Interviews and Trauma: a part or apart?

‘It’s become quite loud in here,’ Kimina Lyall says. True. I turn my head from the wooden booth where we sit remembering my entrance to this bar less than an hour ago. I was the only patron until Lyall arrived to make us two. But now there is a din of multiple conversations. It’s apt that these are surrounding us, these conversations. The word bubbles up frequently along the stream of our discussion and it’s something that Lyall emphasises about interviewing people who have experienced trauma (and interviewing generally). ‘There’s a danger of asking questions as opposed to having a conversation,’ she tells me. ‘You go in with your questions and you end up just asking what you think you need to know rather than letting the conversation evolve.’

Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.
Kamina Lyall emphasises authenticity, honesty and a conversation when interviewing people about traumatic events. Thanks to Marc Wathieu for use of this image Graphic Conversation under Creative Commons.

Lyall has an unusually wide perspective on the coverage of traumatic events. She was a journalist with the Australian for 11 years as both a nationwide reporter and a foreign correspondent. In 2004 (when she was the Australian’s Southeast Asia Correspondent based in Thailand) she found herself on a beach as the Boxing Day tsunami approached. Despite her own trauma Lyall reported for the Australian in the hours, days and weeks after the event. She later wrote Out of the Blue: Facing the Tsunami, a book about her experience. She’s now a Director and Company Secretary with the Dart Centre Asia Pacific (a project of Columbia Journalism School, ‘dedicated to informed, effective and ethical news reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy.’ [quote from]).

‘The number one thing that happens when people are traumatised is that they’ve lost control. That’s what trauma is,’ says Lyall. ‘If you go to the psychological literature the trauma first aid is to allow the person to make a choice. “Do you want a glass of water? Do you want a juice? Do you want a blanket or a cardigan?”’ A conversational approach to interviews (rather than questions and answers) is more aligned with this first aid. ‘Give the person that you’re interviewing as much control as possible and remind them that at any time they can take charge, take control and talk about something that’s important to them or not answer a question,’ says Lyall. ‘Just reinforce that it’s totally their choice, that at anytime your interviewee can end the interview.’

Lyall also empowered those in her book with, ‘a 100% guarantee that they will see everything I write that concerns them.’ She didn’t promise to make changes but did promise to have a conversation if those people had any problems. ‘I think you’ve got to have the right nose and have the right motive [in deciding whether to show your interviewees your work or not]. If you’re talking to a person who’s just lost their family in a disaster then I think the benefits outweigh the risks.’

I wonder how a writer can avoid further distressing (or ‘revictimising’) someone who’s already experienced trauma went interviewing them about the event. Are there some topics that are better avoided? ‘It’s so easy for us to make assumptions about what the other person feels and then censor ourselves on the basis of those assumptions,’ says Lyall. In her experience what writers worry about may be the last thing that worries an interviewee. Reflecting on the Boxing Day tsunami she says, ‘I know what my pain point of that experience is… No one would ever guess what it was.’

Lyall also warns against assumptions around journalism itself. ‘As journalists we tend to flagellate ourselves and think that we are bad people doing bad things – going in and probing in all the wounds and just extracting it for our own selfish ends.’ She recalled one assignment about a traumatic event many years ago. Her interviewees were reluctant and she gave them the opportunity to veto her article before it was published. They not only allowed her to publish it but also were so happy with her words that they thanked her, and went on to send her Christmas cards several years afterwards. ‘For some people in some situations being published – having their story being told in a powerful truth (that’s their truth) – is a healing act,’ she says. She was glad to learn that lesson early in her career. ‘It’s not all bad providing you start with those principles of the other person in control.’

So much of a journalist’s success in ethics relates to authenticity says Lyall. ‘Sometimes as journalists we want to add drama.’ We are storytellers but we need to be careful about the words we choose. Lyall cites classic examples in phrases like brutal rape (‘Like there’s such a thing as a non-brutal rape?’) likewise tragic death and appalling crime. ‘Just be authentic,’ says Lyall. Do this in storytelling as well as interviews. ‘Be honest [with your interviewees] about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it… If you’re honest then you can have trust. And if you’re not, then people will read it straight away.’

After Lyall leaves I sit in our booth for a moment reflecting on her words. It’s not just the conversational din of those around me din that echoes Lyall’s advice, but also it’s the idea of now being a part of a shared experience. I came here as a lone writer daunted by the prospect of interviewing people who have experienced traumatic events. I leave with a keener awareness that a writer is just a part of something much bigger.

On stories, seasons and the future of long form

‘It’s a little overcast and there is greenery on the trees – which is lovely,’ Anna Hiatt says of her New York City surrounds. ‘We’ve had the longest winter.’ As she speaks I look through my window onto a suburban Melbourne fence. Autumn leaves fall from vines in the dappled morning sun. Hiatt and I are at the end of a long chat about the future of long form. Hiatt is a freelance journalist (The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters and more), long form publisher (The Big Roundtable) and research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In February she published a long form piece about the future of long form. The piece, All the Space in the World, provides a high-res snapshot of our current publishing and distribution milieu. Central to this, of course, is the influence of technology.

