Archive for the ‘On Writing: The Novel’ Category

Gillian Polack is an Australian hsitorian and writer of fantasy. She is the author of the novel Life Through Cellophane, edited Masques (CSFG) and the new anthology for Eneit Press, Baggage, which contains stories from such luminaries as Kaaron Warren and Deborah Biancotti. She has written fantastic entries for one of the most useful books on my shelf, Lindahl’s Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. She’s also a medieval foodie and she bloggeth here.

1. You recently edited the Baggage anthology for Eneit Press – how did that come about?
I thought it came about because I was involved in a discussion with my editor (of Life Through Cellophane) about my dream book, but it recently transpired that she set the whole thing up. In other words, Eneit Press wanted an anthology from me, because Sharyn rather thought I could do something she would want to publish.  From my end, though, it went something like:

Sharyn Lilley:  “What’s your dream anthology?” 

Gillian Polack: “Cultural baggage, of course, Australian and very spec fic.  Pushing boundaries.  Giving writers nightmares.” 

Sharyn Lilley: “Who are your dream writers?” 

Gillian Polack:  “In the real world, I’d have to think about it.  In a perfect world, I’d start with Jack Dann and Janeen Webb and Lucy Sussex and KJ Bishop and Simon Brown and Maxine McArthur and Kaaron Warren and…” 

Sharyn Lilley:  “Write to them today.  Just the first ones on the list, mind.  You can write to the others later, if there’s space.  Offer them a place in Eneit Press’s new anthology.”

Gillian Polack: “But I’m shy.”

Sharyn Lilley:  “Don’t care.  Write now.  This minute.”

Those weren’t the exact words, but that was how it happened.  I never even got to the rest of my list of dream writers, because the first list mostly said ‘yes.’  And their stories gave at least three of the writers nightmares.  I thought I was sweetness and light and a gentle soul, but it seems not.

2. You get to be your favourite fictional character for a day with no consequences: who are you, where do you go and what do you do?
I am so torn. I want to be Belle from the Disney cartoon, simply so that I can own her library.  I’d find the lost books of Livy there and spend my day reading them. Or I’d look up the books that have the unwritten Jewish history I’ve only seen hints of in stories.

I also want to be Aslan, so that I can fix up the Susan error and create my own world. 

I want to be Emma in Emma Tupper’s Diary and to be non-meek and still inherit the Earth (why does she have to be so nice and so gentle, even under provocation?).

I want … to be a bunch of characters, not just those few.  There are too many things to do and too many places to imagine.  I think I’d better give up and become a writer.

3. You are forced to choose: editing or writing?
Writing, of course. With writing I still get to edit, but with editing it’s always the dreams of others.  I hope I never have to choose, though, because the dreams of others are so very wonderful.

4. How much does your academic work feed into your fiction writing?
Who I am feeds into my fiction writing.  The academic side of my brain shows in my fiction, if you look closely enough. I edit my own work so that you can pin it down to a precise time.  No vaguely ‘contemporary’ for me, because I can see the history happening and I use it in my writing.  If I set a novel in 2004 in Canberra, then there are going to be scars from the bushfires.  Not just landscape scars, but in peoples’ minds.  This is the historian in me, reminding the writer in me that place and time count.  We’re not neutral about them.

On a more obvious note, I’m currently writing a novel mostly set in the Middle Ages, but with modern characters.  That uses my academic self extensively.  The trick is going to be not letting the historian take over and not overload the whole thing with footnotes and analysis. 

There’s a third direction where my academic self feeds into my fiction self. Very little of my fiction is free from theses.  I don’t always make them obvious, but they’re there. I’m always poking holes in someone’s ideas and prized thoughts with my fiction.

5. Donuts (or doughnuts) or danishes.
It depends on the recipe.  It depends on the date of the recipe.  If you added ‘the early 80s’ to your question, I’d say danishes for Australia and doughnuts for the US, for instance.  I like both, though.  Good ones.  The sort you can’t eat more than once a year without losing a bit of your soul.


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… I can generally spell, but numbers are not my friends – I find them sneaky and dishonest and unreliable. I don’t care if the Fibonacci Numbers have a cool name. I am, for all intents and  purposes, innumerate.

However, I’ve been pulling the various bits of the novel together – in manner of Frankenstein’s monster – since I drew up the plan last week. I’ve been rearranging what I’ve written and putting it into integrated chapters as well as writing new bits. My inner critic (whose name is Estelle) has been shut up by the simple expedient of putting her in a corner of my brain with a bottle of Jameson whisky and the biggest imaginary box of Lindt choclits in the world – with her thus distracted I am moving forward in a productive manner. Wonderful things, those imaginary boxes of choclit for distracting inner critics.

I’m not finished yet, obviously, but I just did a rough count with the help of Excel (I need help – I am the Ralph Wiggam of numbers – and the Zokutu Word Metre seems to have disappeared from the Universe) and it appears that I’ve gathered 46125 words in one place. There’s another stray 30000 lying around somewhere else … some of them are even in order. So, that’s almost 80000 … that’s almost a whole novel. That’s almost the first draft.

Oh, my. Where’s my fainting couch? The end of June deadline for the first draft may just be workable – hideous tragedy notwithstanding. On this, my forty-twoth birthday weekend, on this most portentous and significant in a Douglas Adams nerd-cred kind of way weekend, what might I achieve? Apart from eating a lot of cake? Probably just eating a lot of cake … maybe I can get some of those imaginary choclits from Estelle.

Yes, this post comes under the heading of ‘random thought’.

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So, here I sit back at work after a week away, doing nothing but writing.

Okay, I lie.

I didn’t just write. I threw temper tantrums. I ate astonishing amounts of choclit and consumed such vast quantities of sugar that for brief periods (before the inevitable sugar crash) I could power small villages. I threw myself onto the eighteenth century fainting couch, rested my dainty hands against my forehead and wailed ‘Woe is me’ on more than one occasion. I wandered around the house in a clockwise direction; then in an anti-clockwise direction (although I did nothing that could be described as ‘dancing Widdershins’, for which we can all be grateful). In short, I indulged in a fair amount of struggling writer/angsty artist/drama queen behaviour.

The most worthwhile thing I did was make a plan as it became apparent to me that I was well beyond the point where I could simply float along with the story. I needed a map. I drew up a table with each chapter title in it and dot points about what happened in each chapter, so the whole novel was scoped out. As a companion piece to the chapter map I made a list of which bits I had actually written (a surprising amount); then I noted the bits I had yet to write.

Now I am filling in the blanks.

A conversation with the frequently wise Peter Ball reminded me that I don’t have to write thousands of words in one sitting (I mean, it’s nice if I do, but I don’t have to). All I need to do is work in 250 words increments. Do one lot of 250, then another, then another. Just like eating an elephant: one bite at a time.

I started the week with my usual style of squeezing 2,000-3,000 words out in a sitting, with recess periods devoted to weeping and wailing and inhaling choclit. And, of course, castigating myself for not writing more, faster, better, harder, higher!  Then I had the chat with Pete.

It is, I am the first to admit, difficult for me to change my process. I am very much a creature of habit: I can always be found in front of The Simpsons weeknights at 6 (in fact, one of my friends maintains that I could be easily led into an ambush purely by the playing of The Simpsons’ theme music); Saturday mornings always begin with making the pot of coffee, then walking to the newsagent for The Weekend Australian). I like my habits, I find them comforting and predictable when there’s so much else over which I have no control. So changing is a challenge for me – but even I recognize when my old behaviours are no longer working; when they are simply a habit (as JVDM has pointed out in Booklife, a habit is not a process). So, I gave the 250 word increment a go and, having tried it, I’ve found it worked.

The last time I tried to change a process, it was to start getting up early in the morning to write before work. It failed miserably – a bit like trying to graft wings onto a warthog, really. I’m never going to be that kind of writer, if only because my blood doesn’t circulate before 9am. But the writing in chunks thing, that’s a manageable, measureable, achievable goal and it’s delimited by a time period. So, on the four days a week when I work, my goal is simply 250 words before I cook dinner – rewarding myself with dinner is quite effective. At the end of those 4 days I have 1,000 words – huzzah! The other three days a week, the designated writing days, I am obliged to do considerably more than that – but in increments of 250. I can do increments of 250.

So, at the end of writing week?

I wrote about 10,000 words in the week, which is not bad when you consider the amount of time spent on histrionics. Ultimately, I’m not sure how many writers can resist the drama queen urge; maybe it’s just like a singer doing voice exercises. Or not … possibly those are the habits I’m just not ready to give up on yet :-).

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Some people call it ‘procrastination’ … I like to think of it as ‘contemplation’ .

So, as I sit here in my pyjamas (the ones with the feet in them), eating my yoghurt and kiwi fruit, slurping down the vanilla coffee, I am staring out the window of the study here at the ramshackle cottage. I am staring straight at the giant jacaranda tree – yes, the very same one that inpsired The Jacaranda Wife – and I’m thinking: “Surely, there’s another story in that damned tree.”

But alas, the tree is not playing nice … it’s just sitting there, dripping with lots of the rainy-rain that’s been falling, looking a little bedraggled.

Thus, I must look elsewhere for inspiration. I found this on a friend’s FB: “One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” (Hart Crane). Well, yes, that helps. Just let me go and fill the bathtub with words – a word bubblebath. Mmmm, impractical – or as one of my friends has often said of my theories “Mmmm, interesting but ultimately harebrained. ”

So, another coffee. Perhaps get into some grownup clothes and brush my hair. Start with a flense of a story for Jasoni. Then onto Tin Soldier, I think. More coffee. And I’ve worked out a way to fix Ingrid Lives in the Forest. Perhaps I can even begin the process of stretching Brisneyland by Night into a novella. There is also the next, uber-secret New Ceres project with DF and TRR. Ooops, I hope I didn’t say that out loud. And the collaboration with Brain Lisa. And the novel, Well of Souls (Sibylla is about to enter the book). It’s not as if there’s nothing to do. It’s about selecting the next thing to do.

Thus begins my writing Friday.

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Synopsis (noun) = a summary or outline; a brief general survey (Thank you, Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary).

And so the synopsis makes me cranky. What to leave in? What to leave out? What’s essential? What if you hand it over to the Important Readerish People and you realise you’ve forgotten to include that pivotal scene with the pink elephant?

So, as I try to summarise my 100K novel into three pages worth of prose, I get cranky and think “Well, honestly, if I can put it into three pages, then why am I freaking bothering with a novel?”

But I know that’s just The Cranky™ talking. And there is no choclit in the house. So, nothing for it but to keep the synopsification going. *sigh*

“Four women, one city, and the survival of a dynasty in the balance.”

Oh, okay. That sounds workable … now for the rest of the three pages.

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