Short stories and adventure

I’ve written before about how much Roald Dahl was part of my childhood, but I think it’s only recently that I’m realising how much his work has influenced who I am now – as a person and a writer.

There was one particular (and miserable) time as a child that I had a rash that no one could really explain. It had spread everywhere from my scalp to the soles of my feet, and it made me want to tear off my skin and curl up in a ball sobbing all at the same time.

I remember being naked in front of a group of strangers (doctors, obviously) for the first time. I was about ten years old and mortified. I felt like a science experiment, especially when the verdict was not far from ‘maybe it’s an allergy to something’.

During my recovery, I was loaded up on Roald Dahl books and my love for his stories grew. The Twits and The Witches were favourites of mine, but not long after that his short stories became a sort of magic to me. Their darkness and the hint of the unsaid always drew me closer.

So recently when I was trapped on a flight home (I’m quite cagey on planes), I chose to spend most of the time listening to the Roald Dahl short story collection, Kiss, Kiss. I remembered The Landlady who had a peculiar taste for taxidermy, the vicar in Georgy Porgy who is terrified of being close to a woman, and the wife in William and Mary who seizes her chance for revenge on her controlling husband.

In part, I love Roald Dahl’s work because I’ve have always been fascinated by the truth. When is the appropriate time for it and when it’s best to lie. After all, hiding the truth leads to secrets and secrets lead people to do the most extraordinary things. So now that I’m home and editing my current favourite manuscript (all writers have favourites), I’m not really surprised that it is about secrets and lies and morality.

I’ve always been fascinated by the things that people aren’t supposed to think or do, and how it can play out. But I’m also in love with the sheer joy and mischief that Roald Dahl’s writing brought to my life. 

These thoughts were what inspired me to write a blog post about why I love writing short stories for the Queensland Writers Centre. Something I will dive back in to after this current manuscript is polished and sent on it’s way.

If you want to know all of my short story secrets, then you’re in luck! I’m teaching a Short Story Workout for 14-19 year olds for the Queensland Writers Centre on 28 July. If you’re keen to come along, make sure you book as soon as possible by heading to their website. I’d love to see you there!

Mr Guzwick’s Lolly Store

Nicky and Alex Preston were perfectly identical. They both had big, green eyes that bulged from their sockets. They both sprouted frizzy and unkempt fire engine red hair, had the same front teeth that overlapped, right across left, and a generous smattering of freckles. They also had a crisp ten dollar note to spend on their favourite treats at Mr. Guzwick’s Lolly Store.

As they stood in the store, the sickly sweet smell of sugar wafted towards them. There were towers of boxed jellybeans. Tubs of soft jellies lined the walls. The fountain spewed with milk chocolate, huge swirled lollipops dangles from every display in the hop, and a large yellow sign on the counter read, Taste test. The twins knew what taste test meant – free food.

‘Good Afternoon,’ beamed Mr. Guzwick seeing the twins, their greedy eyes still fixed on the sign. He was a frail old man and had owned the store for fifty-six years. He had exactly ten strands of hair on his head; Alex had counted them the week before.

‘Would you like to taste my new gum?’

Mr. Guzwick held out two gum squares in electric orange wrapping with ‘The Ultimate Chew’ written on them.

‘It’s extra chewy gum, guaranteed to last an hour more than usual.’ Mr. Guzwick smiled at their burning curiosity. ‘Try it.’

Both twins unwrapped the gum and chucked the small orange squares into their mouths.

The gum exploded with a sweet orange flavour as soon as it hit their tongues and they began to chew and mould the gum in their mouths. Soon after, the gum began to crackle. They opened their mouths to amplify the sound of the popping gum. The gum certainly had been the chewiest gum they had ever experienced. It had begun to swell in their mouths to the size of a large gobstopper. So that’s how it would last so long.

Nicky and Alex had been chewing for ten minutes before their mouths grew numb. Their faces pained with effort. Alex’s jaw began to click in and out of place with every chew. Nicky’s eyes began to water with the amount of pressure on her jaw. The gum squares had swollen even more to take up the whole of their mouths. They could barely shut their mouths. Their jaw muscles went on strike and their faces were red with exhaustion. That was the end of it.

Mr. Guzwick produced a small metal bucket for the twins and they let the great slimy orange globs tumble from their tongues. Nicky and Alex looked up at Mr. Guzwick from the metal bucket, eyes brimming with disappointment. He gave them a sympathetic smile. ‘Cheer up now, there’s plenty of other goodies here!’