This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site:
This photograph was taken by Anna Hiatt on Amsterdam and W78th Street in New York City, Monday, April 21 2014. You can see more of Hiatt's photography on her site:

‘In the beginning was the word, a.k.a. the story,’ she tells her readers. ‘And somewhere along the way … the word lost out to the machine …’ The piece that follows explores aspects of long form publishing via five case studies: the influence of devices and publishing platforms (via Playboy), alternative venues to traditional ones (via Narratively), the appeal of interactivity (via The New York Times’ Snow Fall), amplification (via Longreads and Longform) and changes to reading habits (via Pocket).

Hiatt says that the drive to research the topic stemmed from her work at The Big Round Table where she and her editors (Michael Shapiro and Mike Hoyt) often asked themselves who else was out there and what they were doing. ‘It wasn’t from a business strategy perspective,’ Hiatt explains. ‘We were just curious who the characters were and who the actors were in this field. Basically we wanted to know who our fellow partygoers were.’ Hiatt applied for (and was awarded) a research grant from the Tow Centre. Her initial goal was to try to understand if Snow Fall (published by The New York Times in 2012) was going to be the future of long form.

In many circles Snow Fall is seen to be a turning point. The online piece (a story about skiers caught in an avalanche, written by John Branch) includes a number of interactive elements (video, animation, audio) and other graphical enhancements. It was made specifically for online consumption and (as Hiatt notes) was met with much enthusiasm. In fact Jill Abramson (who was Executive Editor of The New York Times when Snow Fall was published) proposed ‘snow falling’ as a new verb – initiating a lexicon to describe this particular type of (online) storytelling. Yet although Hiatt’s research started at Snow Fall, ‘it became pretty clear very quickly that Snow Fall (in the grand scheme of things) was just a blip on the radar.’

‘What was most interesting wasn’t in fact the intricacies of a single piece design,’ she says. ‘It was that we’re at a milestone in storytelling. It just happens to be long form.’

Hiatt’s research piece (All the Space in the World) is published online. Yet it’s a publication of words. There are no videos, no audio and no interactive elements embedded within the writing. She does include an interactive timeline, but unlike Snow Fall, this timeline is provided as a separate chapter to accompany the piece (rather than the reading).

Limited resources were an aspect of this editorial choice (The New York Times had a full-time team working on Snow Fall for months). However Hiatt also admits to valuing words over interactivity. ‘We’ve been doing this for millennia,’ she says. ‘We don’t need things to click to hold people’s attention. If we do, we haven’t told the stories properly.’ Indeed when I ask her what interactive elements she may have included in her own piece (had the resources been available) Hiatt responds by critiquing her writing. ‘I feel like any element [I nominate] would really be me saying that I just should have explained it better [in words].’

I put to it to Hiatt: pieces like Snow Fall – are they really long form or are they part-game or part-website? When does it become a multimedia event rather than just a good piece of writing? ‘I think when it starts to get into the way,’ she says. As a New York local she had both the print and electronic versions of Snow Fall available to her the day it was published. ‘I had an iPad. I was moving my hands all around it and that was really fun,’ she says. But then she put the iPad down and read the article in the paper.

Hiatt’s inclination is one that echoes my own. To me, one of the pleasures of reading long form is being immersed in the story (which, ironically, the multimedia ‘immersive’ elements often counter). If the writing is good I won’t stop for video, audio or other interactive elements. That’s not to say that these new ways of presenting information online are wrong, or have no future. It’s just that they’re different and not really what I consider long form.

‘One of the things that’s so wonderful about radio is that you can sit down and listen and you know exactly the form in which you’re going to get it,’ Hiatt says. ‘One of the things that’s hard for me about going online is that you run across a link – across a page – and you don’t know what you’re going to get. And that (for me) is terrifying. I don’t want to be bombarded.’

As I reflect on my conversation with Hiatt in the following weeks I realise there’s something in our geographical and seasonal contrasts that resonates: something in the conflicting notions of change and consistency. There will always be new growth, blossoms, warm days, orange leaves, bare branches (and even snow fall).

And there will also be stories and words.

How stories come to be

I draw a line on a sheet of paper. On one side I write the heading ‘Fiction’, the other ‘Non-fiction’. I conjure up elements of writing to categorise into each. But I find that most of the elements are transferable. A poem, for example, can cross both categories, an essay need not be entirely linear. A lot of fiction is built on the foundations of truth and a lot of non-fiction is improved with the tools of fiction. But where the two clearly diverge is in the content of the story. Fiction can be entirely made-up (or based on a mix of truth and made-up). Non-fiction must be drawn from the events of real life. A fiction writer ready to start a new story need only sit down and muse. (I don’t mean to underestimate this act. I know it takes skill.) By contrast a non-fiction writer has to find their story and the elements within it. As Lee Gutkind says, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’

Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.
Think of your story as the Amazon; a place with complex life forms, shallows, depths and perhaps a few piranhas. Thanks to jangoertzen for use of this image under creative commons.

