Wednesday, September 08, 2021

"Ten Thousand Aftershocks" by Michelle Tom - Review


Many years ago, I went to a museum that had an earthquake simulation exhibit, where you stood on a platform and hit a switch and the platform moved around like it would in an earthquake. It was pretty scary, and I’ve never forgotten it. So the idea of a memoir that takes in both family upheaval and the experience of living through the earthquakes in Christchurch was intriguing. An obvious correlation, you might think.

But Michelle Tom’s memoir goes much deeper than this. I first knew of Michelle’s estrangement from her mother through a Facebook connection, and then I read a portion of the book that was awarded a prize and published. I thought I knew what the book would be about, but it is so much more than just a “telling of a story”.

Firstly, there is the fragmented nature of the memories, as it moves between childhood and adult years over and over – dating each segment is helpful, but also the descriptions and her ability to clearly “situate the reader” means it’s never confusing. It’s also not a misery memoir. Among the sections about violence and abuse are stories of fun times, growing strength and resilience, and finally the ability to stand back and “see” and understand, and then move on. Something that many people never achieve.

Having fully engaged with Michelle’s descriptions of growing up, of the damage and the denied need and then the damaging consequences for her and her siblings, getting to the big earthquake and their experiences of its devastation comes as a shock. How she and her husband and family endured the after effects is a story in itself. I cannot imagine having to continue living in a house beset by aftershocks where liquefaction happened constantly around them (with accompanying sewage from broken pipes) and finally surged inside.

Michelle may not realise herself how much her strength and sheer guts shines through this memoir. It’s probably the element that made me marvel most at the stories she relates. It also led me to think deeply about my own family, our stories and experiences, as well as those of close friends. It’s also a great book to read in this time of Covid and lockdowns, simply to show how we can survive and keep living and hoping, and that a new life is possible.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Achieving close point of view in third person


 The other day I was the guest in a Q&A session sponsored by the Melbourne City of Literature and Writers Victoria. The topic was self editing - to be clearer, how do you learn how to edit your own work? I put my hand up to do this session because I have now been working as an editor for two years, after doing it part-time while teaching writing and editing for many years. So I have seen many manuscripts of all shapes and sizes over that time.

From this session came many questions from the audience, including:

  • What are the most common issues you see in manuscripts?
  • How do you approach editing your own novel? Where do you start?
  • What does a professional editor do for you?
  • Is it better to focus on having some beta readers?

I will answer these questions more in future posts, but one of the issues I discussed was that of point of view - how much writers struggle with it and how often they aren't aware of what is going wrong.

Mostly what I see is distance. You might assume that writing in first person makes everything immediate and "real", but point of view is more than just using I or he/she. It's about engaging the reader by helping them to feel like they are right inside that character, being part of their experience.

Of course, not every novelist wants to do this. It depends on the novel. But like most readers, I do want to care about what happens to this person, understand where they're coming from, what is pushing them through the story towards "something", even if they aren't entirely sure themselves what that is. All the same, the reader needs to know and to want them to achieve it.

Someone once said to me, "Every character wants to be happy. But every character has a different belief of what will make them happy." Therein lies the story. 

There are a number of things you need to have on the page so your character comes alive and the reader can't help but follow them through the story. "Un-put-downable" is what we hope for! One of those things is their thoughts. If we don't know what they are thinking, how can we understand what makes them do what they do? How they feel about it? What their response is? I wonder if some writers shy away from thoughts because they seem too obvious. 

If you are using deep point of view well, thoughts will be direct and won't even need "she thought" or "she wondered". So rather than:

I hate the way he laughs and spits all over the table, she thought.

We can go further into her mood and feelings and reactions with a direct thought, using her own voice.

God, he's gross. Who laughs and spits all over the table at the same time? I want to shove a serviette in his horrible mouth.

Direct thoughts can provide an extra layer of voice - a character uses one voice to speak to others, and another (their own revealing voice) in their heads. Direct thoughts also help to disguise the writer's voice which can sometimes be too intrusive and sound nothing like the character, using words their character never would. (And you don't need italics for direct thoughts either - I have done this here for clarity, but I only use italics if I want to emphasise.)

We are told to "show" emotions, not tell them, and again, deep point of view makes this easier. You can get inside the character's physical sensations more easily, again in their own voice. Rather than:

John felt the anger rise up inside him like a red wave.

You can try something like this:

John's skin burned and then the rage erupted, rising out of his guts like hot, fast lava, scorching his throat on its way out.

