From pitiful draft to a publishing contract: meet my mentor in shining armour

My proud mum and me after hearing about the contract.

I’m not reviewing a book today. I’m reviewing a writer and a mentor whose support was paramount in my manuscript, The Last Bookstore, being one of three shortlisted for Australia’s newest and richest literary prize – and now, being offered a publishing contract with Fremantle Press!

I have just heard that Laurie Steed has added one-on-one formal mentorship to his existing suite of literary teaching services.

It’s the perfect opportunity to say out loud: the quality of The Last Bookstore and my ability to steer it this far through the industry has been thanks in large part to his guidance.

The Last Bookstore has been (so far) three years in the making. A full one year on the merry-go-round of taking it to agents and implementing their feedback.

One asked for new beginnings which I tried to provide but missed the mark. Another told me not all the characters were working. One said the writing didn’t work but the story was good. Another said the story worked but the writing didn’t. One said it lacked “sparkle”; another said it was too “quiet”. Suffice to say my manuscript wasn’t wowing anyone.

I had been smashing out work on my own for years. I’d gained foggy hard-won insights from being alone with my own work. Gleaned tips from books on writing. Agents who took time to provide feedback gave me valuable course corrections.

But it was all so difficult, so demoralising. And something still wasn’t working.

Like a couple whose relationship was on the rocks, The Last Bookstore and I were “on a break” when I drafted my second manuscript.

An excerpt from that won me a place in the 1st Edition Retreat at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre – three days of intensive mentoring workshops with Laurie Steed.

you-belong-hereLaurie assessed countless manuscripts as a former editor at Margaret River Press, and I had read and loved his own first novel, You Belong Here.

In his workshops, lightbulbs began flashing.

Laurie taught me about beginnings and endings. Why they matter. What they do. How to analyse them in other texts and see what mine were missing.

About scenes and chapters, what the hell they are for and how to look at my own manuscript and identify the narrative arc and what was lacking.

About including sensory detail, how to truly “show” not “tell” and how to interrograte a paragraph.

Crucially, he also reassured me that I could, in fact, write.

And suddenly things began to happen.

First, they became fun. The second draft of my second manuscript was so much better, easier and more enjoyable to write (stay tuned for some good news on that book, hopefully soon!)

And I picked up The Last Bookstore again with a vow to do another structural edit, feeling the bravery and commitment necessary to tackle it, to a depth both totally agonizing and absolutely necessary.

Another new first chapter. Every scene analysed for its function, then rewritten. Bits chopped off. New bits written and sewn in. Characters cut. Others given room to breathe and open their mouths. And a new ending. Finally coming to grips with my story. And then, an oral edit, reading 84,000 words aloud and stopping to rewrite every paragraph.

Mel Emily Laurie Emma

Laurie with me and my fellow 1st Edition-ers Mel Hall (recently longlisted for the Fogarty Award) and Emily Sun (recently shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize).

Yes, I put in the hours, but without Laurie I would not have known what to do in them,  these past six months. I had been at the end of my tether. It was those final two rewrites using what he taught me that got it over the line.

He also dusted me off after rejections and gave advice on handling agents, building a coherent career, using social media without selling out. Even his emails are so beautifully written, so uplifting, I sometimes can’t quite believe he’s real.

I’ve never bit the bullet on a professional manuscript assessment. I looked at the price tags and went, “nah,”; struggled on. Imagine if I actually hired Laurie to go through this manuscript, two years ago. I might have got this contract sooner, and had more joy along the way.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you are working, you must exit your hobbit hole and get professional advice.

If you have a manuscript in the bottom drawer that needs something – but you’re not sure what – I urge you to get in touch with him here.

To Laurie and KSP – thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

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Eight years to write a plan, as battles build to war for Perth bush

Hundreds, if not thousands, of emails have poured into my inbox over recent years from distressed residents begging me to help them save this or that bit of bushland. Not a week goes by without another one.

Battles have raged in Shenton Park, Midvale, Bayswater, Trigg, Cockburn, Kenwick and Ascot, to mention just a handful, and together these battles represent a war.

Just a few of the protests in Perth over the past couple of years.
Just a few of the protests in Perth over the past couple of years.

People are worried and depressed about the state of the biodiversity that has always been Perth’s genuine claim to fame.

And anyone who’s ever tried to deal with the Perth’s environmental approvals and planning system, whether trying to clear bushland or protect it, finds an intimidating maze that makes little sense even to the agencies that are part of it.

No one really knows how important each patch of bush is in a city-wide sense. Developers can proceed with the assumption that if they cut this bit down, someone else will save another patch, somewhere… just not in their backyard.

