Nola’s top tip for aspiring authors: Keep writing. It’s so easy to walk away from writing when it gets tough but you will be the poorer for it. Stick at it. Nothing beats that feeling when you finally finish a manuscript. It’s unreal!
Nola Smith is an Australian children’s book author. She is a retired teacher who’s relishing her new found freedom to focus on writing truthful, authentic stories that her readers can escape into. She wants her novels to give hope and courage to anyone doing it tough because of the difficult circumstances they find themselves in. Nola is passionate about writing, her family, spending time with friends, travelling the world and championing the underdog.
Why do you write?
I write because it gives me joy. After years of being so caught up in my work as an educator, I’m loving the freedom I now have to write and create stories that (hopefully) matter. Also, learning the craft of writing a fully fleshed out novel has been a fabulous challenge that I’ve embraced. I’m a firm believer in ‘You’re never too old to learn new things’. I’m absolutely loving the supportive writing community we have here in Western Australia.
Enough is Enough is a contemporary YA novel about unlikely friendships, secrets, trust and courage. It’s gritty but not dark. There were many scenes that had me smiling. What was the inspiration behind this story?
As a Deputy Principal for many years, I spent a lot of time with students who were doing it tough due to their difficult family circumstances. They were often too quickly judged by others. The resilience these young people showed, day in, day out, was inspiring and I wanted my novel to reflect the heart and courage of them.
Also, a few years ago, I read about the apology from both state and federal governments regarding the era of forced adoptions in Australia but particularly in WA. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it was still happening until recent times. I was appalled at the injustice and the lack of voice for women and families who were affected by this horrendous experience. I read as much as I could, especially women’s first-hand accounts. Being a mum of four sons and from a large family myself, I couldn’t imagine the pain and suffering the mothers went through having their child taken from them. Through my book, I hope to give women affected by forced adoptions a voice.
Walk us through your creative process. Once you knew it was a story you wanted to tell, how did you go about it?
I’m a huge planner. I mapped my story chapters using the 3 Act Structure ensuring I hit all the plot points and my characters’ arcs changed over the course of the novel. But, even though I had the main spine of the story outlined, when I started writing the story still had room to evolve and change, as it did.
Enough is Enough is a contemporary novel set in a real place – Fremantle so I researched a lot to get the details such as bus routes and settings accurate. I also read a lot of first hand accounts from women who have expereinced forced adoption.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published?
Self doubt to begin with but I found engaging with writing courses and writers’ groups helped build my self belief. Also, being an active member of SCWBI’s Critique groups has been invaluable to improving my skill set.
Probably the biggest obstacle though is being an unknown writer as publishers are being asked to take a chance on me and my novel. A lot of my early rejections indicated they liked my writing style but the story wasn’t what they were looking for at that point in time. Persevering with putting the manuscript out there is tough but essential. It only needs one person to connect with it and you’re away.
How involved have you been in the development of your book?
The book hasn’t really changed since Dixi Books picked it up. I did act on one suggestion regarding the ending and my cute dog. Poor Fluffy!
How has your own adolescence influenced you as a YA author?
I grew up in Kalgoorlie in a large family with a strong social conscience. So, standing up for the underdog has always been important for me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing another YA novel about an angry, grief-stricken Manhattan teenager Tessa, ripped from her privileged life to live in Australia where she confronts down-to-earth Aussie girl, Darcy who forces her to work out what’s important in her life. Imagine – Gossip girl meets down-to-earth Aussie girl. I’m calling it ‘Home Truths’ at this stage.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories?
Funnily enough, ‘hope’. All teenagers go through periods of vulnerability and crises of confidence so I’d love my stories to help them realise they have it within them to find the courage to face life’s challenges whilst being true to themselves.
Is there an area of writing that you find challenging?
A great question. Probably killing off my darlings during editing. You get so involved with your stories and characters your vision becomes clouded. I find it challenging to step back and reflect on whether a scene or a great sentence/paragraph I‘ve pulled together really advances or adds to the story. It can be so hard to press the ‘delete’ button.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it?
At times. More so when I have lots going on and I can’t clear my head to dive fully into the story I’m writing. When this happens, I procrastinate and happily get distracted from writing. I find having a routine and sticking to it helps where I know after a walk I’m heading to my desk to write. Making writing a daily habit helps me.
How important is social media to you as an author?
I’m not sure. You read so much about how important it is to have a social media presence but it can be a distraction. Having said that, I’ve found it to be a great way to connect with other authors and also to show others what a journey to publishing a book looks like.
What’s the best advice you were ever given?
To read widely. I read a lot of books in the YA genre but also widely in adult and MG. Immersing yourself in others’ stories is so enriching and very helpful to my own craft.
In three words, how would you describe your writing?
Truthful, hopeful & satisfying
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?
Roald Dahl. To me, he is the most creative children’s author and he’s stood the test of time. His story lines and playful use of language sets him in a class of his own. I’d love to know about his writing process and how he comes up with his incredible ideas.
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why?
Gough Whitlam so I could thank him personally for everything he did for everyday Australians including giving me a free tertiary education. Being from a large family, I don’t think my parents would’ve been able to afford for me to go to teacher’s college in the city without his Government’s support.
Markus Zusak because he wrote my most favourite book in the world – The Book Thief and he is pretty cute. I’d love to pick his brains on how he comes up with his unique figurative language.
Dave Mundy because I’m a Fremantle Dockers footy tragic and I love Dave for his humanity, heart and footy skills. It’ll be a sad day when he retires.
Finally, Michelle Obama. I admire her for her class, intelligence and humanity. She could bring Barack along with her if she wants.
We all make them – we’re only human
Do we own them? Fix them?
Bury them deep in the dark till they fester into a tangle of
Secret and lies?
Waiting … waiting …
Underdog teen Leroy Jones’ life is a complete mess, shrouded with secrets to protect his vulnerable family. After his young step-brother is badly hurt while in his care, Leroy’s life spirals out of control. A fiery encounter at the hospital with an old lady, Betty, and an Asian boy, Aaron opens up an opportunity for Leroy to earn some badly needed cash.
When Betty reveals a shameful secret, one she’s kept hidden for over sixty years, Leroy has two choices – keep it hidden or act to make it right. What should he do? He seriously has enough on his plate but Betty was so young when she made her mistake. Was she even to blame? But, then again, how can Leroy possibly be Betty’s saviour when he can’t even save himself?
Enough Is Enough is a book about unlikely friendships and finding the courage to trust others with your secrets no matter how bad they are.
Peter’s top tip for aspiring authors: First write the book.
Peter Papathanasiou was born in northern Greece in 1974 and adopted as a baby to an Australian family. His debut book, a memoir, was published in 2019 as ‘Little One’ by Allen & Unwin in Australia and as ‘Son of Mine’ by Salt Publishing in the UK. Peter’s writing has otherwise been published by The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, The Seattle Times, Toronto Star, The Guardian UK, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Good Weekend, ABC, SBS, Meanjin and Overland. He holds a Master of Arts (MA) in Creative Writing from City, University of London; a Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedical Sciences from The Australian National University (ANU); and a Bachelor of Laws from ANU specialising in criminal law. He is currently working on screen adaptations of his books and writing his new novel.
Why do you write? There are so many reasons why I write. I write to share my experiences of the world. I write to share my thoughts on certain topics. I write to educate based on my knowledge and special topics. I write to entertain, to take people on an adventure. I write to feel less alone. I write to ground myself, to bring my focus to scattered energy, and bring my satisfaction and joy at the sight of something I created. There are so many reasons why I write. But in short, I write because I cannot not write.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I imagine I would be needing some other creative outlet to stay sane, so perhaps a visual or graphic art, or performing art.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Myself. Don’t let anyone tell you that publishing is easy; it is very, very hard. Some people are fortunate and have opportunities come to them readily, but for most writers, it is a long and difficult grind. The secret is to stick with it, to have resilience and not give up. And in succeeding at that battle, your only major obstacle is yourself.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? I was very involved in the development of my book, which included working with an excellent editor who both gave and was receptive to feedback, having my author photo taken professionally, and working with my publisher on the back-cover blurb and most eye-catching and appropriate cover. I was presented with numerous designs which were whittled down to a shortlist. The final cover features a photograph by a Western Australian artist, and I am very proud to have this image on the cover of my book and support another local artist.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The feeling of pride that comes with executing an entertaining story. And I also love receiving reader feedback, especially when it is filled with praise and gratitude. Never underestimate how nice this is to receive as an author! It makes all those hours at the keyboard and moments of self-doubt worth it.
