A Writer’s Life Lesson: Finding your Fellow Odballs

I have trouble updating this blog for a number of reasons – the main one being, time I spend writing it could be spent on my main Work in Progress (WIP). However, I have learned so much in the last six months that reviving the blog may be the best way to go about processing it all, instead of ranting in an incomprehensible fashion to my nearest and dearest. One massive lesson I’ve absorbed is this: Finding your Community is Important.

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I’m serious. Humans are social creatures, and even us hermit writers need to push our noses out of our caves and interact with people who understand what we’re going through. When I was in kindergarten, my fellow peeps were the kids who loved running around pretending to be Captain Planet. In primary school it was the other nerdy kids who liked to read and make up stories. In high school it was the goth kids, and in university it was the other artists and creative types. All of these other kids were going through the same stuff as me, were interested in the same things and understood my obscure Red Dwarf references. So how do you find your circle as a creative adult?

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While I still have many of the same friends from HS and Uni, very few of them are aspiring novelists. Thank goodness for Writers Victoria. If you are a writer of any stripe — novelist, short fiction, journalist, graphic novels, poetry, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult of any genre (YA is not a genre by itself, it contains multitudes!), Literary fiction, biography, history, creative non-fiction, LGBT+ of any genre or style… — find your local writer’s association. There is one in every Australian state and territory (to my knowledge) and there is also, on a national level, the Australian Society of Authors. I’m going out on a limb and assuming that many other countries, territories and capital cities have similar organisations in place, but they are some of the best ways to find your circle and hone your craft. On a more micro level, you may be able to find a small writers group that is local to your suburb or district. I know it can be tough, especially for the introverted among us, but the other authors I have met have been a goddamn lifeline. If it weren’t for them I probably would have quit years ago.

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My story begins when I put the cart so far before the horse it was going backwards. I thought my book was about ready, so I signed up for a Writers Vic workshop on the publishing industry and how to pitch a novel. It was a two day intensive with people who actually knew what they were talking about, but it wasn’t until a year later that I realised the most valuable part of the course, for me, was making new friends. For the first time since I graduated Uni in 2011, I had been in a room with other writers. People who, when I said, “my protagonist is being a complete jerk” didn’t reply with “well, you’re the author, just make her do what you want!” but instead nodded knowingly in commiseration — they’d had the same issues. I am still friends with some of them to this day; they are part of my Glomp. What’s a Glomp? Della S Dawson explains here. Essentially, it’s a group of other writers at about the same level as you who you click with as friends and who support you through your journey. We don’t all write in the same genres or age groups — there are SFF, contemporary, YA and Adult authors among us — but we all get it. When one of us sends a message in the group chat that their family won’t leave them alone for a solid hour to finish a chapter, we know exactly how they feel because we’ve all struggled to get into a writing groove. When one of us is excited because we finally hit an elusive word count we all cheer and celebrate because we know how bloody hard they worked, while other friends give a well-meant “good for you”. When I have a knotty plot problem I just can’t unpick by myself, I go to them to for help untangling it. And when Ian Laking told us he was part of a team putting together Speculate, we volunteered to help him out.

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Speculate was founded with the same goal I’ve been discussing for the last few paragraphs — finding your circle. Its specific aim was to bring together Speculative Fiction writers for a day of panels, discussion and most importantly MINGLING! There is a general feeling that genre fiction is overlooked in Australia, and that anything with a dragon or robots in it can’t be considered serious literature. But here was a venue full of writers discussing character development, narrative structure, the human condition and the future of fiction, proving that people don’t mind reading serious themes wrapped in an SFF jacket. In fact, most people in attendance preferred it that way! And here a bunch of them were in the same room, or mingling around the barbecue at lunchtime and oh look you’re reading that new Jay Kristoff book, how are you finding it? Are you working on anything of your own? Oh my gosh that concept of a human looking for love on a completely android planet sounds AMAZING can I be your beta reader? Sure, let’s grab a drink! I honestly felt as though I had volunteered for something so ground-breaking and necessary, and I can’t wait to get involved next year.

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The next day I attended another Writer’s Vic workshop which ran in affiliation with Speculate. The topic was how to structure a Speculative Fiction novel, and it was run by the sensational Alison Goodman. Not only did I acquire valuable skills to fix what I had realised was a mess of a manuscript (thanks, WV manuscript assessment program!), but I met more people who not only had writer problems but more specific ones. I no longer felt odd saying, “so my protagonist is looking for a missing bomb in this dystopian city…”, because the friend I made sitting next to me was having mad-scientist-mentor plot issues.

