Why I hate starting new books

Why I hate starting new books

I often get books from the library and then they just sit there waiting for me to dive in. I’m not sure why this happens but I think it’s because starting new books requires extra concentration and sometimes this is in short supply. There’s a whole new bunch of characters to get acquainted with and you need to really focus to work out who’s who in the zoo. I find it especially hard when the book has a lot of foreign names or people with similar names, but sometimes I think I’m still attached to the people I met (and grew to love) in the last book that I was reading. I don’t want to let go of them just yet.

Once you are in a book and caught up in the story, the pages just seem to turn themselves and before you know it, it’s past your bedtime. You become invested in other people’s lives and think about them when you are washing up or cleaning the shower. I love it when that happens.

Someone once told me that if f you are going on a long plane trip or into hospital for any length of time, it’s best to take a book that you have already started reading. In both these situations your concentration is poor, so it’s preferable to be in the middle of a book rather than right at the beginning.

I remember trying to read “I know why the caged bird sings” by the writer and poet Maya Angelou when I was in early labour with my first child and realising that I should have brought a murder mystery or a romance novel with me.

I also recall going to Tasmania with my family for a lovely holiday and being unable to read any of the books I had ‘saved’ for the trip. I spent quite a bit of the plane trip trying to read Harry Potter over the shoulder of the woman next to me who was a complete stranger. I think she cottoned on in the end because she looked a bit annoyed and tried to angle the book away from me. It didn’t help that I’m quite a fast reader and kept getting to the end of the page before she did. I had taken three books with me but none of them were just right.

In Paula Munier’s book “The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings” she lists the questions that readers want answered when they start a new book.

We need to work out what kind of book we are reading, who is telling the story and where it takes place, but most of all we need to know why we should care about them. Very clever writers can answer most of these questions in the first couple of paragraphs. It doesn’t necessarily need to answer all our questions, we just need to get hooked enough to make us turn the first page.

Choosing your next book is also a very personal thing. I like to download samples onto my iPad and read the first couple of chapters before I purchase a book or request a title from the library (it’s usually the latter). When I’m looking for something new to read, I just browse through my sample chapters until something takes my fancy. Either that, or I go to my circle of friends (which includes my reading family) and ask them what they’ve been reading lately.

How do you choose your next read?

How stories work

How stories work

“I thought you’d write a book when you retired” someone remarked recently.

I did too, I think to myself, I just haven’t worked out what it’s going to be about yet…

But the reality is that I really have no idea how to write a book. The advice is to just start writing and see what happens, but this is a scary proposition. I’m concerned that my efforts will be clumsy or sub-standard, so I don’t do anything at all. Better to have tried and failed is a great adage, but the reality is that no-one really likes failing.

So I was delighted when a friend recommended a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron. It’s just what I needed at this point in my writing life because it lays out some foundational skills about how stories work.

Cron says that you should always try to jump into the middle of the action and then fill in the backstory. This helps to set the scene and pique the reader’s curiosity about how the protagonist (main character) got themselves into that situation.

I was thinking about this advice when I read the opening pages of The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. The opening is set in a scary motel where a young woman is working alone on the night-desk. She hears a lot of strange noises and next thing you know, she’s disappeared. Already I’m filled with curiosity. Why is she working alone in this creepy place which is far away from her home, and what on earth happened to her?

Next we jump forward in time to another young woman arriving at the same motel. Immediately we want to know what she’s doing there. Is she related to the first young woman? Why is she interested in the disappearance of the first young woman and why now? All this is explained in the first 50 pages, by which time I’m hooked and want to read the rest of the story.

Cron suggests that stories fail when they are merely a series of events. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. It’s like you telling me in boring detail how you drove to my house. Quite frankly, I don’t care how you got here, I just care that you’ve arrived safely.

Good stories keep moving you forward because something happens that leads to something else happening. There’s a causal relationship between events that connects them and makes sense to the reader. Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it takes a while for that reason to be revealed.

The author’s job is to make you wonder what happened and why it happened.

You might think that this is only true of mystery books, but this is not the case. Take the example of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. After the famous opening lines about happy and unhappy families, we immediately jump into the situation as it stands right now.

Everything was confusion in the Oblonsky’s house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been the governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him.

Leo Tolstoy

Do I want to know more? Why yes, I do.

