Category Archives: the writing life

standing on the outside

Lately, people keep asking what my book of short stories is about. It’s a question I struggle with, because each story is different, and each piece is an exploration of a separate issue.

But there are commonalities. Like most writers, I have my obsessions.

The collection is called If You’re Happy, and happiness is certainly a theme. How people imagine happiness, the ways they achieve it, and how they are hindered in reaching that goal.

I’m also fascinated by wild weather and natural disasters, so there are stories involving a melting glacier, an earthquake, a tornado, a violent storm, a tsunami, a blizzard and a sinkhole. I’ve just written a new story with an erupting volcano.

But most of all, my stories revolve around loneliness or isolation. The characters are people who don’t completely fit in, or feel like outsiders in some way. It’s a subject close to my heart, because I’ve often felt on the outer, especially as a child.

I was a gawky kid who read a lot of books, had weird hand-me-down clothes and a bowl haircut (see picture, aged ten or eleven). I was overly earnest. I had no siblings until I was eight and a half, so I spent years playing on my own, and had no idea how to ‘fight back’ if picked on in the playground. We moved to Australia when I was nine, and I was mocked for my Canadian accent, my tendency to cry easily, and my very white skin in the land of tans. I felt odd and lonely much of the time. It wasn’t until high school, when I met other kids more similar to me, that I found good friends and realised I wasn’t so hard to like, after all.

I really hope readers enjoy If You’re Happy, and find stories that resonate. I especially hope that anyone who feels lonely, or who feels they sometimes don’t belong, can take comfort in knowing this emotion is universal. We all feel awkward, or on the outer at times. We feel alone even when surrounded by others. We chase happiness, it slips from our grasp and then we grab it again. And in the end, we’re all just trying to find our way in this wild and turbulent world.

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keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

On the weekend, I joined an online workshop run by Caoilinn Hughes (author of Gathering Evidence, Orchid and the Wasp & most recently The Wild Laughter) as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It turned out all participants, myself included, were emerging writers at most; several participants hadn’t yet started writing, but were hoping the workshop would get them motivated. When I heard this, I thought perhaps the content would be too basic. I wondered if I would learn anything new, since I’ve been writing and attending workshops for several years now.

I was completely wrong. The workshop sparkled with new information and advice, and I found myself scrambling to write it all down. But one tip stood out above the others.

Avoid cliches.

I thought I’d learnt this already. But when Caoilinn gave a few examples, my toes curled in recognition (hmm, is this a cliche too?). She warned against the old, hackneyed ways of showing what our characters are feeling – he bit his lip, she clenched her fists, he raised his eyebrows. Caoilinn Hughes suggested we try something different. Steer away from familiar, well-worn phrases.

And I realised that eliminating cliches, as much as possible, is what I need to do next to become a better writer. And that after that, there will be something else that needs addressing. And then another way to progress. And though I’ve known this a long time, I was reminded yet again that the writing life will be a constant process of learning and levelling up.

I find that daunting in some respects. It’s exhausting to think of always striving, never quite reaching a goal. But in other ways, the thought is exhilarating. To know that writing is a lifelong pursuit, that there is no ending besides our own deaths, that we will forever be discovering, examining, imagining and improving. It seems a thrilling and remarkable way to spend our days.

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some thoughts on rejection

I once dated a wonderful guy.  He was funny, smart and good-looking. Generous. A great listener. My family loved him. And I loved him, too, except not in the way I wanted to. For some reason, he wasn’t quite right for me.

I once was dumped by a guy. He told me he wanted space, which since we were both independent and spent lots of time apart, was really code for ‘I’m over you’. It hurt, absolutely. And for awhile there I thought ‘I’m obviously way too boring/emotional/freckly/fat’. But that breakup wasn’t the end of my dating life. Other people found me tolerable, even delightful 😜. I just wasn’t right for that person.

And I’ve realised that rejection in the writing world is often the same. The work might be great, but there’s a mismatch.

When we receive a rejection, it’s easy to blame ourselves. To spiral into thoughts of ‘my writing is shit’ (which reminds me of the time I accidentally called my manuscript a manushit) and ‘I’ll never get anywhere’ and ‘where’s the chocolate?’ And sure, there must be times when the submission wasn’t up to scratch. It was rushed out, not proofread well, or it’s an early career submission. It has good elements but needs some work.

But over time, as we improve, other factors come into play. The journal already commissioned an essay on belly button lint. We sent a dark story and they’re looking for a funny piece (or vice versa). The style doesn’t resonate with the competition judge (even though another judge will love it).

