This week LWOTW is very happy to welcome the intriguing Mat Larkin, author of the newly released middle grade novel The Orchard Underground. Mat has a very inventive imagination – as I know from working with him on a project in the past – so I’m expecting some unusual responses … Read on with caution and delight …
Mat: When I was seven, I wrapped a small, brown, corduroy belt-loop in a note and left it on the kitchen counter. The note read: ‘Dear Mum, this piece fell off my pants. Can you fix it please? Love Mathew.’
That story was a lie. I cut it off with scissors. Don’t tell my mum.
The first honest fictions I wrote were little stories when I was around nine. They all had Doctor Who in them. I wrote them while wearing a duffel coat with a recorder in the pocket that I pretended was the sonic screwdriver.
I could tell you I got over that phase, but I now know someone who writes for Doctor Who and the envy is scalding.
Mat: A really good therapist once told me, ‘enjoy your dreams, survive your nightmares, wake up, walk away and leave them be. Your subconscious is out of your reach for a reason. Keep it that way.’
It’s profound, wise advice, and I absolutely never follow it. Dreams don’t make sense — that’s not what they’re for — but they’re so damn compelling, so tantalisingly just a fingertip beyond our reach that our big, twitchy, far-too-curious human brains don’t stand a chance to resist.
I still can’t make sense of them, though. Why would Daryl Somers even want me to have orang-utan arms for legs?
Imagination is play, and I lost the habit of play until my son was born. He taught me to write by asking me to get down on the floor and stare for hours at a spinning top, to clamber into a cardboard box with him, to draw wings on that box and fly in it with him to Neptune, to stare at Venus together until the actual real photons that bounced off another planet were lodged forever in our retinas. Space travellers we welcomed.
My son taught me to play, and to write.
Planning is creative. I plan a novel by playing with my characters, writing their backstories, wondering what’s around the corner of the last street of the world I just invented, writing all my plot points on system cards then shuffling them to look for better patterns.
I mean it’s also a load of financial, professional and record-keeping tediousness, but it’s easy to forget in all that to keep a creative element in the more mechanical parts of your creative practice.
Adults have been very nice about The Orchard Underground, and that’s very nice. But I’ve been visiting a lot of the middle-grade book clubs run by Melbourne bookshops, and there is no substitute, as a middle-grade writer, for sliding politely past the adults and talking to kids.
The kids I’ve met have been incredible. They’re engaged, thoughtful, creative, rowdy and very much full of their own ideas about my story and characters. It’s been exciting to hear girls tell me they love my female protagonists Attica Stone and Slotcar, but almost more exciting to hear boys tell me the same thing. Boys finding non-male heroes is a big deal for me.
So the highlight of my writing career so far is this drawing of Attica Stone, which was done on the spot for me at a book club. I can’t begin to describe what it’s like to see my character appear like magic on the notepad page of a ten year-old girl who loves her.
Here’s my list
Two years ago I was uncertain whether I could make this career work. I kept going. Don’t give up.
Ten years ago I wrote an entire novel that never got published, and thought that was pretty much it for me. It wasn’t. Don’t give up.
Even with a book on shelves I frequently have moments when I feel like I’m not as good as proper writers. I don’t listen. Don’t give up.
I got a contract for my first novel eleven years into my writing career, at age 42. It’s never too late. Don’t give up.
The first draft of The Orchard Underground was extremely ropey, and so is the first draft I’m working on now. Publishers expect this. It’s okay. Don’t give up.
I absolutely bloody love this job and never want to do anything else. Don’t give up.
Don’t. Give. Up.
I’m reading Terry Pratchett with my son at the moment, so: octarine.
You can follow Mat at matlarkin.com
Mat tweets @matchtrick
In LWOTW, writers share their thoughts about the craft and business of writing, with tips for aspiring writers and inspiration for all booklovers.
Vacen: I imagine that would be in grade one but perhaps not my best work. My first published story was written in 2009. It was a sci-fi flash fiction story written for an American e-zine.
