Ep 256 Tips for first time authors. And meet Joanna Nell, author of ‘The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village’.

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In Episode 256 of So you want to be a writer: Discover tips for first time authors and writing advice from Barbara Kingsolver. You’ll meet Joanna Nell, author of The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village. Our brand new online Fiction Essentials course on Characters has now launched and we’re giving away 3 copies of Rocky Road: The incredible true story of the fractured family behind the Darrell Lea chocolate empire by Robert Wainwright.

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.

Show Notes

Shout out

Laura M Brown from Australia:

Hi Val and Al, I discovered your podcast early this year and often listen to it while doing the housework. Your entertaining, relevant and motivating podcast helps me keep my head in the happy land of Writers World, instead of the dungeons of domestic drudgery. Your inspiring podcast has helped me to be more productive than ever before. Thanks for keeping my writing dream alive and kicking!

 

Links Mentioned

Publishing Your First Book: Advice for First-Time Authors 

5 Writing Tips: Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction Essentials: Characters

 

Writer in Residence

Joanna Nell

Joanna Nell is a Sydney-based author and GP. She writes character driven stories of self discovery for women in their prime. Her short stories have won a number of prestigious awards. As a writer, she draws inspiration from the stoic wit and wisdom of fun-loving seniors to create fictional characters who are young-at-heart and defy society’s expectations of ageing.

​Her debut novel The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village is published by Hachette Australia in paperback and e-book, and available in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton UK in January 2019.

​Joanna is currently working on her second novel The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker, due for publication in October 2019.

​A graduate of the Australian Writers’ Centre, Joanna won an Emerging Writer’s award from the Henry Lawson Society in 2014. Since then, her work has been in a number of magazines, journals and short story anthologies including Award Winning Australian Writing 2017. In 2016 she was awarded a writing residency at The Bundanon Trust, courtesy of the Fellowship of Australian Writers.

Joanna won the Valerie Parv award for an unpublished novel manuscript at the Romance Writers of Australia conference in 2017.

Follow Joanna on Twitter

Follow Hachette on Twitter

(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

Competition

WIN ‘Rocky Road’ – the Darrell Lea story

 

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Joanna.

Joanna

Thank you. I’m really excited to be here. In fact, this is the ultimate fan girl moment for me. Because I’ve been listening to the podcast since the very beginning. I’ve listened to every single episode and my weekly fix of Val and Al has been a huge part of my journey.

Valerie

Well, that’s very exciting to hear. And we are so thrilled for you. And congratulations on your novel, The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village. I’ve got so many questions for you. Not only about the novel, but also about your writing journey

But let’s start with, for readers who haven’t read the book yet, tell us what it’s about.

Joanna

Okay. So The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village really tells the story of widow Peggy Smart. And despite living in a retirement village, she’s a little bit lonely. She’s about to turn 80. And following a really very minor traffic incident, she’s worried now that her adult children are trying to interfere and take away her independence.

She has a secret fantasy, however, and dreams of inviting her handsome neighbour Brian over for a candlelit dinner. But like many women of her age, she feels she’s become invisible.

But for Peggy, life takes an unexpected turn when an old school friend, a woman she hasn’t seen in over 50 years, the four times married, glamorous, fashionista Angie Valentine moves into the same retirement village. And she has a very different attitude to ageing and really sets Peggy on a journey of self-discovery, beginning with a few lessons in how to grow old disgracefully.

Valerie

Love it. Now, this is a fairly unique premise. Because actually not very many books are written with a lot of the main characters focused on this age group. So how did this idea form and why did you decide to write it? What was the inspiration?

Joanna

So I don’t think I set out originally to find a book or a story that was set with this particular age group. But it came very much from the character. And the character of Peggy Smart was inspired by a sculpture I saw a few years ago in a local artist studio. And it was of a woman who was probably in her 70s or 80s and she was dressed in her bathing suit, and she had her goggles and bathing hat on. And she was probably about to pop off down to her local ocean pool for her daily swim.

