Baring my writing soul

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I started writing a novel in 1993 after finally getting my Arts degree (and having two kids). I didn’t believe in it or myself enough and gave up.

I went and lived: Got a job, worked overseas, witnessed revolution and war, got divorced and had a relationship with an abusive guy.

I wrote another book inspired by some of these events, this time fully supported by my new partner. I received publisher interest, but was rejected many times.

Each time I picked myself up off the floor and went back to the drawing board. I wrote three different versions of my story over 13 years. That’s around 4 years per book! (It doesn’t feel that long.)

Late last year a publisher finally said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it!’

My debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, will be published in August 2019.

My message to my fellow writers and anyone doing something challenging is:

NEVER give up
BELIEVE in yourself
BE OPEN to constant improvement

And just KEEP ON WRITING!

Now for the next novel…(eek!)

Writing Gunfire Lullabies: An exercise in patience and persistence

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In the beginning…

I began writing Gunfire Lullabies, or rather a version of it, in 2005, and it’s being published later this year. I sold my old home in Canberra and used the proceeds to fund a year off work to write it. This writing year felt wickedly indulgent yet very right, and I absolutely loved it. It’s often said that the first book has a radical creative freedom about it that no future one does because you’re truly writing for you, unhindered by publisher, editor or market constraints that come later on during the process of being, or trying to get published.

But how can one novel take so long to write? Am I just really, really slow?

It happened like this…

First, I didn’t write it full-time after the initial year. I either had to work, my book was being vetted by publishers while I waited, or I needed a break from the damn thing. A couple of times, when a publisher was interested, they would request rewrites before committing, which would take another six months to complete. These never came through for me, but they took a lot of time.

Second, Gunfire Lullabies is a bit of an epic at over 120,000 words long. Long novels take more time.

Third, I was learning to write, which meant I needed to do a lot of rewriting as I learned my craft. It’s unusual for writers to get their first novel published. Often it’s their third of fourth story that succeeds.

Fourth, I wrote three different versions of Gunfire Lullabies. In other words, I wrote three novels in that time equating to each one taking around four years. That’s a normal amount of time for plenty of literary fiction writers.

Fifth and finally, my manuscript was rejected many times, meaning I had no choice but to go back, perfect my craft and try again. The only other options were to self publish, which I felt was too early to consider, or give up.

The value of determination

What does my prolonged writing process really point to? For me, the learning was that persistence and determination pay. Overnight success is a rare thing, no matter what people might claim or how the situation appears. Usually people spend years learning and perfecting their craft. So many times writing teachers talk about talent meaning little if there’s no bum on the seat. I doggedly kept on writing an East Timor story until I got it right. I say simple, but honestly, it was really hard.

A deeper aspect

But, there was another key element in the process for me: the spiritual one. There were plenty of times when my bruised ego and I would have a discussion. Quit, you’re a rubbish writer, you’re a slow learner, you’re not a natural.

At these times, I would need to get really still with myself, delve deep and answer some questions with bare honesty. Is writing really it part of my purpose? Do I believe in my story? Do I want to do this story justice by writing it well?

Sometimes I would recall that when applying for my first posting, I had in mind to write a novel. It had been a long-term dream. So I wished for a posting where something momentous would happen that I could write about, and that’s exactly what happened. First I witnessed the downfall of dictator President Soeharto, which then paved the way East Timor’s journey towards independence. But wishing for something and experiencing it are different things. The cost was horrendous in terms of human life and suffering, and the impact on others and me was profound.

In conclusion

So the answer to my questions about whether I should finish the story was always, and inevitably, yes. With this realisation, the need to pander to my bruised ego after repeated rejections would drop away, my fears of rejection and failure would fall back, and I would realise again that I was writing the story for what felt the right reasons for me: because it was my purpose, because I believed in it with all my heart and soul, because I felt it needed to be told, and because I couldn’t not write it.

 

Gunfire Lullabies – Why write this story?

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This is part of a blog series in which I give a personal account of writing and publishing my debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, being released in August 2019 on the twentieth anniversary of Timor Leste’s 1999 autonomy ballot

The beginning

I knew I wanted to write a novel from when I was young. As a kid, I wrote prize-winning children’s books. Then nothing much for years apart from poetry and short stories, largely because finding a topic sufficiently compelling to carry me through the difficult process of writing an entire novel eluded me, or so I believed. I got a degree and landed a job that involved formal writing and living overseas in the hope of gaining more life experience and a suitable topic.

Be careful what you wish for

It certainly did give me life experience. I became a diplomat and was posted to Jakarta during a momentous period in Indonesian history. I experienced first hand on the streets and in the political backrooms, two revolutions; first, the downfall of dictator president Soeharto and, second, the liberation of East Timor. In my job as a political officer I covered both issues, which were of enormous importance to my Australia, Indonesia being my government’s closest neighbour and East Timor being less than two hours away by plane.

Either event would have made a great story. But East Timor’s struggle was long-term, full of heroic and appalling characters (often a mix of both), pride and dogma, violence and drama, Machiavellian political conflict, dogged determination, good and evil. It was a true David and Goliath story.

From history to story

I had my topic, and having witnessed the bloody struggle myself and understanding both sides’ points of views – and in a way having played my own part through my government reporting – I knew it was one I could write about confidently with depth and subtlety.

Yet this story could not be mine. It had to be much greater. It had to be driven by a theme. It had to present a terrible dilemma to be solved. It had to be dramatic. In other words, it had to be a fictional account of actual events, much of which had been already written in the history books and numerous PhDs.

Is it based on my experiences?

When I tell people about my book, I’m frequently asked whether it’s based on my own experiences. Yes and no. I would say my personal experiences in Jakarta and East Timor were inspirational. I was there, a witness. It was my work focus and I met the people involved.

On the other hand, East Timor was been written about extensively, and I’ve read a lot of these analyses in the press and in books. When I needed to create a dramatic event or a character, there was plenty of material to turn to.

Are the characters real?

In short, no. As any writer will tell you, characters are fictional, created to serve whatever the story requires to move it forward, create tension and heighten drama. Characters are metaphors or archetypes of what is going on, or of an organisation, or a prevalent mood.

In other words, characters are what ever the story demands; a medley of every person a writer has ever met mixed with their personal observations and understanding of human beings. While they come from within – a strange mix of parts of the author and their imagination – they also come from someone they might have overheard talking in a café or their great aunt or another historical figure. Somehow, they come together on the page.

Authenticity

It would also be true to say that having been a diplomat on the ground at that particular time, my novel has a sense of authenticity. There’s a writing maxim that says, write what you know, for just this reason.

Yet this downplays imagination and what a writer gleans from other sources. Many writers write about completely different times in history or about events they never witnessed or create a fictionalised version of long-dead historical figures. Every writer who has ever tried to written around historical events knows you cannot translate things literally. It is characters who drive story, not places and events.

Why this topic?

Much has been postulated about what really went on in East Timor. It was a vexatious and complex issue that called into question Australia’s definition of national interests, its morals and integrity. I found ample open source material representing a plenitude of views and interpretations, which was great fodder. Even the Australian foreign minister of the day felt compelled to write an account, and today other Australian institutions are drilling down into the matter with greater scrutiny for a revised official record.

It’s been nearly twenty years since the historical vote took place in East Timor that led to the birth of a new country. What Gunfire Lullabies does is cobble together a fictionalised picture of what went on from the point of view of history’s often forgotten players: women, one being a part of the political elite facing moral choices in her presentation of events to her government, the other being a young local woman suffering the consequences of the lofty decisions and political games being played far away.

 

 

 

 

How to Create Tension In Your Story

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Conflict is story

At the core of every story is conflict. Conflict keeps us engaged and wanting to read on. It’s meaningful and relatable, and why we love stories. This conflict must be powerful, deep and complex enough that it requires an entire novel to resolve.

How do writers technically create conflict?