In his weekly newsletter The Maven Game (which I heartily recommend if you’re an aspiring writer), David Moldawer claims that people are either born with the knack of storytelling or they aren’t. He doesn’t think that it’s something you can teach, but I’m hoping that he’s wrong and that I can learn to tell a good story.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep reading Lisa Cron’s book and hope that an idea for a book will pop into my head very soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Weighty matters

Weighty matters

A few years ago I made a New Year’s resolution that I would stop weighing myself for a whole year. I decided to do this because prior to Xmas there’d been a lot of discussion about what size ham we needed, and it occurred to me that since I wasn’t a ham, I shouldn’t keep worrying about my size and whether I was a few kilos heavier or lighter.

Like most women, I have spent a lifetime worrying about how much I weigh, and making new promises to myself that I would lose those extra few kilos that make our trousers a bit uncomfortable. I’ve never been very overweight, but I’ve never been as slim as I’d like to be except for a brief period after my second child was born. I was going to exercise classes three times a week and mysteriously lost all my baby weight over the course of six months or so.

I’ve always thought that weighing myself was a bit of a waste of time because when the scales go up, I feel really bad, and when they go down, I eat more because I figure I’m allowed to.

Anyway, a whole year went by and I felt a lot better without the weekly weigh-in (always on a Monday morning with as few clothes on as possible). The following New Year’s Day I jumped on the scales and found that I weighed almost exactly the same as I had a year before, so clearly the weekly torture was pointless in terms of helping me control my weight and no impact on whether I was fitter or healthier.

I know that for some people, weighing themselves regularly is very motivating, so I’m not giving advice about what you should or shouldn’t do, I’m just saying that it didn’t work for me.

For many people, how much they weigh is inextricably linked to how they feel about themselves, but lately I’ve been trying to think about this differently and I think it’s working.

One thing that has had a big impact on me is my pilates teacher. She’s about 40 and incredibly strong and fit. I don’t think I’ve seen many people with better core strength. And before you say that this is because she’s a fitness instructor, I should mention that she’s actually a high school teacher and she teaches pilates because she loves it. As well as being super strong, she also has very solid thighs (like me). When I look at her, I realise that this is just the shape she is, and that no amount of exercise is going to change that.

Unlike my instructor, I’m not very fit or very strong, but this is something that I am working on. Every week she reminds us that strength and stability (and especially good balance) is critical for avoiding the falls that so often lead to hip fractures, so I practice standing on one leg while the kettle is boiling and try to remember to stretch after sitting at the computer for any extended periods.

Life is short and I don’t think denying myself a piece of bread and jam is going to make me a happier or healthier person, but I hope that in a year’s time I will have sorted out some of my back and hip issues so that I can enjoy being retired. I figure it’s never too late to be fitter and stronger and I don’t really have any excuses for not trying to improve my health.

A bunch of nonsense

A bunch of nonsense

I grew up in a house filled with books. To be honest, they were mainly from the library (we visited every week), but the books we did own included a set of encyclopedias, a few well-worn paperback novels, and quite a few children’s books, received as gifts from various relatives or as prizes at the Sunday School Anniversary.

Our library included two volumes of poetry, one by A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, and the other a collection of poems by Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971).

Nash wrote over 500 poems in his lifetime, for both adults and children, and early in his career he was employed as a copywriter for an advertising company. His poems are funny and clever; he had just the right type of temperament for an advertising man.

Here are a few of my favourites:

The Fly

The Lord in His wisdom made the fly, 
And then forgot to tell us why.

The Camel

The Camel has a single hump, 
The dromedary two, 
Or is it just the other way, 
I’m never sure – are you?

Celery

Celery, raw
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed.

Nash was just 29 when he published his first collection of humorous poems to critical acclaim. The following year he left his job to concentrate fully on writing.

He also wrote the scripts for three MGM films and the lyrics for three Broadway musicals including the hugely successful A Touch of Venus, starring Ava Gardner and Robert Walker about a mannequin who comes to life.

Watching this old clip from reminded me of the 1987 film Mannequin which I have always loved.

Despite being a poet at heart, he still needed to make a living. He sums it up beautifully in this short poem.

Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance
Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

This is an example of a nonsense poem. Nonsense poems often change the spelling of words to make things rhyme or make them more amusing. They are best read out loud and children usually love them. Other writers of nonsense poems include Lewis Carroll (The Jabberwocky) and Edward Lear (The Owl and the Pussycat).

Do you have any favourite poems from your childhood?

Writing better content

Writing better content

Over the past few months a lot of free courses have been offered on the internet, so I’ve been madly signing up for things that interest me. These are mainly around writing and using social media, so I’ve got a thousand ideas about things I could do, but of course I’m still nervous about doing anything in case it fails and I look like an idiot.

