The Rich Rewards of Research

By Carina Tan-Van Baren and Tamara Hunter

Think research is dry and dusty? Rather be conjuring dragons from the clouds? You could be missing one of the most fun parts of writing a book.

Far from a necessary evil, authors at the 2012 Perth Writers Festival described research as an indulgence, a black hole of such magnetism and depth that they struggled to get to the writing bit at all.

In keeping with his rock star aura over the weekend, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø told the audience in the ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’ session that some of the research he had done was “illegal, so I can’t tell you”.  But Nesbø did describe an unusual approach to finding one particular answer.

“I needed to know whether you could use a vacuum cleaner to suck out an eyeball. And so I took a vacuum cleaner at home and put it on my eye and gently turned it on,” he said. As the audience gasped, the casual conclusion: “It seems you can’t suck out an eyeball.”

Less alarmingly, Nesbø learned how to parachute and gained a parachuting certificate while researching his first novel on a five-week trip to Sydney in 1997.

Fellow panellists, Australia’s Michael Robotham and South African author Lauren Beukes, triggered the research discussion by comparing their experiences in the sewers of the UK and South Africa.

“The journalist in me means I need to have done the research,” Robotham said. His wife vetoed research trips to Afghanistan and Chernobyl but he did explore the sewers of London with a group of urban cavers for his novel Lost. It was a dangerous and nerve-wracking venture which inspired the creation of a character, Weatherman Pete.

“His sole job was to make sure there had been no showers anywhere in London,” Robotham said. “Someone always stays on top…even the smallest amount of water, it is like God himself has pulled the chain.”

Beukes took an official tour of the storm drains in Capetown. “It was really interesting to me just doing the research in terms of the stuff you can’t imagine,” she said. “The details like, there are cockroaches everywhere and they are congealed in lumps on the walls.”

Beukes went on to describe the sickening crunch and scuttle of the roaches when someone tripped and fell against a wall, dislodging one such lump.

In the ‘Northern Lights’ session, Norwegian author and playwright Johan Harstad said he found it difficult to read fiction because the different voices affected his writing. But he did read non-fiction for research.

“You can indulge yourself in reading and learning about subjects that are utterly ridiculous,” he said. “At the moment, I am reading about hotel carpets and how they decide the ugly patterns. I didn’t know that the more complex and ugly it is, the more dirt it can hide.”

Nesbø, joining Harstad for another festival appearance, said there was a danger in doing too much research. “You feel you have invested so much time in your research that you have to put it in your book,” he said. “The research you want to use are the bits that will drive the book forward.

“I like doing research for the sake of doing research but hopefully I have learned not to put too much of it in my stories.”

In the session, ‘From Little Things…”, Julienne van Loon, author and senior lecturer in creative writing at Curtin University, said: “People think fiction is always about imagination but there’s always some research to do and it’s often the research that solves a dilemma or sometimes even at the same time opens up a whole new box of delicacies for you.”

That ‘new box’ can be a little too tempting.

Acclaimed Australian author Frank Moorhouse described research as “one of the joys and also one of the agonies of writing”. Moorhouse spent 21 years researching and writing the Edith Trilogy, including four years in France and Switzerland studying and working in the archives of the League of Nations.

“The agony of it is there is no end to it. It’s infinite,” he said. “Every dusty document they bring up from the archives of the League of Nations – and they’re not really dusty – but when you open it you think ‘Oh my God’ and as you read it you realise you must then have the adjoining files and the files on either side of those files, and it’s infinite.

“With Grand Days for instance, which was my first of the books, I spent all that time in Geneva and some time in Washington. I thought even if the book had failed it was not wasted.”

Favel Parrett, author of Past the Shallows, went to Macquarie Island on an icebreaker as research for the novel she is currently working on.

“It was one of the greatest trips of my life,” she said. “The research has been so amazing and opens up so many questions. But there is a line where you have to stop and do the writing. I like the research so much I could just keep doing that for a couple of years or more.”

So what have we learned? Research is important but it can be incredibly diverting. If you don’t sit down and write at some stage, all you’re doing is having fun.

It sucks to be a writer.

Jo Nesbø is a musician, songwriter, economist and phenomenally successful author from Norway whose crime novels have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Michael Robotham is a former investigative journalist and non-fiction writer turned multiple award-winning international crime writer, based in Sydney. His latest book is The Wreckage.

Lauren Beukes is a South African author, short story writer, TV scriptwriter and freelance journalist. In 2010, she was named Book SA’s Author of the Year. Her latest book is Zoo City.

