If you want to be published …

Kalinda Ashton, whose debut novel The Danger Game has caused a bit of a splash here and overseas (it’s longlisted for the Dublin IMPAC prize) made some useful remarks re writing in an interview with Stephen Romei in The Weekend Australian Review (4-5 Dec 2010).  Aspiring writers have heard if before but it is salutary to say it again, especially, as Kalinda does, in a nice pithy way:

  • If you want to be published for fame and fortune … choose another profession.
  • There are no short cuts, so be ready to experiment, fail, abandon, cut, reverse and shift point of view.
  • Get used to spending a lot of time alone, often frustrated or blocked, or approaching structural change with deep dread.
  • Find a reason to write apart from to get published or merely because you need to express yourself [such as] a genuine desire to do something, say something, question something in your work.
  • Persist, and finally
  • Do not think that being published changes everything, because it doesn’t.

The Danger Game is published by Sleepers Publishing and you can buy a copy from Readings here.

Courses a substitute for writing?

The British writer Emma Darwin on her blog This Itch of Writing muses on how creative writing courses have become a substitute for actually writing. I’ve thought this for quite a while (and myself been guilty of indulging in the drug).

The latest tempter to purvey its wares is the Faber Academy which has set up shop in Australia. It’s offering exclusive (ie competitive) short writing courses for the select few and charging accordingly. I heard a figure of $6,000 for a six month course. The classes would be small and they’d include intensive individual tuition. That’s attractive – anyone who has done a postgrad creative writing course at an Australian university knows that classes there can be very large for workshops  – sixteen to twenty or more students.

But such is the demand there’s a plethora of other short courses to choose from run through evening colleges, state writers’ centres and, increasingly, by private individuals.

Emma Darwin posits some reasons for the addiction to such courses, and for serial course attendees. These mostly boil down to getting some form of validation from others (most especially from the tutor). Writing is a lonely task and the road to publication full of ruts, potholes and fallen trees, so you either have to have an overweening belief in your own talent and ability, or Emily Dickinson-like you continue on in private pleasing yourself and some “ideal reader”. The third path is to do a course, hoping to stand out from the pack. In my opinion, creative writing courses are not there to teach writing, they don’t offer anything on the craft that you can’t get (much, much more cheaply) from one of the many creative writing primers (Stephen King’s On Writing, for example). What students want is feedback from someone whose opinion they respect. All new writers know that the only other feedback you’re likely to get is the publisher’s proforma rejection letter. (I’ve heard tell some writers get a nice note with some constructive criticism and encouragement to keep trying – hmmm)

I’m sure as Emma Darwin suggests, the feedback you get from courses could become addictive.  How much easier it is to write a few short stories, or one or two chapters, and get immediate feedback that to slog along  for years on your own with just a small flame of hope to keep you warm at night. People write for different reasons but if it’s publication that is the goal, are courses value for money? A friend of mine got a high distinction for a short story at a top creative writing uni. The lecturer said, when she gave an HD, it meant the work was publishable (brave call). The friend did the rounds of literary magazines but to no avail.

What, I wonder, do the students who are paying top dollar to the Faber Academy expect? I suppose it’s the validation of being chosen and getting in – but no one is paying THEM for their talent. Even if their dreams come true and they get a publishing contract, they are unlikely, in Australia, to make back the money they’ve forked out for the course.

It is all a vicious circle. It is true that some students who do post grad writing courses do get published out of it. Most often, they’ve done a masters and worked with a tutor/writer on their “project” for a year or two, and then been recommended to an agent. On the other hand, plenty of people get published anyway, never having done a course. The plain fact of the matter is, for an emerging writer to get published, he/she needs an entree to a publisher or agent. As is the way with our capitalist culture, paying to do an expensive course is one way to get to the very first step of the Sisyphean task of breaking into Australian literature.

Winners get into Scribe anthology

Scribe has just announced its New Australian Stories 2 anthology. In conjunction with Varuna, Scribe ran a national short story competition and the shortlisted winners of that were considered for NAS2, along with invited submissions from other writers.

