My last novel ‘On the Edge’ was published in late 2016. One way and another I’ve usually been busy writing since then, but I’m haven’t been working on another novel. It can be a long time between books for fiction authors. There are, however, many other forms of writing that don’t end up between covers in bookshops or in libraries. The purpose of my blog is to give some airspace to the other material that I, and authors like me, find themselves producing. I’ll also post occasional reflections on the world of words that absorbs us all.
Gravestones, birth certificates, faded photographs … that’s the stuff of family history, which has invaded my life for the last year. I didn’t know much to start with, and what I thought I knew turned out to be mostly wrong. What an amazing cast of characters I have uncovered! From the well-kept secret of g-g-g-father Joseph who was transported in 1829 for his second offence of larceny, to g-g-father seaman Richard who first set foot here as a cabin boy of fifteen on the ‘Flying Cloud’ in 1863 and ended up as a Councillor in Warwick, to the implosion of the family tree when g-g-g-mother Jane’s oldest daughter married her second husband’s younger brother (work that one out!). What a resourceful, energetic bunch they’ve turned out to be, not to mention prolific – I have unearthed hundreds of second cousins and beyond.
Piecing their stories together (with the aid of the invaluable Trove and Ancestry) has been an exercise in sleuthing, full of surprises and a lot of fun. We’ve produced a little publication for that side of the family, with copies for all the agencies which have been so helpful along the way – family history is all about standing on the shoulders of others. That’s been keeping me busy this year.
A couple of years ago The Australian Dictionary of Biography requested me to write the biographical entry for Professor John Willett, the first Vice Chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland. I had worked there in management for most of his tenure in this position, had known him well and admired him immensely. My first instinct was to decline: as the ADB is the definitive source of information on prominent people in Australia, this would be an awesome responsibility for a person of his stature. It turned out I was the latest in a long line of former colleagues they had approached who felt the same. Years earlier I had written another entry for the ADB on a Brisbane headmistress so in the end I agreed, because I knew what was involved and I felt we owed him so much.
I have never put such an effort into such a short piece of work, which was supposed to come in under 1000 words. The ADB finally published all 1800 words of the article I sent them with a note pointing out that he had not lived a 1000 word life – they couldn’t find anything to edit out either!
The ADB, housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, brings out a new volume every two years; it is produced in hard copy for libraries (although I believe this is being phased out) and is of course also available on-line. It is invaluable to researchers. There is no payment to authors, many of whom are employed as academics. What motivates the rest of us? I suppose it depends on the subject you’re asked to research. In this case, I felt it was an honour.
Christmas is almost here again – I hope yours is a very happy one, followed by an even happier new year.
Have you seen the film ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas?’ – which relates how a broke Charles Dickens badly needed to make some money in a hurry, and ran up his enduring classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a few weeks to get it published for the Christmas market. He made it – just!
Any writer would relate to how this book came into being – the writer as bowerbird, the writer as voyeur, the writer trying to fit these jigsaw pieces together, the writer being haunted by partly-formed characters who refused to do what they were told, and eventually the writer as businessman. Writing fiction is a baffling process for some of us. It’s never clear to me exactly who is in charge!
Enjoy the festive season and find time to keep tapping …
My sixth novel ‘On the Edge’ has been out and about for over six months now, and readers’ responses are trickling back to me. This is a fairly simple tale set in Townsville; it’s a chronological narrative that follows the fortunes of a few characters who have been unfortunate in life, exploring the consequences of the choices they have made. Told in the third person, it deploys few of the literary weapons from the arsenal available to fiction writers. That’s probably because it started life as a short story before it decided it ought to be a novel.
Most readers tell me they engaged with the characters and enjoyed the book. Some found it hard to put down (music to my ears – that’s always my goal), but I know a few who didn’t make it to the end. One criticised the dialogue as ‘too American’; others found the dialogue realistic. Some mentioned how they liked the ending; others mentioned that they hated the ending; some thought the action could have been stronger and more violent; others found it unnecessarily cruel.
How does that old song go – ‘different things to different people’? It’s a reminder that we all read in the context of our own lives and values, and – as many book club members have discovered – that often means we might as well be reading different books!
Feedback and criticism are very important to writers, but there comes a moment when you just have to remember that it’s your work, and in the end it’s your call. You can never please all the people all the time.
What indeed? I only wish I had the answers for the increasing number of self-publishers who are coming my way. Suddenly writing the book seems like the easy part. Getting your work out there demands a completely different set of skills, not to mention cast-iron confidence and nerves – and preferably lots of money you don’t need! These days it’s not just self-publishers facing these problems: I understand established publishing houses are now discussing their authors contributing to more striking covers, better paper stock etc etc – to give their new book the best chance.
It is no accident that Bryce Courtney has been one of Australia’s biggest selling authors. That’s because he was a highly successful advertising executive – over time, he became Creative Director of three major Australian advertising agencies. He made a mint. He was able to pay for adverts for his books on the backs of buses trundling around all our capitals. He gave away at least 2,500 copies of each of his books to admirers, to pass on to their friends. And look at the result!
Some people are much better at selling than writing. Others (myself included) are the reverse; we come out in a cold sweat at the mere mention of ‘publicity’. So we just do the best we can. These days I’m happy for my books to be stocked in libraries and to be sold off Amazon. Money trickles in, so I know my readers are out there, and I can get on and write something else. That suits me fine.
Swimming with sharks
In recent weeks a number of first-time authors have come my way, wanting to discuss ways and means of publishing their manuscripts. These days technology can make authors of us all, particularly retirees, and I applaud their commitment and enthusiasm. However I have been concerned at the ‘deals’ out there for the unwary, and how easy it is for the inexperienced to be sucked in to a publishing contract which costs a lot, seems to promise much, but in the end delivers very little.
Some of these operators are based in the U.S., but Australia has its fair share. They’re good at making the simple tasks associated with publishing sound more complicated and expensive than they are; they seem to fall short when it comes to delivering a useful manuscript appraisal, and affordable editing services – not to mention any distribution mechanism (eg ‘we will give you the tools to approach local publishers with your book’??? – in other words, it’s up to you to trudge around bookshops trying to find a decision-maker who is prepared to stock your book).
So be careful! Check the cost and the promised output very thoroughly. Ask if they can put you in touch with a couple of their current clients, and get their views. Assess whether you’d be getting value for money. If you belong to your local Writers Centre, seek their advice; they hear the best and worst from their members.
But don’t stop writing!
Family history, I am learning, is full of surprises, not least that one branch of ours stretches back to Ireland – news to us all. Aiming to tackle my total ignorance about the Irish in Australia, I picked up a battered book called just that by Patrick O’Farrell. By the time I finished the second paragraph of the introduction, I had to collect my breath: what an intellect! Here are a few of the excerpts that had my head spinning:
… ‘Precisely who, and what, shall be called up from the ranks of the dead? Those Irish and that Irishness that came to Australia? that Irish Australia they found and made there? their descendants?’ … ‘an elusive complexity rules …’
… ‘The Ireland of 1900 was a whole creation away from that of 1800’ … ‘these were ambivalent, ambiguous people, thinking Irish, talking English; hating the tyranny, serving the tyrant’ … ‘each arriving Irish generation brought a new phase of Irish experience, its Ireland frozen for it at the moment of departure’ …’within Australia a procession of Irish histories, Irish comprehensions, proceed at once’ …
Rich reads are not always easy reads, and Professor O’Farrell’s history is no exception. This is a book to be savoured, certainly not skimmed.
Like many others, I have been battling a debilitating respiratory bug for weeks. But one event I just didn’t want to miss was that author talk at Carindale library. So armed with my doctor’s assurance that I was no longer infectious, plus cough suppressant, lozenges and water at the ready, I had the great pleasure of meeting a group of about thirty people interested in reading and writing.
Like all groups I meet in libraries, there are some familiar faces and some new faces; there are readers, and there are always writers at various stages of their career – tackling the first draft of the first novel; poised to publish their first book; seasoned hands who have been writing and publishing as long as I have. What they share is enthusiasm, determination and, of course, a passion for books.
I decided to talk about what the right brain (the creative juices) and the left brain (the organiser) contribute to the fiction writing process, a topic that continues to fascinates me. It seemed to strike a chord that led to a lively discussion. I always enjoy meeting readers – as I have said many times before, where would we writers be without you?
The holiday has been and gone (but more of that some other time) … and here I am back home, getting my head around what happens next. On THURSDAY 17 AUGUST at 10am I’ll be speaking at CARINDALE LIBRARY in Brisbane, about my recently published book ‘On the Edge’ which is currently finding its way into libraries around Queensland: not crime this time, this Townsville-based story explores how two women respond very differently to crises in their lives. You can find out more on the ‘Other Books’ page of this website. As well, I’d like to share some of the strange twists and turns I (and my brain, of course!) have taken on my journey into writing fiction. Live and learn!
I do hope some of you will be able to come along – with a friend, if you like. This is a free event, but the Library does require bookings; please phone 3407 1490.
Why do we do it? With bombs exploding randomly around the world and cars ramming into innocent pedestrians, why do we persist in leaving the safety and comfort of home to breathe different air, meet different people and see different sights? Despite the interminable flights to get from here to anywhere, Australians are just unstoppable. With the advent of the northern summer it’s on for young and old Down Under – the backpackers, the car renters, the train travellers, the bus tourists, the passengers on cruise ships – we’re off!
Not all nations share this enthusiasm for travel. The southern Europeans have always seemed to prefer to stay home. Over the years I have watched the changing tourist scene with great interest – the rise and fall of American and Japanese tourism (is that about money?), now replaced by a surge of Chinese and Indian travellers along with growing numbers of Korean groups.
So what drives us? Adventure? Curiosity? Escape from routine? Wanting personal insights? The wish to be gobsmacked? Whatever it may be, the itch is still with me and once again I am packing my bags … and my camera …