Ep 80 One Direction releases a children’s book (crazy!), how to use author events to sell more books, why dads need to do story time, what to consider when co-authoring a book, and get ready for NaNoWriMo. We talk to author Mary-Rose MacColl, who has just released her fifth book Swimming Home. Also: how Trello.com can help your blogging and how to find out if a publication pays before you pitch.

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Author Mary-Rose Macoll in the water and looking off to the right

podcast-artwork In Episode 80 of So you want to be a writer: One Direction releases a children’s book (say what?), how to use author events to grow your fan base and sell more books, why dads reading to kids is important, things to think about when co-authoring a book, it’s time to start prepping for NaNoWriMo (eek!), and starting a blog. Our Writer in Residence this week is Mary-Rose MacColl, who has just released her fifth book Swimming Home. Also: how Trello can make blogging easier, how to find out if a publication pays before you pitch, and more!

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Show Notes

One Direction swap singing for story-telling as they join other celebrities to write a kids’ book for Children in Need

How to Sell More Books and Grow Your Fan Base at Author Events

Why story time is better when dad’s reading the book

NaNoWriMo: Ready to Write a Novel?

How to Start a Blog in 20 Easy Steps: A Guide for New Author-Bloggers

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Writer in Residence 


Mary-Rose MacColl
Mary-Rose-Macoll Mary-Rose MacColl is the author of five novels, a non-fiction book, short stories, feature journalism and essays. She grew up in Brisbane, Australia, with three brothers. Both her parents were journalists.

Mary-Rose worked as a journalist, nursing assistant, computer operator and corporate writer while studying towards degrees in journalism and creative writing. Currently she lives in Brisbane, Australia, with her husband and son, spending as much time as she can in the mountains of Banff, Canada.

Her first novel, No Safe Place, was runner-up in the Australian Vogel Literary Award. Her first non-fiction book, The Birth Wars, was a Finalist in the Walkley Awards for Journalism and in the Queensland Premier’s Awards for Non-Fiction and for Science Writing.

Swimming Home (October 2015) tells the story of the extraordinary women who pioneered women’s swimming in the 1920s in Australia, England and the United States.

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Transcript

Allison

Mary-Rose MacColl is the author of five novels, a non-fiction book, short stories, feature journalism and essays. She describes herself as a writer with current interests in families, children and mountains, which is interesting. Her first novel, No Safe Place, was runner up in the 1995 Australian Vogels Literary Award. And her fifth novel, Swimming Home, has just been released.

Welcome to the show, Mary-Rose.

Mary-Rose

Thanks, Allison. Lovely to be with you.

Allison

Let’s start at the beginning, you were a runner up in the Vogels in 1995, how did you come to enter and what did that experience mean for you? Just cast your mind back there.

Mary-Rose

Well, I actually did a masters in creative — one of the reasons that I think the Australian Writers’ Center is important is I’m a big fan of people learning about writing. I did a masters in creative writing, I was the one… I was the first graduate I think from the University of Queensland’s masters of arts in creative writing. As my thesis I wrote a novel. I didn’t… I mean I was writing kind of every morning, early in the morning. I didn’t even print it out until I had 50,000 words. I wasn’t sort of terribly confident as a writer.

But, what the master’s program gave me most of all was other writers who were, if not on the same journey as me, were kind of working on something that was of interest to me. So, I had a couple of other novelists, there was a playwright, a dramaturg, someone who was writing a film script, and we sort of… there was sort of four or five of us who formed a little writing group, if you like, like, a local writing group, only we were all doing a masters and worked together, you know, critiquing each other’s work. And that was fantastic.

I’m a great fan of doing that, but at the same time I also know that over time those groups start to get so enamored of each other’s work and of each other, that the red wine seems to kind of replace the critiquing and I got softer with my colleagues and I think they got softer with me.

But, as a process, I think having a writing buddy or writing buddies is really important.

I put the novel in the for the Vogel Award, No Safe Place, my first novel, which seems like a very long time ago now, because it was. And I always say to beginning writers that putting in for competitions is a really good thing to do for a very pragmatic reason, if you send an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher, let alone an agent, to a publisher, I think a lot of them don’t read them. And the ones that do, I think Penguin, what is it? They get 2,000 manuscripts a year, or something like that. So, you’re not going to get any kind of reading.

