Ep 39 Finding your voice; the benefits of "write-ins"; most under-rated books; life advice from sponsored posts and author Charlotte Wood

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In Episode 39 of So you want to be a writer, the best Australian books you’ve never heard of, a transformative library, is ‘finding your voice’ laughable? Life advice from sponsored posts, an author reveals how she failed, the book Hades by Candice Fox, Writer in Residence Charlotte Wood, how to record phone interviews and much more!

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Show Notes

The Mubas: the best Australian books you’ve never heard of

From the Come Write In Stacks: A Transformative Library

Is ‘Finding Your Voice’ as a Writer Just Plain Laughable?

Life advice from sponsored posts

Hades by Candice Fox

Writer in Residence

CharlotteCharlotte Wood has been described as “one of the most intelligent and compassionate novelists in Australia” (The Age), and “one of our finest and most chameleonic writers” (The Australian).

Her latest work is a book of essays on cooking, Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food. Her last novel, Animal People, won the People’s Choice medal in the 2013 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, was shortlisted for the 2013 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her earlier novels were also shortlisted for various prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. She is also editor of The Writer’s Room Interviews, a bimonthly digital magazine of conversations with Australian writers.

Charlotte writes an occasional blog at www.howtoshuckanoyster.com, lives in Sydney with her husband and is working on her fifth novel.

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Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Transcript

Allison

Charlotte Wood has been described as one of the most intelligent and compassionate novelists in Australia. She writes fiction and non-fiction and has been short-listed and long-listed for several prestigious prizes, winning the People’s Choice Medal in the 2013 New South Wales Premiers Literary Awards for her last novel, Animal People. Charlotte has lectured in writing at various universities and has served as a judge for awards, a mentor and more.

She is currently working on her fifth novel and we have interrupted her to speak to her today. Welcome, Charlotte.

 

Charlotte

Hi Allison, thank you.

 

Allison

Let’s start at the beginning, I’m interested to know now that you’re writing your fifth novel if you remember writing your first novel, which was Pieces of a Girl, I believe. What made you do it?

 

Charlotte

What makes writers do it? That’s a huge question. I think I do remember it and it was very instinctive process that first time, which was kind of fantastic in some ways because you feel very free, but in other ways you don’t know what you’re doing at all. In other ways it’s kind of anxiety-provoking, because you don’t know what you’re doing.

I’ve probably always really wanted to write, without really knowing it. I was one of those school kids who was really good at English and liked writing essays, and I always loved reading more than anything. I became a journalist, but I was never a very good journalist. But, I think I became a journalist because I wanted to write. I gradually just started scribbling things. When I was at uni I did creative writing and that sort of gave me the idea that it was possible. I realised that sort of more and more it just made me happier and a saner person when I was writing then when I wasn’t.

And I like making things, you know? Part of the great satisfaction of writing the first novel, and all of the others, is that sense of making something out of nothing.

 

Allison

How old were you when you came to write your first fiction, to start that novel, that piece of work?

 

Charlotte

I was in my late 20s, which is actually quite late, lots of writers start when they’re kids or whatever, but I started that novel after my mom died, and that was when I was 29. I think that was kind of a factor in that, when something like that happens… my father had already died, becoming an orphan at a relatively young age was a pretty huge thing to happen. In those sort of circumstances life rally separates into things that are important and things that are not important. Suddenly writing became really urgent for me. I said, “I’m going to stop thinking about it and just do it.”

 

Allison

Did you have an idea of the kind of book that you wanted to write? Because you are sort of put into the literary fiction end of our town, so to speak. Did you set out to write a literary novel? Or is that just what comes out of you?

 

Charlotte

That’s what comes out of me. I wanted to write the kind of book that I like to read. Especially back then I was really in love with language and had no idea about plot or really structure of fiction, all of that stuff I’ve become much more interested in, the craft of it as I’ve gone on. Back then I was really just in love with sentences and the kind of richness of language, that probably really, in itself, almost puts you in the literary fiction camp, I suppose. And interest in characters more than the propulsion of the narrative, even though I am really interested in that now, but I suppose that’s what puts you in those categories. Although, I think writers are really not the ones to decide in a way, you just write what you write and then somebody else tells you whether it’s literary fiction or commercial fiction, or whatever.

 

Allison

What was your path to publication with that novel? How did Pieces of a Girl come to be published?

