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Everyone’s a Critic

Posted by on Feb 26, 2015 in Our Books | 0 comments

strike-51212_1280The rise of the blogosphere (is that the official term now?) has enabled countless individuals to establish an online presence and a platform for public discourse. There’s a blog for everything and everyone, with numerous writers of all stages of development contributing to a vast and evolving network of content.

This is great. It allows everyone to be heard and to find an audience. But it hardly needs to be said that the internet is a pretty negative and hostile place a lot of the time. The phrase ‘don’t feed the trolls’ is now a common warning – born from the fact that hordes of users just want to watch people get irrationally angry. We love seeing anger and outrage. We love being angry and outraged. It’s cathartic if nothing else.

Most writers know the impact of criticism. Especially anyone involved in workshops. We weigh our words so that we provide constructive feedback while pointing out the flaws in someone else’s writing. Most writers know how devastating a badly-worded comment can be to the recipient.

But outside of the workshop environment, the claws come out. A writer who can practice this diplomacy can still be guilty of the same pointless savagery in a public field.

I don’t want or need to point fingers or provide links. Just think about the reactions to modern fads in publishing and other creative disciplines. Fifty Shades of Grey. Twilight. The Da Vinci Code (yeah, remember that one?). The public discourse goes beyond satire or actual criticism and turns into a feeding frenzy over a popular piece of work that’s perceived to be irredeemably flawed. We take joy in it. The brutality becomes a fashionable statement. The work itself can lose its own identity. The work’s flaws become the identity.

That isn’t to say that the criticism is invalid. Everything cited above carries its own issues and shortcomings. As does all writing, in varying degrees.

Anyone who’s seen the animated film Ratatouille knows the critic’s monologue. It’s pretty apt for such a brief discourse on the status of a critic – both professional and amateur – and pointing out the responsibility held by anyone who seeks to appraise the work of another. A responsibility that has evaporated with the expansion of the blogosphere.

In the meantime, let me just wind back the heavy-handed social commentary so I can actually get to the point of all this lip-flapping. I wanted to bring this up because the way we perceive and apply ourselves to the creative work of others is important. Especially as creators ourselves.

A good writer is capable of seeing the virtues and shortcomings of someone else’s work in equal measure. In my opinion, part of the evolution in becoming a good writer involves knowing how to approach everything you consume as a blank slate – something to learn from. It might be how to pull off something remarkable, or how developmental or thematic flaws may manifest in an otherwise perfectly marketable and successful work of writing.

I think most writers know this. But the constant vigilance in applying this principle is important. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey, to take one example, is widely acknowledged as being consistently flawed in its narrative. You might even say it’s a bad book. (Note that I have neither read Fifty Shades of Grey nor seen the film.) But as a produced work that has found a worldwide market, it still has more value than most of the mud being slung its way. I don’t defend its content, but I do defend its existence.

By all means, be passionate in your convictions about whether something works or not. But know what you’re doing when you vocalise those convictions, and how you do so, specially if you’re placing it in the shark-filled waters of the internet. Know the responsibility you carry when you become a commenter on the efforts of others. Not just to protect their egos. But also for self-development as a writer – as someone actively participating in the exact same network that hosts all these pariahs of publishing.

It’s one thing to condemn a book like Fifty Shades of Grey for being popular when it supposedly doesn’t deserve it. It’s a bigger thing, for your own craft, to consider why it’s popular and what can be learned from it – and how the approach can be refined to avoid the same pitfalls. That’s part of what it means to develop as an active writer.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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The Fellowship of the Wing

Posted by on Feb 12, 2015 in Busybird | 0 comments

fellowshipwingAt 7.00 pm, on Wednesday night 18th of February, Busybird’s Open Mic Night returns for 2015.

Regular readers of this blog or our newsletter will know our spiel: Open Mic Night is a great way to see how your material connects with a live audience, to meet and chat with like-minded people, and simply to promote yourself and your work. It’s also a great developmental tool – as a writer, you will be required to read publically at some point in your career. You might get a book deal, and need to read at the launch. Or to give a reading at a bookstore or library. Public reading is the little brother to writing.

And all that’s true.

What’s more, very simply, Open Mic Night is fun. Take all the facets of professional development out of it, and Open Mic Night is an entertaining night out, offering something for everybody, whether it’s a poem to be moved by, or a story to laugh at. Diversity is one of Open Mic Night’s strongest features.

Perhaps most importantly, since Busybird has been running our Open Mic Night – since midway through 2013 – we’ve developed a sense of community. There are regulars who attend unfailingly, revelling in the delight of sharing their work with others and chatting, whilst new attendees are always surprised about the welcoming, supportive, and nurturing environment.

This year, we’re taking the nurturing one step further.

This year, Open Mic Night is going to be a little bit different.

Previously, there’d been three staples of Open Mic Night.

Firstly, you haven’t been required to book. That remains exactly the same. You don’t have to book. Just show up. It’s that easy. Most people actually like to show up a bit earlier, and chat with others. If you want to read or sing or perform, you just have to put your name down on the running sheet for the night – a warning: putting your name down last on the running sheet does not mean you will be called up last. The order is actually randomised by our emcee for the night, Blaise.

Secondly, we provide refreshments – there’s always something to drink, and nibblies. This is also staying the same. There’ll always be something to satiate your thirst, or satisfy your hunger.

Thirdly and finally, to attend Open Mic Night we’ve requested a gold coin donation. This is where we’re going to do things a little bit differently. Now, we’ll be charging a $5.00 entry fee. Part of this will cover operational expenses for the night (providing the drinks and nibblies, etc.).

But part of it will be pooled in a fund for the Busybird Creative Fellowship.

The Fellowship is intended to help a fledgling artist – a writer who’s had less than three publications, or an artist wishing to exhibit for the first time – improve on their craft through mentoring, use of Busybird facilities, free entry to our in-house workshops, discounted publishing services, and a cash prize of $500.

This is our means of trying to give back to the writing community, and to help somebody develop their craft through our experiences and skills and resources.

Applications for the Busybird Creative Fellowship will open Thursday 1 October and close Friday 30 October 2015. The Busybird Creative Fellowship has a page on our website here and a Facebook page here. We also have a Facebook event for Open Mic Night here.

At $5.00 for entry night, Busybird’s Open Mic Night still provides an entertaining and cheap night, so we hope to see you all there!


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The Rules of Writing

Posted by on Jan 29, 2015 in Our Books | 0 comments

fingerprint-456483_1280Writing’s a funny thing. It’s an act of pure imagination and speculation, and even the most technical forms of writing require some form of spatial and abstract thinking. It’s the process of reaching into one’s brain and hoping that the fistful of words we wrestle out of there will arrange into a meaningful and engaging piece, for ourselves and/or others to enjoy.

So how did it end up with so many damn rules?

Some rules are self-evident for basic communication and clear meaning – grammar and spelling, for instance. Then we get into the more idiosyncratic criteria given to writers and stylistically-minded editors: drop the adverbs; only mark dialogue with ‘said’ and ignore the ‘remarked’ and ‘questioned’ and ‘ejaculated’; show, don’t tell. If you’ve read widely on the theories of writing you’ve probably gathered quite a few broader stylistic rules as well: ditch the prologue; favour minimalism over ‘purple prose’; and on and on and on.

They’re always qualified as only being ‘guidelines’, of course. They’re not hard and fast rules, and all that. So go ahead if you want, just don’t say you weren’t warned. But seriously, no matter how much the consensus might shy away from calling these bullet-points ‘rules’ that are essential to a successful story, what writer sprinkles their writing with adverbs or flowery attributions after being warned against it? Who would risk the provocation of deliberate exposition dumps when we’re reminded again and again how hard it is to be recognised and published?

We haven’t even gotten into the full deconstruction of something like fiction writing yet – whether it’s for a short story or a full manuscript. Story arcs, character profiles, three-act structures, conflicts and climaxes – suddenly the feeling is less the spontaneity of creation and more the need to cram for a test.

We all know intuitively that it’s just meant to be a guide. That this collection of wisdom is the distilled result of observing the most effective mechanics of creative writing. Casting the widest net, so to speak, to appeal to the largest audience possible.

I’m not against the basic mechanics. We need them. Buildings can be built, but they’re at their best when they’re designed. They need to follow the architectural principles to achieve this.

But don’t let these rules paint you into a corner creatively.

I follow some of them – but only because my style in fiction naturally leans towards casual language and minimalism as a ‘par’. It’s against my nature as a writer to get excessive with adverbs. I break some rules too. I write in fragments sometimes.

I’ve decided that some ‘rules’ don’t need to be followed religiously. I was schooled in believing that any shift of POV in a single section or scene was a grievous error in style and needed to be remedied. But that’s not always the case. The rule can be broken. I still hate overabundance in adverbs, but that doesn’t mean I should universally remove every adverb I see, either as a writer or an editor.

The ‘rules of writing’ are there for a reason. Break them at your own risk, and with the knowledge that what you end up with might not be the most marketable piece in the world. And for God’s sake, know what rules you’re breaking – creative license is not equivalent to ignorance. But the result might do something that painting by the numbers, for all its reliability, makes so much more difficult to do. It might give you a unique style – a voice to call your own.

For some encouragement, examples like the ones cited here are just the popular case studies of a wide variety of popular authors who have been able to take liberties with the expected sturcture of writing and made it work in their favour.

It’s a new year. Even if it’s already 1/12th over. Have you felt like you’ve been in a rut with your writing? Break some rules – write wild and unrestrained, and lacking in any sense of feeling self-conscious about the technicalities of craft. If only just for yourself. And maybe then for an audience.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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Knowing Your World

Posted by on Jan 15, 2015 in Busybird | 2 comments

worldWhenever you write a story, you’re creating a world for your characters and events to function in. This applies to whatever the story is about. Obviously, if you’re writing a fantasy saga, or a sci-fi epic, you’re literally creating a world (or worlds) from scratch. But even if you’re writing contemporary fiction, even if you’re setting it in an actual place – like the Melbourne CBD – and even if you’re trying to be as real-to-life as possible, it’s still operating within the parameters of your imagination.

So it’s important before you begin writing – and particularly if you’re embarking on a big project, like writing a novel – that you familiarise yourself as intimately as possible with your world and the characters who occupy it.

When we’re writing and hit a block, we’re actually asking one simple yet all-encompassing question:

What happens next?

Some might suggest plotting and outlining your story before you begin writing. Whilst that works for some, in my own experience I have only a rudimentary idea of the story I want to write, and it progressively reveals itself to me as I write. When I’ve tried plotting (the whole story), I’ve found the evolution (for me) inorganic, and then when I’ve tried to follow the outline, the story has schismed away from the bullet points I’ve made.

That’s me. Everybody has a different way of working, and if a method works for you, you should stick with it. But I think one of the issues that can still occur with outlining is that while you have everything bullet-pointed, how do you get your characters from Point C to Point D? If Point C is your protagonist awaking in the kitchen, a bloodied knife in their hand and their partner lying stabbed to death beside them, how do we get them to Point D, which might be fleeing in their car as sirens wail in the distance?

This comes back to familiarising yourself with the world of your story.

Write down the locations you’re going to use
Write down every location (you can think of that) you might possibly use. If you think there may be a scene where your protagonist meets somebody in a café, write down the name of that café. Get an idea of how that café looks. Get an idea of the layout. This might seem overkill, but it may become integral to the story.

The protagonist may be sitting in the café talking to somebody who has a clue to their partner’s death when a policeman walks in. Okay, where is the protagonist sitting in relation to the policeman? In the open, or does the café extend around a corner where the policeman can’t see them? Where are the toilets if the protagonist needs to hide? Is there a back exit? This is all stuff you should have a good idea about.

You don’t need to blueprint every location (although the main ones might be useful), but develop a good idea about the way places your characters might visit look.