Your character John might describe that feeling of rage differently - he's your character. If you know him deeply enough, then it becomes easier to imagine how it would feel to him.

Deep point of view also is about knee jerk reactions, or slow burning reactions, impulsive words, impulsive actions. Who is your character when they lose control? Who are they when they plan and carry out devastating deeds? Where does that come from? Why?

Answer those questions and you are on your way to deepening your point of view.

 Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Celebrant sleuthing with Hazel Edwards!


Hazel Edwards and I both found we were writing crime fiction for adult readers several years ago, after a very long time writing books for children. I decided to ask Hazel about her Celebrant Sleuth series.

Where did the idea come for a celebrant sleuth?

Like many others, my family is spread across generations and cultures.  And friends are re-committing , divorcing or blending. So I’ve seen celebrants in action at weddings , name-days and funerals. And I found specialists in clients: by age, culture and types of ceremonies. Plus most celebrants are very personable. I wanted a versatile occupation for my series sleuth  which would enable access to different settings and cultures in each mystery and adapt well from book to screen. But I wanted my sleuth to be a quiet activist, not just a device.

 Then, on a literary panel about gender including our ‘f2m the boy within’ YA novel, I met an extremely articulate and thoughtful asexual in her early thirties, who challenged me to write about her gender circumstances. She was NOT a celebrant.  She was a park ranger. But the idea of juxtaposing a romantic personality in a longterm relationship within the character of a celebrant who had a job involving romance interested me.  ‘I prefer ice cream to sex’ was one of her very quotable comments to me, as she explained the differences between being asexual  ( feeling no sexual attraction to any gender) and being a ‘romantic’ desiring and giving affection  which is different from being aromantic. 

She became one of my ‘expert’ readers.  Along with the 25-plus celebrants I interviewed. And the multiple florists who really are psychologists. I toyed with qualifying as a celebrant, but instead interviewed trainer Sally Cant who was an ethical but rich source of anecdotes on lost rings, in-laws and not allowing unlimited speaking at a funeral. Rituals with heightened emotions were perfect for historic grievances, mysteries and crimes and some humour. Things always go wrong. Apt for a series.

Another challenge was limited fictional time.  The mystery or crime needed to occur within the event or in the preliminary family meetings.

Motives mattered. Eulogies were mini-life stories. But some ‘facts’ were total works of fiction masking murderous motives of ‘getting back’ at someone. Others were romanticised. Writing them was a means of control which was occasionally allocated to the celebrant as a compromise. Lots of potential for characterisation and interpretation. Wills mattered, but so did previous relationships and unexpected children.

And since I’m an episodic writer who works best in short formats, the discipline of one mystery per chapter was viable. But I found having to plot the concentrated mystery equivalent of a book each time was a challenge. I plotted between 6 and 8 am when my brain was clear. Researching , interviewing and editing, I did other times of the day. 

What makes a celebrant perfect as a detective?

Good celebrants have compassion, are articulate and often come from other occupations which required public speaking. Need to be observant and quick on sizing up personalities and handling potential disputes and flare ups. Perfect for sleuthing. 

To make Quinn memorable, I  played with first person viewpoint. Quinn introduces herself. ‘I buried my father, married my sister and sorted the missing will.’ 

How do you plot, and deal with all the clues and red herrings?

Each of my chapters in ‘Celebrant Sleuth; I Do or Die’  is a self-contained mystery but there are permanent characters from the regional township, including Bea, Quinn’s caterer sister. Food is important for rituals.  The extra mini sequel used the Ghan for a railside wedding in the outback stop of the real Marla township. Our script focussed only on this  Agatha Christie role-play of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ style as it had more filmic potential. And a Ghan shaped wedding cake.

Having a co-writer is the  BEST way to craft a complex plot and justify red herrings and distractors.  Geoffrey Wright  (Australian film director and screenwriter, who gained cult success with the 1992 film Romper Stomper) intensified the plot. We were commissioned for the ABC Fresh Start development fund to co-script the screen adaptation. Now temporarily on hold due to lack of ABC funding.

“Wed Then Dead on the Ghan’ was inspired by my original mini sequel to the first book with the celebrant sleuth, Quinn,  But deeper motivation  and pacing were vital for characters and my original plot needed to be ‘grittier’ and more sophisticated. Geoffrey included topical mining, indigenous art theft  and corporate research and political motivation beyond my original kindergarten version. He stressed the need for complex timing. Who was where, when? And more sub plots. Apart from learning to use Final Draft formatting program for scripts, Geoffrey had me checking whether the train cabin doors opened outwards or inwards as relevant to who saw or audio-recorded what and when. 

