The first sentence

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‘Trying to write before you’re ready is like trying to squeeze toothpaste out of an empty tube,’ I wrote in exasperation after I allowed yet another day to pass without making a start on Sabah and Lamia‘s story.

There is so much pressure to write that amazing first line that will get one publisher to publish the book, and then at least one thousand people to buy it. Who can write such a magic sentence? Certainly not I.

But then, ‘A Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard became available as an audio book through my local library and I heard these words: When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it and it digs a path you follow.

And so Dillard enables me to start and I start with this very ordinary sentence: I first met Lamia when she came to my English class at TAFE.

And from that humble beginning I wrote the first four hundred words. Four hundred words that I might eventually erase, but at least I have started, and can continue writing the next sentence, and the next, and see where it leads me.

Concentrate on the words on the page, says Dillard. When you chop wood, aim not at the wood, but at the chopping block, so concentrate on the words in that sentence on that page, not on the grand vision. The grand vision will change as I write, and the finished product will probably be vastly different to what I had in mind at the beginning, but that’s OK. After all, I am only a curious scribbler, not a clever scribe, and I’ll go where the story leads.

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Reality check

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‘You no-good scribbler. Yes, I know who you are. I have seen your columns, God help us. I have read your foolish stories, may my enemies be so clever.’

And so, I am chided by Laizer – a Holocaust survivor in Arnold Zable’s book, Cafe Scheherazade – as he upbraids fellow book character, the writer Martin Davis. Poor Martin, someone else had just asked him: ‘My foolish child, what do you understand about the past? You did not live there, may my enemies have such luck. What do you know of such things? You were born here, in Australia, in a fortunate hour…’

I am not Martin, I was not born here in Australia, but the question remains: What do I know of such things?

As I savoured my first cup of coffee yesterday and watched the bees fuss over the flowering basil, it was so quiet that I could hear the clock ticking. In the stillness and peace of the moment, I wondered if I would ever be able to write about bombs falling, people throwing together belongings in a matter of hours, and families fleeing with only what their cars can carry.

That night I dreamt of Iraq. My arms jerked. I was disoriented. And then I was awake. ‘High Tea in Mosul’ lay on my bedside table, my last thoughts shaped by O’Donnell’s words before I drifted off.

Could I be getting closer to being able to write about what happened?

For the Love of Literary Devices

And more cool stuff…

Apoplectic Apostrophes

charming monster

Today, dear readers, I’d like to talk about literary devices, which my Oxford dictionary defines as “any literary technique deliberately employed to achieve a specific effect.” Literary devices are writing techniques that are standardized, which simply means each device has a consistent set of rules regarding what it is and how to use it.

There are lots of literary devices out there. I’m not kidding. Check out one of the resources at the bottom of this article to see for yourself. So I’ve chosen a handful of the more common ones, along with a couple of uncommon ones, to review. If you still aren’t sure what a literary device actually is, chances are you will recognize some of the following examples from your days in English class.

Asyndeton
This literary device refers to the practice of deliberately leaving out conjunctions in a sentence. Asyndeton is used to create an impact…

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Literary Devices Revisited

When words are all I have to take your breath away, literary devices become very important.

Apoplectic Apostrophes

Clown

Today, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of the literary devices that didn’t make the first cut. To refresh your memory, a literary device is a standardized writing technique, used to achieve a particular effect.

Allegory
The device of allegory is used to describe an abstract concept in a way that is more concrete and relatable. It is sometimes described as an extended metaphor, as it often takes a narrative form and is commonly used in literature. Here is an example of an allegory:

  • A bad relationship is like putting out the garbage. If you take it to the curb on time, you won’t even remember it was there, but if you don’t, eventually your whole house will smell.

Kennings
This is a neat little literary device that comes to us from Old English and Viking writing. Beowulf is full of them. Kennings use a…

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Teleporting

I raided my local library and met Australian reporter Lynne O’Donnell.

That is, I read her book.

‘High Tea in Mosul’ is the result of O’Donnell’s encounter with two Englishwomen in Mosul shortly after the  Americans invaded Iraq in 2003. O’Donnell writes: ‘The landscape is breathtaking – mountains of untouched ancient forests; deep valleys sliced with rivers painted blue by the peerless sky; lush and sweeping plains that fatten sheep through winter and are burnished throughout the searing summers with the yellow and gold of wheat and oilseed rape.’

I read this and thought: She was there.

How am I ever going to write like that?

George Orwell. Photo Vera-Broadbent
George Orwell.Sketch by Vera-Broadbent

In ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, Emma Larkin (a pseudonym), comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter if Orwell had visited a particular place, because Orwell himself said that a writer’s skill lies in the ability to imagine what a place was like, or how someone else felt, or how events unfolded – imagine, imagine, imagine. (I am paraphrasing from memory, because I also borrowed that book from the library. I hope to get my hands on it again, and will post a quote here, or confess that I’ve misquoted as the case may be.)

I am interviewing displaced people who have settled here in Adelaide for my book Place of Refuge. In order capture the essence of their stories, I try to see people and places through their eyes and to do this, I need to cultivate a rich and varied landscape within me, a landscape of places far distant, places I have never visited before.

Slow cooking the story

Boys in Baghdad
Boys in Baghdad. Photo by Chatriwala.

I tried to write Sabah and Lamia’s story but nothing worked. I tried to imagine what it was like in their home in Baghdad but I could not conjure up sounds or smells or faces or places. I tapped into my imagination but found nothing there that was remotely Iraqi. And why would there be? I am Malaysian Chinese.

So back to the drawing board. Back to transcribing the interview. Close my eyes. Listen to their voices. Off to the library. Borrow (almost) every book on Iraq. Google Map Baqubah, Baghdad, Amman – satellite view, map view, photos.

Arnold Zable, writer and story teller, said that good story telling (both fiction and creative non-fiction) is about imagining. If the writer is immersed in the story, he or she will be able to bring the reader along. Imagining is sensual – see, feel, hear, taste, touch, then recreate the scene in prose.

My fast food approach to writing – quick and expedient – failed miserably. My inner landscape needs more work. Imagining is like cooking up a good stew, you really need to take care to brown the meat in batches – don’t overcrowd the pan, take time to sweat the chopped veggies over low heat, add the spices and fry till fragrant, pour in the stock and slowly simmer till the meat falls off the bone, the sauce is thick and rich, and the smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen to the dining room to the lounge and eventually fills the whole house.

Kurt Vonnegut: Creative Writing 101

And as a corollary to No. 7, from Mark Tredinnick: Write to please yourself, and make yourself hard to please.

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Kurt Vonnegut: Creative Writing 101

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“Kurt Vonnegut created some of the most outrageously memorable novels of our time, such as Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast Of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His work is a mesh of contradictions: both science fiction and literary, dark and funny, classic and counter-culture, warm-blooded and very cool. And it’s all completely unique.”

With his customary wisdom and wit, Vonnegut put forth 8 basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No…

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