we were up to.

On day two we ventured off to Silver Bush (the original home of LMM’s aunt and the setting of the Pat books) where we had the enormous pleasure of going for a ride past the Lake of Shining Waters and down to the shore in Matthew’s buggy. Wish fulfillment doesn’t get any better than this.

Next followed a visit to LMM’s birthplace, a pit-stop for raspberry cordial at the Blue Moon tea house, a diversion to check out the schoolhouse where LMM taught as a young woman and finally a pause to officially record our pilgrimage in period clothing. Rachel and I are firmly convinced we were born in the wrong era.

The grand finale, after a further day exploring the island and it’s many wonderful wooden lighthouses, was an evening taking in Anne and Gilbert, The Musical. This event was so fabulous that Rachel and I (wearing matching button covered shoes) were left in hysterical tears at the wonder of it all.

It’s a mark of our enduring passion that Rachel sent me an LMM book for my recent birthday. For thirty-five years I’ve been searching for The Golden Road – an obscure and little known LMM work – in our coveted Angus and Robertson edition to complete my collected works. I screamed, squealed and danced around the room when I opened the package. She couldn’t have found anything I’d love more.

I think if LMM and I could sit down and have a chat she’d be astonished to know that over one hundred years after she released her Anne to the world, a pair of fifty-year-old Aussie women dressed up in fake plaits and traveled half-way round the planet to pay homage to her work.

My literary aspirations are modest. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if in one hundred years another pair of starry-eyed readers made their way to Narooma because of something I had written …