I'll Have What She's Having (USA C2C #7)

I started the first day in New York City fairly late, courtesy of a flight that landed after 10 pm, a terminal remodelling project that had relocated cars a bus-ride across the airport (and into a hell of gridlock), and the usual 24-hour New York traffic. And yet, somehow, despite all the people yelling into phones in ten different languages, the sirens and the honking (wow, the Olympic sport honking!) this city manages to be exciting. Perhaps anxciting, but still.

 Reuben, the go-all-day sandwich

Reuben, the go-all-day sandwich

I remember reading once about why cities are such dynamic places, and important for innovation and change. Putting a huge number of people together in one place facilitates exchange of ideas and cooperation. The outcome is not only diversity of citizens, but of the ideas and businesses and inventions they produce. It's the cliché of opportunity. New York feels like the kind of place that long ago crossed the critical mass for being dynamic and now sits, with the few other super cities of the world, in a class all of its own.

Being up late, I figured I would start the day with brunch at Katz's deli. If you don't know about that, all you probably need to know is that the famous fake orgasm scene was filmed there. I saw Katz's on the foot network last year. Think sandwiches with stacks of sliced meat, delicate corned beef and pastrami, served with pickles and condiments. The walls are covered with photos of the famous. So it wasn't a surprise when I walked in to find a film crew working for Food Nation. It was a surprise when they asked if I'd be on camera. My mission: bite the sandwich, say "mmmm".

Haha, it was great fun, and got chatting to food writer David Rosengarten, who was helping out with the crew. David is obviously a passionate New Yorker, I left with tips for a great dinner venue and some insider neighbourhood information for my research.

From there, I went walking. All the way downtown to the Brooklyn Bridge, through Two Bridges and Tribeca, before catching the subway to Central Park.

Central Park is where New York excels itself. Where else could you do so much within the body of the city itself? I watched a baseball game (I know nothing about baseball, but it was exciting), climbed rocky outcrops, listened to a jazz band and found a zoo, and that was barely a quarter of the distance up the park. It's a necessary counterpoint in what is a mega metropolis, with all the pressure that brings.

 Manhattan, Central Park and baseball ... a quintessential NY moment  

Manhattan, Central Park and baseball ... a quintessential NY moment  

It's coming up to dinner time now, but I'm not hungry (I shouldn't think so after the half a cow Katz put on my brunch sandwich) so I'm going to head up to Times Square, and then one last research item to check off. Tomorrow morning, I'm meeting my publisher downtown, which is super exciting. The only thing more exciting is the lovely feeling of soon going home.

I Like Your Accent (USA C2C #6)

 Yes, this is Nashville - life size replica of the Parthenon. As you do!

Yes, this is Nashville - life size replica of the Parthenon. As you do!

I'm sitting in Nashville airport waiting for my flight to the big apple. It's like airports pretty much everywhere, except there's more than the usual number of people with guitars on their backs. And in the process of ordering my venti Starbucks shaken tea (I have to do something to balance out the amazing food), I heard something I've gotten a lot in the past few days: "I like your accent".

For serious?

To my ears, I sound like Olivia Newton John in Grease: painfully, broadly, nasally Australian, while everyone else is smooth and southern, owning every stereotype you could care to name, because this is the place to do it. BUT it does have the advantage of making me sound different, so people talk to me. Spontaneously. Where'r you from? Haha! My unintentional lure works!

And wow, have they been interesting folk. Like Tony, a trucker I met at a truck stop (he helped explain the fifteen varieties of peanut butter snack in the vending machine), who has seen all the back roads of America, and whose brother runs a NY foodie magazine. And Doris, who showed me the Wightman Chapel on the Scarritt Bennett grounds in Nashville, where Dr King Jr spoke in 1957, and who sang (most beautifully) to demonstrate the chapel's acoustics. She also set me up with lunch in the dining hall. Wonderfully generous. And Damien, a USAF pilot who flies fighter jets and who I just met in Starbucks. I mean, wow. This is the thing that I love most about travel (after the travelling itself) … it makes the world so much bigger. More possible. And yet smaller and more understandable.

 RIBS. Half dry, half glazed, all amaze. Get in my belly!

RIBS. Half dry, half glazed, all amaze. Get in my belly!

Of course, I don't mind the food either. I didn't mention this yesterday, but on my way through Memphis, I stopped at The Bar-B-Q Shop for lunch (after a little white-knuckle interstate off-ramp negotiation). I think I saw it on the food channel a few months back. OMG, the ribs, and the hospitality. Delicious in a way I can't explain, and I didn't need dinner. I probably don't need to eat ever again. Go there if you're ever in Memphis.

Tomorrow I'll be in New York City for the final two days of my trip, so it's goodbye to the South. Thanks for having me. It's been grand.

Connections and layovers (USA Coast2Coast #5)

Today, I finished the long drive from LA to Nashville, a distance of 2000 miles (3600 km). It's a little further than driving from Cairns to Melbourne, on the coast road through Brisbane and Sydney. Doing that in four days didn't leave much opportunity for exploring off-interstate (unfortunately). I would have loved to dive off into New Mexico or Texas, or just about anywhere. Instead, I made the most of the places I stopped. Last night, that was Fort Smith, AR.

