The birth of a short story

Seeing my name on the 2016 Aurealis shortlist a couple of weeks ago was pretty bloody thrilling. There is a writing goal I’ve had my eye on ever since the moment when I first held a copy of Winds of Change – the anthology in which my first-ever published story appeared – in my hot little hands.

What made the nomination even sweeter was seeing how many of my really good writing buddies were on that list with me. The Australian Speculative Fiction community is pretty small and (in my experience anyway) a really collegiate, supportive bunch of people. I know a fair few people on that list now. But, among all the nominees I know and admire, it was very satisfying seeing how many of my fellow Canberra writers and members of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild appeared on the list:

  • Ian McHugh (nom for Best Science Fiction Short with The Baby Eaters in Asimov’s)
  • T R Napper (nom for Best Horror Short with The Flame Trees in Asimov’s)
  • Dave Versace (nom for Best Fantasy Short with The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat in Aurealis)
  • Shauna O’Meara (nom for Best YA Short for No One Here Is Going To Save You in In Your Face)
  • Kaaron Warren (noms for Best Horror and Best Sci Fi Short for 68 Days in Tomorrow’s Cthulu and Best Horror Novel for The Grief Hole)
  • Simon Petrie (nom for Best Sci Fi Novella for All the Colours of the Tomato in Dimension 6).

Echoing these sentiments, my mate Tim (aka T R Napper) tweeted:

Which got me thinking about the important role my writing community has played in getting Pretty Jennie Greenteeth this far. In fact, in getting all of my stories published.

Just looking at Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, I found out about Belladonna Publishing and the anthologies they were producing through my writing group. Someone (I think it was Dave Versace) pointed me at their submissions call for their Black Apples anthology, which they knew was right up my alley. I didn’t end up getting a story into that anthology (damn), but I was instantly on it when Belladonna put their next call out. That willingness to share information about opportunities is something invaluable about my writing crowd, the CSFG. Especially to a rank rookie writer who had no idea who was who or what was anything. And not only did they help me figure out where in the industry I needed to be sending my submissions, but they also helped me figure out how to submit.

Start at the top. Work your way down. You’re never going to know what level you’re writing to if you don’t start at the top.

 – Ian McHugh

^^That’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Submit to the best markets first. Where do you want most to be published? Go there first. You just won’t know if your piece was good enough for them if you don’t send it.

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Ian McHugh & Tim Napper, celebrating Aurealis noms

Then there’s the frank and fearless feedback offered by the CSFG critiquing circles. I’ve had my work critiqued by almost everyone on the list of nominees above. In fact, these guys are basically my go-to peeps outside the organised critiquing circle, especially when a deadline is looming, or I just want to sit & talk through a piece and really hash out the issues. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth went through CSFG’s short story critiquing circle. I got some really useful feedback on it, including, from memory, advice on dealing with a continuity issue, comment on a difficult-to-pronounce name and warning flags on cliches. But a good critiquing partner will also tell you where you’re going right. We’re all suckers for metaphorical pats on the head in this business, but damn it feels good when someone whose work you admire says they like your story. (Thank you Dave Versace and Tim Napper in this case.)

Then there’s what happens after your story gets published (if your luck is in & you get that far.) Tim Napper, in particular, is fairly tireless in his commitment to spruiking stories by Australian authors that he rates well. He regularly posts about good Australian fiction he’s read and he put this great post up recently with his recommendations on Australian stories that came out in 2016 that are eligible for the Ditmar awards (these are Australia’s fan-voted genre awards, the Aurealis awards are the juried awards). Even if you’re not necessarily eligible to vote in the Ditmars, it is worth checking out his list, because he’s recommended some fantastic fiction. (If you are eligible, you should get your skates on and vote – noms close tonight, 19 March, 11.59pm AEDST: list of eligible works, online voting form.) Full disclosure: he’s recommended one of mine, Breathing (Aurealis #95). But I am far and away the junior partner on that list, so I have no hesitation in adding my voice to his exhortations to read the others’ work.