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My manuscript is a mess. I feel like I finally understand what my mother meant when she said re-stumping my childhood home had been “an ordeal.” Major restructures and rewrites fucking hurt, and I often feel like quitting. But my Glomp get it. The other writers in the crowd and on the stage at Speculate got it. And my Glomp won’t let me quit when I’m being a sook. They send me cheering-up gifs, interesting book recommendations and offers to beta read, and I do the same for them. We will will be sitting in the front row of each others first book launches. And when we become part of the new wave of Melbourne’s literati, and then the veterans at writing cons, we’ll be grateful that we had each other’s backs during our formative, fumbling years.

Other writers will understand you in a way few others ever will. Seek them out.

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On Teachers

So, it’s been almost a year since I last posted. This is my blog so I owe nobody an explanation but suffice to say that life got in the way. Anyway, let’s see how long I can keep this up. Because I’m still a little rusty I’m going to do what most Millennials do best – use The Simpsons to illustrate my points.

Today I want to talk about teachers. I could tell you that they’re overworked and underpaid, but that’s pointless unless I can explain how valuable they are.

Teachers are indispensable, and we are losing them in droves due to the stress and sheer exhausting nature of the job. But if it weren’t for teachers I definitely wouldn’t be a writer.

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When I was in grade one, around seven years old, my class teacher was Mrs. Green. She was a jolly, plump woman with kind eyes, an easy laugh and a consuming love of literature. Every few days she would give us creative writing time in the afternoons when we could just sit and write whatever we wanted. While she could never quite get me to spell properly, she did germinate my love for writing stories. During a parent-teacher interview, she told my mother that my brain goes faster than my hand and that I would often skip words. This is still true unless I’m typing. But she encouraged me to keep putting pen to paper, even though my spelling was wrong, words were skipped and my penmanship was awful. This was the year that I realised I wanted to be a writer.

When I was in grade six, my teacher was Mrs. Higgins. She once pulled me aside and told me that the short story I had written for a class assignment had captivated her. Do you know how big that is to hear for a kid who actually enjoys school? I wasn’t a cool kid, I actually liked learning stuff and the other kids picked on me because I was an insufferable know-it-all, but when a teacher tells a twelve-year-old that they actually enjoyed something they wrote nothing else really mattered. It made me even more determined to write better stories.

When I was in year seven my English teacher was Ms. O’Meara. Miss O’Meara was over-enthusiastic, to say the least. We were sophisticated high-schoolers now! We didn’t want some constantly cheerful middle-aged woman trying to get us psyched up to read Romeo and Juliet. I’m ashamed to say that I mocked her along with my classmates during lunchtime bitching sessions, even though she read some of my woeful Harry Potter fan fiction and told me to keep going with it. I was embarrassed to admit to my classmates that I actually liked Ms. O’Meara, and I especially liked that she set creative writing assignments.

When I was in year eight my English teacher was Ms. VanMaanen. She was the first person to properly ram home how effective allegory could be – we were studying Orwell’s Animal Farm that year, and it blew my fourteen-year-old mind.

My year twelve English Literature teacher was Mr. Lawrence. He was a cool, laid-back guy with shaggy salt-and-pepper hair…and he never gave me an A. I knew that my essays were good, but he thought they could be better. He was right. He taught me to work at my writing, not to just rely on my “way with words”, for want of a better term.

It wasn’t just English teachers who nurtured my love for writing. In year twelve I studied Studio Art, with a focus on Photography. My teacher was Ms. Dowley, and she was one of those rare teachers that commanded such a deep respect in her students that we just couldn’t bear to disappoint her. When I told her that I wanted to create a photo series using Lego characters and turn it into a wall-hanging sized comic page, she told me to read Sandman by Neil Gaiman. This catalyst formed an interest in graphic novels that not only opened up a whole new world of storytelling but also gave me something in common with my current partner. We’ve had eight happy years of comic book buying sprees and Sunday mornings reading Batman in bed with cups of tea or coffee, all because Ms. Dowley suggested I try reading a medium which I didn’t realise could also be for adults.

This instance also led me to fall in love with the writing of Neil Gaiman, a person who inspires me daily. For those of you who haven’t read his work, the best way to describe Gaiman’s fantasy style is…dreamlike. The in one of the ten issues of Sandman Trade Paperbacks (I forget which one) there’s an introduction (I forget by whom) which describes Gaiman as living in that place where you’re not quite asleep but not yet awake either. His work is magical, and if I could be a tenth of the creator he is I’d be incredibly proud of my work. I may never have found him if it weren’t for Ms. Dowley.

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Gaiman is Edison to my Homer. Even the chart is accurate.

