On the weekend starting Friday 27 May I attended the first workshop for the 2016 HARDCOPY program at the ACT Writers Centre. I confess this post is overdue, but it’s taken me this long to write it out because, wow, that weekend was intense.
Where do I start? Let me set the scene. I was one of 30 Australian writers from all over the country, selected from something like 100 applications to the program. There were people writing in a range of genres, from literary fiction, crime, young adult realism, young adult fantasy, adult fantasy and science fiction, even a verse novel. There were writers creating everything from fun stuff to read (I place myself at this end of the spectrum) all the way through to people making serious Art. It was simultaneously terrifying, inspiring, intimidating and affirming.
It was utterly intimidating to realise just how talented the other people in the room were, and, to a certain extent, what my work is competing against in the broader market. On the other hand, it was quietly affirming to understand that the assessors had reviewed my submission and thought I belonged in that room, too.
It was absolutely terrifying working through the various aspects of our manuscripts over that weekend and realising just how much hard work lies ahead. (And I haven’t even finished the first draft of this particular novel project!) But the flip side was having the golden opportunity to spend 3 days immersed in my writing, and coming out with a clear sense of purpose and a fresh set of ideas.
I’m pretty sure all the writing workshops I’ve done to date have been with authors, and there’s nothing more valuable than learning from someone who is doing what you want to do, and doing it well. By contrast, however, Nadine Davidoff, who ran this year’s HARDCOPY intensive manuscript masterclass, is a highly respected freelance editor. It gave me a different perspective being led through the masterclass by someone whose job it is not to do the beautiful writing, but to pick apart the writing and understand when and why it’s not working and suggest ways of making it better. Nadine turned a razor-sharp, critical eye on every facet of what makes up a novel, and encouraged us to apply our own critical thinking to these things as well.
Then, of course, there was the simple pleasure of sitting down at the end of the day with a bunch of other people who share my passion for words and stories, who’ve been thinking deeply on the things my mind has been occupied with, and just yakking away over drinks and dinner about anything and everything to do with writing. That never gets old.
Most of the time, when you read a book, you only get to see the finished product. Hopefully you’ve chosen a Really Good Book, so you’re holding in your hands a near-perfect balance of intriguing ideas, compelling characters, immersive world building, plot tension, authentic emotion and beautiful turns of phrase. What you don’t get to see – even if you’re beta-reading an early draft for a writer friend – are the long silences when the ideas and words don’t come. Or the tangled, mangled words that don’t mean the thing you want them to mean. Or the acres of grey fog between brightly shining key plot points. Or the hours of (figuratively) smacking your skull to try to beat some tiny, misshapen, vague blobs of something into coherent ideas you can’t even begin to hone with words until you can see them clearly.
Sometimes it’s really hard to keep going.
The most valuable thing I got out of HARDCOPY was that all this is part of pretty much every writer’s journey. (You hear it a lot, but it can be hard to know.) Being in a room with 30 other people, some of whom are pretty far along the road to publication, and hearing that we’ve all had the same struggles; hearing from Nadine, who gave us plenty of examples of successful, nameable writers who have slogged through the same word-tangles and plot-fogs; that was gold. What I got from all that was that I am on the right track. Sometimes I don’t have a map or I’ve wandered into a briar-patch or stepped in a puddle and I can’t feel my feet they’re so cold, but these are the same briar-patches and mud puddles and vague wandering paths that have been trekked by countless writers before me.
This gig is a confidence game, and at its core you’ve gotta be the one to decide whether or not you can cut it. But it’s a long, long windy road to producing literature, and having the opportunity to participate in programs like HARDCOPY can give an emerging writer just exactly the boost they need to stay on the path.