Category Archives: Writing

Adelaide Writers’ Week 2015

It has not escaped my attention that my last post was entitled: ‘Adelaide Writers’ Week 2014′. No, I have not written on this blog for a year. Yes, I am a little ashamed. More so considering that I haven’t done a whole lot of writing either, other than some revisions on the manuscript I finished early last year.

But once again I managed to get to four out of six days of Adelaide Writers’ Week, and once again it has inspired me to get back on the laptop and start again.

My highlights of this year:

  • US authors John Darnielle and Smith Henderson spoke about their books in the context of a ‘troubled America’. Despite the topic, this was one of the more entertaining sessions, with both authors cracking jokes among discussions about gun control, low wages and many of the other issues facing contemporary America.
  • Cate Kennedy and Richard Fidler. Yeah, I know Richard Fidler is not an author, but damn he’s a good interviewer and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch him in action with his old school friend Cate Kennedy. I’d love to say I came to him through the Doug Anthony Allstars, but must admit that I’d never heard of him until I discovered his Conversations segment on AM radio during my first lot of maternity leave, and I’ve loved him ever since. He was also popular with the mostly over 60s crowd, with the applause suggesting many were there to see him as well as his interviewee. As expected, it was an entertaining and insightful session focusing on the beauty of ordinary life rather than sensationalism.
  • Jenny Offill is a US author whose novel focuses on the highs and lows of relationships and parenthood. She also spoke at length about her own writing process, which I always enjoy hearing, and how this one slim novel was the culmination of eight years of revisions until she found its voice and was able to complete it.
  • Roxane Gay was the highlight of the week for me, and the fact that she was interviewed by the wonderful Monica Dux was an added bonus. Gay is a prominent feminist from the US who calls herself a ‘bad feminist’ because she believes deeply in feminism and yet continues to enjoy things that are often considered its natural enemies. As a fellow enthusiastic yet bad feminist in the traditional role of stay at home mother while simultaneously the worst housewife on the face of the earth, I loved this session. Gay was funny, passionate, inspiring and encouraging to the next generation of feminists. I could have listened to her speak for hours.
  • Willy Vlautin, another US author, was lovely to listen to. He writes predominantly about common people who are down on their luck, and he spoke with a good-natured, self-deprecating humour that endeared him to the audience. His lovely readings inspired me to buy several of his books.
  • There is rarely a writers’ festival that I don’t come away from with a new Indian writer to read, and Jerry Pinto was this year’s gem. I’ve rarely heard a more hilarious account of a writer’s journey to publication, and his book, which is largely an account of his childhood growing up with a mother with bipolar disorder, is already doing important work in bringing recognition to mental health issues in India.

And so ends Writers’ Week for another year. As always, it was such a lovely experience to spend a few days sitting under the trees in perfect weather, listening to writers speak, and a reminder that, other than my family, there is nothing more important in my life than writing.

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Adelaide Writers’ Week 2014

Adelaide Writers’ Week is considered by many to be the pinnacle of writers’ festivals in Australia, and 2014 didn’t disappoint. Some of Australia’s best writers plus a range of high profile international authors converged on the beautiful Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens for six days of talking about books to large crowds of readers.

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My haul from the book tent

I was lucky enough to have the whole week free this year, and I certainly made the most of it. For the first time in years, the weather, usually in the high 30s, was perfect. The festival begins on the Saturday with two kids’ days running parallel to the main program. I love to see little kids enjoying books, and aside from readings by authors such as Mem Fox and Katrina Germein, there were many other activities to keep small people entertained. We took our two-year-old on the Saturday and he had fun for hours.

As always, immersing myself in the world of books and writing brought inspiration. I haven’t been writing lately while I leave my manuscript to rest, but have been cogitating on a new idea, and throughout the week I found myself adding notes and snippets of subplots into my phone. I’m now feeling quite excited about jumping into it when the time is right. And of course I discovered a whole host of new authors, and bought a huge haul of books from the book tent.

Writers’ festivals are also an opportunity to meet other authors, and it was great to bump into Irma Gold, children’s author and editor of The Sound of Silence: Journeys Through Miscarriage, in which my own story was published a few years ago.

My highlights from the week, in order of appearance:

  • Richard Flanagan – Much has been made of Flanagan’s latest book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, but it wasn’t a book I had any interest in reading until I heard him speak about it. War stories are not usually my thing, but this book, based in part on the experiences of Flanagan’s father as a prisoner of war, seems so personal, and his reading from it so beautiful that it went straight on my list of books to be read. He also made a statement about asylum seekers that really resonated with me – and obviously with many others, as it earned him thunderous applause from the huge crowd – in that all the world’s great atrocities began with considering a group of people as less than human.
  • Jaspreet Singh – It’s no secret that I’ve long enjoyed Indian literature, so it was great to hear this Indian/Canadian writer talk about his book, which chronicles the 1984 anti-Sikh massacres. Again, this is quite a personal book, as Singh was a Sikh teenager living in Delhi at the time. While I have read a bit about this in the past, it’s a little-known issue outside of India.
  • Louise Doughty – The highlight of the festival for me, this author spoke extensively about her writing process. It’s always great to hear writers actually discussing style, structure and process rather than just talking about the book itself, especially when they admit to the same post-first draft panic that us aspiring authors have! I was only disappointed that I left my book buying too late in the week and all her books had sold out. And Doughty’s realisation that she came to while sitting through a murder trial as research for her latest novel will stay with me for a long time – that the prosecution writes its own novel of the murder while the defence writes a different version, and the jury are literary critics who decide which story has the most credibility. Brilliant.
  • Hannah Kent and Elizabeth Gilbert – I saw these two on a panel together about writing historical fiction. Local author Kent is always such a pleasure to listen to, humble despite her enormous success, and her reading from Burial Rites was a reminder of her stunning writing. Elizabeth Gilbert, on the other hand, was a surprise. I’ve never read Eat Pray Love, and have to admit to a certain snobbery due to its commercial success, but her reading from her latest book, The Signature of All Things, showed her to be both a witty, accomplished writer and a down to earth person.
  • Fiona McFarlane – I saw this new Australian writer on a panel with the aforementioned Louise Doughty discussing the issue of trust in fiction. Her first novel, The Night Guest, has already had considerable success, making the shortlist for the prestigious 2014 Stella Prize. Her explanation of the thoughts that went into the story was fascinating, and I’ve now added her book to my ever-growing to-be-read pile.
  • Alexander McCall Smith – I wasn’t planning on staying for this session, but I’m so glad I did. McCall Smith, author of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, among others, is a delightful man who exudes comedy and had the whole crowd in hysterics. Even the AUSLAN interpreter had to stop at one point as she broke down in uncontrollable laughter. Totally entertaining and endearing, and a prolific writer, turning out 3-4 books each year, it was a fun hour spent in his company.
  • Jeet Thayil – another Indian writer, Thayil has recently released his first novel about the opium dens in 1970s Bombay. Thayil was open about his own battles with heroin addiction over 25 years, but it was his reading from the novel that was the highlight for me. His prologue is a six-page, stream of conscious sentence, and what a sentence! Thayil is also a performance poet, and the couple of pages he read from the prologue were simply amazing. He didn’t even stand up from his chair, but his presence, his compelling voice, and of course the beautiful words, were an amazing experience to hear. He reminded me a lot of Kevin Spacey.
  • Michelle de Kretser – Winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for her novel Questions of Travel, Sri Lankan born Australian de Kretser was also a highlight. I saw her on a panel with Jaspreet Singh in an interesting discussion on travel and tourism and what it means to different people and cultures. It was a lovely moment when de Kretser’s former geography teacher stood up to ask a question near the end, demonstrating that teachers can have an influence on their students long after their school years.
  • Christos Tsiolkas – While Tsiolkas was not his usual articulate self and often seemed to fumble for words, he’s worth a mention purely for his humility and genuine nature. He seems – still – genuinely stunned and humbled by his own success, despite the brilliance of his dissection of character in his most recent novel Barracuda. He also raised a passionate defence of public schooling, a subject close to my own heart.

