Anatomy of a Novel Part 9: Troubleshooting

It’s taken four months, but I’ve finally finished the first read-through of The Iron Line and I’m starting to overhaul it. I naively thought the second book would be easier than the first – because I know what I’m doing now, right? Wrong.

The first draft of Greythorne took three months to write and I let it percolate for only three weeks before I launched into editing and rewriting. The first draft of The Iron Line took a similar amount of time – four months, although it’s also longer than Greythorne – and I finished it in September last year…and haven’t touched it since. To be fair, I also completed a non-fiction book in the middle there and had a few other projects on the go as well, but this one needed a bit more time to stew. The first draft read like a bad episode of Midsomer Murders, and I couldn’t really see a way out.

troubleshooting-your-novel-cover

Then, while I was in Sydney over Christmas, I picked up Steven James’s excellent book, Troubleshooting Your Novel, which was exactly what I needed to get me out of the writing funk I’ve been in. The book is broken into bite-sized chapters that each deal with a different technical aspect of writing, such as causality, escalation, believability, subtext and many more (there are 80 in total!), and James gives great advice on how to identify problems in your manuscript and – even better – how to fix them.

One of the tactics he recommends when looking at causality is to make a list of events (he says in a particular scene, but I did it for the whole book) and how they lead into each other – essentially showing cause and effect. This was a revelation for me and led to a complete overhauling of the plot. When I mapped out the sequence of events it was easy to see that I had the main plot and the subplot mixed up, and the whole thing feels much more coherent now. There are still plenty of things wrong with the story, but I think this problem was the main one. I find I get a gut feeling when a story is working (or isn’t), and with the new outline it feels like the pieces have fallen into place. The same thing happened with Greythorne – everything was slightly out of whack until one of my beta readers suggested a change to the ending, which then fixed a whole bunch of other problems as well.

People tend to think that fiction-writing is primarily a creative or right-brained pursuit, and in the first draft it is. But once that first draft’s done it becomes highly analytical – it’s all about problem-solving, technique and craft. This was the thing it took me many years to learn – that to be a successful writer (‘successful’ by my definition meaning you actually finish things and people read them and don’t think they’re terrible) you have to be able to meld the creative and the analytical. It’s not enough to just have great ideas – you need to have a strong enough understanding of technique to be able to execute them properly. In that sense, it’s like any other art form (no one would suggest you can become a concert pianist without doing lots and lots of scales), but I think most readers – and many beginning writers – don’t understand just how important the craft side is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became a much better creative writer around the same time that my analytical skills were kicked up a gear by doing a PhD in an unrelated field.

Anyhow, after several months of feeling rather ‘bleugh’ about the novel, I feel like I’ve now got my mojo back and I’m ready to tackle the next draft. In the meantime, my new non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers, will be out in early March. I’ll keep you posted.

Celebrating two decades in print

Today marks 20 years since my first piece of writing was published, which, quite frankly, is terrifying.

I was 12 years old and in Grade 6 when I was selected to take part in a ‘Newshounds’ program run by our local paper, the Maroondah Mail. Four students from local schools were chosen to write one article per week for six weeks, under the supervision of a journalist.

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My ‘Newshounds’ articles in the Maroondah Mail, Oct-Dec 1996

Newspaper articles

I’d always loved writing, but this was the first time I’d seen my name in print, and the feeling has never really left me. It was this experience that started a passion for professional writing and, although I’ve moved away from straight journalism, I’ve continued to publish. Including Greythorne, I now have 114 publications to my name (1 novel, 3 academic book chapters, 4 academic book reviews, 5 academic journal articles, 11 conference papers and 63 media articles – details here). I hope to make it 115 by the end of the year, with the upcoming release of my new non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-cost strategies for community groups. The little girl who wrote those Newshounds articles can hardly believe it.

