Genre is a funny thing. It sounds straightforward enough – defined story categories such as romance, science fiction and horror – but it gets a bit more complicated when your book doesn’t neatly dovetail into a standard group.
My novels best fit under the category of women’s contemporary fiction. They aren’t serious enough to be called literary fiction and they aren’t romances either. They are people stories, mostly in a domestic setting – except for The Journey that takes readers on a trip through New Zealand wine country.
Trouble is, many people haven’t heard of women’s contemporary fiction and some even say it’s a category that shouldn’t exist. It does make marketing my books just that little bit more complex but hey, I’m never one to shy away from a challenge.
When it comes to genre, word is that the two most popular categories are crime and romance…and, one supposes, never the twain shall meet! Whether these categories have anything to say about the other “g” word (gender) I don’t know, and I definitely don’t presume to comment.
I recently had a stand at the New Zealand Book Festival and decided that I would conduct some unofficial research as to whether this strong inclination toward these two categories would be evident as I met readers visiting the festival. I made a point of asking everyone who came my way what they liked to read and made a small discovery. The genre mentioned most was indeed crime. No one mentioned romance – could that be because they don’t like to admit it in public? Instead I found that fantasy probably got mentioned almost as often as crime but the big majority of people simply told me they, “liked a bit of everything.”
The NZ Book Festival was a great chance to meet readers face to face. I had some great chats and even had a person or two kind enough to tell me they’d already read and loved my books. And as for my conclusion as I tested the readership landscape? I learned one thing: there are some genuinely lovely readers out there and talking to them is a pleasurable way to spend a day no matter what they like to read!
It’s fair to say that I don’t get nearly as much time to read as I once did. A combination of commercial writing and reading my tutoring students’ books to assist them with their school work means I end up selecting things off a reading pile not of my own choosing.
However, every so often a gap in my schedule opens and I find a chance to read something I’ve had my eye on. Recently I read a little book called The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz – and I am very glad I did.
I don’t usually review books by other authors – it’s a bit like one plumber rating the work of another plumber – but the subject material in The Four Agreements made me pause and think about some of the philosophies it contains.
The book, based on the ancient wisdom of the Toltec people of central Mexico, puts forward the idea that we all operate off our own personal Book of Law that is formed from the agreements we make through what we are taught. Many of these agreements are instilled in us before we are old enough to make an informed choice and are reinforced by either reward or punishment. However, much of what we have in our minds – those ideas, believes, values and opinions we may hold so dear – may neither be true nor be helpful for living a balanced and happy life.
Ruiz extols the virtues of shedding our personal Book of Law and replacing it with just four agreements. These are:
Of course there is slightly more to say about each of these agreements and the philosophy in general, but what struck me is that in the simplicity of these agreements there is much to admire.
We all could do with speaking to ourselves in a kinder way than we do. We would all be a lot happier if we took offense less and stopped worrying so much about what others think. As a fan of knowing the perils of unrealistic expectations, the idea of not making assumptions is sound. And, the fact that your best changes depending on your situation is also quite freeing since we often beat ourselves up for not managing things as well as we used to or as well as we think we should.
All in all, I found The Four Agreements to be most thought-provoking – and definitely worth a read.
Earlier this year I was asked if I would be interested to present a seminar to a local writers’ group. The assigned subject: telling story through writing letters.
Although I haven’t written a whole book using letters, I have used the odd letter in my novels over the years. And to my way of thinking, the medium of letter writing is just that – a vehicle for telling story. So when I was asked, of course I said, “Yes!”
In preparing my seminar I researched about the history of letter writing which, by all accounts, dates back as far as 500 BC with Persian Queen Atossa (daughter of Cyrus the Great) being the first recorded author of a handwritten letter.
I also added in the fact that modern historians have noted that our move away from handwritten letters in favour of email probably means the loss of information that might be of interest to future generations since email is generally not retained on paper. My own correspondence with a good friend in Canada effectively ended in a formal sense when the Internet came along. I have saved all her letters up to this point.
Modern readers are able to peruse the letters of literary greats such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and Oscar Wilde. We can even read letters of more recent greats like John Lennon or J R R Tolkien. These letters provide snippets of the authors’ lives: how they lived, what they thought, what they did.
In the case of Charlotte Bronte, in her correspondence with her childhood friend, Ellen Nussey - captured in voice over in the BBC’s biopic To Walk Invisible - we learn much about Charlotte’s thoughts and particularly her grief over the loss of her sisters.
