In mourning for tainted books

I spent about half an hour the other night editing some blog posts to extract references to an author who has recently fallen from grace. And by that I mean splat, ejected from the community, ‘you’re not welcome on my kindle anymore’…

But it hurts. Truly hurts. Because those posts were about my favourite books from last year. And, no matter how despicable this author has turned out to be, the books in question are really really good.


The whole situation is making me think about things…

such as how it’s possible for wonderful characters and love stories to be created by someone/people the opposite of wonderful.

such as whether the value of art transcends the merit of its creator.

such as whether we as readers now need to do our due diligence on authors to avoid this intense feeling of betrayal.

Once upon a time, before the digital age and social media, novels were simply novels and readers gave little thought to who actually penned them, other than to wait avidly for the next book by the same author.

Now, for better or worse, readers have unprecedented access to authors. We read their blogs, interact via social media. They become real people as opposed to disembodied names on book covers. We feel like we get to know them.

And we also get to find out when they turn out to be dicks.

The author I’ve eradicated from my three December/January posts appears to be considerably more than a mere dick. It turns out the pseudonym (let’s call the author SH) appears to represent a husband/wife team who have been hiding behind a completely fictitious construct.

This is more than simply using a pseudonym (which is common and perfectly acceptable). It’s more than misrepresenting themselves as a bisexual man in a genre (M/M romance) where ‘own stories’ are less common that we’d all like.

It’s a whole host of manipulative and abusive behaviour (and lies) that I’m not going to repeat. (Go here if you want to know the details.) It’s the very opposite of that social media catchphrase, ‘authentic’.

I’m still not sure the whole truth has come to light, and we’ll probably never know because SH has gone dark. But the furor has caused publishers to drop SH like a hot potato. (And this is a prolific author with representation and multiple publishers.)

Sadly, I’m finding this new reality really hard to reconcile with the old reality. (The one where SH was one of the ‘good ones’.)

Because I don’t want to believe the author of some of my favourite books could be capable of all the things he/they have been accused of. Despite overwhelming evidence and testimonies from people all over the interwebs, I keep wondering (hoping) whether it’s all a terrible mistake.

So I’m in mourning… For books that are tainted now, even though I can’t help but still love them. These are books I would normally read multiple times. Some I’ve already read more than once.

But now I feel as though I’m not allowed to love them anymore. This is where novels take on a life of their own for me… because I’m feeling for those characters as though they’re now being shunned for something they didn’t do. (Haven’t they already suffered enough?!)

I certainly don’t want to spend any more money with this author, or encourage others to do so, but if I re-read the books I already own in secret, does that make me a bad person?

This situation is entirely a product of the digital age. But, although a small part of me might wish I could have remained in ignorance, in reality we’re all much better off in a world where authors (everybody, really) can be held accountable to those who are buying their books.

Not that I think authors owe readers details of their personal lives, but they do need to be honest and have integrity.

On the whole, I do think art can be appreciated for itself, irrespective of who created it, and those books written by SH have not changed in essence.

But — and it is a big but — those books have been compromised now, and to openly acknowledge them feels like condoning the actions of their creator. So, as much as it doesn’t seem fair to the characters in those stories, they will probably now die a sad and lonely death.

D&D Chronicles: In the hanging gardens


D&D CHRONICLESAlas, the Derros still have the skystone. The lump of star metal needed to forge the flail.

Our party is forlorn but, thanks to Alix, intact. Fleet’s purr rumbles with life against my chest, Squirrel’s mutterings echo against the rocky ceiling. I wish he would be quiet. Alix resurrected both him and my cat. It matters not in what order.

Once we are all at full strength we head after the Derros, determined to gain our skystone, deeper into the tunnels under the mountains.

We defeat a small party of the creatures awaiting us at the chasm, but not before they blow up the bridge. The rest of their party is easy enough to track, even in the darkness, and we eventually arrive in a chamber of light, filled with green.

Fortenbrand gasps and declares this place the legendary Hanging Gardens of Athengar. His tone suggests it’s a place to be revered, and I can see why. From the entrance we can see huge raised tiers of abundant foliage — many different varieties, all bearing fruit. The music of running water fills the chamber, which is naturally lit by some amazing feat of dwarven engineering.

It’s beautiful. Bountiful. A place of calm and spiritual peace.

It is probably the place where the Derros have set up an ambush. I enter the chamber, head to its centre. Within seconds, a barrage of quarrels fly out of the foliage. Ouch. I’m glad we all loaded up with poison protection spells.

The Derros have arranged themselves up on the tiers, so after Squirrel clambers up on one side, I head up the other. The foliage is so thick I can’t see much of anything else, but I progress along the tiers in search of the enemy, all the while praying Squirrel will not use a fireball in this sacred place.


The skystone is ours

It was a shambles, but the Derros are all dead. And we have the skystone.

