Browsing Tag

publishing

The dance between character and place in fiction

11 March 2020

Place is so important in fiction writing. It is more than just setting, more than just a space that characters inhabit. The way each of us views a place is different, filtered through our subjective experiences. And the way characters interact with the space around them can reveal so much about their interior lives. So, for me at least, place is intrinsic to story.

Usually the characters and their setting arrive in my imagination in tandem. They are already entwined. But occasionally the characters arrive in search of a home. Before I travelled to South Africa, I had a trio of characters playing in my head who I knew were destined for a short story. And on a trip to Boulders Beach, near Cape Point, I found the perfect space for them — a place that offered echoes for the things my characters were wrestling with.

My brother and I took the train from Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was the most glorious ride and the footage below gives you a glimpse of why.

 

From Simon’s Town we walked to Boulders Beach, which was swarming with tourists and penguins. I’m not a fan of tourist traps but it was worth battling through selfie sticks to see these cute little guys. African penguins look very similar to Magellanic penguins from South America, who feature in my next kids book, Where the Heart Is (June 2021), so it was extra special to see them sunning and squawking and swimming. We also smelt them, oh how we smelt them.

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But back to the short story, which is called ‘Pole pole’. The way each of my characters experiences this particular place in South Africa is specific to them, with all their worries and joys and frailties. It is not my experience, or my brother’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It belongs only to Dexter and Adelaide and Lix. The title is a Swahili saying (pronounced ‘polay polay’) which means ‘slowly slowly’. You’ll have to read the story to find out the significance of this saying, and how the characters and the setting (with its tuxedoed inhabitants) interact. It’s in issue 7 of StylusLit and you can find the full story online. I do hope you enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in reading more about how place informs writers’ work, Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky wrote some wonderful words about their literary travels previously for this blog.

Bushfires and the mess of novel writing

17 February 2020

What a start to the year it’s been. Summer is my favourite season, but this year we have just survived it. In Canberra we suffered months of smoke from the South Coast and Braidwood fires, which meant my three kids — like all of Canberra’s kids — were confined indoors and didn’t get a proper holiday. After a brief but glorious break at Jervis Bay over the long weekend we returned to fires threatening Canberra’s south, where we live. Our suburb was on notice to potentially evacuate — we could see the fire from our home, and it was terrifying. So we packed up our most precious belongings and temporarily moved to my parents’ place.

 

On the fire went, chewing through over 80,000 hectares. We returned to our home and grew used to living with a fire that was permanently in our field of vision. I constantly switched between the ESA website and Fires Near Me app. Eventually cooler weather came, and then rain. Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the firies and their support team, no homes were damaged during the worst conditions of 42-degree days and ferocious winds. The fire is still burning but its perimeters have been contained and the anxiety that we were living with is gone. But we lost our whole summer holiday to the effects of climate change. And this is only the beginning.

 

Amidst all this I was working on the edits for my debut novel, due out in March 2021. This was a lovely distraction. I love the editing process, which is probably not surprising given that I am an editor myself. I’ve turned in the first round to my publisher and am looking forward to the next.

In the meantime I have also been working on a new novel. Whereas my debut just flowed out of me, this one has been more challenging. My freelance editing work overwhelmed me at the end of last year and I didn’t work on the manuscript after August. In truth, I was also stuck. I had 50,000 words but it felt like one big hot mess and I wasn’t sure how to progress it. Then this month I received an email to say that my manuscript had been longlisted for a British manuscript award based on the first 5000 words. Suddenly I had nine days in which to submit the finished manuscript. That I didn’t have.

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I knew when I submitted to the competition that I would have to deliver the full manuscript in February and I had planned to use the deadline as a driving force. But I didn’t bank on getting stuck, and in any case I never really believed that I would be longlisted for an international manuscript award. It didn’t seem like something that would happen.

I remember Inga Simpson talking about being in a similar position with the manuscript that became her debut novel, Mr Wigg. She had submitted the first 50 pages to a competition and then received a phone call to say that she had 36 hours to submit the full manuscript. It was 5000 words short of the minimum word count. She joked that the only reason  she named her main protagonist Mr Wigg was because it was two words, instead of one. She made the deadline and has since published another three novels. So it can be done.

