There’s an old story - more fiction than fact - that came out of the 1960s space race. According to legend, NASA realised that astronauts weren’t going to be able to write with pens in space because the lack of gravity means ink doesn’t flow downward as it does on good ol’ terra firma. To circumvent this problem a vast amount of time and tax-payer money was spent developing a special pen, pressurised with nitrogen, that would work in space conditions.
The Russians handed their cosmonauts some pencils.
The story is told as a way of illustrating a good point: sometimes the simple solutions are best.
In fact, pencils are just as troublesome in space as an ordinary pen. Sharpenings pose a safety risk. Pencil wood in a fire hazard. In the end a pen was developed, but by an independent businessman who sold the pen to both NASA and the Soviets. But the illustration still has merit despite being less than accurate. Sometimes a simple solution is much better than a complex one.
One of the main characters in my novel, The Bell Curve, is called Margaret. She’s at the stage of life where she is not free. She has her elderly mother living in a granny flat on the property and still has a teenage son lurking about and being, well, a typical teenage son complete with slovenly ways and equally slovenly attitudes.
Margaret has lost herself and, in a way, has lost her reason. She is no longer able to make logical decisions for logical reasons. She’s stuck by routine and tradition to the point where she’s not managing even the simplest of things – and is making everything so much more complex than it needs to be.
My husband hates her as a character. Her middle-aged, menopausal logic is more than he can comprehend. Many women, on the other hand, tell me that they identify with Margaret in a strong way. They know what it is like to no longer be able to make simple decisions without reference to the way things have always been or to find new ways of getting things done.
Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that there are simple solutions, that life doesn’t have to become unbearable because of our own ways of doing things. After all, life doesn’t have to be rocket surgery!
As many of you know, I am from New Zealand. As many of you will also know, our country had a shocking and unexpected entrance into the world of terrorism two weeks ago, with a white supremacist murdering 50 Muslims at worship and injuring another 50 besides. Per capita, they say that’s the equivalent of 4,000 deaths in a proportionately bigger country like the U.S.A.
I guess that part of living in a country that’s about as far away from the Northern Hemisphere that you can get - where we talk about two degrees of separation and not six - has made us feel safe and secure. The rest of the world has constant risks, but not here. No, here we are safe.
The shock and outrage felt by the majority of the country speaks volumes about us as a people. The outpouring of grief and charitable donations has been incredible. The anger that the perpetrator is a foreign citizen has been significant. The government has already taken steps to legislate a ban against semi-automatic and assault weapons. Questions are being asked about how such a plot was not foiled in the first place – and even more questions are being asked about how we can learn lessons from this awful tragedy so that nothing like it ever happens again.
The fallout is real. We know someone who lost friends. We know someone else who has since been threatened. And the same things are happening around the world all the time. All of which makes me wonder how we gain more tolerance of others when so many think their actions are justified and right.
I like to think that maybe novelists play a very small role in expanding the minds of others to view things through others’ points of view – to show the way in which conflicts and differences can be overcome. It seems like a very small contribution – but then maybe that’s what it takes from all of us – to make a small contribution in whatever corner of the world we live to make our planet a better place.
According to Earthday.org we in the middle of the largest period of species extinction in the last 60 million years. It is estimated that extinction rates are 1,000 x 10,000 times what would normally been seen. Here are just six facts they quote on their website:
These statistics are shocking, appalling even – and it puts the onus on all of us to do everything we can (from composting to recycling to eating less meat) to stem the tide.
But what, you may ask, is the relevance for an author and for you, the book reader?
Well, as you may know, I tutor high school student in English. Our new academic year has recently recommenced in New Zealand and so my students are now back with me for help and support after having the summer off. We start by looking at their assessment schedules for the year so I can get a handle on what internal achievement standards they will be tackling for our NZ qualification programme.
Here’s the interesting thing: every single student has turned up with an assessment schedule considerably easier than in previous years. Deadlines are longer, the achievement standards being tackled are easier – and in one case, the school are no longer going to read a book as part of their Year 12 curriculum. We go to Year 13 in New Zealand so that’s basically a 17-year old student – or probably Grade 11 in US terms.
Giving students longer? Not working their brains so hard? Not reading a book? I find all these trends rather alarming.
I presume this change has come about because the attention spans of students has reduced through the dominance of digital technology. Where books are concerned I wonder whether they are so used to watching and interacting in bite-sized chunks that the idea of a forest of pages in book form is now too much.
It also makes me wonder whether book readers will become an endangered species and go the way of the dinosaur. Perhaps story will become reduced to a visual medium through downloaded content?
Maybe, like the issue of conservation and preservation, the onus is equally on all of us to do everything we can to stem the tide – writing, reading and promoting the wonderful written word. Will you join me?
Last January my post centred around our need as humans for new beginnings and the opportunity New Year presents for just that. However, it occurred to me that such opportunities come along more frequently than we perhaps realise.
Recently, a friend in Canada (fantasy author H. Leighton Dickson) asked on Facebook for people’s impressions of spring for an article she had to write. She kindly asked me to weigh in on the discussion with my Southern Hemisphere perspective on the subject.
We came to the conclusion that apart from the fact that we have spring when the Northern Hemisphere have autumn (or fall, if you will) the sentiments I expressed – those of new beginnings and new life with the worst of winter behind us and the promise of summer to come – are universal feelings whether it’s March or, even September.
The change of seasons brings about a different type of change from that of New Year, and that change depends on the season itself. Summer is often time to get out and about and do things in the natural environment – hiking, swimming, exploring. Autumn sees us trying to make the most of waning days – doing things before winter sets in, getting out as the weather allows. Winter involves hunkering down and working on indoor projects and generally just trying to get through. Spring, as I said earlier, is a time for new beginnings and new life and the prospect of being able to break free from the confines of indoors.
At the moment it is summer in New Zealand and we’ve been trying to make the most of it – getting out and about to enjoy the great outdoors before gearing up for a new work and academic year. We are fortunate to be surrounded by some of the best scenery the world offers.
New beginnings come in all sorts of ways – but will only be useful to us if we are purposeful in using them to our advantage. So, as you enter this new year – and factor in the season – what are you going to do to be intentional and make the most of that new beginning? Will you read more books? Will you write or start some other creative project? Are you wanting to make a more dramatic change?
Whatever goals you set – and whatever the weather – good luck from me!
As I write this post it is Christmas Eve here in New Zealand. The shops have just shut, the presents are wrapped and under the tree and there’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. And because we are in the Southern Hemisphere and it’s summer (or supposed to be – it’s currently raining!) most non-retail businesses close for a couple of weeks while people go away and have a break. It’s a time for relaxation, recreation and rejuvenation.
I’m planning on reading a few books myself, not doing too much in the way of chores and enjoying a few local outings as a way of recharging the old batteries. If the weather co-operates we may do a few bush walks, go to the beach and sample the odd coffee in the cafes that choose to stay open over this time. It all sounds very idyllic – and hopefully it will be! Even the prospect of leisure fills me with gratitude.
And, as the year draws to an end I guess it’s only natural that we all start to contemplate the year that’s been and consider the year that’s to come. For our family 2018 has been a year of transition – and it will be interesting to see what 2019 brings. I already have plenty of commercial writing work booked in as well as a writing seminar to run in March. Experience has taught me that life can be most unexpected, so suffice to say that we will set out and see where 2019 takes us.
I want to take this opportunity to wish all of my readers a fabulous festive season and all the best for the New Year. I hope you also get the chance to relax, unwind and gear up for another year on this amazing, crazy, beautiful and challenging planet – and may some good books come your way to keep you company on the journey.
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…
Coming soon. . .