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.

Making changes

On Tuesday, I submitted a synopsis to my publishers for my next historical novel, The War Bride.

This morning I received some feedback – very positive, but suggesting a few changes so the novel wouldn’t be too dark for the audience.

Having thought my way around the issues raised (all very valid), I’ve decided that the only way I can rearrange the plot to eliminate a particular dark element is to pull out one entire strand of the storyline and throw it away, complete with a character I rather like. Also, completely change locations.

And that’s okay.

It’s one of the reasons I like synopses; you can make major changes up front, saving yourself at least one and maybe more drafts. Not all books lend themselves to synopsis. In the last one, The Soldier’s Wife, I honestly had no idea how it was going to end until I wrote the final scenes. But if I’d been asked to write the synopsis, I would have written it knowing that I had room to change, to shift ideas and characters around, to develop the story.

A synopsis isn’t a contract. It’s more like a promise to your publisher: I will write this kind of book for you. They know (none better) that a novel is like a wriggling baby in its bath: slippery and vulnerable. They don’t expect you to adhere to every word in the synopsis. But I find it very helpful to have an editor who knows what I’m trying to do, because so often in the writing process the soul of the book gets away from you, or is clouded in the minutiae of detail and plot. The synopsis can bring you back on track: the editor can say, ‘Well, this is what you were trying to do. Is this new element (plot twist/character/location) better or worse in terms of what you want the book to be like?’ They may also have opinions on this, and the writer is wise to listen to them.

The changes my publisher suggested were about what she thought ‘the readership’ might prefer. I’m used to writing for specific audiences (all children’s writers are), but this particular audience is new to me, and frankly I’m pathetically grateful for any guidance. And it was obvious to me, even at this stage, that the central storyline, the heart of the book, won’t be touched at all by these changes; I suspect (with some chagrin, I admit) that it may be made stronger.

In the same batch of emails, I received a request from my children’s publisher for changes to a non-fiction picture book manuscript. I’d recently met with the editor and done a fairly big reorganisation of the text (this was around 10 drafts in). Now that the redrafted text had been laid out with the illustration roughs, some problems emerged. Alas, I had to kill my very favourite darling in the book: ‘A pink pelican chick, fresh from its egg, raises its wobbly head to a sky flickering with birds’. I could have kept it and written another sentence above it, but that would have placed too much text on the page, so it had to go. I mourn that little pelican chick, but I know my readers were better served by cutting it out.

I tell my students that when a publisher asks for changes, it’s foolish not to comply, because editors and publishers are experts at detecting problems in novels. In both these cases, I’m happy to take my own advice.

The End.

I’ve just posted off the proofs (first pages) of The Soldier’s Wife. So that’s my last chance to change it, gone.

It’s an odd feeling, particularly with this novel. Although I’ve done it many times before (this will be my 30th book), there is a much higher level of angst over this one, because it’s an entirely new genre and audience for me, and I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

I hope it’s good; my publishers and my beta readers tell me it’s good – but in the end, it will be readers in libraries and bookshops who will give the final judgment.

When you write fantasy or crime, there are standards you can hold yourself to – pace, originality, satisfying structure, set tropes – and I have a pretty good idea of what those standards are. For straight fiction, the standards are both looser and more challenging; and for a newcomer like me, it’s difficult to place my own book in comparison with others. (Don’t worry, my students – this inability to judge relates only to my own work!)

The worst thing about sending off proofs is that it’s so long before anything else happens…

But we’re going to have a HUGE launch, that I do know!

Covers and guesswork

This week I received the draft of my new book’s cover (see below).
the_soldiers_wife_COVER copy

Pretty good, huh?

So I put it up on Facebook. Oodles of comments, all along the lines of ‘Gorgeous!’.

I presume people who hated it (none, surely?) avoided commenting.

But this has got me thinking about covers generally.

This book is my 30th, which means that (including all the overseas sales and reprints) I’ve had more than 50 covers.

And my conclusion, after all that, is that no one really knows what cover will work.

I love this cover, but will it sell books? Who knows? I hope, the publishers, but every publisher can tell you stories about covers everyone loved in-house, on books they believed in, which sank without trace.

It’s like movies. No one puts $20M+ into a film because they think it’s going to tank. And yet.

Some publishers estimate that only 20% of their titles actually makes a decent profit. One in five.

One in five.

Can you imagine if only one in five meals at a restaurant were popular?

Or one in five car models from a manufacturer?

Or one in five couches in Ikea’s catalogue?

