Ep 367 Meet Meg Keneally, author of ‘The Wreck’.

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In Episode 367 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Meg Keneally, author of The Wreck. Learn how to edit your second draft. Discover the reasons why publishers might reject good writing. Do you have niblings? Plus, we have 3 copies of The 2020 Dictionary by Dominic Knight to give away.

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Show Notes

Second draft syndrome: 10 tips for editing your own work

The Helpline: 5 Reasons Why Good Writing Gets Rejected

Writer in Residence

Meg Keneally

Meg Keneally has always been fascinated by the ocean and history, in particular maritime history and archaeology. A former SCUBA diving instructor, Meg still spends as much time underwater as she can. She is the co-author with Tom Keneally of ‘The Monsarrat Series' of historical mysteries.

Her latest book is The Wreck.

Meg also works in corporate affairs, after a career in journalism and public relations. She lives in Sydney with her husband and two children.

Follow Meg Keneally on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Allison Tait  

Meg Keneally is an Australian novelist. She's the co-author with her father, Tom Keneally, of the Monsarrat series of historical crime novels. Her first solo novel Fled was published in 2019. And her new novel, The Wreck, is out now with Echo Publishing. Welcome to the program, Meg.

Meg Keneally

Thanks for having me.

Allison Tait  

All right, we're going to go all the way back to the beginning because that's where we like to start. We like a good, structured interview.

Meg Keneally

Indeed.

Allison Tait

Writing is… I mean, your father is Tom Keneally, beloved by many. Writing is obviously something that you've always known about. But when did you first start writing yourself?

Meg Keneally

Well, I first started writing really when I was a kid. I had, you know, stacks of notebooks that I scribbled in. But in terms of writing novels, when I was pregnant with my first child, which was 20 years ago, I had a crack at writing a novel, wasn't able to get it published. Tried again, wasn't able to get that one published. And then I thought, well, I obviously just don't got it, and put it aside for a while. But then came back to it when I was drawn in, drawn back in to the, lured back into this space by my father.

Allison Tait

So having watched your dad write things for all of those years, did you get a certain sense of what being a writer was all about from him? And has being a writer yourself been the same experience, if you understand what I'm saying?

Meg Keneally

Yeah, it's really interesting, because sometimes, you know, I'll say something to mum and dad about, you know, I think the other day I said, “you know, it's funny, when I've had a good day writing everything, the sun just seems a bit brighter, and the birds seem to sing more sweetly.” And mum got up from the table and said, “The pair of you are insufferable!” And walked out. I think it is something she has heard a great many times before.

But it was interesting because he has a very strong work ethic and so he would go into his office. And it seemed like a country only he could visit, you know, this writing thing. But he's very generous. You know, I can always ask him any questions I want about writing and have always been able to. We've always shared stories and a love of reading and a love of books.

But I think growing up with a published writer in the family taught me one important thing, which is that mortals can actually do it.

Allison Tait

I love that!

Meg Keneally

And I'm a bit of a fan girl. I mean, when I made a writer I admire, I start blathering and then I realize how much I'm blathering and get all tongue tied, and then I run away. So if I hadn't had an example, in my own family, of an actual flesh and blood human who could actually write, I would have thought, you know, that they were all gods, and it was all beyond me. So seeing that the person who gave me piggyback rides was able to write and get published and have a successful career at it showed me that it could be done.

Allison Tait  

You actually began your writing career in like public relations and journalism back in sort of like those early days. And how do you think that that sort of impacts on your novels today? And why do you think you went down that road rather than just deciding to write a novel at 18?

Meg Keneally 

Well, um, I don't think I was cooked at 18. I wasn't, I wasn't ready. And I firmly believe now, you know, those, those rejections that I had in the past stung like crazy at the time, but I think they were actually important and good, because they showed me that I wasn't, you know, that when I was published, it wasn't just on my surname, and they also weren't published because they just weren't good enough. So I'm grateful now that they weren't.

