About a month ago I attended my 15-year school reunion. I hadn’t planned to go – it just so happened I was back in my hometown for work the weekend it was on, and one of my best friends was going, so I figured there’d be safety in numbers. I was actually surprised by how nervous I was, because high school for me was a complicated mix of emotions (as it probably is for everyone), which shaped my character in both good and not-so-good ways, and I wasn’t all that keen to revisit it. It was also the first reunion I’d been to – I’d been out of town for the others – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I pictured all the worst sorts of high-school reunion tropes, where everyone is just as cliquey and bitchy as you remember, and it becomes a pissing contest over who’s the most ‘successful’. The fact that I was going to be one of the few there without kids was also a bit of a worry – I envisioned being bored to death by a host of yummy mummies (it was a girls school). My friend and I reassured each other that we only needed to stay an hour, then we could bunk off and go shopping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised, however, was an understatement. When we arrived at the pub where it was being held there was only a small group there – all girls I remembered as being ‘cool’ and having it totally together (while my friend and I were paid-up members of Club Nerd) -and my heart sank a little. Then I started talking to them, and all my misconceptions got blown away.

There are many debates about the merits (or otherwise) of single-sex education, but two things stood out very strongly to me – our year group has produced a lot of kick-ass women who are doing amazing things, and most of us credit this to the fact that we were never given the impression at school that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. If your passion was maths or physics or agriculture you could go right ahead (the creative fields were a bit more problematic, because although it had a fabulous art program, it was still a hothouse private school that wasn’t terribly tolerant of the more eccentric aspects of creative personalities, especially when it came to dress). We left there believing we could do anything – and although for some of us, me included, this put us on a bit of a crash-course with the reality of workplace sexism down the track, it also gave us the tools to fight it.

The other thing that struck me about the gathering was how interesting and diverse the stories were. There were health issues, religion found and lost, creativity discovered, identities established in myriad different ways. A number had gone on to become teachers themselves after initially pursuing other careers, and many more had had a variety of career and life changes. Motherhood was part of this for many of them, but it wasn’t the sole part, and we had far more in common than I’d thought. I also realised how little I’d known about these women when we were at school. Some had been facing various upheavals at home; others had struggled with learning difficulties or other things that made life harder. And the greatest revelation was that those same ‘cool’ girls whom I’d envied in high school had felt just as dislocated as me all along. Turns out we were all faking it, but none of us dared admit it.

The school years are a relatively short time of your life – I’ve now been out of school longer than I was there – but they seem to have a disproportionately large impact, coming as they do at such a seminal stage. Before the reunion I hadn’t seen the point in revisiting a time when, for large chunks of it, I’d been quite unhappy. But afterwards I realised how important it can be to revisit your perceptions, the stories you tell yourself about a particular time or people, and to sometimes have those turned on their head. In the end, I didn’t just stay for an hour and then go shopping – I spent six hours talking to these funny, smart, amazing women and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll be at the 20-year reunion with bells on.

I’ve just sent the second draft of The Iron Line off to beta readers (which I’ll write about in more detail at some point), and I’m now left with that rather strange feeling which, I imagine, is a bit like seeing your child off on their first day of school. One of those beta readers, who also happens to be my former high-school English teacher, reminded me of Anne Bradstreet’s wonderful poem ‘The Author to Her Book’, which sums it up far better than I can. So I’ll just leave this here.

The Author to Her Book
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

My stall at the Independent Publishing Fair (it was very cold!)

Last week was the third annual Noted Festival, held in Canberra, where I live. I’d heard about it the previous two years, but for various reasons had never got round to actually participating in anything.

Noted isn’t like other writers festivals – for one thing, it has “an explicit commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds.” From what I could tell, in practice this looks like a couple of different things. First, and most obviously, the festival celebrates writers regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. One of the most powerful moments for me was at the festival launch, where the Welcome to Country was delivered by Ngunnawal elder Aunty Nin Janette Phillips, who spoke of the importance of telling Indigenous stories and the role that all Australian writers, regardless of their heritage, can play in bringing to light the stories of the First Australians.

The second, less obvious aspect of celebrating diversity was the range of events on offer, across all types of writing and art more broadly. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless you understand what a closed shop the Australian literary scene is, and how often genre fiction (i.e. anything that’s not literary fiction) is scorned by the mainstream book world, including most major writers festivals. I know multi-award-winning genre authors (including winners of the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative fiction award) who can’t get panel slots at the major writers festivals. Noted was the exact opposite of this – egalitarian and just damned good fun, without an ounce of snobbery. There was a spirit of playfulness that pervaded the festival, and everyone there just seemed to be having a really good time.

