30 November 2009

NaNoWriMo: The End!

Of the month, that is. The novel is still in the second chapter of Part Three, at a grand total of

81,417 words!

(Or 81,686 if you listen to the counter on the website.) And more than 22,500 of them were written in the last four days, including one day of just over 7,000 words ... I think I made up for my days off sick!

And now the writing goes on at a slower pace, and all those bits of real life which got put on hold over the last thirty days (anything not a matter of life and death, basically) can begin again. Including the business of reading and reviewing published novels by other people, rather than obsessing over a very-possibly-never-to-be-published one of my own.

Having posted hardly at all this month, I stand in awe of those people (hello, Bookfool!) who manage to do NaNo and keep blogging at the same time. Though I could probably do it too, if I didn’t spend every spare moment living and breathing NaNo because I find it so addictive ... and because it brings out my latent competitive streak. Having narrowly outdone last year’s total, I’ve already devised a plan for doing even better next year:

I will not let the forums distract me from writing (too much). I will not get sick (I hope). I will do my cover art well in advance so that it can’t serve as an excuse for procrastination for days on end. And I will outline in October.

And now I will go and get some sleep ... and try to work out what on earth happens in the rest of Part Three.

23 November 2009

NaNoWriMo: Day 23

At last I’ve posted a review! I finished it today as a change of pace for my brain, because I think NaNo’s fried it. First, I had my feigning-muteness heroine speak - twice! - and didn’t even notice until the following day. I discovered that there was a black hole in my plot where Chapter 7 should be. When I did start getting Chapter 7 planned, I somehow managed to segue into one of its scenes when I should still have been writing Chapter 6. And I did all these things in under 24 hours.

(I would here like to apologise to anyone in my suburb who was alarmed on any morning last week by the sight of the crazy girl walking toward the station muttering to herself. Rest assured that it was not paranoid ramblings; it was “Could something happen at dinner? No, no, after dinner ... she could meet John on the stairs ... no, in the passage ... and he’s heard about the discovery in the drawing-room....”)

Fortunately such errors seem to have disappeared with the advent of the weekend and more sleep. Well, mostly. Chapter 7, cobbled together in haste though it was, is actually looking pretty darn good now that I’ve struggled through Chapter 10. On the up side, at least when you know a chapter’s gone totally off the rails you’re free to quit trying to write decent prose and just go for speed.

I had hoped to reach the magic 50,000 mark tonight, but first I need sleep. And some answers to those important questions: What happens next? What clue does Alice discover? How will Lizzie’s secret love for John affect my plot? When will Fabian actually start talking to his author?

And why do I keep typing “whickers” instead of “whiskers”?

Book Review: Possession by A. S. Byatt

Chunkster Challenge #2
Classics Challenge #4

Possession In a dusty book once owned by the great nineteenth-century poet Randolph Henry Ash, scholar Roland Michell finds two draft beginnings of a letter. These drafts are surprising, not only because they’ve escaped the attentions of rapacious Ash collector Mortimer Cropper, but because they don’t sound at all like the rather dull Ash with whom Roland is familiar. Overcome by the desire to keep his discovery to himself, just for a while, he smuggles the pages out of the British Library and embarks on some independent research.

His inquiries take him to Maud Bailey, an expert on - and distant relative of - Christabel LaMotte, Ash’s fellow poet and the woman to whom the draft letters were written. Absorbed in the thrill of the hunt for truth, they think they can keep their investigation a secret. But the academic grapevine soon causes various colleagues and rivals, including Cropper, to start investigations of their own. What started as a few scholarly questions turns into a race with not just facts and accolades but invaluable artefacts - literary treasure - as the prize.

Being the bonus book of the Classics Challenge I should have left Possession until last, especially as I knew I faced a last-minute scramble to get everything read and reviewed. But I never was much good at resisting literary temptation. And it had been a whole three years since the last time I read it....

