Obsessions

It occurred to me the other day that my writing is fuelled by obsessions.

I read about the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD, and was fascinated by the stories revealed in Pompeii digs. How plaster casts made by filling up holes in the solidified volcanic debris show a man protecting his pregnant wife, the folds in her robes still distinct. The discovery this year of several skeletons huddled together in the central room of a newly excavated house in Pompeii, possibly a family hoping to escape the pyroclastic flow. After reading extensively, I wrote a story about a man with the same fascination.

Last year I watched a documentary about a Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints community in Utah, where each man had more than one wife, and I became obsessed with finding out more. How did these families work? What did the wives really think about this?  I read multiple articles and interviews, researched a specific community and used Google Earth to ‘roam’ around that town. I read more about FLDS beliefs. Then I wrote a story about a second wife getting ready to meet the third wife.

It seems to me that curiosity is so important in any writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, fantasy or realism. What happened? What might have happened, in such a place or time? Who is that person, and how would they act? And if we develop brief preoccupations in the process, I think these are good—powering our writing and imbuing it with the bright sharpness of our excitement.

Current obsession—caving. Tight squeezes, some underwater.

 

 

 

 

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sending words into the world

If writers want to be published, we have to submit work. And yet sending out work is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. I’ve been submitting work for six years (writing for longer), and I still find it hard to do. Sometimes I’m tempted to avoid it. After all (I tell myself )—statistically, rejection is the most likely result.

I recently submitted something I’ve spent a lot of time on, and sending it triggered all the usual crazy, mixed feelings. I thought I’d try to order my thoughts, in case this helps another writer.

Reflections on submitting:

  1. It must be done. If we want to share our writing with others, there’s no escaping this. Yet submitting can be terrifying. We have to steel ourselves and send our work anyway. (We may not want to send our very first efforts. But if a writer has been creating work for more than a year, and wants to be published, it’s probably time to start submitting!)
  2. Timing is everything. Too early and our work is clumsy, full of holes, rough around the edges. Too late and we may fall behind, not make deadlines, or put off submitting forever. How to tell if it’s too early or too late? No one seems to know! We make our best guess and then send.
  3. It’s normal to feel strange emotions after sending. I often feel uneasy. Sometimes I feel hopeful (tempered with common sense—this submission may not be successful, but the next one may be). You may feel a whole range of other emotions. (To avoid feeling overwhelming regret, my advice is to avoid looking at your submitted piece or manuscript after sending. Whenever I do this, I find something I hate!)
  4. Multiple submissions make sense (if allowed). Some journals hang on to work for months, even years. I once had a story with a US literary journal for 14 months, and I’ve heard tales of much longer waits. If the journal or competition allows simultaneous submissions, it’s worth improving the odds by submitting to at least one other market (in my opinion).
  5. Destinations are important. Except in the case of a freaky genius, it’s probably best to send the first submitted poem to a smaller magazine, rather than the Paris Review. There’s no point sending a sci-fi/Western story to a snooty literary magazine that doesn’t publish genre fiction. And it may be unwise to send a literary novel manuscript to an agent who specialises in fantasy and YA. Choosing where we send our words improves the chance of being chosen.

I’m sure there are other aspects to submitting I haven’t considered. After all, I write short fiction only.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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news and weather

 

I haven’t posted for awhile. It’s not that I haven’t written posts. In fact I’ve written two in the last few weeks, but when I finished each of them, I realised that I couldn’t press publish.  Though I wrote each piece with care, I knew the people I’d referred to might recognise themselves, if they somehow stumbled here. They might feel misrepresented, or resent being discussed.

So I’ve said nothing at all. The safer option.

What can I say?

I can say that I am so grateful for my writing group and my other writing buddies, both in real life and online. They share their knowledge, make me laugh and are writing cheerleaders. Often they keep me going when I’d otherwise lose faith. They are phenomenal. If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of those people, so thank you.

I can say that I’ve finally reached the goal word count for my short story manuscript. (Now the editing begins!)

And I can say that here in Brisbane it is fine and cold and glorious. Perfect writing weather.

Wishing you all a very happy writing week!

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the week in which I got a big head (twice) but then got over myself

The week just gone was a busy one. My friend Amanda O’Callaghan (below) had her wonderful short story collection This Taste for Silence (UQP) released into the world, with not one but two book launches. Both events were packed, the first at Avid Reader and the second at a function centre with over a hundred people attending. The book is stunning, and is already receiving much acclaim.

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I was fortunate enough to be asked to read at both launches, along with another lovely friend, Karen Hollands. This meant I was reading my work in public for the second and third times — exciting and nerve-wracking stuff.

A friend today asked me if I enjoyed it and I suppose I did — in the same way I like rollercoasters. I was scared, for sure, and yet the feeling of having a big room of people listening to your words was surreal in a wonderful way. After all, that’s one of the reasons many of us write — to have our words reach and touch others. Seeing all those people gazing my way, not scratching their heads or dozing or staring off elsewhere but in fact looking riveted — it was quite the high.

