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Nigel Featherstone

Four launches and a festival…

7 May 2019

…is much more fun than four weddings and a funeral.

The festival was the annual Flash Fiction Weekend, aimed at writers wanting to develop and hone their craft, held in the beautiful East Hotel. I had the pleasure of convening a panel on the writing process with superstars Graeme Simsion, Karen Viggers, Jack Heath and Susanne Gervay. I wish I could give you a sense of what we discussed but when I’m on a panel it’s always a bit of a blur afterwards, even when I’m the one asking the questions! So instead I give you writer Amanda McLeod via Twitter: ‘This panel was the business. I have many, many notes.’

With fellow panellists Graeme Simsion, Susanne Gervay and Jack Heath

I also ran my workshop on editing flash fiction and was thrilled when one participant told the marvellous organiser, Suzanne Kiraly, that my workshop was worth the price of the festival ticket alone. That kind of feedback is always happy-making. (Thanks John!)

There were lots of short keynotes and I enjoyed them all. Graeme Simsion of Rosie Project fame was up first. He spoke about how writers need to devote as much time to learning their craft as a neurosurgeon would to learning theirs. What’s more ‘there are more jobs for neurosurgeons than there are for writers’, he noted. Graeme is a keen plotter and encourages all emerging writers to carefully outline their plot before beginning to write.

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Susanne Gervay, on the other hand, is a devoted pantser, writing by ‘the seat of her pants’. ‘I can’t do it any other way,’ she said. In her keynote she spoke from the heart about her writing journey and her goal to ‘empower the disempowered’. This goal drives all her books for children. Susanne is one of those rare speakers who reguarly makes me laugh and cry. No easy feat. I couldn’t agree more with her final advice: ‘You must write something of value.’

Despite functioning on next to no sleep courtesy of his two-week-old baby, Jack Heath was as engaging as ever, discussing his Hangman series, featuring a cannibal detective. Ten years ago Hangman was rejected by publishers who advised him to rewrite the story without the cannibal detective. As Jack pointed out, that would have made it the same as a bunch of other crime books. He hung onto his vision and eventually found a publisher willing to take a risk on it. And it’s a risk that’s paid off as it’s become an international bestseller. His take-away message — stick with what is unique.

 

Craig Cormick delivered some hard truths in his keynote. Here are a few:

  • Neilsen Bookscan reports that only two per cent of books sell more than 5000 copies.
  • Only one per cent of books (that includes self-published titles) make it onto a bookshop shelf.
  • Quality matters less than you’d hope and luck matters more than you’d like.
  • The book you want to write isn’t always the book someone else wants to read.

He concluded that the most you can really hope for as a writer is a life in which to write. You may not achieve fame, fortune, awards or bestseller status but the writing life is reward enough.

In a similar vein to Craig, Marion Halligan reflected that ‘it is perhaps a strange thing that so many people want to become writers. It’s hard work, poorly paid and fickle in its rewards.’ She recounted a review of her debut novel, Self Possession, which was reviewed with a batch of other debuts. The reviewer remarked that the other writers were sure to have a literary future, ‘but not Halligan’. Marion said, ‘I take a certain glee in being up to my twenty-first book.’ She reflected on the changes she has seen during her 30 years in the industry. ‘I sometimes think the writer is less valued than ever…most people in the industry seem to have forgotten that without the writer there is no book,’ she concluded.

Overall the festival offered a lovely mix of encouraging advice tempered with hard truths for the many emerging writers in attendance. It finished with the launch of Impact, an anthology of flash fiction that emerged from last year’s festival, edited by yours truly. Marion Halligan did the official honours and rightly observed, ‘Don’t think that flash is easy. Brevity is hard. And time-consuming…You have to make every word count.’

Editing this anthology — comprised of 21 stories by both established writers and fresh new voices — was such a pleasure. It reveals the breadth and strength of Australian flash fiction and is a perfect introduction for anyone not familiar with the form. Marion concluded: ‘I should offer a word of warning. A book like this is a marvellous rich box of chocolates. You want to have just one more, just one more, just one more. And then you’re finished.’

