Friday, December 31, 2010

Me and Jane Austen

I watched a late airing of Jane Austen's "Emma" last night. It was a fairly recent movie I'd never seen before with Kate Beckinsale as Emma instead of Gwyneth Paltrow, who I felt was all wrong when I saw her years ago. Anybody who has read the book would know that Emma Woodhouse was clearly a brunette and NOT blonde! Last night's movie impressed me as one that I was sure JA would probably approve of. Apart from Mr Knightley being a bit of a smarty-pants who was always right, "Emma" was one of my favourite books.

Now, this may surprise some people, but whenever I'm asked which famous author I'd most relate to, I can't help coming up with Jane Austen. Some friends of mine write historical fiction set far closer to Jane's time period and you might think they would have more in common with her. But no, it's me! For the rest of this blog post, I'll explain why.

Essentially, she used to write contemporary drama/romances set in her own little corner of the world. That's what I do too, although my corner of the world happens to be the Adelaide Hills in the early 21st century. Years ago, I read some advice that Jane herself gave other aspiring writers. She said something like, "Choose what you know, and for me, a small town with a handful of characters is the perfect thing to work with." I took her advice on board. Rather than tackling piles of research, I'm confident that if I set my stories around modern Mt Barker, the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the area will come through with authentic freshness because I know just what I'm talking about.

As for Jane Austen, if she'd been at all interested in being a historical novelist, she might have set her books back in the Middle Ages, as some of her contemporaries used to. She even alluded to some of those authors in her novel, "Northanger Abbey." They were the ladies whose books her heroine Catherine used to avidly read. It's all quite interesting to me.

Jane loved to fill her novels with twists in plots; so do I. She loved working with witty, often quirky, entertaining dialogue. So do I. She liked her books to end with uplifting, positive happenings. So do I. As I watched "Emma" last night, I thought what a priceless gift Jane Austen has given us. We have an authentic slice of what it might have been like to live in the gracious, but often snobbishly class-conscious Georgian era. This might have been lost to us if she never wrote. Thank heavens she did. And hopefully, someday people may say similar things about me.

Jane Austen died aged 42. It's generally believed that she had Addison's Disease, which can now be controlled well with cortisone injections. What a waste, because she had so much more to give! In fact, she left an uncompleted manuscript behind her. We could have been blessed with so many more books than the six she left us with. There's another thing we have in common. I've just turned 41 and also have six books published, the seventh coming out this year. But when I think of how Jane used a quill pen and ink bottle for all of her revisions instead of having a trusty computer for all her editing needs, I can't help feeling a sense of awe.

Here's a picture I really like, as it highlights the analogy of me being like JA, showing her with all my modern trappings. Wouldn't she have loved it? I'd like to be able to say, "Thank you, Jane, for being one of my mentors. All writers need a role model and you've been a very good one."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Paula's Theory of Relativity

When we sit back and think how relative just about everything is, it is the one thing that makes us tend not to form quick judgments about anything at all.

I have a book by Peter Daniels, who's old enough to clearly remember the days when "Beatle Mania" first struck the world; days when many of us were not even born yet. He describes how he saw the four young men on his television screen on that day in the 1960s and instantly thought how sloppily they wore their clothes, how rebellious and appalling their presentation seemed to be and how badly they needed haircuts. They were scruffy, uncouth and loud.

Fast forward a couple of decades to when this book was published. Daniels was watching a TV program with a sudden flashback, which he recognized as that very same clip he saw before. But this time, his initial impression was how clean-cut the four young men were and compared to what regularly bombarded his ears from all media forms, their music seemed reserved and almost classical.

His story made me realise that we do the same to ourselves too, all the time. Reminded me of a photo that was taken of me when I was about 17 or 18 years old. At that time, I'd been going through some sort of phase when I liked to dress up in old vintage sort of clothes that looked like they came from the 1920s or 1930s. I think I wanted to appear interesting and eccentric. In this particular photo I was wearing some sort of weird sailor suit and looked like a character from an Agatha Christie mystery. I'd been going through my anorexic stage too, and looked as skinny as a stick. At the time I thought it came across OK and was quite happy with the photo.

