Judging a Book by Its Back Cover

‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.'(Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy)

So, twenty-six days before the manuscript is due. Let’s be frank: I’m sweating bullets. The good news is I’m close. The bad news is I don’t know how much work there is left to do. It’s an unknown quantity. Do I need to spend fifteen minutes each day until 3 December, or do I need to spend five hours a day? I really can’t tell. How exactly do you know when it’s ready or good enough or just plain good? This is the beauty of having a deadline. The deadline forces you to admit that enough is enough. Hand it over. Time’s up.

I’m not sure if the publisher requires one, but I thought I’d write the back cover blurb as a bit of a self-indulgent exercise. They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but they don’t say anything about the back cover:

‘In a home that is 50 percent love, 50 percent abuse and 100 percent religious, a child is born*. Angelus Tama is the thirteenth child of seventeen. His father is a High Priest in The Church. He’s not really sure which of the women is his mother. In a way they all are.

Follow his journey as he hits the Real World. Or at least the most commonly accepted delusion known as the Real World. He’ll discover that there are laws that can be broken and Laws that you can only break yourself against. Oh, he’ll also try to kill himself.

Sex, psychiatric wards, writers’ groups and alcohol abuse. This book’s got it all.**

*The author is aware that this equals 200 percent and is therefore illogical, but the point stands. **Disclaimer: This book does not literally have it all.’

As for the cover, which you are not supposed to judge the book by, I’ve found someone to do that too. My high school friend has a sister, Angela Vink, who is an amazing graphic artist.

Things are falling into place, and hopefully, not apart. And I’ve saved the best news for last: I finally have a title. Get ready for it: Goldilocks & the Three Episodes. Available in all good bookstores.***

***Assuming the author meets his deadline.

Detours Create Richer Detail

I went to a Rongoa Māori course on Saturday. I learnt a lot, but one of the most valuable I got was a reminder of things we intuitively know. We just need to be still, watch, listen, and all will be revealed. We often find things that we weren’t even looking for.

We are so often conditioned to set off in pursuit of something and be so focused on that end that we forget to look for signs along the way. The wrong turns that we take are all part of the bigger picture. Instead of a delay in reaching our destination, they may well have something to offer us. We may arrive a little late but hopefully richer from the detour.

My writing the last fortnight has been flowing, maybe because I have let go of the outcome. I need to turn up and write, and someone else can judge or do whatever they will with the words. I would never have been this confident in my first week on the programme.

Last week signalled the beginning of school holidays. A holiday that has two of my children having birthdays and an influx of extra kids. Eleven to feed one night, and we live in the country! I was wondering how I would get my allotted words when Renée (my mentor) suggested we double my quota for the next three weeks. This was actually clever on her behalf because what I first thought was a daunting task seemed easy now she had doubled it.

The end part of my novel (which is now nameless, but I have a few ideas incubating) has plants woven through it. A reoccurring theme with the traditional Māori medicine is that the more you get to know the forest and all the trees and plants within, they’ll tell you everything you need to know.

I am trusting this to be true with the characters in my book. At the moment, Libby, my main protagonist, is sitting on the limb of a tree. I need to go and watch, sit with her a while, so I can see where she needs to go.

Living Out Loud: Juggling Life and Writing

Earlier this week, I sent my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill his winter jacket. It’s a little further south than here, so the seasons arrive a little later. Well, that is my excuse I wrote on the attached card.

He sent me an email back: ‘Thanks Grandma, but I’m a size seven now.’

In between everyday life, I have been reading the Paris Review online and the writer interviews, and I copy a quote every so often and paste and highlight in bold for inspiration. James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Richard Wright – they all spent time in Paris, even Faulkner, and Joyce and Beckett. Proust is a native; that doesn’t count. I am going to Paris because Nina Simone was there, and her music inspires me.

‘It takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.’  Maya Angelou on writing.

‘I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth.’ Maya Angelou.

Email catch-up to Reina. I have been a bit slack so need to get this thing moving. But not to worry about the outcome, just let it be, it is this … stay in the moment, this is the present and that is all that matters in the big picture.

Reina replies. Read it out loud to your husband, be a storyteller, it might help to find those areas where you have concerns, think about your characters, do you like them?

I had to get my husband’s attention, a place where he was sitting and still with no choice but to listen. Well, with men, there is only that one place, and somehow it just did not seem appropriate. So I read to my dog, Washburn. As a thirteen-year-old Labrador with a puppy brain and recently diagnosed with severe arthritis, it is not easy for him to get up and walk away. I moved his trampoline bed with its bio-mag mattress beside the fire and woke him each time he snored with Bomazeal treats. Some issues jumped out at me. Washburn cruised and slept and nudged my leg when he wanted his ear scratched.