So where do we find these stories? And how do we know when we have a good story? Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Monash University has worked as a journalist and editor for over 30 years. He says that how you find stories will depend on your genre but that ultimately, ‘You need to be curious and you need to be questioning.’

As Birnbauer notes, some writers find stories by watching the rhythms of their local neighbourhood. We can also look at local council websites, and do things like Internet searches for interesting clubs and associations. (One of my favourite stories in this category is Susan Orlean’s 2006 New Yorker piece on Pigeon Fanciers). We can also look at media reports, which Birnbauer says, ‘are not an end point but can be a starting point.’

Writers who are more prolific (journalists in newsrooms for example, or those seeking meatier, potentially long-form topics) widen their story-sourcing nets. Birnbauer says many writers check lists and hearings at Courts, and Civil and Administrative Tribunals. There are also parliamentary inquiries and committees. ‘There are squillions of lesser-attractive-to-the-media decisions that are really good stories [in these sources],’ says Birnbauer. Don’t just look at the outcomes of policy decisions or court cases like these, he says. ‘What veteran reporters and feature writers do is take those decisions, go backwards and ask, “Well how did it come to this?”’

Potential stories need multiple layers. When Birnbauer qualifies a story he considers a number of elements, ‘I start off looking at what information is realistically obtainable, what I would like to get, what I will get and what won’t I get,’ he says. ‘I’m looking for a human face, for an opportunity of observational writing (where I can be descriptive), for tertiary or secondary characters or witnesses [as well as links to] news and opinion.’ He also establishes what’s available in background documents to help better understand the person, people or issue and its history. For example documentation relating to court cases, transcripts, witness statements, company records and speeches made in parliament or elsewhere can all flesh out a story.

‘You have to start out doing pre-research research,’ says Birnbauer. ‘You have to be tough and ask, “Is this a story that I’m going to be happy spending a few weeks pursuing? Is this story worth doing?”’ In the context of long form your ‘pre-investigation’ needs to be particularly rigorous. You need to make sure that you have enough elements to make the story engaging.

Birnbauer refers to parallels made between long form pieces and a river, ‘You have deep, still waters – which is your background,’ he says. ‘Then you’ve got something that’s like rapids where the action, or the tension increases, leading to a kind of climax or highlight. And then it drops away again,’ he says. ‘You’re looking for elements that make up that flow.’

In drawing this parallel Birnbauer calls on Jon Franklin whose section on narrative in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction bolsters this metaphor (by encouraging us to choose more complex rivers):

‘If you’re going to compare your narrative to a river, then let it be a river that rises high in the thin air of glacier-carved peaks, collecting its strengths from springs and freshets and flowing, murmuring, down mountainsides… a river that pauses there and then moves again, slowly at first and then gathering speed and broadening into shallow rapids… moving now in the company of piranhas through a noisy jungle full of brightly colored birds, monkeys chattering in the overhanging trees...

If your story is to be like a river, for heaven’s sake don’t let that river be the Mississippi. Let it be the Amazon.’ (p137*)

Sometimes a good story idea takes years to come into being. In an interview on Birnbauer advises new writers to, ‘Be annoying and don’t give up.’ Knowing whether or not you have a good idea, ‘really comes down to the determination of the individual,’ Birnbauer tells me. ‘There are stories that just won’t go away in one’s mind – even if you’ve pursued an interview for a long time and been rejected,’ he says. It’s just a niggling in the back of your head.

‘A compelling story with a message that would help a lot of readers understand something is hard to let go of,’ Birnbauer says. In some ways finding stories, ‘is an intuitive feel, [a sense] that there is a story there, that’s probably in the public interest and needs to be told,’ he says.

Both fiction and non-fiction rely on plot devices to keep their readers reading. Many non-fiction writers are captured by the plot-like serendipity behind real life events – just like a trip on the Amazon river these stories can be surprising, terrifying, delightful, mysterious and more. But no matter what you choose to write about, or how you find your story, central to it all says Birnbauer, ‘is that it’s just a great yarn.’

* It’s well worth sourcing

Franklin’s book

and reading the whole passage.

Social situation, business corporation: Promoting your work on Facebook

On one level, Facebook is a social situation (a virtual place where writers can combat some of the isolation our environments bring). There we can chat, network, share ideas, research and find inspiration. But Facebook is also a business tool. It has potential to deliver us to new readers and (in the case of self-published writers) to generate sales. Navigating Facebook offerings requires some deft though – both in terms of free (‘organic’) opportunities and paid ads.

Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.
Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.

‘If a stranger pitches something to you on a Facebook ad it’s going to be viewed as spam (unless it’s immediately obvious that it’s something you will be interested in),’ says Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore). He’s used paid ads to promote Tomely’s work with some success. ‘It works fairly well, but when people are talking about us organically it works a hundred times better,’ he says.