About five to seven years later, I looked at that same photo with disgust, my initial response being how stupid I looked and how mad I was at my family and friends for letting me make such a fool of myself in public. I slammed the album shut telling myself, "You were a real wally!" Then I found it again quite recently, about twenty years after it was taken, and this time I smiled with a bit of nostalgic affection for my old self, thinking how insecure I used to be and how hard I used to try to make a statement. I realised I probably just needed a smile and some encouraging feedback that I really was OK, and if I'd been around then, I would have given myself some.

So now the experience has made me think that as our opinions change all the time anyway, we might as well be generous in our attitudes toward ourselves and others at all times. By the same token, if you find yourself being harshly summed up by other people, remind yourself not to take it on board and get depressed because everyone's opinion is only relative. You have the option to never take mean, negative feedback as accurate!

Blessings everyone,

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Paula's Incredible Time Machine

Here is one of the most effective tools I've come across for dealing with bouts of discouragement and depression easily and thoroughly. It is completely free because this amazing machine operates within your own head. Here's how it works. When circumstances get you down, all you have to do is remind yourself, "Oh, I've got the incredible time machine." Then you choose to either zoom it back into the past, ahead into the future or a combination of the two.

I'll take my current discouragement issue to take as an example. I've been plugging away trying to write and sell my books for over ten years and feel as if I've been pushing a mountain all that time. I sometimes manage to move that mountain a few inches but if I stop to rub my throbbing head, it promptly slides back to just where it was. Well, that's how it seems anyhow. I know that discouragement can distort actual facts. When I'm tired and stressed, it's easy to sink into the rut of self-pity. Now that I know the Time Machine helps me out of this rut, here's what I do.

1) Whiz back into the past as many years as I want to go.

I zoom back to the year 1987, when I was totally stressed with my Year 12 load and convinced that I would crack under the strain. I was thinking, "I'll never get an offer to any university because my grades will be too lame." (RESULT: I actually did pass all the subjects fairly well and even achieved the highest score possible for English and I did get an offer to Adelaide University in the first round of offers)

Next I whiz back to those years of study when all my friends were pairing up, I was still single and depressed because I never thought I'd meet the right person, because all the nicest fellows were already taken etc etc. (RESULT: When I'd just turned 21, my brother-in-law introduced me to somebody who worked with him, and that turned out to be Andrew, who I've now been happily (mostly) married to for eighteen years)

Then I visit the year 1993, when I was having repeated early miscarriages and convinced myself that there was no way I'd possibly be able to start a family, because for some unknown reason, I just couldn't stay pregnant. (RESULT: I now have three fun, intelligent kids who are aged between fifteen and six)

There are other examples I could choose but you get the idea. When I revisit the past, I see that the results would have been just the same without putting myself through all the stress of the worry and depression, which turned out to be totally wasted and useless. Then I remind myself, "Hey, there seems to be a pattern here. One day I'll look back and kick myself for all the years of misery and depression I'm putting myself through now. So I'm going to stop. I don't see the full picture. Instead of being depressed, I'm going to simply keep on doing the small things that are put before me each day and stay optimistic because I have no idea of the great things the future may hold."

Then the thought of the future reminds me to use the Incredible Time Machine in the opposite direction.

2) Whiz forward five, ten, fifteen or more years. Then simply remember to ask myself, "Will this really matter then?"

My son, Logan, may be stressing us all out because he has a long-overdue assignment due, needs my help and neither of us can easily understand the text book. Or my son Blake may still be whining and struggling with a reading concept that I feel I've been over and over again with him. Instead of stressing and groaning, I can remember to whiz us forward and realise, "Hey, this issue will be long behind us in 5 years."