Usually I would wait longer before re-reading something, but I love it to bits (please, book gods, not literally - I’d be devastated if my copy wore out!) Every time I read it stand in awe of the quality of the writing and the complexity of the ideas. And every time I discover something new: some reference I never understood before but now get, some connection to history or other books or another point within this book. It’s a novel that keeps on giving to the repeat reader. This time around, it reminded me of The Mysteries of Udolpho in that it interleaved poetry and prose; but here the poems add to the plot, and the sense of realism is kept by their not having supposedly been composed on the spur of the moment without the aid of quill and paper. As well as poems short and long, there are letters, short stories, and pieces of journals, biography, memoir, and scholarly articles by no fewer than 10 different characters; and every character’s writing voice is pitch-perfect.

Among the cast is one of my favourite fictional antagonists. Mortimer Cropper is a hero in his own mind, but the amoral means he employs to get to his chosen ends (and the fact that he’s a self-obsessed jerk) make him loathed by anyone not on the receiving end of one of his cheques. His refusal - and perhaps inability - to consider that the British might have a greater claim to artefacts of British history than has an American is one of the main components of his villainy, which is somewhat ironic given Britain’s track record with other countries (Elgin marbles, anyone?). His presence turns the quest into a race, and I love seeing some of the elements normally associated with thrillers - the ticking clock, the travel, the heroes’ subterfuge to throw their rivals off track - transferred to so unlikely a setting as academia.

The mystery plot is well organised, with information being revealed at a steady pace and in just the right order. In some instances poems serve as clues and are so well crafted that the reader knows what their significance is even though there isn’t a shred of proof. Although a number of very different characters (and I don’t think you can get much more different than Leonora Stern and James Blackadder) I’m always left with the impression that only Roland and Maud could have put the pieces together to that point; their knowledge of the lives and works of the people they’re investigating is so integral to the process. The connection across the decades is highlighted by the ways in which their actions sometimes mirror those of Ash and Christabel. And it all leads up to one of my favourite fictional endings.

Best of all, this time around I impressed myself - sort of - by finally noticing the symbolism of some of the names. (As pleased as I am, I’m still mentally kicking myself for not spotting it before.) Mottes and baileys are both types of castle fortification, and both Christabel and Maud exist in well-defended isolation; the former in determined independence from the world of men, and the latter in the ivory tower of academia. Being tall and pale and blonde, Maud could almost be said to be an ivory tower herself. (If you know your poetry, you should have no trouble working out the part Roland plays in all this.)

Possession is one of the books I’d urge everyone to read.

Rating: A+

15 November 2009

NaNoWriMo: Day 15


That’s how many words I managed to produce in a single weekend. And what a weekend it was. One of my characters changed her name - twice. The manor house spontaneously sprouted a tower. The steward did something I totally did not expect from him. The mysterious owner is being so mysterious that even I can’t see past the imperious facade. A lazy black setter named Balthazar materialised out of nowhere, even though I’m not really sure what a setter looks like. And there’s something stuffed up the chimney in a long-disused drawing room, and I have no idea what it is.

In other words, I’m having a ball.

Rather a long-winded one, though. My efforts to channel the nineteenth-century style have resulted in an excess of nineteenth-century verbosity. It’s taken nearly 20,000 words just to get the poor girl to the spooky manor house; if I keep going like this I’ll still be writing the first draft come Christmas.

But it’s good for the word count. A few more days, not only will I be caught up, I’ll be ahead. Especially as I can hit 1,900 words an hour when I really get on a roll. How many of those words will survive to the second draft remains to be seen; but they sure do boost morale.

Now, I have an invisible presence in the garden needing my attention....

12 November 2009

NaNoWriMo: Day 12

Houston, we have cover art!

The Silent Land

It’s a - can you call something photoshopped if you don’t actually use PhotoShop? - section of a painting by William Merritt Chase. I went to the American Impressionism and Realism exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery in September, saw the original, and thought, “That’s my cover!” I love it when dumb luck goes my way.

And I’m beginning to close the yawning word count gap left by my days off sick. Being still in the earliest part of the novel, where I actually know what happens next, it’s not proving too difficult. But by around Saturday evening I’m going to be very worried. I have the beginning (even if Chapter 1 is a bit of a train wreck). I have a fair notion of the ending, and I’ll have a better one once Alice chooses between Fabian and John. But the stretch between the fourth and penultimate chapters currently bears a striking resemblance to the Nullarbor Plain: there’s almost nothing in it.

