Review: The Paper House

A fragile thread

Finally, I’ve finished reading The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan.  It could be the newly diagnosed a-typical asthma, but this novel has winded me. I had to pause while reading it, sometimes for a week, because it was painful, but also because I wanted to dwell in it in a way I haven’t with a novel for a while.

I don’t want to tease apart its beauty or examine too closely the pain it depicts. I just need to say I was made breathless by the heat of it, by its intensity, by emotions unwinding around its characters, by the narrative unspooling through the main character, Heather. It is her story and it resolves for the reader to see the truth of her past and a future too.

For a book steeped in grief, the source of the trauma is immediately apparent, but also slowly peeled away, and hinted at, until eventually it blooms like a midsummer rose  in Heather and Dave’s lovingly depicted garden.

Constantly, I was startled by its familiarity, by its lush imagery and tiny local specifics. It’s location was recognisably Melbourne, even if much of the story and its appeal, could be universal.

A wilder and woollier part of Mornington Peninsula than depicted in the novel.

A wilder & woollier bit of Mornington Peninsula than depicted in the novel.

The certitude of Heather’s perspective, and the language most of all, were impressive and evocative from the very first page and the moment of the inciting incident.

I use ‘inciting incident’ deliberately. For a book about a collection of people, including a visual artist, a teacher, and an oil rig worker, this story feels ‘writerly’. This is not a negative, for a first novel, or in fact any kind of novel, for the writing is controlled, when it could have followed Heather headlong into her mental anguish and gone large on the florid and surreal. What I’m trying so clumsily to express is that this is a book writers can truly appreciate without jealousy.

With some novels I can’t escape the feeling that the author is a cipher, or a committee, or could have been anyone – even me. I don’t get that feeling with The Paper House. This book has the stamp of the particular – that there is an actual human who poured over each detail, who left us breathtaking phrases only to move on with the plot, while I want to wait in the garden just beyond suburban Melbourne and beyond its ubiquitous pittosporums.

Actual pittosporums from an actual garden at a house I once lived in. This was their last sunset.

Actual pittosporums from an actual garden at a house I once lived in. This was their last sunset.

Bit of a spoiler

When I was in a short story class back in the day it was remarkable for how so many students, (myself included), who wrote, straight off, for the first time, without prompting, stories about or inspired by…dead mothers.  My effort was eventually published too. If I knew nothing about the Anna Spargo-Ryan or the narrative, I would’ve only guessed it was a first novel because of the character of Shelley. Maybe Her appearance, is a vestigial trope, a hang over from when many more women died a lot younger, due to complications from childbirth.

Perhaps, though, it is more. Not just aspects of auto/biography, but something about identity, I mean authors asserting themselves as individuals. Maybe it is as Freudian as: for writer to live, the mother must die. There is a thesis in that, if there hasn’t been one already.

This is not a flaw, just one more thing this book made me think about again. It was one of the many things I got to contemplate along with the lyrical expressionism of this very fine achievement by the author.

 

 

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Winter of Content

It’s been bitterly cold and dark in Melbourne, but the sun has been shining on me this week. I got a present in the mail from the Stella Prize as a thank you for their support. That was unexpected. Nicer still was a flash fiction piece being accepted by Fewer Than 500. After several years of submissions and a few different incarnations, my lil story has finally found a home, and a sweet one at that.  With editing and patience, this is a reminder that every story will find its place.

No kangaroos were harmed in the writing of my stories.

No kangaroos were harmed in the writing of my stories.

Meanwhile, out this week (but not quite yet) is my piece for Kudzu House Quarterly, which I am immensely appreciative of. It took a while for that story to find its home. Rather than shop it around to all the literary places after a couple of rejections, I went niche and found Kudzu. Turns out my story and this publication were made for each other.

In a pleasing turn of synchronicity, both these flash fictions are unrelated slices of something, but with nature featuring prominently, without being stereotypical of Australia (#straya). Both contain nuggets written from my personal experience of rural South Australia as a child, with dollops of melodrama and cups of 100 percent pure unadulterated imagination, and added sugar-free measures of facts, because fiction is not meant to be a warming bowl of biography soup, no matter how it tastes.

I’ll post the links when they come out, here and across all the usual social media places.

See ya for now.

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Writer: Know Thyself

The process of becoming aware of your writing style, and more importantly, your mistakes, can take a while. Like poker players with tells, errors and odd phrasing, or word tics, can follow any wordsmith through their works. I have fall back phrases, and repeated words I make the effort to eliminate, even if I have to hit find and replace in Word documents. When I focus on them they become particularly apparent and I mean words like think and yet. It’s not like I’m repeating highfalutin’ vocabulary, the like of which Judith Butler would be proud.

Early draft of something that would have been helped by find and replace, I'm sure.

Draft of something that could’ve been aided by find and replace, I’m sure.

