Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Originality at all costs?

When we strive to dispense with clichés in writing, there’s always a danger we might pursue originality of expression too far.  It’s not so much that we ‘cross a line in the sand’ as that we climb into a Chieftain tank and (clunking from first gear into reverse and then back again) drive forwards and backwards over that line until it becomes a wriggling worm holding up a tiny white flag and shouting as loud as it can (in worm-speak of course): “Hey I surrendered when you started writing this sentence!”  Somewhere along the way we forget what we’re saying … and the caterpillar tracks sink deeper and deeper.

            Sometimes we struggle so hard to invent a refreshingly new way of saying something that the result becomes enjoyably bizarre.  With this in mind, and even though this set of examples is a few years old now (you may well have seen it before), I enjoy sharing the following with senior students who are in the process of developing writing folios.  They usually get a buzz out of these examples because they were purportedly taken from essays written by Year 12 students in neighbouring New South Wales and because they can relate to the dilemmas which helped create such wonderful lines, and I can't help laughing because they can't help laughing and because I’ve got a juvenile sense of humour! There’s a couple of sentences that suggest the same sick mind at work and there’s a couple of sentences I wouldn’t have minded penning myself.

           Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

            He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

            She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature prime English beef.

            She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

            Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

            He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

            The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.

            The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

            McBride fell 12 storeys, hitting the pavement like a Hefty Bag filled with vegetable soup.

            From the attic came an unearthly howl.  The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and “Sex in the City” comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

            Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

            The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot oil.

            John and Mary had never met.  They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

            Even in his last years; Grandad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

            The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil.  But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

            The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

            “Oh, Jason, take me!” she panted, her breasts heaving like a Uni student on $l-a-beer night.

            He was as lame as a duck.  Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame.  Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

            The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

            He was deeply in love.  When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

            She was as easy as the TV Guide crossword.

            She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

            It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

Saturday, 26 May 2007


Olives_with_books We planted a couple of olive trees six or seven years back and imagined how it'd be to one day eat our own olives. They took some planting, as have most the trees on our block, because a belt of limestone lies about two feet down, running beneath the greatest part of our garden and the surrounding land. To give any tree a fighting chance, it's often necessary to prepare a deep hole, breaking through three or four feet of soft stone with a cold chisel or a roadbreaker until, below it, appears the finest beach sand you'll ever see.

One of the olive trees suffered a setback about three years ago during a storm. A eucalypt split in half and fell across it, more or less removing its crown, turning it into a shrub, and it's only begun to come Ludmillas_broken_english good recently. But the other tree - well, that's flourished, and this year its branches have struggled under the weight of a decent crop.

The birds usually claim any fruit we grow long before it's ripe, but olives are an acquired taste it seems and so they've been left more or less intact. Even so, I wasn't sure what process eliminated their natural bitterness before bottling them, so I trawled through numerous websites until I found a recipe I thought might work, and then spent last Sunday afternoon picking the lot.

It's a matter of bruising the olives first, Olivesand then soaking them in brine. Each day, the brine is drained off and a new batch mixed up, removing any leaves or bad olives that appear. And the process continues twelve or thirteen times or more, until their bitterness is gone. There's something calming and therapeutic about all this, like kneading bread or treading grapes, which may, I suspect, make the finished product even more enjoyable.

There's no analogy in this to writing - to growing a story from seed, or grafting one to older stock, and pruning it to encourage the promise of fruit, year after year, draft after draft - anymore than there is Shelf_life to similar processes, and I haven't a clue whether our olives will be edible or not. However, in my imagination I've created a picture of marinating them in basil and garlic, and enjoying them with a glass of merlot, a chunk of bread, a round of Brie, and with the pleasure of good company (and a few tales to tell) or a good book... so whichever way you look at it there's usually a story not far away at all.

The books I'm reading at the moment are DBC Pierre's Ludmilla's Broken English and Robert Corbet's Shelf Life. I'm reading Shelf Life for work (looking for a Young Adult fiction title that deals with workplace themes, worthy of a class set) and enjoying it. I'm a fan of DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, but am not far enough into Ludmilla yet (page 77) to know whether I'm going to love his excesses with language or not. I have a bowl of olives at my side, a chunk of bread...

Happy reading. Bon appetit.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Emotional baggage and the absence of the other stuff

Luggage Emotional baggage - other people's emotional baggage - is every writer's stock-in-trade, I guess. It's the stuff that characters lug around with them and it shapes the way they walk, the reason they limp through certain events, what they talk about and what they pointedly refuse to notice.

"Where would dialogue be without it?" asks that other voice.


Which is a none-too-subtle way of providing a link to a sketch which is making me laugh at the moment, and which maybe you'll enjoy too. It features Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert during an appearance on Australia's Rove Live ... on the subject of luggage.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Recent pleasures, book-wise

As we head into winter in Australia - switch from chilled beer to red wine, change from board shorts to long pants, light the wood stoves, watch the lightning bounce across the Southern Ocean, close the blinds earlier - so I begin to immerse myself more frequently in the books sitting on my bookshelf.Recent_reads

Have enjoyed some excellent reads recently, particularly when I needed to escape from the insomnia-inducing euphoria associated with PaperBooks accepting The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore: a matter of calming down and entering another world for a short while. Chief amongst these would be Raymond Carver's Cathedral. I'm a big fan of Carver - his sparse style, his richness, his down-to-earth characters - and my daughter bought me this collection of stories to celebrate the above event (who says writing doesn't pay?). It didn't disappoint.

CathedralThirteen_moonsThirteen Moons by Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) was a tad more substantial in volume and, although I'd been warned to expect a slow pace, I found the narrative voice of Will Cooper compelling, and particularly liked the stories within stories. It's been a while since I read Cold Mountain, but I think I'd rank Thirteen Moons even ahead of this.