I even had several strangers tell me how much they enjoyed the reading, ask where they could read more of my work, or how to buy my book (um, yes, slight problem there).

Fiona at Avid (reading)

And so what did I do after each of these highs? I came home to all the usual household chores, wanting to flop on the couch with a cup of tea. I talked to my family. And I figured out a way to annoy them a great deal.

“Famous people don’t stack the dishwasher,” I said. They looked at me. I smiled. Someone else stacked the dishwasher.

“Also, famous people don’t get their own cups of tea.”

My husband sighed, heaved himself to his feet, muttering, but nevertheless made tea.

I explained to my beloved ones that my famousness was a one-night thing, that I wouldn’t be wielding it on other days. To their credit, they took my diva act in their stride. My husband may have even smirked in a tolerant way (which will only encourage me for next time).

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writers, day jobs, and a ruptured heart

woman wears yellow hard hat holding vehicle part

Photo by Chevanon Photography on Pexels.com

I caught up with a friend last week, and she spoke about the juggle of work and writing. She has a great idea for her second novel and it’s pouring onto the page, whenever she can write. But work gets in the way, and she’s tempted to give her job the flick. She knows she’s fortunate—her husband is supportive, and their finances could allow it. I asked how she’d feel if she didn’t go to work—if she couldn’t watch the body language in the staffroom, didn’t witness the everyday life of her colleagues, playing out in front of her. She said she’d considered that. She said if she didn’t work, she’d have to deliberately go out more, to get her fill of ‘people time’. For now, she plans to stay at work and get paid!

It seems most writers have a day job. They don’t have a choice. Unless they’ve reached retirement age, they work so they can pay the bills, since writing rarely generates a decent income.

But sometimes writers leave their day jobs behind. They don’t just downscale their hours or change jobs—they stop non-writing work altogether. They may support themselves with writing earnings—from publication payments, running courses, editing, lecturing and more. Or if a writer has a partner who can become the main breadwinner, the writer may then work solely on creative projects.

For some writers, being at home fulltime works well, as the rest of their life takes them out and about. But for other writers, having a day job doesn’t just pay the bills, it helps them get ideas by exposing them to different places, people and situations.

My day job is not rocket science, but I love it. As a surgical assistant, I often find my eyes goggling, my ears straining, even my fingers fascinated by the texture of different tissue (gross but true). I often chat to patients beforehand to distract them. We may talk about their dog’s weird habits in the minutes before they have their breast removed. I watch the ways other staff interact with patients—some briskly, some politely, some with the deepest kindness and care. None of these work details have featured in my stories, but I suspect the emotion permeates my fiction.

The other day, I sat in the tea room between cases, sipping a lukewarm coffee. A bloke strode through with a phone to his head, barking, Can you come to (redacted)? There’s a man here with a ruptured heart.’ And right away, though I know it’s not logical, I pictured a plump, balding man, standing in a hallway. His wife on the footpath, loading bags into a taxi. And the man growing pale, his hand to his chest, as blood rushed out through the tear in his heart.

I know writers who work a variety of day jobs—cleaning and accounting, sales and social work. Each of those occupations must give a window into the lives of others, helping to enrich the writer’s work. And for those who don’t work outside the home, I’m sure there are many ways to achieve the same goal, too. People-watching in cafes. Writing group, volunteering, family functions.

I guess the main thing is, except in special circumstances, it’s probably not ideal to sit at our desks day in, day out. Whether through paid work or via other means, it’s great to get out into that big, wide world.

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Sensational shorts

cropped-img_4420.jpgDo you ever wonder what makes a standout short story? I don’t mean a decent, solid, pleasing story, I mean one that grips you by the collar, rattles your bones, pops your eyeballs out. Or one that seems innocent, even placid, but lingers and trails and sticks its fingers in your brain long after you stop reading. That kind of story.

I’m no writing expert. I don’t have formal qualifications in writing. My only claim is that I both read and write a lot of short fiction. So this is just my personal opinion. (Before I go on, I’d just like to clarify that I’m not addressing any basic story-writing concepts here, I’m presuming anyone reading is familiar with short story basics of a story arc, characters, plot, point of view, etc.)

There are so many options for reading short fiction. Stories are on Twitter and Facebook links, on blogs, on online literary mags. We can read print anthologies, story collections and lit magsSo if we’re going to give our time to a story, we’d like it to sparkle in a way that is new and intriguing. How does the writer do this?

I think every truly great story has something that sets it apart, a certain pizazz. That pizazz can be created in many different ways, but it makes the reader sit up, take a breath, or lean closer, thinking Oooh, this is different. 

An exceptional story may contain:

An original setting. Instead of placing the main characters in your country, send them to Finland. Laos. Crete. Do your research, or use past experience if you’ve been lucky enough to live or travel overseas. If that sounds too tricky, consider a twist on familiar locations. A nudist beach. An alpaca farm. A city where all the traffic lights are flashing orange.