I’m acutely aware that it doesn’t really matter if things don’t work out, but if you’ve spent a whole lifetime trying to make things perfect (or at least pretty good), then it’s hard to really adopt the idea of sharing a minimum viable product. It doesn’t come easily to put something out there until you’ve double and tripled checked that it looks good and doesn’t have any errors.

But the reality is that even when you check everything carefully, you still make mistakes. It can be incredibly hard to see your own errors, even though it’s pretty easy to spot mistakes in other people’s work. Fortunately, I have an eagle-eyed family who are quick to let me know if I’ve made any major blunders, or even just repeated words which I have a habit of doing.

A few weeks ago I watched an interesting webinar on content writing, so I thought I would share some of my key take-aways in case they are relevant to you and your writing,

  1. Manage your time. Try to draft your work quickly so that you can spend the bulk of your time on editing and polishing. You can’t edit your words until you’ve got something on the page to work with.
  2. Edit your work but don’t keep polishing it endlessly. Focus on getting it finished. It doesn’t need to be perfect. You can spend a lot of time and energy fiddling around with the wrong thing, for example drafting and re-drafting the first sentence, only to chop it off before you hit send.
  3. Don’t try to impress people with your writing. Instead focus on what your post/email/report is trying to say. You should have a clear message, so put your energy into working out what that message is.
  4. Write in your natural voice. I find it very odd when people write in a stuffy, overly wordy way, when this is not the way they usually talk. Write as simply as possible. I promise you that no-one will complain.
  5. Bounce back quickly from mistakes. Make a checklist of your frequent errors and check your work before you publish. Examples might be using one particular word too often. Keep a sticky note on your desk to remind you how to spell any words that you commonly misspell.
  6. Ask someone else to read your draft. As I mentioned earlier, it can be almost impossible to see your own errors. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to check your work.
  7. Try leaving your work to marinate overnight. Sometimes the right words just jump into your brain when you stop thinking so hard. If possible, leave your work as a draft and come back to it the next day. You will usually be able spot any errors or fluffy bits straight away.

Thank you for reading my blog. If you like it, please share this post with a friend or colleague.

And if you see any errors, please let me know.

No morning tea please

No morning tea please

After making the big decision to retire, I had to formally submit my resignation through our online HR portal. This triggered what is known as a “termination process” also known as “offboarding”.

The language made me feel quite ill and a little bit anxious. I’ve been working at the organisation for 14 years, so to end my career in this impersonal way felt a bit sad and confirmed my view that working for a large government department turns you into little more than a number, fodder for the machine.

I emailed my manager to let him know that I was submitting the form and he emailed me back the offboarding checklist. This is to ensure that you settle all your accounts and hand back any equipment that’s been issued over the years. He also rang to say that he would miss me, which was nice. I specifically requested that there be no fuss as I just wanted to walk away quietly.

I’ve always hated those corporate morning teas that are usually held when someone leaves. I dislike the people who only turn up for the free sponge cake and the ubiquitous cheese and crackers. I hate those speeches where the top brass talks mainly about themselves or tells embarrassing stories about the poor person who is leaving.

I hate the bit where the person says that they won’t miss the work, but they’ll miss the people. I know that for most people this is true, but I will genuinely miss the work and the people.

I will miss laughing with my team-mates, helping people solve problems, and moaning about senior staff who send you long rambling emails but don’t ever say what they actually want you to do.

I’ll miss people shouting across the room to ask me how to spell accommodation and other tricky words.

When I went in yesterday to return my laptop and security pass, I was still a bit surprised at how upset I was. There were only about four people in the office and the place was a wasteland of blank screens and empty chairs. I handed over my computer and the admin person said weakly, “we should have bought a cake”.

I wandered off down the corridor and came across a lovely colleague that I’ve known for years. She could see that I was upset so she gave me a hug (verboten).  She told me that I would be missed and that I’d had a big impact on the organisation.

It was nice after all.

Emma Peel: feminist icon

Emma Peel: feminist icon

I was sad to hear that the British actress, Diana Rigg, had passed away at the age of 82. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rigg was most famous for her role as the female lead in the TV show, The Avengers, which ran from 1965 to 1968. In the show she was strong and fearless, solving crimes with her partner John Steed, who sported a bowler hat and carried a cane. Very British.

I loved that show and I desperately wanted an Emma Peel doll, so it was something of a miracle when I received one for my 10th birthday. I suppose I was a little old for playing with dolls, but I thought she was the ant’s pants.

