Today I want to talk more about how scary it is being an emerging writer. A lot of people know me as a poet. Very few people know me as someone who writes fiction. Creating a name for myself in a new field is challenging. While I’m mostly focused on creating new work, I’m also learning new skills, refining old skills, making mistakes and trying to work out how to get my stuff in front of an audience. For example, I won NaNoWriMo again this year. I now have one and a half novels and, while I’m still editing the first one, I have 25,000 words left to write for the new one.
I wrote 50,000 words in November while working full time. I neglected this blog because I thought (rightly so, I think) that my time was better spent writing my novel. I had days where I didn’t write at all. There were intense days where I wrote too much. I had to write 10,000 words in 4 days at one point, in order to catch back up.
When NaNoWriMo ended in 2017, I kept writing anyway. I continued writing 2000 words a day. That hasn’t happened this time. My second novel is at 59,000 words (my goal is 85,000 words), and, since NaNoWriMo ended, I have only written 9,000 words.
Despite this being my second time doing NaNoWriMo, I’ve still struggled for motivation. Work is busy. I’m burnt out and tired. I’ve found I’ve been listening a lot more to the advice of more experienced writers, especially when it comes to balancing my writing with work. Some of these resources have also helped me get over the fear of breaking into the industry and having my voice heard. I find a lot of my fear is because the business of being a writer is unknown. There are so many resources available now that help debunk some of that mystery. I’ve noticed a big shift in the industry where authors are more open to talking about their journeys and financial situations. Here are some of the resources that have helped me:
Centre for Stories “Conversations”
I listened to this podcast with Michelle Johnston and Dawn Barker recently and it covers a lot of helpful topics, such as finding time to write between family and your job, dealing with criticism, and getting your first novel published. The Centre for Stories also publishes the Between the Lines series, which interviews Australian writers to “uncover the hidden processes, research, and inspiration that goes into the making of a book” (n.d., Centre for Stories, para 1). Check out some of their latest posts with Angela Meyer and Yvonne Fein. I also suggest the series, “In Australia I will be…”, which is a collaboration with the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP). Four students worked with the Centre for Stories to document their own experiences as migrants integrating into our culture. It’s an eye opening read.
One thing to note is that the Centre for Stories website can be little less intuitive to use if you’re looking at reading content and listening to podcasts instead of looking at what events they’re running. All you need to know is that you can find all the online content under the “stories” tab.
The First time podcast
The first time podcast is all about writer’s first times…publishing a book. It was created by Katherine Collette and Kate Mildenhall as they were working towards their debut novels. Mildenhall and Collette interview authors about their first times, with recent topics including using Patreon as a side business, a guide to handling publicity once you’ve published a book, what you need to know about touring festivals, and how money works. It’s a great overview of the industry and worth subscribing to.
Annabel Smith’s “How to become a writer” series
Annabel’s Smith’s “How to become a writer series” is a very honest account of the business of being a writer. Smith interviews other writers about the steps they took on the way to publishing a book. It’s a refreshing reminder that everyone’s journey is different and there’s no right way to break into the industry. The series was named after Lorrie Moore’s book “How to become a writer” (which is also worth a read). If you haven’t been following Smith’s blog, you can start reading the series from the first post, which is here.
I’m also going to give a shoutout here to Smith’s “What to expect when you’re expecting a book” series, which covers topics like being edited, understanding social media, and understanding that the rollercoaster ride of feelings is completely normal. Smith’s “How writer’s earn money” series is also a very honest explanation of how money works in the industry. Smith includes a breakdown of her own income and uses graphs to help readers make sense of the numbers.
Australian Writer’s Centre “So you want to be a writer” podcast
This podcast is a very useful guide to the industry and, like The First Time podcast, it includes interviews with Australian authors. In recent episodes they talk about how to afford an editor, and how to know that your manuscript is finished. One of my favourite episodes is with DM Cameron where she talks about the amount of edits she did to finish her first novel, Beneath the Mother Tree. Cameron did an edit for each of the five senses. I’m reading her book now and the result is a very engaging and immersive novel.
Curtin’s China Australia writing Centre podcasts (CAWC)
The China Australia Writing Centre is a collaborative venture between Curtin University in Perth and Fudan University in Shanghai. The centre provides space to showcase Chinese writing in Australia and Australian writing in China. Their podcast provides an interesting dialogue of both country’s approaches to writing.
Australian Writer’s Marketplace used to be a book of resources for writers. The book focused on contacts, such as the email addresses for agents, magazines and journals. An updated version was published every year, but this was discontinued some time ago. Now the marketplace is a constantly updated website with one single upfront membership fee. The subscribers only area includes writing advice which provides a great overview of most peoples burning questions. It’s only $25 to subscribe.
Fremantle Press and “The business of being a writer”
Fremantle Press are running a seminar as part of the 2019 Writer’s Week, called “The business of being a writer”. The seminar will be run 12.30 – 4pm on Saturday the 23rd of February and costs $25. The seminar includes authors Liz Byrski, Gail Jones, Alice Nelson, Australia Council Director of Literature Wenona Byrne, screen director Alison James, Black Swan State Threatre Company Literary Director Polly Pow and Red Room Poetry Diretor Tamryn Bennett, among many others. The workshop includes information about grants, residencies, awards, and tools for developing an author profile.
So that’s it. I’m also going to include a shoutout for Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I’m currently working my way through the book and it has helped me uncover a lot of demons from my past that fed some unhealthy beliefs about creativity and the writing industry. The book is hard to find in stores, but you can order it from Book Depository.
Centre for Stories (n.d.) Between the Lines. Centre for Stories. Retrieved from http://www.centreforstories.com/between-the-lines/
My novel for NaNoWriMo is at 11, 719 words. So far, I’ve struggled to write as much as I would have liked. I’ve put a lot more pressure on myself as this is my second time writing a novel. This novel also involves a lot more research than the last. So far, I’ve needed to know about life on the international space station, the IVF process, NASA, NICU and Australia’s plans to break into the space industry. In the previous novel, I was able to just write. I made things up and fixed them later. I can’t do that this time. I’d have nothing to write about.
As a result, every time I begin a new chapter, I feel like I’m writing from nothing. A novel is such a big task to undertake, I’ve found it’s easy to doubt how the novel will come together as a whole. It’s hard to hold together the plot. I resonated a lot with a quote Griffith Review shared today for #novellanovember. They quote Nick Earls who says “if you’re like me…you reach a point in the first draft [of a novel] where the beginning has drifted from view but the end is still a long way over the horizon” (GriffithReview, 2018). While Earls’s quote is in support of the shorter Novella format, it still very much resonates with how I’m feeling now. I’m a messy writer. I go in with a rough sketch of the overall plot and that’s it. The first 20,000 words are my chance to get to know the story and learn who the characters are (and learn about their hobbies and work, which are usually new fields to me). I find that process equal parts exciting and scary.
My problem is that I set my expectations too high for what is, really, my first chance to explore a new world and meet new people. I find that, in order to stop doubting myself, I need to give myself permission to be terrible. I need to give myself permission for the first draft to suck.
This is how I manage self-doubt in my work:
Manage your expectations
I break my goal down into smaller pieces. An 80,000 word novel is a scary target. Breaking it down into 500 word writing sessions make it seem less intimidating. If I’m having a bad day, I do 200 word writing sessions. I still get 1600 words a day done (most of the time), but the smaller target stops me from feeling too overwhelmed with it.
Don’t overwhelm your senses
Write somewhere quiet. It’s tempting to write in a nice cafe but, if you’re like me, you might find it distracting. I’m an observer. I walk into people (staff and students!) at work all the time, because I’m too busy trying to take in everything around me. When I’m out, I listen in on conversations, I trace the patterns and textures around me. I try to commit everything to memory. You won’t find it surprising then, that I write best when I’m at home and it’s quiet. I’m lucky I live in a wonderful house and my study has views of the city. You don’t have to write at home, but I suggest finding somewhere quiet so you don’t end up feeling too overwhelmed.
When I feel myself doubting my abilities, I find it’s important to recognise how I’m feeling. I need to name what the feeling is so that I can create some distance from it. It’s easy to take criticism personally. It’s easy to believe the negative things you’re telling yourself. It’s much harder to practise self-compassion. Plenty of other people out there will judge your work. There’s no need for you to be one of them.
So what is self-compassion? According to Dr. Neff, it’s “to treat ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show to a good friend—or even a stranger, for that matter” (2011, para. 10). When you find yourself being critical, try to bring to mind what it feels like to be with someone who cares about you. Extend that same compassion towards yourself and keep writing.
Take a break
If you’re still having trouble writing, it’s okay to walk away. You’re allowed to take a day off. You’re allowed to take a week off. Don’t get so caught up in your imposed deadline that you work yourself to death, especially if you’re doing #NaNoWriMo. I got no writing done yesterday because I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Instead I caught up my mother, had a bath, and binge-watched shows on Netflix. Writing is hard work. It makes you cognitively tired. Sometimes your brain just needs a break.
Have any tips of your own? Comment or tweet me @kazzalo
GriffithReview. (2018, November 7). Brisbane-based writer @nickearls makes another appearance for #NovellaNovember with today’s note on why he chooses the #novella. Find the entire note here: https://www.facebook.com/59242722420/posts/10156847626462421/ [image file]. [tweet]. Retrieved on Wednesday 7 November from https://twitter.com/GriffithReview/status/1060005053732278272
Neff, K. (2011). Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem. Greater Good Magazine. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 7 November 2018, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion
I finished editing my first draft over the weekend, but it didn’t feel like much of an achievement. I wrote this novel, and started this blog, because I wanted to take writing much more seriously. This first edit is one step on a very long journey.
With that being said, as I move onto the structural edit, here’s what editing the first draft has taught me:
#1 The first draft always sucks
Even good first drafts suck. I love the characters I created, and I got caught up in some of the prose. There were moments where the plot made my heart stop, but there were also moments where I cringed. I needed to rewrite the first and last three chapters. I needed to add a chapter in the middle. I deleted thousands of words and added words back in. I used far too many metaphors and had to cut them back. I love my story, but that first draft still sucked.
To put it another way: “Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.” (Smiley, n.d.) . A good novel is made in the editing, and you’ll be hard pushed to find any published author who will tell you otherwise.
#2 Set a deadline and get it done
Participating in NaNoWriMo helped me establish a writing routine. I wrote every day because I had a deadline. I got it done. Writing a first draft is about getting something down on the page that you can refine later. Writing the first draft is all about conquering that voice in your head that says you can’t write a novel or your work just isn’t good enough:
“Awful first drafts are fine. If you don’t finish something, you’ll never get in the game. Just quell the voice in your head that says ‘Are you kidding? No one is going to want to read this drivel’ and keep on going. You’re going to revise and revise and then revise again anyway.” (Freveletti, 2011, para. 10)
Author Hannah Mary McKinnon explains it’s this fear that holds many writers back, suggesting they’ve set their expectations too high for what the first draft should look like (2018, para. 2). Don’t worry – feeling like this is actually pretty normal. As Judy Blume explains: “I dread first drafts! I worry each day that it won’t come, that nothing will happen” (.n.d., para. 3).
All you have to do right now, is have something to work with later. You should also remember that not everyone works well with tidy plot outlines and chapter synopses. It’s okay to be messy. Take Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, as an example: “the bottom line is that I like my first drafts to be blind, unconscious messy efforts; that’s what gets me the best material” (as quoted in Lee, 2011, para. 10). So just write the damn thing. Worry about tidying it up later. As Steven King says, “The scariest moment is always just before you start” (p.269).
#3 Don’t edit while you write
I always edited my work while I was writing it, and I never got anything done! I never finished anything. The critic in my head destroyed all my self-confidence. When I wrote this novel, I did it in a month, so I had no time to edit. I came back to the novel three months later and I not only enjoyed reading it, but I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it. I no longer felt like cutting scenes was cutting out pieces of my soul.
Your first draft is about getting something down on paper that you can build on later. All you are doing is laying the foundations. Editing while you’re writing, for me, is a form of procrastination. I know I’m coming up to a tough scene when I feel the urge to stop writing and go back and edit instead.
There’s no point in editing while you’re writing the first draft, because you’re just going change it later. You’ll move scenes around. You’ll delete and rewrite scenes. That’s the fun part of editing; shaping your rough work into a polished story. As Neil Gaiman explains:
“The second draft is where the fun is. In a first draft, you get to explode. The objective (at least for me) is to get it down on paper, somehow. Battle through the laziness and the not-enough-time and the this-is-rubbish and everything else, and just get it written. Whatever it takes. The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do” (2008, para. 19)
You’re going to change what you’ve written, so don’t edit while you write. It’s a waste of time.
Have any tips of your own? Add them in the comments.
 This is often attributed to author Jane Smiley, however, I have not been able to find an accurate source for it.
Blume, J. (n.d.). Writing: Questions for Judy. Judy Blume on the Web. Retrieved from http://www.judyblume.com/about/questions/writing.php
Freveletti, J. (2011). Ten Tips I Received…and Sometimes Ignored. Book Country. Retrieved on 30th of October from http://blog.bookcountry.com/ten-tips-i-receivedand-sometimes-ignored-2/
Gaiman, N. YOU PUT YOUR (RIGHT-HAND REAR) LEG IN…Journal. Retrieved from http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2008/05/you-put-your-right-hand-rear-leg-in.html
King, S. (2010). On Writing. New York: Scribner.
Lee, S. (2011). Jennifer Egan on ‘Goon Squad’, ‘Los Angeles Times’ brouhaha, and her next novel. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from https://ew.com/article/2011/04/02/jennifer-egan-interview-goon-squa/
McKinnon, H. M. How to get through the First Draft of your Novel. Curtis Brown Creative. Retrieved from https://www.curtisbrowncreative.co.uk/how-to-get-through-your-first-draft/
Smiley, J. (n.d.) Jane Smiley Quotes. Goodreads. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/812901-every-first-draft-is-perfect-because-all-the-first-draft
A lot of people tend to be surprised at how much I do. Many people have commented on how busy I seem so I thought, given we’re coming up to NaNoWriMo again, I’d talk about how I actually find the time to to write 1700 words a day.
To set the scene, these are some of the things I regularly make time for:
Working full time as a lecturer. I teach 3 different courses, am the national coordinator for 2 courses and have been doing work in curriculum development.
Editing my novel. I wrote a novel and have been busy editing it (I finished editing the first draft just today!).
Research. I’ve been reading and researching my novel. That includes everything from reading other novels, to reading about plot structure and editing techniques. I’ve also been doing research into writing about mental illness and trauma (which I talked about at NYWF) and uses of artificial intelligence in the classroom (which I presented a research paper on for TEMC in September).
This blog. Writing posts takes time. Planning and working with guest authors also takes time.
Volunteering. I’m volunteering for Perth Web Girls to help run coding workshops for women. The next one is Saturday the 3rd of November. I also volunteer on the WA Poets Inc committee.
So how do I find time to write? Well, I just do. When I was younger, I was meticulous about when and where I’d write. I needed a clean desk with new stationary, a nice notebook. I needed to go the beach and look out over the ocean, but it also couldn’t be too windy. It couldn’t be too hot. I couldn’t be tired, and it couldn’t be too loud. I started many novels, but never finished any of them, and I didn’t write very much at all. I was a student, and I wasn’t working, so I had the time to be fussy. Now I don’t.
That’s really all there is to it. I write whenever I get the chance to. If I have 15 minutes left on my lunch break, I’ll spend it writing. If I wake up early, I’ll spend an extra 20 minutes writing before getting ready. I might only have 5 minutes before my stop on the train. I’ll still write something, even if it’s just a few sentences. Time is precious and I have so little of it now. If I wait for the right time to write, I’ll never finish the novel. I just have to get something down on the page, so that a future version of me has something to cross out with red pen and curse over.
There’s really no secret to finding time to write. It’s all about busting the myth that a writing session has to be hours of you sitting alone with headphones in. 15 minute bursts can be just as productive.
I first met, Jakob when I was coordinating the WA Poetry Festival (now called the Perth Poetry Festival) for WA Poets Inc, but I didn’t get to know him until well after I stepped down from the committee. Jakob has published many zines, chapbooks (for both himself and others) and has (and continues to) run several events around Perth. He’s contributed a lot to building a community of young poets in Perth, which is something that wasn’t very prominent when I first got involved in 2011.
Jakob’s poetry is raw and confronting. His performances are like heated arguments and he’s not afraid to use silences to make you feel uncomfortable. This week I talked to him about the differences in his print and performance work, as well how poetry can have a political impact.
Jakob Boyd’s first full length collection, City Without Stories, will be launched by Scott-Patrick Mitchell on the 3rd of November.
Do you think poetry can have a political impact? How much does the community around poetry and the sharing of poems define this impact?
As poets, I think we’ve all got this fantasy where we walk up to a president, a prime minister, a line of riot cops or a billionaire CEO and read a poem so earth shattering they turn against their systems of destruction, renounce their power and start a revolution… but for me, this isn’t where the impact of poetry is.
Poetry has a unique ability to unite communities that intersect between fringe art scenes, activist circles and disenfranchised groups. These communities exist in solidarity against an indifferent culture of spectacle that limits our political power. At open mics, people who would otherwise just pass each other on the street, share their deepest, loudest and strangest desires, passions and demands for a new world.
If ‘dominant culture’ restricts communication, strangles identity and limits our ability to collect as individuals – poetry communities can do the opposite. Build flexible, communal cultures that empower and strengthen.
Poetry isn’t a means to an end, it’s an end in itself; communities building cultures, rather than being subjects of them. And if we give everyone room, and knock each other’s socks off; folks will stick around and be inspired to spread these revolutionary cultures to everywhere else in their lives.
Politics is filled with language that can be quite the opposite of what we expect from poetry, do you struggle to incorporate this language into your poems and reconcile the two?
Man, tough question… I guess if the poet’s job is to make clear the unexplainable, then we should focus our efforts on policy documents, annual budgets, immigration legislation and negative gearing rather than just your everyday ennui. So yeah, in a more political poem, I do struggle trying to reconcile the two but you gotta keep going I guess; describe the impact of these jargons, boil them down to their essence, point out their ridiculousness.
Laundry Man performs ‘Another Flag’:
How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?
I don’t think so. Sure a poem can be a puzzle, but it should be fun to solve. Poetry shouldn’t be a magic eye picture where, if you stare at it long enough, you get a fleeting moment of recognition. Don’t make your poem an IQ test. This thinking is why, to the vast majority, poetry is dead; coz everyone thinks it’s a labyrinth. When really, good poetry is more like a rollercoaster!
I like to play around, twist things on their head, make metaphors that lead nowhere… but this is for PLAY, not for obscurity. Each line should flick on a light in the reader’s/listener’s heart, each line should have weight, be direct, be clear. Poetry should be entertaining. It should provoke thought the way music provokes dancing.
You have a book coming out soon, congratulations! Do you think there is a difference between performance poetry and written poetry? Have you struggled to move between the two, given you are, predominately, a performance poet?
I like to think that poetry on the page is ‘performed’ through ink and white space the way poetry on the stage is ‘performed’ through sound and silence. It’s all poetry. On the stage it’s like music. On the page, it’s like painting. You can lean in to certain things on stage, like repetition, monologue & dialogue, emphasis. A rhyme or a flow sounds better on stage than it sounds in your head.
On the page you can be more subtle, more stark, more reflective. The poem can work on its own time without the temporal pressure of the stage. But both can have electricity and dynamism. It’s all about playing to the strengths of the medium; figuring out ways of provoking thought. Most of the works in the book were originally designed for performance (like all language?) but I’ve never found it too tricky making them work for the page with some minor chops and changes. Recontextualising…. and lots of enjambment…
You’ve run a lot of events in Perth which have helped support young and marginalised writers. Do you think the industry as whole is making more space for these voices?
It’s getting there? Spoken Word Perth, the nucleus of a huge boom of Perth poetry in the past couple years, is run entirely by women and trans folk. The champions and finalists of Perth Slam are almost always queer poets, non-binary folks and people of colour. This year saw the return of the multi-lingual, multi-faith workshop & showcase ‘Common Ground’ (go check them out). More gigs are making efforts to be physically accessible. More gigs and promoters are taking efforts to exclude abusive motherfuckers. From what I understand, it’s a lot less male dominated, a little less white, than it was just a few years ago. I grew up with posters for local poetry gigs on the walls, and the names are almost all dudes. These days, most poetry features you see, especially in the younger crowd, are much much more diverse. I think there’s been some huge leaps forward in the past couple years.
But there’s still problems… I like to think I do what I can… but I’m one of the major promoters in town and I’m a white dude, so there’s ultimately very little I can do for voices less privileged than my own. There are no gigs in town dedicated to people of colour. The Perth Poetry Festival often makes little room for voices and perspectives outside of it’s old white bubble.
I dunno. I’m not the best person to ask.
Let’s see where it goes in the next couple years…
What local poets/writers should we be reading/listening to?
All of them. Except the dickheads.
But if you see these names featuring at gigs, get on it, these are the big-hitters on the spoken word scene in 2018:
City Without Stories is Jakob’s first full length poetry collection. Out through Indifference Publications, City Without Stories collects five years of playful, dark and energetic verse in a semi-autobiographical odyssey through fast food kitchens, nihilistic suburbs, modern romance and the depths of Perth’s counter-culture; a punk-poets call to action to build our own culture from the ground up.
Next month is NaNoWriMo and I have an idea for a novel. I’ve had this idea since NaNoWriMo 2017 and have been running through different storylines in my head for almost a year. I’m keen to do NaNoWriMo again this year, despite the lack of time I have available and how overworked I am. I set myself one deadline in order to be able to participate; I want to finish editing the first draft of last year’s novel before I start the next one. I have 30,000 words left to edit, and about 3 weeks to do so.
My goal this year is 2000 words a day (I averaged 1700 words a day last year). My novel, which I’ve optimistically already registered, is called …but Anna Sparks is dead? Here’s a rough synopsis:
Anna Sparks is no ordinary human. She was the first human to encounter life in space, and it terrified her. After seeing how this alien technology has destroyed and corrupted other civilisations, Anna vows to stop people on earth from ever getting their hands on it. But Anna cannot be trusted. Anna embodies the very technology she’s protecting everyone from. Some people call them superpowers, but her ability to control the things around her is a technological enhancement she gained during the last great intergalactic war, a war she tried to stop and couldn’t. Now she battles to keep the fighting away from her home. But Anna Sparks dies, and everyone sees it. So when earth is invaded, how is she the one who tries to save it?
This novel obviously has a lot more science fiction elements than The Black Swan Experiments, which is the novel that inspired me to start this blog. My original plan for this novel was to have Anna as the sidekick to a male who was the first human to encounter life in space. If I’m honest, it was watching Doctor Who that make me question why Anna had to be the love interest. I realised I had no good reason for keeping her as the love interest to a male character, especially when all of the action revolves around her choices.
Another big inspiration for this novel was Captain Cook. I was in Newcastle recently for the National Young Writers’ Festival, and, at the foot of the public library, were stairs commemorating the bicentenary of his exploration, charting and claiming of the east coast of Australia. It made me think a lot about colonisation (how is there a statue that commemorates the slaughter and takeover of a whole race of people?!), and I really want this to be a big part of my novel. My intention is for the alien race to act as the coloniser, with them having technology that we, the colonised, cannot possibly compete against. I’ve been very careful in planning how this is narrated, as I don’t want to talk outside of my experience or create something that could be insensitive. I can’t explain that in more detail right now though, because I’d giving away a huge twist in the book.
While there are a lot of science fiction novels which explore colonisation already (with War of the Worlds being one of the more notable examples), I want to explore it in a slightly different way. In every war there’s a side who doesn’t win. What would a novel be like if you followed the same characters the whole way through, thinking you were on the winning side, only to reach the end and realise you were wrong? I want the final chapters of this book to be written from the antagonist’s perspective, and I want the antagonist to be the winner of the war. It’s someone else’s voice, someone else’s story. Maybe it’s told through newspaper clippings and found documents. Maybe it’s first person narration. What matters is that the narrative everyone in the story world comes to remember, the way history gets written in the world of the book, is completely different to everything you’ve just been told by the previous narrator. That isn’t to say that the previous narrator was unreliable; what they told you was their experience of the war. They just aren’t in a position of power to have that experience acknowledged. History is written by the side that wins, and it’s the winner’s story that concludes the book.
Anyway, I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll be exploring colonisation in fiction in more detail (with references!) in later blog posts. In the mean time, watch this space for updates on my NaNoWriMo preparation and progress. I also have an author Q and A with the Laundry Man (AKA Jakob Boyd) coming your way soon. I’ll be interviewing some fantastic guests over the next few months, so make sure to visit often.
For me, the hardest part of editing has been reworking the plot. The plot in my novel is quite complex, though it can be broadly split into three main sections. While these sections fit with Aristotle’s plot structure for tragedies and Freytag’s dramatic structure , my novel also contains many smaller emotional turns and peaks of intensity. Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers suggest a correlation between the regularity of these emotional turns and a novels chances of success in their book The Bestseller Code. They use two controversial successes, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and 50 Shades of Grey by E. L. James (figure 1) to demonstrate, what they refer to as, the “page turner beat” (Archer & Jockers, 2017, p. 107). This plot structure is demonstrated in the graph below, with Archer and Jockers explaining that “changes in direction on the graphs roughly equate to moments of conflict and resolution. The more frequent the peaks and valleys are, the more of an emotional roller coaster for the characters and for readers” (2017, p. 89).
I wrote my novel this way because I have a short attention span. However, it’s made the editing process much more complex. At the moment, I’m still working my way through the first draft and only fixing major problems, but, when I focus on the plot more closely, I’ll definitely be utilising Natasha Lester’s “what is known” chart . Lester uses the plotting chart to keep track of what is revealed to the reader in each chapter and what is kept hidden. While the plot isn’t my main focus in this edit, I have made some pretty big changes as a result of some of the research I’ve done. This has made editing later sections much more difficult. So far, the biggest changes have been in the first three chapters, which I posted about rewriting 8 weeks ago. Since then, my goal has been to finish editing the second section, which also happens to be the largest as it sets up the final act of the novel.
Before I started culling lines, this section was almost 40,000 words of the original 86,000 word manuscript. It’s taken me a long time to edit as a lot has gotten in the way over the last two months. This has made be feel very unproductive, and I’ve beaten myself up over it a few times now. I wasn’t sure I’d write about this, to be honest, but I’ve been struggling a lot lately. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll notice the last few posts have focused on how I’ve been feeling like I’ve had too much to do. In short, I burnt myself out. I burnt myself big time, and I was recently diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I stopped doing a lot of things I previously enjoyed.
When I wrote the first draft of this novel, I wasn’t thinking about the research I’d need to do. I wasn’t concerned with making sense of the plot. I was just enjoying being in my head, being in another world. Malcolm Knox explains this sensation well when he talks about how much he inhabits the stories he’s writing. Knox attributes the consistent tone and voice in his novels to how quickly he writes and how easy it is to inhabit the voice of the narrator over a shorter period of time:
“The Life took about ten weeks to do the first draft, and I remember then, too, just having this one voice in my head.
It must be what having a mental illness is like, having another voice talking to you all the time, and if not talking to you, interpreting your own thoughts into its speech” (Knox as cited in Wood, n.d., para. 11 – 12).
I wrote my first draft over 6 weeks and the story was all consuming. Now I need to be more critical and, for the most part, I’ve been enjoying refining what I’ve written. Lately though, the only things I’ve been able to focus on are all the negative things I keep telling myself. It’s been overwhelming. I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been watching TV. I haven’t seen any films. Nothing has distracted me for very long, and it’s taken a lot of work to be able to step back and give myself the mental space to just be me again.
I finished editing the second section of my novel two weeks ago, but here’s the thing; I didn’t celebrate the milestone. Instead, I avoided the next chapter, which needs a major rewrite (another plotting issue), and then I started criticising myself for not being productive enough. I got stuck back in the same cycle. A week and a half ago my husband also took me into Royal Perth Hospital (at one in morning!) because I was in so much pain I couldn’t stop screaming. I was diagnosed with gastritis. The pain was worse than anything I’ve ever experienced. I’m still in pain a week a half later and I’ve been told I might need an endoscopy.
What I’ve realised is how critical I’ve been of myself lately. I wrote a novel. I’m two thirds of the way through the first edit. I need to step back and remember to enjoy the process. It’s okay if it takes longer than expected.
 Aristotle defines a tragedy as having a beginning, middle and end saying, “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E., para. 34). Gustav Freytag developed this into the pyramid model we are most familiar with today (1900, p. 115).
Aristotle. (350 B.C.E). Poetics. The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.1.1.html
Archer, J., & Jockers, M. (2017). The Bestseller Code. Penguin Books.
Freytag, G. (1900). Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, An Exposition of Dramatic Composition and Art by Dr. Gustav Freytag: An Authorized TranslationFrom the Sixth German Edition by Elias J. MacEwan, M.A. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company.
Wood, C. (n.d.). Malcolm Knox: The Writer’s Room interview. Allen and Unwin Book Publishers. Allen and Unwin. retrieved from https://www.allenandunwin.com/writers-on-writing/malcolm-knox-the-writer-s-room-interview
I e-met Lee Battersby when he emailed me through my website and asked me to judge the City of Rockingham’s Christmas Poetry Competition. I judged that competition twice and, through a lot of bad luck, I have yet to meet Lee in person. I’ve read two of Lee’s books (Magrit and The Corpse-Rat King) and have been dying to ask him how he builds such fantastical, but believable worlds.
When I was writing the first draft of my novel, I had a lot of doubt about the world I was creating – a world which looks eerily like our own, but with some science fiction elements. My novel is character driven, and I feel the believability of the science fiction elements rely on them, rather than on the setting. It is through my characters the science fiction elements are discovered, and it is, therefore, through the characters that these elements will be believed.
One thing I’ve found interesting about Lee’s responses is his last answer on having adventures because, “if you have a boring life, your writing will show it.” I’ve experienced a lot of trauma in my life, and it is these experiences that I’ve focused on in my novel (I’ve written more about this here). Lee talks about verisimilitude, and how the different places he has lived have given him a wider variety of experiences to draw on in his writing. That being said, Lee also says it’s rarely a conscious decision for him to draw on a particular setting. I consciously set out to write about trauma but, like Lee, I did not consciously choose the setting when writing the first draft. Looking back, I’ve found I focused on places that would help reflect the inner turmoil of the narrator.
Something else I’ve been drawn to in Lee’s responses is how he reflects on his own experiences when saying a lot of his writing focuses on the outsider; “people with only a personal sense of self to lose”. I keep coming back to this line because it reflects the narrator in my own novel so well. By drawing a connection between this kind of narrative and his own experiences, Lee’s provoked me to do the same. I’m very conscious of the fact that the trauma which shapes the narrator is inspired my own experiences. Could my representation of her as an outsider also be reflective of me in some way?
You recently left your job at the City of Rockingham and moved to Karratha. Has the change in location changed your writing in any way?
In the most significant way, really: it’s given me some actual time to write. The Rockingham job was a ridiculous time-sink, requiring regular weekends and evenings, and more than a few 60 or 70 hour weeks. Whenever we had a big event on, I could find myself pulling 14 or 15 day weeks. Plus the stress was overwhelming: apart from the day to day stress of managing big events, there was more than enough workplace harassment and outright bullying to go round. Eighteen months away from leaving, I couldn’t get into the workplace without having a cry in the car park first, and all I wanted to do when I got home was curl up in bed and pretend I was somewhere else.
Thankfully, we found a way out of that life. I work a couple of days a week doing relief teaching, now, and despite constant pressure from the school to work extra days, I get at least a day or two a week to get some writing in. I’ve finished a novel manuscript that was previously stalled for going on 2 years—the Job That Soured had killed any momentum I might have hoped to get from the publication of my last novel, ‘Magrit’, so I’m having to start all over again and try to recreate my career arc. I’m working on a collection of linked stories that have been in the works for a long, long while. And, assuming I can work my way back into the marketplace, I might just be able to pull something from the ruins of what came before.
How do you juggle family life and your writing? What does your writing schedule look like?
Ha! So often, I don’t. The last three years have been particularly difficult. My day job was high-stress, high-commitment, and the ongoing harassment and bullying pretty much brought my self-balance crashing down around my ears. My career ran aground—I wasn’t writing, was barely making it through each work day in one piece, and any momentum and routine I’d managed to build up went pffft. Thankfully, I’m in a much better environment now. My wife and I have, essentially, engineered a job swap. She was desperate to get into the workforce after 25 years of being the home-based partner. Once she graduated with her teaching degree she took a job here in Karratha. I work part-time, and am the home-based partner for the rest of the time. I spend most of my time ferrying our teenagers around to their various interests, running two slow-cookers simultaneously, and finding excuses to delay cleaning the toilets. Writing-wise, I try to maintain a Graham Greene-ish schedule of 500 words a day, and I’m editing a 70,000 word YA novel at the moment: I can usually manage about 5 pages a day before the lines begin to blur into each other, so I’ve printed the whole thing out, stapled it into 5 page sections, and I pick away at it, one section at a time.
An average non-work weekday gives me between 8am and 2pm to myself, to do all the things. If I’m rolling, I can hit 500 words in half an hour. If not, it can take me, say, two hours. The editing takes an hour or so, if I’m on form. I try to assign an hour to general work—correspondence, interview questions, and so on. Another hour to 90 minutes for housework. I try to get to the pool two or three times a week to get some sort of exercise in. And the rest of the time I try to spend with family once they’re home. That’s the ideal, anyway. Ask me how often I’ve achieved it……
How important do you think it is for a writer to develop a community around themselves? What did your community look like in Perth and how has it changed?
I think it’s important for a writer to be aware of their wider community, and know what’s happening within their industry. While I was in Perth it was easier, but even as isolated as I am, I use Facebook and the internet to keep in touch with the various State industry organisations such as writingWA and Poetry WA. I’ve made a number of friendships over the years—not many, but some—within the field, and it’s necessary to understand what’s happening around you.
I think technology has really changed what community means over the last 20 years—it’s possible to create and maintain a circle of peers without ever meeting them in the flesh, which I think suits many of us quite well. I’m quite solitary by nature, so I’m much better suited to appearing at events than having super besties forever. I used to attend the local annual SF convention in Perth, but stopped when it became apparent that I really didn’t fit in. And I did try to maintain a social life with other local SF writers, but that dried up over time—there aren’t that many who particularly like me, which is a situation I’ve become used to over the years.
I absolutely love, on the other hand, Writer’s Festivals and symposia. Anything where it’s about the work. It’s all a matter of what type of interaction suits you best, and how you regulate that. I’m less a fan of product (TV shows, films, etc) that require slavish devotion to be considered a ‘real fan’ than I am a geek of the writing process itself—my ideal interaction is to be learning from other authors, particularly those who work in a field I admire and am not much good at, myself—I love listening to poets for that reason, for example. Ultimately, it’s a solo endeavour, and every other writer is going about their business, so you have to learn to develop your own instincts, and your own networks outside of the ability to meet face to face.
Your bio says you moved from Nottingham to Kambalda. I lived in Kambalda West when I was younger! How have the different places you’ve lived shaped your writing, if at all?
I’ve moved around a lot: I’ve never lived in one house for more than 5 or 6 years. Never really put down roots, never planted a fruit tree and been around long enough to actually take fruit from it. It’s bred a certain sense of dislocation, I guess. I never feel at home anywhere, or with any group of people. I always feel like an outsider, a temporary addition, soon to move on and be forgotten. What that has given me, I suppose, is an outsider’s perspective. I’m never so immersed in any space that I become blinded to it. And if I stop to look back at my work so far– which all the Gods please prevent me from doing– there are an awful lot of stories about outsiders, people with only a personal sense of self to lose, being drawn into at least an attempt at belonging somewhere against their will, or having their self-created paradises breached by barbarian outsiders.
One bright side is that I have experienced a wide range of landscapes and environments. From desert, to beach, to rainswept greylands, and at the moment, isolated sun-baked mining grounds. It all drips out into the work. But it’s not really a conscious thing: I’ve never set out to exploit my beachside years by writing a deliberately ‘beachy’ story, for example, but I recently completed a story that required a character to spend time at a rock-strewn cove, and memories of Point Peron in Rockingham enabled me to picture the sounds, the smells, the feel of wet rock under my feet… all those elements necessary for (I hope) verisimilitude.
You contributed to a Doctor Who short story collection in 2007. What do you think of the BBC casting a female in the lead role? Do you think it’s a token gesture for inclusion or does it have potential to add depth to the narrative?
I think it’s an absolutely brilliant opportunity to change the narrative, and ask some gender-loaded questions that the series has never really approached before. I can’t wait to watch the new episodes. I’m largely in favour of gender-swapping roles: my one caveat being that the swap be an opportunity to examine the narrative from a genuinely female point of view, and challenge what is, in many cases, a lazy set of male-centric assumptions. The recent Ghostbusters reboot was a fantastic example of that approach—not to mention that the sad fanboy backlash that resulted was a perfect example of why such re-examinations matter. Where it doesn’t work, and worse, where it can actually undermine the really positive gains to be made, is where there’s no further intent than just to write ‘Guy character as a girl’. Then it’s pointless, and empty. But our entertainment media—literature, film and TV particularly—operates from such a male-centric set of assumptions and attitudes that we need to ask the questions that 51% of our population deserve to have answered. And if a direct inversion of the accepted tropes can help do that, then all to the better.
You write fantasy, science fiction, and horror (stating the obvious, I know). How do these genres differ from each other, and in what ways do they support and complement each other?
At their most base levels, they’re all facets of the same genre—that of the fantastic. Where they differ is in the way the author approaches the narrative, and the levels to which the common tools are brought into play. To take a very common trope— princess is sacrificed to dragon, knight attempts to rescue princess, hi-jinks ensue (and if ever there was a trope that deserved gender-swapping…)—it can easily be represented in any number of ways, depending on how the author arranges the narrative components.
The key is that the world is altered in a way that initially defies logic. The way in which that alteration impacts the characters involved, and the ways they seek to define and affect their own changes, is governed by those narrative tools the author chooses. What all forms of storytelling ultimately have in common is the requirement to maintain believability for as long as the story is being told. Lose the reader, cause them to doubt what you’re telling them, drop them out of the story, and it doesn’t matter what genre you’re working in: you’ve failed.
Where I think we go wrong, as authors, is that we tend to focus on genre as part of the act of creation, instead of telling the story we want to tell, and working out what type of genre it fits into afterwards (or if we’re really lucky, letting a publisher work that out post-sale). Authors like China Meiville, Jonathan Lethem, and Angela Carter transcend genre boundaries with disdainful ease, and remain compellingly readable and utterly iconic—you can tell a Meiville story without having his name spoken first. That’s the ideal, for me.
Would you consider yourself a speculative fiction writer?
I try not to, or at least, to not consider myself just a speculative fiction writer. I have a deep, and life-long, love of speculative fiction, but as a writer I’m very wary of being stuck within one genre or point of view. I’ve only ever wanted to write whatever I want, when I want, without being tied down to one perception, or one readership. So I’ve sold a children’s book, and poetry, and crime short stories, and so on along the way. With the children’s novel, in particular, it was very interesting to interact with an entire readership—and industry—that was unaware of my previous work. They talked about me like I was somebody new and untried, when I’d been around the better part of fifteen years. At heart, though, I pretty much always think at the fantastical end of the spectrum—even my stand-up comedy, back in the day, involved flights of fantasy rather than gritty satirical unpickings of the real world. So whatever I’m writing, it tends to have that fantastic element.
Do you have any advice for authors on how to build worlds?
Everything we do as authors hinges on verisimilitude—investing our stories with enough believability that the readers believes everything we say, even if it’s only for as long as it takes to tell the story. So it’s important to understand that the worlds we build are composed of interacting components, much as our own is. It’s not enough just to (for example) introduce guns into Roman Britain—such a development will have significant impacts economically, culturally, scientifically, militarily…. If your created world is simply “Roman Britain exactly as it was but with guns” I won’t believe you. Any world you build, and narrative you create, is only as good as the characters it impacts. Creating a setting for its own sake isn’t enough. People care about people.
Other than that, experience is everything. Say yes to dumb ideas. Take risks. Step outside your comfort zone as often as possible. Have lots of sex, with lots of different people. Travel. Try a bunch of jobs, and leave them all when they get boring. Take courses. Try as many drinks as possible, once. Smoke pot, once. See how long you can go without saying no. Never visit a town without visiting its museum, its art gallery, and its library. Drive every machine you can. Get into a fight, once. Get into situations where you absolutely, definitely, have to use your wits to get out. If you have a boring life, your writing will show it. Have adventures, as often as you can. Did I mention the sex?
Lee Battersby is the author of three novels, as well as over eighty short stories in the US, Europe, and Australia. He is the winner of the Aurealis, Australian Shadows, and Australian SF ‘Ditmar’ awards for speculative fiction, and was the first Western Australian winner in the international Writers of the Future competition. His most recent novel, ‘Magrit’, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize and was awarded a White Raven Award by the International Children’s Library.
He is sadly addicted to Lego, Nottingham Forest Football Club, and graphic novels. He currently lives in Karratha, with his wife, author Lyn Battersby, and two giant teenagers.
This week just been I moved house (and got sick, thanks Rob/Garth!). I also, finally, got to announce that I’ll be an invited artist at the 2018 National Young Writers Festival. I’ll be honest, I’ve been struggling with my writing lately. Work has been stressful; I was covering for another staff member for three weeks, while doing my own job as well, and I just kind of fell apart. Last week I pitched to the 2018 Digital Writers Festival and sent a poem away for possible publication, so I’m getting better. That being said, I haven’t done anything to my novel for two weeks now.
Last year I created the interface for David Thomas Henry Wright’s Page & Powe, a work that was later shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards. My PhD is in electronic literature and I’ve worked hard to create some kind of name for myself in this field. I was also co-chairperson of WA Poets Inc and I coordinated the 2012 and 2013 WA Poetry Festival. Now I’m trying to establish myself as a fiction writer and, sometimes, it feels like I’m doing too much.
As well as my novel, I’m currently working on a digital poem called “this is what depression feels like”. The work intentionally limits interactivity. Once the viewer has chosen to start the poem, the words print one at a time. The speed of the poem is controlled in order to represent of the lack of control people with mental illness have over their thoughts. Parts of this poem speed up rapidly to represent the quick succession of negative thoughts during a panic attack.
I started the work last year (just look at the date stamp on that tweet) and pitched it to NYWF earlier this year. Now I have to finish it. I also want to finish the first draft of my novel and a twitterbot called “the voice of WA Poetry”, which will be a conglomerate of voices of WA poets. Separate to these creative endeavours, I have a quickly growing list of things to do for work.
I think I’ve struggled with the novel because it’s such a slow process. There’s a lot of isolation involved before I can share the work. I’ve found the positive side of splitting my focus (and being overworked) is having other things I can share and invest time in.
If you want your voice included in the twitterbot project, you can download the instructions HERE.
It’s taken me a very long time to rewrite the opening three chapters of my novel. I did no research before writing the first draft and, as a result, I made a lot of assumptions that needed to be changed. Natasha Lester, a writer of historical fiction, explains that she does most of her research before writing the second draft, and then needs to rewrite or add scenes as a result:
“The research might also mean that something I have in the story is impossible historically and I have to change it, or that a new possibility for a scene has arisen out of the research and I need to rewrite a section based on that” (2018, para. 3).
I knew before I began this process that pretty much all of the first three chapters would need to be tossed. Only a handful of lines have survived the cull. Initially, the first chapter was just a summary where the narrator talked about what would be happening in the rest of the novel. This chapter is now written in present tense and introduces the narrator leading up to the inciting incident. The second and third chapters also needed to be completely rewritten. Both of them had two major issues in terms of plot: the first was how implausible my understanding of military structure and operations was, and the second was the fact that the location jumped around. In one scene, for example, the narrator is in Sydney, then she’s in Canberra, and then she’s back in Sydney and ready to travel to Canberra for the first time. It didn’t make sense. There was also one other issue in the opening chapters that I needed to address; the main love interest wasn’t introduced until chapter four. He is now introduced in chapter one.
I really hated rewriting the opening chapters. I thought having an existing story, and a clear idea of the ending, would make rewriting easier. It didn’t. Instead, I found myself wanting to include details because they were accurate, and not because the story needed them. It was hard reading entire books only to have them become two lines in the manuscript. Part of what held me back from including a lot of these details was point of view. The point of view for the entire novel is first person, and the narrator is a civilian with no military knowledge. As a result, even when she overhears things, they can sound foreign, and she can’t always repeat them. I’m sure there are times where you’ve heard words or phrases that were so foreign, you couldn’t remember what they were, even though you’d only just heard them.
For me, this first edit is about making sense of the story. As Lester explains, “My main [goal] is is [sic] to ensure the story makes sense! Because the story evolves for me while I’m writing the first draft, one of the most basic things I need to do is look at the continuity” (2018, para. 2). When I was writing the first draft, I was still learning what the story was, now I’m bringing it to life. As Bernard Malamud explains; “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.” (1988, para. 33).
I think one of the big reasons I’ve found rewriting so painful is because there’s a voice in my head which loves being hypercritical. The issue is that it’s no longer just criticising my writing, it’s also trying to make me think about how the scene fits into the main plot and subplots, and whether the character is authentic. It’s so easy to get caught up in what my writing should do technically, that it becomes very hard to step back and think about it creatively. I feel like I’m stuck in an in-between state at the moment, where I still need the freedom of writing the first draft, but I’m also wearing my editor hat and am thinking more critically about how everything is coming together.
Lester, N. (2018). Burrowing In: Working on the Second Draft of a Novel. Natasha Lester. Retrieved 6 July 2018, from https://www.natashalester.com.au/burrowing-in-working-on-the-second-draft-of-a-novel/
Malamud, B. (1988, March 20). Reflections of a Writer: Long Work, Short Life. The New York times, p. 15.