Tag Archives: Writing

Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

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Schooled

I’ve been thinking about teachers lately. How some of them affect us for the rest of our lives.

I know there are some ‘bad apple’ teachers, and I haven’t forgotten the teacher who mocked my seersucker dress at Grade 8 camp, not naming any names Mrs Nichols (who would now be at least eighty, so I guess I can forgive her; also in her defence it was an extremely ugly dress).

But there are so many excellent teachers to remember – teachers who day after day gave their time, their effort, their kindness. Teachers who stood out for their enthusiasm (Ms Yanardasis). For how they made us laugh (definitely Ms Sothman). For their faith in us (dear Mr Sole, who had no children of his own but treated all the Grade 8’s like his beloved children).

I have a real soft spot for teachers. Several friends are teachers. Our lovely neighbour is a teacher. And both my parents were teachers.

My mother taught in special education. She worked hard, focusing on what would benefit each student, rather than striving for an arbitrary standard. For some children, it was learning to chew and swallow solid food. For others, it was discovering how to make a sandwich, or how to take turns in conversation. Mum knew that acquiring important life skills trumped adding 3 plus 4 (though she’d teach that, too, if the child was ready). She often took students home overnight, or for the weekend, to give their parents respite (not something that would ever be allowed these days, but something I remember as typical of Mum’s giving nature).

My father taught high school for most of his career. He was a different kind of teacher – often given the ‘tough’ classes because he had such an air of authority that kids didn’t muck up. But my father was dedicated to his job, too, spending hours at the university library researching his subjects (Geography and Earth Science), so he could teach the latest developments in each field. And though he was strict, he understood that different students had various capabilities. He wanted students to achieve their personal best.

Now my daughter tutors high school students, and I love how she caters to the individual. For one child who is constantly restless and touching things on the desk, my daughter has worked in short breaks for them to dance, or do jumping jacks, and she bought a ‘fiddle toy’ for the student to hold. I’m proud of her innovation and commitment.

But the teacher I’ve been thinking about most of all is my Yr 11 and 12 English teacher, Ms B. She wasn’t one of those teachers everyone adores. She was quieter, and more reserved than most. She struggled with controlling the class sometimes, and would get stressed and annoyed (understandably). And many of us, myself included, were shocked when we received our marks for the first piece of assessment. They were quite low compared to other classes, and compared to what we’d been used to receiving. Although my mark was one of the higher ones, I received a 15 or 16 out of 20. At first, I was irritated. Didn’t Ms B know I was a good at this subject?

She was absolutely right. That piece deserved the lower mark, because it was decent but lazy, like all my writing to that point. So the next time I submitted, I spent more time on the assignment. I got half a mark more. I tried even harder with the next one, and my result bumped up again (but only a little). By the time I finished Grade 12, I’d made it to 18.5 out of 20 and I was jubilant! Not at the mark, but at how I’d improved, little by little, by not being satisfied with ‘adequate’ work, when it was within me to do better.

A good teacher leaves a lasting legacy, and that may not be evident for many years. I hadn’t thought about Ms B much since leaving high school, but these days I think of her often and with great appreciation.

When If You’re Happy comes out, I hope to send a copy to Ms B. I’d like to tell her in a card how – over thirty years down the track – she helped me write a better book.

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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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Sparks in the Dark

The Queensland Writing Centre kindly asked me to write an article for their WQ (Writing Queensland) magazine. The theme of the issue was ‘endurance’, and I was requested to provide a piece about having positive news in an otherwise challenging year.

I struggled a bit in writing this, not wanting to talk about myself when life has been so difficult for many people here (at the time of writing, Victoria was still in varying levels of lockdown) and of course in many countries overseas where the situation is much worse. At the same time, I wanted to show my appreciation and excitement, and to give other emerging writers hope for their eventual publication.

If you’d like to read what I wrote, the link is below (article on page 4, but lots of other reading you may enjoy, too, including essays by my lovely friend Edwina Shaw and Twitter pal Bianca Millroy).

https://fionahrobertson.files.wordpress.com/2020/12/ad983-wq271.pdf

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keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

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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

typewriter

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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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