But I… The reason I went into journalism and then corporate affairs is I just have always really loved playing with words. And there are obviously limits to how far you can take that in a corporate setting or in journalism setting. But I've always been really curious about people. I'm endlessly fascinated by people, their motivations, why they do what they do, why they think what they think. And being a journalist lets you ask those questions without being rude, you know. I mean, I'm a natural sticky beak. So journalism was the perfect profession for me. I was a professional, sticky beak. So that suited me extremely well.

Allison Tait

Do you think that those sorts of things and asking those questions, and really getting to the why of things, you know, of why people do things, because that's one of the things I also loved about journalism, just quietly. How, like, what do you think that taught you about how to go about creating, you know, your novels?

Meg Keneally

I think it had to two specifically, really important impacts. First of all, it taught me about research. It taught me how to research, it taught me how to dig and dig and dig.

Secondly, it taught me how to work to a deadline. Not that I always hit my deadlines, unfortunately. But it did sort of automatically instil in me this idea that, all right, your goal for today is this many thousand words, or however many have I've set for myself that day. And I'm just conditioned to move heaven and earth to meet a deadline by all of those years in journalism. As I said, it doesn't always happen. But I do think it trained me to be deadline-oriented like that. Which is just as well because if I wasn't, I'd probably think, Oh, I need to fold the laundry so I better go and do that before I sit down and start writing.

Allison Tait  

Yep, I hear you. All right. So you said that you tried writing a couple of novels, that that didn't really happen, you put it aside thinking you didn't have it. And then you were lured back in by your father. Now, can you tell us a bit about how that came about? And also about the process that the two of you use when you're writing together? Like, did he come to you and say, “I think we should write a book together?” Or did you come up with an idea or how did that work?

Meg Keneally 

He came to me. And he said, “I want to write a series of stories about a colonial era detective who's a gentleman convict, but I don't have time. And it's not really my thing. But I've done 30,000 words of a first draft. So why don't…”

Allison Tait

It's not really my thing. Here are 30,000 words.

Meg Keneally

Yeah, exactly. Oh, yeah, well, I mean, he's so prolific, he just writes as easily as he breathes.

So he said, “Do you want to work on this with me?” And I went, “Oh, really? Do you think I can?” And he said, “Look, you're one of the most stubborn people I have ever met in my life. So I know that if you decide you're going to do this, you'll keep doing it until it's done.” And I said, “Dad, I prefer determined.”

Allison Tait  

Also gifted, thanks very much.

Meg Keneally 

Yes, exactly! So we had to go at it. Initially, we were going to write alternate chapters. And perhaps one chapter from Monsarrat's perspective, and the next from Mrs. Mulroney's perspective. But structurally, that didn't work. And also, we found that when we were writing together, our voices are very, very different. And it just wasn't consistent enough.

So what we ended up deciding to do is we plot them out together, and then I go away and write two drafts, usually, because I wouldn't even show him my first draft. My first drafts are always appalling. And then, you know, I'm in constant contact with him throughout the process, sending him snippets saying, “What do you think of this?” And then we edit it together and rewrite together.

And people never believe me when I say we don't fight, but we don't. Because…

Allison Tait

Really?

Meg Keneally

Yeah. Yeah, you would think that there would be flung pages and slammed doors and “I can't work like this” and, you know, so on and so forth. But no, we're both too passive aggressive, I think.

Allison Tait

Oh right. I see.

Meg Keneally

So it's been a terrific experience to sort of enter this process with him which for so long in my life was his process. You know, it's been wonderful to share that with him.

Allison Tait  

I imagine it would be quite, particularly the first one you did, would probably have been quite a masterclass in editing, for story structure, etc, as well, in the sense that, you know, it was essentially your first novel, but he has done so many and done them so incredibly well. But have there ever been times where you've got to tell him that sections aren't working? I mean, I'd imagine that's quite difficult to say, “listen, Tom Keneally, this is not right.”

Meg Keneally 

Yes. “Can you take your Booker Prize and you two Miles Franklins and go and sit over there in the corner?”

Allison Tait  

Exactly. “Take all of those prizes and go and rewrite this section, please.”

Meg Keneally 

Yes, exactly. Um, you know, sometimes when I was rewriting his stuff, it did feel a bit like I was finger painting over a Da Vinci.