The problem with creative output is that judging it is subjective. Ikea has guidelines: two seaters are this long, three-seaters so much longer. Height is set. Framework has to meet standards so that the whole thing doesn’t collapse during a more-riotous-than-usual party. Fabrics have to be durable enough that they withstand hard wear. As for colour etc. – they get around that by giving you a choice of fabric. So maybe 70% of the design is measurable. Only 30% is risk, based on subjective judgements by the designers of what people are going to like.

In writing, it’s much harder to reduce the risk. The formula of ‘more of the same, but different’ will only get you so far. We have genres, and genres have rules, but they’re pretty loose and getting looser. The only one set in concrete is that a proper romance novel has to end with the two main characters getting together.

And murder mysteries should have murders. Pretty much.

Outside of that – it’s all guesswork. Which is why I’m glad I’m a writer and not a publisher. I may spend an inordinate amount of time writing something no one will publish, but that’s my choice. I like writing. Better yet, I like having written. And I know at least a few of my friends will enjoy the book, even if no one else sees it (shhh, don’t mention self-publishing, we’re talking about the big companies here).

So I love my new cover, but in the end the book will sell well only if it touches the hearts of the people who read it. Who will tell their friends, and so on… beautiful cover or not.

Book vs Story

I used to think I was a bibliophile.

After all, there are 27 bookcases in our house, and they’re all overflowing. Proof positive. End of argument.

Then Kindle.

I tried the actual Kindle reader, but it was the wrong shape and size for my hands, and I could never forget that I was holding an object instead of a book. I couldn’t get lost in the story.

But I got the Kindle app for my phone, and the iBook app, and a couple of others.

My phone fits my hand. It goes everywhere with me, so there’s no extra weight or remembering to do. And because it’s so easy to hold and to turn the page, I am never jolted out of the story in the way I was with the e-reader. So I read. And read…

A few months on, I bought one of Connie Willis’s books (Blackout). It’s a fabulously researched time travel story set in the London Blitz, and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a big book, especially as a trade paperback, which is all that was available in Australia. To my surprise, I found that I was actively resenting the book: its size, its weight, its ungainliness, the way I had to remember to take it with me… and I realised that I was not, in fact, a bibliophile. I was a, um, … narratophile?

That is, I like stories. I am addicted to stories. And I don’t care how they come. Books, magazines, tv shows, movies, radio dramas, facebook anecdotes, twitter novels… don’t care. Just want the story.

And what I love about reading on my phone is that the next fix is just a couple of button clicks away. Finish reading the second book in a series on the train? Go buy the third book immediately and start reading before you get to the next station.

Bliss. Or, possibly, greed.

Now, when I cull my library, my criterion for keeping a book is not whether I liked it or not, it’s whether I can get it as an ebook. Unless it’s a book I reread regularly, or need for some other reason (like teaching), if it’s available as electrons I cull it.

It makes me feel vaguely guilty. On the other hand, those books go out to others who will love them too, and find a new life on other shelves.

I don’t have to feel guilty. Do I?

Author vs Book

I am reading books which were published or popular in 1921, as part of the research for my new book. Imagine my joy when I found that a Gene Stratton-Porter, Her Father’s Daughter, was a bestseller that year.

Imagine my dismay when the book turns out to be a proselytising tale about white supremacy. So sad. So horrible.

Now I have loved Gene Stratton-Porter for a long, long time. Anyone who has read my Princess Betony books will know I like to write about plants and trees and forests – as someone who grew up in a completely suburbanised environment, wildness attracts me, and I first found it written about (after the Brothers Grimm) in Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost. There beautifully lyrical depictions of a wetlands is married to tough common sense and the values of hard work and egalitarianism. I admit, Rosie in The Willow Tree’s Daughter and later books owes something to The Girl and her mother.

Stratton-Porter certainly primed me to be a greenie, being one of the first to write deliberately towards environmentalist goals.

Her racism is not evident in these books, except in the invisible way we have come to accept – the characters are all white, so the issue never arises. (I am reminded of Margaret Maron, a favourite crime writer of mine, who gets letters from readers complaining that she always describes people by their colour, including white people – for example, a white middle-aged woman, a Latino middle-aged woman. Some readers think you don’t need to specify the whiteness of a character, presumably because that is the norm from which others deviate.)

I’m interested in the fact that Her Father’s Daughter is written toward the end of her life, when she had moved to the west coast of America for health reasons. Up until then she had lived in Indiana all her life until then… was this the first time she had encountered Asian people in any number?

For the weird thing is that, although she rails generally about ‘the white man’ being superior to all other colours, the focus of her racism is Japan. She is convinced (in 1921, after the Japanese have been allies in WWI!) that Japan is set on a course of War with the US. So I am wincing away from the racism, but occasionally it reads as prescience.

