Recapping my epic 2012!

December 31, 2012 in Blogging, Book Reviews, Misc, Novel, On Writing

2012wall

Who would have thought I’d be counting down the hours to 2013 when it was all supposed to end for everyone 10 days ago?

But anyway, I’m here (at work, actually) and I’ve been contemplating what a colossal year 2012 has been. Of course, there’s the big one — learning how to be a father to the most adorable little baby boy in the history of the universe, who has taken up the majority of my time and effort and SLEEP. But it’s also him that has made 2012 the most remarkable and wonderful year of my life thus far.

On the work front, I started a new full-time job where I get to write and edit all day. For the first time ever, I actually don’t mind going to the office every day, and I love the fact that I get to go home at a reasonable hour every night so I can spend time with my son before he goes to bed. It’s also a stable job that potentially allows me to do a lot of extra-curricular stuff, whether it be freelance work or other personal writings, such as this blog. Unfortunately, my lack of experience and desire to “take it easy” means I have probably squandered many of those hours that could have been put to better use.

That said, I have done my fair share of freelance work this year too. I started off completing a mammoth editing job for a travel book that had been horrendously translated. It was definitely not worth it from a monetary perspective but at least I have now been officially named as the editor of a published book (which I am yet to see, by the way). Apart from that and my regular book reviews for a trade publication, I also did some work for a well-known international magazine, which eventually lead to my first cover feature article. I didn’t exactly love the way it turned out after the editor played with it, but it’s better than having no article published at all.

The highlight of my working life this year has to be my trip to Beijing to cover the Communist Party’s leadership transition, which was exhausting but rewarding. I’m glad I got to see and learn so much, but I’m also happy that it won’t happen again for another 10 years.

Health wise, it’s been a mixed bag. Physically, I managed to get fitter than I’ve ever been after commencing a daily exercise routine that began last October and lasted about 12 months. I’m still trying to get back into it, actually. However, the fatigue and poor quality sleep has also taken its toll, and I’ve been under the weather more times than I can remember. It’s frustrating because you feel like you’re rarely feeling 100%.

Despite the positives, it’s also been a year where a lot of my goals went unrealized. I basically did not touch either of my work-in-progress novels for the entire year, which is pathetic and not worthy of an excuse. I didn’t write that screenplay I had been itching to write either. And I also didn’t monetize my blog like I had promised myself I would.

On the reading front, I only read 14 books this year, dominated by the Hunger Games trilogy, Steve Jobs biography and the first two books of the 50 Shades trilogy (I’m still stuck on the third and final book). Actually, I blame it all on 50 Shades for turning me off reading this year because it’s been a huge struggle getting through them. Why do I torture myself?

These are the things I wish I had more time to complete, but my shifting priorities had placed them all on the back burner. In fact, I’m still putting them off until I can finish posting all of my backlogged movie and restaurant reviews, which means it might be a while before I can even get started.

So what’s in store for 2013? A lot. That’s my guess. I’m personally hoping that things will become more stable on a day-to-day basis and that I can be more motivated to work on my projects. My focus next year — my new year’s resolution, so to speak — will be on the things I failed to accomplish this year: the novels, the screenplay, and doing more reading. I tend to always oversimplify things and set myself targets that are impossible to reach, so this year I’ll just say that I’d like to at least do more on/of those things  in 2013 than I did in 2012.

So I guess if my 2012 was “epic” then I’d like my 2013 to be simply “productive.”

See you next year!

Saluting Bryce Courtenay

December 6, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing

I’ll admit, I’ve never read any of the 20 or so books written by Aussie legend Bryce Courtenay, who passed away late last month. I haven’t even seen the movie based on his first and most famous book, The Power of One. All I know is that there the film launched the career of Stephen Dorff, that Daniel Craig played a young Nazi in it, and that there is a “young reader’s edition” of the novel, which must mean it’s a pretty big deal.