Bruce Springsteen’s birthday coincided with Washburn’s big day out.

I played ‘The Boss’ on vinyl in kind regards and memories.

Washburn came home with a doggy bag.

Bomazeal, Rymadil and opiates (for severe pain) along with an appointment card for the next three Saturdays regarding follow up injections, and he may not improve until the final one, and after that an appointment every six months to monitor progress. Tonight, he is stiff and sore from the limb manipulation necessary for the X-ray poses, but I don’t think he minded that, anything for attention, that’s our Wash. He is hurting now, so we give him a Bomazeal treat with his Tux. ‘Mmmm,’ he grunts, ‘mmmm, I need to use the bushes, now.’ He doesn’t quite make it, but that’s what shovels are for. He limps back into his kennel, and we say goodnight. He is too tired to reply. It has been a big day.

I don’t suppose Bruce had quite the same experience, but the man that still sings ‘Born to Run’ is only sixty-one years old; in doggy years, Wash is ninety-one.

Life is a present occupation, a juggling act, between writing and everyday stuff.

Sometimes I spend my time writing stuff that is just that, stuff … it’s a break, that’s all.

……..

‘I want to read you something,’ he says.

He begins, ‘Once there was a small boy …’ his voice has a gentle smoothness, it lulls her, she is not listening for the story but is beguiled by the sound of his voice, every now and then he asks her a question, she nods her head, sometimes she nods at inappropriate times, because that was not the answer to the question, and there is a flicker of exasperation on his face, but it doesn’t last and he resumes. She becomes sleepy, drifting on the ocean of his words, he asks again if she is listening and she shakes her head, still he continues, she wafts in the swell, he reads, she is floating face up, the sun is warm, like his voice, they become one, his voice her body, her breath is his, they breathe together, the ocean is everywhere all around, they are the ocean.

‘Well,’ he says, finally, ‘What do you think?’

Once there lived a small dog …

Their neighbours ask, does your husband write, is he a writer, what does he write, does it pay, where can we see his books, are they in the library, is he famous?

Once there lived a small dog …

‘I want to read you something,’ she says.

She begins, ‘Once there lived a small dog. His name was Maz, his tail was neither the full length tail that might have curled up over his back, nor was it a wiggly stump, but in between, like a half smoked cigarette …’

Her husband snores and wakes himself. She is gazing out the window, the ash from his cigarette drops on to the duvet; he hears a dog bark, a boy laughing, the neighbour’s car in the driveway. He hears her scream.

All Work and No Play …

Oh no – it’s The Shining – I swear …

I am sitting in my little office and the door is closed, but I hear children making noises, dogs barking, cars passing by and a party going on next door. With so many little distractions, I can’t get a single word out of my head and onto the page.

I run a hand over my face and head – I haven’t shaved in days, and my hair is long and messy, and I am eating irregularly … I am not feeling myself.

The sun has set, and my computer is the only source of light and warmth. I’m hunched over the monitor like a man caught in a blizzard, struggling to survive the fierce elements. A line of dialogue suddenly sparks my imagination, and I return to my seat, crack my knuckles and begin typing – but the words do not fit the book: I realise I have written out a shopping list. WHY?

I have been alone too long – this office is definitely too small – maybe the walls are closing in. I make my way to the door. The screen monitor blackens, and the room becomes dark. My fire is dying – I can’t let that happen. I rush over to shake the mouse furiously and pray that it wasn’t a power cut. The screen brightens and heat returns, and the tower begins to whir and hum, playing that monotone song I find so damned intrusive … WMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM 

I strike the save icon – twice to ensure I have done it right – a third time to be absolutely positive my document is safe. I close the document and hold my breath – I open it and – YES! – nothing has changed.

But wasn’t that the problem to begin with?

Someone knocks at my door, but I ignore it. I pretend I’m not here. They inform me that tea is ready, but I am not hungry … I only want to get off this page and move onto the next, but I am all out of words. I grab my pad and paper and jot down a list of ideas – but at a glance I realise I have written out that stupid shopping list again. WHY?

My coffee is half-finished and cold – how did that happen? What time is it? I feel like a cigarette – but I don’t smoke … and that stupid page is still up on the screen, teasing me that it will never leave until I change that one line of dialogue that slows the pace of the story. But maybe I don’t want to change it – maybe I like it … but it reads funny … HA! HA! HA! No – not that kind of funny, but a shopping list kind of funny – a sad kind of funny …

WMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM … I hate that song now. I shut the computer down and rub my tired eyes. It’s time to return to reality.

I struggle to walk away, but the door opens and the smell of food arouses my appetite, and my son rushes up to hug me, and my wife greets me with a warm smile and asks how my project is going.

