Category Archives: Writing

So now I’m judging a writing competition

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With some trepidation, I recently said yes to judging a writing competition. The Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition  for short stories and creative non-fiction. Sian Prior is judging the non-fiction and Mark Brandi and I are judging the fiction.

Yes, there are a lot of entries to read. Yes, the stories vary widely. And of course picking a winner is not an easy task.

So what insights can I give you into the judging process? Read the rest of this entry

Interview with Bill Wilkie, author of The Daintree Blockade

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Last week I reviewed The Daintree Blockade: The Battle for Australia’s Tropical Rainforests. This week Bill Wilkie, the author of that excellent book, kindly took the time to answer some questions for me.

He’s also generously made a special offer to readers of this blog, Adventures in Biography. Details at the bottom of this post…

Bill grew up in Brisbane and studied sociology and Australian history at the University of Queensland. He has lived in London, Dublin and Sydney, and travelled throughout Europe, Asia and South America. Bill now lives in the small Queensland town of Mossman with his partner and their two daughters.

Bill was a participant in the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY 2015 program, which was where I first met him. (You can find a compilation of all my posts about the program here.) I found him to be friendly, supportive and quietly intelligent.

The Daintree Blockade is your first book – what sort of writing have you done up until now? Read the rest of this entry

Australian National Biography Award – Shortlist Announced Today

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The State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW) has announced the shortlist for the $25,000 National Biography Award.

The award is administered and presented by the State Library of NSW on behalf of the award’s benefactor Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The Award was established in 1996 by Dr Geoffrey Cains to encourage the highest standards of writing in the fields of biography and autobiography and to promote public interest in these genres.

The total prize value is $31,000 – $25,000 for the winner and $1,000 each for shortlisted authors – making it the richest national prize dedicated to Australian biographical writing and memoir.

The shortlisted works for 2017 are:

  • The Unknown Judith Wright (Georgina Arnott, UWA Publishing)
  • Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (Suzanne Falkiner, UWA Publishing)
  • Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories (Kim Mahood, Scribe)
  • Evatt: A Life (John Murphy, NewSouth Publishing)
  • The Long Goodbye (P J Parker, Hardie Grant Books)
  • Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the Birth of a Dynasty (Tom D C Roberts, UQP)

Congratulations one and all, and nice that all on the shortlist (chosen from 71 entries!) will receive some prize money. The winner will be announced on 31 July.

Judging panel chair Peter Cochrane said the judges were ‘dazzled by the quality and range of entries, confirming that biography is alive and well in Australia and the genre is thriving’.

Previous winners have included:

  • Mannix (Brenda Niall, Text Publishing)
  • An Unsentimental Bloke: The Life and Work of CJ Dennis (Philip Butterss, Wakefield Press)
  • The Ambitions of Jane Franklin: Victorian Lady Adventurer (Alison Alexander, Allen&Unwin)

Hilary Mantel talks about history, facts and fictions

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Hilary Mantel, a novelist rightly famous for twice winning the Man Booker prize with her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell, yesterday gave the first of her three BBC Reith Lectures.

In the first lecture (published here in this weekend’s The Guardian), Mantel explores the complicated relationship between history, fact and fiction.

You should really go and read the whole thing.

Now.

But if you still need prompting, try this excerpt…

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Or this one

The pursuit of the past makes you aware, whether you are novelist or historian, of the dangers of your own fallibility and inbuilt bias. The writer of history is a walking anachronism, a displaced person, using today’s techniques to try to know things about yesterday that yesterday didn’t know itself. He must try to work authentically, hearing the words of the past, but communicating in a language the present understands. The historian, the biographer, the writer of fiction work within different constraints, but in a way that is complementary, not opposite. The novelist’s trade is never just about making things up. The historian’s trade is never simply about stockpiling facts. Even the driest, most data-driven research involves an element of interpretation. Deep research in the archives can be reported in tabular form and lists, by historians talking to each other. But to talk to their public, they use the same devices as all storytellers – selection, elision, artful arrangement.

What are you waiting for? Click here for the whole delicious thing.

Update: I do apologise! It seems I posted the same excerpt twice, instead of two different excerpts. The second one is now different from the first. Doh!