Squirrel managed to forebear using his beloved fireball, but he did use the wand of cold to kill a bunch of Derros — as well as a bunch of plants. Nightshade, Blizzard and Alix ended up doing battle with a bunch of Derros in the centre of the chamber, Blizzard’s greatsword swinging mightily. After battling mostly foliage to get to the enemy, I managed to not fall on my face for long enough to kill a few near the end. Then Alix was almost killed by a massive lightning bolt the Derro mages let off… and it was all over.

Fortunately Blizzard was able to heal Alix somewhat, then she set to in her usual unflappable manner and doled out healing spells to everyone else.

Now we are taking stock of the weapons and armour the Derros have left behind, and gathering food from the gardens. We’re going to recuperate here for the rest of the day, and begin the long trek back to Kham Jhara with the skystone tomorrow.

In truth I am more than happy to sleep here tonight. There’s a statue of Ashengar here in the gardens and, although dwarfish, she bears a strong likeness to my god of the forests, Emrys. If these gardens are a shrine to Emrys, then there’s no place I’d rather be.


I’ve always believed that the measure of a man is his loyalty, and I have been brought humiliatingly low. This story starts many moons ago when the Elders of my church laid their geas on me: for the glory of Kaltan and your eternal position at his side, bring us back the Eye of Varrien. Even then, the weight of prophecy lay heavy on my shoulders, some mantle of doom that I must draw close, but a man does not argue with his god, not even with the sycophant leaders of his church, who seem to serve themselves more often than their god.

Even then, even as the words fell from their mouths, I knew I wasn’t the man for this job. They made it sound easy. Infiltrate some party. Pretend you’re there for treasure. Or glory. When they succeed, steal the Eye –- no matter how. Bribe them. Bewitch them. Assault them. Murder them in the night if you have to.

And while murder at three am isn’t exactly my style, it’s not something I’d baulk at either. But murder a friend? Now, that’s an altogether different thing.

So, with misgivings, I joined the group. Me and Abra both. We kept to ourselves, me at my abrasive best. After all, Kaltan does love his chaos –- more glory to him –- and I didn’t want friends.

But then Abra deserted me for his studies, and gradually… Well, Squirrel is more akin to me, more brother to me than Abra ever was, and Nightshade and I, we have a blood bond and are forever linked. And despite my dislike of Shadrath, Alix has won my respect with her quiet courage and dignity. And Zillah, she is some mean fighter –- I too well know the strength of her hands as she’s choking the life from me. A man has to respect that.

Over time, they’ve become more family to me than any I’ve ever known. I let down my guard and found my loyalties –- church or friends? –- pitted against one another.

Then the prophecy. All must be of one accord… But we weren’t, and no-one else knew it. So when we kept failing failing failing, I knew why. It was me. All me.

Troubled, I sought Alix’s advice. What is more important: faith or our mission? And though she offered hope that I could, indeed, have both, she reminded me of what our failure would cost.

In truth, I am not the clear-sighted cleric who set out on this mission. I am conflicted. Changed. Torn. Church or friends? And, strangely, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the forest, the splendour of trees, the freedom of climbing, swinging on a vine.

So when Emrys came to me in a dream and offered me the wonders of the natural world -– and then Kaltan’s hand closed on my shoulder, leaden with the weight of chaos, trying to rein me back, I wanted to pull free. But a man is only as good as his pledge. Still, Emrys beckoned.

The trees.

My friends’ lives.

The most bitter of truths: the widening chasm between Kaltan and me.

And an answer. Only one more betrayal, the biggest betrayal.

Prising those fingers from my shoulder was the hardest thing I have ever done. And I have paid. My armour gone. My greatsword gone. My god-given powers gone. I have been brought low, and I deserve it. Welcome the pain and humiliation to scour away the guilt. Now, a humble warrior, I must square my shoulders and take what the coming months bring. Kaltan has exacted vengeance, and if I know anything about Kaltan, he has only just begun.


Return to Kham Jhara

After many weeks, we have finally returned to Kham Jhara. Astra Khara, the master smith, is delirious with excitement, and he has whisked the skystone away, after paying us in impressive amounts of gold and weapons for our efforts. Tonight there will be feasting and celebrations, but all I really want is a bath and some sleep.

The journey back with the skystone was not without incident.

First, Blizzard has changed. And I mean changed.

Emrys visited each of us in our dreams that night in the hanging gardens. He was glorious. He blessed me and confirmed I am on the right path in this quest to stop the rise of Varrien. The relief I feel after receiving his benediction cannot be described. I know little of the others’ experiences — save that of Blizzard, who awoke transformed.

He has abandoned Kaltan, the god he has vociferously served for as long as I have known him, and pledged his loyalty to Emrys. None of us saw this coming — how could we? But he says he’s been troubled for some time. Confession upon confession poured out of him, and I think we never saw the true Blizzard until that day. His admission that he always intended to steal the Eye for Kaltan was not entirely unexpected. I have always known he had secrets and could not be trusted. But now? Time will tell, but I suspect he may now be a true ally. After all, we now share a god.