 Twilight by the Arkansas River

Twilight by the Arkansas River

After the relatively dry expanse of the western states, it was instantly refreshing to come over the Arkansas River. Fort Smith sits in a loop of the river, and has a long history. I met lovely people here – I mentioned yesterday the staff of the Central Discount Pharmacy, and after that post I went out to the Fort Smith National Historical Site, where I've set a small scene from my next book. The sun was going down and the visitor centre was closed, but that was fine with me. I was just there for the riverside of the park.

On my way there, I happened to meet a wonderful group of primary school teachers celebrating the retirement of one of their members. They were looking for someone to take a group photo, but we were soon talking and it was lovely then to chat with them. They embodied the generous hospitality I've found in the south, and after travelling on my own for a few days, they really lifted my spirits. Thank you, Lana, and all your group!

After that, a short walk over the hill took me to the bank of the Arkansas River. At sunset, despite the proximity to the interstate and downtown, it's a tranquil place, inviting reflection and quiet. There's a moving monument for the Trail of Tears. I sat there for a long time, thinking about what it might have been like to leave the home you love for a horrific journey to an unknown place. How would I feel if I could never go home? It's too awful. And yet, these things are still happening in our world. Twilight lingered there for a long time, and then it was dark, and I went back.

Tomorrow, I have most of the day in Nashville for research, time for a breather from highway driving, before flying to New York in the evening.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz … (USA Coast2Coast #4)

Jet lag is a special kind of torture, one that has snuck up on me in my late 30s. It turns everyt thought into a foggy mess. Before the Paris trip last year, I hadn't ever experienced it. Just seemed to be able to force myself onto local time by sheer force of will (or, with my spritely twenty-something endurance). But ten years later and after two years of baby-induced sleep debt, there's no longer any reservoir, and I've always tended to insomnia anyway. So odds were probably against me.

 Kia, killer of all the road bugs ...

Kia, killer of all the road bugs ...

I didn't sleep on the flight, which left Brisbane at 10 in the morning, and landed in LA at 6 am. After that, I've had two broken short nights. You know the deal: sleep an hour or two, wake up, can't get back to sleep, repeat. So today, I had to stop twice for naps at rest stops because I was seriously concerned about nodding off. Not good. Don't want to end up like the bugs on my bumper. So after checking in here in Fort Smith, AR, I googled a local chemist for pharmaceutical intervention.

Twenty minutes later I'd met a fabulous group of southern women who'd been working in the pharmacy for over 30 years, had free pens, my sleeping aid, and a dinner spot recommendation. Nice. And east Oaklahoma / west Arkansas is just spring beautiful – verdant forests with soft foliage, yellow and purple wildflowers on the roadside. But I'm going to keep it short today. Dinner, research checklist, then straight to sleep.

 Spring beautiful

Spring beautiful

Mild Culture Shock (USA Coast2Coast #3)

A friend of mine once described moving to the UK as "mild culture shock", the combination of all the little things that, in an otherwise seemingly similar-to-home country, led to the displaced feeling of not belonging there. Mild culture shock is sometimes the worst, because you go in expecting to be able to navigate effectively – you speak the language, you've seen the place on TV. You haven't prepared yourself as you otherwise might have if you were going to, say, Vladivostok.

I had a similar experience in New Zealand a few years back, and I found a useful barometer was the weekly political satire/comedy show 7 Days (like Good News Week, or Mock The Week if you're British). Getting jokes about politics and culture requires actual integrated knowledge of that culture. When I arrived in NZ, I got about 30% of the jokes. By the time I left, it was closer to 70%. Not perfect, but then I still hadn't shaken the feeling of "not home". It's a paradox perhaps that "not home" is half the point of travel, and simultaneously the source of angst.

I thought about this a lot today on the long drive from Winslow, AZ to Amarillo, TX (880 km). Much of the country is flat plains, which while quite majestic in their own way also do a great job of inducing driver fatigue. It was after a fuel stop that I realised I was actually dreading pulling into service stations, because while they look like servos at home, the protocol is completely different and navigating it still brings me stress. So, to occupy myself on the next leg, I made a catalogue of all the little things that make up my experience of American culture shock. I've put the list down at the end, in case it helps someone else (feel free to comment more!). Sadly, I haven't found a version of Good News Week to test my cultural barometer (the TV in the motel last night induced me to watch at least three episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, so I'm staying away from cable).

In any case, after today I'm roughly half-way to Nashville. The part of Texas I've just come across is full of wind turbines (to the north) and fields to the south. It's a little incongruous to see the vast wind energy infrastructure in a state famous for oil, but I guess that shows how things move on. The wind is roaring through, and there's dust devils all over the fields. Amarillo is full of pickups with big growly engines, and I was quite excited to see people driving said growly pickups while wearing cowboy hats; feels extremely authentic! And that's the thing about culture shock, I guess – the same things that are disconcerting are also things that make up the fabric of somewhere else.

Tomorrow I'll be driving across the rest of the panhandle, and across Oklahoma, right in the meat of tornado alley. Just have to channel my inner Bill Paxton. There's a happy thought. In the meantime, I'm going to go in search of some kind of BBQ.

