Friday, 30 November 2018

10 Things 2018 Has Taught Me About Being a Writer

1. Writing and Publishing are pursuits that require extraordinary patience.

Writing your book takes as long as it takes. You cannot rush it. You can be disciplined, and have a plan, and work to your deadline if you have one, but in the end, you and your book have to be 'ready' before they will find their place on a shelf. Your first draft might take you two years, or it might only be four months. You might have to write sixteen drafts, not counting any redrafting that is going to take place after someone agrees to publish you. It is extremely rare that you will be able to write something, polish it once and then have someone offer you a publishing deal. (If this does happen to you, well done, and what is your secret please?) Likewise, pitching your book to agents and publishers takes time; time spent preparing submissions and writing synopses, researching who and where to send things to, and then waiting for responses. In short, you are going to have to be patient. Try to forget that you are waiting for emails if you can. I can't, and have been known to check my email every half hour on the hour when I am waiting for responses.

2. The most important asset is a supportive community.

We are lucky in Perth. The community is small, and pretty much everyone is warm and generous with their time and advice and wants to see others succeed. It can be incredibly buoying to spend time with other writers, whether that be in a small informal writing group, at events, over coffee. Plus, spending time building up the confidence of others can really put things into perspective for you. Every time I chat with another writer who is having a crisis of faith and struggling with their writing, I think back later about all the kind things I have said to them about giving themselves time and cutting themselves some slack and about the writing itself being the most important part and I think "Why can't I apply this same sort of thinking to myself." Positivity begets positivity, and creativity multiplies in much the same way. If you can, try to spend time chatting about writing and ideas with someone who inspires you on a regular basis, then come home and write while you're still experiencing that inspirational high.

3. At the end of the day, you have to have written something you are proud of.

I'm not going to be on my deathbed one day stressing about a bad review, but if I rush to publish my book when it's not yet fit to be published, I'm sure I'll regret that. I need to be as happy with anything I publish as I possibly can be. I have to have written something that I enjoyed writing, and something that I stand by. Something that I would be proud to talk about at a Writers' Festival. Something I would be proud to have one of my favourite authors read.

4. Every writer is special and no one is.

Think about how many hundreds of submissions publishers receive a year. A month even. Every manuscript has been crafted by a writer who has poured their soul into their work, given up social occasions, possibly skipped meals to write. Every single manuscript is special. Every single writer is special, because they've done the work, finished the thing, and had the guts to submit it. Publishing is competitive. The Australian market is oversupplied with manuscripts to choose from. I'm sure in some cases, more debut authors are submitting manuscripts than Australian books are actually being purchased. It may seem like every other month, publishing is touting the arrival of another 'Chosen One', the hit debut of the year, but once, that person was another manuscript on a busy publisher's desk. It's all just marketing. Leave that to the marketing department. Be realistic. Give your book the best possible chance you can, and then be a grown up if it's a no. That doesn't mean that you can't cry or be upset or disappointed. But don't go writing terrible reviews on that publisher's books out of spite either.

5. It's important to celebrate the little victories.

Hitting 50 000 words. Finishing something. Submitting something. These are all huge, and you deserve a reward for achieving them. Don't use awards, shortlists, getting published as your only benchmarks for how 'good' you are. Just writing something is a big deal. How many people never finish a novel, or never even start?

6. A disciplined approach is your best friend.

Ever made it to a six day in a row writing streak and realised that writing your book is getting easier? Ever taken a week off and discovered it's really hard to pick up where you left off? Everyone writes differently, but if you make a plan that works for you (half an hour a night maybe) you train your brain to work when it's work time.

7. Buy (or borrow from a library) debut books and shout out about the ones you love.

There are some amazing writers publishing in Australia, and many of the best books I have read this year have been by first time authors. Spread a little goodwill, and let your friends know about new authors you've discovered. Recommend them for your book club; tweet about them; review them on Goodreads. Reading new books in your genre will help you get a sense of what publishers are interested in, will inspire and entertain you, and will give you that warm fuzzy feeling that lets you know you're helping out a fellow writer.

8. Other people's success does not take anything away from you.

It's okay to be disappointed when you're not shortlisted for something. But it's also okay to be happy for other writers when they are. In fact, I recommend it. It's better for your mental health!

I really like that quote, "Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for you. It's not pie."(Attribution unknown.)  I think that applies here in a similar sort of way.  There will be other opportunities! And remember, we're a community. When one of us succeeds, we all do.

9. Publishing has trends but if you try to write to one, you'll probably miss it.

Trends in publishing move fast. Remember vampire novels? Literary rewrites with zombies in them? Write the book you'd most like to read first and foremost. Who knows, maybe your book will be the one that starts the next trend. If you manage to, well done! Again, this sort of thing is best left to marketing types to figure out later. They're the experts. Let them do their thing when the time comes and focus on writing a book that you would be super excited to read if you weren't its author.

10. The only way to ever truly be out of the running is to take yourself out of it.

You might not get this book published, or the next one, or the one after that, but as long as you keep writing books, you are still in with a chance. You have options. You can self publish. You can write something else. You can rewrite your book for the eleven-hundredth time. The only difference between writers who eventually get published and writers who don't is that the writers who don't stop trying. 

If 2018 has been a trying year for you as a writer, you're not alone. I hope that good things are around the corner for you-- for us all. Keep your head high, and keep doing what you love.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Book Review: The Botanist's Daughter by Kayte Nunn

Anyone who knows me knows that I am all about the historical fiction these days, and if it contains a duel narrative, even better. No one does this genre better than the three Kates; Morton, Forsyth and Atkinson. It is Kate Morton's work which is most strongly called to mind by the book for today's review, and I'm not just saying that because of the similarities between the cover of this book and the cover of The Clockmaker's Daughter.  They even have similar titles!

So today, I'll be talking about the book that I spend most of my weekend curled up reading, namely The Botanist's Daughter by Kayte Nunn. Kayte Nunn is the author of two previous novels, but The Botanist's Daughter is her first foray into the historical fiction genre. The novel is a dual narrative historical fiction (again, something Kate Morton does incredibly well), following the story of Anna, a young woman who inherits her grandmother's house in Sydney, and the story of Elizabeth, a young woman living in Victorian Cornwall who is tasked with a dangerous botanical adventure by her famous botanist father. When Anna gets workers in to her grandmother's home to do some work, they discover a diary and a mysterious box, containing seeds, jewellery and sketches. Anna, who has been drifting through her days since a heavily hinted at personal tragedy, feels especially lost at the loss of her Granny Gus, and is compelled to discover the significance of the box and what secrets it might give up to her. The diary tells the story of a young woman named Marguerite, who travelled to Australia in the later half of the 19th Century with an infant named Lily; Anna is desperate to find out what connection Margeurite holds to the contents of the ornate box she has found, and what connection, if any, there is to her grandmother and her house. Meanwhile, the reader is also being told the story of Elizabeth Trebethick, a talented botanical artist in her own right and the youngest daughter of Sir John Trebethick, reknowned botanist. Sir John has lately been preoccupied with a quest for a dangerous Chilean plant known as the Devil's Trumpet, and he is adamant that he should be the one to find it and bring it back to the Kew Gardens instead of his dangerous rival, Damien Chegwidden, who is so ruthless to make his fortune as a plant hunter, he once stabbed Sir John unprovoked. Elizabeth promises her father that she will go to Chile in his place, and so she and her lady's maid set off to Valparaiso about a boat, Elizabeth travelling under her mother's maiden name to avoid catching Chegwidden's attention and arousing suspicion.

The novel is paced nicely which makes for a quick and absorbing read, though at times the author's attempts to create cliffhanger endings tended to be somewhat jarring. Generally, the chapters alternated between Anna's and Elizabeth's points of view, though at times we got two of one or the other, depending on what point we were in each narrative arc. The two stories complemented one another nicely in this regard.  I was somewhat disappointed, however, with the ways that that stories turned out.

Nunn has created two inspiring heroines, who use their respective quests as a means of overcoming grief and finding a new direction for their lives. The ways that their stories end up leave me unconvinced that they will achieve this (and in one case, I am convinced of the opposite, but you'd have to read the book to find out why.) At times, Elizabeth's quest had me thinking of Elizabeth Gilbert's novel The Signature of All Things. I would have liked for her story to have been more fantastical than it was-- there was a sense that the author was holding back and trying not to be too cliche with her twists, but she could have stood to put in a few more. The ending of Elizabeth's story was sad, and unfulfilling, and yes, realistic. Anna's story balanced this out nicely, and there was a sense of history coming full circle, though the closing lines of the novel left me a little confused.