Fortenbrand the dwarf guided us back through the mountain tunnels towards Jeverd Dhar. Even so, it was a difficult journey, with many battles against metal-hungry xorns, which devoured Blizzard’s weapons and most of his armour. We might have thought it Kaltan’s retribution, had not Nightshade’s weapons not also been devoured.

But we’ve made it this far, and that chapter of this quest is over. Next we will head out again to find the pieces of the Flail of Wind and Rain, created by the goddess Gallea, said to be the only weapon that can stop Varrien, the goddess of destruction.

I pray to Emrys we succeed.

Thanks to Tracey Rolfe for Blizzard’s contribution.

More D&D Chronicles on the page.

Farewell, my devilcat

I collected Chenna’s ashes today, exactly three weeks after she signed out. Three weeks. Gosh.

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

Chenna with Mr Tickle December 2015

I still think about her every day, because there is not one aspect of my life in this house that she wasn’t a part of. She arrived as a cute and cantankerous kitten within weeks of me moving in, and proceeded to make her presence felt each and every day.

She was the first thing I thought about every morning, as she sat on my pillow (or sprawled on me) and jabbed me awake.

She was the first thing I encountered every time I arrived home, as she waited for me, meowing, at the front door.

She was often the last thing I was aware of at night, as she snuggled against me in or on the bed.

This was her house, just as much as it is mine. From the beginning (for nearly 14 years), a whole end of the sofa was set aside for her use. During the day, she slept on a colourful cushion propped up for her comfort, positioned so she could see out the window. Sometimes she would squeeze half her body through the venetian blind, much to the amusement and joy of my neighbours (and the ruin of said blind) — presumably to catch a bit of extra sun.

(I’ve just removed the cushion and set the sofa to ‘rights’, after two and a half weeks of staring at her empty bed. Now my sofa seems too big.)

For most of her life she enjoyed complete run of the house and garden. I keep thinking I hear the distinctive clunking sound of her cat flap. That and her automatic cat feeder, which allowed me to program feed times and dispense measured doses of feed from a hopper, revolutionised my life. And hers too, I daresay; because she was much happier at home with no interruptions whenever I was away.

It’s no secret she wasn’t a particularly likeable cat — although I loved her. Even with me, she could get vicious, often without apparent reason. She was quick with her claws, unrestrained with her teeth. Some nights, she developed a fondness for attacking my bare feet — really painful! — and even though I could usually read the signs, it was often too late, and I’d be subjected to ninja foot attacks. My only recourse was to run and jump on my bed, but she was much quicker than me.

As for her relationships with other people… I cannot think of one person other than me that she liked (and I’m mostly sure she liked me). Some people she tolerated… barely. Most people she detested on sight.

But she was a tricky one. She was good at looking all cute and cuddly and luring people in, before flipping into a ninja attack. So many people refused to heed my warnings, only to suffer the pain of her disdain.

She definitely earned her nickname Devilcat, and my Diary of a Devilcat series of posts on this blog and earlier on her own blog Feline in Therapy (mostly 2007-2009) — were a lot of fun to write. I am so glad now that I’ll have them as memories.

I was probably the only one who ever experienced her affectionate side. And she was affectionate far more often than she wasn’t. She didn’t start off as a lap cat, but she made up for it in her latter years, when she would appear beside me as soon as I sat down… her little face peering up at me, then she’d leap up and nudge any obstacles away. (FYI it is a challenge to negotiate a lap cat and a laptop computer simultaneously.)

She also liked stretching out on my chest when I was reading in bed — not necessarily convenient, but it was hard to shove away a purring, warm, cuddly feline, gazing up at me.

Having her around was always companionable — whether smooching on me, sitting outside in the sunshine, sleeping the day away, greeting me at the door. Even when she was being annoying — waking me too early, nagging me for food, prowling all over my workspace, or leaving dead moths (or worse) all over the floor.

Chenna had her share of medical issues as well. From early on she was prone to urinary tract infections, although this was controlled with a specially formulated diet. Then there was her left eye, which changed colour from green to brown when she was still quite young. This saw us visiting animal eye specialists and contemplating the prospect of having her eye removed due to the risk of melanoma of the iris. Thankfully we risked keeping her eye and nothing came of it.

Extra random memories of Chenna (to be updated as they come to me): her black fluff smeared over my chairs (and its subsequent removal with lint cloth)… the sound of her jumping off furniture… the sound of her simply walking across the floor… her enjoyment of tuna juice… her love of escaping out the front door and scampering around the driveway… the fact I always walked around with scratches over my wrists (they have, alas, all healed now)…

The myriad tiny adjustments I would make to accommodate her: turning my toothbrush to the wall so she wouldn’t brush against it… putting my devices out of the way so she wouldn’t sit on them… never leaving food uncovered on the bench unless I actually wanted her to lick it up…

When I received the news about Chenna’s condition three weeks ago, after several weeks of knowing there was something wrong, I wept and wept. (I had no inkling it was something so serious.) Then I sat down and wrote her final devilcat post. Then I curled up beside her in my bed until it was time for her final appointment at the vet.