I’m far from the first to point out writing can be a lonely business. And trying to judge for yourself whether your piece of fiction needs more work or is ready to send out into the world is a tricksy business. Finding your writing community, the right writing community for you, is a gift of incalculable worth. And it can make bringing your stories out into the world just that little bit easier.

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Running writing

running writing

I am not a sporty person. Never was, never will be. I will not bore you with the humiliations galore I suffered through in PE as a kid. Suffice to say that all the leisure activities I have really enjoyed throughout my life have involved cosiness and curling up somewhere with a cup of tea. However, I recognise that exercise plays an important part in keeping our bodies healthy, so I do make an effort. I ride my bike to my day job most days and in the last year or so, I’ve taken up running. Again, I’m not going to bore you with the details of this. But, for some reason, I’ve found that my attempts at improving my fitness through moderately energetic exercise have had a positive impact on my writing – both my creativity and the way I think about the challenges it poses me.

Getting the creative juices flowing

It is a very tried and tested piece of writing advice: if the Muse is stubbornly avoiding you, get away from your keyboard/notepad/dictaphone/etc. Get out of the house and get moving. Walk or run, either works. I often have great ideas or come up with great solutions to tricky plot problems while I’m running. It’s weird, coz it doesn’t happen so often when I’m on my bike. Perhaps because when I’m on my bike I’m either going to or coming from work, so my brain might be more focussed on work issues. But I run in my spare time, when my brain is almost exclusively consumed with writing stuff; maybe that’s why. But it works for me.

Oh the epiphanies I have experienced.

Never when I have a pen.

This stuff ain’t meant to be easy

A thing running has taught me is that it doesn’t get easy. Which is not to say it doesn’t get easier. But easy? Nope. It’s always hard to drag myself off the couch, to get out there into the winter chill, or the summer heat, or the still-dark, early morning streets. Guess what else doesn’t get easy? Setting aside the time and dragging my arse to the chair in the study to do the story work and pound out the wordage. In both cases I have to battle that sense of exhaustion that comes even before you start – just from contemplating the task ahead. In both cases, though, if I push myself, if I make the effort, I always find I can do the thing.

The importance of stretch goals

This is a really interesting thing running has taught me: Set stretch goals. Then (this is the important bit), don’t just sit there looking at them; give them a go.

Because I’m so unathletic, when I decided to try to get into running, I decided to get into it gradually, alternating intervals of running and walking. Going from running in 90 second stretches to a whole 3 minutes was pretty daunting. Then going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes to 8 minutes… Every time I level up, I always wonder if I can actually do it. But every time I actually can, and every time it feels awesome to have challenged myself and found myself up to it.

And I’ve found this applies to writing goals.

There’s something to be said for applying for something like a residency or a competitive grant or a selection-based professional development course even if you’re not sure you’re ready, because if you get in, someone else clearly thought you were. If you only ever apply for this sort of thing when you know you’re good and ready, you’re not pushing yourself. You might be moving forward one step at a time (and setting one-step-at-a-time goals is also very important), but you’re denying yourself the exhilaration and gratification of taking a flying leap forwards. That sense of achievement you get when you’ve really challenged yourself and risen to it. (Note: when I say “you”, feel free to imagine me giving a stern pep talk to myself.)

Measuring your progress

One thing I learned after I had my first story accepted for publication back in 2011 was that I had just stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder that just goes up and up and up and up. Every time you climb to the next rung, you look up hoping to see the top, or at least hoping you’ve reached the point where you can poke your head through the thick layer of cloud obscuring your vision of the top. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when there always seems to be so far to go.

With my running, I find I’m much less about “Will I ever run a marathon?” (perhaps because I can answer that question straight off: No. Zero interest.) My fantasy goal is more about being able to run for a whole half an hour without stopping for walking breaks, and being able to do it every day without feeling like I’ve broken something. But I also find myself able to stop and look back down the ladder at what I’ve achieved so far. A few months ago I thought running for a whole 3 minutes was a challenge. A few weeks ago I ran for 20 minutes without stopping for a break – probably for the first time since I finished high school.

So there’s my last lesson. Stop and look back down the ladder. Admire the view from where you’re at. Bask in the sunshine of your successes.