There are the makings of a great historical fiction writer in these pages, but unfortunately this book did not totally live up to the expectations I had for it. I still felt absorbed by it and read it non stop for two days, but ultimately feel there were things about it that I wanted done differently. Perhaps in this case, I was not the ideal reader for this book.

I gave it three and a half stars.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Book Review: The Helpline by Katherine Collette

When mathematician, Germaine Johnson, gets a job at the Deepdene Council answering calls on the Senior Citizens Helpline, she has no idea what she's gotten herself in to. Right away, she finds herself in the middle of a clash between the local golf course and the Senior Citizens Centre, and when she's given a special project by the mayor herself, she throws herself into sorting out the Senior Citizens Committee, and their troublemaking President, Celia Brown.

Germaine is more comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets than she is with people, but she soon finds herself having to navigate a number of new relationships in order to get along at her new job.

Whether it's with Eva, the co worker who spends more time worrying about keeping up the supply of biscuits in the staff room than actually answering calls; with Jack, the IT consultant who wears shorts and keeps asking Germaine to have lunch; with Jin Jin, a Japanese student who lives in Germaine's building; or with Don, the owner of the Golf Course, who reminds Germaine of a certain disgraced Sudoku Champion; Germaine is out of her depth when it comes to friendships. And in any case, she's much happier on her own, isn't she?

This sweet, funny, feel-good book will have you staying up way past your bedtime to get it read in a single sitting. With echoes of smash hits like The Rosie Project and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Helpline is sure to be a book club favourite in no time. Collette's skill in writing her cast of characters means that this story hits you right in the feels. It's a classic story of the underdog, with a twist in that its protagonist is quirky, a little dorky, and super smart. Her lack of self awareness makes for just the right amount of dramatic irony. This is, to date, the only book with mathematical charts in it that I have actually enjoyed, and I am going to be recommending it to all of my friends.

Five stars!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Book Review: The Fragments by Toni Jordan

Text Publishing, 2018

A stunning literary mystery set between 1938 New York and 1986 Brisbane. 

Standing in line for an exhibit on the life and work of novelist, Inga Karlsson, Caddie Walker meets a woman who seems to know more than is possible to know about Karlsson’s famous lost work. Caddie begins a quest for answers- who is this woman? What is her connection to Inga? And does she know who murdered Inga and her publisher all those years ago? 

Her research leads her to Jamie Ganivet, a rare books dealer who gave up on Karlsson scholarship after a run in with Professor Philip Carmichael, who just happens to be Caddie’s ex boyfriend. 

Told in alternating chapters, including Caddie’s present and Inga’s past, The Fragments is a fascinating mystery that defies genre, and will delight book lovers everywhere. 

Toni Jordan is one of my favourite authors of all time. I remember my Mum coming home one day in 2008 (my final year of high school, and the year I began seriously 'working on my novel') and she told me that she'd heard an author interviewed on the radio. She said the book sounded interesting, and she thought I might like it. 

This is something that my Mum does, by the way. In fact, all of my family does it. Anything writing related, they tell me about it. They keep clippings from papers, and they send me links to podcasts. If it's writing related, it's sent my way, and it's really very sweet.

But that day, the book in question was Addition, the first book by Toni Jordan. She bought me a copy not long after, or perhaps I bought one for myself (but more likely she did I think), and I read it. I thought it was wonderful. It wasn't until Nine Days came out four years later, though, that Toni Jordan became one of my favourite authors. I thought to myself reading that book, here is an author who can write history. It feels real and it's not too fluffy or overly romanticised. She just gets it. 

The Fragments is Toni Jordan's fifth book, but it's a pretty close second for my favourite of all her works. It has a bit of everything I like-- the 1930s, publishing, a mystery, a missing manuscript, a bookshop or two, and a love interest with an interest in old and rare manuscripts. For the entire time that I was reading this book, I was transported. I could feel the Brisbane heat. My only complaint is that the book was not longer, but isn't that the quote? If a book is well written, it is always too short? 

I can't wait to see what Toni Jordan will turn her hand to next. I am sure it too will be surprising and delightful.