In the stages of sleep, I love the fact that dreams are involuntary. Dreams today are still not entirely understood but they have been the subject for many writers, both scientific and academic. They have also been the stimulus for many famous stories. However, if I’m talking about hopes and dreams, having a yearning for something to manifest into reality, then I believe cherishing ambition from our imagination is vital for writers. But fantasising about the future won’t help us unless we work hard to fulfil those dreams. Of course, not all dreams come true, well, not always the way our visions might have created them in our imagination.
Speaking of imagination and forming new ideas, I believe it is the most creative resource we can own. Nothing is more powerful than our imagination. I can’t remember who said this but, if we can imagine it we can create it. True on most counts. And usually that requires a plan.
Ah, planning is a two-edged sword for me. Gardener or architect? I’m a gardener when it comes to a lot of my writing and not so much of an architect. So, I receive the seeds through my imagination. I plant them. I water them and watch them grow. The exception to that is screenwriting. I plan the script using a beat sheet. This works well for me when writing a feature film or short film script.
However, if I’m writing an essay for university then it is most definitely planned. Poetry and novels I allow to flow creatively.
I’ve had a few different highlights over my career so far. Signing my first publishing contract was a huge goal but the highlight of that came when I received my first box of books. #BoxOfBooksDay Yay!
Winning the 2016 Best Short Screenplay “Foiled” at The Good Dog International Film Festival was a highlight. Then receiving a commendation in the 2018 British International Film Festival was an amazing highlight.
Another highlight was having my #8wordstory up on the GOA billboards around Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
I balance my time between a few different forms of writing. Poetry. Novels. Screenwriting. Short stories. At the moment essay writing for a university is taking up a little more time than creative writing. However, I include my creative writing into my schedule each day.
The answer to this question keeps changing every time I’m asked it. And I’ll tell you the reason why.
A writer continues to grow and change psychologically, biologically, spiritually and socially throughout their life. Psychological change might include learning how to reflect on our personal experiences and successfully introducing change to our life. Of course, we don’t have control over biological change, but this change cannot be ignored because our body grows older. We are often challenged by that change. This change can affect how a writer might view his or her work, the subjects they write about and the way they write. Spiritual change is different for everyone. It happens to some early in their life and for others it comes as they mature or age. Over time our social and behavioural patterns change. Our culture and social norms might change, either involuntary or voluntary, but they do change.
So year by year my answer to this question changes because I’m changing.
The answer this year is…
You can follow Vacen on
To read more about the Starchild Series: www.starchildseries.com
And so it begins! The first instalment of the Last Word of the Week project is here.
In LWOTW, writers share their thoughts about the craft and business of writing, with tips for aspiring writers and inspiration for all booklovers.
Today I am thrilled to welcome the dynamic, witty, redoubtable Laura E Goodin as my inaugural interviewee.
Laura: I may have been…seven? It was about…my stuffed animals? Something like that.
That’s just about all I ever do think about: dreams, imagination, and planning. For me, the words are very nearly synonymous, and all three are as indispensible as breathing. My dreams and my imaginings are generally the first stages of planning for either my next real-life adventure or my next piece of writing. Or both.
While I’ve been lucky to have had lots of amazing writing adventures in a startlingly short time, from my first sale (a story accepted in Antipodean SF, although no money changed hands) to my first paid sale (a story in the Canterbury 2100 anthology from the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild), from my six tempestuous weeks at Clarion South to entering the hall to receive my PhD in creative writing. But I think the highlight among many highlights has been the four-city launch tour I did when my first novel came out in 2016. Friends and family members from Melbourne, Canberra, Wollongong, and Sydney came to celebrate what they all knew was the dream of a lifetime for me, finally come true. I was particularly overwhelmed by the turnout in Wollongong: we’d recently moved away to Melbourne, and I’d sort of wondered if I might have gone out of sight and out of mind. But the room was PACKED with people I loved and missed, and their goodwill and pride filled my heart to bursting.
