A Year On …

It seems surreal, but on this very day last year I sat down in front of my window of wonder in Carcassonne and penned the first words of my manuscript.

Surrounded by my inspiration kit – Thoth (the Egyptian god of writing), my snarling inner critic, an antique lithograph of a falcon, a small bunch of lily of the valley, my mock-up book cover and a gleaming castle on a hill – I plunged into the creative vortex from which I would emerge eleven weeks later with the first draft of my book.

And she’s off!

In my post-bushfire, present COVID-isolation world I gaze at my photos and posts from that time in bemusement. Did it really happen? Did I truly gaze in wonder upon the pyramids of Giza and amble down Prague’s cobbled lane-ways? Did I actually imbibe that giant beer at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich and casually decide to take a day-trip to Perpignan? Was I really so brimful of confidence, energy and inspiration? Did I really live that long-held dream of writing for three months in the south of France?

Indeed I did. I have the blogs to prove it. And my manuscript, of course. But from the bunkered-down world we now inhabit it seems impossible that such a short time ago we could hop on a plane and travel the world without a care beyond possible lost luggage or a missed flight connection. The assumption of an open globe freely available to host our every travelling desire seems as ephemeral as dawn mist rising on frosted grass.

What if COVID had struck last year? What if I’d had to abandon my long-service-leave, my window of wonders, my daily baguette delight and been repatriated home to immure myself in Narooma? I’m pretty sure my book would never have seen the light of day. After so many years of anticipation, and months of over-excited preparation, I would have been beyond devastated.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about all those countless millions of people whose special dreams have been annihilated this year. The brides and grooms mourning cancelled weddings, the grandparents denied the soft touch of their newborn grandchild’s skin, the disappointed school-leavers about to take their first solo back-packing ventures into the wider world, the long-anticipated family reunions put on hold, the athletes whose arduous Olympic preparations have been set at naught.

And more somberly, I’ve been thinking about the world’s most vulnerable people for whom such dreams were never even a possibility and whose reality wrings my heart. I’m talking about the children who are living in refugee camps, favelas, shanty towns and slums where there is no running water or sewerage system let alone hand sanitiser and toilet paper. The children whose parents relied on daily subsistence earnings and are now living in desparate fear about how to feed them tomorrow. The children who live in places where there are no hospitals to speak of and where health systems already broken beyond repair have no hope of coping with a pandemic.

My job with World Vision is a great privilege, but it brings with it a necessary knowledge of the darkest implications of this new world in which we are living. Only this week the World Food Programme predicted that the number of people facing starvation could double by the end of this year to over 250 million. And World Vision released it’s own report, Aftershocks, showing that as many as 30 million children are at risk of disease and death because of the secondary impacts of COVID-19.

What do we do with our dreams when faced with such grim realities? What do we do when our window on the world is not a magical casement in Carcassonne but a relentless barrage of deadly statistics and contested views on social media feeds?

Window of wonder …

As a self-confessed chronic optimist I can usually find a silver lining in just about any situation, but even I’m struggling a bit right now. I’m clinging to the fleeting glimmers of light which are shining through the darkness – our world breathing more freely with the reduction in emissions; the surge in creative home-based artistry from everyone from ballerinas and operatic tenors to mums, dads and kids jamming together and and dancing up and down their stairs. I’m delighted by the humour of #binisoliationouting and sustained by hope and mindfulness analysis that is reminding us that this situation could be our best chance ever to reset the future.

And I’m still dreaming my book dreams. It’s been wonderful to see that online book sales have gone through the roof as the home-bound reach for literary escapism. As an insatiable reader, my mother’s greatest fear at the onset of the lock-down – and the ensuing closure of library – was that she’d run out of books. She’s since developed a wonderful relationship with a young lad at her local bookshop who is personally delivering fresh supplies to her doorstep on his way home from work.

True, authors who’s novels are being released in the time of COVID are having to adapt to virtual launches and Zoom meetings with their fans, and publishers are developing new ways of working. But I don’t think books are going to be a COVID casualty. I think, more than ever, that the world will be looking for stories of hope and possibility. Perhaps mine will be one of them …

The Things You Find in Boxes …

Like many of us, I’ve been using some of my isolation time to dig through old boxes and files. My original intent was to finally address long-overdue de-cluttering and take a small step towards minimalism, but I’ve ended up rolling on the floor laughing at some of my finds … particularly when I unearthed the box where I stashed my authorial juvenilia.

