Ep 160: How to get effective feedback on your writing. And meet Harrison Young, author of ‘The Daughters of Henry Wong’.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 160 of So you want to be a writer: Great writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut, how to tell if you’re writing middle grade or young adult fiction, and how to get effective feedback on your writing. Discover how you could win our organisational book pack. Meet Harrison Young, author of The Daughters of Henry Wong. Plus, how to get noticed on social media and much more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Review of the Week
From Mathew:

Great podcast. I’m an English guy living in Norway. I have found this podcast to be really helpful and motivating as an aspiring writer myself. It’s always witty, informative and easy to listen to. I return to the UK in the summer to study a Ba in Journalism and English Literature at University and this podcast has really whetted my appetite to expand my writing further. Thanks and keep up the good work. 🙂 Mathew.

Thanks, Mathew!

Show Notes

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut that Every Writer Needs to Read

5 ways to tell if you’re writing Middle Grade or Young Adult fiction

12 Tips For Getting Feedback On Your Writing

The Mapmaker Chronicles: Landing in the UK on 6 April, 2017

Writer in Residence

Harrison Young

Harrison Young is an investment banker and director of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia who has done business in twenty countries and helped found firms in Bahrain and Beijing. So much airplane time has allowed him to write Partners (2013), Submission (2014) and Nantucket (2015),  which he describes as ‘love stories with the sex left in’. His latest book is The Daughters of Henry Wong.

He has been a reporter for The Washington Post, an infantry officer in Vietnam and a director of the Bank of England. He likes red wine, intelligent women and John Donne’s poetry. Harrison was born in America and lives in Melbourne.

Follow Harrison on Twitter

Visit Harrison’s website

Platform Building Tip

10 Ways First-Time Writers Can Get Noticed on Social Media

Competition

WIN our “Get Organised” pack!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Harrison.

Harrison

Thank you.

Valerie

For listeners who haven’t read your book yet, The Daughters of Henry Wong, can you tell us what it’s about?

Harrison

Sure, at a surface level it’s a thriller. A whole bunch of things happen to a particular character, but at another level it’s really about the process of his maturity as he copes with all the things he has to cope with. Finally as he does that coping he begins to have a better understanding of Chinese culture and the ways in which Chinese culture is not that different from Western culture.

Valerie

How did the idea for this book form? This book is set in Hong Kong, did you spend a lot of time in Asia yourself? How did you decide to set it where it’s set and to take on this particular story?

Harrison

Well, I was living in Hong Kong. A book that I published a couple of years ago took place in Saudi Arabia, sort of, or Dubai, maybe an imaginary place. But, it was approximately like Dubai. An agent who tried to place it with a publisher said, “Nobody wants to read about the Middle East. So I said to myself, “I guess I better write something about Hong Kong, because that’s where I live now and that’s very much in the news.”

I was sort of mediating on what I would write. I was out walking one Saturday afternoon in Hong Kong and I came upon a fascinating house sort of hidden in the woods. You had to go down a path or up a path from the main roads to get to it. It was a large house and it sort of had some Chinese and some Western elements to it. And I said to myself, “I wonder what would happen in that house?” And that was sort of the germ of the story.

Valerie

Really?

Harrison

People who have read the book say the house itself, which in the story is referred to as Wong Castle, that the house is almost a character in the book.

Valerie

This is your fourth published novel, is that right?

Harrison

Yeah, the first quote/unquote novel was actually a collection of short stories, but they overlap enough that people experience them as a novel.

Valerie

Yes.

The thing that I find fascinating is that your bio says that you’ve been writing — I’m sure that it’s tongue in cheek a little bit — but, your bio says that you have been writing fiction in airports and on weekends for quite some time. The reality is that you have a very busy life in the corporate world. You’re a former director of the Bank of England, former chairman of NBNCo, the Commonwealth Bank. You’re a busy person who lives in a very, very different corporate environment than most people who are writers.

Where do you fit your writing in?

Harrison

When I started writing fiction in 1981 I was living in Bahrain, where I had been sent by my investment banking firm to help some Kuwaitis start a bank. There was nothing to do in the evening. I said, “Well, you’ve always wanted to write a novel, you should try.” So I did it in the evening and that was pretty easy because there was exactly nothing else to do.