If you put in for competition you probably only have 300 or 400 hundred, and you know for a fact that someone will read it, because they have to judge it. So, you’re already changing the odds and you’re changing the conversation, in a sense, you’re getting your work read.

So, I put in for the Vogel, not even thinking of that really, I just did because I was under 35 and it was a competition. And it didn’t win. And I have to say I’m glad it didn’t win because the judges pick — a.) I think that kind of success would have been difficult because it was the year after Helen Demidenko, and as it was there was already sort of… I’ve got a lot of publicity because of Helen Demidenko.

But, also the publishers pick from the shortlist, because they’re not the judges, of course, they’re the publisher. Allen & Unwin pick the books they might like to publish and so they picked mine as a runner up. And so they published No Safe Place.

You know that was my journey to… I think that was your question. I hope that was your question.

Allison

Yeah, it was. It was, “How did you come to enter and what did the experience mean for you?” So, I mean basically it got you over the line with a publisher, which is what you were hoping for.

Mary-Rose

Yes. Although I think… I wouldn’t say that I was as strategic as all of that. I think I just thought, “Ah, yes, I will put it in for the Vogel,” and no one was more surprised when I was when I got the call from Sophie Cunningham. I was over the moon. But, I don’t think I thought it through as strategically as I just outlined it then.

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

Mary-Rose

I think I just thought, “Yes, I’ve got a novel, I’ll put it in for this award.”

Allison

Give it a go.

Mary-Rose

And you know, having said that, it wasn’t the first thing I had written. I had been sort of writing stories pretty well since primary school. So, I’m sort of… words and stories are just my thing.

Allison

Had you tried to have it published in other ways at that point? Or was this just like the first thing that you…

Mary-Rose

No, that was my first… look, I tell a lie, when I was 17 I sent a bunch of poems to a publisher that I found. I don’t even know how I found that publisher. And he wrote a beautiful letter back about how I had an understanding beyond my years of life’s… But that he wasn’t going to publish them. But, it was a sweet letter. It was very sort of old-school. It must have been an old-school publisher.

Allison

Did you frame it? I would have kept that one.

Mary-Rose

No, I don’t know what I did with it, Allison. Yes, I should have. Yes, I should of — yeah.

Allison

So do you still have a writing group? Is there any sort of vestige of that group left for you?

Mary-Rose

Well, I have a number of writers who I work with at different levels. So, I have a writing buddy, Kristina Olsson, and we wrote our fourth novels together I think. And, then we’ve written… we would sort of meet every week. She’d walk, I’d swim, we’d meet and have toast and swap bits of work and talk about where we’re going. And we still do that. We were sort of doing that.

Kim Wilkins, aka Kimberly Freeman is a very dear friend and she read and critiqued a number of manuscripts, manuscripts when I’ve asked her to.

And then some other writers mums at my son’s primary school, Louise Limerick and Kate Morton and I used to have coffee occasionally, well actually every month or so while we were working on this novel, Swimming Home. But, it wasn’t swapping work, it more to sort of just talk about issues more generally.

So, I definitely do have a community of writers and I would always, always bounce ideas off, you know, people before… as I kind of write them. I like working that way. I love writing collaboratively, actually.

Allison

I think it’s important also, just to have people around you that understand, you know, what you’re going through or the process that you’re trying to achieve.

Mary-Rose

Yeah.

Allison

All right, so when it came to writing your second novel, like did you feel any pressure expectation, like, having sort of, you know, done so well with the first one, was there any sort of, um, feeling that you had to somehow top it or anything like that?

Mary-Rose

Well, I don’t know about top it, but I did, um, get myself… I can… I can make… you know, I’m writer, I can make the most pleasurable activities in life absolutely excruciating, without actually working on it very hard at all.

I had a lot… the difficult second novel and I’ve just written the difficult fifth novel — yes, I can remember Angels in the Architecture having… I used to talk about it’s the second winter of my second novel, you know, because it just took years and years and years. I used to do a talk where I used to talk about how my teeth fell out and I became ill and I became one of those people who talked about their health all of the time. It certainly was a very difficult writing process.

