The Books That Make Us

Dear friends, old and new

It’s cycled around to the first day of the month again and I am still in this wonderful space where I’m waiting to hear back from publishers. It’s as if I am poised, teetering, on the edge of so much possibility and it’s not such a bad place to be. It’s statistically likely that I will need to pick myself up from disappointment, but that knowledge still loiters around the corner, so for now let’s bounce onward – by going backward! Back to our younger selves.

I’ve been listening to a lot of online wisdom lately. Many festivals and workshops have gone digital for the obvious (hint Covid..well that 19 is misleading, huh?) reasons, and I’ve been able to listen to talks given in NSW in the morning and Queensland in the afternoon, all without leaving my home in WA. It’s a silver lining to what is a tough time for many. These talks, and several social media chats I’ve had recently, have reminded me what a shortcut to friendship-land it can be when you find someone who liked the same books as you as a child. 

If you’re a parent, perhaps, like me, you’ve been befuddled by the reading habits of your children. My daughter often has multiple books on the go at once, a concept that nearly makes me break out in hives. Is it her early exposure to modern tech that allows her to keep several storylines running in her head at once? Or is that something other people in older generations could do too – just not me? Meanwhile, my son prefers to read the same books over and over. This worried me for a while, until I thought about how many times I read my favourite series when I was younger. Those of you who know me well, or knew me way back when, will immediately know I’m referring to that series so many of us bookish types found comfort in: Anne of Green Gables

My mother worked in the library at my primary school, and I can still remember the sage green, hard-backed copy of Anne that I first discovered there. It had black and white photos in it of a movie version that I have never seen. I’ve never seen that edition since. I loved that book. I read it and the entire series over and over again. I caused my moustachioed Grade Four teacher some concern when he found me weeping in class over Matthew’s death…which taught me not to read books under the desk…and I still remember that Anne’s son (Walter)’s dog howled when he died, away at the front. Luckily, I was at home for that one. But, most of all, I remember that Anne loved words and names and making happiness out of sadness. Something little me liked too. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Gilbert was in there as well. The kind of hero I could respect. He liked smart, loud Anne , something that girls of my generation, and perhaps my particular persuasion, needed to hear.

There were other books too, many of them, but none ever took the place of the Anne series in my heart. I haven’t read them for ages, I think because I almost know them too well and there are no surprises left. But they have left an imprint on my soul, so much so that when another claims a similar love, my warm feeling of Hello! A kindred spirit! has to fight with an instinctual bristling of What? No! Excuse me, I’m sure you didn’t love Anne like I loved Anne! Oh, you did?!

And, of course, that is the thing about books. They belong to no one, not even the author really. They arrive to patch us up or fill us up or inspire us. And at the same time, they may be patching up or filling up millions of other people. It’s humbling and delightful. 

If you have time and inclination, tell me about the books that made you.

The highs and lows continue…

My goodness, it is August. Yesterday, I was too busy processing a rather exciting Saturday to post this month’s update! More about that in a minute, as first I must tell you about my time at the bottom of the emotional roller coaster, or this blog would not be the fair exposition of the writing/publishing process that I had promised you all.

There are many wonderful writing prizes that are presented annually or biennially here in Australia. In a good year, there are four that accept unpublished Young Adult novel length manuscripts from someone of my age. (I say that not because middle-aged YA writers are rare, but because one of the prizes is for writers under 35. Sadly, that is no longer me, although hopefully I make up in wisdom what I lack in youthful exuberance these days. Otherwise, I feel short-changed! However, back to the point.) This year only one of those prizes was run and while I entered it hopefully, I knew I would be up against many other excellent manuscripts.

Sure enough, I missed out on the shortlist, which was the height of my aspirations, and I was disappointed. More disappointed than last year, when I’d felt in my bones that the MS I’d entered wasn’t quite up to scratch yet. I had a bit of a pout this time and allowed myself a few days to feel like a very average – possibly less than average – writer. Feeling your feelings is important, people tell me! It sucked. But it sucked less than it would have when I was under 35. Because I don’t think I was ready then for ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ that are the reality of the publishing world. Some people are. I was not.

