Reading recs

18 April 2018

Every month in my newsletter* I highlight a book that has stood out for me, and it’s been interesting reflecting on which stories have stuck with me. I thought I’d start a quarterly post collecting them here, but I’m adding a bonus book which I have recently finished and need to rave about! Interestingly, all four of these books made me cry. I’m not commonly moved to tears when reading, so this is surely a sign that these characters worked their way into my very marrow. All four books also have titles beginning with ‘The’, though what that might mean I have no idea!

Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth is an extraordinary achievement. It’s the story of a young boy named William whose father dies in a farming accident. With his mother, he comes to live on an enormous and crumbling property with his elderly uncle. Set against the political landscape of the Mabo judgement and land rights, The White Earth explores the nature of ownership and connection, and the ways in which the past is inextricably bound up with the present. It’s beautifully written and structured, and not surprisingly won the Miles Franklin Award in 2004.

The Midnight Zoo is a fable-like story that centres on two Rom boys and their baby sister whose extended family has been wiped out in a massacre. Amidst the devastation they stumble upon a forgotten zoo where the animals speak. I have always loathed zoos, and I would defy anyone to visit one after reading this poignant novel. Sonya Hartnett knows how to craft a beautiful sentence, and I often found myself pausing and rereading the prose in this short novel. One for both adults and younger readers. It is startling, magical, brilliant.

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This biography of Sandra Pankhurst is not for those after a light read. In addition to her work as a trauma cleaner, Sandra’s personal life is a catalogue of traumas. It is remarkable how much she has endured; I found the details of her childhood particularly heartbreaking. Her life would make a compelling story told any which way, but it is Krasnostein’s elegant prose and genuine love for Pankhurst that make The Trauma Cleaner sing. Not surprisingly it is being shortlisted all over the place, and recently won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.

I fell head over heels for Sofie Laguna’s last novel for adults, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which I recommended to everyone that year. So I approached The Choke with some trepidation. Both are told in first person through the eyes of a child. Could Laguna pull it off a second time? Could I love another Laguna book as much as The Eye of the Sheep? Well, she did, and I did. We follow Justine, who is neglected by the adults around her, and is forced to navigate the dangerous and perplexing world that she finds herself in. It’s an absolute heart-stealer of a book.

So now it’s your turn. Tell me your latest reading rec. What book have you fallen hard for?

* If you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, which is full of bookishly awesome stuff, there’s a sign up box on this page.

Grant writing tips: how to win gold

5 April 2018

Every writer toiling away in their garret could use a small pot of gold, right?

Grants come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can further your creative practice in so many ways. I’ve received grants to attend professional development opportunities, to travel overseas to undertake research for a book, to provide a living wage to carve out a dedicated chunk of writing time, and to take up residency at Varuna Writers Centre, aka writers’ heaven (three times — how lucky am I?). Grants also offer reassurance that the work you are creating has genuine merit, and encourage you to keep forging ahead. In short, they are invaluable.

Yesterday I spoke on a panel with Tania McCartney and moderator Shaye Wardrop about the world of grants, which is often mystifying for new writers. So I thought I’d share some of my top tips gleaned from years of both successfully applying for grants, and sitting on panels assessing grants. As a brief aside, if you are ever invited to sit on one of these panels I would highly recommend it. It is an opportunity to learn firsthand how these panels work and what they’re looking for. You get to see what applicants do wrong, and what they do right. It is immeasurably helpful when it comes time to apply for a grant yourself.

  1. Apply for the ‘right’ grant

Look at the criteria closely to make sure you qualify, otherwise you will be wasting your time (and the assessors’). For example, if the grant is earmarked for emerging writers, what is this particular organisation’s definition of emerging? It can vary between an unpublished writer or a writer with a limited publication record. Check the parameters carefully. Short stories in literary journals might be acceptable, for example, but not a full-length short story collection.