On_chesil_beachThe first Ian McEwan I read was The Cement Garden, many years ago, and I loved its grittiness, but was disappointed by Amsterdam, which I seem to remember finding too intropsective, and it put me off delving into more McEwan until recently. However, having treated myself to On Chesil Beach, I'm glad to reacquaint myself with his writing through this petite hardback. It's a classy short novel and I didn't notice any of the time-slip ambiguities another reader picked up on, but then it sucked me in from the start and I didn't want to put it down until I'd finished. It's the first hardback I've bought in a while, but I suspect this added to the pleasure and I'm looking forward to buying more hardbacks in future.

Hardbacks. Hmm. Must be a coming-of-age thing. A middle-age thing!

Slow_manI particularly wanted to like J.M.Coetzee's Slow Man - partly because I thoroughly enjoyed Disgrace, partly to get over Foe and partly because he emigrated from South Africa to Australia (where Slow Man is set) - but I'm afraid I didn't. Maybe my tastes really have changed, because I think I would have liked it once, but it surpassed my threshold for introspection-without-relief.

The_life_of_piAs for Yann Martel's The Life of Pi... Misfortune had it that the copy I bought was flawed: it had been glued and bound with the last 47 pages missing. My copy finished with Richard Parker rearing up and confronting Pi and, I assumed, plausibly ending Pi's story mid-sentence with the word 'I'. I didn't like that ending much, and couldn't see how the opening chapters fitted in with this, but had heard other people either liking or disliking the ending, and noted The New Yorker review that it was a "shaggy-dog story". Every other part of the book was superb, I thought, and my only regret had been that it had taken me so long to get round to reading it. Imagine my delight when I discovered the 'alternative ending', after talking to my sister on the phone about this. Within a few hours I'd got hold of another copy and had allowed Richard Parker to regurgitate Pi and Yann Martel to complete his magic. Loved it!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007


Ahem! Testing, testing, one, two, three ...

"It's still switched on. You don't have to tap the screen like that."

Still switched on?


Always? Oh. *PEERS CLOSELY* Well, look at that. There's somebody out there. They've left a comment or two. Fancy that. Do you think they should leave those comments lying around like that? Is that normal? They don't have to scoop them up and put them in little plastic bags afterwards?

"No more dog-stuff. You promised. Just get on with it, will you. Say something sensible. Don't just slouch there, staring."


Okay. It began with the politest of invitations: "Go forth and blog. Have an adventure. See what it's like."

So into Blogdom I ventured, little knowing I'd get lost there, unable to find my way back through the wardrobe (or hard drive, or whatever) for... for what seemed a very long time, but which was really only four or five hours. There were bloggers everywhere, and links to blogs, and links to websites, and buttons to push and videos to watch and music to listen to and reviews to read and books to buy and photographs to click and comments to browse and, and, and... Well, all I can say is that I can't resist pushing buttons and it's a much bigger world than it was few days ago.

Also, there's a few things that seem to happen pretty often in Blogdom, which aren't at all bad, so I'm gonna see if I can make one of them happen here. Just for the fun of it! Simply because such things can happen here!

  • That is: blog links (or is that blinks?)
I came across heaps of incredible blogs, but there were a couple I tapped into pretty solidly and will be visiting regularly, I imagine: Scott Pack's Me and My Big Mouth http://meandmybigmouth.typepad.com/ and dovegreyreader at http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/

If you're interested in books, which I guess you are if you're here, then check these out for yourself.

Happy blogging, happy reading.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Once upon a blog



In the beginning was a deep breath, followed by a small word, followed by a big silence.

And so the blog begins.
And so all blogs begin…
more or less

This blog though? About what?

A dog, perhaps.
Why not?
I’ve always been nervous of dogs (once bitten, twice shy ‘n’ all that), always ready to turn tail and walk a different route if a stray dog’s in the street ahead of me, but recently I’ve realised an affinity with them... which has nothing to do with trees or lamp posts and everything to do with looking for a publisher.

I’ve enjoyed playing with words since I was six and a quarter, or thereabouts, and somewhere along the way must have also discovered a pleasure in making and telling stories, in entertaining people - in making worlds and sharing them. In this vein, by the time I was twenty, I’d formulated a plan to make a frugal living from writing novels, short stories, children’s books, and to happily-ever-after avoid being tied to the nine-to-five for ever and ever.

Which is not, of course, the way the story goes. Not for any except the most fortunate few (right time, right place, right skills, right write). Not for another twenty-nine years in my case. And neither is this necessarily a bad thing… especially if it leads you to have an affinity for strays.

Although I’ve wandered from one city to another, from one job to another, from one side of the world to the other, from one story to another and another and another, it’s really my manuscripts that are the strays in this blog. It’s irresponsible, I know, but I haven’t had the courage to dump them in a sack and drown them at birth. They’ve entered this world clamouring for a home - a publisher, an agent even - to give them meaning, purpose, direction. Some have been smarter than others, knowing when to prick up their ears and wag their tail, and have received the occasional stroke and a pat, but have then dropped their noses to the ground when opportunity walked away.


Until now.
One’s been taken in, given a home! Go PaperBooks!
We’re giving it a few shots, protecting against distemper, doing a bit of house-training, making sure it doesn’t bite the hand that reads it (sorry!)… which is what this metaphor will do if I don’t put it down right now.

Anyway, the book is on its way, and it’s got nothing to do with dogs (and a lot to do with everything else).

The Snowing and Greening of Thomas Passmore.

And the blog has begun. Long may it run.

Thanks for being here, if you were.

PS. Lucy is a very friendly spaniel with a fine home - not a stray at all. Big thanks for the photo opportunity, Mark (and Lucy).

Disclaimer: no animals were hurt in the making of this blog.