Ep 79 A beer-pouring typewriter, what writers should not do on social media, protect your freelance identity, how to capture the right voice as a ghostwriter, the power shift to fashion bloggers. And we chat to Writer in Residence Robert Hoge, author of the memoir Ugly.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 79 of So you want to be a writer: What writers should’t do on social media, a typewriter that pours beer (instant writing reward!), protecting your freelance identity, how to capture someone else’s voice and be a kick-butt ghostwriter, fashion bloggers are now powerful, the new book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, Writer in Residence Robert Hoge, author of the memoir Ugly, an app that translates between US and UK English, how to beat writers’ block, and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes
What Writers Should Do on Social Networks

For Writers: Czech Beer Company Creates Typewriter That Pours Beer As You Type

Beware of Byline Snatchers: How to Protect Your Freelance Writing Identity

Become a Ghostwriter: Here’s How to Write in Someone Else’s Voice

Did bloggers kill Fashion Week?

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

THE “BRITICIZSER”: Free Online US English to UK English Spelling Conversion

Writer in Residence 

Robert Hoge staring off left.Robert Hoge
Robert Hoge has worked as a journalist, a speechwriter, a science communicator for the CSIRO and a political advisor to the former Queensland Premier and Deputy Premier. He has had numerous short stories, articles, interviews and other works published in Australia and overseas. He also enjoys photography, and is interested in disability advocacy and social engagement. While he never went far with his professional lawn bowls career, Robert did carry the Olympic torch in 2000.

His memoir, Ugly, is about growing up ugly and disabled. It’s also about bad haircuts and reading and awful teen love poems and underarm bowling as a metaphor for… well, you’ll just have to read the book.

He lives in Brisbane and has an amazing wife and two wonderful daughters.

Find Robert on Twitter

Find Hachette Australia on Twitter

Working Writer’s Tip
How to beat writers’ block?

Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Ep 79 artwork, episode description with a pier in the background

Interview Transcript 

Allison

Robert Hoge has worked as a journalist, a speech writer, a science communicator for the CSRO, and a political advisor to the former Queensland Premier and Deputy Premier.

 

He has had numerous short stories, articles, interviews and other works published in Australia and overseas.

 

His memoir, Ugly, was published by Hachette Australia in 2013, and a children’s book of the same name was recently published.

 

So, welcome to the show, Robert.

 

Robert

Hello, Allison.

 

Allison

Let’s talk about your memoir, how did you come to write a memoir in the first place? What made you think, “I’m going to write a memoir.”?

 

Robert

There’s probably two different aspects to it. Every single job I’ve ever had has been a writing job. My first job in university was actually working on the university sport’s newspaper. I didn’t have a job at a supermarket, or delivering papers or anything like that when I was a teenager. Essentially every single job I’ve ever had has been a writing job.

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Robert

In one sense I’m a story-teller, and it’s what I do all of the time, and it’s how I make my way in this world. Part of the reason I wanted to write the memoir was just to tell another story, and to tell my story.

 

On top of that there was the opportunity to talk to people with disability and parents of people with disability, about some of the issues that I’ve faced in my life.

 

I’ve got two artificial legs and I’ve got some facial deformities, and that was an interesting journey for me when I was very… very younger, much younger.

 

Allison

Very younger?

 

Robert

Very younger, oh, dear.

 

Allison

I like that.

 

Robert

Not very good writing.

 

When I was much younger, and for my parents. And so the other aspect of why I wrote it was maybe to talk to people who are a bit like me.

 

Allison

 

Robert

And parents who faced similar situations that my parents faced.

 

Allison

All right. So, it’s a memoir that is often described… I googled it and there’s a lot of ‘inspirational’ used to describe the memoir. Did you set out to write an inspirational book?

 

Robert

I didn’t set out to write an inspirational book as such. What I actually wanted to do write was a book about how many parts of my life were actually quite normal. And I think where people take inspiration from the book is because I’ve kind of approached how I looked and my disability as quite normal and as essentially a really normal part of my life. So, there’s a lot of parts of the book where I talk about operations I’ve had and things that are particularly individual to me and my body.