A short list of Australian/US mild culture shocks:

  • Petrol stations. You must pay first. Having a foreign credit card (which won't work in the bowser because I don't have a US zip code to enter) that means pull up, get out, go into the shop where you either a) guess at the amount you'll pay so they can authorise the card for that amount, or b) pay a guessed amount of cash. I say "guess" because I'm always filling up, not putting in exact. Then, you go out, pump the gas (see next point), then return inside to collect change, or an accurate receipt for the credit card (which will credit back what you didn't spend). This means if you want to buy anything else, you have to do that in a separate transaction. So, lots of double handling. This whole process for some reason I find stressful.
  • Petrol pumps. They have only one nozzle. You push a button to select the fuel after picking up the nozzle. Some have vapour recovery, and won't pump unless you've formed a seal with the rubber boot around the nozzle. If in doubt, read all the signs on the bowser.
  • Indicators on vehicles are red, not orange. Harder to see. Weird.
  • Toilets are shallower, and filled with a wide bowl of water to a rather alarming level. Careful knack required when flushing.
  • Default switch "on" position is up, not down.
  • Biscuits + gravy = soft scones + white sauce
  • Driving on the right. Makes it slower to process the right place to be at the right time; tend to drift to the right in the lane, I think because I'm used to my body being to the right of the centre, not the left.
  • Trucks put their hazard lights on when they're going relatively slowly uphill. Never seen it in Australia and took me a while to realise what it meant.
  • All the logos for hotels, petrol stations, and eateries are different, so brand recognition is about zero. Doesn't sound like a big deal, until you're travelling at highway speeds and trying to work out whether the upcoming exit has what you need. Same deal for most of the brands in the supermarket.
  • Tipping. If you watch videos on how to tip on YouTube, it seems like you are tipping everyone. The reality of being here is that I'm still working out who you tip and who doesn't. In restaurants and cafes, sure, though not in big chain stores it seems. Taxis and Uber seem to be appropriate, too. But I've had a couple of people who were super helpful refuse a tip, even when they'd done something beyond their job description. Still confused on this one.
  • Tax. Most prices are listed without tax, so you pay more once you reach the counter. For example, all drinks at maccas are $1 (huge posters display this), but at the counter in one place, I paid $1.10.
  • Super, super polites. I'm getting ma'am a lot. It's not at all a bad thing, but nothing like home!

Stay above fifty! (USA Coast2Coast #2)

Trinity: You always told me to stay off the freeway.
Morpheus: Yes, that’s true.
Trinity: You said it was suicide.
Morpheus: Then let us hope that I was wrong.
— The Matrix Reloaded
  • 35 mph = 56 kph
  • 50 mph = 80 kph
  • 75 mph = 120 kph
 The correct answer is "keep right"

The correct answer is "keep right"

A couple of days before I got on my flight, Speed was on TV. I rarely watch anything on the teev these days, so the fact I caught it seemed liked a sign. Of what, I'm not sure. Now, I love Speed. I even use it in teaching narrative structure because it's very nicely structured. But before I arrived in LA, I sometimes struggled with the plausibility of the plot. I mean, how far does Dennis Hopper's bad guy thing his plan is going to get? There's only so much road. I thought a bus driving at 80 clicks for a couple of hours was far-fetched.

Yeah, well, LA is a tad more vast than I gave it credit for, and the motorways go on and on forever. And there can be traffic jams at stupid hours, like at 5:30 this morning when I was driving out of the city. One-hundred percent gridlocked not moving jammed. Insane. After that was thick, thick fog in the mountains, fog that made the rising sun into a gold coin, floating disembodied from, well, everything. Fog so thick you could barely seen anything, except the lights of the trucks in front bleeding through as little dabs of red.

Finally, I made it out into the spanking-along interstate, turning off onto the I-40 before I accidentally ended up in Vegas. Despite the constant stream of trucks, it was a relief to be out on the open road. Driving in LA put me very much in mind of the freeway chase in Matrix Reloaded. I bet the screenwriters had LA in mind when they wrote it, even though I think it was shot in Sydney. Haha, Sydney, you're such a n00b. There's no photos of my driving there because, well, that would have been suicide. 

 Driving on LA freeways is exactly like this, except with fewer cool Ducatis

Driving on LA freeways is exactly like this, except with fewer cool Ducatis

Anyway. From there, came lots of pale ribbon roads across wide valley floors, disappearing into the distant smoky mountains. Felt like real progress to be eating each leg up. A flash of the Colorado River was an incongruous, icy mint blue, and then came the border. As soon as you enter Arizona, the speed limit goes from 70 to 75 mph, but let's face it, most people are doing more than that, and there's a constant left-right ballet as you pass trucks and then pull right again so that all the non-trucks doing 90 can pass you.

 The only safe-ish shot of the road is a boring shot of the road

The only safe-ish shot of the road is a boring shot of the road

 So many trucks ...

So many trucks ...

A dust devil chased the highway, crossing over and fizzing out just as we were on a collision course. That made me pause. There's signs up at the truck stop about dust storms in this area. I knew they can get bad storms roaring through these plains, and Flagstaff has even had an out-of-season snowstorm in recent years. It's up in the hills there, with pine forests all around. Once you spit out the other side, though, all the snowcaps are in the rearview and it's just exposed plains, and the wind today is roaring through. Roaring. I'm nowhere near Tornado Alley yet, but you have a sense of being at mercy of the elements.

At least by the time I hit Winslow, I was fairly into the right-side driving thing. It's still a conscious effort, but I'm no longer terrified by left turns. I've checked into a motel room smelling strongly of air freshener, and only slightly less strongly of cigarette smoke. The sun is bright and harsh. It's not unlike outback Queensland in the winter. Bright clear days and dangerous sun. Things still happen that I don't understand. Like trucks putting their hazards on while they're still driving. Really need to google what that's about. Still, success.

