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Under the Rose

Almost at the end of 2018 which just makes my jaw drop. I’m working on book two as fast as I can, but being very mindful that I want it to be an absolutely cracking great read with as much honesty and originality as I can muster. I’m not going to put a book out unless it’s the best I can make it.

Something I’m currently doing research into for book two are medieval secret societies. I first became interested in intelligence when I joined the Army Reserves and was posted to an Intelligence Corp for a couple of years. I loved the experience so much I went on to become an Intelligence Analyst at the Crime Commission in New South Wales. At the time it was a true sense of belonging for me. The daily opportunity to dive in deep and look for clues amongst seemingly unrelated bits of information was like a dream job.

I eventually went on to apply for work as an Intelligence Analyst with a federal agency in Australia. I went through a gruelling six month interview and psychological testing process. Just about every bit of my life was revealed. No stone left unturned. It wasn’t a comfortable experience I can tell you. I was offered the job and cleared for the highest security classification in Australia—Top Secret—and I turned it down. It was a gut-wrenching decision. Who knows the path my life may have taken had I accepted the job. But I didn’t want to live a secretive life. I didn’t want to ever find myself in situations with friends where I couldn’t be open and honest about what I do.

So I found another outlet for my analytical skills. And one was writing a book.

I understand the world of intelligence quite intimately which is proving to be helpful for book two. I’ve also been finding it a lot of fun to re-engage with my ‘past-life’ as an Intelligence Analyst. It certainly was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve held. I’d love to hear what the most interesting job you’ve held has been. I reckon there’d be some amazing stories out there. Please don’t be shy. Flick an email to me at hello@jmlawler.com or find me on any of the social media links below.

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The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned as a Writer

In July 2017 I achieved something I never thought I would do. I published a book. I’m 46. For me, it wasn’t a lifelong goal. I haven’t harboured aspirations to be an author since I was 12 years old. It literally happened because I believed I had some good ideas for a story, could write pretty well, and probably most importantly, live my life with a pretty solid armour of perseverance.

Writing a book, like all journeys, involves the stuff you know is going to happen, and the stuff you either know about but are not prepared for, or don’t know about at all. You know it’s going to involve time on your own, putting words to paper, typing it up, revising, editing, making it sound amazing.

What was hard to contemplate from the outset was the magnitude of solitude involved. And how solitude changes you.

When I started writing in 2015, solitude was not something that featured significantly in my life. I live in an urban environment and have access to technology and social media. Like everyone else, I can choose to be connected 24/7, every minute, every second, of every day if I want. This connectedness, so we are lead to believe, is the ultimate ‘cure’ for the loneliness often associated with solitude.

Anyone who has ever tried to spend significant periods alone knows how hard it is. It was something I had to work at. I was fidgety, restless, craved distraction. I was stuck with my own mind and it was an incredibly uncomfortable experience. Thoughts came into my head and possessed me. Thoughts like who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are-writing-a-book and not-so-gentle reminders that I was nowhere near as good as all the authors I love and admire. I came to the rather sobering reality that being a writer means sitting with your own mind for long periods of time. It was not something I was warned about, but you REALLY get to know yourself when writing a book.

The ability to be alone is an essential condition to write a book. That’s pretty obvious, no surprises there. The same could be said of any undertaking that requires concentration and focus from crocheting a blanket, to tinkering on an old car, or painting a picture, or reading a book. What I’ve come to learn is that the ability to be alone is also an essential condition to love. That’s right, people, love. It’s only through time on your own you truly discover who you are, and it’s only once you truly know who you are that you can give love unconditionally to another. When you build solitude and stillness into your life, you notice things that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. All that matters is the activity you’re immersed in and giving your whole being to it. It really doesn’t matter what it is, all that matters is giving it your full attention. And such is the requirement of love.

Paradoxically, all this busyness, all this connectedness which is meant to make us feel less alone is often having the reverse effect. We’re feeling more alone than ever because we’re often not learning who we are and how best to tend to our needs. We’re running away from alone time, repudiating it. We’re hoping other people will just ‘get’ us when we often don’t even know ourselves.

All our gadgets and technology purporting connectedness are here to stay and they certainly have their place. It’s now about how we find a balance between alone time and worldly stimulation, how we quell our fears of aloneness and embrace what’s on offer from a bit of solitude: time to get to know yourself. It’s a practice. It’s not the solution to everything, but it’s likely to yield some beautiful surprises.

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Handmade Renaissance

Most people have an interest in being creative in some way. Our jobs are often just not big enough for us. Not many define themselves by their Monday to Friday jobs, but ask them what their interests are and you start getting to the essence of the person.

In the very early days of writing The River and the Ravages, I knew I wanted the protagonist, Aaliya, to be a saddle maker. This wasn’t just a random selection of a trade relevant during medieval times. I wanted saddle making for its association with practicality and for its incredible range for beauty. Saddles have stories. The people that had owned the saddle, the distances it had covered and the horses it had been on, the battles the saddle had been in, the unique parts of the world the saddle had been taken to. All of this mattered. And it shaped the character, Aaliya: who she was, what she stood for, what she wanted to achieve.