 

But, there’s also a lot of the book that’s just about growing up as a normal kid in Australia. And that was really important to me, because I wanted to sort of say to people that this book isn’t just about someone who looks ugly and has a disability, it’s actually about how that relates to me growing up as a normal kid in Australia.

 

So, I think where people find some inspiration in it is that it touches back to a lot of kind of normal childhood experiences.

 

Allison

What then was the most difficult aspect of writing the book for you? Because memoir is a very personal, can be a very deep, can be a very painful thing to write. What was the most difficult thing for you?

 

Robert

There’s probably a couple of aspects to it. It required me to kind of answer a lot of questions about myself and what I thought about my disability and the way I looked, and that wasn’t so much in terms of the actual writing process, the putting of words on paper. It was actually how I thought about those things, because I wanted to tell my life story chronologically.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Robert

Which I did in the memoir. But, I also had the opportunity in various places to reflect on aspects of my life and what I thought that meant to the broader population.

 

Probably the toughest thing… there were a couple of tough bits. There were a few instances of bullying and name calling that were hard to write about. I wrote about my mother dying, which was hard to write about. And those are the things, content-wise, that were hard to write about.

 

But, probably even harder than that was I started off wanting to be a really clever writer, and it’s like, “I’ve got to write this in a really clever way and make it really meaningful, and, you know, make people feel things.” So, I peppered throughout the manuscript all of these… one of my friends who read it described it as these ‘poor, bugger me’ moments.

 

Allison

Oh, right.

 

Robert

And she quite properly identified that I wasn’t… that wasn’t the kind of story I was trying to tell. I was actually trying to tell the story of how… how I fit into a fairly routine and normal Australian life. Kind of the hardest aspect for me was just pulling back some of that emotion.

 

Allison

Right, that’s interesting, isn’t it?

 

Robert

Yeah, yes. Pulling back some of that emotion and actually letting readers experience it and feel it for themselves.

 

Allison

OK, so the value of the first reader who doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear is identified right there, isn’t it? Because do you feel like you came out with a much better story because of that?

 

Robert

Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

When I was editing the manuscript I kept thinking about all of these ‘poor, bugger me’ moments, and I just wrote on a bit of paper and stuck it to my monitor ‘PBM’, ‘poor, bugger me’. And, it’s like, you know, the story actually needs to stand on its own two feet, even though I don’t have any legs, the story needs to stand on its own two feet and make sense to readers in a way that doesn’t tell them how they should feel about it.

 

Allison

Right, yeah.

 

Robert

Because it’s not an instructional manual for people who are like me, it’s not a self-help book. It’s just a story. And, you know, I think with any story if you have to tell people in the text how they should feel about that story, then you failed as a writer.

 

Allison

Yeah, and I think that works for fiction, non-fiction, memoir, all of the things, because it’s something that I know a lot of first time fiction writers will often do as well is foreshadow what the reader needs to… basically belt them over the head with what they need to be feeling and thinking at that time.

 

With a memoir I think one of the things that you come across, like you said you wanted to tell your life chronologically and that sort of thing, but you could have ended up with a manuscript that was like 500,000 words long. So, how do you decide what to leave out and what to put in?

 

Robert

Well, think for me it was actually balancing those two aspects of the story that I talked about before. Talking about the bits of my life that were special enough to warrant someone reading the book. So, I talked a lot about medical procedures I had and operations I had and what it was like to grow up in school with a funny face. And, I talked a lot about having two artificial legs and what it was like… what they were like and it what it was like getting new ones fitted and learning to walk.

 

But, then on the flip side of that was just trying to convey normal aspects of an Australian kid growing up. And so it was kind of working out how I balance that, how I told my particular story, but also just continually dragging the reader back to saying, “These are really important parts of my life, but I also had in many regards a quite normal Australian childhood.” Got in the pool, swimming, going to the beach for summer holidays, all of those kinds of things.

