Tag Archives: Creative writing

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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the importance of play

IMG_2686The past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing and writing. Sure, I’ve wasted time here and there, but I’ve also worked at my desk for hours.

Except, what I’ve written has been awful. Flat, uninspired, dull. I revised 3 stories in the past ten days and became thoroughly sick of each piece. Not because they were finished, either. They were just so terrible I couldn’t stand to read another word.

So I’ve been feeling sorry for myself and bemoaning my uselessness and wondering for the zillionth time why I thought I had any aptitude for this. And then last night something occurred to me.

Maybe doggedness can be a bad thing.

I’m not saying I’m about to give up, or that I don’t believe in hard work. But I realised that lately, my approach has been all wrong. It’s joyless. I’m showing up at my desk as if I’m sitting an exam. I’m not getting outside enough, not walking enough. I’m thinking about where I’ll submit a story before it’s even finished, instead of losing myself in the tale I’ve created. I’m as playful as a back brace.

I know writing isn’t all fun and games. I know it involves hard work, showing up, putting the words together. But surely that can still be done with a sense of fun, with an attitude that brings a lightness of spirit, creating prose that sparks and surprises.

Maybe my defensiveness over hearing criticism of ‘earnest’ writing was not just because I write emotionally, but because I sensed I was writing without enough playfulness in my heart. Which is not to say that story content should be always be humorous – just that the approach shouldn’t be so stompy.

Maybe I’ve had my gumboots on when I needed to skip around in a pair of sandals.

Or even barefoot, across the grass.

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Earnestly, yes

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I’ve been reading a lot of short fiction lately. Short fiction and commentary about short fiction. And I’ve been feeling unsettled. Not by the short fiction, which has been varied and fresh and intriguing. It’s the talk about the Australian short fiction scene that has been bothering me.

A couple of writers have made remarks to the effect that Australia short fiction tends to be boring and bland. One gave the example of too many stories set in rural Australia where not much happens. I’m sure I read an interview where another writer said he hated writing that was too earnest. And right away that comment made me defensive and squirmy. Is that me? It might be me.

I actually agree that some stories struggle to excite. They try too hard to be ‘literary’. Farmers’ wives gaze out over fields and farmers’ brows crease and the fly-blown sheep carcass is a metaphor. Clouds gather and it looks like rain but then it doesn’t and the story ends.

However. People in glass houses and all. Because I can’t help it, my stories are a bit earnest, they’re really not funny in any ha-ha way, I don’t write satire or fantasy, my characters frown a bit too. But I write the only way I can. It’s the only thing I know – people and what’s in their deepest hearts, what secretly moves them, what makes them cry at night, what they fear and what they hope for. What they can’t forget. Who they’ll always love.

I don’t believe that stories in traditional narrative form are boring if the content is good. I don’t believe a short story has to be humorous, or satirical, or contain magical elements to be entertaining. I believe there is a place for every kind of story, done well.

I like trying new things, within my capabilities. I’ve written dystopian fiction, magic realism, a dialogue-only story and crime fiction. I try to learn and to stretch myself. I read widely. But ultimately I am developing my own voice, and that voice is emotional and I guess it’s a bit earnest too. I need to own that without shame.

 

 

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Writing amongst the trees

IMG_3297I can hardly believe my two weeks at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre are almost over. I’ve had such a good time here, and not in exactly the way I expected.

I thought I’d write three or more stories during my residency. But I arrived with a story yet to be finished, and worked on that for a couple of days. Then I panicked for a couple of days, because I felt this intense pressure to choose a Good Idea for my next story and nothing seemed close to adequate (normally I would take the vaguest of concepts and just wing it). Eventually I calmed down and told myself to just play. So I tried something I’ve never tried – writing a story in second person. It was truly bad at first, so I worked on it, and now it’s approaching fair. After that I began a new story which I’m having fun writing. And here I am on the Friday of the last week.

So with two full writing days to go, I’ve edited one story, written a full story in second person, and am perhaps halfway through a new tragi-comedy sort of piece. I wouldn’t call that an enormous output yet. I say yet because I have no doubt that my experiences here will lead to more stories, perhaps as many again as I have written so far. I have walked at sunset, shopped in an Indian grocery store, met many creative people, attended writing groups and had dinner with a lovely writer friend I hadn’t yet been able to meet in person. I’ve had meals and discussions and lots of laughter with the other two Fellows here. I’ve read every night before bed. I’ve had time to become immersed in writing.

It became a bit of a catchcry between myself and my next-door neighbour Fellow Mark J Keenan (who is going through the re-drafting process with his novel) – It’s not about the word count, it’s about the whole writing experience. Thinking, planning, dreaming, talking and writing amongst the trees.

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