An author, 20 years in the making. Trust me, there’s still time for you.

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Dear (as yet) unpublished writers,

I realised recently that this year it is has been 20 years since I declared I wanted to be a full-time career author. Twenty years! That might have made me feel the teensiest bit old.

(Do you know what else made me feel old recently? My six-year-old came home from school and told me he’d joined the junior choir and they were learning John Mayer’s song, Waiting on the the World to Change. I was thrilled. When I was six years old, I also joined the junior choir and do you know what was the first song I was taught? God Save the Queen!!! I’m not even joking. The second song was Advance Australia Fair. Yep.)

Anyway, back to the writing thing…

I still remember that moment well. It was 1999 and I was in my first year teaching. I had gone to a weekend workshop with the Queensland Writers Centre. I was so inspired that I had a ‘full body moment’ where I decided this is it. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wish I could remember who the teacher was that day. Clearly, she was so inspirational that she changed my life.

I’ve been writing ever since, short stories, poetry, flash fiction, contemporary novels, kids books, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, online articles. Not all of it has been published. Not all of it is good. Most of it didn’t make any money. Sometimes it was exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking. I made friends, a community. I won some prizes, was shortlisted for some, and on one memorable occasion was ranked in the last (i.e. considered ‘worst’) twenty-five per cent of entries.

It all changed in 2012 when I was signed by an agent. My first book, The Tea Chest, was published in 2014, but it was actually the tenth full-length manuscript I had written.

Sometimes, you’ll hear about a writer who just decided to write a book and it got published. If you’ve been slogging away for years and years at your craft, this can be deflating. But everyone’s journey is so different. A writer might publish one book and never publish another ever again. Another writer might publish a book and it’s a runaway hit, only to never have another book live up to the first one’s sale ever again. Another writer might write twenty books and make the same amount of money as the one with the mega hit, just over a longer time period. Another writer will start with modest sales and then build, and build and build.

There’s still time and space for you too. Perhaps you just haven’t truly found ‘your voice’ yet–that important but difficult to describe quality to your work. Perhaps you’re just not writing in the genre that’s right for you yet. Perhaps the timing of the market just isn’t there to support your work yet. Yet. Most writers I know slogged it out for years before they were published. You’re definitely not alone.

This year, I am blessed to have two books hitting the shelves (fiction, with The Gift of Life in April, and non-fiction with Buddhism for Meat Eaters in July), bringing my list of published books to seven. Seven doesn’t sound like a lot, I know. But writing is a slow game, a long game, and you’re going to need stamina to turn it into a career. There’s no one path to publication and no guarantees of outcomes after publication. It’s a game of luck as much as skill. The thing that keeps you going, the thing that must be there to keep you going, is passion. You write because you have to. You write for love. You write for the bliss moment, the moment when the real world falls away and it’s just you racing to keep up with the story your characters are telling. There is no other way.

Write on!

p.s. the story of my little red typewriter is here

Researching The Gift of Life: Watching a Heart Transplant to Finding the Silent Story

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Research is my happy place. I do extensive research for every book I write and it’s where I learn not just technical information but also start to find my character development, settings and plot points too. I get to travel within Australian and overseas for location research, which is a great gift. I interview people, spend hours on the internet, watch loads of YouTube videos and, inevitably, buy a lot of reference books. It is the phase where anything is still possible, ideas are still forming and excitement takes me back again and again for more.

My forthcoming novel, The Gift of Life, is based around organ donation, specifically, heart transplants. I love anatomy (I studied it for two semesters) and Biology was also my strongest subject at school and I then did another semester of it at uni. As a result, I loved brushing up on all my anatomy and physiology and researching the many causes and treatments of heart failure, some of which lead to the need for an organ donation. I even ended up at the cardiologist myself, as I have a long history of arrhythmias and, as I found out in my research, these can lead to heart failure! (Fortunately for me, the type I have appear to be uncomplicated.) My husband, too, also ended up at the cardiologist, then my mum went… It seemed like every time I turned around, ‘hearts’ were the theme of the day.  One thing I learned through all this research was that we are all vulnerable to heart issues, which can come with a long list of complications, which can also lead to a need for a transplant. I really had no idea how common it was.

The amount of personal testimony I came across (both from the point of view of a heart transplant recipient and also from the family of those who had consented to the donation of their loved one’s organs) is significantly higher coming from the USA than it is Australia. This was both tricky–because the USA medical and legal systems are very different to ours–and also an opportunity to hear different experiences and voices from those who’ve gone through the process.

There is a wealth of videos on YouTube and I even came across one that showed a heart transplant operation. That one was a little tough to stomach, to be honest!

I interviewed two Australian heart transplant recipients, which was a fabulous opportunity to hear their stories firsthand. They were both very different people–he a middle-aged man with a wife, children and career–and she a young woman in her twenties with a long life ahead if only she could get the chance. Their experience of the process was vastly different too. The organ transplant process is a gamble at every stage: the illness, the waiting period, the operation, the recovery, the chances of rejection and ongoing complications.

In the end, I had way more information than I could use in the book, which is normal. The Gift of Life starts two years after Gabby McPhee had her heart transplant; therefore much of what I learned about the difficult, emotional waiting stage (and the ongoing physical rehabilitation and care through that period) had to be cut and left out; however, it’s all there in my mind, forming the basis to the background of Gabby’s psyche.

I also became really interested in the more silent half of the story–the experiences of the family members who make the decision to donate. These stories are harder to find, and understandably so, as their experience is rooted in trauma, shock and grief. But as a writer, that ‘silent space’ is the most interesting to me. The possibility of a new, untold story is the one I want to follow. The wealth of information I found on the other side (the recipient’s stories) served to highlight a gap in the narrative that, when voiced through the character of Krystal Arthur, fleshed out the full circle of life.

I loved researching this book. It was utterly fascinating from beginning to end.

 

Halloween As Story

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Halloween: I used to hate it; now I’m for it (sort of… kind of… not really, but… oh, let me explain…)

Right up until midday 31 October last year, I hated Halloween. I could not have been more resentful, bitter and loudly oppositional about it. I hated the crassness of it, the fake spider webs dangling from shop doorways, the sales kids dressed up in witches outfits, the pumpkins and goblin masks. I took particular offence to the notion of trick-or-treating and, especially, to the ghoulishness of it all. I hated the glorified meaninglessness of the commercial machine and the seemingly stubborn inevitableness that all this craziness was well and truly here to stay. Like, forever.

At that time, my son was two-and-a-half years old. Years and years of Halloween horrors loomed ahead of me. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be asking to join in, be invited to Halloween parties, with all manner of questionable games and violent costumes (call me crazy, but I don’t actually find it funny to see costumes with knives through skulls or blood and gorge hanging from body parts).

Then a good friend of mine (who doesn’t have children) posted a photo on Facebook, with her decorations of hairy spiders in the tree at the front of her home. She was the last person I expected to participate in something as gimmicky as Halloween. (She loves roses and antique teapots!)

Even her? Was I missing something?

I began to seriously mull over this whole Halloween thing, knowing I was running out of time before I would have to make some clear decision on where I stood and to what extent I was happy for my son to participate (or not). I didn’t even know where Halloween came from, so I hit the internet to find out. It’s a bit of a garbled mix of information out there, but my layperson’s understanding is that it seems to have originally stemmed from a custom of honouring the spirits of those who had passed over (on a night called All Hallow’s Eve) and transformed in some countries to people dressing up as evil spirits and monsters to make fun of them and show them that they were not afraid of them. And it was that last part that caused me to reassess the whole Halloween thing.

I suddenly got it–Halloween is STORY and STORY is how we make sense of the world. Myths, archetypes, legends, fairy tales, genres, nursery rhymes, poetry, cinema and all other forms of stories give us LANGUAGE to describe what is going on inside us and around us. Halloween, specifically, deals with monsters and scary things. And monsters are real, so it is natural that we would need a language–even a basic child’s language–to talk about them.

My theory goes like this. Monsters are real. There are monstrous people in the world who do terrifying, unthinkable, heinous things to children. There are monstrous dictators that torture and murder entire ethnic cultures on our planet. There are creative monsters in the world who want to smash our dreams, humiliate, bully and belittle us. There are monsters in our mind that tell us we aren’t good enough and undermine our actions and dreams.