Incidentally, in the first Newshounds article introducing myself, I note that my favourite books are The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather by Robin Klein, and Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. All three remain favourites, and I was especially excited to meet Isobelle Carmody at the Canberra Writers Festival in August this year, where we got talking and I gave her a copy of Greythorne (which she asked me to sign!). I won’t lie – my inner 12 -year-old completely fangirled. I like to think I hid it well, but I suspect I didn’t.

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With Isobelle Carmody at the 2016 Canberra Writers Festival.

So anyway, it’s been a bumper two decades. Who knows what the next two will bring?

 

The three-volume novel

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Image from the Lone City Wikia.

I’ve just fined reading Amy Ewing’s Lone City trilogy (The JewelThe White Rose and the newly-released The Black Key). The series is basically a mash-up of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s solid if unexceptional. But what I found most interesting is, although it’s billed as a trilogy, the series is in fact a three-volume novel. Despite the conflation of the terms in recent years, the two are actually quite different.

A three-volume novel is exactly what it sounds like – a single story broken into three parts. In the case of the Lone City series, each volume ends quite abruptly, and the next one starts immediately where the previous one left off – essentially a continuation of the same scene (albeit with some rather clunky recapping to remind readers who’s who). The individual volumes don’t really have their own story arcs – they just continue on with the overarching series story arc. In contrast, a trilogy is three self-contained stories that are also part of an overarching arc. In a trilogy, time may pass in the space between volumes in which unseen events occur, or the characters may undergo other ‘offscreen’ changes.

The three-volume novel was an especially popular form in the nineteenth century, often driven by commercial imperatives (sales of Part 1 often funded the printing of Parts 2 and 3). They were often distributed through commercial circulating libraries, which differed from today’s public libraries in that people were charged for borrowing books. For this reason, the libraries loved three-volume novels, because they hooked readers in and kept them coming back for more. The format was sometimes sneered at (in much the same way that Mills and Boon novels are today), as plots where all was resolved through marriage and the distribution of property in the final pages were quite common, and they were often seen as overly romantic or sentimental. Oscar Wilde references this in The Importance of Being Earnest (Mudie’s was one of the most popular circulating libraries):

Cecily: I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.

Miss Prism: Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

Cecily: Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

The most famous three-volume novel of recent years is probably The Lord of the Rings, which is another that’s mistakenly billed as a trilogy. If you think about it, the series breaks are quite arbitrary – apart from length, there’s no real reason why The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers need to end exactly where they do. The story could just as easily be broken in diffiserent places without losing anything, because the individual volumes don’t have their own story arcs. In fact, Tolkien originally intended for LOTR to be published as a duet with The Silmarillion, but for economic reasons his publisher insisted on breaking up the work. The danger with doing this, especially if you’re working off a standard three-act structure, is that the second book basically corresponds with the long act two, and can end up suffering from ‘saggy middle syndrome’ and being very boring (The Two Towers is, in my opinion, a case in point).

Does the three-volume novel/trilogy distinction really matter? Maybe not to general readers, but if you’re a writer or a reader who’s interested in the craft of writing, it’s important to understand the differences. I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot lately because my next major fiction project will probably be a YA steampunk trilogy, which I’m slowly starting to outline. It will be the first time I’ve written a series, and getting the multiple story arcs right will probably be one of the biggest challenges. So watch this space.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 8: The first edit

Kings Park in Perth – not a bad place to do some editing!


After letting The Iron Line ferment for six weeks or so, I’ve just started editing it. This first read-through is always a bit painful, although it has its upsides too. Sometimes I come across a particularly well-turned phrase and get a little ‘I can’t believe I wrote that’ thrill, but more often than not, all I can see is what needs to be fixed.

This time around, I’m also facing the problem of social media. When I wrote Greythorne I wasn’t following any authors, publishers or bookshops on Instagram or Twitter, and I wasn’t active in Facebook author groups or reading lots of book blogs. But now, it seems like everywhere I turn I see authors (both traditional and indie) who have ‘made it,’ with their beautiful, deeply moving, award-winning books in all the best shops and giving talks at writers’ festivals from here to Timbuktu. And I feel like I’m back in high school – the nerdy girl standing on the outside of the popular crowd, hoping her attempts at imitating their style will be enough for her to gain acceptance.