I wish I could say it’s writing the next novel. But really, it’s keeping my editing business going and promoting my two existing novels. However, I’m taking steps to shift the balance back toward writing. I’ll never be less busy, but I’m getting to the point where, after a tough couple of years, I’ve got a bit of leeway to allocate my time in ways that favor the writing a little more. That said, I also maintain a complex program of extracurricular activities, some of which augment the editing business (I’m a professional fencing instructor and I teach writing whenever I get the chance) and some of which are necessary because they feed my soul a rich diet of magic and melodrama (that would be the bellringing), and some of which I do because I just plain like doing them (cooking and going to the gym would be examples).
I would sit them all down and I would stare at them until they began to shift uncomfortably. Then I would say in a hollow, sepulchral voice, “You will never be satisfied with what you write. You will always be convinced that everything you write is shit. You must write it anyway. You must. The shittiness is irrelevant.”
A rich, mossy, velvety green. The green of the soft, shaded carpet at the water’s edge. The green of contemplation and calm. The green I remember from the woods and mountains of my childhood.
LWOTW would like to thank Laura for her thoughtful answers, and also for being brave enough to go first! Love your work, Laura!
Links to Laura:
Laura’s web site: http://www.lauraegoodin.com
Laura blogs at: https://lauraegoodin.blogspot.com
You can find her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Laura.E.Goodin.Writer/
And Laura tweets @lauragoodin
Novels: Laura suggests that it’s best to search Amazon for After the Bloodwood Staff and Mud and Glass. Better yet, ask your local indie bookstore or library to get them in!
Something to Say is an occasional blog series showcasing authors and other creative types who have upcoming launches or events. STS #1 is thrilled to welcome Melbourne author and playwright Emilie Collyer, who has some news to share with us.
Read all about it at darebinarts.com.au/contest
Contest uses netball as a lens through which to ask the broad question: ‘How to be a woman’. The impetus came from two things. Firstly, as an adult, attending my stepdaughter’s club netball games when she was a child and the sense I had walking into that space with the other adult women – did I belong, would I be accepted? Just like back at school. That emotional see-saw of how we do and don’t fit into groups has such potency, no matter what age we are. I started researching netball and was fascinated to find it had been adapted from basketball in the late 19th century as a more ‘appropriate’ sport for women (no contact, being delineated into certain parts of the court, no running with the ball). So what started as an activity to control women’s bodies now lives on as a fiercely competitive female space. I love this contradiction.
I also love the responses I got from women when I said I was writing a piece about netball. Nearly everyone had a visceral reaction: they loved netball or hated it. The second impetus was that I wanted to write a piece where we saw different kinds of women being highly physical on stage. Women whose bodies we don’t often see in this context. The actors in this piece are in their 40s and 50s. One of the characters has a chronic illness and one of our actors is a wheelchair user. We are working with choreographers to create a movement score along with the text of the play which is new and exciting territory for me. The piece is definitely about endurance, in all kinds of contexts. This is probably the aspect I relate to the most, that circles back to that initial question and what it takes to forge out a place and identity as a woman.
My urge to create stems from an intersection of deeply personal existentialism and the rough justice of social structures. So the obsessions and frailties and dark recesses of my own being on the one hand, and things that infuriate or perplex me about the world at large on the other. While I also write prose and poetry, I think this is why theatre suits me so much. Theatre is a very socio-political form that is great for investigating and interrogating cultural structures. I write to nut through problems and externalise my neuroses (so they don’t eat me from the inside). In my writing for the stage, I am particularly interested in theatre as a site of potential transformation. I suspect some of this stems from a Christian (Lutheran) upbringing, attending church from a very young age and having that sense of ritual, cosmic mystery, dread and personal sacrifice as part of my psyche.
I look and listen for words and situations that strike me with a delicious or terrible incongruity. My plays will often be born from a single image or moment I have heard about or imagined. I then (usually slowly and very painstakingly) build a world around that to create a whole piece that can hold that moment. For example, my past play Dream Home was born from the words: ‘We’re going up.’ It was an exploration of suburban ambition, dreaming and terror via the lens of home renovation. People often describe my works as psychic spaces or dreamscapes. But they are always also grounded in character, relationship, situation and often humour.
Tenacious. Wonderer. Excavator. Multifarious. Verbose (see above).