The monster characters in books and movies—ghouls, two-headed creatures, slime-covered bottom-dwellers and so on—are simply the symbolic representation of real-life monsters. To deny they exist does a disservice to our children and to ourselves. Something like Halloween, if handled with sensitivity and care, might just be a wonderful opportunity to help children learn to bring monsters out into the light, to talk about their fears and know that as adults we will listen to them.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting we should deliberately go and frighten our children or go out of our way to bring monsters into their psyche. But I am suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t run away from the darkness. Maybe, when they come running to us in fear, saying, “There’s a monster in my room!” we might use that opportunity to say, “Thank you for telling me; I want to help you; I want you to tell me when you’re afraid; I’m here to protect you; let’s see what we can do about that together”, rather than saying “There’s no such thing as monsters”.

Because we all know that’s not true.

I’m still uneasy with Halloween’s crass commercialisation, the gore, and I’m definitely still anti trick-or-treating. But this year, I will be using the opportunity to sensitively (and with an age-appropriate agenda) help my son start to have language and dialogue around things that are dark and scary and assure him that I’m here to stand beside him to defeat the monsters together.

My Chocolate Tourism Bucket List

Do you love your chocolate? Me too! And other than combining chocolate with a good book, I can’t think of too much better than pairing chocolate with visiting a new place of interest.

While writing my latest novel, The Chocolate Promise (also called The Chocolate Apothecary in the UK), researching and taste-testing chocolate pretty much took over my life—and my dress size! And my palette for chocolate has changed. Only the finest will do these days. So now, I’ve begun writing myself a ‘Chocolate Tourism Bucket List’, to continue my love affair with this heavenly food.

Here are my current Top 5 locations:

  1. Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. This is the oldest chocolate factory in Sicily. Let’s just consider that for a moment: chocolate + Sicily. It’s a no brainer, right? Top of my list.
  2. Puyricard. This French chocolate artisan store is located just outside of Aix-en-Provence in the south232323232fp93232>uqcshlukaxroqdfv67-35;5=3427986;494<24-ot1lsi of France, which is where the main character of The Chocolate Promise spends time with a master chocolatier, roams the beautiful countryside and encounters unexpected romance. I soaked up the research for this part of the novel and am positively salivating to go there in person and enjoy the delights of Provence, including this chocolate store.
  3. Chocolate Walking Tour of Melbourne. A little closer to home for me, this would be a delightful weekend treat. Melbourne is known by many to be the food capital of Australia and I’ve no doubt the chocolate on this tour would leave a lasting impression. I only hear good things about this one. Definitely a To-Do, sooner, rather than later, I think. (At least the plane flight would be a quick one!)
  4. Rococo. I certainly couldn’t comprise this list without including a visit to Rococo in London. You’ll find an acknowledgement to Chantal Coady (founder of Rococo) for her inspiration that influenced The Chocolate Promise and for good reason. I pored over her book, Rococo: Mastering the Art of Chocolate, as research for my novel. I even imported some of her creations. (The milk rose is my favourite.) I think I’d like to rent a flat just around the corner and simply hang out there every day, breathing it all in.
  5. Cailler. I’ve been to Switzerland but only once and I would love to go back there. (I’ve even been trying to work in some sort of Swiss plot into a novel so I can have a tax-deductible reason to go.) And this factory has some pretty great architecture to go with the experience.

So there’s my shortlist to get me (and maybe you) started. I’m sure there are dozens of amazing places around the world that would keep me entertained on my chocolate tours. I’d love to hear your recommendations if you have any?

p.s. Here’s a recipe from Chantal Coady for Chocolate Ganache Teacups, which fortuitously combines two of my favourite foods: chocolate and tea!

Thoughts on Writing: Editing a Novel is Like Renovating a House

We’ve been renovating a 100+ year old house now for more than 18 months, and I’ve edited quite a few manuscripts in my time (having been an editor before becoming a career writer) and if there’s one thing I can say definitively, it’s that editing a novel and renovating a house are the same beasts. There are different stages to editing and they have to go in this order, or you’re setting yourself up for a world of hurt and re-work down the track. Want to know how to edit a novel? Think like a renovator.

Demolition

images-3Oh, how I enjoyed this part of renovating our house. Bulldozing. Jackhammering. Tearing down. Knocking down. Ripping up. Throwing out. Fun, fun, fun. We had to remove the toxic waste (asbestos). We had to tear down a significant extension on the house that was teeming with live termites. We had to cut down enormous trees that were touching the house, smothering it and threatening its very survival. Hey, I am a tree hugger; I have difficulty removing weeds. But if they’re in the wrong place and are threatening the entire building they have to go. So too does the useless, poisonous, distracting stuff in your novel. The plots that go no where. The characters that don’t belong there. The pages of useless stuff that slows your plot down to a girding halt. Get rid of it. “Cut your darlings.”

 

Structural improvement

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This stuff is huge. This is where you ask the really tough questions: what am I trying to achieve here? Where do I want this to go? What style of project is this? Who is my reader (buyer)? This is the stuff that will make you cry with sheer frustration and jump in the air with elation when you get it right. And far, FAR too many writers skip this and jump to the next stage. But this is where the money is!!!

After the demolition came the urgent structural improvements. The big one for us was to re-stump, a task I once thought was a simple matter, but in fact turned out to be a really trying exercise. The stumps that were there were termite ridden and rotten and the whole house was slumping. We had to get council approval and that meant we had to… wait for it… draw up plans!!! (Do you see where this is going?) What was currently on the house and what did we intend to replace? What material were we going to use (wood, cement, steel)? And the answers to these questions meant we needed an engineer (an expert) to give guidance on how to proceed.

Now, hopefully, your novel isn’t in as much danger as our house was but, even so, it’s fantastic to get an expert, an outside eye, to step into your project and offer some wisdom to make sure you’re going in the right direction and not making things worse for yourself down the track. This is where you need your beta readers–your trusted advisors. (But do tell them to ignore the obvious spelling etc. and spend their valuable time on the big stuff. That’s what you need.)

Having taken care of the must-do structural renovation (and we couldn’t do ANYTHING else to the house until that was done because EVERYTHING else depended on having a level, stable base to work from), we moved on to the fun structural improvements. We’d previously demolished the front stairs (also termite ridden) and built new ones. We pulled out an entire load-bearing wall and put in a load-bearing beam. And then we did another one. We put in new doors. We built in wall where previously there wasn’t wall. We chased the leaks in the roof and plugged them.

All of these types of things can be done in your structural edit and there isn’t a lot of point proceeded to the next stage. There’s no point painting walls if you’re only going to tear them down.

 

Cosmetic renovation

This level of renovation is equivalent to the copy edit stage of your manuscript.images-5

Most of the really hard yakka is done at this point and you won’t need quite as many chocolate runs, coffee or cold beers at the end of the day. This is where we put in a brand new kitchen. Ta da!! Gorgeous. A chandelier. Ka-ching! Polished floorboards. Painted walls. Re-wired the house. Put in an air conditioner.

All these things make it easier to live in the house, which is precisely what you’re doing in the copy edit. You’re finding sentences that could be prettier and making them so. You’re sanding back the excess words and letting the real beauty shine. Everything flows from one area to the next. You’re grammar is straight, tidy and enticing.

 

Sprucing

This is like proofreading. (We aren’t here yet in our house renovation; we’re still working through the cosmetic renovations.) This is like when you’ve images-4got people coming over for dinner, or you want to sell the house. You’re mowing, cleaning, tidying, fluffing and styling. The proofread is your final sweep, your last chance before your visitors arrive to make sure your place is looking its best and nothing’s going to embarrass you (no hidden mould or hair caught in the sink trap).

 

To summarise, there is no point putting flowers on your kitchen bench if you don’t even have one! Make sure you’re editing your novel in the right order. Do the hard work first, the one that will cause you the most sweat, agony and tears and have you saying that you will never, ever do this again for as long as you live. And work your way through to the fun, pretty stuff.