And there ended Writers’ Week for another year. I’m now armed with a great pile of books and a lot of inspiration to continue with my own writing. We’re so lucky to have such an amazing writers’ festival here in Adelaide. I’m already looking forward to attending next year.


On hiatus

A few weeks ago, I finished the second draft of my novel. It was probably the biggest structural edit I’ve done, cutting 20,000 words from the total word count while moving scenes around and fleshing out half-formed subplots. The downside of this is that there are going to be holes throughout it which will probably mean another structural edit before I even get to the line edit and final polish.

This time, I’m determined to let it rest for a decent amount of time so I get some distance and perspective before I dive in again. So I sent it off to my beta readers and await their feedback and reactions with excitement and trepidation. I’m OK with the break (other than the undercurrent of anxiety that comes with the approach of baby #2 and probable disappearance of productivity), but I’m not entirely comfortable with not having a writing project to work on. I don’t want to start on a new novel and get seduced by first draft romanticism (otherwise known as never finishing anything). Plus, no ideas. But I want to remain productive and keep the writing muscle active while I can.

So I decided to try my hand at a short story. Again. I’ve written about this before. You’d think by now I would’ve learnt my lesson. Once again I started with an unformed idea and started writing, and this time I got further than a paragraph. I’ve written three pages. But it still doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. I feel no connection with the characters and I’m already tempted to give up. Rather than write quickly, as I do with a novel first draft, I keep going back and editing, changing happy to glad and back to happy again, which is generally my way of avoiding the fact that it’s not working.

I’ve still got the document open. I still want to write. The story possibly has some potential. I’m just not sure I have the patience to see it through. I’d rather be writing a novel.


Bootcamp!

No, it wasn’t one of those things where you get yelled at by a muscle-bound exerciseaholic while subjecting your own body to torture. But it was probably just as tiring.

Yesterday I completed the final day of a four day fiction writing bootcamp held by the SA Writers’ Centre. I’d wanted to go ever since I saw it advertised a couple of months ago, but with finances thin I wasn’t sure I could justify the expense. But then, two weeks ago, I was randomly picked to win a $200 workshop voucher, so I didn’t hesitate to book in. And it came at a perfect time considering I’m just embarking on second draft purgatory.

The bootcamp involved two workshops a day for four days covering beginnings, dialogue, voice, imagery, self-editing, ‘irresistible fiction’, characters and point of view.

The first was beginnings with Gay Lynch, which explored some ways to create the perfect first sentence or paragraph for a story. While I am for the most part still happy with my beginning, it’s always useful to look at things from different perspectives. The next workshop for the day was dialogue with Lucy Clark. The content in this workshop was quite basic and seemed to be aimed primarily at beginner level, but again it does help to reinforce existing knowledge.

Saturday began with the voice workshop with Jennifer Mills, which gave us some great tips to give our stories and characters a voice of their own. There were a number of exercises, including writing a scene from the perspective of a different character, writing a scene using only dialogue, then rewriting the same scene from an outside perspective relying on nothing but body language. It was interesting that I initially baulked at these exercises, but doing them gave me a fuller picture of everything that makes up character and story.

Next up was imagery with Lia Weston, which I also really enjoyed. It covered all the different methods we can use to convey mood as well as the physical. It was challenging for me to realise how ingrained cliches still are in my psyche, even though I despise them. The exercises really stretched me as a writer and made me think about how to use more evocative prose.

Sunday began with a self-editing workshop with Patrick Allington. I did enjoy this, but as we were a really large group and we only had three hours, there was only the chance to look at three pieces, the second two of which were rushed through quite quickly. I also found a lot of time was wasted by people debating whether individual words or sentences worked in the piece, which was frustrating enough for me let alone the person who was no doubt hanging out for the expertise of the professional editor in the room! The afternoon session was irresistible fiction with Steve Evans, which I found difficult to focus on, particularly in the afternoon, as it was delivered as a lecture with only a couple of exercises. The day ended with a Q&A with the ever-enthusiastic and lovely Sean Williams, who described his career trajectory and gave us some tips on perseverance and always enjoying the writing process.

Day four was also a highlight for me, with the morning session on characters with Anna Solding. This workshop helped me to get to know my characters better through a range of exercises that I would never normally do when creating a story. I feel like I have a more rounded view of them as people now, which I hope will make them leap off the page once I’ve finished editing.

The final workshop of the bootcamp was point of view with Amy Matthews, and this was another of my favourites. It was packed with exercises, which mostly involved re-writing scenes from my novel from a different point of view. My first reaction to this was that it was a waste of time because I wasn’t going to change the point of view in the novel, but once I’d done them I again found that I knew so much more about the background of the characters and story, which will help with authenticity.

By the time it was all over I was drained and utterly exhausted, but ultimately inspired once again to bring what I’ve learnt to my next draft. It’s always so valuable to meet other writers at all levels, and even to go over old learning with new eyes. I’d love to do something like this again in the future.


The books that have changed me

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a long time, and what better time to follow through than when I should be editing my manuscript…but let’s not speak of that.

I read a lot and I love a wide variety of books, but there are some that stand out because they’ve changed or influenced me in some way, either as a writer or as a person. They’re the ones I’ve read multiple times, and that have left me with something different with each read. And so, beginning in chronological order…

ImageBlack Beauty by Anna Sewell

This was probably the first book I became obsessed with as a child. I read it over and over again and, in the school holidays, my sister and I would watch the animated movie on repeat all day and then recite the lines across the dining table until our poor parents were driven insane.

This is such a timeless book with its messages of the importance of showing kindness to animals. I was born with a love of animals, but this book inspired in me a lifelong commitment to animal welfare.

This second edition (1898) has the inscription ‘Recommended by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’. I’d love to say it was my original childhood copy, but it was a very special birthday gift from my sister Amy and will always have a place in my bookcase.

ImageThe Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell

Another childhood favourite, I read this entire series cover to cover more times than I could count and well into adulthood.

Yeah, it’s about wild horses that talk to one another, but it’s the first book I can remember reading where I actually appreciated the skill and beauty of the writing. The author had a real knack for evocative prose and the stunning Australian bush setting has stayed with me my whole life. To this day, whenever I see a ghost gum I can’t help imagining the silver shadow of a horse flitting past.

These were also the first books that inspired me to be a writer – in fact, as a teenager I wrote my own saga about wild horses in the Snowy Mountains which all but plagiarised this series.

ImageGreat Expectations by Charles Dickens

I was still fairly young when I read this book. It was my first experience of the Classics, and I must admit I wasn’t expecting much. I thought it would be dull, pretentious and wordy, but by this point I was becoming more interested in writing and I was curious about the successful writers of the past.

From the first page, I was impressed by the colourful characters and the dry, subtle humour. And by the time I got to the end I was blown away by the twists and surprises that I could never have participated.

After reading this book I sought out most of Dickens’s other work and was no less impressed with this master storyteller, but as my introduction to Dickens, Great Expectations remains my favourite of his books.

ImageA Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

This book is special to me for so many reasons. Family sagas are not usually my thing, but this book was recommended to me during my Dickens phase as being quite similar in style, and so I gave it a go.

And Dickensian it is, both in its humour and its contrast between classes and castes and the divide between rich and poor. While there are numerous characters, each is impeccably drawn and has their own individual emotional journey. This book also introduced me to a culture I knew nothing about beyond vindaloo, and it spawned a near obsession with all things Indian. Set in a key period of India’s history in the wake of Gandhi and independence, it also gave me an unexpected interest in politics. Each time I read this book I uncover more gems that I missed on the last reading, which for me is truly the sign of a great book.

But most importantly, A Suitable Boy made me serious about becoming a writer. I’d dabbled in writing on and off over the years, but after reading this book I knew it was what I wanted to do. It inspired my first (adult) full length manuscript, which gave me my first taste of industry affirmation, enough to encourage me to continue even though this one will never be published.

ImageCloudstreet by Tim Winton

This book was a revelation to me. It was the first book I read with such an unorthodox style, and it made me realise that there were ways of writing with brilliance and depth of emotion without using flowery, perfectly-formed prose. It taught me that it’s OK to break rules in writing and storytelling as long is it remains true to the story.

Another family saga (OK, maybe I do have a thing for them), each character, while having their own flaws, experiences the full character arc. I’m a sucker for a redemption story, and every character, no matter how contemptible, finds their redemption in this book.

It is an achingly beautiful story with such a strong sense of place that I could picture every creaking corner of that house and breathe in the dust of the street as I read.

ImageA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Another Indian book set in a turbulent period in the country’s history, this one tears me apart on every reading.

The story swings unapologetically from the depths of cruelty and injustice to the sweetest, simplest joys of humanity and back again without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality. It is exquisitely painful and wonderfully uplifting to read.

While it is an often-depressing book, it also does a great job of demonstrating that true happiness does not come with wealth, but through families and friendships, and by accepting others for who they are and where they come from.

I can’t say enough about this book – it’s not for the faint hearted, but for me it’s a must-read.


The End

I just finished the first draft of my book. I’d love to say I typed The End, but I didn’t. I’m not sure if anyone actually does that in real life. Plus, it’s not actually, y’know, finished.

When I first started writing, the idea of finishing a manuscript seemed like the pinnacle. And it’s a big achievement, believe me. This is the fourth time I’ve done it, and nothing quite beats the mix of emotions that come with writing that final paragraph. It’s only once you delve deeper that you realise the first draft is just the lump of clay you have to massage and coax into something that resembles a story. Even if it’s a very good first draft, it’s still not finished.

I started MISCONCEPTION (working title thanks to clever husband) immediately in April this year when I was hit with an idea that wouldn’t go away. Halfway through I changed my mind about how I was going to use points of views of my characters, then three quarters of the way through I realised that a big part of the first third of the story was actually back story, and that what was originally going to be the final act was the most important part of the book. Along the way new threads popped into my head which I’ll have to go back and sew into earlier scenes. As a result, my original estimate of 80,000 words blew out to 115,000.

So, yeah. It’s not finished. I’m now faced with the mother of all structural edits, but I’m kind of looking forward to it. Last month I went to GenreCon, a genre writing convention in Brisbane, and as with all writing type events, I came away with one of those ‘duh’ realisations. One of the speakers made a statement that I brushed off as obvious at the time, but over the three days I was in Brisbane, it crept up on me and I realised I’d made that very rookie mistake.

You’ll never learn if you never finish anything.

I have seen two manuscripts through to as close to The End as they can get without the professional editing process that usually comes with a publishing deal, but since then I’ve written one first draft that I still haven’t revisited, plus two others I started and then abandoned, then this. I caught myself thinking about what I was going to write next before it suddenly occurred to me – HANG ON A MINUTE.

So I’m going to give myself two weeks off (if I can wait that long), and then I’m going to read the full thing through and start editing. In a lucky coincidence, I’ve also just applied for an Australian Society of Authors mentorship, which I am crossing my fingers (please please writing gods please) that I am successful in gaining, as this would give me 25 hours of time with an author or professional editor to bring my manuscript to a publishable standard.

And now I shall wander the house aimlessly wondering what the hell I’m going to do with myself for the next two weeks.

FREEBORN OUT


2013 Sydney Writers’ Festival

A few days ago I returned from the Sydney Writers’ Festival – the first I have attended, and hopefully not the last.

I decided to go to Sydney a couple of months ago when I was moaning to a colleague about how I wished I could go, and when I thought about it later, I realised there was nothing stopping me – I had the leave, and it would give me a great opportunity not only to catch up with my friend Dawn Barker, one of the authors in the festival, but also to meet with my agent, with whom I had only communicated via email.

This was the first time I’ve travelled on my own and the first time I’ve been away from my son for more than a working day, so to say it was exhilarating is an understatement. I got into Sydney on Wednesday afternoon and met up with Dawn for a walk around the harbour in the relentless rain and a glass of pinot in a harbourside bar. I met Dawn back in 2010 when we were on the Hachette Manuscript Development Program together. We’ve kept in touch over email ever since and it was great to catch up again and chat endlessly about books and writing and publishing.