Let’s head back in time now for the launch of This is Home by my dear friends Tania McCartney and Jackie French. Jackie has curated a collection of poetry for children of all ages, with stunning illustrations by Tania. It’s a gorgeous book and my seven-year-old son was spellbound through the very long launch (all those seated in the image below were speakers). Afterwards he said to me, ‘I found all the writers really inspiring but Jackie French almost made me cry.’ At which point he did. So we went to talk to Jackie — catching her just before she sat down and signed books for the very long queue — and she said all the right and beautiful things about poetry and my son’s feelings while he wept into my skirt. Later when I asked him what it was that Jackie said that moved him so much he said, ‘I could just really feel what she was saying.’ Ah, the power of words, poetry, books.

The third launch was more kids’ poetry, namely Moonfish by Harry Laing, who had his audience crying with laughter. This time I was the one doing the honours of launching the book into the world, which is always a privilege. I love the tagline for this book: ‘Poems to make you laugh and think.’ Kids are instinctively drawn to the musicality of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and the way Harry plays with language and ideas immediately draws them in. As an added bonus the book features illustrations from an incredible line-up of Australia’s best illustrators — everyone from superstar Shaun Tan to former Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs of Mr Chicken fame. A winning combination, that’s for sure.

A fourth long-awaited launch by another dear friend, Nigel Featherstone, is on 16 May. I have followed this novel’s development — with all the pain and joy that writing and publishing entails — and can’t wait to get my hands on it next week. Readings describes his Bodies of Men as a ‘beautifully written, tender love story — the perfect book to curl up with as autumn sets in’. If you’d like to win yourself a signed copy simply subscribe to my monthly newsletter full of writing and publishing news, tips and advice, to go in the draw. Sign-up box is in the right-hand sidebar, or down the bottom in mobile view.

Till next time, folks! Happy reading x

Take four

15 May 2017

‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.’ Audre Lorde

This is what we writers do, in our private corners of solitude. We put words on the page that go out into the world and speak to readers. But a writer’s job also involves getting on a stage and speaking directly to those readers, trying to articulate the thinking behind the messy and elusive process of creating a work of fiction. It can be nerve-racking and exciting and stimulating. In the lead-up to an event I always feel anticipatory nerves, but once I’m on the stage I enjoy myself, and often come away feeling buoyant.

I’ve been part of four very varied events on writing and/or editing in recent weeks and I thought I’d share a little about the experience of each of them.

‘Animal Rights Writing’: Nigel Featherstone, Sam Vincent, Karen Viggers and Irma Gold

Most recently I was on an ‘Animal Rights Writing’ panel with Karen Viggers and Sam Vincent. I’ve never seen a panel programmed on this subject before. (Hit me up in the comments if you have, because it’s a topic I’d love to see discussed more.) This session was chaired by Nigel Featherstone who managed to expertly guide the discussion through our respective areas of interest. Our books deal with kangaroo culling (Karen, The Grass Castle), international whaling (Sam, Blood and Guts) and the exploitation of elephants for tourism (me, a children’s book, Seree’s Story, due out with Walker Books, and a work-in-progress novel, Rescuing Chang). Our conversation covered much ground, but, for me at least, the key idea that emerged was that conservation issues tend to be distilled into polarised positions which don’t necessarily reflect the complexities involved. Life is full of grey, and solutions are rarely of the black-and-white kind. Fortunately, writing can explore the grey. While this event delved into the darker side of humans’ impact on the world, it was a thoroughly stimulating and thought-provoking discussion. And as the icing on the cake, I returned home to an email from an audience member who felt moved to get in touch after hearing me speak about the devastating situation facing Asian elephants. With both my books yet to be released, I’m looking forward to many more conversations like this one.

