Your first attempt at writing a novel will be just that: an attempt.
Well, more than likely…
Most published authors I know have several manuscripts languishing on hard drives or getting dusty in a drawer. Manuscripts they spent years on.
I wrote three full manuscripts before A Superior Spectre. The first – as is often the case – was very autobiographical. The second was set in the ’70s in Wollongong, where my parents grew up. I worked hard on it – did lots of interviews and research, came up with an odd but interesting POV for the story – but I wasn’t a very good writer yet. Still, some kind publishers gave it a look! And they still spoke to me afterwards…
The third one I wrote as part of my Doctor of Creative Arts. It was dystopian, set in an Institution for Exaggerated Personalities (the concept being that the populace was medicated to be complacent but, due to continuing social issues, the powerful created institutions to retrain people in ‘functionality’). It was kinda angsty and sexy as well as dystopian and the three rejections I got were kind. One called it ‘Girl, Interrupted meets Nineteen Eighty-Four’. After those three rejections, however, I withdrew it. Why? Because I had the idea for A Superior Spectre and I thought it was, well, a superior idea…
And so another four years went by before I published my debut novel.
I know some terrific writers who have one, four, even seven manuscripts in their drawer.
But… why? Does it really take that long to write ‘the one’?
Not for everyone, of course. I know a few geniuses (good for them) who nailed it on the first go (but usually not without a bunch of study or apprenticeship, i.e. short stories). But a novel is a difficult, unwieldy, enormous piece of work. When you’re starting out, you don’t realise how much goes into the structure of the work. You string sentences together that sound pretty and create characters you like and get all your feelings out onto the page. Or, you might create something that you don’t even realise is an imitation of all the books you’ve read, or that you think sell well, and it can be riddled with inconsistencies of tone and often a bunch of cliches. It can take a while to find your own unique voice. And it can take a while to find the way to express that voice in an artful and impactful way. To write something that not only hangs together but will be compelling to others.
Some writers strongly resist this idea – truly don’t want to hear it. Mainly because of the years they’ve already put into their current work. But honestly one of the best pieces of advice I received early on was to abandon a manuscript (that was the second one). It hurt at the time, even though it was delivered gently. But it was absolutely the right advice.
I have no regrets about A Superior Spectre being my first novel. Starting out as a published author with an ambitious cross-genre weirdo means I can kind of go anywhere from here. People loved it. People hated it. I made them feel something! I pushed myself out of my comfort zone to write it, and it was completely my own. It was something true.
If you can’t get your current manuscript right; if it’s not coming together; if you’re sending it out and getting no response, despite having worked on it and worked on it and given it your blood; if there’s a better idea glimmering in your mind – do think about putting that manuscript down for a while.
You may never pick it back up.
But you will have learned so much that will make the next one stronger!
My latest publication is an essay on MJ Hyland’s use of tension, in the book Reading Like an Australian Writer, edited by Belinda Castles. I highly recommend this book! It’s an anthology of writers examining the techniques, storytelling ways, and sometimes strange magic of other writers via a range of styles: personal, responsive, academic, analytical. It’s aimed at emerging writers, writing students, but also fans of Australian literature and reading in general. It’s an anthology of deep reading, admiration and celebration.
Hi everyone, I hope you’re having a safe, productive and peaceful early March, despite the continuing challenges of our everyday reality. On that note, I’ll be taking two months off this newsletter as it’s been an overwhelming time of balancing work, writing and care for a family member, so I need to let one thing drop for a little while. I have many more tips for you, though, and I promise I’ll be back!
For now, here are three tips to keep in mind when editing your own work.
Rest your manuscript
Once you’ve finished a draft of your manuscript, put it down and walk away from it for several months. For some writers, this is very hard. Life is short, I know! But continually tinkering without taking time to step back and consider the work as a whole can mean you make the wrong decisions for it, or simply fail to see many of the issues (of characterisation, conflict, pacing, and more). I can assure you, once you’ve taken a break, you’ll be able to see the work with greater clarity.