Here are some ideas:

  1. Ensure the stakes are high enough – If your main character doesn’t stand to lose much, no one will care about the ending. If true love, or life and death, or a great moral dilemma fill your story, then readers will want to go on turning the pages.
  2. The opening scene must contain a mini conflict – The purpose of this is to hook your reader in by revealing key aspects of your main character while also alluding to the nature of the broader conflict they face. Opening scenes are a taster aimed at drawing the reader in for more.
  3. You must have complex and engaging characters who want different, opposing things – Given that stories are character driven, your main character needs to have many sides, and be flawed, relatable and want something badly that isn’t easy to obtain. Pitting characters who have different goals against each other creates friction and is how your characters reveal who they truly are.
  4. Conflict must be inner as well as outer – The protagonist must face internal conflict as well as some outer struggle. Stories are often about journeys of the self, about change and transformation. This must be reflected at every level in every chapter in the moral dilemmas the character has to deal with while facing opposing outer forces.
  5. The threat must be constant and immediate – The reader must feel the danger at every turn meaning in every scene and chapter. Readers shouldn’t be allowed to forget what’s at stake for a moment.
  6. Ensure the action happens in the present – While short flashbacks (no more than 1-2 paragraphs) can reveal character, they aren’t immediate. Instead, reveal character in small bites and through what they do. Keep readers in the moment by staying in the moment.
  7. Every word must count – Each word you write counts. If it doesn’t, get rid of it. In particular, use strong nouns and verbs that reflect the kind of issues at stake in your story. Likewise, if a scene doesn’t reflect the theme and move your story forward, then get rid of it. No one wants to go down rabbit holes that lead nowhere.
  8. Include scene and chapter arcs – Every scene and chapter has an arc – a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end. These components build towards the novels’ overall story arc, building tension as they go.
  9. Everything should reflect tension – The environment, the characters, the music, the smells, the colours and the weather are just some things that can reflect tension, building atmosphere in support of your story. If your character is sad, the sky can be cloudy, if they’re tense, traffic around them can be chaotic.
  10. Believe in your story and tell it passionately – If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Your story therefore needs to be something that you MUST tell. This will keep you writing and rewriting to perfection. Remember not to be too hard on your first draft. Add layers in the redrafts.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
Barbara Kingsolver

What’s your 2019 writing plan?

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2019 a big year

2019 promises to be a busy year for me with the publication of my debut novel (and all the editing and marketing work that goes along with this), co-authoring a non-fiction book and getting on with the rest of my life, which includes opening a new business, doing more training for that, and renovating or selling a house following legal machinations.

It’s a lot and I’ve been feeling a bit daunted about how I’m going to fit in writing as well. At one point, I even contemplated giving up fiction writing for the year. But that thought made me feel sad to the point that when I read a good book I felt a sense of longing to put down more words, when a good book usually fills me with joy.

My partner also reminded me how I’d put in more than 10 years into my first novel, and that the investment I’d made in learning how to write is simply been too large to abandon. Not writing is simply not an option for me. I need to write to feel fulfilled—it’s a bit part of my life purpose.

The plan

But now I need to work out how to fit writing into my year. I need a plan, although as my partner says, no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy (he’s ex-army), the enemy being all my other obligations.

My plan is:

  • To get up early 3 mornings each week (like at 5am) and write for 2 hours
  • To write either every Saturday or Sunday afternoon for at least 4 hours
  • I also hope to find the odd whole day to write, maybe once a month isn’t too ambitious

My strategy is to:

  • Re-create a writing routine. I’ve blogged about this before here and it involves diarising writing time, unplugging and persisting
  • Remind myself to write whether I’m in the mood or not, which I’ve talked about here
  • Remember not be too hard on myself if I don’t stick to my plan 100%. Every word I write is better than not writing. Staying in a writing rhythm will be critical so I don’t have to restart over again
  • Continue to read good fiction regularly to soak up those beautiful words and inspiration
  • Be aware that having down time is essential to creativity as I’ve discussed here, though it needs to be mindful.

What are your writing plans for 2019?

‘The repetition itself becomes the important thing.’ 

Haruki Murakami

 

Embed drama in your story

Drama drama drama…

As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…

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