‘The River Mouth’ Interview

I just spoke to Karen Herbert, who suggested I was more excited than her about the release of her first book! Perhaps, perhaps! It’s not every day that you get to celebrate the launch of a novel that you have watched grow from an early draft to publication.

Karen, like me, is a graduate of Marlish Glorie’s excellent writing class at Fremantle Arts Centre. When we met, Karen was well into her first draft of Castaways – out next year with Fremantle Press. In one of those publishing twists, The River Mouth is Karen’s second completed manuscript, but her first to arrive in book form. It’s a cracker of a study of small towns and the stories within them. Essentially, it’s a rural crime novel about a woman torn between protecting a secret and finding the truth about her son’s murder. Read more about the plot of The River Mouth and find Fremantle Press book club notes here.

Last week, Karen and I sat on a bench in beautiful Jualbup Park and talked about the process of creating The River Mouth.

Annie: Karen, congratulations on the impending publication of ‘The River Mouth’! As a woman who’s had a busy life doing other things until fairly recently, can you tell me about sitting down to write your first novel and what brought you to that moment?

Karen: So, I came to writing really late, although not as late as some people I understand now! I was working in aged care; I was in an executive position. I was loving it, loved my job so much, worked with some wonderful people, some wonderful clients, and it was made redundant. (laughs) I was gutted, just gutted.

Annie: I can imagine

Karen: You know I was gutted. I met you around that time!

Annie: Mmm, it throws you for a six right, when you’re just going along this path and then…

Karen: Ohhh, I went home and drank a couple of glasses of wine and, um, pulled my boots on the next morning and sat down and started to write.

Annie: I just can’t believe it was the next morning!

Karen: Yeah, it was. It was the next morning! I just went oh f@#k it, I want to do something! So, I started to write, and I wrote every morning after my husband went to work and when he came home, I was still there, laughs writing. I shut my computer down, made dinner, we did our evening routine. I did that 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, for three months, and I had the final draft…hah! The final draft?! The first draft of Castaways written. And I hadn’t managed to get a job by that point, so I started The River Mouth! Laughs And both of those were subsequently accepted for publication. I think Castaways was accepted nine months after I was made redundant, which was just, it seemed like forever, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry then and now I understand that it was actually very fast!

Annie: Right?

Karen: So, I do count myself very fortunate.

Annie: And were there things previously in your life…like did you say to yourself, in my fifties, I’m going to write a book…

Karen: Laughs hard No! I mean, writing was something I was good at. At school, that was my thing. I was cleaning out stuff the other day and I came across all these merit certificates with little red dolphins on them from when I was seven. ‘To Karen, for writing a beautiful poem.’ Laughs. Or ‘an interesting story’. It was there but, I don’t know, in the 70s, in the 80s, when you’re a girl in Geraldton, maybe it’s the same for you too, who becomes a writer? What is a writer? What does a writer do? How do you live as a writer? It’s not something I could dream of. I didn’t know anything about that. Only people who were exceptional got to be writers, I thought. It just didn’t occur to me as something I could do.

Annie: Mmm, interesting. My dad was a book critic as one part of his job as a journalist, so I think to me it was almost like, how dare I aspire to that?

Karen: Yeah, you know, you’d be a bit full of yourself, wouldn’t you? Both laugh

Annie: It was like that, wasn’t it? You were good at it, but it just didn’t occur to you to make it into a career.

Karen: Yeah, yeah. There is something else in that, too, I think. When we have stuff that we are naturally good at, I believe that we tend not to value it. We only value stuff that we had to acquire.

Annie: Mmm, yeah, isn’t that interesting?!

Karen: There’s actually a feminist slant on that as well. A lot of women skills are naturally acquired skills; nurturing, coaching, organising, developing people. They’re the things that, traditionally, women are good at. And they’re the things that are really important in the workplace as well, but we don’t value them as much as being able to manage finances, which is a learned skill. Which typically men learn, so there’s an interesting Venn diagram in there.

Annie: Mmm, I can totally relate. And maybe, also as girls of the 80s, we felt like we had to, in order to be employable, we had to do something that men did.

Karen: Absolutely. We had to learn an acquired profession.

Annie: Mm, okay moving on! It’s clear from the novel that you are someone who reflects on the social ills and strengths of communities. Did you consciously set out to address as many issues as you could in this book, or did it just come about as you explored the characters and story? (Both laugh)

Karen: Yeah, my publishers’ marketing manager said, “There’s almost too much in this, isn’t there?!”

Annie: She meant that in the best way, I reckon!

Karen: I hope so! No, I didn’t. What I tried to do…after I’d written that chapter with the boys on the rope swing and started to wonder what had happened to them…it occurred to me that, whatever it was, it was very deeply rooted in the community. And I wanted to hold up a mirror to the community without whitewashing it or glossing over stuff. For me that meant including people in the community that I’ve had a lot to do with in my life; older people, homeless people, people with disabilities. The more I started to write the story…and be unflinching about what that looks like… and talked about it to other people, the more I started to understand just how much those people are invisible in the community, and invisible in literature, and I think that probably made me more determined to have invisible people quite clearly portrayed in the story and as part of the storyline – not as just a background Greek chorus.

Annie: Mmm, so, I’ve got two questions coming out of that. Firstly, was the rope swing scene the first scene you wrote of The River Mouth?

Karen: Yes. I wrote about stuff I’d seen a kid and the setting was how I remembered it when my sisters and I used to roam, down on the Chapman River. And, you know, we weren’t allowed to be there! We were expressly told! We were unseen, unsupervised and there was an element of danger. There were submerged rocks. There were hairy caterpillars. There were odd people lurking around. But, it’s in those environments, on the edges of things, that kids learn. They get to test out their relationships, push their boundaries…

Annie: Mmm, and stories happen!

Karen: And stories happen, don’t they?

Annie: Mmm. You also said, as I learnt to address this unflinchingly. Can you talk a little more about that?

Karen: Yeah. So, there are scenes in the book…I wrote them and I sat back and thought, am I allowed to say that? Is that ok? Is that going to upset people? And some of it’s not particularly politically correct either, some of the things the characters say. I’m quite aware that authors do get torn apart for allowing their characters to say things that aren’t politically correct and then have those views ascribed to them as authors. Sometimes, people don’t seem to be able to distinguish between the views of the author and views of the character. And I thought no I won’t resile from that. Because that’s what people do say and maybe I can be careful about the way that I write it, so it’s clear that I’m not endorsing things that are problematic. But, people do say those things. The example I’m thinking of is where Sandra, the mother of the boy who dies, and Stuart, the husband of the woman who dies, they’re sitting on the riverbank and they come across each other in the dark and there’s a little bit of frisson of fear and tension and danger there. They start talking about Stuart’s wife Barbara, who is Sandra’s best friend. They start trying to make sense of her death and why she was where she was. They’re trying to comfort themselves and they do it in a way that perhaps puts a little bit of self-serving spin on it.

Annie: Self-serving themselves?

Karen: Yes, Stuart in particular, and second-guessing things that may or may not be true about particular types of people in society. I came back to that over and over again and reread it and reread it. And I thought, well that’s what we do, when we’re grappling with issues we don’t really understand and we’re trying to make sense of them. We do say things that might be a bit clumsy or not quite right and that’s okay. I want that to be okay because that’s the pathway we have to walk to come to a more accurate understanding.

Annie: Mmm, I get it. So, similarly, did you think much about the accepted realities of crime fiction when you were writing or did the story take over? And that question came out of the fact that it’s so great that the book doesn’t just revolve around the death of a woman at the hands of a sexual predator or similar.

Karen: Oh yeah. I wasn’t going to write a crime novel that centred around the death of a beautiful young woman in gory, sexualised circumstances. It wasn’t necessary. Death is…untimely death is awful enough without having to put in details or to sexualise it or to continue the trope of here we go with another young woman dying and a grizzled, disaffected male detective is investigating it. Those books are great! I read lots of them myself, but I just didn’t need to write that. But there are other tropes in crime fiction that, as I wrote this book, I realised I did need to follow. And one was the bringing together of all the narrative threads at the end. One of the big things that happened when I was editing was I removed two whole chapters after discussing them with my editor. She explained to me that at this point your reader is expecting this to all start narrowing down to a conclusion and what you’ve done with these chapters, Karen, is take them on a new route and widened it out. And I didn’t realise I’d done that, and I was annoyed because I didn’t want to get rid of those chapters! I liked them! But she was right. That is what readers expect in a crime novel. And if I’m going to call it a crime novel and people are going to pick it up off the shelves and hand over their money thinking they’re getting a crime novel, I need to deliver on that. And maybe when I get a bit more experienced, I can play with that a bit more, in a way that’s a bit more finessed. Maybe.

Annie: That would be fun! So, I’m curious if there is one character in The River Mouth that you came to know better than you’d expected?

Karen: That’s hard. (Thinks) Colin. I’ve been wondering about Colin ever since I wrote the book. Because I started to hear conversations, after I’d written the book, about Own Voices. And started to think about just how much can you write if you haven’t walked in a character’s shoes? And obviously I’ve never been a teenage boy. And it’s quite a while since I was a teenage girl. Laughs.

Annie: Yes, there is so much to discuss around the subtleties of Own Voices, but we’ll be here all day, so we better keep moving! I know from reading an earlier draft that Sandra and Greg’s relationship was explored slightly differently in the final version. Could you talk a little about that process?

Karen: Sure! With Sandra and Greg, as I wrote the book, I didn’t know where Sandra’s relationship with Greg was going to end up. I didn’t know it for a really long time. I knew how she was feeling about Greg and I knew she wasn’t very open with herself about how she was feeling about Greg, but I think I was still, in Chapter 40 or 38, I was still not really sure. I don’t think it was until the denouement, where she’s saying what’s going to happen from here on, that I really knew where she was going to go with that. I followed her, almost.

Annie: So you knew the end of your crime story, whodunnit that is, but there was still a part of it, quite an important part of it, that was a mystery to you. Which, would kind of satisfy both plotters and pantsers!  A lot of pantsers would say, why would you want to write a story when you already know what’s going to happen at the end? (Both laugh.) While, of course, plotters are like, what are you talking about?! (More laughter.)

Karen: It’s the driving to Geraldton analogy. I know I’m starting in Perth, I know I’m going to finish in Geraldton. I don’t know what time the westerly is going to start blowing, I don’t know what the traffic conditions are going to be like. I haven’t quite decided whether I’ll take the coast road or the inland road. I know I’ll stop and get a Chiko Roll at some point!

Annie: Haha, you are an 80s girl! Both laugh

Karen: But aside from that, the rest of it’s a bit of a mystery. I don’t know if I’m going to get stuck behind a road train or a procession of grey nomads heading to Exmouth.

Annie: It’s a great analogy. To continue with the Greg aspect, I was lucky enough to read an earlier version and I was a little confused with him. I think for writers it would be really interesting if you could elaborate a little bit on the process you went through to clarify that

Karen: OK, so I’ve done this with quite a few storylines. So, you know you get, as a writer, you get deep down in the detail and are tapping away and then you go back and you start reading through stuff and there’s stuff you forget and you think oh that was really good or what was happening here? So what I do to keep track of that is have a spreadsheet. I have the numbers of the chapters down one side and I have the names of the storylines across the top, so I get all these little boxes. In each box I put the main things that are happening, so then I can read across a chapter and all these things all happened in this chapter. Or I might find a chapter that actually doesn’t do anything and it could be beautiful writing and I might love it, but it just needs to go because it doesn’t need to be there.

So, I did find a few holes with Greg in the book. When I was editing with Georgia at Fremantle Press she said Now, look, it’s really great what happens with Greg, but I don’t understand why! She started laying out Greg’s circumstances and going so given all of that what is his motivation for doing this thing? and I was sitting there on the phone ’cause we’re in the middle of Covid thinking oh you stupid woman it’s this of course and then I spend the next 10 minutes explaining why Greg did all these things and she listens, bless her, and sort of pauses and then she says that’s great I totally get it now – let’s put that in the book shall we? (Both laugh)

Annie: Thanks for sharing that! I just think your success story is so amazing that I think it is helpful for us other writers out there to know that even Karen doesn’t quite get it right first pop! (Laughter) Sometimes little bits and pieces of characters, at least! So, that gets us to the “How are you feeling?” question! Now that the book comes out so soon!

Karen: It’s like riding a wave. It’s just a beautiful feeling but, like riding a wave, it’s also a bit terrifying too because you don’t know when it’s gonna closeout and there’s rocks over there and you’re heading towards them and you don’t know how to turn the surfboard yet!

Annie: A Geraldton girl with a surfing analogy! Excellent. Because you do surf, right?

Karen: Yep and I don’t know how to turn yet! Laughing Every part of the journey has been lovely. I loved drafting the first draft. It was such an adventure. Then, working on the second and third drafts, you’re deep in your head, and you’re problem solving, and you’re pulling stuff apart and discovering, and that’s lovely too. Editing takes you to the whole next level and now, I’m in that bit where I’m learning how to talk about the book! That’s a bit daunting, but Josephine Taylor, who wrote Eye of a Rook, said to me every interview you do, every article you write about your book, you learn more about what you wrote and how you wrote it. You discover things and you become better at understanding. I’ve only done a few interviews so far, but I can really see what she means.

Annie: That’s, actually, really nice to hear! It comes a little bit back to what you said about how we don’t always value what we know, and when you go into writing a book, you bring so much with you that you forget that it’s not everyone else’s reality as well, right? And you have to learn to talk about that!

Karen: Yeah. pause So, I’m feeling good. Nervous but good.

Annie: Okay, two quick questions to go! First, what has been the most eye-opening part of this whole journey for you?

Karen: The writing community. It is amazing! Who knew that there were all these people out there in the community, working away at novels and poems and short stories and writing amazing stuff, and they’re just so damn nice!

Annie: Yes! So true! Okay, lastlywhat would you say to people who think it’s too late to start writing?

Karen: I know it sounds all very amazing that I’ve managed to do this in such a short space of time, but the reality is: I’m financially secure. I’ve got a husband who works, our children are grown up, I’m not cooking dinner every night or running kids to sport and school and stuff. I’ve got time to write and I have a part time job now, so I’m doing my bit for the household. I couldn’t have done this when I was working full-time and raising kids. And I’m not sure that I had anything to say! I say to people if you’re out there writing and you just can’t find the time or you’re looking at what you write and just going oh for goodness sake, don’t give up your day job. Life is long and there’s lots of time to do stuff. Put the manuscript in your bottom drawer and go and eat ice cream with the kids. Just wait until it’s time.

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So, that’s it! The River Mouth by Karen Herbert is out today from Fremantle Press. If you’re in lockdown or otherwise find it difficult to get out, you can buy it straight from the publisher: https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/the-river-mouth

Happy Reading!

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.