Book review – Fractured by Dawn Barker

FRACTURED_left-195x300I wouldn’t normally post book reviews, but this one affected me quite a lot, and plus, I know the author and want to help get the word out about her book.

I met Dawn Barker in 2010 when we participated in the Hachette/Queensland Writers’ Centre Manuscript Development Program, and it was there that I heard her read an excerpt of her then-unpublished manuscript. We’ve kept in contact since through numerous games of Words With Friends and conversations about our writing pursuits, and it’s been fascinating for me to follow Dawn’s journey as that manuscript was taken from its first beginnings to a polished novel.

Fractured tells the story of Anna and Tony in the early days after having their first baby. As the title suggests, things don’t go as smoothly as they expect.

From the first page of this book, the reader knows that something is very wrong. Fractured is structured around a terrible tragedy that is central to the story, and flips back and forth between the days and weeks that precede the event and the consequences that follow, each chapter leading the reader ever closer to the events of ‘that day’. The story is told from the perspectives of Anna and Tony as well as both of their mothers as each deals with the tragedy in their own way.

Fractured is an unsettling, chilling tale of postnatal depression and psychosis that brings a topic that has long been taboo into our lounge rooms and our consciousness. Mental illness is no longer an affliction that is hidden away, but postnatal depression, which affects a shocking one in seven mothers in Australia, is still rarely spoken of outside of a few token paragraphs in parenting books and websites.

Dawn draws on her experience both as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and as a mother of three young children to tell this story. Reading about Anna’s experiences in those first shaky, isolating and stressful weeks of motherhood was so eerily familiar, it was almost as if the writer had been in my head when I had my baby. If I had any criticism about this book, it would be that there wasn’t much exploration of Anna’s transition from these ‘normal’ feelings through to postnatal depression and then psychosis. But then, this may also be a deliberate device as Anna increasingly loses touch with perspective and reality.

Fractured is not a cheery story. If you like happy-ever-after endings, this is not the book for you. It’s a difficult book to read, particularly if you’re a parent. I felt as if I was holding my breath for half of it and crying for the other half. Nevertheless, I think it’s an important book for raising awareness about mental illness and hopefully removing, or at least easing, the stigma of postnatal depression for those who suffer it.

When someone you know becomes a new mother, don’t just offer to bring her food or do the dishes*. Ask her if she’s OK. Ask her how she’s really feeling and encourage her to talk about it. You never know whether you might be opening the door to healing or, perhaps, helping to prevent something terrible from happening.

*Still offer these things. She will love you for it.

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2013 Adelaide Writers’ Week

This year, for the first time, I took a week off work just to go to Adelaide Writers’ Week. It wasn’t really a whole week off, because I could only go on the three days Finn was in childcare, but it was such a wonderful experience that it felt like far longer.

My week began on the Friday before Writers’ Week started with a forum run by the SA Writers’ Centre. Provocations and Conversations brought together visiting writers from interstate and overseas alongside some of SA’s local authors. The sessions were all really interesting and it was great to hear the perspectives and experiences of published writers as diverse as Isobelle Carmody, Emily Perkins (NZ), Sean Williams, Zsuszi Gartner (Canada), Nick Jose and Jennifer Mills, to name just a few, alongside publishers, booksellers and marketers.

I must admit I’ve rarely been attracted to many of the events put on by the Writers’ Centre in the past. The majority of workshops have been either very specific or aimed at beginners – which is fine, there hasn’t been much on offer for more advanced writers. But I’ve heard they’re really making an effort this year to expand their program for different levels and types of writers, and if this is an example of their new direction, I’m impressed. Apparently this forum will become an annual event run in conjunction with Writers’ Week. You can bet I’ll be signing up for next year’s.

The Sunday of Writers’ Week was kids’ day, so we took our 18 month old son to see Mem Fox. I bought Mem’s first book, Possum Magic, as a five year old when she visited my primary school, and I now read that same much-loved book to Finn, along with many of her other wonderful books. She’s a great reader, almost performing her books rather than just sitting in an armchair and reading them. Afterwards I used my son as a cover for my fangirl-dom and had her sign a book for him.

