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.



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.

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.