Write down the characters who occupy these locations
Who owns this café? Who works there? What are their names? Again, this might seem like overkill, but one of the greatest wedges in momentum is when you know what’s going to happen in your story, but you have to stop to think up the name of some incidental character.

Your character might interact with the owner of the café. Are they married? Are they old? Young? Details like this can shape the way interaction unfolds.

Write down all the characters names
Write down the name of every character you believe you might use. The logic is the same as with the locations – you need to know people your protagonist might encounter. Sometimes, the existence of these characters might be a catalyst for new directions your story could go.

A hint on finding names: the internet is replete with name databases, and I’ve compiled folders of surnames for different nationalities. Some people might want to push that further and research what names mean, and find meanings that correlate with the purpose of their characters. But have a look around, so you transcend the boundaries of names your mind might typically conjure.

When coming up with names for so many characters, it’s easy to give characters names that might sound the same, e.g. Dane and Don. Similar-sounding names can confuse readers, or might just sound silly if they appear in the same scene. Here’s another tip: write out a lowercase alphabet and an uppercase alphabet. Every time you come up with a first name, cross out the letter that name begins with in the lowercase alphabet. Do the same with surnames and the uppercase alphabets. This will ensure you’re not doubling up on letters names begin with – at least not for your main characters. You still might come up with some silly combinations (I once briefly had the names ‘Jane’ and ‘Dane’), but it does help instil some immediate clarity.

Group your characters
Group your characters with their locations or functions. If you’ve named six characters who are staff at a café, write the name of the café, then list the six characters under it. If your protagonist has five friends, write your protagonist’s name, then list their friend’s name underneath. If they have partners, list them opposite, or if the couples have kids, diagram family trees. Grouping helps with quick referencing.

You may never use some of these locations and characters, but you’ll have a chart you can reference at any time.

All this might seem like a lot of work, and it can be, but it helps in creating the world your story is going to take place in, and familiarising you with that world.

The better you know your world, the less likely you are to get lost.


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Farewelling 2014

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

Blaise van Hecke and Kev Howlett – Busybird Publishing.

Blaise van Hecke and Kev Howlett
The wife and husband team behind Busybird Publishing.

So we’re almost at the end of the year, which is a time both to reflect and also to look to the future.

What did we accomplish in the past year? Did we finish that book we wanted to write? Or have that exhibition? Or read at that open mic night?

Going into 2014, we all would’ve had plans, things that we wanted to achieve. If we did achieve those goals, we should commend ourselves. If somebody else had written a book, we’d congratulate them and flatter them, yet we’re always unkindest or – at the very least – the most blasé to ourselves. So if you achieved a goal, commend yourself. Reward yourself. Celebrate a little.

And if you didn’t, now’s not the time for self-flagellation. Why didn’t you? It’s important to look at why we didn’t manage what we set out to do. Is it a case of not having a time? If so, how’s that something that can be addressed in the future? Maybe there were personal upheavals. Ultimately, the reason themselves aren’t as important as the examination of how we learn from them – and we can learn – and plan to address them next time we encounter them.

As any type of artist (writer, poet, singer, paint, illustrator, sculptor, etc.), learning is pivotal. It’s not about doing the same thing over and over. There’s a constant evolution occurring – we not only get better at our craft (whatever that is), but about learning how to approach it and how to tackle any obstacles. This is how experience arms us.

Here at Busybird, we released a number of books in 2014: [untitled] issue 6, page seventeen issue 11, The Book Book: 12 Steps to Successful Publishing, Self Made: Real Australian Business Stories, and Walk With Me. It’s an eclectic mix, and yet it wasn’t everything we wanted to get out this year, but we did the best we could and we’re proud of each of them.

On top of that, we also helped a number of authors self-publish. The term ‘self-publish’ has always held a stigma, particularly as self-published books could look cheap and amateurish. Now, as printing’s becomes easier, it’s become a much more accepted and respectable medium to self-publish, and it’s a worthwhile avenue to pursue given big publishers can be so risk averse with what they decide not to publish.

