Anatomy of A Novel: Part 12: The Benefits of A Break

On this final day of the first month of 2018, I’m happy to announce that I spent part of that month re-acquainting myself with my partially-written novel.

I returned to my WIP on the second day of January, unsure how to approach a project I hadn’t touched since mid-April last year. I knew there were problems with this draft. At just over 50,000 words, I had only written about half of the actual story, so it lacked both pace and progression. I had thrown far too many words into it during the previous November’s NaNoWriMo, but with that long over, how was I to fix things?

After perusing my original synopsis and outline, I decided the best thing to do was to see what I already had and make notes about what worked and what didn’t work. So I began a read-through with minor edits. If something jumped out at me in a bad way and was small enough to tweak, I tweaked. If it needed major surgery, it was highlighted in red on my corresponding outline. I had already started a list of things to fix the previous April, and this list now expanded as I read.

I’ve worked my way through about half of the text so far, working on it when I can, and trying not to leave long gaps between the days on which I tackle it, because I don’t want to lose continuity. I think it’s going well so far, but the truth moment will be when I reach the point at which I stopped last time. I’m hoping that by then I will have enough notes to help me to make the decisions about what to go back and fix before carrying on to complete the full manuscript.

Of course I really want to get the whole thing down, because nothing thrills me more than that moment when I complete a first draft, before the hard slog of transforming it into an actual readable novel begins with the second draft and goes on for however many drafts it takes. However, it’s pointless crashing on through this draft if the first half doesn’t hang together well enough to make a solid foundation for the rest of the story.

What have I learned so far, from doing this?

  • As much as I’m grateful to NaNoWriMo for helping me write over 50,000 words in 30 days, part of me wishes I had taken longer and written less, because it would have made more sense and there wouldn’t be so much to undo now, before moving on.
  • It’s always good to take a break from something which you threw down on the page in a rush of 30 days. Many writers agree that the longer you leave a manuscript to sit before picking it up again, the more likely you will be able to read it with new eyes and see the mistakes with startling clarity. Taking a break gives you a better perspective on how it reads, what it’s all about, and how engaging it might be for readers in the future.
  • Don’t make any rash decisions while reading through. It might sound easy to delete half the text or start over completely, but burying myself in it and surrounding myself with my own words is helping me to find my voice for this piece.
  • This manuscript isn’t as bad as I had feared, and parts of it are definitely going in the right direction. My belief in it has been restored, not undermined. Now I just have to bring the rest of it into line, and then complete it.
  • Don’t rush it. There are areas of historical research that I am really keen to read up on, and this time I won’t be churning out a daily word count at the expense of sacrificing my research time, which was part of the problem back in November 2016.
  • My Dad always used to say, “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” I love the story idea for this novel, and it’s definitely worth doing it properly. I long ago decided that I could never be one of those authors who spews out a new book every few months, or weeks. This one will take as long as it needs to take, it deserves my full attention, and I’m not prepared to compromise on it. I love this book, and I’m going to make it work!

Writers and readers out there – what do you think about the benefits of taking a break and returning to a WIP with new enthusiasm? I highly recommend doing it.

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Life is Like A Novel. . . Sometimes

I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into novel structure lately, while trying to get my life on track and back into some kind of routine. However, not much in my life seems to be running according to plan, despite my best intentions. Exasperated, at one point I silently declared that my life was like a bad novel because everything kept going wrong.

And then I realised that this did not denote a bad novel, but an interesting one, full of drama, missed opportunities and plot changes which constantly evolve, thus motivating the characters to do something they might not have intended to do before.

(The only trouble with this plot is that it’s too indistinct and I have no idea where it’s all going to end up before the – I hope! – happy ending. Maybe this is how pantsers work?)

While it can be distressing to have too much drama in one’s actual life, this is the best thing for characters in novels. No one likes to read a novel about a character who has all his ducks in a row and his life perfectly planned, because that’s just too boring to read about. It’s fine to start a novel like this, but within a few pages there needs to be a catalyst that changes everything and throws all his plans into disarray, making him run constantly through the rest of the book, making new plans, troubleshooting, and generally trying to catch his breath before the next onslaught of plot points.

As writers, we have to capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then hold onto it while we fling them along the roller-coaster of the protagonist’s life, making then root and cheer with the highs, commiserate with the lows, and worry about the dangers.

All things considered, my life is not as dramatic and topsy-turvy as the lives I map out for the characters in my novels, but thinking about this did help me to put my own problems in perspective and give me a bit of distance from them.