A strange turn of events. You may really want to write about a man sitting at his dying father’s bedside, and although that’s been done many times, it can still work beautifully if there’s another element, another storyline that adds depth and heightens the sorrow. Maybe while he’s sitting there, his father’s phone keeps ringing with crank calls from a scammer and maybe the son somehow ends up talking to the scammer at length, though not about his father. Something weird that adds to the story.

Humour. I don’t use this much myself, just the odd wry comment, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. But some writers do this so well, and funny stories are like precious gems. So often short stories are sombre or grim, and they don’t have to be this way. Laughing on and off through a piece of short fiction is so refreshing! For me, the best funny short stories are the ones that still have ‘heart’ – a message or meaning to go with the humour. I’m not a fan of stories that are odd or silly, just for the sake of it. I still need to be emotionally invested in some way. Julie Koh does this so well – her collection Portable Curiosities is a fabulous, innovative, very funny book.

A strong voice. Some stories hit you in the chest because right from the beginning the voice sweeps you away. The story is told with a confidence that has the reader spellbound. I think a distinctive or unusual voice is tough to pull off, especially for a beginner writer. No one seems to be able to define what it is, or how to achieve it, precisely. (I’m still working to find a clear voice in my short fiction, and I think only practice and reading more excellent writing will help.)

Passion. Sometimes it’s tempting to mimic other writers. I’ve fallen prey to that myself, thinking I need to write more political stories, or funnier stories, or a story about something more offbeat. When I’ve tried, fought against my own writing self, my stories have been awful. I say don’t try to write a story about a man who wears a tea cosy for a hat, unless you’re really excited and keen to write that story. Unless you have a whole backstory in your mind about that man and why he wears that hat, and you literally can’t wait to get it all down, forget it. Fantastic stories are written when we are drawn to write them, even feel compelled to write them. We’re curious or upset or horrified or scared, but for whatever reason, we must write that story. Often these stories turn out to be our best, and it’s hard to figure out why on a sentence level. We just know we poured out our hearts and minds.

 

These are the elements I find can take a story to the next level, but I’m sure there are many more. What are your tips?

 

 

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seeing/being seen

It’s just over five years now since I swapped GP work for a simple, menial job, so I could focus on writing. Around the same time, I started a new volunteer role. I also ended fifteen years of karate training to learn yoga instead.

What was this like, all this change at once? Actually, it was rough. I felt anxious, I worried whether I’d made the right decisions. I lost weight without meaning to. Everything I did was unfamiliar—exercise, work, volunteering, writing. There was no place I felt I had expertise. I kept going, and gradually acquired a few skills. But it was a big adjustment, being a beginner in my forties. I also felt the drop in ‘status’ in the eyes of others.

I was treated very differently by surgeons in my new job as a surgical assistant. Several spoke to me rudely, with sarcasm, or with disdain. A few yelled. Some were polite but cool. Only occasionally was I greeted with real warmth, or treated in a truly friendly manner. Even now, working mostly with the same (pleasant) surgeons, I have the occasional job with a new surgeon where I am treated as if I’m some kind of moron. It was a huge change from being an established medical practitioner, with staff and patients who treated me well. My pride was shot down.

Though it hurt, it did me good. I have a better idea of how it feels for others with nasty bosses. And I’ve learnt to ground my sense of self-worth inside me more, rather than looking to others for validation.

Almost worse than the snarky surgeons, though, was something else new—invisibility. In the hospital where I now volunteer, I was amazed how many doctors ‘blanked’ me. Many don’t make eye contact, let alone smile or say hi. Cleaning staff say hello, and nurses greet me by name. If I dressed in a blouse and skirt, with a stethoscope around my neck, would the medicos acknowledge me? I watch them greet other doctors, so I reckon they would.

Perhaps these doctors’ minds are elsewhere, maybe they don’t realise their rudeness, but I tend to think they classify me, in my blue volunteer vest, as a ‘non-person’. I find this fascinating, and yes, being a doctor myself (though these doctors don’t know that), I suspect I’m more sensitive to the way they don’t ‘see’ me. (My pride may be battered but it’s obviously alive and well!) But also, like anyone, I dislike being walked past in a quiet corridor as if I don’t exist.

Maybe I did the same thing to people when I was a hospital doctor. I hope I didn’t, but it’s entirely possible. If so, I’m trying to make up for it. In everyday life, I’m making eye contact more, smiling more. I’m initiating brief chats in different situations, trying to make sure the people I come across feel ‘seen’. Because I know what it feels like to be ‘unseen’, and how that bites.

My recent experiences have been insignificant compared to what other workers endure. But they’ve made me examine my own behaviour. And they’ve taught me to appreciate active kindness, one person really engaging with another. How that attention makes someone else feel valued. And how uplifting that really is.

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