The novel, actually, Angels in the Architecture is a lovely idea for a story. It’s set in kind of an old church that burns down and an architect, a young architect, a lovely character, discovers a skeleton, and I’m saying that, not because I’m trying to sell copies of Angels in the Architecture, it’s out of print, I’m saying it because it’s a novel that I would like one day to revisit, because I know a lot more about character and story now. And I really lived in that story, in the same way I’ve kind of lived in Swimming Home, the last one. and In Falling Snow. So, I’d very much like to go back with the skills that I have now and, you know, sort of reimagine it almost.

Allison

That would be an interesting process, I think too, to, like, take what you know now and the experience that you have now that you didn’t have then and sort of, you know, re-midwife the book almost.

Mary-Rose

Yeah, Allison, it would. And I think there have been famous kind of examples where people have done that, and I obviously can’t think of any of them.

Allison

No, of course not. That would be too useful.

Mary-Rose

That would be helpful.

Allison

All right. So, your fourth novel, In Falling Snow, you talked about the difficult fifth novel, but your fourth novel, In Falling Snow was an international bestseller and now you’re following up with Swimming Home. Has your writing process changed from your first novel to now? And why was the fifth novel difficult?

Mary-Rose

They’re all difficult. The difficult second novel,… the difficult third, the difficult fourth, the difficult fifth

Allison

Yep.

Mary-Rose

My writing process… so just technically it’s changed enormously. In fact I often tell people that I’m going backwards on the information super-highway.

So, I typed on a Mac I thought I was the coolest kid on the block, because I typing straight into a very modern machine. I didn’t even print it until I had a finished manuscript. So, I didn’t even deal with paper, this was way before eBook. And, so I… that was the kind of technology I used. When I came to write the second novel I had so much trouble… suddenly the computer files seemed incredibly oppressive and linear. And, it shouldn’t because you can go anywhere in the file, but it did.

And so I started picking myself in various ways, so it was a combination of technology and … getting in the way, I guess. Which I think for me has been the battle of my writing life.

I started just writing in notebooks little scenes and ideas and character sketches, and I’d go to coffee shops, and if the writing came I’d write, and if not I wouldn’t.

And then I sort of slowly wound up with an enormous mess, really. And notebooks full of complete and utter non-sense. But, somehow I pulled that together into a book. And the Angels in the Architecture… so, the cost of doing it that new way was that you would have richness, you would have quite a lot of richness in character… starting… starting to develop a capacity for developing character.

You’d have some kind of rich detail and description and stuff like that, but what you wouldn’t have any more is a plot. And novels have to have plots. And so therefore I would have to somehow, you know, work all of that material into a direction.

My third novel, Killing Superman, I wrote on index cards and notebooks, and I had three novels on the go at that time, one of which was In Falling Snow, in draft and I would write in different colored pens and throw the cards into boxes. And then something happens where I think, “Well it’s time to type all of that up.” And, so that’s when you’ve really got to start thinking about story.

I’ve kept writing in notebooks, and for the fourth novel, for In Falling Snow, in the early draft, I think I’m right about this, but I had a baby, and so we were living in a house where if I turned on the lights I would wake him up, which I didn’t want to do, because I wanted to write. So, I wrote by candlelight. So, you see, we’re getting less and less technology. I always have to explain it that way, because I want people to know that I don’t write by candlelight because I was… or anything… you know, it wasn’t a new age, spiritual thing that would bring the writing. It was just that it was more pragmatic.

But, I’ve realized, you know, I’m getting worse and worse. I can image that by the time I write my tenth novel I will be shouting out, “Hello, is there anyone listening?” Because I will have sort of eschewed all technology.

Again, with Swimming Home I’ve used that methodology of writing a lot in notebooks. My favorite notebook at the moment is a very plain covered Moleskine. But, it’s about quarter size, and I just sort of draw and write and do little doo-dads. Until it comes a time when I feel like I need to move to the screen, and then I do.