—the worst? Rejection! I know it is part of the game, but even after all this time, it is still hard to face, though I am hopefully getting better at processing.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Two things: first, I would be more open to feedback from others; and second, I would have started writing earlier in life because the more you practise, the better you become.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I wished I’d been told how indirect and circuitous the journey would be, that it wasn’t just a case of A to B, and that I needed to think outside the box to both create opportunities and make my writing stand out from the crowd.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? First of all: finish your book! So many people abandon their manuscript or lose interest or get distracted. But without even finishing your book, the rest doesn’t matter. And second: if you seek to find a publisher for your book, don’t give up! Be prepared for challenges, but stay resilient and tenacious.
How important is social media to you as an author? I think that unless you’re a superstar author, social media is an essential part of the modern publishing process. It shouldn’t supplant your primary focus, which is your writing, but social media still needs some oxygen in order to help publishers with their book promotion, and also as a channel for readers to interact with their favourite authors. I get lots of messages via social media from people who have enjoyed my writing, which I genuinely appreciate – to know that my writing has made a connection – and always take the time to reply.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I think any writer who says they don’t experience writer’s block is lying! Like rejection, it is a part of the game. Overcoming it is a matter of staring at that blinking cursor until your eyes want to explode. Stay in your writing seat, in other words! When that fails, I have no choice but to step away, so will usually go for a walk or ride. It’s incredible how many ideas have come to me on the back of a bike.
How do you deal with rejection? I don’t very well! I usually fall into a deep pit of despair for about a day. But then I wake up, the sun is shining, the pain is less and growing ever smaller in my rear-view mirror, and I refocus and go again. But there needs to be a grieving process too, you can’t deny yourself that. For some people it is minutes, for some it is weeks.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Evocative. Accessible. Thought-provoking.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? My debut novel is a work of outback noir crime fiction which was especially inspired by the late Peter Temple, who died in 2018. He was the first Australian crime writer to win the Gold Dagger in 2007 for ‘The Broken Shore’. In a first for a crime novel, Temple’s ‘Truth’ then won Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin, in 2010. The name of my secondary main character Sparrow is actually an intentional doff of the cap to Temple and his own Indigenous cop named Paul Dove. So, it would be great to sit down with Temple for an hour, tell him all about his influence, and also hear about his own inspirations as a writer.
A small outback town wakes to a savage murder. Molly Abbott, a popular teacher at the local school, is found taped to a tree and stoned to death. Suspicion falls on the refugees at the new detention centre on Cobb’s northern outskirts. Tensions are high between immigrants and some of the town’s residents.
Detective Sergeant Georgios ‘George’ Manolis is despatched to his childhood hometown to investigate. His late father immigrated to Australia in the 1950s, where he was first housed at the detention centre’s predecessor – a migrant camp. He later ran the town’s only milk bar. Within minutes of George’s arrival, it is clear that Cobb is not the same place he left as a child. The town once thrived, but now it’s disturbingly poor and derelict, with the local police chief it seemingly deserves. As Manolis negotiates his new colleagues’ antagonism and the simmering anger of a community destroyed by alcohol and drugs, the ghosts of his own past flicker to life. His work is his calling, his centre, but now he finds many of the certainties of his life are crumbling.
White skin, black skin, brown skin – everyone is a suspect in this tautly written novel that explores the nature of prejudice and keeps the reader guessing to the last. The Stoning is an atmospheric page-turner, a brilliant crime novel with superb characters, but also a nuanced and penetrating insight into the heart of a country intent on gambling with its soul.
My top tip is that no one has the answers and , ultimately, you must go deep into yourself to work out why you are writing, who you are writing for, and what you want your writing to accomplish. You have the answers – the writer’s journey is about trusting yourself to find them.
Maura Pierlot is an award-winning author and playwright who hails from New York, but has called Canberra, Australia home since the early 1990s. Her writing delves into complex issues including memory, identity, self and, more recently, mental health. Following its sellout 2019 season in Canberra, Maura’s debut professional theatre production, Fragments is being adapted for the digital space, supported by artsACT. The work is published online by Australian Plays Transforms and in print by Big Ideas Press. Maura is a past winner of the SOLO Monologue Competition, Hothouse Theatre for her play, Tapping Out. Her plays have been performed in Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. A former medical news reporter and editor of Australian Medicine, Maura also writes for children and young adults. In 2017 she was named winner of the CBCA Aspiring Writers Mentorship Program, and recipient of the Charlotte Waring Barton Award, for her young adult manuscript, Freefalling (now True North). Maura’s debut picture book, The Trouble in Tune Town won the 2018 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (Children’s category) along with international accolades. Maura’s poetry, short stories, microfiction and essays appear in various literary journals and anthologies. Maura has a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate, each in philosophy, specialising in ethics. When she’s not busy writing, Maura visits schools and libraries as a guest reader and speaker, serves as a Role Model for Books in Homes, and contributes reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s online magazine, Reading Time. For further information on Maura and her work, Fragments please visit: https://maurapierlot.com and https://fragmentstheplay.com.
What is the story behind Fragments?
Fragments follows eight young people navigating their way through high school (with one having recently graduated). Although the characters are feeling disconnected, whether at home, at school, in relationships or in life generally, they are all wearing masks, pretending everything’s okay. School captain, Mason – good looking, sporty, high achiever and the one everyone looks up to – is fighting a crippling depression, confiding in his mother, who took her own life years earlier. Are Mason’s peers so absorbed in their own struggles that they can’t see he is not okay, or will their own sense of alienation bring them together, enabling them to draw strength from each other?
How did you approach this important project? Walk us through your creative process.
For a few years I had an inexplicable feeling that I wanted and needed to talk about mental health issues, especially those that young people were facing. In 2016 I received the MPS Travel+Tours Award, Capital Arts Patrons’ Organisation to write the script for Fragments. I spent most of the following year brainstorming – living with the issues in my head, trying to work out how I could tackle this project in a relatable and meaningful way. When I finally started writing, the words easily flowed into eight monologues. It was as though I had lived with these characters for so long that I already knew them inside out, their challenges, how they spoke, who they looked up to at school, who was a nemesis. Rochelle Whyte at Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centres had a look at an early draft and gave some very encouraging feedback. When I was in Perth for a Katherine Susannah Prichard Writer’s Centre Fellowship (for another play), I met with dramaturg, Suzanne Ingelbrecht, who offered valuable insights and told me the project ‘had legs’. I mounted a brief funding campaign via the Australian Cultural Fund, which chose the project for a ‘boost’ grant. With that nominal funding, I engaged James Hartley, who was a ‘script doctor’ for some of my earlier work, to produce the monologues in Sydney. We did a day-long workshop with actors in Sydney and the recently refurbished Pioneer Theatre in Castle Hill picked up the show for its opening season in 2018.
Meanwhile, ArtsACT had funded a week-long creative development, which I undertook as a Visiting Artist at Ainslie+Gorman Arts Centre in Canberra as part of the Ralph Indie Program, working with dramaturg, Gin Savage and a cast of eight exceptionally talented young people. The development was a great blend of dialogue and performative work, interrogating the issues and characters from all angles and culminating in a development showing for an invited audience who provided incredibly useful feedback on the work. I continued to tweak the script and when additional artsACT funding came through for a 2019 production at The Street Theatre, I quickly switched gears, launching into pre-production with director Shelly Higgs and CEO Caroline Stacey, soon casting the work. The challenge was figuring out how to tie the monologues together, determining whose story should sit above as an external narrative, driving the plot and upping the stakes. The Street Theatre selected Fragments for its First Seen Program, which gave me the time and space to interrogate these issues with Shelly and an amazing cast of young performers. Following the sell-out debut season at The Street in October 2019, programmed for Mental Health Month, I was geared up to bring the work to schools in the ACT but the bushfires struck, then COVID, pulling the pin on my plans. I applied for funding from artsACT to revisit and reshape the work post-production, and was thrilled to again receive support, along with funding to adapt the work for the digital space in 2021. When a publication deal was sidelined by COVID, I set out to publish the work myself.
The production of Fragments enjoyed a sell-out season during Mental Health Week in 2019 and received critical acclaim. What led to the release of it in its new format?
Creatives face the never-ending challenge of how to get their work ‘out there’ then how to bring it to new audiences. I always had high hopes for Fragments. Even when I was writing the first draft, I could imagine it in print and on film. My main audience for Fragments is young people and their families, also the educators and health professionals who work with them. Given the currency of the material, I wanted to get the work into schools but COVID made this impossible, somewhat ironic giving the soaring rates of mental health issues during the pandemic. I juggled the two projects in tandem, tweaking the work for the paperback edition, while trying to work out how best to tell the story through film. This has been a huge learning curve, and a somewhat tedious process at times. If 2020 was the year sitting with my work and myself, exploring what I wanted to write, and for whom, then 2021 was the year of stepping far outside my comfort zone, stretching my brain and seizing the opportunities I had created. I’m very pleased with how the paperback edition looks, reads and feels and also with early positive reviews. Although COVID has pushed back the Fragments film production somewhat, but we’re still hoping to release the digital component by the end of the year. The book launch is scheduled for the latter half of October but given that the ACT is still in lockdown, who knows?