My Writing Day

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Her name is Winter. She’s a Scottish Deerhound. Yes, she’s very tall. Saves bending over to give her pats – she’s already at just the right height.

One day a week. That’s all I have for my own writing. And when I say ‘day’ I don’t mean a whole day, I mean a school day, between about 9:30 and 3:00pm.

Also minus the school holidays. And minus time spent hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. I’m now very good at Tetris.

My routine, on my writing day, is to take the dog for a walk after I’ve dropped the kids at school. Apart from the many therapeutic benefits of the forest, I use the time to decide exactly what it is that I plan to work on that day. I’ve learnt the hard way that if I don’t decide before I sit down at my desk, then I invariably fritter my time away hanging out the washing, catching up on my day job, making cups of tea and procrastinating by playing Tetris. Did I mention that I’m very good at Tetris?

You’d think it would be easy to decide, each day, what to work on next. Maybe it is, if you have the privilege of working on the same thing for multiple days in a row. But when it’s been a week, or more, since I last looked at the manuscript, I find it valuable to be very clear about the task at hand. It’s not at all simply a matter of writing about ‘what happened next’. If only!

Maybe, for example, I want to Read the rest of this entry

Done! For now at least…

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With apologies to those who already know, via Facebook and Twitter – I sent the draft manuscript to my editor at Text Publishing late last week.

Very happy.

Subsequently spent a relaxing weekend in the garden, and celebrating Mother’s Day with my gorgeous kids.

No deadlines, no pressure – bliss.

Next steps? The editor edits the manuscript, sends it back covered in comments and I go back to working on it. And in the meantime I keep following up and trying to source all the images I need.

And yes, the champagne was delicious.

How to finish a manuscript

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Young Woman Writing a Letter (detail), from a poster for Encre Marquet by Eugene Grasset, 1892. Image courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Well, by not spending time writing blog posts, obviously.

The manuscript must go to the publisher (for editing) in about week, so the last little while has been just a teensy bit frantic.

I kind of finished working on the text a few weeks ago, and since then I have:

  • drawn up a Macarthur family tree (thank you PowerPoint),
  • included a list of NSW Governors from 1788-1855 (eg, in Elizabeth Macarthur’s lifetime),
  • written an epilogue in which I discuss Elizabeth Macarthur’s legacy and her importance to Australia’s historical view of itself (including very brief biographies for each of her children and grandchildren – a sort of ‘what happened next’, if you like), and
  • tidied up and made consistent all the footnotes (now endnotes) and the bibliography.

I’ve also been sourcing images. Naively, I learned upon signing with the publisher that all the images (including copyright permissions, if relevant) have to be sourced and, where necessary, paid for by me. Much daunted, I duly compiled a very long list of all the images I’d quite like to include and then discovered that some institutions are likely to charge me as much as $150 per image. My image list quickly became shorter! Others charge $45.  And still others, like the State Library of NSW, charge nothing for digitised images that are out of copyright. Guess where most of my images will be sourced from…

For those of you who enjoy meaningless statistics, the draft manuscript currently has:

  • 22 chapters
  • 257 pages
  • 121,791 words
  • 842 endnotes
  • 119 works/sources listed in the bibliography
  • and a partridge in a pear tree (not really)

And of course, now that I’ve stepped back from the text, I keep thinking of things to add to it. My haphazard To Do list reads roughly as follows:

  • acknowledgements
  • psychiatrist’s opinion of John Macarthur’s being bipolar (done)
  • rum rebellion – more depth
  • Elizabeth Farm renovation, add letter from EM to her son. ‘The important improvements your dear father mentions’, Elizabeth explained in a letter to Edward, ‘are little other than delusions.’ (done)
  • ‘Quarrels’ chapter – fix it.
  • Banks of Parramatta River – no mangroves! (done)
  • ending, add EM’s comments about collecting sea shells at Bude and her comments re memories of Bridgerule.

Then all I need do is step back and look at the manuscript as a whole and completely revise and … who am I kidding? As a long time promoter of the saying that finished is better than perfect, perhaps I should start practicing what I preach. And I don’t quite have the chutzpah to imagine that I’ll ever achieve ‘perfect’ anyway, so best get the jolly thing off the editor to see what she thinks of it all.