Here they are!

Here are the paperback versions of the first three Betony books – and the new one, Princess Betony and the Hobgoblin.

Aren’t they beautiful? I was saying to my husband today that I think the Hobgoblin story may be the best so far.

It’s always tremendously exciting to receive the advance copy of a new book. There’s nothing like holding it in your hands and knowing that it’s real – at last! This is particularly true of illustrated books, where there can be a long time between writing the book and receiving the printed copy.

So today I did my happy dance, opened the parcel up right there in the post office and showed them around. People were very nice and encouraging and not one person suggested I might be a little odd!

All four of these are out in July.

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Princess Betony Returns!

I’m very happy to say that the first three Princess Betony books will be released in paperback in July 2016, and they’ll be joined by a fourth: Princess Betony and The Hobgoblin!

Many thanks to Walker Books Australia for their support of this series.

The magic of The Book

Yesterday I received my advance copy of The Soldier’s Wife.

The actual book. Here it is.

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I’d had an ARC (advanced reading copy/proof copy) for a couple of months, and it was exciting to get that. But it wasn’t the Real Thing.

I was so excited and happy to take the Real Thing out of its wrappings and clasp it to my heaving bosom. There may even have been a tear in my eye. I did The Happy Dance. For a long time, because this book, although my 28th, feels like it’s my first. It’s a new genre, a new audience and therefore a big risk for me. There’d been various bumps along the road, too, so I am particularly pleased to see it all come to fruition (available 28th April, just saying).

But this big emotional reaction got me to thinking about The Book.

The first time I ever received an advance copy, it was for my first children’s book, The Willow Tree’s Daughter. I was living alone at the time, and I had no one to show it to. That was what I wanted more than anything else – to show it off. (Naturally, yesterday I got on Facebook and Twitter immediately, but in those long ago days, the interwebs weren’t very webby).

I rang everyone I knew. It was a Thursday night, and for some unknowable reason, everyone I knew was out. Everyone. Even my parents, who never went out on a weeknight!

I felt so buoyed up, so full of something greater than I was, and overwhelmingly grateful, so I decided that I should go to St Mary’s Cathedral and, effectively, show God and say Thank You.

So, being a Sydney girl, I went to St Mary’s Cathedral. By the time I got there, though, it was shut. So there I was, standing outside the barred gates to paradise, with a book in my hand and nowhere to go, still floating and filled with a sense of being uplifted, out of my normal life.

I went to The Gap. If you’re from Sydney, you’re probably laughing now, because The Gap is where people go to kill themselves by flinging themselves off a cliff onto the rocks below.

You might think, not the place to go to be grateful.

But it’s an extraordinary place, as fierce and untamed as you can get in a city, and it was a wild, windy night, so I went to The Gap and stared out at the darkness and felt the salt spray on my face and put all the huge, buoyant excitement into the night and the ocean, because they were big enough to take it.

And the thought that was so big it needed Nature or God to envelope it was: I was an author.
What I mostly thought was: There it is. It is a book. A real book,with my name on it. I am an author and no one can ever take that away.

Twenty-seven books later, I still feel the same way, about every book. A mixture of pride, amazement, gratitude and excitement (and maybe a touch of hubris).

And I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but I suspect I would’t be as excited by an e-book.

My publishing contacts say that e-books have plateaued at around 25% of sales. But some books, notably mid-list romance and speculative fiction novels, will only be published as e-books, as the readers of those genres have enthusiastically taken to e-readers.

So possibly, if I continue to write fantasy as well as historical fiction (and I will, I’m pretty sure), it may be that book number, say, 35, will be an e-book.

Now, I’ve been heard to say to my students that I don’t care if people buy the hard copy of my book or the digitial version, and that’s true. What I want is readers. Lots and lots of readers! And I get paid as much – or more – for the e-book. I’m coming to realise that what I really mean is: I don’t care which they choose as long as they have a choice. As long as I have that book to hold in my hand, to clutch to my heaving bosom, to put on my shelf.

I’m not saying that signing a contract for an e-book wouldn’t be satisfying or exciting. It would be. But I doubt that I’ll ever be driven to The Gap by a download, even if it’s got a great cover.