A young Daniel Craig as a Nazi in The Power of One

What has prompted me to write this post is the Walkley Award (the highest journalism award in Australia) winning article by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend, which provided some fascinating insights into the life of this professional writer and the amount of dedication it requires getting to and staying at the top. Hard work and determination are common themes seen in almost all the success stories I have come across, and it has me wondering if I’ll ever be able to be even half as dedicated as some of these people.

The article paints Courtenay as a fascinating fellow who is probably one of the biggest bullshit artists Australia has ever seen. Even the people closest to him admit that he embellishes (to put it in the kindest way possible), but Cadzow effectively tears apart most of Courtenay’s fanciful claims about his life.

It may be his ability to lie that makes Courtenay such a brilliant storyteller, but it’s his background as an advertising guru that helped him break out from the pack in the first place. As the article says:

When Courtenay decided to become a novelist, his marketing nous stood him in good stead. “There are writers in this country who are better than me,” he says, echoing the words of many a reviewer. But no one disputes that when it comes to pitching a book to the paying public, the former adman is in a class of his own. Who else tests cover designs with focus groups, distributes sample chapters at railway stations and hires sky-writers to emblazon titles high above cities? With one of his novels, he went so far as to launch a tie-in beer (Tommo & Hawk Premium Ale). “Bryce is, beyond anything else, a promoter,” says Hamill. “There are some great authors in Australia, and I know many of them, who won’t get off their bums and sign books in shopping centres.”

Whereas Courtenay is never happier than sitting in-store with a pen in his hand and a queue of fans in front of him. Owen Denmeade, another of his old advertising mates, salutes him for the enthusiasm he brings to the task. How many title pages has he autographed over the years? Denmeade hates to think. “We used to say, if you’ve got an unsigned copy of a Bryce Courtenay book, it’s worth a lot of money.”

Sometimes all you need is a break. Off the back of the success of The Power of One, which he was apparently terrified would fail, Courtenay became one of Australia’s most successful writers, with his books selling 9.5 million volumes (including almost 8 million in Australia) since 1997. In better times, a new Courtenay book would apparently sell 250,000 copies, whereas now it’s around 200,000. That’s simply incredible considering what a small market Australia is.

The other thing about Courtenay that impressed me was his tenacity. He apparently worked 12 hours a day, from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. For you mathematical geniuses out there, that’s 84 hours of writing a week, 4,368 hours of writing a year. Of course, it’s likely he bullshitted about that as well, but the fact of the matter is that he had been launching decently-sized books just about every year. As the article says:

Courtenay takes seven months to write a novel. He starts work the day after Australia Day [January 26] and finishes on August 31, delivering each chapter to Penguin on completion to ensure that the book can be edited, printed and in the shops for the Christmas rush. “The last six books I’ve finished within an hour of each other,” he says, “right to the point of having a courier waiting for the last chapter at the front door.”

To help him keep to such a tight timetable, he employs a full-time researcher, his brother-in-law Bruce Gee. “Like a lot of people, he’s not a terribly quick reader,” says Bruce. “My job is to get information to him in a predigested form.” Also entrusted with checking each day’s output for errors, Bruce points out that he isn’t the only one on the payroll. “People advise us on music, for instance, and on esoteric things like historical railways. All sorts of stuff … Bryce is almost a cottage industry.”

Courtenay’s deteriorating health prevented him from delivering his final book, Jack of Diamonds, on time last year, and the disappointment he expressed is remarkable for a guy who supposedly wouldn’t have had to make another dime had he lived to 100.

Courtenay was inconsolable about missing his first deadline in two decades. “I know how stupid it is,” he says, “but when you have one of those A-type personalities where achievement is important, and you have my kind of background, then … failure is unthinkable.”

Then again, it could be because Courtenay needed the money (though he says money doesn’t interest him), which is a frightening thought for all struggling writers out there. According to his brother-in-law, Courtenay was not as wealthy as might be imagined.

“He’s lost it, given it away, made bad business decisions, whatever.”