It seems to me that a whole art form is in danger of being lost. But maybe it doesn’t need to be that way. Maybe it’s time to go retro and return to pen and paper, envelope and post. After all, who knows what treasures this might provide for those in the future?
And if you want to write to me the old fashioned way, feel free!
P O Box 34 209
In my June blog post I talked about finding your flower – that special something which brightens your day and brings joy to your life. I also talked about freedom – how we take it for granted until we don’t have it any more.
The other strange thing about freedom is that, as a concept, it doesn’t exist on its own. If you have freedom it either means you are free to do something or go somewhere – or it means you’re free from something or somewhere. Freedom to…or freedom from.
Freedom from has harsher overtones. It implies that a person has formally not had freedom – that they were in some way imprisoned. This might not mean imprisonment in the strictest sense – a small cell, a miniscule window, locked doors and scary fellow inmates. It could mean being unable to make one’s own choices due to the obligations, expectations and limitations of others…or by one’s own bodily or financial restrictions. To be suddenly free from such strictures sounds wonderful – like a dove being released into a clear blue sky.
Thus, freedom from leads to freedom to. But what then? Once a person has freedom, what are they going to do with it? Where are they going to fly?
One of my characters, in the novelThe Bell Curve, has this very problem. Margaret has been a stay-at-home mother so long she almost become institutionalised. So when her youngest starts showing definite signs of no longer needing her as he once has, Margaret is lost. She sees that she has the freedom to now choose her future but does not know what she wants to do – or even what she is capable of doing.
But freedom is a precious gift. If we have it, we all ought to be thinking about how we can use it to lead interesting and fulfilled lives – and how we can make the lives of others richer in the process.
If you want to check out what happened to Margaret, check out The Bell Curve here.
I’ve always been a fan of jigsaws. There’s something so satisfying about taking all of those little pieces and putting them together to form a picture. And for me, the harder the better – giant jigsaws, mirror jigsaws, mystery jigsaws, jigsaws with no guiding picture. Bring it on!
However, it’s years since I’ve indulged my passion for that particular type of puzzle. For a start they require undisturbed space, something in scant supply in a house where autism resides. They suck up time, pulling me in like an irresistible magnet. And once you’ve done them you break them up and they sit languishing in a cupboard somewhere, taking up valuable real estate.
Lately, though, I have dipped my toe back in the jigsaw waters by completing some online. It’s a tidy way to do them – no issues with boxes and missing pieces and having to keep them away from disturbing influences. The pull to do just a few more pieces still remains, but all in all, it’s a great alternative.
Perhaps it’s this reacquaintance with the small piece puzzle format that made me mention it when talking to a friend. I made the remark that life is like a jigsaw: we put together the picture of our life one piece at a time. Sometimes it can take a while to work out where the pieces go. Occasionally we feel like there are pieces missing. It takes time for the image to start to emerge but it feels so satisfying when a few pieces or a hard section suddenly comes together.
I also realised another parallel, and that comes in the fact that big pictures come together in small pieces. I’m a big advocate of breaking tasks down into smaller pieces, in not getting overwhelmed with all that it might take to get to the finished product. I often see my students become overwhelmed in the face of having to complete assignments. They look at any given task as though it’s Mount Everest and think to themselves, “I can’t do that.”
Instead, I encourage them to break things down into small pieces. Let’s start by packing your bag for Nepal. Let’s get you on the plane to Kathmandu. Then let’s get you to base camp and start the climb step by step. It often surprises them at how a seemingly insurmountable task becomes manageable.
It seems the humble jigsaw has a lot to teach us about the nature of life. As for me, I might just get back to putting in a few more pieces…
At times throughout my previous blog posts I have mentioned quotes I find inspirational. It’s funny in a way, because I don’t consider myself to be a “quoty” person – someone who seeks out such short, pithy statements as a means to inspire their life. But somehow quotes seem to have a way of finding me whether I’m looking for them or not.
One of my favourite quotes is this:
What Hans Christian Anderson really meant by these words could be debated. You could think he means these things literally or you could think he means these things metaphorically. For me, I think it’s a little of both.