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Noted: Ashley Thomson, Irma Gold, Alan Vaarwerk, Sian Campbell

As part of Noted Festival, I was on a panel with Alan Vaarwerk (Kill Your Darlings) and Sian Campbell (Scum Magazine), ‘Literally the Worst: Bad Writing and Badder Editing’, with Homer Editor Ashley Thomson chairing. I wasn’t keen on the title’s negative angle, but I guess a feisty premise draws the crowds, and the event was certainly packed. Fortunately the focus of discussion was productive, emphasising ways for writers to improve their craft. We also spoke about the hallmarks of good editing and when to identify ‘bad’ editing. In particular, I spoke about the need for editors to work with the author’s voice, not impose their own. Our own idiom is always what sounds ‘right’, so good editors learn to recognise their own preferences and then set them aside. They essentially become chameleons, taking on the colours of the manuscript in order to help the author make their work the very best it can be. (As you can see, Shauna O’Meara choose to illustrate this part of our conversation; my first time immortalised as a cartoon!) We spoke about a whole lot else besides and the event was podcasted here if you’d like to have a listen.

For the next two events I was the one in the interviewer’s hot seat. It’s such a responsibility being the interviewer. Over the years I’ve seen the way poor interviewers give authors no place to go and leave everyone feeling flat, and conversely the way brilliant interviewers draw the very best out of their subjects, gleaning new insights. Part of the skill is developing a rapport with the interviewees before hitting the stage, which is of course easier if you already know them. It’s also important to be super prepared but then be able to go with the flow on the day, so that the conversation evolves, rather than rigidly following a pre-existing set of questions.

It’s such a privilege chatting with other writers, and the in-conversation event with Marion Halligan and John Stokes about their lives together was one of the loveliest events I’ve been a part of. Marion and John are perhaps best described as Canberra literary royalty. They are a warm, generous and supportive presence in the local community, and our discussion reflected that. There was much laughter, but also tears. Both have written so movingly about grief and loss, and John’s reading of his prose poem about the death of Marion’s daughter, ‘Funeral Address for a Stepdaughter’, had the audience reaching for the tissues. Marion once wrote, ‘Grief does not dissipate, it is something that exists, and must be valued, even treasured.’ Wise words indeed. It was a rich and wonderful hour spent with two marvellous writers.

And finally, I interviewed Robyn Cadwallader about her stunning debut novel, The Anchoress, as part of Festival Muse. I wrote about some of our discussion here, so I won’t rehash it, but Robyn was a delight to interview—thoughtful, insightful and intelligent. Our discussion lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

Next up, I’m heading to Holy Trinity Primary School in my role as Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge. School visits are always heaps of fun, so I can’t wait to meet all those new little readers.

Bits and pieces

15 April 2015

Irma Gold signing books at Avid ReaderI haven’t blogged for some time but there’s been lots happening so I thought I’d post a quick newsy update about literary travels, events, a new editorial role, and the publication of a couple of new short stories.

Megumi and the Bear is still getting out and about, with two events in Brisbane earlier this year, including my first chance to visit Avid Reader Bookshop which has the best vibe and the loveliest staff. My reading was in the gorgeous outdoor area with perfectly balmy weather. The kids ate bear cupcakes and drank babycinos from the café, and then sat on a rug for the reading. I just loved watching their little mouths slowly falling open as they listened so intently. It was all just too cute.

Then came a reading at Harry Hartogs, a new independent bookshop in Woden. Canberra has recently seen the closure of two bookshops, Electric Shadows and Smith’s Alternative, leaving us with just two independents. It’s a sad sign of the times because Canberrans are serious literature lovers. I do hope our community can support more than just two independents. I’d love to see a bookshop pop up in New Acton, my favourite place in Canberra because it’s full of so much artistic goodness. One can only hope.

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Launching the Lakeside Literary Lounge with Nigel FeatherstoneBut in good news for local literature I launched the new Lakeside Literary Lounge series at Tuggeranong Arts Centre this month. I’ve lived in this part of town for 17 years now and it’s been a rarity to have a literary event in my own backyard, so to speak. What a novelty it was to jump in my car and drive just five minutes to launch this new Meet the Author series. First up was one of our local literary lights, the wonderful Nigel Featherstone, talking about his cracking third novella, The Beach Volcano. The newly refurbished space was cosy, quirky and intimate. There’s a bar (very important!) and the space encouraged intelligent and thoughtful conversation between the audience and author. It was all bloody marvellous and I can’t wait for the next in the series. There’ll be one event for each season, so if you’re in Canberra do make sure you catch the winter outing on 4 June. I hear Kaaron Warren will be plunging us into places dark and brutal.

