Ep 369 Meet Lian Tanner, author of ‘A Clue for Clara’.

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In Episode 369 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Lian Tanner, author of A Clue for Clara. Plus we share 10 writing tips you can use today. Discover your chance to be published with Penguin Random House Australia. And we have a huge 10-book pack giveaway in time for the holidays.

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Show Notes

Your chance to win a $20,000 prize and be published with Penguin Random House Australia

10 Writing Tips You Can Start Using Today

Writer in Residence

Lian Tanner

Author of the best-selling KEEPERS TRILOGY: winner of TWO Aurealis Awards for Best Australian Children’s Fantasy, and translated into eleven languages.

Lian Tanner has been dynamited while scuba diving and arrested while busking. She once spent a week in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, hunting for a Japanese soldier left over from the Second World War. Nowadays she lives by the beach in southern Tasmania with a large fluffy tomcat called Harry-le-beau.

Her latest book is A Clue for Clara.

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Interview Transcript

Allison Tait 

Lian Tanner is the bestselling author of three middle grade fantasy adventure series, including The Rogues trilogy, The Keepers trilogy and the Hidden Icebreaker series. She is also the author of the award-winning picture book Ella and the Ocean. Her latest middle grade novel, A Clue For Clara is out now with Allen and Unwin. Welcome to the program Lian.

 

Lian Tanner 

Thanks, Allison, I love the way you said A Clue For Clara.

 

Allison Tait 

Well, I was going for the chicken vibe.

 

Lian Tanner

I know. And you did it so beautifully.

 

Allison Tait

I'm sure our listeners will be very interested to hear about why I was going for a chicken vibe. But we'll talk about that in a little while. To start with, let's go back to the beginning. Can you tell us your publishing origin story? How did your first book come to be published?

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, gosh. Um, my first book was actually a little book called Rats that came before I started writing fantasy adventure. I've written, like most writers, I've written all my life. You know, you start writing at about seven or eight and just keep going. But I got to the point where I really wanted to do more with it. And I was experimenting in a whole lot of different areas. I was doing a bit of freelance journalism, I was writing short stories for magazines, all that sort of stuff. And what I started to have success with was short stories for children that I was selling to School Magazine in New South Wales. And one of those short stories started to turn into a novel. And I talk about it, I call it my practice novel, because really, I wrote it to see if I could get a novel published. And so I didn't really use my own voice as a writer. I wrote, I used what I thought would be an acceptable voice for a publisher. I made it, you know, the book was fairly short and fairly funny.

 

And when I'd finished it, I applied for a mentorship with a published author – Gary Crew. And I got it. And he then introduced me to his publisher at the time, that was Lothian. And it was, I wanted to take that shortcut, because I'd submitted stuff to publishers before and sometimes it took them six months or a year to get back to me. And so I just wanted to speed that up a bit. And I thought, well, the way to do it is to is to get a personal introduction.

 

And I got it and the people at Lothian liked the book and they agreed to publish it. So that was my first book.

 

And then once I saw that, yes, I can get published, after that my next book was Museum of Thieves. And I thought, Okay, this, I'm gonna write what I love, which is fantasy. And I'm going to write it in my own voice.

 

Allison Tait

So when you wrote Rats – now, that was not easy for me to say – were you working at the time? I mean, you know, was it just something that you sort of started doing in your spare time? Or had you decided at that point, to devote time to it?

 

Lian Tanner 

I had been working as an actor. I'd been working as an actor with a small theatre and education company in Tasmania. And I had started writing short plays for the company. And that sort of made me realize that I really liked writing for children. And so when I left there, I thought, I want to devote more time to this.

 

So I ended up getting a part time job just three days a week so that I could then write two days a week. So you know, like that, the idea of writing full time was very much there in my head, but I had no idea if it was possible or not. But three days of work and two days of writing seemed like a really nice compromise to me.

 

Allison Tait 

So when you set out to write your first fantasy adventure, was the process different for you? Did it feel different? And did you find it easy to kind of find your own voice having written your first novel kind of in a writerly way?

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, gosh, that's all fairly complicated. I have found that the first time with pretty much everything is like a gift and the second time around, you have to work out how you did it. So, and that is the hard part. You know, that's the incredibly hard part is working out how you did it.