Or I may have tried to hold a Light the Dark party showcasing all the excellent Aussie books and products for Christmas shopping, got a whole lot of good food in, made a beautiful looking spread beneath the flashing Christmas tree and then nobody showed up. (Yes, this one isn't hypothetical. It actually happened last night. It is one of the weekly events (or non-events) that has pulled me into my rut) OK, so I take a deep breath, square up my shoulders, grin at my family and say, "Hey, ten years from now, this night will be well behind me. In fact just weeks from now, this night will be well behind me because I'm not going to stop persevering."

So if you get how the Incredible Time Machine works, I'm inviting you to use it too, because this is a blog that's designed to encourage. I believe that simple techniques are often the most effective. When we acknowledge our own lapses into depression, they may prove encouraging to others and therefore not wasted. So use this tool, fly backward and forward through your past and future, remind yourself that as change is definite, you might as well shake off your despondency and get on with the jobs you have before you.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Commonsense Beatitudes

Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves; they will always have entertainment.

Blessed are those who can distinguish between a mountain and a molehill; they will save themselves a lot of trouble.

Blessed are those who can rest and sleep without looking for excuses; they will become wise.

Blessed are those who know how to be silent and listen; they will learn new things.

Blessed are those who are intelligent enough not to take themselves too seriously; they will be appreciated.

Blessed are you if you can look seriously at small things and peacefully at serious things; you will go far in life.

Blessed are you if you can admire a smile and forget a scowl; your path will be sunlit.

Blessed are you if you can interpret the attitudes of others with good will, even when appearances are to the contrary; you may seem naive but that is the price of charity.

Blessed are those who think before acting and who laugh before thinking; they will avoid foolish mistakes.

Blessed are you if you know how to be silent and smile even when you are interrupted, contradicted or walked on; the gospel is beginning to take root in your heart.

Blessed are you especially if you know how to recognise the Lord in all those you meet; you have found the true light, true wisdom.

Fr. Joseph Folliet

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Talking Chicken

OK, where am I going with this title? I'm like the talking chicken. It's all to do with something I don't consider is my greatest strength and that is self-promotion. After having six books published, you'd think I'd be less awkward about getting out there and selling them, but the truth is that my old habits have been very hard to squash. They spring up even now.

One day at High School, some of my friends were going about whispering that I was a show-off. I still get the same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about it, and remember the decision I made to never, ever put myself in the position of being accused of that again. On top of that, the Bible tells us to wait for others promote us, doesn't it? Jesus Himself told the parable of the banquet guest who was asked to step down from the place of honour. Like many of us, I took it all on board and decided to be a model of humility and modesty. But the extent of this attitude has definitely got in the way of selling my books, which was not what I intended at all. I came across a little story that helped.

A man heard about a rare talking chicken that could speak five languages. He set out on a world-wide search to find it. After an exhausting search, he discovered one in a pet shop at a bazaar and asked the owner to post it to his home address. When he arrived home in two days, he asked his wife if the bird had arrived and she said, "Yes."
"Where is it?"
"In the oven."
"Arrrgh, that was a one-of-a-kind bird that could talk five languages!"
And his wife replied, "Well, why didn't he speak up?"

So I realised that I've been behaving just like this poor bird. When Jesus said to wait for others to promote us, I think his point was that we need to remember that all the good things He's given us come from Him. I'm sure He didn't mean for us to clam up and never mention the skills and talents God has given us, especially when He's given us them to benefit others. I asked myself if I believe my books have the potential to give people a lot of joy and enrich their lives. The answer is yes!

So folks, my books are really enjoyable, intriguing and good and if you haven't read them and enjoy a compelling story, please give them a go. Whew, I can tell you, it was difficult for me to type that sentence. All my instincts cried up against stating it outright like that, but if I can do it on this blog, I'll hopefully begin to learn to do it elsewhere too.

And if anybody reading this is another talking chicken, I hope this will help you too. If you have any similar stories, please let me know :)

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Ice Sculpture

Here's a good reflection. Living your life is a bit like melting an ice sculpture that has been frozen to minus 50 degrees C. You start heating it up and for some time, nothing seems to be happening. There is lots of heat energy going into it with no visible results. But suddenly when the temperature gets to zero it begins to melt and you have water.

In the same way, you can put a saucepan of that water over a flame to boil but it appears that nothing is happening until around 100 degrees C. Then you begin to see a few bubbles, a bit of steam, and eventually it rolls up to a good, steady boil.

The principle here is that we can pour a lot of energy into anything (for me it's writing novels and homeschooling my family) and day by day it seems that nothing is happening. I've had moments of discouragement and been tempted to quit, wondering what is the use of plowing on for no results. Perhaps I'm just a victim of living life in the fast-paced 21st century, when we are conditioned to think our gratification should be instant. Yet the fact is that when we pour honest effort and energy into something meaningful, it's bound to bloom into something beautiful that is obvious to everyone as the fruits of our labour, as long as we stay faithful and don't quit!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Stories to combat writer's discouragement

I was having some gloomy moments last week and couldn't figure out why, until I put two and two together. I've recently had two great things happen. 1) "Picking up the Pieces", the first novel I ever had published back in 2000, has been re-published! A good number of them arrived on my doorstep last week. 2) After working on it for over a year, my newest manuscript is out of my hands and with my editor. Now, you'd think those are both things that would make me cheer, "Hooray!" But when good things happen and I have time to stand back and take a deep breath, I find myself getting anxious and flat. All the "what ifs?" begin to surge through my head. "What if people don't really care? What if I can't sell them as quickly as I anticipated? What if all the hard work I've done amounts to nothing much?" I guess we all have these feelings sometimes. I've collected a few stories about other hardworking writers and scribes to help me combat them.

A lesson from Baruch

One of the lesser known people in the Bible, he was Jeremiah's secretary. Baruch took Jeremiah's dictation of the Lord's Words and then went and read them out to the people while Jeremiah was shut up and restrained. Eventually Baruch was asked to come before the princes in the royal household and read them out loud. I guess many of us remember how King Jehoiakim cut them up and threw them with contempt into the fire. Baruch had to run into hiding with Jeremiah and take the dictation again.

In the short chapter 45 of Jeremiah, although this is not stated in words, it appear that Baruch let himself grow discouraged because of the lack of public acclaim he and Jeremiah were earning. I can easily imagine that Baruch, swept away by the magnitude of what he was scribing, hoped to make a name for himself and even become a national hero. He'd staked his life and reputation for the sake of recording Jeremiah's prophecies for posterity. Surely he felt that God would decide to reward them in their here and now. When that didn't happen, Baruch must have sunk into depression, and Jeremiah received a prophecy especially for him. This is how it went. God's response was, "Should you seek great things for yourself - seek them not for I bring evil upon all flesh but leave you your life as a booty and snatched prize of war." It was probably not the response from God that Baruch longed to hear but there we have it. It seems to apply to me too at times. The rebuke seems to be not to value the response of men to your work so highly, because we're doing it for the love of God and others, and when our motivation is to earn accolades for ourselves, we have to be careful (ouch!)

The medieval writer of "Sir Gawain"

refer to an article in the recent edition of the Omega Writer's "Zaphon" on-line magazine, written by Anne Hamilton. She drew my attention to this anonymous man who poured hours into writing his brilliant work in English. Just as he finished, it became unpublishable. A proclamation went out from the church restricting theological writing to Latin. Perhaps he sank into despair and thought, "How can God let this happen when He gave me the inspiration in the first place?" However, over 500 years later, the only surviving copy of his work influenced thousands of people. Twentieth century's two great professors JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis both fell in love with it and drew heavily on his writing for their own amazing series which we know and love so well.

The irony is, how could either of these two men possibly have known that their relatively obscure efforts would be incorporated into something timeless? And by the same token, how can we possibly know all the ways God will use the gift of writing He's given us without our knowledge? We know what we need to be doing! The amount of recognition we receive for it is inconsequential to God and should also be to us, as we have faith that He hasn't forgotten us and knows where He wants to take our work!

