MRP Guest Blog – Class Differences

Margaret River Press has kindly offered to host me as a guest blogger during May. You can read my first post, about class differences in Australia, here.

In other exciting news, my short story ‘Pigface’ is now available as part of the (excellently named) ‘Pigface and Other Stories’ anthology, published by Margaret River Press. You can learn more and buy a copy here. The collection is edited by Ryan O’Neill, and features the finalists of the 2018 MRP Short Story Competition. I’m thrilled that my story has found such good company!

Twenty Seventeen

I’ve been inspired by some excellent reflective posts by other writers recently, and I thought I’d look back at what I achieved last year from a writing perspective.

What I wrote

Produced in 2017

At the start of 2017 I had a couple of short stories ready for submission (as well as a novel manuscript). Over the course of the year I developed 8 more short stories to the point where I was comfortable submitting them. I wrote drafts of another 6 or 7 stories that are languishing in various unpolished states.

As the year went on, I found that the stories I was writing got shorter and shorter. Towards the end of the year, I was writing mostly flash fiction (under 1,000 words) inspired by competitions like the Digital Writers Festival Microfiction Challenge. This might have also coincided with a fairly busy period at my day job, leaving less brainspace for long fiction.

The fellowship/grant applications took ages, but one of them paid off, so that effort was worth it.

Submissions

Submissions by Type

In total I fired off 39 submissions last year, or not quite one per week. About half of those were submissions of short stories to Australian lit journals or short story competitions. The “other” category in the chart above represents international journals and reading events.

There is differing advice out there about whether it’s a good idea to enter writing competitions. Some say that the odds of winning a competition are much more remote than getting published in a journal, but I’m not sure I agree. The average quarterly Australian journal might only publish 16 stories in a whole year (4 stories per issue, 4 issues per year) so that still seems insanely competitive. My experience was that most journals and competitions tended to prohibit simultaneous submissions (ie submitting the same piece concurrently to two outlets), and took about as long to consider my work before notifying of rejection/acceptance (usually 2-3 months). This year, I don’t plan to change significantly the mix between journal submissions and competition entries. I might get more selective about which journals and comps I submit to.

Outcomes

Outcomes 2017

I received about 30 rejections. Not quite the 100 per year one is supposed to aim for, but it’s a start!

Of the rejections, most were form rejections with no specific feedback. Four were personal rejections that either contained really useful feedback, or confirmed that I’d just missed out on an acceptance and encouraged me to submit again. These ‘nice’ rejections really did feel almost as good as an acceptance.

Outcomes by month

You can see that the first half of the year was a hard slog. And then in July, I made 4 submissions, of which 2 were ultimately successful (representing a residency and a lit journal publication).

Last year I earned a grand total of $30 from my writing. My effective hourly rate… is not worth thinking about.

As of today I still have a couple of pending submissions. I’m happy to say that at least one of these should lead to a publication outcome during 2018.

Reading

I tried to read mostly Australian fiction last year. Books I read and loved included Goodwood by Holly Throsby, A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe, The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill and The Dead Aviatrix by Carmel Bird.

Looking back, looking ahead

At the time, the successes seemed few and far between. But I’m happy with what I achieved in 2017. I also had fun engaging with fellow writers, and got some really useful feedback from practitioners who I admire. I hope that I ended the year as a better writer.

While it would be nice if I could get a bit more traction in 2018, maybe a few more publication outcomes, I feel like I laid some groundwork that will stand me in good stead.

I’d love to hear how your year was, for reading or writing. Let me know in the comments!

Writer-in-residence applications: tips from a non-expert

I’ve secured a residential fellowship at a writers’ retreat. Sweet times! Next March, I will enjoy two glorious weeks of tranquil settings, quiet contemplation, and uninterrupted writing time. The experience certainly will not involve procrastination or crippling anxiety about not wasting this great opportunity I’ve been handed.

A writing friend suggested that I share some tips on applying for these sorts of things (thanks, May-Kuan!). But just because I was successful with this one application, that hardly makes me an expert. I applied for two other residencies this year with no joy. So, if you read on, your results may vary, I take no responsibility for the quality of the advice, etc etc.

In my non-writing career, I read a lot of job applications. That’s been instructive, and I have a couple of theories about what might have helped my residency application get over the line.

First of all, I chose a project and a pitch that would help me stand out. That really comes back to closely reading the application guidelines. These usually contain clues about what the assessors are looking for. The things I noticed in the guidelines for this opportunity were:

–An expressed willingness to consider writers with different levels of experience and background. This is not a given; and it’s music to the ears of any early-stage writer not yet “on the brink of actual emergement”;

–Welcoming writers from different parts of Australia, even though the residency is in NSW;

–Looking for different types of work (novels, memoir, short stories etc).

So, I pitched myself as:

–An early career writer (I stated this clearly, and didn’t try and talk up my experience or publication history);

–From South Australia;

–Working on a themed short story collection.

It’s serendipitous that I happen to be working on a themed short story collection right now. But I could also have chosen to pitch a political/lit fic novel – a future project that I have some clarity around. But look at the assessors’ report: of the 250 applications received, over 150 were for lit fic novels, and only a dozen or so were for short story collections. All other things being equal, my base in South Australia and the nature of my project helped me to stand out.

Of course, other programs will have other criteria. So, look for the clues in the project you’re applying for. Even better, look for the right opportunity: the one that seems tailor-made to support the project you’re working on right now.

When it came to describing my project, I really had to wrestle hard to define what my collection was about. I realised that it’s not enough to say: I’m writing a bunch of stories and they’re all really great and they’re about different things. That’s not a hook. So I took time to re-read the work I’ve completed, to see what themes ran through all of the pieces. I realised that they all deal, in some way, with issues of control (of oneself and others) and what happens when control is lost. That realisation is going to help me write a better collection, aside from helping me with this residency application.

I also thought hard about how I could explain why the residency would matter to me, and to my project specifically. Two weeks of writing and editing time is useful for any writer. Saying so in a residency application won’t get you too far. So I thought about what specifically I would do in that two week period. In my application, I noted that:

–I’ve been working on this project since late 2016 (true!)

–I have outlines for most stories and I’m about 60% of the way through first drafts.

–By early 2018—the time of the residency—I should have completed drafts of almost all stories and so I would use the residency to edit, re-work, and form the pieces into a cohesive collection.

It’s still only aspirational, but it’s a bit more directed than, “Gee, I’d really like 2 weeks of writing time…”

Hey: it’s a numbers game, and there’s a good deal of luck involved, and of course the quality of one’s writing is important in securing one of these things. We’ll all have more rejections than acceptances. But why not try and give yourself the best chance?

On Lionel Shriver and Diversity in Writing

I’ve started planning for my next novel. The world is forming up as I go. We’re talking political spec fic here: Australia in 2048. It’s a more diverse Australia across a number of aspects. And I want that diversity to be reflected in my characters.

And that got me thinking about Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival back in September. I’ve read that speech through a couple of times, as well as Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s emphatic response. And now that the dust has settled, with some trepidation, I thought I’d tell you all what I reckon.

As with many provocateurs of the “political correctness gone mad” school, Shriver sets out to defend a proposition that’s pretty much unassailable when reduced to fundamentals: that writers should have licence to write outside of their own lived experience. To do so, she constructs a straw man (or perhaps an LGBTQI straw woman of colour): namely that the PC brigade are on a quest to shame writers who try and write from any different perspective.

If the thought police are really trying to enforce such a prohibition, then point me in the direction of the barricades! But I’m not seeing anyone actually put that a fortiori case: that a man should never write a female character; that a person from one ethnic background should never be able to write from the perspective of another.

Abdel-Magied herself confirms this when she writes that “[Shriver’s] question was – or could have been – an interesting question: What are fiction writers ‘allowed’ to write, given that they will never truly know another person’s experience? …There is a fascinating philosophical argument here…

But Shriver never gets to the heart of that argument. And neither, I think, does Abdel-Magied. She writes: “It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story.” Instinctively I tend to agree. But if so, why is it not always OK?

Abdel-Magied suggests a reason: because “said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience [will] never be provided the opportunity.” I get the sentiment here, but I’m not sure it’s a compelling reason to discourage writers of all backgrounds from trying to write diverse literature.

If we look at the world as it is, do we really want to restrict the privileged – who do enjoy disproportionate access to publication – to writing only about their own experiences? Shouldn’t we be doing what we can to encourage and support variety – to develop a market for all kinds of writing, no matter the identity of the writer – in the hope of developing markets and tastes that marginalised writers can then leverage? Perhaps this sounds like some sort of ugly cultural trickle-down. Even so, I’m not sure that the risk of a (white male) author making money is the strongest argument that could be advanced in support of the proposition that writers should take extreme care when writing outside of their lived experience.

I think Abdel-Magied misses a more basic and fundamental risk that arises when we write characters with backgrounds different to our own: that the potential for bad writing is enormous. Just as I wouldn’t try and write a novel in a genre I don’t read without extensive research, how could I presume to write a character from another cultural background without doing the same? But the danger in the latter case extends further: If I’m writing, say, an indigenous character without having done my homework, I don’t know what I don’t know. And it’s entirely possible that my publisher and my readership (likely also not indigenous) might also fail to realise the misrepresentations and flaws in my depiction. I’ve therefore done my readers a disservice, and it also just seems wrong. It’s flat-out disrespectful. It is disrespectful. And that’s what Shriver glosses over.

So what’s a writer to do? Well, lots and lots of research, for one thing. Long discussions with members (multiple) of any group you intend to represent in your work. Feedback on early drafts from those same people. Everything necessary to avoid writing bad, unrepresentative, shallow tripe. That’s a start.

What I’m less certain about is the circumstances in which an author should seek permission from members of the relevant group. Shriver would ask: if a man wants to write a female character, to what peak body of women should the request for permission be addressed? But a more grounded counter-example would be: if I wanted to write an anthology of stories told by a particular Aboriginal group – say, the Pitjantjatjara – then of course I should ask for permission from that group before embarking. To do otherwise would be slimy. It would be cultural appropriation.

But what if I just wanted to create a character with Pitjantjatjara heritage, in a contemporary story set in a city and with no overt connection to Pitjantjatjara land, stories or dreaming? Would I need to ask permission to do that? What if the character sometimes spoke in their language? These are not easy questions.

I’d be interested in your thoughts. Do you think I’ve missed something here?

As for my new project, my protagonist is female, likely of Indian heritage. So I’ve got a lot of homework to do…