Thursday, 7 February 2019

Countdown to October: From an idea to a story

Image result for woman writing
In my last post, I talked about where some of the ideas for the stories in my collection came from. It's never an easy thing to pin down. Even after finishing the post, I kept thinking about things I could add. A lot of my stories are autobiographical but only up to a point. Some of them have links to things that really happened. Some are completely made up. In fact, I think it's more accurate to say that a lot of my stories start off as autobiographical. 

So how do I take the germ of an idea and turn it into a story?

My relationship to the process of writing a short story hasn't really changed much over the ten years since I started Writing Short Stories for real. Once I get an idea that really interests me, I need to get to the keyboard or my journal and get it all down, preferably in one hit. Sometimes the idea itself might have been obsessing me for a time, but if the spark of the idea is not enough to sustain a writing session all the way through to the end of about 3000 words, often the story will never get finished. If I can't be bothered writing it in one sitting, it didn't interest me enough. 

How long does that usually take? Who knows. Anyone who writes knows how great-- and tricky-- it is to get into that trance-like state that comes with deep immersion.

Often I'll put it aside, or I'll send it to one of my writer friends for feedback. I've got to a point now where my stories come out at around 3000 words naturally, which is great because that seems to be a standard length for Australian magazines and competitions. But for someone who reads a lot of novels and has been trying to write one, it didn't start out that way, and I had to learn to reign it in when I got too wordy, or over explained things. (Perhaps a post about the features of a short story as compared to a novel is to come?) 

I may have spoken about this before, but when I rewrite things, I completely rewrite them. As in I open up a brand new word document and I start typing out the whole thing again, usually with a printed and marked up copy of the story next to me. It's like I'm both reading and redrafting at the same time. So as I come across bits that don't flow or don't make sense, I rewrite them completely, move them around, cut out whole swathes. I like to think I'm ruthless, but now as I begin the nitty gritty editing of the pieces for the collection, I am finding sentences that both make me cringe, and remember how proud I was of them in previous rounds. The darlings that should have been killed. (As a side note, having lunch with my wonderful Grandma on Tuesday, she mentioned that over time she'd noticed my short story writing was getting tighter. Oh how my heart sung with that praise! I know she's probably reading this, so hello and thanks!) 

The re-typing method works when the work is very rough, but when it's close, it tends to be a waste of time. That's where I'm at with some of them now. I have about twenty stories to go through and not that long to go through them. I'd like to go through them all on my own before I start working with my mentor in March but at the rate I am going, I think I'll get through 75% of them. (Still good!) What I've been doing instead is arming myself with notes and a strong coffee or tea (tonight it's water because it is HUMID) and opening the document. I read it through once as a reader, and allow myself to judge it like I would something I was reviewing. There have been a few that I cringed at, but also a few that I can see are almost there. Then I go back to the start and I start to finesse. What am I looking for? It depends on the story, but three things I am trying to eliminate are: telling rather than showing, particularly when it comes to my characters' emotions; yucky, overblown descriptions that are trying to be literary and just come off as blergh; and filler words. You know the ones. Just, even, very, almost. My mentor, Laurie, calls them gatecrashers, which I love. 

The best part of this process is I am looking at a catalogue of stories that represent ten years worth of work. I am looking at the archive of Emily Paull. It's sometimes awkward, but mostly, it's a little bit cool, because I can see the evolution of my ideas and my skills and my style...

As a side note:
I said before that some of my stories are autobiographical. There are going to be settings and situations in stories that people will probably recognise. But the characters, even if they start off as people I know, always end up a long way from where they start. Some of them are amalgams of people. A lot of them reflect facets of myself. And this is something that only comes out over many subsequent drafts. When they say write what you know, they don't mean that fiction needs to be entirely ripped from real life. But they mean that you need to write from a place of authenticity, whether that means trying to apply empathy to a situation and seeing yourself inside it, through thorough research, or through using things from your own experience and then relating them outward to the world. 

Monday, 28 January 2019

Countdown to October: Where do short stories come from?

It's the question writers dread: where do you get your ideas?

This has been on my mind a bit this month, first as I had been reading John Boyne's new novel A Ladder to the Sky in which a sociopathic young writers steals ideas for his novels in a myriad of ways, all varying in their degree of moral bankruptcy, and then second as I struggled to write any new short stories for my forthcoming book.

There was a period of time, perhaps even two years ago although I really hope it wasn't that long, when stories used to be single sitting affairs. I'd have ideas buzzing around me like a swarm of wasps, irritating me, getting under my skin, and then off I'd go to my laptop or my notebook and the idea would just come rushing out.

Lately, I've longed for that to happen to me again.

It got me thinking about where the ideas for those particular stories had come from.  For my story The Sea Also Waits, I was inspired by the real life disappearance of a Russian free diver, which I'd read about on The Guardian. For my story From Under the Ground (published in the most recent issue of Westerly), it was the arrest of a man in connection with the Claremont Serial Killings which had been on the news every night when I was in primary school. For the story A Moveable Farce (which will appear in the next Margaret River Press anthology), it was the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris.

I began to worry that, because I no longer watch the news with my parents as part of our nightly routine, perhaps the steady feed of issues to worry me and make me anxious, while generally being better for my anxiety, was having a detrimental effect on my creativity.

But there are other stories in the collection that have come from other places. Some are fictionalised accounts from my own life-- where I give my characters the chance to change the outcomes, or stand up for themselves, or get the clarity that they need to in order to move on faster. Others are amalgams. Writers are like bowerbirds, building their nests and we take snippets from all over, combining them together to make something new. I've heard rumours that say Helen Garner carries a notebook with her always and writes down fragments of what she overhears to use later as dialogue. I've often wondered if her friends and family hear themselves when they read her work, or if they'd even recognise something that they might have said. I've taken birthday parties that I attended or hosted and mixed them with different groups of people; I've transplanted conversations that I've had into the mouths of others; I've imagined people who I've never met walking in places where I've been. One of my stories was inspired by a story in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, for the people in the story could have walked right out of the Western Suburbs of Perth, so I tried to mimic the style of the piece.

The pieces always grow from the original seed that is planted.

Nothing ends up exactly where it started.

I'm no closer to finding that common denominator that links all these things that have set my neurons firing, but perhaps I should stop looking. If I were to understand the magic trick, and put it to use whenever I wanted, I worry that I would not enjoy the experience as much.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Countdown to October: Some Short Story Collection Recommendations

Short story collections. You either hate them, or you love them.

I hope that you, the person reading this post, is in the camp of those who love them, as come October this year, I'll have a collection of my very own out in bookshops.

(It feels weird to say that, because I haven't even finished putting it all together, but more details will come as I know them and I am planning on blogging through the whole process.)

In the lead up to the really hard work of getting it ready, I've been thinking a lot about short story collections I love, and short story collections that I really want to read.  I thought today I would post a list for you of amazing collections to check out if you're wanting to get into the genre, or if you're just looking for something new to read. These are in no particular order:

Short Story Collections I Have Read and Loved

* Like a House on Fire and Dark Roots, both by Cate Kennedy
* Trick of the Light by Laura Elvery
* Pulse Points by Jennifer Down
* Australia Day by Melanie Cheng
* Bird Country by Claire Aman
* Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke
* Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven
* The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill
* You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
* The True Colour of the Sea and The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe
* Feet to the Stars by Susan Midalia
* Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey
* The Circle and the Equator by Kyra Giorgi
* The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Short Story Collections I Really Want to Read

* Little White Slips by Karen Hitchcock
* Zebra by Debra Adelaide
* Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
* Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
* The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night by Jen Campbell
* You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian
* Common People by Tony Birch
* Any collection by Joyce Carol Oates
* After the Carnage by Tara June Winch
* The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain
* Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl
* Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
* The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Let me know if there are any collections missing from this list-- I want to be inspired by what other writers are doing in the genre!

Happy reading.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

A few goals for a new year

Remember whenI used to publish a full list of the resolutions that I'd made on my blog?

I think there's been a lot of backlash towards New Year's Resolutions growing for a while now, and I see this reflected in the people that I follow and am friends with on social media. Most people are actively rejecting resolutions, seeing them as naive and often too lofty to be achievable. Also, there's this recognition that you shouldn't have to wait until January 1st to start making positive changes in your life. People are constantly growing and changing, so it's a little naive to think that January is the only time when you can reflect on the active changes that you want to make. But, it's a good time to hit reset, and to think about the habits you've gotten into and maybe some of the new habits that you would like to form, so with that in mind, I just wanted to say a few words about a couple of goals that I am working towards at the moment. They're largely not writing related, but I still think they'll be interesting.

