Category Archives: Uncategorized

In the very end

Do you ever struggle with endings? I do. Sometimes a story seems to magically complete itself, but more often I become uncertain as I reach the conclusion. I wonder What happens now?

So what are my tips when this uncertainty descends? Here are my top five:

  1. Look back at your story so far. Have you written past the ending? I did this in one of my stories, Tempest. I was rambling on about other things, completely ruining the piece. I eventually stopped, knowing the ending was bad, but unsure what to do. I read back over the last few paragraphs and got a chill when I realised. There! Right there! In a simple description, I’d already written the final two lines. I cut the rest, and the story was done.
  2. Brainstorm possible endings using pen and paper. (This is something I learnt to do in a writing workshop run by acclaimed Australian author Jaclyn Moriarty). Write your question in the centre of a piece of paper – in this case it might be something very simple like How does this end? (this technique is also great for untangling plot issues, testing alternate beginnings, etc). Draw arrows away from the central question and fill in answers. Write down literally anything that comes to mind, even if it strikes you as ridiculous. Keep going until you have ten or twelve conclusions to your story. Chances are, one of these ideas will jump out at you. Problem solved.
  3. Go back to the beginning of your story or novel. What was the very first scene? Is there an important object, unusual weather, something the protagonist was musing at the start to which you could return? It won’t work for all stories, especially ones where there is a radical shift in the main character’s life, but there is something really satisfying in a story that circles back.
  4. Read the whole piece through, thinking particularly of themes, images and recurring motifs. These are aspects of our work we don’t always notice until we reflect. The ending may lie in deftly using one of these.
  5. Sit with your characters, especially the main character, as you write towards the ending. Know them as well as your closest friend. Imagine what they’re feeling in a physical sense – how their skin feels, what their stomach is doing, how they’re moving their limbs. Think what they’re thinking. See what they’re seeing. Be with them as if you’re inside their mind and body, then write what happens next.

If you, too, find endings tricky, I hope these suggestions help. And if you have tips of your own, I’m keen to hear them!

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The Best of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably been seeing a lot of those ‘best books of 2020’ lists, lately. I know I have. I read each list, looking for the titles of writers I know, feeling a twist of disappointment if their book doesn’t appear. I can only imagine what it must be like to peruse the lists as an author, and in many cases, not find the name of your book. A book is a piece of its creator, something personal and almost sacred. The term ‘book baby’ exists for good reason.

Not only published authors feel downhearted, of course. There are many of us submitting and getting knocked back in multiple ways. We check longlists and shortlists and don’t see our title. We receive emails that contain that fateful phrase, ‘Unfortunately your (story/poem/essay/piece) was not ….’. We have to pick ourselves up and carry on, having faith that our writing has worth, knowing that the only way to eventually receive acceptances is to keep writing and submitting. This writing game is not for the fainthearted!

So to anyone, anywhere, whose story didn’t win a competition in 2020, whose essay wasn’t accepted by that literary journal last year, whose poem was ignored by an anthology callout, who toiled over a manuscript yet to find a home, or who had an entire book published, not recognised by any ‘best of 2020’ lists ⎯ I hope you can be proud. You created, and you achieved something wonderful in furthering or completing that work, or in being published, especially in a year of worldwide disruption. Your words were chosen with care, and others have the privilege of reading them ⎯ whether friends and family, a feedback group, editors or the wider public.

To all writers who carry on, who keep producing work, who persist despite setbacks ⎯ especially to those writers in countries badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic ⎯ congratulations.

You absolutely are the best of 2020.

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Blasting out of 2020

If you’re a writer, you’re probably only just now catching your breath (and for those living in countries badly affected by COVID-19, I send you much empathy, and hope you’re keeping well).

You’ve likely been working all year at your other job (yes, very few of us can survive on the scant amount of money writing provides). So, hopefully you have at least a few days off, and some time to put your feet up. But before you do, you might want to consider these submission possibilities.

The Stinging Fly is accepting fiction and pitches for non-fiction pieces until January 8, 2021. This prestigious Irish literary journal publishes fiction from around the world. No cost to submit.

Asimov’s Magazine is an acclaimed American sci-fi magazine with a fast response time of around 5 weeks, accepting international submissions. Submissions free.

Overland is accepting non-fiction and poetry submissions from Australian writers at the moment, and also is running the Kuracca Prize which ‘encourages excellent and original works of Australian literature’. Aussie writers can enter poetry (up to 88 lines), fiction, essay, creative non-fiction and memoir (up to 300 words), cartoon or graphic stories and digital or audio storytelling. Entry to the prize costs $20 AUD ($12 for subscribers) and is free for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers.