Like the actress, the doll had long reddish hair and came wearing tight black leather trousers and knee-length black boots. She came with three different outfits, all black, as well as a shiny gun! This makes me laugh now. I can’t imagine a doll coming with her own gun these days, but in the show, Emma could shoot the cork out of a bottle of champagne at twenty paces and was also skilled at fencing, karate and judo. She was whip smart and able to outwit even the most diabolical criminals. She never lost her cool.

She could do anything and I wanted to be just like her. Maybe not so sporty, but smart and sassy. I loved her independence and secretly thought that a life of fighting crime would suit me very well.

In the show Emma Peel worked for the British Secret Service, which is interesting because the marriage bar – legislation that prohibited married women from joining the civil service – was only lifted in 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and not until 1973 for the Foreign Service. In Australia, the marriage bar wasn’t lifted until 1966, so for the audience it would have seemed very audacious for Emma to have been working in such a powerful role, let alone as a sexy spy.

Emma had a husband, but he conveniently went missing in the Amazonian jungle after his plane crashed. She also drove a white convertible (a Lotus) which only added to her appeal.

Diana Rigg was also well known for her role as Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones and was also a Bond girl, playing opposite George Lazenby in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but she will always be Emma Peel to me.

Sisterhood

Sisterhood

When my mother died four years ago, I felt like I’d lost a good friend as well as a mother. She was my greatest supporter, along with my husband and kids. I used to think that this was par for the course and just part of being a mother, but I’ve since realised that not everyone has this experience. I think everyone needs a cheerleader in their lives, someone to listen to you, even when you are being unreasonable, someone to tell you to keep going when things aren’t going well.

When I was in my late fifties, my mum sent me a stanza from a poem enclosed in a birthday card. The poem about being an adventurer in the world and was scribbled out on a scrap of paper in her usual fashion. She was forever recycling bits of paper and envelopes, sometimes you even got second-hand birthday and Christmas cards.

My mum was a very unsentimental person and would frequently give away birthday and Christmas gifts within moments of receiving them, sometimes while you were still in the room, so when she sent me that scrap of a poem, I loved it because I knew it meant that she understood that I was struggling with getting older and wondering what was left for me. She wanted me to know that everything would be okay and that there were plenty of adventures yet to come.

I still miss her very much, but since she’s been gone, I’ve developed a much closer relationship with my eldest sister who lives 2,000 kilometres away on the other side of Australia. I have two older sisters and a younger brother, and we all get along really well, but my eldest sister and I have gotten much closer in the last few years. She moved out of home when I was in my early teens and we have rarely lived in the same city in the past forty years, but these days we email or message one another several times a week. We share thoughts, dreams and frustrations. We talk about our mum, swap recipes, and complain about our sore backs and stiff shoulders. We frequently make unkind comments about “stupid people”. She badgers me about whether or not I’m writing (I asked her to) and always comments on my blog posts, even when they aren’t very remarkable.

I’m grateful for all my siblings, but it’s especially wonderful to have a sister who doesn’t judge you and is interested in the most mundane aspects of your life. It makes the loss of my mother easier to bear, and I’m so glad we’ve reconnected. Here’s to you Bev!

Bev and Marg enjoying spending time together in London

It’s time to retire

It’s time to retire

I was supposed to go back to work in late September, but I’ve decided to retire while I still have the energy to do the things that I want to do. I told a few of my friends about my decision and most of them said, “I knew you wouldn’t go back”, which is odd because I didn’t really know myself until a few weeks ago.

Lots of people tell me that they would retire tomorrow if they had the money, but for me the decision about how and when to retire has resulted in many sleepless nights and long circular conversations with my friends and family. I’m grateful to have had those listening ears, and thought I’d share a few thoughts in case you are also contemplating retirement.

I have always liked working and wasn’t even thinking about retiring until last year when I was lucky enough to go to New York with my youngest daughter. When she announced that she was going to book some flights, I think I kind of invited myself along, or maybe she asked if I would go with her. Anyway, I jumped at the chance and we had the most fabulous holiday. I’m so glad I went as I doubt that I’ll ever get back there again.

Woman eating hot dog in New York

While I was in New York it occurred to me that I wasn’t going to be around for ever and perhaps I should start making the most of my time. It would be awful to be given some kind of diagnosis that cut short your life and to have spent all your time at work when you could have been having fun. I’m not expecting anything awful to happen to me, but you just never know how long you’ve got on this earth.

Even so, I still struggled with the idea of being a retired person. My sense of identity has always been strongly connected to my working life and I was a bit worried that I’d feel a bit unmoored when I left work. I also worried that my natural inclination to futz about all day would lead to me being very unproductive or doing nothing at all. Fortunately, neither of these has eventuated during my long service leave. Whilst it’s true that I spend more time doing household tasks – it’s hard to ignore the washing up when you’re at home all day – there’s also more time for reading, writing, and learning new skills.

When I talk to people about retiring, the conversation usually revolves around the question of having enough money, so one of the things I’ve been doing over the last 12 months is tracking my spending. I know that the Covid 19 has reduced most people’s outgoings, but I honestly don’t think I need a huge salary. I have pretty simple tastes and apart from the household spending, it’s seems like the most common things I buy are wine and coffee. Even though I’m an avid reader, most of my books come from the local library or from friends, and I’ve only filled up my car with petrol once in the last three months.

We aren’t planning any renovations and we aren’t allowed to travel, so the main thing to spend money on is the garden and that doesn’t cost much, especially if you grow things from seed.

It’s true that I will miss my friends at work, but they aren’t physically at work, so the social aspects of being in an office no longer exist. I’ll miss chatting in the kitchen and people randomly asking me how to spell things. I’ll miss contributing ideas and working in a team. I won’t miss the endless re-writing of reports that no-one reads, the long interminable meetings where no decisions are made. Work is not always productive or meaningful, sometimes it’s a sheer waste of time that would be better spent weeding the garden, writing or reading a book. These are by far my favourite activities and I’m looking forward to exploring new horizons. So whilst I’m sad to be leaving my job, I’m pretty excited about the future.

If you read this blog and you’ve been part of my working life, thank you for your companionship and your enthusiasm and do keep in touch. I’m planning to write here more regularly so please keep reading and chime in with your thoughts if you’d like to.

Cheerio for now

Marg

August update

August update

I’ve been on leave for five months so I thought I’d provide a bit of an update on my progress. I always have big plans but I’m not always good at executing them, so this is really an accountability exercise as much as anything. Also, people keep asking me what I’ve been doing, so here’s a potted summary.

I’ve made a bit of progress with my “to do” list. Several cupboards have been cleaned out and quite a few books and clothes have found their way to the charity shop which have now re-opened. I’m sure they are drowning in a sea of things that people have decided they don’t want any more. I gave away all my old linen and then realised that I could have used them as drop-sheets when I was painting.

I haven’t tackled the photos. I was going to sort through the ones I have in hard copy from the olden days and digitise them, but I haven’t even opened the boxes. There are literally hundreds of them, if not thousands. It’s my least favourite task (too emotional) so I’ll probably put that off until I’m well and truly retired.

I’ve painted the spare-room and just need to buy a new blind for it to be completely finished. I was going to buy some new carpet but decided to save some money and have the existing carpet cleaned. It looks better than it did before. Some of the painting is a bit dodgy, especially around the skirting boards. I threw out the old mattress and then spent hours reading mattress reviews so that I could purchase the perfect replacement. The last two mattresses I bought have been too hard, so I was determined to choose well this time around. I’m not sure I have as it’s a little bit high. Just as well no tiny people are likely to be sleeping in that bed or they will need a ladder to get in and out.

The garden hasn’t had much attention because I hurt my back moving some furniture. It also meant that the painting was undertaken at the speed of a snail, if not slower. I’ve had a few trips to the physiotherapist so I just need to be patient and do my exercises so that I can attack the weeds which are growing profusely after some decent rain.

I’ve been writing a fair bit. I’ve done two short courses in non-fiction writing which have both been interesting. I wrote a few intros to a book about retiring and then my enthusiasm just petered out. It’s not that I don’t think I can write a book, but perhaps that’s too much to tackle as a writing project. An article I read recently suggested that it was foolish for people to plan to write a book when they haven’t even written any short stories. I think that there’s some truth in that. I probably should try writing some essays or articles first.

I’ve been looking at the structure of non-fiction books with a much more critical eye. I’m interested in seeing how the contents are organised and I’ve learnt quite a lot by just observing the conventions of the form.

I’ve had a lot more time for reading but my TBR (to be read) list is growing by the day. The more time you spend reading about books, the more books you find that you absolutely MUST read. I’m not bothered by this; I would probably choose to read a book before doing anything else.

I’ve been doing lots of cooking and eating and made some particularly nice marmalade this week. Hubby has continued with his bread-making so we’ve always got some nice bread at hand.

Most of all, I’ve been having fun and trying not to watch the news. I hope you are all doing well and making some progress towards your goals, big or small.