On Monday, I had dinner with two writer friends. Both women are very talented. One writes screenplays, memoir, novels, short stories, essays and more. The other writes plays, short stories and essays and is an accomplished actor. Both have won awards and fellowships. Both have been published, one in book form. These women are dynamos. And yet, as we ate our yellow curry, they spoke about the rejection emails they’d received the past few days. I chimed in to say I’d had recent rejections, too. We commiserated over pieces we thought were strong, yet were not accepted or didn’t place in competitions. And as we whined and laughed and wined, I had a minor epiphany (can an epiphany be minor?) —

Rejections don’t mean our work isn’t good.

Turns out, the writing world is like the dating world. Not everyone will fall in love with our work (and we won’t fall in love with everything we read, either). As with dating, we shouldn’t try to be who we’re not, to please someone else. They’ll like us or they won’t. We’ll be rejected for sure, but acceptances will come when we least expect it.

And in the meantime, we can write.

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writer’s block – causes and treatment

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Let me preface this by saying I just liked the medical sound of that title. I’m not a writing doctor. However, I am an expert in getting writer’s block.

Writer’s block seems to arrive on my doorstep with such regularity that I’m much calmer about it these days. Instead of freaking out and thinking ‘I’ll never write another decent story again’, I now sigh with recognition and say ‘Heyyy, maaaate’ as writer’s block pushes past me and into the house.

I’m currently stuck mid-story (what a surprise and how unusual), so I decided to brainstorm all the reasons I know for writer’s block. I hope you’ll find something here that helps.

Reasons for writer’s block/Possible solutions:

Our health needs attention.
We need sleep, food, exercise, or fresh air. We need to take time off until we’re over an illness or injury. We need to slow down because of a chronic illness or disability. We need interaction with others, for our mental health. We crave the comfort of writers who understand and can suggest solutions.

We’re distracted.
We’re scrolling this, skim reading that. We sit to write and then get up two minutes later for a snack, a toilet break, anything but keeping bum on chair. If we don’t focus on our work for a decent amount of time, we can’t explore the work in depth.

We’re too impatient.
We want the entire chapter/poem/story/essay to emerge in two or three sittings. But our minds don’t always work like this (mine almost never works like this). A piece must unfold at its own pace. It might reveal itself day by day—as we shower, walk, sweep the kitchen floor. Contemplation is writing.

We’re trying to shove a pumpkin into a cocktail glass.
The fit isn’t right between idea and form. That powerful blast of emotion might be a poem, not an opinion piece. The space station comedy might be a novella not a short story. A painful memory might be best expressed through fiction.

The idea needs more.
It needs strengthening, modifying, layering. We’re writing about an older woman who keeps 33 cats and plays Elvis Presley all day but it’s lacking something. We haven’t revealed her hidden past, or introduced the young neighbour blasting Amyl and the Sniffers, or sent a flood that isolates the woman and her cats.
I sometimes use paper and pen to write a question in big letters, then draw arrows from the question, spouting multiple answers. Outrageous, sensible and plainly stupid answers. Just lots of them is key. One will often point the way forward. (Credit for this strategy goes to Jaclyn Moriarty, who described it in a workshop I attended a few years ago)

We don’t know our characters well.
What are their quirks, how old are they? What’s their occupation? Who are their loved ones? And of course the big questions—What’s their secret fear? and What do they desperately want?

We don’t know the setting well.
This is one is easy to neglect. When I need clarity, I use Google Earth, read about the place, look at images online. For places that exist in my imagination, I might draw mud maps and sketch floor plans so I can ‘see’ the places as my characters move about.

Our self-critics are poking up their ugly heads.
It’s important to banish that tall, sneery, pasty-faced inner critic (okay that’s my inner critic, feel free to picture your own) as our first draft emerges. We need to tell our inner critics to piss off (a technique I first heard from Edwina Shaw at a QWC workshop). For now, we’re just getting down words. We can add, cut, rearrange and refine later.

Forgetting joy.
We write because we love it. We choose and order words and ta-da!—we’ve created a poem, an essay, a novel, a play. A short story, screenplay, memoir piece or work of non-fiction. What a magical and powerful act.
It helps to remember joy. ❤️

 

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Jealousy and Mudita

summer flowers

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Mudita comes from Sanskrit and Pali, and means sympathetic joy, or joy in the good fortune of others.

An author tweeted recently about a friend who rated the author’s book 2-stars on Goodreads. In her tweet, the author wondered why this person did such a thing. My first thought—that friend is jealous.

Jealousy can creep into relationships in insidious ways. If you have a friend, and you sense a tiny element of delight in their response when your life gets rough, jealousy might be raising its ugly head. If a bestie reacts to your good news with minimal enthusiasm, they might be jealous. If you begin to feel like you’re not safe with that person, if they start to take offence at the slightest thing, they’re probably jealous. They’re struggling to find their mudita.

I’ve had minimal success in writing; I’m just getting going, but it has been interesting to notice different reactions when I have good writing news.

One writing acquaintance stopped contacting me when I was shortlisted for the Richell Prize. Though we’d recently messaged and supported each other, the writer didn’t congratulate me, and stopped interacting altogether. A coincidence, perhaps, but it baffled me. Another friend—not in the writing world—goes through the motions of congratulating me on publications or placings, but she never seems truly pleased. Perhaps she doesn’t realise what each achievement means to me, but regardless, her muted reactions sting.

On the flip side, other friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in person for several years, have been brilliant. High school pals leave excited comments on social media, Uni mates buy copies of magazines or anthologies where my work is published, old workmates send cheery messages. And my close friends are amazing—there for me in good times and bad. I couldn’t make it without them.

So these days, I’m all about spending time with people who are genuine and kind. Those who I can support and celebrate. Those who are disappointed for me when I have setbacks, and who share in my successes. Those who, like me, might occasionally feel jealousy, but who know its perils and brush it off.

To all you lovely writers who chat with me—in person, on this site, on Twitter, on Facebook and on Instagram—to you warm, encouraging and funny people: thank you. You are shining examples of mudita.

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Oh writers, what have we done?

If you’ve been feeling, like I have, that you’ve failed to achieve all you hoped to this year, it’s worth looking back, just for a moment. Adding up all you’ve written, all you’ve applied for, all the work you’ve done towards achieving your goals. Maybe you’ve placed or been shortlisted in a competition, or had work published. Maybe you’ve written something that makes your heart race, something you know is good. Our milestones are so easily forgotten, as we constantly shift the goalposts.

Just now, I tallied up what I’ve written this year. Before looking, I would have guessed 3 or 4 stories. It feels like I’ve struggled to write, with more paid work, my kids needing time, a health issue, and life’s up and downs. I’ve been frustrated lately, thinking how little I’ve progressed.

And yet … I’ve actually completed 8 stories in the past 11 months. I’ve applied for writing fellowships. I’ve sent work to several journals, and entered a number of competitions. I’ve received lots of form rejections, a few lovely personal rejections, a highly commended in the Newcastle Short Story Award. I recently had work accepted for an anthology I’m really excited about. I finished a full manuscript. And I did 3 readings—2 for Amanda O’Callaghan’s book launches of This Taste for Silence (an absolute must-read), and one for Anna Krien’s Brisbane launch of Act of Grace (another wonderful book). None of this is astounding, but it’s decent. I’ve done plenty in 2019.

You’ve probably done way more than you realise, too, if you check. It’s so easy to forget our accomplishments and stew on disappointments.

And if you’re still unhappy with your ‘progress’, remember we’re all living with different demands. Some work longer hours, some have very small children, or lots of children! Some of us are carers. Some of us struggle with mental health issues, chronic illness or disability. We’re all doing our best, given our circumstance. And for that, we deserve to feel proud as 2019 comes to a close.

Congratulations to you — for everything you’ve written, for all you’ve endured, and for anything that has brought you joy.

 

 

 

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catching your (writing) breath

I wrote this a few days ago, then saw an article on the same topic. In any case, these are my thoughts on taking a holiday from writing.

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We’ve all heard the advice write every dayA number of authors say this is the key to success.

I understand this makes sense in certain situations—when on a deadline, when needing to get an idea on the page, or when words are flowing and you don’t dare stop or even want to stop. But as a hard-and-fast rule? I’m not so sure.

Two or three times a year, I stop writing. I stop for a week, a few weeks, occasionally longer. This time out starts because my ideas grow stale, or because I lose faith in my writing. Sometimes it’s linked to an event in my personal life, or follows a painful writing rejection. Other times I just feel overwhelmed.

Whatever the cause, I try not to fight it (A few years ago, I’d fight desperately, trying to bludgeon stories into life. This resulted in truly terrible work). Sometimes life feels like a race, and it’s hard to step away, but I believe writing vacations are important. Sometimes, the best option is to rest and renew.

Things that have helped (for me) during time off from writing:

Walking.
Watching a movie.
Seeing a friend.
Discovering a new place—a forest, a cafe, an art gallery.
Reading.

I’m still learning to take a break, and to know that it will renew creativity.

As of today, I haven’t written for a week (not counting blog posts 🙂). Already my brain is sending inspiration—Look at this! How about that? I’m looking forward to writing again.

What about you—do you take writing breaks? If not, how do you care for your writing mojo?

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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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