She purred and let me stroke her. That was our farewell.

I made the decision to end it straight away, as she was so sick there was a good chance she’d simply die in my bed at any time. That, I wasn’t prepared to deal with. And I didn’t think she should have to either.

I spent a lot of time crying (well, bawling) in the days that followed — when I rang the vet to arrange for her to be cremated, when I received a card from the vet with Chenna’s paw print on it, when I packed up her stuff strewn about the house.

When some amazing friends presented me with the following bespoke graphic illustration of Chenna in a frame. (Designed by Rachel Rule, The British Rule (etsy shop).)


Graphic illustration of Chenna

And I wept today, when I collected her ashes from the vet and donated her leftover food. (And, of course, while writing this post.)

After three weeks, the intensity of the grief has ebbed. Most of the time I can think about Chenna without weeping, or only weeping a little. Most of the time her absence seems almost a quizzical thing, something just a bit wrong, a bit weird.

But I’m still sad. A bit flat. I miss my little devilcat animal companion terribly.

Farewell Chenna

Farewell Chenna

Musings on secret preview TV viewing versus feedback reading

I’ve done my fair share of reading and providing feedback on short stories and novels over the years. It’s much easier to be objective and analytical about someone else’s work — all in the name of being constructive and helpful, of course.

In such cases you know the author will take onboard some suggestions, discard others, depending on how it aligns with their grand vision or whether there’s consensus. Because everyone is unique, responds to stories differently.

What is clear to one reader will be confusing to another. Plot holes may only be glaringly obvious to a tenth of your audience (although a tenth is probably still too many). Some readers will happily go the journey and trust something will be explained; others have less patience.

Whatever happens, it’s up to the author to revise and play with the words on the page. No one else needs to get involved.

It was recently impressed upon me that it’s not quite so ‘straightforward’ in television and film.

This week I attended a secret preview screening of a new Australian TV mini-series that’s in post production, scheduled to hit local screens later this year. Having signed a non disclosure agreement, I cannot say anything about the show itself. But I can talk about the interesting experience of providing feedback in this very different medium.

The production team had assembled a small group of about 15 people (referred to as ‘civilians’, by which I think they meant non TV industry) and sat us down to watch the first two episodes of a six-part series.

After each episode, we filled out a questionnaire on issues such as pacing, characters, logic, clarity of plot etc. Most of it was exactly the same sort of feedback authors ask for. I was right in my element!

Except, as I filled out my answers, I couldn’t help feeling perturbed by the fact that the scenes had already been shot, with actors. Going through my mind was the recurring question of how much they could actually change at this point?

They emphasised that it wasn’t a final edit, and I’m aware there’s probably tons of footage currently on the cutting room floor. But… what if it’s a story hole and there’s simply no way of fixing it without reshooting some scenes? Or what if it’s just bad acting?

I should say at this point that these thoughts were hypothetical about the industry, rather than specific to the particular show in question. But I certainly wasn’t holding back with my comments (which were mostly positive) or hesitating to make suggestions, just as I would if it were simply words on the page.

Following the questionnaires, an objective facilitator led us in a group discussion for about half an hour, which went much as a group critique of a story does — different people picking up things I hadn’t noticed, or didn’t necessarily agree with. Debating what things meant, what might happen next. All very familiar.

But when you get a group going like that, it’s inevitable they end up ‘rewriting the script’ so to speak (as one participant jokingly said). How do the producers weed out the real value from this type of feedback, when so much of it is obviously not feasible? How do they identify the gold?

I will be really interested to see the final cut of the show when it’s aired later this year, just to see how much it changes. To see how much it can change at such a late phase of production.

The whole experience has given me a new appreciation of the TV and film industry — as in just how many people have an input into the final product. How many instruments need to be tuned before music is made.

It makes the solitary art of fiction writing seem unbearably simple. Although I know it’s NOT — and this is because the author has to effectively play and tune all the instruments herself!

In any case, I’m certainly interested to see the rest of the show… a mere two episodes out of six, kind of sucks.

Journal ~ Lying on the couch doing nothing (and why it’s important)

I am lying on the couch doing nothing.

At least, I was before the urge to tell everyone about my state of nothingness rose to the fore and I grabbed my computer out of the bag that’s never too far from my side.

Nothing. Mulling. Daydreaming. Writing in my head.


Phillip Island – south coast

This is one of the things I love about retreating to Phillip Island on my own. Much of my urgency to achieve things drains away and I descend into a kind of dream state. Time no longer matters and I drift from one moment to the next, very content to let it happen as it will.