I returned, blissfully on my own, on Tuesday, where I caught the second half of Emily St John Mandel (Canada) discussing her books. As a writer, I love hearing authors discussing their path to publication and their writing processes, and Emily was open about all this and had the most lovely voice that I could’ve listened to her all day. Next I saw a panel on the rise of food culture, which was interesting in that a foodie and a wine writer were teamed up with Steven Poole (UK), a freelance journo who has just published a book decrying modern food fads as ‘gastro porn’. After this I saw Kevin Powers (US), author of the award-winning The Yellow Birds, an interesting session about his experience during and after his time fighting the war in Iraq, but sadly little about his actual writing. Next up was Charlotte Wood, who has published a series of diverse novels plus a book of essays on food. I enjoyed Charlotte’s down to earth nature and her openness about how her writing is influenced. I ended the day with an enormous books purchase and an indulgent glass of wine and a chat with a work colleague I met up with.

My third visit to Writers’ Week was Thursday, the final day of the festival. This time I brought my laptop and started the day with a coffee and a bit of writing. The first session was Chloe Hooper, the author of The Engagement. I really enjoyed this book, and it was interesting to hear her philosophy and intentions behind the story. I’d been planning to see Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher series, next, but at the last minute I changed my mind and went to see Chika Unigwe (Nigeria/Belgium) instead, and I’m so glad I did. Chika is a most interesting and accomplished woman. She was born in Nigeria and now lives in Belgium, writes in both English and Dutch, has a PhD in Literature and (I believe – may have misheard) holds a Senate seat in her state in Belgium. She spoke about a variety of interesting topics, including the research she did for her novel On Black Sisters Street, which tells the story of African women who traffick themselves to Europe to work as prostitutes and raise money for their families. Chika was easily the highlight of Writers’ Week for me, and I’m looking forward to reading her books.

After this, I had a break for lunch and did some more writing before seeing a panel on book reviewing with Zsuzsi Gartner, Emily St John Mandel and Geordie Williamson. This was interesting but not really my thing. I then saw Toni Jordan, an author who has moved from writing romantic comedies to a family saga set during and after World War II. I really enjoyed Toni’s openness and sense of humour, and promptly returned to the book tent afterwards to buy two of her books.

By this point, the humid weather got the better of me and I decided to call it a day…and a year. I loved every moment I spent at this year’s Writers’ Week, and can easily see why it’s described as the holy grail of writers’ festivals. I’ll be making this an annual holiday for sure.

On the short story

After having my suspicions for some time, I think it is finally time to accept that I cannot write short stories. I’ve toyed with them on and off over the years, but have rarely written one I’ve been happy with. The most recent (that I completed) was a couple of years ago now and, while it did end up getting published, it was a memoir rather than fiction.

I have a lot of trouble devising a satisfying plot arc within the confines of a short story, especially if for one reason or another I am limited to 3000 words. I usually end up with a rambling fragment of a story that never really gets to the point and then fades off to an unsatisfying conclusion.

I also, for some reason, struggle to create solid characters in a short story. This may be because over the course of writing a novel length manuscript, I’m getting to know my characters as I write, and then I go back and give them more dimension on the second draft. Short stories are just too – well, short – for me to do this. Perhaps if I were more disciplined, I could plan better before I start writing and come up with those characters that really leap off the page.

Recently, entries were open for the Josephine Ulrick short story prize, one of the richest short story prizes in the world. First prize is $10,000. This is quite possibly more than I am likely to get as an advance if my first novel is ever published, so I decided it was time to try my hand at the short story once again.

I came up with a plot and everything. Well, kind of. A loose plot. Which is kind of how I roll (which in turn is kind of the excuse I make for not being a planner). I thought about it for a little while, I opened up a blank document and I typed.

One paragraph.

I determined to go back to it the next day and bang out a first draft, then hone hone hone.

I never even opened the document again.

That’s right. TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS WAS NOT ENOUGH INCENTIVE FOR ME TO WRITE ONE MEASLY SHORT STORY.

I admire people who can write short stories, I really do. Even more so, I admire those who can do both, and do them well. But I am not one of those people.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a novelist, not a short story writer. At least, that’s what I’m telling everyone.

The Next Big Thing

Last week, writerly friend Dawn Barker tagged me to participate in a ‘chain blog’, The Next Big Thing. I will answer 10 questions about my completed novel manuscript, and next week Samantha Bond will do the same for hers.

