Guest post: Under the bed

1 June 2018

Every writer’s path to publication is different, and most writers have at least one novel that for one reason or another didn’t quite make it. Robert Lukins has 24 of them, but none of them were ever intended for publication. In this guest post, Robert reflects on how and why he wrote a book a year — only to file them away or burn them — before plucking up the courage to write for an audience.

My debut novel was published in February 2018. My first novel was completed in February 1994. Between these two dates I completed a new novel each year; each one printed, economically bound, and placed under my bed without being seen by anyone other than the person at the counter of the photocopy shop. I was teaching myself how to write but, I now realise, I was also avoiding the act of stepping into the world for fear of the consequences.

When I say that my first novel was written in 1994, I mean really that I finished my first novel-length piece of writing. Importantly — to only me, of course — this was never intended to be a thing that I would attempt to get published. Somewhere in childhood I had attached myself to the idea of becoming a novelist and this was a job that I was prepared to spend a lifetime readying myself for. Just as a musician might not expect the first song they ever wrote to end up on the radio, so I didn’t expect my first attempts to end up on a bookshop shelf. So I would not write novels but novel-length exercises. I was going to learn to write by writing, and suspected this may take some time.

My first books (and let’s generously call them books) were all conscious attempts to ape my writing heroes. This seemed a logical step: when getting to grips with guitar I started by learning to play my favourite songs by my favourite bands. So then, I wrote bad versions of the great novels. It was an extension of a much earlier habit of typing out my favourites: I would sit at my typewriter and copy out, word for word, comma for comma, the books I most adored. I wanted the feeling of being in the writer’s mind or perhaps just to feel what it was to have writer’s hands. So the next step was writing my own stories but making them as near as I could to the style of my greats. You’ve never read a bad novel until you’ve read a knock-off Don DeLillo written by a Sunshine Coast teenager who has an X-Files poster above his bed and no driver’s license. A bad Charles Dickens. A bad Edith Warton. Later — while traversing the first of many perfectly disgusting Brisbane student share houses — a bad Andrew McGahan Praise and an unbelievably bad Garner Monkey Grip.

This was all, though, the plan: I was learning to write.

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The second, longer phase was one of writing a book (again, that generous term) each year, that attended to a specific self-set challenge. Can you have the adult and child characters in your story switch minds? Can one strip one’s novel of every kind of expression of heightened emotion? Can internal thought processes be spoken and, what would be verbal, internalised? Can you set a whole novel on a bus? Can one be set in a single, completely empty room containing no characters (and written in second-person perspective, for good measure)? The answer to these questions, and all the others I plucked from the sky, is yes, but it does not mean they will be novels that are interesting, innovative or entertaining, and certainly not that they should be sent to a publisher with a note attached: urgent!

So this went on and all the while it seemed like progress. All this writing was done in as near to secret as I could manage. It became part of the process that I was not proclaiming to the world that I was a writer. I didn’t go to writing classes. I didn’t join writers’ groups. I didn’t enter competitions. This was the plan: that I would learn until I was ready.

However, the years ticked over. Room under the bed diminished. There were moments of silly melodrama; manuscripts were made into unimpressive little pyres and set alight in the backyard. Where the self-flagellation was ramped up and I completed the task of writing three books in a row where at their completion the Word file was simply deleted from my computer. The poor things not even making it to the Office Works printing queue. It was proving something to myself, it seemed.

This went on and it became 2013.

The realisation came not like a thunderclap but rather like a steadily rising flood that this was all an excuse. All this work, just noise. I was writing novel-length things because I was terrified of writing my first novel. What if I couldn’t do it? I had constructed my life and psychology around the idea of writing novels. What would happen if it were all a lie? The truth is I had never found the courage to write that first. All the words, millions in the end, just treading water.

So, for the first time, I would write.

Robert Lukins, photo by Eve Wilson

Looking at The Everlasting Sunday now, I find it curious that it is a novel that seems to have abandoned all the things I thought I was learning with my previous exercises. There is no hyper-analysis, no trick. It’s a novel written peacefully and on what felt like pure instinct. Gone was all the self-torture. I simply did what you’re supposed to do: pluck up the courage to try, and try your best.

I don’t regret all the years (lonely ones, really, looking back at them) and I don’t regret all the abandoned words. The truth is that I likely did learn a little craft from all those unreadable books and, for the most part, I took great satisfaction from writing them. And we’re all just looking for ways to cope; mine was simply working to avoid trying. I wish though that I’d joined the world a little sooner. Trusted a little the lessons available from other writers and readers. Because I’ve now taken my first steps into the world and I’m finding it a hospitable, forgiving place.

The Everlasting Sunday is available now, published by University of Queensland Press. Visit Robert at robertlukins.com

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Flashers (of the literary kind) unite

2 May 2018

The inaugural Flash Fiction Festival, dedicated to the shortest of literary forms, kicked off in Canberra recently. One of the nicest things about festivals is hanging out with other writers, and there was plenty of that. But there was also ‘work’ to be done. I ran an editing workshop, and spoke on what was possibly the biggest literary panel ever, with five of us talking about our writing processes.

Me with Sheryl Gwyther, Marion Halligan and Carmel Bird

In the spirit of flash fiction, there were a series of short keynotes addresses. Jackie French spoke about how writers have just seven seconds to hook an editor or a reader. ‘You can tell within seven seconds whether it’s good, or you can put it aside … And if it’s good you’ll get another seven seconds, and another and another.’ She also spoke about the importance of being edited and taking on tough feedback. ‘If you are a professional you are going to love it. A good strong editorship is wonderful. You get to work with a professional team on all the ideas from your brain to make them better.’ Not surprisingly, I heartily agree. She finished by reading a passage from Hitler’s Daughter, possibly my favourite book of hers (if you haven’t read it yet, you must) and told us to: ‘Write what matters. Use your words as spears.’

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Jackie French giving her keynote address

In her keynote, Carmel Bird was witty and erudite and just plain delightful. She read the funniest story I’ve heard/read in a long time about a cockroach on the brink of death (‘The Affair at the Ritz’). And I loved her concluding thought: ‘All fiction engages at the most mysterious level.’ That it does.

With Carmel Bird

Marion Halligan arrived with notes on the back of an envelope but was her usual eloquent self, musing on writing, publishing and punctuation. Craig Cormick had us all laughing as he delivered an anthropological analysis of the strange creature known as ‘writer’. Sheryl Gwyther spoke about setting up the 52-week Flash Fiction Challenge, now in its fifth year, and how it forced her to produce a work a week: ‘You can’t fail in front of everybody else if you set it up.’ Some of her pieces have provided the impetus for longer works. In a similar vein, Susan McCreery spoke about how her decision to write a flash a day evolved into a book.

 

There was heaps more on offer, including a range of workshops with Jack Heath, Susanne Gervay and Josh Donellan, among others. Oh, and I did my first ever bathroom book signing! (Thanks for accosting me, Susie.) At least it wasn’t pushed under the toilet door. (This has happened to at least one person I know.)

It was a wonderful event to be a part of, and congratulations must go to Suzanne Kiraly and the team. I’m keen to see how it evolves next year after getting off to such a cracking start. In the meantime there is an anthology of flash in the works, to be edited by yours truly. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Craig Cormick, Susanne Gervay, Sheryl Gwyther and Suzanne Kiraly for the pix.

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