To book for her upcoming play Contest, go to http://www.darebinarts.com.au/whats-on/contest-written-by-emilie-collyer
Emilie’s author photo by Ross Daniels
All Contest images are of Emily Tomlins by Sarah Walker
Really valuable list of diverse picture books (as in, picture books featuring diverse characters). Thanks to Picture Books Blogger!
There’s a theory of self-development called Ikigai* (see an explanation here) in which you can consider the intersection of four elements: what you are good at; what you love doing; what you can be paid for; and what the world needs. If you list items under each of these headings, and then identify the areas where your items overlap, then you will have found your “Life Purpose”.
Ideally, there will be one or two items on your list which feature in all four categories. That is, you will discover that you are good at cooking, that cooking is something you can be paid for, that you love cooking, and that the world needs cooking. Voila, you have found your life’s purpose: you are a cook.
There are of course weaknesses with this process, as there are with any technique that simplifies complex choices to make neat Venn diagrams.
I am totally good at ironing, and I quite like it (so soothing, meditative and useful…), and I guess I could take in the ironing of folk who need to have it done, and be paid for it. But I don’t see ironing as my life’s purpose.
Another weakness of this particular model, as pointed out by John Malesic in the New Republic (you can see the whole article here) is that it is based on a capitalist appreciation of value, and that it can lead to horrors such as exploitation in those areas where you do what you’re good at and love doing … but you don’t get paid. Go to the New Republic to see John Malesic’s critical and clear-sighted version of the Ikigai meme here.
Doubtlessly, simple-thinking techniques like the Ikigai meme might be of assistance, sometimes. This particular exercise could be useful as a time management technique, or as an affirmation of how you choose to spend your waking hours. At different times of the day, the year, or your life, you might need to prioritise one of the “like/good at/world needs/can be paid for” factors over the others. A classic example is that you prioritise earning money to live on over doing what you actually love doing, by undertaking an unfulfilling job. Another example is that you brush your teeth every day, even though you don’t love it, you’re not especiaily good at it, and you’ll never be paid for it (while the Tooth Fairy always comes through for those who neglect their teeth…how unfair!). We all know that oral hygiene has other rewards than $$$s.
This is especially true for creative and artistic folk (not the oral hygiene comment – the recognition of what our choices are). The value that the world assigns our work is often wildly removed from the time, effort and worth of our creative endeavours. I could be paid by the minute for ironing or gardening or dog walking, all of which activities I actually enjoy. I’d probably not be paid enough to live on, mind you. If I could have just a dollar for every minute I spend reading and writing, well – how many minutes are there in a year? Over 525,000? I’d be quite well off.
So why do we do it? Why do we spend so much of ourselves on a creative pursuit that will (except in very rare cases) always be undervalued by the society in which we live? One in which we can easily be exploited – “here, let me publish your story for free. It’ll be good for you in the long run”. Sure it will – maybe.
I wonder if another way to look at this conundrum is to consider the old notion of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need. In Maslow’s model, a person theoretically can achieve higher goals once their lower level needs are being met. For example, if you’re worrying about where your next meal might come from, you’re probably not wondering about where to buy your next house.
If we are fortunate enough to be born into (or to move to) a stable, affluent society, then many of our lower level needs are probably met within a manageable framework. I note that ‘creativity’ is situated at the peak of this hierarchy, as one of the self-actualisation needs. I’d question that – for me, writing is certainly not something that I indulge in because I have all the esteem and the self-esteem, all the money and the resources, all the love and the friendship, etc etc, that I require!
I believe that our needs as humans, and our decisions about how to prioritise our time, involve a much more fluid interaction between us and our environment. Rather than being the ‘surfeit dream of someone with a full belly’, to rephrase the old saying, creativity may be triggered by some of the most life-threatening situations. Creativity may indeed help solve some of the basic needs for life and safety, although admittedly it may also compromise our needs for love/belonging or esteem – not every creative output is well-received.
So why do we do it? We writers write because we are writers. It’s what we do, regardless of reward.
