Happy Writing Day!

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Today is going to be a really good writing day ….. I hope!

I am sitting here ever so ready for a day of writing, the morning is stunning and there is going to be no one around for the next six hours, so here’s hoping for a good chunk of uninterrupted writing.

Sometimes “perfect” surroundings put too much pressure on me to write well, and other days I churn out so much despite the world directly around me being a complete zoo … so I am not actually sure that there is such a thing as perfect surroundings. Though I have to say that I am learning to appreciate why so many writers go away and hide somewhere for a year to write… very tempting, …but not an option for me.

Plus I tend to be all in or all out. It took me six weeks to write the first draft of the last book, but when I was needed elsewhere for three weeks in the middle, I was able to completely let the book go for when I returned. Now while I am waiting for it to come back from the proof readers, to distract me I started last Friday on the sequel and am about a third of the way through the whole book… For me writing non-Fiction can be so much quicker when the story is there already in every way and it tells itself… (but we still have the long editing months ahead of us and that for me is where the time is, there are no short cuts in this game!)

So Happy writing to all my fellow writers today, I hope that you get pen to paper in a big way no matter what your surroundings are!

Remembering Facts…

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 8.17.48 PMMy Proof Readers have been asking my how on earth I remember so many things about my childhood to be able to write about it so clearly and to include so many important facts, so I thought I’d write a bit about that today for anyone else who is writing their memoirs or autobiography.

The first big thing is that we remember the things that stand out from the crowd, and anything that happens that is traumatic does just that; it stands out and leaves a much greater impression. Sometimes of course these traumas are so huge that our brains actually hide them away to “protect” us, but they are still there. Some of these kinds of memories I do address in my books, but they happened to others in my life who totally believed that their childhood was perfect …. until they realised that it wasn’t.

But for myself and my experiences, where I do remember, the reason that we remember the traumatic things, is because they have such an impact on our lives. This impact is then either so great that it is just something so huge that you can’t possibly forget it, like losing a loved one or moving country or losing a job. But it is more than that. These memories are then reinforced over and over, because so much in our world around us is changed by that event. Moving and losing something are quite obvious, but less other traumas  where other than for that event everything else in our lives remain “normal”, the trauma itself is still just so huge that we can never forget it. Even if we try to forget,  visual, taste, smell and other sensory reminders don’t allow us to forget and can take us back in an instant.

Long term abuse is the same thing just on a different time scale. Instead of one “major” event … lots of “not so huge” but equally damaging events add up over time, and still leave that mark on our memories.

The thing about writing them down though, and telling the whole story, is that we need to create context, and tell the things that help our story to make sense for those who are reading it. And this requires remembering not only the incident, but everything around it, and the “who” and “where” can be easy but the “when” can be hard to pinpoint. And this is where it becomes tricky in theory as my proof readers have assumed, but I have actually found it quite easy and here is how:

When I started writing my first book I knew the timing of everything not just because I have a good memory and have a bunch of traumatic stories to tell, which are both true, but in the interest of checking my facts and making sure that I was right, I spent a whole day doing nothing but writing out a timeline. I made a chart with the years down the left and then made five or six columns. Column one was the year starting with the year that I was born… easy. Second column was what age I turned each year… again, easy. Then the third column was what year levels I was in at school. This sounds super basic but when you are working out how old you were especially under ten years old, I don’t know about you but I can’t remember how old I was the year I started school for example. But I do know what year level I was in when I had my ninth birthday, and so I started in the middle of that column and put that in, then worked my way both forward and backwards from there. I also remembered what year I was in when I turned sixteen and that correlated so I knew that column three was accurate as well… locked and loaded 🙂

So far I had built a construct that was impartial in all ways, and facts that are set in concrete. Then I went to the fourth column and wrote down from memory and old school photos and documents, who my teacher was in each of those years and looked at the children in my class that year. I have quite a few photos from my childhood but most are not dated and many of the school photos are missing. But there was enough to put some basics into column four that are hard and fast facts. Then other school or other photos can be slotted into the gaps based on clothing, hair styles, all kinds of things. My column four landed up being pretty full other than a couple of gaps which I was happy with.