I was shocked by her racism because in so many other ways she presents a modern mind-set. Her female characters are strong, determined and extremely competent women, her books have an explicit feminist agenda, she is egalitarian, green and delighted by the advancements of the modern age.

I will finish reading this book because it’s for research, and it’s started me thinking about my main characters’ likely attitude to the Yellow Peril, so embedded in Australian politics of the time. But will I go back to reread Girl of the Limberlost, as I have done with pleasure in the past?
I don’t know. My genuine love of the book has been tainted, somehow. Part of me feels this is not fair to the book. That if we demand that all our authors share all our beliefs we will be limited to reading only our own books. That a book is its own thing, separate from the author, read on its own terms.

And part of me thinks: I don’t want to give a white supremacist access to the inside of my head.

Bringing a town back from the dead

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been researching the NSW town of Taree, as it was in the 1920s. I have a lot more research to do, and I’m looking forward to it.

But one of the things I have most enjoyed is looking through the terrific indexes to the town’s newspaper the Northern Champion, which have been put together by Rod and Wendy Gow. I’ve sent off my order to them to get a complete copy, but even the parts which are available on their website are engrossing.

Forget the big news stories of the day; those were reported pretty much the same all over the country. It’s the small items, written by local reporters, which are wonderful to dwell upon.

These country newspapers chronicled everything. Births, deaths, marriages, obviously, but also when someone left to move to another town, or a local weather event, or a bankruptcy, the paper half gossip and half news.

Look at this great list of what is indexed:

Accident, Anniversary, Apology, Appointment, Arrival, Assault victim, Auction license, Award, Bailiff sale, Baptism, Benefit, Bequest, Billiard license, Birth, Birthday, Body missing, Burial, Bursary, Cattle sale, Cremation, Dealer’s license, Death, Died of wounds, Divorce, Engagement, Estate, Exhumation, Farewell, Funeral, Grave, Hawker’s license, Honeymoon, Honour Roll, In Memoriam, Induction, Inheritance, Inquest, Insolvent, Killed in Action, Leaving district, Left district, Legal, Legal appointment, Legal notice, Lightning strike, Lost, Lost at sea, Marriage, Medal, Medical, Memorial, Memorial poem, Memorial service, Missing, Monument, Murder victim, Naturalisation, Obituary, Ordination, Overseas trip, Partnership, Photograph, Poetry, Presentation, Prize winner, Probate, Promotion, Property sale, Remains recovery, Requiem mass, Rescue, Resignation, Retirement, Return, Return thanks, Reward, Robbery victim, Sale withdrawn, Scholarship, Shooting accident, Shooting victim, Snake bite, Social, Sunday license, Testimonial, Transfer, University degree, War veteran, Welcome, Wounded.

It’s like a found poem: Requiem mass, Rescue, Resignation…

Out of these scraps of information I am building the town again in my head. Not its bricks and mortar (or, more likely in Taree, its weatherboards), but the people and their relationships. There is Miss Gavin, Nurse (probationer), being appointed to the MRD Hopsital: imagine the nervousness of her first day of work, her high ideals confronting the reality of the bedpans or, if she were a country girl, her delight at working inside and only having to deal with shit in a neat little receptacle, instead of all over the stable floor. Could she be one of my main character’s friends?

I sorrow over the the death of Master Hermann Gill, aged 10, in Raleigh Hospital. I have a son. My heart aches for his parents.

Dr and Mrs Gormley leave Taree – there is an announcement, followed by an article on the presentation made to them on their departure. Or Mr & Mrs Hawkins, leaving Gulgong to go to Oxley Island… how exciting that seems, until you realise that Oxley Island is only a few miles away, near the mouth of the Manning River.

Certain people, including Mr Hawkins, turn up again and again in stories about the Taree District Court. We must hope that he is a solicitor or barrister… since the Northern Champion is not yet on Trove, I must visit the State Library and look at the microfilm to find out if he is in or outside the dock, or if he is merely litigious or bad at paying his bills. We do know that he ran to granddaughters rather than grandsons – at least two, daughters of RS Hawkins. I was confused at first by the statement Birth: daughter of Mrs RS Hawkins, knowing from another entry that RS was Robert S, but of course women didn’t even keep their own first names once they were married. It was Mr & Mrs RS Hawkins, and only friends would actually call you by your first name. Many people wouldn’t even know it. (I was interested in the Hawkinses because Ruby, the main character in The Soldier’s Wife, was a Hawkins – named for my mother-in-law. Ruby grew up in Bourke. Perhaps these Hawkinses were relatives!)