The minimum daily budget for a Facebook ad campaign is USD$1.00 per day, the minimum cost per click is 1 cent. Facebook’s big drawcard is that you can target your ads to specific demographics. Facebook’s challenge is that the person you’re serving the ad to isn’t necessarily online to consume your writing (they’re there to see what their friends are up to). This advertising environment contrasts sharply with ads served in the context of searches. Ads served on Google respond to the information you put into a search. Ads served on Facebook, as O’Brien says, are more often than not, ‘some horrible, stupid, annoying interruption.’

Because of this, targeting your Facebook ads and defining a strong pitch is central says O’Brien. ‘Make it obvious that what you’re advertising is something that person will care about and explain simply why they need to care.’

O’Brien noticed significantly different responses to his paid ads promoting Tomely as a bookstore and those promoting Tomely’s book bundles. ‘The bundles did a lot better because it’s easier to understand and more shareable. You could explain it in a couple of sentences, a sound bite, “Save money. Get in quick. Get all these books,”’ he says. Describing Tomely required more nuance (read more in my post Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books)

Consider the reaction to your organic posts before spending on a paid ad. ‘If an author can’t get an organic buzz around what they’re doing a paid ad isn't going to help at all,’ says O’Brien. An ad needs to be engaging to get picked up. ‘If you can’t get anyone to pick it up just by telling them, then throwing it in their face and paying for that still won’t help,’ he says.

And as I learned, if you don’t set up your Facebook presence properly you won’t be able to maximise organic posts.

There’s a difference between signing up to Facebook and setting up a Facebook page. Choosing the wrong one can have implications.* A page is simply a presence on Facebook that those who’ve signed up to Facebook can ‘like’. It enables you (as the page owner) to write posts, but doesn’t allow you to engage with others unless they’ve specifically engaged with you. A page is more like a platform for very limited narrowcasting.

Signing up enables you to actively participate in the discussion. In signing up you are essentially creating a personal Facebook page (which you can make into your writing-promotion page by putting all privacy settings to public). Unlike when you have a page, you can post to others’ walls, comment and engage.

If you like your privacy, you might be inclined to set up a page rather than sign up. However there’s a crucial difference between the two: when you have a page, and you post to it, Facebook doesn’t deliver all of your posts to all of the users who’ve liked your page. In order for that to happen, you have to pay money. The only way for cash-strapped writers to maximise organic posts on Facebook is to sign up.

Facebook’s odd mix of social situation and big corporation makes its a tricky forum to promote the work of writers. But you can get some benefits – and even use its ambiguity in your favour. Paid Facebook posts are displayed both in the timeline and the sidebar. ‘It’s the ones that are interspersed in the timeline that are more popular,’ says O’Brien noting the blurring lines between advertising and editorial.

‘People don’t immediately peg to the fact that it’s an ad (which is really cheeky). I don’t know if that’s a strategy that’s going to work in the long term – but for the moment it does.’

*Once you’ve set up a page in your name it’s possible to change it to a personal account - but there is a drawback. By getting Facebook to change the type of user you are you’re very likely to lose your ‘likers’ (the page equivalent to ‘friends’).

On not writing

I’m a firm believer in the mantra just write. Whenever I’m hovering in that space between writing and not writing I apply it. Just writing unlocks so much of a writer’s work. It gives you the prose and the thoughts to hone. It gives you a base. It’s a 100% improvement on not writing. But lately I’ve been just writing and finding myself nowhere. I haven’t written anything new for three weeks. I know others might think that’s forgivable but I’m quite disciplined and (for me) a three week gap is pretty bad. I generally don’t procrastinate. I sit at my desk and try to write. One of the reasons I write this blog weekly is to help maintain the discipline of writing regularly. Yet two weeks ago, when I decided I had a problem, I quietly changed the About page to describe this as a fortnightly blog.

The story is there... somewhere.
The story is there... somewhere.

Admittedly my not-writing had been on the back of a dozen deadlines and a super productive time as a Hot Desk Fellow at the Wheeler Centre. Initially I gave myself a few days off writing and put more energy into other things (in particular, my non-writing paid work). Yet each time I sat down to just write I found myself in the same scrabble of words and letters again. A week ago, when I was stumped by the words on my page I simply didn’t post anything. My name is Pepi and I’m not writing. It was the first time since I started this blog.

I worried about it. I tweeted about it. I talked to my friends about it. I distracted myself at the Melbourne Writers Festival. And then I just gave up on it.

Since the ancient Greeks, pantheons of literature have played with the idea of a writer’s muse. In my mind the word conjures images of maidens wearing robes and clutching musical instruments (as well as more modern versions – still women – romanticised and objectified by their writerly men). The first muses were goddesses (hence the robes and feminine overtones). So it is said that muses ‘sing’ to writers and artisans. I say piff to the idea that they’re goddesses. I think muses are our inner voices. But I do reckon they’re singing to us. We just have to listen.