So the moral of the story, I suppose is to work really really hard, be a perfectionist, spend extra time marketing your work and take care of your money if you ever make some. In any case, I salute Bryce Courtenay for all he has achieved throughout his life and for being such a great inspiration to all aspiring writers out there.

Cadzow’s full–length article can be found here.

Bryce Courtenay’s final book, Jack of Diamonds

Book Review: ‘The Woman Before Me’ by Ruth Dugdall

November 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

You know how sometimes you read a book cover and think, “This is too bleak for me,” or “I don’t think I’ll be interested in this type of story,” and then the book ends up totally blowing your mind? The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall is one such book.

It’s defined as a crime novel but The Woman Before Me unfolds more like a psychological thriller. The story centers around Rose Wilks, a plain looking woman with a neglected childhood who, after losing her own child, is convicted for burning down a house that killed the baby of her beautiful best friend, Emma Hatcher. Four years pass and Rose, who has maintained her innocence, is up for parole. Enter Cate Austin, a young probation officer assigned to write a recommendation.

The book is essentially split into two inter-meshing parts:  you have Cate in the present, told through third person narrative, investigating Rose’s life and the events that led up to the tragic night in question; and you have Rose’s “Black Book” entries, a first person confessional diary of sorts to her partner Jason which gradually peels away the layers wrapped around the novel’s core mystery — did Rose kill Emma’s baby, and if so, why?

While the book is subtitled “A Cate Austin novel” (as she is the common link in a planned series of books by Dugdall), The Woman Before Me is dominated by Wilks’s diary, which takes up more than half of its 282 pages. And just as well, because although Cate is quite an interesting character herself, Rose is simply mesmerising. She’s creepy and clearly unhinged but somehow I found myself unable to despise her. She is a tragic character driven by the two most unhealthy kinds of love — obsessive and unrequited. Her heartbreak comes across as painfully real.

It’s an uncomfortable book to read at times — any book about infant mortality is — but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner, which got more and more unputdownable as it neared its shocking climax. It’s a strange feeling being compelled to keep reading a book that is, if not quite depressing, often upsetting to get through. I suppose it’s a tribute to Dugdall’s ability to create characters readers care about and invest in emotionally.

As Dugdall’s bio says, she was in the British criminal justice system for almost a decade as a probation officer, which lends an air of credibility to the prison environment she describes with so much detail and confidence. Everything and everyone from the cells, routines, prison rules and culture to the inmates and the wardens all felt authentic to me. And although this is not mentioned anywhere in the book, I discovered through some post-reading research that the novel is actually based on true events (chills).

My idea of crime novels has always been fast-paced action and clever detective work, but The Woman Before Me is all played out in the mind and through memories. The book has been described as a “slow burn”, which is usually a turn-off for me, but I found it to a deftly paced and rather brisk read, something you could easily get through in a single sitting.

My only complaints are Dugdall’s tendency to lessen the impact of some of her minor plot twists by foreshadowing them too early, and her over-reliance on coincidences and chance encounters, some of which stretched the bounds of believability to me.

On the whole, however, I found The Woman Before Me to be a fascinating expedition into the darker side of human nature — and an enjoyable (albeit somewhat depressing) read. I’m sure it will end up as one of the more memorable books I’ve read this year.

PS: It was also fascinating to read up a little about Dugdall and her journey to becoming a published writer. Once again, her story demonstrates that successful published authors rarely come out of thin air and are usually extremely dedicated writers who have been honing their craft for years, submitting writings, entering competitions and attending workshops for a very long time before securing a crucial breakthrough. In her case, the breakthrough came when she won the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger with her The Woman Before Me manuscript back in 2005 (though the book was not published in the UK until 2010) — showing what a long and arduous process it all is. Makes me wish I had more time and determination to work on my fiction writing.

A Writer’s Life — is it worth it?

August 8, 2011 in Blogging, Misc, On Writing

Source: http://healthessays.webs.com

It’s been a while since my last post (by my standards).  And no, it’s not because I’ve been sitting around thinking about just how awesome Rise of the Planet of the Apes was (and it was).