I’m trying to convince myself that, as gothics depend largely on atmosphere, a slight shortage of incident won’t matter too much, at least not in the first draft. And I’m hoping that my characters will take over - or at the very least, that I can continue keeping one day ahead in my plot-it-as-I-go outline.

If anyone’s interested in closer observation of the impending literary disaster, front row seats are available on my NaNo profile page.

Booking Through Thursday: Too Short?

Suggested by JM:

“Life is too short to read bad books.” I’d always heard that, but I still read books through until the end no matter how bad they were because I had this sense of obligation.

That is, until this week when I tried (really tried) to read a book that is utterly boring and unrealistic. I had to stop reading.

Do you read everything all the way through or do you feel life really is too short to read bad books?

I feel that life is too short to read really bad books. (And I’ve only recently progressed that far.) I used to read everything to the very end; but now if I feel sure I simply can’t finish a book - and if morbid curiosity isn’t enough to keep me going - I will quit.

I’ve only done so a handful of times in the last couple of years, either because old habits die hard or because I’m good at choosing books. I think mostly the former - I’ve written my share of negative reviews. Quitting a book gives me an uncomfortable feeling of unfinished business. I do think that I need to get better at walking away from bad books; but then writing scathing reviews is so much fun!

10 November 2009

Chunkster Challenge: Withdrawal

Chunkster Challenge

As I just posted, I’ve been unwell for some days and am now seriously behind in my NaNoWriMo wordcount. Hence I’ve been obliged to drop out of the Chunkster Challenge. There’s just no way I can catch up with NaNo, finish another huge book, and produce the necessary reviews for this and the Classics Challenge in 5 days. At least, not if I want to sleep.

I did read three books for the challenge, but only one has yet been reviewed. Links for the pending reviews will be added as they’re posted.

Possession - A. S. Byatt
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell (substituted for The Magus because it seemed a shame not to include the biggest book I’ll read all year)

It was fun while it lasted.

NaNoWriMo: Day 10

Wednesday - the day on which I intended to post an update - reminded me of a quote by Neil Gaiman:

When writing a novel that's pretty much entirely what life turns into: 'House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.'

In my case it was: got three and a half hours sleep; tree loppers started chainsawing and woodchipping across the road at seven sharp; mother down with food poisoning from the previous night’s dinner I prepared; was obliged to dispose, all by my arachnophobic self, of the corpse of a spider so enormous that had I seen it when it was alive they’d have heard the shriek in New South Wales....

....on the plus side: able to wake from far too little sleep looking fresh as a daisy and put on a convincing show of being fully compos mentis; inherited my father’s cast-iron stomach; nearly finished my cover art; wrote 1,944 fairly easy words before the whole compos mentis thing came to a crashing halt shortly after 6pm. Which made me feel somewhat better about a day that otherwise seemed to be karma’s way of kicking me in the butt in retaliation for cooking a toxic meal and failing to succumb to it myself.

Though as it turned out, it was apparently not food poisoning but something contagious, and it struck me down on Thursday. I spent more than 24 hours sicker than I can ever remember being in my life, and days after that envying the energy levels of snails. The relevant upshot of all this is that I wrote nothing for five days, and as of this morning was 9024 words behind. It’s going to take some serious weekend wordcount heroics to get me back on track.

On a more positive note, it’s starting to come to life. I’ve had objects spontaneously materialise, my heroine (who I feared might be a tad dull) has shown some commendable spirit, and just this afternoon I had a minor plot hole pointed out to me by one of my own characters. By tomorrow evening I hope to have some cover art and an excerpt ready to upload (if the site’s working, which much to my frustration it currently isn’t).

Stay tuned, and wish me luck.

02 November 2009

Weekly Geeks: Weird and Creepy

Weekly Geeks

1) Tell us about something weird, unusual, terrifying, or creepy you've read lately.

2) Tell us what you think. Are things getting a little more weird and creepy than usual, or less? If your choice for the answer to question number 1 was written in a different decade, what does it say about that era? Maybe you think that the weird and creepy is status quo. Or maybe we’re all like lobsters in a pot, and we can’t tell if things are getting hot in here.

1. I’ve read quite a bit of weird, unusual, and creepy (but nothing terrifying) lately for R.I.P. IV - an eighteenth-century gothic classic, a nineteenth-century gothic classic, a twentieth-century ghost story, and a twenty-first century piece of gothic surreality. (And I didn’t even notice until now that I had achieved such a spread of centuries!)

2. Given that I’m only 25, and that my reading habits are, shall we say, chronologically diverse, I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I haven’t been reading adult books long enough, and recent books have formed too small a portion of my literary diet, for me to hold much of an opinion on publishing trends. There do seem to be a lot of weird/spooky/supernatural books out there of late; but then there are a lot of books out there. A certain percentage of those are bound to contain some kind of otherwordly element.

Most of the weird and creepy I’ve read would have been published within, say, the last twenty years; but that could simply be the result of literary life-spans. I’m hardly likely to read something that’s out of print and lost to obscurity. And the weird and the creepy in literature have been around for a long time. The Victorians loved their ghost stories. Gothic novels were first making readers’ hair stand on end more than two hundred years ago. Shakespeare had the Weird Sisters and Caliban.

And since I adore creepy tales of all times periods ... I’m glad that there are centuries of spookiness to choose from.

01 November 2009

Book Review: Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Classics Challenge #3

Macbeth While travelling, Scottish nobleman Macbeth is met by three witches who predict, among other things, that he will become king. Macbeth is sceptical, but when the first part of the prophecy comes true, he sees no reason why the rest shouldn’t also. Nor does his wife; indeed, when the current king stays at their castle she encourages Macbeth to make the prediction a reality. Killing for a throne turns out to be easier than keeping it and the witches haven’t finished with him yet.

For the first time I’ve re-read something that was required reading in high school English. You really do appreciate literature much more without the threat of an essay hanging over your head. And it’s testament to how much I’ve come to appreciate Shakespeare that I chose to read anything carrying memories of Year 9.

I have to feel a little sorry for the historical Macbeth, as Shakespeare’s depiction is ... well, not the most flattering. The theatrical Macbeth is a rather weak man, pushed by the stronger personality of his wife into seizing the throne by murder, necessitating other crimes to retain his ill-gotten crown. Neither one stops to look closely at the witches’ prophecies, taking for granted that they’re as straightforward as they seem and falling headlong into the perils of heedless and excessive ambition. Like any good prophecy, there are hidden snags, and they come true in unexpected but perfectly logical ways; and Macbeth’s inner tyrant in unleashed along the way. I haven’t quite decided whether the witches simply revealed what portents came to them, or knew all along what the result would be and perhaps even intended to cause Macbeth’s rise and fall.

Lady Macbeth fascinated me when I first met her and continues to do so. She’s one of the most compelling women in literature - encouraging, aiding, and abetting murder to secure her husband’s advancement and through his, her own. When she discovers that she is not in fact able to cope with the path she’s embarked on the results are dramatic. Even though she’s one of the bad guys I do pity her just a little for her fate.

As well as one of the great villainesses, Macbeth contains a number of highly memorable images: the procession of phantom kings, "Out, damned spot!", Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, and the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. (Phantom kings ... a ghost ... almost R.I.P. IV material!) And for anyone wary of Shakespeare, it has the advantage of being short.

Rating: A-

NaNo Is GO!

I resisted the temptation last year, but this year I caved: I’ve sat up to begin my NaNoWriMo novel at the stroke of midnight! I had intended to supply myself with a proper outline and written notes this year, but we all know where good intentions go. I have too little plot, undoubtedly too little research, but an abundance of enthusiasm which I hope will compensate for the shortcomings. (I also have a last sentence to aim for, which puts me one up on last year.)

The blog will roll on while I have my head in the nineteenth-century clouds; my backlog of pending reviews will make nice warm-up exercises to begin my writing day. There’s the Chunkster Challenge to finish ... somehow. And there will be updates, rants, and self-congratulation as applicable.

Now I’m off to start writing! Having watched Psycho this evening I’m hoping some NaNoing will get the image of Mrs Bates out of my head before I try to sleep....

(If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is ... it’s a form of mass insanity in which thousands of people around the globe attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. Crazy? Of course. Fun? Hell yes!)

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776