Tag Archives: reading

Warriors, worriers and the winding road

Japanese New Year traditions include the purchase of blank-eyed papier mache Daruma dolls. The recipient fills in one eye when they make a wish. Then, whenever they see the one-eyed doll, they are reminded to persevere, to fight on towards personal goals.

If the goal is achieved, the second eye is added. At the end of the year, whether goals are achieved or otherwise, the dolls are taken back to the temple they were purchased from, thanked for their service and burned.

My Daruma doll will finish 2014 with only one eye but that doesn’t mean it failed me. Maybe its lesson was to remind me to keep believing, keep working and focus on small steps towards the main goal. As the sign on the bakery wall said, ‘Look at the doughnut, not the hole.’

One eyed Daruma doll
One eyed Daruma doll

As the Thunder Road twists towards 2015 it’s a good time to review the year gone by. I’ve written a lot this year, probably more than I’ve ever managed before. I’ve spent many hours in schools, hopefully lodging a splinter or two of storytelling wisdom. I have a manuscript that’s teetering out into the world like a toddler taking its first steps. And another manuscript with a publisher, waiting to see if it slots into the complex 3D jigsaw that is a publishing schedule.

I’ve also made a return to journalism for the immediate future. Two employers came calling the day before an opportunity I’d been waiting on as an author evaporated. The universe can be less than subtle at times.

Over summer, I’ve set myself another goal, not quite the equivalent of NANORIMO but not unrelated, either. I’m writing quickly, as often as possible, about characters that danced into my consciousness and started talking. Listening to their banter has been great fun. Depending on how the story takes shape, and reactions from my intended crash-test dummies in the caravan park, I might even blog the chapters next year.

In the meantime, here are some of my reading, viewing and listening highlights for 2014:

Reading: I’ve spent countless hours in Westeros these past few years and can only doff my cap to Mr George RR Martin for his epic and detailed imagination. I’d been waiting to finish A Dance with Dragons before tackling Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North but ultimately couldn’t wait. I’m glad I didn’t. The Man Booker prize winner is visceral and confronting and worthy of multiple readings. I also finished Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Amazing stuff.

Watching: Am loving True Detective and The Walking Dead. At the cinemas I enjoyed Edge of Tomorrow and The Fault in our Stars, both of which had their origins in YA novels.

Listening: Chet Faker’s Built on Glass; Coldplay’s Ghost Stories; new CW Stoneking and official recordings of the Springsteen concert I attended.

Thank you to everyone has read my work, listened to and hosted me at schools and libraries, and stocked my books this year. Those who have attended my workshops will know I rave on a bit about the importance of spell-check and proof-reading so I’ll sign off with my favourite typographical errors of the year, sourced from entries in a short story competition I judged in October:

  • “We were being pursued by Mongolian worriers.”
  • “The uninhibited backyard was overgrown with weeds.”
  • “Mum and Dad scarified themselves for me.” (Ouch!)
  • “I must be imaging things.”

There’s already a meme out and about but, inspired by these latest errors, perhaps I should adopt it for 2015: ‘Be a warrior, not a worrier.’

 

Increments & inspirations

8765 hours, give or take. That’s how long it’s been since my 2012 Wrap. A year isn’t long when you think of it that way.

But context matters. Imagine if you were an asylum seeker detained in an Australian detention centre. Each arduously dull hour would become a feat of survival, not that you’d savour the achievement. Indefinite detention would slowly decay your soul, second by horrible second. Time would be torturously slow.

In a hospital the opposite can occur. There are wards where time is languid but there are theatres, cubicles and trollies where it gushes uncontrollably and is gone all too fast. Minutes or seconds can make the difference between life and death, miracle and misery.

Yes, I’ve had an unusual year. There were slow hours, express ones and some that went missing. There were sleepless nights, minutes that felt like hours and moments to savour.

I started 2013 as an editor within an enormous entity, perhaps the megalomaniac bull cousin of Patricia Piccinini’s incredible Skywhale. I departed with the nerves of a father and provider and the relief of a teenager who had just finished their exams.

I finish 2013 as an author, speaker and tutor. I’m deep into a YA speculative fiction manuscript that may be the first book in a series and certainly looks to be the longest work in my career to date. At present, and I take nothing for granted, the story feels strong and my confidence is unusually resilient. The story gains colour and vigour every day. Several other projects are unfurling like green shoots in our vegetable garden.

I’m also about to take my family on an international adventure and research mission. We’ll swap three weeks of summer for a foreign winter but the trip will add flavour to the recipe I’m mixing in my manuscript. I can’t wait.

So, with a plane to catch in a matter of days, I need to tidy up. Thunder Road tradition requires that I end the year listing favourite moments from books, television, music and film for 2013. Here are some highlights:

Art (new category): Having developed a keen interest in street art appearing around my city, I helped one enigmatic artist by pasting their work around town. Maybe 2014 will see me paste some of my own ideas! I also greatly enjoyed exhibitions by Meredith Squires, Ghostpatrol and TwoOne.

Film: I recommend Gravity (especially in 3D), Rust and Bone and Zero Dark Thirty. Aussie western Mystery Road also deserves a mention for the atmosphere it invoked.

Music: Seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at Hanging Rock was one of the absolute high points of the year. Chet Faker has been on regular rotation in my car, along with Lana Del Ray and Johnny Cash. Watching Vika Bull play Etta James was excellent, too.

Reading: As per my previous post, I’m still immersed in George RR Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. I’m late to the party on Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series but the voice(s) and concepts in book 1 were brilliant. Fiona Wood’s Wildlife, Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective and Chris Ware’s Building Stories were great. The People Smuggler: The True Story of Ali Al Jenabi, made me gasp. Wonder by RJ Palacio, made me cry.