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Also consider the list of past recipients — the kinds of work being funded, and the level of the recipients’ experience. If previously successful applicants have several published and critically acclaimed novels to their name, and you have only published a handful of short stories, the likelihood of success is slim. In this case you would need to build up a more significant publishing track record before applying.

Local or state funding bodies are a good place to start as an emerging or developing artist. But remember that you will still need to be able to demonstrate some kind of publication history and dedication to your craft.

  1. Know that it’s highly competitive

All assessment processes vary, but often assessors will be asked to give each application a numerical grade which will then be tallied. As a starting point for discussion, all applications will be ranked from lowest to highest. It is often the case that assessors agree that the bottom third aren’t up to the required standard. And also that the top few are outstanding and should be funded without question. It is the middle block of applicants where much discussion takes place.

With every panel that I have worked on the assessors have taken their role, and its inherent responsibility, very seriously. Often assessors don’t know exactly what funds will be made available and therefore where ‘the line’ will fall. Everything above the line will get funded, everything below the line won’t. This uncertainty means that there will often be projects that the panel dearly wanted to see funded that may fall just below the line.

If you want to cross that finish line in first place, you need to bring your A game. Be a literary Cathy Freeman or Usain Bolt.

  1. Before you apply, discuss your project with the funding body

This isn’t always necessary but it can sometimes be useful to speak to the grants officer to check that your intended project fits within their framework. Funding bodies can shift their priorities and a quick phone call can save you a great deal of time.

  1. Writers applications tend to be the worst written!

One thing I’ve learned from sitting on assessment panels is that among arts practitioners writers are not the greatest at writing grant applications. This always takes me by surprise — after all, we’re writers, right? But a grant application is a very different beast to a creative work. (For the record, it’s the visual artists who know how to put together a damn good application.)

So carefully read what is required and then make sure that you give the assessors everything they need to tick all the boxes. Always address the funding criteria. This might sound obvious, but so often the arguments applicants put forth disregard the organisation’s specific criteria.

There will usually be tight word limits so use them effectively. Before you start, determine the key points that you need to communicate. Then be clear and concise. Don’t waffle and don’t use grandiose language. And, even if the question isn’t specifically asked, make sure you answer…

  1. Why is your project worth investing in?

This is the crux of what you need to articulate. You need to demonstrate and justify the project’s creative worth. What is unique about it? How is it different from other published works? How will it contribute to the literary landscape? How will it benefit the community? How will it support your creative practice and result in significant professional development? In other words, why should the funding body invest in you?

  1. Include a letter of recommendation

This could be from an interested publisher, or from another industry professional of standing. It might be an experienced writer who has a good feel for and appreciation of your work. It is important to know that these letters can make or break an application. A hearty endorsement from a well-respected individual can convince a panel of the worth of your project and your ability to deliver. On the other hand a letter that damns with faint praise is worse than no letter at all (and I’ve seen a few of these when assessing applications).

  1. Support material

Applications often call for a sample of your creative work. Be sure to select the strongest and most relevant example. Always stick to the word limit (assessors will not read additional material, and it will reflect poorly on your ability to follow instructions). Don’t include additional material that has not been requested.

  1. Make sure your budget balances

Many writers go cross-eyed at the thought of balancing a projected budget. But remember, you are asking an organisation for money and the budget demonstrates that you know how to deliver the project you’ve outlined. Always make sure the budget is realistic, and that it balances. If you’re struggling, ask a friend who is good with numbers to help you. And some organisations (the state and federal funding bodies for instance) are happy to discuss budgeting issues over the phone.

  1. Proofread, proofread, proofread

The quality of your application creates an impression about the quality of your work. A flawless application is one sign that the panel can have confidence in you creating a polished, quality project. If your application is full of errors it will not reflect well on you. It’s like showing up to a job interview in an unironed shirt with bed hair.

If proofreading isn’t your forte, ask a friend who will spot all those typos and punctuation errors. Even if it is your forte, it’s still a good idea to have a fresh set of eyes review it. When you’ve been working on an application and reading it over and over it’s easy to miss things, or read what should be on the page instead of what is actually there.