IMG_1789 copySpeaking of brutal, last month an artsACT grant took me to Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant sanctuary in Thailand for rescued elephants, to do research for my next picture book. The trip wasn’t brutal, in fact it was hands down one of the most incredible experiences of my life. But before the elephants arrive at the sanctuary they have experienced a lifetime of brutality. If you want to know more, this article provides a very good summary of why we should never ride an elephant, buy an elephant painting or watch an elephant show. I’m now hard at work on my manuscript and so excited about the potential of getting into schools and talking to kids. I took a gazillion photos of those beautiful elephants (you can see a few over at my Facebook page). This is one of me with the six-year-old elephant Faa Mai and Lek, founder of ENP and one of the most remarkable people I’ve had the good fortunate to meet.

no storyFrom works in progress to the publication of finished works, a new short story of mine, called ‘Bus 864F’, is out in the April issue of Mascara Literary Review (have a read here). And I’ve got another new story in Review of Australian Fiction (RAF), called ‘No Story’ (you can read that one here). It’s worth mentioning a bit more about RAF because they’ve developed a brilliant model. They publish two stories every two weeks from wonderful writers like Christos Tsiolkas, Paddy O’Reilly, Frank Moorhouse, Marion Halligan, Alex Miller, James Bradley and the aforementioned Nigel Featherstone, among many others, so I’m honoured to be in their company. One of things I love about RAF is that they have no word limit. Most journals favour stories that sit around the 3000-word mark, but being commissioned to write a story of any length was freeing, and I’m really pleased with what emerged. The other thing I love is that RAF pairs an established writer with an emerging writer. And the former gets to pick the latter. So it was a real pleasure to be able to select Matthia Dempsey as my RAF partner in crime. I’ve known Matthia since I emigrated to Australia at age nine. Back then we climbed blossom trees together and dreamed of being Anne of Green Gables. We had no idea that we’d both end up as writers and editors. And as you’ll see from her story, ‘Saudade’, Matthia is an extremely fine writer. You can read both our stories for less than the price of a cup of coffee here, or, better yet, since ours is the first in a new volume it’s the perfect time to subscribe.

And finally, to editing. Although I tend to focus on my writing on this site, I’ve just taken on a new role as Editor at Inkerman & Blunt. It’s a new publisher, led by powerhouse Donna Ward, that is producing very handsome and intelligent books. I’m working on lots of exciting projects, so stay tuned.

tea-and-sugar-christmasAnd I also want to mention Tea and Sugar Christmasby Jane Jolly and Robert Ingpen, published by the National Library of Australia, which has just been shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA). This picture book was such a pleasure to edit, and I’m particularly delighted at the recognition it’s receiving because it is the story of a young Indigenous girl, two categories that make sales and marketing teams nervous. ‘Girls’ because, as we are always told, boys don’t want to read female protagonists. And ‘Indigenous’ because, as you may have noticed, picture books have predominantly Anglo-Saxon characters. We need more publishers willing to take the ‘risk’ of publishing culturally diverse characters, so kudos to the National Library for doing just that. And I’m thrilled that it has paid off, with Tea and Sugar Christmas selling strongly and now receiving an ABIA nod. Fingers crossed it comes out the winner!

Well that’s it from me for now! Keep in touch over at Facebook and Twitter.

WHAT I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I WAS PUBLISHED

1 October 2014

I was recently part of a panel on this topic with Omar Musa, Lucy Neave and Nigel Featherstone (Chair) for HARDCOPY. We had a wide-ranging and thoroughly enjoyable discussion and I thought it might be useful to pick up and elaborate on a few of the points discussed.