Television: Breaking Bad (no spoilers, please, I’m still going); Broadchurch; Gruen (various series); Game of Thrones.

That’s pushing it for my already addled memory. Thank you to everyone who has shared the peaks, troughs and rollers of 2013. May your festive season be fun-filled and your new year deliver on hopes and dreams.

NB: Vale to Nelson Mandela today and Valeria, some weeks back. R.I.P.

It's been that sort of year.
It’s been that sort of year.

Say it isn’t so

Is this why kids are struggling with reading?
Is this why kids are struggling with reading?

My maternal grandfather loved newspapers. When I visited the farm, he would have snippets ready to read aloud – items that had caught his eye or columns that made him laugh. Maybe that’s when the newsprint leaked into my veins. Pa Ern also indulged in the Readers Digest word quizzes and actively strove to improve the household vocabulary.

Fast forward several decades and I’m spending a day with Yr 8 students, explaining how a newspaper is put together. I cover where news stories come from, who crafts them and how they end up on the page. In her preface to these sessions their teacher says that many students have no real understanding of what a newspaper is. They don’t read newspapers and are clueless when it comes to locating traditional elements such as obituaries or editorials. The few families that still subscribe to papers often receive them electronically with the effect that they tend to be seen and consumed solely by adults. Given that I started out in newsrooms before we had Internet or email access and mobile phones were a misnomer, I feel like a complete fossil…

I’ve also been working tutoring a VCE English student. In Year 12 a substantial portion of the English mark is derived from ‘language analysis’ tasks. Students need to read a linked trio of media items (for example an opinion piece, a letter to the editor and a cartoon) and ascertain how language and imagery manipulates their thinking on an issue. Let me condemn myself to the age of the dinosaurs forever; if your principal source of ‘news’ is Facebook and your curiosity about current affairs is limited to who is snogging on Big Brother, you can take it as read that language analysis is going to be arduous.

Lastly, my wife and I have a business where we help children hone their literacy and numeracy skills. After their work is complete, students wait for their parents in a foyer area, surrounded by books. Many of them ignore our library or, if coaxed, pick up a book and flick through it without actually reading. I find that the only way to engage them in a story is to read it to them. I wonder if this happens in their homes.

And so to the graphic that kicked off this post, an Alan Kohler special from the 7pm ABC News recently. If we want young people engaged with the world and able to prosecute their opinions and causes, we need to turn this tragic chart around. Books and newspapers need to be back in front of our kids, crammed with stories that make them gasp, laugh and cry. Maybe we need to switch screens off for an hour a day, just to give tree books a chance.

YA fiction: The dark side

It’s a perennial yarn. Someone easily shocked or offended picks up a work of Young Adult fiction and reels at the contents. Horrified that their innocent young darling could be corrupted by such truth-telling, they quickly fire off a complaint to the library/school council/education department/all of the above. A cranky letter to a local newspaper follows and before you know it there’s a story cobbled together asking whether YA fiction is too dark and dangerous for young people to read.

As a journo and YA author I follow these stories with particular interest. These days I’m more author than journalist so I was amused/bemused by a recent media request to discuss this exact topic. The piece was due to run in a Fairfax weekend mag but I’m yet to spot it. (Please shoot me a link if you’ve seen it.)

One of the points I failed to make during the interview is that I grew up in an era where there was no YA section in bookstores or libraries. In the school libraries I frequented, once you were beyond Enid Blyton and had scaled the heights of Ivan Southall and Colin Thiele, you were fast running out of options. In town, the library bus visited fortnightly. While my younger siblings pillaged the limited children’s selection I was free to range the semi-trailer and make my own choices. Invariably I returned home accompanied by Stephen King, James Clavell or James Herbert – guys who didn’t exactly bubble wrap the darkness and violence in their stories. I don’t believe I’m any the worse for reading their work before I turned 18 or 21 or whatever age you’re allowed to know the world isn’t entirely Blyton-esque.

My own YA novels draw heavily on my experiences as a journalist and subsequently contain dark matter. I make careful choices about what I include and how explicit I should be. I also borrow from history as true stories often can’t be topped. It’s rare that I get a complaint. (For the record, I did get one a few weeks back from a reader disturbed by one of the historic elements I used in Five Parts Dead. I’d forewarned him the books were intended for older children and told his parents to read ahead of him… Interestingly, he preferred Game as Ned, which I feel is even more confronting. We clearly have different sensitivities.)

One of the things I did refer to when interviewed was the short story competition I judge annually. The entrants are 12 to 18 years of age and heavily skewed towards the 13-14 year old bracket. The topics are of their own choice – serving as a free window into teen thinking. Having just finished the judging, here are the topics covered this year and the number of young people who tackled them:

A favourite from my adolescent years. I've read this many times.
A favourite from my adolescent years. I’ve read this many times.

  • Bullying (4)
  • Cancer/disease/mental illness (5)
  • Divorce/family breakdown (6)
  • Family/travel/good times (7)
  • Heartbreak/love (8)
  • Horror (8)
  • Murder/kidnapping/crime (4)
  • Natural disaster (1)
  • Road fatalities (5)
  • Sci-fi (5)
  • Suicide (3)
  • War (6)

I could rail on about fiction being a safe space to explore and gain insight into the dark side of life but I think that list renders my comments redundant. Many young people portray a world that is considerably crueler than I could dream up.

So I’ll keep on writing the stories that feel right to me. Hopefully, to quote one of my former editors, my stories will show that even in dark places the light can shine through.