 

Charlotte

I was working away on it, I started in sort of community writing classes and then Varuna, the Writers’ House, was a really big support to me. It’s a place in the Blue Mountains that hopefully your listeners will know about because it is a fantastic support, especially for new writers. They had a lot of mentorships and that sort of stuff. I did a couple of mentorships and fellowships there. You can just go there and work on your book on your own. It’s been a long time ago, it’s all different now, but similar sorts of programs where you can work with a mentor. I worked with a bunch of other people with Brenda Walker, who was a fantastic support. Then I had another mentorship right near the end with the editor Judith Lukin-Amundsen, who’s a very respected editor. She was the one who told me that my book was finished.

 

Allison

Right. Would you have just kept going forevermore?

 

Charlotte
I probably would have kept going for too long. It’s quite interesting that question, actually, of when to let go.

 

Allison

Yeah, when do you walk away from it?

 

Charlotte

She offered to take it to a publisher for me. Of course, I thought about that for about a millionth of a second and said, “Yes, please.” That all happened very quickly and easily, which was a surprise to me. What didn’t happen quickly and easily was my second novel and the publication of that. I think a lot of writers think once you get the first one published that’s the hard bit, but my experience was not that. The second was rejected by that publisher and then taken up by my current publisher, Jane Palfreyman. But, I was really glad to have that big shock to the system very early in my career, because it was a real shock.

 

Allison

That they didn’t simply love it and take it?

 

Charlotte

Yeah, and I felt that I had been led to believe that I was on the path, you know? Perhaps I wasn’t led to believe that at all, I just believed it myself. But, I do think there is a kind of misconception that the first one is the hard one, where in fact it’s really, these days, especially for literary fiction, really every book is touch and go for most writers, if they even get published. It’s tough.

 

Allison

You’re now writing novel five, do you do anything differently to how you approached your first one?

 

Charlotte

Funnily enough, this one has turned out to be really quite similar in process to the — well, I keep feeling like it’s more like the first one than any of the others. Many, many writers will tell you that every book is completely different, I sort of didn’t really get that until I started doing it. I do remember writing the first book and thinking, “Thank god that’s over, now I know how to do it.” I wrote the second one and I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got no idea how to do it,” because everything is different with each book. You learn some things, but hopefully you’re trying not to do the same thing again. If you’re following something that interests you, you don’t really want to just write the same book again. You just come up with a whole new set of problems that are completely unfamiliar.

 

Allison

Great.

 

Charlotte

I think you do develop confidence, like, “I have felt like this before and it worked out OK.” But, you don’t necessarily have the tools each time… you don’t necessarily think, “OK, this happened last time, so now I do this.” You just sort of have more faith, I guess.

 

Allison

Yeah, that it will work itself out?

 

Charlotte

Yeah.

 

Allison

Are you one of those authors who has notebooks full of ideas and things? Like, will you finish this current novel and know what you’re going to do next? Is that kind of percolation time a part of your process?

 

Charlotte

It seems to be turning into a sort of pattern where towards the end of one book I get an idea for another one. I’m quite lucky in that I basically have one idea at a time. Most writers, they’re just filled with ideas and they suddenly get taken by, “Oh, I want to write that book inside,” whereas my brain, it’s a very basic thing. I have one idea and I keep sticking with it, basically because I have no other ideas.

 

Allison

Well, at least you are not distracted by bright, shiny things on the horizon.

 

Charlotte

It actually turns out that it is quite helpful not to have too many ideas at a time.

 

But, it seems to have developed into this kind of rhythm where I’m getting quite despondent with the book, the current one, and then another idea comes to me, very vague, very sort of rough outline of an idea. Who knows if this will happen again? But it seems to have happened the last two or three times where it sort of gives you a bit of a charge to hurry up and get this one done, because the new one is so much better.

 

Allison

Yeah, always.

 

Charlotte

The new idea is just so much more interesting, it’s going to be really easy to write and fun. So now I’ve just got to get this one out of the way so I can move onto the thing I really want to do. So, it kind of has quite a useful effect in sort of reenergizing me to just finish the one that I’ve got going at the moment.

 

Allison

Get to the end?

 

How long does it actually take you to write a novel? Are you writing every day for six hours for eighteen months? How does the process work?

 

Charlotte

I go through probably more phases of writing than that sort of regularity. I have really intense periods of doing that a couple of months at a time. Then I’ll have to stop that sort of intensity for various reasons to do with earning money or —

 

Allison

All that boring stuff.

 

Charlotte

— yeah, boring stuff, but it’s quite good as well, for me, to get breaks between drafts and that kind of thing, get some distance from it.

Yeah, it sort of comes in surges for me, I think is maybe the word to describe it. I do think a routine is really crucial for people who are aspiring to write, or learning to write. I think in a way the more you go on the more you think you need all of this time, when in fact with my first book I had a full time job, everyone I knew who was writing first books had full time jobs, and we still wrote books. Some of them had children as well as full time jobs, I don’t. The more time you have the more time you can squander as well.

 

Allison

That’s right.

 

Charlotte

It doesn’t have to be a great block, you don’t have to have endless weeks of nothing happening.

 

Allison

Are you a writer who plots every scene and every line before you actually begin? Or is your writing process more organic than that?

 

Charlotte

It’s very organic and chaotic. I never know what I’m doing, which makes it extremely tiring. I guess I might start with place. With this book that I’m writing now I knew fairly early on — well, I probably knew before I began that it was going to be set in a prison for girls, like late teenage girls or girls in their early 20s, young women I suppose. I knew that, but that’s all I knew.

I didn’t know what was going to happen, I didn’t know who the people were, where it was. I gradually thought of when it was set, it was going to be set in the sort of ‘70s, ‘60s and ‘70s and be quite a realist sort of novel. Then I had a bit of — I tend to have these sort of breakthrough ideas, very infrequently, unfortunately, that then change the course of the book for the next six months or a year. Then I have another, “No, this is what is going to happen…” I can sort of see a little way ahead, but that’s in terms of the plot, I suppose. But, it takes a long time to work out what’s going to happen, and I go down many, many false trails and throw a lot of stuff out.

In the beginning my sort of first draft is really a process of just getting words on the page and just punching out lots of words, that’s the kind of finding out process.

 

Allison

Right, so you do a, “I’m getting this down first draft and then I’m going to go back and redraft and redraft and redraft…”?

 

Charlotte

Yeah.

 

Allison
How many drafts do you do?

 

Charlotte

Well, I always find it hard to answer that question, because I might redraft some bits of it 20 times and other bits twice. I guess I feel like I have three or four major drafts, going from beginning to end, working my way through the whole book. I do that three or four times before it goes to my agent. Then she might say, “The end isn’t right,” and then I’ll go back and figure out what’s wrong with it and do it again. Then it goes to the publisher and there’s the whole editorial process, which is, often for me, another redraft. It’s hard to say, but I guess substantively three or four complete drafts. Then within that, anything from 10 to…

 

Allison

Your first draft can bear quite a little resemblance to your final product? 

 

Charlotte

Yeah, I was talking to some students about drafting, the whole idea of redrafting and what it means to me, and it was just after I had finished Animal People, my last novel. I went back and looked, for the purpose of that lecture, at my first draft, which was something like — I think it was 25,000 words or something, it was really tiny.

 

Allison

Oh, a novella?

 

Charlotte

Yeah, but with massive gaps and holes and things that needed filling in or whatever. Then I looked at the final draft, which was still only 55,000-58,000 words, but I looked at what had transferred from the first draft to the final one, and it was only about 16,000 words of the same. Basically, three-quarters of my book was written after the first draft.

 

Allison

Wow, when they talk about first drafts, your first draft can be crap, but then you redraft and things. How do you know that what you have in your first draft is salvageable and you shouldn’t just move onto the next idea?

 

Charlotte

That’s another good question.

 

Allison
I’m really glad I don’t have to answer that, I’m glad I asked it and I’m not answering it.

 

Charlotte

For me, it’s often a process of identifying where the energy is.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Charlotte

It’s not about the quality of the writing, I can have beautiful bits of writing that don’t belong, or that just down dead ends or whatever. The first draft, for me, is really finding out whose story it is, who the people are, where they are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, all of that stuff.

For example, in my novel The Children I had this family of grown up siblings and their mother and father. In my first draft there was a lot of sort of ensemble thing, there was sort of equal space given to each of the siblings and that kind of thing. I had about 50,000 words and in the second draft of that was really identifying, realising that, no, there’s really only one main character, and it’s this one sister called Mandy. Then I thought, “Well, everything that stays has to be to do with her, it can be from the others’ point of view, but it’s got to be something about Mandy or illuminating her or having some conflict with her,” whatever. Of my 50,000 words I threw out 30,000 words.

 

Allison

Wow, did that hurt quite badly to do that?

 

Charlotte

Yes, very badly. There were a lot gin drunk that night. But, I actually weirdly feel quite exhilarated and energized by throwing stuff away, because it reveals the bones of the story. It sort of tighten everything up, I can have a lot of fluff just floating around. Everything just feels sort of — I don’t know, there’s no energy in it. It’s like having a very cluttered room, I suppose.

 

Allison

Right, and you need to take stuff out.

 

Charlotte

When you take things away you can see where the main features are or what the most striking bit of furniture — I’m going into a very lame metaphor. Do you know what I mean? You can get clarity by taking things away, then you can build on the important things, rather than having everything of equal importance, it’s just this sort of sludgy marsh.

 

Allison

Often in today’s world of publishing it’s all about lots of books. It’s all about a book a year, it’s, “Get this out here. The more books you have, the more you sell.” It’s all about, “Sell, sell, sell stuff,” whereas you are more in the sort of slow book movement of percolating and creating and making this book as perfect as you can. You said you’ve also got to earn money and do all of those sorts of things, given that there is so much time involved in this, do you find it difficult to make that time?

 

Charlotte

Yes. I think with writing the kind of books that I do you really do it, in the end, for reasons other than money. When I first began — the reasons I did it when I first began are different from the reasons I do it now. If I can be honest about when I first began I think I felt quite ambitious and I felt that I was — I’m not sure that I knew that I had consciously felt this, but I think I felt that there would be a path that goes from beginner to experienced and I would bring readers along with me, there would be an increase, there would be this rising level of readership. And probably a tiny bit of me was interested in a bit of fame and glory, put that behind me. But what you come to realise is how little control you have over what happens after the book is published. I have developed a readership, a really beautiful, loyal, loving readership and I feel incredibly lucky to have my readers.

You also have to have the guts to think — like each book I’ve written I’ve thought, “The readers who loved my last book will not like this book,” and I’ve felt kind of worried about that. But, often that’s turned out not to be the case. I know the writers that I really love I follow them because they’re going to surprise me, you know? Or, I want to see where they go next, it’s not necessarily, “Oh, that book isn’t like the previous one.” That said, probably lots of people would say “Well yeah, they are all the same” but I feel like this one, particularly, is very different from the last couple.

I don’t even know where I was going with that, Allison…

 

Allison

I don’t know either, but I was so fascinated I was having a go with you on that. We’ve discussed in the past in the interviews that we’ve done for the blog and things like that we’ve talked about branding, and we discussed social media and we talked about all of those things that you describe as ‘’all that junk,’ which I loved. This notion of you creating — you’re not writing the same book all the time, as you say you are surprising readers, whereas often readers now, or publishers would lead you to believe that you have to produce a similar style of thing each time, otherwise your readers will leave you. I mean where does that leave authors?

 

Charlotte

Well I think that depends on the publisher, you know?

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Charlotte

In literary fiction I’ve never, ever felt that pressure. I guess you have a style that you can’t do anything about, that you write stuff that other people can recognise. I can’t remember which book I was writing, but I remember saying to may agent, “This one is so different to the last one,” and she said, “It’s not.” But, she was saying people will recognise your style even if you don’t see the similarities. I guess you developing an understanding, a literary writer’s preoccupations might be maybe, or their way of looking at the world or something. I don’t think that publishers of literary fiction are necessarily desperate for you to have a consistent sort of approach. Again, it really depends on the particular publisher, as in the person. Jane Palfreyman is my publisher and I could not have a more supportive, staunchly loyal publisher. I’m glad that I ended up with her.

 

Allison

Fantastic.

 

Charlotte

With literary fiction, there’s not the sales at stake that there are with, say, commercial works fiction, or crime fiction, or that sort of thing, especially people writing for series and that kind of thing. There isn’t the pressure to produce at the rate that there would be for other books. Also, if you have a good publisher they understand that I can’t really predict what’s going to happen with this book. And I haven’t had a book sort of die on me yet, but I suspect it will happen one day.

 

Allison

I don’t think so. Do you get that sense with literary fiction, are you getting the same sort of gentle persuasion from publishers that you need to do this author platform thing, that you need to be on social media and all of that sort of stuff? Because I know you do Twitter and you have your blog, which is kind of more food-related than anything else.

 

Charlotte

It’s actually kind of morphing into not food-related, but, yeah. Look, my publishers never mentioned it. In fact, I heard the head of publicity at my publisher once say, “God, I wish all of these writers would write books instead of being on Twitter all day long.” I thought that was so refreshing. I know some people have been asked, or it’s put in their contract to develop a social media platform and all that. My experience is that my publisher has never mentioned it. The staff that I work with at the publisher are not personally on social media, they really don’t care about it.

 

Allison

Because it’s quite difficult for literary authors — it’s a difficult space in which to build an author platform anyway, isn’t it? It’s not an easy road.

 

Charlotte

It is. I’m probably lucky in my age in a way, that I started publishing before there was any such a thing as social media. I have a readership that is sort of established, and I guess a lot of my readers are people who aren’t even on social media. There is this debate going on Twitter, that you know all about, about how essential is it? I would argue now that it is not essential at all.

I was on Twitter for five years, because I loved it. I still love it, but I am much more moderate about it now. I think I had something like 3,000 followers and then I just became kind of tired of and I decided in order to really focus on my next book I just wanted to be free of it, and not free of other people, but free of my own obsession of it. I deleted my account and said good-bye to my 3,000 followers.

Most people on Twitter said, “I’m sad to see you, but we want your books more than we want you on Twitter, good luck to you,” which was really nice. A couple of people said, “You’re making a huge mistake, authors really need to be on Twitter.” I said, “Well, I’m just not convinced of that,” because in my market of literary fiction, if we’re just really being ruthless and talking about book sales, the highest selling authors in my market, at the time, were people like Anna Funder, Richard Flanagan, Christos Tsiolkas those sorts of people, none of those people are on any social media. You know?

The argument then is, “Yes, but they’re all established, so it’s newer writers,” and I would still say that I don’t think being — there’s a wonderful book called The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane that’s doing extremely well, I’ve never seen her on social media. Graeme Simsion, The Rosie Project, he was on social media, but that’s not what drove his sales. The book is what sells itself to publishers, and publishers sell it.

Yes, it can be helpful, but in terms of the time that is required to build up a decent following on Twitter it’s just a no-brainer to me that I would rather — if I were on Twitter to get book sales, it would be a complete failure. I’m on Twitter for other reasons, which is that I really like to talking to people and it’s a nice way to kind of relieve some of the isolation of writing and all of that.

Also, another kind of important factor for writers of the kind of fiction that I write is that you need to be quiet. You have to kind of go into a quiet, private, very deep thinking sort of space in order to produce your work. Social media is the opposite of that.

 

Allison

Yes, it’s very noisy.

 

Charlotte

It’s noisy and it’s fast, and it’s quite skittery and superficial — I’m not saying that it’s necessarily always superficial, because a lot of it can have some really rich and deep conversations on it, but it’s built to skate around the surface of things. It’s about how if you have both of those mindsets at once, good luck to you, but I find that quite hard. I need to sometimes go into a complete isolation from all of that outside sort of noise in order to really think deeply enough to produce the work.

 

Allison

Fair enough. Last question of the day then would be your top three tips for emerging writers?

 

Charlotte

Well, I should have thought about this more carefully before I began.

 

Allison
I thought would be asked that so many times you would have them all, like, stuck to the wall.

 

Charlotte

You know what? I think my tips have changed over time. Things that I thought five years ago I think, “Well that’s not really going to help anyone…” Sorry to all of those people who I told things to five years ago.

I would say commit. The first thing is to really commit and be serious about it. That means taking time away from other things, it means realising time is never going to open up and suddenly you’re going to be presented with three months of uninterrupted — that’s just not going to happen. You have to say ‘no’ to other things.

Read, read, read, read, read — everyone says that, of course.

Just be prepared to be vulnerable, I guess, in that especially when you start writing you write things that you think will make people think well of you. They’re not the things that are interesting really, because there’s always some sort of self-protection going on. Once you start really investigating the weird things that interest you truly in your own strange brain, passion kind of wins out, really. If you follow what really interests you, you will get to the heart of some good work, whereas if you think, “I want to write a book like…” forgive my bookshelf, “I want to write a book like Rachel Cusk,” you cannot do it. You have to really — there’s a great book about writing called The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, and she quotes, I think it’s Thoreau, who says, “Know your own bones, gnaw at it, bury it, and gnaw at it still.” I really believe that, especially for literary fiction. Just find what is particular to you that you’re fascinated by and go there, and don’t worry about what people are going to think of you for doing it.

 

Allison

It’s so hard to turn that off, isn’t it though?

 

Charlotte

Yeah, it is hard. It is hard, but that’s when things take off. You see it all the time. I did an interview with Margo Lanagan, who’s a brilliant writer, a very strange sort of speculative fiction — I don’t even know what you would call it, but fantastic stuff. Her work took off when she stopped trying to write what she felt would please other people. She said, “I wrote this stuff, it felt like I was coughing it up, and it was weird and it was kind of frightening and it had all of this power and energy like nothing I had done before and had produced,” and that’s when her readership suddenly took off. People respond to that as readers.

 

Allison
Fantastic. All right, Charlotte, thank you so much for your time today. We’ll let you get back to your fifth novel. I’m assuming it doesn’t have a name as of yet?

 

Charlotte

No, it doesn’t. I’m going through that tricky title process now.

 

Allison

I think you should just call it Novel Five and leave it at that.

 

Charlotte

Yeah.

 

Allison

That would work beautifully.

 

Charlotte

What a good idea. Thank you, Allison. It was nice to chat.

 

Allison

Lovely to chat. Thanks.

 


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