  1. If you aren’t successful, get feedback from the organisation

Don’t give up. There is never enough money to go around and you may have only just missed out (see no. 2). Ask what you could have done better (sometimes the panel will provide specific feedback to those applicants who were close but didn’t quite make it). Use the feedback to improve your next application. Try, and try again. Eventually you will reach no. 11.

  1. If you are successful, crack the champagne!

Receiving a grant is a wonderful thrill. It’s a validation of your work, and it’s the beginning of a new project (or a new stage of the project), full of exciting possibility. The writing life is a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Take the time to savour this moment. You did it!

Guest post: HARDCOPY pearls

6 March 2018

In order to make a living most writers take on a range of different work, and Nigel Featherstone may have one of the best jobs in the biz. Managing the HARDCOPY program, he works with emerging writers and industry professionals — agents, publishers, editors — from around the country. Having been involved in a very minor way (speaking on a panel of authors one year, assessing applications another), I’ve seen firsthand what a unique and transformative program HARDCOPY is. So I asked Nigel to share the top ten things he’s learned from spending time with so many industry greats.

Although I am lucky enough to spend the majority of each week writing, and primarily writing literary fiction, I am also lucky enough to spend a day each week at the ACT Writers Centre delivering HARDCOPY, a national emerging writers program funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Having been involved in every element of the program — behind the scenes and as well as facilitating some of the sessions — I have had the opportunity to meet many key figures in the Australian publishing industry and authors, as well as get to know almost 120 new Australian writers, some of which have work that has hit the bookshelves or are about to. Needless to say, I have learned a huge amount, and in a moment I’ll share with you the ten key things I have learned from coordinating HARDCOPY.

But first, what exactly is HARDCOPY?

Established in 2014, HARDCOPY is a six-months-long national professional development program that helps build the capacities, aptitudes and resources emerging Australian writers need to reach their potential. The program is the flagship initiative of the ACT Writers Centre.

By creating an environment that is educative, vigorous and nurturing, HARDCOPY helps writers develop their manuscripts; increases industry knowledge; facilitates relationships between writers and publishing professionals; and breaks down the barriers of location and geography. HARDCOPY aims to develop writers who will have longevity as Australian writers, and the program is underpinned by the principle of pragmatic optimism: being aware of the challenges, but also being positive about the future.

There are three key stages to the program: a three-day manuscript development intensive with Nadine Davidoff, in May; a three-day series of industry presentations and panels, in September; and one-on-one feedback sessions with prominent Australian agents and publishers, in November. Each year, thirty emerging writers are selected to participate in the first two stages, with ten of the thirty then being selected for the agents/publishers feedback sessions.

So what have I learned about writing from coordinating HARDCOPY?

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1. Write about what makes you scared — it’s important that you don’t try to predict publishing trends or write ‘to market’. Write what makes your blood boil, write about what makes you think that people reckon you’re crazy. As Nadine Davidoff says, ‘Write about what makes you blush.’

2. Binge on your work — set a goal (e.g. write the first draft by year’s end) and then work hard to meet that goal. By ‘writing hard’ I mean write on a regular basis. Put into your work all the blood, sweat, and tears you can muster. At some point you’ll discover the story feels finished. Brilliant; celebrate that moment. Put the manuscript aside, then do some more work on it, but it’s okay to reach the stage where you draw a line under it and move onto a fresh project. Sure, some stories take a long time — years — to write, but there’s wisdom in saying, ‘I’ve done enough on this. I’m going to start something new.’

3. The world treats writing as a vacuum — resist distraction. As per the above, set aside time to write on a regular basis and guard that time fiercely. Everyone and everything will want to encroach on that time — the kids, the dog, the bills piling up on the fridge — but learn to boldly say, ‘This is my time to write. It’s critical to me. Leave me alone.’