Thankfully, I’m not 15 years old any more, and I know this is ridiculous. It’s even more so because in general I don’t really compare my life with others’ on social media – I’m well aware that to do so would be comparing my warts-and-all exposé with their highlight reels. But when it comes to books I clearly have a weak spot.

The real challenge is not to let this fit of comparitonitis influence my writing. The Iron Line isn’t a bad book, although it still needs work, and fans of Greythorne will hopefully enjoy it. But I can’t help feeling that I should be writing ‘great literature’ of the type showing up in my social media feeds (I.e. The type determined by the publishing industry’s gatekeepers) and that to do so is the only way to gain acceptance to this clique. And yet, stories are what really matter. Readers, like you, are what matter. So I’ll keep on editing my own story, and I hope you’ll enjoy the result.

The Jinx Kite

I had a conversation with some other freelancers recently about how our culture loves to celebrate youth, and particularly the wunderkind, whether that’s in business, the arts or whatever. We were discussing how we’d like to see more stories of older people who may have come to their field late, but nevertheless blossomed, and it got me thinking about my grandpa, who I’m pretty sure gave me the writing genes.

My grandfather, Ken Sillcock, was a World War II veteran who, after retiring from his public service job in 1975 when he was 65, did a DipEd, learned computers (in his 80s) and devoted his time to writing and volunteering. He had quite a bit of writing published over the years, culminating in his memoirs of his and his brother’s war service, Two Journeys Into Peril, when he was 100.

But one of my favourite works is his poem The Jinx Kite (below), which appears as a foreword to the book G for George: A memorial to RAAF bomber crews, 1939-45 (G for George is one of the most famous Lancasters and now has pride of place in the Australian War Memorial’s ‘Striking by Night’ exhibition). Although Grandpa initially joined the Australian Infantry Force and was sent to what was then Palestine, where he did a lot of anti-malaria work, he transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force and became a wireless operator in Lancaster bombers with RAAF 460 SQN, based in the UK. This poem is about his time in that role, flying missions, seeing so many mates lost and wondering if they’d be next. He came home, but his brother, a pilot in the Pacific, didn’t. The poem still makes me tear up a bit. So here’s to him and all the other late bloomers.

Crew of Lancaster bomber Easy Two

The air and ground crew of Lancaster bomber Easy Two. Grandpa is sixth from left. Photo courtesy Australian War Memorial

THE JINX KITE
by Ken Sillcock

 

“Grandpa, what kind of aircraft did you use
Back in the olden days?”
“Lancasters, lad, I’ll show you one some day.”
He made me think
Back to events, it seemed, of yesterday.

My first impression of the squadron was
A battle order on the notice board
And, next to it, the Melbourne Cup sweep draw.
I wondered which would give the better odds!
Then I saw Dalton, whom I’d known before,
Leaning on crutches, hurt on his first trip
By an incendiary from a plane above.

“Our fighters were not much opposed of late
Over the Ruhr.” The briefing room was hushed.
“Dortmund today, our deepest daylight strike.”
But they forgot to add “as fighter bait”.
Our next was Merseburg, late at night.
I thought” Why did I leave that useful army job
Killing mosquitoes in malarian zones?”
I’d known the threat of instant death before
In skidding cars on Gippsland’s soggy hills,
And, below decks, at sea, silent and tense,
Waiting the foe’s explosive messenger;
But this was not a passing episode too brief
For fear. Death stalked us eight long hours.
Seeking our slightest lapse from vigilance,
Just as I’d seen him wait in Lebanon
At the big house to which the wounded came.
The day we got an aircraft of our own,”
Yours is the jinx kite, Easy Two,” we heard.
“If you got G for George you’d have more hope;”
The last George, which got back from 90 trips,”
Flew to Australia just a month ago.”
“But Easy Two — we lose them all the time!”
The pessimists were right, for, all too soon
E2 was lost, but with another crew.