But could I do it? I had nine days and at least 20,000 words to write. But it wasn’t just a case of just adding words, the whole draft needed careful shaping. I’m a slow writer, and a dear author friend cautioned me against cobbling something together. There is a danger that once the words are on the page it can be harder to remove them, or undo a narrative path that doesn’t work. And in any case a substandard draft won’t make the shortlist.

Nevertheless, I opened the manuscript, which had been untouched for five months, just to see what was there. I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t written this book in a linear way, as I did with my debut, so there were gaping holes in the narrative and sections that weren’t working, but it wasn’t as much of a mess as I had thought it was. I concluded that back in August it was really a mess in my mind. In the intervening months, although I hadn’t been writing, I had been thinking, trying to figure out where the heart of the book lay. And now it seemed so much clearer to me. So I started cutting, reworking and writing new sections. Better yet, I rediscovered the energy that had made me start writing the book in the first place.

There are now just a few days until the deadline. Will I meet it? I’m almost certain that I won’t. I’m annoyed at myself that I’ve missed the opportunity to get my work in front of the prestigious line-up of judges, but I couldn’t have done the process differently. Back in August I wasn’t ready to finish the first draft. Now I am. And I’m grateful for the boost of confidence that the award has given me.

During the early stages of a writing a novel it’s just you and the page and it’s so easy to be overtaken by doubt. One of my favourite quotes is from Zadie Smith who once said, ‘It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. And the main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone.’ It’s the truth. So the longlisting has helped me get my mind back in the right place, and it’s also helped reignite the kind of energy that drives a book, for me at least.

The word count is rising again, and in April I’m heading to the Iceland Writers Retreat to work on the novel. I’m particularly looking forward to a workshop with Nigerian writer Elnathan John on ‘Fiction in a world of fiction: writing that matters’. Wish me luck, or at least the continuing ability to trick myself into confidence.

Literary adventures — around Canberra and on to Iceland

20 November 2019

Is anyone else hanging for the end of the year? I’m so madly busy right now and the pace isn’t going to let up until Christmas Day. It helps that I’m editing some incredible books which I’m so excited to see in print, but I’m also hanging out for the Christmas break when I can drink prosecco and eat mince pies and do very little other than laze about and read. Okay, so with three children that is probably going to remain an illusive fantasy, but a girl can dream.

Let’s stick with November for now which has offered up a few highlights of its own. First up was the annual celebration for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge for which I am an ambassador.

Accepting a thank you gift from one of the Reading Challenge participants

It’s such a joy to be a part of this initiative which aims to transform kids into book addicts for life. The challenge asks them to read a minimum of 15 books but there is no set list — they can read whatever sparks their imagination. This is so important because with so many forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, we need to help them find the books that sing for them, the books whose worlds they won’t want to leave.

So it’s wonderful to hear about the Reading Challenge’s success stories. This year one of the standouts was a student from Holy Spirit Primary School who set himself the goal to read 1000 books over the six months of the challenge. He wasn’t previously a particularly avid reader but he smashed that 1000! I must say I’m a tad jealous. I manage about 100 novels a year — if only I could somehow claw back those luxury after-school hours of primary school again! I would only need a live-in chef, housekeeper, gardener and taxi driver to achieve this. Ah, there I go into fantasy land again.

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Another standout was two students with vision impairment who completed the challenge, one in braille and one in large print. Neither of them were big readers before. In fact, the student who read in braille (from Caroline Chisholm Primary) had previously avoided reading at all costs. But the challenge saw her reading at both recess and lunch! Hearing these stories makes my heart swell a little. Okay, a lot. Hats off to all the students who completed the challenge this year, and I look forward to going on more reading adventures with the challenge next year.