To ease their distress, the twins bought two bags of oober goober jellies, twenty packets of sherbet, one large tin of jellybeans, six lollipops and seventeen and a half sticks of red liquorice. No gum. Nicky and Alex presented their money and peculiar toothless grins and left for home.

Mr. Guzwick retired to his backroom and shut the door. Success glistened in his eyes as he looked at the glob of Nicky and Alex’s gum. One, two, three. Three perfect, white children’s teeth jutted out from the gum.

He pulled out the three specimens with tweezers and opened a small tub of superglue. Mr. Guzwick removed the retainer of scattered false teeth from his mouth, leaving only the two front incisors intact. Using the superglue he began to fix the children’s teeth to the gaps in his retainer in accordance to size.

***

Author’s note: This was the first story I wrote for university when I was still figuring out how this story thing actually worked. In previous posts I’ve talked about my love for Roald Dahl’s work and how I borrowed his voice when I was beginning to write. Well, this is the story I was talking about and do you know what? I still have a soft spot for Mr. Guzwick.

Launching One Book Many Brisbanes 6

Last Wednesday, I had the pleasure of attending the launch for the One Book Many Brisbanes 6 anthology.

It was a surreal experience for many of us, milling about with the book finally in our hands and wearing name tags that declared us as ‘winning authors’. We caught up with each other for the first time since the masterclass, checking that we were all still writing and introducing family and friends as it finally dawned on us that this was our book launch.

After a welcome speech by Lord Mayor Graham Quirk, we had our fair share of mingling and photo opportunities before being ushered to the signing tables. It was great fun to have all of us sitting side-by-side at a row of tables that lined one side of the room and around the corner, passing books along like a conveyor belt until all of our signatures were on each requested copy.

I don’t think any of us had even thought about signatures until then but I guarantee, we will all have better ones next time!

The One Book Many Brisbanes competition was something that I had always wanted to enter and I’m glad that I did before it was too late. It’s disappointing to learn that the program will now be put on hold; something which I only discovered from reading the news from SMH and Brisbane Times. Many programs are being cut in Brisbane due to the cost of the flood, but our arts programs always seem to be the first to go (although, I’m sure everyone says that about what they’re most passionate about).

It’s a lesson for any writers out there who are dreaming of entering a specific competition or attending a certain event; go for it now as it may not be around later on.

For those who are keen to read the  One Book Many Brisbanes 6 edition, you can borrow the book or buy one from the Brisbane City Council libraries. Otherwise the pdf versions of all the stories are available on the council website with a great set of discussion questions for readers.

Many thanks again to the wonderful Queensland Writers Centre and Brisbane City Council for the opportunity.

Happy dance x 2

I’m being a good girl this year, so I’ve opted for celebratory dances instead of nasty, fatty (delicious) cake. Yes, I said ‘dances’ because my happy-making news comes in two parts.

1. I’ve had a short story accepted into the One Book Many Brisbanes anthology this year. Soon, I’ll be taking part in the three-day masterclass with the other winning writers and our mentors to further develop the stories before publication. It’s an amazing opportunity to meet other local writers and devote a whole weekend to working on our craft and I’m even more excited to share it with my writerly friend, Samantha Wheeler.

2. My YA manuscript, Blood Sun, has been shortlisted for a Varuna Publisher Fellowship. I’m listed under Kathleen Jayne this time due to a brief struggle with my surname that coincided with the submission deadline. Now that I’ve tried it, I’m happy to write under my usual name and make this a once-off occasion. Blood Sun has been sent to the lovely folk at UQP for the final decision which will be announced at the end of March.

It’s been a very encouraging start to 2011 and I’m hoping to keep the momentum going throughout the year. While I’m on the topic of encouraging starts, I’d like to wish everyone a happy Chinese New Year. I hope that the Year of the Metal Rabbit brings you peace and tranquility.

(image from Chinese New Year Cards blogspot)

AWAW 2010 ANTHOLOGY

You may remember from last year that a short story of mine, Bibi’s Tree, won the Katharine Susannah Prichard Open Awards and I was absolutely thrilled. Well, now my story is included in the Award Winning Australian Writing 2010 anthology, published by Melbourne Books and I’m doing my happy dance all over again.

This anthology is about supporting emerging Australian writers and giving a further opportunity for their work to be read. All of the pieces have recently won Australian writing competitions (thus, the title) and I’m itching to get my copy so that I can read all of the other stories. Just as exciting for me is that it’s the first time I’ll have my writing in book form. (Perhaps geeky, but true.)