 

So Rats kind of came as this kind of little gift out of the ether. I mean, I'm not saying that it was an easy thing to write, but I wrote it blindly. I had no idea how I was doing it. And I didn't know when I sat down to write Museum of Thieves, I just had no idea how to go about it. So writing Museum of Thieves was this massive learning process about how I go about sitting down to write a book. And how I go about doing it deliberately, you know, because the first time you do something, it's almost accidental. You don't take notice of the process.

 

So I had to figure out how do I generate ideas? How do I figure out structure? How do I work on characters? Museum of Thieves, I reckon I went through about 20 drafts before I finished Museum of Thieves. And I wrote it over three years. And that was writing part time.

 

And I went, and over that three years, I had so many times when I thought I'd finished the book. And I hadn't, you know. So I'd get it to a certain point and I'd think, “right, this is it, this is fantastic. I love this.” And I'd put it aside for a while and I'd come back to it and realize that actually, it was pretty awful. Or I'd get some feedback on it. So I went through a number of stages where I got feedback on it. And again, you know, it was at the stage where I thought it was really wonderful. And at one stage when – and this was after about two years, I think – I had a chance to get some feedback from somebody who knew a lot about the publishing industry. And he was down in Tasmania, and he was talking to authors, and we would send in our first three or four chapters and he would talk to us about it. And he was the bloke from Varuna writers house in the Blue Mountains. And so he had a lot of credibility. And I was so excited, you know, like, because I was so confident in the book by then. And so I sent in these three chapters, and I went into the interview, and I was having all these daydreams about it, you know, “this is going to be fantastic.” And I had this little fantasy about how I was going to walk in the door and he was going to say, “Lian, Lian, this is brilliant. I love it. I've already talked to a couple of publishers about it.”

 

Allison Tait 

We all have that dream, don't worry.

 

Lian Tanner 

Yes. So I walked in the door, and I sat down, and we sort of said our hellos. And then he said, “Well, I love the title.” And that was it. That was it. And then he went on to tell me all this stuff that just wasn't working, and how I was starting it in the wrong place, and, oh, just so much stuff. And I just went away in despair.

 

But then it's always that thing, isn't it? You know, you, I think I've learned this over the years, that you get criticism like that and you think, “oh, my god, my life is over. I can't bear it. I'm never going to write another thing.” But when you actually go back and look at what they said, it starts to make sense. You know, once you've got over that initial gut reaction of despair, and you genuinely and honestly look at what they said, and you go, “oh, right, yes, actually, actually, he was right.”

 

And that was what boosted it to its next stage. And that stage was when it really started to become what it ended up as. And it made this massive leap, you know, sort of the stakes were so much higher, and the antagonists were so much worse, and all that sort of stuff. And I think this was something I really had to learn, was to push the story further than I initially thought it should go. Because quite often, those initial thoughts, they are not what the story needs to be. The initial thoughts so often don't go far enough. And the stakes just, you know, aren't as high as they could be.

 

So it was an immensely valuable thing. It was dreadfully painful, but it was immensely valuable.

 

Allison Tait

It's true, though, isn't it? Because I think often your first draft in particular with the stakes and things, there's always a lot more polite, you're a lot nicer to your character. Yeah, you sort of… Did you, was this something that you read a lot? This type of story, the fantasy adventure? Is that why you chose to write that?

 

Lian Tanner

Oh, yes, look, I adore fantasy. I've always adored fantasy. And I think I like that sense of immersing myself in another world. And I also like the sense that things can twist away a little bit from reality, you know, so you're not, you're not chained to reality, things can go in really unexpected directions. And that's always been one of my favourite genres.

 

So I'm not so mad on the really high fantasy with, you know, high kings and queens and wizards and dragons, and all that sort of stuff. That's not really so much what I like to read, although there is some really good stuff in that. But what I love is stuff that could almost be our world but there's this slight difference, you know? It's almost like you could be walking down the street, and then suddenly step into this world. And at first, you almost wouldn't realize that you'd stepped into it until you started to see slightly odd things out of the corner of your eye. So that's the sort of fantasy that really, really appeals to me.

 

Allison Tait

What do you think is the key then to creating an immersive world like that? Like, do you create your worlds in detail before you begin? Do you start with a character? And then how do you build out that world as you draft or whatever?

 

Lian Tanner

No, I certainly don't create the whole thing before I start. I don't do 20 drafts these days, but I still do quite a few drafts, sort of, maybe five, maybe six. And the world develops during those drafts. So my first draft in both character and worlds tends to be a bit cartoony. And very, you know, it tends to be very flat. And as I write that first draft and then I start to… I try and let myself be loose enough. For me, it's a matter of not thinking too much and letting myself write loosely enough that unexpected things can happen. And it's when those unexpected things happen, both with the world and with the character, that it starts to flesh out.

 

So I might be writing something, and suddenly somebody says something about the seven gods, or something like that. And I think, “oh, where did that come from?” But I follow it. I try and let myself be loose enough to follow it.

 

So I… This is a bit of a swerve away from that but it is relevant. I used to plot very, very strongly before I wrote. And now, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I always plot to some extent. But I've found that if I plot too much, no, I found that no matter how much I plot, unexpected things will still happen during the writing if I let them. And that is one of the delights of it.

 

You know, when I was writing the third book in The Rogues trilogy, it was a book that I probably plotted more intensively than I have ever plotted anything before. And yet, unexpected things still happened. And some of those unexpected things were the most beautiful things in the book and were the things that I ended up most pleased with and most intrigued with.

 

And so it's, yes, it's like I said, it's a matter of letting myself be loose enough in my writing, letting myself be unconscious enough in my writing, letting what I've heard described as the girls in the basement speak up in unexpected moments.

 

Allison Tait

I really like that.

 

Lian Tanner

Isn't it a lovely term?

 

Allison Tait

It's so true, though, isn't it?

 

Lian Tanner

It is, yeah, it's just so true. And you've got to make that space for them. Even when you're in the middle of writing something, you've got to allow that space for them. Because that's when the valuable stuff comes. And that's when, that's when characters become their most individual. And it's when the world becomes its most intriguing, when you let those girls speak up.

 

Allison Tait

Do you always know that you're writing a series? Like, did you know with The Museum of Thieves it was a series?

 

Lian Tanner

No, I didn't. Not at all. It was going to be a standalone. And I got to the end of it. And I thought, “wow, I don't want to stop. I haven't had enough of these people; I haven't had enough of these characters or this world.”

 

And so I wrote an afterword, an epilogue, that allowed the possibility of it keeping going. And that's kind of, I mean, I've almost done that with each book, with each series.

 

Allison Tait

Oh right?

 

Lian Tanner

The Rogues I did set out to write as a trilogy. So I knew that there was an overarching shape to it before I started it. But the other two I basically set out to write a standalone and then couldn't bear to leave them. And I think that's, that's partly, I mean, it's partly because, and you must find this too, that you get so incredibly fond of your characters over the course of a book. You get to know them so well and you get to love them, including the nasty ones, including the antagonist and including the villains. You just become so close to them, and you want to keep, you want to find out what happens to them next.

 

So that's a part of it. But it's also that once you've got that first book, you've got already got so much of your second and your third book, because you've got the world, you've got the rules of the magic that happen, you've got the basic characters and what they love and what they hate and what they're afraid of. And so it seems like such a waste not to not to keep going, you know, as well as loving them, you want to see what happens.

 

Allison Tait 

So what is it that draws you to that middle grade audience in particular? Like, what is it about writing for that group that, you know, is kind of why you put your stories in that space?

 

Lian Tanner 

Look, I'm not entirely sure. It's the age group that my writing seems to automatically fall into. I mean, I've extended a bit since then. So I've got the picture book. And that was a really interesting and different thing to do. But certainly middle grade is my main audience.

 

I have this theory that all children's authors have a time in their life that was a particularly rich time, or when something extraordinary happened or something like that, and that that time, that age group is kind of where they still are in their head. And that for me was that middle group. So the grade 3, 4, 5, 6, you know, that was when I really got into reading, really got into books, around about grade three. And that was when books became so incredibly important to me. So by grade four, I was just reading nonstop. And same with grade five and grade six.

 

So I think there's a part of me that is still that age. And that is the part of me that I write for, that child who has discovered books and adores them and is obsessed by them. So you know, that's my theory, that we all have that part of us. And that all children's authors, for all of us, the child is still so strong within us. And that's who we write for.

 

Allison Tait 

What do you think, defines a middle grade story? Like when you're writing your novels, are you thinking about language choices, themes, characterization in a particular way for this audience? Or are you just writing the story?