It’s a very pragmatic way of talking about how I approach things. The most helpful things along the way, to me, in that process have been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, to really think about what the writer’s life is like. And, that maybe it’s a bit normal, how excruciating this feels. You know that saying that when your novel is easy you just sit down at the computer until your forehead starts bleeding.

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

Mary-Rose

But, the other book that I’ve found helpful in a very practical sense was a book from screenwriting, which was Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. And that really only applied with the kind of writer I am, who writes a messy draft all over the place, and then needs to sort of story it at some stage. Her book is great for that, because it gives you really good tools to do that. It talks about plot lines and beats and turning points and it sort of helps you structure things.

So, that was a very long answer to a very short question.

Allison

Well, we had to go through five novels, so it’s going to take a while isn’t it? So, you know…

Mary-Rose

Yeah.

Allison

You’ve got a body of work to discuss.

What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned through writing five novels, apart from the fact that they’re all difficult?

Mary-Rose

That’s a hard question. I think that from where I sit now I would say that it’s really important to write what you can uniquely write. And not be influenced over much by markets certainly, and even by rejections from publishers, because I think they don’t necessarily know what readers will read.

But, to go with what is in your heart and you can uniquely offer, and then having said that, I think that the people to listen to and the people, I think, I’ve tried to listen to as I’ve developed as a writer, certainly in the last couple of books, are people who read books. And I think we often are quite despairing about readers. We go to experts readers, and publishers are expert readers and editors are, but… but people who just go to the beach and read a book when you listen to them you begin to understand what it is that they look for in a book.

I think writing the story that you uniquely can write is important, and not trying to kind of be successful, but trying to write the story that you can write. And if you are going to listen to anyone listen to people who read, because that’s… that’s who you’re ultimately writing for.

Allison

That’s an interesting thought, because I think that often when we talk about writing that message can be lost, can’t it? People… it’s all write what you want to write, and, you know, write for markets, but the poor old reader does tend to get a little bit forgotten out there.

Mary-Rose

Yes.

Allison

Hmm, interesting.

All right, so tell us about the inspiration for Swimming Home?

Mary-Rose

So Swimming Home, and this should be easy, but because I am an organic writer this is never an easy thing. And this is only the second time I’ve ever had to tell anyone about the inspiration for Swimming Home. All of my novels, and this gets back to what I said about a unique trigger, all of my novels and in fact The Birth Wars, the non-fiction I wrote, had an intellectual trigger and an emotional trigger.

And with In Falling Snow, you know, it was finding out about the hospital at…, and these incredible doctors and what they did with the sort of intellectual trigger and the emotional trigger. My grandmother who was that generation of women and who had been very important in my life, passing away, and just thinking about her life and how might it have been different.

In Swimming Home my great uncle Leonard Maccoll was a journalist in the 1930s and 1940s, extraordinarily talented, obviously. But, also had great opportunity. So, he was there when King George died, he was there through the coronation of Edward and the avocation and the coronation of the next King George. He lunched with Marilyn Monroe, he was behind the Iron Curtain. He was just an extraordinarily colorful figure, who made his name on Fleet Street in the 1930s.

But, when he was a very young man, 22, and just down from Oxford, he met up with a really wealthy American businessman named Manfred Lear Black, who was a newspaper publisher staying in London who offered him a job as his confidential secretary. For my great-uncle at the age of 21, and Manfred Lear Black was an odd fellow, and he was quite a visionary in one way, he believed that flying, which had only really taken off in World War I — World War I that was an unintentional pun. Would be the kind of thing of the future.

So Manfred Lear Black… he rented a plane and a pilot and he hammered canvas seats in the back of it and he flew all around the place, and he took my great-uncle with him.

My great-uncle wrote a book called A Flying Start. So, I started out thinking, “I’m going to write a book about a journalist,” and started writing. But, as I wrote two things kept happening, one, I kept getting dragged — Manfred Lear Black drowned, and I kept getting dragged back into water and swimming, which have been really a very big part of my childhood, not in a gifted and talented way, more in a strutting up to the pool to get there way. But, I swim as an adult.