What do you hope schools and communities will take away from the stories shared by your cast of characters?
I hope schools and communities will realise that mental health issues need to be addressed in a proactive manner, not only in times of crisis; that the arts can play a vital role in well-being in schools; that workshops delivered to students by adults, no matter how well-meaning, are unlikely to achieve the same level of understanding and attitudinal change that peer-delivered programs will. Through the dramatic arts and literature, audience members and readers are thrust into another world, in the case of Fragments, one that exposes the raw and real issues many that many young people (and adults) are grappling with in these times of uncertainty, enabling them to see themselves in the characters.
I wrote Fragments to start candid conversations about mental health with a view to reducing stigma and to ‘normalising’ issues that have all too often been ignored. I believe the play, the book, and soon the online content, offer an ideal vehicle to do that.
You have dedicated Fragments ‘To everyone who is struggling and searching to connect.’ How much has your personal experience shaped this powerful, thought-provoking work?
Although Fragments came about from my ongoing conversations with young people, the work has definitely been shaped by my own experience. My mother struggled with mental health issues for most of her life, but they weren’t so severe that they warranted a diagnosis –until her later years when a series of catastrophes forced the issue. I often felt like the lone voice in a family that was not ready to embrace the reality of her decline until they had no choice. Meanwhile, I was facing my own challenges. I think many women tend to lose their mojo somewhere between motherhood and menopause, let alone the netherworld that follows, but it’s not easy to work out whether it’s all part of aging, something more troublesome, or simply external stressors that will eventually subside. I had a hellish three-year period from 2017 onwards. I was trying my best to navigate my mother’s complex health journey from 16,000 kilometres away, visiting as often as I could. While this situation was unfolding, my husband became gravely ill (which led to a nearly two-year recovery), my own health challenges were popping up at the most inopportune times, friends died unexpectedly, then my mother. Meanwhile, I was trying to publish my first title, a picture book, while diving into the world of mental health for Fragments. After the debut of Fragments, I thought it was finally time to relax. Then the bushfires hit (we were at the coast), followed by COVID. It was challenging at times to write about mental health when not feeling whole. But in an odd sense, it was arguably a very authentic place from which to imagine the eight character and their stories.
Your writing delves into complex issues including mental health. What challenges does this present to you as a writer?
The challenge is to present honest, realistic portrayals of mental health issues, knowing there is not one ‘typical’ manifestation or story for each condition. Take depression, for example. Of thirty people diagnosed with depression, there will certainly be some overlap of symptoms and clinical findings. But on a subjective level, each person would undoubtedly describe a unique journey. Another challenge is to write about an issue that isn’t easy to identify, let alone describe, as few people open up about their struggles. We all wear masks, whether we admit it or not. We communicate superficially (Q: How’s everything? A: Fine, fine!). When feeling down, we tend to de-legitimise our pain, telling ourselves things like: No one wants to hear my problems. Everyone has stuff they’re dealing with. Things could be worse. I don’t want to ruin the vibe. Mental health issues can be difficult to navigate in real life and when experienced through the eyes and voices of characters. I wanted to do justice to the issues and to write from a place of authenticity. Another challenge was that I didn’t want to be didactic or preachy in any way. The totality of the work needed to be balanced; there had to be some light interspersed with shade. Humour was one way to achieve this, but I needed to ensure that it was used is a measured way that did not detract from the gravity of the issues.
Although young people opened up to me about very intense feelings and experiences, they seemed quite reluctant to tell friends, family and teachers. This wasn’t a scientific study, and I am not a psychologist. But I had a growing sense that many, many young people were feeling lost, confused and, above all, stressed which was manifested in a range of physical and psychological symptoms. Uncertainty about their futures was leading to a sense of pervasive dread. Concern about academic performance was affecting their mood, sleep pattern, social interactions and more. Without the wisdom and nous that age and experience bring, they were often struggling to keep issues in perspective. Instead, heightened senses led them to view relatively minor occurrences as major and somehow a failure on their part. They constantly compared themselves to others; not surprising, given the unattainable ideals perpetuated by social media. But at school most of them were forging ahead, pretending everything was okay, internalising their fears, feelings and struggles – ironically, even though their peers were struggling with similar issues. I had this overwhelming sense that young people were living parallel lives when they could be helping one another. There’s no miracle fix for mental health struggles but there is great relief and comfort in knowing you’re not alone. It’s ironic that in this day and age, global online platforms are making us more disconnected (in an existential sense) than ever. I hope Fragments encourages all of us to reach out, to speak our own truths, to listen to others without judgment, and to connect on a meaningful level.
You have written short fiction, poetry, memoir, YA fiction and a picture book as well as plays. Do you find it easy to adapt your writing for different markets and reader audiences?
I’m not sure that I find it easy but, if I’m motivated, feeling the right energy and in the right head space, I don’t find it particularly onerous. I tend to mull over what I want to say, and for whom. Then I live with the ideas for some time, letting them marinate in my subconscious before an inevitable wrestling match where they fight for dominance, leaving the ideas that have to come out in some shape or form. Usually, I have a strong intuitive sense of the art form; I know at the outset that I’m writing a short story, not a play. As I’m progressing the work, I’ll often get an equally compelling feeling that it could, or should, be adapted for a different market. The best way I could explain it is: For Fragments, I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew the ‘reality’ I wanted to create would be on stage, ideally a small space where the audience was yanked into the characters’ inner worlds, where they could see their tears fall and beads of sweat form on their brows. I didn’t, for example, say, I’d love to write a play then sit down and wonder what I should write it about.
What’s the best aspect of your creative life?
The best aspect of my creative life is that I have the freedom to do what I want, developing work that means something to me, and hopefully to others. Another great aspect is that, relatively late in life, after decades of putting everyone’s needs before my own, I’m finally doing what I want to do.
The worst aspect is the highly commercial and risk-adverse nature of the industry, and the unfortunate tendency to measure worth by publication success, sales figures or merchandising potential. For the most part, the market is served by what the market always buys, as the market can only buy what it is served. It’s a vicious cycle that doesn’t grant a great deal of space to non-commercial voices on issues that matter. Hence the inordinate number of books by celebrities and children’s books about bodily functions. My other concern (and I may get hammered here lol) is that the path to publication has become a big business. It often seems like there are ten times as many people offering to help (for a cost) as there are aspiring authors. Developing craft is hugely important but (despite disclaimers to the contrary) the inference is that by attending the conference, or participating in the workshop, or doing the course, you’re somehow more likely to find publishing success. Otherwise, let’s be honest, why would people continue to fork out the dollars? Yes, some people have found publication success this way, and that’s fantastic, but they would represent a microscopic drop in the proverbial ocean.
I’m concerned by how many aspiring creatives I’ve spoken to in recent years (dating back to before COVID) who were exhibiting signs of anxiety, depression and lack of self-worth because their work had not been picked up. Publishing is a strange business model where feedback is not given, courtesies are often not extended, there is no clear brief, you are constantly told what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and you face rejection on a regular basis. There are some exceptional resources on offer by various authors and organisations but, as in any industry, there are many that are far less so. I think aspiring authors should be judged for their work, not for who they know, who they follow, who they hang out with, what their backstory is, or how invested they are in the industry. When I buy a work of art, I don’t base my decision on the maker’s social media following, or their personal background, or whether they paid their dues in the industry. I let me eyes and heart do the work: am I drawn to this piece of art? Does it speak to me on some level? (And is the price right 😉) Basing decisions on superficial rather than substantive reasons doesn’t help anyone in the long term. I’d go as far as saying I think this approach loses sight of, perhaps even devalues, the work itself.
What are you working on at the moment?
The digital adaptation of Fragments will keep me quite busy through the end of the year. I’m in the early (developmental) phase of my next play, a full-length work on a controversial issue that’s been in the news recently. I’m also knee-deep in a few community initiatives that I’ve developed, which have unfortunately been sidelined by COVID. But I’m looking forward to launching at least one of them, possibly two, by the end of the year.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Back yourself.
How important is social media to you as a writer?