Other issues for me include, but aren’t limited to: unwieldy sentence structures that end up being back to front; tense fluctuations; paragraphing; and, occasional grammar issues. For instance, the first draft of my Honours’s thesis, dated from last century, didn’t have paragraphs. I know right? But at least the quotes were hand written on coloured paper and pasted onto the page. Since then, I have somewhat developed. Now mistakes mostly crop up in early drafts when I’m writing tired, but some manage to elude me and sneak through into later drafts and final copies. I found it’s true that reading is not the same as seeing.

Actual thesis artefact, 1990s Era. Before I owned a computer.

Actual thesis artefact. Pre-electronic cut and paste era. 

Much of my focus goes to the story, then its structure, then the bricks and mortar of the writing and grammar, but not always in that order. When issues stand out its best for me to deal with them then and there, but that doesn’t negate a proper line by line edit later. A lot of people advise against editing as you go. I can see why, but if something bugs me enough to prevent the writing, it is worth correcting. Reading work aloud helps. Printing stories out old-school can aid the editing process as well.

Between acceptances is not all waiting around, you know.

Between acceptances is not all waiting around, you know.

Any editorial advice is precious, even if I disagree with it, because it indicates more can be done. Although, to be fair, I’m of a mind to think there’s always more to be done with writing.

Thus, each and every rejected story gets looked at again, even if the rejection was positive (as in a story wasn’t published because it didn’t fit an editorial theme, rather than it was badly written). Sometimes rejected stories are rewritten for different types of market, or in terms of new themes or genres, or made briefer, or extended. Basically, whatever it takes to fit the next publication opportunity.

One story can go through many incarnations. A story being published next week was written and edited and sent out once, rejected, edited lightly, with a slightly different title and then accepted. My last published story was only accepted on the fifth submission, which means all sorts of major edits and rewrites over the course of several years. Thus, if it seems I haven’t had a lot published, it is not for wont of writing, nor lack of opportunity. But the work and the publication have to be congruent and the submission timing needs be right, for the magic to happen. The rest is about making the work better by knowing myself.

 

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Mid Year Writing Stock Take

In Australia the end of June marks the end of the financial year. Retailers hold sales, and everyone works out if they need to make more deductions ahead of preparing tax returns. Then it is July and the pace slows a bit amid winter’s chill, except for accountants. For me, it’s time to take stock of my writing goals, maybe boast a lil and look at what I need to do.

  • I can’t say I will be published, but I’ll do what I can to make it easier for editors to read my work and go, we’ll publish this and pay money too. Success and also in progress. Five stories have been published or accepted in addition to one non-fiction piece so far this year. Woot!
Unveiled: my secret plans for writing.

Unveiled: my secret plans for writing.

  •  I will complete and edit my NaNoWriMo project. In progress: some of it’s in better shape, but it is not finished. Yet.
  • I will join NaNoWriMo next year. This will depend on the state of the previous NaNo project.
This is how I should approach writing. With flowers and a lance, single horse power charge.

This is how I should approach writing. With flowers & a lance, in a single horse power charge.

  • I will complete redrafting and send out my novella again for another round of opportunities. In progress. This has happened, and will keep happening until published.
  • I will seek out writing workshops and investigate attending writing retreats. In progress: attended two all day writing workshops or master classes so far this year. Due to emergencies regarding my dentist and also my car, writing retreats are on hold, unless I win one or they are cheap.
  • I will continue to complete whatever works I start. This is always in progress. I have ideas a big new project, but I need to complete my NaNo thing first.
  • I will continue to focus on sending the right story to the appropriate journal. In progress. Success has been encountered.
  • I will keep blogging. Voila! Obviously this is in progress.
There are writing brickbats and bouquets. Like this.

There are writing brickbats and bouquets. Like this.

  • I will complete my art zine that I entered and return it to New York. Completed and it has been digitised so now it is online to look at.  It’s not such a very sophisticated piece of work, but my attempt at a sketchbook is on tour with others across the United States too, which is very cool indeed. To try is the thing and I have a second one to work on.
  • I taught myself how to use Scrivener, so will continue to refine my knowledge and skills beyond the basics. This is stalled. However, I continue to use is for my NaNo project.
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Abstraction Distraction

I’m in online writing groups. They are peopled mainly by novelists, and mainly those who self-publish. What’s interesting is a proportion of novice writers seem more concerned with publication theory than writing practice. For example, when posting working drafts, this cohort worry about how to define it for Amazon. Some sling single chapters or incomplete drafts on Wattpad or Kik or other online fora. I wonder why. It’s not a generational thing. Young and old are doing this. Maybe I’m being precious, but before I make my work public, it’s been through a lot, a lot of time, much editing, rewriting and, a few spell checks. It’s still not perfect, but it’s closer to cooked than an early draft.