It also gave me the motivation I needed to start thinking about my current WIP and what I’m going to throw at my characters in the New Year when I finally get time to carry on writing.

What about you? Does your life read like a bad novel? Or like an exciting one?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 11: Unpacking It

My love of writing has grown from my love of reading, and like many writers, I write the kind of books I would love to read. In my early years of writing, I enjoyed several novels by Bernard Cornwell, and took some valuable writing advice from his website.

To paraphrase, he said that when you want to understand how something is made, you take it apart, and so it is with novels. Pick a novel you love, one that you wish you had written because it resonates deeply with you long after you’ve finished reading it. And then unpack it.

I’m not talking about the way we did back in English literature classes at school or university, but in the way a writer needs to. The story, the structure, the way characters get themselves into situations and why, and how long it takes them to get through the path of obstacles you have created for them.

This is the eleventh in this series of blog-posts about writing a novel, and what I’ve written in the previous ten all have relevance, but this is where the fruits of those come together in a loose mesh which can be tugged, stretched and made to fit by doing some research and a bit of juggling. The best way to analyse your own novel is by comparing it to novels that you wish you had written. What is their secret? How did those authors manage to hit all the right buttons in exactly the right places? Unpack it and see.

I have always loved the movies, and long before I started buying books on writing, I bought books on how movie structure worked. Many of my favourite books on writing are still the ones about screenplay structure, and much of what I now think of as my checklists and story patterns for writing my novels come from reading those books.

I always have: a three-act structure (Screenwriting for the 21st Century by Pat Silver-Lasky); a hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler); a sequence of sequences (Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino); and a beat sheet (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder). From these I have, over the years, devised my own basic structure, and now that I’m struggling with the ratios and proportions of my latest novel, it’s Blake Snyder’s beat sheet that I’m using to analyse (and hopefully fix) the problems I’ve encountered.

Following Bernard Cornwell’s advice to new writers, spend some of your precious writing time unpacking three or four novels you’ve loved and wish that you’d written. Try to use works from different authors, all of whom have written in the genre you love to read and are writing in.

Re-read each novel carefully, notebook in hand. Read like a critical writer, not like a loving reader. How long does it take to reach the catalyst or inciting incident? How long does the hero debate before making the decision to take action? At what point do the Bad Guys start to turn even nastier? Is there a significant Midpoint which either foreshadows the outcome or gives the reader the exact mirror-image of what the ending will be? Which scenes are written in full, and which are summarized to move the action along at a faster pace? How long is the third act, or finale?

Knowing the novel because you’ve already read it at least once, pinpoint exactly when and where each tiny slice of foreshadowing takes place. A master craftsman plants various ideas and hints throughout the entire novel, in such a way that the reader sees the fruition of those seeds as being the perfect denouement and not as a nasty, unrelated, out-of-left-field surprise. Master storytellers also weave an undercurrent of tension throughout, which we glimpse at appropriate moments – a ticking clock, a war or revolution taking place in the background, and so on. Make notes on how they do it.

Another thing to make notes about is how subtle the love scenes are. My current favourite love scene is in one of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters: The Falcon at the Portal. It is 60% of the way through the text, and is exactly three sentences long. Because Peters has built the tension so well between the two characters up to that point, she needs only three sentences.

The first is the start of the girl’s run across the room towards him, the second is their moment of meeting halfway, and the third is later when they are curled up together in bed and he wipes away one of her tears of happiness.

Who needs more than that? No one needs more if the path to get there has been planted properly. Satisfaction all round.

Now let’s get to the horrid part of this exercise: the cringe moments when you compare these notes to your own work-in-progress. Take comfort here from the fact that your work is still actually “in progress” and it’s not finished until you’ve finished working on it. Take more comfort from knowing that those famous novels had a team of editors and beta-readers all making suggestions to the author and helping to hone the final product long before you read it.

How far into the novel is your inciting incident? How long does your hero take to make the decision to go on the journey? How wordy and purply is your love scene?

Does your Midpoint actually happen exactly at the 50% mark or does the first half of the novel seem to take forever? (Take heart, people – this is always MY big problem area!) Which scenes need pruning, and which can be reduced to summaries instead of slowing the pace?