Yet after eight years of work on it, the McGowan government has suspended work on one of the state’s biggest planning documents, the one that might have fixed this mess once and for all.

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday

‘We need young voices’: Why Freo Press has launched a $20,000 writing prize

Many industries are bringing in younger employees at the expense of more experienced ones, but there is at least one WA job overwhelmingly given to older people: the job of author.

WA author Craig Silvey wrote his first novel, Rhubarb, when he was 19 - but he's an outlier.
WA author Craig Silvey wrote his first novel, Rhubarb, when he was 19 – but he’s an outlier. Credit: Marco Del Grande 

Fremantle Press is known for introducing West Australian voices to a national audience, but what might surprise is that they are overwhelmingly the voices of people aged 35 and older.

And the chatter they’ve heard across the industry suggests that a lack of young stories is not just a local problem.

This is why the organisation, in partnership with the Fogarty Foundation, has launched one of Australia’s richest literary prizes – $20,000 cash, plus a Fremantle Press publishing contract – and the first and only one exclusively for young West Australian writers.

The inaugural biennial Fogarty Award is open to a previously unpublished work of fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction from any WA writer aged 18-35, and is intended to kick-start the winner’s career, support further creative work and bring more diversity to the submissions the Press is receiving.

“We’re not really getting those younger voices,” Fremantle Press publisher Cate Sutherland said.

“It’s been a reasonably consistent problem across a long period of time.”

She said the Press had authors in their mid to late 30s, their mid-40s, even in their 80s – just very few under 35.

Many high-profile Australian authors began young, including such names as Craig Silvey and Sonya Hartnett, Isobelle Carmody and Tim Winton; but they are the shining exceptions, not the rule.

Fremantle Press publishers had speculated that perhaps the ability to find an instant online audience had taken some energy that young writers might otherwise have spent on a “longer trajectory”, Ms Sutherland said.

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.  

The 57 books I read in 2018, my top 10 and holiday reading recommendations

Fiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Green: WA writers, because reading local is awesome.
  • Red: Children’s books, because kids need books and books need them.
  • Blue: Crime and thrillers, all trustworthy holiday reads.
  • Black: literary fiction (read on for the top five).
  • First eight by L.M. Montgomery. What can I say? Memory lane beckons.
  1. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery 
  2. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery 
  3. Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery 
  4. Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery 
  5. Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery 
  6. Anne of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery 
  7. Rainbow Valley, L.M. Montgomery 
  8. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. 
  9. Dustfall, Michelle Johnston
  10. Finders Keepers, Stephen King 
  11. Extinctions, Josephine Wilson
  12. The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan 
  13. Survival, Rachel Watts 
  14. You Belong Here, Laurie Steed 
  15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  16. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
  17. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King  
  18. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)
  19. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  20. NW, Zadie Smith
  21. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  22. Body Double, Tess Gerritsen
  23. Vanish, Tess Gerritsen
  24. The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen
  25. Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox 
  26. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid
  27. The Outsider, Stephen King 
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  29. A Girl in Time, John Birmingham
  30. The Golden Minute, John Birmingham 
  31. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
  32. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  33. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller
  34. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith 
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  36. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  38. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  39. 101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith 
  40. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Nonfiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Red: true crime
  • Blue: books about writing/literary/artistic memoirs
  • Green: personal development
  1. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl
  2. Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
  3. Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman  
  4. The First Stone, Helen Garner
  5. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner
  6. Draft No. 4, John McPhee 
  7. Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss 
  8. French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano 
  9. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audio)
  10. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis 
  11. The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips 
  12. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton 
  13. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham 
  14. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  15. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  16. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard 
  17. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein

Top 5 fiction (in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked)

  1. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (literary fiction)
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (literary fiction)
  3. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller (literary psychological thriller)
  4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (literary crime/mystery)
  5. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (literary fiction)

Top 5 (nonfiction) in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked

  1. The First Stone, Helen Garner (true crime)
  2. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (literary memoir)
  3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell (memoir/diary)
  4. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard (literary memoir)
  5. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein (literary memoir)

The Emma Awards

Funniest 

  1. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  2. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham
  3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Best crime:

  1. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (crime/mystery)
  2. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  3. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid

Most inspiring: 

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl

Most beautiful writing:

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje 
  3. All three titles by Helen Garner

Most difficult (all women; coincidence?) 

  1. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein 
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  3. NW, Zadie Smith

Best holiday reads: 

  1. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  3. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King

Hope these lists help you with holiday reading ideas 🙂 If you have any questions about the titles, leave a comment! 

Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beguiled, or ‘women making movies from books by men about women.’

After watching The Virgin Suicides I wanted more books by Jeffrey Eugenides and more films by Sofia Coppola.

I now have a copy of Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, but that’s on a ridiculously big to-read pile, so more on that later. Quicker gratification was had through renting Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a Southern gothic set in rural Mississippi during the American Civil War.

Released last year, it has a high-powered cast; Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst play two hot but buttoned-up schoolmarms looking after a few stranded students (including Elle Fanning, Australia’s Angourie Rice, from Jasper Jones) all walled up in their seminary on the edge of a forest waiting out the war.

One of the younger girls comes across a wounded enemy soldier in the forest and her teachers decide not to turn him in and to tend his wounds and let him recover his health within their four walls instead.

But nobody reckons on the hotbed of lust that can become of a bunch of beautiful women of varying age locked up with a charmingly helpless (but growing stronger every day) Colin Farrell. In short you don’t know who needs protecting more, him or them, and that scenario keeps changing over the course of the movie.

It has the Coppola cinematography I craved. The outdoor shots, particularly, of the massive trees dripping with Spanish moss, dwarfing the human story playing out beneath them, somehow frame the whole story, emphasising their isolation and heightening the sense of dreamy beauty. And the intimate shots of the women and their faces make for another sensitive portrayal of human beauty, emotion and desire.

The narrative has plenty of suspense, fuelled by a sense of imminent danger and disaster, and controlled, nuanced performances from the actors. The ending, when it comes, is melancholic and subdued. I didn’t mind that too much, but Charlie, who I watched it with, was disappointed, having hoped for something a bit more dramatic. The Ministry probably would have hated the ending.

Interestingly, like The Virgin Suicides, this was a female director making a movie from a book about female power and sexuality, that was originally written by a male author.

I wonder in circumstances like these about the multiple acts of creative perception and imagination that led to what I finally see onscreen, especially since it’s finally coloured by me, the person watching it.

It’s not haunting like The Virgin Suicides, and probably isn’t something you’d watch twice. But I would be interested to see the 1971 version (starring Clint Eastwood) and definitely recommend watching this, to anyone interested in contemporary cinema. You won’t be bored, unless you’re exclusively into Marvel movies.

Speaking of which, I’ve just seen this trailer for Venom. I don’t generally think much of Marvel movies (X-Men and other exceptions aside) but the blurb from its PR people called it “one of Marvel’s most complex characters”, and the preview looked cool (until 1.20 when I stopped watching, as I do in all trailers now). Now I’m dithering over whether to go see it. Anyone excited about this?

Big Perth: the series that nearly broke my mind

I’m dead proud of both myself and my colleagues for pulling together this massive, fascinating, data-driven, visually attractive series, which ran daily on WAtoday last week. We broke our minds so you didn’t have to!

Frankly, no other Perth-based media outlet is covering these topics, let alone harnessing these digital storytelling tools. The result, I think, is something unique.

Hope one piques your interest — or if you’ve got time, read them all. I promise you’ll learn stuff that will make you sound smart during dinner party conversations. Click the headlines to go to the story:

There are 1.4 million more people coming to Perth. Here’s where they’ll live

Do you know how many of Perth’s 800,000 new homes are planned for your neighbourhood?

  • by Emma Young

Ninety-four per cent of Perth councils fail to hit new housing targets

Halting urban sprawl involves councils building new higher density housing. They’re not off to a good start.

  • by Emma Young, Hamish Hastie, David Allan-Petale, Nathan Hondros & Conal Hanna

Halting Perth’s urban sprawl is not as easy as it sounds

‘Halting urban sprawl’ has become a catchphrase in Perth in recent years, but it’s closer to fantasy than reality, a new WAtoday analysis suggests.

  • by Emma Young & David Allan-Petale

Eight new bridges, five times the cycle paths: the plan for central Perth

There are plans to double the number of homes in Perth, Victoria Park, Subiaco and Peppermint Grove councils.

  • by Emma Young

The tiny country town set to become suburban Perth

It’s a 90-minute drive away but planners are predicting newcomers will soon outnumber existing residents four to one.

  • by Hamish Hastie

Backyards to be a relic of the past as Perth sprawls past Two Rocks

Perth’s northern suburbs are growing again but, with greater density than Subiaco, this is a different kind of sprawl.

  • by David Allan-Petale

 

Perth Hills ‘tree change’ on the chopping block in bid to halt urban sprawl

It was once the semi-rural gateway to Western Australia’s Wheatbelt, but Perth’s north-east is an unexpected epicentre for the city’s urban sprawl.

  • by Nathan Hondros