Here’s a picture of duckies enjoying running. You’re welcome.

duckies running

 

HARDCOPY 2016 – the first installment

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.

2016_HARDCOPY+tag_ColourWhere 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.

Achievement unlocked!

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I had some exciting news this week: I’ve been accepted into the ACT Writers Centre 2016 HARDCOPY professional development program for Australian writers! This is the third year they’ve run the program, and the second year they’ve focussed on fiction authors (2015 was a non-fiction year). Applying for HARDCOPY involves a competitive selection process, which included submitting a synopsis and the first 30-50 pages of the manuscript, so being offered a place is definitely an achievement in itself.

Even better, my good friend and writing buddy Robert Porteous has also been accepted into the program, so I know I’ll be in very fine company.

On wordcounts

The Wordcount is a capricious beast. It is simultaneously the carrot and the stick. The milestone by which you mark what you’ve achieved, and the one that tells you just how far you have to go.

My current novel WIP is sitting on about 65,000 words. I envision it will come in around 90-100,000 words. Which means I’m about 2/3 of the way there. But, hoboy, those last 5000 words have been a slog. I don’t quite know why. I’ve got the key plot stuff all planned out, but I’m having trouble moving between plot points. Generally this means I’ve got to go back and do a bit more work on shoring up the foundations of my story, but that’s a whole other blog post.

A piece of tried and true writing advice is that if you commit to writing a certain amount of words a day (or a week, whatever), it will only be a matter of time before you’ve completed your 80,000/90,000/120,000 word novel. And that’s true…to an extent. It’s not quite the whole picture, though. You can write 90,000 words in three months, but if by then your protagonist hasn’t yet found the magic widget, vanquished the evil nemesis and saved the cat, you’re not finished. You might have another 10,000 words to go. Or another 50,000.

If you’re a good planner – or, perhaps I should say, if your writing practice revolves around planning your work – wordcounts are probably a really good yardstick by which to measure how you’re meeting your writing goals. You probably know you want to write a 90,000 word story and you know X will happen by 30K, Y by 45K, and Z will happen in the last 5K. Great.

But I’m more of a pantser. I feel like this will be a 90,000 word story. I’ve got my plot bones set out, but I don’t do detailed planning around how I’ll get from A to B to C. I’ve already had to revise my chapter plan about 4 times, because the stuff I thought would happen in chapter 7 won’t happen now until chapter 10. It’s all good. That’s what first drafts are for – working all this stuff out. The thing is, though, I find I just can’t commit to progressing my story to a certain point within a certain wordcount. So, for me, I often find that plot milestones are a better way of measuring the development of my work. Have we found the magic widget? OK, now we’re halfway through. Have we just set out to vanquish the nemesis? OK, that’s the 3/4 mark.

BUT.

The wordcount is still there, sitting down in the bottom corner of Word, alternating between mocking me and being a triumphant marker of progress. I’ve found myself falling into the trap of thinking “I’m in that mid-draft slump. When I’ve reached 70,000 words, I know I’ll be doing OK.”

The fact is, though, I am doing OK. I’ve written 65,000 words. They’re not perfect, but I’m generally happy with them. And having the manuscript sitting at 70,000 words won’t be any guarantee that the 2000 words between 70 and 72 K won’t also be a bloody hard slog. There are times when it feels like I am inching myself forwards by the raw edges of my chewed-off fingernails. But I’m not in bad company.

George R R Martin on writing A Dance With Dragons:

The last one was a bitch. This one was three bitches and a bastard.

I just have to keep on swimming.

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Reading for writing: reflections on a recent read

Coffee time

I finished one of my latest reading-for-pleasure ventures recently, and it gave rise to some useful reading-for-writing introspection and analysis I thought might be interesting to share. The thing was, it certainly had its flaws – some extremely annoying ones at that. But, even so, I found it an overall satisfying read and I’m even keen to seek out the next one in the series and give that a go.

So what’s all that about? How does that work?

And, more importantly (and in keeping with the theme of my earlier reading-for-writing posts), what can I learn about this for my own writing?

First, the flaws.

The story was a whodunnit. Not an actual murder mystery, but a tale of two people trying to solve a spate of serious crimes, in which their lives were very much at stake if they failed.