Be careful about an unclear point of view
Your novel’s point of view needs to be a deliberate decision that you make and then maintain throughout the manuscript (or shift only deliberately and obviously for the reader). I’ve assessed many manuscripts where the writer has not realised they have not made a firm decision about point of view. The most common one I see is a ms that hovers between omniscient and limited (but shifting) third-person POVs. This can be jarring for the reader.
If you’re choosing an omniscient POV, it can help to think of the ‘narrator’ as a character in itself, with its own voice, and this can help you keep track. A limited third-person POV that shifts between different characters must be skilfully handled, and established from very early on in the book. It’s rare, with shifting third-person POV, that a writer can ‘hop heads’ mid-scene successfully (most writers will swap POV scene to scene or chapter to chapter) but I’ve certainly enjoyed the writer’s skilfulness when they do so. In other words, there are no firm ‘don’ts’ but there are choices you can make that are best for your story, and once you’ve made them you must carefully sustain them throughout the work. I go deeper into POVs in my character course.
Clean up your prose
I’ve sent authors off to search for ‘thing’, ‘something’, and ‘anything’ in their manuscripts and replace most instances of general or vague language with concrete descriptions. Look out for superfluous instances of ‘very’, ‘just’, ‘so’, ‘such’, ‘much’, ‘really’ and other words that make your writing more verbose than it needs to be. And watch for excessive ‘ly’ adverbs, such as ‘beautifully’, ‘quietly’, ‘carefully’, ‘horribly’ or, my favourite, ‘gently’. (Favourite as in I overuse it myself!) If your sentence contains several ‘ly’ adverbs, they will weigh it down and garble the intended effect. Be sure not to overuse all the above and instead use clear and specific language to create both readable and resonant prose.
I’m teaching a full-day workshop on editing your own fiction at Writers Victoria (Melbourne) on 22 May, if you’re based in Melbourne and would like to learn more!
Opportunity of the month
Overland – Australia’s only radical literary magazine – has been showcasing brilliant and progressive fiction, poetry, nonfiction and art since 1954. Overland is now open for fiction submissions.
Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything, Angela
If you are wanting to publish your book, a strong ‘hook’ may be necessary to get the attention of an agent, publisher, and end reader.
The hook is a distillation of your book, but it is also a formula to attract the interest of potential readers. It may include elements of the story, character and conflict and also the book’s themes, topicality or context – something that will pique interest in the kind of person you know will love your book. Sometimes a hook is just one or two of these elements, because they are so unique or strong, for example the character and their conflict (such as the president’s son falling for the prince of Wales, in Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue), or the topicality or timeliness of the book (such as infectious diseases in Mark Honigsbaum’s 2020 book The Pandemic Century). One of the hardest things about writing any material to promote your manuscript or book is knowing what the hook is, and how to invoke it in an effective way.
It’s a good idea to look at popular books or books you love in a genre similar to yours and analyse what it is that really made them stand out.
In terms of commercial publishing, the hooks agents and publishers go for often contain both something familiar and something that is either new or a twist or slant on the familiar. A hook will be intriguing. It’ll make the reader go, Ooh, that’s interesting. A strong hook may feature a high-stakes scenario that the reader can imagine themselves into – something where they’d ask, ‘What would I do if that were me?’ Some hooks might also make the reader feel they’d be smarter for having opened the book. Most hooks will work on a few levels – of curiosity, intrigue, and basic emotions like love, fear and desire.
An interesting example of book with a strong hook is Adrian McKinty’s thriller The Chain.
Here is the first part of the blurb:
The morning starts like any other. Rachel Klein drops her daughter, Kylie, at the bus stop and heads into her day. But then a phone call changes everything. A woman has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will ever see her again is if she pays a ransom - and kidnaps another child. The caller is a mother herself, whose son has also been abducted, and if Rachel doesn't do exactly as she's told, both children will die. Rachel is now part of a terrifying scheme – The Chain.
The hook is related to the fact that the main character, Rachel, is not only experiencing the terrifying kidnapping of her own child, but that she must also kidnap a child to save her own and another child’s life.