The first one, and this is the biggest one, is that I am wanting to change my attitude towards money-- towards saving it, and towards spending it. In the first half of 2018, I was very stressed. I reached a peak in my anxiety and I was unhappy a lot of the time. There were various reasons for this and I won't go into them, but I had been avoiding thinking about a few changes that I really needed to make in order to make that stress go away, and instead, I had been doing other things to relax. One of those things was shopping.

Had a bad day? Buy something. Feeling stressed? Buy something. Bored? Buy something.

This all sort of culminated in me realising, when I changed jobs and had to look at my finances, that I was living in a way that was unsustainable, and it meant that when I had bills that I wasn't prepared for or if something happened to my car (i.e. the flat battery I got one week before Christmas, thanks Santa), I just panicked. I loved spending money when it was for something I could enjoy, but when I had to spend it on bills and other 'necessary' items, I was a real Scrooge. My progress towards this goal already began in 2018, when I started using a budget, and when I shopped around for better deals on things like my phone plan, but in 2019, I am going to look at being more mindful about what I buy, and try to reset my attitude towards shopping. Shopping is NOT a recreational activity anymore.

I think the area that this is going to be hardest in will be with regard to books.

Most of you know that I was a bookseller for about six years, so I feel very strongly about supporting bookshops. I have a habit of walking into any bookshop I pass, and I feel guilty if I leave without purchasing something-- so often I have bought something on every trip.

Books are something that bring me joy and I won't apologise for this. But I have been acquiring books at a faster rate than I can read them, so my second goal for the year is to participate in The Unread Shelf Project challenge. I counted how many unread books were in my apartment (it was a lot) and I have committed myself to reading at least 45 of those before the end of this year. My Goodreads goal is to read 105 books this year overall, so that gives me lots of wiggle room to read new books... but I am going to be making use of my library in order to do this wherever possible.

That's not to say that I won't be buying ANY books at all. I'm still me. But again, I am going to be mindful about the ones I bring home.

I do have other goals, like riding my bike to work more, and being disciplined about writing regularly, but these are the main ones, and the ones that I already feel like I am making progress towards.

If you have any tips that might help with either of these, I'd love to hear them.  Or, if you just want to share your own goals.

Happy reading and writing!

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Most Anticipated: 2019

Posted with the full knowledge that this list will grow and I won't get to all of them...

Gingerbread - Helen Oyeyemi 

Invisible Boys - Holden Sheppard (winner of the 2018 TAG Hungerford Award)

Priory of the Orange Tree- Samantha Shannon

Dreamers - Karen Thompson Walker

99% Mine - Sally Thorne

The French Photographer - Natasha Lester

The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern

City of Girls - Elizabeth Gilbert

Sweet Sorrow - David Nicholls

The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers - Kerri Turner

Zebra and Other Stories - Debra Adelaide

Room for a Stranger - Melanie Cheng

Devil's Ballast - Meg Caddy

The Blue Rose- Kate Forsyth

The True Story of Maddie Bright - Mary Rose MacColl

A Thousand Ships - Natalie Haynes

Anna of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait - Alison Weir

[There's also one other rather exciting book that I'm excited to see released in 2019... my own! It was announced in the most recent edition of the Margaret River Press newsletter that I was one of three WA debut authors who will have a short story collection out in 2019, as part of an emerging writers program. There is still much work to do, and I have no details like release date or title, but as soon as I am able, I will let you all know...]

In other news, I counted how many unread books were in my apartment this morning and... well I don't want to commit it to the forever-ness of the internet but it was less than I expected but more than a normal person. So reducing that number will be one of my main goals of 2019. The plus-side to working in a library is... every day I have access to borrowing books FOR FREE, so I will be taking advantage of that, and only acquiring books occasionally, when I know the author or collect that author's books or, you know, if they have really stunning covers.  I don't know about you all, but the 'due date' for a library book does make me think seriously about whether or not I really want to read something or whether I am just being a hoarder. Downside is, sometimes all the books I have put on hold arrive at the same damn time...

Anyway, 2019 looks like it will be a great year for both reading and writing, and I am looking forward to talking books with you all. If you think I've missed a book that I need to read in 2019, do let me know, as I love me a good list and I'll be making a wish list in my brand new journal, which I am currently setting up. Yay.

Happy new year!