Category Archives: the writing life

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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how’s the writing?

If you’re a writer, do you get asked by friends and family for writing news? When they see you, do they ask So, how’s the book/poetry/play coming along? and then Any news?

I’m lucky enough to have friends and family who ask, and I often wish I did have news to share, but mostly when they ask How’s the writing? I reply – Well, I’m doing it. I’m writing. They look at me kindly like I’m not very bright and they say to me gently, Well, that’s good.

Every time I hear this question, as thoughtful and well-intentioned as it is, I feel a little at a loss. Because I rarely have any news. Now and then something exciting happens, but it can be months from one small success to the next. And logically I know this is part of being a writer, that doing the work is what it’s really about, that getting published or winning competitions is great, but it isn’t going to happen every week. Most weeks we’re just doing it, just writing, trying to translate something funny, or tragic, or magical into words. Yet in my upbringing there was a focus on ‘achieving’, or perhaps it’s the influence of our culture, too – telling us we’re not really a ‘success’ unless we’re lining up trophies on the shelf. Sometimes I feel silly saying Well, I’m doing it. (Especially when the other person laughs!)

So today I’m here to offer comfort and company to all the other writers out there, especially those feeling weighed down, weary or short on faith. It’s tough, I know. Don’t feel silly if you don’t have a thrilling answer lately when asked about your writing. We’re here. We’re putting words on the page. And all the very best things take time.

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small and vital details

A story I was writing left me cold. I couldn’t figure out why. The plot was decent, the characters seemed plausible, the setting intriguing. But the whole thing was flat and lifeless.

I tried the usual things — asking myself questions about the characters so I could know them better. Getting rid of redundant phrases and adjectives. Powering up the verbs.

The story was still not right.

So I started adding details.

Instead of the character complaining that her husband ‘wanted the same foods every day’, the wife despaired that her husband wanted ‘steak or fried chicken day after day’.

Instead of the woman buying the cat ‘expensive toys’, I wrote she bought the cat ‘mouse toys and a plush bed he ignored, preferring to sleep in the armchair’.

Instead of a boy fearing ‘bugs and spiderwebs’ in a cellar, he feared ‘spiderwebs and bugs as long as his boy fingers’.

And suddenly the story was real. I believed it. I could see the plush cat bed that Elvis the cat ignored, I could picture the husband chewing through his steak (or fried chicken) night after night, and I could see those long, black bugs, scuttling away.

I realised how details can make a story true. As readers, we buy into a story, (or a poem, a screenplay, a play) if these ‘facts’ give it the ring of truth. They are small and vital details.

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A few good things

Good things have been happening.

In November I went to the Brisbane book launch of The Art of Disappearing by Elisabeth Hanscombe, and met Elisabeth for the first time. Here we are, admiring her book together!IMG_3812 2

It was a real thrill to meet her, and I realised later I’d already read and admired her work in Meanjin. The book is wonderful – the writing so effortless, honest, heartbreakingly good.

My friend Karen Hollands was chosen for a Hachette Manuscript development program.  My writing group buddies Warren Ward and Nikki Mottram won Katharine Susannah Prichard Fellowships for 2018, and Warren came runner-up in the latest New Philosopher writing competition. And my lovely friend Edwina Shaw was selected by Screen Qld to develop her Dear Madman manuscript as a screenplay, won a Katharine Susannah Prichard Residency, and has other projects in the pipeline too.

Fellow medico-turned-writer, my friend Louise Allan, has released her beautiful book The Sisters’ Song to widespread acclaim (I’m halfway through and I am spellbound).

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And in my neck of the woods, late last year I received a couple of rejection emails from well-regarded Australian literary journals, with warm, helpful feedback and suggestions to submit further work. I tried to be pleased, as I knew that might be the only encouragement I’d get for awhile. The last acceptance I’d received was December 2016, the last competition news (a shortlisting) was in March of last year.