All the while I wasn’t writing I could only think, ‘I’m not writing!’ One evening last week I pondered somewhat bitterly what today’s post could be about. ‘I could call it On not writing,’ I thought mirthlessly to myself. Straight away the words and images came forth. My muse had been singing to me all along.

I often find that’s the case. After I’ve done my research on a topic there’s usually an element that bubbles to the top and that’s where I start. Like in this piece on Old Time dancing in Outback Magazine. (I loved the fact that these energetic dances were occurring in the most remote places). Or in this post on Killings where I was so embarrassed by my first response to an air-kiss by comic artist Sam Wallman that I made it the centre of the story.

That’s what this period of not writing has taught me. The story is always there. The muse is always singing. It’s just that sometimes you have turn those songs upside down and inside out to get the words on the page.

In their shoes

I often wonder what it’s like to be in an editor’s shoes. Not only am I curious about the lives of others, but also I have a desire for professionalism and teamwork. I want to make publishing as seamless and as easy as possible. I figure it’s the least I can do in the writer:editor equation. Whenever I submit to a new publication I try not to inadvertently drop a stone into my editor’s shoes. I seek out its style guide and if there isn’t one, I make my own by noting the publication’s spelling and punctuation choices. I check my work against my pitch and try to write my best. I worry about things like grammar too. But Jo Case Senior Writer / Editor at the Wheeler Centre (and author of Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s) says, ‘Grammar is the least important because it’s the easiest to fix.’

It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.
It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.

I’m heartened when she tells me this. But I still wonder, are there things we commonly do that can make life difficult for an editor like Case? She says that writers don’t commonly make the same mistakes, but there are a few things we could avoid – things might that set an editor’s feet tapping impatiently.

Using all caps is a no-no for example, ‘An editor has to take them out and actually retype them,’ says Case. Likewise putting spaces where there ought not to be spaces or using single quotes when the publication uses double quotes. These can be addressed with a ‘find and replace’ but they still require manual intervention and editorial time. Case advises against using acronyms too, ‘Because you often have to be an insider to understand them.’

Another difficulty for editors is when writers fail to meet the agreed word count. ‘Sometimes writers think if they go a bit over it doesn’t matter so much because the editor can just cut it out. But you can’t just lop off the end of an article. You need to find the spot to cut it,’ says Case. This again, can take some time. Stick to the word count – particularly if writing for print.

After receiving a submission, the first thing that Case assesses is how a piece flows and whether it works as a whole. She says she most frequently adds more punctuation to improve the rhythm (things like dashes, semicolons and commas). ‘I’m just punctuating it as you would speak it,’ she says. Before submitting, always read your work aloud.

In ensuring the coherent argument of a piece, Case finds herself tinkering with introductions and conclusions the most. Sometimes the piece doesn’t flow because writers fail to include something important or obvious. ‘Because you know it in your head you might forget that you haven’t written something in, or that you took it out,’ says Case. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know. ‘If there are complex ideas in there, make sure that they are explained,’ she says.

Little niggly things are easy enough to fix – but it’s good teamwork to have them addressed before you submit. Of course, the most important thing from an editor’s perspective is an interesting idea that’s expressed in an interesting way, says Case. ‘Because that’s what you can’t fix.’


Writers often talk (and write) of the spectre the blank page invokes. The blinking cursor, the pen filled with ink… We say it fills us with terror. In truth we know that once we write there’s nothing to be fearful of; if we write we’ll eventually get to the point of having written. Despite its strength, the terror of the blank page is mercifully brief. Add the task of providing photos however, and for many writers the terror can multiply. Of course in the new media galaxy, we’re all hooked-in multi-media type folks. We know that we have to be able to operate across platforms. Sure, I can use a digital camera. Compared to my film-based days these gadgets are a breeze! They manage light well, they allow more room for error and I can see the results as I take them. But I realised recently that despite my photography training (some time ago I admit), when I head out to take photos of people I get anxious. I know not to panic, but actually, I think I do. I find the whole thing awkward (probably because I don’t like being photographed myself). I often flee the scene the moment I know I have one good photo and then feel regret for having limited my options.

With Steven Pam's advice I hope to improve my technique! Thanks to Paul of Congleton for use of this image, Diary 26th of February 2011, under Creative Commons.
With Steven Pam's advice I hope to improve my technique! Thanks to Paul of Congleton for use of this image, Diary 26th of February 2011, under Creative Commons.

‘By taking more shots on the day, you can increase your odds of getting a good one. Plus if you mix up the angles and poses, you’ll give yourself more material to choose from later,’ says Steven Pam of Smartshots. Pam’s taken hundreds of photos of people in his photography business and has the process down to a fine art. He says one of the keys to good photos of people is in managing expectations. ‘It’s like a doctor with a good bedside manner – they make sure to tell you what they’re doing as they go along,’ he says. Explain that the vase in the background is distracting and then move it. Take the time to set up your shots and tell your subjects that you both need to work on the shots together. ‘Encourage them to feel that it’s a collaboration,’ he says.

