Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: September, 2015

One Green Pea On Plate. Table Setting With Clipping Path.

CULTURAL CRINGE

Satdee night last, my lovely friend Liz treated me to a nice slice of Sydney Fringe performance art at The Silent Dinner Party. Brainchild of artist Honi Ryan, it’s a simple and intriguing idea: take a couple of hundred strangers, anywhere on the globe, sit them down to dinner, and insist that no-one says a thing – for two hours.

Me, not talk for two hours? While sitting next to lovely Liz? And while running into dear old pal Stu outside the venue, who I hadn’t seen for eight years? Silence seemed an impossible ask, but a test of will and strength surely worth exploring.

The rules on entering the event at the gorgeously deco Marrickville Town Hall were clear:

  • Please do not use words or your voice
  • Please do not read or write
  • Try to make as little noise as possible
  • Don’t interact with technology

We were beckoned into the dining hall by a Seuss-like host wearing a bright blue suit and teal goatee, who silently invited us to sit at the long banquet tables there, cloud-shaped lamps strung above our heads.

And almost immediately the rule-breaking began – not by me, but by many of the guests who, for reasons only they might know, decided that the rules were not for them.

For the next two hours we were treated to sniggering, much of it forced, deliberate cutlery-banging, foot-stamping, bottle-whistling and general smart-arsery.

My heart sank for Honi, the artist, the one who had gathered us here to share her experiment. She tried to work with the rudeness of her guests, attempting to cajole them by her own inventive displays of silence to grasp silence themselves.

At one point Liz and I got up to dance, to have some fun with this challenge of silence, and within two minutes, a hundred people had joined us – stomping in conga-lines, openly laughing. Just not getting it.

It struck me then that I was in a room full of people who most probably all considered themselves to be highly culturally engaged folks – artists, musicians, writers, quite a few were handing out their business cards – and yet they were showing such disrespect for a fellow creative quester. Why?

I’m the last person to take things too seriously – I’m as irreverent as they come – but it made me sad to think that so many in the room thought the sounds of their own voices were so much more important than embracing another’s idea. Honi’s dare to us was to reach for different ways of communicating with each other but it seems most weren’t up to it.

For all their hipster beards and thick-framed specs, for all their nice wine and designer smugness, they were just a bunch of bogans, really. And that’s a shame. But perhaps a point well made by Honi Ryan after all…

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CH-CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

Home towns are strange creatures. Every time I return to Sydney she seems to have changed. A new shopping mall, a new one-way street, paving along the edges of suburban roads where once there was sand.

But the city, as I knew her, remains somehow indelibly laid under the changes. Standing on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets recently, at the stacatto prompt of the traffic lights, I automatically started to cross as if I was on my way to work – some twenty years ago.

I could smell the coffee and the blueberry muffin I would almost invariably be carrying on my way to the AMP Centre, where I worked high up in the sky as a clerk in the trademarks department of a large law firm. I felt an echo of the jangling madness of that past life: the constant, conflicting demands of motherhood and corporate slavery pushing and pulling me in opposing directions. The relentless worry. Is my baby okay? Will I get the enormous pile of pet food applications on my desk to the Trade Marks Office in time before it closes? Will I have enough money this month to cover both rent and childcare fees? And every morning I chided myself for the indulgence of that blueberry muffin.

I was gripped – always – with the sensation that I was standing at the edge of a very slippery slope, only the heels of my court shoes the difference between survival and disaster.

Jackhammers pounded as the façade of the building was revamped. Apparently, built in 1977, the entrance was out-of-date by the early 90s. Who’d have thought a foyer was so expendable? Now, in mid 2010s, plans are well underway to knock the whole thing down and replace it with something else altogether – something sleek and modern and design award-winning. Truly. I find the idea of destroying a forty-five storey building on a stylistic whim a disgusting example Babel-ish profligacy and waste. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe that’s just Sydney.

For all her changes, though, she does remain beautiful, and grow more beautiful here and there. Across the road from the AMP Centre sits the Museum of Sydney with its wonderful, provocative forecourt jumble of old and new, of devastation and regeneration, of First Nations and Australian flags sailing together inside it all.

And then there is the harbour. The jewel. I’ve never known her without Bridge or Opera House or yellow ferries. The sight of her, sparkling, makes me childhood-happy, no matter how the souvenir shops and restaurants evolve and outprice each other around her. The smell of salt water, the gentle splash of her waves, and her chip-hunting gulls are always here for me, and I hope they always will be.

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SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF

It’s never been more difficult to see your novel published, and never easier – it’s such a best and worst of times in the industry, it’s practically Dickensian.

Traditional publishers, particularly in Australia, are squeezing their belts so tightly that new work, or work that sits too far outside the marketing boxes, increasingly rarely gets a look-in at all. Gone are the days when authors routinely enjoyed long and developmental relationships with publishers; worryingly, many authors are shut out from having any meaningful conversation with those who bring their work into the world. For many in traditional publishing it seems that novels represent a series of spread-sheet challenges, and the joy of making books becomes lost in the confuddling numbers.

It’s no wonder then that so many are turning to independent publishers and self-publishing. Before anyone sneers – and, boyo, have I heard some sneering about those who dare to go it alone, those who have the temerity to step outside the corporate structure and back themselves – I think self-publishers are some of the bravest among us. For the record, I also believe that everyone does have a book in them – a story, a grand narrative – and that it’s there for each of us to explore if or when we need to. Setting out on that expedition into your own soul will always be one of the noblest, if one of the most insane things you’ll ever do.

As you’d know if you follow this blog, I get to experience these bests and worsts from both sides of the fence – as author and as editor. Occasionally, and most deliciously, I also get to do some consultancy work that brings new writing to my desk for appraisal, and the latest batch of manuscripts I’ve read have been sparkling, exciting, both for their originality and for the elastic-brained daring of their authors. They are the reason I will never give up my editorial hat.