From the depth of winter to the equinox
We flew in fifteen raids in Easy Two,
Our second of that name.
The squadron lost
Ten crews on those same flights: seventy men
Who had been with us in the briefing room.
We had our moments. Jim gave “Starboard go!”
We rolled, nose down, rolled port and down again.
Then steeply up, still rolling. Radio gear
Before me vanished till we levelled out
And blood returned to my depleted brain.
We did another ‘corkscrew’, to ensure
The fighter Jim had spotted to our rear
Would go in search of a less wary prey.

Over Cologne, by day, another craft
Direct above us, opened the big doors.
His load, released, would intersect our path.
We held our course into the aiming point
A little longer. Then I said, “Okay,”
He’s moved to starboard.” But I wondered then
What might have happened on a cloudy night.
The night our navigation aids went wrong
I found Polaris, from the astrodome,
On our port bow; a suicidal course
To fly at night alone above the Ruhr.
As we turned west to make our late way home
I pictured all the other crews at Base
After interrogation, at their meal,
Saying, “E2 has bought it once again.”
Adding our epitaph, “They weren’t bad blokes.”
Crews were not callous, though. It seemed to me
That the dark veil that blacks our future out
Had been dissolved. We lived right on the brink
Between two worlds. Lost crews were near us still
As we awaited the next lottery draw
To find who’d be on this side, who on that.

Returned from leave, we learned that Easy Two
Was lost again; used by another crew
On their first operation. We received
Our third E2, used it on three more trips
Before our tour of duty was complete.

Then a new danger loomed: I would be sent
To fly instructor with those novice crews
Of whom dread tales were told. When lost in cloud,
Instead of climbing for a radio fix
They would go down to seek a clearer view
And find Mount Snowdon in their path — too late.
I’d feel much safer flying in Easy Two
Raiding oil plants or mining in Kiel Bay
With my six trusted mates, and with the care
That Lofty and his ground staff gave that kite
As if they had to fly in it themselves.
But in three weeks that new-found danger passed
When peace in Europe left us still unscathed.

And now I stand beneath the sturdy wing
Of G for George. On the museum walls
Are names of many who were briefed with us,
“Lest we forget!”
Should not we also say,”Lest they forget”?
Might they have clearer sight
In the dimensions they now occupy?
Perceptions hidden from us, as we grope
In the dense cloud of man’s distrust of man?

Could they transmit to us a course to steer
Or lift our eyes to a great guiding star
Of shining wisdom? We have hands and minds
The only assets we could ever need
To build that better world of which we dreamed,
And to pass down to disenchanted youth
Our vision of what can be brought about.

The time is short. We who are left grow old
But, with good briefing, we could do the job
Just as we could when time was short before.

Anatomy of a Novel Part 7: The first full draft

Ghost train

Well, it’s done. I’ve finished the first draft of The Iron LineI should be ecstatic, but to be honest, I feel a bit, well…flat. I can’t remember how I felt when I completed Greythorne, but I think it was probably more elated than this – probably because it was the first time, so it felt like a bigger achievement, and also I was much more ignorant of the process that follows. So these are my raw, honest reflections in the immediate aftermath of completion, because with this blog post series I said I’d take you behind the scenes, warts and all.