I feel better now myself.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Catch up at last

It's been a long, long since I've updated here.

The fact is I decided to take a break from internet for a few months. Early in the year I had a chronic health problem which wouldn't go away, (but now it has, hooray!!), and a worrying financial problem which was a real hassle, (but now it's been sorted out, thank goodness). It was a really, really horrible time actually, so now that these two things are over I'm happier than ever with my old lifestyle. Yet after taking such a long holiday from the internet, I started wondering what I was going to do about blogging. Would I just start off where I left off? Not to mention I feel ashamed of not catching up with good friends on their blogs.

Anyway, while this was all going on, my family started to get more of a fascination with Facebook. They began to convince me that many more untapped "fans" might be reachable through setting up a fan page, so over the last few days that's what I've done. So for now, I've decided to put this particular blog on hold for an experiment, but I'm keep up my thoughts and impressions through my fan page on Facebook. I'd rather just have one thing happening than two.

So I'm going to begin visiting blogs again and leaving comments, as I'd love to know how you're all going. And I'd like to invite anybody who liked to keep up with this blog to visit my Facebook fan page and share your thoughts with me. I'd really love that.

Monday, January 4, 2010

My newsletter for December 2009

New Year, New Decade

On Christmas Eve I had one of those milestone birthdays with a zero at the end of it. OK, it's the one between 30 and 50. It's handy in a way, when you spin over another decade just as the calendar spins over another decade. I've been told my due date was actually January 2nd, 1970 and wish I'd gone the distance, because Christmas Eve isn't a good time to try to fit a birthday into. I'm usually too busy along with everyone else. But there you go! And this year, I took the time to reflect because I don't want to go into my forties without some nostalgia.

First, I can see that it's an illusion that you're old or even middle aged when you reach it. In my heart of hearts I feel just the same as I did in my teens and early twenties. But back then, 40 did carry a middle-aged stigma. I wouldn't have wanted to write about them then, because I would have thought I had no idea how they think and feel. Now I know that they think and feel not much different as before. Now I'm not afraid to try to write convincingly about the elderly, because although I haven't got there yet, I'm willing to guess that it'll probably be the same.

40 years is a big chunk of time. The Israelites were wandering around in the Sinai Desert during a slab of time the duration of my life span. No wonder they thought God was slow to move. If I'd been a new-born baby during the Exodus from Egypt, it would have been the only life I'd ever known. Although 40 years is a snap in the grand scheme of things, it's definitely long enough for a person to become set in their ways.

I've seen extremes in my life. I've been chubby and I've been too skinny. I've been afraid that I could never have a baby or carry a pregnancy full term but I've also been surprised by a completely unexpected pregnancy. I can stand back and see that I've wasted a lot of energy fearing or worrying about things which never happened. I'll never have that emotional energy back again but at least I can launch into this season of my life with my eyes open.

New Year's Resolution

This is similar to all the advice you've probably heard to keep a Gratitude Journal, yet it's slightly different. I was thinking how I'd tend to get hurt feelings or sad if people overlook my efforts. Feeling unappreciated or unnoticed is not pleasant. On the other hand, when people do give us unexpected encouraging feedback, it gives us an instant lift. As God created us in His own image, He would surely feel the same. I found myself standing back and wondering how often I took the time to actually notice His efforts. He's made a fantastically beautiful world, and it's so easy to breeze along taking it for granted or not even noticing.

I've often been striving to make my own mark in the world and impress people. I'm tired of that attitude now. I want to begin to notice the beauty and say a sincere "Thank You Lord," for no other reason than warming His heart because somebody is acknowledging Him. Living in the Adelaide Hills is enough to give me a head start but beautiful things are everywhere. Babies and children, smiles on the faces of friendly people, images written in books. Yesterday I went for a walk in the Mt Barker wetlands near my home and started my new habit. I saw a great pelican sticking his neck under the water, tilting back his head and having a huge drink. He sort of shook it down his neck. And I sat still and watched a tiny wren flit into a bush and trill a little song that sounded like clear bells. What a huge difference there is between the pelican and the wren, yet they are both birds! I said, "Wow God, thank you for your magnificent variety." And at home, I wrote it into my journal and I felt good too. I think noticing the beauty is a habit I'll definitely keep up.

What I've been reading

In the week before Christmas I bought "The Book of Tomorrow" by Cecelia Ahern. She's only young and already a bestselling author, who wrote "PS, I Love You" which was made into a movie. I picked up her most recent book because the title drew me, and then the blurb on the back convinced me! I'll write it down, to show the impact a great blurb makes.

Tamara Goodwin has always lived in the here and now, never giving a second thought to tomorrow. Until a travelling library arrives in her tiny village bringing with it a mysterious, large leather-bound book locked with a gold clasp and padlock. What she discovers within the pages takes her breath away and shakes her world to its core. A mesmerising story about how tomorrow can change what happens today.

There you have it. An intriguing blurb needs to be paired up with an eye-catching cover to say, "Buy me!" My opinion of the book itself is that it was pretty good. I was interested enough to stay up late at the end of Christmas Day to finish it off, although the cheeky heroine had a mouth on her that I found a bit wearing on my nerves. It left me more enthusiastic to keep on with my own fiction for the Christian market because Christian readers deserve similar exciting and intriguing novels without having to wade through all the swearing and casual sex. And I have to add that this book is pretty mild compared to some I've read, including those which have been on the University English syllabus reading list.

Anyway, it's encouraging in a way to notice that the occasional bit of average writing can slip past the editors even in a best-seller like this. I found the following sentence:- "She had become grey in the face and lost all her colour." Now I've been assessing and tearing up my own work long enough to know that one of these two descriptive phrases should have been deleted. This sort of thing is a tautology. It's saying the same thing twice in different ways. Alison, my old editor who worked on my Quenarden books with me, used to refer to them as "wet water" and sometimes she'd jot "WW" in the margin of my manuscript with an arrow pointing to the tautology. When even bestselling books miss a few basic mistakes like this from time to time, it makes me think we can be easy on ourselves. We're all human!

Writers talking about other writers

Long ago I read some scathing comments that Louisa May Alcott wrote about Mark Twain, calling him vulgar and full of himself. She said that nobody should ever deign to read crass rubbish like his. Of course it was written in her polite, lady-like sort of way but I don't have her actual words in front of me. Anyway, a few days ago I came across a book which quoted Mark Twain himself slamming Jane Austen. He thought she was trite, affected and wrote books in which nothing meaty and interesting happened whatsoever. On his way home to America after his English tour, he complained that there was nothing better than her books in the ship's library. This proves that writers have always taken digs at each other. But it also proves that we should take lightly what other people say, no matter how great their credentials seem to be. All three of these authors are still enjoyed as classic geniuses with not just books but many quotes to their credit. People just have different tastes, that's all.

It also proves that there'll always be books you come across that you don't like much. You might consider them a waste of your money and time spent reading them. But maybe we should consider that if we didn't invest in books we don't enjoy from time to time, we probably wouldn't come across the rare gems either. And when you put them back into circulation by donating them to Goodwill Shops, somebody with different taste to yours might pick them up cheap and actually like them. Apart from my very favourites which I'd never part with, I'm beginning to think that books are like money. They are meant to be circulated and not hoarded.

A similar principle holds true for writing. Over time, I've ripped out or scribbled out lots of scenes that just seemed superfluous or not to fit. They were scenes that I'd worked hours on. That sort of situation has made me groan and think, 'What a waste of time and effort!' But it wasn't a waste because writing them was an integral part of writing the whole book.

That's all for now but I thought that in a few days I'll post some birthday and Christmas photos on. I might be posting more than just once a month, if I have anything good to share.
See you soon.