Picture book workshop participants dreaming up stories

 

This month I also helped a bunch of writers create their own fantasy lands of sorts when I taught a full-day picture book workshop. It was lovely to hear that it was the ACT Writers Centre’s most popular workshop of the year! This meant that it was elbow room only as we got cosy in the glorious upstairs space of Harry Hartog’s bookshop at the ANU. Could there be anything more wonderful than talking about how books work when you are surrounded by them? (No, is the correct answer.) They were a gorgeous and engaged group and I look forward to seeing some of their names on future picture book covers.

November also marks the end of an era for me. Since 2008, I have spent almost a decade teaching editing at the University of Canberra (yes, I realise those numbers don’t add up but I had a brief break in there). It’s been wonderful getting to know the students and seeing them go on to do all sorts of fabulous things in the world, and I’ve learned so much about myself along the way. A massive shout out to all the brilliant postgrad students who made it such a pleasure.

I’m going to briefly dip into October now because I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing literary superstar Charlotte Wood, who also happens to be one of my all-time favourite authors. As I discovered, she is also a generous and generally delightful human. We spoke about her new novel The Weekend, which is a brilliant book that examines old age and friendship. I devoured it, appropriately, over one weekend, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same.

Harry Hartog events manager extraordinaire, Katarina, pronounced our conversation her favourite event of 2019. It was for me too! It doesn’t get better than chatting with a writer whose work you have admired for years.

Finally, my most exciting November news — drumroll please! I was thrilled to receive a phone call from artsACT a few days ago to say that my grant application was successful. This means I’m travelling to the Iceland Writers Retreat next April where I’ll be working on my second novel. It is one of the world’s most lauded retreats, with a phenomenal line-up of internationally successful authors running masterclasses. Needless to say I am dying of happiness!

Beautiful Iceland — where I’ll be come April!

Well, that’s it from me for now. Excuse me while I go back to dreaming of mince pies and endless (primary-school style) hours in which to read. And maybe an Icelandic adventure or two.

Contracts, contracts, contracts!

18 October 2019

Okay, there are actually only two new contracts but the rule of threes works better and, besides, excitement levels require it. Rejection is part of a writer’s staple diet, so when you have two big wins in the space of a week it’s time to splash champagne around like a rock star and happy dance everywhere.

Note: If you have children they will be embarrassed by said happy dance and will likely roll their eyes at you. What’s more, after picking my three kids up from school and telling them about book contract 1 their response was: ‘That’s cool, Mum. What’s for afternoon tea?’ Did not miss a beat.

Book contract 1!
So I’m thrilled to share with you, dear reader (who does not require me to provide afternoon tea), that I have been made an offer for my debut novel! I can’t give you a title yet as my working title will likely change. I care about this novel so deeply and I’m so glad that I’ll be able to share it with you soon. Well, not that soon. Publishing moves at a glacial pace, so it’ll be out August 2021. But when I finally have that book baby in my hands I can assure you that I will be drinking all the champagne (again — any excuse). And I will not be making afternoon tea.

Book contract 2!
Just a few days after the excitement of book contract 1, I received word that my fifth picture book, Where the Heart Is, had made it through acquisitions. It’s based on a true story that is so extraordinary that I began writing a first draft immediately after hearing it. The illustrator, Susannah Crispe, has her own personal experiences that link so incredibly to this story — there couldn’t be a more perfect person to partner with. More on all that closer to release because, again, it will be June 2021 before it’s sitting on bookshop shelves.

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My kids received said news with similar levels of enthusiasm to book contract 1. Luckily the bloke made up for it.

Book contract 3!
But before both those books, my fourth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in September next year. And yes, I signed this contract forever ago but I wanted to mention it here because I have been watching the uber-talented Wayne Harris’ illustrations develop with something like awe. Okay, exactly like awe. In short, I am madly in love with them — they have such heart and are so utterly beautiful and moving. I’m itching to share them with you, but you’ll have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here enjoying another glass of bubbles.

Taking licks: On writing rejection and success

26 June 2019

Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil — but there is no way around them. Isaac Asimov

It’s an inescapable fact that the writing life is bound up with rejection. Successful authors are those able to survive the lacerations. So in this second post in a series, I asked three successful authors — Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson — to share their experiences of both rejection and success. They have all been so generous in offering up these honest and wise words, and if you’re a writer you might want to paste Ben’s pep talk next to wherever you write.

Anna Spargo-Ryan
I think the worst rejections are always the ones that mirror some insecurity you have about your writing. For me, that’s being wordy and obtuse. When my first novel, The Paper House, was published I remember waiting for reviews that would reflect what I ‘knew’ about the book and myself: that I had used six words when one would do; that the writing was florid and tiresome; and OH GOD the metaphors, why were there so many?

I felt it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered these truths, and so it was. A review in a major newspaper described the book as being poetic, but, you know, maybe not in a good way. Musical like a little kid learning the violin. Magical in the sense that I must have cast a spell on someone to get it published.

Realising someone else sees your flaws is devastating. I hoped — but didn’t believe — that I’d managed to cover them up. I thought I had dialogued over the top of my wailing symbolism. I had tried so hard to craft a plot to hide the layers of semiotics. But this reviewer had seen them anyway, and pointed right at them.

I responded by writing a whole other book with almost no metaphors in it. Eighty thousand words to prove that I could do it and the reviewer was wrong. Reader, that is too many hours to invest in someone you should probably just never think about again. Drink a Milo instead.

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On the other hand, being seen can be extremely affirming. When my second novel came out I did an interview with the legendary literary journalist Jane Sullivan. We went to my local café on a cold day and I think she had a tea and I had nothing because I was so nervous. The Age was going to publish a double-page spread about me. Terrifying. Glorious, as well, but it made me want to die a bit.

I tried to be articulate. I talked about family violence and toxic masculinity in ways that I hoped reflected my intentions. I didn’t know what I was saying. Jane wrote in shorthand, which meant I couldn’t peer over and try to better articulate myself. I sped up. I blurted. I accidentally talked about my divorce, my own experiences of violence, my mental health. I wished I hadn’t. I remember thinking I had wanted to be professional, and that talking about myself as a depressed, anxious, no-good hack was not a particularly good way to do it. I might have even cried afterwards, although I cry at so often that it could have been unrelated.

A few weeks later, the interview was published. I was absolutely shitting myself, obviously. I think I made my partner read it first and promise to white-out any dreadful things I’d said (all of them, I was sure). I was so afraid I had revealed too many pieces of myself.

I peeked. It was a beautiful spread, with a full-colour portrait and an enormous headline. The stuff of dreams. And I took a deep breath and read the first line:

‘Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t seem at all like a miserable person.’

I was so shocked and so grateful I felt my heart was on fire. It’s my Twitter header image to this day. I carry a print-out around in my handbag. Jane had listened to me talk about the black clouds of melancholy and realised that wasn’t all there was. It was like having my portrait painted.

Anna Spargo-Ryan is the author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and was the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Guardian, Good Weekend and many other places. She lives in Melbourne with her family and more pets than is strictly appropriate.

Sheryl Gwyther
Like every other writer I’ve had rejections galore … over 20 years they’ve become the wallpapering in the room of my determination to never give up.

I’ve repapered over the most disappointing rejections, but I remember a review in Magpies magazine of my first children’s novel, Secrets of Eromanga. It was a positive review, except for one line about the villains being one-dimensional baddies. The reviewer may have been right or not but, mortified that school librarians and my contemporaries would read it, it’s all I took in. Mind you, it did make me work harder on every single villain I’ve written ever since.

I also remember the day I met with HarperCollins publisher, Lisa Berryman, to chat about my latest manuscript, Sweet Adversity. This is it, methinks! She wants my story. But of course, it wasn’t. She listed several things that needed sorting out — one of which would require a major rewrite of the book’s last quarter. My hopes of a contract were dashed.

Despondent with failure, I returned home to my logical-scientist bloke. He rolled his eyes at my tragic recount of the meeting. ‘Sounds to me like Lisa wants your story,’ Ross said. ‘You just have to fix up a few things.’

