Writing habits: From shortlisted authors of the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award

This week, the winners of the 2016 Prime Minister's Literary Awards were announced. Prizes were awarded in six categories: fiction, non-fiction, Australian history, children's and young adult literature.

Some of the authors shortlisted for the Award have shared their writing habits: where they write and when, their rituals and superstitions, how they get started each day. Here's what they revealed.

sarahholland-battSarah Holland-Batt, shortlisted in the Poetry category for The Hazards (University of Queensland Press):

I prefer to write overseas or out of state. Psychologically, that is preferable to me than in my house, where everything is familiar and I sink into predictable patterns of thought.

I like writing in the evening, but possibly this is just because it tends to be when I have the greatest stretches of uninterrupted time in which to work.

I don’t do rituals. I am, however, in the habit of making notes in longhand first, and then working on my laptop in later drafts, because the computer gives me a better sense of line lengths and how the poem will look when typeset.

Lisa Gorton, shortlisted in the Fiction category for The Life of Houses (Giramondo Publishing):lisagorton

I grew used to working in cafes when my first child was young; I used to take him out walking and write while he slept. Now I can't break that habit. It's inconvenient and odd, but the quiet of the house distracts me. I keep meaning to wake at four and work in the half-dark…

I never thought of this as superstition but I do feel a need to write in A4 Spirex notebooks with a ‘Uni Pin' 0.2 fineliner.

onstalinsteamSheila Fitzpatrick, shortlisted in the Non-Fiction category for On Stalin’s Team (Melbourne University Press):

I prefer to write at the office. Home is too empty and quiet. Morning is now my best time, though when I was young it was the opposite. If I write longhand now, it’s almost illegible.

forever-youngSteven Carroll, shortlisted in the Fiction category for Forever Young (Harper Collins Australia):

At the end of every writing day I make brief notes about the next morning’s writing – I frequently write the first sentence of the next day’s writing the day before, so I can hit the deck running. And if I don’t, I’ve mapped the scene out.

I find I can write just about anywhere. At home, cafes, libraries. I find the mornings are best for writing, usually for about three hours.

I write nearly all first drafts by longhand (the biros run out too frequently to ever become favourites) and the first person to see the completed first draft is always my partner, fellow writer, Fiona Capp.

greenvalentineLili Wilkinson, shortlisted in the Young Adult Fiction category for Green Valentine (Allen & Unwin):

I have a two year old, so all my old habits have gone, and now I take every opportunity I can to write!

drusillamodjeskaDrusilla Modjeska, shortlisted in the Non-Fiction category for Second Half First (Penguin Random House Australia):

At home, there's the desk I've had for many years, there's my bed, there's a chair in the garden. Away, there are cafes, park benches to fill the notebooks that form the basis for whatever it is that happens when I get back to that desk.

I prefer to write in the mornings, before the day takes over and the phone rings.

I write first in longhand, not because I'm superstitious, but because that's how I learned and the keyboard came long after. Also, I'm inclined to think the hand sometimes knows in ways I don't, and isn’t as self-conscious.

thestoryofaustraliaspeopleGeoffrey Blainey, shortlisted in the Australian History category for The Story of Australia’s People (Penguin Random House Australia):

I completed my first book in 1953 – I was aged 23. I wrote it with a fountain pen and paid a typist to make a neat copy. There was no whitener then. You were frugal with your corrections.

After writing four or five books by hand I learned to use a noisy portable typewriter.  Much later – maybe in the 1980s – I moved to an electric machine and then a computer. I miss the manual typewriter. You exerted a lot of energy and that made you feel busy.

I start work about 8 am. I used to have trouble starting a day’s work when I was young. Writing is a skilled trade – like a carpenter’s.  As you grow older you cope better. Whether you write better is open to question.

cockysjoyMichael Farrell, shortlisted in the Poetry category for Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo Publishing):

I write prose at my desk looking out at Victoria Parade and the back of the servo with the employees smoking. I write poetry in bed.

For poetry, I prefer to write at night or later. For prose, the earlier the better. I don't write in the afternoon.

I'm not sure it's a superstition (though I have them) but I don't tell or even write down titles until the poem starts coming.

tohbyriddleTohby Riddle, shortlisted in the Children’s Fiction category for The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar (Penguin Random House Australia):

Where I write depends on the stage of the process. I tend to get ideas anywhere but at my desk. But when those ideas need rendering in words or images then my desk is the place to do that.

I’m naturally a night-owl (or some other nocturnal creature), but with three young children, I’ve learnt to be as flexible as possible.

I don’t talk about my ideas until I’ve done a lot of work on them – sometimes even until I’ve finished the book. It seems that talking too much about something you’re going to do can be a substitute for action, and may even imply a lack of confidence in the idea. So if I feel like talking about a new idea, it’s not usually a good sign!

sister-heartSally Morgan, shortlisted in the Children’s Fiction category for Sister Heart (Fremantle Press):

I don't have any rituals or habits around writing, except the company of my dogs and the kettle boiling.

I'm happy to work day or night, but if I write too late it’s hard to switch off, so I avoid that.

I work on an old laptop. It's great to get feedback, but I never ask for it on first drafts. I prefer to write something as best I can first, then ask for feedback later. Once I get feedback, I'm happy to completely change what I've done, or to work for weeks and weeks improving the story. Honest, constructive feedback is incredibly valuable, even if it means making major changes or putting the project on hold so it can bubble away a bit longer.

vikkiwakefieldVikki Wakefield, shortlisted in the Young Adult Fiction category for Inbetween Days (Text Publishing):

I prefer to write at home. I'm too easily distracted to write in busy or unfamiliar places.

I write more regularly during the day because it fits with the work and family routine, but there's something about writing late at night that gives my insights a keener edge. The pennies seem to drop after midnight (and wine).

I keep one progressive working file and I don't save drafts. This is an old habit/superstition I can't shake, but working this way leaves me with a sense of having closed the door to a messy room behind me.

netneedleRobert Adamson, shortlisted in the Poetry category for Net Needle (Black Inc.):

I write in my study surrounded by books, paintings, drawings, music and my cats.

I have written most of my 20 or so books at night, sometimes in the afternoons.

I often make notes in longhand with a beautiful fountain pen. I have even written notes with a quill from a Sea Eagle dipped in India ink. I always write several final drafts on my laptop.

Congratulations to all of the winners of the 2016 Prime Minister's Literary Awards.

Fiction (joint winners):
Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin)
Lisa Gorton, The Life of Houses (Giramondo Press)

Sarah Holland-Batt, The Hazards (University of Queensland Press)

Non-fiction (joint winners):
Dr Karen Lamb, Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather (University of Queensland Press)
Sheila Fitzpatrick, On Stalin's Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Melbourne University Press)

Australian History (joint winners):
Geoffrey Blainey AO, The Story of Australia's People: The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia (Penguin Books Australia)
Sam Lipski and Suzanne Rutland, Let My People Go: The Untold Story of Australia and the Soviet Jews 1959-89 (Hybrid Publishers)

Children's Fiction:
Sally Morgan, Sister Heart (Fremantle Press)

Young Adult Fiction:
Meg McKinlay, A Single Stone (Walker Books Australia)

For more information, including judges' comments please see the website.

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