 

I think those kinds of stories gave the opportunity to sketch out a bit more about my family, they gave the opportunity for me to add a bit of humor and a bit of colour. And a bit of pathos.

 

It was just kind of that jigsaw puzzle where I knew there were particular elements of my life that would have to be in there. And, then I could choose individual stories of me growing up that helped serve a bigger purpose.

 

Allison

OK, so how long did it actually take you to write the memoir in the first place?

 

Robert

Well, there’s two answers to that, Allison. The first answer is probably about 16 years. And the second answer is about six months.

 

Allison

 

Robert

I used to be a journalist, and in my early 20s I used to have a lot of arguments with my mother about who should write this story. My mother was… she wasn’t a professional writer, but she wrote very well and I kept insisting that she should write her story, because she had a really important part in this whole thing.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

And she kept saying to me, “No, you’re the journalist and you should write it.” So, I started writing it, and I probably wrote about, I don’t know, 10,000 or 15,000 words and it was just overwrought and all of these ‘poor, bugger me’ moments. And, just really… I wasn’t a good enough writer to write it then.

 

I put it aside for… well, more than ten years, while I went and did some other things. Then I had the opportunity to come back to it and I wrote about 20,000 and it was in reasonable shape. And, then I got the opportunity to sell the manuscript and write the book.

 

It took me about six months when I got down to it.

 

Allison

I know you have a family and I know that you have a day job and it’s quite a sizeable day job, how did you make it work? Because that’s the question that a lot people always ask me, “How do you do family, day job, writing and all of the stuff that goes with it?” How did you make that work?

 

Robert

Well, I think… I had written… I quit a very busy job to go back to a job with less responsibly so I could get the book written. Then I was lucky, I ended up taking a redundancy and finishing the book full time. That’s not an opportunity that is in front of every person.

 

Allison

No.

 

Robert

But that, to me, just comes back to the math. If people want to do the math, if you do 250 words a day, five days a week, and give yourself two days off and not do anything, you can get a book written in a year.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Robert

And if it’s a big book you can get it written in a year and a half.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

It’s doable.

 

I mean I’m not the kind of person who says writers must write every day or must write at a certain time, but I think people who want to write need to have kind of examined their own writing process.

 

The threshold I always look at is, “Has someone finished something?” And if someone’s finished a bunch of short stories, or if someone’s finished a draft of a novel, then whatever routine they’ve got working for them is the one that works for them.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

If you haven’t and you’re still trying to eke out time, just start low and do 200-250 words a day, and if you do it five days a week in the morning, in the afternoon, on the train, at lunch time, you’ll have a manuscript by the end of the year.

 

Allison

Yeah, that’s what I always say too, Robert.

 

Robert

Indeed.

 

Allison

So, we are definitely on the same page right there.

 

Who came up with the idea of producing a children’s version of your memoir?

 

Robert

That was my wonderful publisher, Hachette.

 

Allison

Fantastic.

 

Robert

I kind of had the sense that when I wrote the adult version of the book that I would have an opportunity to talk to lots of people about the stuff that’s in the book and some of the ideas in the book. What I hadn’t quite realized was that there would be so much call to talk to school kids. And, I had a lot of opportunities to go and talk to school kids and they really want to talk about appearance and looks, and a bit about disability, but really want to talk about appearance.

 

And, I did a lot of that in kind of the year and a half after Ugly — I call them Ugly and Ugly Jr. But, but after Ugly came out, the adult edition. I did a lot of that in the next year and a half.

 

My publisher said, “Well, why don’t we do a young reader’s edition?” I’m like, “Sure, let me see if I can write to that market.” So, I knocked out a couple of chapters and said, “What do you think about this?” And they said, “Great, let’s go to the show.”

 

Allison

Great. So, was it challenging? Like, was it different? In what way was it different to writing the memoir in the first place?

 

Robert

I’ve had a lot of people ask me kind of what the differences where. I’m probably lucky my training as a writer was as a journalist. I’m not overly descriptive. I’m not overly fancy. I am a very kind of… one noun, one verb… kind of sentence guy.

 

At the sentence level the tone and the quality of the writing was pitched reasonably well. There was stuff in the adult book that would have bored kids, so that was easy enough to pull out. And, I think for me it was actually… we essentially cut the book in half. The children’s edition ends when I’m 14 years old, when I make a very important decision about my future, about whether or not I’m going to have more operations or not.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

I won’t spoil that, but that’s a good place to kind of… there’s a good circle to the book. It’s a good place to end the book.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

The content was kind of easy enough to work out. But, then it’s actually just about, you know, choosing better metaphors and choosing better examples and better analogies and stuff that kids understand and just probably making… the writing was, I think, simple enough that… the adult edition that a kid who was 12 or 13 could pick it up and understand it.

 

I would not have read the adult edition when I was 12 or 13.

 

Allison

No.

 

Robert

But, it was actually just about making it a bit more engaging as well, energetic.

 

Allison

OK, and so did you enjoy the process of doing that?

 

Robert

I loved it.

 

Allison

Oh, there you go.

 

Robert

Yeah, it was great fun.

 

Allison

Excellent. So, has anything surprised you about venturing into that children’s market at all, like as a new sort of genre for you as a writer?

 

Robert

I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the word. I just think that I’m extraordinarily lucky and privileged to be able to write for kids. And, I think probably if one thing surprised me it’s like how keen they are to engage with authors. So, you know, I get lots of emails and Instagram messages and Facebook messages, just from kids who want to talk about the book and the ideas in the book, which is really lovely.

 

Allison

Yeah, it is nice. They are a very engaged audience.

 

 

Robert

They are.

 

Allison

They like to let you know what they think, don’t they?

 

Robert

Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.

 

Allison

You’ve written short stories in the past, do you continue to write fiction at all?

 

Robert

I’ve been writing some longer fiction, so I’m midway through the draft of a novel, which is always fun. I’m doing my 250 words a day.

 

I haven’t written any short stories in a while, but I’ve got a hunkering to get back into it, and I think next year there might be a few short stories in my future.

 

Allison

Do you think that your day job, like, working as a writer on a regular basis, do you think that helps or hinders your writing, your other writing projects?

 

Robert

No, absolutely — well, there’s probably two aspects to it. I think having worked as a journo in the past and having written all of my life it’s extraordinarily helpful, because it’s just that bum in chair time, sit down and write, even when it’s not very good, you’ve just got to push through it and get it done. Because when I was a journalist I didn’t have the luxury of saying to my editor, “It’s just not working today.” He’s like, “Well, no, tough luck. Make it work.”

 

That was a good aspect of it. I think the fact that it was a writing job probably isn’t any different from anyone else having a… on the negative side the fact that I’ve got writing jobs isn’t necessarily any harder than having a different kind of busy job that fills your head for eight, nine, ten, twelve hours a day.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

You know, it’s hard sometimes to disengage from that and get stuff done, and I actually think people who are working full time need to cut themselves a bit of slack in terms of saying, “OK, I’ve got to put food on the family’s table and I’ve got to look after myself professionally. I want to get my writing done and I’ve got to make it a priority, but I don’t have to beat myself up while I’m doing it.”

 

Allison

No. I totally agree.

 

All right, let’s just switch gears slightly, now you have a good following on Facebook and Twitter, and it looks like something you quite enjoy, like you seem to be quite engaged across it. What are your thoughts on the idea of the author platform? Do you think that people need one? That writers need one?