 

Lian Tanner 

A bit of both. There's stuff I'm aware of. I'm aware of language choice to a certain extent, but not overwhelmingly so because I think kids need to be stretched in their language. And I think, you know, sort of books are a really good way to do it.

 

Probably more than language choice, I'm more aware of sentence structure. So if I'm writing for adults, then I will allow myself these dreadfully convoluted sentences with lots and lots of internal phrases and clauses and, you know, sort of things like that. With kids, I will keep that more simple, I will keep that simpler. And I won't, I won't have those enormously long sentences. And I try to be aware of where a sentence might lose a child who is not such a confident reader. That's probably the main one.

 

But also the sort of concepts that you're using, you know, the level of violence that is incorporated. There is certainly some violence in my books, but it tends to happen off stage. So the kids might see some result of it, you know, like they might find somebody who's been bashed up or wounded or something like that. But the actual violence tends to happen off stage.

 

By the same token, because of the age group, there are no sexual relationships in my books. And I think that that's something that parents of middle grade children are often really thankful for. Because there's so much around for kids who are ostensibly middle grade but who are maybe reading a little bit older and, you know, there's just so much sex in so many books that I think parents are often really thankful for books that don't have that. And for books that just show friendships between boys and girls.

 

So those sorts of things I keep in mind, but mostly I am thinking about telling an exciting story.

 

Allison Tait 

Yeah. Well, exciting is one thing I wanted to ask you about, because obviously pacing in a fantasy adventure is quite important. Particularly with middle grade. And I know my own son, when I was reading out the first drafts of The Mapmaker Chronicles, was telling me where the boring bits were so that I could take them out. What are some of the techniques… Yeah, I know. “Chuck in a battle, mum,” was his… You know, “You just need a battle. What you need here is a battle.”

 

Lian Tanner

Always a good idea.

 

Allison Tait 

Always a good idea. What are some of the techniques that you use to keep that story rolling along? Or to slow it down where necessary? And why would you slow it down?

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, pacing is a really interesting issue, isn't it? It's so utterly, utterly crucial. And I think that a lot of the time I address it quite intuitively. So I don't worry about it when I'm writing the first draft, I just write what I write. But when I'm reading it back, I will always read aloud.

 

When I was writing Museum of Thieves, I actually went to my local school and read the entire thing over a couple of weeks to a class whose teacher was really happy about it, because the kids gave me feedback and they talked about where they thought it was too slow. But even before they talked about where it was too slow, I could hear it as I read, you know, like, I could see it in their faces that I was losing them, and I could hear what was happening.

 

So reading aloud is a major, major tool for me. Because I can feel myself getting bored, I can feel myself getting, you know, oh, god, this is going too slowly.

 

Apart from that, I think, like I said, I think I do it intuitively, you know, does it feel as if it needs to speed up at this place? At this point? Have we had too much slow stuff? Does it feel as if the story is dragging me along? Or is it getting soggy? You just have to keep asking yourself those questions.

 

And the second part of your question, why would you want to slow something down? And how would you do it? I think of it a bit… When I'm trying to explain it to kids in workshops, I talk about it in terms of a film, in terms of close ups and long shot. And how if you've got a really important, a really important scene, you might go in for a real close up on this person's face. And they might be talking about something that's really important to them, something that they love, and something that's very tender to them. But then you might pull back and you might see a whole sequence, you know, shot after shot after shot, where a whole lot of things happen very quickly. And I think we do the same with our writing.

 

But we also, and I think it's sometimes quite a hard concept for kids to grasp. When something really exciting is happening, we actually need to slow down. Because kids tend to write, you know, “I was walking down the street, there was an explosion, bang, everyone died.”

 

Allison Tait

I've seen adults write like that too, just quietly.

 

Lian Tanner

I know. And I'm trying to explain to them, “No, no, no, this is such an important moment. You want to draw it out. You want to explain you know, “I was walking down the street, I could smell, someone nearby was smelling pizza. A dog ran past me. I thought I heard somebody on my right, I heard footsteps, suddenly this sound…” You know. And so you're drawing it out, you're pulling out every moment of this scene, almost as if the whole thing has gone in to slow motion, as if you're seeing an explosion in slow motion.

 

And I love that. I love writing that stuff where you're picking apart a moment of extreme action and showing every little bit of it. And that's such fun to do. And I think it's fun to read too, and it's fun to write.

 

So those are the bits that you slow down, which is almost counterintuitive, you know, this is a big exciting moment. But you actually slow it down so that it lasts longer and the person who's reading it becomes immersed in it.

 

Allison Tait 

Very true. Yes, I'm nodding along here. And it's, you know, it's a great, it's a really great explanation, though, because pacing is such a difficult thing to define. And it's a very difficult thing to explain, you know, to new authors. So I think you've done a terrific job there.

 

Lian Tanner 

Yes, it is. And because there is that automatic assumption that because something exciting is happening, we will speed up and this will happen really quickly. And it's almost counterintuitive that you do the opposite of that. And the speeded-up bits are, you know, a week later, we went to, you know, that's the bit you speed up because nothing happened during that week.

 

Allison Tait 

Yeah. All right. Now, speaking of exciting, let's talk about your new book, A Clue For Clara. Tell us a bit about the book.

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, look, this is currently my favourite book. You know, when I go into schools, and I'm sure kids do this to you, too, they always say, “what's your favourite book that you've written?”

 

Allison Tait

Every time.

 

Lian Tanner

And I always say, “it's the book I just finished writing because I'm still caught up in that world. I'm still in love with those characters.” You know? So currently, I am totally in love with Clara. Clara is a chook.

 

Allison Tait 

That's a chicken for anyone, you know, we do have quite a lot of international listeners, so just in case, that's a chicken.

 

Lian Tanner 

Yes, Clara's a chicken. She is a chicken. She is small and she is scruffy. And all her sisters and aunts and cousins are big and glossy and beautiful. And so Clara gets bullied quite dreadfully. And she has decided that the only way to stop being bullied is to become famous. Because she knows she's never going to be big and beautiful. She knows she's never going to be glossy like her sisters.

 

So she decides… Oh, and she escapes into the farmhouse. This is her way of getting away from the bullying, is to escape into the farmhouse. And she ends up watching television quite a lot with the farmer's grandson, Digby, and her favourite shows are television shows. So pretty much everything she knows about humans she has learned from television, from these two detective shows on television. So she decides that she's going to be a detective, she's going to be a famous detective and have her own TV show. And then she will be famous and all the other chooks will love her and they will stop bullying her and let her up on the same perch on winter's night so she won't be cold and shivery on the bottom perch by herself.

 

So basically, the book is how she sets about becoming a detective. And she teams up with the daughter of the local policeman who has her own troubles. And they set out to solve a major crime that is currently troubling the town of Little Dismal, which is a small country town.

 

Allison Tait

All right…

 

Lian Tanner

It's completely different from anything I've ever used for.

 

Allison Tait 

It really is. How did you come up with the idea of a chicken as a detective?

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, look, I'm not sure how I came up with the idea of a chicken as a detective. But I had been thinking, I've been thinking, I got to the point where I didn't want to write another trilogy. And that was partly because trilogies take so long. And when I was writing The Rogues, I mean, don't get me wrong, I love the trilogy form. And I love the fact that you can develop your characters so much over that, over those three books, and you can go, you have this individual arc for each book, and yet you have this overreaching arc for the three books. And that is a delight. You know, I love playing with structure. And I love seeing what happens to the characters over that long period.

 

But at the same time, when I was writing The Rogues, I kept having all these ideas for other books I wanted to write. And it was two years, three years before I could start them. And I found that really frustrating.

 

So I thought, “Okay, next thing I write is going to be a standalone, so that I don't have that long wait until I can get on to something else.”

 

I was also really conscious of the fact that my books are fairly long, they're about 60,000 words each. And while that is fine for kids who are confident readers, and kids like I was who like to immerse themselves in a story, there are an awful lot of kids out there who will look at a book that long and go, “Oh, no, that's way too long. I can't even start it.” You know, it's just intimidating. So I wanted to write something smaller and a little bit easier and a little bit more accessible for those kids who, for whom my other books were too long.

 

So my publishers actually said to me, “Look, we love the way you write about animals.” Because I always have an animal in my books. It's just something that's part of my books. And they said, “we'd love it if you'd write something from an animal's point of view.” So that kind of started the thinking. And in The Rogues, there was a chook, a chicken, in The Rogues, except she wasn't really a chicken, she was really an ancient sorceress who'd got caught up in one of her own spells and forgotten who she was. But she was enormous fun to write. Because she had this chicken mind. And every now and again, sort of, she'd realized there was something else going on. And she couldn't work out what it was. But so it was this chicken trying to work out why she had these other impulses. And that was tremendous fun to write.

 

So I started thinking, “Okay, maybe a chicken.”

 

Allison Tait

Sure!

 

Lian Tanner

Yeah. And I don't know where the wants to be a detective came from but as soon as, you know, it was one of those ideas, you get an idea like that and you think, “oh, for heaven's sake. Yes, of course.”

 

Allison Tait

Let's just have a go at that.

 

Lian Tanner

The hard part was finding the voice.

 

Allison Tait 

Well, I was going to ask you that. What are some of the challenges in writing from the point of view of a chicken?

 

Lian Tanner 

The hardest part was working out what her voice was like, and what the voice of the book was going to be. And I, in fact, I actually put the book aside several times and started work on something else, because I just could not find the right way into the book. And I tried writing it from Clara's point of view, I tried writing it from the point of view of Olive the policeman's daughter. And then suddenly, I just hit on it quite accidentally. And I thought, a diary. Clara the chicken keeps a diary.

 

Allison Tait

Of course!

 

Lian Tanner

And it made so much sense, you know, that this ambitious, smart little chook, she's got all these skills, you know, because of what she's learned from television, she's taught herself Morse code, she's taught herself semaphore, she's in the process of learning Egyptian hieroglyphics, you know, she's really serious about this detective stuff. And she's taught herself to tell the time. And so she keeps a diary. And once I had that, which made it possible to break the day up into these short segments, and made it possible for her to narrate her day, then that was when I found it. And once I had that, then so much of it fell into place.

 

Allison Tait 

Was the voice the most challenging aspect because you've written sort of a traditional detective story, so to speak, but with a very non-traditional detective? So the voice was the biggest challenge in that?

 

Lian Tanner  

I think the voice was the biggest challenge. Originally, I was going to do the whole thing from Clara's point of view. And I actually sent, I had about probably the first 10,000 words, and I sent it to my agent to say, “you know, look, this is what I'm doing. This is where I'm going. What do you think?” And she loved it. And she sent it to my publisher at Allen and Unwin to see what she thought. And she loved it. But she also said, “Look, I'm not sure that it will sustain for a whole book, you might need to bring in Olive's voice, as well, the policeman's daughter.” And I got that feedback and I thought, “nah, no, no, she's wrong. No, of course I won't.” And I got about a third of the way through the book and I thought, “ah, okay.”

 

Allison Tait

Gonna need Olive now.

 

Lian Tanner

Yeah, actually, I need Olive now. And she was completely right as publishers and editors do tend to be.

 

Allison Tait

As they often are, yeah.

 

Lian Tanner

Yeah. So I got to the point where I thought, “yes, that diary form has held up till now. And now we actually need to hear from Olive.” And so I started Olive writing letters. And Olive's mum died a year ago. And she and her father have just not been functioning at all well, so I started Olive writing. She kind of didn't know whether she wanted to write a diary. But her teachers told her that, you know, it might be good to write a letter or a diary or something. So she starts writing letters to her mother who has died. And that just made this really beautiful counterpoint to Clara's diary entries, you know, so, you've got both of these, both of these lonely people and both of these people who have been bullied, and both of these people who are desperately trying to find friendship, and yet coming at it from really different angles. And it was a really lovely combination. I think it ended up being the gentlest book I've ever written. And probably the kindest hearted book I've ever written, and certainly the funniest book I've ever written. And all those things were completely accidental in terms of timing, and yet they turned out to be just the right thing for this year.

 

Allison Tait

Yeah, definitely.

 

Lian Tanner

It was completely and utterly the right book to bring out in terms of, at a time of Coronavirus, which was a lovely, lovely serendipitous thing to happen.

 

Allison Tait 

Well, speaking of bringing out a book, you know, in Coronavirus, what sorts of things are you doing to promote your books? And have you had to kind of switch gears this year at all?

 

Lian Tanner 

Oh, heavens, yes. Yes. I've had to switch gears. Oh, I mean, I think we've all had to switch gears a lot. And talking to people online through podcasts, like this one, doing online interviews, video interviews, and all that sort of stuff has become just so important. And I don't think, they don't, they can't fill in for face-to-face contact.