And I just thought it was extraordinary. I thought that it was a really unusual subject for a work of art. And then I thought, well, why not? And I started to question my own reluctance to think about it. And realised that this woman had a very interesting story to tell. She was probably the kind of woman that we all know. She’s a mother and a grandmother. And we probably walk past her every day of our life without really stopping to think about what her life is like.

And it was really only after I started writing the story with this character that I realised that there actually was an important message here. And that I had an opportunity to really tell the story from a very different point of view, which was from the point of view of an older character, particularly an older woman. And in particular, to challenge some of those myths and stereotypes that we have around ageing.

Because I think we’re a fairly youth-obsessed society and I think we like to hide it away and not think about it too much. In fact, even the word old, if it was a painting or a building it would be treated with reverence. So I just wanted to really turn the whole question of ageing on its head and to see what it was like from the point of view of a character.

Valerie

Wow. Okay. So this older lady that you met, this artist who was a sculptor, you mentioned works of art. What were the works of art and why were they relevant?

Joanna

So actually, it was the sculpture itself. It was actually the statue that was the older lady, rather than the artist herself. The artist was a youngish lady.

Valerie

Okay. So the artist…

Joanna

It was actually the sculpture that I thought was incredibly beautiful. And it just had this wisdom. And it was of this lady in her bathing suit. And that was really the inspiration for my character.

Valerie

Right.

Joanna

And in fact, around the time that I saw this, I was doing my first course with The Australian Writers’ Centre, which was Creative Writing Stage I. That was with Kathy Tasker.

And I think the assignment we had was to create a character and put them in a setting. And this came to my mind as a perfect character. And in fact, she was the subject of that very first assignment I handed in. And it was her meeting one of the other characters to have a coffee at the ocean pool.

And so many years later, she actually became the subject of my novel.

Valerie

This is bizarre, because it’s not on a real person, it’s a sculpture of a lady that you’ve based this character on.

Joanna

That’s right. And I think I found this an inspiration… In fact, I try not to base any of the characters actually on real people, because sometimes I think that can actually be a little constraining in the creative process.

So no, it’s actually a work of art that inspired it.

Valerie

I think I went to the same open studio. Was this on Avalon Parade?

Joanna

It’s actually not very far from where you live, actually, Val.

Valerie

That is so weird. I remember the older ladies in the bathing suits.

Joanna

Yes.

Valerie

So many different shapes and sizes. And I think it was based on this idea that they all went and had chats in the early morning and swam and caught up with each other. That is really wacky. Okay.

So does the artist know that this spawned a novel?

Joanna

She might do now.

Valerie

Yes! Well, that’s really cool. I mean, ideas can come from anywhere, right?

So you started off with a character and a character’s situation. But obviously you then needed a whole story. So how did the story then develop? Was it something that happened as you started writing? Or did you kind of work it out in your head and then write?

Joanna

When I developed this character in the first assignment I did, I actually turned this into a short story, the premise of which was two very different characters who’d known each other a long time are sitting and discussing their lives. And one really urges the other to think a little bit bigger and to take more chances in life.

And so I took this with me. And it really was a question, I suppose, that had been burning with me for a while. And it was really a case of what happened to your friends from school?

Remember the kids at primary school, and there was always a cool kid there, one who always pushed the boundaries a little bit. And maybe the cool girl who wore her skirt a little bit too short. And I wondered what she would be like once she turned 80, was in a retirement village. And how it would feel to run into that person again, having lived a very different life.

And so this is really where my second character, Angie Valentine, who has been married four times, she’s had this jet setting life, comes together with Peggy and really… To look and see how life has treated them different. And what they can learn from each other.

And so obviously my character Peggy had to undergo a transformation. And in this case it was Angie who was the catalyst. She was really the naughty to Peggy’s nice. And I think it was a bit of a Thelma and Louise situation, although with a much happier ending, I would say.

Valerie

Awesome. So can you tell us a little bit about the development of this story? So it started out as a writing exercise, and eventually it became a short story. So how did it then develop into a fully-fledged novel? And when, at what point did you decide, I’m going to make this into a proper novel? A big novel.

Joanna

I think I thought that the character was quite content with the short story. In fact, it was one of the first short stories I wrote and it actually got shortlisted for the Pittwater Short Story Prize, which was really very encouraging early on.

Valerie

Awesome.

Joanna

And then the idea went away for a while. And I wrote a whole other manuscript for a different novel, which took me about three years. But all the time, I kept coming back to this character. And she was sort of there in my mind. And it actually got to the stage where she was starting to occupy my thoughts more than the novel that I was writing at the time.

And she and Angie were sort of chatting and arguing and a bit like that couple who were sitting in front of you in the movies who won’t shut up. I really couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Because whole chunks of dialogue were coming to me and the story was starting to emerge.

And in fact, by the time I actually sat down to write it, I could see it almost cinematically, actually. It was so complete, I think because I’d spent such a long time thinking about it. But it was one of these ideas that had tapped me on the shoulder and just wasn’t going to go away until I’d sat down.

And I’d spent a lot of time thinking rather than planning, I would say. And by the time I came to write it, it was sort of ready to burst. And that actually coincided with a writing residency that I had at The Bundanon Trust down in Shoalhaven. And it was fantastic. I sat there and the story really did flow in a way that nothing else I’d ever written had. And I managed to write about over 20,000 words in a week.

Valerie

Oh my god!

Joanna

It was something that I think had just been brewing and just sort of all came together. And I really can’t say where from. Sometimes it’s hard to actually pin ideas down.

Valerie

Right. Okay. So obviously that then became the dominant manuscript and you decided to pursue that?

Joanna

That’s right. I pitched the other manuscript to agents and publishers. And I suppose like all writing journeys and paths to publication, it was sort of initially treated with rejections and no thank-yous.

And so I’d really just put that aside. A couple of publishers had been kind enough to read the first manuscript. And one in particular had said that she really loved it, but that she didn’t have a place on her list. But encouraged me to keep writing and submit whatever I had next to her.

So I put the other manuscript aside and went on to write what became The Single Ladies. It had a different working title at the time.

But ironically, by the time I came to start pitching this to agents and publishers, one of the publishers had actually just pulled my other manuscript out of the slush pile, which was more than a year later, which was quite interesting.

Valerie

Yeah, right. How cool. Okay. So take us then through that journey of… How did you find out? When did you find out? And did you believe it?

Joanna

That I was going to be published?

Valerie

That you got the book deal, yeah.

Joanna

No, look, it was fantastic. I think we all dream about that, when we start off. In fact, having said that, I think I started writing just for myself, with no expectations of publishing. And I think that’s the only reason you should write, is because you can’t not write. Because it’s for the sheer joy of it.

But when you put a lot of time into it, and written, there comes a point when you really would like to send your writing out to the world and to have it published. And everybody’s story is full of rejections and dead ends and it certainly comes down to a lot to luck and persistence. In fact, I joke it took me six years to become an overnight success.

But I initially subscribed to that theory that it was harder to get an agent than a publisher. And I started submitting to publishers directly. And I started to get a little bit of interest and really knew at that stage that perhaps this did have potential and that I was actually going to need an agent.

In fact, that very first publisher who had been so kind to read my first manuscript and give me advice had advised me to get an agent.

And I actually met my agent, Haylee Nash, at speed dating, a literary speed dating event run by the Australian Society of Authors. Which is really almost exactly what it sounds like. It was quite an overwhelming experience. But great fun.

So there were about 50 or 60 authors there. And on the dot of two o’clock the doors opened, and dotted around this large church hall were various desks and behind each one was either a publisher or an agent. And we all walked in and lined up behind the person we wanted to pitch to.

The bell went, and then I had three minutes to give a pitch for my novel, and I suppose, to tell them a little bit about myself and where I saw it in the market. And I think I probably did that whole pitch in a single breath, because I think Haylee looked a bit shell shocked after that. But she was very kind and asked me to email her the manuscript.

And I suppose the rest is history, really. I signed with Haylee and she introduced me then to my publisher, Rebecca Saunders at Hachette.

So I think that I probably made it more complicated than it needed to be. And I think with hindsight, I think I would have been a lot more systematic about it and perhaps tried to get an agent first. But you never know where your own journey is going to take you.

Valerie

Sure. Now, have you always enjoyed writing? Is it something that you liked doing at school? Because you have a day job, don’t you?

Joanna

That’s right. Yes, I loved writing at school. I was always from a very early age hungry for stories. In fact, I couldn’t wait to go to school, so I taught myself to read before I went to school.

Valerie

Wow.

Joanna

And I think, I’ve read and heard other authors talk about this sense of being isolated a bit as a child. And in my case, it was being isolated by extreme shyness and bullying at school. So I think I probably turned inwards a little bit to look for stories. And perhaps stories where I could control what happened.

And at school, creative writing was always my favourite subject. It was almost like I would go into that complete trance. It wouldn’t be like work or a lesson. I just loved it. But somehow… And even wrote stories on an old typewriter that’s still cluttering up my father’s garage years later.

But somehow I managed to ignore what my mind and instinct were telling me and decided to become a doctor at quite an early age. And that really steered me away from anything creative, sadly, and towards the sciences, which I actually, ironically, anything to do with math or science I’ve always found a bit more challenging.

But I applied myself to it and certainly for the next couple of decades I read very turgid text books and wrote very turgid essays. Although I’d always try and embellish them a little bit, a bit creatively, which didn’t always go down very well with the professors who were trying to mark them.

And in fact I always tell the story that I actually won two prizes at medical school, and neither of them were anything to do with science or medicine. They were writing. One was an essay I wrote on my medical elective in Africa. And one was an essay about a GP placement I did in a rural village.

Again, that should have been a bit of a sign to me, but again I ignored it. And really got stuck into life as a doctor, as a GP. I got married and had children. And really was just going through that whole thing of the working mother and really just trying to get through to Friday without crashing.

And then, really things changed for me almost in an instant when I had a tenpin bowling accident about six years ago. And it was one of those evenings where you’re getting to know the other parents at a kids school event. And for those listeners who have kids you’ll know how important it is not to embarrass your kids at these events. Certainly not to do what I did, which was to do the splits in the middle of the bowling alley and be carried away in an ambulance.

But if there was a silver lining that came from this quite painful experience, it was that I actually then got to lie flat on my back for six weeks after having my hamstrings re-attached.

Valerie

Oh my god!!

Joanna

There were only so many books I could read. There was only so much daytime TV I could watch. And by the time I’d done my tax return and put photos in albums, I was really looking for something to do. And I had a lot of thinking time and thought about all the other things I’d been putting off.

And this idea kept coming back to me that I really wanted to write something. And I certainly then had the time and the thinking space to do it, but had no idea how to go about it. And that’s really when I discovered the AWC, the Australian Writers’ Centre and an online course, which was perfect, because I was lying flat on my back.

And it was really like, from that very first moment, I knew it was something that I had to do. It was something that was so authentic to who I was that it really changed my life quite fundamentally. And I think made me a much more balanced person. So I’ve been writing ever since and I can’t now imagine life without it.

Valerie

So now you combine your day job with writing?

Joanna

I did for the manuscript that I’m just having published now. And not quite sure how I managed to do that. At the moment, I am giving myself a 12 month break from practice.

Valerie

Wow.

Joanna

I’m calling it my sabbatical. Because after 30 years of working in the medical field, I thought that I might give myself a chance just for 12 months to begin with to see how this other job would be.

Valerie

Sure, yeah!

Joanna

Because it’s also… Whatever I do, I tend to give a lot to. I try and give it 100%. And to try and divide my brain and keep very much separate the professional life and the writing life, there was so much that went with… I signed a two-book deal, so I’m writing a second manuscript and about to deliver that. And with all the promotion and publicity that goes with publishing a debut novel, I didn’t really want to divide my brain in two. I just wanted to devote everything to this process.

So that’s where I am at the moment. But I’ve been writing fulltime since January.

Valerie

Wow, that’s fantastic. That is so cool that you’ve taken that sabbatical.

I’m curious to know what in the world, back when you decided, oh, I’m going to become a doctor, did you… Why were you compelled to do that when, as you say, you found maths and science challenging, you knew you liked this. What was it that made you want to become a doctor then?

Joanna

Sounds like a really good question! For me, I mean now, as an adult, as a doctor, I can say that it’s always been the people and the stories that had actually more interested me perhaps than the diseases and the pathology.

But back then when I was still a little girl, I think I’d been fascinated by something on television. Something like Emergency Ward Ten, or one of these programs. And I had all my teddies lined up on my mother’s hostess trolley and about to wheel them into surgery.

And I think very close to that time, we’d gone around the class at school and we’d all been asked what we wanted to do when we grew up. And there was the usual answers of wanting to be a fireman or a policeman or a teacher or whatever it is. And it came to me and I said, I want to be a doctor. And this was in the 70s. It sounds like the 1870s. But the teacher said to me, well, as you’re a girl, you probably ought to leave that to the boys. It’s a job for men and not women.

Valerie

Oh my god!

Joanna

And I realised that this made me want to do it even more. And I think it was certainly an idea that I held onto and moulded around myself as I grew up.

And certainly, I think I have really enjoyed my time. I can’t think of having done anything different to it. And it’s been a huge part of who I am. And I’ve really loved my job as a doctor. But it was almost out of rebellion that I did it there in a very early streak of feminism, perhaps.

Valerie

Right.

Joanna

So I probably have that teacher to thank for that.

Valerie

Okay. So even though you’ve been writing fulltime for this year, prior to that you obviously wrote while you were working as a doctor. How did you allocate your time so that you could make sure you got the words out? Did you have some kind of structure? Or how did it work?

Joanna

I’ve now written three manuscripts, and I think the process has been different on each one. But with The Single Ladies, as you say, I was working fulltime. But I used whatever time I could. I sort of describe the process as opportunistic. So whenever I got the opportunity, which was at weekends, perhaps on a day off, or an afternoon off.

But I soon found that actually going away, and taking myself away from home for a few days was actually a really efficient way of doing it. And I would sometimes book the cheapest Airbnb that I could find. And I’ve been on farms and in little beach shacks and wherever.

But basically away from home and work where I could write for hours without being interrupted. And by living really in the story, it flowed much easier. And I could, the word count, I could chop off huge chunks of the manuscript in that way. And it would often just give me that momentum. Then at other times I could put in an hour here or an hour there or half an hour.

I also think that a lot of the writing process is about thinking time, as well. And I think we underestimate that. I think we think, oh, for me, that it has to be in front of the keyboard putting words down. But I think, even if you don’t have time to do that…

So I would be in the car and thinking up dialogue at traffic lights. There was a lot of thinking and planning, particularly walking the dog. That was my best ever thinking time. And often by the time I’d come back from a dog walk, I would have a whole scene in my head that if I’d perhaps sat in front of the keyboard might have taken me days to come up with.

So I think you have to be… Well, I’ve certainly tried to be adaptable with it, and just try and use the time that I had productively.

And it’s interesting now that I have been writing fulltime, it was always this little fantasy of mine, I thought, if only I could write fulltime of course I could churn out books. It would be so easy. And it’s actually quite hard. It’s been a lot more challenging than I thought, now, to have endless time.

And in fact, I think you always say, if you want something done, you ask a busy person. And I think that there was something about that urgency of needing to juggle those things that brought the muse to the fore. So it’s interesting how the two manuscripts have involved different processes.

Valerie

So tell us about the manuscript which is going to be the second novel. Is that the one that you wrote, you know how you already had written one before? Or is that a third one?

Joanna

So it’s a third one. So my very first manuscript is still in that proverbial bottom drawer. And I think it was very much that training novel. It involved everything I’d ever wanted to write, in that. And it was a labour of love. But I think ultimately it wasn’t the best commercial idea. I certainly couldn’t have given you a very brief elevator pitch.

And I think a lot of success will come from being able to let things go when they aren’t the right idea. And letting go of that very first precious manuscript when perhaps a better idea is around the corner.

So the book that I’m just about to hit send on now, is the second book for Hachette. So I signed a two-book deal. And that one is called The Last Voyage of Mrs Henry Parker.

Valerie

You like long names for your titles.

Joanna

Well, yes. And that draws on some of the adventures I had working as a cruise ship doctor a few years ago. I worked on a ship. In fact, I met my husband working on a ship. And I’d always wanted to write something about my time at sea. It’s certainly not a memoir. But that will be published in 2019.

But in fact, the process for that, here I was writing fulltime and actually found that quite difficult. I think obviously there is this second book syndrome, and a lot of weight of expectation that goes on that.

And about after three months’ work I had a fully finished first draft. But I hadn’t had that same sort of visceral feeling of it pouring out of me. It had seemed a lot more hard work. And I just assumed it was just a different book and I perhaps would feel differently about it.

And thank goodness I actually had the time to sit back from that and think, is this really the book that I want to be writing? It’s the synopsis that I had really sold the second book on. But when I came to writing, it really wasn’t working. And I can’t say why, but I just wasn’t in love with it. But one of the characters… In fact, there were four characters, and the fourth character actually turned out to be the most interesting. And I took the brave decision to start all over again.

Valerie

How many words in were you?

Joanna

I was 80,000 words in.

Valerie

OH!

Joanna

I had the full first draft.

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

Joanna

And I was beginning to see, the writing was getting difficult. The kids were being too noisy, and the room wasn’t the right temperature. Things just weren’t right. And it actually then occurred to me that perhaps it’s what I’m writing that’s not right.

So I threw that out. And once I started rewriting, I knew again I had that… The wonderful Valerie Parv, who mentored me for 12 months, she said, you’ll know it’s the right book when you feel it has a whole body experience. A real visceral experience. And you love it.

And so I had to start again, and thankfully I did. I really, this time, felt it as a whole body experience. And it was the right book. So I’d say, never be afraid to start again and to listen to that gut instinct if you know that something’s not working.

Valerie

Yes. Is it meant to be that hard? Yes.

So the word you’ve used is sabbatical. But let’s be honest here – are you going to go back?

Joanna

I’m constantly running into my old patients who keep asking me the same question. I think… I’ll need to see how the next few months ago. Obviously, you know, if I can indeed make a career as a fulltime writer. And if I do go back, I think it will be perhaps more part time, and try and find a good balance again. I think that would be my aim if and when I do go back.

Valerie

What’s been the most – for The Single Ladies – what was the most challenging part of the experience?

Joanna

The most challenging thing? I mean, if I was going to be flippant about it, I’d say actually signing the books. It’s about having the right pen, working out which page you need to sign it on. And having signed prescriptions for 30 years, I had this sort of squiggle and my husband said, you can’t use that as your author signature. So I had to get a whole new signature.

So I think one of the most challenging things is really for someone like me, who is naturally an introvert, and has suffered with extreme shyness in the past, has been the publicity and the promotion that goes with, which is such a huge part of publishing a book. And getting over that fear of public speaking. And the insecurity that goes with it.

But I decided early on that there’s two ways I could go about this. One is to fight it all the way and question everything. And really make myself an anxious mess. Or the other one was to get over it and just throw myself into it, to try and be authentic, to try and be myself. And to enjoy it, enjoy the process.

And I found that that has been a much better approach and I am really enjoying the whole process of it. I can hardly believe it’s happening. I still have all those pinch-me moments, where I think, is this really happening?

Valerie

It’s very, very exciting. And you’re getting a lot of coverage, a lot of publicity, so that’s fantastic.

Now what was… You’ve done a couple of courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre. I didn’t realise that the first one was while you were on your back laid up. What was… How did that impact your writing? And what did you get out of those courses?

Joanna

I think that I didn’t know anything about writing before I started. I perhaps in my blood I’d always been a writer, but I had no idea how to go about it. I mean, you certainly wouldn’t walk into the cockpit of a plane and say, oh, I’ve always wanted to fly a plane. You know, it can’t be that hard.

So I think it really… I just didn’t know where to start. And I think by doing that first online course, that creative writing course, really just gave me that nuts and bolts. Because although I’d read, I was a voracious reader, and I’d read multiple novels, I’d never actually stopped to think about how they were written or how they were structured.

Valerie

Yeah.

Joanna

And so this was just a revelation to me, really. And I think, I’m always a big nerd at heart, so the idea about going back to the classroom and learning a new skill and really dissecting and learning how to do it, was something that really appealed to me. And it just took me from someone who knew nothing, through to someone who’s publishing their first novel.

Valerie

And I’m sure many, many more to come. So very, very excited for you. Congratulations on The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village.

So I want to end with what are your top three tips to aspiring writers who want to be where you are one day?

Joanna

Okay. So my top three tips. The first one I’m going to call ’20 options’. And this is a little bit of a tip to try and get over either writer’s block or anything that you’re having trouble with in your writing world of manuscript.

And it’s a tip I learned from Valerie Parv, who has been very generous to aspiring writers, a very generous mentor.

And so what she suggests is that if you’re coming up with a problem, it might be the name of a character, you’re not sure where to set it, this person might have a super power but you don’t know what it is. They might have a special pet. You’re thinking, okay, I’ve got my characters into this predicament, how do they escape? You’re really faced with a problem.

Get a piece of paper and write the numbers one to twenty down the side. And next to each one, put in a potential solution, a potential option. And just brainstorm. So it doesn’t matter if they’re outlandish or ridiculous. And I can almost guarantee that by the time you’ve got to 20, the answer will be there staring you in the face. And I’ve used this multiple times. And it’s a really great tool to use.

Valerie

Fantastic. Good tip.

Joanna

My second tip would be to write short stories. And I think we’ve probably discussed this before. But I think that it’s a really great way to find your writing voice. To experiment with what works for you in terms of point of view, different tenses, different genres. And you can really be quite experimental with it. And try quite daring new things.

But it also, because most short stories, and particularly if you want to submit them, or enter them into competitions that have a wordcount, it really is a great discipline for making you make sure every word counts. Make each word beg for its life, if you like.

And the other discipline that submitting short stories will help you with is working to a deadline. Which is going to be so important if you are a professional writer.

And really I would encourage people to submit to competitions and to publications, because you’ve got absolutely nothing to lose. They’re often judged anonymously. You’ll often get feedback with it. And if you do get anywhere, it’s an incredible boost.

In fact I tell the story that my first short story, or one of the first short stories I wrote, won a prize. And with the $100 prize money, I bought a cheapish case of champagne. And so if anyone said to me, do you ever make any money or do you make a living from writing? I could always say, darling, it keeps me in champagne, and it would be true.

Valerie

I love that.

Joanna

The other thing about writing short stories, it gives you something to put on your website as well. And also if you’ve got publications or shortlistings, it’s a great way to showcase your writing and put them on your CV when you do come to submit to publishers or agents.

And the third thing is really to own what you do. And I think this comes back to the whole imposter syndrome that seems to affect so many writers. And I think that the tip is to get used to talking about your work early on, and not apologising it.

So practising your pitch for when people ask you at parties. And rather than say, oh, I’m just writing this thing and it’s not very good and it’ll never be published. So I think instead of saying ‘never’ try and use the word ‘yet’. So, it’s not published yet, or I haven’t quite got it right yet.

And certainly it’s a balance between overselling yourself. You don’t want to brag. But being too humble and underselling yourself, I think you’re really doing yourself no favours.

So I think don’t play small. And get used to calling yourself a writer.

Valerie

I love it. These are fantastic tips. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Joanna.

Joanna

Well, thank you very much for having me and for all the shout outs as well. I really appreciate it.


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