Both you and your subjects should allow 30 to 40 minutes for a shoot (we were talking about photos to go with a profile in this instance). ‘Tell them it might take a while but it’s better for both of you,’ he says. Help your subjects understand why you’ll be taking so long and why you’re taking so many photos. Explain that in many of them their eyes may be looking in the wrong direction or blinking or you might just press the shutter at the wrong time. Pam says it might be worth explaining that you’re a writer first and foremost. This could help to relax you and your subject, giving you the mental space to focus on the shots. ‘There’s a temptation to act like a big pro, but a bit of humility can actually help to break the ice,’ Pam says.

Pam asks his subjects to tell him if there’s something they’re particularly worried about showing in a shot. And when people voice a concern he’ll do his best to reassure them by committing not to include it (ie if people don’t like their teeth he won’t coax them into a giant smile). He’ll also explain how something (like an unloved scar) could be removed or de-emphasised in postproduction. (Although, that’s not always an option for those of us who are submitting raw files. It’s worth discussing this possibility with your publication’s Art Director before your shoot).

In the same way that writers take time to plan the structure and flow of their work, Pam takes time to set up his shots. ‘Move the crap out of the background,’ he says and use your first ten to 20 frames in each set-up for tests. Make sure your subject knows that you’re doing this (so that they can relax). Once you’re both comfortable, getting some good photographs will be much easier.

Take lots of photos too. In the scenarios that I describe (photos to accompany a story) Pam suggests at least 12 to 25 shots for each photo you need. Take plenty of each set up and take plenty of different set ups. Practise will always help (with friends is OK, but with strangers is probably better). Give yourself opportunities for this by joining a local photography group (on a site like

Writers, Pam notes, have to churn out ideas, ‘That’s a bit like take more pictures,’ he says.

The inside of a memoir

Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a small paperback door. The title page, publication information and prologue are curtains that gently billow us in. The first paragraph locates us and introduces us to its narrator. Soon we are joining another - learning from their life experiences, mapping their challenges and achievements. That memoir draws from real life is part of its appeal to readers. But what is like to write a memoir, to define the story in the reality of the everyday? Over the past few years Jo Case, a writer and editor (currently Senior Writer/Editor at the Wheeler Centre) has been working on Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s. I ask Case how she overcame what I imagine is a big challenge of writing memoir: having a 24/7 immersion in her subject. ‘The first thing I did was a very rough chapter plan,’ she says. Although her plan changed over time, it still gave her broad direction.

Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a door. Thanks to nino** for this image, Through the Door, under Creative Commons.
Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a door. Thanks to nino** for this image, Through the Door, under Creative Commons.

While following that direction, Case also allowed herself some freedom in her first draft. ‘There’s a bit of a filter when you’re writing but I just tried to write what I was going to write and then go back and edit,’ she says. Once she had her story down Case looked for prose that was extraneous (the proverbial darlings). ‘There were little bits I had in there that I liked in terms of what they said about the characters in the book. But they weren’t actually necessary and they weren’t actually telling you anything that you didn’t see elsewhere or that you really needed to know,’ she says. Even after she sent her self-edited manuscript to her editor, Case estimates a further 20 thousand words were both cut and added.

Writing memoir raises the question of when and how to include other people. Case wrote a piece in Meanjin about her biggest challenge in this context: writing about her son. But there were other character portrayals to be considered too. ‘I would think about the fact that the writers who I admire don’t write with a view to being nice. They don’t write with a view to being mean either but there’s a certain amount of courage in there,’ she says. Case told the story as she saw it in her first draft. It wasn’t until she was editing that she gave rein to her anxieties and conscience about specific characters.

Like many writers Case had days when everything she wrote seemed bad to her. ‘I am so critical of myself. That was one of my biggest hurdles when I was writing,’ she says. She had periods of inactivity when she was convinced that her prose was poor, either because it was impossible to write or because it came too freely. At these times she drew on her knowledge of craft. ‘I knew that you have to write crap and then write through it to get to the good stuff. But it’s one thing to intellectually know that and another to actually deal with the fact that you’re creating words that make you feel like you’re no good.’ Nevertheless Case did dealt with it and now has a respected book to show.

For Case, self-belief was a challenge that related not only to her prose, but also to her genre. ‘I felt really narcissistic about [writing memoir]. I felt embarrassed when people would ask me what I was writing... It felt like the cheesiest thing to be doing. And I don’t feel cheesy about the book,’ she says. Memoir is not without its detractors. But Case overcame these concerns by studying her genre carefully. She wrote her conclusions in a popular post on her blog, Problem Child: In Defence of the Memoir.