I would love to say that social media is crucial, allowing writers to engage with their audiences, to test new work, to broaden their base and so forth. But I don’t buy into all that. I’m a cynic at heart and don’t believe that social media presence has a direct correlation to sales. And it certainly doesn’t do anything to enrich our souls. I also believe most writers spend far too much time trying to come up with content, usually formulated for a specific end (read: not truly authentic). I treat social media quite differently and break all the rules. I only post when I feel motivated with little to no concern about the timeslot. I don’t plan my posts (unless there’s a time-dated event, like a book launch or #philosophyfriday). I don’t have a ‘brand’ or a ‘look’. I simply wake up and, as I’m downing my second (third?) coffee, I think, What’s on my mind today? Sometimes, it is as simple as a bird singing outside my window, a funny thing that one of my kids said, a memento that I’ve come across, a strange encounter that I just had, a challenge that I’m facing. The mundane stuff. But I often wax lyrical or philosophical; think Seinfeld’s poor cousin meets Aristotle. In my view, social media is unhealthy, generally addictive and exacerbates FOMO. Yes, it’s great for engaging with readers (though whether anyone can truly have a meaningful engagement online is debatable). I decided early on that if I was going to dive into social media, I needed to be in control of the process, not the other way around. So I imposed very strict rules. I literally point and shoot, type a few words, spellcheck and post. I spend less than ten minutes max per post and probably less than half an hour each day scrolling through my feed. With my writing workload, family and community commitments, and our business, there simply are not enough hours in a day for me to engage as much as I’d like to on other people’s posts. Besides, I tend to think many ‘conversations’ devolve into public posing. I’m much more interested in engaging with people about something meaningful via DM, online or in real life.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it?
I don’t get writer’s block in the sense of sitting in front of the computer on deadline and not being able to think of anything to say. I experience what I prefer to call ‘writer’s ambiguity,’ where I’m tossing around issues and can nearly feel and see the shape of what I want to say … but not quite. I do a lot of brainstorming and development in my head (unfortunately, often when I’m just about to fall asleep) and I only sit down to write when I have a good idea of what I’m trying to say. Not in the sense of a structure or outline, just in an overall sense. For Fragments, for example, I wanted to write a work about young people living in an isolated, internalised world who take the first steps towards healing through a sense of connectedness. My first draft usually takes a conversational or confessional tone. That nearly always leads to something.
How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection, in itself, doesn’t bother me. If I submit a picture book, for example, and no one bites, I don’t let it get to me. I’m a strong believer that things happen for a reason, even if the reason doesn’t reveal itself for some time. I do try to target my submissions but, to be honest, submitting these days is like a crap shoot. Publishers have unseen ‘lists’ and can’t say specifically what they want (“we want stories that make our hearts sing”), just that your work isn’t it. It’s like me shopping for a sofa and telling the floor staff, I can’t describe it, but I’ll know it when I see it. It’s a bit of a magic act so there’s no way I’d take a negative outcome personally. It’s great when someone’s interested in your work but it’s important not to beat yourself up when they’re not.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Smart, original, compelling.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?
I suspect my answer to this question would change daily. However, based on what I’ve been writing lately, and where my head is at right now, I’d want to spend an hour with Nora Ephron, a New York humourist, essayist, writer and filmmaker. I love her cynicism and dry wit, how she strived to balance the heavy topics with humour, how she adapted to write across art forms, how she wrote about everyday life. (“Everything is copy,” her mother, a writer, is known to have told her.) I would ask Nora: When writing about your life, and the world around you, how do you make people care about what you think, and how do you address the inevitable tension between the ‘professional’ (writing about the experience) and the ‘personal’ (experiencing it)? And if she didn’t have the answers, I have no doubt she’d still make me laugh. And genuine laughter is a prized commodity in my view, especially these days.
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why?
I’m tempted to say MacGyver because then I’d be out of the lift in five minutes. But I’ll say my father. Because I never got to say goodbye to him and would love the opportunity, even if just for an hour, to say so many things that had been left unsaid.
Born and raised in the UK, Sarah Hawthorn lived in Toronto, Dallas and New York before emigrating to Sydney, Australia. After career jumps from actress to journalist and then publicist, she relocated to the village of Bundanoon in NSW’s beautiful Southern Highlands to pursue her dream of being a full-time novelist. When not writing, Sarah enjoys theatre, cooking and walking her dogs. A Voice in the Night is her debut novel.
Why do you write? I’ve always written – ever since I was a little girl and became fascinated by words, so I reckon it’s part of my DNA, like breathing. And when I’m not physically putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I’m writing in my head.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? It’s hard to conjure an alternative occupation that doesn’t involve some form of writing. For sure, I’d spend my time involved in a creative pursuit. Most probably I’d return to my first love, acting, and seek out podcast performance opportunities.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Before A Voice in The Night was picked up by Barry Scott at Transit Lounge, who bravely put his faith in me, I’d completed three prior manuscripts. Whilst each got good feedback, I was competing for attention with an enormous number of aspiring authors, and not standing out enough from the crowd. I believe coming up with a compelling hook was the key to becoming published.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? It’s been a fantastic journey. My editor Kate Goldsworthy was a hard task-master and really pushed me to make the book as good as it could be; I learned a lot from her during the editing process. My publisher has kept me super-involved in everything: selecting the right cover designs, and approving the cover content. I was also able to listen to audition tapes for the audio book, and provide my feedback and input.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Spending so much time with my imaginary friends, and never being quite sure what they’re going to do next. It’s never lonely.
—the worst? Procrastination. There always an errand or chore that seems to take precedence over knuckling down at the keyboard.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would have taken the plunge into being a full-time novelist much sooner. In retrospect, worrying about the financial uncertainty stopped me from backing myself, and writing a book became something I’d do one day ‘when I had the time’ rather than a life career choice.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I’m going to twist that question around and say how glad I am that no one told me how hard it would be to get published, and that it would take five years and three manuscripts before I nailed it. Patience has never been my strong point.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? When I was starting out as an actor, my father advised me to give it ten years. I think the same can be applied to becoming an author. You’ve got to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and not expect instant success.
How important is social media to you as an author? It’s a bit of a minefield, but nowadays you can’t expect widespread exposure without taking social media seriously.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I try to push through it rather than be beaten down. If I’m just stumped, I find going for a walk works wonders. I can also get re-inspired by leaving my office and taking my laptop to a different space. I work really well in cafes, on planes or trains, or in our garden house. But if I’m seriously blocked, taking time away from a project and moving onto something else for a while can help to provide a new perspective.
How do you deal with rejection? I’m fortunate in that having started out as an actor, from a very young age I got used to constant rejections and not taking it personally. I tell myself it’s a numbers game, and I rarely get ‘down’ about rejections – it’s all part and parcel of the business.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Pacy, incisive, tight.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?
There are so many authors I’d love to spend an hour with, but at this current stage in my writing career, I’d choose to spend time with Christian White who was gracious enough to advance-read my book and give a cover review. I’m so impressed with how he backed up Nowhere Child with The Wife and The Widow (such an incredibly clever concept), that I’d be fascinated to learn more about his creative journey, how he’s navigated his subsequent success, and where he finds his inspiration. An hour wouldn’t be long enough!
A Voice inthe Night
by Sarah Hawhtorn
Following a bitter separation, Lucie moves to London to take up a position with a prestigious law firm. It seems an optimistic new beginning, until one day she receives a hand delivered note with the strange words: At last I’ve found you. A shock I ‘m sure. But in time I ‘ll explain. Martin. Lucie hasn’t forgotten a man called Martin who was tragically killed twenty years ago in the 9/11 attacks. When she was working in New York as a young intern Lucie had fallen in love with him and he vowed to leave his wife to be with her permanently. As an inexplicable series of events occur Lucie wonders if her long-dead lover could have staged his own disappearance under the cover of that fateful day. Or could it be that someone else is stalking her, or that her vivid imagination is playing tricks?
Sarah’s top tip for aspiring author/illustrators: When you find the time to read, make it count. Sometimes life gets busy, so fitting in a daily writing practice and managing to read every day might not always be possible, but I do believe reading is the key to improving your own writing. You don’t need to read all the time but when you do find the time to open a book, read critically. Notice the things that work and don’t work in the books you are reading; notice what you enjoy and what bores you; notice how an author brings a scene to life. You can then use these observations to improve your own work.
Sarah Mahfoudh is an author, illustrator and editor from Oxfordshire, England, with a BA in English Literature and Theatre Studies and lifelong love affair with books. Having lived in fairyland for most of her life, Sarah thinks it’s only right she should share her adventures with the rest of the world. Sarah writes children’s books for all ages, as well as YA fiction. She is the founder and creator of www.can-do-kids.co.uk where you can find articles, ideas, resources, and links to inspire children to be confident, compassionate and open-minded individuals. When she is not writing or reading, Sarah loves to dance, exercise and rant about ethical living! You can find out more about her over at www.sarahmahfoudh.com and follow her on Instagram (@mahfoudhsarah) and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahfoudhsarah
What’s the best aspect of your creative life? There are so many things to love about it: the fact that I am always learning and that I am never bored; the fact that I get to lose myself in imagined worlds for so much of the time; the sense of pride I feel when I finish a story or hold a published book in my hands. I really enjoy the editing process too. I know a lot of authors dread editing their own work, but I think the first edit might be my favourite part of writing because I get to read my own story. The second and third edits can get a bit much, though!