The Moth Poetry Prize closes December 31, and is open to submissions from around the world. Entry isn’t cheap but prizes are substantial.

You can also submit poetry and fiction to The Moth Magazine for free, any time from September to April.

For those of you who write short short fiction (maximum 1000 words), you may want to try the American Short(er) Fiction Contest which ends on Feb 2nd, 2021.

There’s also the Retreat West Flash Competition on the theme of ‘bridges’ due by December 30, for even shorter pieces (maximum 500 words). Cost is 8 pounds.

If you have a story of up to 2500 words relating to food and/or drink in some way, you might like to try the Mogford Prize, winner receiving 10,000 pounds. Entries due by Jan 13, 2021.

The Fiction Desk in the U.K. currently has 3 callouts due by Jan 31 – general short stories, ghost stories and stories about music. International submissions welcome. Word count 1000-20,000 words (preferred range 2000-7000 words). Fee for submission 4 pounds.

I hope at least one of these options provides a possible home for your work. Wishing you a wonderful break & a Merry Christmas (for those who celebrate), and a healthy and happy 2021!

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Christmas for nerds

Some of you may know I belong to a writing group called the Dead Darlings Society. We started as fellow writers wanting to improve, but over time we’ve become friends, too. They are all very good eggs.

Last night was our Christmas party, and there were the usual nibbles, champagne and platters. We talked about our writing setbacks and successes throughout the year. Then came my favourite part of the evening (because I am a huge writing nerd). We all took turns reading Christmas-themed ‘homework’ pieces, as set a couple of weeks ago by Dan the high school English teacher. Each story was pulled from a hat, so we didn’t know who wrote what, and after each reading we tried to guess the author. This year it was really difficult. Every story was enthralling, whether moving, suspenseful or hilarious. I was so proud of the creativity of my fellow writers.

The brief this year was to write a story with the first sentence containing 1 word, the second containing 2 words, etc, up to a 25 word sentence. It’s a lot of fun. If you’re feeling creatively stifled, you could give it a go. (Feel free to leave your story in the comments!)

Here’s mine, which no one guessed I’d written — partly because I pulled it from the hat myself, and deliberately ‘stumbled’ over a few words as I read, but also because it’s fairly light-hearted. No one expects that from me, evidently 😉

🎄 The Visit 🎄

Doorbell. He startles. Someone’s knocking downstairs.
Donald finishes his whisky. Lumbers to his feet, sways. Why hasn’t someone answered the door? Where’s Harrison, or Robbie or dopey Alan?
‘Hello?’ he calls from the living room, ‘Hello?’
He can’t believe this, can’t understand where everyone is. Melania’s probably sulking upstairs, but his bodyguards should be nearby. Apparently not tonight; maybe they’re scoffing Christmas cake in the kitchen downstairs. Or drinking whisky in the Mar-a-Lago gardens, laughing at him, doubled over.
The doorbell rings, and the knocking starts again and he calls, ‘Okay, okay!’ As he walks across the carpet and down the staircase, he sees no one. Suddenly the carols through the new Bose speakers sound a little creepy, and he shivers.
Donald approaches the front doors, slippers scuffing on the marble tiles, his forehead cold with sweat. He reaches a hand out, then retracts it, instead leaning to peer through the peephole, breathing fast.
On the other side is a man about his age in a crazy red suit, carrying a sack.
‘What do you want?’ Donald shouts, pulling back from the peephole as Jingle Bells pipes through the vast foyer.
There is a short silence, and he freezes, then a voice bellows from beyond the door, ‘Have you been good?’.
‘I’ve been good,’ Donald shouts, ‘I’ve made everything much, much better and if anyone says different they’re wrong, it’s fake news.’ He opens the door and Santa stands in the doorway and his face is sad and disappointed; he shakes his head.
‘Donald, Donald, Donald,’ Santa says as the Christmas music flows around them and something worms in Donald’s heart and he’s close to tears.
‘You’ve been very naughty, Donald,’ Santa says, ‘And now everyone is gone, because you treated them badly, and no one likes a Christmas arsehole.’
Santa upends his sack, and books fly out, titles like ‘Conquering Narcissism’ and ‘Make Yourself Great Again’, and Donald whispers, ‘Santa… you’re my only friend.’

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A Burst of Sunshine: Review of How to Be Australian

The latest book by Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a burst of sunshine on a grey-sky day, a fresh take on life, love and this vast country we call Australia.

Strictly speaking, How to Be Australian is memoir, relating Kalagian Blunt’s experience of moving from her birthplace, Canada, to Australia, while at the same time adjusting to marriage with her husband Steve. The book details Ashley’s impressions and discoveries, and reveals how she and Steve cope with this geographical and emotional transition.

But How to Be Australian is more than straightforward memoir.

It describes intriguing facts and unusual incidents with bemusement, admiration or even horror; it analyses some of Australia’s foibles, brilliance and oddities. I was about to close the book when I flipped a page and saw the headline ‘Why I put a cracker up my clacker’.

It’s funny, but also sweetly tender. It wasn’t brazen or overt. His love was a quiet pat on the hand. It was the loyalty to come and sit beside me while I dripped my messy emotions everywhere…

It expresses Kalagian Blunt’s big, blossoming love for Australia. Taking in the busy splendour of Circular Quay, I felt like someone had handed me the crown jewels.

Yet it’s more than these things, too. The book asks questions about the concept of home. I lay awake, feeling homesick for a home I hadn’t yet found. It addresses the issue of fitting in, or not fitting in. It relates to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, or feeling unable to cope when anxiety rises. It’s about intimate relationships, how they fray, and how they strengthen. It seeks to understand friendship — sometimes a delicate dance, but even more so when there are cultural differences. I was earnestly — still too earnestly, after all these years — trying to understand this country…

How to Be Australian brims with acute observation, hilarious anecdotes and honest emotion. It’s a dazzling combination.

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Review of ‘My Name is Revenge’ by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

My Name Is Revenge - cover

What if a book is gripping and gritty and deeply emotional, yet also informs you? Not in an obvious way, but so subtly you don’t even notice? Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s novella and reflective essay, My Name is Revenge—recently published as a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award—does just this.

The first section, the novella, is set in 1980, but flashes back to the past. It centres around Vrezh, a Sydney university student living at home with his parents, his older brother Armen and his invalid grandfather. Armen has become secretive of late, and Vrezh decides to find out why. He suspects his brother is involved in a secret Armenian group planning attacks on Turkish diplomats. Living up to his name, which means ‘revenge’, Vrezh also dreams of retribution for the terrible crimes committed against his grandfather’s family and countless other Armenian families during the Armenian Genocide—crimes that left his grandfather orphaned as a young boy, crimes that give his grandfather nightmares to this day. A foreboding atmosphere builds, layered with the pain and anger felt by everyone in the family. But Vrezh is not as single-minded as his brother, and he begins to realise that good and evil are not always black and white. He expresses this uncertainty to Armen, who treats him with disgust. ‘It was as if Armen had sliced through the flesh of his chest, peeling it away to reveal a heart that was Armenian, but not sufficiently so.’ It is this complexity of character and plot, the examination of right and wrong and all the gradations in between, that gives the novella its potency and poignancy.

The essay that follows is a wonderful counterpoint to the fictional world. It clarifies true historical events within the novella, and explains more about the Armenian Genocide. The essay also details how Kalagian Blunt is connected to the story, both personally and as a curious writer. This makes for heartbreaking but compelling reading.

As you finish and catch your breath, you realise you’ve devoured a fascinating narrative and essay, but you’ve also learned about the Armenian Genocide of World War I, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed by order of the Ottoman Government. You begin to comprehend the horrors of what happened, and the repercussions for Armenian families as the trauma echoed through generations.

My Name is Revenge is immersive and affecting, written with balance and compassion. Ashley Kalagian Blunt has created a striking and important two-part work.

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listening

I met a friend’s new partner, Julie*, a few weeks back and she was solidly drunk. That’s not the point of the story, but I’m sure she would have been less forthcoming without the wine.

This sweet, slurring lady had no sooner figured out who I was married to (my husband has the same stressful job as this lady) than she began quizzing me—”What’s it like being married to him? How do you cope with listening to him when he gets home from work?”

At first, I tried answering her briefly and laughingly—”Oh, he doesn’t say much about his day anyway—his usual answer is ‘Standard’.” But Julie persisted. “No, seriously.” She was all eyes. “Don’t you find it draining, listening to him?” After awhile, I realised Julie was worried about her own need to discuss work, her own need to de-brief after a stressful day, and whether it was too much for her partner.