The fifth column was the big one, and I it contained anything that I could think of that was important. I knew that my great grandmother had died in 1974, and I knew that a couple of major events in my life happened when I was seven, and so I slotted in those things that I know for certain. Major life events, small and big details like braces and injuries and holidays and so on went into this column. Then when I had this solid picture, I was able to pinpoint the less accurate things based around them. For example, at one point in my childhood we went on a holiday where one of my trauma stories happened. I knew that I was somewhere between 11 and 14 when it happened, but wasn’t entirely sure. But there were other things about that holiday that with my chart I could pinpoint: I knew that it was in the January holidays, so that narrowed it down to the month but not the year. A friend came with me and was a peripheral person in the trauma. On the chart I saw that of the four summers that it could have been, for one reason or another three of the four Januaries were ruled out; either she could not have been with me, her hair in the holiday photos could not have grown that much since the Christmas photo that I had with her in it of one of the Decembers, and a number of other things left only one January that it could have been.

It isn’t always that “easy” to narrow it down, but it may not actually matter. If you can’t pinpoint to a month or a week or a day, and there is no change to the story for one or two things to happen slightly out of order or within a time frame that covers a couple of months or years, then it may not really matter. It mattered to me when I told my story because of relevance to other things, but that may not be the case for everyone.

I also worked out that sitting and stewing on something doesn’t help or make it’s date jump out of nowhere. I would move on to other things and place settings, and I often found then when I went back to the things I was struggling with, there were more things that helped. I didn’t always come up with things made me more sure of a date but I often found that when so many others were slotted in, there were no other possibilities left but one.

I wrote my chart simply so that as I was writing I wasn’t having to count on my fingers every time I wanted to know exactly how old I was for any part of the story. But it landed up being way more important and helpful than that. There were stories that I could pinpoint the year because of a certain specially kind teacher that I had or a bad experience at school being bullied… so my intention was that I had something simple to look at every time I wanted to say how old I was, but it turned out that I had a frame work to capture more than that and put things in orders that I didn’t know yet would make a difference to me and my story.

So if you are writing your story and are having trouble with memory, I highly recommend this chart. I spent a day on it, but I also often went back to it not just to get information from it, but to add information. As I wrote, other things came back to me, which I could then add to the chart. As I start the second book now, I have spent time doing the chart for the next couple of decades as I found that first one just so helpful 🙂

Review: “Who Killed Johnny Gill?”

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Time for another book review, this time by a newer author, Kathryn McMaster. I try to read books that are really diverse, and I also don’t like reading the back first, as for me they give away too much of the book. I am less interested in reading things because I know that I will like the topic, than I am about reading well written books. I have been known to walk into a library and take home 10 books that I like the look, the feel, the size, the font of, and even the picture on them, having read nothing at all about them. Then when I am home and comfy in my reading corner, I start at the top of the pile and if they haven’t grabbed me in an hour or so then I move onto the next book. I am sure that that is somewhat unfair, as I have also persisted with some books (usually on the recommendation of others with similar book taste) and was glad that I did. But I do prefer to not have to work hard well into the book in order to enjoy it. I love the journey more than anything but of course the topics really make a difference too, and I don’t enjoy repetitive topics.
So I guess that that means that if I review a book, then you can know that it is one that passes that first very important filter 🙂
I should say up front that I love true stories. I also love Historical Fiction … which is kind of the same, as the true parts are the History bits, and are what make it so interesting and the fictional characters are what bring the truth parts together. True crime, with History thrown in however, is always going to draw me, as the characters are also very true, and need to be to keep the facts right … but you still need to keep me past that first crucial hour or so.
Who Killed Johnny Gill” was an easy draw for me, and I was in from the beginning. I don’t want to spoil any of it so I won’t say what happens, but the things that really struck me were the way that Kathryn has clearly done her homework! For me, true crime stories are tricky and I am not sure that I would ever be brave enough to write one. You need to do your research and you need to do it really well! … I don’t want to be the one to check, but this book certainly feels as though every stone has been unturned.
The other thing that I felt Kathryn did really well was she made me feel empathy for the characters and I loved the way that she brought them all to life. I hope that if the real people were able to jump forward over a century and read this book about themselves, they would feel that they were portrayed well. They had depth and colour, which can be really hard to do when they lived so long ago. I kept wanting her to side with some of the characters, I wanted her to be biased towards the good guys and cold about the bad guys but she does a great job of remaining objective, sticking to the facts alone, and letting the reader come to their own conclusions, without coming across as cold or bland.
In the world of modern day CSI on almost every TV screen around the world, we can be so desensitised to truly horrendous crime, and forget that it happens every single day, to real life people, and not only now, but since time began. Humans have been murdering each other since Cain murdered Abel, and not just in anger and not just by knocking them on the head. Throughout the book I kept having to remind myself that this story really actually happened. And that it happened in such a way…
You will also enjoy this book if you are interested in the science behind the CSI of the day, the technical and physical tools and procedures of the day, and what the professionals had access to. “Who Killed Johnny Gill?” was a good read to the end 🙂

Starting Book Two Woohoo!!