Also, with self-publishing, you can undertake every component of the publishing process that big publishers do (e.g. structural editing, copyediting, layout, design, proofreading, distribution, launch) and end up with a product that is indistinguishable from books released by commercial publishers. That’s how easy and accessible it’s become. Most importantly, we take pride in nurturing authors – many who are inexperienced in publishing – through the process and giving them the best result possible. That’s pivotal to us.

This year, we also had a string of exhibitions, ran workshops, and held our monthly Open Mic Nights, which continue to grow in popularity. They’re all things that will be returning throughout 2015 and we’d love to see you at them. If you have suggestions for the sorts of workshops you’d like to see, why not shoot us an email?

In 2015, we hope to release another issue of [untitled], another issue of page seventeen, Below the Belt: Experiences with Prostate Cancer, Joffa, The Uncanny Love of Jimmy Panagakos, The Launch Book, The Writer’s Companion, and more.

So there’s plenty happening for Busybird in the new year, and we hope to continue to grow, to go from strength to strength. To everybody who’s supported us, we thank you.

But what about yourself? What individual goals are you setting for 2015?

And what’re you doing about making them a reality?

Busybird’s closing its doors for a fortnight, from Saturday 20th December 2014 to Sunday 4th January 2015.

See you in the New Year!

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The Reason Why

Posted by on Dec 11, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

dogreaderThe definition of the word writing denotes it to sound like such a plain, everyday concept; as in the context of writing an email or writing your name. The people who see writing just as that are missing out. They obviously don’t experience the need to get words down on paper, to craft, to create. They definitely don’t understand why anyone would want to make a career out of it. For writers, it can often be difficult to justify why we write, because it’s a difficult thing to explain.

But I’ll give it a try.

Think of the last time you read a really good book. Not just an okay, enjoyable book, but one that you would curl up with for hours on end. With these kinds of books, you slip away from the real world without realising it. The distinction between fiction and reality becomes increasingly fuzzy. You become so invested in the characters; you cry with them, you laugh at them, you become one with them. Your eyes don’t read words on a page; they see into another world. You live a different life.

Then comes that moment when there are no more pages to turn. Despite this, you’re not ready to leave. You stare at those final words, refusing to accept that what you just experienced was not real. You were buried so far into the pages that now your own life feels like the fantasy. Following this state of denial, reality slowly seeps into your consciousness, even though you desperately cling to pieces of that other world that’s drifting away.

That feeling of emptiness, the post-book-depression you’re left with is now an issue. What to do now?

I’ve found only one thing to fill this void: write.

The thought of writing something that has the potential to take someone on a journey even half as good as the one you’ve just been on is unbelievably satisfying. Crafting words into sentences and stringing sentences into stories that create life, it provides a thrill achieved by little else. Hours of frustration searching for that perfect word or phrase is worth the excitement of finally finding it. Even the hours of writer’s block are lost to those times when the pen scrawls wildly across the page, and cannot write fast enough to document all the ideas pouring out of you. It is all worth it in the end when you have rid yourself of that sense of emptiness, by doing none other than writing.

Holly Bromley
– Busybird Work Experience Student.

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P17 Interview – S A Jones

Posted by on Dec 4, 2014 in Our Books | 0 comments

isabelle_cover_grandepage seventeen has had a lot of varied authors featured across eleven issues – close to 400 individual writers if we wanted to sit down and count them all. That’s a lot of authors and poets – and while we may never be able to give due acknowledgement to every contributor who has ever graces the pages of page seventeen, we can try to shine a spotlight here and there as we go along.

S A Jones is one of those writers, with her article on the nature of being an author, ‘What is Writing For?’, appearing in Issue 09 of P17. For anyone interested in reading the article and the rest of Issue 09’s goodies, back issues are available through Busybird Publishing. But recently her second novel, Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, was released to critical praise. We at P17 caught up with S A Jones to have a quick chat about the novel, the article and her influences as a writer.

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Describe your main influences in writing Isabelle.

