Tag Archives: Writing

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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A crazy good Monday

Richell-Longlist-2018-Blog-HeaderMonday morning I was dialling my ‘other mother’ Lynsey, who lives on Vancouver Island, to wish her a happy 80th birthday. As the phone rang, my eyes flicked to my computer screen, and I saw an email from Will Dawson, executive director of the Emerging Writers Festival, letting me know I’d been shortlisted in the 2018 Richell Prize. My heart almost stopped. I’d been stunned to get longlisted last month, let alone making it any further.

I talked to Lynsey for about an hour, then got off the phone and stared for awhile at the emails and tweets and messages coming in. My eyes filled with tears. I started replying. After awhile, I messaged my husband and my best friend. I called my dad. I called my mum.

When I collected my kids from school they were excited, but that night, my son was disgusted to discover I hadn’t posted on social media. I tried to explain that several other writers had posted on my behalf, that I’d received heaps of congratulations and I didn’t want people to feel they had to do it all over again. He was still unimpressed. “Nope. You should have posted. That’s what you do.” Then I worried that the judges or Richell prize organisers and supporters would think I wasn’t grateful for the shortlisting, which is the furthest thing from the truth. I am so thrilled, and so thankful.

So here I am today, posting about my Monday, which was the very best Monday of my life.

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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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