 

Finally, in year twelve my Drama teacher was Ms. Connolly. She was another one of those teachers who believed in you so fervently that you didn’t want to disappoint her. I’m still haunted by the look on her face from the one occasion when I neglected to hand in homework. One of the requirements for VCE drama was to devise and perform a seven-minute solo performance. Seven minutes may seem like a long time to perform in front of a panel of examiners but given the litany of things that needed to be included we soon found that the issue was trimming our pieces down to seven minutes, not stretching them out. A day or two before our assessment she and I were having a chat, and she told me that the examiners would be able to tell that my piece was “very clever and well-written.” I realise now that was her kindest way of saying that I was a crummy actor but I could definitely write. I’m pretty sure I got a B+ on that exam.

This is all a round-about way of saying that if it weren’t for teachers I wouldn’t be a writer. I didn’t even know it was an option until I was seven, and I had plenty of time to get disenfranchised with education, especially given how much I was bullied. I was a very lucky kid to encounter so many teachers who took an interest in my ambitions, and I wouldn’t be the person I am without them.

I’m not published yet. I hope one day that will change. When it does, I would love for them to attend my book launch so I can thank them in person. A lofty, fantastic dream, maybe, but these are the people who taught me how to dream in the first place.

I’m back! Let’s talk MWF16

I know, I know, I know… three months is a long time to be away from the blog. All I can say is that life got in the way, as it does when you aren’t looking. You put your blog down for a moment to pick up another piece of writing, or a book you’ve always wanted to read, or maybe to (sigh) go out and earn some money to keep a roof over your head, and all of a sudden life has gotten tangled around your feet because you forgot to look down, weaving itself around your legs like a cat, and then you go to move and wind up pitching head-first into the kitchen bench and need to go to hospital for stitches, while life is yowling at you to feed it and clean its litter box.

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I pushed that metaphor a bit too hard, didn’t I?

Anyway, my point is that life stuff has been getting in the way of other stuff. The last few months has seen me meet some incredible people and make some wonderful contacts, as well as doing enough soul-crushing grind work to be classified as ’employed.’

So to ease back into the routine of regular blog writing, I’m going to keep it simple and talk about the Melbourne Writers Festival.

I know, it’s a departure from the usual content, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least say a few words about some of the events I went to on Sunday the 28th.

My morning began with a talk titled “The Art of Fiction,” in which novelist Hannah Kent interviewed the Miles Franklin Award Winning author Anna Funder. The discussion revolved around the way we tend to base fiction on reality, and all of the trials inherent in that. Funder commented that she feels obliged to do her characters justice, be they real or imaginary, and that properly representing them was important.

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She also discussed how tricky it is to make the truth seem credible in fiction, because reality is often so much stranger than fiction. You often have to “reign in and tone done reality to make it credible,” which I had never really considered before.

To illustrate this point, Funder told the room about the German launch of her debut non-fiction book Stasiland, which is about people living in Berlin who worked for or resisted the East German regime. She said that during the launch, as she went up to read passages of the book in German, she saw that the first two rows were taken up by several older men wearing bomber jackets and lots of brylcream- obviously former Stasi, now members of “The Society for the Protections of the Civil Liberties of Man” (I think I got that name right). As she began to read, all of them took out notepads and pens from the top pocket of their jackets at the same time and began taking notes.

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A while later, while she was back home in Sydney, Funder got an email from her German publisher saying that they were being sued by the former Stasi members. When she then went to make a cup of tea to help steady her nerves and calm down, no water came out of the tap.

See, if that was written into a novel it might seem a bit over the top, wouldn’t it? But it happened.

Funder also raised the point that in fiction you are able to write a version of truth that is more interesting than fact; a truth with structure and elegance and satisfying endings, as opposed to reality when, quite often, we don’t know what happened in the end and if our protagonist survived their ordeal or exactly what happened to them.

She signed my copy of Stasiland afterward. Her latest, The Girl With the Dogs, has been added to my reading list.

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Later in the day I attended the Fantasy Fiction session with Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, and Rainbow Rowell, who wrote Fangirl and Carry On. They were interviewed by Kate Eltham.

The discussion revolved around the idea of creating universes that are both unique and familiar.

Rowell pointed out that Fantasy and Pop Culture are common knowledge that we all share as readers and consumers, so when we write fantasy work we tap into the tropes of the genre in order to create something new. However, because we are using common themes (ie: Magic) we need to come up with new ways to express them, which is what makes The Magicians different to Harry Potter, even though both are about young men attending magic school. It’s why we don’t get tired of the Orphan trope – as Rowell put it, “Every orphan in literature was sent to save the world.”

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“The Magicians” has been adapted into a TV series by the SyFy network

Also discussed was the joy of using footnotes as a way to slow the story down a bit, and to add texture and detail to the world your characters inhabit without completely derailing the narration.

It was actually quite a lot to cover in an hour.

Anyway, the 2016 Melbourne Writer’s festival is still going for another week, so if you get the chance to catch any more events I can definitely recommend it. Take a look at the program here.