At the grand age I am now, throughout my sulk, I knew the feelings would pass, that at some point my writer self would stand up again and say, um hello, i ‘m still here and i’m not going away and you need to get back out there. Knowing this helped immeasurably. The following week, I was getting back on the horse, eating less chocolate and drinking less wine – LOL not LOL! – when a dear little email popped into my inbox. It was from an agent requesting ‘a full’ of my first YA – which means she had read the ten pages and the synopsis I’d sent her and liked it enough to be interested in reading more. Well. Prize shortlist? What prize shortlist?! (Though seriously it was a great shortlist with amazing writers on it and you can find it and the deserving winner here!) I am just so heartened that, whatever happens, this particularly wonderful agent wanted to read more of it! 🙂

Then, this Saturday just gone, I attended the Kidlitvic online conference and had a double request for manuscript from the two publishers I pitched to! Well, knock me down and pick me back up again! Here we are at the next upswing of the Luna Park roller coaster, looking out across Port Phillip Bay and St Kilda, wind rushing through our hair! (Actually never in real life…. literal rollercoasters make me pass out ….shhhh, keep that to yourself. Oh and also, I don’t live in Melbourne anymore, but let’s not get bogged down in details!)

So, that’s where we are now. There’s still an awful lot of waiting going on with a few spikes of intense activity at times! I’m working on my next story, which is taking a little longer than usual, possibly because I’m writing from the viewpoint of a 17 year old boy, someone I have never been, not even in the distant past. And the story has a sad beginning, which takes time to do well enough.

It’s been three years since I sat down and started writing seriously. My first manuscript – a contemporary adult novel – is still in its drawer for now. The next two are out trying their luck in the big world. They have to be marketable as well as decently written. I have little control over the former, but I can keep working on the latter and hope for the best of luck!

To all my fellow writers seeking publication, may the words and luck be flowing. To those of you reading because you are an important person in my life, hello and may it be a good day in your world. And to you all, thank you and blessings.

It’s the little things. Right?!

Bay of Fires Tasmania
Bay of Fires Tasmania

One of the things I love most about writing is the way it forces me to slow down. I learnt early that achievement was linked to speed and it’s taking me a long time to unlearn it. Quickly working through tasks on a list makes me feel efficient and there are times when that sort of efficiency is necessary. But, for the big things in life, say, the ability to live with stillness and be content in it, rushing doesn’t get me anywhere.

When I write, I am forced to focus on details. I have to watch for cliches and generalities. It sounds okay for a character to say someone is ‘like a fish out of water’, it’s not okay for me to lazily describe a person like that. Gerard de Nerval, a French poet, is attributed with the words, “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.” (1) This is rather harsh, nonetheless, as George Orwell advised, it is best not to ‘use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print’. (2) Sometimes, I don’t notice clichés in my drafts until the third or fourth – or twentieth – read-through, and then, it takes time and patience for me to get down to the essence of what I’m actually trying to say. But, I’m sure it’s good for my soul!

When I write, I have to think about setting. What is the weather like? What plants, if any, would be found in the environment my characters are in and how do those plants look and smell – and sometimes even taste and feel and sound! What words work best to describe this? What details most stand out in the landscape my characters are functioning in? And last, but almost most importantly, how much of any of this would my character notice? Especially as I am usually writing from a first person, adolescent, point of view.

When I write, I must accept that good work is rarely completed quickly. That there is a power in taking one’s time to think and feel. That while I crave the triumph of writing the last scene, doing the last edit, maybe getting a publishing deal and selling the first book to someone I don’t know, I have to remind myself that much of the beauty of life lies in the process, in the steps, in the effort and in the moments when the words fall into place. If I could waltz around selling books and remember nothing about the pain of writing them, or never be able to write another line, would I truly choose that? The joy is in the work. Even though it’s hard to remember that sometimes!

So, as I continue to wait for news on my second and third manuscripts, I plough on with my fourth manuscript and remind myself of all of this. I’m at a bottleneck in the writing process that is completely out of my hands and the only thing to do is to accept it and get on with the work. I understand why I must wait. I can even sometimes persuade myself that waiting is good for me! Admittedly, I do, occasionally, fling myself around declaiming loudly, “Oh for God’s sake!” I find I generally feel better afterwards, and can healthily reconnect to the idea that this writing lark requires committing for the long term.

If you too are out there, training for the day when Waiting becomes an Olympic sport, you have my sympathy. And my encouragement. Maybe it’s time to pick up that piece you haven’t been able to get quite right. Or to lose yourself in a new, exciting project. Or just to stop and look at the plants around you, layering up knowledge that may pour onto the page at a later date. I tell myself all these things as I trot around in limbo and it does make the waiting more bearable. But, may I just say, “Oh for God’s sake!” one more time before you leave?!

Mentor Chat

How is it May already? Here in Perth, the minimum temperature is finally closer to ten degrees than twenty and the leaves of our few deciduous trees are turning crisp and brown and dropping to the ground. Not for us the lengthy turn of seasons, colours shifting from green to red to gold, more of a wham oops it’s not baking hot anymore off with your leaves! situation. I don’t mind, because I enjoy our long, guaranteed summers, but I do miss the autumn colours of the softer climates I’ve lived in.

Anyway, I digress. Partly because it is the great game of waiting that continues to be played out here. I’ve been in waiting training all my life, as an older sister, a teacher, the partner of someone with a demanding job and a primary carer. Patience is something I could put on a C.V. – which is helpful when choosing to be an author because there is A LOT of waiting involved and the best thing to do is just keep writing.

However, I have had one particularly lovely book-related experience: the feedback from, and very nice chat with, my ASA competition mentor. Kristina Schulz is a highly experienced, now freelancing, editor and publisher and I was thrilled that she agreed to work with me. She said some very kind things about my writing and made me think more intently about certain aspects of it – which is exactly what one wants from a mentor, don’t you think? There were several moments that meant a great deal, but what I will share is that Kristina did that thing that every author loves – told me a sentence from Chapter One that she’d stopped to put love hearts around. There is nothing quite like knowing you’ve hit the mark and made the reader feel what you wanted them to feel.

So, a new month is here and the year is fast progressing, but I am at ease. Because it takes many small steps to walk the whole mile and you may as well enjoy the view along the way.

Good luck with whatever your small steps may be this month.

Bonus mid-month post cos: exciting times!

Apologies to those of you who are getting this clipping in an email after you’ve already seen it all over my social media pages – but bear with me as I do have some extra rollercoaster news!

The article is self-explanatory for those seeing it for the first time – except to say that because it’s such an awesome photo overall I will forgive Paul the photographer for using it! Because he had told us we were done and so the reason I look like I’m concentrating on how to get down is because I AM! In every other shot I, of course, looked effortlessly glamorous AND comfortable, but what can you do when you’ve got a brilliant jumper like Kai?! Also, I want to say that I’m heartened that this story was given front page exposure. It gives me hope.

So, the extra news is that I was just typing away this week, working on YA number 3, when an email popped up from a publisher about my first Young Adult novel, Paddling!!!! She loved it and has passed it on to a colleague for a second opinion! Well!! I mean…well!!!

It’s so odd the way your day can just be unfolding normally. You managed to get organised to write at a decent time that morning. You also did your exercise and remembered to put a wash on (let’s not talk about hanging it out immediately – I’M A WRITER NOW, REMEMBER?!!) And then, BOOM, your life takes a crazy diversion into embarrassing middle-aged parent dancing on tables land!!

Of course, it’s not a contract yet, or anything champagne-popping like that, but it’s another sign that people other than those who know me seem to like what I’m writing. And you can’t buy that! So, here I am on my roller coaster, sharing with you! There’s nothing more to say yet. I’m just here, living in the moment, and all right, maybe just a tiny sip since we have a bottle in the fridge anyway…

They’ll be no updates for a while, and then I’ll either be up at the top hollering my heart out or in that curve down to the bottom (a reason to drink that champagne now!), but hey, so far, this ride has actually become more fun more quickly than I was expecting! And, I’m determined to share it all with you even if there’s tears. Because, this, warts and all, is the truth of being a writer, for most of us. A hundred years ago, we could be seen in Parisian cafes putting it all out there – well maybe not the WOMEN but that’s a whole other post. Now, most of us are emotional and shouty in the privacy of our own home (ok I’m actually not shouty but there is the odd moment of why am I doing this to myself?!), so blogs are the medium of choice…

Meanwhile, may the birds and the trees and all the tiny things near you be healthy and strong and support you on your own rollercoasters*.

*if you noticed I spelt roller coaster with a space once, and once without, well done, you! It’s because I feel like embracing the US and UK spelling in the same post today. (If you didn’t realise rollercoaster was one of the words affected by this until right now – join my club!) NB any potential publisher reading this, I would never be so cavalier in an actual book, I promise!

What winning something meant to me.

So. Most of you reading this will know that, just the day after my last post, I won a Highly Commended place in The Australian Society of Authors Mentorship Awards 2021 for the first draft of my Young Adult novel about love, communication and saving the banksia woodlands. The win filled me with joy, which makes sense, but I quite like to overthink these things so here’s exactly why!

Firstly, pretty much every writer I know experiences the absolute horror show that is the way the same words can look different to you one day after another. On good days, you read what you’ve written and go, “Hmmm that ain’t half bad, maybe I’ve got something here.” Or words to that effect. 24 hours later you may look at THE EXACT SAME WORDS and think, “Oh My God. This is the absolute worst rubbish ever written, so clunky, so awkward and unimportant, and not at all saying what I want to say.” You get the idea.

Winning this HC means some writers I hugely respect read my words and AGREED WITH GOOD DAY ME! So now, on a bad day, I can remind myself of this and more easily tell the negative voice in my head to go and sit in the corner and have a think about what it’s doing. Priceless.

Secondly, for me like for many people, the last year has been a sad one. I lost my feisty, supportive mum to a bleak, fast cancer and our dear labrador to a slower one. And, I had an empty nest for the first time. We don’t talk enough about the significant change that is children leaving home. For many reasons, but largely because it once appeared it might never happen, I am filled with deep joy that my two are out in the wide world, living their lives. But, oh boy, I miss seeing them every day. They’ve grown into adults who are fun to be around and they’re off being fun around other people (as they should) instead of me and…well you get my drift. I miss them and I miss me with them. So, yay for this lovely, happy news early in 2021!

Thirdly, as a Highly Commended winner I will receive direct feedback on the beginning of my manuscript from a hugely experienced mentor (I’m so thrilled to be working with this person), as well as be part of a Pathways to Publication program. Yay!! In addition to the obvious benefits of being a mentee, I’m a tad on the extroverted side and often miss the zillion billion interactions of a teaching day. Okay, maybe not every single one of them, but definitely the ones that made me feel like I was doing an okay job! Working alone can send me a little crazy (refer to my first point!)

Lastly…I’m sure I could think of more, I just don’t want to keep you here all day 🙂 …so, lastly, I’m so excited that this manuscript got noticed. There are themes in it that I care about deeply, not least: how we communicate and connect when we think we don’t have a common language and how we handle our responsibilities as custodians of this planet. This mentorship will help me write the best version of this book that I can and, to paraphrase something I heard Pip Williams (The Dictionary of Lost Words) say recently, have a better chance of ‘not letting down the idea’.

So, that’s the gist of it. A sincere thank you to the ASA and the judges of the Children’s, YA and Picture Book Illustration category,  Oliver Phommavanh and  Deborah Abela. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have received this opportunity at this precise time. I know that there is sooo much good writing around and I was lucky.

Hmm, I’ve also got a kind of funny story to tell you about a pitch I did recently, but this post is long enough, so I’ll save that for another time. I hope you are all well and thank you to every single one of you who has signed up for emails – I’m truly honoured by the numbers.

May it be a good day at your place 🙂

What I’ve learnt about writing novels – so far

Words: I like them a lot, but that’s cheating because I actually knew that before. I now know I need about 80 000 of them to claim I have a novel-length manuscript. This can change between genres; fantasy is longer, Middle Grade fiction (for 8-12 year olds) shorter.

First Drafts: Best thought of as ‘word vomit*’ or you telling the story to yourself. It is a starting point and you just need to get it done. Do what it takes. Bribes can work. Make yourself sit at the computer when it’s not coming easily. About 35 000 words into my last manuscript, I ran out of steam even though I knew where the story was going and wanted to write it. I gave myself a couple of days off, but it didn’t recharge me. So, I simply had to make myself write for however long it took to get 2000 words done, every day. I wrote whatever came into my head, just to keep going. It looked awful on the page and I had to keep dragging those sentences out of myself for about two weeks. Like, seriously, dragging. I can honestly say it was the hardest work I’ve done while sitting in a chair. But it worked. At around the 50 000 mark, the words began to come easily again and the very end was written joyfully in a sweet 6000 word flourish. Best of all, when I reread it, the words I’d despaired over were better than I’d believed at the time. Go figure. Wading on through seems to work.

Other Drafts: Necessary. Mostly very enjoyable. But naming them is misleading. Some sections get rewritten 4352 times. Other parts, maybe once or twice. Like everything to do with writing, it’s not simple to explain. Apart from the seat of the pants thing, there’s no arguing with that.

Other Writers: Such a good bunch. Find some. Make them your friends. Have regular meetings (if you want to write yourself that is – otherwise that would be kind of weird 😉 ) Read their manuscripts when they ask, ask them to read yours. The technical term for this is beta reading. (The first MS I ever beta read was top notch and the author, Karen Whittle-Herbert, will have her first book, a crime novel called The River Mouth, published in September. Buy it. She’s a star on the rise.) Also, the writing community on Twitter is supportive and friendly. I believe some of the action is moving to Instagram now, but this may only be a rumour. I’ve learnt a lot from links and news shared on the bird platform. #AusWrites is a good place to get started if you’re Australian.

Finished Manuscripts: 1) A misnomer. Very hard to ever definitively say, “That’s it, I’m done.” I’ve heard authors say they never read their published book because they know they will want to change parts. But, at some point, one must send it out to the wide world. 2) Satisfying. Celebrate the moment. Whatever happens from here, I have finished three books. Yay, me. 3) Must be formatted properly before being sent off to agents/publishers. REMEMBER to do this. Who knew a title page was necessary and that chapters are best started twelve lines down the page? Everyone except me, maybe?! I think I’ve got it sorted now 🙂

Final Thoughts: I always imagined satisfaction from writing would only come with getting published. I can honestly say, I no longer feel this way. Having a serious writing habit has enriched my life more than I can properly explain. All you book people, readers and writers, are MY people. Wrestling with language in the written form and talking/reading about it is my happy place. I still plan to continue sending agents and publishers my work until someone cracks/ sees it for the brilliantly insightful work it is/wants to print it. However, meanwhile, I’m having an excellent time. (Except maybe when I was writing the middle bit of that book just finished, but let’s not get bogged down in details…)

All this is to say, if you’re living with that feeling that you’ve got a book or three in you, get to it. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll learn an awful lot about things you didn’t know that you didn’t know, and, if you play right, meet some great people. Also, I’m available to beta read if you get in quick 🙂

*I don’t know who came up with this brilliant way of describing a first draft. If you do, perhaps you could let me know?

P.S. I promised to share the roller coaster. I don’t think I got an ASA mentorship this time around and I haven’t yet heard anything back from the publisher or agent who asked to read my first Young Adult novel. It’s to be expected. I am alternating between sulking mildly and pulling up my big girl pants. I have another pitching opportunity next week and more publishers to try. I’m learning Auslan (loving it) because of a Deaf character I’m writing. I’m thinking of pulling the first manuscript I wrote out of a drawer and revamping it. Either that or continuing on with my half-complete third Young Adult story. The first draft of my second YA novel ( the one I’ve just finished) needs to percolate for a bit before I can read it with a clear mind.

Are you writing?

Novel writing

Welcome old friends and new!

For the past two years I have been working on several books – and avoiding setting up a website. I am here now, at last, with one novel complete enough that it is being considered by an agent and publisher, after two successful pitches through The Australian Society of Authors Virtual Literary Speed Dating event. Last week, I finished the first draft of a second novel and submitted it to a mentorship program, also administered by The Australian Society of Authors. Exciting times.

I have learnt a great deal since I decided that if I did not commit to writing, right at that moment, I might never do it. One such thing is that self-promotion, which in this case is little blurbs of chit-chat in a written form for your perusal, is a necessary part of the writing life these days. Those of you who have met me in real life will know that I am quite a fan of the conversational arts, so I shall simply view my blog as a visual extension of this. I can only imagine how some less chatty people whom we rightly consider the greats of literature would have thumbed their noses at the idea of a blog. But I am not such a great; I just have a few stories to tell and if you would like to follow along as I share the ups and downs, you can do so by subscribing 🙂 I suspect it may be quite the ride… *see earlier note re my love of conversation 😉 *I will not be cluttering up your inbox more than once a fortnight though 🙂

May it be a good day where you are.