So I told Julie that sometimes when my husband has a tough day and comes home wired and tired, he’ll talk a bit about it and I’ll listen. I’ll give him a hug, make him food or tea. But I reassured Julie that my husband does the same for me if I have a rough day (rarely due to work these days), and I think that’s normal in a relationship. I told her I don’t think one person’s bad day is something for the other to ‘cope with’, it’s part and parcel of being supportive. She seemed unconvinced, and said she hates how she needs to talk about work, hates burdening her partner.

The whole conversation struck me as odd. It made me realise that listening is often seen as a favour performed. And I feel this too sometimes—a profound gratitude if someone simply listens intently. Yet focussing on others when they speak, especially our friends and family, should be the most basic courtesy.

I’m often guilty of drifting off during conversations. My son tells me all about his bike ride and how coming down this specific hill his speed reached blah-de-blah-de-blah and I tune out and realise I’ve missed a chance to connect. My mother calls me and tells me something about a neighbour and I switch off and start planning dinner in my head. But I want to do better. I know when someone listens well, I feel the gift of it all day, the pleasure of being heard, maybe even understood. And it is no small thing.

After my talk with Julie, I am reminded to listen more closely. To pay attention. To give others that fundamental care.

*not her real name. Obviously 🙂

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How to Write – a manual for distractible writers

Step 1. Check email, in case you have won some nationwide competition or had a world-renowned journal accept one of your stories.

Step 2. Check Facebook. There could be a writing opportunity on a page you’ve liked. Or a cute puppy video.

Step 3. Check Twitter. You may hear some interesting news that prompts you to write a brilliant new piece of fiction. Or creative non-fiction. Or a cool sort of limerick.

Step 4. Check Instagram. You may get good ideas for a snack.

Step 5. Get a snack. And a drink while you’re at it.

Step 6. Sit back down. Open your document. Yes, just go to the toilet. Be quick.

Step 7. Write. Stay there. Do not access the internet, ring people or text people. Write.

Step 8. Briefly congratulate self. You’re writing!

Step 9. Keep writing.

 

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In Praise of Twitter

I never really got Twitter. Up until six months ago, that is. It seemed like Facebook in hyperdrive, and I hardly ever post on Facebook, so why would I use Twitter? On Facebook I can just slip around finding out how everyone is, admiring their growing-up children and holiday snaps, so again – why Twitter?

I joined to find out. Because you never really know if you don’t try something. And even then, you have to give it time. For example, when I first tried wine (as a twelve-year-old on New Year’s Eve, just a small sip) I thought it was disgusting. Now I feel differently.

At first on Twitter there was not much going on. Well obviously – I was following maybe twenty people and about two people were following me. But slowly I began to follow more people – mostly writers, since none of my non-writer friends are on Twitter – and I began to interact a little. After reading an article I enjoyed in The Australian, I tweeted to the journalist, who responded with a comment. I re-tweeted tweets by other writers. I realised there is a whole writing community out there, linked by Twitter on a day-to-day basis. It’s supportive. It’s informative. And it’s fun.*

It’s also a bit addictive, so I’m trying to be intentional in how I spend my time. But I’m happy to spend some of that time on Twitter, connecting with other writers and hearing about their news. Because writing is a lonely business – the actual bum-on-chair writing – and interaction with other writers who understand the whole hair-pulling joy …. it’s a great tonic.

If you feel so inclined, I might see you on Twitter 🙂 @FionaRRobertson

*This post is not funded by Twitter

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It’s a Brand New Year

img_2709This time of year is my favourite, despite the oppressive Brisbane heat, despite the extra roll of chub around my middle (thanks so much, Christmas gingerbread), despite my on-holidays children who leave yogurt-coated bowls on couches and don’t refill the water jug and ask to be driven around like I’m some sort of chaffeur.

It’s my favourite time of year because I secretly do like my kids, because that gingerbread was good and because a fresh new year is ripe with possibility. Anything could happen.

There are things I want to achieve this year and I’m sure you’re the same. Many of us are setting goals and planning steps towards those goals – either on paper or in our heads. (I plan to complete my short story manuscript, kindly assisted by the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre Fellowship I received last month, wahoo! I get to write for 2 weeks in Greenmount, Western Australia!) But it’s not just this possibility of achievement that I mean.

A new year feels like everything could be better. Our capacity for patience, our tolerance. Our generosity of spirit. Our attention to emotional detail, our care for those who too often get forgotten. Our ability to forgive. Maybe our hearts can even soften towards ourselves, because sure as eggs we’ll mess up. So we try again, and we might just do well. We’ll do the best we can and that fills me with hope.

Thanks for stopping by. And Happy New Year!

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