Ep 257 How do you know when your manuscript is finished? Meet Karen Foxlee, author of ‘Lenny’s Book of Everything’.

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

In Episode 257 of So you want to be a writer: Learn the art of knowing when your manuscript is finished. You’ll meet Karen Foxlee, author of Lenny’s Book of Everything. Discover your chance to enter the Moth Poetry Prize or win a double pass to the new film The Old Man & The Gun and 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.

Show Notes

Links Mentioned

Industry Insider: How do you know when a story is ‘finished’?

The Moth’s €10,000 Poetry Prize: Entries Open Until 31 December

Wollongong Writers Festival Kids Program

Come and say hello at Wollongong Writers’ Festival

Writer in Residence

Karen Foxlee

Karen Foxlee spent most of her adult life working as a registered nurse while pursuing her secret dream of becoming a writer.

Her young adult novels The Anatomy of Wings and The Midnight Dress have been published internationally to much acclaim.

Her books for younger readers include Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and A Most Magical Girl.

Her latest book is Lenny’s Book of Everything.

She lives and writes in Queensland, Australia.

Follow Karen on Twitter

Follow Allen and Unwin 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 double passes to ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

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

Find out more about your hosts here:

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

Or get social with them here:

Twitter:

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Instagram:

@allisontaitwriter

@valeriekhoo

Connect with Valerie, Allison and listeners in the podcast community on Facebook

So you want to be a writer Facebook group

Share the love!

Interview transcript

Allison

Karen Foxlee has won numerous awards for her novels for adults and children, including the Dobbie Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, the Readings Children’s Fiction Prize, and more. Her fifth novel, Lenny’s Book of Everything, was recently published by Allen and Unwin in Australia after a fiercely competitive auction, and will be available in the US and the UK in the near future.

Welcome to the program, Karen.

Karen

Hi Allison. Lovely to be here.

Allison

All right, so I’m going to take you way back in to the mists of time to the publication of your first novel, Anatomy of Wings, which was published in 2007. Can you tell us how that book came to be published? What was your journey towards being a first time published author?

Karen

That’s a great question. I think my journey started a long, long time before that. It started when I was a kid. So I can remember the first story I ever wrote when I was in grade two, and really from that point on, I never stopped writing stories. And I always had this dream that I wanted to be a writer, that I wanted to write stories, to write books.

By the time I was in my late teens, though, and into my twenties, I just really struggled to finish anything. I became a terrible perfectionist. And could never ever finish anything that I started. I would write the same page over and over again.

Allison

Oh wow.

Karen

A million times. And it was in my twenties that I started to write The Anatomy of Wings. So probably around 23 or 24. And I think I wrote the first page of that novel for about five years.

And then I decided I really, really wanted to learn how to finish it. So I went, started going to little courses at the Queensland Writers’ Centre. And I went back to university when I was in my 30s and did a major in creative writing. And I think while I was doing that, I actually finished a short story. That was the first thing I’d finished in about a decade. And it was part of what would become The Anatomy of Wings.

So the writing of The Anatomy of Wings, I wanted to be a published author, but more than anything I had this story inside me and I wanted to finish it, was my aim, and to actually get it out of me.

Allison

So you were kind of paralysed by perfectionism?

Karen

I was. And also by a strange fear – which I’ve gotten so much better at – of not really… Of being terrified by – and this will sound strange – but the mysterious nature of writing. And just creativity, I think.

And I always thought, because I didn’t know everything about the story, I felt that I couldn’t write it. Whereas what I had to do was just start to write. So going back to university, going to courses, that really helped me. And I learned so much about just turning up and writing anything to get started. And not being so hard on myself.

Allison

Wow.

Karen

Yeah.

Allison

So what was the process then for Anatomy of Wings? You had obviously the perfect first page, because you’d worked on that for five years. And then you wrote the short story. How did you then get the book finished?

Karen

And that short story… So that short story was a scene within the book. And then I remember just playing around with all different… Just letting myself go and playing around with lots of different voices.

And it was one morning that I sat down and the voice of Jenny Day, the narrator, came to me. And I thought, oh, this feels good. I quite like this. And I started to write a lot about what might have happened. And it really was such a huge congealed mess of what might have happened, different scenes. You know, it was like a puzzle that I felt like I would never be able to solve.

But eventually, draft after draft, I kind of chipped it into place. And into shape. And I can remember… So when it was actually published and there was, sort of, you know, it won awards and people said such beautiful things about it. And I can remember thinking, but you don’t… I felt… I couldn’t… I felt that it had been such a messy experience of getting it out of me.

But I’ve gotten much better, much better at just relaxing in those stages of writing. Because I’m not a planner, at all.

Allison

Okay, well I’m going to talk to you about that.

Karen

And just finding my way into a story.

Allison

I’m fascinated by that, though. So you’re kind of like, you’re saying you basically had a puddle of words, of all different bits and pieces. So nothing linear about that first draft?

Karen

No. No.

Allison

Wow.

Karen

Nothing at all. And I can remember trying to… I had all these bits of paper that I cut out of things that happened, that I thought happened in the story, and it made kind of this constellation across my living room floor. And I remember just thinking it would help me but then I looked at it and I remember just getting up, walking into my bedroom, and just flopping face first onto the bed and crying. Because I thought, well that didn’t help at all! And it took me hours.

So it’s really through the writing that I… For some reason, if I think about it too much, I can’t get anywhere. But if I just go back, draft by draft, things change in stories, and it all eventually kind of seeps into place somehow.

Allison

So how did you go from that puddle of words to the book actually becoming published? Did you have an agent? At what stage did you go, I’ve got a manuscript here.

Karen

Yeah. So in the last year of my university course we had a mentorship program. And I worked with a wonderful author called Steven Lang, here in Queensland. And I just started to show him parts and he was really, really encouraging. Then I finished my course and I went away.

And I heard about the, it was then the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. And they had an unpublished manuscript section. So I think that was about 2005. And I knew that it wasn’t ready, so I waited another year and kept working on it. And then in 2006, I entered it in that, and it was chosen.

Allison

Wow.

Karen

As the winner. And part of that was a publishing contract with University of Queensland Press. So I had entered it just hoping that someone would read it and maybe give me some feedback.

Allison

And you won the prize.

Karen

Yeah.

Allison

So that must have been a big moment for you. Particularly as someone who had been so paralysed by perfectionism.

Karen

Yeah. Yeah, it was enormous.

Allison

And was there still a huge amount of work to be done on it from that point? Did you have to work closely with the publisher? Or because you had been working with the mentor, you had managed to get it to a point where it was pretty good?

Karen

No, there was still a fair bit of work to be done. I always seem to, in every book I write, I cram a complete other book inside it as well, just with back story and… So that all had to get taken out.

But I worked with, and I remember the first book I worked with Rob Cullinane and he was just so good. And it was the first time I’d ever worked with an editor and he was just wonderful at making me feel relaxed. All of the decisions to cut were my own. That’s how he made me feel.

Allison

Right.

Karen

Which was helpful.

Allison

And were you working at the time? You had been at university, etc. Were you now in a fulltime job? Were you fitting writing in around other things at this stage?

Karen

Yeah. I was a fulltime shift worker. I’m a nurse.

Allison

Right.

Karen

So that’s what I was doing for that first one. And most of the other ones, too.

Allison

So how did you fit it in?

Karen

How did I fit it in?

Allison

You were saying you’re a shift worker, which makes it even more difficult.

Karen

Yeah. I think actually it made a bit easier, because I could… You know, if you did a late shift which starts at two o’clock in the afternoon, you could have the morning to write.

Allison

Right, yep.

Karen

I just always… I remember I think the one thing that I learned from the beginning at university was just making that time and turning up. And I used to just be very strict, and still am, when I’m writing, that I have to – this week, I know these are the times I can write and I’m going to turn up. So even if that means I have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, I’m going to write for two hours.

At the time, it doesn’t feel like those little moments are going to get you anywhere, but they do if you actually turn up and do the work.

Allison

All right. So now you’ve got your first book published, so now there’s, you know, everyone’s going, “okay Karen, so what’s your next thing going to be?” You’ve also started winning awards pretty much straight out of the gate for that first novel, Anatomy of Wings. So I’m just wondering what kind of pressure that might have brought to bear for you writing your next novel? Given your process is so almost ethereal.

Karen

It was horrific.

Allison

Was it?

Karen

To put it bluntly. Because I can remember feeling quite cocky in the beginning, after that first one was out. This will be a piece of cake. I’m just going to knock one of these out. Because I felt, you know, I knew what to not do, anyway.

And off I went, and I just couldn’t. I couldn’t write. Nothing worked. And I suddenly had this concept of the audience, which I had never, ever had before. So I just felt really paralysed again. It was, you know, every word I typed I felt like, well, someone’s going to read that. Whereas, you know, with the Anatomy of Wings, as much as it was messy, I never really thought of anyone reading it. So now that was a whole new issue with that next one.

So that went on for quite a… And plus, I had a baby. So as the contract, there was a two book deal overseas, in the States. And I was signing the contracts for that with a one week old baby, and with deadlines, and of course it just, that just compounded it all.

So after a couple of years… I had the idea for the Midnight Dress, which did eventually become my second novel. After a couple of years, I just really, I had to just really try and forget about the audience and write for myself again, which was quite a process.

Allison

Yeah. I can imagine. Did you approach it in the same way, the second book? In the sense of did you have those snippets, those bits, those bits and pieces all over the place?

Karen

Snippets. It was the same.

Allison

Oh wow.

Karen

It was the same. All over again. And it was… Yeah. But in a way, if anything I’d gotten better at pulling them together.

I think the thing with the second one, too, was that I’d actually given it to my publisher and they, after a year of writing it, and they kind of didn’t like it at all. So that was really, I remember just being devastated.

But it was also really, really good for me, as well. And everything that was said to me in that rejection was perfectly legit. So it was a really big turning point in that decision that if I wanted to write, I did have to write for myself, and I had to please myself.

So I actually secretly went away and started writing Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, which is my third novel. So through that writing I kind of really discovered the joy of writing again. And then I could go back and complete The Midnight Dress, eventually. But that was over a period of five years, between my first and my second and third books.

Allison

It’s a long time in publishing, isn’t it?

Karen

Really long time. I think they thought I was gone for good.

Allison

I saw an Instagram post yesterday which was a picture of your daughter with a box of your latest book, Lenny’s Book of Everything, which we’re going to talk about in a minute. And in that, you actually talked about writing as a single parent. And I’m just wondering what you thought, what was the most difficult aspect of that?

Like you said you had this young baby, and I know how difficult it is to write around young children, because I’ve done that, been there, done that. But I’m just wondering if the challenges of that have changed as your daughter has grown, or have things got easier? I did love that post, because there she was at all the different stages with different books. It was lovely.

Karen

Yeah. I think that it does change with every age. I just remember in those very early drafts of The Midnight Dress, when I felt that I was getting nowhere, I can remember just thinking at this rate of a couple sentences here and there, it’ll be decades before I finish this book. So it did. It felt like I moved at this terribly slow pace.

And if you’re a creative person, as you’d know, you need, you crave that space where you can be creative. And I could never get to it. So there was a lot of guilt, as well, involved. Because not only did I want to be a good mother, but I also wanted to have that part of me as well.

And I think… I can just remember when she was really little, just still trying to make time to write. And it became that I had to kind of… This sounds terrible, but Alice was kind of trained early that when I was writing, she would come into bed beside me, because I’d get up really early in the morning to do it. And I think back on it so fondly now that she would come in, she would climb into bed, and she would know that just to lie beside me. And sometimes she would talk quietly and play, but I would be writing.

And just sentence by sentence, those stories did grow. Even though it felt like I was moving really slowly, is my main memory of it.

Allison

At least you were moving, right?

Karen

Yeah. That’s right. And I always say that to people that are in the same boat. Novels are made from sentences, and you just have to lay them down. Eventually, it might feel that you’re getting nowhere, but you will get somewhere.

Allison

True.

Karen

Really true.

Allison

I needed to hear that today.

Karen

And then the other thing is, which I wish I had done though, and I often say this to people too, when I meet writers, aspiring writers – be really good to yourself. I wrote The Midnight Dress, and I didn’t even give myself a pat on the back. I just moved on to the next thing. And I just wish I’d celebrated what I’d actually done then a bit more.

Allison

Yeah.

Karen

Which is kind of what that post was about last night. Just amazing. And I couldn’t have done it without Alice. She helped me in so many ways. But be proud of your achievements as well, however small they are.

Allison

So true. So let’s talk about your new book, Lenny’s Book of Everything, which brings a lot of hype. There’s a lot of hype around this book. A lot of publishing industry excitement. Is that strange feeling, as a writer?

Karen

Ah… Yeah. Yeah it is a strange feeling. And I think the thing is, with this one, though, there just seems to be so much love for it. It blows me away. And I get so many lovely messages just out of the blue from pre-readers that have, you know, just fallen in love with those characters, who I absolutely adore, and that’s why I’m so excited that it’s out in the world and more people will get to meet Lenny and Davey.

But yeah, it’s different.

Allison

Can you tell us a bit about the book? And where the idea for it came from?

Karen

Yeah, definitely. Lenny’s Book of Everything, it’s basically the story of Davey Spink, who’s a boy living in the 1970s in a city called Grayford, in Ohio in the States. And he’s a boy who grows and grows and grows. So from around his fifth birthday he starts to grow taller and taller and taller. Until the time he’s nearly seven he’s as tall as a man.

And his story is told by his sister, Lenny, who’s a beautiful character. A young girl who loves beetles, she’s a bit feisty. And the pair of them, they live in this tiny apartment with their single mother who works two jobs to support them overlooking a Greyhound bus stop.

And there’s a crazy cast of characters that support them. There’s Mrs Gaspar across the hallway who’s Hungarian with a beehive and drawn-on eyebrows. And Lenny’s best friend, CJ.

And there’s also an encyclopedia set that arrives. Mrs Spink’s entered a competition when Davey’s about five. So just about the time he starts to grow. And it’s a competition to win an encyclopedia set, but it’s not just any encyclopedia set. It’s a build it at home encyclopedia set. And it arrives issue by issue to their door and they have to put these issues together into volume covers.

And through these pages, Lenny and Davey just really experience the wonders of the world. Because they’re in this tiny apartment. Davey, it turns out, has an illness that’s causing him to grow and grow and grow. Their dad’s up and left. And they really escape into these pages.

So it’s a story really about loss and love and big dreams. And just about how amazing it is to be alive, basically, is what I wanted to do.

Allison

So where did it come from? Did it start with Lenny? Did it start with Davey?

Karen

No. That’s a good story. Lenny had nothing to do with it. About ten years ago, I had a really weird idea, a collection of ideas. Which, one was a boy that was growing and growing, who could not stop growing taller and taller. And also for an encyclopedia set. So it was this strange little collection of ideas.

And I don’t know particularly, I think with the boy who kept growing and growing, I wanted to write about being different. And the encyclopedia set came from a memory from when I was a child.

So I started to try and write that, but I think it was one of those ones that I tried after The Anatomy of Wings and it just didn’t work at all. So I crumpled it up and threw it away into the back of my head, and just didn’t really think about it again.

And it wasn’t until I was doing the edits of A Most Magical Girl that all of a sudden, for some reason, that story just uncrumpled and wanted to be told. It jumped to the top of the queue in my head of stories. And usually my queue of stories is very orderly. And it really was just at me all the time. Everything will be all right if you write this story.

And when I finally got there, Lenny was waiting. So this character, Lenny Spink, and she said the words that opened that novel, that stayed the opening lines. And I thought, well, this is going to be all right, I think. And she was just ready to tell that story of her brother Davey and the encyclopedia set. And everything else that went along with that.

Allison

So every review that I have read of this book suggests tissues, tissues, and more tissues, Karen. So I’m suspecting it’s, you know… It’s described as heart warming and heart breaking and all the things all at once. How do you approach writing difficult, sadness, difficult themes and subjects for younger readers? Is this a case where you’re aware of your reader the whole time? Or is this a case where you put them aside, write the story and then hope for the best?

Karen

I think, it sounds really selfish, but I do, I just want to write a story that pleases me. And sometimes I think about pleasing the child in me. Like what kind of stories I loved as a child. And it’s more about the kind of puzzle of the story and putting it all together so that it’s kind of got that beating heart. And making it beautiful, more than anything.

So the more I wrote this one, it was going to be sad, but it was also filled with so much wonder as well. And it did feel that the issues and themes seemed really big. And I remember saying to Anna MacFarlane, my publisher, it was like I was trying to fit the universe in a shoebox. It was so big! Everything seemed big. And I often get to a stage in most of my stories where it feels too big. But this one felt particularly big, but I just stayed with Lenny and her voice and it really just seemed to help me be able to tell that story.

And I must say, with this one, it was more linear than anything else that I’ve ever written. So I don’t know what changed, but it wasn’t so puddly. I had a very clear sense of what I was doing.

Allison

That must have been a nice feeling!

Karen

It really was.

Allison

All of your novels for children have that certain, as you said, universe in a shoebox kind of beautiful whimsical thing through them, thread through them. Where does that come from? Is it this notion of writing stories to please your inner child, do you think that allows you to tap that in?

Karen

I think so. I think so. I have no idea. I think that’s what it is. And in Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, I can remember it was so multilayered and trying to keep a handle on all of that and make all the pieces fit together. It’s kind of like solving a puzzle. But I think that whole adventure, but with layers, is the kind of thing I would have loved. And still love. And playing with time. It’s all about me! I just want to please myself, basically.

Allison

How many drafts do you do to bring all of those layers and solving of puzzles and things like that together? On average, how many drafts does it take to get to something that you go, okay, I can take this to a publisher?

Karen

Probably… Well, it would be well over ten. It would be in the teens, usually.

Allison

Wow. That’s a lot of drafting, isn’t it?

Karen

Yeah. And I usually know. Like, I know when I’m at that point that I can’t see any more what’s going wrong with this. I’m really wallowing around now. So I think it’s time to hand it over. And it’s just a gut feeling, I think, when you hand something over. But it’s ready to go.

Allison

All right, switching gears a little, what sort of things do you do to promote your work? Are you doing author tours? Are you doing school visits? Are you doing online stuff? What kinds of things do you do to actually support your work out there in the world?

Karen

To market myself? Yeah. I do a lot of school visits. I actually had most of this year off and that will start again hopefully.

But with Ophelia and A Most Magical Girl, I just absolutely learned so much. Because my first two books for children and just suddenly I was out there, in schools, and just absolutely adored the experience, and would come away feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. But also really energised as well, strangely. And with a sense of… I just love talking with kids about creativity. And hearing about their amazing story ideas. So I do a lot of that.

I think there are some festivals for next year. And then I just try and try, I find it quite difficult, but to keep a Facebook page and Instagram and those kind of things.

Allison

It’s not something you enjoy, though? That online stuff?

Karen

I feel, I just… I don’t know. I don’t… I liked last night when I can just show a little bit of myself. But I don’t like selling. Just trying to sell a product. I’d rather just have a conversation, I guess.

Allison

That’s the best approach, anyway, really.

Karen

If that makes sense.

Allison

It does. It does. All right, we’re going to finish up today with your top three tips for aspiring authors. What have you got for us, Karen?

Karen

Well, my main tip, and this is the one that I lived by, and it actually is from a very famous book from a very lovely author, Douglas Adams. And it’s the words ‘Don’t Panic’. And I live by those words. Because there are so many times when I feel that I could absolutely lose it and never pick up a pen again. So it’s don’t panic. I tell myself that all the time. When you don’t know where a story is going – don’t panic. Just write. Just turn up and write something.

Number two, back yourself. Just suspend… I think that was, with my first novel, it was… What is the saying? It’s such a cliché. Believe in yourself. But suspend the disbelief in yourself. You are a writer. And I always thought, I used to think, everyone who was a real writer knew what they were doing. And it’s just not the case.

Allison

No.

Karen

We’re all just trying to tell a story. And that’s the journey of being a writer.

And number three would be, turn up. And make time. And I think you have to treat it, in many ways, like a job. You have to say, I’m going to be here at that laptop at this time. And a lot of those times you turn up, it’s so mundane. And the stuff that comes out is hideous and boring and it feels like ugly writing. But in amongst all that, the magic happens. And it’ll only happen if you turn up.

Allison

It’s so true. So very true.

Karen

So that’s it. Yep.

Allison

Thank you so much, Karen Foxlee.

Karen

No, that’s lovely.

Allison

It’s been an absolute pleasure. And of course, if you would like to learn more about Karen’s work and her books, you will find her at KarenFoxlee.com. And go and I have a look. Because I’ve got Lenny’s Book of Everything here and I’ve started reading it and I love her voice. I think she’s a wonderful, wonderful character. So best of luck with it all. I think it’s going to go gangbusters.

Karen

Thank you. Thanks, Allison. Great. Thank you.


Comments