—the worst? Never feeling like I have enough time. I always have so many ideas and stories I want to work on and I never feel as though I have enough time to finish them. I also really dislike telling people about my books once they are finished and published. Promoting books and selling them feels like a full-time job in itself and it’s something I naturally shy away from. But I really do want people to read my books so I am trying to get better at being brave!
Where do you draw the inspiration for your books? For a lot of my picture books, I would say I am inspired by my own children. Can-do Kat, for example, was created to help my little girl with some of her confidence issues. For my older children’s books, YA, and adult books, I am often inspired by landscapes and nature. Sometimes a news story will trigger an idea, and I also find fairy tales and old folk tales really intriguing and evocative.
How has your childhood influenced you as an author? I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was packed full of books, and my sisters and I would often pop to the library across the road after school and stay there for what felt like hours. My parents are both book-lovers, and my dad is a poet so I think stories and books are in my blood. In terms of the sorts of issues and themes I write about, my parents were always very outspoken against any sort of bigotry or injustice, as well as raising us to understand the importance of looking after the planet, so those are things that have always been at the forefront of my mind and naturally influence my writing.
How do you approach a new writing project? Walk us through your creative process. Once you have an idea, what’s the next step? Contrary to much of the advice out there for writers, I do a lot of my writing and planning in my head before putting pen to paper. I will often think about characters and their stories for months or even years before starting to write about them, or I will write an opening chapter and then step back from it for a few weeks or months before continuing. There is a popular opinion in the writing community that to be a ‘real’ writer, you must write every day but I don’t think this is true. If I try to write when I’m not in the mood, it just won’t happen so I have thinking days, note-making days and writing days.
I write long-hand and on the computer depending on how I am feeling on the day. If I am writing on the computer and I find I’m struggling with a section, I will switch to long-hand because it is much freer and boosts my creativity. I usually have an overall view of where the story is going by the time I get to about 25% of the way through but I won’t usually write the structure down until much later because I know it’s going to change. I find it incredible how stories and characters develop and take on a mind of their own once you actually start writing them.
As I already mentioned, I love the editing process so I really look forward to finishing my first draft and then moving on to the first edit, which is when I will take the time to really fine-tune plot and structure, develop my characters and bring the story to life.
What are you working on at the moment? I always have far too many projects on the go but I am trying to be more streamlined these days and focus on one at a time. (It sometimes works!) At the moment, I am desperately trying to finish the final edit (is there ever a final edit?!) of a YA fantasy book. I finished the first draft several years ago but life, work, kids and covid restrictions have delayed things slightly. The book is the first in a trilogy portal fantasy but it does follow on from a book called Faces in the Water that I published quite a while back now. Faces in the Water was my first ever novel and follows a 14-year-old girl, Eshna, as she stumbles into a new world. My writing and my ideas have matured slightly since that first book so this new trilogy can be read with or without prior knowledge of Eshna’s earlier journey, and begins around three years after the end of Faces in the Water.
I also have several children’s books in progress – one picture book, which is written but needs illustrating, and one middle-grade chapter book which is currently being plotted out in my head.
Do you have a daily routine? My daily routine is dictated by children. I wake up before the rest of the house so that I can meditate, shower and get dressed in peace. I only mediate for 10 minutes each morning but I find it helps me to stay calm when I am trying to get the kids up and out in time for school.
Once I have walked the kids to school, it’s time to work. If I have a paid assignment to do, that has to come first but, of course, writing and illustrating days are my favourites. I find the short school days frustrating, especially when I am on a creative roll, but in a way, I think they focus me and make me more productive.
After school, it’s all about kids’ clubs, dinner (my husband does most of the cooking), and I will try to squeeze in an exercise session at least every other day. In the evenings, I will sometimes carry on working and sometimes just flake out depending on energy levels and how inspired I am that day.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? Great question! Most of all, I just want readers to enjoy my stories. I want them to come away feeling as though they have been on adventure, experienced a magical world and made new friends. That being said, reading is one of the best ways for people to learn compassion and understanding for other people so I try to make my books inclusive and diverse and to challenge common stereotypes and out-dated attitudes. Many of my protagonists are female because women and girls are still underrepresented and misrepresented in literature, TV, films and the media. I hope my readers, young and old, will come away from my books with a greater tolerance for others, and that they will be inspired to stand up for themselves, be confident in their own abilities, and to speak out against injustice when they see it.
Is there any area of writing that you find challenging? Endings. I find writing endings and knowing when and how to finish a story, difficult. I also find it hard to be around people when I am really into a writing project. I get very annoyed by any interruption, however small.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Being brave enough to put my work out there. I can write and write and write but when it comes to publishing my work or sending it off to agents/publishers, I procrastinate, make excuses, and put up obstacles. This is something I am still working on. I have a few books just sitting around that I know I need to send out into the world to see what comes back, but I keep finding ‘more important’ things to do instead.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? It takes time. Embrace the process and don’t be afraid to take criticism. I was so sensitive to criticism when I was younger and I think it held me back for a while. I wanted to have written a masterpiece straight away and I wanted everyone to acknowledge it, but writing is like any skill, it takes time and patience to learn the craft, and criticism is an essential part of the process.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Trust your own process. It’s easy to get imposter syndrome as a writer, but writing is a creative process and there are no rules. Different people work in different ways and what works for one person won’t work for another.
How important is social media to you as an author? I’m not really sure. As an author, there is a lot of pressure to be visible on social media and I do try, but it can be hard work and demoralising at times. I think perhaps social media is a good place to connect with other creatives. In terms of selling and promoting books via social media, the jury is still out. For me at least, it seems like I need to put in a lot of time and effort on social media to see any sort of boost in sales.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I am never really sure what ‘writers block’ means. If it refers to running out of ideas and stories to tell, then no, I don’t have this problem. I do sometimes sit down to write or illustrate and find that it just isn’t working, though. When this happens, I have a few methods that work for me:
If I am writing on the computer, I will switch to long-hand and I will give myself permission to write whatever comes out, no matter how rubbish it is;
If I am stuck on a particular chapter or scene, I will just write a note to myself like, “They escape” and then move onto the next scene.
I walk away and give myself space to think about the problem. If I am writing, I will do some art instead or vice versa or do another task on my to-do list until my sub-conscious has had time to figure out what to do.
How do you deal with rejection? As an author, rejection is part of the job but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. It’s helpful to remember that all authors, even famous ones, will have been rejected at some point in their career. Once I have sent something off, I tell myself I won’t hear back about it and then I just put it out of my mind and get on with trying to make my next project even better. A growth mindset – which I really did not have when I was younger – has really helped me to develop as a writer in recent years, and it also helps me to handle rejection a little better.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Oo, that’s tough! Magical, compelling, fun … (I hope!)
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Another tough one. There are so many good answers for this one but I think I would choose L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books. The character of Anne Shirley has been such an inspiration to me throughout my life. At a time when women and girls were expected to be pretty and quiet and obedient, Anne was out-spoken, determined and fiercely intelligent. I would ask the author what inspired her, how the book was received at the time, and how she, as a female author, was treated.
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why? Can it be someone who isn’t alive anymore? If so, I’m choosing Gene Kelly. He’s my idol, and I think a lift would be just about big enough for us to dance in. It would be an absolute dream to tap dance with Gene Kelly.
The Twelve Dancing Princesses – the true story
Perhaps you’ve heard the classic fairytale about the twelve dancing princesses; the version told by stuffy old men from the olden days who thought it was okay to lock princesses up in towers and marry them off to strangers. Well, the stuffy old men got it wrong. Here’s what really happened…
Meet the twelve high-spirited princesses of Feather Castle. They enjoy science and magic, motor-bikes and clothes, music and saving the world – oh and they REALLY love to dance. But when spies in the shape of aspiring suitors visit the castle to discover where they go at night, the headstrong sisters won’t stand for it. They soon have their guests outwitted in this hilarious story of royal disasters, pixie-loving dragons, magical gardens, contests and friendship. outwitted in this hilarious story of royal disasters, pixie-loving dragons, magical gardens, contests and friendship.
Kesta’s top tip for aspiring authors: Join a writers’ group and connect with the writing community – especially with other children’s authors. You learn so much from other writers and it’s such a lovely community. Writing itself is often very solitary, but the writing life doesn’t have to be. Get out there an meet people. That’s where the ideas and stories (and all the hot writing tips) are!
Kesta Fleming is a writer and poet, and author of the Marlow Brown chapter bookseries for seven- to ten-year-olds. She was born in England but grew up in the Adelaide Hills in a house full of books, bells and music. With a love of stories and a fascination for words she began writing when young. In addition to Marlow Brown, she has had numerous poems, plays, articles and short stories published in The School Magazine and in anthologies. Kesta is a former teacher and now divides her time between writing for children and her therapeutic work helping people manage stress and anxiety. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, two teenagers and a Brittany Spaniel.
