Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

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love books

Top 5 Stupid Reasons to look down your nose at Romance

I spent the weekend at the Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. And I’ve said so, head held high, to every school parent and friend who has asked how my weekend was.

IT WAS AMAZING.

This is an incredible group of writers, from beginners struggling to put the final chapters of their first novel on paper, to the multi-million-copies-sold bona fide royalty of the genre. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, hard-working and genuine and generous. I had a blast! And I learned so much. I’ve come away inspired and rip-roaring ready to rework a couple of old manuscripts that aren’t yet gleaming and resplendent.

So, I had a wonderful weekend. And people ask, ‘what did you get up to?’ so I tell them.

I’m sorry to say their responses have been a little hit-and-miss.

It won’t be news to anyone that Romance is a genre often disparaged, and people will give a couple of ‘good reasons’ for that. For instance…

1. Well it’s not Dickens, is it.

Alternatives include mentions of ‘trash’ and vague allusions to the quality of the writing and the depth of the story.

Here’s the thing, Dickens was the popular fiction of his day. Shakespeare was enjoyed by the illiterate as well as the intellectuals. Hundreds of years later we dub them classics but in their day they were accessible to everyone. They were cheap and common—and brilliant.

challinorYou can’t argue with the figures: romance is certainly POPULAR fiction. As to its quality, well, it varies. As in any genre, there is trash out there, sure, but there is treasure too. Rich, rewarding, well-written treasure. I’m reading The Silk Thief by Deborah Challinor and she’s a genius (and a New Zealand author).

gabaldonPerhaps you’ve come across Outlander? Diana Gabaldon has answered the elitists numerous times and done it better than I can (what with the multi-million dollar book and TV behemoth to back her up) but the quality of the story-telling in these books, and in NUMEROUS others, is right up there. It’s not just romance, I hear you say. No, it’s a melange of many genres—but romance is one of them.

2. It’s chick-porn.

The word ‘chick’. Ick. We are not baby birds.

But that’s not the worst of it. One of the main reasons that Romance is so derided throughout the literary world (and the non-literary world) is the dominance of women in the industry. Women read romance, they write it, they edit it and sell it. Women are making the big bucks and have huge influence through their stories. Of course there are men writing and reading romance but look at the marketing of Romance novels. It’s shockingly pink. It’s not subtle. That’s how marketing works.

Genres that primarily target men NEVER suffer from this belittling. There are rubbish books in all genres, but only in Romance do people assume the writing is rubbish, the story predictable. What is it that makes it perfectly acceptable, rarely even questioned, when you’re looking down your nose at a Romance novel. Is it because the main character is a woman, the writer is a woman, and probably the editor too? Because it is about women’s experience?

history

Not good enough.

Now, about the porn. The porn industry uses, abuses, and destroys women, in their fictions and too often in real life. Meanwhile, the Romance industry gives top priority to a woman’s needs, her pleasure, and her very self. Women are shown to be whole and complex human beings, not THINGS to be used. Once upon a time, sure, romance novels featured weak heroines in need of saving, but not any more. The heroines in your average Romance novel these days are the masters of their own fates. They save the day, and more often than not, save the hero.

Of course, many Romance novels include sex scenes. Not all, but often they do. Yeah. So do many thrillers. And literary fiction’s never shied from the subject. Erotica is a genre of it’s own if you want to get down to technicalities. If you take issue with any book featuring sex then hey, that’s up to you, but it’s hardly limited to Romance.

3. It’s formulaic.

I once agreed with this. I thought, ‘oh it’d be so easy to write a romance novel,’ and I was so very wrong. I’m not going to to get down and dirty with semantics; there is a formula, but it’s one you’ll find across the board. It’s a pattern almost universal in fiction, whether in novels, film, television, comics, or plays.

The formula is this:

  1. Create a character: someone interesting, who readers will empathise with, and who wants something.
  2. Depict a world in which that character operates—and has good reason for not going after the thing they want, until…
  3. Incite an event which kicks them into action—now they’re going after the thing they want. And unknowingly, they’re going after the thing they really need. But this is all seamlessly woven in.
  4. Concoct a whole lot of problems and obstacles: be careful here, make sure these are believable and logical in the world, and for the character(s), or else the whole thing will feel contrived.
  5. Show how the character responds to those problems, gets stronger and wiser… to the point when they lose everything and must face their darkest hour, their true need, their true self. Make the reader think there’s no hope, no way out. All is lost.
  6. And finally, surprise us when the character achieves what they want and what they need (happy ending) or getting what they need but not what they want (bittersweet ending) or neither (tragedy).

In many ways, a good romance is more difficult to write than many other genres because you have to intertwine the journeys of two characters. To do it well and convincingly is HARD.

What makes romance different: some kind of happy ending is guaranteed.

Oh, wait, that’s true of the vast majority of mysteries, legal dramas, thrillers, comics… hm.

As an aside, Romance writers often cross genres. Over the weekend I met people writing paranormal romance, romantic thrillers, horror, sci-fi, urban fantasy, historical, and every combination of the above. The genre is in fact incredibly diverse.

4. It’s so commercial.

They’re in it for the money. They’re sell-outs. Pen-monkey whores.

Heaven forbid an artist should have food on the table and a non-leaky roof overhead.