 

Robert

I think so. I think there’s a lot of… if you google it you’re going to get a lot of probably broadly useless information about author platform. I actually just think if you like engaging with people and you like talking socially online, then be on Facebook, be on Twitter. I think it’s important to have some sort of presence, whether that’s a website that just… even if people just want to have a website that has a contact them via email, and some really simple stuff, a headshot, a copy of the cover of your book, a bio, that will serve you well.

 

But, I’m actually interested in engaging with people and talking to people, and I’ve found that… I’ve had this discussion with other authors, and particularly authors who are writing fiction, I think it’s probably easier for non-fiction writers in some regard, and especially for me, because I’m talking about something, rather than just plugging a book.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

But, I’ve found both Facebook and Twitter extraordinarily worthwhile in terms of the investment in time I’ve put into them, in terms of delivering actual book sales and delivering opportunities and leveraging publicity. Yeah, really, really worthwhile.

 

Allison

You’re on Facebook and Twitter, and did you say Instagram as well?

 

Robert

I am. I am, yes.

 

Allison

Which of those is your favorite? And when you were talking about how much time you put into them, approximately how much time do you put into them?

 

Robert

I probably… it would probably be… I don’t know, probably less than two hours a week.

 

I’m not posting a lot of author stuff all the time, because I think that’s just going to annoy people.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

I just think you just need to be there and be engaged and interesting. You don’t need to have a four-year plan to how you’re going to get to 428 million Twitter followers.

 

Allison

You mean you don’t have a strategy, Robert?

 

Robert

My strategy is, “Oh, this is cool, I’m going to talk about this.”

 

And I think, for me, it’s actually… my goals are about growing an audience over a longer period.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Robert

I couldn’t care less about getting an extra 50 followers tomorrow. I’d rather know that in three years’ time I’ve got an extra 5,000 because I’ve engaged with people intelligently over a longer period.

 

So, I think there’s definitely… I think authors need to do it across an author’s career, they need to do it and it needs to be focused around them rather than individual books.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Robert

I think there’s often a tendency to do a Facebook page for a specific book and indeed, you know, a publisher may say that’s a good idea, but I think for an author who intends to be working for decades they need to be in that space, even if it’s only a little bit, because you never know what kinds of opportunity it will generate.

 

Allison

That’s so true.

 

All right, just to finish up, let’s talk about the infamous three top tips for writers question. For emerging writers, aspiring writers, starting out writers, what would be your three top tips?

 

Robert

I think probably read and write lots.

 

Listen to the sound of words. Personally I believe that voice, the quality of voice in writing can carry all sorts of writing a long way. Particularly as a published non-fiction author. The difference between good non-fiction and bad non-fiction is the quality of voice. And if someone nails that voice, readers will go with them on any journey. It could be a history of cigarette tins from 1890-1915, but if the voice is right, readers will go on that journey for a long time.

 

Allison

They will.

 

Robert

Yeah, so read and write lots.

 

Listen to the sound of words.

 

And, I was thinking of a third thing before… what was it? I had something very intelligent to say.

 

Allison

I know, I can feel that it’s going to be absolutely ground-breaking and mind-blowing.

 

Robert

We’re building it up now.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Robert

No, let me go with something really simple, just finish things.

 

Allison

That is very good advice.

 

Robert

Just push through and finish them, because you might start a novel and you might get 48,000 words into it and think, “This is the worst piece of rubbish ever committed to paper.” Rest assured it probably isn’t, but you’re going to learn five times as much pushing on for those extra 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 words than going back and repeating that first 48,000 words again.

 

Allison

So true.

 

Robert

Just finish stuff. And that was probably really good for me as a journalist and it’s pretty easy to say when you might have been writing 300-word newspaper articles, but there’s a lot of value in finishing stuff.

 

Allison
There is. So, true.

 

All right, Robert Hoge, thank you so much for being with us today.

 

Robert

Thank you.

 

Allison

It’s been lovely chatting to you. Good luck with the Ugly Jr., shall we say?

 

Robert

Indeed.

 

Allison

We look forward to seeing what you do next.

 

Robert

Thanks, Allison.

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