It’s familiar enough (child kidnapping thriller) but it has a twist or slant on the familiar. The slant makes it a higher stakes scenario. It works on basic emotions – fear, here, and also empathy as we immediately can feel for this ordinary-sounding mother and her strange and awful predicament.
Besides revealing the hook in the blurb, the publisher has a short ‘tagline’ which is a distilled version of what will hook you in the story (and it literally invokes the reader by being written in second person):
VICTIM. KIDNAPPER. CRIMINAL. You will become each one. You are now part of the chain. Don't break the chain.
In writing this I’ve also been thinking about the evergreen bestselling nonfiction title, The Brain That Changes Itselfby Norman Doidge. The hook for this book is in the title. Here is the first paragraph of the blurb:
An astonishing new scientific discovery called neuroplasticity is overthrowing the centuries-old notion that the adult human brain is fixed and unchanging. It is, instead, able to change its own structure and function, even into old age.
So, in a different way – something familiar (neuroscience = our fascination with our own workings), with a new twist. It works on basic emotions and desires, which are also the ‘high stakes’ in this scenario: health, survival.
There are, of course, also books out there for which the hook is: It’s so incredibly poignant! Read it! I can’t sum up Middlemarch, truly, but you should read it. Here’s the first line of Penguin’s blurb: ‘George Eliot's most ambitious novel is a masterly evocation of diverse lives and changing fortunes in a provincial community.’ It’s not really a hook… but just trust me. Also, the name of an established author with a huge fan base is a hook in itself. But their first or breakthrough books would have had a strong hook to get them to that realm in the first place. (The sad part for them is that they often have to repeat variations of the same hook forever in order to keep their core reader base! See: Lee Child.)
Most of us are not George Eliot and if you’re famous already you wouldn’t be reading this so, in short, the easier it is for people to talk about your book, to share what’s compelling about it in the first place, the greater chance you may have of breaking through. Of finding readers.
(Please note that it’s still worth writing for the sake of it, for art, for yourself, for your community, etc.! But as this newsletter offers both writing and publishing advice, this month’s newsletter is related to the latter.)
So, what is the hook of the story you’re working on? Feel free to reply or comment!
Would you like to hear me read from my award-winning novella, Joan Smokes? This weekend I’m participating in Singapore Unbound’s Second Saturday Reading Series, alongside the poet Yeow Kai Chai. I’m so looking forward to it! There’s also an open mic section if you’re feeling brave… It’s free to attend. Check out the details and RSVP here. Don’t forget about time differences (as it’s a US-based event) – it’ll be on Sunday in Australia.
Opportunity of the month
Grist’s solutions lab, Fix, is launching their climate-fiction short story contest – Imagine 2200: Climate fiction for future ancestors. It’s free to enter and they’re calling for 3000- to 5000-word stories that envision the next 180 years of climate progress – roughly seven generations. The winning writer will be awarded $3000, with the second- and third-place finalists receiving $2000 and $1000, respectively.
I read fewer books than ever this year. I finished thirty-three books and will probably get through three or so more by the year’s end, now that I’ve given myself a little time off. (This, of course, does not include all the books I worked on as an editor!) It wasn’t just the broad-sweeping anxiety of the pandemic that made me read slower this year, it was the busyness of juggling work and care for family members: a combination of physical, in-person nursing and high-level problem solving and decision-making, made more complex by enforced distances due to border closures.
Reading was an essential solace this year, but it was often hard to find the right fit for the moment. I started many books that I didn’t finish. And I probably bought more books than I read! Those packages arriving at the door during Melbourne’s strict lockdown gave me little jolts of excitement and possibility.
Here were some of the books that sustained me this year:
Tasked to write an essay for a creative writing book on an Australian writer I read and re-read the works of MJ Hyland. How the Light Gets In is an intimate and sympathetic novel about an exchange student who fantasises about the possibilities of living other lives, of having another family than her own, and of achieving some kind of real and lasting connection. We are present with her longing, her wilfulness, her compulsions, her repulsions and her physical sensations. A brilliant outsider novel. Carry Me Down is told from the POV of a boy in early adolescence, John Egan, who is out of step with the world around him. He thinks he has a gift for lie detection and he truly wants to believe he is special. He wonders why his parents have begun to act so differently around him and he is distressed by it. This is a book of strenuous, frustrated figuring out as John attempts to cope with human behaviours that do not match his own sensibility. Re-reading This is How was such a pleasure, one of my all-time favourite novels. It’s uneasy, morally ambiguous, compelling.
One of my first events to get cancelled due to COVID-19 early in the year was a chat over some Irish whiskeys about Irish writers. In prep, besides dipping into Edna O’Brien, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, I read When All is Said by Anne Griffin, an author I learned about at a whisky (yes, Scotch) tasting event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019. The book was very moving – the kind of gentle, well-structured narrative I needed to hold me during the early anxiety of the pandemic. It’s about an old man, Maurice, at the bar of a hotel he has history with, raising five toasts to five people who’ve meant something to his life. I cried many times!
I’m a fan of both crime fiction and dark humour/satire and so My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite was a real delight. It’s a thriller set in Nigeria about a woman who has to deal with her beautiful sister constantly offing boyfriends. It’s darkly humorous and entertaining, with unexpected twists and turns. I listened to the audiobook and can highly recommend it.
I was keen to read more queer books this year and was pointed in the direction of some light and fulfilling romantic reads, The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite – a satisfyingly rich historical romance with science, embroidery and feminism – and Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, about a romance between the First Son of the US and the Prince of Wales, which was delightful. It made my heart soar. My favourite queer book, however, was From a Shadow Grave by New Zealand author Andi C. Buchanan: a haunting, sliding doors supernatural story, set in Wellington and elsewhere from 1931 onwards. Trauma and love, queerness, ghosts, time travel and strange apparitions of parallel lives all feature. It’s effectively and intimately narrated in second person, and is atmospheric and absorbing. I loved it.
Alternating with this kind of transportive reading I went deep into considerations of the various life-changing events of the year… by first turning to my favourite philosopher Albert Camus and his novel The Plague. I read it slowly, and it strangely echoed the stages of the first COVID-19 lockdown. Camus has such a depth of insight into individual and mass behaviour around pestilence and tragedy. I was moved by (**spoiler**) the death scene of Rieux’s friend Tarrou, at a moment when they all seemed to be in the clear. Images of the deathbed and dying captivated me at that time, as, along with pestilence and quarantine, it was a part of my immediate landscape. Around this time, I was also inspired by Star Trek: Picard to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Life. I read it late at night when I couldn’t sleep up at my parents’ place.I highlighted sections and took copious notes and I can’t say I came any closer to understanding how tocomprehend living and dying, though I appreciated the moments of connection that one can have with the reaching thoughts of another across time and space: ‘We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.’ I also tried, not for the first time, to read Simone de Beauvoir, but I find her style impenetrable. I’m determined to try again and also am very keen to be recommended more philosophers and thinkers who are not men. After my dad died, I sprang from philosophical questions to wanting to better understand physics and so began Hawking’s Brief History of Time. I found I could completely conceptualise the big picture space-time stuff but now, at the quantum level, I have stalled. But I will persist!
My main grief book, gifted by a dear friend, was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which I always wanted to read and have now read at the perfect time. A book of and for grief. About Mabel the goshawk, and T. H. White, the author who haunts Macdonald. It features solitude and focus (and love) as coping. The anger of grief, and carrying it in the body, the desire to isolate, the drawing up of history (one’s own, history of place, more). I loved the specificity, the detail, of Mabel and also the places: Cambridge, the hills and forests. A read in which you are wholly present and that was definitely cathartic, for me. I dog-eared many passages. From the same friend I receivedTo the River by Olivia Laing. This was the perfect read for the extensive heavy Melbourne lockdown. It transported me to sun and water and bees, where history pressed at the present. I followed Laing’s journey and her deep, meandering thoughts. It worked for that time too in the way it encompassed loss, and the meaning of life as the ‘path above the abyss’, as she quotes Woolf in the end pages.