Johan Harstad is a Norwegian author and playwright. His first novel, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? made the Best Fiction 2011 list by Kirkus Review.

Julienne van Loon is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Curtin University and the author of several fiction and non-fiction books . Her first novel, Road Story, won the  Australian/Vogel Award in 2004.

Frank Moorhouse was made a member of the Order of Australia for services to literature in 1985. He has written fiction, non-fiction, screenplays, essays and edited collections.

Favel Parrett is a Victorian writer who was awarded a Mentorship from the Australian Society of Authors in 2009 for her novel, Past The Shallows. She is working on her next novel.

Other reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >

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The Reading Cure

By Tamara Hunter

“Is reading overrated?”

The question posed by the 2012 Perth Writers Festival session seemed a ridiculous one to ask in a forum jammed with readers, writers, publishers and general devotees of the written word. Talk about preaching to the converted.

But for a significant number of people, reading is by no means a given. An astonishing 46 per cent of Australians are unable to read with fluency. According to the website for the National Year of Reading, almost half of all Australians are unable to read newspapers, follow recipes or timetables or understand the instructions on a medicine bottle.

Just ponder that for a minute. Try to imagine a life without reading. When the authors on yesterday’s festival panel were asked to do this, they appeared stricken.

“I can’t imagine what it would be like if I hadn’t read. I would probably be a very, very unhappy and hollow man,” answered  Andrew Relph, the Perth psychologist, psychotherapist and author whose first book explores the idea of reading as a gift and saviour.

In Not Drowning, Reading Relph – who had a reading disability as a child and laboriously taught himself to read later in life – discusses how our relationships with authors and characters can be instrumental to our emotional development and survival.

Relph reads few books because the process is so slow for him – he typically takes about six months on each one – so he chooses his material carefully. The books he has read are deeply significant to him and he credits them with helping him to recover from an emotionally difficult childhood. As a result, he firmly believes books have the power to remediate psychological problems.

“I believe it because it has happened to me and because I have watched it happen to other people.”

Books are manna, too, to beloved Australian actor, author and fellow panellist William McInnes, a man so popular he packed venues to bursting at each of his festival appearances.

McInnes – a self-proclaimed boofhead whose hilariously erratic ramblings and compulsive impersonations of politicians and other public figures at an earlier session prompted interviewer Geoff Hutchinson to screw up and throw over his shoulder the questions he’d prepared – is the patron of the National Year of Reading. In between hilariously erratic ramblings, an hysterical reading from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and speaking movingly of his late wife, Sarah Watt, McInnes took the chance to talk up the three key goals of the NYOR initiative.

  • For all Australians to understand the benefits of reading as a life skill and a catalyst for well-being
  • To promote a reading culture in every home and
  • To establish an aspirational goal for families, of parents and caregivers sharing books with their children every day.

McInnes told festival-goers that for him, reading was about education, knowledge and communication. It lent people opportunity, confidence and connection, no matter how alone they thought they were or whatever dark place they may find themselves in. On a personal level, reading kept him on an even keel.

“Reading lets me know about what has been, about what is going on in the world. It gives me a fair idea of where we might be headed.”

He said it didn’t matter what people read – as long as they did it. Hence the excerpt  from Goldfinger, a book he thought brilliant at 13 but later realised was hilarious precisely because it was ‘absolute bullshit’.

“It is rubbish, but when you’re in the right mood for it, you don’t want to be judgmental. You mustn’t be a snob about it – reading takes all shapes and forms these days and as long as people read I think that’s a terrific thing.”

HarperCollins publishing director Shona Martyn agreed, saying there was no right or wrong way to read, whatever the format – whether a book in paper or digital form, a novel or the comic/sequential art narrative form exemplified by fellow panellist, illustrator and children’s author Nicki Greenberg.

“What I think is exciting about how people read and how people connect is it’s individual,” said Martyn. “You should choose a type of reading that is appropriate for you. If you feel like something quick and easy and casual, just enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty. Sometimes people go to bookshops and feel intimidated. I encourage people to read and enjoy it any way they can.”

Relph added that readers should never feel obliged to finish every book they started. He said people connected with particular books because of similarities between the stories and their lives.

“I think that is why at different times of your life different types of books are more appealing to you. Sometimes if you reread a book a long time later it has maybe less power or more power. You have to be in the moment to engage with the book. If you are not enjoying a book put it aside. Maybe you want to enjoy it at another time. Maybe it isn’t for you. You should never continue reading a book just because you started it. If you don’t like it, put it back.”

Andrew Relph is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Perth who has battled dyslexia since childhood and who didn’t read a book until the age of 17. Not Drowning, Reading, is his first published book.