Then early this month, a message arrived from a writer friend asking me to read some of my writing at their upcoming book launch. I was so touched and of course excited, too! I was still buzzing from that piece of news when two days later an email arrived saying a submission I’d sent to the Quart Short Literary Readings (in Adelaide) had been accepted, and that my story would be read by a professional actor at the Summer Shorts evening – next Tuesday January 16th, at the Bibliotheca Bar and Bookstore. I’ve never had anything I’ve written read aloud, nor have I ever read my stories for an audience. These new and wondrous experiences await!

If you’ve got some writing news to share, I’d love to hear it. (And if you don’t, hopefully your news is coming very soon!)

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roaring to the finish

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It’s not the end. Not yet it isn’t. 2017 still has thirty-three days to go, not counting what’s left of today. So if you’re a writer and you’re winding down, telling yourself not to bother because, well, it’s almost the end of the year, I’m here to tell you it’s not over until December 31st! Which is not for thirty-three days!

Whether you’re a novelist or a short story writer, an essayist, a poet or a flash fiction specialist, there’s nothing like the allure of cash prizes. So let me tempt you to keep writing with a few competitions closing this month or the next:

Fish Publishing Short Story Prize – ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, cost 20 pounds

Ink Tears Short Story Contest – ends November 30, 1000-3500 words, cost 7.5 pounds

Baltimore Review Winter Contest– ends November 30, maximum 5000 words, theme of food, cost $10 US

Hamlin Garland Award – ends December 10, maximum 7000 words, cost $20 US

Hal Porter Short Story Competition – ends December 15, maximum 2500 words, cost $10

The Moth Poetry Prize – ends December 31, cost 12 pounds

The River Styx MicroFiction Contest – ends Dec 31, cost $10 US for up to 3 entries, max 500 words

Boulevard Short Fiction Contest – ends December 31, maximum 8000 words, cost $16 US

If you’re strapped for cash or would rather submit to a journal, you could try:

The prestigious UK-based Granta literary magazine, which costs nothing for poetry submissions, or 3 pounds to submit fiction or non-fiction (but hurry as submissions close by January 4th).

The highly-regarded Australian literary journal Meanjin – still accepting submissions of poetry and essays.

The always hip lit mag Overland – accepting submissions of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and asks for pitches for other types of writing (see website).

If you write sci-fi, fantasy, horror or spec fic, Andromeda Spaceways – currently open for submissions, as is Clarkesworld, for the very best sci-fi and fantasy.

Southerly – open for themed submissions (see website for details).

And if you’d like to win $10,000 for no entry fee, you could try this:
The Hope Prize – short stories 2000-5000 words exploring theme of hope and resilience in the face of poverty of disadvantage, ends Jan 31 (see website for full details).

Happy writing!

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many cups of tea

It’s been ages since I last posted here. But I did write a post not long ago for the lovely and talented Louise Allan, whose novel The Sisters’ Song comes out in January next year (go here to read about her upcoming book!).

So what have I been doing? Well, writing, whenever I can. Plunking away at the keyboard. Patting the dog with my foot while I type. Eating too many snacks.

In August I went to the Melbourne Writers Festival and met Joyce Carol Oates. Yes, okay, it was just at a signing of her latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs, but still. It was incredibly exciting. She asked me ‘And Fiona, what do you do?’ – like we were at a party or something – and I rambled like I’d had seven beers and a tequila slammer, before collecting myself and moving on.

I’ve also been receiving emails.                                                                                              “Thank you for your submission, The Brussel Sprout Queen. We enjoyed reading it but unfortunately it’s a bit crap. We’d be happy to read further stories, but only if they’re much much better. Sincerely, The Editors.”

I’ve had several of these in a row. Another writing friend says ‘Oh, it’s just a dry spell, I once had a dry spell for two years.’ And I shiver and want to tell her ‘No, no you didn’t. You must be mistaken.’

But Onwards! I say and I make some tea. I know there’s nothing for it but to keep writing. And so I do.

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