He was right, of course. Two weeks later, I send the manuscript back with eight extra chapters plus a much stronger ending. Lisa rang me. ‘You’ve nailed it, Sheryl,’ she said, ‘I’m taking it to acquisitions next week.’ Sweet Adversity was on its way. Truly a lesson in being proactive rather than reactive. And more important, the ability to listen to an experienced publisher … no matter how much extra work it means.

Writing for kids prepares you for total honesty — they don’t bother with sugar-coating. I love it. I remember a review of Secrets of Eromanga by a Year 8 student from New Zealand. He ‘didn’t want to read this novel’ and, just like he expected, ‘it was a dumb story’. Poor guy — being forced to read something he didn’t want to!

But then you get brilliant feedback too. Recently, at the Darling Downs Readers’ Cup Quiz where Sweet Adversity was on the reading list, I signed a copy for an 11-year-old boy. ‘I wouldn’t normally read this sort of book,’ he said. ‘Harry Potter has been my favourite book,’ he added, ‘but now it’s Sweet Adversity.’

I laughed … thinking how sweet he was to be so kind. But his teammates, all girls, said, ‘He’s telling the truth! He did love Harry, but now all he talks about is Adversity.’ Ahhh, the joy of writing for children!

Award-winning Queensland author Sheryl Gwyther writes novels, chapter books, short stories and plays for children and adults. Her recent historical adventure Sweet Adversity (10+ readers) is set in the Great Depression with Addie, a brave, vulnerable hero, a Shakespeare-quoting cockatiel, a tribe of lost children and enough dastardly villains to chill the bones.

Ben Hobson
Rejection is important. It’s training. It’s you running a 100-metre sprint every day practicing for the Olympics. If you want to run that race in front of that crowd then you have to practice. You have to take your licks. Trip over your shoelaces, faceplant into the gravel. Rejection moulds the writer. It is your training ground and every writer must endure it, because those made of weaker stuff are the ones that fall away. It is the refining fire of authordom.

The rejection that stung the worst for me also turned out to be the thing that kept me going. I entered To Become a Whale into the Vogel award, and it was really my last gasp. It was the last sprint I had in me. I pinned all my hopes on that thing so when it was rejected, my dreams felt like they were crumbling through my fingers.

The thing is though, that rejection also contained these words; this is a moving tale of father and son relationships, masculinity, blood, all in a unique setting. And then a ‘but…’ So while I was down — and I mean, I was — I eventually managed to pick myself back up again, read those words, and knew that I’d done something. It felt like I’d almost made it through. Those words spurned me on to rewrite once more (one more sprint, damn it) and send it on to an agent. Who sent me a very excited email.

There’s an old biblical adage: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope. This is rejection for the writer. It’ll either make you turn away, or buckle the hell down and grit your teeth that bit harder. And in that perseverance your character will be made. Character that allows you to be charitable to other authors who are suffering. Character that fights with bared teeth for what you believe in. And lastly, hope is produced. Because when you are a published author and you are engaged with everybody who is still suffering you are a beacon of what might be.

It’s awful. Every time one of the stories you’ve laboured over gets rejected feels so hard. I don’t mean to minimise it at all. In fact, I want to emphasise this. I want to acknowledge it. It is damn hard. You spend years working on a novel. You make all the right moves. Get pre-readers, hire a manuscript assessor, take it through a program. And at the end you send it off with your heart attached to it with paperclips and you hold your hands together and sit by the mailbox like a dog waiting for its owner to return. And then you get the form letter.

It sucks. But I’m saying to you: you can persevere. You’re a writer, damn it. Get off the floor and clench your fists and edit and send it out once more. You can endure. You are being refined. Collect rejections like UFC fighters collect scars; each one of those things is a mark that has created this warrior you’re becoming. Be proud. And send it out again.

Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at a Queensland High School. To Become a Whale, his first novel, was published in 2017, and was longlisted for the ABIA debut book award, and shortlisted in the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2018. His second novel, Snake Island, will be released 5 August this year.

This month you can win FOUR books by these incredible authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House and The Gulf, Sheryl Gwyther’s Sweet Adversity, and hot off the press Ben Hobson’s Snake Island. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before  5 pm on Monday 15 July to go in the draw.

Read the first post in this series with Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester.