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Ep 60 Meet Nicole Hayes, author of ‘One True Thing’

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In Episode 60 of So you want to be a writer: things to know about getting an agent, how to use Twitter for your career, crime fiction writer Ruth Rendell passes away, how to do an offline book tour, the book ‘There Are Tittles in This Title: The Weird World of Words' by Mitchell Symons, why you should write a blog post series, Writer in Residence Nicole Hayes, how to browse the web without embarrassment, landing corporate writing gigs, and more!

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Show Notes

All About Podcasts

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Getting Published

How I Used Twitter to Find a Literary Agent, Grow My Business and Fall In Love

British crime fiction writer Ruth Rendell dies

5 Tips for Going on an Offline Book Tour

There are Tittles in This Title by Mitchell Symons

Why You Should Create a Series on your Blog

Writer in Residence

Author Nicole Hays in front of a white background wearing a black top and purple scarfNicole Hayes is an author, speaker and writing teacher based in Melbourne. She has an MA in Creative Writing and runs writing workshops at different locations in and around Melbourne. Nicole's first novel, The Whole of My World, was shortlisted in the 2014 Young Australian Best Book Awards (YABBA) and longlisted for the 2014 Golden Inky Award. Her latest book is One True Thing.

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Nicole, thanks for joining us today.



Thank you for inviting me.



I’m so excited about your new book, One True Thing. For some people who may not yet be familiar with you, can you please give our listeners an idea about what One True Thing is about?



Sure. One True Thing is about a teenage girl, Frankie, who’s forced to deal with the fall out of her politician mother’s very public scandal. It deals with the challenges facing young people, particularly teenage girls in navigating that complicated world of social media, gender and sexuality. There’s also lots of music.


Frankie is a budding rock star, who incidentally hates politics. I don’t know if it’s just in spite of her mom’s job. She has a fabulous best friend who seems to be drifting away. There’s a very cute boy who’s an aspiring journalist, who she might or might not be able to trust. She’s got an overbearing grandmother and an asthmatic little brother that she feels that she has to protect.


She has quite a tricky path ahead of her as she deals with basically just having to go to school the next day after this very public scandal, which impeaches her mother, and her father and their relationship.


How did you come up with this idea? How did this idea get sewn into your brain and then eventually find its way onto the pages of a book?



There is sort of two parts to that question. I’ve always been interested in women in high-profile positions and the way the media seems to often deal with them in a very different way to how they deal with men, politicians in particular.


That’s always sort of been simmering along in mind as something I would like to write about. It became sort of truer and somehow merged with this very public crime that happened here, I’m not sure if you heard about it outside of Melbourne, but there was a disappearance of a very successful businessman from very leafy, very middle class, safe suburban streets, that’s where he came from. He was coming home from a business meeting overseas and effectively disappeared. We had media, there were calls for information. I remember seeing his wife and his teenage daughter and son doing that sort of missing person plea for help that they do with the police that you often see when somebody initially goes missing.


Then gradually over a few days it really changed how it came across. It stopped being a cry for sort of information and started to shift into something more sinister, as it became a homicide investigation. Pieces of this man’s life where under covered, and unbeknown to his family at all, and to the police obviously from the beginning. He had this whole other double life he was leading, it was very — he was involved in swinging, he had fake mobile phones, he had this very elaborate second life. It seems that he come to harm, one of these rendezvous had gone terribly wrong.


Although this is not what my novel deals with, I remember my first instinct was, “Oh god, hard enough to lose the person you love, but then to discover this about them.” I thought about his wife and how she would feel, and then my very next thought was, “Oh my god, those kids. How do they go school tomorrow? How do they get up? How do they face the world when they’re teenagers?” You can’t protect them from the sorts of things that other kids are going to say. Not only do you have that grief and that feeling of betrayal that you this person in your life has been lying to you, but that also it has to be plastered all over the media, you have no control over it, even though you’re old enough to understand.


I was really interested in that teenagers — when they’re really victim or vulnerable to their parents’ choices, aware of the implications and fallout, but really powerless to do anything about it.



Why is it that you are so fascinated by teenagers? Because Frankie is a teenager, and she’s quite a complex teenager, and your previous book was a young adult book as well, what is it that engages you about this age group?



There’s a big chunk of me who’s still about 15 and half, that struggles every time she looks in the mirror. I think there’s some of that. I think probably there was — I think we’ve all had teenage years or teenage experiences that we would like to revisit or have another look at, or have another try at, if only that were possible. There’s some of that driving it, a sense of being able to take some control over at least this teenager’s life in a way that I couldn’t for my own.


I’m also the mother of two daughters, one is 15 and the other is almost a teenager, she’s almost 12, and so it’s an easy place for me to go back to, but I’m also watching it unfold before me. So, I don’t see it changing anytime soon. I’m absolutely fascinated by those teenage years and all of the possibilities.


I think too the fact that today’s teenager has such different and unique challenges in a way that I didn’t have, it’s just ripe for exploration.


I can certainly understand being really interested in the fact that today’s teenagers have very different world to grow up in and how they navigate that, but one of the things in reading your book you really nail, Frankie is believable from minute one and it’s so real, how do you — what would your advice be too for other people who are doing this — get that voice to be so real. It’s one thing to be interested in teenagers, but it’s another thing to be able to just be able to nail that voice and make the reader truly believe that this is a 16-year-old, or however old.





First of all, thank you, that’s fantastic to hear that. It’s still very new, so I’m still kind of waiting for reviews, so it’s great to know that you felt like I’ve got her voice —



From minute one.



Fantastic, thank you. It doesn’t come in the first draft, that’s for sure. It really didn’t.


I think it’s inevitable if you’re an older person writing from that age group occasionally that mature, wise, even if it’s the words that are a teenager’s words, having a very sophisticated understanding of the world is something that’s very hard not to kind of weave through the story, so I do have to pull that back. I have to allow her to sort of stumble along even when perhaps I would like the mother voice to pop in and comment on what she’s doing.


I do fight that, and it doesn’t always — it generally comes out in revisions.


I just think I have a very powerful teenager inside of me that still has something to say.


In terms of just the technical craft side of it, listening and watching teenagers around you, on TV and in movies, I think really that is absolutely the best way to do it. Reading the young adult stories, particularly the ones that resonate, you cannot do too much of that in terms of just getting that voice right, if you don’t feel confident in finding it yourself, that is a great way to do it.


I check in with that all of the time when I feel I’m getting — particularly I change the age group. In The Whole of My World Shelley was 14, and a very young 14, and it was set in 1980s Melbourne, so there was a naivety that you couldn’t get away with today. So, I had to check in with that a little bit and finesse that as I went along, which certainly happened in revision and with the help of editors later on.


I do think reading and listening and I’ve got teenagers all around me, so I ask them stuff too, which is really useful.



Just take us back a bit to how you got into writing in the first place. Is it something that as a child you always wanted to become a writer, or did you discover it later in life? Tell us about how you got into it or got interested in it?



Absolutely when I was a child. I think about the most powerful influences in my life, apart from my family, it was probably characters and stories, it was books. So, I was a veracious reader. I didn’t really think that being a writer was a job, like I didn’t know that’s something you could grow up to do, but I always wrote stories, really just for my own entertainment. It was always my favorite exercise when I was asked do that at school, it was a great opportunity for me to really just get lost in a world.


All I did was very poorly imitate the books I was reading. There’s Roald Dahl, and there’s some Anna Sewell. If you read any of my stories from back then — and my mom and dad kept some of them, you can almost identify what book I was reading when I was writing the story. But, yeah, it was really that love of language.


My father passed away some 20 years ago now, but I found out in my 20s that he had written two novels. He was not the sort of person who had a hobby, two complete novels. They weren’t ever published, he didn’t send them off, but he didn’t idol, he didn’t do things for his own entertainment. The fact that he did that, I suspect from a very young age I had that love of language instilled in me, probably from his influence.


And my mom is a huge movie buff, a huge movie buff. She has rows of still VHS, bless her, lining the shelves of her house. We had always talked about stories and were interested in stories.


I just think it was a fairly natural progression from there.



You were always interested in stories as a child, but then you grew up, you become an adult and you start writing these novels. At what point did you realize that you wanted to write young adult? Did you experiment with different age groups or genres first and then feel comfortable in it? Or did you always know this was going to be your home to start off with?



I didn’t even know I had written a young adult book until somebody else told me.






That’s dead-set truth. The Whole of My World had actually started life about 14 or 15 years ago under another title and it was my second manuscript, my first one was an adult story that just never went anywhere. It’s still there, I might go back to it one day. It got some attention, I went to Varuna on the back of that first manuscript, I don’t know what happened, I just started writing this second story that was really very close to my own story as a teenager, something about that really stuck. I, fortunately, was invited to go back to Varuna with this second manuscript.


It was in the process of having people read that before I sent it off that my very good friend, Jacqui Tomlins, who’s a leading LGBTI advocate and a writer herself, who’s one of my first readers for all of my manuscripts rang me after she read it and said, “Oh, I didn’t know you wrote YA.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know either, is that what I’ve done?”


She said, “You need to read these books, you need to read some YA so that you know what you’re doing.” Really once I had realized that my voice in that first person narrator, which is what I’ve been choosing to use, once I realized that really lent itself to the teenager very readily I embraced it whole heartedly.



When you are writing your books, let’s take, I suppose, One True Thing, because that’s been the most recent one, I know you had the seed of an idea with that incident in Melbourne, but then do you just sit down and write and see what comes out? Or do you plot it all out and know that this going to happen at all of the various points in the structure? What’s your way of writing?



I wish I were a plotter — I wish, wish, wish I could be. It’s just not in me. I try to do it, because it saves you so much time in rewriting and restructuring later on. And, it just isn’t me. So, it’s only my second novel, so maybe that’s something that I can work on, but I suspect it’s just the way it works for me. I have to trust it a little bit.


I usually experiment with the voice first, usually I just start writing. But, I only do that for a little bit and then I do try to force an outline, even just a very vague one, before I get too far in. Just because I need to know where I’m going, but generally the voice comes that first chapter, it usually comes to me quite quickly once the general idea has come. And, then I force myself to outline and then I go back into the writing —



Do you mean outline each chapter, or outline a vague story arc?



Really like four or five key story beats for the whole thing and that’s as far as it goes.






Yeah. As soon as I try to do anything more detailed than that I find the outline is turning into narrative and story and it becomes a big mess. So, I have to keep it really bare bones.


Having said that, I almost always know the ending. I do have that, and I might have even written the ending before I’ve got to the outline. I don’t know why it works that way, but it does.



When you are writing your novel is it your primary activity at the time? Do you sneak it in between other things? Or do you go, “Here, this is three months, a chunk of time that I’m going to block out and all I’m going to do is write…”? How does that work for you? What’s your routine, in a sense?



All of the above. Really, for the first novel it was absolutely stolen moments. As I said, I wrote that a long time ago, the first version, redrafted and redrafted and redrafted and then set it aside for years, literally years, before I came back to it. Without having a publisher waiting for it, having written several other novel manuscripts that didn’t sell, a couple of film scripts that were funded, but were never made, I had become quite aware that this was not something that could replace the work that I was doing and getting paid for, at least not then.


Still now it’s something that I set time aside now, because I have a publisher who actually wants to read my work, and deadlines and those sorts of things, but it’s still very much a book-by-book proposition, it’s a week-to-week proposition in terms of how I manage my time.


Having said that, this last one I did have a very short turnaround and I had to make it my priority, and it was brutal and hellish and just delicious as well. Just the extravagance of simply focusing on that and treating it like work and not something that I had to squeeze into the empty corners was delightful and terrifying in exactly equal parts.



So you had a quick turnaround for this because your publisher obviously said, “We’re interested,” what exactly did you propose to them? Was it just the idea? Because obviously you hadn’t written the whole thing yet, what did you propose to them? Why did you think that they thought this concept was a good one to back?



I actually did end up submitting a first draft to them before they agreed to anything. So, it was just more in terms of The Whole of My World was doing reasonably well for a new book, for a debut and for YA. I didn’t have any sort of reputation preceding me, so it was very much on the back of the story rather than my own profile that it managed to cut through in the way that it did. It wasn’t a huge seller, but it sold in the thousands and that apparently is a good thing for a new author.


It really was more every time Zoe Walton at Random House was in Melbourne she would catch up with me and do the ‘what are you working on at the moment’ thing, and I had this idea and I had tested it out with her and she was very interested and then I just couldn’t get the ending right. So, she wanted it at a certain time, without a commitment to publish, understand that, but they do always, it tends to be once you get a deal with the publisher is they have the first option to refuse on the next novel, if it is in the same genre or readership.


I knew that they had read it first. It didn’t mean that they would actually publish it, which does have a different kind of dynamic, I suppose, at play then when you’re submitting with no expectations at all.


But, I was just aware that time was passing and she had wanted to see it months and months ago and it still wasn’t ready. So, when we had the next catch up I said, “Look, it’s a very rough early draft and I’m not comfortable with you seeing it,” and she said, “I can handle it, please send it along.” That was tighter than I wanted because I still, even when I had that conversation the ending that I had originally written was no longer working, or the idea of how I was going to end it wasn’t working anymore. So, this notion that I at least knew where it would go suddenly went out the window. In the end it did work, but it meant I had to do a whole lot of rewriting in the middle, I guess that was my fear is that I could see where I was going wasn’t going to end where it needed to.


She read that first draft and fortunately saw enough in there to get very excited about it and to offer a contract, but then the very tight turnaround was in the revisions, because it was an early draft. It was really over Christmas/New Year when I did the bulk of this significant restructure and revising, which I don’t recommend to anybody, because it’s Christmas. I had my family from overseas visiting, staying with us no less, it was really crazy.



There was no Christmas or New Year holidays for you?



It didn’t feel like it, but I really did have to pencil out those days, just block them out so that I could have them, because my husband’s family was visiting from America and they had never been here, 20 years we’ve been married and they’ve never been here and they were staying with us and we were going away with them, so I just had to force it in those days leading up to that, and then as soon as we got back just do the waking up at 5:00 AM finishing at midnight starting all over the next day.


I’ve got kids, school holidays, not the best time to be doing that. So, it was quite chaotic. It was incredibly stressful. It made me make difficult choices and it is so much better for better for it, even if I’m not. I’m mildly traumatized by it. It was absolutely a better novel as a result.



You start with this seed of an idea and you experiment with the voice first before you do a very, very, very skeleton of an outline, where and when do you develop your characters? No doubt you had your main character in your head, but where and when do you flesh out and develop your characters? Do you kind of think of their back story at the beginning? Do they emerge and appear as you start writing? Or do you vaguely know that they’re going to exist? How does that work?



The characters very early on… if the idea doesn’t force the character, then the character forces the idea for me. Before I’ve written a word, actually, I have a very strong sense of that character.


I might or might not sketch things out, actually write it down. If I don’t straightaway I just start writing and then I’ll stop. The character definitely comes alive for me very early on. Sometimes I just have to play with her voice. It’s usually a female. I probably will write women or young girls as my main characters, I’m comfortable that’s probably always going to be my preference.


But, if I do start writing it’s usually to test out her voice as much as anything. Then I’ll go back and play with some of the extra things, her interests outside of the main story, her background and the things that are interesting or challenging for her. I do all of those character notes as we go along, but first I get a strong sense of her voice and what matters to her most of all. That’s my page one, I have that happening.



Let’s get down to some practical aspects, where do you write? Do you have an office? Do you write in cafés? Do you use Word? Do you use Scrivener ? Just sort of those sorts of things, the actual putting words down. What’s the scenario there?



I am a big fan of the café.






I am. It has to be one that does not have wifi, because it’s a constant battle to avoid getting distracted by social media, emails, all of the things. I’m finding now that I get work through Facebook, I get all different distractions come to me via social media. There’s a part of me that’s aware that I have to answer those things, but there’s also… that does not work with the quiet time that you need to think.


Something about the noise of a café, I’m very good at shutting it out. It doesn’t make me feel quite so alone, but still allows me to just segment off that time for myself. I’m a big café fan, in fact I’ve realized, especially with these really intense revisions I did earlier in the year, I have to literally take my laptop first thing, it has to be the first thing I do, disappear. I’ve got a couple of favorite spots, they’re very good at leaving me alone and I always make sure I spend money there so I don’t I feel like I’m exploiting it. I appreciate that they leave me alone.


If I can get two or three hours straight there I feel really good, I can usually get a couple of thousand words down.






Yeah. If I try to do that at home it would take me seven or eight hours.


Wow. Do you have a target, like a word count target for each session, or anything like that?



I try for 2,000 words a session, that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished a good amount. It might take a few hours, or like it said, depending on where I am, if my kids are home I can’t actually just disappear, so I might try to do that, but that’s a whole day’s work instead of a morning.


But, you know, 2,000 makes me feel good, but if I hit 2,000 early I’ll keep going. I know some people don’t like to, but I know that disaster can fall at any moment, touch wood, and I might lose the next three days to something else. I try to make the most of that.


I am a Word writer. I would like to investigate more of the plotting and planning type software, like Scrivener. I’m trying to think what the other sort of big one is. I haven’t used them, I would like to learn how to. I suspect I will just keep putting that off though.



You just staid before that you get work through Facebook, what do you mean by that?





Offers to go to festivals. Really just opportunities to speak on panels, that sort of thing, even pitches for articles. Occasionally an editor will contact me and ask me to write something. It’s become a really great tool in terms of raising my profile, but, yes, that added challenge of it be also a major distraction if I can’t shut it off.



You have found social media useful in raising your profile as an author?



I absolutely have, and Twitter. I’m a big fan of Twitter. I do it in fits and starts, I’m not as consistent as perhaps I need to be, but I do enjoy Twitter and I’ve made a lot of friends, which are particularly other author friends.


Although I only kind of engage with them because of the friendship aspect, much of that has resulted in work and contacts and opportunities, simply because we’ve become friends. I suppose it just another form of networking, isn’t it? I wasn’t actively doing it for that reason, I just felt very separate from other writers because I had be doing it on my own for so long.


I made a choice when The Whole of My World — I wrote that book and when I finally did that revision I just had a feeling it was going to cut through this time, that I was actually going to get published this time, after so many rejections I knew that this rewrite was the one.


I remember thinking, “Now I need to engage with people, I need to learn from other people and just find out a little bit more about how things work from people who are on this side,” from other writers really. It ended up being something that resulted in — I have no idea if I sold more books because of it, or if I will sell more books because of it, that feeling of community that I’ve managed to cultivate as a result of social media, really just Facebook and Twitter for me, has been incredibly — it’s very satisfying. It’s really emotionally and psychologically very helpful, but it’s also what resulted in paid work, which I did not expect.



Tell us why do you love writing? What it is about writing that is so appealing to you?



Yeah, we haven’t got enough time for that. I’ll say simply it’s something that I can control, it’s a world I can control. It is absolutely therapy for me, not that I have great personal tragedy in my life or anything, but we are always grappling for control of things, I think. With these stories I have some measure of control. I can make worlds that operate the way I want them to — not initially because then there’s not story, but ultimately there is some sense of resolution and some sense of justice and hope. It’s a lovely escape for me because that is something that I don’t think we always get in real life.





You are one of our wonderful presenters at the Australian Writers’ Centre and you teach creative writing at the centre, what do you enjoy most about teaching writing?



The people. There’s no doubt about it. The other writers that I meet who come along to the classes or aspiring. Some of them haven’t written yet, but want to. Some did a long time ago, but haven’t for years. Some people have been writing on their own and then they just want a sense of structure or some advice on how to do what is a very complex thing, to bring all of those ideas into something coherent and cohesive.


The diversity of the faces and the people that you meet in these classes, that wins over every single time. It’s a lonely pursuit otherwise. I think I will probably always teach, as long as people will have me. I will probably will always keep it up. I’m not the solitary writer type that most people are, I’m really not. It really helps me.


Actually what I didn’t expect to get out of it is it forces me to bring a consciousness to my own writing in terms of my processes and what works and doesn’t. It’s amazing. I think it’s probably a little bit like — you know when you’re teaching someone to drive and you’ve picked up all of these bad habits from your own driving and you don’t know that until you’re forced to remember what you were taught all of those years ago. It’s made me a better writer, I have no doubt about it.



One True Thing is out. What’s next for you? Are you working on your third novel?



I am. I am.



Can you tell us anything about it or what has inspired it or anything like that?



It’s a young adult novel, there’s a young female — I haven’t even named her yet, even though I know what she looks like and I know what she cares about. Her name hasn’t stuck yet. But, unlike my other stories it’s a rural type story rather than — both of them were very much Melbourne or a Melbourne-esque kind of landscape for The Whole of My World and One True Thing.


This one shifts from a small country town, it’s actually a survival story more than anything, so she’s kind of stuck in the bush with her boyfriend and they’ve got major issues they’re sorting out. It’s something that she’s running away from. That’s all I can tell you, because that’s all I know at the moment. I’ve written about 12,000 words and I have touched it in some time. I’m really keen to get back at it, but I will have to do a little bit of publicity for One True Thing first, but that’s waiting for me as soon as I have some quiet time.



That’s very exciting. In the meantime I have no doubt that One True Thing is going to be a huge hit, it’s just such an awesome book. Listeners, if you want to go grab it from your local bookshop, please do, because Nicole is fantastic, she’s such a talent. It’s just an incredibly great read.


Thank you so much for your time today, Nicole.



Thank you so much for having me, and for your lovely words about my book.


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