Writing on, and about, an island

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Writing a Novel

In Crime & Mystery Writer, Tasmania, Writing on January 13, 2012 at 11:22 am

Last year, after a few months of manic writing (and enforced solo weekends at my shack on Bruny Island), I finished the first draft of my first full-length novel.

It’s a crime novel, set in Tasmania. It’s to be the first in a series featuring an enigmatic central female character (the kind of person I wish to be!).

A Sydney literary agent is interested in it, based on the sample and synopsis I sent her.

And she’s just emailed me: “When can I see the whole book?”

And now I’m kind of petrified with inertia.

Why petrified?

Because I’ve worked in book publishing, and know what it takes to go from first draft to something worth sending off to an agent. It’s a physical and mental marathon. Also, I don’t want to miss this chance. Also, I’m a perfectionist. Also, I’m so exhausted by the process of getting out the first draft that I’m putting off the inevitable rewrites…

… So, why write at all?

I’ve never wavered in my belief that I’ll be a published author one day. I’ve ghost-written lots of books, and, of course, I’m already a well-published magazine and newspaper writer. But there has always been a burning desire to have my own book published. It’s in my DNA – my grandmother was a published writer (into her nineties), and my father is also.

And I have something to say. Which, when you strip everything else away, is the number 1 ingredient needed to write a book…

… Which, thank the heavens, I’ve finally done

I’ve started various novels at various points during my life. I read those tortured false starts now, and can clearly see all the hallmarks of ‘first novel’ syndrome – where you are basically writing about yourself. I cringe a little, but I can also see the seeds of this later book, the one I manage to complete.

This one still has what matters to me and my life stamped over it (mystery, history, Tasmania, being different, questioning the status quo…), but if your writing doesn’t reflect you in some small way, why write?

Enter: the art of incubation

Recently, I’ve learnt that, instead of being a procrastinator, I can happily call myself an incubator. Different thing entirely, apparently.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that I have a habit of creating side projects (editing others’ books, finishing my Masters…) that steer me away from my central goal. These projects fool me into thinking I’m still achieving my goals, without the scariness of forced to focus on what I really care about.

I also make excuses about the fact that I need to make money to pay the mortgage, and since my day job involves being creative and writing all day long for others, there’s no juice in the tank for my personal writing…

No more excuses

Writing my first novel was one of the sub-conscious reasons I moved back to Tasmania – I realise that now. Sydney was a very distracting place to live. I needed the head/body space to write a novel that Tasmania would provide.

And I need to recognise my achievements thus far.

However, I also need to get brutal. I should know how to cross the finish line; as a book editor and publisher, I’ve coaxed other writers through this journey (god, it seems so easy when it’s someone else’s book…).

So, I’ve given myself a deadline and a routine (essential, I find). I’ll be writing every day to fine-tune the draft. And I’ll keep you updated.

Getting A Magazine Job (Part 1)

In Career, Writing on January 11, 2012 at 11:27 am

I get asked a lot how I got my first (paying) magazine job – which, incidentally, was as a junior sub-editor/production manager on the very-cool-yet-short-lived Minx magazine, designed as the female version of FHM, or Ralph etc…

I’m not sure where my idea for journalism came from – I loved reading and writing, and art and style, and I’d wanted to be Tintin when I grew up… but I think it must have come from enjoying foisting my opinions on the wider world. And feeling a bit voiceless in Tasmania. Magazines must have represented a soapbox, a way to communicate my ideas and thoughts (and a way out of Tasmania, which was stifling).

The beginning (and end) at Dolly

Unlike today’s magazine world, where cool Gen Ys intern for a bit then get offered a job, things were a little different in early 1998, when I flew from Hobart to Sydney to do work experience as a designer at Dolly. (At that stage, I had vague notions I’d be a graphic designer, as that was what I was studying – I hadn’t yet realised I was better at writing than designing…)

Although I got to hang out on a shoot with the Heartbreak High boys, my time at Dolly did not end well. The art director took exception to my proactivity or something, and told me after two days that I was not welcome back (“And you can forget about ever getting a job in this industry, in this town” – I kid you not).

The delicate Tasmanian in me went back to my rental apartment in North Sydney, had a little sulk – and then the bolshy Tasmanian in me realised two things:

a) I could fly home and foregt about ever getting a job on a magazine

b) I could disagree with her opinion, and keep chasing my dream

Choosing ‘b’

I just couldn’t bring myself to give in. So I set about totally upending my life. I rang my parents and said I wasn’t coming back. I quit my fine arts degree at the University of Tasmania, and re-enrolled in a art history and curating degree at COFA. I worked for free at Marie Claire and other magazines. I did late-night jobs to make ends meet. I applied and applied and applied for magazine jobs.

And got nothing.

When people ask me today about how they can get a job in magazines, I always tell them about the year and a half I spent going about it the wrong way. I had thought, naively, that people would just recognise my skills and talents and bless me with a job.

The break

I stuck at it, through stubbornness and pride more than anything else.

Towards the end of 1999, the chief sub-editor at Marie Claire – Jana Frawley – took pity on me and gave me some invaluable advice: do a sub-editing course, as it’s the uncoolest job on magazines but they always need good sub-editors. (I saw Jana many years later, when she was editor at Donna Hay, and thanked her for her generosity and advice).

I promptly enrolled in the editing/publishing diploma at Macleay College. My lovely Nanny paid the $3000 fee. I studied what I already knew (surely this grammar and spelling stuff was obvious???), did really well, and the day after I graduated from my uni degree, I was offered the Minx job – it was the first job I’d applied for after completing the diploma, and I bloody got it.

The reality

My annual salary at Minx was about $20,ooo. I worked a second job at night. I remember times when I had nothing to eat – and I had to walk from Rose Bay to Chinatown and back each day, as I couldn’t afford the bus. But it was worth it. The team, led by the wonderful Alex Brooks (currently of Kidspot), was inspiring, I learnt more than I could have hoped (especially the fact that I was a good writer and editor) and, when Minx sadly folded, I’d enough experience under my belt to confidently apply for another position: at CLEO, when the stylish and visionary Paula Joye was the editor.

Oh, and I asked for – and was granted – double the dollars I’d been on at Minx.

Things were starting to get interesting…

Not Using Images

In Writing on January 6, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I’d always thought it was a given that I would use images on my blog.

This comes not just from personal persuasion – I am drawn to anything aesthetically interesting – but also from ‘training’ in the publishing environment. Words and pictures must go together. One without the other is a risk. And it’s the done thing with blogs, right?

But this year, I’ve decided, is a year where I’m going to rediscover my natural tendency to question the status quo. (Who says X is the way things should be?) And also free myself from obligation (in 2011, I was massively over-obligated, with full-time work and freelance work, and volunteering and family and…). So, I have made the decision to not upload images.

It goes against everything I think I should be doing. And everything I’ve been taught is convention.

But, I also know that my perfectionist values will insist that I produce the perfect image for each particular blog post. I actually tried adding images with a few posts, and it didn’t inspire me… it hindered me – I procrastinated about writing because I felt obligated to create a corresponding image. I am so sick of feeling obligated.

It also didn’t feel completely honest. With my days spent creating things for other people – things that are not of my voice – I started this blog so I could speak freely and unencumbered by expectations (mine or other people’s).

There will always be a battle between my puritan side and my bohemian side. Sometimes I love visual clutter. But there is enduring elegance in simplicity – whether it’s a blog or the decor of your living room.

Writing without images means I have to mentally and visually focus on the words, with no distractions. Writing in itself is visual – seeing stories in your mind… and the actual shape of the letters and the words is a visual experience in itself. The white space allows your imagination to fill in the gaps.

So, no pictures. For now. I guess I may change my mind one day.

Sailing…

In Island Life, Tasmania, Travel on January 4, 2012 at 1:32 am

I am no good at living in the moment. No good at mindfulness. I am a master multi-tasker, have made a career out of it, and every day is a series of insignificant tasks sticky-taped together.

However, I have come to realise that this is not something to be proud of. I react to outside demands, rather than consider what matters to me. Days are filled with busy-ness and to-do lists that fool me into thinking I’ve achieved something. Countless days that have left me exhausted and unsatisfied… and rudderless. The end result being that my life controls me – not the other way around.

Perhaps sailing will change that.

I sailed when I was younger (my father helped found the Wooden Boat Centre, and our boat, Lady Franklin, was the first to come out of the School’s shed on the Franklin waterfront. Tetsuya’s boat recently launched from there, also.)

Then I moved to Sydney – one of the world’s most beautiful sailing playgrounds – and despite living opposite the Cruising Yacht Club (home to the Sydney to Hobart), I skipped the boat part and instead made full use of the beer part.

Now: back in Tasmania. Tasmania has the highest amount of boats, per capita. As an island, sailing is inseparable from our history and our identity. I am now the proud owner of a beautiful 100-year-old, 35-foot Huon Pine yacht. Royal blue hull, white sails, oiled decks – the full cliché…

This Christmas holidays just past was spent sailing around Bruny Island on that boat – with a five-year-old (mine) and a husband (also mine).

The romanticism of sailing was given a beating by a 100-year storm, endless games of Snap and a port-a-loo that turns your poo blue (nice view from the seat, however).

It was a real test for me. Not the lack of creature comforts, although that was bloody hard. The test came in the lack of space and distractions. The fact that every simple dry-land task was made long and thoughtful at sea. Making coffee, for instance. You had to concentrate on making coffee. Not 12 things at once.

Somewhere between day three and four, between rain-damp sleeping bags and bottles of Gordon’s Gin*, it occurred to me that there was a lesson in my discomfort. Being forced to focus on the basics of daily living gave me space – not physical space, but the mental space to listen to my mind. Something I very rarely do.

(When I first had a baby and was going mad with the insignificance of each day, a wise woman said to me that it was the ultimate ‘Zen’ lesson. To learn to live in the moment. To realise that the past and the future don’t exist. To stop trying to ignore/escape stillness and stop trying to crowd out the chatter in your brain with ‘doing’. With a new baby there’s not a lot you can do on a grand scale – you have to embrace the small things, each moment. And the sooner your realise this, the better)

Perhaps sailing will strengthen my mindfulness muscle. Perhaps Tasmania will teach me mindfulness. The frustration I’ve felt since moving here – with how slowly things happen, how apathetic people seem in contrast to what I’m used to – is perhaps less an indication of something broken in Tasmania, and more an indication of something I need to address within myself.

Perhaps slow Tasmania has it right, and I have it wrong.

Here’s to more sailing.

*Gin and boats just go together. Gin is best kept in a dive bag, slung over the side of the boat. Tassie’s cool oceans make the perfect bar fridge.

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