1. What is the working title of your next book?

Hot Pursuit is the first in a series.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A few years ago I did a short online course on plotting, as this has always been my weak point. Part of the course included an exercise in building a plot by starting with a character and answering a series of questions about their motivations. I formed a loose plot from this exercise, which I then tightened into a working synopsis with feedback from the course facilitator. I wanted to write a character I could identify with, as I’m not terribly interested in make-up, fashion or celebrities, and I thought it’d be funny to plonk someone like this in the centre of the materialistic world of a women’s gossip magazine.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

I have struggled to define the genre of this book. Originally I described it as women’s contemporary fiction, but I don’t think it really fits there, as I actively avoided the focus on appearance and fashion that is so much a part of this genre. It’s in the style of the Janet Evanovich ‘Stephanie Plum’ series, and I’d say it’s a women’s adventure/mystery.

4. What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have literally been thinking about this for the last two weeks since Dawn asked me to participate in this chain. I don’t watch much TV so I’m as clueless on actors as my main character, Sarah Burrowes, is. But if I had to pick someone, Asher Keddie’s character in Offspring reminded me a bit of Sarah in her awkwardness, except she doesn’t fit the physical profile. And just to be totally predictable, I could see the dude who played Dr Patrick Reid (see, I don’t even know his name) in Offspring as Nick Archer, but less brooding, more smouldering.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Oh crap. This is the one bit I don’t have ready yet. I know this is cheating, but here’s a blurb instead:

Sarah Burrowes is a former beauty therapist who doesn’t wear make up. She’s a wanna-be journo for gossip magazine Women’s Choice, but she knows nothing about celebrities. Sarah tricks her boss into sending her to Europe after Chris Evans, rock star and suspected murderer on the run. The only catch is that photographer Nick Archer, whose sexiness is surpassed only by his narcissism, is going too. Together they pursue Evans across Europe, fighting constantly even as they struggle to keep their hands off one another. When they get mixed up with an international drugs cartel, their lives are at stake as Sarah tries to solve the case and work out who the killer is…and, perhaps, to find love from the most unexpected of quarters.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Sophie Hamley at Cameron Creswell, and she will attempt to find a publisher for the book…and, hopefully, the series.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I faffed around on the first chapter for a few weeks, then my friend Bek and I set ourselves the challenge of writing 1000 words a day for a week. This worked so unexpectedly well for me that I continued until I’d finished the first draft, which I think took me about 7 weeks.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre?

Hot Pursuit would appeal to readers of the Janet Evanovich ‘Stephanie Plum’ series, who enjoy a mystery with romantic and comedic elements and a feisty but flawed heroine.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

As I explained above, I wanted to write a strong, witty female character, but avoid the focus on fashion and personal experience that is so common to women’s contemporary fiction. I also wanted to portray a ‘real’ person, who is not 6 foot tall and stick thin, but awkward and a bit dorky with a sharp wit and a potty mouth.

10. What else about the book might pique the readers’ interest?

I hope that the ‘ordinariness’ of my heroine will appeal to those who are tired of reading about perfect, self-assured women who are great at their jobs.

So that’s the first book in my series, which will hopefully one day see the light of day! Next week, Samantha Bond will answer the same questions about her work.

An epiphany

On the weekend, I had a bit of an epiphany. Well, more accurately, my awesome friend Bek dangled an epiphany in front of my eyes, and when I didn’t show the love immediately, she got out the metaphorical rubber mallet and hammered it between my eyes until I saw it for what it was – a bloody brilliant idea.

See, I’ve been struggling along, trying to write the third manuscript in my series, but the plot just hasn’t really come together. The characters I loved in the first and second have been insipid, uninspiring, unlikeable. And in the back of my mind has been the thought that, despite recent successes, my series may never be published. Which will mean that I’ll have been wasting my time on something that’s not really working anyway, rather than starting on something new that might.

The main problem has always been that ideas don’t come easily to me. They’re either slivers of ideas that are too unwieldy to be short stories but not well-developed enough to be novels. So I’ve just hidden behind the relative safety of characters I know and a kind-of plot direction.

So, back to my forced epiphany. I was talking to Bek on the phone when she said: ‘Why don’t you write a romance involving horses that’s set in the Adelaide Hills? You’re passionate about both and you know a lot about both.’

I was reluctant at first. This is partly because I spent my entire childhood and teenage years writing about and drawing horses, so I have this automatic cringe about going back to the topic, like I’ve failed at being a real adult.

Also, I suck at romance, both in writing and in real life. I found a nice guy when I was 20 and I stuck with him. We call each other ‘man’ rather than ‘honey’ or ‘babe’. Hence, I don’t really feel qualified to write a sweeping romantic saga.