The following morning I headed down to the festival and saw a panel session on writing about pregnancy and motherhood with Monica Dux and Anna Goldsworthy. It was interesting to hear the authors discussing their experiences with writing pregnancy/motherhood memoirs, particularly when Anna Goldsworthy described how some people had responded with ‘oh, another motherhood memoir’, as if it is somehow a less respectable  and acceptable topic than anything else. I like the way these two authors have challenged the traditional touchy-feely stereotypes of motherhood and focused not only on the joys of having children but also the downright shittiness that mothers (and parents in general) can go through on the journey. Humour was also a key element, with Monica Dux’s book including a whole chapter on her fear of ‘doing a poo during labour’, something that’s not generally discussed in polite company but which I can guarantee that every pregnant woman thinks about.

After this session I planned to see Michelle de Kretser, who was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize, and quickly learnt that if you don’t line up early, you miss out. I joined the line just in time to hear that the session was full. Thankfully I had brought along my trusty laptop, so I managed to find a seat in the crowded festival cafe to have a coffee and do some writing before catching up with Dawn for a quick lunch.

Later that afternoon I went to a session on writing painful experiences, one that is relevant to me as my current work in progress has a focus on pregnancy loss. The panel consisted of Dawn talking about her book Fractured, which focuses on postnatal depression and psychosis, Anne Deveson, who wrote a memoir on her son, who had schizophrenia and sadly died several years ago, and Helen Sage, whose memoir describes her experience in caring for her daughter following a near-fatal accident. This was an emotional session as these writers spoke about their experiences in writing about such painful issues. There were many tears in the audience.

After this I met up with Dawn and we had a drink before attending the launch of ‘Me and Rory McBeath’ by Richard Beasley. Ah, the benefits of hanging out with a writer! The book sounded amazing and has now been added to my ever-growing pile of To Be Read.

Dawn and I then spent the evening at the Festival Club, where Julian Morrow and Chris Taylor from the Chaser interviewed a few different authors. This was followed by an amazing reading by Courtney Collins from her Stella Prize shortlisted novel The Burial. Her reading was accompanied by music and images that made the whole experience hypnotic and brought a new element to the words from her beautiful book. There was also a great performance by Kate Miller-Heidke. By this point I had consumed rather more wine and rather less food than I am accustomed to and had already been up several hours past my usual bedtime, so we retired for the evening.

It was an early (and rather groggy) start on Friday morning, as I was meeting my agent, Sophie, at 8.30 at the festival hotel. I was ridiculously nervous about this, which was completely unnecessary as Sophie was lovely. It was great to finally meet her after only being in contact via email for the last year, with the added benefit that I met so many different authors and publishing types while we were chatting. I came away from the meeting feeling positive about my writing and eager to find my own place in the industry.

A beautiful place to sit and write.

After the meeting I went down to the festival again, but the combination of my mild hangover and the appearance of the sun at last killed my motivation to go to more sessions, so I found a table and chair on the wharf and daydreamed and wrote some more. It was a beautiful final morning in Sydney.

In a few hours it was all over and I was on my way to the airport again. Part of me was relieved to be going home, but at the same time I already missed the atmosphere and the sheer indulgence of being around other writers and readers. Festivals like this always inspire me and remind me that this is what I want to do. It makes it easier to return to the computer day after day, bang out more words and build a story that other people will hopefully want to read.

I’ve been home for a few days and while I haven’t had much chance to write since, I keep getting flashes of perfectly-formed prose popping into my head. This rarely happens to me. Ideas usually come to me in images that I struggle for days (weeks, even) to properly articulate. So I’ve been making sure I write down these words before they disappear forever, and they’ve really inspired me to push on with my current book so I can use them!

It was lovely to get home and see my beautiful family again, and have my son give me a hug and say ‘Yay!’ But I can already feel the festival receding in my mind. It’s back to reality again, but I’m trying to hold the image of Sydney Writers’ Festival in my head for as long as possible, as a motivation to just keep writing, writing, writing.


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