Month: August 2014
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Ah, the blog hop. I’d say it’s a time-honoured practise or other some such malarkey, but blogs aren’t really old enough to claim that kind of institution. So for the time being, let’s just say it’s a bit of harmless fun, and an intermission from page seventeen* and lessons about writing.
I’ve been invited into this chain by Les Zigomanis, who posted his responses to the blog hop’s questions here.
After my turn, two more writers will follow with their responses over the next couple of weeks, so keep an eye on their blogs!
Emilie Collyer is an award winning writer of plays, fiction and poetry. In 2013 her sci-fi play The Good Girl won Best Emerging Writer at Melbourne Fringe and a Green Room nomination. Her new play Once Were Pirates will premiere at Fringe 2014. Her stories have appeared most recently in anthologies: Cosmic Vegetable (USA), Thirteen Stories (AUS), with upcoming stories in Allegory (USA) and Unfettered (AUS). Her short speculative crime fiction has won three prizes at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards (2012 & 2013). Emilie’s first collection A Clean Job and other stories was published with Clan Destine Press in 2013. Website: www.betweenthecracks.net
Luke Thomas is a Queensland writer of short fiction. His work has appeared in [untitled], page seventeen, Award Winning Australian Writing, and the Sleepers Almanac. In 2012, his short story collection, Home Mechanics, was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for a Manuscript by an Emerging Author. His website is lukethomas.org.
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What are you working on at the moment?
As usual, there are several pieces I’m working on at the moment. With my most recent batch I’ve gone back to speculative fiction, something I revisit from time to time. I’ve got three separate short stories in progress: one is a limbo-esque piece where the main characters aren’t sure if they’re dead or alive; another combines vampires with human trafficking themes; and the third is a straightforward thriller with a fantasy setting.
How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?
The tricky thing there is that I hop between genres a lot. The current batch is fantasy-flavour, but many of the stories I wrote in the months beforehand were more realist and often centred around unlikely or dysfunctional romances. In a few months I’ll probably be playing with something entirely different.
If I have a particular signature that works across anything I write, it’s probably the short, sharp endings. I hate writing neat endings. There’s always a beginning that rises from an ending, or something happening that might have repercussions beyond the natural ending point of that particular story. So I’m always trying to perfect an open-yet-satisfying way of concluding stories.
Why do you write what you write?
I veer towards what interests me at the time. Usually a story I write has an idea or concept acting as its lynchpin, whether that idea is overt or hidden. It might be a theory on the function of dreams, or the debate on rehabilitation v incarceration for prisoners (although I’m usually more open-ended rather than spruiking one side of the debate). Or it might just be what a certain kind of person would do in a particular situation. I’ve always got something new to explore that keeps my motivation up and pushes me to make the new fiction different from my earlier works.
What’s your writing process, and how does it work?
My fetish is whiteboards. I have a large one just above my computer and an A4-size board I can carry around the house. Once I have an idea I often sketch out plot points, character relationships or priorities on the board as a brainstorming process. I don’t plan everything right down to the smallest detail, as some adjustments always develop during the actual writing process.
The writing itself is usually in short bursts. I’ll often have a couple of pieces open at once for the original draft, so I can hop between projects when I need time to think about the direction one of them will take. I always need a break of at least a couple of days before re-drafting or editing, so that I can view everything with fresh eyes. There could be several redrafts and rounds of editing before I’m happy with the end result.
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Feel free to have a go at the questions yourselves, and be sure to keep an eye on Emilie and Luke’s blogs for their responses. After all, every writer has their own particular fingerprint and way or working with ideas.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen
* For anyone hungry for P17 news, be sure to watch this space next Tuesday, 19 August, when we’ll announce our 2014 competition shortlists!
August 7, 2014
Before you begin a short story, an article, a book (or whatever the case might be), you may have a general idea how long your work will be, but you can never be sure. Stories can take on a life of their own. The idea that was meant to be a short story may become a novella; the novella may blow out into a book. You just never know.
Compounding the issue is how haphazardly we may work. Two hours on a weekend, thirty minutes on Monday because we were late putting the kids to bed, nothing on Tuesday because somebody dropped in, Wednesday we just don’t feel like it, fifteen minutes on Thursday … and where are we again? Although regular readers to this blog will appreciate how stringently we impress the need for routine, for some, that may be difficult, and once inertia sets in, it may become impossible.
So we’re writing this thing and we have no idea how long it’ll be, and we’re writing it in fits and spurts, often needing to waste time reacquainting ourselves with material once we’ve spent too long from it. Before we know it, though, those gaps between writing grow increasingly distant, and it seems too much of a bother to return to it at all.
The problem is where’s the imperative to finish? Other things in our life have consequences if we don’t see them through: we need to get to our jobs and do our work or we’re fired; kids need to be fed or they starve; the house needs to be taken care of or it becomes a sty, but if we don’t finish writing our story? Big deal. The world won’t end. Life will go on. There’s always tomorrow.
Next thing we know it’s five years later and we’re still plodding along on that novel we wanted to write.
How many of you can identify with this scenario?
What we need to do is impose deadlines on ourselves – deadlines that’ll motivate us to write every day and ensure we finish what we’ve started.
The easiest way to do this is to scour the submission calls. If you’re a member of your state’s Writers Centre, they will include opportunities for submissions and competitions in their regular media. If you can’t afford to join your state’s Writers Centre, you can sign up for the Queensland Writers Centre weekly e-newsletter, which is free of charge. A useful link very much worth bookmarking also is the Australian Writers’ Resource competition page. This lists all the competitions running this year and into next year.