  • It’s too short. I was aiming for 80,000 words, which I then revised down to 70,000, then 60,000 but it’s come in at just over 57,000. That’s 10,000 words longer than Greythorne, but it’s still on the bottom end of novel-length works. I know that word count really shouldn’t matter, because every story has an optimum length, and when you start trying to pad it out is when you get problems. But I somehow feel like less of a writer for producing such a short novel (although Dragonscale is 90,000 words, so I’m clearly capable of doing it). Word count is one of my recurring writing-related neuroses.
  • It’s not the book I envisaged. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I set out to write Australian Gothic and ended up with a much more stock-standard murder mystery. It’s still fun and I still enjoyed writing it, but I think upping the creepiness factor is something I’ll need to fix in the next draft.
  • I can’t tell if the twist is really shocking. This was the same with Greythorne – I knew it so well that it was hard to tell if I was foreshadowing too much or not enough. This is why I have beta readers and copy editors.
  • This draft came much more easily than Greythorne did. I remember getting hugely bogged down in the middle of Greythorne. That happened a bit here too, but to nowhere near the same extent, and I was able to get over it fairly easily, although I still don’t know if the pacing is right.
  • Scrivener is the best thing ever. If you’re a serious writer and haven’t tried it yet, get on it.
  • Writing sprints work for me. I know I go on about this a bit, but they really do. Writing this way was what allowed me to finish it in a bit over four months.

So now the hard work really begins. I haven’t even read the full draft through yet, although I’ve been making notes to myself as I go about things I need to check – word use, internal consistency and so on. Now I’ll give it to my husband, who is my alpha reader and the only person allowed to see my first drafts. This is because the first draft is almost like a baby – it’s still new and vulnerable. The second and third drafts are less a part of me and are more able to stand on their own, so sending them out to beta readers isn’t so much of an issue. Around the fourth or fifth draft is when my books tend to enter adulthood and are ready to go out into the world.

So I’m going to take a break and work on other projects while Tristan reads it, then I’ll give it a big overhaul. Then I’ll hit up my beta readers, revise it with their feedback, and then we’ll see where we’re at. I expect that process will take at least three months.

In the midst of all the planning for editing, though, I think I need to take some time out and remember something: I wrote another novel. Something I only ever dreamed of doing, I’ve now done three times. A little perspective never hurt anyone.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Click image to view full photo essay

Last week I had the privilege of being part of an amazing art exhibition at the Annandale Creative Arts Centre in Sydney, called Creative Conversations with Women of the World: Access Denied. Artists and performers were invited to respond to the theme of women’s inequality globally, in whichever way they chose. Many of the pieces focused on issues such as child marriage and sex trafficking, but I chose to look at something a bit closer to home – the narratives of safety that we expect women to adhere to but which are not part of men’s consciousness.

Obviously it’s pretty unusual for a writer to take part in an art exhibition, and this was the first time I’d done anything like this. I decided to produce an interactive photo essay using Adobe Spark Page (which I wrote about here, back when it was called Adobe Slate) and display it on an iPad.

The story, called The Stories We Tell Ourselves, combines pictures of young men on a night out with the narrative that would be going through a young woman’s head if she were doing the same things: Does this outfit make me look like a slut? Can I run in these shoes? How will I get home? My aim was to create cognitive dissonance in the viewer to highlight how society’s expectations of girls and women when it comes to safety differ so significantly from our expectations of men and boys. This narrative has serious implications for how women and girls view their access to public space – although a woman is still most likely to be assaulted in her home, this narrative of being unsafe in public is so pervasive that many women (especially young women) choose to curtail their public activities. This is supported by evidence, which is cited at the end of the essay. You can click on the image at the top to view it in full.

I wish I could say this was hard to write, but it wasn’t. Every one of the situations in the essay is something I’ve either personally experienced or thought about as a distinct possibility. I imagine most women have, and that’s the tragedy of it.

It was an amazing experience being part of the exhibition and it’s reaffirmed my love for interactive storytelling and new technology. It’s really exciting as a writer to be able to bring my stories to audiences that I wouldn’t normally reach, and I’m grateful to the Annandale Creative Arts Centre for the opportunity.

5000 Words Per Hour

I’ve neglected the poor old blog a bit lately, but for probably the best reason a writer can have – I’ve been writing. Quite a lot, actually. The Iron Line is now about three-quarters of the way through, and I’ve also started a non-fiction book under the auspices of my business called Communications for Volunteers, which lays out everything volunteer-run community organisations need to know about how to get their message out there in a professional-looking way.