The villain turned out to be someone known to the protagonist – in fact, someone the protagonist knew well and admired. (OK so far. A bit standard-operating, but solid.) The villain also turned out to have an intimate connection with the arch-enemy of the protagonist’s off-sider and potential love interest. (More interesting.)

What bugged me about the way the plot was constructed, however, was that the villain didn’t get any screen time (so to speak) until the big confrontation at the end. Sure, the narrative had mentioned this character, and had even done so in conjunction with an important clue. But the reader never got to actually meet the villain in her lamb’s clothing, never got to witness the relationship between her and the protagonist, and never even got the slightest hint about the existence of someone with this kind of relationship to the arch-enemy.

The effect of this was that:

  1. The reader couldn’t involve themselves in unravelling the mystery with the characters by pulling together their own theories and testing these against the characters’ sleuthing abilities. There was no Ah-ha! moment where we saw how the puzzle pieces fitted together, because we never knew half the pieces existed.
  2. The reader was unable to engage with the protagonist’s sense of gut-punch betrayal when the identity of the villain was revealed. Further, during the climactic scene, when the villain behaved in a way calculated to provoke a particular emotional reaction from the protagonist, the reader had to be told she was experiencing this reaction, rather than experience it with her (which we would have been able to do, had we been able to build our own relationship with the villain earlier in the story.)
  3. The connection to the off-sider’s arch-enemy came off as ridiculously convenient. It could have been a revelation. But it was essentially meaningless.

So what did I learn from this?

Seed key plot devices early, whether they’re characters, emotional connections or information.

But why did I like the book?

This is actually more important than the book’s flaws, because it’s this that has me hooked and interested in getting hold of the next one. I have to say, it’s embarrassingly simple.

Frankly, it was all down to the two main characters and the relationship between them. I’m not sure it was exactly a romance, but it was intriguing, and emotionally charged, and I want to know where they go next.

And what does this teach me?

Make my characters, their relationships and their emotional journeys arrestingly interesting. (Note: interesting does not mean tortuous or outlandishly dramatic. It means relatable, charismatic and one step away from being completely satisfying.)

Paying for our passion – writing v. sleep

If you haven’t checked out the excellent Paying For Our Passion series of guest author blogs David McDonald is doing over at Ebon Shores, I highly recommend it. Mostly because of the insight it provides into how different writers make this writing thing work, but also because (full disclosure) my guest blog went up yesterday.

Here’s what David has to say about his inspiration for the series:

Juggling your creative time with a full time job can be draining at the best of times, how much more so when you feel like the time put into writing is being wasted because it isn’t immediately a huge success? And, what about people who have to juggle being a parent or a full time carer as well? People with a chronic illness? How do they cope?

Because this is a personal issue, we often keep it to ourselves. Worse, sometimes we don’t talk about it because we think everyone else is living the rockstar writer lifestyle and we are the only ones struggling to find that balance–and we don’t want to look like a failure. I thought this was a subject worth exploring, and hopefully seeing how others deal with these challenges might a) help new writers realise they aren’t alone b) give us all ideas that might help.

So far, David has had guest posts from a range of Australian authors and editors, and has even started profiling some New Zealand authors after a recent trip there. I highly recommend the post from writer and poet Maureen Flynn as one that’s particularly moving.

So, what I have I sacrificed in the pursuit of literary glory? Well, the hint is in the title of this post. It’s fair to say my creative career can be characterised as a constant battle to balance the conflicting needs for sleep and writing time. Go read the article, and check out some of the others!

Reading, for the love of it

I was only going to do two posts on reading. Then Elizabeth Fitzgerald asked me what makes me really want to read a book, and I conceived a third. Then I read this Huffington Post article: 20 New Classics Every Child Should Own, and a fourth popped into my head. I decided to do this one first, just because reading to my kids was first  on my list of why I read books.

lemony snicket

The Huff Post article made me sad my kids are past the age of picture books. (I consoled myself with the thought of the new list of wonderful gifts I now have to chose from for my littlest friends.) But it also made me think about why I choose the books I do to read to my kids. This list of 20 new classics was compiled by Jordan B Nielsen, a children’s book buyer for an independent book store, and reviewer of children’s fiction. She was driven to create this list as a response to her dismay over her experiences with adults who, buying books for children, eschew purchasing more recently written books for the books that they loved as a child.

