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!


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.

Note to self…

…Next time you’re having trouble getting the story flowing, Leife, stop and have a think about how you can make that particular plot point have emotional consequences for your characters.

The desperate man, Gustave Courbet, 1845

I’m amazed at how often I forget basic pieces of writing advice. Then when I remember a thing I’ve known for years (usually when I’m in the shower), it’s an epiphany.

I’ve been struggling to move my current WIP along for the last couple of weeks. It’s been a bit puzzling. I’ve got that bit of plot all mapped out. I know what’s supposed to happen. But, somehow, I just haven’t managed to bring it to life.

Medea, Frederick Sandys, 1868

I’d put it down to the depressing necessity of returning to work after holidays, tiredness, general malaise, burnout from having gone hammer-and-tongs at the manuscript in the two months leading up to Christmas. I couldn’t figure it out.

Miss Clive “In Love’s Shadow” or Proud Maisie, by Frederick Sandys, 1867

Then, in the shower today (of course), I worked it out. I had a plot point. I had a thing that had to happen to move the story along, but it was entirely mechanical and bereft of any emotional impact on my characters. I just had to spend a few minutes thinking about how I could use the scene to mess up my characters some more add an element of emotional narrative to the scene and Voila! It came alive.

Somewhere along the way I’ve picked up the term “emotional stepping stones”. This idea resonates strongly with me and how I like to write. I can plot out a sequence of events for my story, but what brings it to life in my mind and gets my creative juices flowing is the emotional touchstones of a character’s arc. Every time I think about a candy bar scene that I had to get up in the middle of the night to write, it’s a scene involving some kind of emotional high (or low) for my character.

So that’s my note to myself. To remember that my story isn’t just a sequence of events, but a series of emotional stepping-stones, and that, actually, is what keeps me interested.

So glad I sorted that out. Now have some more Pre-Raphaelite pictures of beautiful people having emotions.

Joan of Arc, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1882
Simeon Solomon
Young Rabbi Holding the Torah, Simeon Solomon, 1871

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*