As previously noted, I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was about seven years old, and I’ve found evidence aplenty that I set about my mission with wide-ranging zeal. The earliest effusions appear from when I was about nine, inspired by a wonderful teacher called Mrs Lowden.

Budding author, aged 9, with brother Simon

Epistle number one is called The Marsh Monster, a harrowing tale of a giant rabbit that terrorises a country town. The heroine, Pam, single handedly saves the day and is awarded a special medal by the Mayor.

My output surged exponentially over the following years, with some clearly derivative works (eg. Ingrid, below, which bears a remarkable resemblance to What Katy Did) but many other highly original narratives primarily in the thriller/adventure genre. I can’t resist sharing the dazzling opening sequence of Adventures in Space (aged 11):

Nick and I were in our secret hideout down at Hallet Cove when the waves suddenly came in. For what seemed like hours we were underwater rolling around and floundering for our lives. Then we were spurted out of a chute and landed in a little room. “Where the giggers are we Charlie? Billy asked me. “Don’t ask me, I am just as kerfuffled as you are!” I gasped.

Prolific author …

I even dabbled with children’s fiction in my opus Magic in the Night (aged 12), an illustrated tale of a midnight animation of a family of dolls, a teddy, a toy train, a tin soldier and (sorry, pre-PC) Bobo the golliwog. They break out of the toy box and go on a jaunt to the park where Teddy falls in the pond. Jamie, the toys’ owner, can’t imagine what happened when he wakes up holding a wet bear. Note my children’s lit nom-de-plume, Cathy B.

Not satisfied with writing alone, I wanted my books to be proper books – with covers, and illustrations, and binding. I spent hours drawing and mucking about with innovative wool and string binding solutions which have proven to be remarkably durable.

Grade six was a highly productive year when I also branched out into non-fiction, specifically autobiography. In Me, (below) I explore the trauma of breaking my brother’s leg (aged 2) and the finer points of keeping pet mice (Pixie, Dixie, Snowie, Fairie, Muffie and Squigie). It’s hard to see, but the faded end-piece pic is of me with assorted mice on my head.

Adventures in autobiography

Clearly taken with the genre, I explored the speculative realm in the fascinating Autobiography of Billie the Bee (aged 12). So enamoured was I of my creation that I was driven to replicate him in the physical realm as a hand puppet who still has pride of place on my study bookshelf. I recall Mum being seriously cross with me for nicking her stocking socks to make Billie’s wings.

Billie the Bee

But it was in my first year at high school that I discovered the oeuvre that would become my most creative and prolific writing home for many years – doggerel poetry. In a very early post on this blog I gave an extract from my first work, also called Me (hmm, do you think maybe I was a bit self-obsessed?). For posterity, here is the full work:

Perhaps it was Mrs Holthouse’s positive reinforcement, perhaps sheer joy at making words rhyme, but from this point my juvenilia box is jam-packed with reams of poems on everything from leaves and spring (has there ever been poet who didn’t ode upon the spring?) to more original themes such as the inner ponderings of goldfish and the wages of sin.

As I laughed my way through these dusty boxes it was borne in upon me that I have, indeed, always been a writer. And I still want my books to have covers and bindings …

I’m Back!

Dear readers, when I signed off from this blog on the day before New Year’s Eve last year little did I know what was in store. The very next day HWB and I were hurling our most precious worldly goods into our car as we prepared to evacuate our home ahead of the raging bushfires that ravaged our country for the next seven weeks (more later on that little adventure), and barely had we unpacked and stashed away our smoke masks than we were pulling on new ones to protect ourselves from COVID-19.

A tale of two masks

I blithely predicted that my life would be pretty boring for a while as I worked through the less-than-scintillating process of polishing and sending my manuscript out into the world. I didn’t think my story would be worth sharing in my blog. Well, things have been quietish on the writing front, I confess (one or two tiny distractions …), but there’s no doubt there are stories to be told. I keep seeing posts online urging people to write journals and record this astonishing time a strategy for keeping sane, and as a putative author I’ve decided it’s time for me to get back in the blogging saddle.