I read somewhere that you don’t become a writer; you discover you are one, and I suppose that’s what happened to me. People always talk about their love of books as a child, but I also had a love of stories and storytelling. So much so, that I often made up my own and told […]
Into bookshops, of course.
Scandinavian bookstores to be exact, some of which are worth the investment of several hours. Although all these shops have sections where English books are stacked and shelved in their dozens, I found myself drawn to the local language books. Here I confirmed that, for better or worse for us authors, potential readers DO judge a book by its cover.
The conventions of genre in imagery help us to distinguish crime from fantasy from romance from historical fiction from military memoirs from poetry, and so on. Classics with new, interesting covers (like those in the header image) live on the strength of their titles and authors. Newer fiction must usually play by the rules, although that doesn’t necessarily mean playing in the same well-worn rut.
For example, I like this new fantasy cover for the prolific (and wonderful) Brandon Sanderson‘s The Final Empire (first published 2006). This cover clearly references the genre but presents a more up to date, fresh, arty take on it. You could think that its first imprint was at least ten years later.
In a watercoloured, simplified way, all the genre markers appear. Fantasy city: check. Mysterious being: check. Spooky question to set up the fantasy premise: check. Weird misty atmosphere: check. Potential to adapt for the later books in the series: check. And is there a suspicion of snow on those towers … Jon Snow? GOT readers say: ‘my kind of book’, as do Harry Potter and LOTR folk. Probably, as do fantasy readers in general.
And here’s a novel clearly set in or around the time of the First World War. Clearly. It also features the poppy on the spine, so you know the genre even when it’s facing the wall.
It’s Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants in Norwegian. Even if we hadn’t noticed the guns and the sepia-tinted photo, that poppy gives it away. Are those soldier-photos and poppies clichéd? I guess yes, but they also act as immediate identifiers for readers who are eager to read something similar to books they have already enjoyed.
Now what about family sagas and romance? Evidently (from my observations), a reader wants to see a woman on the cover, most often with her back to us, contemplating her situation. Her attitude and costume communicate the historical period covered in the novel:
Many crime stories also feature women, usually with their backs turned to us, walking into danger. Women? Of course, I should say ‘girls’ for that genre 🙂
My own WWI novel will be published later this year, and I am agonising over what might make a good cover – to poppy, or not to poppy? – being the main question. Do I need a rising sun to mark it as Australian? And a woman in historical costume to signify that it is a family-based romance as well as a war story? My brains are on the rack.
If you have any brilliant ideas for what I could suggest to my publisher, please leave me a comment below!
PS All photos taken by me.
Good news, readers and writers!
Here’s an exercise that can help you get from an idea to a piece of flash fiction, from flash fiction to short story, and from a short story to a novel (or trilogy!).
It also works to reduce writer’s block and start your imagination. All you need to start is one word. Give yourself a minimum 10 minutes to try this exercise, and let me know what you finished up with.
Come up with a name. Just one name. [Betty or Blip or Foxy or Xianny, Miko or Tehuano or Dot. It doesn’t matter.] Write it down.
Give me FIVE adjectives to describe Blip. Just five, and as quick as you can. Don’t over work this part. [Blip is old, crabby, tired, inventive and smart.]
Answer these four questions:
[Blip lives in the twelfth century. She’s in a monastery. She’s trying to steal a scroll. She wants to learn to read.]
Who are Blip’s parents? Give me two more names. [Betty and Nomo.]
You have created a character and you know quite a lot about that character. Now write FIVE sentences to create a small story about your character.
Have a look at your five sentences. Now decide what, if anything, you as a writer can do with the results of your exercise.
For example, do your five sentences already form a piece of flash fiction? Do you want to write more about this character and her situation? Can you fill in more details about her parents, using the same technique? Can you create another character, using the same technique, and join their stories? Do you want to ditch the character, but work on the situation? Can you use what you’ve written as a back story to ground another idea?
Writing, for me, is a bit like creating an iceberg, that thing that you only see the top bit of. There’s a lot more backstory than ever appears in the final piece of work that is presented to the reader. Even if you never use the work you have done today, at least you have exercised your imagination and your writing skills. The best way to write more is to, um, write more!