Apart from the usual and the unusual errands and chores and busted tyres and rodent extermination, I’ve been busy planning a few things.  With my masters degree in writing almost in hand and another country move in the works (to Asia this time), it’s time to start thinking about the next phase of my working life.  CVs, scans of published works, contacting contacts to make more contacts — I’m doing it all.

Naturally, if I wanted a life of material comfort (though it wouldn’t be much of a ‘life’), I could easily return to the law, but doing so would be against everything I’ve promised myself over the last few years, and to be frank, it makes my bladder shudder just thinking about it.  I had a nightmare the other night where I was back at the old firm and if I hadn’t woken up from the fright I might have embarrassed myself in bed.  Living in a constant state of stress and terror doing something that I can barely tolerate can’t be the answer for the next 30+ years of my life.

No, any career from here must be a career in writing.  I don’t know if it will last or how it will turn out, but if I don’t at least give it a shot I’m going to regret it forever.

The first thing most people say when they hear about someone (such as myself) wanting to write, is that it’s really really hard.  Really hard.  Don’t quit your say job.  Hardships are ahead — financially, socially, emotionally.  Success stories are one in a million (well, I guess it depends on your definition of ‘success’ — is it JK Rowling or a relatively comfortable living?).

But surely it can’t be that bad, or else there won’t be that many writers out there.  My advantage (or at least what I consider to be an advantage) is that I’m not fussy about the kind of work I do, as long as it involves writing (for the smart-arses out there, that excludes contracts and legal advices) and, as the great George W Bush once said, puts food on the family.

I’m quite flexible with the field or the area or the type of writing.  I can write formal, technical, colloquial, serious, comical, satirical or just plain old conversational.  Just looking around online in Sydney, there appear to be quite a few relatively well-paid jobs for someone in my position.  Legal publishing is a pretty decent route to go, or at least as a stepping stone.  Traditional publishing and media jobs are available — not quite as well paid but not as bad as I had expected.

But this time I’m heading to Asia and from what I’ve heard, writers get paid peanuts (sometimes literally).  There are plenty of jobs that require English writing, so the concern is not to find a job, it’s finding the right job.

There are options.  I can try educational publishing and write books which help local children learn English.  I can go into media and work at a newspaper or magazine that publishes in English.  I can try academic writing/editing, helping out local professors polish up their works in English.  I can try technical writing for a company.  I can even try something in government.  None of these pay well by Western standards but at least I have absolutely no problem seeing myself in one of these roles.  And all of them will provide me with much needed experience.

Perhaps supplementing a day job with freelance writing or editing might be feasible (I’m reading up on that), but it’s not easy for newbies without the experience or portfolio to back them up.  I was just looking around online randomly for freelancing opportunities and saw that quite a few people offer $1 for every 500 words!  Can you believe that?  A dollar!

That said, a lot of freelancers I’ve come across love what they do and wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.  I’d like to be able to say that one day.

I think I am prepared mentally for what lies ahead.  I’m confident in my abilities but I know hard work and luck are imperative — though I believe former swimmer Grant Hackett said it best when he said that the harder he worked, the luckier he got.

If any writers out there are reading, please share your story and how you got to where you are today.  Was it worth it?  And any tips, pointers or pearls of wisdom you might be able to bequeath?

The end is just the beginning

June 15, 2011 in Blogging, Fantasy, Misc, Novel, On Writing, Study

My masters course has finally finished.

With (soon to be) two masters degrees hanging on my walls I have also become a master of avoiding full-time work as well.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be working on no less than three projects — the secret mini-book I’ll be shopping around for publishers or self-publish, continuing my masters novel, and getting my good old fantasy novel back on track.  And yes, looking for that much needed job will be high on the priority list as well.

Strangely, there is no relief after completing this masters degree like my previous degrees.  Perhaps it’s because I actually wanted to study this time instead of doing it out of obligation.  Or perhaps it’s because I now have to put what I have learned over the last 18 months into practice.

It feels a lot more like a beginning than an end.

 
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