Ep 381 Meet Frances Chapman, author of ‘Stars Like Us’.

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In Episode 381 of So You Want To Be A Writer: You'll meet Frances Chapman, author of Stars Like Us. We also cover how to write scenes. Plus, there are 10x double passes to see High Ground – in cinemas 28 January.

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Show Notes

Fiction Essentials: Scenes

Writer in Residence

Frances Chapman

 

Frances Chapman is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter from Sydney.

Born in Henley-On-Thames in England, she spent her childhood pinballed between continents before settling in Sydney and finding her people. Several years as a journalist and social researcher gave her a healthy curiosity about people’s stories before she became a freelance writer in 2015.

Her debut novel, Stars Like Us, is published by Hardie Grant Egmont. The idea for the novel came when, after a string of rejections for her first manuscript, she decided to write a book which her teenage self would have loved. It was also partly inspired by a photo of Justin Bieber eating chicken on a visit to Sydney. The novel won the Hardie Grant Egmont Ampersand Prize in 2018, and the Varuna-Black Inc Publisher Introduction Program in 2017.

Frances now lives by the beach with her family and Roscoe, the most winsome of hounds.

Follow Frances Chapman on Twitter

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Frances, thank you so much for joining us today. Congratulations on your book, Stars Like Us. Now, for those listeners who haven't got a copy of your book yet, can you tell us what it's about?

Frances Chapman

I can. So it's a YA novel. It's a queer YA novel about Liliana, who's a 16-year-old guitarist and singer who goes to England on a music exchange. And there she meets Carter, a teenage Lothario with a charming swagger and a lot of secrets. And basically, they form a band, which suddenly hits the big time and she has to contend with a toxic relationship, bisexual love triangle and basically work out whether she should be measuring success in terms of fame or money or artistic expression. When I come up with an elevator pitch for it, I like to say that it's Walk the Line if Johnny Cash was queer, and female and into Bowie. So that's how I usually describe it. I'm not sure what that actually says to people, like whether that really gives them a flavour of the book, but it seems to be doing okay, so far.

Valerie Khoo

Now you won the Ampersand Prize. Congratulations.

Frances Chapman

Thank you.

Valerie Khoo

Now, um, what was, what gave you the idea for this book? How did the seed for this book form?

Frances Chapman

Well, I have always been really interested in celebrity culture. As a kid, I used to read lots of teen magazines, you know, TV Hits and everything. And I was, I've always been really interested in what that says about us as a society, how we elevate these people who we want to be simultaneously really relatable, but also untouchable, and, you know, stars basically. So I've always been interested in that.

And the thing that kind of sparked the idea for this as a YA novel was I saw this picture in 2015 of Justin Bieber on a visit to Sydney, and he was sitting in a chicken shop on the side of the road. So he's like, sitting outdoors, with his friends eating some chicken and just having lunch. But in the photo, you could see him and his mates just having a chat, but you could also see this line of girls behind him who are probably like 13 or 14. And they'd all, you could see, they'd all really dressed up. And they're all there to see Justin Bieber, and like one of them had a puppy. She'd brought her puppy along, and she was like, hoping that Justin Bieber would pat her puppy or whatever. And he's just ignoring them and eating lunch, because this was just his life, you know, he's always followed by teenagers.

And the look… But what I was really struck by in this photo was they're kind of being held back by bodyguards, and they're just standing there watching him eat chicken, which is really boring. And I was very struck by the look on their faces, which was very, like, kind of lost actually, and a little bit sad. And they didn't look like they were having a really good time, they looked a bit panicked and worried, that maybe he would look at them, and then they wouldn't know what to say, because they're teenagers, you know, and that's teenagers are like, they're constantly worried about saying, you know, being looked at and saying the wrong thing, and quite self-conscious.

And it really gave me this thought. I sort of thought the gulf between what you think it's going to be like, to be famous, and the reality of it is probably huge. And so I started doing a bit of research and looking into that, and trying to kind of tease out some of these ideas about what it would be like to be famous as a teenager. Like at that time in your life, when you are so vulnerable and susceptible to other people's thoughts about you and self-conscious. And so that's where the idea came from.

And then I felt like it needed to be a band, because I thought – I'm very, very into music myself – and I thought it needed like, I wanted a character that didn't want to be famous for fame's sake, that wasn't pursuing fame in an Instagram kind of sense, but instead that they were really passionate about their field. And that they sort of as a by-product had become famous off that. So that was why it ended up being a rock band. Yeah, and the idea just grew from there and then kept writing and three years later won the Ampersand.

Valerie Khoo

Yes. But when you say the idea grew from there, did you think out the entire narrative arc first? Or did you just write and just, you know, discovered what happened?

Frances Chapman

So I did, I just wrote and discovered what happened. I think I kind of need to do that otherwise I get a bit bored. I think I need to explore, I think I learn through character. And that's what I start with. So I started with the probably three characters of Liliana, Carter and Sam, who form the core of the band. And I worked a lot with those guys, and wrote a lot of words that didn't end up in the final book. And probably powered through a first draft in a few months, maybe three months. And then once that was, yeah, it wasn't any good, though. So once that was out there, written, I kind of spent a lot of time refining it. And I was probably up to draft 10 I reckon when I entered the Ampersand. So a lot of words on the cutting room floor, because you know, so much of that discovery writing is good for the author, and not that good for the reader. So I didn't end up using it all. But it's all valuable because it does build that sense of character. And I feel like I knew my characters really well by the time I came to actually writing the book that it became.

Valerie Khoo

So you say that it was three years – now obviously, it was three years in your spare time – from the moment you saw Justin Bieber eat chicken. Can you just describe what you were doing at the time? As in, not when Justin Bieber was eating the chicken, but, you know, in your day-to-day life and how you fit in your writing?

Frances Chapman

Yes, so I'm a mom. I have two kids. And I think I probably started when my daughter was about 15 months old. So I had a young, really young kid in the house. I think I have to treat it like a job. So I worked part time and the rest – and my daughter was in day care – and the rest of the time I wrote and I would have my two writing days a week. And I would sit down at the computer at nine in the morning, and then I would get up for a lunch break. And then I would sit down again. So I'm very structured around the time, and I guard that time really precious, like, really, it's really precious to me. So I really didn't, I don't want anything to interfere with that. And I wouldn't like schedule, you know, coffee with anyone or anything in that time. It's definitely my writing time.

And as far as, like how that, I think I sit down and I write the draft, like from beginning to end basically. I don't really jump around. I know some people do do that. But if I do that, then I won't write the boring bits. I have to write the boring bits. And I do it even when I don't really feel like it. So I, you know, treating it like a job means you kind of sit down on a day when you don't feel very inspired. And sometimes you write 100 words in a day. And sometimes you write – like today, I've written three and a half thousand words on my new book, and I'm feeling really pleased with that. But sometimes you just write not very much, or it's all dross, and you think, “Oh god, no one's ever gonna want to read this.” But you've got to keep going. And you can't edit a blank page. So you've just got to write something. And you can fix it later.

Yeah, so as far as the time is concerned, like, I'm quite structured around making sure that that time exists for me, because otherwise I would put it off. There's always something else that I could be doing, you know.

Valerie Khoo

So that's very disciplined of you. Were you writing before that? Have you always… When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Of fiction?

Frances Chapman

Of fiction. Yeah, I've always written fiction. So I don't remember a time when I didn't. And it's interesting. Yeah, it's interesting. My daughter is now six. And she showed me today a book that she's writing. And it's very like the sort of thing I used to write. It's stream of consciousness dense prose because she's six. But it's that very, creating a world really. And I think I've always done that since I was a kid.

And I think when I was about 20, probably 25. I started to take it more seriously. I'd always wanted to write a novel. And I decided that if I didn't put my head down and get on with it, it wasn't going to happen. So that's when I started putting aside actual time, specific time that was dedicated to writing in my free time. And then when I quit my job and went freelance in 2015, that's when I dedicated two days a week to it. So that's when it became my job, I guess. Or one of my jobs So the other three days I write freelance for various corporate clients, and then the two days a week that are my writing days, I am writing fiction.

Valerie Khoo

That's really committed. Do you ever… Does the stuff, the freelance stuff, ever spill over?

Frances Chapman

Yeah, it does. It does sometimes. Yeah. That's usually deadline driven, though. So I usually try to, like if something really needs to be done on a specific day, and it's one of my writing days, I do it that day. And then I use that time, make that time up somewhere else. And there are times when I'm, you know, if my kids are sick, or something where I'm not having the time that I wish I could spend on it. But yeah, I'm pretty regimented around it. Like, and I'm quite used to it now. Like, it's probably been five years since I started, or maybe six years even since I started doing that, and I'm quite structured around it. So yeah.

Valerie Khoo

So you're telling me that it took three months to write the first draft and you didn't actually, when you started the draft, know what was going to happen. It just kind of revealed itself. What happened after that? Like what happened in the other two and three quarter years?

Frances Chapman

Yeah. So it came, I finished the first draft, I put it away for a couple of months, because I wanted to have some fresh eyes on it. And then I pulled it out again, and I changed basically the whole thing. So I rewrote, at that point, so the character, I wanted to change the age of the characters, and in YA changing the age of the characters changes everything. It changes the language you use, it changes a lot of the content as far as, you know, sex and drugs and that kind of stuff. And it also changes the, like, things like the setting because if you've got older characters, they might not be living with parents. They might not be attending school, they might have a part time job. So there's all this stuff that changed as a result.

Valerie Khoo

What age did you change them from?

Frances Chapman

Yeah, so they were about 16. And I made them 18. And I put them on, I put Liliana on a gap year, instead of like a school exchange. And then when I won the Hardie Grant Egmont, the Ampersand Prize in 2018, I had to change them all back again to 16. So then I spent…

Valerie Khoo

Why?

Frances Chapman

Yeah, well, because that's what they recommended. So it was the recommendation of the judging panel, that they be, that the characters be younger, to capture a younger YA market, which I think was driven by probably commercial considerations, I reckon, around what they thought they would sell better. And I, you know, I wasn't forced to do it, or whatever. But I felt that it was also the right direction for the book. But it did involve a lot of changes.

Valerie Khoo

So you couldn't just wheel out the previous version?

Frances Chapman

No, because it had changed so much by then. So between draft one where they're 16, and draft two they're 18, but then there's draft ten, where they're also 18 but a lot has changed. So draft ten was the one that the Ampersand Prize bought, I guess, but they wanted that with 16-year-old characters. And then there were other things that they asked me to change as a result of winning the prize as well. Which meant that it was basically a whole new book.

Valerie Khoo

Wow. So what made you decide to enter the Ampersand Prize?

Frances Chapman

So I'd entered it once before. I actually entered it with my previous manuscript, which was the manuscript that I'd worked on at the Australian Writers' Centre when I did the Write Your Novel program in 2014. And so I entered that manuscript in the Ampersand Prize in I think 2017. And it didn't shortlist or anything. And so I when I entered Stars Like Us, I thought, “there's no way, you know, this is a really hard prize to win. And there's no way I'll place but I'll just send it off and see what they think.” So I definitely wasn't expecting to get it, to win it. So I'd already heard about it. And it's obviously a very respected prize. It's probably one of the foremost YA prizes in Australia and it usually gets 200 to 300 entries a year. So it's good to get your manuscript in there. But I certainly wasn't expecting to do as well as I did.

Valerie Khoo

Do you remember when you found out?

Frances Chapman

Yeah, I do. Because I was trying really hard to be cool. I was on the phone to the publishing director and she told me that I'd won and I was trying to be very cool. And so I was, you know, I was a bit like a kettle, like, I kind of had steam coming out of my ears and whistling in my head. And I was going, “Oh, yeah, well that's wonderful. Thank you so much.” But what I was thinking was like, weeeeeee!

And then I came out of the bedroom and told my family about it. And that's when it starts to feel real. It's like, oh, wow, this is… Everything's gonna change. You know, it's really amazing. Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

That's brilliant. And so you mentioned that you did the Write Your Novel course at the Australian Writers' Centre, what did you learn from that that was useful to your writing?

Frances Chapman

I think so many things. It's really hard to choose. Like it was wonderful, that course, and it came to me at such a great time, because I, it was about the time that I was looking to implement some structure around my writing, and to really have those deadlines every week of having to produce work.

And then, you know, the other thing, of course, aside from the deadlines is having input from other writers made me much less precious about my work. And much more, I think I had much more ownership over it. Because you've got, we had, I think, 12 or 14 people in the class. And you can't agree with everybody. And some of them will give you feedback that you don't, that, you know, isn't right. And instead of just going, “Oh, okay, I'll do that. And then it'll be a better book,” I had to sort of think critically about whether that feedback was useful. And some of it obviously really was. But you'd have cases where people will disagree about your work. And so instead of being… Like, as a writer, I think I'm quite porous. When I'm in that first draft stage, I'm quite susceptible to just picking up every piece of feedback that comes my way. And I instead had to be quite, I guess, methodical about, you know, is this going to serve the story? Or this person said this thing about it, but is that actually helpful? Is it going to change the direction of it in a way that I, you know, that fits my vision and what I want to do as a writer? Because ultimately, it's your story, right? So I found that really good, because you kind of, it's good, it taught me to kind of divorce myself from that feedback and to just, to go, what is it about this story, like what's going to serve this story?

And the other thing, of course, about that writer's course that was so great for me is that I met my writing group through it. There's five of us. And we've been workshopping together for almost six years now. And it's a wonderful group of women. And we've grown, all of us have grown so much as writers in that time. And I was so fortunate to meet likeminded people through that course. So it was really valuable for me.

Valerie Khoo

And you've all done so well, as well. Now, I want to go back to the ten drafts. And obviously, there were more after that, because you had to change it back, the age and all of that. But when you went through your ten drafts, I want to know, I'd like to know, what did you… Each time did… How did you approach it in terms of having that fresh eye in determining what needed to be rewritten?

Frances Chapman

So I… I'm trying to think what I did. I think that I would look for things. Like so one of the things I do is I write a lot of dialogue. And it's not always a lot of texture in there with the dialogue in terms of… I know where everyone is in the room, for example, and, you know, I know what someone's facial expression is, I know what their tone of voice is in this. But because I've got a background in screenwriting and playwriting, I'm quite dialogue driven, but I don't always, obviously in novel writing, you need a lot of description as well, to give the reader a sense of what's happening so that it doesn't just feel like, you know, so that they aren't just expected to fill in the blanks themselves.

So I would go through and look for large, you know, segments of dialogue, and then I would kind of break it up with description. I'm very bad at, I'm not sure what it's called, but the kind of paragraphs that take you from one scene to the next scene, which again, is probably a screenwriting thing. So I would go through and try to put those bridging paragraphs in where you're kind of saying, you know, between this scene, a couple of weeks passed, and then, you know, now we're into this scene. That kind of thing. What else did I do? Sometimes it was just that the story have gone in a different direction to what I was initially planning and I think if you're very structured and you write a lot of planning upfront, then you probably don't have to worry about this. But as a person who doesn't do that, I had a lot of, you know, scenes where there was something interesting happening with the character, for example, but it's not actually serving the story. And I had peripheral characters, who were subplots or whatever, where, you know, the subplot had kind of got out of control. And so I needed to rein it in a bit and make it a bit less of a melodramatic side distraction.

I think it was that kind of thing. With each draft, I tended to have a focus, like I would know, with this draft, I need to focus on creating texture around the dialogue, or with this draft, I need to rewrite this scene because it's not working, or whatever it was. So I think it's that big picture stuff. And I'm quite meticulous about copy editing while I go as well. So I tend to do the two at once, which I think a lot of people don't,

Valerie Khoo

Yeah. No.

Frances Chapman

I know! So most of my drafts are very, like, technically fine. Like, there's very rarely any typos or, you know, odd words in the wrong place or anything like that. Even in my like, I'm writing my first draft of something new today. And looking at it, I'm pretty sure the sentences make sense. And there's no kind of hanging unfinished words or sentences or you know, anything in there. Because that's just how I think. I can't sort of finish, move on to the next thing until I finish the first thought. So I tend to proofread at the same time.

Valerie Khoo

Right. So what are you writing now?

Frances Chapman

I'm writing another YA book. It is called… Well it doesn't really have a title yet. I won't share the title because I'm suspicious about titles. But it’s about, it's sort of climate fiction. But it's not dystopian, at all. So it's kind of very much rooted in the present world. And I like to think of it as a kind of heist story. So I, you know, I love a heist movie, where you've got kind of five people with different skills. And basically, I've got these five teenagers who have to go into a jungle and retrieve something. And like a heist but inside a jungle. So I'm quite excited about it. I think it's really coming along well, at this point. And we'll have to see if it ends up getting published or not.

Valerie Khoo

Wow, exciting. So you're in the, you know, exciting discovery phase at the moment.

Frances Chapman

I am. I am.

Valerie Khoo

So back to Stars Like Us what was the hardest part of the writing process?

Frances Chapman

I think the hardest part was knowing when something that I loved wasn't serving the story. And I… Yeah, and I think that's, yeah, for me, the hardest part was killing your darlings or whatever. And knowing that this is actually not the story you want to tell, and maybe it'll come out in another story one day, but this isn't the place for it. And that was really hard with, you know, especially with parts of it that have been there since the first draft, it was quite hard to let go of some of that stuff.

In fact, I have one scene in particular, I'm thinking of where my editor, like the final, final, final draft, she was like, “this has to go.” And I was like, “yeah, I know it does. I know.” So that's hard. But I think the right decision, you know, in the end you kind of go, “oh yeah, that wasn't working.” And it would have created, it was a character who cheats on their girlfriend in the book. And it added a level of moral ambiguity to that character that I don't think that a teenage audience would particularly resonate with. And so I think that was the right decision to remove it. But I liked that it gave him a bit of complexity. And so I kept it in and kept it in and kept it in. And eventually the editor was like, “Yeah, it has to come out.” And I was like, “I know.”

Valerie Khoo

And what was the most fun thing?

Frances Chapman

Oh, I love, I just love it. I really love writing. I've always loved it. I love creating worlds from scratch. I love it when it's flowing. And I love it when, I love characters characterization and creating my own people. And it's like, I also, as a child, I wanted to be an actor. And I think it's the same compulsion. It's like you want to inhabit another world or another life for a little while and that's, and you can't, you know, you can't do that most of the time, but when you're a writer, you can do that. So I really love that about it.

Valerie Khoo

You sound like you write a lot. And even if you're only writing two days a week, you sound like you write in your head in the other times. Do you work on multiple stories at once? Because you also sound like you've got lots of ideas.

Frances Chapman

So many ideas. So I do work on multiple things at once. But I tend to be in very different places with them. So I might have one that is sort of getting very polished and one that's in the editorial phase, and then one that's like, first draft. But if I'm writing a first draft, I'm quite focused on that, usually. Like, I'll keep, like at the moment that's the only thing that I'm working on, because I've got other things that are halfway through or whatever, but I've just parked them for the moment because I'm very focused on this. So yeah, it does depend. I mean, I think… I just wish I had more time.

Valerie Khoo

Yeah.

Well, that will come, you will be able to slowly transition to making it three days and doing your other work for two days, and then four days, and then, you know, that just happens over time.

Frances Chapman

I hope so. Yeah.

Valerie Khoo

All right. Well, very, very exciting. But finally, what are your top three tips to aspiring writers who want to be in a position where you are one day? A published author.

Frances Chapman

Okay, so I think this is really easy to say when you're a published author, and it used to really annoy me when I was not a published author when people would say this, but seriously: don't take it personally. Like, rejection, I got a lot of rejection, for Stars Like Us, and then it won a prize, and beat out 300 other entries. So I think it's just you've got to find the right person to publish your book. And if someone rejects it, they're not the right person, because that person has to champion it, and they have to really love it. So my advice would be if you're ready to query people, to send it to ten people, and then if you get a rejection, send it out to another person and always have ten irons in the fire. Because if you get too wedded to one idea, like if you decide that, you know, Tor is the only place that your book could find a home, then I think that you're setting yourself up for failure, really. That's my first tip.

My second tip is write hard and clear about what hurts, which is Ernest Hemingway basically, just open up a vein. But you've got to mine your vulnerabilities. And I think for a long time, as a writer, I was trying to protect myself and I didn't want to go into those emotional dark places. But I think that's what resonates with a reader. And so you've got to open yourself up to that and to potentially feeling vulnerable, potentially people seeing inside your heart a little bit. And that is quite confronting and quite exposing. And we all have trouble with that. Because most of us are introverts, and so on. But I think it's really, that's really important, is to find the thing that hurts and write about that. And it doesn't have to be your lived experience. But it's just about finding something that's real, I guess. So yeah, that's two pieces.

What's the third piece of advice? Oh, yeah, treat it like work, probably.

Valerie Khoo

Oh yeah. And you've done that, obviously, very successfully. You obviously have great discipline.

Frances Chapman

I think it's really important to set boundaries around it, guard it jealously, don't let anything intrude on that time and get it done. Because the worst thing is the person who says, “Oh, I'd love to write a book.” And it's like, “do it then.”

Valerie Khoo

That's exactly right.

Frances Chapman

Because it's hard. And I mean, most authors will tell you this, but you know, you meet people who say, “Oh, yeah, I could write a book.” And it's like, yeah, give it a go. Because it's quite hard. And there's nothing worse than talking about it and not actually doing it. So just get on with it and do it. That's my advice.

Valerie Khoo

That's wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today. Congratulations on Stars Like Us. Of course, congratulations on the prize. And we can't wait for the next one.

Frances Chapman

Thank you so much. It's been lovely chatting to you.

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