When I started my first book, it felt like it fell out of me and onto the computer. I have heard some people say that they feel as though it is not them writing the book and I get that now. I never ever ever even considered for a second that I would ever be a writer. I wouldn’t know what to say and I am not sure that I have that much of an imagination. I just lived my own life, through the good the bad and the ugly, and while I always knew that I was different, I never considered my story to be anything more worth telling than the next person. But after years of letter writing which moved to blogs and articles and one offs and so on, I realise now that I have decided to tell my story, that I have actually been telling it for well over a decade. Writing in small pieces here and there, and verbally telling it in tiny conversations, none of which do any of my story justice, and both myself and the listener are left wanting more … they ask for more and when we run out of time they tell me to write a book, and I need to tell it as well, and for people to hear me … It’s hard that no one gets to hear the whole, and I have never got to tell it…

And so in February I started typing, thinking that to tell it all, over three or four books, it will take years just for the first draft. So much to sift through, so much to speak of, so much to look way too closely at and digest … but after six weeks of typing, draft one of the first book is done, edited, and nearly all of Draft two is off to the readers for feedback! I am pleasantly surprised and yet not so… I am surprised as I thought  it would take long, but not surprised through those six weeks it just spilled out onto my computer so easily…

I have truly let my story tell itself, and I want to tell it all before I try and make it “packagable” and “readable” … but I am really hoping that I don’t have to do very much to it, and that is will sell itself and be good enough “as is”… I don’t mind doing lots more work on it, but I won’t “bend” it to dramatise anything, it has to be enough as it happened otherwise it would no longer be my story…

Anyway, the first massive milestone was Book 1, draft one, the second was draft two, and now I am about to embark on the third: draft one of the second book …. here goes!

Book Review: The Poisonwood Bible

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 8.24.17 AM I’ve just finished the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and my review is very mixed. I personally love historical fiction that is well researched with really thought provoking and interesting topics ….i.e. for me, not politics (boring) or gangs (no one ever wins) or slavery (which breaks my heart too much for me to enjoy), and she does a really good job of both presenting her story and the background information that she presents.

It was a really interesting read for me because my Aunt and Uncle (only family on my Mum’s side) were missionaries in the exact same region for 10 years, and arrived only a decade after the Prices did. So many of the stories are exactly the same as those that I have heard all my life, right down to making peanut butter by smashing peanuts between rocks, and my youngest cousin was born in the village. I found it fascinating to learn soooo much more about the area and politics and so on, and I learnt a lot about the continent that I love and was born on, and it left me feeling terrible sad… but in a good congruent way. I knew bits and pieces so there were no shocks, but this really gave far more depths to some really serious issues.

On the flip side, while the characters in the book are fictitious and the dad is a complete lunatic, I have no doubt that as with all kinds of influential people in the world, many of them are complete fools and do the stupidest things in the name of God, country, family, etc and do soooo much damage!! Therefore coming from a family of missionaries and knowing how beautiful they can be and what amazingly good things many of them did and still do, but also knowing how stupid human beings can be, I spent a lot of time cringing through the book which is also good and congruent I guess.

It is a very long book and I love long books, but this one really dragged for me and I spent the last couple of weeks in bed without the mental strength to read such a deep and complicated book. The chapters alternate between 5 different characters, one of whom speaks only in riddles, so you have to keep thinking the whole time, and really be on the ball.

It’s thought provoking and impressive and beautiful and sad, but in my opinion it isn’t a holiday or recuperating book I don’t think. I love knowing how things turn out for people, even fictitious people, but the last 20% of the book felt like it really really dragged out and I found myself wishing for the end and determined to finish it as I knew that I would never give it another go just to know the ending. There is nothing worse than having three or four other books to read but having to plod through the one that you need to finish 😦