Best of all — and somewhat ironically — it’s often extremely productive.

Take today for example.

Admittedly today was helped by the disappearance of a work thing I usually have to do on Friday mornings. But that meant I could sleep in a little, before taking my usual trek along the gorgeous beach into Cowes (green bag and computer in tow) to one of my cafes of choice, where coffee and breakfast were waiting.

Even though this is what I usually do (more or less) on a Friday, the change of location — the beach, the birds, the breeze — made it so much more of a cathartic experience.

And even though the coffee was a bit dodgy today, it wasn’t enough to throw me off stride. Three hours and a goodly sum of words later, I trekked back along the beach to my parents’ empty island house and flopped down on the couch to do… nothing.

And now I have a blog post.

Do you ever find yourself attempting to cram so much into your day that you take half an hour (maybe an hour, even) simply to map out on paper how you’re going to achieve it… refusing to acknowledge it’s impossible, even though deep inside you know there’s no way you’ll get it all done? It can make you a wee bit crazy.

This is where I was at before driving down to the island yesterday. In fact, I was debating not coming at all, because (I told myself) what’s the point driving for two hours just to do all the things I’d have to do at home anyway?

In particular, there was a bunch of work things I should be doing, client tasks both small and large nagging at me. Not to mention stories to critique for my workshopping group, blog posts I want to write (other than this one!) and fretting because it’s been over a week since I posted, my own novel to work on…

So, yes, when I looked at all this stuff I had to do, I thought I might as well stay home.
But I’d earmarked these few days for a retreat a while back, and my brain just kept juggling all the stuff, including the fact I’d be relocating to do them.

So I went with it.

And yesterday was frustrating, because I left home much later than I wanted to (than I’d planned to), but the moment I got here, all the pressure to tick tick tick the boxes seemed to fade into the ether…

No more crazy.

Okay, so I was lying on the couch just now, trying to rev myself up into doing one of the work things, now that I’ve at least got some words down (and it’s been an abortive week for writing for various reasons), and maybe I still will (with a glass of red to help), or maybe I won’t (I’ll still have the red); but just lounging and mulling for half an hour or so seemed to be hitting the mark.

I recently heard these periods of downtime labelled white space (via a great article on Writer Unboxed advocating daily naps!). Nor is this the first time I’ve expounded the virtues of taking time out at Phillip Island for a few days to refill the creative well.

But I do think I underestimated how beneficial to my overall mental health these retreats are for me — with or without company. I haven’t had a holiday this year, other than a few days here and there. It’s been a year of juggling priorities — work that pays the bills with writing with the whole business-owner learning curve — and I’ve been very focused on productivity.

My work days tend to be very structured (albeit flexibly), designed to ensure I’m achieving as much as possible. I suppose it’s the only way, as a freelancer, that I would indeed achieve anything.

But it does make it hard to relax, even at those times I’m meeting friends or family for coffee. In the back of my mind, the clock is ticking and I’m not being productive. If I can’t put it in my timesheet, it’s “wasted” time.

Not when I retreat to Phillip Island though. There’s a sign in the main street in Cowes that says, “Relax, you’re on island time”. That’s exactly how I feel! I can have a completely unstructured day and that’s okay.

Better than okay.

Because it doesn’t actually matter if I don’t get all that stuff done. The world will not end. (Gee, I really need to chill out!)

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I feel it’s past time for a progress update on the novel revision I’ve been working on. My last check-in occurred when I decided to strip back events in the middle section, rather than expand upon them. I think this is going pretty well.

It did involve some post-it note planning and rather a lot of scene juggling, but I’ve finally figured out an order of events that works (I think). So for the past two months, I’ve been making good progress — in quality if not quantity. The new middle section bears some resemblance to the original, but there is also a lot that is new — essentially a deeper treatment of those elements I’m retaining. And I’ve introduced a new sexy character who is a claithwielder. Yum.

What do you to take time out? How often do you stop to smell the roses?

Tribute to Mary Stewart

Today I learned that Mary Stewart has died. Given she was 97, it shouldn’t really be a shock, but emotion surged within me and I found I could not think about anything else.

The hours and hours of reading pleasure… The influence of her novels on my travels… The letters we once exchanged… The numerous secondhand bookshop visits with one goal in mind…

Although I was happily ensconced in a cafe with my computer this afternoon when I heard, it seemed I wouldn’t be doing any more writing. I needed to get home, to be with my collection of Mary Stewart paperbacks. I needed to handle them, remember them, write about my relationship as a reader with Mary Stewart.

I needed to mourn.

mary stewart books pile

Mary Stewart is an author whose novels I’ve loved for a very long time. I first encountered them as a teenager, when my mother picked up This Rough Magic and Nine Coaches Waiting as paperbacks at a school fete. She thought I would like them. I looked at the ancient covers and screwed up my nose.