William McInnes is one of Australia’s most popular stars of stage and screen and the author of several books including A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby and Worse Things Happen At Sea, the affectionate recounting of family life he penned with his late wife, the film-maker Sarah Watt, before her death from cancer in November last year.

Shona Martyn is the Publishing Director at HarperCollins (Australia and New Zealand). She is a former editor of HQ magazine and of Good Weekend magazine.

Nicki Greenberg is a writer/illustrator with a special interest in sequential art narrative – aka comics. Her first books, The Digits series, were published when she was fifteen years old and sold more than 380,000 copies. Her latest books are comic art interpretations of The Great Gatsby and Hamlet.

Other reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >

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Festival Feast And 500 Words

And we’re back.

After an extended break over the festive season – slave to the demands of “the world of real things” as author John Birmingham describes it – Waxings is back in business.

This weekend, yours truly and Tamara Hunter are sucking the literary marrow from the bones of the Perth Writers Festival. The festival features a great line-up of speakers and writing-related topics and we’ve been running hither and yon, gathering the tastiest titbits to share with you. Reports will be posted anon.

But first, the 500-word challenge.

The first challenge for the year is now open. Write 500 words around the theme ‘intrigue’ and send them to waxings.blog@gmail.com by midnight on 1 April 2012 (AWST, GMT+8) to be in the running for a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.

We are also taking new submissions of writing for our poetry, tasters and short story sections for community feedback. If you haven’t read the latest offering, Tangled Lines: The Prologue, by Kimberlee Akimoto and Mark Cunningham, stop by and tell us what you think. Then take a cruise around the rest of the site. Constructive comment is both welcome and encouraged.

Have to dash to the next PWF session now but I’ll leave you with a few noteworthy quotes from Day 1.

On research:

I needed to know whether you could use a vacuum cleaner to suck out an eyeball. So I took the vacuum cleaner at home and put it to my eye and gently turned it on…it seems you can’t suck out an eyeball. – Jo Nesbo.

When I went down the storm drains of Capetown…it was really interesting to me just doing research in terms of the stuff you can’t imagine, the details like, I didn’t realise there were so many cockroaches everywhere and they are congealed in lumps on the walls. – Lauren Beukes.

On writing about sex:

The reality is that most of us, lots of us, spend a lot of time thinking about or pursuing or failing to get sex. Given that I write about the whole human animal, it is inevitable I am going to write about sex. – Glen Duncan.

I like to consider myself as a pornographer rather than a writer of erotica because I prefer the whole chicken to the feather. – Krissy Kneen.

On genre writing:

I was a completely accidental crime writer…it was only when I was asked by my publisher what I was going to write next and I had this great idea for a romance and they said: ‘You can’t do that, you’re a crime writer’. I said: ‘Where does it say that?’ and they said: ‘It’s in your contract’. – Michael Robotham

There are some really, really brilliant writers that are writing at the moment. Down the track, they will look at this era and say it was a golden age for crime writing. – Michael Robotham

On repeated rejection by publishers:

It boils down to a degree of talent and persistence. You need both.  Even if you are a genius, if you don’t get off your backside and persist, forget it. – Leigh Hobbs

On character creation:

Just because Mr Chicken has no head and looks like something you would cook, there’s no excuse for him not to look nice. So I gave him a hat. – Leigh Hobbs

On writing about dark matter:

It’s cathartic for the writer and the reader which is why readers are so often drawn to really dark matter and to tragic stories, because there is a sense of coherence you get through having it put in a story form.  – Elliot Perlman.

On blogging:

I didn’t join for the community, I joined because I wanted to show off – Marieke Hardy

On output:

I try to write 5000 words a day.  – John Birmingham.

Gulp.  On that note – get to it people!

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Winner, ‘Hunger’ Challenge

Congratulations to Greg Doolan, winner of the ‘hunger’ challenge with Gone in a Flash, a thought-provoking reflection on what makes life worth living – for one man at least.

Greg wins a copy of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

Thanks to all who took the time to enter this extended round. Thanks also to our guest judge, Perth writer, editor and publisher extraordinaire, Jane Bourke, for her prompt consideration of all the fine stories submitted. (The delay in announcement was entirely my fault!) Find out more about Jane at Jay Bee Books.

Jane was given only the title and text of each entry, without author name, and agreed not to read the posted versions so was not aware of ‘likes’ or comments.