Kesta, you started making up your own rhymes and poems as a six-year-old. What was the inspiration for this early venture into sharing the wonder of words? I grew up in a family where music making and stories were as basic to my existence as food, water and shelter. In fact, stories and music were perhaps even more valued than a permanent home. Many of my early memories involve sleeping in a tent or the back of the car, as my parents were adventurous and we travelled a lot. So, we’d be sung to at bedtime, read to while eating family dinners each evening, and play word games and sing on long car journeys.
Added to this, my mother was the queen of nursery rhymes – there wasn’t one she didn’t know – and she wrote her own stories. My father was a pianist and played several other instruments including banjo, ukulele and mouth organ, and he composed his own music. It was the ’70s and for my parents that meant crocheted jackets, caftans and regular performances with a folk group they’d formed. And then, the whole family rang bells, but that’s another story … It’s little wonder I was inspired to make up my own poems and rhymes as a six-year-old. Rhythm and rhyme was what life was all about!
How much of an asset is your teaching background when it comes to writing your books for children? I haven’t really thought of it in terms of an asset to the actual writing, but it’s certainly been a big influence on me. Teaching children in lower primary exposed me to lots of lovely picture books and junior fiction stories during my twenties before I had my own children. So, it not only kept alive my love of children’s literature at a time I might typically have moved away from it, but it also kept my knowledge of what was being published current. And it fueled my love of reading stories aloud. Seeing children captivated by a great story and being part of expanding their imagination is inspiring. Helping them to make sense of the words themselves as they learn to read, and having it finally ‘click’ is also inspiring. How much this all helps me when writing my own stories, I couldn’t say. But it certainly gives me purpose.
What’s the story behind the Marlow Brown series? The Marlow Brown series is about a girl exploring interests that don’t fit the female stereotype and that typically lead to professions dominated by men. So, in the first book she’s smitten with the idea of becoming a scientist, and in the second, she’s totally set on becoming a top-class magician. I’m currently working on the third which has an engineering focus.
It might all sound serious and heavy going, but it isn’t at all! Marlow actually started out as a boy, and it was my publisher who suggested we switch her to a girl. After much thought and consideration about how this might change things, all I ended up doing was a simple pronoun switch. Marlow’s character remained exactly the same.
I think the story is all the better for the switch. It means there’s no big deal made of Marlow not fitting the stereotype. She’s totally unaware of such things. She’s simply a kid following her passions, doing what she loves. And getting into scrapes – because that’s the kind of kid she is. It’s a series full of humour.
Where do you find your inspiration? I always struggle with this question! I have an admission: sometimes I feel inspiration-less. But that’s okay … when I finally remember that other times I’m full of it. I think inspiration comes from doing stuff. From talking to people. From watching. From listening. For me it also comes from remembering what it was like to be a child. I have very vivid memories from my own childhood so I tap into those. And I think, most of all, it comes from being curious and asking ‘What if…?’ It comes from playing and being playful.
Who has been the strongest influence on your writing life? Lots of people, but perhaps the steadiest influence has been my writers’ group. We meet monthly and have done for years. Everyone is always so supportive and helpful, but our late friend and fellow writer, John Tyrell, should perhaps take a lion’s share of the credit. John was all encouragement. If I hadn’t brought anything to workshop for a while, or was down in the doldrums with my writing, he’d say he missed reading my stuff. I had several months a few years back of writing nothing, but turning up to writers’ group and facilitating all the same. It was John’s encouragement and belief in me that got me back into it.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? A lack of understanding of just how much tenacity is needed to be successful. I’d give up on manuscripts too soon, thinking that after a certain number of rejections it must mean that there was no point in continuing with that one. I thought I was being tenacious in the way I sent my manuscripts out again and again, but discovered through talking to more experienced writers, that our definitions of perseverance were far from similar! I don’t give up as quickly these days.
What’s the best aspect of your creative life? There are two best aspects – the moments when I’m totally engrossed in the story and everything is flowing, and the moment I finish the first draft. It’s the elation of having created something from start to finish, and there it is in front of me. I enjoy working on subsequent drafts, but it’s getting that first one down in full, and adding the last full stop that does it for me.
—the worst? Being stuck. And then procrastinating too long, and getting totally out of the way of writing, but feeling guilty about not getting back on with it.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t know that I’d call it writer’s block, but, following on from the previous question, I certainly procrastinate when things get hard. And the way to overcome it is to sit down and write anyway. But that’s easier said than done! One technique that I’ve found really helpful is skipping ahead to a different section and writing it in first person, even if the rest of the story is in third person. Getting right into the head of my protagonist and having them write a letter or email to someone about what’s going on for them seems to free things up for me and make the missing bit in between more accessible.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? That it’s okay to fail. That what matters most is having fun along the way and having a gritty perseverance when it comes to following your dreams. That’s what Marlow Brown has in spades. And that’s what I’ve learned I need too, to be a successful writer. No surprises there!
How important is social media to you as an author? It’s a blessing and a curse! I wish it weren’t important, but it is. I’m in a number of writing groups on Facebook and have found these to be a great way to connect with others in the writing community, but I don’t like having to promote my work. It’s time consuming trying to pitch things in the right way for the right platform, and promotion isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I’m perfectly happy to promote others’ work on social media, but I have to swallow my own discomfort promoting my own. I know other writers struggle with this too, so I take comfort in not being alone in this!
You’ve written poems, plays, articles and short stories as well as books – what is your ‘sweet spot’ and why? I’m not sure if I have a sweet spot but I do like a challenge. Early on, I challenged myself to get something published in every genre that the NSW School Magazine published (with the exception of the cartoon strip because I can’t draw). I was pretty chuffed when I succeeded. I’ve only written one play so far, but I have to say I loved doing that, so I should probably try another. I like dialogue. My current personal challenge is to have a picture book published. I have many picture book manuscripts, but none have hit the right desk at the right time yet. I will get there. I’m determined!
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Amusing and relatable. (Is using ‘and’ cheating? Not at all!)
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Don’t give up on a story if you really believe in it. Keep sending it out. (After hearing this advice, I entered a story which had had multiple rejections as a rhyming picture book manuscript when I’d first written it thirteen years before hand, into the CJ Dennis Poetry Competition, and it won first prize!)
Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why? Well, at first I was thinking Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron, because I think a bit of magic in that situation could be handy, and if the magic wasn’t working for some reason, then the balance of the three characters might add some light relief … but then I started wondering about J K Rowling, because I love the world she created and I’m sure I could learn loads from her as a writer. But then there’s Dumbledore. I think I’m going for him. I have loads of questions for him! And who knows, he might have some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in his pocket we could try our luck with to help us pass the time.
Marlow Brown: Magician in the Making
Written by Kesta Fleming
Illustrated by Marjory Gardner
Marlow Brown dreams of becoming a top-class magician but she has two problems: her special talent for creating chaos, and the fact that Dad won’t stop laughing … How can she show them, once and for all, what a serious and spectacular magician she really is?
Karyn’s top tip for aspiring authors: Be kind to yourself. When you’re on submission, do other things that you love, not only to keep busy, but also to keep your mood uplifted. And, be proud of yourself for following your dream and writing a manuscript – that’s already an amazing feat!
Karyn Sepulveda is an author, podcast producer and creator of short, guided meditations. Through writing about characters triumphing over adversity, interviewing women about their strengths and designing meditations that help the listener tap into their own creativity, Karyn hopes to spread compassion, inspiration and connection. Karyn completed her Masters of Creative Writing in 2011 and published her first novel, Letters To My Yesterday in 2018. When she is not working on her creative projects, Karyn is busy raising her two children and working as a teacher in primary schools.
Social Links Weblink: https://www.karynsepulveda.com/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karyn_sep/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/karynmsepulveda/
Why do you write? I am fascinated by finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. Writing stories allows me to explore the extraordinary aspects of a character’s life and it is also how I make sense of the complexities of this world (or at least try to!)
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I do a lot of other things besides writing so I would stay busy! I’m a primary school teacher and I also create guided meditations and run a creativity course. But if I wasn’t able to write, I think I would have to find some other kind of storytelling to enjoy – maybe I would try painting (I would need some lessons though as I’m not very good).
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My own impatience. In the beginning, I would send out manuscripts that weren’t ready for publication, because I was just so eager to be published. As time went on, I soaked up the advice of the surprisingly nice rejection letters I was receiving and realised that I needed to spend a lot more time developing my manuscripts in the editing and re-writing stage before sending out to anyone. This lesson took quite some years to learn, but I’m happy to say that I am far more patient with my works in progress now.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? I did have a little input into the cover. I was asked to send some of my favourite book covers to the designer so they had an understanding of the style I was hoping for. And then I had a choice between five early book covers to work from. But I can’t take any credit for the incredible cover – I never would have imagined something so beautiful!