Tomorrow, will be crossing New Mexico and entering Texas, and listening to the end of the audiobook that's kept me company today – Colleen Hoover's November 9. Incidentally, it's a love story about a writer writing a love story, with lots of meta references to the tropes of romance, and the characters happen to live in LA and New York. I didn't know that when I picked it out. A coast to coast story for a coast to coast story research trip. Very nice.

USA Coast2Coast Day #1 – Spaghetti Junctions

Driving in LA is much like driving in Sydney, except bigger, faster, and with more palm trees. There's freeway onramps that instantly become offramps and if you're not savvy enough to change lanes at top speed before this arrangement ejects you, you enter a compulsory Mr Squiggle on the road map trying to get back again. Entering a worse area of gridlock is compulsory in such cases. Then there's the hotel that the GPS insists you've arrived at, except it's across a concrete road partition and you're on the wrong side. Note: This will require forty minutes of corners, lane changes and spaghetti manoeuvres to correct. You can then collapse in a grateful heap on the lobby floor, because now you can stop chanting, "keep right, keep right, keep right!" under your breath.

20170505_162930.jpg

The hire car company will fail to have the GPS you were told was "confirmed", and ask if that's "ok". To their credit, they will bend over backwards to find one if you present the right shade of colour-drained face. Staying awake for 24 hours will assist with this. However, you will also be required to pass the "but the one-way drop fee is $200 more than you were quoted" hurdle. Once that's done, though, you can finally be on your way. Just be sure not to put the weird footbrake on (because the rental people left it off, and you have no idea what on and off is with it, so you put it on and drove down the road with the car alarming at you.

You will arrive at Santa Monica Pier under the most broiling of skies, with rain spatting down and the ocean all angry, and far too early for a coffee and not at all like a carnival. You'll catch yourself thinking that this looks a lot like the Gold Coast, until you look up at those hulking mountains and realise it's not just another city, but another continent. That you just flew over that huge expanse of Pacific, and everything you love is such a long way away. Everything will be vast, and the road and the city go on and on. But there's rest to come, and you got here in one piece – and met some interesting people along the way, and there was chips and the best ice-tea ever. And a few laughs about the sign in one of the bathrooms. And tomorrow you'll drive across the mountains and see what's on the other side.

Really, how could all this go wrong?

I'm usually a really mellow traveller. I like long-haul plane flights (ok, except with a one-year-old). Half the fun … well, maybe not fun, but allure? challenge? of travelling is the little hiccups along the way. The slightly bigger hiccups make good stories – like, how I ended up at a birthday dinner an hour late and covered in tyre grease (I'll save that one for another time).

This time, heading tomorrow to the US to research The Lucky Escape, I'm jangly, and I've been trying to work out why. Partly, I'm sure it's the intense coverage of politics in the last few months, and the pervading uncertainty of travelling there, no matter who you are. After all, Mem Fox, right?

Partly, it's because I'm having to travel without a certain small person. It's just not possible for this to be a family trip, and I'm very uncertain how that will pan out. It's a lot to ask of everyone here.

And partly, it's friggin small print. Let me explain.

A few days back I noticed one line in my car hire reservation (in the six pages of terms and conditions) saying that I would need to present TWO credit cards to hire my hire. Two. I don't have two. After several calls and emails to the company in Australia – three people, three different answers – I eventually got up early and called LA. Four calls later and I learned they knew nothing about this two card requirement. Who knows how it got onto my agreement, but apparently I'll be fine with my one credit card. Finding that out, however, took two days, during which I had plenty of time to imagine being abruptly stuck in LA with no car and no way of hiring another one, while my tight road trip deadline slipped unattainably over the horizon. I would end up having to fly home at great expense with none of my goals met. I don't consider myself a catastrophist, but I started to wonder if maybe I was.

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Of course, the trouble with these little niggles (even when resolved – there was another one about whether I'd applied for the right visa. I had, but more hours imagining disaster) is that you wonder what else you've missed and not covered off. In the usual vein I'm used to travelling (where even if you get stranded, it doesn't matter so much, like when the whole family came on the Paris research trip last year) this doesn't bother me.

But introduce a reason you need to be home on time, when you said you would be (refer back to previous small person comment) and that looks rather different. Oh, so that's what responsibilities can look like. It's a nasty, nauseated, blotchy-faced feeling. And out of my control.

One thing that I'm learning in my PhD (you enjoying all these segways?) which is about understanding the brain science of storytelling, is that we are all about anticipation. These big factories we haul around on top of our necks spend a lot of time trying to work out what's gonna happen, and what the consequences might be. Even when we can't really do a darned thing about it. Great when the consequences seem minor. Not so much when they're big.

So, how could this little 3200km road trip go wrong? In myriad ways. But I'm trying not to think too much about that. It is truly, mostly, out of my control. So I'll attempt to channel my old unflappable self. One thing at a time. If you haven't heard from me by Sunday, though, something might be up ;)

Control your damn dog

I've been digging graves. I don't usually talk about stuff that makes me rabidly angry on this blog, but I've been digging graves. This is because about an hour ago, while we were out, a dog from down the block got into our yard and killed two of our chickens. Our neighbours cleaned up and called us. Our other neighbour caught the dog and took it home. And I dug the graves and now have to explain to my two-year-old where his favourite chicken has gone.