4. Agents and publishers are invariably good people — they are passionate about words and stories and writers and books and readers. They live and breathe this stuff, and they work incredibly hard, often seven days a week. Treat them well, and by ‘well’ I mean politely and with respect. Sometimes they will take a while to get back to you; sometimes they will take a VERY long while to get back to you. That’s okay, it’s only because they are busy. By all means, gently and succinctly chase them up, but don’t be annoying and certainly don’t be rude. Agents and publishers have very long memories and you never know where they might end up.

5. As writers, we’re not trying to produce books; we’re trying to write stories that will move readers. Often in HARDCOPY — and more generally — I hear conversations that make writing sound like a game that folk are trying to win. To my mind, it’s a vocation. We write because we love words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, plot, structure, ideas, themes. We write because we would go a little mad without it. In terms of publication, what will be, will be — it’s more or less out of our control.

6. You don’t have to do this alone — there is a wide range of writing programs out there, such as HARDCOPY, as well as other opportunities like residencies and funding programs. By all means focus on your writing and keep the world at bay, but sometimes it’s productive to seek help and connect with other writers. Take note of the opportunities presented by your local writers centre and the various funding bodies (state/territory and national). Also, attend literary events and meet other writers and authors.

7. Be wary of social media — one of the things that is discussed a lot at HARDCOPY is social media: is it worthwhile or evil? The consensus seems to be that it’s probably a bit of both. It can be a good way to get information and feel connected to a broader and diverse writing community and share news, but it can also be a time-trap. For emerging writers there is no doubt wisdom in putting some rules around social-media use: what are you trying to achieve with your online engagement and how much time (or how little time) do you need to invest in it to get the result you want.

8. Rejection is part of what we do — most writers and writing programs say this because it’s true. There are many more writers in Australia than there are publishing opportunities, and every writer worth her or his salt has copped a set-back, or quite a few set-backs. Whatever negative event comes your way in your writing life, reflect on it, learn from it, and then just keep going. As former publisher, agent and HARDCOPY advisor Mary Cunanne says, ‘Persistence pays.’ I’d add to that: ‘Patience goes a long way.’

9. Read, read, read — by reading you’ll become a better writer. It’s as simple as that. But it’s worth noting that agents and publishers, not to mention authors, love it when you read. If you can, spend money on the publishing industry, i.e. buy books, and buy books by Australian authors and Australian publishers. Also read as widely as you can, including works by authors with very different life experiences to your own.

10. It’s okay to ignore all the writing advice you’ve ever heard and go your own way.

Applications to HARDCOPY 2018 close on Friday 16 March. For more information visit www.actwriters.org.au

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction. He is the author of 50 short stories that have been published in Australian literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel’s critically acclaimed first novel, Remnants, was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books. His award-winning series of three novellas was published by Blemish Books between 2011 and 2014. Nigel has been shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year award, and has also received two Canberra Critics Circle Awards. He has held residencies at Bundanon and Varuna. In 2013, he was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra / Australian Defence Force Academy, during which he explored different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; his war novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019. In 2014, Nigel was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new Australian song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music; this work has been developed by the Street Theatre in Canberra and had its world premiere in early March 2018. Nigel was the founding editor of Verity La. He is represented by the Naher Agency in Sydney, and lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. For more information about Nigel, please visit www.opentopublic.com.au

The one writing ritual you can’t give up

13 February 2018

Most authors have writing rituals, ranging from the pragmatic to the bizarre. Hemingway famously wrote standing up, and Edith Wharton lying in bed. John Cheever wrote in his underwear but Victor Hugo went one step further and wrote nude. Truman Capote avoided Fridays, never beginning or ending a piece of writing on that day. Poet Frederick Schiller couldn’t write without the smell of rotten apples emanating from his desk drawer.

