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.
This week, along with many many other authors, I received a payment from Amazon for the sale of my e-books for the last six months – not enough to paint the town a very bright shade of red, but certainly enough to make a good start! That got me thinking about the different rewards that come the way of writers. Quite apart from the fun of researching and writing (which is why we all do it, of course) there are royalties for sales from your publisher, the proceeds of any direct sales of your books, and one-off licences for your work to be included in other publications. In Australia we can add Public Library Lending Rights, which flow from readers borrowing your books. Then there are occasional professional fees, if you’re lucky: for speaking, for writing articles and reviews, for giving workshops and judging competitions. None of it adds up to a fortune – or even to a living wage, for most of us – but at least it’s some recognition that your work is valued by somebody, somewhere. And last but not least are the intangibles – like a stranger peering at your nametag at some function and dragging you off to the bar to shout you a glass of champagne to thank you for the many happy hours of reading you’ve given them. That’s probably the best of the lot!
The new book is nudging its way along towards becoming a reality … the final edit is completed (well I think so, though I did make a minor change an hour ago!) … ideas are percolating for the cover, which will probably be based on this lonely figure on the edge of the ocean … now it’s on to all that housekeeping every author would prefer not to do! It’s much more fun to dream up settings, characters and plots than it is to deal with the necessities of writing life, like ISBN numbers, barcodes, etc etc. Nevertheless that is our lot in life, and I am telling myself that now is the time to let this manuscript go. Go where? Into production, and then out into the world.
Watch this space.
When I decided to travel around Western Australia, I took M.L. Stedman’s wonderful first novel ‘The Light Between Oceans’ with me. Set on – and off – the W.A. coast just after the first World War, it’s a mesmerising story, beautifully written, and illuminated my take on the vast multi-coloured Indian Ocean which eerily seemed to lie in wait for us whichever way we turned.
I made the book last until the day before I stepped off the Indian Pacific, reaching ‘The End’ with deep regret. What an achievement! It richly deserves all the prizes that have been showered on it.
I am in awe.
I’ve always admired those authors who schedule their writing every day, tapping away between one commitment and the next. I wish I could – but I can’t. I seem to need to get away from my everyday life and binge on everything to do with writing in solitude. Then I do nothing else for a few days but read, review, edit and write … usually half-way through day two the story and the characters have arrived to colonise the brain, nudging and suggesting and arguing … and it all starts to happen. From time to time I remember to eat, stretch, go for a walk … all grist to the mill.
How very inconvenient! But how very enjoyable, too!
It’s a generous act, to give feedback to a writer. Right from the start you’re teetering along a tightrope, trying to find the balancing point between being helpful to the text and being destructive to the fragile ego of the writer. If you want to preserve a friendship with him or her, you’re clutching that balancing bar even more tightly! It’s a skill all of its own.
I’m just getting feedback from three readers of my latest novel in draft. To make it easier for them (and for me) I gave them some questions to answer. So now I’m examining their verdicts, looking for commonalities, pondering over differences. Reading a text is just as individual an experience as writing one!
They do agree it should be published, somehow or other. I’ll brood on their comments for a few weeks before I tackle the next draft. I know It will be all the better for their collective sharp eyes and brains. I’ve never written anything that hasn’t been improved by me gritting my teeth and handing the mss over to be dissected! Now I have to decide how much of their sage advice I will take. In the end, the novel is mine and mine alone.
I’m editing the first draft of a novel at the moment. As every writer knows, that involves re-reading the text with an eagle eye and questioning the value of every chapter, every paragraph and every sentence: what is the point here? Do these words advance the plot? enhance the atmosphere? give more depth to a character? As they say, every word has to earn its place. Otherwise, what are they doing there? Hit delete? This can be a very painful process!
I’m increasingly aware that exactly the same questions apply to my hobby of photography: what is the point here? What is that photograph about? what point is it trying to make – or what story is it telling? How can that point be emphasised? With the wonderful photo-editing software so readily available these days, photographers can spend many happy hours asking themselves these questions and trying to tweak the image to answer them. Now that process is more addictive than painful.
Just a few thoughts from the keyboard …
Suddenly, there they were on the screen – the two words so dear to the heart of every writer: The End.
My sixth novel, tentatively titled ‘On the Edge’, has dragged me into territory untrodden in life as well as art. That was scary! What started off as a short story, then flirted with becoming a novella, has ended up as an 85,000 word novel. Well those two words don’t mark ‘the end’ at all, of course, just the start of the long haul of converting a draft into a final mss – which will then be sent to a few trusted readers for close scrutiny and criticism to generate yet more work for me, before The End really does signal The End. Then what? Time will tell.
A year to write, and another year to edit – that seems to be what it takes for me to produce a novel, while I manage to live a life at the same time.
Writing groups are everywhere. In my home state of Queensland I know of around forty, and I’m sure there are many more. Some specialise – in romance, in poetry, in crime, in science fiction, in fantasy. Some support writers who have novels in progress. Some aim for publication as a group, others don’t. Some just love playing with words and writing in any genre.
I started my writing life with a vibrant group of about ten people, some experienced writers, other novices like me. That was my apprenticeship. We all learned a lot about critiquing – our own work, and the work of other members. It was an absolutely invaluable learning experience.
Aspiring writers take note!
Every so often something happens to remind us that words – those little symbols on the page, the tools of trade of every writer – are powerful weapons.
Recently the doors of Causeway Books in Hong Kong were suddenly closed when its five owners and employees were detained by mainland security forces for selling books that offend the Chinese Government – primarily political biographies and economic analyses. Causeway Books is well known as a source of factual books on mainland China. It appears that the propaganda ministry has banned emotionally charged words (such as ‘slump’, ‘spike’ and ‘collapse’), and has warned against any analysis or assessment of economic circumstances.
So as we writers agonise over word choice – as we do every day – spare a thought for writers in other countries who are trying to get their message out under very different circumstances.
Years later she still wondered about him. It was one of those chance encounters that you never forgot. She’d been in Canada, bussing out of Kingston on a cold, grey, sleety morning. Suddenly a panting, dishevelled man flung himself on board at the last minute and collapsed into the seat beside her.
He started to talk. He seemed to need to. She didn’t have much choice but to listen.
His fingers twisted, his face worked as he talked. He’d been released from the Kingston jail that morning after fifteen years, he told her. Fifteen years? She couldn’t bring herself to ask what he’d done to deserve that. He’d got used to it, he said, it was all about routine. He’d worked in the kitchen cleaning the stoves. For ten hours a day, day after day, for fifteen years. It could have been worse.
Where was he going? He was going home, he said. To his father. His mother had died while he was in prison. He hadn’t seen either of them since he was put away. They’d never visited. Neither had his sister. His father had refused to collect him in Kingston. But he had nowhere else to go. As the miles flew by beads of perspiration appeared. The closer they got to his destination the more agitated he became. Finally he called out to the driver, retrieved his little duffel bag and glanced down at her. His face was tortured. Good luck, she said. I’ll need it, he replied. She glanced back. No one was waiting at the remote bus stop beside the windy highway.
He is a story waiting to be written.