We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
My ‘Australian Writers’ Centre’ Furious Fiction entry for February. The parameters for that month were: 500 words or less; the first sentence must have three words only; there had to be a candle; and a “first” of some sort in the story.
Here’s my effort:
THREE by Denise Newton
“Three, three, three!” Lily punctuated each word with a clap. She skipped around the room, her pink tulle skirt fanning out around chubby knees.
The chant was becoming annoying. Sandra tried to breathe through her irritation. Like in yoga: breathe… in…and… out. Mustering patience. Birthdays were thrilling when you were turning three. When had she stopped being excited by them? She couldn’t remember. She put the third candle on top of the pink icing and placed the tiny ballerina in the centre of the cake.
“There, what do you think?”
Lily executed a clumsy pirouette, hands fluttering. “Beautiful, Mummy!”
Sandra started to say, “Let’s show Daddy…” but stopped, bit back the words in time. That familiar swooping inside. Like on a scary ride at the funfair, without the fun. This was another of those hideous “firsts” that had to be endured for a year. An entire, damnable year. And then another, and another, and another…
She glanced at her mother, seated at the table. Eleanor was watching her granddaughter dance her excitement across the kitchen. There was a fond smile on her lips and a tiny furrow between her brows. Sandra arranged her own face into a matching smile.
Her mother wasn’t fooled. “All right, love?” she said.
Sandra nodded. Her smile widened, cracked, dissolved. The tears came.
“Damn!” She tried hard to swallow them, force them away. They were disobedient, not to be stopped. They tickled as they ran down past her nose. She wiped her cheek with the back of one hand, furious with herself.
“It’s to be expected, you know.” Her mother’s voice was soft. “Times like this, birthdays and anniversaries. They’ll be hard for a while.”
Sandra gave a small sigh. “I suppose so.” She looked at Lily, who was still twirling. “You’ll make yourself dizzy, Lil.”
Lily stopped mid-turn, breathless, laughing up at her. “It’s fun!”
“It looks fun.” Sandra attempted another smile. “Come on, help me make the fairy bread. Everyone’ll be here soon.”
Together they buttered bread. Lily hummed as she shook the ‘hundreds and thousands’ container, sprinkling the tiny coloured pebbles over each slice. Every now and then a rush of them spilled out, forming a little kaleidoscopic mound, stuck to the butter. Lily squeaked in delight each time. Sandra cut the fairy bread into triangles and arranged them on a plate.
The smell of the fresh, buttered bread, the sugar in the toppings, the cake…The scene transported her to when she was a small girl, helping her mother prepare for a birthday party. The fizzy excitement. It was all so real.
She looked at Lily, giving her a proper smile this time.
“Come on, Lil. Let’s put up the balloons.”
As she passed the kitchen dresser, she touched the photo of Dan in its frame, and knew they’d be OK
Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.
A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.
There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.
The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.
As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:
It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.
Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here:
In last week’s post I mentioned being at the Cobargo Folk Festival recently, and having the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Stroud after reading her book ‘Teacher.’
At the same festival, I had another of those wonderful moments of serendipity. Also on the festival program were several performances of “The Good Girl Song” Project. A song cycle called “Voyage”, it was written by Helen Begley, based on research by Liz Rushen and eyewitness accounts of the voyage.It presents in musical and theatrical form the story of young single women who emigrated from England to Australia, in the 1830’s. The show was performed by Helen, Penny Larkins, Penelope Swales and Jamie Molloy.
I just loved this presentation. It was Australian history, brought to life. The hopes and dreams of poor women searching for a better life, who sailed halfway round the world to be met by several thousand men on the Sydney dock. The colony was starved of eligible young women, at that time in it’s history. So did the women receive a warm welcome? Hardly. They were greeted by jeers, catcalls and filthy remarks from the assembled men. Imagine the women’s distress and disappointment. And the resilience they needed, in order to lift their heads, endure the humiliation and jeers that their ship was a “floating brothel” and walk down the ship’s gangway, to somehow make a new life in this strange land.
The show brought me to tears. It evoked thoughts of my own ancestors, some of whom I am writing about in my current fiction project. Some arrived as convicts, others as free passengers, but all of them would have experienced the hardships of the voyage here, and the same trepidation as they stepped ashore.
To hear more about the project go here:https://vimeo.com/130713977
or visit their Facebook page:https://www.facebook.com/thegoodgirlstory/
You know the story is working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. Arnold Zable, author.