Five writers from the competition made it into the anthology. Congratulations to: Claire Aman, Sonja Dechian, Anne Jenner, Jane McGown and Jennifer Mills. (All women – interesting)

This was a great chance for emerging writers to be published alongside more established writers such as Georgia Blain, Marion Halligan, Debra Adelaide, Cate Kennedy and Karen Hitchcock. (Where are the men? They are there – take a look at the complete list of authors at Scribe)

As I recall, to enter the Scribe/Varuna competition cost $40, although you could enter up to three stories (330 writers submitted/825 stories) so you’d have to say it’s stiffer competition for the emergers. The collection is out in December 2010.

Opportunities for manuscripts

In the ongoing round of Premiers’ Awards, Queensland just announced their winners. Coetzee got the fiction gong for Summertime.

The Qld awards are great for having a big number of categories including short story collection (there can’t be too many of these!) which Karen Hitchcock won for Little White Slips.

They also have an emerging writer manuscript award which is great. Not all emerging writers are under 35 and can go in for the Vogel.

ABC books did run an unpublished novel competition for a number of years but, unfortunately, they stopped publishing fiction.

Recently Text Publishing has established a YA manuscript comp but this is open to both published and unpublished writers, nevertheless they should be given credit for providing a space for getting ms noticed.

(This year’s Text award was won by Jane Higgins for a post-apocalyptic action novel The Bridge and last year’s winner Leanne Hall’s This Is Shyness has just come out to good crits.)

Credit should also be given to CAL and Scribe for their fiction prize “for an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer over 35, regardless of publication history”. Again emerging writers are up against established authors, and the fact that CAL/Scribe are doing this shows how hard it is for anyone to get literary fiction published in this country.

Ned Kelly Award winners

This years Ned Kelly award for best fiction went to Garry Disher for Wyatt and best first fiction to Mark Dapin for King of the Cross.

Wyatt is the first crime novel featuring Disher’s anti-hero in thirteen years. Of Wyatt, Disher says: “He is a professional hold-up man: banks, payroll vans, jewel heists, etc. We don’t learn much about him and that is part of his appeal. He’s cool, all business, with not much of an emotional life, doesn’t suffer fools gladly (but is sometimes forced to rely on them), and although not a thrill killer will kill those who cross him. He has certain standards: no drugs, for example, no unnecessary violence.  Readers say ‘I don’t approve of Wyatt but I want him to win’, which is exactly my intention.”

Part of the Ned Kelly Awards now is the S D Harvey short story competition. (the award was established in memory of journalist and writers Sandra Harvey) Each year a word a particular word must appear in the title of the story and in the text. For 2011 the word is “hemisphere”, in 2009 it was “farewell” and 2010 “fountain”. The comp closes on 31 March 2011. See the award’s website for details www.nedkellyawards.com.

Sleepers launch

The 6th Sleepers Almanac was launched at the Trades Hall Bar in Melbourne last Thursday night by John Bauer. Sleepers Publishing was formed six or seven years ago by Zoe Dattner and Louise Swinn to provide an avenue for publishing new Australian writing. Outlets for the short story and poetry, in particular, are few and far between in this country and the Almanac soon made a name for itself in publishing exciting writers. Zoe and Louise then launched out into publishing longer form writing and have published SOLD by Brendan Gullifer, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009 Age Book of the Year), Kalinda Ashden’s Danger Game, and more recently David Musgrave’s Glissando, all to critical acclaim.

This year, for the first time, Sleepers released the Almanac as an iPhone App (including previous issues). They hope this will bring the writing to a new and wider audience but it remains to be seen if this will happen. They are also thinking of bringing the Almanac out as an e-pub. All the same, I’m sure I speak for all writers, when I say there’s nothing like seeing the ink on paper, smelling it, touching it and thumbing it. You can get your copy of the Almanac at sleeperspublishing or Readings online or read  John Bauer’s launch speech at here.

You can also read Emmett Stinson’s review of the Almanac here and Kate Goldsworthy’s for Readings here. A further review in the SMH and The Age is here.

Mothing with my head

The Behaviour of Moths
Poppy Adams

One of the thing guidebooks for writing like to emphasise is the compact with the reader. The writer has to play a fair game, no matter how tricksy, convoluted or abstruse they might be to get their story told. At the end of The Behaviour of Moths I had the distinct feeling that Poppy Adams had not kept her contract with me. I can’t accuse her of not laying the groundwork for her denouement because she does, quite carefully. We know from the beginning that her narrator, Ginny, is quirky and obsessive, but it is a fun quirkiness and an endearing obsessiveness (this obsessiveness is later channelled into her work as a lepidopterist, following her father into the field hence the “behaviour of moths”).

The novel starts with Ginny in old age waiting for the return to their family mansion of the sister she hasn’t seen for 47 years. The reason for the estrangement is spooled out in flashbacks over the space of several days. Adams has a facility with words and a wonderful ability to evoke scenes and people through the mordant prism of Ginny’s eyes. For the most part I was enthralled with this book (who would have thought descriptions of moth collecting, dissecting, preserving etc could be so engaging?) I loved the portrayal of the sisters’ relationship, the mother and the father and the house and countryside. So why did I feel betrayed by the ending?

Of course there has to be dark secrets and mysteries and, of course, the seeds for unravelling these have to be sewn throughout the narrative, and Adams does do this quite deftly. She does, for example, have a family doctor who takes an inordinate interest in Ginny, annoying her with his questions and attentions. She does have a terrible accident befall Ginny’s sister and Ginny overhearing her mother complaining that she (Ginny) shows little emotion over it.

Ginny, as the narrator, is able to explain most things away to the reader but we remain wary, as we should. It is the sign of a great (rewarding) writer that they hold these things in balance in a plot. The reader has to be drawn forward in the mystery, be taken down plausible roads and then be left there disoriented as something unexpected happens, only to be reassured and picked up again. Sarah Waters did this masterfully in The Little Stranger. That book, too, left me with the sense I’d been led up the garden path but when I looked back over the story I couldn’t pinpoint where I’d been misled so deftly was the thing knitted together. In the case of The Behaviour of Moths there was a place near the end where Adams used an unfair device to keep information from the reader. I won’t spoil the ending but it didn’t sit comfortably with me. Okay, an ending doesn’t have to be comfortable but it has to feel right. That said, as a debut novel, The Behaviour of Moths is accomplished, enjoyable and beautifully written.

Short stuff

Melbourne stand-up comic and Age columnist Catherine Deveny was sacked from her newspaper for inappropriate Tweeting during the Logies ceremony. I remember when email first arrived and everyone was shooting off emails impulsively and then feeling chagrined at the things said. Now we’ve developed an appropriate language for emails and make sure we check them for “tone” before sending. I wonder if Tweeting doesn’t have this yet, or whether it’s built into the form not have it. And is it also part of the reduction of wordage to fit into modern (fast) life? Is that why short story contests now specify a word length of 1,500 words, or even shorter, the so-called short, short stories of 700-800 words. The ABC’s Radio National has asked for “celebratory, thoughtful, descriptive, creative works that engage with the human/avian relationship” for its Birdland project. The word length – 300. Don’t we already have a creative short form that often runs to that length, and isn’t it poetry?

CAL-lous or what?

The Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) was set up to recoup money for authors when schools, universities etc use their copyrighted material.

How annoying it is therefore to read in The Australian newspaper that more money (ie public institutions’ and authors’ money) goes on salaries at the agency then goes towards author payments.

CAL’s chief executive, for example, earned more than $350K last year, while two other staff members received salaries of between $250K- $299K and $200K-$249K respectively, and five more got between $150K and $199K and a further 21 between $100K and $149K.

All this in a country where the average writer earns less than $20K per year. Sure we do it for the love of it, and we don’t need to eat either!

 See the article here.

Animals in fiction

There are an estimated four million dogs and two and a half million cats living with us in Australia, and two thirds of homes have a pet (although the 11 million fish inflate this figure!). So why do animals not feature more prominently in writing? We share ‘treetops’ here with a short-legged black dog, Milton, and a long-legged cat, Pippa and I must admit I haven’t thought about featuring them in fiction. I did consider, though, a story about two previous cats, now deceased. One was a big black one who arrived as a stray at six months old, the other a petit tortoiseshell I’d had from a kitten and whom I’d got to keep me company during a year I took off to stay at home and complete my university thesis.

The little one was loving and shy, the big black, tough and streetwise. The stray came to our door one wet, windy winter. Feeling sorry for it, but not really wanting another cat, I put a box with a towel in for it on the porch outside the back door so at least  it could sleep somewhere out of the rain. One morning I got up looking for the little cat only to find her curled up in the box with the stray … Continue reading “Animals in fiction”