In talking to me she sums up her philosophy about what makes a good memoir and writing in general. ‘I like reading books where the author clearly hasn’t made up their mind about what kind of perspective they’re trying to give you. [It’s more like they’re] exploring questions than trying to give you an answer,’ she says. Case kept this top of mind while writing. ‘I tried to keep thinking that I should be learning. I tried to keep questioning myself and to not just write things as they happened but to think a little more deeply about it – to be unafraid to leave things open,’ she says.

Which is an engaging way to close a memoir really… leaving things to resonate in its readers’ lives.

Social limits

A challenge to being an aspiring writer in the new media galaxy is in building a platform. These three words refer to being active in social media rather than writing well, generating good ideas, being approachable or reliable. As much as I love the tweets and enjoy Facebook, the words build a platform always evoke swirls of frustration in me. They rest on the notion that a writer active on social media will soon yield a huge virtual platform. A place from which to spruik their message to hordes of eager readers/buyers. Mmmm.

I’ve thought this notion dubious for some time. Not only do I have a sense that social media platforms are becoming saturated, but also I have pondered the limits of social media as a ‘platform’ for emerging writers. Many say it’s an asset to establishing a writing career but I’m not yet convinced. Two weeks ago, in a post about my fundraiser I demonstrated the limits I found (and these were despite assistance from influential Tweeters). My old boss, Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive and AIMIA National President was an early adopter to Twitter. When he recently noted its limitations he had me listening.

Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.
Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.

‘In the earlier days (maybe two years ago when everyone was new to Twitter) everyone was out to find new followers. Everyone would follow people quite easily,’ O’Neill says. Back then a person could be strategic about generating followers. They could devise logical strategies to draw them in. ‘It would be quite achievable to get ten or twenty or thirty followers in a day just because people would sign up quickly,’ says O’Neill. But now? Not so much. These days most people think they have enough followees in their feed.

‘I’m personally really reluctant to follow anyone,’ says O’Neill, describing himself as somewhat mercenary. ‘It’s nothing personal. If I see lots of tweets from someone that are not relevant to me, then I’ll just unfollow – so that my tweet stream is interesting to me all the time,’ he says. Most of O’Neill’s 1,800+ followers were obtained in his first year on Twitter, the rest have just dripped in, on by one. It used to be different.

‘The classic way to manufacture more followers is to get someone who’s really popular on Twitter to retweet (or to mention you),’ says O’Neill. In the early days this would yield followers who presumed that you had something in common with the retweeter. (The hashtag #FF ‘Follow Friday’ is a part of this culture). ‘You’d get 100 followers straight away but now you don’t. You get maybe two or three,’ says O’Neill.

‘Part of [this challenge] is how Twitter handles retweets now,’ he explains. ‘Before Twitter had its inbuilt retweet function you used to have to do an RT (a manual retweet) and a manual retweet has a higher visibility of the person who’s retweeting,’ he explains. This would alert potential followers that the retweetee had the same interests as the retweeter. O’Neill notes that the more-recent inbuilt retweet function maligns the name of the retweeter to tiny font, and renders their endorsement far less influential.

If you want to draw attention to someone’s Twitter presence you would be better to include their @ handle in the body of the tweet, says O’Neill. More than that, tell the reader what’s in it for them. ‘It needs to be a simple and clear message and be obvious what it’s for or what it will do,’ he says.

I’ve interviewed a few publishers over the past year, and while they are all adamant that good writing is central to getting published, they also admit that a social media ‘platform’ can help. From an independent publisher’s perspective a bigger platform can simply save them time (in the same way that a flawless manuscript can). The more you can contribute from a marketing (and editing) perspective, the more attractive you are to them. A larger publisher stated clearly that many writers don’t get involved in social media. However she noted that the authors who do make an effort via social media can be more successful in getting reviews and attention.

So I suppose we all have to persist.

Goodwill hunting

In March this year I undertook an unusual project that merged long form non-fiction and fundraising. I tried to sell my long form article After Shock (about my experience of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan) to raise money for victims. It was an idea that appeared in the lead-up to the second anniversary of the disaster. Once I had the idea I didn’t feel I could ignore it. I owed it to the people of Northern Japan to at least give it a try. My goals were to raise money for the Japan Red Cross and raise awareness that there is much work left to do in Japan. With the second anniversary as my signpost I aimed to leverage peoples’ curiosity about my experience into a purchase of the article. All royalties would go to the Japan Red Cross.

I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

It was punt, and I knew it. No one knows what’s going to take hold in the zeitgeist and the odds of success were low. But as this was a fundraiser I knew there’d be some goodwill and it was worth a try. My strategy was to focus the attention in one week (the week of the anniversary) and ask other people and organisations to promote it. I had no budget but I did have time.

I sent an email to friends and colleagues asking them to promote the fundraiser on their social networks. I also sent more personalised emails to people and organisations who were either interested in Japan, long form non-fiction or writing/reading generally. I sent tweets and got retweets, plus many friends and colleagues wrote their own tweets and Facebook posts. If it wasn't for these people and organisations I wouldn't have had a penny to donate. So a big thank you everyone who helped promote the initiative. These included high profile organisations like the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Wheeler Centre, the Emerging Writers Festival and JETAA. I also approached influential tweeters like Yoko Ono and David Grann (don’t ask, don’t get!). But I didn’t get any retweets from them (and I can appreciate their hesitation given that I am a stranger to them and not a registered charity).