I never really have had to say to him, “Look, I just don't think it's working this way.” And whenever we have had disagreements, I was kind of the view that his Booker Prize and two Miles Franklins gave him the right to the final vote.

Allison Tait

Yep.

Meg Keneally

So for me, it was more like, you know, being able to look through his eyes under the bonnet, being able to look at the technical aspects of a story, the machinery that's grinding away in the background, to create this story, to create these character. And just seeing him with, you know, the slash of a pen, create different layers of nuance and meaning in things, you know, he'd say, “Oh, this is great. Now, why don't we also say that to her?” And I'm like, “yes, why don't we do that? Because that's just made it 100% better.”

So it was a terrific, terrific opportunity to get to watch that.

Allison Tait  

So how many of those did you write before you embarked upon writing Fled which is your first solo novel, which came out in 2019?

Meg Keneally 

I started writing Fled after the second Monsarrat book, and then put it aside to write the third Monsarrat book, and then picked it up again. All in all, I think if I added the time together, it was probably about a year and three months from go to whoa. And then I submitted it in 2017. And for various reasons, it wasn't published for two years and came out last year.

So yeah, so it was an interesting process, sort of going from Monsarrat to Jenny and back again. But I just felt so grateful, because when I was writing Fled, I really missed Monsarrat and Mrs. Mulrooney. And when I was writing Monsarrat and Mrs. Mulrooney, I really missed Jenny. And so I thought, well, if I'm having these emotional reactions to these characters, that hopefully means that they're okay and that they're working and that they're doing what they need to do.

Allison Tait  

So when you got to, like, when you finished that novel, Fled, and if you were to look at that as your first solo novel, compared to those two manuscripts that you had written, you know, all of those years prior that hadn't gone anywhere, what do you think was the difference? What do you think that you brought to Fled that you hadn't managed to quite, you know, get right in those first two novels?

Meg Keneally 

I think I learned a lot, read a lot, did a lot of courses, as we all do, you know, we writing tragics, we're always trying to do courses and so on, aren't we? And I decided that the approach needed to be – and this is counterintuitive – but I thought I really need to approach this in a mechanical way. Because while writing is a very individualistic thing, there are some things that work most of the time. And there are rules which are made to be broken, but it takes a bit of skill to break them.

So I thought that while there are no hard and fast rules, there are things that work more often than now. So I decided to structure it very carefully. And fortunately Mary Bryant's story fell naturally into three acts anyway. And I firmly believe that we're hardwired as a species to consume stories in three acts.

And so I structured it with various stepping stones along the way within each, you know, little mini structures within the large structures. But the most important thing was characterisation. For me, I think those earlier novels, part of the issue with them was that my characters were a little two passive. And since then, when I read things by newer writers who've done me the honour of showing me the work, often the only thing wrong with them is that the character is too passive. The character is standing in the middle of the action. The action's swirling around them, things are happening to them, but they're not acting on the plot in any way. And I think that was a big issue with my first two as well.

And fortunately, with a character like Jenny, who's based on Mary Bryant, you know, she can't help but be an active character. She's just, it's in her DNA. And I made sure that when there were times when things happen to her that were beyond her control, that she at least tried to act on the plot in some way, that she at least tried to do something. She's like, “Okay, I'm in a convict ship, and I'm going to Australia, and there's not much I can do about that. But I can try to get a letter home to my mother,” for example. So I made sure she always had a narrative job to do. And I made sure that every character earned their place on the page. I think that's really important, too. Every character needs a narrative job to do otherwise they're just cardboard cut outs.

So that was a big difference in the way I thought about writing from those first novels to now. And I do think that those two things really, really helped.

Allison Tait  

That makes perfect sense. So let's now talk about your brand-new novel, The Wreck. So how about you tell us a bit about it and where the story came from?

Meg Keneally 

Well, the wreck has an entirely fictional protagonist, unlike Fled. And I really wanted to write about four aspects of history. One was the Peterloo massacre, which occurred in Manchester in 1819, when 60,000 people were listening to a talk on parliamentary reform, and the magistrates got so nervous about the possibility of a rebellion, that they sent in the Hussars and by the end of the day, 20 people were dead and several hundred wounded.