Posting something so raw online feels too fraught with risk. New writing is fresh. Ideas haven’t coalesced and for me, I’m too close to it and too vulnerable to criticism. Secondary readers going over something so early could kill an idea before it’s born into a full story or complete draft.

It’s not that there isn’t good stuff on the likes of Reddit. I’ve been reading one Doctor Who fan fiction novel on Wattpad and it’s more compelling and better written than the sole official novel I read, whose title escapes me. There’s space for fan fiction online; it makes sense to share enthusiasms and responsive creativity. It also makes sense that it’s free. Fan fiction isn’t my beef.

Self-publishing seems to skew the focus of too many new writers. Instead of honing their craft, reading and rewriting and editing, they worry about rules. They’re obsessed by abstractions that distance themselves from the work of creating a narrative. Instead of putting words down in sequence for a story, they worry about how long their stories should be. It’s very arcane. Of course these things will be important, but finish the story first. Then look up formatting rules.

Whatever this says, there is no cure for actually going about and learning the craft by writing.

Whatever this says, there is no cure for learning the craft of writing  

I’ve seen writers launch works too early, before they’ve absorbed all the lessons they espouse and post over their time lines. Thus, few demonstrate, for example, how to tell rather than show.

As my previous post demonstrates, good advice changes my writing and my behaviour. Before I recommend it others, I try it on first. Like that from Chuck Palahnuik. I do this because I reflect on what I write to then eliminate go-to filler expressions, tired tropes and errors.

Writing is not lute-inising and theorising, its also putting one word after another and another. Etc.

Writing is not chillaxing while lute-inising & theorising. 

All this is about my insecurities, but also my prejudices. I could collate my stories and put them online, but that’s nowhere as helpful to my writing as an editor reading them. It’s through editors that writing skills improve, and writers learn about what readers require, and note what they are doing right, and wrong.

As a reader, I love a debate about literary theory as much as the next person, but for my practice, I’m less concerned with what genre my work is than getting it done. Of course I want people to read it and editors to accept it, but demanding reviews for unfinished drafts is premature when the work, and the work of learning isn’t complete.

Such abstractions are procrastination. It lures me in and I end up writing this as a procrastinating exercise on procrastination.

Best I get back to some writing.

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Taking advice as directed

Last week I attended the Emerging Writer’s Festival Criticism Masterclass. The main thing, absolutely the main thing I got from it, was to pitch. Write and pitch, imitate and make contact, read and practice. But mainly, pitch ideas. I’d never really done that before, but, reader, I did.

Use writing advice only as directed and check with a mentor first.

Use writing advice only as directed & check with a mentor first.

I pitched one idea to one place where I’d already been in some contact.

I was invited to send my proposal.

And it’s been accepted.

So there you go.

I haven’t had a non fiction piece published for a long while, longer than I care to think about actually, and it’s good. In fact, what I’ve written is not like the formal book reviews I’ve had published in the past. It’s more reflective and lyrical, the form also inspired by some of the speakers.

This turn of events kinda makes all I’ve been writing here worthwhile, because initially my piece on the class was going to be a post for exactly this spot. As a direct result of that day, I changed my behaviour and decided it was worth asking if someone wanted it. Turns out they did. Now it will be polished, edited and published.

Like taking medicine prescribed by the general practitioner, at the correct dosage, sometimes writing advice, when applied, actually works. And you feel better too.

Here endeth this lesson from my blog.

Here endeth this lesson from my blog.

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De rigueur Degas

I thought I would have more to say about seeing the works of Edgar Degas at the National Gallery of Victoria and maybe I will. However, more time is required to mull viewing more than 200 pieces all together in the first major retrospective since 1988. It’s true that I learned things, both from the art and the lecture I attended. That Renoir called him France’s greatest sculptor, for starters, despite him only ever exhibiting one sculpture which the public hated. But you can visit or look at that up.

You don’t need my second-hand lesson about how Degas was a realist in a time of Impressionism. However, speaking of Impressionism, what links him to that crowd is how many of his portraits are almost featureless. Faces were on the edge of pictures, and drifted off into obscurity, or angled so less of the face was distinctive. Often they were less delineated than clothing (or lack of). I imagined he was preserving anonymity for those who posed, but he does it with his own self-portrait. So I’m doing it too in presenting my view of his work.

People looking at art intrigue me as I wander through the crowd, barely noticed. My Degas Triptych is instructive. The gallery arranged the works meticulously, grouping his nudes and ballet and horse scenes, while at the same time tracing his development as an artist. These three views speak to my experience of some one else’s art. It will have to do for now.

Triptych: View Finder

One: Arabesqueing   the View Finder

Triptych: Experience of the unknown viewer.

Two: The Undetected Viewer

Triptych: The viewer stands alone.

Tree: The Viewer stands Alone

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