The thing that make me so rabidly angry about this isn't the fact that our chickens are dead. Sometimes you can think about that as bad luck. Chickens aren't the smartest animals, or with the best defence mechanisms. I don't blame the dog, it was just being a dog. But this dog was in our yard, and is actually well known to me, because almost every day it comes past our house, off its leash, being yelled at by name to leave-that-alone or keep up or something else. The owners regularly think it's fine for the dog to be bandying about the streets uncontrolled, even though it regularly rushes our fence. And today, it escaped its yard and had enough time to get to our place, and kill our chickens and be taken back before it was missed. This is part of a much wider problem I see of the privileged dog owners who have every excuse for why their dog is off the leash, or otherwise not controlled. The ones who think it doesn't apply to them, even though controlling your dog is the expectation and requirement of owners in this city.

Surely I'm just emotional at this point. Blogging on anger. Making too much of it. Wasn't this just bad luck, something random that could happen to anyone? Well, no, actually. This is just one of many. At Christmas this year, my then under two-year-old was knocked down by a dog at the beach. The owner was so far away they didn't have a hope of controlling that animal. Didn't say anything to us, didn't care. At the same beach were two other dogs, also off their leashes. The beach is signed for dogs on leash, but people don't care, because what's going to happen? They go every day and do what they please. The year before, at the same beach, my disabled younger sister was also knocked down by a dog. At the time, my mother wrote to the council. They expressed surprise, promised enforcement. I wrote again at Christmas, and received a stock reply.

There's more. I sometimes now (and often a few years ago) walk the tracks at Mt Coot-tha. And every time I do I see a good number of dogs off their leashes, despite the fact there are many people on those trails, and many other dogs. On my most recent walk there with a friend, a lady coming down the mountain with her off-leash dog saw my friend hesitate and merrily called out, "Oh, don't worry, he's fine!" My friend replied, "He might be, but I’m not." See, it's not about you. It's not about how fluffy and cute and well-behaved you think your dog is, they can scare other people. And you don't know what's around the next corner. What are you doing to do if something happens? What possible control do you have?

On a walk with another friend a few years ago, my friend has his dog on a leash. An off-leash dog came along, attacked my friend's dog, and then the owner abused my friend like it was his fault. I was gobsmacked. On another occasion, an off-leash dog jumped up on me. The same dog had jumped up on my friend a month before and torn her shorts. When I told the owner the dog should be on a leash, he offered some total BS story about recovering from back surgery and not being able to pull on a leash. THEN LEAVE THE DAMN DOG AT HOME, YOU TOOL. Honestly. These are not one-off incidents. They are happening every day. I've written to council about Mt Coot-tha, too. Stock reply. Nothing changes.

And then, I'm digging graves.

So control your damn dog. It's not about what you think your dog is capable of. Your dog is not a small person. They can strike fear into other people, and they're capable of causing injury and death. You don't know what's around the corner, or who will be there, so you should have that leash on regardless of who you think is around. The chicken-killer is a smallish, fluffy-eared brown thing. The owners probably think it's too cute and small to be a problem for anyone.

The owners put a note in our letterbox. They could understand our distress, they said, because they'd lost chickens over the years too. Except they don't get it. They don't get that they're part of this privileged set of people who think that their dog doesn't have to follow the rules. That they're somehow exempt on grounds of cuteness or well-behavedness or smallness, or whatever other BS excuse you want to have. One of the owners was cleaning up feathers when we arrived home. I asked them to leave. I'll clean up the feathers, thank you. I'll dig the graves, and put our poor chickens' still-warm bodies into the earth. I don't need you to clean up, and to offer reparations. I need you to keep your dog on a leash, and in your yard.

And for anyone else who currently doesn't do those things and thinks it's just fine, because their dog would never hurt anyone, that goes for you too.

The Fire and The River - finding your passion

"Passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you." -- Oprah Winfrey

"You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you're not passionate enough from the start, you'll never stick it out." -- Steve Jobs

"Chase your passion, not your pension." -- Denis Waitley

People talk a lot about passion these days. I'm not sure it was something my agricultural labouring grandparents (and theirs) thought much about, but those days seem long, long ago. You gots to have it, this passion stuff. Follow your heart, your dreams, have love for what you do. It's "slow suicide" not to. Every self-help guru on the net exhorts you to find it, develop it, grow it. Passion like this comes to mean a special kind of excitement, a barely contained emotion, something intense. Passion is supposed to have the qualities that light you up from within, until you're busting with enthusiasm for this thing, this job, this project, whatever it is. Burning for it, as Steve Jobs said. Passion is a fire, a very strong feeling; life's great driving force. In some people, it's damn nearly a bomb. The power stroke of a combustion engine. It's supposed to get your blood up, your heart pumping. Supposed to.

Isn't it?

This picture of passion gave me trouble for a long, long time. Oh sure, it's inspiring. Who doesn't want to think they have something out there for them that makes you feel that way?But here's the problem. I have never, in my adult life, felt anything like that. Ever. So I spent many years trying to find that thing that would give me the fire, feeling as though I was failing in having not found it. Even after I started writing, I knew didn't have the same quality of dedication I saw in other, "passionate" writers. I didn't wax lyrical about it. I don't feel it like some kind of emotion, especially an intense or powerful one. It doesn't feel like love. I'm not even sure I would say I love it or that it excites me, not in the way those quotes mean. 