Scientists will expound on the virtues of sunshine in safe proportions. From it we obtain vitamin D, an important compound that regulates our absorption of calcium and phosphorous that helps keep our bones strong. It facilitates normal immune system function. It also fights disease, reduces depression and boosts weight loss. That’s quite a list. But perhaps what Anderson meant was that we all need something warm in our life – be it people or family or love – or even a good book!
Freedom is strange. It’s something we take completely for granted until such time as we don’t have it any more. Suddenly we miss its absence with a sharp intensity, thinking back to better days when freedom was our silent friend. We have some experience of this in our family as we support our son through the pleasures and pitfalls of autism. We have chosen to do our utmost for him but as a result we have not had much time off. In fact we recently had off only our fifth overnight stay in eighteen and a half years – or as I calculated, approximately 6,750 days. I think Anderson is right in his assertion that we need freedom – but what that looks like for me is not the same as what it will look like for you. Whatever the case, treasure it while you have it. It really helps you to not just live but to flourish.
Lastly, we come to the little flower. Personally, I love to be given flowers, but again I don’t think this is what Anderson meant. I think he’s talking about something that is simple and yet complex. Something that is beautiful and special. Something that can be given and received. And again, this will be different for all of us. What is your “flower”? That thing that makes your face light up, that you can share with others so that it brightens their day? Something that gives you pure but simple joy?
For me, I think my life consists of lots of different flowers, including friends and family. However, one of the key delights has to be writing. Even the sort of business writing I do these days, where I’m writing about ropes or finances or sales or interior design or health and safety, makes me feel happy in the same way a flower might bring delight.
What about you? What’s your flower?
If you don’t know, now might be a good time to stop and smell the roses.
As some of you may know, when I’m not writing I also tutor high school students in English. I currently have a fabulous bunch of students, most of whom have been with me for some time now. The focus of our time together is for me to help them understand the internal assessments they’re assigned, then help them make a plan for how to tackle the assessment before they go off and write it. After writing, we get together to look at their draft and I teach them how to refine and edit.
We also spend some time looking at the base material they’re working off – essentially books, movies and poems – and talk about the themes and meanings that those works contain. As part of this, we often end up talking about setting.
It’s easy to regard setting as something akin to wallpaper. It’s there in the background to enhance the story. The amount an author uses it is sometimes genre dependent. For instance, historical novels tend to be rich in setting details because those setting details help readers picture the past more clearly. Fantasy writers create fictional settings so need to supply plenty of information for readers to picture environments that otherwise don’t exist. Thriller writers often use it in briefer ways, telling the reader only what they need to know to give context as their protagonist speeds his way through the setting in pursuit of his quarry.
Regardless, what I try to get my students to understand is that setting really does matter. Setting influences us in everyday life much more than we give it credit. Where you are born and when you were born have huge implications for your life: socio-economic, political, educational, health, physical and even nutritional implications. It influences your outlook, your choices and your prospects.
My novels all use New Zealand as the backdrop for the events that take place. I tend to use fictitious settings within New Zealand because many of our real-life towns and cities have distinctive reasons for being and origins that often have Maori ties. My novels are not about those things but about the essence of human nature and behaviour, particularly in groups. Instead, I use the flavour of New Zealand to enhance the story. My most “New Zealand” novel is The Journey, a story about a group of people who come together for a two-week walking trip through New Zealand wine country. Many people tell me how much they enjoyed reading the scenic aspects of the novel – but even more tell me about how much they loved the characters and their take on life – characters that are in turn influenced by the setting.
I am blessed to live in a little slice of paradise and am truly grateful for my own setting. Like all places in the world it is not without problems but, as I often remark to my husband as we drive across the sparkling waters of Waitemata Harbour into the city, there sure are worse places to live. And hopefully, in the future, my setting will inspire yet more novels for fans to enjoy.
I read an interesting statistic last week. It stated that 79% of consumers trust online reviews and testimonials just as much as personal recommendations from their peers. This essentially means that four out of five people will believe an online review pretty much without question. That’s a high amount.
Yet it probably shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. If I’m thinking of booking a hotel or a table at a restaurant (which isn’t often!) I will look at online reviews before I take the plunge. And while some reviews are quite obviously written by people with axes to grind – or who generally have a hard time being happy – the majority of reviewers seem to be stating things as they see them. Sometimes those observations make me change my mind, both for better and for worse.
As for giving reviews, I’m a Level 6 contributor on Trip Advisor (which essentially means I take the time to review pretty much any place I go, stay or eat at), a process I enjoy not only because you know your comments could help someone else, but also – mostly – to give praise where praise is due.