Submission and competition opportunities will come with their own requirements – themes and/or genres, word counts, and deadlines. See which opportunity fits what you’re writing, and strive for that deadline. Keep a spreadsheet of where you want to submit, when the deadline is, and – if they advertise it (not all do) – when they announce their acceptances or winners. Regiment this part of your life exactly as you would any other. Writing is no longer amorphous. You have something real to aim for – a time you want your work finished, a maximum word count to write to, and a place to submit the finished piece.
Doing this has a domino effect. It gets you into the practice of aiming to finish something by a set time; in achieving that you have to set daily limits you need to meet (e.g. writing half an hour a day); and it gets you in the habit of submitting.
And, best of all, you might be published or win a competition, too.
August 5, 2014
Recently I read an article in The Griffith Review by Maria Tumarkin on storytelling; you can currently read the article online here. It’s mostly a wide analysis of ‘storytelling’ as a cultural bed stone and how its current sense of cultural importance might be misguided. (It should be pointed out that Tumarkin is mostly talking about non-fiction narratives.)
She takes a criticism made by Eugenia Williamson against the radio show This American Life – ‘its preference for pathos over tragedy’ – and applies it more widely: ‘Actually, I think it might just be true of this cultural moment more broadly.’
To be fair, is this anything new? Our scepticism of the potential subjectivity of media is nothing new – thousands of years ago, tyrannical monarchs were telling their subjects only what they wanted to hear. We’re simply much more sensitive to the possibility of biased or incomplete stories now than when a king was telling us that the heinous barbarians over the border kicked puppies and didn’t eat their greens and thus must be destroyed.
It’s interesting, though, to take a step back and see how rigorously the practise of storytelling has been applied to every facet of our lives – sometimes subconsciously, and other times with a very specific and deliberate purpose. The calculated approach of ‘human interest stories’, designed to elicit specific emotions from an audience, is a far cry from the oft-cited example of Primo Levi compulsively telling strangers about his experiences in Auschwitz (an example Tumarkin uses as well).
So the key question here is: why? Why is it that we are so fascinated with storytelling, and addicted to it as a form of expression? Why do we tell our stories and our anecdotes to friends and family – did I tell you what I saw at the supermarket the other day? – while also applying the same principles to discussions on matters such as climate change and far-off wars? Why has ‘storytelling’ in this sense endured for so long and become such an ingrained characteristic to our mental state and to our culture?
A common and pessimistic reflex here is to cite ‘herd mentality’ or Nietzsche’s ‘slave morality’ to state that the common people need their data easily digestible – and simplified. But seriously, I think we’re past that way of thinking now. People aren’t stupid as a whole.
Here’s my theory: the practise of storytelling is so prevalent because of one impulse we have. And that is to teach. Our anecdotes about seeing a pregnant woman smoking or a kid refuse to give up his seat on the train is often punctuated by decrying the situation, making it clear that this is the wrong thing to do. Article writers seek to instruct readers on an issue, topic or scenario. Fiction writers devise an entire scenario of their own choosing, and use it as a platform to explore various topics, stories or character archetypes.
Personally, I’m first and foremost a fiction storyteller and believe that the first concern of fiction should always be audience engagement and entertainment. To me, fiction is specifically required to be entertaining before being informative – otherwise it’s missed the point of being fiction in the first place. But while I create a story, my impulse to teach is there in the background, whether I’m aware of it or not. It’s driving me to arrange everything in a sequence so that the consequences of actions can be explored, or to share what the likely outcome of a particular action might be. It’s driving me to explore the mindset of my central or leading characters, to see what makes them tick and present the data to an audience, like a lab teacher taking apart a brain in front of a class of students.
Even fiction writers with none of these objectives could be said to have something in their lesson plan – even if it’s just sharing a piece of themselves, so that the audience can gain some understanding of the writer.
When viewed in this lens, Tumarkin is saying that the lesson plan is flawed when it comes to larger issues – that our reliance on pathos and narrative structures dilutes the lesson until it is meaningless. Here, we can take a step back and see that storytelling is just an extension of our primal need to impart lessons and share our experiences. It’s the same as a mature animal instructing its offspring on survival skills – or the medieval king trying to instruct his subjects on the right way to view the world (flawed as that view may be). The difference is that the method of imparting these lessons has grown more sophisticated (and, to an extent, regimented) with the evolution of humanity and its sense of culture.
I’ve always believed that knowing your own motivations is important in growing and developing as a writer and as a voice. Without being lost in the downward spiral of vague questions like ‘why am I a writer?’, knowing why you’re telling a story is often one of the best ways to clarify how it should be told, and what should be focused on. It’s about knowing what you want to share, and why you want to share it. Use that information to your advantage, as both a way to develop your voice, your style and the types of stories you tell – because I agree with Tumarkin insofar that a one-size-fits-all narrative approach shouldn’t be applied universally.
To be a storyteller is to be a teacher of sorts. But the assumption of that role should not come with any sense of self-importance or superiority. Everyone’s a teacher. We just have different things to teach, and to share. Be comfortable with that, and embrace your ability to do so – even if the lessons are entirely fictional. It doesn’t matter. Something of substance can still be shared if the method of storytelling fits the story.
Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen