What is ‘success’ in writing? It would be great to report that in 2021 I’d published another novel, won a few competitions and had some short fiction published. But that’s not the case. I haven’t counted the rejection letters, but there have been a few. A commendation or two, but no prizes. And the main work has involved crafting my second novel. I’ve completed a reasonably polished draft.
I feel comfortable writing historical fiction — I love doing the research. I’m particularly interested in the time just before I was born — a time of black and white photographs — a time experienced by my parents and grandparents. That’s where the second novel is placed. But this year I felt I should move a bit out of my comfort zone. I should write more about what confronts us in the world of the 2020s. To this end I enrolled in several Zoom workshops.
Writing the Environment
The workshop I found most challenging was about ‘Writing the Environment’. Why is it so hard to write, for example, about climate change? Maybe because we are embedded in it. The apocalypse is not necessarily an ‘end’, it can be seen as an ‘uncovering’ — a revelation. With the present pandemic some things are uncovered — made visible — for example, social disadvantage. How can we write about these things? The human perspective can be ‘decentred’ through the perspective of animals. Elsewhere I’ve written about Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country
Science Fiction provides a toolbox for writing about the environment. A lot of metaphors are environmental: eg a body of water, burning desire, oceanic feeling, the storm inside, animal desire, as wise as an owl. Try to literalise these metaphors.
Think of the difference between weirdness and eeriness. Something weird is intrusive. Eeriness has agency, a zombie acting, but there’s ‘nobody at home’. I was first drawn to this idea years ago reading about the mysteries of a disturbed child in Helen Garner’s A Children’s Bach. Hitchcock’s birds have agency — think of the eeriness in that movie. Those of us embedded in Western culture have a limited idea of the scope of agency – the range of entities in agency is very circumscribed. In other cultures landscapes, rivers etc have agency. The ‘light globe’ moment for me was a realisation that these stories can be fairy stories for adults set in the present time.
Compelling Characters and Novel Writing
The previous post in this category outlines some of the advice I gained from Kelly Gardiner. I also attended a workshop through Faber Academy, given by Richard Skinner. https://faberwritingacademy.com.au/writer/richard-skinner/
The main advice I picked up was:
Write from your stomach, not your head or heart. I’m not good at this. Skinner’s message seems to be ‘plough on’. Don’t overthink what you write and don’t doubt what you’re writing. Don’t spend a lot of time tinkering with beautiful expression — I’m bad at this — I draft and redraft instead of moving on!
Another interesting suggestion was: ‘Twist your plot like a screw, don’t hammer it like a nail’. Keep the reader in suspense for as long as possible. And: make your character’s life more difficult — the bigger the price the character has to pay, the better! Some of the very best novels are where the main character pays the ultimate price — eg Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary. Like other experienced authors, Skinner emphasised the importance of conflict.
Reflecting the advice of Kelly Gardiner, Richard Skinner said, ‘a book is never finished, it’s only abandoned. Characters are like friends: you need to know them as well as you know your best friends’.
The Perfect Pitch
I also attended a workshop offered by the Australian Society of Authors on pitching your book to publishers. In Australia there are opportunities to pitch to publishers without working with an agent. We were given advice on writing a synopsis, an introductory letter and how to offer an ‘elevator pitch’.
Historical Novel Society of Australasia
Reverting to my favoured genre of historical fiction I attended a couple of sessions of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia Conference (all by Zoom). https://hnsa.org.au/
A question that I find compelling when writing about times past is, how do you write about things that today are considered not right, eg racism? The message I gained was, there’s no point in writing if you’re going to white-wash. You have to write about some things that are not okay. But you can avoid offence. Write around the issue if necessary. For example, the speaker doesn’t use ‘the N word’ when writing about slavery, but describes the brutality.
When writing historical fiction, it’s important to try to understand the emotional state of a character: what did the world look like to them? Historical fiction is a made-up story set against a backdrop of real events. Can you manipulate history? Hilary Mantel says you must stick to the facts. But there’s a lot we don’t know. Just be true to the period. History is the foundation. Navigate history rather than manipulate it.
These are just a few of the things I learned in 2021. I probably learned most from reading, from grappling with my own writing and from sharing with my writing group, Elwood Writers http://elwoodwriters.com