Can’t Get Anyone to Interview You About Your Book? Interview Yourself!

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As part of the announcement of the release of my latest book, Project January: A Sequel About Writing, I sent an email to the alumni group of Swinburne University where I studied and graduated with a Master of Arts in Writing. I’d done the same thing when I published Project December: A Book About Writing and they’d been kind enough to include a mention of it in their e-newsletter and a link to where it could be purchased. I hoped they’d do the same this time.

Instead, I got an email asking if I’d be interested in being interviewed and profiled as part of a series on their past students. I thought, “Why not?”.

But once I’d agreed to do it, I did what I always do, which is panic. Sometimes I feel like I have proverbial foot-in-mouth disease (not literal foot-in-mouth disease – gross!) and am prone to say things I shouldn’t. I aim for witty and end up coming off like a weirdo. It’s why I’m a writer, after all. I like having the chance to revise. And revise. And revise again. Speaking off the cuff doesn’t give you that chance.

To keep myself calm and to try to prepare for an interview where I didn’t know exactly what the questions were going to be, I decided to attempt to pre-empt what might be asked and come up with answers. That way, if they did come up, I’d have something that didn’t make me sound like a person on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Yes, essentially, I interviewed myself. Continue reading

Project January

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This is the titular chapter from my latest book, Project January: A Sequel About Writing.

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If you’ve read my book Project December: A Book About Writing or the various Project… blog posts on this blog, then you’ll know Project October is about intensive writing, Project November is about editing and revision, and Project December is about getting your book published. And, of course, I hope it makes sense that Project January is about starting all over again.

The pride and relief at finishing and finally publishing a book is wonderful. But the realisation that all that hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears that it took, all the back and forth, all of the begging for beta readers, all the doubt and belief and doubt again, the realisation that all of it simply rewinds to deposit you back at the beginning again can be hard.

Some people only want to write one book, only have one book in them. If that’s you and you’re okay with it, great. For the rest us who don’t want to be one-book wonders, we’re confronted with an entirely different set of problems from when we began writing our first books. So here are a few things to consider to help get you back on track to another Project October, Project November and Project December. Continue reading

How Long Should a Novel Take to Write?

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It’s another chapter in the “How long should…” series of blog posts. I saw this question on a writing forum and immediately thought, “Should, could, would…” It’s the kind of question that someone who has never written a novel tends to ask and makes me think they want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Boy, are they going to be shocked when they realise that’s almost impossible.

In almost every one of the “How long should…” series, I bring up the piece of string and then go into guidelines that might help somehow. But that’s unlikely when we’re talking about how long it should take to write a novel. Because it’s not like roasting a chicken or completing a school year or watching a movie, all of which will come to an end within a reasonably predictable time frame.

But here are a few things to consider about the sort of commitment it takes. Continue reading

Trine: Part Two, Chapter Three

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On Tuesday, I wrote about how you can get to know your characters better by, among other things, imagining them in session with a therapist. I’ve done this myself before and the imaginings ended up being the basis for the third chapter of part two of my unfinished novel, Trine.

So here it is. A little background – the narrator is Jock Copeland, the police chief of a three officer town who has organised for a therapist to visit twice a year and assess his staff, including himself, to make sure they aren’t succumbing to post-traumatic stress, suicide or the variety of other issues being a police officer can lead to. You can read the first chapter of part two here if you want to read Jock’s introduction first.

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When Dr Chamberlain arrives, I am already sitting at my desk typing up the report of my dealings with Martina the night before. I look up as she opens the office door without knocking and notice the way her mouth tightens momentarily before she gains control of her expression once more.

“Good morning,” I say, pretending not to notice.

“Good morning,” she responds, taking off her jacket and positioning herself in the armchair opposite the couch, her pen and notepad poised and ready for our session. When I don’t rush to join her, she looks over at me in a way that some would misinterpret as patience but that I know from long experience is meant to drive me nuts until I can’t stand her inspection any longer and postpone whatever it is that I’m doing.

“I’ll be with you in a moment,” I tell her, even though the report is pretty much done. It’s for her own good, I tell myself. She’s too used to telling everybody else what to do.

“Take your time,” she says amiably. But I know that if I take too long, she will simply spend the time analysing my body language. Which bothers me even more than when she analyses my words.

I save the file and take my cup of coffee – the store bought instant stuff we keep in the kitchenette here – and head to the couch. I sit down on it facing her. Dr Chamberlain has offered me the option of lying down at the start of every session we’ve had but accepting that offer would feel like giving her the advantage from the start. I always decline. But I’m still expecting her to offer this time as well. She’s a woman of habit.

“Are you comfortable?” she asks instead. She’s also a master of mixing it up when she knows it will put me off balance.

“Yes, thank you.” I drink the last of my coffee, then put the mug on the table next to the couch. The psychiatrist looks at the cup disapprovingly. She may think she knows how to push my buttons but I’m just as knowledgeable on pushing hers. She likes order. She likes cleanliness. She likes solving puzzles. She doesn’t like not being in charge. She doesn’t like mugs on coffee tables without a coaster underneath them. And she doesn’t like patients who refuse to cooperate.

“So what would you like to talk about today?” Dr Chamberlain looks at me evenly. She’s also a professional and very good at what she does. The one upmanship part of our session is done.

“How are Sarah and Matt?” They’ve both had their sessions now.

“How do they seem to you?” Like all psychiatrists, she loves answering a question with another question.

“Fine.”

“I concur.”

“Good.”

“So let’s talk about you.” She continues looking at me, somehow having perfected the ability to maintain eye contact without becoming uncomfortable like regular people become.

The eye contact certainly makes me uncomfortable and I can’t come up with anything.

“Would you like to revisit anything we’ve talked about previously?” she asks, reaching into her bag and pulling out a folder. She keeps meticulous notes, although I’m sure it’s only because it’s protocol. She seems to be able to recall every word I say during these sessions from memory even though we only do it twice a year.

I think back on the topics we’ve already covered. My choice of career, why I left Hope Springs, why I came back, my parents, my siblings, the expectations of the locals, the expectations of my staff, finding the balance between leading them and empowering them, the concerns I initially had that they might not fit in or that they might suffer the same fate as the former police chief, an outsider who was basically run out of town. I wasn’t here when it happened but my parents filled me in after I’d been offered the job to replace him. I didn’t probe too deeply but I suspect they were leading the cause to free up the position so I could come home. It’s not something I’m proud of. But it didn’t stop me from taking the job. That’s not something I’m proud of either.

“Do you believe in fate?” I ask, thinking maybe the notion that I never really had a choice would help shake loose some of that guilt.

“No.” Dr Chamberlain’s answer is emphatic.

“Why not?”

“Because if our lives are pre-determined, then nothing we do to try to better ourselves, our world, makes even a scrap of difference. If I thought that was the case, then I’d be in entirely the wrong profession.” She makes a short note on the first line of a fresh page in her notebook. “What made you ask that?”

“I suppose because it would be easier not to have to be accountable, especially when I think of all the silly things I’ve done.”

“Are any of these silly things recent occurrences?”

“Less and less.” I wish I could say I never do silly things anymore but I’m only human.

“That’s good. That shows you’re learning from your previous experiences.”

“Maybe it just shows I’m boring. That I don’t take risks anymore.”

“Did taking risks in the past make you feel happy?”

“It made me feel… something.”

“Are there times when you feel nothing?”

“There are times when I feel like I’m waiting. For what, I don’t know.”

“Wouldn’t it be more concerning if you didn’t feel that way? If this – right here, right now – was all there was and nothing ever surprised you ever again, wouldn’t it be worse?”

“I don’t know. I’m talking nonsense.” These sessions are the one place I can get it out of my system without damaging my reputation as a no-nonsense, respected figure of authority in the Hope Springs community.

“Not at all,” Dr Chamberlain contradicts me, which I understand. What I call nonsense, she is able to interpret to see into the deepest, most secret parts of me, more than I would prefer she did.

“Well, maybe it’s not nonsense but they definitely seem like questions without conclusive answers. My least favourite kind. It’s an occupational hazard,” I add when I can see she is gearing up to ask why I don’t like uncertainties.

“But did it become a dislike as a result of doing the job or were you drawn to the job because you had the dislike to begin with?”

I don’t remember ever giving it the level of thought Dr Chamberlain has. My uncle was the police chief, he was respected and he seemed to enjoy it. And he let me tag along for work experience while I was in high school, which transitioned into a part-time after-school job.

The types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week were fairly limited back then – a variety of roles with an agricultural bent, a few within the council chambers, a number of retail positions in the local stores and one trailing my uncle around as he went about the business of keeping the community safe. Those with grander ambitions went slightly further afield to Glenville half an hour away.

Come to think of it, the types of job available in Hope Springs during work experience week are still fairly limited now. I take on one student each year but part-time jobs for untrained, underage civilians have been abolished. It’s just as well. Some of the things I was exposed to during my time working with my uncle may not have been the best formative experiences for a teenager. Like the time we retrieved the body of Eric Weatherby from the lake.

Eric was only five years older than me at the time of his death. He’d graduated from high school a few years earlier and headed off to the city to begin his studies at university. He would visit every three months or so and in between we’d receive updates on his progress from his parents. But on one of his visits, instead of just staying the weekend, he stayed the week. And that week turned into a month, then the month turned into a year.

There were rumours; Hope Springs is a small town and there are always rumours. Some suggested he’d failed his second year subjects and been asked to leave the university. Others suggested a girl had broken his heart. There was also the occasional cruel insinuation that he’d gotten himself involved in something illegal – drugs, prostitution, gambling, maybe even a murder – but none of it was true. Instead, he’d found himself in the grip of something so common now but rarely spoken of back then. An all-consuming darkness from which he could not escape.

His parents reported him missing on a Friday morning and tourists reported seeing a body weighed down on the bottom of the lake the next day. Police divers from the city were at another call-out and wouldn’t be able to make it to Hope Springs until Monday. We never actually agreed out loud to do it but my uncle and I went to the lake, hired one of the tourist row boats, stripped down to our underwear and took turns diving to the bottom of the lake to remove stones from the pockets of Eric Weatherby’s heavy wool overcoat, then the overcoat itself. Slowly, his body floated to the surface. We dragged him aboard and rowed back to shore.

His parents handed over a note they’d found in his bedroom – “I can’t think of a reason not to do this” – and the coroner declared it a suicide, commenting that it was a shame no one had recognised his depression earlier and gotten him the counselling he needed.

If I had to try to pinpoint when my dislike of unanswered and unanswerable questions began, Eric Weatherby’s death would be a reasonable guess.

“You’ve been quiet for a while now.” Dr Chamberlain interrupts my introspection.

“Sorry. Just thinking,” I say in a small voice I barely recognise as my own. I haven’t thought about Eric for a long time.

“About anything you’d like to share?”

Sometimes I wish Janet wasn’t quite so good at her job. “A guy I knew when I was a teenager.”

“What made you think of him?” Her pen is moving hurriedly over her notepad even as she probes me further.

“He’s one of those questions without a conclusive answer. He died when I was sixteen.”

“Were you close?”

“No. He was a few years older.” And much smarter than me, as well as a little bit of a loner. Although Hope Springs isn’t a large town, it was just large enough back then to have a few key groups of teenagers with which to align yourself. I played football and most of my close friends, including the current mayor, were also jocks. Another group was comprised of the creative types – actors, writers, artists, photographers – and a third group consisted mainly of the academically inclined. Eric fell into this last group almost by default but he seemed to exist on the fringes of it.

Perhaps if Hope Springs had been a larger city, his lack of engagement with the broader community would have been more obvious. But in our small town, where everybody knows everybody else, he could be amongst us without actually being involved.

It’s easy to see in retrospect. I beat myself up for a long time for not seeing it before when the knowledge could have been useful.

“How did he die?”

“He drowned himself.” It doesn’t seem to convey the right amount of anguish I felt back then, so I clarify with the one word that does. “Suicide.”

“Of course,” she says, my reference to a question without a conclusive answer now making sense.

“Have you ever considered suicide yourself?” I suppose the question isn’t completely irrelevant considering the topic of our discussion but I try hard not to resent it.

“Never.” It’s my turn to be emphatic now.

“It’s not an unreasonable question,” Dr Chamberlain says in response to my absoluteness. “There are a lot of members of your profession who have to deal with terrible things on an almost daily basis and don’t get the counselling that would help them cope. Suicide amongst police officers occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public.”

“Suicide amongst men occurs at a higher rate than it does in the general public. That doesn’t make me in particular any more likely to kill myself.”

“True,” she concedes but she doesn’t say anything else. She’s consumed with filling the page of her notepad with lines and lines of blue handwriting. Then she flips the page and continues at the top of the next one. Clearly we’ve landed on a topic to her liking. I don’t feel the same way. I wish I hadn’t brought it up.

Her silence continues, forcing me to fill it. “I’d rather not talk about suicide anymore.”

“It can be a difficult topic.”

Tell me about it, I think to myself, but hold back on actually saying the words. She wouldn’t take it as a throwaway phrase. Instead, she would tell me about it and I really don’t want to hear detached, intellectual comments about something that is never unemotional when you’re involved personally or professionally.

Eventually, I manage to distract her by talking about strategies for dealing with the aftermath of suicide and other unnatural deaths in a professional capacity and we fill the remaining hour. When we finish, she takes over my desk and spends another half hour completing her notes on our session.

She emerges to find Matt, Sarah and I behind the front desk all waiting to farewell her. I know she is here at my invitation and I know the importance of what she does but I don’t think I’m the only one who considers the goodbye the most satisfying moment of her visits.

Why “Little Did He Know” Gives Away Too Much Too Soon

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Professor Jules Hilbert: Perhaps you should keep a journal. Write down what she said or something. That’s all I can suggest.
Harold Crick: I can barely remember it all. I just remember “Little did he know that this simple, seemingly innocuous act would lead to his imminent death”.
Professor Jules Hilbert: What?
Harold Crick: Little did he know…
Professor Jules Hilbert: Did you say, “Little did he know…”?
Harold Crick: Yes.
Professor Jules Hilbert: I’ve written papers on “Little did he know…”. I used to teach a class based on “Little did he know…”.’ I mean, I once gave an entire seminar on “Little did he know…”. Son of a bitch, Harold. “Little did he know…” means there’s something he doesn’t know. That means there’s something you don’t know. Did you know that?
Stranger Than Fiction

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I recently edited a book that consistently ended each chapter with a “Little did he know” giveaway.

“Little did he know that a cancer diagnosis would soon change everything.”
“Little did he know that the worst was still to come.”
“Little did he know that his sister was also his mother.”

Okay, those are fictional examples of what the writer was doing but you get the picture. He thought he was building up suspense. But instead what he was actually doing was giving away all the plot points before they happened. So by the time the reader got to the plot point as it occurred later in the narrative, the element of surprise and all the other associated emotions that should have been felt in that moment were dulled by the fact they already knew it was coming. Continue reading

What to Do When You’re a Bad Writer with a Good Story

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These days it seems like writing a book is on everybody’s bucket list. And if you’ve got a great story, then it deserves to be told. But what if you’re a bad writer? Just because everybody wants to write a book doesn’t mean everybody is capable of doing it.

If you can recognise that you’re a bad writer, congratulations. It puts you one step ahead of all those people who can’t see it and persist in trying to write and circulate a book that is never going to get published, at least not in its current terrible form. And if you’re committed to getting your story out there regardless, here are a few options to help make it happen. Continue reading

Holding Yourself to New Year’s Writing Resolutions

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It’s been a whole year since I made four New Year’s writing resolutions. Given my previous lack of success in making plans and sticking to them when it comes to writing, I gave no guarantees about achieving any of them but because New Year’s Eve is right around the corner again, I thought I should review them and see if I managed to tick any of them off the list.

Resolution #1: Publish Black Spot
Straight off the bat, a big fat no. I didn’t publish Black Spot. I said at the time I made this resolution that I was just waiting for a couple of rejections from publishers before going ahead and self-publishing. Of course, that was before Black Spot was shortlisted for the 2016 Text Prize for Writing for Children and Young Adults. Although I didn’t win, I did get a lot of great feedback, did another rewrite and sent it off to a few more publishers. So I’m still waiting for a few more rejections. One way or another, Black Spot will be published in 2017. (I won’t call that a resolution, just an inevitability. There aren’t any more reasons to keep putting it off.) But as with everything when it comes to publishing, it’s just taking a little longer than I thought it would. Continue reading