On top of all that, I’ve been travelling quite a lot for work as well, and doing backstage crew work for a local amateur theatre production, so life is pretty full! But the freelance life is very much agreeing with me, and I love having days like today where I can just sit alone in my office and work on my own projects – it’s introvert heaven.

My surge in writing productivity is partly due to my changed work arrangements, but the thing that really kicked it up a gear was discovering a handy little book (and its companion app) called 5000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox, or 5KWPH for short.

5KWPH cover

To be honest, I initially bought this book in order to make fun of the premise. As if anyone could write 5000 words per hour! At the time I bought it, if I was writing 1000 words per day I was happy. Then I read it.

Fox is an app developer by trade, and his system is just one more example of gamifying productivity – that is, using the same competition and reward techniques that video game developers use to make their games so addictive. And the thing is, because it’s based in psychology, it actually works.

The premise is pretty simple: it’s based on ‘writing sprints’. Fox recommends starting small – three to five minutes – but I do 20 minutes as I’ve been at this writing thing for a while and I’ve got the stamina. During these sprints you get rid of external distractions, turn off your inner editor and just write whatever comes to you. If you need to do more research, you put a comment on the relevant section and move on so you don’t go off on tangents. The aim is to get a first draft down, however imperfect it may be (and as Hemingway rightly said, the first draft of everything is shit). You can fix it in the editing stage later.

Once your sprint is done, you note down how many words you’ve written and then multiply it to calculate how many words you’re writing per hour. The 5KWPH app does this all neatly for you, then graphs it, gives you little stickers as rewards for reaching certain milestones, and calculates how many hours you have left until you reach your word count goal (based on your current hourly rate).

Fox recommends having a good outline before you start your writing sprints, so that you know where you’re going and aren’t stuck for material. He also recommends using dictation software to boost your speed, but I tried this and didn’t really like it, and since I type quite quickly anyway it didn’t make a huge difference to me. But if you’re a slow typist then it will probably make quite a difference.

And the outcome? I went from 1000 words a day to just under 3000 words an hour. Now, when I work on The Iron Line, I do four 20 minute writing sprints, which means I usually write between 3000 and 3200 words in an hour and 20 minutes. That’s basically a full chapter for me. It’s much slower for the non-fiction book, and actually I don’t really use the app for that as I find it less useful due to the different writing process. But for fiction it works a treat.

I’m a sucker for a good productivity app and I’m also pretty competitive and goal-oriented, so it’s probably not a surprise that I like this system. It may not work for everybody, but if you’re looking for ways to increase your writing speed I’d recommend giving it a go.

Now, back to writing.

Community arts

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A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending five days in the gorgeous Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, at the Sydney Artists Retreat. This is an annual gathering of artists run by the Annandale Creative Arts Centre, which is based in Newtown, Sydney, and it’s a close cousin to the summer school I often go to at the Poatina Arts colony in Tasmania. So the group was a mix of old friends and new faces (who became old friends by the end of it) – and it was fantastic.

The last time I went to the Sydney Artists Retreat was in 2014, and at that point I was doing the second lot of edits on Greythorne, after it had come back from my beta readers. I was also working full-time, so having four days (the 2016 retreat was a day longer) where I could do nothing but write was an incredible luxury, and I was very productive.

This year was different. I’ve been through some major upheavals work-wise over the last 12 months, accompanied by at times quite high degrees of stress and anxiety, and I didn’t realise how much I needed to decompress until I got to a place where I didn’t have to worry about anything for a few days. I’d planned to be fairly productive, but I wasn’t, really – at least, not in the sense of getting words on paper. But I actually felt relaxed for the first time in about 9 months, and having the chance to just hang out and chat with other artists – writers, musicians, actors, dancers and film-makers – was exactly what I needed. There are certain aspects and challenges of creative practice that I think are hard to relate to unless you’ve experienced them. It’s not all sitting round waiting for the muse – it’s often bloody hard work and accompanied by existential (and financial) angst and, more often than not, a fair degree of guilt for doing something that the world tends not to value too much.