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Those moments when a scene comes together so vividly that it feels as though I’ve lived the moment and I can’t type fast enough to relay what’s happening. It’s pure magic!
—the worst? The nerves that come with waiting for an agent / publisher / editor / reviewer to read my book. I try not to worry and keep myself busy, but the underlying nerves are never too far away.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would take my time. I understand now that there really is no rush at all. And I would be more aware of how special the drafting process is and try to enjoy each moment of it more fully.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I wish I’d known how helpful it would be to connect with other writers and support each other – I would have started making those connections a lot earlier.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? My creative writing professor told me that reading is like breathing in and writing, like breathing out. I’ve never forgotten this and it’s the best excuse for reading a whole lot of books!
How important is social media to you as an author? I only really use Instagram, but it is very important to me. I love the community of writers and readers I have found there. I’ve developed some terrific friendships and it actually feels like this secret little world of books that I’m part of. I am inspired by the writers that I follow and I get all of my best book recommendations from other readers.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I haven’t experienced writer’s block, but there have been times where I’ve not written for long periods because I have let other commitments take over. When this has happened, I feel the lack of creativity in my life coming through as a type of ‘lost’ feeling. So I use meditation to help me get back in the creativity zone and open up to some new ideas coming through. And then I ensure that I put aside writing time again – even if it’s just a couple of hours a week.
How do you deal with rejection? Now, I deal with it fairly well. I understand that we all have different taste and my writing isn’t going to be enjoyed by everyone who reads it. But when I started out, rejection would devastate me, as I took it personally. Once I developed the ability to separate myself from my manuscripts, I found coping with rejection much easier. As difficult as it can be sometimes, it’s important to remember that it’s not us as a person being rejected, it’s the story we created. And if we persist, that story will find the perfect home at the perfect time.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? (I hope it is…) Engaging, relatable and compassionate.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? What a great question! I would spend an hour with Khaled Hosseini and I would ask him to explain his writing process and character development to me. I am in awe of the way he can write from multiple perspectives with such depth and invoke such incredible emotion.
Sydney, present day. Anna is released into the world after six years in prison. The entirety of her possessions stuffed into a single plastic bag. The trauma of her past, a much heavier burden to carry. Feeling hopeless, isolated and deeply lonely, Anna attends an alternative support group; The Women’s Circle. But when she touches an ancient crystal, Anna connects to a woman she has never met, in a past she doesn’t recognise.
In 1770, a brutal regime torments the English village of Quarrendon and is determined to keep its women apart. Young villager Aisleen desperately seeks a way to defy the rules, reunite with her sister, and live life on her own terms, without her husband’s permission. The stakes are high and terror of punishment inescapable, but doing nothing comes at an even steeper price…
While separated by generations, Anna finds herself drawn to the spine-chilling and courageous plight of Aisleen and Quarrendon’s women. Can their bond help her to face her past and embrace her second chance at life?
A heart-warming and inspirational portrayal of inner strength and vulnerability, The Women’s Circle shows us the true power of female friendship in all its forms.
Penny’s top tip for aspiring authors: Don’t give up, enjoy the process and it will take as long as it takes.
Penny Macoun was born in Sydney, Australia. She has been writing since 1993 when her story about a funnel web spider was printed in a school newsletter. Ever since, Penny has loved the ‘other worlds’ that words create, and hopes to continue to create these worlds for many years to come. Rollo’s Wet Surprise is her second book. When she is not writing, teaching or editing, Penny dabbles in various forms of visual arts and enjoys being in the garden.
Why do you write? I write because I enjoy creating the ‘other worlds’ you find in stories. It fills me with excitement to create something new. Words are my passion.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I am a trained Primary School teacher. Up until the pandemic I had been a casual teacher for eight years. When I decided to put a hold on teaching, I decided to follow my career dream of being an author.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? As a self-published author my toughest obstacle was learning all the things I had to do as a ‘publisher’ such as getting an ABN, how to purchase ISBNs and understanding the intricacies of getting files ready for producing a book.
How involved have you been in the development of your book/s? I have been involved every step of the way. This is why I decided to self-publish my books, because I wanted to be able to produce the book how I wanted it to be. I thought of the illustrations as I edited the stories, which meant I could give clear guidelines to the illustrator.
What’s the best aspect of your creative life? Being able to set my own working hours and have flexibility to do things during the day if I want to. Oh… and sleep in.
—the worst? Low income. I love what I do, but slow and few book sales makes the balance sheet a bit difficult to look at sometimes.
How has your childhood influenced you as a children’s author? I think my career as a teacher has influenced me as a children’s author, rather than my childhood. I was working on an adult murder mystery for many years but it was my experiences of reading to children in the classroom and using books to educate that made me begin to see that some of my stories could be turned into books for children.
How do you approach a new picture book project? Walk us through your creative process. Once you have an idea, what’s the next step? I don’t really set out to write a picture book. I write a story and as I write I am thinking if pictures can be attached to what I have written. Then I edit the story and create a storyboard to work on layout and illustration ideas. I then send the storyboard and the manuscript to the illustrator, who will begin on the artwork. They start by sending me character sketches and a black and white storyboard layout and then will add colour. We send ideas and illustrations back and forth until I give them the tick of completion. The illustrator then sends me print ready files to upload to Ingram Spark to create my book.
How much time do you spend on creating each picture book? Once I have written a story, I like to leave it alone for a few months before looking at it again and starting the editing process. I then will edit the story and send it to my friend, who is an editor. I also use another editor to have a non-biased look at it. After several reviews and the creation of the storyboard and illustration ideas, I give everything to the illustrator, who will usually take a couple of months. Therefore, I guess the whole process can take about six months minimum.
What are you working on at the moment? I have written a sequel to Gorkle, which was my first children’s book. Now that Rollo’s Wet Surprise is complete, I will begin editing it.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Yes, I do experience writer’s block. Usually when I have to write something for the writing group I am in. To overcome it, I will either work on a different piece of writing or just do something that isn’t writing, so I can go back to it with a fresh view. Often a few hours or days away from the desk is enough to rejuvenate the writing juices.
What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? Enjoyment and the experience of learning something without even realising it. As an educator, I am always working to link books and my own stories to experiences or things children can learn from.
Is there any area of writing that you still find challenging? Writing chapter books for children. I would love to explore this area more. Five years ago I couldn’t even write a picture book and now I have published two, so there’s hope for me yet.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as an author? Take my time and don’t rush the process. I made this mistake with my first book, which meant there was a lot to fix by a designer before I could publish the book. Rollo’s Wet Surprise went a lot smoother.
How important is social media to you as an author? I find social media is important to get the word out about what I am doing professionally. I also regularly update my website. I find the engagements are becoming fewer as people become disillusioned with social media, which makes me wonder if people are looking at my posts anymore. However, I do feel that an author should use every method they can to spread the word about what they do; someone, somewhere will see the post and hopefully tell someone else and ultimately create a few book sales along the way.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? I don’t really remember ever being given advice but something has stuck with me. I was with my dad at a shop counter after I had been looking at the books on display. It was in a hospital convenience store. I said I wanted to be a published author with lots of books like Bryce Courtenay. My dad scoffed and didn’t think much of this as a career, but the shop attendant said there was no harm in trying. Now most days, Dad asks me if I’ve written another book.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Colourful. Educational. Fun.
If you look at the Rollo’s Wet Surprise page you will find links to all online stores that have this book. I also sell both of my books through my website.
Rollo is a dog that loves to go to work with his owner, Jim, who is a builder. Jim and his team of builders have been working on a house that Rollo has enjoyed visiting because the family like to give him lots of pats and the garden is nice and big, so he has lots of places to explore.
One day, the builders are moving lots of big, heavy windows to a safe area. Rollo begins to explore this new part of the garden, and sniffs around.
While Rollo is exploring, he tries to walk on a surface that he thinks is hard. Unfortunately, the hard surface is a pool cover and Rollo finds himself falling into a large swimming pool. Jim helps him out and everyone thinks it is very funny, except for Rollo.
This book is ideal for teaching children about being safe around water and remembering to always close pool gates and never go near a pool without an adult.
Michael Fitzgerald is a writer and art magazine editor living in Sydney. His first novel, The Pacific Room (2017), was developed through a Varuna Publisher Fellowship; his second, Pietà, is being released in June 2021, also through Transit Lounge Publishing. His literary work has also appeared in magazines such as Kill Your Darlings and Westerly. He is Editor of Art Monthly Australasia.
Why do you write? This is something I’ve never really asked myself, and I wonder if it would be dangerous for me to find out at this late stage. Sometimes it’s best just to keep doing what you instinctively feel you need to do. With writing especially, I think there’s a danger in overthinking things. I’ll leave that up to actors to ponder: What’s my motivation?