As with many things, my mother was right. I loved them. So much so that I immediately set about acquiring as many Mary Stewart novels as I could. Being a high-school student and not very cashed up, this meant numerous secondhand bookshop crawls with my friends. I didn’t care about the covers. I even bought multiple copies of the same titles, just in case I ever lost one. (I believe I ultimately gave these to my sister.)

I even tracked down a copy of the little-known and out-of-print The wind off the small isles from the library, because I simply couldn’t find it anywhere to buy (and I still haven’t).

mary stewart books covers

Although Mary Stewart is perhaps best known for her Merlin series (beginning with The Crystal Cave, 1970) it is her romantic suspense thrillers (most written in the 1950s and 1960s) that I love. Surprisingly, I have never actually read the Merlin books, something I will now perhaps rectify.

But her romantic suspense thrillers are wonderful. Each centres upon a young woman ‘out of place’, often on holiday somewhere wonderfully exotic — like Delphi, Crete, Corfu, Lebanon, the Pyrenees…

Her heroines invariably find themselves caught up in something dangerous — smuggling, conspiracy, murder — and there is always a lovely young man too.

The love story is always secondary, and often extremely understated, and the relationships unfold beautifully within the crucible of a terrifying life-or-death situation.

Mary Stewart’s writing is lyrical and wonderfully evocative of place and character and emotion — which are the three primary things I look for in a novel. Most are written as a first person narrative and she quotes a lot from literature and poetry. (Her characters are all amazingly well read – heh.) I have read these novels over and over and over again in the 25 years (more?) since I was introduced. They are my comfort reading on a hangover day… or even just a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Because of the wonderful setting of My brother Michael, I made sure Delphi was the first place I ever visited outside Australia. Similarly, I’ve made sure to visit Provence in France (Madam, will you talk?), Hadrian’s Wall in England (The ivy tree), the Pyrenees in France (Thunder on the right), Skye in Scotland (Wildfire at midnight)… but I haven’t made it everywhere on my Mary Stewart list yet.

Back when I was 20, I wrote Mary Stewart a letter. It is now a very embarrassing letter, in which I express myself a little like Anne of Green Gables and label myself as ‘a romantic’, but I had a query about one of her books (The ivy tree) and so I wrote a fan letter (this being before the days of email, let alone Twitter). To my delight, she responded to my letter, and I share it with you here.

mary stewart letter_2

I believe Mary Stewart’s novels are now available as e-books, which is a wonderful thing for today’s generation. I daresay they have dated a bit — all her characters smoke rather a lot, for one thing — but her heroines are remarkably independent and outgoing and sassy for their time.

To help you get started, I will list out my top 5, if I can convince myself to narrow it down:

  • This rough magic — Lucy is visiting her sister on Corfu (Greece), when she witnesses someone taking pot shots at a dolphin in a private cove and a body is washed up on the shore. At first she thinks the culprit is Max, the musician son of a retired stage actor renting a villa nearby…
  • My brother Michael — Sipping coffee in Athens and wishing something would happen, Camilla accidentally agrees to drive a hire car to Delphi for someone called Simon. There she finds herself embroiled in danger and intrigue high on Mount Parnassus.
  • Madam, will you talk? — Charity is touring Provence, when she befriends a young boy, who seems to be at the centre of a custody battle with the murderous father hot on the trail.
  • The Gabriel Hounds — Christy is holidaying in Damascus, when she bumps into her cousin Charles, who convinces her to accompany him to visit their eccentric old aunt who lives in a crumbling palace in Lebanon. But all is not as it seems.
  • Airs above the ground — Vanessa thinks her husband of two years is in Sweden for work, except he shows up on a cinema newsreel in Vienna… When she gets there, she finds herself caught up in a conspiracy centred around a circus.

Oh my goodness, I want to re-read them all right now.

Vale Mary Stewart. You will live on through these books forever.


In the minds of readers…

This year I thought I’d dig around in my archives a bit; resurrect and breathe some life into some of my older posts from a time when no-one read this blog. There’s some good stuff buried back there. Well, I think it’s good. Seems a shame for no-one to have read any of it.

This is based on a post originally titled Birth, published on 12 January 2011. I’ve adapted and updated parts, especially the beginning, but largely it’s intact. It’s also quite timely, given I’ve just finished a draft — not that it’s anywhere near being read yet (wink).


Every writer invariably reaches the point where they finish something — a novel or a short story if we’re considering fiction.

It’s an exciting time, especially if it’s a longer work, because this means we finally get to have someone read the product of our labours. It’s also a daunting time for the very same reason. For my part, the thought of someone reading my story and passing judgement makes my stomach churn.

It’s weirdly ironic. We hope desperately that we will ultimately find readers who appreciate our creativity and vision, yet until we receive the validation of publication (or positive feedback), we live in fear that our hopes are in reality delusions.