Another book that is good for loss or grief is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. It’s about Gottlieb’s patients and also her own therapy process after a break-up. About what therapy is and does. About the relationship between patient and therapist (from both sides). About grief, and dealing with grief as a part of life. I found it genuine and insightful. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is also a beautiful and carefully structured novel about grief. A mother’s, mainly. I loved the fully developed character of Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife. It’s told at a gentle pace by an omniscient narrator and is incredibly immersive, like taking a trip back in time to Stratford and London.
I read some brilliant Australian books this year. Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe is highly recommended. Ying, Lai Yu and Meriem are compelling characters who we follow into the cesspit of oppression that was colonial Australia, with all its heat and stench and flavour and noise. It’s a searing and tragic read, but there is also tenderness and possibility. And I finally read Too Much Lip. This Miles Franklin-winning novel by Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko is worth reading for every reason as it’s a great book but its characters in particular are complex, memorable, and real.
That dear friend I mentioned before, Josephine Rowe, had a new book out this year, On Beverley Farmer (Black Inc.’s Writers on Writers series). It is exquisite, and deep and far-ranging for such a tiny book. A real pleasure to read. Here’s a Farmer quote from it: ‘How stubborn life is, when you think, lodging its residue in the worn old skin of the earth until some convulsion crumpled it into mountains, studded with coiled and spiny fossils from the earliest beginnings...’
lt like a friend this year. The Illustrated Man is a book of short stories full of heart and fear and wonder; rocket ships and electric houses and red Mars. My favourite story was ‘Kaleidoscope’, which I wrote about earlier in the year (as well as on his essays in Zen in the Art of Writing). I also spent time with another favourite writer of mine, James Baldwin. I’d never read If Beale Street Could Talk and, wow. Its protagonists are Tish (Clementine) and her fiancé Fonny (Alonzo). They are a young black couple in 1970s New York City (mainly Harlem). The story begins with Fonny locked up in jail (the Tombs) and Tish visiting him to tell him she is pregnant. Then Tish and both her family and Fonny’s work to prove Fonny’s innocence. Through interwoven backstory, we learn about them both: their families, their beautiful relationship, and, as the story builds to its crisis, the danger of white cops, racism and structural oppression.
One of my steadiest companions during the year was the Shadowhunter Chronicles, a YA urban fantasy series by Cassandra Clare. What do you read by the side of a hospital bed in Emergency at four in the morning? Turns out, this. I bought the books because I had found the TV series so fun, and I knew I’d need this kind of comfort food when dealing with one of the most difficult and saddest experiences of my life. I now have the fourth book in the series sitting around the house in case I need a little treat. My favourite character is Magnus, the fabulous bisexual warlock, played in the TV series by gorgeous Harry Shum Jr.
I had a little true crime kick near the end of the year (in the heavy lockdown). The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule was sickeningly compelling. It’s a unique true crime book because the author actually knew the killer, Ted Bundy; they worked together when he was young. So you get real insight into the ‘two faces’ of a psychopathic killer. Very scary. Rule was already writing true crime for magazines when she met him, so it’s a strange coincidence. Then I read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote because I thought I should catch up on classics of the genre. Written like a novel with a strong cast of characters, Capote gives time to the victims, those affected (townsfolk), and the killers. He was one of the first writers to get up close to death row killers like that, as most of you probably know! I’ve held off for years on watching Capote, even though I love Philip Seymour Hoffman, because I always wanted to read the book first. The story is elegantly presented without intrusion from the author, which was not what I expected for some reason. (Possibly because contemporary narrative and investigative nonfiction almost always has authorial intrusion/inclusion.)