Here are her thoughts on Gone in a Flash:

This month’s challenges were all of such a high standard. I feel they should all be winners but I know I must pick only one. In that case, I have to go with Gone in a Flash. It captured my attention right from the start and held it beautifully until the end. I particularly enjoyed the way the writer retrospectively described a dark event, as well as the motives and background to that event, neatly tying up all loose ends in just 500 words. The writer managed to intrigue us with a vivid sensory feast, while also arousing empathy for the story’s protagonist. I especially liked the second last line with the senses coming full circle. An evocative and raw piece.

***

The Next Challenge

Speaking of ‘gone in a flash’, the next round of the 500-word challenge will be the last for this year. The new theme is ‘dreams’.

Write up to 500 words around this theme and send them to waxings.blog@gmail.com by midnight on Christmas Eve (AWST, GMT+8) for a chance to win a copy of The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.

Let the dreaming commence.

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Nano for Noobs

November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). If, like me, you are both intrigued and intimidated by the thought of writing a novel in just four weeks, read on.

Guest post by Simon Haynes

I don’t like calling anyone a noob, but Nano for Dummies was even more insulting and I can’t afford the court case.

When I first stumbled across NaNoWriMo in 2005 it was exactly the sort of challenge I needed. I’ve always been a fairweather writer, prone to weeks of feverish activity interspersed with months of inactivity. The idea of forcing myself to write about 1800 words a day for an entire month really appealed. It would hurt! It would be a challenge! It would make a real author out of me!

Since then I’ve completed NaNoWriMo five times, only skipping 2009 due to the editing of my then-current novel. I was supposed to be editing a book every other November too, but this time I was way past deadline and I couldn’t fib or stall my way out of it.

For those gazing upon Nano with trepidation, wondering whether they can possibly meet the writing target … relax. As I said, I’m not the world’s fastest writer (I don’t even touch type properly) and I’m easily distracted, and if I can manage 2000 words per day for 25 days then so can you.

See what I did there? I already changed your goal and November hasn’t even started yet! Don’t aim for 1667 words for 30 days, build up a buffer by eking out just that little bit more during each session. There’s no harm in finishing five or six days early.

2000 words is a decent slab of text, so how do I force myself to sit down and write for that many minutes (hours) at a time? I don’t! Instead of thinking about a gigantic 2000 word effort, I visualise a bar of chocolate broken into four pieces. Yum. Drool. Chocolate.

Where was I? Oh yes, breaking down. Take those 2000 words and snap them into four bite-sized pieces of 500 words each. It’s the same number of calories, but you get to digest each chunk before starting on the next. I like to write 500 words before I open my web browser or email app in the morning, then knock off another 500 around lunchtime, and finally I do two 500-word sessions in the evening. If I can stretch the morning and noon sessions to 600 words, so much the better.

What if you’re not used to writing 500 words? There’s nothing to stop you writing ten lots of 200 words. Now that really IS easy. We’re talking about less than a page of text in a paperback book. In fact, it just took me ELEVEN MINUTES to type the 450+ words of guest blog you’ve read up to this point.

The secret is knowing what you want to say. I can fire off 600-800 word guest blogs all day long on a variety of subjects, and we all write emails and post to facebook and twitter in no time. So why do we dither when it comes to fiction? Partly because we’re creating, not pouring forth existing knowledge. And partly because we adopt the persona of the characters in our novels – speech patterns, desires, thoughts, etc. But mostly because we usually have no idea what happens next.

So, part of the Nano secret is to have some kind of plan for the day’s work. I don’t mean a detailed plot outline – just a list of scenes to pick from, with a few ideas about what they should contain. E.g. I might start the day with half a dozen scene outlines, and if the first burns up 1200 words then I’ll only need one more to complete the day’s word count.

What might a scene outline look like? Here’s a basic example: Character A discovers his car has been stolen. He tries to hitch a lift to work but is arrested for soliciting.

When I started on that outline I meant to go in a different direction (he gets mugged while walking to work) Same difference – sometimes you don’t know where it’s all going until you start writing. The important thing is to have a stash of these outlines so you can write the one you’re most interested in right now. You don’t have to write scenes in order, and you can make up new ones as you go along.

So there you have it: try and write in small doses, make sure you have plenty of ideas to work from, and allow yourself some flexibility. Above all, don’t re-read or critique your work! Most novels go through umpteen revisions before they’re ready, and the important thing is to finish some kind of first draft.

Simon Haynes was born in England and grew up in Spain, where he enjoyed an amazing childhood of camping, motorbikes, mateship, air rifles and paper planes. His family moved to Australia when he was 16. Simon has four Hal Spacejock novels, one Hal Junior novel and several short stories in print. Sleight of Hand won the Aurealis Award (short fiction) in 2001, and Hal Spacejock: No Free Lunch was a finalist in both the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards for 2008. Simon divides his time between writing fiction and computer software, with frequent bike rides to blow away the cobwebs. His goal is to write fifteen Hal books (Spacejock OR Junior!) before someone takes his keyboard away. http://www.spacejock.com.au

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E-book Publishing: A Beginner’s Experience

Guest post by Vanessa Monaghan

In my corner of the Internet, I blog about the ups and downs of life with food allergies. My blog is called “Food Allergy Mum” because that’s the title that seems to define me most days of the week. I have a son with peanut allergy and my husband was recently diagnosed with coeliac disease, so food is a big problem in our family.  Blogging is a sanity saver. It’s cheaper than therapy and has the added benefit of helping others who are struggling with similar issues.

A few weeks ago I decided to write a post about how to manage the early days of a food allergy diagnosis. I still remember how frightening it was and how overwhelmed I felt at the prospect of managing my son’s condition. There are a lot of resources available for parents about how to manage the medical side of food allergies, but very little about the practical and emotional issues parents face. I sat down to write with a few dot points in mind, but by the time I was finished, the post was 3,500 words. It was far too long, even for a series of posts, so I decided to add it to my site as an e-book.

Producing an e-book isn’t complicated, but it helps if you have a good grasp on the basics of design and layout. Sadly I’m a novice in both these areas so I spent quite a while tinkering around in photoshop designing a cover for my e-book. From the research I’d done, I knew that the title was the most important element of the cover, so I made that the focus, and then added in an image that complemented it. I purchased the image from istockphoto which has a large collection of royalty free images that anyone can use.

I now had the text and the cover, but I wasn’t sure how people would access the e-book.  Fortunately a few blogging friends came to the rescue, tipping me off about e-junkie, an online shopping cart for selling downloads and other goods on your blog or website. Signing up to e-junkie was simple, as was the process for uploading my e-book. Within a few hours I had my e-book on my blog, ready for purchase.

The ease with which I’d created my e-book for my blog gave me the confidence to try uploading it to Amazon’s Kindlestore. Creating the e-book for my blog had been as simple as converting the word document to a PDF, but when you publish for the Kindle, you need to follow Amazon’s formatting requirements. Fortunately these are clearly spelt out on their website. I was already an Amazon member, but if you’re not, you need to sign up before you can upload titles on Amazon’s Digital Text Platform.

I’m not a technically minded person at all but I had no difficulty following the instructions for upload. Within 24 hours my e-book was available in the Kindlestore – I know this because I kept searching my name on Amazon until it came up! Even though you’ve published the book yourself, and know that anyone can do so, there’s still a reasonable amount of satisfaction in seeing it listed there.

Although the technical side of self-publishing isn’t too difficult (providing you don’t have any images), there are a few downsides to self-publishing on both Kindle and other platforms that need to be considered. These include:

  • Authors earn 70% of the price of the e-book except if the book is purchased in Australia – then you’ll only earn 35%.
  • Kindle is increasingly being targeted by spammers, making it harder for readers to determine which titles are legitimate.
  • Thousands of titles are uploaded to Kindle each month so in many ways your e-book is just another needle in the haystack.
  • Unless you have an established online platform and a reasonable number of people in your online network, sales of your e-book may be non-existent.
  • In order to sell your e-book, you’ll need to invest significant time and effort in marketing through social networks and book blogs.
  • Publishing your e-book leaves you open to having your content stolen and re-published by others who may then detract from your sales.

I decided to price my e-book at $0.99 because it’s very short, however, the Kindle store is full of much longer books for the same price. Self published non-fiction e-books are generally priced much higher than their fiction cousins. The price point for self published fiction e-books seems to range from $0.99 to $5.99. Non-fiction e-books (perhaps because they’re often produced by marketers and website owners) can cost more than $25 or as little as a dollar. The general advice seems to be, play around with price points and see how changes influence your sales.  Of course, you also have the option of offering your e-book for free.

Vanessa Monaghan blogs about managing her family’s food allergies at Food Allergy Mum. She is also a social media junkie who spends far too much time on facebooktwitter and google+.

 

 

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On Poetry, Writer’s Block and Eating

Guest post by Kaitlyn Plyley

I’ve just sat down for a chat with Perth writer and filmmaker David Vincent Smith, also known as DVS (pronounced ‘Devious’ – see what he did there?). DVS is one of Perth’s best performance poets, as well as one of the founders of Seventh Continent Productions. And he’s twenty-three years old. When he saunters in with his scruffy beard and wide grin, you might mistake him for a bad Gen Y stereotype – but this is one of the hardest working young writers in Perth.

“I’m a firm believer that writer’s block doesn’t exist,” he says. “I think it’s just an excuse. The idea that you could sit down and not be able to write is a load of shit. Writer’s block is not being able to write up to the standard that you want to be writing at that moment. I mean, nobody can always write their best piece every day. So, you just sit down and start writing and eventually, after maybe a page or two, you get into the flow. You get one line that will trigger an entire new thought and bang, you’re away. So, whenever people say, ‘Aw, yeah I’ve got writer’s block, I haven’t really done much in six months,’ I’m like, bullshit, you haven’t got writer’s block – you bought Call of Duty. Sit down over there, start writing.”

It might sound a bit severe, but this writer expects nothing less from himself. “I was working in a supermarket from when I was fourteen to nineteen, and I used to get fifteen-minute lunchbreaks. Because it was such mundane work, the whole time I was working I’d memorise paragraphs of the book I was working on, then write them out in my lunchbreaks. At night I’d go home and just compile it together. I was like, don’t waste a minute of your time, always be writing. Now I’m really brutal on myself – I just work, work, work.”

And all this effort has been paying off for the writer/director. In 2010, DVS was flown back and forth between Perth and Sydney, for free, twice. The first trip was to attend the finals of the Optus One80Project with his co-director Aaron Moss, where their film Southern Cross won the Viewers’ Choice Award. The Award came with a $10,000 cash prize, which the guys re-invested in their production company Seventh Continent. They also got to chat with Australian film industry success stories like Blue-Tongue Films (Animal Kingdom) and David Wenham (The Return of the King, Oranges and Sunshine).

DVS’s second trip to Sydney last year was for the national finals of the Australian Poetry Slam. He entered the 2010 WA Poetry Slam and quickly won his way to the state finals with a hip hop poem entitled ‘Fortified’. With lines like ‘My father gave me a shovel at twelve/ And I’ve been burying my emotions ever since,’ he won over the crowd and took out first place, snagging himself a place in the finals held at the Sydney Theatre Company.

Since then, he’s barely sat still. Earlier this year, he and Aaron produced a short film about slam poetry, called The Ballad of Nick Chopper, for which DVS wrote the script and most of the poetry. The film screened at the Perth Poetry Slam finals in February. They also entered another film in the 2011 Optus One80Project, Family Tree, as well as working on several other projects, including two new feature films and several music videos. Even as we speak, DVS reminds me that he can’t stay long because he has to get another script finished by today. Phew, this dude never stops!

“I usually have so many different projects on the go. I’m usually either writing for film, writing for music, or writing for spoken word. Or some article that I feel like writing just for the hell of it. If I want to take a break I just switch what I’m doing. Like, okay I’ve had enough of poetry, I’ll do film writing tomorrow. But I usually have so many different deadlines.

“Deadlines are really good, because they kind of force you to be creative. You could be like, well, my life goal is to write a novel. Well you could start that when you’re fifty, you know. One of my first life goals was ‘you must write a novel before you’re twenty-one’ and I ticked that off my list, and now my next goal is ‘you must make a feature film before you’re twenty-five’ and I’m really stressing out about that one! Unless someone gives me millions of dollars after reading this interview…” (NB: Cheques are payable to David Vincent Smith.)

DVS and I get to chatting about life in the creative arts. Like most young, arty-type people, we almost immediately began with ‘OMG how broke are we?’ While our friends with Law and Economics degrees are slaving away with the (possibly incorrect) assurance that they’re guaranteed a well-paid job one day, we of the Arts have not even that comfortable illusion. Sometimes following your passion means giving up financial security. DVS lives by himself and pays his own way, so I ask him how he’s been supporting himself while he makes his career in writing and film. He does some casual shifts at a bar in Northbridge, but I find out most of his money comes from an unusual source.

“I’ve gotten by for fourteen or fifteen months now just by winning random competitions and pawning off the prizes. Last year Aaron and I each won a Blackberry [for Southern Cross], and I sold mine to a chef in the kitchen next door at work. I hell needed money that week; I needed to go grocery shopping, haha.”

I ask him if he thinks we’re right to be encouraging kids to pursue writing when it’s such a poorly paid career path. Would it be wiser to caution them to get ‘real jobs’ to fall back on, rather than risk being a starving artist?

“I think you can only say what you did, and then let them make their decision,” DVS reasons. He knew from the age of eight or nine that he wanted to be a writer, and no threats of financial insolvency could hold him back. After high school, he enrolled in an Information Management course at Curtin University, but it didn’t interest him. “To be honest, I don’t even remember it. Uni was something that happened between what I wanted to do with my life, so it’s all a blur. If I didn’t find the odd assignment in my drawers every now and then, I’d forget I even went.”

Instead, he switched to TAFE (now called the Central Institute of Technology) and completed an Advanced Diploma of Screen (Directing). “I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be in terms of film studies, so I asked my lecturers lots of questions and really tried to get out what I wanted.”

Does he regret choosing the uncertain path of an arts career over a steady job in Information Management?

“I definitely thought about going the safe way, and then I thought, stuff it. Obviously it makes sense to have something to fall back on – it just depends how much you care about security. I like the idea of being able to eat food, but my aim in life is not to have a mansion or drive around in a Mercedes-Benz. My aim is to be able to spend every day writing and growing as an artist. I mean, that sounds really pretentious, but [that lifestyle] is more enjoyable, to be honest.”

I point out that, for most committed artists, their aspirations don’t reach as high as mansions or flash cars – they’re just aspiring to eat well and pay rent. A lot of young artists can’t afford to move out of home. David nods. “I do live out of home, but I’d love to be able to live out of home. And not slowly die out of home,” he laughs.

Having seen DVS in action on stage, I’m curious to know what goes through his mind while he’s performing his poetry. He laughs, and explains, “I was about to say, ‘not a lot’. I guess I’m very conscious of trying to engage people. Also, my hands – I see the words as movements. It’s hard to explain, but I see it as connections. I usually try to break each line down into an actual hand movement.”

I remember this from watching his performances – he almost seemed to have choreographed his poetry.

“When I’m writing I’m already seeing the hand movements,” he says. “I usually don’t sit down when I write, I usually walk around in circles. It’s like I’m orchestrating what I’m writing. It’s kind of a strange thing. So if you ever see me writing I’m just walking around in circles waving my hands in the air. It looks like I’m trying to do swimming freestyle through the air. And then [the movements] slowly become more controlled and constructed.

“I guess the other thing that’s kind of weird is sometimes before I start writing I know I kind of want to write a piece about [a certain idea], but I’m not really sure what it’s going to be about. So I kind of just let all the words that have to do with that kind of idea just bubble in my mind, and I just keep thinking of words that have to do with that. And then like you kind of get a – it’s hard to explain – like a taste in your mouth, and then you just go after a while.

“Sometimes if you have a good idea, rather than just starting to write it, you just let it simmer in your mind for a few weeks, and you let it build and build until you feel the story in your body, and then after a few weeks it just happens.”

Like they (whoever they are) say, writing is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. David Vincent Smith is a writer who seems to understand the importance of both.

Kaitlyn Plyley is a Perth writer and performance poet who has been described as “thought-provoking”, “a possible genius” and “really, really tall”. She made it into the 2010 Australian Poetry Slam nationals with a rap about bogans and is currently Australian Poetry’s poet-in-residence at Il Lido café in Cottesloe. Find out more at www.kaitlynplyley.com

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Q&A With Text Prize Winner Jane Higgins

Jane Higgins won the 2010 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing for her first novel, The Bridge, a post-apocalyptic action thriller. Jane lives in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she is a senior research fellow at Lincoln University, specialising in youth studies. She kindly answered some questions from Waxings.

What inspired The Bridge?

Many things. I travelled in Europe when I was young, when East and West were divided by the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. I met young people from both sides of the divide who lived with the possibility of war every day.  I also work with young people in my job as a social science researcher and they always impress me with the strength of their friendships and their capacity to ask big questions. These all came together in The Bridge.

Was it your first completed manuscript?

No, sitting in a drawer at home is my ‘training-wheels novel’ – so-called because I learned a lot about writing from working on it.

How long did it take you to finish it? Given your university work, how/when did you find time to write?

It took about three years to produce the draft I sent to Text and another year for the publication process. My university work takes about two thirds of my time and to be honest it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on that and not write. The story insisted on going everywhere with me, so I’d be writing at every possible moment – in my lunch hour, after dinner, in the weekends and on holidays. I also wrote in my head when stuck in traffic, on my daily walk in the hills near my home and whenever I woke up at 4 in the morning. 

Why did you enter the Text Prize?

Serendipity played a part. I had just finished my third rewrite when the Prize opened for 2010.  I knew Text was a great publisher – they publish some of the best New Zealand writers – and when I checked out their YA novels I thought (and hoped) that The Bridge might fit with the kind of stories they publish.

How has winning changed your life/writing?