But it’s true, Romance does pay. Between Romance Novels and Adult colouring books, the publishing industry is keeping its head above water.

screen-shot-2015-01-19-at-13-51-33

You don’t have to like them or read them, just as I don’t have to pick up a supernatural thriller or a paranormal horror. There’s no harm in liking different types of books. That’s not the issue here.

Read what you like. But don’t hate on Romance.

In fact, the revenue the Romance genre pulls in is keeping the publishers above water. And these are the same publishers putting out the books you do read.

So, shut up and be grateful.

5. They’re easy reads.

Romance is easy to read. It’s true. These books are great fun and no doubt about it.

HOW and WHY is this an insult? Seriously! And yet, by the tone, the look, the something, I KNOW it’s meant as an insult. And I can only assume this is said by someone who doesn’t actually ENJOY reading.

booksmell

I like reading. I read because it’s fun. You don’t have to read. You’re not obliged. But many do like it.

I also like watching TV. Some days I feel like Gilmore Girls,  other days Breaking Bad. Some days I want The West Wing, others I’m all about Will and Grace.

lollipops

I loved The Goldfinch and The Luminaries, but why should that limit my enjoyment of this GENIUS Deborah Challinor book. The next title on my to-be-read-list is Letters to Love by Soraya Lane (another New Zealand writer) and the last thing I read was Sheltering Rain by Jojo Moyes.

You may call them ‘easy reads’ or ‘beach books’, but I’m confused… is reading meant to be hard? Unpleasant? A chore? Am I supposed to get to the end of the book and feel relieved that it’s over and I can put the book proudly on living room shelf and impress the neighbours. I can say I’ve read it, yes, cover to cover, and it was fascinating, really challenging and so artfully complex…

Bring on the fascinating. The challenging. The artfully complex. But a book can be all those things and enjoyable. If that sounds silly, you’re doing it wrong. A book can be deep, psychologically fraught, and still a page-turner. In fact, it probably has to be.

I don’t want to tick off books like I do errands. I want to get to the end and be gutted there isn’t more.

I want a book to make me anti-social.

Make me want to neglect my kids.

Make me think.

Make me laugh.

Make me wallow and then make me WOW.

mirren

I know, I expect a lot. But there are A LOT of good books out there. And a lot of them have love stories in them. And many of those are Romances.

So the next time someone puts on that tone, or makes that face, or says that stupid thing… I’ll probably be polite and laugh it off and pretend they’re not belittling what I’ve been working toward for five years now, because I’m a nice person.

But don’t be one of those people.


This article is also featured on the NZ Society of Authors Canterbury website.


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On being a great loser

For starters, never begin a game of Risk. No good can come of it. Fun, fun, fun, rising blood pressure, glee, despair, fury, philosophical levels of doubt about your value and place in the universe because if you were worth anything you’d surely roll something above a two!

I’ve never been great at losing. Some people are cool, calm, untouchable. Not me. When it’s board games, I’m getting better. Sometimes I still want to cry. I remember, one time, my husband and I once spent two days straight playing chess and late on the second day I won a game. I might have won two, total. It was long ago, before we had kids, and there was this great vibe about it: I’d decided I was allowed to lose, to begin with, at least, because I’d never really played before. This was learning to play chess and we kept playing until I had a fighting chance.

Losing without a fighting chance is the losing that sucks. So Risk is out because it’s a little tact and a lot of luck. Games that are a lot of luck drive me crazy. It doesn’t help that my husband is insanely lucky. No lottery winnings as yet but seriously, if a game is luck-reliant, he’s in. Lucky Luuk, we call him.

Okay, it’s just me who calls him that.

I’m much better than I used to be at losing at board games, anyway. The trick is playing lots and losing lots, I suppose. And winning often enough to not feel totally useless helps.

But boardgames are the baby pool, aren’t they. Stakes are low. Hours of your life (more or less) wasted unless you CONQUER, but no real stakes. No money, career, livelihood, DREAM on the line.

On the other hand, when I’m talking about my writing… ouch.

I have been sending out a heap of writing submissions: query letters to lit agents, to publishers, manuscripts, partials, short stories and flash fiction, poetry too, for competitions and journals. I’ve been doing this for years now, actually, and most of that time it was silence or rejection. Polite, impersonal form rejection.

But every now and then I’d get feedback. Notes on my work, not general niceties, but constructive criticism. It was a good sign. My work was worth the time and energy of saying something about it: that something being the reason it wasn’t right for whatever I’d submitted it for.

A step in the right direction, however painful.

I figured out that I wanted to get those notes before sending it out to be rejected. I needed criticism during the writing process, or rather, during the rewriting process (but that is part of the writing process, really.)

I had this AMAZING writer’s group in Paris. They gave brilliant notes. They didn’t hold back and yet none of it was cruel. It wasn’t me and my work versus the critique group; it was me and the critique group versus my work. It wasn’t personal, though my writing often was and is.

I lap up criticism. But once upon a time, it was personal, even if it came from a lovely, warm, collaborative place. I didn’t know how to separate myself and my worth, from the work and its worth.

I don’t lap up rejection, of course not, but I’m pretty good at taking the hit and getting up and getting on with more submissions or more rewrites or something else entirely.