There’s a significant renaissance in the handmade movement at the moment. Etsy.com (Ebay for handmade) is mega-business as people seek out unique products. I’m drawn to handmade the same reasons so many other people are: the ideas, the tactility, and the hands that work upon the matter. You don’t just get a material item with handmade, you get meaning and stories. There’s longevity. Handmade items are rarely thrown out and in our disposable society, that’s BIG. Handmade items are often handed down through generations. They stand the test of time in a world where there is so much change and nothing seems to last. They help to define who we are and our place in the world.

I’m also heartened by the fact that around the world schools of old trades and craft are opening up and are thriving. Schools for blacksmithing, saddle making, woodworking, decorative ironwork and on it goes. Many people have become interested in learning old trades and craft as a way of counterbalancing our busyness and highly distracted modern lives.

More importantly, I think everywhere people are learning there’s a sense of joy to be had from making. There’s also a strong connection with the present moment when you’re making. You’re not thinking about your imperfect body, or the size of your mortgage, or your messy divorce. Loneliness simply drifts away when making and creating. All that matters is the connection of hand and mind and achieving something real and beautiful. Even if it’s just for yourself. No one else need ever see it.

Victor Frankl once wrote: ‘It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.’ Joy is the goal, not happiness. And I’m a firm believer that making is a strong element of joy in life.

Expect that anything worthwhile takes a long time. You won’t go from novice to highly skilled overnight in whatever craft you pursue. But that’s not an excuse not to start. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. But you already know that. And it’s more than likely you’ll discover a whole lot about yourself along the way.

And you know what’s the easiest part? Nothing. It’s hard work. But the rewards are plenty.

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Why I write what I write and other glorious anecdotes

I read some advice by author Joanna Walsh, “define carefully what makes you uncomfortable, and dwell in that difficulty. Find ways to enjoy it.” It’s hard for me to contemplate the notion of discomfort while I sit outside with the sun on my back on this beautiful spring day, but I know it all the same.

Something I secretly fear (but act like it’s no big deal) is that my book The River and the Ravages simply doesn’t fit easily in a genre. I didn’t follow the rules of outlining my plot and forming my characters based on what is normally done in any single genre. This was pointed out to me quite early into my writing but it felt too darn important to me to keep writing the book that was inside me and not follow the rules. I may pay for that decision one day, but I may, on the other hand, reap the rewards.

Too often we fear to take bold steps and instead follow the safe path. I’m not being critical by any means. I’ve done it plenty in my own life. There are often so many competing priorities in any given decision to be made, I wonder how any decision gets made in the first place. But for the big stuff, the stuff that defines who we are, who we choose to love, how we spend our days, our weeks, our lives, it often requires gutsy decisions and dwelling in some bone-deep difficulty for a while.

What it means to me as a writer, is than I’m going to continue to write what interests me. Sex. Love. Family. Money. Death. And I’m going to continue to write about people on the brink of change and growth. People who sometimes make some great decisions, and who sometimes stuff up quite spectacularly.

And I’m going to have so much fun along the way. What a time to be alive!

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Influences, ideas and a certain movie from 1991

I’m going to cast your mind back to 1991. If you weren’t born then, don’t you dare leave this page. You deserve to know too…no judgement here. One night, I got myself to a cinema with the few spare bits of taxpayer funded coinage I could rustle together. Thought I’d check out that “chick-flick”, Thelma and Louise.

I was in my first year of university and so I was doing things a girl normally does in her first year of university. Playing the bagpipes. Learning about hygiene. Making great strides in farrier science. I actually didn’t know much about the movie prior to seeing it. Yeah..yeah..women stuff. Whatever. It blew me out of the water.

I wasn’t prepared for a story where women get the last word in. It seemed like a milestone moment for female characters in movies. And I know I wasn’t alone thinking this. Women came out of cinemas in 1991 cheering, applauding, positively dancing in the streets after seeing this film. The story arc of two women discovering their potential had us wanting more, MORE! Everyone expected there to be more like it. But strangely, almost eerily, there weren’t more. In fact, the tale somehow slipped into folklore.

Thelma and Louise always stayed with me as a pivotal story in its own right. And inspired I was indeed. Fast forward 25 years, if I may be so bold enough (mmmm, yes…I can certainly be bold enough) I thought I’d have a crack at redressing the void since that fateful release in 1991. I too was going to tell a story. And straight away I knew it had to have two women as the lead characters. And like Thelma and Louise, I didn’t want them to be role models. I wanted them to be real women, going through real shit, and finding a way to get through it.

On an end note I want to say that I don’t believe for a second the dearth of great women’s stories in movies and TV is also happening in the world of books. There are countless books that tackle this wonderful theme. One only has to look at Goodreads lists such as “Best ‘strong female’ fantasy novels” and “YA Books with awesome female characters” to see there is strong demand for great stories with women in the driving seat. Female story tellers are kicking goals. I salute you all.

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