I generally don’t review products and I definitely don’t review books. This might sound strange coming from someone with at least a few clues about what it takes to write a novel, but reviewing other authors’ works just doesn’t seem quite right to me. After all, I’d never review the work of a colleague (not formally, anyhow!) or comment on the outpourings of a friend (unless they asked me to) and reviewing books by other authors seems much the same to me.
But there’s no doubt that we authors want reviews and, given the above statistic, need reviews. Obviously, the more favourable a review the better, but nevertheless, whether good or bad, reviews matter.
So, if you want to help an author out, making a review is a great way to go about it. Not only does it contribute to the weight of social proof, it could very well make an author’s day.
Happy reading…and reviewing!
I have recently started a new freelance job working as a Content Strategist. What is that, I hear you ask? Well, in simple terms, it is someone who helps small to medium sized businesses come up with a strategy of how to better communication with their clients by finding ways that add value to the lives of those clients. For instance, a hairdresser might supply content on how to prevent split ends or how to take care of coloured hair or how to style their hair in a different way. My new job involves helping clients first get their brand wording right, aligning this with their website and then coming up with ideas of how to add that value over time.
It’s fair to say that this new job, along with my other roles, is keeping me away from any more novel writing for now. And while it makes me a little wistful to be temporarily out of the zone of writing novels, having a new challenge has its advantages.
For a start, I am being exposed to snippets of other people’s worlds that I wouldn’t normally see. My two clients so far have been a mortgage broker and an interior designer. It’s interesting to hear their stories and see their passion and learn new things. In fact, these early stages of my new role have given me the chance to learn many new things as well as to use my skills in a new realm.
I also get to see learning in action through my high school English tutoring. Watching my students discover new things about the world in which they live and about themselves is a delight and privilege. As they are exposed to literature about other times and places and people, it’s great to see them use that knowledge to not only do well with their course work, but also to gain a greater appreciation for the benefits of modern living in beautiful, peaceful New Zealand.
I’m really on board with the concept of life-long learning. I love the idea of continuing to challenge my synapses, expand my knowledge and keep growing as a person. I’m glad for the fact that there’s a world of things to discover and understand (although I freely admit that many – like maths – are way beyond fathoming in my humble opinion!).
So, for now, I am embracing my new opportunity to keep on learning…and I guess, in time, I will see where it takes me!
Back in my day, Year Books weren’t a standard part of New Zealand high schools, although this has since changed and they're now quite commonplace. Perhaps one influencing factor for this is the amount of times they are referred to in modern American movies. And while I might not have ever seen a U.S. example, I am aware of at least one aspect of them: the “Most likely to…” quote. Here’s the sort of thing that’s said about students:
Most likely to start a band
Most likely to become President
Most likely to travel the world
Most likely to start their own business
Most likely to cure cancer
Most likely to become a ninja
Most likely to be late to their own funeral
Most likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize/Pulitzer/Oscar
If I’d had one, mine would have said, “Most likely never to own a dog.”
I didn’t grow up around dogs, am allergic to dogs and always felt a little wary of dogs.
We heard, however, of some anecdotal evidence to suggest that dogs are good for kids with autism. That made me feel a little tempted to consider the idea…but, really, a dog? I don’t think so!
Then I happened to be on a school trip with my daughter about eleven years ago. While we were out exploring I saw a small and extremely cute dog and for the first time ever thought to myself, “I could take that dog home.”
I didn’t recognise the breed, except that it looked like a baby greyhound. On investigation, I discovered it to be an Italian Greyhound (also known as Egyptian Mouse Hounds). Italian Greyhounds aren’t very common in New Zealand but we found a breeder, waited patiently, and eventually ended up with one of our own who we named Oscar.
Oscar turned ten this month. His name means “divine spear” and this seems so fitting – a divine gift who not only looks like an arrow, he acts like one too. He’s shot his way through our family in such a way that the novelty of having him around hasn’t ever worn off. He’s been fabulous for my son – and fabulous for all of us.
And because I’m inevitably the one that looks after him, feeds him and walks him, he’s become like my little shadow. He’s a constant presence in my life when I’m home and keeps me company while I write. In fact he's with me now as I write this post. It’s fair to say that I’ve gone from dog avoider to dog lover.
So have I turned into a crazy dog lady? Most likely!
Coming soon. . .