In a previous post I wrote about enjoyment I’ve had with the research process. (It’s on my ‘Books and Projects’ page if you’d like to see it.)
One of the surprising pleasures of writing for me has been the process of discovery. I’ve had a general idea of my characters, major events in their lives, and where they end up (some of these dictated by the historical records, as my major characters are based on real life people from the 1800’s)
Within those broad parameters, it’s been astonishing, and great fun, to sit at my keyboard and have ideas just develop, as if from nowhere. I’ve heard some writers say their characters ‘tell them’ what they’ll do and say. I’m not sure that applies to me, but I have to say there have been times when, after writing for an hour or so, I have to admit ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen!’
As a new writer it’s easy to either get anxious about this, or get carried away by it. Overall I prefer to stick to my general plan, but it’s fun to allow a bit of leeway and explore roads and lane ways that open up unexpectedly. It doesn’t mean that all of these make it past the first draft, of course. But it’s fun, certainly.
I think I ‘m coming to see the writing process as more like consulting a map. I know where I’m starting, and where I want to get to. In between, I can take the most obvious route, but I can also take interesting little detours or twists and see what comes of them. Being open to the possibilities is the thing.
Kind of like life, don’t you think?
Last year I wrote a post about a new online program I was about to start with the Australian Writers’ Centre, called ‘Write Your Novel.’ I’m now almost half way through this six month course and I’m pleased to report that it is proving to be a worthwhile venture.
When I began the program I had a first draft manuscript of over 119,000 words. Yes, I know, far too many words. I knew I needed to redraft, edit, cut and whittle away a whole lot of those words…words that I’d sweated over and celebrated as the word count mounted. Odd, now that I’m celebrating as the word tally goes down…
Anyway, as this was my first novel, I was a bit lost as to how to set about this (mammoth) task. How to critically examine my story’s plot, structure, characters, dialogue, description. How to make sure all the parts work together to make a satisfying whole. What are the themes of my story and how to ensure they shine through? And of course, how to tighten the language.
This is where the ‘Write Your Novel’ program has been invaluable. I’m in an online classroom with eight other aspiring authors. We have an online tutor, Cathie Tasker, an editor with many years of experience in publishing. Cathie gives each of us feedback as we take turns to submit segments of our manuscripts. And, we all workshop each others’ work and provide feedback on what works well and what needs more work. Already I have learnt so much – from giving feedback and receiving it, and reading the comments given by my classmates on others’ work as well.
I’m happy that I’ve already trimmed over 14,000 words, mainly through tightening language, deleting those pesky repetitious or unnecessary words and checking my overuse of adverbs! And I’ve been able to write more convincing characters by getting closer to their point of view.
Lots more work to do, of course. But I’ve been pleased at the things I’ve learnt so far and confident that I can keep applying this to my writing, even after the program finishes.
To find out more about the ‘Write Your Novel’ program or other classroom and online courses at Australian Writers’ Centre, go to their website: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/
(I promise I am receiving no payment of any kind for this mention! I spent ages online trawling through writing courses and was happy to discover the AWC, so I’m sharing the love. 🙂 )
I’ll be back in another few months to update my progress.
Here’s my little entry into the December ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writer’s Centre. 500 words, the story had to be set on Christmas Eve, either 40 years ago or 40 years in the future.
When Greg Stopped Believing in Santa By Denise Newton
I looked out at the red and green tinsel around my neighbour’s front window and the Merry Christmas written in white window spray in the centre of the pane.
“Merry Christmas,” I said, to myself—not aloud. Greg always said it’s safer to keep some things to yourself, in case people get the wrong idea about you. Greg was so wise for his age. Missing him was a sharp hurt, a pain deep in my chest. He was so far away this Christmas. All the way across the Nullabor. Past the Great Australian Bight. I’d never been but he described how it looked from the plane window when he and Sally flew there to start their new life in Perth. He’d said perhaps, I could go and visit them one day, stay for a couple of weeks.
Greg had gone away the year after he stopped believing in Santa. Well, okay—maybe a few years after…perhaps twenty years…but I found it hard to believe it was that long.
One Christmas Eve, he was staring, rapt, out our back door at the garden, the grass made dewy by the cool of the night.
“Look, Mum!” he breathed. “Santa’s sled tracks on the grass.” He pointed to a spot in the middle of the lawn, little finger trembling with joy. I couldn’t see anything but I smiled and ruffled his hair, loving his willingness to believe.
“Best be off to bed, then, love. Santa doesn’t stop at homes where the children are still awake.”
And he raced to leap into bed where he lay, eyes pressed closed in case Santa peeked through the window.
The next Christmas he was silent and embarrassed if Santa was mentioned. I knew he no longer believed but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Sweet boy.
And then, what seemed like the very next year, he was off to Perth, he and Sally together. I was glad for his new job, his new city, his new wife. Sally with her miniskirts and her glossy hair piled high in the beehive hairdo that was all the rage now. She loved Greg—that was what mattered. Still, I hurt inside, though I never said it aloud. I’d learnt that from Greg. He called every Christmas Eve and all the other special days and I loved hearing his voice, though it never made the hurt go away.
I discovered this initiative only this year, at a writing workshop I attended: thank you Julian Leatherdale (http://www.julianleatherdale.com/) for the information.
The AWW aims to encourage, via Twitter and Facebook, email and websites, librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, English teachers and authors were invited to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women.
Quoted from the AWW blog, which you can find at: http://australianwomenwriters.com/
Readers can link their reviews via the AWW website, and sign up for regular emails in which AWW volunteers give ’round ups’ of the latest batch of reviews in particular genres.
If you are a reader who’d like to discover more of the wonderful works created by women writing in Australia, this is a terrific way to keep informed and across the latest (and not so recent) from women authors.
The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game
No surprise that I was drawn to this series – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?
The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.
The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.
A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.
The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.
If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.
Here is another of the short stories I entered in the Australian Writers Centre ‘Furious Fiction’ short story competition. For this one, the guidelines were: 500 words or less, the topic was “The Lost Hour”, and the story had to include one sentence with three colours mentioned, plus the phrase “It is lighter.”
As always with this competition, it was great practice for thinking imaginatively about a prompt and writing to some guidelines – and good fun. Here is my story:
The Lost Hour by Denise Newton
Splinters of light stab at my eyes. I try to open them. The right eye opens. Can’t see much, but it must be nearly morning. Darkness lifting: it is lighter. My left eye stays closed. I try again, concentrating. Jesus, it’s stuck. What the freaking hell? My mouth is stuck – I can’t open it, either. My tongue feels huge, like a thick furry lizard inside my mouth. I try to lift my head. Someone groans nearby. So close to me. Who is that? I try to lift my head again. Shit, it hurts. I hurt. That dude groans some more. Carefully, I roll my head to the right and open that eye a crack. I can’t see properly. Pieces of something green and shiny scattered about. Glass? Roll my head back to the left. Another moan. There’s no one there. Is it me making those noises? What the hell?
OK, try to sit up, Luke. Slowly, slowly, like an old man, I roll to one side and push myself up to sit, hunched over like a turtle. My left eye is screaming now, throbbing. God, my head. There’s a piece of broken green glass embedded in my left palm. Blood oozes around the sides of the wound. Looks deep – but what do I know? I can hardly see properly. I try to focus my one good eye on the wound, staring hard. It’s all blurry: a pink, green and red palm. I can feel it now. Maybe because I’m looking at it. Stinging, where the blood is leaking. I turn my hand over. The knuckles look grazed and swollen. Like something hard has hit them. Or… like they’ve hit something hard.
Jesus. I’m scared now. What happened here? I search my mushy brain, trying to remember. Flashes of the night before: Jason’s big party, his buck’s night at The Royal. All the guys there, I remember that. A big night. Huge. Then nothing. Jump to now. Sitting here with a triangle of green glass in my palm, a swollen eye and knuckles that have seen some action. The rest of the night lost to me.
I try to stand up. Sit down again, in a hurry as the concrete under my feet rises, threatens to slam into me. My head drops between my knees. I’m trying to think the nausea down; I want to look up but the bile rises. So I lean one ear on my knee and send my gaze out. To my right, on the other side of the broken glass, something lies crumpled on the pavement. Oh. Jesus. A body, lying there, very still. Concentrating, commanding my right eye to focus, I make out a pale green t shirt and jeans, a bearded face turned to me, eyes closed. The top of the shirt is splotched with stains. A dark red trail of liquid oozes from the ear above.In the distance I hear a siren.