But they make me fret, too. Two of the manuscripts in particular have been haunting me with the question: who is going to publish these novels? Who would take the risk? Both of the novels, in my opinion, were just about ready to roll – ready to be received by an editor in preparation for publication – but neither neatly ticks a genre box, or a literary fashion box. Is it good enough that these novels might never be published simply because no traditional publisher is willing to invest in them?

The answer to that last question must be no.

Neither of these authors has the means to invest thousands in paying someone to edit and publish their work for them, though (or to risk their money on some of the sharks out there). If they were to self-publish, they’d have to avail themselves of the free DIY services that split profits on copies sold, and they’d have to carve down their non-existent editorial budgets to include only a thorough proofread.

Scary, when you’re on your own, and when you care deeply about the quality of your work. How do you know then when your novel is ready to meet your public?

If this is ringing any bells for you – if you’ve been told by a few editors now that your work is definitely publishable but ‘just not right for our list, thank you’ – here is a list of mine that might be of some help, some tools you can use for that final polish, to give you confidence in pressing the print button if you choose to go for the solo-flight option of self-publishing.

  • Read your work aloud – to a (very patient) friend or to yourself – in its entirety. Listen for any inconsistencies in voice, in the rhythm of your prose, anything that strikes a false note.
  • Pay careful attention to dialogue: cut out incidental or trivial chitchat; cut any speech that does not deepen understanding for the reader or move the story forward. Ensure that all speech sounds natural and is in keeping with the character delivering it.
  • Hunt down clichés of all kinds (unless deliberate) and kill them.
  • Hunt down repetitions of words or phrases (again, unless deliberate) and kill them, too. Look out especially for character traits or actions that might be overused – such as smiling or sighing or winking, etc.
  • Interrogate every sentence for meaning, paying very specific attention to vagueness and ambiguity. Readers should be intrigued by the story and the characters, rather than grappling with the prose.
  • Cut out unnecessary adverbs: ‘very’ and ‘really’ are the usual suspects here, but less adverbs, generally, is more. Particularly look for adverbs that describe verbs – those pesky ones that usually end in ‘-ly’ – such as ‘particularly’, ‘gently’, ‘badly’, etc – and prune them right back to only those you feel are essential for meaning and mood.
  • Take a very fine tooth comb to consistency of character and continuity of action. If Jack has green eyes, make sure those eyes are green throughout the whole manuscript; likewise, if Chapter Two ended with Flossy being kidnapped by terrorists in Kabul, make sure that wherever she ends up when next we pick up her story thread, all elements of her situation are plausible and flow logically from where we left off.
  • If your narrative contains facts – historical, social, scientific, geographic, etc – check every single one twice.
  • Check the meaning of every damn word, and make sure you’ve used each one correctly. Check your spelling while you’re at it. Just about every proofreader I’ve ever worked with has been worth their weight in gold but they can’t be expected to pick up every mistake across a 100,000-word manuscript. Do the job properly yourself, and the proofreader is only picking up the odd mistake you’ve missed. Doing this means that you’ll save on proofreading costs, too, as most charge by the hour.
  • Finally, don’t try and do all the above in the one read. Take your time; do it all as methodically and as dispassionately as possible, with the clearest eyes you can find.

And good luck! The times they are a’changing, but it’s always the most courageous among us who come up trumps – even if trumps is simply the creation of a novel you alone are proud to hold aloft: something small but exceptionally beautiful that only you could have made.

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THIS ISN’T JUST A CHAIR

It’s a piece of history: mine and the chair’s entwined.

I’d been looking for a chair for a while. Any sort of chair – just something to sit on by the front door so that guests wouldn’t have to hop about when taking shoes on and off going in and out of the house.

Being a lover of one-offs and finding treasure in others’ trash, op-shopping is always my first port on such a quest, but this time, after a couple of months searching, my usual haunts – the Salvos and Vinnies, the tip and the second-hand shops – had turned up nothing for me.

Then just last week, on quite a different quest, I popped into a shop in nearby Blayney called White Rock Silver. In here it’s an eclectic mix of local art, craft, antiques and yumness masterminded by silversmith Rebecca Price. Just my kind of place. I’d been meaning to call in for some time to introduce myself and ask Rebecca if she’d consider designing a special piece for me – or more accurately for my husband Dean to lavish upon me. Her jewellery is beautiful – unique little snips of silvery art inlaid with resin or rocks – and we’d been searching and searching for just such a lovely something to celebrate our kidney coupling way back in December.

By coincidence I’d met Rebecca at a local arts networking evening a few days before, and although I didn’t have time on that occasion to accost her, I was sure that she was meant to be our special-request jeweller.

As soon as I stepped through the door of her shop, though, I spotted this chair. Double excitement! Of course Rebecca said she was only too happy to design a piece for us, and course the chair was for sale.

She showed me the back of the seat where it’s carved with the acronym ‘NSWGR’, and told me: ‘It’s an old railways chair, apparently.’

Is it what. When I got it home, a little research told me that it’s at least one hundred years old. The NSWGR – which stands for the New South Wales Government Railways – ceased to exist as an agency in 1915. For this history nerd, here is excitement nonpareil.

When I look at this chair, I imagine the thousands and thousands of backsides that have sat on it. Waiting-room conversations, journeys begun and ended, hearts broken and mended. I imagine who replaced the right-hand front leg with an odd-one-out, and wonder why.

When I touch it, I touch a century, a nation, and the curiosity that drives me every day to explore its stories. And, more immediately, I think of popping in on Rebecca next Saturday with Dean to dream up some new and lovely thing, which will soon embark on a journey all its own.