Now, the odd thing is – I prefer to read digitally. Especially fantasy and science fiction. Yep, I’m one of those people who’ve pushed hard copy books out of that genre. So I’d like to say ‘Sorry’ to any author who gets an e-book only contract. Really sorry.

And I hope you get as much excitement out of seeing your book up on Amazon as I do getting a hard copy in my hand.

A real World War

As the date approaches for the publication of The Soldier’s Wife, I’ve been talking about it – sometimes officially, in interviews, and sometimes informally, with people that I meet (yes, including some shameless self-promotion).

What has struck me in these conversations or the comments I get online is how many families still have connections back to World War I, as this story shows.

Grandparents, great-grandparents of Anglo-Celtic Australians; yes, so much you might expect. The Anglo people talk about having had family at Gallipolli, the Somme, at Ypres… whether it’s Australian or British ancestors, most people from English-speaking background will have some family connection. This is even truer in England, where I visited recently, because the UK had conscription in WWI, while Australia did not.

But it’s not only the Anglo-Celtic people I speak to who have those connections. I’ve spoken to descendants of Turkish soldiers who perhaps shot at my grandfather in Gallipolli. I’ve spoken to people of Italian descent (Italy was on the Allied side in WWI) whose grandfathers fought on their own front, Egyptian-born Australians whose family supplied food to the Australian camps and hospitals, Greek-born Australians whose grandmothers washed linen at the hospital on Lemnos…

Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-breaking. Quite often they start with ‘My family came out to Australia after the war…’ It was a big shaking up, that war. It showed ordinary people what the other side of the world looked like. Travel seemed less impossible to the poor than it had in the past. Horizons were bigger; foreigners less foreign. Returning soldiers talked, if they talked at all, of the places they’d been and the fun they’d had – because returning soldiers lied, or skipped over the truth, about the horror they’d seen, just as they had in their letters while the war was running.

And during the years they were away, their families had maps up on the wall in the kitchen or the parlour, with pins stuck into the places their loved one had been or might be. They followed the news about battles and retreats and advances, and plotted them on the family atlas.

Or they joined the Red Cross and knitted scarves and socks and mittens, and thought in detail about the climate of places they had barely known existed before the war, just so they could use the right weight of wool, and put extra thickness in the toe of the socks.

Before WWI, people had lived very insular lives, unless they were traders or sailors or diplomats. Afterwards, although they may have returned to their home towns, or welcomed their soldier boys back home, they had a different world view. In simple terms, they knew more about the world than they had. In complex terms, they had left parts of their hearts and minds ‘Over There’, and the more adventurous left home and family behind for more exploration and adventure. And many of those chose to come to a place which seemed as though it hadn’t been touched by war. Those with memories of freezing in the fields of France sought out the sunshine of the Antipodes, and the sense of freedom which came with it.

Our connections to WWI reach a very long way, and I suspect modern Australia would look very different if it hadn’t happened.

Follow Pamela on Twitter at @pamelahartbooks.

Letters from the front

In World War I the British authorities wouldn’t let enlisted men write proper letters from the battlefield, lest the truth dishearten the people back on the home front. The men were given postcards which said,

Dear ___

I am well.
I am wounded.
I am sick.

Yours,

______

The men were supposed to cross out the ones which did not apply. Imagine being a wife or mother or father or friend who received one of these postcards – especially since, quite often, the men only had pencils to fill them out with, so the words showed through the crossing out. Imagine reading ‘I am well,’ with the ghosts of other possibilities there… wounded, sick… and the unwritten, unwriteable, the ever present, dead.

The generals misunderstood their men. Those soldiers who did manage to write didn’t tell the truth; they assured their loved ones that they were well, were eating heartily (even if they hadn’t had anything but bully beef from a can for weeks), that they had friends (that was the true part), that they’d be home soon…

And instead of letters, which perhaps would say too much, when they were on leave in France the men sought out other postcards, made by local or refugee women – a ‘home’ industry which sprang up out of nowhere during the war. French and Belgium women in refugee camps embroidered strips of silk, which were then sent to a factory, cut up and inserted into the cards. There was a wide range of designs, with motifs based on the homelands of their customers*.

Have a look:
Australia for ever

Wattle and kangaroo postcard

And from a time when the swastika meant good luck:

swastika Ever true

When I look at these, I think of the women who made them, resilient under terrible conditions, finding a way to support their families amid death and destruction. I think of the men who bought them, wanting to send a symbol of their love in a way which would lift their loved ones’ hearts. And I think of the (mostly) women who received them and the tears and smiles the cards would have provoked.