Nielsen is sympathetic; she acknowledges that the choices of these adults for ‘time-worn favourites’ come from a desire to share with a child a much-loved reading experience from their own childhood. But, as she rightly points out, there are so many really wonderful new books for kids out there.

This made me think about why I choose the books I do to read to my kids. Without doubt, there is a selection in there of books I have read and loved, and that have played no small role in shaping the literary landscape in which my imagination plays. A selection of these includes:

  • All But A Few, Joan Aiken
  • The Harry Potter books, J K Rowling (technically I read these as an adult, but I started before I had kids.)
  • The Snow Spider, Jenny Nimmo
  • The Ramona books, Beverly Clearly
  • The Faraway Tree & Wishing Chair books, Enid Blyton
  • Howl’s Moving Castle (which might be the best book ever written) and its sequels, by Diana Wynne Jones; actually, make that pretty much anything by Wynne Jones
  • Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren
  • The Ordinary Princess, M M Kaye
  • Playing Beattie Bow, Ruth Park
  • Pretty much anything by Roald Dahl.

But I am totally with Nielsen in agreeing that this is only a small selection on the vast and wonderous selection of enchanted worlds on offer for children thesedays. Some stories that were not around when I was 12, but which we have dived into gleefully (I invite you to imagine the howls of protest when I close the book and insist they go clean their teeth after I have read myself hoarse over the course of three chapters in an evening):

  • The Skullduggary Pleasant books by Derek Landy (A skeleton detective? Awesome. Not to mention his equally awesome teenage sidekick, who is the protagonist and a great female character.)
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black. Oh how I wish these had been around when I was a kid.
  • The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. I can’t tell you how much I love this man’s work. These books were written to be read to kids by adults.
  • The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, Eva Ibotson
  • The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke
  • The Tashi stories by Anna Fienberg

Which brings me to the one guiding principle I have in selecting books to read my kids. I don’t so much want to share with them the experience of reading a specific book, as the experience of being completely transported by a wonderful story. The clues I look for? An intriguing title, a beguiling concept, fascinating characters, a world that makes me want to get dinner over and done with so we can pile onto my son’s bed and sink together into the pages.

Parenting win
Parenting win

My 12 year old daughter just finished reading the Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare – books I have not read (yet). She came out of her room yesterday, and curled up next to me on the couch with a sad little look on her face. She snuggled up against me and said forlornly “I’m going to miss them.”

She was talking about the characters in the story. And that makes me feel like I’ve done it. I’ve shared enough of my own reading experiences with her, and we’ve shared enough new ones together, that I’ve succeeded in instilling in her the love of reading and story that is so precious to me. Now she can go off and have her own experiences that will enable her to shape a unique landscape of imagination of her own. I have given her that gift.

Score.

 

Reading for Writing Part 2

In my last post, I talked about how being a writer has limited my capacity as a reader. But I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t read any more. Far from it. I just find I have to be a lot more selective these days.

A small portion of the teetering to-read pile.
A small portion of the teetering to-read pile.

So what do I read and how do I prioritise? Well, here are some thoughts. In terms of priority, it’s roughly in order, but subject to change on the basis of necessity or whim.

1. I still read to my kids. I’ve put this first, because it happens almost every day, so it probably makes up the bulk of my fiction reading, even though it’s not technically for me. They’re 12 & 10 now, but they love being read to. Right now we’re reading Joan Aiken’s All But a Few. But we’ve worked our way through plenty of fabulous books. This is pure, unadulterated fun.

2. Books I really, really want to read. These are the ones that furnish the landscape of my imagination. These books have built the pantheon that I want to be a part of as a writer. They feed my muse and inspire me.

3. Books I want to read because they’re going to help me improve my craft. They might be beautifully written, or have an intriguing story premise, or won an award, or have caught the zeitgeist, or be somehow relevant to my own work.

4. Beta reading for friends. It might not be for leisure, but it’s reading fiction written by someone else and it certainly helps my own craft.

5. Non-fiction reading, usually for research, but sometimes for fun. Hell, the best research is fun.

6. Catching up on published work by friends. This is basically an impossible task now. But I do what I can.

And that’s it. That’s all I can fit in.

What I find interesting, now I’ve put that list together, is how all of it ties back, somehow, to supporting my own writing. It might just (just! *rolls eyes*) be reigniting my passion for stories and beautiful words, or it might be something more concrete, like learning more about a historical period, or how to construct a murder mystery. But I can’t not read without that writer part of my brain ticking over, hoarding the good stuff and putting squiggly red lines under the bad.

Which tells me, ultimately, that time spent reading is time well spent. Even though – or perhaps because – it’s rarer and more precious than it used to be.

Reading for Writing Part 1

I’ve had quite a literary week. On Monday I went to see the entertaining and debonair Joe Abercrombie talking about his new book, Half the World, at Harry Hartog’s (and what a beautiful Canberra bookshop that is.) I had the opportunity to chat to him before and after his talk; beforehand I quizzed him about the sex scenes he writes (!!!) and after the crowds had drifted off my CSFG buddies and I had a chance to chat to him about a bunch of things including the fantastic covers on his books.

Meeting Joe Abercrombie at Harry Hartog's
Meeting Joe Abercrombie at Harry Hartog’s (That’s me on the right, behind Shauna O’Meara. The rest of the CSFG crew, behind Joe, from left to right: Craig Cormick, Ross Hamilton, Tim Napper)

Then on Wednesday, we had our first general meeting of the CSFG for 2015, which my good friend Kimberly Gaal and I kicked off with a session on goal setting for writers.

How are these two things linked? Well, one question Joe was asked on Monday night was what is he reading now? His initial answer to this was interesting: he said “I don’t read anymore.”

I found this interesting because a quick Google search will throw back at you plenty of quotes from high profile writers telling aspiring authors that the one thing they must  do is read. But even so, this is not the first time I’ve heard a high-profile author say they just don’t read anymore.

Joe then went on to demonstrate that, actually, he does read (of course). But when he talked about reading, it was very clear that it’s not something he does for leisure these days. He reads a lot of non-fiction for research, and he indicated the fiction he reads now is mostly in genres other than what he writes (dark fantasy).

At our CSFG meeting on Monday, one of the things we talked about in relation to goal-setting, was doing a reading challenge as a useful way to expand our horizons, connect with readers, understand markets and feed the muse. (Here’s a great post from Elizabeth Fitzgerald over at Earl Grey Editing about reading challenges.)

This all got me thinking about what and why I read. I absolutely do not read anywhere near as much as I used to. I have no hesitation in saying it is one of life’s great pleasures. I was an inveterate bookworm as a child. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was six. I started reading the likes of Anne McCaffrey and Tanith Lee when I was about thirteen. I read and read and then I reread and reread again. In University, I wrangled my degree so that it was about 85% English Literature subjects. This meant I (was supposed to) read something in the order of thirty to forty books a year. I can’t say hand-on-heart that I did read that many, but I read most.

But now…

I find reading uses a similar part of my brain as writing. It also scratches a similar itch and fills in the same few spare hours. So for me, it’s often a choice. Read or write. Still, I definitely do read. I just have to be very selective. I’m also pretty brutal now about finishing books. If it’s not doing what I want it to do for me, I stop reading it. I do not have time to persevere with duds. I set aside one massively popular bestseller just recently because I could not stand either of the two main characters and I did not want to spend another minute in their company. If I decide I want to know how it ends (I’m not fussed right now, I don’t want either of them to prevail), I’ll go see the movie.

Having said all that, I do still read, and it is still one of my favourite ways to spend an hour. Or three. Or eight. Like most people who love books, I have a to-read pile that in its darker, more unstable moments could kill small children if it toppled over. So in my next blog post, I’ll talk about what and why I read, and how I prioritise that growing stack beside my bed. And the one on the bookcase. And the one beside the bookcase on the floor. And –

*sound of books falling*

*muffled screams for help*