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One of the big themes of the retreat was ‘permission’ – giving ourselves and other people permission to be authentic and true to who we are in terms of our creativity. That may sound a bit hippy-dippy, but it’s actually a huge struggle for many artists, me included. When you’ve been told from a young age (by family, friends and society in general) that you can’t make any money at your art and you should keep it as a hobby and get a ‘real’ job, it can be hard to get over the feelings of guilt you get every time you devote time to producing it. That’s not saying artists should ignore the financial realities, but there are actually ways of making a living through art, and if you’ve got a bit of business sense you can make it work. So it was a huge thing for me to actually acknowledge that I want to make writing a significant income stream. It won’t be the only one, because reality, but it can certainly be a legitimate part of my business. For this reason, I’ve decided to independently publish The Iron Line, because I want to have more control over my rights and publishing timeframes. So I’m having a crash course in indie publishing at the moment, but it means that the new book should be out later this year.

I’m a huge advocate for artistic communities where artists support and value each other (as opposed to competing, which unfortunately is often the case). Becoming part of a community centred on Poatina and Annandale had a huge impact on me as a writer – not only have I learned so much from other writers and artists, but I’ve felt truly supported as I’ve tottered out into the world as a baby artist and started to grow and learn to walk for myself. Without that community I think I don’t think I would have had the courage to give myself permission to write properly, and I would have been thoroughly miserable as a result (I know, because that’s the way it was for most of my 20s). So here’s to the crazy ones – the artists, the writers, the dreamers – who taught me to be brave.

A day at the circus

Circus (5)

Last weekend I did something I haven’t done since I was six years old. I went to the circus. And it was fabulous.

Circuses seem to pop up in our area relatively frequently (once or twice a year) and each time I see the spires of a brightly coloured tent I think about going, but don’t usually get round to it. There’s also an idea that the circus is just for kids, which is probably why, until last week, I hadn’t been to one since I was a kid myself. But when the Great Moscow Circus came to town and a friend recommended it, I bit the bullet and bought tickets.

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I go to a lot of theatre, both amateur and professional, so I assumed the circus would be similar, just inside a giant inflatable tent. And it was, yet it was so much more visceral as well. There’s something undeniably thrilling about seeing people doing quite risky things – like trapeze flying or tightrope walking – right in front of you. It felt much more real and immediate than the productions I’m used to seeing.

Circus (2)

I’ve been fascinated by circuses for a long time, especially the old-time travelling shows and carnivals from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I think it’s because they occupy a kind of liminal space – in the heyday of circuses and travelling shows, they were important to the community (in fact the circus couldn’t exist without them) but at the same time they traditionally provided a haven for people who were otherwise socially excluded due to disability and difference (although the darker side of this was just another kind of exploitation). Probably for this reason, in popular culture the old-time carnival combines a fascinating mix of joy and menace, which has been deftly illustrated by authors such as Ray Bradbury (in Something Wicked This Way Comes).

There’s also a certain element of romance about the circus life – the freedom of the nomadic existence can seem, to those of us stuck in the workaday grind, like the answer to all our problems, although no doubt the reality is rather less glamorous. But who hasn’t at some point dreamed of running off to join the circus?

Strangely enough, as I was sitting there ringside thinking about circuses, it occurred to me that this is one of the big reasons I like being a writer. I’ll never run off and join the circus in reality – not least because I have no talent for it – but in my books anything is possible. My forthcoming novel, Dragonscale, has a troupe of circus folk in it, and I’ve long been toying with the idea of a book set in an American travelling carnival at the start of the twentieth century, when barnstorming was all the rage. One of the great perks of being a writer is you can be anything you want to be, so once I’ve finished being a nineteenth-century level-crossing operator in my current novel, The Iron Line, I may just become a circus acrobat for a while.