Writer's Life

My friends and colleagues at Queensland Writers Centre have featured me as part of the ongoing Queensland Writers Life series that asks some probing questions as to why we writers do what we do. It's already featured some tremendous and diverse talent from Sam Wagan Watson to Karen Foxlee to Krissy Kneen to Michael Gerard Bauer to... I could go on.

If you're at all interested in why writers do what they do, it's worth checking out the whole series.

Why do you write? 

It’s tremendously satisfying to turn a vague idea into a finished, coherent piece of writing. Ideas tend to be fairly amorphous: you have a hazy vision of a character, a situation, a set of ideas. What writing does is discipline those ideas. Nothing exposes a stupid idea like reading it, externalised into text. But a good idea, rendered on the page or the screen, is an extraordinary reward for the sweat and hard graft that went into making it. It happens on two levels too: if can you derive satisfaction from a good sentence or turn of phrase you’re going to enjoy writing a lot more than if you’re dependent on completing an entire piece.

Ultimately, though, writing is about reaching a readership. As satisfying it as can be on its own, the text is just a vehicle to reach someone else. You place your trust in readers to understand you and to see the world the way you do, even if just for a little while. Sometimes you hear back from readers and it’s almost a little shocking to be reminded that the other party in this relationship is not just abstract. And that’s kind of where it all comes together. That’s why I write: to make a very human connection to someone else.

How did you come to writing?

At school, I was always ‘pretty good’ at writing and language from early on and even outside school I spent a lot of time creating stories and recording them in one way or another. I did have a good teacher who pushed me to read more challenging texts. That really set me on the path, I guess. I kept reading as much interesting stuff as I could and when I started to write, I had the right blend of naiveté and confidence to try new narrative voices and devices.

What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?

I never thought of writing as a profession that was available to me because I never realised it was something I could just decide to do. I don’t know, I must have thought writers get anointed by the gods or something. For a long time, I was determined to be a musician, but I was a better writer and really I prefer working my own, quiet hours. The only difference between a writer and anyone else is that writers submit. They take the risk of putting their work out there. That seemed like a huge obstacle because when you start, you have big ideas that never quite make it the page the way you want them to. But you have to show somebody sooner or later and the courage that takes is not as profound as it first seems. Publishers don’t assess your work with you looking over their shoulder. So learned to send my work off when I thought it was good enough and put it out of my mind until I received a response. I got a lot of encouraging rejections. Those were like gold. It meant that I should keep trying, I was getting closer.

How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?

Mostly, I read. I read other people’s work and I read my own work. I don’t know what happens for other writers, but if I don’t work on a piece for a little while, it gets worse and worse in my memory, all the mistakes magnified. When I read it over, those mistakes return to normal size and the job of fixing a work in progress gets a little easier. That motivates me. It’s only a little more work and it could get so much better.

How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?

I don’t have a regular schedule. I don’t write every day. I steal bits of time like a thief in the night to work on a piece. Sometimes I block off a chunk of time to knock something over and that works pretty well. I’ve moved through different routines over the years depending on what else is going on. I’m making this up as I go along.

I used to write like a maniac. I would start writing at 9:00 or 10:00pm and work through to 3:00 or 4:00, sleep for a couple of hours, go and do a full day’s work, then do at all over again. For a while I was doing this three of four days a week. I’m lucky I didn’t lose my freaking mind. Or maybe I did. I don’t know. That was stupid. I have kids now. And an ageing body. And maybe I’m a little less stupid. Maybe.

Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?

I don’t have a regular time and don’t have a regular space. I move between spaces and computers. I have a study that I can use to shut the world out when I need to. Other times, I’ll set up a laptop wherever’s nice. I like couches. My back deck is nice.

What are your essential writing tools?

I’ve used a parade of Macs over the years: desktops and laptops. For software, it’s always been the sad and stodgy old Microsoft Word. I have a strange relationship with Word. I know every quirk in its system and how to set it up just so. But I’ve never loved using it. I’m just used to it. I’ve tried as many other word processors as I can get my hands on, but none have stuck. More recently I’ve used Scrivener but only for planning and arranging. I once tried using a manual typewriter for a month and it was surprisingly comfortable and familiar as a writing tool. I get why 20th century writers loved theirs so much. But it’s a ridiculous tool for 2016, little more than a novelty and a complete pain at the point you need to submit your work.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?

The road is longer and harder than you ever imagine it will be, but it’s full of surprises and it rarely leads to the destination you’re expecting.

What do you read and how do you read as a writer?

I tend to read fiction in print and I read it painfully slowly. It’s almost like I’m absorbing the text through osmosis. I can speed up when I need to (and I often need to) but that’s my default setting. By contrast, I read a truckload of non-fiction on screen: my phone is my main screen-based reading device though I read a lot on laptop/desktop too. I read a lot of experimental stuff on screens too: again preferring my phone, but a computer if necessary.

How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?

Pretty sure I don’t get that Hollywood-style ‘writers block’. I’ve never been like Billy Crystal stuck on ‘The night was…’. I have days where it works and days where it doesn’t. If I’m struggling with a bit of text, sometimes I move on the next bit and leave the crappy part for later. Sometimes I have a deadline looming and I just need to sweat the words out. Maybe it shows when I do that, but deadlines are deadlines and meeting a word count with something you’re not completely satisfied with is a whole lot better than not delivering. I’ve been on the receiving end of that and, trust me, nothing pisses an editor off more.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Just one? Ha!

Read as much as you can and when you’re getting the words down, be true to yourself. Don’t try too hard. Enjoy the work: enjoy the language. Savour small victories. Don’t brag about your word count.


The Role of Producer

Recently published over at WQ, a piece I wrote on the unique role of the producer in creating a reading experience for the screen.

For the last few months I’ve been working with a small tech start-up company with big ideas. Called oolipo—a nod to the oulipo movement that pioneered experimental constrained writing techniques—this company is taking the nineteenth century idea of serialised storytelling and bringing it to a contemporary audience via that most twenty-first century device, the smartphone. Stories for oolipo aren’t just existing narratives repackaged for a handheld screen, they are stories written specifically with the device in mind.

One of the stories I am working on is called Valhalla. It’s a very modern take on Norse mythology, combining fantasy, history, humour, and a whole lot of arse kicking.

I’m not the writer of Valhalla; I’m the producer. This is a new kind of role, somewhat akin to an editor, but expanded into taking a text and translating it into something a designer and engineer can work with in producing a work unique to reading on a phone.

Just think about the reading experience on a phone. Forget any other device. Just concentrate on the phone. What can you do? You can combine text and images. Animation and video is a possibility, as are sounds that complement the story. But that’s just the beginning. Phones have GPS and accelerometers. A phone knows where you are on the surface of the earth, your coordinates on the map and even your altitude. Most importantly, a phone is networked. It has a live connection to servers and other devices proliferated throughout the planet. It is not simply a passive device for consuming content; it can help create and share.

That’s a lot of additional tools available. So how does a story for such a container come together? As a writer, you may be tempted to turn your story into a multimedia assault. Or maybe you fall into another camp that sees nothing wrong with sticking to long, elegant blocks of text. A story for the phone might work at either of these extremes, but more likely you’ll want to navigate a path somewhere between larding up the narrative with distractions or creating an impenetrable wall of text that brings nothing to the reading experience beyond what ink and paper does.

This is where the producer comes in. Use the possibilities of the platform, imagine how the features of the device can bring something unique to the story. And at the same time never lose sight of the reading experience. The producer’s job, like the editor’s, has much to do with balance and restraint. The writers of Valhalla have built their story around a narrative voice that relies on short but evocative strings of text. When released, Valhalla will combine this voice with background textures, black and white illustration and the subtle use of animation, sound loops and three-dimensional parallax effects into a kind of ‘hand-made, high-tech’ aesthetic.

For much of this year, I’ve been grappling with the question of what skills and capabilities writers will need in the future. We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain. The choice of medium must always serve the story. And the reading experience must always serve to take a reader deeper into the story world. All the cool ‘features’ in the world will add nothing to a story if they’re not relevant. And all the beautiful prose in the world will never reach a reader if it’s frustrating to access. More than anything, what writers will need is not that different to what writers have always needed: an understanding and appreciation of how their stories are experienced.

We can’t know for certain how our devices and media may evolve, but we can assume that the fundamentals of good storytelling will remain.

In the meantime, I need to get on with turning Valhalla into a database-readable spreadsheet. Yes, being a producer has its glamourous moments too. ♦ 

What we see in the mirror

Upon seizing office in September last year, the latest person to join the Australian Prime Ministerial conga line said these words: "there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian". I can only assume they were said sincerely.

At the time, I was hard at work remixing short stories originally written by Marcus Clarke and what became clear to me from this reading was how exciting it must have been to be an Australian in the 1870s. Clarke captured a nation in emergence, full of wide-eyed optimism and youthful vigour: a collection of colonies and a nascent culture that yearned not just for nationhood, but for greatness. But it was also a culture that carried dark stains and its aspirations in the near century and a half since have been offset and gnawed at by an instinctive and unthinking pettiness.

I had also, perhaps not coincidentally, developed an obsession with an extraordinary song called Definitive History by Augie March, where lyricist Glenn Richards deals directly with these same ideas. It's an angry song, no question, but its aesthetic is more of an anger that has burned out, an exhausted shell of despair.

In the final story from Hunted Down I imagine a scenario in which Clarke berates me for having the temerity to modify his excellent work. The story gave me the opportunity to try and capture what the most exciting time to be an Australian feels like from the inside.

With the words of Clarke and Richards swirling in my head, this is what I came up with.

To quote:

I wanted to think I might have touched a nerve, shared the sadness and mourning for a nation that has lost its innocence, but learned too little in the process. This is what had been gnawing at me ... What did Clarke observe about who we were and what does it say about who we’ve become? We shrink in meek obedience in the face of authority, even as we pull faces behind its back. We’re bold only with a bellyful to beat to submission anyone on a lower rung. We are relaxed and friendly (we lie to ourselves), but only for the right kind of visitor. And at the same time, we refuse to acknowledge the festering wounds of our own dispossession. We glorify the ordinary as though it’s an end in and of itself. We aspire to be aspirational, not once pausing to wonder why the elites loudly denounce “elites” in our ears while they make craters in the very bush Clarke celebrated and burn its earth for a few more dollars. We pave over anything undesirable and build a complex on its plot; the property values are too good to waste. We goad the gullible to hate, then throw our hands up in despair when the inevitable blood returns to us. Always someone else can carry the blame. The rats of the culture wars wrestle in filth for the right to some kind of Australian soul. And in the mirror we see only the worst of ourselves. 

Hunted Down is available now for the small price of one shilling (currency and inflation adjusted).

Is copyright fit for purpose?

I was recently invited to contribute a position paper for CREATe, which is the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy, based at the University of Glasgow. The topic was:

Is The Current Copyright Framework Fit For Purpose? 

And was subtitled 'Insight from the publishing industry and beyond'. I probably represent the beyond. So I was asked to investigate the current copyright framework and whether it is actually doing what it purports to do for writing, reading, and publishing in the digital age.

It's a topic on which I have written previously, so some of it may be familiar.

The proliferation of digital media has presented enormous challenges to writers and other creative professionals in an environment where downloading, copying, and streaming digital files can take precedence over the purchase or borrowing of physical artefacts.
My own perspective on copyright is informed primarily by my experiences as someone whose writing has appeared in print since 2000 and on the web since 1995. But it is also informed by my experience with if:book Australia, commissioning, publishing, and distributing creative work from others in a non-commercial environment.
Regardless of how it was initially conceived and for whom it was initially intended to benefit, modern copyright has evolved into a mechanism whose intention is to allow creators to benefit from original works by granting them control over it for a period of time. It means that creators of an original work can expect fair compensation and acknowledgement when their work is bought and sold, adapted, referenced, and so on.

To read on, head to the CREATe web site.

Infinite Blue to be published in North America

I have been holding off making a big deal about this, but I guess if an announcement is being made, I should probably share it around too. The link is behind a paywall but the headline is all you need to know.


Oh yes.

We have signed on the dotted line that wasn't actually dotted and I'm officially joining Darren as an author for the wonderful Orca Publishers in Canada and the United States.

Darren and I first worked together on Concentrate many years ago now and this is a story we've had kicking around for a while. The thought that it would see its first publication in Canada is a bit surreal, at least for me. I'm sure Darren is okay with it, given he lives there.