My favourite event was ‘Ghosts in the Seams,’ held on Friday evening in one of the city’s large op-shops (second-hand clothing stores). We were invited to develop a character of our choosing – either a new one or one we’d been working on for a while – and then to find clothes that we thought encapsulated that character and dress up. The clothes served as inspiration and we then had a 20-minute writing session where we wrote about the character or a scene from their story. It sounds crazy, but the dressing up was actually hugely inspiring. Actually putting a character’s clothes on made them seem so much more real than when you just meet them in your head. I dressed up as Jane Adams from my new novel, The Iron Line, and in the process fell in love with a pair of black steampunk-style combat boots that suited both her and me perfectly (and being an op-shop, I could buy them for just $4 and take them home!). I wrote in my last post about the importance of creative play, and this was another experience of that. I came away from it feeling re-energised and inspired.

I also got the chance to participate as a stallholder in the Independent Publishing Fair, which showcased individual authors, small presses, zines and other independent creatives, as well as poetry and performance art. Regardless of the sales side of things, I just really enjoyed talking to the people who came by, many of whom were writers or enthusiastic readers. It’s made me consider the possibility of doing other markets, because I just really enjoy getting out there and meeting people who love books as much as I do.

So, all in all it was a great festival, and I’m already looking forward to Noted 2018.

I’ve just come home from five wonderful days at the Sydney Artists Retreat, which I try to get to every year. On the drive back, I happened to listen to a fantastic podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with Liz Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) discussing creativity.

One of the many topics that came up was the blocks that people often have about creativity – her statistic was that something like 78 per cent of people say they’ve been told at some point that they’re not creative (e.g. that they “can’t” sing/dance/paint/write), which often leads to people becoming blocked or giving up on certain art forms. Often, sadly, this occurs in our childhood and adolescence, and a lot of us never get over it. Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way is used by practically every artist I know to address this – but that’s a post for another time.

Anyway, the thing that struck me most about this in the context of the retreat was that even if we’ve got over our blocks sufficiently to develop a primary art form, many of us still feel that way about other types of art, as if they’re all mutually exclusive. There’s still the idea that you’re a writer or a visual artist or a musician, when in fact creativity often crosses boundaries. Although it’s true that most artists excel in one main field – due to the sheer amount of time and effort involved in developing talent to a high standard – it can be immensely freeing to engage in creative play in mediums that aren’t your natural inclination.

One of my paintings from the Sydney Artists Retreat

One of the things I love about the Sydney Artists Retreat is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been that actively encourages this. The competitive aspect of art is stripped away and attendees are encouraged to engage in whatever art form they feel called to, even if it’s not the project they came to work on. So, despite intending to spend the week working on the second draft of The Iron Line, what I did most was paint, sing, play piano and make things out of clay. Was it immediately ‘useful’? No. I’m a writer, and words will always be my primary art form. But it was incredibly relaxing and refreshing, which was exactly what I needed after several months of stress and creative paralysis. It didn’t matter if my paintings were ‘good’ or not – what was important was that the act of creating them tapped a well in me that I was worried was starting to run dry.

So I guess the moral of this story (and I’m sure Liz Gilbert would agree) is don’t be afraid to play. It doesn’t have to be great – it doesn’t even have to be good, whatever that is. Just get stuck in – sculpt, paint, write, dance, sing, sew – whatever gives you joy. Because ultimately we’re all creative beings – we just have to stop telling ourselves we’re not.

One of the great myths about writing is that it only occurs when you’re typing on a keyboard (or writing by hand, if you prefer). In my case, however – and I know I’m not alone here – a great deal of my ‘writing’ takes place when I’m away from my desk, often when I’m doing something mundane, like housework or waiting for the bus. Different stories take different lengths of time to percolate, and I’ve found no relationship between the length of the story and the time required. Greythorne, for example, came together relatively quickly – within a week of getting the idea I was writing it down, and I had a first draft in three months – but The Iron Line is taking a bit longer. And, weirdly enough, I just finished a 2000-word short story, Reset (which I hope to make available to my newsletter subscribers very soon), which has been percolating for nine months – a long time for such a short piece.

In recognition of the idea that ‘writing’ actually often consists of random musings while doing other things, a growing number of authors have turned to technology, especially dictation software, to fill the gap. Indie superstar Joanna Penn often dicusses how she dictates her books while going on long walks, and many others have followed suit. In the past, I’ve found that switching mediums (especially going from the computer to writing by hand) can really help me when I’m feeling creatively blocked, so I decided to test-run the dictation thing, with interesting results. I used Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictated directly into Scrivener at first, before switching to recording directly into my phone for the second experiment.

Conclusion 1: Dictating my novel directly doesn’t work for me.

Dictation software has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and it’s now actually pretty accurate most of the time (especially if you have a decent mic). My dislike of dictation stems not from the reliability of the software, but from the way it changed my thought processes, which was completely unexpected.