It’s been exhilarating. I love to write and getting published has been an affirmation of that.  I don’t feel so guilty about spending all those hours on it.

Was the publication process what you expected? How?

More or less. I worked with my Text editor on the manuscript over several months, passing it backwards and forwards between us, gradually refining it. That was a great process. I was learning to see the novel from ‘outside’ and to understand what worked and what didn’t from a reader’s perspective.

What was the best part of the process?

Launching the book – we had a huge party at my favourite café, with friends from many parts of my life. Wonderful!

What was the worst?

It’s hard to think of a worst part.  In many ways, the most challenging part has been finally sending it out there. It’s not mine anymore. As Ursula Le Guin says ‘Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion. Without a reader there’s no story.’ (The Wave in the Mind, Shambhala, p230) It’s up to readers now to make the story happen.

How are you finding the promotional aspects of the process?

I’m enjoying it. It’s a chance to talk about writing and to have conversations with people about their readings of The Bridge. It’s interesting what people pick up on or have questions about.

Are you writing/have you written a second novel?

I’m working on a sequel.

Has it been easier to write following your experience with The Bridge? How?

No, it hasn’t got easier, but it is different. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m back at the beginning working on the (always terrible) first draft. It’s a much messier process than polishing the final draft, and it’s a challenge to live with the mess for a while, until its shape becomes clear.

Has anyone/Text shown interest in publishing this subsequent work?

Happily, yes! I’ve signed a contract with Text for the sequel.

What advice would you give aspiring authors?

Write and write and write some more. Don’t worry about the terrible first draft – everybody has one. Revise until it’s as good as you can make it then give it to other people to read (people who’ll be honest with you), listen to their feedback and then revise some more. Read great writing – the more the better. Enjoy every good sentence/paragraph/page that you craft.

 

 

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Winner, ‘Breath’ Challenge

Congratulations to Kimberlee Akimoto, winner of the ‘breath’ challenge with Bated Breath. It certainly made me think about my life choices.

Kim wins a copy of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

Thanks to all who took the time to enter this round.  Also to second-time guest judge, Ara Jansen, a  freelance journalist, music guru and former magazine editor. Ara was given only the titles and text of each entry, without author names, and agreed not to read the posted versions so was not aware of ‘likes’ or comments.

Here are her comments on Bated Breath:

Bated Breath’s Baxter Caldwell won my heart because his story is one all too common in this world moving at a rapid pace. Too much energy in all the wrong places. He seems to get another chance, but who wants to wait for a deer to help you choose life (thanks George Michael). Baxter needs to read Breathing You and Morning Breath for that promise of a better life, while Simon from Morning Breath might well have written Breathing You for Miranda after finishing his ministrations.

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The Next Challenge

The next round of the 500-word challenge is now open and the new theme is ‘hunger’.

Write up to 500 words around the theme and send them to waxings.blog@gmail.com by midnight, 1 November 2011 (AWST, GMT+8) for a chance to win Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

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New ‘Hunger’ Challenge and More…

The ‘breath’ challenge has now closed and our guest judge, Ara Jansen, is hard at work reading the submissions. Good luck to all who entered – picking the winner will be tough. *evil laugh of someone with no judging responsibility*

If you didn’t enter the ‘breath’ round, you missed out on an opportunity to win The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

But all is not lost. Waxings is insatiable when it comes to short fiction and is dangling more book-bait in the next 500-word challenge, which is now open.

The new theme is ‘hunger’. Write up to 500 words around the theme and send them to waxings.blog@gmail.com by midnight, 1 November 2011 (AWST, GMT+8) for a chance to win Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

If you’re feeling particularly kind, please spread the word about the 500-word challenge among your writing friends. This handy link will tell them all about it.

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Recent Waxing

Melinda Chapman set out to write a 500-word piece for ‘breath’ but the story she came up with needed a few more words. So we’ve published Max and his Incredible Underwater Adventures in Short Fiction. It’s a great read – let us know what you think.

Otherwise, it’s been a little quiet of late. If you have any words you’d like to post and get some feedback on – poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction – send it to waxings.blog@gmail.com. We’d love to read it.

Don’t forget to have a wander around the other words we’ve already published and give the writers some feedback. What goes around…

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Opportunities for Writers

If you want more of these kinds of links, faster, follow @waxings on Twitter and/or ‘like’ Waxings on Facebook, where we share these bits and pieces as soon as we spot them. (*Bear in mind that we don’t know any more than you do about these offerings – just pass on interesting-looking links.)

If you hear of any other opportunities for writers in your part of the world, please share them with us via email/Facebook or Twitter.

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