As time passed there were periods when I was able to write every weekend for four hours, maybe. There were periods when I dried up and didn’t do anything. When I went to live in Beijing with my family the winter was so awful that my wife and infant son came down to Australia, because she was an Australian. I had, again, nothing to do in Beijing, so I began writing again. It was an hour and a quarter, an hour and half car ride to my office. So, I got roughly three hours of writing on a laptop in the car each work day.

When I got back to Hong Kong and began to have responsibilities as Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, which took me all over Asia, I wrote a lot in airports.

It’s literally true, that’s where I’ve done it.

Valerie

And on airplanes, no doubt.

Harrison

And on airplanes, now that you can get enough power.

Valerie

Yes. Do you consider writing as a parallel career? Do you consider it a hobby? Do you consider your corporate stuff something that you do when you’re not writing? You know? How does it fit into your mindset?

Harrison

Well, it’s clearly a hobby because I would have starved to death if I was trying to support myself with my writing. But, I think of it as one of several aspects of me. I mean I’ve always aspired to be an interest person, not to have a one-track life. The fact that I’ve had an interesting banking career and an interesting time on a bunch of boards and an interesting time publishing four novels, those are all different aspects of the same person. I sort of like that.

Valerie

It must take some kind of discipline to watch the movies instead of write on the plane, or to stare out the window in the car instead of write. But, was it something that you had to discipline yourself and force yourself to do, or is it something that you were just hanging to get to, you actually really wanted that commute on the car?

Harrison

For the most part it’s something that I want to do. Since it’s a hobby I don’t very often force myself to sit down and write when I don’t feel like it. Now that I’m semi-retired I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and go down the hall and write for two hours.

Clearly you do that because you enjoy it.

Valerie

Yes.

When you’re writing a book like this, The Daughters of Henry Wong, you said that the seed was planted when you saw this house that made you start thinking of the story, what goes on in that house. But did you plot out the entire story? Or did you just start writing to see what would happen? Tell us about the actual creative process of making the story become a manuscript.

Harrison

I’m not dodging your question, but it’s quite hard to remember the order in which the ideas came to me.

What I can tell you is that I spent quite a lot of time on this book trying to get characters lined up opposite each other for thematic purposes and in the end I just threw it all out. In the end what works for me, now that I’ve written a couple more books, what I find works for me is to take either a situation, somebody is living this house, there’s a whole family living in this house, blah, blah, blah, and/or an opening sentence and they sort of get my creative engine going. Then I sort of have to see what happens.

When I was writing The Daughters of Henry Wong… there’s some mysteries and problems presented early in the book. I didn’t know how it came out. And as I wrote suddenly I’d say, “Oh, I bet… what about if…” such and such. And so I’d go down that path.

I’m not somebody who’s writes reams and reams of stuff and then throws it out. I think a lot about what I’m writing as I’m writing. Thanks to the miracles of word processing on a laptop I don’t have such a thing as a new draft. Every time I sit down to work on it I may work on whatever should come next, whether it’s nothing but blank paper or I may work on, “Let’s rethink that chapter a little bit…” I make a constant stream of minor course adjustments and corrections. One of my friends says that I must write 40 drafts of something. Really, I only write one.

Valerie

Wow.

Harrison

But, I tinker with it.

Valerie

Yeah, sure. This story, and some of your other books, are also set in the corporate world, in a sense, like the characters are business people or it’s a world that you know. Have you ever been accused by any of your readers of drawing on real life? Have any of your business friends recognized themselves in your books?

Harrison

Nobody has.

Valerie

But, has that occurred?

Harrison

99 percent of the time I’m making everything up.

 

There’s a character in The Daughters of Henry Wong who resembles in some ways somebody I knew in Hong Kong. He comes out of the book looking pretty good, so I don’t think my old colleague would mind.

But, I do not do what Somerset Maugham used to do. He’d go to some new city, he’d get asked to lots of dinners and parties. He’d collect all the local gossip and then he’d use it to write stories, which were so close to the bone that he could never go back to that city again.