I read a little poetry, too (mainly Ali Alizadeh) and in 2021 I would like to read more. I’ve already ordered a couple of books for the pile. I’m currently getting through Olga Tokarczuk’s Flightsand loving the fragmentary nature of it, dipping in and out and picking up tales and drawing the threads together. I’m also reading classic women-authored crime novels from the 1940s, starting with Lauraby Vera Caspary. I’ve started on Tyson Yunkaporta’s incredibleSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. And finally, on audiobook, I’m loving Barack Obama’s A Promised Land(read by him), how detailed and deeply intimate it is. I never thought I would find the patch-up of the economic crisis in 2008–9 so compelling (which is where I’m up to), but when you’re in the presence of a great mind…
So how about you? What books helped you, gave you solace, or entertained you, throughout this difficult year? Click the comment button to discuss.
Opportunity of the month
Fantasyis seeking original fantasy and dark fantasy stories and also original fantasy and dark fantasy poems. It’s a competitive market and pays professional rates as defined by HWA and SFWA. It’s open to subs the first week of every month.
Wishing you a truly happy and healthy new year!
Thanks so much for reading, and do get in touch if I can help with anything, Angela
I’ve been driving to NSW over the past few days, taking my time to get to my destination: stopping, resting, eating, then getting back on the road. Incremental progress. It makes me think about the way I work. I break up large projects into a series of smaller tasks and I slot them into my digital calendar. So each day in my calendar there’s a series of tasks of several hours or pages (ie. ‘40 pages of x’) each, and those days lead up to the deadline. If a project does not have a deadline, I give it one – keeping the end in sight helps to get each day’s work done.
I work steadily and incrementally this way, and if something does unexpectedly come up, or change, all I have to do is move those small tasks to new slots within the timeframe of the deadline. (Because of this, it is often good to leave some blank spots in the calendar, just in case!)
When people ask me how I manage to juggle so much, this is the answer! Big projects become less intimidating when you break each one down into smaller chunks. When I’m offered a job with a fast turnaround, I can try it out in the calendar, seeing how many pages I need to work on each day to get it done, and this helps me to understand whether I should say ‘yes’ in the first place.
Every kind of project can be completed by breaking the work down into a series of smaller tasks. To complete a first draft of a manuscript of 70,000 words in one year, that’s just 1,346 words per week. To complete it in two years, that’s only 673 words. You could draft a novel in a year or two by putting aside just one lunch break per week.
If you need to research your novel first, you could set yourself a deadline of, say, six months ahead, and then schedule one hour per week to get into the research. After a couple of months you’ll already be able to see how much you’ve figured out and how much more time you may need. You could then shift the deadline accordingly.
The trick is to respect and honour that time you’ve carved out for the small, incremental tasks. To help with this, make sure that timeslot is realistic from the very beginning. Don’t put it on Sundays if you always end up having a family commitment on Sundays. Don’t make it first thing in the morning if you’re terrible at getting up early. Find the slot that you will honour and stick to.
Some of you might think: this is freakish, I absolutely cannot work like that. Certainly, I know people who are capable of smashing out writing or work tasks at the last minute. Good for them! But I also know a lot of people who want to write, or write more, or get better at writing, or finish a project, or shape up a manuscript they did smash out… and become paralysed by the enormity of the task.
This year has been overwhelming for so many of us. If you’re like me, writing is necessary to feeling whole among the chaos. At the same time, it’s been harder to feel up to the task, or feel that anything you’re getting down is adequate in speaking to the enormity of… existence! But I have continued to write, slowly – and inadequately, maybe – but bit by bit, making incremental progress.
Remember, if you’re looking for a Christmas gift that also raises money for a great cause (Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy), I have an essay on the beautiful spotted harrier (aka ‘smoke hawk’) that visited my parents’ property after the fires in the book Animals Make Us Human. It has an incredible line-up of contributors writing about, and photographing, Australian wildlife.
Opportunity of the month
Black Inc. has opened submissions for Growing Up in Country Australia, a new anthology, edited by Rick Morton, which will explore the diverse experiences of Australians growing up outside cities and large regional centres. Read more here.
And for something different: The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts is looking for "compressed creative arts." They accept fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, mixed media, visual arts, and even kitchen sinks, if they are compressed in some way. They pay $50. Have a look.
Take care, stay safe, and get in touch if I can help with anything, Angela