Oh the places you’ll go!

4 December 2017

2017 is the thirteenth year of the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge, but it’s been anything but unlucky. This year saw more students than ever before take part, with 34,000 kids from 91 schools reading their 15 books. Twenty-six schools finished with a 100 per cent completion rate across the school — bravo! And 49 schools with the highest percentage of students completing the Challenge were invited to attend the awards ceremony.

The ceremony is always a wonderful celebration, and this year I was honoured to speak on behalf of the Ambassadors. Our job is to promote reading (could their be a more perfect role?) and visit schools. I was asked to talk about how I became an author, and so I shared how I began writing and making my own books when I was just a wee thing. I remember hours spent on my bedroom floor, writing fairy stories and researching books on hard-hitting topics like the royal family. But I never imagined that I could actually become an author.

I spent my childhood in England and I assumed that authors must be terribly posh people who wore tweed suits and spectacles, and lived in mansions where they wrote in cavernous personal libraries that required a ladder to reach the books at the very top. They definitely weren’t people like me who lived in the suburbs in a noisy, chaotic house with five annoying younger brothers and a dog who liked to eat socks.

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Unbeknownst to me I was living just ten minutes down the road from a real author, one of the world’s most famous writers and one of my personal favourites, Roald Dahl. His writing studio was nothing like my glamorous fantasy. He wrote in a tiny, cluttered hut in his garden where he rested his feet on a battered suitcase filled with logs, and wore a sleeping bag to keep warm. The hut often had goat droppings in the corners, and there were always plenty of spiders to keep Roald company (which he apparently loved). If I could only have stood on tiptoe and looked in on this scene I might have realised sooner that authors are just ordinary people who love books.

But as it was it took me a long time to figure this out. I wasn’t much helped by my high school careers counsellor who declared that journalism was the only profession for a person like me, but I’d already been turned off that vocation by a school visit from a terribly grumpy newspaper columnist who clearly hated her job. These days I tell students that there is an endless list of possibilities for people who love books, everything from editing and illustrating to design and publicity.

I finished my speech by setting the students a challenge to read as widely as they possibly can — to explore characters who are completely different to them, who are experiencing different problems. I am a big believer that books are powerful agents of change. They have the potential to connect our diverse global community and create empathy for those who come from different countries, races, religions, cultures and ways of living. They allow us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand what the world looks like from their perspective, and that is sorely needed in our current climate. So I would encourage you to take up the challenge too, no matter your age!

The Ambassadors being presented with gorgeous bouquets, with Acting Chief Minister Yvette Berry on the left

It’s so heartening that through the Challenge the ACT Government supports and encourages children to explore the pleasures of books. Readers are clever, creative and compassionate thinkers, but the act of reading itself is a pure kind of joy. At least it is for me, and this is what I hope to share with the students as I go into their schools.

The minister quoted some of my favourite Dr Seuss lines in her speech and it seems an apt note to finish on:

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

The Ambassador crew: Tania McCartney, Jack Heath, Harry Laing, Tracey Hawkins, me, Virginia Haussegger

South Africa feels

15 October 2017

I am just back from South Africa, a place I have dreamed about travelling to for almost three decades. It is a complex country, full of contradictions, and I experienced all the feels. I thought I’d share a little of my grand adventure with you through a handful of the thousands of photos that I took. I travelled with my youngest brother and we started in Johannesburg, where our dad grew up, then went on to Soweto, Kruger, Blyde and Cape Town. We rode planes, trains and automobiles, and had a bloody fantastic time. So here’s a nonsequential version of how it went…

We met wild endangered penguins who looked super cute but were super smelly.

We drank excellent five-dollar mojitos as the sun set over stunning Camps Bay.

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Our hearts were broken, and then uplifted, on Robben Island where Mandela and his fellow anti-apartheid activists were jailed.

We took a train along the Western Cape that rattled through the dunes and travelled so close to the ocean that we felt the spray on our faces.

In Kruger National Park we saw everything we could have hoped for. We stopped for elephants more times than I can count…

and lions…

and rhino…

and a real zebra crossing.

We were fortunate to spend time with the elusive cheetah. There are only 400 in Kruger, which is the same size as Wales, and these two gave us every pose in the book.

I could fill this whole post with animal pix, but let’s move on.