I have a special fondness for Captain Hector Gollan (retired master mariner) who is listed both in stories about Taree District Court, and in a special article about his 75th birthday. A robust old man, I think, full of vim and liable to sue people who don’t follow orders!

I could easily get obsessive about this endeavour. Perhaps I must, if I’m going to make Taree live and breathe and dance and cry as it should.

A Soldier’s Wife

So happy to announce that Hachette Livre will be publishing my new historical novel, A Soldier’s Wife, next year! And, even better, I will get to work again with the wonderful Bernadette Foley.

A Soldier’s Wife is the story of Ruby Hawkins during the time her husband Jimmy is away at Gallipoli, and following their struggles to adapt to the new war-driven world when he is returned to Australia with debilitating wounds.

I was inspired to write this story by my own family’s history – my grandfather was at Gallipoli, and I have used his war service as the basis for Jimmy’s experiences. When my grandfather was wounded, his sister received a series of telegrams from the Army telling her of his injury, and then keeping her informed of his very serious illness. I showed those telegrams to my son’s class in 2013 for Anzac Day, and wondered what it had been like to receive them. To wait, day after day, for the news of life or death. That was the beginning of A Soldier’s Wife, and that is why I will be dedicating it to both my grandfather, Arthur Freeman, and his sister Esther, who received the telegrams.

My grandfather wasn’t married when he went to war (he put his age up to get into the Army) but he met his future wife while he was recovering in the Repatriation Hospital at Randwick, when she came to visit some a friend who was in the same ward. Maybe I should tell that story next!

Black, Red, Blue and Yellow

After a recent class where I discussed my ‘four-colour printing process’ approach to writing scenes, one of my students asked me to do a blog post about it. So this is for you, JJ!

I developed this way of thinking about writing scenes when I made the transition from writing for children to writing for adults. I wrote my first adult book as my thesis for a Doctor of Creative Arts degree, and my supervisor, the wonderful Debra Adelaide, kept saying, ‘You need more reflection, more thinking from your characters about what’s going on.’

In children’s writing, there are two factors which mitigate against the characters doing a lot of thinking – firstly, you often have illustrations which show the character’s state, so the reader can figure a lot out for themselves and, secondly, a lot of reflection may slow the story down too much for younger readers. Yes, you need some, but for adults I had to learn how to integrate more reflection into my writing. Also, I was writing a fantasy, the Castings trilogy; a genre which demands far more descriptive detail of the environment than most do.

So I needed a way to make sure I was including enough information for adult fantasy readers: thus, the four-colour process. When a full-colour picture is printed in a magazine, the black is laid down first, then the other colours: magenta, cyan and yellow (red, blue and yellow). Only when you have all four colours do you have a life-like picture. Anyone who has had a colour toner cartridge run dry on them in the middle of printing will know what a three-colour picture looks like: odd, distorted, uneven.

In my writing process:

Black = what happens: dialogue, action, movement, anything which influences the plot.
Red = Emotions. This is tricky, because it is not just the point of view character’s emotions, it’s what everyone in the scene is feeling. Sometimes, this affects the Black – you must show what other people are feeling by their expressions, actions, movements, etc.
Blue = Reflection/thoughts. This is pov territory – but, again, if you want to convey what other people in the scene are doing, Blue will impact upon Black.
Yellow = Environment/description. Can be vitally important. For me, the thinking about Yellow has to happen before I write the scene, so that I can accurately visualise Black.

I’m much better at Black and Red than I am at Blue. Yellow, it depends on the story.

So, when I do a first draft, it’s often heavy on the Black and the Red, and light on the others, although the Yellow may be implied (eg if someone picks up a rock to throw it, there were rocks in the environment).

Knowing this, I don’t think of my ‘first draft’ as a proper first draft until I have gone through the scene and made sure I have given the reader the right proportions of each colour to create a vivid, life-like scene. I do this before I go on to the next scene. Only when I’ve painted all the colours appropriately, do I think I have a ‘first draft’.

Now I am writing historical fiction, I find the process is the same; I need more description than in contemporary fiction in order to make the world in 1915 vivid for my readers, and it’s crucial to explain my character’s thought processes, because they are often quite different to what a modern woman might think in the same situation.

The great advantage of this way of thinking about a scene is that it makes you consider what each character is thinking and feeling, and this helps make those characters more alive for the reader (and for the writer; it often changes a scene significantly when you finally realise what that one recalcitrant character is really thinking!).

I’d be curious if other writers have other systems – please comment if you do!