But Bek, in her inimitable way, was having none of my piss weak excuses. By the end of our conversation, what she was saying started to make sense. I’d still made no decisions on what I was going to do, but I did realise that starting something else didn’t mean abandoning the other manuscript. It wasn’t going anywhere, and even if I’m lucky enough to have my series picked up, there’s two that come before the one I’ve been struggling with. Plenty of time (theoretically) to come back to it later. And if it doesn’t, I’ll have something else ready to go.

Then, after we hung up, something weird happened. I started having ideas. Images flitted through my mind, outrageous characters (because horse people really are quite nutty), dark secrets, action scenes, stunning vistas. Within 24 hours, I had a full story arc, complete with sub plots, in my head and at least partly articulated.

THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME BEFORE.

I’ve started to write, and I’m still making adjustments to characters and plot in my mind, but it’s going well so far. It’s shaping up to be less of a romance than I’d thought, which makes me feel a little more comfortable with it too.

I’m not expecting it to be easy. Sadly, my days of seven week first drafts are probably behind me. But I have a good feeling about this one. I’m writing what I know, and I think that will really make a difference to the authenticity of the story.

One step closer

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. As soon as I could write words, I was creating stories and dreaming about seeing my name in print.

When I was seven or eight, I wrote a picture book about a herd of wild horses as a Christmas gift for my parents. I still distinctly remember a line in there about a mare who was jealous of another mare even though the stallion ‘hadn’t mated her yet’. (Bek, if you’re reading this, shut up)

I certainly never imagined that actually getting a book published would be such an involved and difficult process.

At around 12, I submitted my first unedited manuscript, ’32 Horse Street’, a story of a girl whose love for horses eventually takes her to an Olympic gold medal, in which I pretty much plagiarised swathes of International Velvet, to a publishing company. Oh, how I cringe now to imagine the slush pile reader’s bemused smile as she/he drafted the very lovely and encouraging rejection letter that I was so disappointed to receive.

Over the years, my writing has improved and, at the same time, my expectations have become more realistic. I’ve received many more rejection letters. I’ve had many disappointments along the way. But I’ve also received enough affirmations from people in the industry to keep going.

Today, I’ve taken a big step in my writing career. I’ve signed an agreement with a literary agent. Sophie Hamley from Cameron Creswell is going to attempt to find a publisher for my series. I have no illusions that this is a definite ride to publication. It’s difficult to get genre fiction published in Australia, in the traditional way at least. In two years’ time, I may be no closer to seeing that image of my book displayed in a bookstore which I’ve held in my mind for so long.

But, and this is a big but, I’ve now got formal endorsement from an industry expert that my writing is good enough to be out there. Someone who knows exactly the right publishers to approach to give me the best chance of being published. It’s often said that getting an agent can be even harder than getting a publishing contract.

(Although: this assertion is fairly retarded, considering that if this were the case, there would be no need for literary agents because everyone would be getting their own publishing deals. But I digress.)

And so. I am very excited to be working with Sophie, and I have my fingers crossed that she’ll be able to find a home for my books. In the meantime, I’ll continue to slug along on the third in the series. Because, frankly, I’m a writer, and even if I only write a paragraph a week, even if I never get published, I’m always going to be a writer.

I will end in a departure from my usual composure with an almighty WOOHOO!

Writer’s block – I haz it

And you know it must be bad when I use an intentional misspelling in the title. It’s dire straits here.

You see, my fingers are positively itching to write something. I even have a kind-of direction in my plot. There are scenes just sitting there in my head waiting to be transformed into prose. Every day this week I’ve got household chores out of the way early (or just ignored them altogether) and sat down in my couple of free hours to write.

But usually I just end up checking Facebook ad nauseum, or reading over what I’ve already written, or staring at my working synopsis and willing it to resolve itself.

The ironic thing is that the story is stalling because my main character is having trouble getting over herself and getting her A into G. Funny, that.

It’s like when I’m at work and I have so much to do that I become paralysed and sit there panicking and doing nothing instead. I have trouble getting past the big picture and sorting through the minor details to actually get something on the page. The minor details are too hard, so instead I do nothing. Or check Facebook for the seventy-fifth time.

And I panic.

Add my imminent return to work in three weeks and you have a potent cocktail of ohshitI’mnevergoingtowriteanythingeveragain.