I try to remember that Chris Baty quote: “Your voice is important and your stories matter. Someone has been waiting their whole life to read the book you are writing.” If that doesn’t inspire me, nothing will.

Writers need to have thick skins, along with oodles of self-belief. No matter how many people tell you they love your work, just as many will remain ambivalent (or worse). I’m lucky to belong to a fabulous writing group filled with writers and friends in both camps. The former help with the self-belief side of the equation, while the latter present insightful critical appraisal that — if considered objectively with said thick skin – helps shape the manuscript into something even better.

It’s true that writers must write what resonates with them personally, but there would be very little point if no-one read our creations other than ourselves.

And that’s why I think excitement tends to beat apprehension when it comes to inviting others to read our work. Because until a writer’s ‘baby’ is read in its entirety by someone other than the author, it hasn’t actually been born. The only way a story can live (whether commercially published or not) is in the minds of readers.


I think the above must go for all stages of the creation process — whether one is entrusting one’s work to a beta-reader, submitting to agents and editors, or bracing for the readers of the world at large.

I’m still at the beta-reader phase, having never actually submitted anything (except a couple of old short stories) to an agent or editor. Every time I peruse reader reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, I imagine what it must be like to have someone bothering to provide feedback on something I’ve written. Thrilling if it’s good. Mortifying if otherwise. (Just daydreaming.)

Thoughts? Comments? Do you think about such things when you’re reading or writing?

All set for the new year with a bunch of plans

I really do love the beginning of a new year. Everything meanders to a halt over Christmas and the first week of January, giving me time to relax in the sunshine before drawing in a deep, deep breath.

As usual, I have a bunch of plans for this year, some involving creative endeavours, others not. Mostly they don’t involve introducing anything new (although one never knows, of course), but rather my focus will be on doing certain things better and making steady progress forward in others.

On the writing front

This will be a year of novel revision for me *cue angelic choir*. The dreaded first draft of my current project is complete enough for rock and roll, and now I arrive at what for me is the fun part. The first draft has been a massive undertaking, but now I get to work it into something worth reading. There are characters to flesh out, subplots to strengthen, scenes to add, scenes to delete, scenes to modify, words to review, layers to add… I daresay you get what I mean.

Whenever I finish a draft of anything I can’t help but speculate on how much better it would be if I only introduced X, Y and — ooh, yes, Z! Invariably this leads to more revision than I originally anticipated.

But building up a story to achieve my vision is the part of writing I love (and tend to spend too much time on), so I am massively looking forward to revising this novel. I have no idea how long I should allow myself to do this. I know some people revise novels in a couple of months, but I can’t see that happening with me. I think if I get it done this year I’ll be satisfied. Quicker would obviously be ideal.

I’m not going to start immediately, however. Before I immerse myself in novel revision land, there are some other things I need to do first — primarily surrounding getting myself established as a self-employed person. This needs some care and attention on my part, and to focus on this, I need to not be plotting how to fit in a daily writing session…

Time management

Pretty much every year I identify the need for improved time management, but now I’m working from home it’s ten times more imperative. Somehow I need to balance billable work, non-billable development of my fledgling ‘business’ (it seems so weird to use that word), writing sessions, reading, blogging… and allow for some general relaxation.

image courtesy Steve Grosbois under a Creative Commons license.

image courtesy Steve Grosbois under a Creative Commons license.

When I had a salaried position, all I had to do was turn up to work and worry about how to schedule my so-called leisure hours. Work was the default and writing/blogging/reading had to fit around it. Now — ahem — it’s all too easy to put writing first and fit paid work around that. All very lovely in theory, but I suspect I’ll end up homeless and broke if I continue to do that… Hence the desperate need for better time management! I suspect I’ll be blogging a bit about my adventures in time management this year.

Having said that, I do intend to enjoy this life choice I’ve made. A large part of my preparations this month will involve determining what productivity goals are realistic on all fronts, bearing in mind I still intend to write in cafes from time to time and take long lunches in the sunshine.


And then…

My most prominent extra-curricular time-out activities from last year (not involving cafes) look set to remain so in 2014. I am referring of course to my more-or-less monthly Dungeons and Dragons sessions and the weekly SoulSong choir (along with ancillary activities), which easily proved the best new thing of 2013. It’s been simply fabulous to get away from the screen one night a week, dance, sing and make a great bunch of new friends.

On top of these I have pledged (again) to read more books this year. Dammit, last year was a disaster! One tactic I am considering is nominating a screen-free evening every week, whereby I read instead of writing/blogging/watching TV. The kindle screen will of course be exempt from the ban. Another possibility is to enforce a ‘no phone in bed’ policy.

My goal is to read (on paper or e-ink) a minimum of one book a month. Audiobooks will be on top of this. Hopefully I can exceed this tally, but given recent habits I want to set myself an achievable goal.