So, where to start?

Let me let you in on a secret. Back in October I stealthily entered my novel in the Varuna Publisher Induction Program. The program, run by a mob dedicated to supporting emerging writers offers the lucky winners the chance to work directly with one of eight major Australian publishers. I felt Under New Management fitted the criteria so I held my breath and pushed the send button.

I didn’t want to raise expectations so I didn’t announce this exploratory foray at the time. And I even kept quiet in March when I was thrilled to learn that I had been shortlisted!

Last week I was advised that I wasn’t successful in reaching the final selection in the first round, but am still in play for a possible second round of offers. Cue another month of waiting… Being shortlisted for this prize is beyond exciting! It confirms that at least three people who really know their stuff think I’ve produced something of merit. In fact, despite saying that they don’t provide individual feedback on submissions, my advisory email delivered the following sweet words: “Please be reassured that this has been a very competitive process, and your manuscript was very highly ranked. We would really encourage you to submit to other publishers if you aren’t successful in this second round, as our assessors all felt that your submission had strong publishing potential.” Wow!

Since my last post I have also made submissions to a couple of agents (one rejection, one still in play) and entered myself in the Banjo Prize – Harper Collins’ primary vehicle for identifying emerging Australian writers. And next weekend I’ll be finalising my entry for the Richell Prize, the gateway for publishing with Hachette. Fingers crossed!

I’d love to be able to say that since my last blog I’ve been furiously getting on with the draft of my second manuscript but, um, unfortunately not. The fire terror and the COVID-19 storm have pretty much consumed my life. I’ve mentioned previously that I work for World Vision, a global humanitarian organisation, and I’ve now been co-opted to become part of World Vision’s global pandemic response. My role will be far from heroic, unlike those of our staff on the frontlines, but I’ll be doing my bit by helping to coordinate our global external engagement with UN bodies like UNICEF, the WHO and the UNHCR.

My job is often pretty full-on and I’ve been privileged to visit some astoundingly amazing places. But my last trip may be my most memorable. Just before the world went crazy I was in New York, now the epicentre of the worst outbreak on the planet. I’m in daily touch with colleagues from the Big Apple as they live through this calamity and continue to go about their world-saving work. They are awesome.

Can’t believe I was there …

While lock-down has changed the lives of millions, my days are not so very different to life PC (Pre-COVID). I’ve been working from home for a decade and I’ve been a Zoom operator for almost a year – so pretty much same-same on the work front, albeit operating at an increased emergency response speed. My lovely Half Moon Yoga/Pilates studio has gone online so I can do my workouts on my lounge room floor and because we live in a small, remote town we’ve been able to continue to go for exercise walks on our beautiful beaches and in our stunning bush.

Sunday exercise outing 🙂

The one thing I’m yearning for is the company of friends and family for dinners out/BBQs/picnics and other assorted food-sharing adventures. When our isolation is over the first cab off the rank will be a New Year’s Eve dinner with our mates Hannah and Nick – the first attempt having been aborted due to the fact that we were cowering in fear of our lives as the fires raged around our town. Yes, New Year’s Eve Mark II is something I’m really looking forward to.

My leisure activities are also largely unchanged, though perhaps there has been a bit more Netflix screen-time than is good for me. However, my main recreation remains reading, and I’ve been comfort-bingeing some old favourites.

James Herriot’s endearing tales of life as a country vet in the Yorkshire Dales never grow stale. I’ve read them about about twenty times and still laugh out loud at Tricki Woo going flop-bott and crackerdog and Tristan flooring himself after an inspired rendition of the Mad Conductor. Herriot writes with such simple, disarming charm I’m always left goggling at his artistry.

Similarly engaging are the adventures of the inimitable Horace Rumpole of the Old Bailey. John Mortimer is a master storyteller who created a legend in the wine-swilling, wise-cracking, cigar-smoking old barrister and his formidable wife, Hilda (otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed). Such is their appeal that my well-thumbed copies of the Rumpole ominibuses are starting to fall apart.