Over time this character started to emerge, this young woman, a swimmer, who is free, who is able to swim whenever she wants, at a time when women weren’t able to swim whenever they want. And reason for that is that she is from an island on Australia’s north… in the Torres Strait Islands. And she has grown up with an island, a family and her English father who’s the doctor on the island, and she’s learned to swim.

So this character sort of just kept emerging. And so I kind of… I sort of dropped the kind of journalist and a businessman, briefly, but they are in the novel. But, the swimmer really kind of took over.

I wanted to bring her into the world where women didn’t have the freedom that she’d had. Luckily in the kind of early stages, still in the early stages of writing, I’m still in notebooks, an aunt turned up who is her aunt who is successful, she’s a medical doctor, so she’s fought a lot of battles against men in the early 1900… sort of late 20th century. She’s a practicing medical doctor, but she’s incredibly controlled and quite controlling, and she’s very closed down for reasons that become obvious during the novel.

So these two characters meet up and they then meet up with my wealthy American businessman, Manfred Lear Black and his confidential secretary, Andrew Macintosh. …Those other characters. And the swimmer, she just wants to swim and Manfred Lear Black, he’s lost a mother and sister to drowning, wants to see her be the first woman to swim the English Channel. And the aunt has her own views about it, and so we’re off with the book.

Allison

Right.

Mary-Rose

And that’s what I meant, it was a very long explanation, and I’m sorry about that.

Allison

No, that’s OK. Just speaking of how long things take, like how long did that process take? Like, to go from this idea that you would write something based on your great-uncle, to this whole story about a swimmer emerging and then you sort of, like, managing to get a first draft together? How long does that process take?

Mary-Rose

My great-uncle and Manfred Lear Black I would have found about… I would have been aware of that and wanting to write about that at the time I was working on In Falling Snow, and so that’s a very long gestation, because In Falling Snow took 10 or 12 years.

This one the writing has been quicker. And I think that’s because I’m trusting the process more. I think In Falling Snow, so this is the other thing that I will say about… you said what have you learned about writing? The other thing I’ve learned is that the writer never knows, really, what the reader will find helpful, you know? I’m a great believer in the reader rewriting the book. But, even on a very practical level In Falling Snow is set in this World War I hospital, run entirely by women. And I thought these women were amazing and fantastic. But, when I came to write about them I thought, “Oh, I’m not doing them any justice at all. I should minimize those chapters of the book, because people will just find them really boring.” And, of course, that’s the bit of the book that people have loved the most.

Allison

Oh, right.

Mary-Rose

But, you don’t know that as a writer.

And so with Swimming Home it’s had a much faster sort of writing process. I think because I just let go when the swimming, when Catherine started emerging as character and Louisa, her aunt, started emerging as a character, instead of struggling on … that’s not what I’m writing about, I’m writing about a journalist, I kind of went with it.

Allison

Yeah, fair enough.

Mary-Rose

So, it’s much… and it was slow at the beginning then very fast in the middle and then I just love that… I just love the penultimate draft where you’re doing the sort of the final tweaks to get it sort of to where you want it.

Allison

All right, so just switching gears slightly, you have a son at primary school, do you ever find it difficult to juggle your family and writing? Like, what are your tactics for that kind of stuff?

Mary-Rose

Well, I think, you know, every mother on the planet finds this difficult, whether you’re juggling motherhood, motherhood is challenging. Strangely In Falling Snow, and Swimming Home in a different way, they’re both books about motherhood. And In Falling Snow it’s very directly this tension that women face, but in the choice of, “Am I going to have a meaningful career life or am I going to have a family?” Which was a very stark choice in the 1920s, so in the sort of 1910s before World War I. And interestingly although I didn’t do this consciously while I was writing
In Falling Snow is set in two important periods in our history, the first was World War I, when women didn’t have any those freedoms, so you had a… career or family. And the second period was in the 1970s, which was just the beginning of women being able to have it all.

Of course we know now that was a complete crock. But, having it all is actually isn’t having it all at all, it’s just something … or quickly in… because you’re called to sort of do everything and be everything.

And so Grace in In Falling Snow is in that first generation of women who were pursuing careers and had kids, and the pressures are there.

I don’t know if you’ve read the piece by Anne Marie Slaughter, she was in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, in a very senior role, and she was commuting from Washington to where her husband and two sons, who were older than our kids, her sons were teenagers and at high school. And she just said, “I cannot do this anymore. I either give to my family or I give to my job, I can’t do this job anymore.” And she quit. And she wrote an essay in The Atlantic and it really sort of has created a fury among — well, just about everybody for one reason or another.

But, I think that we need to have that conversation. I think that the pressure on… I think for my generation it was a lot easier and I had my son late in life, so I had sort of had a fair bit of career experience. But, I think young women today… it is just dreadful, dreadful pressures. You know? The pressure to stay in a career, to leave the career and have children early, because their clock is ticking, to get back to work within six months.

Allison

Yep.

Mary-Rose

We haven’t accommodated that well at all. And as a writer, I think it’s the easiest job in the world to accommodate it and I find it difficult. How much harder must it be for women who have got a front up to really important meetings and, you know? When research The Birth Wars, this was the big issue for women, “How on earth do I have a reasonable life and be a reasonable mother?” One woman I can remember I interviewed telling me, “My ‘me’ time is between 4:30 and 5:30 in the morning.” And she was telling me these things as, “I’m lucky I’ve got ‘me’ time…” like… you know?

So, I think this is a big, big issue.

Swimming Home kind of addresses this in another way, but it’s still back there in motherhood and career. Motherhood and career — I think it’s the issue for our time.

Allison

I think you’re right about that.  

All right, well, just to finish up today, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers?

Mary-Rose

I need time to think about these questions… my top three tips.

Allison

I know, I’m sorry. I should have told you about this earlier, shouldn’t I? I do like to spring it on people, just to see what they can come up with.

Mary-Rose

Well, I think finding your own unique voice, and I don’t mean that in twee way. I mean find what you can uniquely say and I think that’s true of all of us. We’ve all got something that we can say that no one else can. I think that’s probably number one.

And related to that… I think everybody in writing thinks that the next thing will be the thing that will make them happy. It seems to be a career like that. And, I think I’ve been a little bit successful as a writer and I’ve been incredibly unsuccessful over time as a writer. And, I don’t think either of those things ultimately improve my writing or made me happier as a person. I think what’s made me most happy is actually playing with words and going off into a story.

The fact that we… read what I write is a bonus, but the journey has got to be why you do it.

It’s too hard to do it just for ego, do you know what I mean?

Allison

Yep.

Mary-Rose

It’s too much work to do it just so that people will read it. I think… yeah, I think related to the first point, your own unique voice is the first point. And the second point is do it for itself.

I think the third one for me, the thing that I’ve kind of learned most over the last 20 years would be that as a person I’m much more than just a writer. And… I think that having children really is part of this, that I don’t think that there will be anything in my life that compares with being a mother. I can’t imagine there being anything that as kind of seriously life-changing, for positive and negative and absolutely transformative as that. I can’t… I can’t think that there would be another thing, maybe a religious vocation or something would be, but I can’t think that there would be. And, so bearing in mind that there are many other things that are you other than a writer.

And I’m now going to add a fourth one, because I’ve thought of one.

Allison

Cool.

Mary-Rose

Those three things are more lifestyle things, but in terms of actual writing, there’s a great, great … writing instructor named Gail Sher, and she’s written a book called Four Noble Truths About Writing. I can never remember the other three, but the first noble truth about writing is that writers write. That is the most soothing thing for my first and second points, where you get caught up in your ego and you think that you’re not published and all of that. Writers write. The only thing that separates writers from people who are not writers is that writers write.

Actually, all of that other stuff, I was going to use another word but I didn’t, all of that other stuff doesn’t matter, what makes you a writer is that you’re writing, because writers write — that’s all they do, they write.

Allison

All right. Well, that’s excellent advice. Thank you so much for that Mary-Rose. Thank you very much for talking with us today.

Good luck with your new novel, Swimming Home. And we shall catch up with you another time.

Mary-Rose

Thank you, Allison. And thank you for those very thoughtful questions.

Allison

You’re welcome.

 


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