Somewhere in there I want to improve my exercise regime as well. And lose 5kg. Yeah, yeah, I know. Who doesn’t?

As for last year’s goals…

Last year I also declared my intention to:

  • Transform my study into a writing nook — I never did get the new desk/chair/computer etc, but it’s still definitely on the agenda, because my study is now my work space. As a result, I haven’t been doing a lot of fiction writing in the study, which is possibly something that needs to be looked at. However, I find it hard to sit in the one place at home all day. Come evening I need to relocate to the sofa. In fact, come lunchtime I often need to get out too. (Hence the cafe writing thing.)
  • Join Goodreads and Pinterest — I joined the former (although barely pay it any attention), but not the latter. Seems I have enough social media to worry about for the moment.
  • More getting away from the desk — SoulSong was a definite step forward in this regard, but I think I could do more with my weekends going forward. In particular, I didn’t get away to the family beach house nearly as often as I’d have liked. More feeding of muse required!

phillip island - Jan14

Last year I wrote

“I want to feel good about what I’m doing this year — maintain the joy, not get stressed about what isn’t happening, focus on what I have to do not what others are doing… I’m going to continue with the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ principle of Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it, and try to ‘run my own race’.”

I think this year I’m feeling a tad more purposeful. If 2013 was about indulging in the joy of life and writing, 2014 needs to be more about consolidation and achievement. Not that I want to lose the joy, but I think I need to step it up this year. Bring it on!

If you’re someone who sets annual goals, I’d love you to share them here in the comments. If you’re not into goal-setting or resolution-making, how’s your year shaping up?

Melbourne to Hobart 2013 … off topic

This post by my very good friend Emma Watt is about the trials, tribulations and HORRORS of ocean racing. I’m reblogging because I think it’s fabulous research for authors! Read on to feel the buffetting wind, the surging water, the bone-deep cold, the churning stomach, the stench of spew…


crew arrival shot by mum Although this blog is really a place for me to keep low FODMAP recipes as I find them / develop them / test them, I thought it would be a sensible place to keep and share my memories of the 2013 Melbourne to Hobart yacht race.  So this post has nothing to do with cooking, and everything to do with chucking – you have been warned!

This post has mixed tenses and pronouns, and frankly right now I don’t care 🙂  I’m just getting it out there, thanks for reading, sorry about the poor quality of the writing.

How did I get here?

I have done a fair bit of ocean racing … in the past.  It’s been about two years since I sailed with any sort of regularity, and I worked out that I hadn’t done a Hobart race since 2009.  In my time, I’ve done two Sydney to…

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Blog highlights from 2013

The top ranking posts on this blog for 2013 make interesting reading, I think.

1. But what if Hogwarts really does exist? (February 2013)

The number of people who regularly find me using search terms like ‘does hogwarts really exist’ and ‘does hogwarts exist’ is amazing. Do you suppose they are all kids reading the books for the first time? I wrote this post after a conversation with my niece, who was/is obsessed with the Harry Potter books, and who is young and idealistic enough to wish Hogwarts existed. (I wish it truly existed too!)

2. You can never have too many notebooks (October 2012)

This post about my compulsion to purchase spiral-bound notebooks is ranking highly because my original post was picked up by the web site Notebook stories, making me ‘notebook addict of the week’. I thought this was brilliant and am proud to be labelled so.

3. Six reasons to eat that vanilla slice (March 2012)

I think this post made it into last year’s top 5 as well. It’s basically me making excuses for pigging out at lunchtime, and tormenting readers with the image of the most delicious-looking vanilla slice ever. Obviously I’m not the only one in Australia with a predilection for vanilla slices! I think this post is also my most commented ever.

4. What’s your favourite place? (June 2013)

This post was in response to one of the wanafriday topics. Within I declare my favourite place to be whichever place is making me happy at any particular point in time. I also might have mentioned ‘grinning like a zany’.

5. Is it OK for strong women to cry? (February 2013)

As I was going through a rough patch at the beginning of the year, I found myself analysing my rather volatile emotions and comparing them with how women and tears are portrayed in fiction. This post attracted quite a good discussion in the comments, actually. I’m rather glad this one is still being read on occasion by people.

A couple of other interesting posts (both somewhat ranty, I’m afraid) from last year include:

The past year also saw me explore some new directions on this blog. In particular, I introduced posts about travel (including travelling in the 90s), kicked off the A-Z of Fantasy series, dabbled in the WordPress weekly photo challenge and participated in the wanafriday blog themes.


As an aside, whenever January comes around, I seem to find myself in ‘blog makeover’ mode. However, I’m something of a nuff nuff when it comes to html and css, so my adjustments tend to be rather simple. My grand achievement for this evening is the addition of social media icons in the sidebar. Woot! Stay tuned for further improvements.

Any feedback on either the visual aspects of the blog or thoughts on the content will be accepted gratefully. Are there any topics you’d like to see come around more frequently?