I absolutely don’t do that. I have much more fun creating characters than drawing pictures of people I already know. The one that I mentioned is different in a number of very significant ways.

Valerie

Sure.

Let’s take this book, The Daughters of Henry Wong, you said you’re semi-retired, did you take a period of time off to concentrate fully on the book? Or did you write it in the spare time that you had at the time?

Harrison

The four books I’ve published the order of writing was three, one, four — sorry, how do I say this? Three, one, four, two.

Valerie

So this was the second book that you wrote?

Harrison

So this was the second one that I wrote. And then the third one I wrote was Partners, which I published first and the fourth one I wrote was Nantucket, which I published most recently.

The Daughters of Henry Wong was sitting in a drawer for, oh, ten years.

Valerie

Really?

Harrison

Yeah.

Valerie

Oh my goodness. What made you think, “It’s time to take it out of the drawer?”

Harrison

I had been working with Jane Curry at Ventura Press. She got me going when she read a couple of the stories in Partners. She said, “These are great. I want ten of them by Valentine’s Day.” So I wrote ten stories that got placed on shelves that were called Steamy Fiction or whatever.

Then I said, “OK, what comes next?” And we talked about it and we did Submission, which is the first one I wrote. And then while I was getting that ready I started having these ideas that turned into Nantucket. So once I had Nantucket written people said, “We’ll publish that one next.” Though I could have published Daughters next.

Valerie

Yes.

Harrison

So, no, I don’t take time off the books. I take time off to sit and marinate sometimes.

What I did have happen with The Daughters of Henry Wong is Jane found a very good editor to help me to sharpen the thing up.

Valerie

When you took it out of the drawer after ten years you gave it to your publisher without revising it at all.

Harrison

Correct.

Valerie
But then it went through an editing process.

Harrison

Right.

Valerie
Right. So, that’s a great lesson to everyone. If you’ve got a novel sitting in your bottom drawer for ‘x’ number of years it’s not destined to stay there.

Harrison

It doesn’t have to stay there, right. It doesn’t have to stay there.

Valerie

What reaction do you get from your banking colleagues that you have written books that are in the steamy fiction aisle at the bookshop?

Harrison

I wrote one that was that way. The others have a degree of that. I get two reactions there. People who think it’s all quite a hoot and a lot of fun and come to the launches and buy the books and tell me that they enjoyed them.

And I have colleagues who say nary a word ever, which I think just indicates that they were well-brought up.

Valerie

That they were well-brought up?

Harrison

Yeah, that they don’t particularly like the books or don’t want to experience them, but are too polite to say, “Harrison, why are you writing this stuff?”

Valerie

OK, sure.

When you are creating your characters, like your characters in The Daughters of Henry Wong, which you say are 99 percent completely made up, do you let them develop as you write? Or do you think about them and give them a backstory and give them a history and a childhood and all of that before you get into the depths of the story?

Harrison

Well, let me put it this way, I find that I am most creative when I’m actually writing prose or dialogue. If I spend a lot of time saying, “Now this character is going to have this backstory… and that event… and that event… and I have to introduce this concept before…” It all goes in the trash eventually.

What works is to sit down and say, “So and so opened his eyes and realized he wasn’t where he had gone to bed,” you know? Particularly if it turns out to be a good sentence.

For me it’s good prose, good dialogue that lets the character emerge.

Valerie

You say you’re semi-retired now. Does that mean you writing more than you have previously? Will we be seeing lots more books come out from you?

Harrison

You never know. I mean I have half of two novels in a drawer and I’m not working on them particularly because with a co-author I’m working on a book about banking, which is a non-fiction book. I want to get that written.

But, there will be times when I’m awake in the middle of the night and I walk down the hall to write a little bit and what comes out depends on my fingers as I hit the keys is something that belongs in one of those novels. So, I’ll write something up and file it away somewhere and maybe it gets incorporated later.

Valerie

Finally what do you find as the most challenging thing about writing fiction but also what is the most rewarding thing about writing fiction?

Harrison

Well, the most rewarding thing is that it is sheer joy. I mean it is just intense. It’s intense intellectual pleasure.