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars did not have direct influences, which may be one of the reasons it was so damnably difficult to write. I had ‘anti-influences’ more than anything. My motivation derived partly from my dissatisfaction with the way mental illness is portrayed in popular culture. I wanted to see if it was possible to write honestly about the experience of depression and anxiety without falling back on the tired old tropes of ‘suicide chic’ or ‘protagonist is unbalanced but endearingly quirky’. Whether the novel is the best form for exploring an illness characterised by wearying sameness and repetition is something I’m still grappling with.

In ‘What is Writing For?’, you described the writing process as ‘psychological taxonomy’. How would you say this idea applied to you in writing a book described as both personal and historical?

Isabelle is a story about dark and light states and places: how they contrast, how they connect, how they differ across space and time. For example, part of Isabelle’s fascination with the city of Prague involves the Libussa myth. Libussa was a seer and visionary, prone to trances and altered states, who prophesied that a great city would emerge where Prague now stands. To twenty-first century sensibilities Libussa sounds quite ‘mad’, but her contemporaries recognised a power in her unconventional consciousness. Isabelle evinces some of Libussa’s ‘symptoms’ and is labelled ‘mentally unwell’. But is she any more or less sane than her boss Jack, with his reliance on inane management strategies, or her best friend Evan who runs his life according to a singular childhood experience? I’m interested in the way states (personal and geopolitical) are ‘read’ as adaptive or dysfunctional.

In the same article you also discuss the ‘addiction’ of publication and its negative effects. As a published novelist, what advice would you give to writers still seeking their first publications?

I hesitate to give advice because I’m not sure any writer outgrows their apprenticeship. I certainly haven’t. What I will say is that rejection is an endemic part of writing for publication. Rejection can be crushing and demoralising, especially when it takes years of one’s life to complete a novel. All writers need to find a way to process rejection, take what’s useful from any feedback, pick themselves up and keep writing. I generally give myself twenty-four hours to wallow after being rejected. I drink wine, cry, seek solace in the company of writing friends who know how it is and generally feel sorry for myself. Then I keep going.

Your admiration of the Brontë sisters’ works – Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre in particular – is well documented. How have these books influenced you as a writer?

Wuthering Heights is a master class in structure. When I figured out the ‘how’ of Wuthering Heights it was a revelatory moment for me. As I’ve written elsewhere:

… the duality, the symmetry, the very patterns evident in the architecture of the novel all led inexorably to one conclusion. This was no anarchic work of random genius. It was a painstakingly crafted work built on well thought through ideas, imagery and structure. Discipline, not divine intervention, created Wuthering Heights … if this book with its sublime power is the result of discipline, study, revision, trial and error then writing – even writing of genius – is a process. And that means that I can learn it.

I’ve been greatly inspired by the persistence and dedication shown by the Bronte sisters. When Charlotte Brontë asked the poet laureate Robert Southey for literary advice he told her, ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’ Jane Eyre is the ultimate middle figure to such nonsense.

You developed your own management strategy when writing Isabelle. Can you tell us a little about how you managed your time and how it affected your writing process?

I am very disciplined and rigid when it comes to my writing time. I have to be, as I have a demanding full-time job and a family. I must be at my desk and writing by 9am on Saturday and Sunday and I don’t move until I’ve achieved my word-count objective for the session. My time is limited and I cannot afford to wait for inspiration. Even then, it took me seven years to finish Isabelle of the Moon and Stars. I went through thirteen drafts, three points of view and junked near on 130,000 words before arriving at a version I was happy with. There were times I wondered if I’d crossed the line between admirably persistent and woefully dogmatic.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a novel called The Fortress. It’s a radical departure from anything I’ve published before. It is about an all-female civilisation running parallel with the modern world and the experience of a man who takes a vow of total submission to enter that civilisation. The novel is interested in what male sexual submission looks like, if readers find it sexy or strange, and how a female civilisation might operate. Its Fifty Shades of Grey meets The Handmaid’s Tale at a cocktail party thrown by Anais Nin!

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Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is available now from UWA Publishing.

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