I turn and smile and reply ‘We need to get laundry powder and cornflakes.’

Tracing a Writer’s Whakapapa

What I think about when I think about writing?

I think too much.

This came after reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Think about When I Think about Running. He took the title of his book from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love.

Which led me to thinking about what influences writers.

When reading a particular writer whose works I enjoy, I like to know who they read, who has influenced them, who they admire, who inspires them. These paths broaden my own reading and influences. Often these paths lead back to the same  names. For example, two of my favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Mario Vargas Llosa, who both cite William Faulkner’s writing as an influence, and Faulkner has cited James Joyce.

I love Faulkner’s work, but I struggle with Joyce.

It is sort of like a writer’s whakapapa, tracing the roots of their writing.

My own writing seems so out of touch. There is no harmony; the words don’t match; the sentences are ambiguous; the plot is confusing; the characters are shallow. Why do I bother? I am feeling a bit of a fraud. It’s not easy. And I have to write a journal and expose my phoniness. It’s scary.

My son calls. ‘It’s just a story, Mum. Come for lunch.’

Back home, I sit at the computer and open my story. I am almost through another draft, changing from past to present tense. It seems to read better. It is time-consuming. I am also trying to find the answers to questions Reina has raised regarding the storyline and characters.

Question: What do my characters think about when they think about whānau?

Answer: …?

On Monday, I get an email from my five-year-old grandson in Invercargill: ‘Did you feel the earthquake, it was scary. Can you send my new fleece jacket before the summer weather.’

Novel excerpt: interaction between main character, Beth, and her father, Mikey, after period of estrangement.

‘I don’t suppose you’d be able to put in a word for him.’ They had the same eyes, father and son. Her eyes. ‘He’s had a bit of trouble, before he came down here. But you know him; he’s not a bad boy.’ Then added, ‘He’s whānau, Beth, talk to him.’

That was strange coming from him now.

‘He won’t be going home tonight. Court in the morning, and he may not get bail then either.’

‘Let him know I was here, that’s all.’

Despite the trouble MJ caused, Mikey loves him, wants to help, wants to be seen as a father. But she needs him too, she is the firstborn, she is the good guy, isn’t she?

‘You all right, Beth?’ He leans forward and his voice drops. ‘I mean, this Kevin. He been giving you a rough time?’

This time he is looking at her hard. What does he mean? Screwing around, giving her the bash? like MJ. And what was he going to do about it if she wasn’t all right. ‘I’m fine,’ she says.

‘Ria will want to see you. How long you down for?’ He leans back from the table.

‘I’ll call. Hard to plan anything at present with all the different shifts.’

Outside the café they stand with their hands in their pockets. She yields first, moves forward to kiss his cheek, misses and her lips met the collar of his fleece lined jacket. He settles a hand on her shoulder.

‘Whānau, Beth, remember. He’d like to see you.’

***

Mark Sweet Wakes the Sleeping Zhu Mao

Brian Bargh of HUIA left a message. He asked I return his call. ‘It’s good news,’ he said. I went all goose pimply, and great gulps of excitement came tinged with fear.

Mark Sweet
Mark Sweet starts his writing journey in China with the draft novel Zhu Mao.

I began writing Zhu Mao three years ago at the start of the Diploma of Creative Writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. When I applied, I submitted a short story, one of many, interconnected, which I wanted to shape into a novel. But the opportunity to write a new novel was too much, and Adrienne Jansen encouraged my fresh idea.

It was based around two experiences of traveling in China in the 1980s. One involved infanticide of baby girls, the other execution of criminals. The story grew and, at times, took on a life of its own. I spent a month in Wudangshan, the birthplace of t’ai chi, and found a setting for the story. I loved the process. In the end, I rushed to finish and was awarded a C+. I was gutted and let Zhu Mao sleep for two years.

During that time, I came to see my final assessment as fair. And I learned a big lesson. Anna Rogers was my mentor, and assessor, but I took scant heed of her opinion. Now, I see that all she told me was sound advice.

Late last year, I met the author Elspeth Sandys and asked her if she would critique my manuscript. She was encouraging but highlighted major problems with structure and genre; much the same as Anna.

I’d been dabbling at rewriting Zhu Mao for a few months, growing increasingly frustrated at my lack of editorial crafting skills, when my sister emailed about Te Papa Tupu incubator programme.

Being chosen for the programme is a gift for which I am deeply grateful. The opportunity to work with a mentor, and the means to concentrate on writing for six months, makes the completion of Zhu Mao an achievable goal.

My thanks to those in the Māori Literature Trust, Huia Publishers, Creative New Zealand, and Te Puni Kōkiri who have developed and promoted Te Papa Tupu.