And yet, year after year, I keep doing it. And it keeps bringing me something inexorable, some slow satisfaction that nothing else brings. For a long time, I thought that because I failed to have a hot passion for it, because it didn't set me on fire, that I would inevitably run out of steam and stop, a la Steve Jobs' prediction. I haven't. Yet I can't** muster that out-of-the-box excitement, enthusiasm and love that ought to be the hallmark, if I was really passionate about what I'm doing.  (**unless I fake it, which is sometimes required but is disingenuous and bothers me).

So, what's going on?

Only very recently I have realised that I do have a passion for writing. It's the idea of passion itself that's the problem. Passion can be, for some people, a combustion event. Fiery and hot and obvious. The type of passion from the pages of a romance novel, from famous quotes on the internet, the stuff you think a guru wants you to look for. But for me, and I suspect a good many other people, passion is something different. A slow current that pushes you forward to the next thing and the next. That persists despite rejection and exhaustion. That flows over obstacles, and wears them away, rather than consuming them. It's not burning and hot; it's cool, and constant. This is The River.

I feel it now, working in the dim outdoor cafe of a fast food restaurant. It pushes to keep going, this River, despite the circumstances. Despite sleep dep and upended plans. Despite how much something I just wrote might have disappointed me. Despite how it may have disappointed someone else. Maybe this is what fiery passion is like, too. Maybe that fire keeps you warm in the same way, against the same problems. I don't know. I don't have it. But I do have The River. I'm only a little disappointed it too me so long to realise that passion doesn't have to be outwardly expressed. It doesn't have to look like other people's idea of it; it doesn't have to be contagious, or hot, or consuming.

Maybe that makes this style of passion very similar to persistence. But persistence has a conscious quality about it - it's something you choose to do. Passion is much more subconscious (though the two make a good pairing). So if you too have been searching for The Fire, remember The River. Maybe it's your style, too.

Finishing The Lucky Escape ... or ... how to write a novel in 5.5 weeks with graphs and stuff

Thirty-eight days ago, I started the draft of "The Lucky Escape", which is due out in about 15 months (timelines are longish in publishing, so I'm usually working on something that won't be out for months, for good reasons, like editing ;)). Writers come in all flavours and I'm the type who does "project-orientated" writing - bursts of intense activity that achieves a particular milestone. I can't hold the story in my mind if I write it slowly over a long period, so I write fast over a short time, and then I edit later when I can see the whole story as it is.

I also like to keep track of what I do. Having data on what I've done before helps me for future deadlines (like, can I do an edit in four weeks? Can I write a book in two months?). I find that very necessary if I'm trying to juggle writing with other activities (let's face it, most of us writers are). So, here's some essential information about writing "The Lucky Escape".

Note: Often before, I've made a higher weekday target but taken the weekends off writing. But I've found those higher word goals stressful. So this time, I made a target of 2000 words per day, every day. I'm shooting for 90,000 words for the final book, but I tend to add words when I edit, so I write the draft short (closer to 80k) so that I don't panic at the rising wordcount when I edit.

  • Total days to write: 38 (5.5 weeks)
  • Most number of words per day: 3800
  • Fewest words per day: 500
  • Average words per day: 2131
  • Average words per day in first half of the book: 2368
  • Average words per day in the second half: 1894
 Writing progress of "The Lucky Escape" - red dashed line was the required rate of 2000 words per day. Blue solid line is my actual progress (plotted on the left axis). The green line (plotted on the right axis) is how my words per day varied.

Writing progress of "The Lucky Escape" - red dashed line was the required rate of 2000 words per day. Blue solid line is my actual progress (plotted on the left axis). The green line (plotted on the right axis) is how my words per day varied.

What's the point of all this?

A few things. Firstly, that big things are accomplished in writing (like in all things) little by little (basically the point of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird). Motivation is often high early in the book when I'm playing with the bright shiny new idea. That enthusiasm often comes to a crashing halt in the middle. You can see that in the much higher average daily word counts in the first half of the book (they're higher again in the first quarter, 2570 per day, compared to the third quarter, 1800 per day). What carries through those hard slog parts are the habit and discipline of the work, and having a clear plan and goal in mind. I can't work without that.

Secondly, that writing (again, like all things) has bad days. Very bad days. You can write even when that's happening. My extremely difficult PhD confirmation process happened during the writing of this book, and a conference trip with the toddler to Melbourne. I referenced the plan. I didn't have to worry about when I'd be done, because I knew what I had to do today. One day at a time can be really powerful. I got ahead when I could, and used up the credit when I had to. If you want to write (or anything) don't be waiting to be in the mood. The mood is fickle. Some days, you get shit sandwichs to eat.

Finally, first drafts are not the end of the process. Like all books, this book needs editing. Now that it's a complete manuscript, however, I know exactly what I'm working with.

That's it for this! Whatever you're doing today, if it's a bad day, remember little by little, and work out what you have to do today to survive. I'm now going to celebrate by pausing to do some cathartic cleaning before planning the next thing. Onward :)

Starting the next book

Monday this week was kick-off day for me on my next book, The Lucky Escape. It's the story of a young mother, and three nursing home escapees who form an unlikely alliance to drive across America. One is desperate to recover her son, the others to make peace with their own demons. A story of love and hope and sacrifice, road trips, and unlikely friendships. It's an unusual story for me, but it's the right one for now and I'm loving getting into it.

This is the book I'm researching with a whirlwind trip to the USA in May, but I'm aiming to have the draft complete in March, which is a pretty punishing schedule. I'm 6800 words in after two days. At this stage, it always feels like a long straight road ahead. To help me keep up the momentum, I'm starting my pinterest board and my youtube playlist, which I use for inspiration and research tracking. I'm sharing those links below, and I'm grateful for the feedback and research help I get from readers from occasional calls on Facebook - expect a few more before the end.

YouTube Playlist | Pinterest Board

Driving across a continent

Even as I'm finishing the copy edits for The Paris Wedding (have you seen the cover??), I'm planning the research trip for my next novel (working title, The Lucky Escape). This is a story that takes place on an unlikely road trip, and so naturally I'm doing one of my own.

 My planning map. The first pin the coast (a bit faint) is LA. The second-last pin on the right (the last yellow one) is Nashville!

My planning map. The first pin the coast (a bit faint) is LA. The second-last pin on the right (the last yellow one) is Nashville!

The plan is to land in LA and, having familiarised myself with right-hand driving over a whole day and night (what could go wrong?) I'll take to the highway and drive east to Nashville. In four days. Now, if you're not familiar with US geography, that's a fair way. It's the equivalent of driving further than Brisbane to Rockhampton every day. The route crosses seven states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oaklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee) and takes me through or past many famous places. Places that I only know from movies, history, or legend. Once I arrive in Nashville, I'll fly to New York for the last part of the research, before flying back to LA and home. All in all, away less than 10 days.

It's a big thing, necessitated by being away from certain little person at this end and the pressure of the story itself. But Hopefully in all those "what could go wrong" moments I'll find research gold. I'll try (connection committing) to blog and post photos about the whole experience. So, stay tuned in early May next year.

Mudgee Readers Festival - an awesome weekend

 Cherry blossoms just coming out in Mudgee

Cherry blossoms just coming out in Mudgee

 Me with Amy Andrews, Alissa Callen, and Jenn J McLeod after our Books With Heart panel.

Me with Amy Andrews, Alissa Callen, and Jenn J McLeod after our Books With Heart panel.

 Custom choccies! The Horseman's is a chocolate whip, haha!

Custom choccies! The Horseman's is a chocolate whip, haha!

I have to write a special blog about the last weekend where I was privileged to be invited to Mudgee Readers Festival. Despite coming down with "festpox" from Byron and having a squeaky or non-existent voice for the whole weekend, it was a wonderful time. Mudgee is a gorgeous town and the festival was so well organised, the events well attended. I met many local readers and writers, and made new friends. 

On Saturday morning, the funny and generous Summer Land hosted a book club session for The Horseman where we discussed all things about the book (sans spoilers) and romance with a group of festival-goers. Then, on Saturday night, the Rant! entertained a huge dinner crowd at the golf club.

I was somewhat intimidated to be up with some very big names ranting about the perception of romance, but it was a great evening and everyone was encouraging. Luke Carman was superb as MC, and Fiona WrightJane CaroDavid Henley and Alison Whittaker gave funny, powerful and passionate rants on subjects from quitting sugar and the nanny state, to knocking public schools and the apology to Indigenous Australians. David Burton, ranting about men, was hilarious in advocating for manhood to mean more than blokey things, and Sami Shah brought the house down at the end with pointed and accurate comedic rant about the state of Australian racism. A fantastic night. 

This was backed up on Sunday with a Books with Heart panel with fellow romance writers Amy AndrewsJenn J McLeod, and Alissa Callen. Books with Heart even gave out chocolates themed on current books, including mine - how cool!

All in all, Mudgee was a special festival and I'd love to go again. I encourage everyone to check it out.

The Horseman's Launch

 The fabulous front counter at Avid Reader, properly groaning with books!

The fabulous front counter at Avid Reader, properly groaning with books!

Last Friday night we had a wonderful launch for The Horseman. Avid Reader in West End are the perfect hosts for a no-stress event, and my author friend Christine Wells launched it with panache. We had a lot of fun talking about the research and inspiration for the book, and a bit about my next project (The Paris Wedding). The Horseman had a stellar first two weeks, going to reprint (then an increased reprint), and receiving some lovely reviews, so the atmosphere was festive. Once again, my mum and step-dad outdid themselves bringing in some cosplay. Thank you to everyone! I'm also looking forward to meeting more book lovers over the next month or two as I'm travelling to Byron Writers Festival, Mudgee Readers Festival, and ARRC2017 (Melbourne) next February. Looking forward to these fantastic events :)

 Cosplay!

Cosplay!

 Signing books ...

Signing books ...

 Fellow authors and friends - my lovely launcher  Christine Wells  ( The Wife's Tale ) and  Sarah Ridout  ( Le Chateau )

Fellow authors and friends - my lovely launcher Christine Wells (The Wife's Tale) and Sarah Ridout (Le Chateau)

The Horseman's first fortnight - charts, reprint, reviews and messages

The Horseman's now been out for two weeks, and they've been amazing days. iBooks chose it as a best book of July, and gave it an amazing review, as did ScandaliciousTalking Books and even the staff at Dymocks Sydney. Equally amazing was then to see it reach 12th on the top Australian iBooks, and within the top ten in romance. Readers around Australia have been sending me "shelfies" (pics of the cover in their local store!) and lovely review of their own. I was particularly touched when one reader wrote to tell me that the story had provided some much needed escape at a time of grief. If I'd had no other feedback on any of my writing, ever, that would have been enough. My goal is to write good stories. Knowing The Horseman has been read an enjoyed is the ultimate fulfillment. And to cap the marvelous fortnight, this week The Horseman went to re-print. Thank you, everyone. I'll be working on the next one :)

Taking over Books With Heart!