Unfortunately, being a Brisbane girl, I won’t be at the launch, but if you’re in Melbourne you should go and tell me what it was like. The launch will be held in the City library on the 21st October. If you’re keen, this page has the info.

2009 KSP SHORT FICTION AWARDS

I’m pleased to announce that my short story, Bibi’s Tree, has won first place in the 2009 Katharine Susannah Prichard Open Awards.

I am still absolutely thrilled. I may have both squealed and performed the writer-happy dance when I received the phone call. Below are the notes on Bibi’s Tree from the judge of the awards, Professor Brian Dibble from Curtain University:

“An exotic setting and a stylised tale more mystical than romantic: young Aaliyah communes one last time with her grandmother Bibi who is slowly but inexorably dying under a baobab tree as Aaliyah’s mother prays for Bibi to die since her end is at hand. It is a moving tale about the stories women hand down to each other through their generations.”


The official presentations were held last Sunday at the KSP Writer’s Centre in Western Australia. I wish that I could have been there as part of the presentation was a short reading from the winning stories. It was the first time that any of my work has been read to an audience and I would have loved to have watched the audience’s reactions to my story.

As I didn’t get to show my gratitude at the presentations, I would like to thank the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre for the opportunity and for reading an extract of Bibi’s Tree in my absence. Also another big thank you to my wonderful writer’s group, for reading the many drafts of this story and keeping me sane.

DISSECTING: MY MECHANICAL HEART

Short stories do not come easily to me. It drives me crazy that something shorter than a chapter in my novel can be such a pain in the arse. I’m currently working on a short story and thought I would share with you how my last one, My Mechanical Heart, came together.

The idea:

I had been dreaming of Kirra for years. A girl with an artificial heart who doesn’t feel human anymore but somehow learns that she can still love and be loved. I had always imagined this story was a picture book with Quentin Blake style illustrations which is why I had never tried to write it before. But I wanted to enter a competition to test myself, so I started sketching out ideas for how to show her story in 2000 words.

The drafting:
I still have a messy green folder of printed drafts with my scrawl all over them and an electronic folder with all my typed drafts and brainstorming. Looking through my files, I actually wrote My Mechanical Heart from scratch five times before I found the story and I’m not even talking about editing yet.

The first attempt I stopped after two pages, obviously annoyed with what I was writing. The second and third draft, are on a similar thought pattern but were more developed. All of these drafts have elements that remained in the final version; the park, the boy, skimming stones across the water. But it was much darker and I felt there was still too much happening in such a short period of time. In these versions the boy was a cutter and Kirra had the opportunity to meet someone else who felt dead inside and see herself in his actions. It made sense and tied together but it felt like overkill and I hated that.

I sent the third draft for critique with my writing group, while I researched artificial hearts and case studies of youth who have had the surgery. I actually still have the pdf of a company’s artificial heart and its instructions for care that I used for Kirra’s heart.

My writing group gave me suggestions to work on but I still wasn’t happy with the story. Through my research, I came up with the idea that Kirra was the longest-surviving person with a mechanical heart and that it was no longer a transition while she waited for a real heart. I thought this would make her feel more like a freak and add the pressure of the outside world. I also changed to the POV from third person to first person which instantly gave the story more life. This was the fourth draft. I still wasn’t happy with it but I felt that the story was moving forward.

While playing with this version, a few scenes from the Wizard of Oz popped into my head and I remembered the tinman’s heart. How fake it is but the tinman is so excited about it. I still think that this is how the fifth and final version of the story came together. Adding those references, added another layer to the story and is became more honest and grounded. There were also heaps of other changes like setting it during the day instead of late at night that I believe made it more truthful.
I can’t remember how many times I edited this version, but the four earlier drafts and the research seemed to come together. I forced my then-fourteen year old brother to read the story and give me feedback. It took a lot of threats and bribery to get his opinion but eventually he said I needed an ending. Originally, it ended with her falling unconscious – unsure if she would make it to the ambulance but still looked after by the boy. My brother hated that and after much arguing, I added the hospital scene.

Other thoughts:
I’ve noticed in developing my current short story that I’m working the exact same way. Even without a clear storyline, I need to write out all of my ideas in different versions of the story which usually means different points of view, characters, setting and themes to discover what the story is actually about. This is the hardest part. Once I’m comfortable in the story, the additional research and the editing is so much easier.

It’s also a good reminder that just because there are less words, doesn’t mean it’s easy.