Observers of the literary world have made much of the fact that book sales seem to be surging upwards in these challenging times, with people reaching for a read during lock-down – whether it’s dystopian/apocalyptic escapism or literary chicken soup for the soul like Mortimer and Herriot. I hope this appetite for books continues and is enough to sustain the publishing industry, keeping hope alive for writers like myself who are dreaming in isolation of breaking into the scene…

Adieu 2019

Well, 2019 is almost at a close and I resume my seat at the keyboard after an extended haitus for a bit of self-reflection and a summing up.

Eager readers will have noted that I have posted only once since October after assiduously writing just about every week in the earlier part of the year. The subject of my last post goes some way to explaining my radio silence – it’s been hard to focus on the comparatively trivial topic of my writing endeavours in the face of much bigger questions about life and death.

That’s not to say I haven’t continued to make a few small moves in the direction of getting my manuscript published. I have. But somehow the momentum has slipped away and I’ve drifted into becalmed waters in recent weeks.

One step I did take was to attend another great workshop with Writing NSW, this time on the topic of finessing my synopsis. For those not in the know, this little 300-500 word blurb is just about the most important – and harrowing – document any writer can produce. Condensing the glory of 90,000 words into such a compact format is agonising. But a great synopsis is the gateway to agents, publishers, grants, awards and prizes, so I figured it was worth investing in refining mine.

Laurel Cohen, the facilitator, was kind enough to say that my initial draft was already good, and by the end of the workshop she was urging me to try my luck and get the newly buffed and polished version out there.

A few weeks ago my finger quivered over the keyboard before I pushed the send button conveying my synopsis to the first of my chosen agents. This was a seminal moment – it was exposure time – and I quailed at my temerity.

The problem is that agents and publishers are a ruthless lot. This particular agency is open for submissions all the time, which is great – many will only accept unsolicited manuscripts when Venus is retrograde on the third Thursday in July, between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. – or when dozens of other such prohibitive conditions apply. However, my chosen agent doesn’t acknowledge receipt of the submission. If they like it and want to know more they will contact me. A nil response means they are not interested. I have eagerly perused my inbox each morning, but so far no news. I have to wait for three months until I know which way the cookie will crumble!

And because agents and publishers don’t like it if your manuscript has already been shared with others, I have to send out my feelers one at a time. It’s going to be a long ride methinks. My next targeted agent isn’t open for submissions until February, and the couple of publishing prizes for which I’m going to throw my hat into the ring don’t open until March/April. Cue the drumming of fingers on the table …

But – and here’s a key point – this haitus has allowed time for reflection. Before I jetted off to France I read many admonitions from writing gurus that one shouldn’t fall in love with one’s first manuscript. Often, they said, the first book is only a prelude to the more scintillating and successful second or third book which ends up being the one to leap forth in published form to take the world by storm.

Like many such authorial admonitions, I ignored this one. When I dropped the final full stop in Carcassonne I knew with every fibre of my being that my baby was absolutely perfect in every way. Bestseller glory was within my grasp! It was a given that I’d be sitting next to Kate Mosse having a good old chin wag at a writers’ festival within a few months. I could see my book stacked in great gleaming piles at airport book stores …

Delusion? Wishful thinking? Possible future? Who knows. But a couple of weeks ago an astounding thought flashed into my mind. What if Under New Management is not the book? What if it was only a practice book?

Pre-France Catherine would have been horrified at the mere suggestion. I wasn’t going on this venture to practice! I was going for gold! I was out to achieve the real deal!

December Catherine is a little older and perhaps a little wiser. I still think Under New Management is good. But I have a creeping feeling that I can do better. Ideas for book number two are bubbling away in my brain and I’m thinking of all sorts of ways I can apply what I’ve learnt this year to build a new book of more substance and sophistication.

There’s one tiny flaw in this thinking, however. Long service leave comes only once every ten years and I simply cannot wait that long to have another crack at this. I’m going to have to summon the discipline to write while working, a bogey that stalled my literary aspirations for thirty years.

Please be assured, I’m not giving up on Under New Management. I’m going to nibble away at the submission process until I am thoroughly convinced there is no hope. But I’m going to put more of my energy into honing my craft and focus on the creation of book number two – notionally called The Ladies of Club M

As for this blog? When I began posting in January my intention was to tell the story of my writing adventure until the end of this calendar year, or until I achieved a publishing contract. The publishing contract looks like it may still be some time away, and somehow I don’t think weekly posts about waiting are going to make particularly scintillating reading.

So this is adieu for now, my friends. Should new developments emerge I’ll return to the blogosphere firing on all cylinders. ‘Till then, I wish you a very happy new year and encourage you all to pursue your imaginings in 2020, no matter what form they take. As this year has taught me, there’s magic, wonder and fulfillment in the pursuit of one’s dreams.

Requiescat in Pace, Carmen

On Thursday, HWB’s beloved mum and my dear mother-in-law, Carmen, passed away peacefully at home after a long battle with cancer. We are grieving.

Last pic: Carmen rocking her Duchess of Windsor look

A few years ago I took the opportunity to record some oral history with Carmen, and she spoke happily about her early years. I treasure this record, and what I write now comes from her own telling of her story.

Carmen was born to Aida and William Vassalo in Rabat, Malta, in 1934. She was the youngest of six siblings, and part of a large and lively extended family who embraced the Maltese passions of laughter, great food and fun times.

Though Carmen was only six when World War II broke out she vividly recalled blackouts, the wailing of sirens and midnight dashes to bomb shelters. As Malta’s ports were blockaded and convoy’s bombarded, food began to run out. Carmen remembered a time when her mother received special ration cards from her RAF squadron commander uncle and commandeered a karrotzin (horse and cart) and dodged bombs to retrieve food for her family from the other side of the island.

Carmen (right) and her sister Josephine

At seven, Carmen became a boarder at St Dorothy’s Convent in Mdina, as was the tradition for the girls in her family. Later, her sister Marie became a nun within the Dorothean order there. Carmen fondly recalled hiding illicit feasts in the dormitory with her friends when they heard the distinctive rattling of the nuns’ rosary beads as they approached to inspect their supposedly sleeping charges.

Carmen was sixteen, going on seventeen, when she met a dashing young man called Godfrey Dingli at a thé dansant at the Phonecia Hotel. Sporting a red dress with a white sailor collar, Carmen accepted Godfrey’s invitation to dance despite the fact that she was interested in another boy at the time. After the dance, Carmen proved elusive, but Godfrey was persistent. “I said no, and no, and no, but he kept phoning,” she said.

True love drives a man to desperate measures. Godfrey resorted to stalking Carmen and discovered that she attended Rabat Cathedral to confess her sins. “So then one fine day I approached the priest, asking him to convince her that I’m a good boy.  Truly!” Godfrey assured me.

It took Godfrey eight months before Carmen said yes to their first date. They went on swimming expeditions and to see films and when Carmen turned nineteen they married.

Family is central to Maltese life, and Carmen and Godfrey didn’t waste any time in creating one of their own. By the time Carmen was in her late twenties they had been blessed with five children – Mariella, Raphael, Peter, Martin (HWB) and Anna. Her husband and children were forever the abiding core of Carmen’s life.

Assembled Dinglis

And it was for the future of her children that Carmen endured the biggest challenge of her life – migrating to Australia. By the mid-seventies, the political climate in Malta had become fraught under the regime of socialist Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff. For many old families like the Dinglis and Vassalos associated with former British rule, life became difficult. The Dingli’s decided their children would have a brighter future and more opportunities in the antipodes.

Following a forty-day sea journey, the family settled in Melbourne and set about discovering their new home. Carmen started a business making knitted garments and later took up catering, a role where she could utilise her remarkable culinary skills and in which she remained busy and active right into her seventies. After some initial culture shock the children flourished, and Carmen became more and more proud of their achievements.

Travel was an lasting passion for both Carmen and Godfrey. They returned to Malta many times, and enjoyed extended holidays in Europe and South America. They also made one more big move – to Canberra – in their sixties to be closer to their grandchildren.

Carmen and Godfrey on the move in Malta

Carmen liked to laugh. A lot. And she loved cooking. But most of all she loved having a houseful of her children and grandchildren and cooking up massive feasts of Maltese delights. Her hospitality was boundless.

Happy times

Carmen was seventy when I met her and I fell in love with her (and the rest of the Dinglis) as well as with HWB. She made me so welcome and was unstintingly generous with her time, advice and cooking classes. Under her experienced eye I mastered the art of pastizzi and torta tal mamurat, though I have never yet quite succeeded in achieving the exquisite fluffiness she imparted to her choux pastry.

Carmen was deeply faithful and her spirituality illuminated her daily life. Not long after she was diagnosed with her final illness I had the opportunity to whisk her away for a silent retreat with the Benedictine nuns of The Abbey at Jamberoo. We grew very close during our shared days of quiet reflection and participation in the liturgy – a gift for which I shall always be grateful.

Carmen and Father Keiran

The last few weeks have been very difficult for all of the family as we’ve striven to honour Carmen’s wish to remain and be cared for in her own home. Carmen’s passing has rightly absorbed our lives and, as you may understand, caused my recent radio silence on this blog. I hope to do better in coming weeks.

Carmen was keenly interested in my writing adventures, but sadly was too unwell to finish reading my draft manuscript. I know she’s up in heaven somewhere cheering me on and when it’s published she will be clapping, and beaming and saying Prosit! (congratulations).

Forever in our hearts and sorely, sorely missed …

And the verdict is …?

It’s been three weeks since I’ve written and there are several good reasons. Let’s just say I’ve run the full gamut of emotions – happy and excited but also terribly, terribly sad. I’m not going to get into the sad part in this blog today – it’s too raw and an unfinished story. So I’ll confine myself to the bubbly parts, especially the long-overdue feedback on my manuscript assessment!

Before HWB and I headed to Sydney for the big reveal we were invited to join our great friends Hannah and Nick for their work Christmas outing – a whale-watching cruise and BBQ. Yes, the summer BBQ season has officially launched!

Hangin’ with friends

Unfortunately I was prevented from joining the gang on the boat as I was doing an interview for a new job – still with World Vision but in a role which would present exciting new challenges (still waiting for news on that one …). But HWB went out and had a fabulous time communing with dozens of dolphins – his favourite creature of all time.

Despite blustery conditions, the following BBQ down by the wharf was lots of fun and the perfect location to take in views of our fabulous inlet.

HWB and the lads were in their element charring things on the grill.

Lads 🙂

The following day we hit the long road to Sydney. It’s a five hour drive from Narooma and I was quivering with anticipation, hope and fear all the way. On the morrow I would hear – from someone who really knows – whether or not there was a glimmer of publishing hope for Under New Management.

The verdict was delivered at Writing NSW by publisher and editor Linda Funnell. And …???

She really, really liked it. “Lively and engaging writing style…page turner … topical setting … appealing protagonist … strong opening … well-handled dialogue…”. In short she skipped straight to the bit about how to get the manuscript out to agents and publishers!

Linda 🙂

As we dug into the details, Linda helpfully delivered some pithy advice on a couple of areas for fine tuning and happily confirmed my instinct to stick with the susurrus. She also advised me to retain my controversial title. Some beta readers haven’t warmed to Under New Management. Sorry guys, it’s staying – for now anyway 🙂

I floated from our session filled to the brim with renewed enthusiasm and plans to dive straight into final editing. But first HWB and I planned to make the most of our time in the big city of lights.

Since HWB hails from Malta via Melbourne and I’m an Adelaidean, neither of us know Sydney very well and on previous visits we’ve generally stayed in the tourist hub of Circular Quay and The Rocks. This time we stuck a pin in the map halfway between Writing NSW and the city centre and found ourselves at the very lovely Verona Guest House in Glebe.

Verona Guest House

After exploring this gorgeous locale, Glebe is now my new favourite Sydney destination. It’s like a village within the city, buzzing with boutique eateries, adorned with Victorian and Edwardian architecture and pulsing with a friendly, community vibe. But its best gift was a dinner with dear friends of ours, Jeremy and Bettina, who joined us for a wonderful evening at Pizzeria Alfredo.