I’m a very visual person and, it turns out, there’s also something about the touch of the keyboard or pen that helps words flow for me. When I had to dictate them, my brain felt sluggish, as if it couldn’t handle having to get the words out through my mouth rather than my hands. Pauses were more awkward, as I felt like I should be speaking fluently, and at the same time I was very conscious about having to speak clearly so the software would pick it up.

It’s also worth noting that I’m a fast typist, so I didn’t gain a lot time-wise from dictating, especially when you factor in the time needed to go back and edit the mistakes (one of the best ones was when I mentioned how someone “smiled with his mouth but not his eyes” and it heard “mouth” as “mouse”). However, if you’re a slower typist, have issues like RSI, or are more of an auditory person, dictation may work very well for you.

Conclusion 2: Abstract recording (as opposed to direct dictation) really helps when I’m blocked.

I’m currently working on the second draft of The Iron Line, which is written in the first person. In the past when I’ve got stuck, I’ve often ‘interviewed’ my characters in my head and written down their responses. During a particularly blocked patch about a month ago, I decided to go one step further and record myself speaking in the voice of the main character, just as if it was a proper interview. I’d been taking some improv acting classes and was feeling much more comfortable about developing a character on the fly, so I figured it was worth a try.

It worked a treat. Unlike the direct dictation, where I kept getting stuck looking for the right word, these ‘interviews’ were more guides for the plot than anything else. I basically asked my character ‘What happened next and how did it make you feel?’ and then got in her head and told the story in her voice. The words didn’t necessarily make it into the written version verbatim, but listening to the recording helped keep the plot on track, and there was much less pressure just sitting on the couch and talking, rather than staring at a screen. Perhaps it’s because of my journalism background, and the fact that I’ve done a lot of interviews on both sides of the mic, but I found it really unlocked something just by approaching it a different way.

So I guess the moral of this story is don’t be afraid to try new things. We’re so lucky with the way technology is developing and that we now have so many innovative solutions available to us – not just as writers, but in daily life. If something isn’t working for you, change it up – you never know, you may just hit on the key that unlocks it all.

Communications for Volunteers cover

Well, I have some exciting news – my first non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-Cost Strategies for Community Groups is out on Monday! It’s an introductory-level communications handbook for grassroots volunteer groups, which I was inspired to write through my own volunteering experience (I realised that many volunteer groups don’t have a good understanding of how best to market themselves or communicate with their members, and there aren’t many resources out there to help them).

This book was turned around relatively quickly – nine months from concept to publication – and it’s also my first foray into indie publishing, which has been a massive learning curve. At the same time, I’ve also been trying to edit and rewrite The Iron Line, which has taken a lot longer and been a lot more difficult than I anticipated, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the differences between fiction and non-fiction.

Many authors prefer to focus on either fiction or non-fiction, but I’ve been lucky in that, over the years, I’ve learned to write in many different styles. I’ve written fiction for almost as long as I can remember (and I’m still learning so much about the craft), but I’ve also worked as a journalist,  published various academic articles (and written a PhD thesis), and worked as an editor and writing trainer for the government, which is a whole different style again.

For me, non-fiction is a whole lot easier than fiction. I’m now pretty comfortable with straight-up general non-fiction, which is what my communications book is, but I still feel I’m on an incredibly steep learning curve with fiction. In general non-fiction, you still have to worry about structure, tone, voice and many other ‘craft’ aspects, but I find them a lot more straightforward to master than in fiction, where you also have to deal with characterisation, plot, subtext, dialogue, emotion and a whole raft of other things. It’s the difference between learning to juggle with two balls and then having to juggle ten – while they’re on fire.

The one writing style I still have a lot of trouble with is creative non-fiction. I’m a huge fan of longform journalism and personal essays, but I feel like a complete novice when I try to write them myself. I recently had a piece rejected by a literary journal (after getting quite a long way through the process) because in the end it was based too heavily on reportage, without enough ‘literary’-style analysis. I guess the moral of the story is that you never, ever stop learning, and just because you’re good at one style or genre doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a master of them all. I have to remind myself of this sometimes when I get a bit despondent about how The Iron Line is progressing – like at the moment, when I’m feeling like every word I write is garbage – and remember that this is a process of growth that takes years, if not your whole life. I think part of the reason I’m finding The Iron Line so challenging is that, now that I know I can finish a book (which was the main goal of Greythorne), I’m pushing myself in other ways. This will hopefully make for a better novel, but it’s pretty painful when you’re in the middle of it. In any case, for now I’m just enjoying the feeling of once again seeing my words between covers. That never gets old.

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.

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.

Newspaper articles
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.

isobelle-carmody-canberra-writers-festival-2016
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?

 

lone-city-trilogy
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 different 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.

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.