But once upon a time it was THE END OF THE WORLD. My one almost-novel wasn’t good enough (and, in truth, it was not, and thank you lucky stars it didn’t go anywhere because embarrassing) and therefore I was not good enough. Rejecting that one manuscript was rejecting my entire body of work.

No one gets to do that anymore. No one sees my entire body of work. It’s more than a million words now and oy vey, right? That’s a lot of words.

When I get a rejection now, it’s one of MANY, rejecting one of MANY stories, poems, novels… Compared to that baby writer, a decade ago, a rejection now is a blip on the radar. It hurts, but it doesn’t take me out. I still write that day. I don’t chuck the lot. I don’t even chuck that story.

 

I’m sure different people have different processes and experiences, but for me it’s like learning patience: the only way to do it is to wait. For ages. It sucks. But you can’t learn to be patient without being impatient for, oh, hours.

Learning how to take rejection is the same: take lots of it, one way or the other, and you’ll get better. Which, I know, and I’m sorry, is NOT what anyone wants to hear, unless they’re well into years of getting rejection, and there’s the hope that it’ll start to pay off.

And one day, it won’t be rejection. It’ll be constructive criticism.

And then it might well be a few more rejections. Or years.

And one day it will be a yes.


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an ordinary week (with a few sprinkles)

I am such a routine fiend. I love having a plan and (mostly) sticking to it. Just love it. Lap it up. I get SO MUCH DONE when my days basically go the same, one after another, for four or five days in a row.

Which supposedly looks something like this:

Monday

Morning pages, breakfast, make kids’ lunches, bribe them to dress and eat and put on shoes. Walk Louis to school, Elena to kindy, and then walk home (via The Sign of the Takahe, for a bit of a sweaty but healthy start… if I’m feeling up to it.)

walking home from kindy drop-off

Walking home from kindy drop-off, in the lovely morning sun, with the shiny ocean view.

Next: writing-prompt writing and maybe a poem draft… then emails and social media. And then REAL writing, which at the moment is editing an old manuscript.

editing a manuscript

Lunch, and more writing/rewriting/editing. If I’m on a roll, I’ll run off to kindy pick-up at the last moment. If I didn’t walk after drop-off then this is my other opportunity to leg-it up to Sign of the Takahe and trek down for a work-out-ish-thing before picking up Elena. Then we grab loopy Lou from school and… and then do whatever. If it’s sunny, we often go to the school pool.

Monday night I have my practical theatre studies course so early tea for me and the kids. Luuk has to come home a bit earlier than usual so I can handover the kids. After theatre studies I do the groceries, then head home. The kids are in bed and the newest episode of Madame Secretary is waiting for us.

 

Tuesday

The morning runs the same: writing, food, kids, walk, writing, web stuff, writing, food, writing, walk, kids…

Once a month there’s the Committee meeting for the NZSA Canterbury branch. I often go early to the library where the meeting is held. I almost always forget to return the library books. gr.

 

Wednesday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

walking to school

Walking home from school and kindy.

Basketball in the evening, at 6:30 or 7:15 or 8pm… and after yesterday’s game I’m NEVER AGAIN eating dinner beforehand. So Wednesday afternoons will from now on include a mammoth afternoon tea. And preparation of reheatable dinner.

 

Thursday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

Plus this is play-date day.

 

Friday

Ditto the morning.

Ditto the avo.

Luuk sometimes comes home earlier on Fridays… but not so much if he has to come home early for me to dash off to my class/basketball.

 

‘Tis the plan. It all goes out the window of course if I get called in to relief teach. But money… so, no complaints. Plus, I love being in the classroom. And I can usually still jam in a bit of writing at lunch time, or while the kids veg in front of a screen, or while dinner’s cooking…

more editing

Editing. And more editing.

Sprinkles

This week is the first week of theatre studies and basketball, so they feel like special glittery things, but on top of that, I’m going to a parenting seminar… which is basically a girls night out because I’m such an old lady. My lovely friend Kirsty got an extra ticket, and I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert in parenting, so sure, I’ll go along.

Also, sprinkles this morning: I took a tour around Ngaio Marsh’s house. We’re planning a writing workshop – make a note in your diaries, for 19th March – and we’re going to have it there. Such a lovely spot!

A portrait of Ngaio Marsh

A portrait of the lady herself, on display in the Long Room.

Ngaio Marsh's writing chair

Ngaio Marsh’s writing chair. She also wrote in green ink, the guide informs me.

ngaio marsh, self portrait

A photograph of her, and a self-portrait. She loved all things theatre.

So much lovely art! The workshop will be INSPIRING and not only because the brilliant Zana Bell is facilitating, sharing her wisdom on ‘World Building’. Seriously, pencil it in. 19 March, from 9-3. Discounted rate for NZSA members.

Tomorrow’s glittery thing is the New Families BBQ up at school, by the pool… so weather, please cooperate.

And on Sunday, for a bit of something else entirely, I’m playing Clarinet at church. I hardly ever play at all so… yay!


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that doesn’t seem right

I’ve been aware lately of a few wonderful paradoxes, and I thought I’d share them here because it’s been a while. I’ve been doing nanowrimo (writing. A lot. That is all.) and now that’s done, so I’m back in the world of the living, just in time to put up the Christmas decorations.

Leo says,

What’s a paradox? some might ask. A seeming contradiction. Two things that don’t go together, but SO DO.

For instance: happily listening to an Adele song.

Now, that’s a bit mean. There is a happy song on her new album. The last track. I know this because I went out and bought it (so strange for me) and I’ve been listening to it on loop, obsessively (less strange). And very happily. So there you have it.

adele is awesome
Another example of paradox: you want something done, ask a busy person.

So you get it. Paradoxes everywhere actually. The one I’m most aware of at the moment is less pithy. It’s about being certain of uncertainty, about being happy but not entirely content. I’ve been looking for part time teaching work and, at the same time, looking at my writing – my nine complete manuscripts, a couple of which are pretty close to being finished, so far as I can tell – and where to take it next, how to publish and publish well.

writing and tea

In both cases, there are things I can do to improve my chances and then there’s just a tonne of stuff beyond my control. I’m impatient to be in the classroom again, and I’m impatient to be published, but at the same time, I’m loving writing, and I know what I need to be working on, and I’ve enjoyed relief teaching much more than I expected. In some ways relief is a good fit with writing. And if I do suddenly get a big break and have to do a world book tour, I won’t have to take time off and mess anyone around…

But seriously, that’s only slightly less likely than finding a teaching job in Christchurch.

Maybe. Hard to say for sure.

Louis started school a couple of weeks ago and he’s so happy there. Elena’s still loving kindy and they’re both becoming more independent.

starting school

They’re happy, healthy, adorable, and relatively low-maintenance kids. I’m not dreading the summer holidays the way I was dreading school hols earlier in the year. I’ll still be able to write and find some time by myself.

happy kids boating

What I’m saying is, life is good – it’s great. But I’m still wanting more, wanting things to change.

Here’s another paradox for you: holidays. Is it just me who’s always tired at the end of them? I really am so much better at work, in my routine. I can write in a quiet house, by myself, for hours and at the end feel energised and rested.

nanowrimoing

Maybe I’m weird.

Okay, definitely.

Here’s another one: if you want to do something really well, you have to make it a priority, focus… get going toward those 10k hours we supposedly need to put in if we want to be brilliant at a thing. Any thing. But, that said, if you reduce yourself to one thing, one defining interest, especially in the arts, then you can’t do it in a way that’s relevant to the world around you. I recently started playing basketball. Now, I’m no sportswoman. I mean, I have zero interest in sport-watching, and it’s fun to play, but I’m not very committed to winning. I won’t push myself so hard that I get injured or asthmatic. If I’m stuffed, I sub-off. If someone shoves me, I back-off. But I’ve been LOVING basketball. I did not see that coming. Now, if I’m not open to trying new things, then I’ll quickly run out of things to write about. If I limit my characters to my experiences and interests and point-of-view then my stories will be so narrow.

Plus, life is more fun if you try new things.

such fun

And the next one isn’t so much a paradox, as just an unfortunate truth that I’m grappling with: you can’t do everything. You have to choose what matters and what matters less and what doesn’t matter. But there are too many wonderful things, and too many important things. You can’t even do the majority of them, to be frank. If you try to do all the wonderful and important things then you’ll be miserable: there’s simply too much to do and not enough time. And so there are some hard decisions to be made. Finish writing on deadline or go to the climate march, for instance. Both are important, but doing both would be stressful and unnecessary. I think I might come back to this in a future blog: the saying ‘no’ to things subject. It’s a big one. Tricky and important.

Here’s a tricky paradox: missing a place and being glad to be somewhere else. Ah, Paris, how you mess me around. Paris is EVERYWHERE, can I just say? I mean even when it’s not being shot up by nut-jobs, it is everywhere. I’ve been supervising NCEA exams and we confiscated a pencil case so it was sitting up the front, and it’s got the Eiffel Tower on it – of course! Paris is a hard place to leave behind anyway but seriously enough with papering the world in Eiffel Towers.

And then there’s an awful act of terrorism, so you have my permission again (not that you need it), and these past few weeks people keep saying to me, ‘you must be glad not to be there’, and I am. We were there in January for all the Charlie Hebdo palaver, and I am glad to miss out on all that stress and chaos and merde.

me and invalides

(Elena took this photo on the day that the Charlie Hebdo situation was shut down. We had an appointment in Paris and arrived early. We were waiting and she was playing with my phone. That’s Invalides in the background. I think it captures how tired, stressed, and overwhelmed I was feeling.)

But I also really want to be there. I want to hug my friends so, SO tight. Especially, but not limited to, those who lost friends at the Bataclan. I’m heartsick for them. One friend, a poet, has been posting little details of her day on facebook – about getting her bag checked at every shop, and not minding, but thinking the cursory glance in her purse wouldn’t likely catch anything dangerous if it were hidden in among the flotsam; about saying bonjour and merci to the guards outside the mosque – people she walks past every day and has never spoken to before. This is the stuff that makes me want to be there, and also so glad to be here.

But Christmas is coming, and being here in the sun wins.

summer wins

I am glad to be home and for summer coming, and pohutakawa blossoming up the road.

pohutakawa

Brandy snaps and pavlova and lots of bubbly and long evenings on the deck, with the barbecue and Adele crooning away in the background (probably just in my head because everyone else will be sick of her and her album will be banned in our house… it’s only a matter of time.)

in my head

Oh, I won’t.


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and the winners are…

Earlier this year, a couple of days after we got to Christchurch (after relocating from France and visiting people for a few weeks in the north island before tripping down the country) I applied for a program the NZ Society of Author’s runs each year, called ‘CompleteMS’. Basically, I want some editorial-flavoured feedback from someone in the writing and publishing industry. I’ve had helpful criticism and lovely praise from my writers’ group and assorted reader/writer-friends, and I know this particular story has its strengths but it isn’t getting bites from literary agents. There are many reasons literary agents don’t bite – it’s not all about the quality of the work but that’s a factor. So rather than rush head-long into self-publishing, or continue firing off queries to agents, hoping someone will fall head-over-heels for this manuscript in its current form, I’m hoping to lift my game a bit, take this novel up another notch.

So I applied and I’ve won one of the twelve assessments they award each year! Hurrah!

Thanks to The NZ Society of Authors and CreativeNZ, I’ll have some help from… mystery guest. I have no idea who my assessor is, but I’ve posted off the big, fat envelope. It’ll take a month or two to get the thing back, with notes and all that, and then there’s a work-shopping session, a chance to talk through the issues and next-steps. And then I’ll be ready to rewrite the thing, again. Make it magic. Fine-tune. Or, you know, rip out great hunks and suture the wounds.

It could happen. It’ll hurt but if that’s what it needs…

So, yeah, that’s my news. Yay! It feels like a big smack of a kiss of legitimacy, to have something I wrote recognised as kind of up-and-coming. I even get my bio on the NZSA website.

In the meantime, while I wait, I’m still working: rewriting another many-times edited manuscript, one that has already had some professional editing. It’s not a magic fix-all, and I’ve gone several rounds with this baby, even after those assessments. I suppose, for all that, my expectations of this CompleteMS thing are in-check. It’s an honour to be supported in my work, but I still have to do the work.

We’re in school hols so with 2 kids under-toe I’m scrabbling at time to get at the manuscript. After sunset, I say fair game and let the kids at their screens, and pour myself a glass of wine and try to switch on my brain (and yes, I’m aware that’s counter-intuitive). If I can just get into it a bit them the odd interruption won’t hurt: I can go make hot chocolates or find someone a dummy, or build a mattress “slide bridge” and then return to my page and pick up where I left off. But I have to get my head into what I’m working on to begin with, and some days that takes longer than others. I went and hid in my bedroom this evening and read a whole chapter aloud. Off the back of that I managed several new paragraphs, necessary because of the massive changes I’ve made in the previous three chapters (cut the bulk of two of them – bam. Ow.)

So, yeah, that’s me, word snatching when I’m a bit past it. Today we roller-skated.

That's how we roll

Tomorrow we’re hanging with friends, assuming we don’t get snowed in. Thursday we’re going to try gymnastics on for size. There’s a school holiday thing on with heaps of stuff to do… so we’re doing, rather than bumming around at home, getting annoyed at one another. Or that’s the goal. I’d get more writing/editing done if we stayed in, but I’d be fobbing off the kids and I do try to delay that till later in the day.


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The 100 Days Project

This year was the fourth year I’ve participated in the 100 Days Project. It is a creative exercise in which participants repeat the same artistic (little-a artistic, broad definition of art) process or task each day for 100 days. This is definitely of the quantity-over-quality-leads-to-quality school of thought.

I’ve done a variety of visual and written tasks in the past, and this year I combined the two in 100 lies we tell kids.

This year was the first year I’ve participated in the Day 100 Show. In fact, this year, there are three of these exhibitions. The Europe one was just for one day, in IJsselstein, in the Netherlands, but the Wellington show is on all week and the Auckland show is this coming weekend, so if you can get along, have a look at all the incredible collections people have put together over the past 100 days.

Day 100 show, Europe

The Day 100 Show, in Europe, at the IJsselstein Library, last Saturday.

100 lies we tell kids

My exhibit.

IJsselstein 100 day show

The ‘ninos’, the eyes, a few monkeys, and at the end the 5 year old twins’ ‘Hearts and Houses’ exhibit.

100 collages

100 collages.

100 eyes

100 eyes.

100 ninos

100 Ninos.

There were a dozen or so exhibitors and we managed to video chat, eventually, with Emma Rogan, the kiwi who started the whole project up a few years ago.

handy to have tech support on site.

In the foreground: Luuk, being tech support, and figuring out how to get around Emma’s hotel wifi restrictions… which did eventually work.

In the background: 100 octopuses!

My absolute favourite were the blind contour drawings, a style thing I’m definitely going to have to try.

blind contour drawings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This artist drew all sorts of things but the drawings themselves were all kinds of weird and wonderful.

pumpkins and giraffes

 

 

These giraffes were probably my favourite.

This the first time I’ve participated in an art exhibition and I absolutely loved it. Artistic community for the win, frankly, and going out for drinks and dinner and quadri-lingual conversation afterwards = all good. Bit tiring but GOOD.

The whole 100 days thing brings out some interesting stuff about artistic process and whatever it takes to call one’s self an artist. Some of the exhibitors displayed their work in day-by-day-order and I definitely noticed how the first half are kind of steady, good but perhaps a bit predictable, and then there’s a hitch in the middle, sometimes the quality isn’t so strong, motivation is low, perhaps a day or two get missed, but the second 50 days are really interesting. Things get a bit desperate, but creativity really comes into play. Those off-the-wall, bold ideas, which are hard to feel sure about at the time, come out, and often they’re the best bits of all. I’m very aware, as a writer, than when I’m working on a given scene I’m rarely certain of the quality of my work, and even if I’m certain, I’m not objective. I’m often wrong about the strength of my writing when I’m drafting it, but later I can see more clearly.

This project is a great way of gaining some confidence as an artist, to trust your own gut and try things, not expecting everything to work well, but knowing that good work comes out of LOTS OF WORK.

Luuk and I had the weekend on our own in the Netherlands. Mum arrived from NZ last Thursday and bravely babysat the kiddos for the weekend, despite jetlag. She’s staying for the holidays so we’ll be doing lots of Paris sights and perhaps Luuk and I will nab another couple of nights out with our handy live-in babysitter around. Louis is off school, though Elena’s nursery goes on as per usual, so Mum and I will have the kids with us most of the time – tomorrow, at the Louvre, and Thursday perhaps Montmartre.

As usual, I’m writing/editing in all the down-time – the kids are napping now, and whenever they’re busy playing I’ll snatch some words. I’m editing one project, though I got an editor’s report back on another this morning. A third is sitting in a couple of slush piles, and a fourth is probably a quarter of the way through draft 1 in my journal, perhaps ready to go for nanowrimo. Which may or may not happen, depending on my editing progress and the speed with which people get through their slush piles.

I have to say, it is rather good to have the 100 days project behind me. My photos and paintings and words from the project might, one day, boil down to make a fun coffee-table style book, but no mad rush there. It could make a good Christmas present, I suppose, but I just don’t see it happening in the next month or two. So if you want to read all the lies, have a scroll through my 100 days project page, here.


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finding pace

We’re back at it. Luuk’s at work, Elena’s at halte garderie (well, not this very minute. Right now she’s watching Monsters Inc. for the thousandth time), Louis is at school and I’m in the thick of revisions… again.

the kids and their friends

The kids are happy to be back in routine, and playing with all their buddies.

They’ve gone and changed up the school timetable, so Wednesday is now a school day – but a half day – and every other day wraps up at 4pm (used to be 4.30) which means everyone’s a bit confused… but three weeks in, it’s settling down.

I’ve found myself a french conversation group, and signed Louis up to stay after school on Thursdays so I can go. I’ve even got myself a little job – talking English with a kid for an hour a week. Yeah, it might cover the cost of printing all my drafts. But probably not.

lovely autumn

Lovely autumn

September is gorgeous in this bit of the world, if you can slow down enough to notice. They have a cheese and wine fair in Antony each year, which seems a wonderfully hedonistic way to celebrate.

cheese and wine fair

Foire au fromage et aux vins!

champagne at the antony foire au fromage et aux vins

My happy place: the champange tasting.

Last year it rained… but this year I think Luuk got a bit of sunburn. Needless to say, we are stocked up to our eyeballs. We will be eating a lot of cheese in the next few weeks. Wine, at least, lasts for a long time. But in our enthusiasm to taste it we have two bottles open right now – one has gone into a bowl with chicken (I’m gonna try coq au vin) and the other will be going into tonight’s risotto. (The chicken needs a day or two of swimming so we’ll eat it tomorrow.)

So we’re eating well. Surprised anyone?

There have been a few cool bits and bobs in the past couple of weeks:

– I met Margaret Atwood at the Festival America at Vincennes. And she signed a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale for me. I was not at all cool about it. Star struck silly, in fact.

handmaid's tale, signed by margaret atwood

– Elena is biking to school and garderie, so we’re inching toward the end of the pushchair.

elena on her bike

– There was writers’ group last week, and we tackled a whole novel. We’re all working away at novels and usually do a chapter from each, in a session. But for editing purposes, looking at a piece of work in its entirety can be hugely helpful, and it went very well.

photo (2)

 From beginning to end.

I also found it encouraging to read a complete manuscript, written by a member of our group, and next time we’re doing one of my whole manuscripts. There’s at least one other member with a finished one so perhaps we’ll tackle that (when said member gets back from hiking in Nepal…)

– There’s an election in NZ, in a couple of days in fact, and there have been lots of great conversations via social media. I’ve been particularly encouraged by how many of my former students are taking an interest and getting involved. One of my favourite units to teach was on government and democracy (link is to a great documentary) and five years later those kids are old enough to vote, and still give a damn. So, win!

– I’ve been reading ‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig – a downright brilliant book. Highly recommend. It’s not long or difficult, but wow, talk about tackling the big questions with humour and heart.

I feel like I’m forgetting something, but that might be it. Elena’s gone down for her nap so I’d better get back to my disgraced heroine and the unconventional earl she’s accidentally falling in love with. As you do.

 


  • 1

whelmed

It’s a lazy Sunday here, and tomorrow is 14 Juillet (known as Bastille day only outside of France, apparently). Sundays are so much nicer when Monday’s a holiday.

This is what we’ve been doing:

and a few minutes later:

Movies, music, food. Hanging out like pros.

It is summer holidays and so far so good. The weather has been lousy, and continues so today, but I got to the market, and we have friends coming around tonight. During the week, I crossed paths with friends who have kids, and we all keep each other company. I had writers’ group. Things are going okay.

And yet, I am feeling rather under-whelmed, just at the moment. I’ve been solidly working on writing for two and a half years now… and the reasonable bit of my brain knows I’m getting better, and I’ve written LOADS, but there’s a little bit of my brain, a bit that is both a) irrepressible, and b) immune to logic.

That dangerous cluster of neurons (I took science until they let me stop. I was 15. I don’t even know how to spell neurons. No squiggly red line – good) is getting me down.

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed by how much work goes into writing (and rewriting and editing) a decent novel. I’m not a naturally gifted wordsmith. I’m not a speedy reader. I have to work hard at this stuff.

working, at the playground

Working hard. At the playground.

I’ve been working hard for two and a half years now. That’s as long as it took me to get my B.A. – which you might argue is about as useful. I had to do another year of study on top of my degree before it made me employable. And there was always more to being employable than those qualifications.

It’s possible that publication, or even finding a literary agent, is a ways off. Maybe not, but maybe. I actually had a dream last night, in which a friend, who has written a lot less than me, got a book deal. If that were to happen, sure I’d be very happy for them, but I’d also be angry. I’m a little bit angry anyway. And it was just a dream! Two people I studied with have prize-nominated published books, and one of them won the freekin’ Booker.

Now, I know, comparison is a foolish idea. But there it is. The brain goes there anyway, don’t it?

 

writer with angst

Louis, with writers’ angst.

I’m terribly impatient. And most of my anger is to do with impatience. If I stick at this long enough (and I will because I love writing) then surely it will pay off… eventually.

Exactly what ‘paying off’ looks like, might not be just what I think it is now.

I recently had one (of seven – oy vey) of my manuscripts assessed and got comprehensive editorial feedback from a professional in the publishing industry. There are lots of positives in her report, but what I was seeking (and what I got) was advice on how to lift my game.

I’ve got plenty of work to do. Perhaps not all of it is strictly NECESSARY. But I do intend to go through the entire thing again and fix up that which is (now) obviously improvable. And for a while, before I touch it, I need to just think about what I want to do. Especially about the opening chapter. (But I really am horribly impatient.)

so many words

So many words.

One of the discouraging things is that two of the editor’s concerns are to do with things I added, relatively recently, in response to other people’s feedback! (Including the opening chapter.) I made big gut-wrenching changes… and it’s possible they didn’t work. It’s always frustrating to try something and have it not work.

But it’s part of the learning process, says the reasonable bit of my brain. Writing is not all you do. Writing is not all you are.

Look at your lovely kids and all the things they’re learning. Look at that fantastic feast you’re slapping together without a recipe and when did you start understanding french on the radio???

But still. Gr. Writing a book is a slog. A first draft is something I now find easy, but that is far and a long ways from a book. In fact, what happens to first drafts, in this house…

That about sums it up.

 


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the plot thickens

… but it all comes out well in the end.

I have a whopper of a bruise on my leg. We visited the netherlands a couple of weekends back (goodness, has it been that long?) and while there, we went to a monkey-centric zoo. It was a fantastic afternoon for us all, but this place, Apenheul, is very well set-up for the kids. The playgrounds are modelled on the spaces designed for the monkeys to play in. I was always so jealous of the monkeys’ ropes and swings and climbing frames when I was a kid. There was this one rope swing and no one around, so I showed Louis and Elena how it worked.

 

I grabbed the rope, took a few steps back and leapt on. I wrapped legs around the rope, hooked my ankles and ouch. The knot, which is supposed to keep my bum from slipping off the bottom, dug right into my leg. Now surely I’ve done this a hundred times as a kid, and yes, I was always wondering where all my bruises came from, but what a shiner! I look like someone took a piece of 2×4 to my leg.

They didn’t. I was just being a monkey. We were up in the Netherlands for Luuk’s family reunion, which was so much fun I forgot to take any photos. We drove up on Saturday, went to see the monkeys.

at apenheul

The kids freaked out a little. Mainly because the monkeys were climbing on the pushchair. The next day we wandered around the palace grounds, in the town where we’d stayed.

wandering around the palace

Wore the kids out so they’d sleep before the family reunion.

The reunion was at a little hotel. We basically drank and ate all afternoon – ham rolls, apple tart, a buffet of quiches, soup, and finally a few chocolates for the road. The dutch were playing in the football, so a large proportion of the family gravitated to the tv. The hotel sent us packing at half time so some went to the food festival across the way, who had the match on, but we had tired kids, so we headed to our hotel. We listened to the commentary, in dutch, in the car. It was amazing how much I could pick up just from tone of voice.

The next day we had coffee with Luuk’s brother and his wife, and with Luuk’s uncle and aunt, and then lunch, and then we drove on to another city to visit Luuk’s grandmother.

pressies from oma
There were presents for the kids. And food. Everywhere we went. All we do in the Netherlands is eat. Yeah, because that’s so different from when we’re at home…

IMG5828

Photo I took day after we got back.

We returned for Louis’ last week of school. He is now on summer holidays, les grandes vacances. He is going to a holiday program three days a week, which is even longer days than school. I was nervous on Monday. I made sure he was at the same program as a friend. But he was ready to go off with the other kids before said friend even arrived. Monday evening he didn’t really want to leave. Yesterday he painted a castle.He’s off today, but looking forward to tomorrow.

I tend to dread school holidays. I used to be a teacher so this is quite the turn-around. But with Louis at the holiday program and Elena doing halte garderie as per normal, until the end of July, I’m able to go on as usual, or close to it.

I finished my mad-cap novel, the one I dashed out in under three weeks, and now I’m juggling two projects: edits of a contemporary novel that my writers’ group is helping me revise, and an adaptation of my other historical novel into a screenplay. I’m not sure it’s fantastic screenplay material, but I want to get all the way through the process of writing a screenplay. Writing one from scratch will be less daunting if I’ve done it before.

 

Meanwhile, Luuk and I have finally made some plans for our summer holiday. We have three weeks in which to rest and see some sights. We were initially dreaming of a couple of lazy weeks sandwiched between a little sight-seeing in Greece or Croatia, but the cost of flying there is a little daunting. If we drive, we can stop at sights along the way, but that’s a whopping great drive. We started looking at those ‘sights along the way’ and we’ve decided to skip Greece and Croatia, for now, and instead will dip into Switzerland, Northern Italy (things we didn’t see last summer), Austria and a little southern Germany.

Perhaps we’ll be more organised next year, snag us some early-bird cheep airfares, and gallop around (cough-laze-about-cough) the Adriatic next summer.

Tell him he’s dreamin’.


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wrong side of midnight

We keep staying up far too late for people whose children like the wrong side of seven in the morning. I could blame the football but that would be reductionist and dishonest.

I’ve been writing a new novel, a first draft, a rip-roaring tale that has whipped me into a frenzy. Everything and everyone have been an eensy bit neglected because I’ve been doing this:

mad cap typing

I drop Louis at school then take Elena to the playground so that I can sit there with my journal and get down the next paragraph while she stands at the top of the slide and says ‘coucou’ to me and anyone else who looks at her.

words at the playground

When she’s done, we go home and play for a little while then I give her her lunch and I write. And then I put her down for her nap, and I write. I eat my lunch and click on things I mean to read later, but instead, I write.

typing like a crazy lady

I take Elena to halte garderie, and then I write until I have to pick Louis up from school. We eat afternoon tea at the park and talk about what he ate for lunch and which kids were mean and who he loves (his choice of words is perhaps a little influenced by his using french all day). And then I coax him into going to play with the other kids. I write a bit. I look around and can’t see Louis and panic for two seconds, and then he throws a stick up in the air, it gets stuck in a tree and needs my help throwing other sticks at it in order to get it down…

cafe dates with the wee man

The last few days he’s been asking if we can go to the cafe. Unfortunately, the closest cafe makes a lousy coffee, but they know how to do Louis’ not-hot chocolate and 4.30 isn’t too early for a glass of wine. Or ice cream. Louis will do drawings and eat his not-hot chocolate off his spoon… which takes forever.

In the evenings, if there’s a french or dutch or interesting football game on, then I tend to type up all those playground words and then type-on.

writing like a machine

Yeah, 50k in 2 weeks. That’s a first.

It’s a miracle we’re not half-buried in dirty laundry, basically. The weather has been good. I’m strangely on top of Laundry. In fact, not for the first time it strikes me that I’m am most productive words-wise when I am actually pretty busy. Creativity energizes me, and busyness kicks me in the bum a bit – any minute I get to write, I write. If there’s time to spare then… no, wait, that never happens.

So, I don’t know what the magic ingredient is. Maybe a strong story. No dull bits in this one, baby. Plenty of vitamin D doesn’t hurt. The knowledge that we’ll be here for another whole year. In fact, I even know what we’re doing after that. For the first time in a long time, I can see the future (sort of). Luuk is signing on to return to Christchurch FOR CERTAIN in August of next year. Not only do I know we’ll be in France for another year but I know where we will be after that. We have been sitting on uncertainty fence for so long I forgot it was kinda uncomfortable.

Plus, we’re going on holiday in six weeks, or so, and that works a bit like a deadline. There’s more than writing to do in the meantime. We got Louis and Elena all signed on for next year for school and halte garderie. We had Louis’ school end of year do last weekend. Sunday school finished up too.

sunday school certificates

Sunday school certificates!

Elena’s nursery doesn’t wrap up for another month, but some people go on holiday in July so they’re doing things like photos now:

Elena with teachers and friends

 

There were options. She wasn’t smiling in any of them. But her buddy on the bottom right has moved to another city, so I picked the one with him in it. He also does a fantastic photo-grump-face. Kudos Josua.

My french class finished already (Josua’s Dad is off to play for another rugby team, and our Tutor had to go to Brazil with a whole lot of other people for something or other.) I need to get organised to sign up for classes starting in September. Inscriptions have already been and gone for some things. It’s all a bit mad here at the moment, if I’m honest.

This weekend we’re off to the Netherlands for Luuk’s family reunion. If the kids are chilled and the roads are straight (they basically are if you don’t mind the tolls) then I might be writing on the road. Perhaps I’ll finish this draft in long-hand.

Better take an extra journal.