Happy times 🙂

The fun didn’t stop there! On Saturday afternoon we shopped till we dropped (we tend to go a bit crazy when we visit places with more than one shoe emporium – Narooma’s totally gorgeous, but a teeny bit short on boutiques) and then headed to our favourite Sydney restaurant for a nosh.

Quaffing 🙂

Malabar in Darlinghurst serves up divine south Indian cuisine, with each flavoursome, aromatic dish excelling the last. I’m not generally into posting food pics (except when dining in Michelin-starred restaurants in castles in Carcassone), but Malabar’s spinach chaat deserves recording for posterity. Who knew that chickpea-battered spinach leaves could taste so ambrosial?

Spinach chaat – yum!

We rounded off our city adventure with an evening at Happy Endings Comedy Club where we laughed ourselves silly for several hours – a pre-emptive exercise that buoyed us up for what was to become a difficult week ahead.

Bright lights- the iconic Kings Cross Coke sign

I now draw a veil over the last seven days. It was precious, and painful and poignant and not to be spoken of lightly.

This afternoon as I sat quietly back at home I was filled with a deep gratitude for the great joys of life – family, love, inspiration, adventure, friends, nature. I found that it’s not possible to be entirely sad when a king parrot is chirping madly on your deck demanding that his seed dish be replenished.

Now, as the sun sets behind the spotted gums, I’ve come to a place of tranquility. I know that whatever the week ahead brings HWB and I will be ready to meet it, hand in hand …

Sticking With The Susurrus!

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with the advice I received at my writers’ workshop, especially in regard to pruning my manuscript of some of my more lavish linguistic flourishes.

The problem is that when I come across an offending word I just can’t find anything that fits as well or expresses quite what I wanted to say. There are so many nuances in words and I love them all. By the time I’d worked through my first five pages I’d come across incendiary, bastions, pantheon, conducive and pandemonium and couldn’t bring myself to delete any of them.

At the same time I’ve been reading my way through some of the recently published works in my genre by Australian women writers, endeavoring to discover the magic ingredients that make up a publishable book. A red hot seller at the moment is Sophie Green‘s The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle.

It was a pleasurable read but that’s not what made me leap from my chair and flourish the book around the room while hooting with glee. It was because the very day after the workshop I came across something rather remarkable. Sophie had deployed the word susurration. Not just susurrus, but susurration!!!

If it’s good enough for Sophie it’s good enough for me. I’m sorry Rachel and Dianne, but my susurrus is going straight back into the manuscript and it’s staying there, along with all the other mellifluous, delicious, exquisitely expressive words with which my manuscript is littered.

Several of my beta readers told me that they enjoyed my use of language and upon reflection I believe this is part of my distinctive voice. I don’t think that readers need to be patronised and fed words suitable for a reading ago of ten. I’m sticking to my guns. Well, at least until I get feedback from my manuscript assessment …

I’ve taken the plunge and sent off the submission – the first 4000 words of my book along with a synopsis and writer’s biography. My finger quailed over the send key for quite some time before I dispatched it on its way. This is the real deal. My baby is going to be scrutinised and assessed by someone who really knows the business and I’ll be quaking in my shoes until I hear her verdict.

Happily, over this October long weekend, I’ve had some high quality distraction in the form of a visit from one of HWB’s old school mates from Melbourne. Chris was great company and HWB and I love entertaining.

Best of all, Chris is an experienced boatie and he arrived just in time to guide us through the exciting process of launching our boat, Splashback. While we bought her before we headed to France there wasn’t time then to do the fine tuning to get her seaworthy, so this weekend was her maiden voyage.

About to launch!

It was a gorgeous day, and it was wonderful to get out on the waters of the magnificent Wagonga Inlet. Skipper HWB was a very happy camper.

On our cruise we came across two white-bellied sea eagles soaring above us, a seal waving a lazy fin in the shallows, and squadrons of pelicans cruising the shore. Chris affirmed what we already know – we live in paradise.

Cruising

I’m looking forward to many future cruises and fun times, especially when we have our influx of summer visitors. As daylight savings has now officially commenced it’s not long before we’ll be getting in to swimming, sand and sun mode. Bring it on!

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 …