 

I think that one of the biggest tools in an author's armoury is school visits. Because you've got an hour to get kids excited, both about writing and reading, but also about your book. And if you entertain kids for an hour, and if you can do that successfully, then they are going to go away wanting to read your work. So and I think that, you know, sort of anytime you do school visits, it just gives your book a really big boost. So that has been impossible for me up until the last few weeks. And I actually did a – I'm in Tasmania, and we've been opening up quite a bit because we've had no cases of coronavirus down here for ages – and the moat is closed and the drawbridge is still fought firmly up at the moment. So schools have been opening up and having school visits again. And I've done a couple of those, which was a lot of fun. But haven't been able to get to the mainland, of course. And that's another big thing.

 

So yeah, it's doing whatever you can and trying to get publicity every way that you can which is I think, I don't think there are many authors that adore this side of it. I think so many of us are much more comfortable with the actual writing than with the promotion. And so it's a bit of a struggle.

 

I did manage to have an in-person book launch a week ago. And that was absolutely delightful. That was such fun. We had it in a bookshop, and we had real human beings in there. And we had somebody who played Clara, which was hilarious. And that was wonderful. But yes, I mean, I think I'm in the same situation as everybody else at the moment. We're doing what we can, we're pedalling hard trying to give our books the love and the support they deserve. And just hoping some of it sticks.

 

Allison Tait

So true. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Lian, it's been absolutely delightful talking to you. Thank you for your insights on all of those various things. Now we're going to finish up with the final question that we ask all of our sacrifices. What are your top three tips for writers?

 

Lian Tanner 

Okay. Look, I would say, just before I get to my three, I would say the usual read, read, read, write, write, write. I mean, everybody says these and they are at the base of everything. Unless you do those things, it's no point doing anything else. So sort of, that's like, you know, if you want to be healthy, stop smoking. That kind of underlies everything.

 

But apart from that, as well as reading and writing, you have to actually go out and live your life. Because you have to have stuff to write about. And to have stuff to write about, you have to be watching people and observing things and experiencing things and understanding what it's like to be heartbroken and understanding what it's like to be terrified and understanding what it's like to be filled with joy. So you have to be living your life and observing yourself both outside and inside and observing other people. So that's the first one.

 

The second one is I think it's really important to find ways of measuring yourself against the world and against what other people are doing. So it's fine, if you've never had anything published, it's fine to be sitting at home writing a novel. But if you don't know where that novel fits, in terms of quality, you're going to be spending however many years writing it, and it might come to nothing. And so it's really important, I think, to be writing other stuff as well. It might be a short story. It might be an article for a newspaper, or an article for online, something that you actually have a chance in the short term of getting published or getting judged. Or, you know, entering competitions that provide feedback. So that if you get shortlisted, or if you get good feedback, or if you get bad feedback, you can start to get a sense of where your work sits in the world. And once you start to get that sense, then you can start to work on it. You know, you can say, “Okay, I'm not too good at characters, or I'm not too good at pace,” or all that sort of stuff. And it might be buying a report from a credible organization or something like that on your work, but finding some way of working out. So you need to be working on your skills all the time, but at the same time finding out where you sit in the world when compared with other people. So that's the second one.

 

The third one is learning to take criticism. And it's absolutely crucial. You know, you can, if somebody gives you criticism, you don't always need to take it, but you do need to think about it seriously. And you can go through that initial thing, which I always go through of, “they don't know what they're talking about. They're mad, they obviously didn't read what I gave them.” But then you have to sit down and say, “Okay, what did they say? And does it apply to my work?” And actually look very seriously at what they said, and try and improve your work in the light of what they said.

 

Allison Tait 

So true. It usually takes me about three days to get to that point. I have to read it, put it aside, fume, cry.

 

Lian Tanner

Swear a lot.

 

Allison Tait

Swear. Stomp about. Carry on like a pork chop. And then about 72 hours later, I can sit down with it and actually look at what they actually wrote, as opposed to what I, you know, immediately thought they'd written. So yeah, interesting. It's an interesting process, isn't it?

 

Lian Tanner

It's so hard, isn't it?

 

Allison Tait

It is.

 

Lian Tanner

But you have to, if you're serious about your writing, you have to learn to do it.

 

Allison Tait 

You do. So true. All right. Well, thank you so much, Lian, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with Clara. I think she's going to take the middle grade world by storm. And I look forward to seeing what you do next.

 

Lian Tanner 

Thanks so much, Allison. It was absolutely lovely to talk to you.

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