My own writing ritual has been simple: one cup of coffee and I’m away. I’m not alone in this. Apparently Honoré de Balzac would drink up to fifty coffees a day, making my own one or two cups seem positively puritan. He would write day and night, and when the coffee stopped taking effect he would chew on coffee beans.

Unfortunately I don’t have de Balzac’s constitution and my doctor has forced me to abandon caffeine. I must confess, it’s been tough. A coffee always immediately clicked me into gear. It was a signal to myself: time to work. And the caffeine buzz gave me that ability to embrace the empty page with enthusiam, even on days when I felt terribly tired. So I miss it. Desperately.

As I mourn caffeine and attempt to make do with roasted dandelion ‘coffee’ (it’s as bad as it sounds), I thought I’d ask some of my fellow writers about the one writing ritual they couldn’t give up. Here goes…

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Kate Mildenhall is a writer and teacher. Her stunning debut novel, Skylarking was longlisted for Debut Fiction in the Indie Book Awards 2017 and the 2017 Voss Literary Award.
In the aftermath of my first novel being published, I found myself perplexed at what I couldn’t remember about the process and sequence of writing it. When did I decide to cut that character? What was I reading when I wrote that scene? Where did I put the link to that article about whale oil? On this, my second time around, I’ve kept a journal of the process. It’s a word doc that I keep open all the time, and I write in it nearly every day I’m working on the manuscript. It’s a catch-all for what I’m reading, to do lists, word counts, questions to myself, random ideas, links to relevant articles, research notes (some written in my cabin on a yacht in the middle of the Banda Sea!) and long rants filled with self-doubt and fear. It’s been incredibly useful to refer back to when I’ve felt lost or unsure, and I’m also looking forward to being able to use it when I’m talking about the book and my process. At some point in the last month the word count on the journal document surpassed the actual manuscript — testament to how addicted I’ve become to this little ritual.

Robyn Cadwallader’s debut novel, The Anchoress, was an international bestseller, and her much-anticipated next novel, Book of Colours, is out in April.
My ritual doesn’t make a lot of sense, even to me. It’s a pen and notebook, but not for writing my work-in-progress; I do that on my computer. I’ve always loved the idea of writing my manuscript by hand, page upon page of words in ink. But I’ve discovered that on the computer I feel more freedom to change words, to play, invent, experiment. And yet, I also need the feel of pen on paper, my body engaged in a way it can’t be on the computer. In my notebook I write ideas, plans, questions, doodles. I talk to myself, chew over that crazy idea I had in the night. It’s especially crucial when I’m scared of writing — of the blank page or the stuck place in my story. When I’m too afraid to sit at the computer, I can grab my favourite pen, open my notebook and write to myself. Out it all comes: I have no ideas; I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m lost in my own narrative; I can’t work out the structure; I’m not sure what my character needs to do next. Anything, everything. It’s such a safe, cosy place; pen or pencil on paper feels so accepting. Eventually, an idea, or courage, or just a little bit of freedom, finds me, and I move on to the main work.

Perhaps it’s the difference between my private words on paper, just for me, and the words that I write on computer to go out into the world. I’m not sure, but this ritual works, so I’m keeping it!

 

 

Louise Allan’s debut novel, The Sisters’ Song*, was released last month and it’s been going gangbusters. She also has an excellent blog for writers and readers.
The one writing ritual I can’t give up is that I must check the news, my emails and my social media before I can set to work.

Pre-internet, first thing each morning I used to read the newspaper from beginning to end, commenting to my husband as I went. I liked starting the day informed about what had been happening in the world.

These days, it’s the internet I check. Every day, the ABC messages me the news headlines, then I check my emails, and finally my social media. I feel like the housekeeping is then done and I can commence my work day. It takes at least an hour, but my head feels clearer afterwards, and I’m able to concentrate on my work. If I set to work beforehand, I feel like it’s still hanging over me.

I once did a six-day writing course and one of the rules was that we had to rise from bed and immediately start writing, taking advantage of our half-awake mental states. It was so good for my writing and I swore I’d maintain it after the course had finished. But, alas, I immediately reverted to my old habits!

Peggy Frew is the author of two brilliant books, House of Sticks and Hope Farm, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.
I have a few writing rituals (and I am very sorry to say, Irma, that sitting down to work with a fresh cup of coffee is one of them) but the only really indispensible one is going offline. When it’s time to work I carry my laptop out into my backyard writing studio, and as soon as I open it I turn the wifi off and shut down my mail so I can’t see that little red circle with the number of unread emails in it. My phone I leave inside the house. Picking up my phone is something I do a lot when I’m having trouble settling in to work, and I’ve found that the only way to avoid it as a distraction is to simply not have it in the same room as me. This ritual — the change of location, the reopening of the laptop sans wifi and mail, and the leaving-behind of the phone — works as a kind of passageway. There is a sense of purpose, of clarity, of entering a different state. Whether or not any good writing happens is actually not relevant, because the ritual is not about good or bad writing, it’s about removing distractions and committing to complete focus on the work. In time (one hopes!) the good writing will come, but one thing is for sure: it won’t come if you don’t clear the decks and sit down to write in the first place.

So there you have it. The perfect writing recipe: coffee, notebook, journal, all the wifi, or no wifi. It just goes to show that every writer needs to discover what works for them and run with it.

* I have one signed copy of Louise Allan’s The Sisters’ Song to give away! Set in rural Tasmania from the 1920s to the 1990s, The Sisters’ Song traces the lives of two very different sisters. One for whom giving and loving are her most natural qualities and the other who cannot forgive and forget. If you’d like to get your hands on it, simply sign up to my newsletter before 7 pm Friday 23 Feb (link to the right). Open to Australian residents only. Winner will be randomly generated. Good luck!

Nine gifts for the writer in your life

24 January 2018

Christmas might be long gone but any time is a good time to buy the writer in your life a little special something. (I’ve waited until after my birthday to post this so no one takes it as a list of demands. Though, ahem, there’s always next year.)

1. Literary mug

I am one of those people who fall into the ‘I love Austen’ camp. If the writer in your life doesn’t, skip this one (but tell them they’re a little bit insane).

2. Lit wear

I stumbled across Redbubble when looking for a manga T-shirt for my daughter, and they have a super cool range of bookish designs. Team a tee with a pair of literary socks and you’ve got a new writing outfit (pants optional — unless your writer intends to write in public, then always wear pants).

3. Notebook

You can never have enough beautiful notebooks. Never. Throw in these cute pencils from Literary Emporium and you’ve got a winner.

4. Festival/conference ticket

If you want to give a gift that will help develop a writer’s career why not buy them a ticket to a festival or conference that will expand their skills and allow them to network with fellow industry professionals. For example, KidLitVic, a professional development day in May, would be perfect for a children’s writer. There are also writers centres in every state which run comprehensive workshop programs. If you’re not confident about selecting a specific workshop, some writers centres sell vouchers for this purpose.

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5. Tote bag

I like big books and I cannot lie. Clearly this one is for the puntastically minded. To carry all those big books. Nuff said.

6. Writers wallpaper

If your writer’s work space needs sprucing up, perhaps this literary wallpaper (detail below) is the go. Inspiration and decoration in one.

7. A book

Well, duh. I mean, I know this is obvious but is there anything better than a carefully chosen book? Buy it from a local independent bookstore for extra brownie points.

8. Book voucher

This might seem like a boring present but it isn’t, I swear. A book voucher always has me salivating over the possibilities. The only challenge is selecting which books to buy from my ridiculously long list of wants. Pop a voucher in a Mr Darcy mug for double the love.

9. DIY voucher

If you’re strapped for cash there’s still one important gift that you can give: time. For those writers with families, finding time to write can sometimes be challenging. Present your writer with a voucher for a day’s guilt-free writing time and then remove any children, leave pre-prepared delicious food, and evacuate. It may be the best gift of the lot.