Next Tuesday (28 June) is release day for The Horseman. Yay! And in a very trusting way, the lovely people at Books With Heart are letting me take over on that day. So I'll be posting about research, books, a bit of funny stuff, chatting and answering questions. There will also be a very cool giveaway, so head on over to like Books With Heart on Facebook and follow @BooksWithHeart on Twitter to see the details. :)

Editing The Paris Wedding, The Horseman launch, and other stuff in June

I can't believe that it's been nearly two months since I wrote a blog, especially as that last blog post was in Paris. It feels too long ago! (or maybe that's the awful jet lag talking ... the ten days after we got back were pretty brutal). Anyway, this morning I'm sitting down to edit The Paris Wedding, which I have been resting for these past two months and which I now have my trusted friend/editor/beta-reader's notes on. The cold snap here in Brisbane is the perfect reminder of that glorious Paris trip; trying to resist leafing through photos instead of editing!

 Ah, a sunny day, just cruising the Seine ...

Ah, a sunny day, just cruising the Seine ...

Other than that, there's lots of things happening. As I think I've posted on before, I started my PhD this year so I had assessment to hand in (done, fortunately), and The Horseman will be out in only a few weeks! We are having a launch at Avid Reader in Brisbane in July, so click on over to the books page if you want to see the details.

 The box of books arrived on my birthday - nice timing!

The box of books arrived on my birthday - nice timing!

I've been doing so much reading lately I haven't seen many movies, but the movie adaptation of Jo Jo Moyes's Me Before You is almost out ... I'm not sure whether to see it. The book was fabulous and I have my mental images of Will and Lou - not sure I want them replaced with the cast actors, which always happens. Anyone else have that problem? All right, enough rambling and editing avoidance. Onwards!

Paris!

EAT EVERYTHING

You've heard all the cliches about Paris a billion times already. And when you come here as a foreigner, it's pretty easy to fall right into that space - eat croissants, toddle off to see the Mona Lisa, Notre Dame, and all the other iconic icons. I've been here now (researching The Paris Wedding) for nearly a week, and I've done a lot of those things (in large part because my characters will do it, too) but to be honest, it can be hard to find the romance of the city when you're in the Tourist Trinity (crowds, queues, and hasslers). The Mona Lisa is a little less attractive when you're being swept by the current of bodies along the creaking parquetry floors so fast you barely catch the edge of her smile, and you soon realise that those quaint seeming markets near Montorgueil are fleecing you worse than the traders outside the Louvre. So, Tourist meccas are a place to start, but we had to get out of that mould pretty fast.

(My attempt at a family selfie with monument. Fail.)

Staying in an apartment helps, because we've had to go to the supermarket (successes and failures there - don't forget your "sac". Also, the ziplocks are UPSTAIRS. No idea why). And travelling with a one-year-old means no fancy restaurants at night, and not much dining out at all really. Instead, we've been chasing the sun to the parks and although all the grass is still "inderdit" (forbidden) after winter, I feel as though we've really seen the city through it's green (or roadbase lined) spaces. I think that's the dualism of being here - you need to do the tourist thing, so you can do the non-tourist thing and find the real Paris somewhere between.

Looking towards the Louvre.

As well as the outdoor places, we're now on a mission to see some of the lesser-known museums. Yesterday, that was the Musée des Arts et Métiers, all about industrial design. Being a nerdy science girl and engineer from way back, this place was amazing. Everything from the evolution of the microscope to the CRAY supercomputers. Not everyone's bag, but I could spend hours more there than in the Louvre.

Having said all that, the iconic checklist is iconic for a reason. Notre Dame is one of those places that inspires awe no matter how long the queue or how many of those around you disregard the request for silence signs. It's amazing to think it was started in the 1100s, and under all that weight of stone, you can imagine how someone might have felt about it in 1300, when the modern city didn't exist and the cathedral was this incredible construction unlike anything else. Even without the religious and spiritual significance, the stained glass and sheer size of that ceiling ... totally worth it.

My cruddy photo does not do the rose window any justice at all.

Before I wax too lyrical, it's best to remember that Paris, like any city, has it's downsides. The cafe culture and the parks are cool, but oh my god, the smoking! Nothing takes the shine off sitting outside with a chocolat when the people on either side of you are lighting up, and people smoke in kids' playgrounds so you're always taking discarded cigarette butts off your toddler. People warned us over and over about the stairs in the metro, so we've been doing those like a champion, but I can't do anything about the smokers. Makes you positively homesick for Queensland. Also, practically nothing opens before 10 in the morning, so if you want to start your day early, forget it. The city is definitely geared to late nights and late starts.

But ... those are the kinds of things you have to work around when you're on tour. The weight of history, the sheer density of culture (both the old and the new) is what makes this city. I'll be sad to leave, knowing there's so much I've left undone, and like most travellers, I'll tell myself I'll be back to do it all again.

The light, walking back to the apartment at the end of the day. :)