What’s hard about writing fiction?

Valerie

What’s challenging?

Harrison

What’s challenging is sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen next, or you’ve got a character three-quarters developed but you can’t see the point and you need to sort of back up a little bit and say, “Now what led me to say this about this character, or have this character behave this way?”

One of the things that is fun is that sometimes you think you know what a character is all about and he or she starts behaving in a completely different fashion. And you say, “Where in the world did that come from? That’s very interesting.”

It’s great fun to follow a path you hadn’t known was there.

Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a fool ever wrote except for money.” And for me that isn’t true.

Valerie
That’s obvious.

You’re coauthoring a non-fiction book, about banking of all things. Are you finding it quite a different process? Are you enjoying it more or less?

Harrison

It’s a different process. I mean one of the things about the process that’s somewhat unusual is that I’m doing all the writing, but my friend Mark Lawrence is providing a lot of the thinking. We have complimentary CVs. He’s a risk professional. He has a doctorate in math. He’s been a chief risk officer. He’s been a consultant all over the world.

On the other hand I’ve been a lending officer at a bank. I’ve been in a lot of board rooms advising a lot of bank boards. And I’ve been in board rooms and know something about the dynamics of what goes on there. I’ve been in board rooms as a chairman or member of the board.

This book, the way it is presented is as sort of advice to somebody who’s just been made a non-executive director of a bank who isn’t himself or herself a banker.

Valerie
OK. Well, that’s really specific.

Harrison

Yeah.

I mean other people will want to read it, but that’s the rhetorical device.

But, if you’re going to do that and you’re drawing on two people’s experience and expertise you have to spend a lot of time talking about it. Then maybe I will write something and Mark will say, “Well, that’s lovely prose, Harrison, but it isn’t actually correct.

Valerie

Right.

I’m interested, are you writing it as a how-to? Or are you writing it as a page-turning creative non-fiction thing? Or are you writing it as a manual, you know?

Harrison

It’s not a how-to manual. There’s a lot of stories, because stories are a good way to convey information, or even convey wisdom. But, it’s not one long story.

I mean to be really outrageous it’s designed to sit as a lesser member of on a shelf that would also include things like The Prince, or there’s a book called Hardball about what life in Washington is really like, by, I think, Chris Matthews.

Valerie

Right.

Harrison

It’s sort of an essay about something that’s complicated and important. It’s more in the spirit of an essay than anything else, let me put it that way.

Valerie
I’m interested to read it, because I remember once reading a book about the banking industry. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, called Naked Among Cannibals.

Harrison

I haven’t heard of it.

Valerie

Well, I think you would enjoy it, by Graham Hand, an Australian banker who… it’s a bit dated now because it was probably written 15 years ago. Who would think that the Australian banking industry would be a page-turner, you know? Yeah. You’d probably enjoy it.

I’m keen to read the final product, Harrison.

Harrison

Good. Well, I’m keen to get it written.

Valerie

Yes!

Alright, well thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

On a final note what would your advice be to those people who do have their own novel in a bottom drawer for the last ten years?

Harrison

Getting published is hard. Finding an agent who wants to take on an unpublished author is very hard. I don’t have an agent. The only advice really is persevere.

Valerie

Persevere to do what?

Harrison

I guess to find a publisher or to find an agent.

Valerie

And don’t let it sit in the bottom drawer. Just do something with it. Send it to someone.

Harrison

The other thing I’d say is if you have one novel it would be unusual if you had produced a good novel if it was the only one you had in you.

Valerie

Right.

Harrison

My solution to not being able to publish Submission was to write The Daughters of Henry Wong. I think it’s a better book. I mean I think, in fact, thanks to the editing from Catherine McCredie what I’ve produced I think is better than the other two books.

Valerie

Wonderful.

Harrison

So I guess it’s keep writing is what I would say.

Valerie

Yes.

Harrison

But, enjoy it.

Valerie

Of course. It sounds like you certainly enjoy it.

So The Daughters of Henry Wong is available now in bookstores by Harrison Young. Thank you so much for your time today, Harrison.

Harrison

It was my pleasure.

 

 


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