In Soweto we made new friends wherever we went. I have never been so warmly welcomed in any place around the world, or given so many high fives to strangers on the street. Don’t believe the hype about Soweto. It was one of the most brilliant experiences of my travelling life.

It was also one of the most heartbreaking. We were invited into places where no tours go, into the homes of people forced to live in inhumane conditions — in tin shacks without electricity, sewerage, bathrooms, garbage removal, and with only one tap to serve the whole area. The rivulet you see here is sewerage.

We took the overnight train from Joburg to Cape Town. It was exhilarating and beautiful and hilarious. We often felt like we’d fallen into a slapstick comedy.

We climbed the sheer cliff face of Lion’s Head Rock, and took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain where we almost froze gulping up the gorgeous views.

We drooled over bubblegum-coloured houses in Bo-kaap.

And we hiked around and down into Blyde River Canyon where we saw barely a soul. It is the third largest canyon in the world but in a beauty contest it would beat the Grand Canyon hands down. No photograph can do it justice.

So there you have it. That’s one photo story; I could tell many others.

And now I’m going to take the words that I recorded in this pretty notebook and use it as the springboard for fiction. I don’t know what it will be about yet, or what form it will take, but I am going to start somewhere.

Off adventuring

18 September 2017

If there’s one thing that I love as much as writing and editing, it’s travelling. When my kids are all grown and off doing their own thing, my version of heaven would be to spend three months of every year living in another country. But, if that is even a vague possibility, it’s certainly not on the cards for a very long time. In the meantime my kids are old enough that I can steal a few weeks to go adventuring when funds permit. And that is exactly what I’m about to do.

South Africa has been on my travel radar ever since I was fifteen. My dad grew up in Johannesburg and I have long been fascinated with the country. As a teenager I read obsessively about the place, through fiction and nonfiction. At the time I was warned off travelling to South Africa. It was too dangerous, everyone said. I made it to neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya in my early twenties, but never further south. I’m still being warned off travelling to South Africa, but I will no longer be deterred.

So, I’m setting off. I’m excited about exploring the country, and I’m also excited about the stories that might grow from the place. Because for me travelling and writing are entwined.

Wish me well!

If you would like to follow my travels through pretty pictures, join me on Instagram.

It’s a collaboration

13 September 2017

Last weekend I presented at SCWBI’s Level Up conference on the collaborative process of editing a manuscript, and how the author–editor relationship should ideally work. I thought it might be useful to share an abbreviated version of the section on how to get the most out of the experience, because if you’ve never worked with an editor before it can feel like a daunting process. Every writer is deeply attached to their work, so turning a manuscript over to an editor can feel like having your soul laid bare, and critiqued.

It’s important to remember that editors are ordinary people who love books. An editor’s job is to make the writer look good. They have nothing to personally gain, other than the satisfaction of knowing that they helped you make your book better.

In order for the editorial process to run smoothly, it’s important to develop a good working relationship with your editor that is based on mutual trust and respect. So here are my top tips for how to create a strong partnership.

  1. Let go of your ego

The truth is nobody really enjoys being critiqued. We all secretly want to be told that we’re a genius and the work needs absolutely nothing done to it. But even the most experienced writers benefit from a close edit. A good editor will provide honest, constructive feedback designed to improve your book. Anyone who believes they don’t need an editor is letting their ego get in the way of commonsense.

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If you are a first-time author, you may be unsettled by the number of changes your editor makes on the manuscript. But remember that this is normal. It doesn’t mean that the editor doesn’t love your book. Try to remember that that the feedback is not personal criticism but professional insight into what could make your manuscript stronger. The editor’s goal is the same as yours: to make your book a success.

So don’t be defensive, instead…

  1. Be open

Be open to new ideas. Be open to different approaches. Be open to major rewrites. Be willing to listen and learn. The best editors see potential. They see what the writer’s vision is and they help sharpen it and enlarge it — they help the book reach its full potential.

Listen honestly to what your editor has to say. Their suggestions may require you to do some really hard work that you might resist. But be brave. Embrace change. Experiment with structural revisions. In short, be willing to move in a completely different direction from where you started.

  1. Take time out

But first thing’s first. When you receive your editor’s comments and you’ve read them through and realised that you’re going to have to grapple with some major changes, you might need to take some time out. You might need to sulk. Or cry. Or drink wine. Or eat an entire block of chocolate. Or do all of those things. And that’s okay.

Give yourself time to gain some perspective because your initial reaction is likely to be driven by emotion, but then get on with it. Consider every point carefully, without letting emotion play a part, and objectively assess the substance of the critique.

  1. Pick your battles

The editing process is not about winning or losing. The editor is your ally, not your opponent. And if you treat them this way your work will only benefit. That’s not to say that the editor will always be right. Even the best editors sometimes get things wrong.

Anyone who is a parent will know that you pick your battles with your children. You also need to pick your battles as an author (and know, too, that your editor will be picking their battles). If you don’t agree with a suggestion clearly explain your position, and be willing to engage in a discussion about it. Editors are creative problem-solvers and they want to work with you.

Often an editor will identify an area that needs work and might suggest a solution. However their suggestion should be treated  as a springboard. You might use their solution, but often the author comes up with something that’s even better. Think about the process as being like a conversation. Exploratory discussions give rise to the best work.

Some newer authors feel intimidated by editors, but don’t be. Always ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand or aren’t clear about.

  1. Be professional

Always be professional, polite and timely with your responses. Remember that the editor will be working on multiple books simultaneously, and another author’s book might be their current priority. Editors are extremely overworked, so be understanding if they don’t get back to you immediately.

Ensure that you always meet your deadlines. The editor will stipulate a deadline for every round of revisions. If you don’t meet these deadlines you will put the whole production cycle out. Even though it’s your book, you are only one person in the process. If for some reason you think you’ll be unable to meet a deadline, let your editor know as soon as possible.

  1. Be patient

Know that publishing is long game, especially with books where an illustrator is involved. My next picture book, Seree’s Story, will have taken about four years by the time it comes out with Walker Books. And that’s only from submission — the research, writing and self-editing process began long before that. Admittedly this is a particularly long timeframe (my previous picture book took 18 months, my short fiction collection took one year), but publishing is a slow process. The smaller independent presses tend to be quicker than the larger publishers, but waiting is a reality of the industry. The best antidote is to get on with writing your next book.

  1. Say thank you

It is true that not every traditionally published writer has an amazing relationship with their editor, and there are certainly horror stories out there, but these are not the norm. Most published writers value their editors. So if your editor has helped you create a better book, thank them. Editors get very little credit, they are essentially invisible, and they work hard to help you make your book the best that it can be. So express your gratitude — privately or publically, or both. Flowers are not necessary — we are all word people after all, and words are more than enough.

Evolution of a story

7 September 2017

In 2016, at the end of a solo three-week trip through Thailand, I was sitting on this bench at Kanchanaburi station when I began scrawling down a story in my notebook. Writers are always asked where their ideas come from and it’s the most difficult question to answer because, for me at least, they have complex and elusive origins. In this particular moment the motif of the train line struck me, but that’s as much as I can explain. Where the characters and their story came from I don’t know. But as Paul Murray says, ‘When the right idea comes along, it’s like falling in love.’ That’s how I felt with this story, even though my characters are falling out of love.

As my short stories often do, this one emerged in fits and starts. I wrote a bunch of words during the noisy thrumming train ride to Krung Thep (or Bangkok), pausing to think, and watch banana palms and rice fields blur by. I wrote a bunch more words in Bangkok airport, sitting on a plastic chair drinking bad coffee. And then on the flight home, leaning on my wobbly tray table. Back in Australia the last of it came.

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I tightened and edited the piece, by now called ‘The Line’, and gave it to my short story group who made helpful comments like ‘hope you didn’t have an affair as research’. (They may also have given some more useful feedback.) I rewrote the ending more times than I can count before I felt I’d struck just the right note. And then I sent the thing off to the City of Rockingham Short Fiction Awards. I rarely enter literary competitions these days, but the brilliant short story writer Laurie Steed was judging and there was a decent cash prize on offer. Needless to say I was thrilled when ‘The Line’ won.

With the award win I was eligible to enter the highly regarded annual anthology, Award Winning Australian Writing. I’ve never quite managed to coordinate myself to submit to the anthology before, but this year I did and was delighted to receive notification that they’d selected ‘The Line’ for their tenth anniversary edition. It launched in Melbourne recently and has just landed in my mailbox; I’m looking forward to getting stuck into it.

So there you have it, the evolution of a short story from a Kanchanaburi bench to Award Winning Australian Writing 2017.