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? A strange dream of mine would be to be a casting agent.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Life constantly interrupting and intervening. How dare it! … While my novels have been relatively short (in length) so far, they have taken me SO LONG to write.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? Yes. I’m not sure how it is elsewhere, but at Transit Lounge my experience has been especially collaborative and creative.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Being solitary and alone. It’s thrilling and scary, but very quickly things scribbled into notebooks and onto a computer screen begin to fill the void. And soon stories and characters flood your head and have a life of their own through this strangely mechanical and meditative process of pushing a pen or typing at a keyboard. I also love swimming for the same reason.
—the worst? Not having the time to write.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? To maybe think less about what other people might think, and to not try and second-guess what readers (or publishers) might want – but, at the same, not to ignore them, and to learn to lean into them a little more productively and meaningfully. Sorry if I’ve totally contradicted myself here, but I’m obviously in two minds!
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Nothing in particular, because I think it’s important for everyone to follow and find their own path and to sometimes stumble and grope around in the dark. That’s how I’ve done it, and I can’t imagine anything different.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? To never submit or press ‘send’ until a piece is absolutely finished and ready – though of course knowing when the moment is right is a whole other thing. I’m still not entirely sure … So, on second thoughts, maybe the best advice is something smaller and more technical – like Margaret Atwood saying (in the Paris Review I think) that the key to proofreading is a good ruler, and going through the text line by line.
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Embrace the difficulty. It definitely doesn’t get any easier as you get older. I’m 56, but sometimes I feel like I’m still starting out. So, finding a voice, and the best narrative vehicle to express it is something I’m still wrestling with. It’s part of an ongoing process that never stops. Keep wrestling!
How important is social media to you as an author? I haven’t succumbed to Facebook or Twitter (perhaps to my detriment), but I do enjoy Instagram (I’m @mf.novelist). When you’re writing (or editing all day like I am), it’s sometimes nice to do it with images. And I’ve found and friended other writers on Instagram, some of whom use it in interesting ways ‘to share and connect’ (those ubiquitous words). Though it’s sometimes difficult to find the right tone and to avoid appearing gloating and self-obsessed – those ugly hallmarks of social media. Of course, occasional ‘digital detox’ is essential for any writer.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? As I mature and life gets more crowded and noisier, the writing bit of writing is not so much the challenge, but blocking out periods of solitary time is. For me time, and it’s perhaps a cliché to say, time and silence is key. Finding myself up at Varuna, The Writers House late last year, and faced with a week’s residency and with no particular goal in mind – and no distractions – was heavenly. I ended up writing short stories, one of which will be published in Westerly magazine this year. The experience took me back to the two weeks I spent in a convent in Rome, researching Pietà.
How do you deal with rejection? Stoically, and to immediately latch onto another hopeful or positive opportunity – there are so many these days. And to learn to love your ugly ducklings and to keep trying to turn them into swans. I have also been meaning to maintain a special ‘rejections’ notebook, as there have been so many over the years, and to keep this as a badge of honour.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Different each time.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Patricia Highsmith or Tennessee Williams. They both transgressed conservative convention in postwar America – one through spare, eviscerating psychological thrillers, the other through poetic and transcendent prose and plays. I would just like to hear them speak, look at their quizzical faces, and spend time in their writing studios while perhaps passively inhaling their cigarette smoke – you can always find out so much from the physical spaces writers inhabit.
These are the last days of 1999. At St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as the world waits for the new millennium, Lucy, a young Australian woman looks up at Michelangelo’s Pietà behind its pane of bullet-proof glass; a red kabbalah string circles her wrist. She has come with the mysterious parcel her recently deceased mother asked her to bring to the box marked POSTE VATICANE.
But before Rome there is Saint-Cloud. Here, on the outskirts of Paris, Lucy works as an au pair for Jean-Claude and his wife Mathilde. When Mathilde leaves for Central Australia to research the Aboriginal artist Kumanjayi, Lucy’s circle of contacts becomes smaller and strangely intimate: Jean-Claude, the baby Felix for whom she cares, and the couple’s charismatic friend Sébastien, a marble restorer.
Yet Lucy’s homesickness for Australia and its vastness haunts her world, surfacing in the memories of her mother, the Australian garden at Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison, and Mathilde’s letters from Alice Springs. Lucy’s mother, Jude, who was a nun in the 1970s, once warned her daughter ‘to be careful what she wished for’. It is a caution that marks but rarely alters the choices these characters make.
With lushness and tenderness, and revelation, Fitzgerald’s unforgettable novel Pietà exquisitely captures the glorious and imperfect relationships between parents and children, between art and life.
Angela’s top tip for aspiring authors: Read. Ponder the experience of reading. Reading as a writer is an art in itself.
Angela O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in South East Queensland and now lives in Sydney. She completed a Master of Arts in Writing at UTS and has had short stories published in literary journals. Night Blue is her first book.
Why do you write? We can’t ever get into the head of another human but we can imagine ourselves into anyone and anything, whether fictional or real. For me, writing is the best and most exhilarating way of doing that. It’s my prism for experiencing the world.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? As far as having some sort of prism for experiencing the world I can’t imagine being happy with anything that wasn’t related to the arts. I would pick acting, I think, as there is that similar aspect of inhabiting a character, of stepping beyond the boundary of the self and in some way experiencing the other.
What was the toughest obstacle to becoming published? The toughest obstacle was me. I wrote probably three or four novels over the years, and a couple of those got initial interest from publishers that then didn’t go anywhere. I really took to heart the adages about writing “what you know” and “showing not telling” and in hindsight I think I let those adages sort of shackle me. In 2016 I went to Varuna, The National Writers House, for a “Conversations with Writers” workshop with Peter Bishop and he talked about allowing the writing “to breathe” and something just clicked for me. I realised I could step into a space where I didn’t know “what I knew”, a space where there was not necessarily a distinction between “showing and telling,” and things just got better from there. I wrote the first pages of Night Blue soon after that.
How involved were you in the development of your book. Did you have input into the cover? Barry from Transit Lounge really loved the book; from the start there was an openness, a common understanding. He has this way in his emails of saying little but meaning much, and I just felt really supported. Yet he was ready to push back when he felt he needed to, and I really appreciated that too. There was a small change I wanted to make in the final edit that he didn’t agree with. In hindsight he was probably right. There comes a point where the writer just has to let go of the work. Barry sent me five or six cover designs by Peter Lo, and asked me to choose my top three. The decision was never going to be mine alone – it wasn’t my department – but it was wonderful to be invited into that process. I love the cover that Peter designed for Night Blue; for me it speaks its own exquisite language to what is inside the book.
What is the best aspect of your writing life? The sense of freedom and discovery.
The worst? Being deep in it and knowing I have to break to do the shopping.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? For me, this question is quite useless. I wouldn’t know what I know now if things had been different. And I wouldn’t know it in the way I know it. For me, that’s impressive and I’m unwilling to walk myself back from that.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I’m tempted to answer same as above, but I do wish I’d been told that it’s best not to write with an open packet of biscuits within reach. But I stumbled on this pretty quickly on my own.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? In class at UTS Glenda Adams said something about when writing a first draft to let “everything in”; she said it was “like gathering flowers”, and she made these gestures of reaching left and right. I always loved that.
How important is social media to you as a writer? Right now it plays a role in letting people know about Night Blue. It also helps me come across writers, artists, podcasts that I find inspiring. I’ve had lovely connections with other writers on Instagram; it was through Instagram that Favel Parrett kindly agreed to write a commendation for Night Blue. The downside is that it can be a vacuous time waster. A bit like sugar, use in moderation.
Do you experience “writer’s block” and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t experience a block as such; I can always write. It’s more a matter of whether the writing is any good. If I’m really not happy with how it’s going I usually stop and go for a walk. I live near the ocean and just walking by it is an expansive experience. On the way back I might stop at the shops and buy items for a meal, and often by the time I’m cooking the onions something has shifted in the writing – in the way I see it and feel it – and I’ll know what it needs.
How do you deal with rejection? Cry. Vow never to write again. Go for a walk. Realise I want to keep at it.
In three words how would you describe your writing? Poetic. Accessible. Arresting.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most want them to tell you about living a writing life? Franz Kafka. He once wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I’d want to ask him about that.
Potent, haunting and lyrical, Night Blue is a narrative largely told in the voice of the painting Blue Poles. It is an original and absorbing approach to revisiting Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner as artists and people, as well as a realigning our ideas around the cultural legacy of Whitlam’s purchase of Blue Poles in 1973.
It is also the story of Alyssa, and a contemporary relationship, in which O’Keeffe immerses us in the essential power of art to change our personal lives and, by turns, a nation.
Moving between New York and Australia with fluid ease, Night Blue is intimate and tender, yet surprisingly dramatic. It is a glorious exploration of how art must never be undervalued.