Another was the Cato Street Conspiracy, which was a plot to overthrow the British government. The third was the wreck of the Dunbar just off the gap in Sydney. New South Wales's deadliest maritime disaster with one survivor. And that's a shipwreck which has always fascinated me.

And the fourth was the horse thief on your $20 note, Mary Reibey. And she's always been a figure of fascination for me, because I've always wondered what it must have taken to build the successful business she built to the point where she could buy and sell most other people except possibly the MacArthurs, having started out as a convict and also being a female in that world.

So I wanted to find a story which would tie all of those together and it was something I was rolling around in my head for a long, long time. Just, you know, these four elements kept nudging at me and niggling at me, and I thought, “Have I got four separate books here?” But they kind of all felt related to one another even though they're really not. Although the Cato Street Conspiracy is kind of related to Peterloo.

So I created a character to thread all of those together in the form of Sarah McCaffrey, who's a young Manchester mill worker who loses her parents at the Peterloo massacre, and is then radicalized. She starts out as mildly disaffected. But when you see your parents lying dead on the ground when all they were doing was attending a peaceful protest, you tend to get quite angry. And she is approached after her parents' death, she and her brother, by someone who sees them as prime candidates for radicalization and involves them in this plot.

The plot goes awry. Sarah escapes. Her brother is hanged. She finds her way onto a ship called The Serpent and escapes to New South Wales. But just as they're about to arrive, the ship smashes into a cliff. She wakes up in a hospital where she's taken under the wing of Mary Reibey. And she tries to seek out other radicals in New South Wales hoping to mount another attack on the government from New South Wales. But through Mary Reibey's mentorship, she gradually comes to see that there are other ways to go about things.

So that's it in a nutshell, a very long-winded nutshell. I'm sorry.

Allison Tait  

So given that you've got these four disparate things and you create this character, you create Sarah, did you approach this like Fled? Was this, like this was a structural kind of, this is how this is gonna work? And did you use the historic events to help kind of work out that timeline and that structure? Or do you create the character of Sarah, and then follow her through those things?

Meg Keneally 

They kind of all blend in together. I kind of thought, “All right, Peterloo, what kind of people would have been at the Peterloo massacre? Well, a lot of them would have worked in cotton mills.” And then I started looking into the conditions in cotton mills and researching Luddites and all of that sort of thing and thought, well, this is a really good basis on which to build a character.

And so, and then she just sort of stepped into my head fully formed after I'd been thinking about that for a little while, about the personality of a person who is so passionate that when their passion turns to anger, and hatred, it can make them quite dangerous. But when the passion turns to constructive things, they can really change the world as well. And she sort of stepped into my head like that.

And I kept on applying the same rules that I applied when I was writing Fled. Whenever she… I'm quite a timid person. So I have to always guard against writing passive characters. And whenever Sarah was standing in the middle of this swirl of events, and not really doing anything about it, I made her do stuff.

And my editor, Kate Goldsworthy, who's an absolute legend, also was really helpful in saying, “Okay, well, she needs to have, I think, in this particular section, she needs a bit more agency,” for example. And having that second pair of eyes was really useful as well.

So I just kept thinking to myself, agency agency agency, your characters have to have, you know, they have to have stuff to do that actually moves the plot forward.

And in terms of structure, the book is in two parts, but it's actually, I think, structured in three acts as well. There's her time in London, there's her time at sea, and then there's her time in the colony. And within each of those sections, there are rising and falling story arcs as well, sort of stepping stones from the beginning of the section to the end.

And I tend to try to write different sections like that as though they are self-contained stories. Not as though they can be read as self-contained stories, but they have to have a completeness to them a, you know, loose ends that are tied off, an arc that rises and falls and brings you to a conclusion, even though they're parts of a broader story.

So yeah, so that was what I brought from my experience of writing Fled to writing The Wreck.

Allison Tait  

So you've mentioned several times, you know, thinking time. So the thinking time is actually quite an important part of your process, obviously. I'm just wondering, with your historical research, is it something that you do all up front before you begin writing as part of this kind of thinking and building time?

Meg Keneally 

It's… Yes and no. I do the broader reading beforehand. So the reading on the period, the stuff that's going to give me the context. Because I think when it comes down to sitting down to actually write, you have to be familiar enough with the world you're talking about to be able to slip through the wormhole into that world at will.

But then, when it comes to specifics, so for example, when I came to writing about, just for the sake of an example, the Cato Street Conspiracy, I already knew the broader context, I knew the societal forces at work. And then when I was writing that, I was drilling down into the individual stories of the rebels, why they did what they did, what their influences were, and that sort of thing as I was writing at the same time. So a bit of reading, a bit of writing, a bit of reading, a bit of writing.

And I find that that's a good process for me personally, for two reasons. First of all, my poor little brain can't hold all the information at once. So that's why I like to do it in chunks. But I do think it brings an immediacy to it as well. When you're reading about something, and then pretty much in the same day or the same week weaving it into a story.

Allison Tait  

The description of the wreck of The Serpent is very vivid.

Meg Keneally

Oh, thank you.

Allison Tait

Welcome. And I read that you have like a real interest in maritime history. So I'm just wondering, like, where that comes from? And whether, do you think that the reading that you've done in that area makes it kind of, you know, an easier part of the process to recapture what it might have been like to go down on a ship like this?

Meg Keneally 

Yeah, I think it has, it does make it easier. And I think what also makes it easier is that I've spent a reasonable amount of time on a small boat when I was a scuba diving instructor.

Allison Tait

Yeah. That was gonna be my next question.

Meg Keneally 

And while it's not an analogous experience, you do have the sort of muscle memory of having to crouch and use your legs as shock absorbers when the boat's climbing a wave and you know it's going to crash down soon. Or the feeling of that rocking that you get.

And as a diver as well, I've also dived many, many times on the site of the Dunbar, the real wreck on which the wreck of The Serpent is based even though it happened a few decades after The Serpent. So there was that. There was that indefinable fact, you know, that indefinable influence of the fact that I've kind of experienced something vaguely like it, and can therefore, extrapolate. But also, definitely, the reading that I've done around maritime archaeology and around the Dunbar was certainly useful in pulling the wreck of The Serpent together. Even though it didn't happen exactly as The Dunbar did, it gave me a sense of the kind of things which might potentially happen when a ship runs into a cliff.

And I also did a maritime archaeology course at the National Maritime Museum. And they brought out this tray of artifacts, which divers had found over the years on the site of where The Dunbar went down. And there were, I was shocked to see these bolts, which were like maybe two centimetres across, absolutely bent into esses from the force of the ship connecting with the cliff.

Allison Tait

Oh right.

Meg Keneally

And that really brought it home to me how violent an experience this must have been. And when I read firsthand accounts of people who had seen the aftermath of The Dunbar, it was incredibly violent. Bodies were ripped apart, you know. There were torsos floating into the harbor. It was just an extraordinary, extraordinary, cataclysmic event, particularly in a town the size of Sydney at the time.

So yeah, all of that reading definitely did help with getting a sense of what it would be like to be on a ship which runs into a cliff. Although, obviously, it's not an experience, I'd like to have in real life.

Allison Tait  

No. No, I think we can all forego that one, I think.

Meg Keneally

Yes, exactly.

Allison Tait

Switching gears a little bit, your bio says that you work in corporate affairs, and you also have a family. So you know, you're fitting in the writing of your novels, as well as the Monsarrat series. Now, you spoke about deadlines. And you talked about, you know, the importance of that sort of journalism, you know, as far as getting your getting the words down. But do you have a set time? Do you like sit down at a certain time each day? Or how do you actually get the words written?

Meg Keneally 

It's not a certain time so much because my various jobs tend to be a bit fluid in terms of what time I'm, you know, at what time I need to do what. So I make a different plan every day based on what's on that day. And I build obviously writing into that, because the thing about it is, you kind of do have to treat it as a job. Otherwise, nothing gets done. Or at least I do, because I am a world class procrastinator, and I have to constantly guard against that. And it's just a matter of structure, structuring the time in. And of…

You know, we've all… Working from home as I have done for years, and I think the broader world is now discovering the joys of working from home, and a lot of people find that they miss that transition that comes with commuting from home time to work time. And because I've worked at home for so long, I've got my own little transitions. And it is quite powerful to go, “All right, I'm in the living room. So this means it's relaxing time or it's getting ready time. And now I am dressed and sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee. And this means it's work time.” So it's just all of those little, using all those little subconscious cues.

And the one piece of advice I give to anyone who's newly working from home: get dressed. Don't stay in your pyjamas.

Allison Tait  

Oh yeah, I learned that very early on as a freelance journalist working from home. It was like, if I do not get out of my pyjamas, I will never get anything done.

And what sorts of things do you do to promote your work? Are you active on social media and stuff? Or do you generally tend to kind of do the save the promotion for when the book comes out?

Meg Keneally 

Oh, yeah, I'm on social media. And you know, I use all of those, all the avenues that I can to get the word out there as we all do, and as we all must in this time when, you know, we're not doing writers' festivals and book events and library talks and that sort of thing.

It's a tough time for the publishing industry, as it is for a great many industries. But I just kept clinging on to the idea that this book will find its way into readers' hands eventually. It probably won't do it as quickly as it would have without the pandemic. But I'm hoping that it will eventually reach the people who will enjoy it. And I certainly hope they do. I'm too close to it to know.

Allison Tait

I'm sure they will.

Meg Keneally

You can never assess your own work, can you?

Allison Tait

No, you can't.

Meg Keneally

Or proofread it.

Allison Tait  

No, but I'm sure they will. All right. Well, thank you so much for your time today. I hope The Wreck goes gangbusters for you. And we're going to finish up with our last question that we ask all of our authors in residence, and that is for your three top tips for writers.

Meg Keneally 

Okay, so tip number one, momentum is everything. For me, at least. I find that if I don't do something every single day, seven days a week, towards the project that I'm working on, I tend to run out of steam. And of course, there are going to be days when you're not feeling particularly creative, or there are going to be days when you're tired, or when you have other commitments. And it doesn't have to be a big chunk of time. If you've got a particularly busy day, or if you're not well, or if you know the cat needs to go to the vet or whatever it is, do something that you're going to have to do at some point anyway, like proofread or chase down some research. It doesn't necessarily need to be writing. But you do need to do something every day.

And related to that is the idea of my second tip: not overthinking things, and just getting the words on the page. Because quite often, and I was, I've been prey to this as well, you think, “Is this any good? Are people gonna like it? Am I doing this wrong?” And you get so wrapped up in everything that you write that you grind to a halt.

With the first draft it's really important, I think, not to edit yourself as you write. Just get the words down there because you can't edit a blank screen. And that in itself builds momentum. And you quickly get to the point where you think, “Oh, well, I've written X many words now. So I can't leave it now, I can't abandon it now. I've invested too much in it. And getting to that point as quickly as possible is a really, really good guard against throwing in the towel, as we all sometimes want to do.

And the third one is my sort of yardstick for building characters, I have to know three things about every character that I write and make sure that I know them intimately. Which is: what they love, what they fear, and what they want. As in what they really want, not what they think they want or what they appear to superficially want, but what is really driving them. And if you can answer those questions, and if you spend a bit of time interrogating yourself about the answers to those questions, it automatically leads to characters which are more fleshed out. And it leads you through the story as well. Because that last one, what they want, is what's going to drag your character through the story so that you can torture them, as we like to do, and throw up obstacle after obstacle that they have to overcome. Torturing characters is fun.

Allison Tait  

Maybe not for them, but for us it is.

Meg Keneally

Absolutely.

Allison Tait

Well, thank you so much, Meg Keneally. Your new book, The Wreck, is out now. And I hope that that people go out and have a look at it. Perfect for lovers of historical fiction. And best of luck going forward with it.

Meg Keneally 

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

 

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