Are your moments of foreshadowing clunky brick-on-the-foot moments that give the game away? Go back to your outline and see if you can drop hints in a more subtle, sparing way. You want readers to be pleasantly surprised by the ending, not able to foretell it before they get there. You want them to say afterwards that it all worked out perfectly in the end. Remember that, if the first page sells the novel, the last page sells the next novel…

With the notes you have made of how other authors make their novels work, and with the help of your outline, timeline and character sketches – all of which you made before you started yours – you will be able to find the right places to tweak and twist your work so that it all happens where it should, and in a much more satisfying way.

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 10: Writer’s Block

I don’t generally suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer-not-having-enough-time-to-get-it-all-down. Which, I suppose, is a kind of writer’s block in itself because I’m not writing what I want to write at the moment. But that’s another story…

Why don’t I suffer from traditional Writer’s Block? Maybe it’s because I’ve always been one of those writers who carries a notebook.

My notebook isn’t just for those Eureka moments when I dream up an original “what if” idea for a new novel. It’s for all sorts of bits and pieces that land in my brain from out of the blue somewhere. These can be prompted by everyday things I see around me, spurred on by my wild and crazy imagination, or they can be notes-to-self about something that might be fun to research on Google later, or just interesting quotes or book titles I hear.

Not all of my ideas lead to the germination of a new novel. They could just as easily be unrelated dead-ends, or seeds that might later find their way into a novel. They might suggest something else that will land in a current work-in-progress, or in a completely different work. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, many of the snippets I scribble in my notebook are ideas or thoughts about my current draft. These come to me when I’m nowhere near my laptop.

For the more technologically minded, there is probably a notes app on your phone that most people would use to make a shopping list. I use mine as a second notebook if my handbag is out of reach and my phone is in my pocket, but I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer the action of actually writing in longhand with a pen.

Novels happen when interesting characters go beyond their comfort zones, on strange journeys, and collide with bizarre obstacles, forcing them to act on their natural instincts.

Writers follow the same path. We too must go beyond our comfort zones, on new journeys where we will collide with obstacles we haven’t yet researched, and we will have to use our creative instincts to solve the puzzles. Writers have the advantage over characters because a notebook can help us to decipher and work around the obstacles.

What if you find yourself blocked in spite of a notebook (or phone) full of ideas?

Try changing your time of writing each day. If you habitually write in the morning, try writing late afternoon or at lunchtime instead. Buy a rhyming dictionary and make up some silly poetry, just to stretch your writing brain in a new direction. Enter short story competitions that are worlds away from the type of stuff you usually write. I have penned some truly dire attempts at science fiction, but they helped me to find a path through to other works.

Diversion is a good thing. If nothing else works for you, then take a break from writing and let other interests stimulate your imagination. Do some cooking, gardening, painting or woodwork. Hike up a nearby mountain to smell some flowers and look at the view. Anything that requires physical labour can put your subconscious mind on the back-burner and let it stew out some ideas. Keep that notebook handy just in case…

The thing to remember about writer’s block is that it’s never permanent. It can be worrying, but only if you let it get bigger than it is. Don’t let it do that. Remember that you are bigger than the block in front of you. Of course you will write again, and probably in floods of words, to the point where you will find it hard to believe that you were once so blocked.

If you are thinking of joining NaNoWriMo in November this year, October is the month to get your ideas flowing, draft an outline and give those characters some motivation. Good luck!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 9: Scene & Summary

Writing a novel can be a long process, and sometimes we writers can’t tell how the pace is going because we are too close to it. As much as I love having an outline from which to work, the important thing to remember is that it is – at best – a flat, two dimensional map of where the novel is going, and what the most important points in the plot are.

What happens when the writing of that plot doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory? Sometimes a particular section of my current draft which may have worked well in the outline, doesn’t ring true in the actual writing. If I can’t solve it immediately, I highlight that section on my outline, leave it and move on to the next plot point, which often shows me the way back to solving the previous problem.

If it doesn’t, then maybe the sequence of events is in the wrong order. Some writers do their outline on a series of cards – one scene per card – so the cards can be re-arranged if the order isn’t working. Personally, I don’t like using cards. I find it easier to cut and paste on my outline instead, but if cards work for you, then by all means use them.

Here’s a thought: if something is difficult or boring to write, then maybe it shouldn’t be in the book because it may be boring or difficult to read. It’s that simple: if there’s a boring bit I can’t write, then maybe it’s not meant to be written. Maybe the idea behind that scene or sequence needs to be reworked in another way.