1. Your heart is published along with the book
Before this session I asked some fellow writers what they wished they’d known and Kim Lock put it beautifully when she said, ‘I didn’t realise quite how much of my heart would be published along with the book.’ She explained: ‘I found that reviews mattered and affected me far, far more than I’d anticipated they would. I found even the slightest criticism would stick with me for days.’

Having a book published can be a raw and vulnerable time, especially if reviews are excoriating. I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t experienced one of those yet (right now I’ve stopped typing to frantically touch wood, cross fingers and toes etc, though in truth it’s only a matter of time). But I clearly remember analysing one line in a review of Two Steps Forward for a good 10 minutes. It’s meaning was unclear but it sounded potentially negative. ‘Do you think the subeditors changed something?’ I said to my bloke, and we tried to guess what might have been altered, and what criticism the reviewer might have been trying to make. In the end I concluded that if I couldn’t work it out after 10 obsessive minutes of dissection then no one else would either.

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Authors often talk (usually privately) about being floored by reviews, which is no doubt why some authors say they don’t read them (frankly, I don’t believe them). On the other hand, a thoughtful critique is like a gift. It can make you think about your work in a new light — both its successes and failures — which is invaluable. There was one review of Two Steps Forward that made me think deeply about the subconscious motivations for writing the characters I do. It gave me a new understanding of my work. That’s pretty incredible.

2. Know when to stick to your guns
Throughout the publishing process it’s important to know when to stick to your guns and when to compromise. I think I mostly get this balance right but I do have one small regret. Two Steps Forward was a title my publisher chose and I never much liked it. They decided that my original title, The Anatomy of Happiness, was too long and too literary. There are plenty of published titles of similar length, but they wanted something more accessible. The idea behind the Long Story Shorts series that Two Steps Forward was a part of was to make the short story appeal to a wider audience. If I was Tim Winton, I thought, I would stick to my guns, but as this was my debut collection I didn’t want to become one of those ‘difficult’ authors. I went back and forth with my publisher about the title but in the end acquiesced. If I had a time machine I’d pretend to be Winton and stick to my guns on this one. But I should add that this is my only minor regret in what was an exemplary publication process.

3. It’s tough out there
It’s been estimated that only one percent of all work submitted to publishers ever makes it into print. So it’s tough to get that first publication. What is probably less well known is that in the current climate it’s also tough to get the next book published. I know authors who’ve had two or three or more books published and are now struggling to find a publisher for their next book. Once upon a time I naively thought that with that first book the door to the publishing world opened and everything just rolled on from there. In truth it’s only the first door in a long corridor of doors.

4. Authors make a piddling about of money
Unless you’re Stephen King or JK Rowling you’re going to need to have another source of income other than advances and book sales. Natasha Lester wrote an honest and revealing article about this recently. She quotes stats that the average debut novel of an Australian author sells only 984 copies. Authors earn 10 per cent of the cover price, so for example $2.99 of a book with the rrp of $29.95. Therefore, 984 copies equates to just under $3K. And that’s for a book you might have spent three, five or 10 years writing. In short, when you sign your first book contract don’t ditch your day job.

5. There will always be doubt…
…and you just have to push through it. Personally, I have found it somehow reassuring that even the most accomplished writers are still filled with doubt about their ability. Interviewing Miles Franklin Award winner Roger McDonald was a revelation for me. He said, ‘Even when I’m close to finishing [a book], I’m thinking, ‘This is never going to work.’ That’s my struggle…it always seems just a little bit out of reach.’

Peter Carey puts it like this: ‘Writers spend a lot of their life failing at what they are doing. The chances are on any given day you are going to finish having not quite succeeded but you have that nasty feeling that there’s something false about what you have done. That process is painful: you are always filled with doubt.’ And yet there are days ‘when you are writing and you know you are doing something fabulous, and there’s no feeling like that on earth’. That’s what keeps us going, right?

Knowing that experienced authors like Roger and Peter still feel this way helps disempower my own doubt. It will always come and go, so you just have to get on with the writing in spite of it. We are all human, wrestling with the immense spirit of creativity. It’s one beautiful, messy, doubt-filled process.