Technical details mattered. We checked drone usage in outback. Police jurisdictions across outback , whether Sth Australian or NT, and the seasonal Ghan timetable which is known by locals to the minute. Participation observation research is vital  and I’d travelled on the Ghan several times. So I knew about opal dealers carrying valuable minerals in plastic Safeway shopping bags. And that mobile phone reception was limited. Staff use radio. Then we had to check railway procedures for passenger death reporting and whether suspicious or not. Would a helicopter come out? Could we bypass Alice Springs tourist  excursions , which we needed for the timing of discovering the second death and go straight to Darwin police? Detail. Detail. Detail. 

We re-worked the clues between us, and placed and checked the red herrings. Vital to have two minds checking. 

Celebrant Sleuth is set in a small country town – what does this setting provide that a city setting doesn’t?

A country town enabled me to concentrate events and allow characters to meet in different roles, without it seeming coincidental. I lived in a country general store as a teenager, so that was research, in hindsight.

My sleuth, Quinn, is in a long-term relationship with Art who runs the community media. So I needed her to be able to ‘bump into’ other regular characters in their neighbourhood, apart from her work performing ceremonies for marriages, funerals and naming days. My time-limited crime had to occur within Quinn’s bookings. 

The mysteries are episodic, with celebrant Quinn solving problems in the football hall of fame, retirement village chapel and inter-relationships of florist ,caterer and media  in the country township during an economic downturn. Millionaire retirement village owner, eighty-something Flora is feisty and falls for a younger man. I had to create a whole township of intersecting roles and streets.

Belatedly I drew a map.  And then the same-sex marriage legislation occurred and one story had to change from a commitment service to a wedding.

Marriages and funerals are settings of heightened emotion but also likely to have outsiders visiting.Then there was the option of a celebrant being invited expenses-paid to a specific tourist location for a wedding. That happens. Hot air balloons. Heritage parks. 

And the iconic ‘Ghan’ train with an Agatha Christie mystery theme onboard, plus the wedding was pulling together diverse suspects and motives. This was issued as a stand alone e -book with a view to pitching the sample print copies for screen. It worked.

You have had great reviews, people calling it “witty” and “funny” – it seems well and truly time for crime fiction that makes us laugh – how do you tackle writing comedy? What do you have to keep in mind?

Scripting is different from writing fiction as there is more emphasis on pacing and action. Less introspection. I’ve never considered myself a writer of slapstick or stand up. Often I’ve taken an absurd situation and the humour comes from juxtaposing expectations. I prefer wit and playing with words rather than slapstick or action farce. So having to adapt aspects of ‘Celebrant Sleuth’  to audio and then for screen meant adding more content, stronger character motivation and sub plots, but there was the bonus of visuals like the Ghan and the outback and expressions on faces. Plus music and sound effects. There’s nothing quite like the mystique of train noises. 

Quinn has a sense of the absurd, indicated by her wry Quinn’s Laws of Relativity such as:  

'Theory of Soul Mates: The number of times the word soul-mate is used in public is in reverse proportion to the number of months the relationship will last.'

So the humour depends upon ironic comment, often by Quinn. The blurb suggests this too. 

Quinn, a celebrant with style and a few obsessions but a good heart, solves quirky problems, mysteries and the occasional murder at weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies in her country town. 

Ex-actor with a great voice who writes eulogies to die for! Not forgetting a few quotable ‘Quinn’s Laws of Relativity’. A romantic, but asexual, Quinn lives with her long-term partner Art who runs community Channel Zero. 

The workstyle of a celebrant is never routine. Fake I.D. Fraud. Fights, even to the death, over wills and inheritance ... Mislaid rings. Lost bride. Food poisoning. Clients of varied ages and cultures are well looked after. Even vintage millionairess Flora with the much younger lover who might be a con-artist. 

Quinn solves most problems but not always in the expected way.  

And I’ve got the start of my next celebrant sleuth mystery in the series,  ‘Questions remain unanswered….  ‘  No title yet but it will be sub titled Celebrant Sleuth series.  for details.

Thanks, Hazel - the background to crime fiction is always as fascinating as the stories!

 Photo by Say_Heidi

Long-term Sisters-in-Crime member & cultural risk-taker, Hazel Edwards has diverse genres amongst her 200 published books. She is best known for the ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series which toured as a musical. ‘f2m: the boy within’ her co-written YA coming of age novel about trans youth was a first. ‘Hijabi Girl'  will be performed by Larrikin Puppeteers post-Covid. In 2013, Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature.