Annabel Smith/Gillian O'Shaughnessy
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot Review - Australian Book Review, February 2013
2012 was an exciting year for me in a bookish sense. I read many great books, had a novel published, and became an avid user of social media. I decided to set some bookish goals for 2013 in all of these areas:
Though I’ve been a member of Goodreads for a while, 2012 was the first year I faithfully recorded every book I read. Last year I started 65 books, of which I finished 52 (abandoning 13 due to lack of interest). This year I wanted to challenge myself to finish a few more books.
Bookish Goal #1 Read 64 books (1 each week plus one bonus book each month)
2012 is also the first year I’ve ever taken part in a reading challenge, which was the Australian Women Writers (AWW) Reading and Reviewing Challenge. This made me pay attention, for the first time, to the nationality and gender of the authors whose books I was reading. At the end of the year I made a super-nerdy spreadsheet which included, among other things, the country of origin for each book I read and the author’s gender. I discovered that 90% of my reading is fiction from the USA and that I read twice as many books by male authors as by female. Though I read a lot of great books last year I’d like to read more Australian books as well as reading more widely from the rest of the world, and I’d like to try to balance the sales in terms of gender:
Bookish Goal #2 Read 12 books by Australian women writers and share my reviews with the AWW Challenge community.
Bookish Goal #3 Read one translated book per month. In order to stay on track with this I’ve signed up for the Translation Challenge hosted by Curiosity Killed the Bookworm and I’ll be following reviews on Winston’s Dad which specialises in translated fiction.
2012 was a year of firsts for me, as it is also the first time I took part in a meme, (yes! I’m talking about Top Ten Tuesday) which I stumbled across via Hollie from Music, Books and Tea. Reading the lists each week, I kept seeing the same books appear over and over again, books which I’ve always meant to read and have for various reasons, avoided, or never made time for. Which leads me to my next goal:
Bookish Goal #4 Catch up on some neglected modern/contemporary classics, including:
· We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
· Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
· Underworld, by Don DeLillo
· Franny & Zooey by JD Salinger
· The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
· Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
· Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolf
My second novel was published in November 2012. The first print run was of 3000, of which approximately 1500 have sold so far.
Bookish Goal #5 Sell 3000 copies of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Yep, I’m shooting for a reprint…halfway there. You can help me reach my goal by buying my book, requesting it at your local library and/or adding it to your to-read list on Goodreads. If you need convincing you can read this review or those on Amazon or Goodreads.
Bookish Goal #7 Complete a first draft of my new novel, Ciudad. I have literally just started this novel (only 10,000 words in) and will be busy trying to get The Ark out into the world, but I hope I can still make some steady progress on this one.
I started my blog in 2011 but I only wrote three posts in that entire year! Last year I blogged pretty regularly, but have been disappointed by the lack of response to many of my blog posts:
Bookish Goal #8 Attract more engaged readers to my blog i.e. people who leave comments. I’ve done a lot of reading around this, and followed many of the suggestions I’ve come across, but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. I welcome more suggestions…in the comments!
Bookish Goal #9 Grow my audience. Last year I created a Facebook page and started Tweeting and I’d love to connect with more readers on those networks. If you haven’t already done so, I’d love to hear from you on Facebook or Twitter.
Bookish Goal #10 Discover and connect with more like-minded readers and bloggers. Through both Top Ten Tuesday and the AWW Challenge I discovered a whole new world of people who love books enough to spend their spare time blogging about them, and I look forward to discovering more in 2013.
Phew! Looking back at this list, it feels a bit overwhelming. But I’m sure I’ll have some fun in the process of working towards these things.
Your turn: What bookish goals have you set for 2013? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read? A novel you want to start writing? I’d love to hear about it.
After a long fallow period following the publication of my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, 2012 has been an exciting year for me creatively, with the publication of my second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. Like all writers I have also had plenty of rejections, unsuccessful applications for residencies and grants, slower progress than hoped on various projects and other frustrations and setbacks. Overall though, I feel that the achievements have far outweighed the disappointments for me this year.
Some of my highlights have been:
- Publishing my second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot
- Receiving an inaugural Creative Australia Fellowship from the Australia Council
- Finishing a second draft of my third novel The Ark
- Contributing the ‘Year in Australian Fiction’ Essay to Westerly Journal
- Publishing a short story in Southerly Journal
- Starting a fourth novel, titled Ciudad
- Reading 52 books (and giving up on 14)
- Keeping track of all my reading and writing reviews on Goodreads
- Writing 69 blog posts
- Starting tweeting and gaining 147 followers (best Twitter moment: receiving a reply to a Tweet I wrote to Margaret Atwood!)
- Signing up for the Australian Women Writers Reading & Reviewing Challenge
- Taking part in the Top Ten Tuesday Meme
Your turn: How has 2012 been for you creatively? Have you written an end-of-year round-up? Please feel free to link to it in the comments.
Lately, I’ve become interested in the concept of ‘story arcs’. An arc is essentially, the journey from the opening of a story to the resolution of a conflict, via the peak of the crisis, and in its most basic form it looks something like this:
When I wrote my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, I gave no thought to story arcs. It was not because I didn’t think they were important, but because I had no understanding of the mechanics of how to write a novel. I just sat down and wrote what came out. As a result, I wrote a book which, though praised for the beauty of its language and its emotional depth, didn’t really keep people up at night.
My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, centres on the story of a man in a coma, which is, by definition, a state in which nothing happens… not exactly page-turner material. Intuitively I understood that the stasis of Whisky’s condition had to be punctuated by a series of dramatic episodes. Some of these came from research into secondary complications of coma (for example, a life-threatening spike in temperature) and others came from flashbacks to Whisky’s life before his accident.
Inadvertently, I had stumbled across the concept of story arcs, though I still didn’t call them this. But what I learnt from writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is that the larger arc of the story actually comprises several smaller arcs. The number of arcs, and the shape (i.e. steepness) of their curves relates directly to the levels of tension for the reader, and, if combined with ‘cliff-hanger’ endings, create that feeling of being literally unable to put a book down. So a book with a really thrilling story might have a story arc that looks more like this:
via Darcy Pattison
These kind of story arcs are traditionally more associated with ‘genre’ fiction i.e. murder mysteries, thrillers, etc But there is undoubtedly a new wave of ‘literary-genre’ fiction, as exemplified by books like Hugh Howey’s speculative fiction Wool, and Justin Cronin’s zombie/vampire trilogy The Passage. These books carry all the hallmarks of literary fiction – complex multi-faceted characters, settings rendered in great detail, descriptive language, engaging dialogue etc But on top of this, they have the heart-in-your-mouth thrills and spills of epic adventure stories.
My writing process for my first three novels has been what you might call ‘organic’ i.e. unplanned. But I am about to begin a new novel, tentatively titled Ciudad, and for the first time, I am going to plot it in advance, using my new understanding of story arcs. The overall story arc involves a naïve young monk, a cocaine-addicted mad scientist and a super-intelligent monkey in a race against time to save a group of mute children from being sacrificed by an evil priestess, before a tsunami strikes their city. It sounds completely crazy, right? But wait, there’s more. Some of the mini story arcs I plan to incorporate include a punch-up in a brothel, a duel and a prison break-out. Eat your heart out Dan Brown!
What are your thoughts on story arcs? Do you use them in your writing? Or notice them in your reading? What kind of incidents do you think make for excellent mini-arc episodes? Make me a list in the comments and I’ll take on the challenge of putting them in my new book. And don’t hold back!
Time-lapse video of the launch of my novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by www.facebook.com/imagesbycarlo
The story so far… I wrote a book. Some smart people told me how to make it better, and I did. Four years later, I was ready to get it out into the world, into the hands and hearts of eager readers. All I had to do was find a publisher.
Yes, stage three of the journey to a book is: finding a publisher.
This part of the journey is a little like when Frodo gets to Mordor. Dark forces are at work. You can trust no one. The quest seems unattainable. Alas, that’s where the Lord of the Rings analogy ends. Because, unlike Frodo’s ring, which every man and his orc wanted a piece of, no one seemed to want my book.
I’ve already written about my failed attempts to find a literary agent. Next, I boosted my rejection collection with letters from the few publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts. No matter how polite their rejection, I knew what they were really saying.
An ordinary trip to the mailbox could ruin my
day week month.
I reponded to rejection in the time-honoured ways - by drinking heavily and eating excessive quantities of chocolate. I considered the possibility that maybe my book just wasn’t good enough, that it was time to send it to the dreaded bottom drawer. But every time I re-read it, my confidence returned. I told myself that the right person just hadn’t seen it yet, and sent it out again.
Then, one fateful day, I received a phone call, and a voice said
- Hi, this is Georgia Richter, Fiction Editor at Fremantle Press
My first thought was, I can’t believe they do their rejections by phone! I mumbled something resembling a greeting, and the voice said
- I just finished reading Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and I LOVED it.
Say whaaaaaaaaaat? I had found the right person! She ‘got’ my book!
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Oh, and while you’re busy clicking, would you like to sign up to my email newsletter?
At a certain point in the writing of a novel, the time comes to show the work to someone else. It’s a frightening phase characterised by wild mood swings encompassing both paranoid delusions - They’re going to tell me it’s a masterpiece! - and paralysing self-doubt - It’s worthless! But they’ll be too scared to tell me!
My Writing Trio
Blogger Karenlee Thompson wrote a post about the benefits of being in a writers group which I wholeheartedly agree with. While writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot I had the good fortune to be a member of a writing trio which also included Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy. Amanda and Robyn were each working on their debut novels at that time and we met every month or so to critique each other’s work. Being critiqued as I wrote was like having a compass - I might stray off course occasionally but I could find my way back before I’d gone too far.
My first novel contained almost no dialogue, and I was a little frightened of writing it. In early scenes from Whisky Charlie Foxtrot Amanda and Robyn both commented that it was when my characters started talking that the scenes really came alive. Their encouragement led to the novel becoming more dialogue and relationship-driven, which in turn allowed humour to emerge, despite the somewhat dark subject matter.
When I had a draft ready, I sent it out to a group of six beta readers, of both sexes, and ranging in age from 35 to 65. While it’s tempting to share your book with the kind of friend who will tell you how wonderful it is, it’s ultimately more helpful to have people who’ll tell you what doesn’t work, and even more helpfully, why. And this they did. My long-term mentor Richard Rossiter told me that my central character was a ‘dickhead’. Ouch! On the other hand, three of my readers told me that they ‘loved’ the character of Rosa. (You win some, you lose some). Katie told me that Whisky wouldn’t drink a soy latte. Lucinda told me that she feigned sickness because she couldn’t wait til the end of the working day to finish the book.
Part of me cursed them for giving me feedback which entailed the indignity of…rewriting! And part of me is eternally grateful to them for helping to make my book much, much better.
Tune in next week to find out about the psychosis-inducing phase of finding a publisher.
You might also like: Journey to a Book (I) - Write the damn book!
What a crazy little thing a book is. It begins as an idea in one person’s mind, and eventually ends up on a whole host of strangers’ bookshelves. But what happens in between? I’m not too sure how it works for JK Rowling, for instance, but I can tell you how it’s happened for me, with my soon-to-be-released novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot.
There are a number of steps on the journey to a book, most of which are at best gruelling, and at worst soul-destroying. Sounds like a blast, hey? So what are we waiting for?
Step 1: Write the damn book!
I think Ernest Hemingway described this step in the process quite succinctly:
Yikes. Tell it like it is, Hem. Actually, though, writing doesn’t feel like that for me. It’s hard work, but satisfying, in that ‘I-just-planted-a-field-of-corn’ kind of way.
My approach to writing is pretty organic. When I begin a new novel I don’t have a plot outline, or character sketches - just a couple of ideas that come together in my mind and make sparks fly, and then I sit down and see where those ideas take me. In this case, I had the idea of structuring a novel around the radio alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie etc), and I had the character of Charlie, one half of a pair of twins. The rest grew as I wrote. I relate very much to the quote by EL Doctorow:
[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I wrote Whisky Charlie Foxtrot longhand on the backs of old bills, training materials (from my day job) and other assorted pieces of scrap paper, (which tell their own story, if anyone would are to look for it).
There’s something revealing about writing in longhand. Re-writing the same sentence, two, three, or even four times, it was clear which words or phrases weren’t working. Once I was happy with the draft of a scene, I would type it up, and then there would be more changes.
The first part of this novel was written on the dining table of my flat in East St Kilda. After I moved back to Perth, I wrote at the State Library. I was the unofficial shushing monitor of the third floor. I had three grades of shushing but on the rare occasion that this failed, I wasn’t afraid to escalate it. I’m all for chit-chat but there’s a time and a place …
Have you ever read one of those articles about people who write novels in six weeks? Well, this isn’t going to be one of those. A lot of other things happened while I was writing this book, including moving interstate, having my first novel published, falling in love, getting married, moving house, changing jobs and moving house again. Oh, and did I mention HAVING A BABY? (Which, though it has its upsides, is not a recommended strategy for finishing a book).
Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen, but, four years from when I started, I came to the end. I didn’t type THE END because that’s just too cheesy. But I knew I had reached it…
So there you have step 1. Tune in next week for the rivetting soul-destroying section.
Last week in The Guardian, Rick Gekoski published an article on the importance of editing, in response to the revelation that esteemed publisher Victor Gollancz didn’t believe in it:
‘If I were an author I would sooner starve than let anyone hack my book about.’ Woah there, Victor!
Thankfully, Fremantle Press does not share Gollancz’s view on editing. Because the thought of my work making its way into the world without being edited fills me with dread.
For starters, I don’t know how to use commas. No, I am not being facetious. I have a PhD in English, I teach English as a Second Language at a reputable institution and yet from the editing of my first and second novels I have come to understand that the placement of commas is a complex problem I may never fully fathom. You place a comma where you would pause for breath, right? Wrong! Commas allegedly adhere to either end of a clause. But what even is a clause? And does anyone actually care? Apparently, yes.
At a ‘meet the author’ event for A New Map of the Universe, a bitter, mean little man monopolised the evening telling me, at length, all the things he didn’t like about my book. Then, when coffee was being served and I thought the ordeal was finally over, he approached me to show me, in a page he had specially marked, a sentence in which he believed I had a misplaced comma. Having done battle with my editor over that very comma I felt confident it was in the only place it was reasonably allowed to be. And I told him so. Ah, revenge is sweet.
Of course, I do not presume to diminish the editing profession by suggesting all they do is shift tiny black slugs around a page. Editors have a startling memory for individual words. They encounter a word like ‘blessing’ for example, and something lights up inside their brains, Hmm, wait a minute, I’ve read that word before, only a couple of pages ago, I think, yes, here it is, page 74. They bring it to your awareness. Are you comfortable with this word appearing twice in such close proximity? There are 6416 different words in Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. I know because I downloaded a program to give me exactly such data. My editor could give me this same data without the benefit of software; like a sixth sense.
Editors are also rigorous fact checkers. I am the first to admit I am a sloppy researcher. (I am ashamed of this, but not sufficiently ashamed to change my ways). In my first novel, one of my characters travelled cross country from one town to another. I used the old atlas-and-piece-of string-method to guestimate the distance. Resourceful, I thought. My editor, employing more precise calculation methods, told me that my character had ended up somewhere in the ocean. Fail!
And what about anachronisms? Charlie and Whisky’s dad buys a copy of Moonlight Shadow in 1979? Impossible! Mike Oldfield hadn’t even written the darn song yet. Charlie gives his views on Tom & Nicole’s breakup at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999? Nope, sorry, they didn’t break up until 2 months later. Of course these things don’t affect the story in fundamental ways. But there seem to be people who read books with a metaphorical nit comb in hand, scrutinising for mistakes of any kind. One old dear, bless her socks, wrote me a letter, c/o UWA Publishing, after A New Map of the Universe came out. Look! I said to my husband. My first fan mail! Alas, it turned out to be an explanation of a technical error in my description of church bellringing during World War II.
Today, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot went to press. Any errors that have slipped through the editorial net are there for eternity. In November, when the book begins to make its way into people’s hands and minds, out will come the nit combs. So be it.