My grandfather’s name was Arthur, so imagine how I felt when I found this image:

From Arthur

The catalogue says this came from ‘France, 1914-1918’. And I know my grandfather wasn’t in France – he was shipped home from Cairo after being wounded at Gallipoli. But still… there was an Arthur, just like him, a young man thinking about and longing for his girl.

So many stories. Maybe sometime I’ll tell that Arthur’s story…

* The Australian War Memorial has a fine collection of these postcards, which you can find here: https://www.awm.gov.au/findingaids/guide-silk-postcard-collection/

Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you will find links to the images of the cards.

How much of history can you make up?

This morning I was listening to Books and Arts Daily – Michael Cathcart was talking to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things, a historical novel. They were talking about how Hilary Mantell, the author of Wolf Hall, has been criticised by some historians for giving her characters actual conversations which are not recorded by history.

Obviously Michael Cathcart and his guest agreed that, if you’re going to write a novel, you have to do this. But how much trouble should you go to, to make sure that the history, rather than the conversations, are accurate?

One argument is that you have a responsibility to both reader and historical subject to make it accurate. Certainly, as I was growing up, I gleaned a lot of my history from novels by Jean Plaidy and Mary Renault. This was a responsibility I felt keenly with my first historical novel, The Black Dress. Since the main character was Mary MacKillop, who was not only a major historical figure abut about to become a saint, I was conscious that, for many of my readers, my book was the first thing they might have read about her, and could colour all subsequent attitudes. I felt deeply – well, scared. I researched for 18 months before I dared begin, and then kept researching throughout the five major rewrites I did before I sent it to a publisher. And I had it read by the subject experts – the Sisters of St Joseph.

It was the hardest book I’ve ever written.

But with my next historical novel, The Soldier’s Wife, there was only one real person in it – my grandfather, whose war record I used to map out the career of my main character’s husband – the ‘soldier’ of the title.

I never knew my grandfather, and that gave me some freedom to imagine him based on the stories I had heard.

Other than that, how closely did I have to stick to history?

Pretty damn close. My soldier was an ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp); he was wounded at Gallipoli. And the Anzac legend is so revered and alive in Australasia that I again felt a great responsibility to get it right.

I doubt that responsibility will ever go away. I’m not comfortable with playing fast and loose with history in order to have a cleverer story. Better to take what really happened and build the story from there, because it’s all fascinating, and if you pick the right characters, you can build a story which will have all the excitement, interest, tension and emotion you could wish for.

Of course, everything I write is my take on history – my interpretation will be different from someone else’s, inevitably. But the facts can be true. And the ‘feel’ should be as true to your research as you can make it.

Elizabeth Gilbert said to Michael Cathcart, ‘The original contract with art is to delight’, and I couldn’t agree more. To delight with your interpretation of the truth is even better. And if you don’t like my interpretation? Well, that’s the great thing about fiction – you can write your own!

Writing and Workshopping

A friend of mine is doing a study of writers and workshopping, and asked me for a comment about my experience in workshopping groups, both as writer and teacher.

I realised it would be easier to write a blog post about it, so here it is.

My first workshop was in Year 9 when my beloved English teacher, Mrs Alden, organised for me to attend a poetry workshop – she even drove me there a couple of times a term after school! (Blessings be upon you, wherever you are, Mrs Alden!)

We didn’t really do much ‘workshopping’ in the sense of critiquing each other’s work, but it was my first experience of being among people who loved words and loved writing and we supported each other a good deal through the difficult teenage years.

We even published some stapled-together books of poetry which local school used as resource material. So I guess that was my first publication.

This experience taught me the value of hanging out with like-minded people. People who thought writing was an admirable activity, not something weird and time-wasting.

That’s one of the great benefits of workshopping groups. Finding a peer group is no small thing.

When I began writing (mostly fan fiction for friends’ zines – hi, Karen Miller!), my friends would read and comment. Some were good at that, and helped me. Some weren’t.

As a scriptwriter for ABC Kids, I didn’t have a workshopping group –I had a director and producer instead. That taught me to take criticism. Writers are the low face on the totem pole of television – it’s better at the ABC than elsewhere, but I’ll never forget the day I had to completely rewrite a script because the outside broadcast van we needed for the shoot had been commandeered by the cricket!

When I started writing children’s books, I found I missed those critical eyes on my manuscript. So I enrolled in a Master of Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney, primarily because they required all Masters students in Writing to join a workshopping group.

A version of that group lasted for 8 years, and some members of it still read my work and comment on it for me. It was the single most useful experience in my writing life. It taught me, not only how to take criticism and use it to improve my writing, but also how to look at a piece of writing critically myself. By critiquing other people’s work, I learnt more than I did from being critiqued myself, and I see the same thing happening, over and over again, with my novel writing students.

I think this is one thing that can be invisible to new writers. When new writers enter a workshop group they are focused on getting feedback on their own work. Perfectly understandable. That’s what the group is for.

But so often, we learn most about writing by reading and thinking about other people’s work. I think that’s for several reasons.

The first is that, of course, it’s easier to be objective about someone else’s writing. But after a while, we learn how to be objective; it becomes a familiar state of mind, and therefore easier to access when we look at our own work.

The second is that it’s easier to recognise problems in your own work by seeing them reflected in another piece of writing. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a student exclaim, ‘Oh my God, I do that too!’ when an issue has been raised in a workshop group. (I’ve been known to do it myself.) Often someone else raises the issue – but because it’s about the other person, the defensive barriers aren’t up and we are able to see the problem clearly, and also see where we have made the same mistake.

And thirdly, workshops generate skills. This is particularly true if the workshop is run by a professional, but even when it’s not, the group will bring a range of different skills and abilities to the critiques, and participants can learn these skills from one another.

In the workshop group I was in for so many years, I learned which group member was great on analysing scenes; which had a good ear for dialogue; which understood voice and style. I learnt from all of them. I might never match any of them in their particular speciality, but I got better at all of them.

And one of the skills – absolutely essential to any writer – was to know when to ignore advice. Workshop members always bring their own experience and prejeudices to their responses to your work. In the end, you have to follow your own instincts and your own story.

Of course, all too often the feedback you get is identical to your own fears about the work; if you think something in the story is dodgy, it probably is, and having your fears confirmed over and over again (in a nice, encouraging way), helps you to take your concerns seriously, and to realise that ignoring those niggles just results in more work later on. You come to identify your problems earlier and earlier in a manuscript. I often say to my students that my experience of writing (30 books and counting) only saves me one or two drafts. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes – I just identify them earlier now, and correct them as I go (at least,that’s the aim).

I have never in my life sent a story or a novel to a publisher without having had it read and commented on by several people. I don’t have a regular workshop group anymore, but I have highly valued beta readers and I would be lost without them.

Getting out of the doldrums

I’ve just read over the second pages (proofs) of The Soldier’s Wife.

This can be a traumatic experience. It’s often at this stage (if not earlier) that the writer is convinced the book is utter crap: boring, repetitive, flat, and without a spark of true creativity.

I’ve learnt to recognise those moments. I think of them as the doldrums, when there is no wind in my sails at all. This is when it’s very very helpful to have an editor (and in my case a husband) to say, ‘No, no, Pamela, it’s a terrific book’. This is one of the most important but little regarded duties of an editor (or a writer’s partner).

Every writer I know goes through some moments of self doubt. When it comes relatively late in the process, you know you’re pretty safe; you’re just suffering from reading too many drafts of the same material. Put it aside for a few months and it’ll be fine.

But what about when it comes early? What about when you’re half way through a manuscript and you are suddenly convinced that it’s no good?

My suspicion is that, if it really is sudden, you should ignore it and keep writing. Pretty soon the desire to find out what happens next, and how it happens, will kick in and override the anxiety.

But sometimes it’s not sudden. Sometimes it’s a slow, creeping suspicion. Sometimes you become gradually disenchanted – with your characters, with your world, with your plot. What then?

Well, that depends. If this always happens to you – if you have a pile of unfinished novels in the bottom drawer (or the archived hard drive) then my advice to you is: ignore the anxiety. It’s just fear that you’re not good enough. And you never will be good enough if you don’t finish anything.

If you are thinking to yourself, ‘I can’t let anyone see this’, then don’t. Accept that you are writing solely to improve your craft, or for personal pleasure, and have at it.

But finish it. Don’t get distracted, don’t get afraid, don’t start that shiny new story which is bubbling away. Just keep going.

However, if it’s never happened to you before – if you are a blithe finisher of things – then getting a second opinion might be a good idea at this point. This is why I love writing courses; even if you don’t learn a lot, you are likely to meet people you can workshop with.

The best friend a writer can have is one who will say, ‘This is not good’. And then tell you exactly why. And if one, or two, or more of your beta readers agree that it’s not working, why then it might be time for the bottom drawer. Not everything we write can be good.

But don’t throw it out. Because in five years’ time, you’ll be thinking about needing one more character in your new book, and you’ll suddenly realise that this is where the main character from the unsuccessful novel really belongs. Or you’ll think, ‘The story was not good, but the world was great. I’ll use the world and ditch the people I put in it.’ (Been there, done that.)

Never throw anything away. Because not only can you recycle it, but when you become a famous writer and universities and libraries are competing to receive your papers, they will want everything, especially the stuff you didn’t use, because then they will have stuff about you that nobody else does!

I’m glad to say that I didn’t sail into the doldrums when I read the proofs of The Soldier’s Wife. I hope that’s a good sign!

How Ballet Books changed my life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, for family reasons, about how and why someone makes the decision to follow a creative life, rather than one more sensible and profitable.

I’ve been thinking about my own decision, at age 12, that I wanted to be a writer.

(I didn’t do anything about this decision, at the time. I had a lovely, stable childhood, broken only by bouts of ill health. I lived in an unremarkable suburb, and my generation was the first in my family to have tertiary education available to them. The height of my family’s ambition was to see us graduate from university. I decided, at around 12-15, that my life was too boring for me to be a writer – yet. I would live a bit first, and then I’d have something to write about. I was wrong, of course, but we all make mistakes.)

But with the family I had, and the school I went to, and the friends I made there, how did I ever come up with the idea that a creative life might be available to me?

I blame it on Lorna Hill.

I read all of Lorna Hill’s ballet books I could get my hands on. In particular, I read and reread A Dream of Sadler’s Wells and Veronica at the Wells.

These books tell the story of Veronica Weston, who – through talent, hard work and determination – makes it to the coveted position of prima ballerina for Sadler’s Wells ballet.

Note the hard work and determination. Hill, while making it quite clear that dancing – or music, or writing – was the most satisfying thing one could do, also made it clear that it didn’t just happen. You had to work for it, to be dedicated, even obsessed, if you wanted to succeed at the creative life.

She made it seem possible. Not something that magically appeared out of the blue, but something you planned for, enrolled for, sweated for. Yes, you needed talent, and a certain refinement of spirit, but that wasn’t enough.

And while I was thinking about all this (last night when I couldn’t get to sleep), I realised that Veronica at the Wells had also influenced me profoundly as a feminist.

To explain why, I shall have to sketch out part of the plot for you. Veronica, in the second book, is a student at Sadler’s Wells (the climax of the first book is her acceptance there). While on Christmas holidays, she is offered a part in a production, but she must return to London immediately.

The other strand of the book is her relationship with Sebastian Scott, a young man her own age who is at the beginning of his career as a composer. He has written a symphony in her honour, and if she goes back to London she will miss its premiere (and, it is strongly implied, the proposal of marriage with which Sebastian had planned to follow it).

Now, remember that Veronica at the Wells was published in 1951. Does Veronica hesitate? Does she weigh up the risk of losing Sebastian against her own career? Does she look forward to a life of sweet domesticity and being a helpmeet to Sebastian in his career?

No, she does not. They have a blazing row and she goes off to London, a bit miserable, but not doubting for a moment that she a) is doing the right thing and b) has the right to put her own career over his.

It’s a subversive little book, really.

The creative life as one to be desired. The right for a young woman to put her own needs and ambitions above those of the man she’s involved with. The tremendous satisfaction of success based on hard work.

And, of course, Sebastian comes around in due course and they get married, which is as it should be. But she keeps her own name. (In 1951!)

When I’m asked for a list of ‘six books which have influenced you as a writer’, I don’t include Lorna Hill’s. Her influence is both too big and too small to explain in a magazine paragraph. But I am in her debt, even though it’s taken me this long to realise just how much.