So back I go to my original one-page synopsis and examine where that problem scene fits in the greater story. What happens before it? What happens after it? Is there a better way to get from one point to the next? Remember that every character has a desire, and has to overcome obstacles to get what he or she wants. If the obstacle isn’t big enough then the writer must either raise the stakes and make it big enough to count, or wipe it off the slate and get on with the story.

The writer must choose between scene and summary. Not every step of the story needs to be written as a scene; some can be summarized to move the reader forward to the next interesting bit. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this ill-fitting scene? Where is it supposed to lead to? If there is a better way to reveal what’s in it, then why is this scene even in the book?

If a lacklustre scene serves a definite purpose, then that purpose might be better presented in the form of a summary. Perhaps the characters need to go on a journey for a reason, but unless there’s something significant that the reader needs to witness along the way, or if the tension is heightened by the fact that they are being followed, then we don’t need to see every step of the journey, especially if it’s going to hold up the action and bore the reader. Rather end the chapter as the characters leave one place, and start the next chapter as they check into the hotel or arrive in the city where the next bit of action will happen.

While writing Benicio’s Bequest, I had a complicated sequence of events in which my two main characters travelled back and forth across the same section of Italy several times. By highlighting the problem areas in my outline, I was able to rework the sequence with one less travel hop, and turn one of them into a car chase, thus tightening the action and putting them in the right place in time for the final push to the finale.

Most plots need moments of quiet time to let the characters (and the readers) take a breath. In a romance this is often when the characters get to know each other better, but don’t linger there too long. Keep them on their feet and dancing through the plot, because that’s how it stays interesting. Plenty of time for them to get to know each other properly once they’ve saved the world!

It all comes down to a balance between pace and progression. Those writers who advise you to “leave out the boring bits” usually have a good grasp on how to keep an audience engaged. Keep the pace moving, while constantly advancing the plot.

What do you do with those lovingly-crafted scenes that don’t advance the plot, but that you’ve written so well and can’t bear to lose? Here’s my solution: I cut and paste them into a folder called the Dumping File. I tell myself that they are not wasted, and sometimes I even get to use bits of them in another part of the novel. I haven’t killed them, because they’re still there on my computer.

These deleted scenes form part of each novel’s backstory, and my own writing journey. Even though the reader doesn’t need them, I’ve still got them, kept all safe and cosy and protected. The dumping file for each of my novels is quite large – between 15 and 30% of the size of the finished novel – yet every bit of them turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Don’t waste the reader’s time with this unwanted waffle. They won’t thank you for it, and they might decide not to buy your next novel…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

While this may seem like an odd topic in a series about writing a novel, I feel very strongly about the music I listen to while writing. I’m not musical myself, and can’t play any instrument, but I do love to listen. Especially when I’m writing.

When writing, it’s important that I listen to music without vocals, so that other people’s lyrics don’t interfere with the words in my own head. The human voice is a beautiful instrument in itself, and it seems a pity to exclude it from the stuff I listen to, so I’ll always include vocal music if the lyrics are in a language I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m no good at languages other than English, so there is a wide range of music available to me.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music, so naturally this is the best for my writing. I have a few favourite CDs (who am I kidding – I have loads of favourites!) and piano music is my first choice every time. I grew up listening to piano music because both my father and my sister played, and my mother could sometimes be cajoled into playing as well. She was a far better player than she thought she was.

My father’s baby grand sat in the lounge in the centre of our house, so when someone played, it was audible everywhere. With the bay windows open, you could hear it across the garden too. My father’s music of choice was mainly jazz, and many of his favourites have become my favourites now. My sister’s playing was more classical – Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt – because she studied music and her playing was noticeably finer and easy to listen to.

While much of my CD collection today consists of classical piano, a close second is classical guitar. Back in my high school years, television started in South Africa and for the first time I was exposed to the beauty of this gorgeous instrument. I saw programmes on Julian Bream and, closer to home, Tessa Ziegler and Dave Hewitt. I bought a classical guitar and tried to learn to play like them, but oh, how hard it was! Much better to listen and appreciate those who truly could play.

Around that time, my father used to make movies, and he had many movie soundtracks in his record collection. I remember buying the double LP of the music from Star Wars, and being quite surprised that it was so heavily classical. That now famous score by John Williams was even more epic than the movie, and I realised for the first time just how perfectly a full orchestral soundtrack can add to the feel of a film. Much later, I saw how I too could add to the book in my head by underscoring it with richer, more classical music.

Long before I started writing, back in the days when I lived in Johannesburg, I had three radios in my flat, all tuned to Classic FM. As I walked from one room to another, the music followed me so I never missed a note. When I enjoyed a piece I had never heard before, I listened to the announcer afterwards, wrote down the names of the composer and the music, and looked for it on CD the next time I was in Musica or Look & Listen. Thus I built up my collection.

Once I left Johannesburg, I couldn’t hear that radio station any more (long before the days of live-streaming, of course!) so my CD collection was my comfort in a city where the local radio stations didn’t play music I enjoyed. My home was small so one device playing a CD in the main room could be heard all over the cottage.

Listening to classical music has always relaxed me, reminding me of those lazy Sunday afternoons as a child, piano music forever in the background. When I began to write, I found that music formed a natural, harmonious background. My first attempt at writing was a novel based on my family’s history, so maybe the musical connection to the family piano was relevant on that level too.

As time went on and I wrote other novels, I tried to find music appropriate to the themes of each book. I discovered the Putumayo series when writing my novel set in Greece. Hours and hours were spent listening to Putumayo’s Greece: A Musical Odyssey. I had no idea what they were singing about, but I loved hearing it, and it helped my own words to flow.

Similarly, when I wrote my novel set in Italy, I had plenty to choose from, including loads of opera, plus the wonderful vocal instruments of Andrea Bocelli and Amaury Vassili.

My most recent novel is set in two different times and places. The contemporary thread is set in modern-day Australia, where both the main characters play the piano in a small jazz bar.

Piano music again – gosh, imagine that!

The historical thread was a little more complicated. This is set in 1960s South Africa, mostly up in the mountains of the Drakensberg. Originally this section was set in Peru, and while I had some beautiful music from South America, I found it impossible to write convincingly about a place I hadn’t been to, so I moved the location to Africa.

There is no shortage of African music in my collection, but the two characters in that part of the novel have a poignant story that is dogged by separation and loss, so the music in my head had to match. The sad classical music I chose was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. This is a long-time favourite and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own no less than seven different copies of that haunting second movement.

My current WIP is set in post-war Britain in 1955, so once again I get to hear my father’s big band jazz favourites from that era. However, there is an older storyline as well, and I’m still searching through my collection to find something that best suits the words in my head.

Writers and readers out there, do you enjoy listening to music as you write or read? If so, what puts you in the right mood?

Foxy Thinking or Why Five-Year Plans Don’t Work

More than a decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Clem Sunter speak about scenario planning, and the book he co-wrote with Chantell Ilbury, called The Mind of a Fox: Scenario Planning in Action.

The occasion was a memorable day in itself – speech day and prize giving at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, with guest speaker Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, Mandela’s plane to Pietermaritzburg was delayed by bad weather and diverted to Durban, which meant that his entourage had an extra hour of road travel between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

In itself a fortuitous example of scenario planning, the school had arranged a back-up speaker in case of delays. The tall grey-haired man in the front row was introduced as Clem Sunter and he occupied our minds for the next 45 minutes.

Foxes, he explained, have many dens and are adaptable in their habits, which is why they are called wily, and they know how to survive no matter what Fate throws at them.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are not very streetwise. They live in the same nest all their lives, hibernate in winter, and hide from danger by rolling into a ball to expose their spikes in the hope that the danger will leave them alone. They talk big and make five year plans that go awry when a fox moves into their territory and disrupts their comfortable lives, making them afraid to leave their comfy holes.

Foxes often eat hedgehogs despite the spikes. The wily fox will find a way around the spikes.

The fox thinks on his feet, is intuitive and uses his imagination to show him the way. In life, we cannot predict the future. All we can do is try to be as informed as possible so that we can make the right decisions when problems arise along the way. Life is a series of small steps taken one at a time – often with little knowledge of what lies ahead – so it is a waste of time trying to plan every step in advance.

We know the route we will drive to work each day, but we cannot wait for all the traffic lights to be green before we leave home. If there are delays or road-works we will deal with each as we reach them. If we know our territory we can choose another road and get to the same place without too much trauma.

It is this choosing of an alternate option that uses our fox-brains and allows us to plan alternate scenarios.

Sunter explained to the school the relative simplicity of scenario planning, as if approaching a crossroads. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are your options? Which one do you choose? The better informed we are, the better decisions we can make.

Out in the wild, a fox does the same things. If he’s hungry and goes in search of food, he may find a hedgehog.

What are the rules? The hedgehog will roll into a ball and expose his spikes.

What are the uncertainties? The fox may go hungry, or he may trick the hedgehog into exposing his softer flesh. Or he may get a mouth full of spikes.

What are his options? Try the hedgehog or move on in another direction and find a bird or rabbit instead. Crossroads after crossroads, the fox will make the relevant decisions based on each situation and keep moving.

I’ve always loved hedgehogs and thought they were cute. I still do. I have a healthy respect for foxes, though, and have looked at their habits with fresh eyes since that Speech Day at Hilton College.

How does this relate to me personally? Should all delicate hedgehogs start observing foxes and learning from their habits? Perhaps we have already started.

In my first year of working I mapped out my first five year plan. Six months later it blew up when I took unpaid leave to travel around Europe with the love of my life. My priorities changed, so did my goalposts. When I returned from Europe I discovered that I hated my job. It wasn’t turning into what I had planned for my life. I was frustrated by the narrow thinking and the small minds that burrowed in the dark, finding fault with everyone else. Things they did were old-fashioned and petty, but that’s how they had done it for years. Everything they stood for seemed outdated or directionless.

I left that job and attempted training in a completely different field: pharmaceuticals. That lasted three days before I admitted I was wasting both my time and theirs. They appreciated my honesty and wished me well as I left. Faced with uncertainties, I weighed up my options. Within days I had begged a friend for a ticket to a theatre opening night, knowing that two production managers for two separate theatre companies would be there, and my plan was to quiz them both about prospective jobs. One was there, the other wasn’t, so I got talking to the one who was. He invited me to a meeting in his office a few days later, and I was hired.

My plan was to stick around for six months and see how it panned out. If I didn’t like it, I would find something else and move on. Already I was thinking like a fox and yet I would not hear of Clem Sunter for another twenty years. As it turned out, I really enjoyed that job. I found the less predictable atmosphere to be more creative, and I had much more fun there than in the first theatre.

I was never particularly good with numbers, could never balance my cheque book in my early years of working, and had found the management structure of my first job bewildering to say the least. My second job had one man at the top who made all the decisions, and a handful of us down below who carried them out, and things worked out reasonably well because we were all versatile and adapted easily to the constant changes.

Thinking back now, that second boss was a fox too, because he didn’t dwell on things that didn’t work. A forward-thinking entrepreneur who seized the moment, cut his losses, and was an excellent judge of his place in the market. I worked for him for three years, and only left because my father died and I returned home to stay with my mother for a few months.

For years afterwards, as I worked in other theatres around South Africa, something in me always wanted to do an MBA. During the 80s and 90s it became the “thing to do,” the thing you could swank about having done because it showed you were of above average intelligence. But for me, it was because I wanted to be able to analyse how and why businesses worked as they did. I wanted to find my own niche and make money doing a different kind of business. Something creative, in the craft line, but I wanted to go into it with my eyes open.

Eventually, after nearly 20 years in the workplace, I enrolled in the first level of an MBA programme. I found it fascinating. Various management models, types of structures, and so on – all very interesting. I finally saw clearly for the first time why my cheque book had never balanced! If only I had known it would be so simple…

In my second year of study, when we got to Business Research Methods, I began to see why theatre is such an unpredictable industry. You cannot take a sample and infer it on the whole. Yes, you can have all your ducks in a row, the best groundwork covered and all the research done to the nth degree, but it still won’t explain why audiences rush to see that particular show or stay away in droves from another that has all the same winning ingredients. I realised that theatre was different. Arts in general are different. Writing books is different too.

I am different and five year plans don’t work for me. If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting in Australia right now, loving the unpredictability of my life, and looking forward to the endless possibilities available. I’d be quaking in my boots somewhere, wondering what happened, why it all went wrong, and probably waiting for someone to rescue me.

Instead I am optimistic about my future and ready for anything. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are my options? What will I choose? Even I don’t know yet, but I will work it out as I advance, and advance I will. The words of Australia’s national anthem Advance Australia Fair are ringing in my ears, ripe with opportunity.

Within a week of hearing Clem Sunter speak, I found and bought his book because his speech had left such a deep impression on me. In fact, that book is one of only two business books I brought to Australia with me. The other is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which was a gift from my best friend’s mother, before I began my MBA studies.

Why these two books, over all the others that I let go? Simple. They haven’t dated. They remain relevant. They are the best operational and strategic guidelines for life, and they make no false claims about hedgehogs following fantasy five year plans!