I even managed to get an interview with Lindy Burns on my local (Melbourne) radio station, ABC774. Burns broadcast my web address at least twice and during the 15 minute live-to-air interview she made my goals clear to her listeners. She also sent out a retweet after the event. (Thanks again to Lindy and the ABC team!)

Here’s all of the exposure I managed to achieve:

  • Various messages posted in:
    • Twitter feeds of at least 53,000 users.
    • Facebook feeds of at least 10,000 users.
    • Interview broadcast to between 10,000 and 20,000 listeners in my home state of Victoria.

This totals around 83,000 points of exposure to potential buyers (53k + 10k + 20k). Because I can’t know the exact numbers let’s be conservative and say that I managed to get the message in front of around 60,000 people.

The response I got (as measured by traffic to my website, comprised in the order of 135 visits. That is, of the 60,000, 135 decided to learn more.

66 of the 135 went to my website on the first day of promotions (and the day I was broadcast on ABC774), 41 went to my website the next day. Within four days traffic had returned to its usual (non-fundraising) amount. I don’t know how many people went directly to the article on Amazon (that information isn’t available).

These numbers say a lot about the challenges of marketing long form non-fiction in this format, as well as the limitations of social media as a viable platform for writers. Because of the huge goodwill, my message was exposed to 60,000 people. Yet I received 135 visits to my site. That’s a return of 0.22%.

And how many copies did I sell? 24 (yes, twenty-four). That’s a return of 0.04% on all that social media exposure. Or, if we’d like to be more generous, a return of 17% on the traffic to my website.

The picture with this article shows a bank draft for 9,585 yen. It sounds impressive but actually, it's only around 100 Australian dollars. But even this is not how much I finally raised. Despite all that goodwill, exposure, time and effort I raised a grand total of US$28.33 for the Japan Red Cross. The rest of the AUD$100 in the bank draft is my own. I’ve paid this against the anticipation of future royalties because I’ve decided to continue selling this essay as a fundraiser indefinitely.

There were clear weaknesses in my strategy for this fundraiser. For example, I got the idea a week before the anniversary, so there wasn’t a lot of lobbying beforehand. (Yet all in all I spent at least three days, full-time, getting the message out there). The amount of royalties I made was also limited by my location in Australia. Kindle saturation is low here and Amazon grants only 35% royalty to sales within Australia (which is most of my sales) US sales would have yielded 70% in royalties.

Furthermore there would be a resistance to buying an e-book by an unknown writer. I hoped the fundraising aspect would offset that (and perhaps it did). But I wonder how difficult it would be for emerging writers to sell their long form without this goodwill?

I share this information because I promised to let everyone know how my fundraiser fared. But also, as a case study, I think this says a lot about the rhetoric versus the reality in selling our long form non-fiction online. Plus it shows the challenges in harnessing social media to promote our work. Still, we did manage to raise a small amount and for this I am extremely grateful to all those whose goodwill enabled this. Thank you so much everyone!!

I have since decided to continue to donate my royalties. So if you want to help out it’s not too late!

If you found this post helpful, be sure to read E-books: starting with a big bang.

E-books: starting with a big bang

New media technology empowers writers to avail their work to billions of readers and tap new sources of income. Well… in theory anyhow. The truth is it’s difficult to reach readers and get an income. If you simply publish they will not come. For any chance of readers (and returns) you’ll have to do some marketing too. But how does a lone writer with no marketing budget promote their new e-book? The common advice in writing communities includes sharing via social media, getting reviews and getting yourself and your work profiled on traditional media. These are all good strategies. But it isn’t until I put the question to someone outside of the writing community that I realise there are good ways and bad ways to apply these. Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive, AIMIA National President (and, full disclosure, my old boss) draws a useful parallel between marketing e-books and marketing apps.

Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.
Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.

Concentration is at the core of app marketing. ‘You want to get a real peak of downloads in one go so that it flies up the charts because you get noticed,’ says O’Neill. Getting noticed means the opportunity to be featured on New and Noteworthy charts – places that app buyers (and e-book readers) regularly frequent. A concentration of marketing activity can also help get your work into the zeitgeist. If people are exposed to your message via different sources they may soon become curious and download or discuss it themselves. This is another component of app marketing: ‘trending’, which can be carried over to e-books.

‘The easiest way to get trending is to get all that attention bundled as opposed to drip-feeding it over time,’ says O’Neill. He calls it the big bang theory of marketing. ‘The big bang theory of marketing is to work out what you can do and do it all at once. You spend all your media in one big go,’ he says. Concentrating all of your marketing activity to a single day or a single week is the difference between standing in a crowd lighting little sparklers one-by-one or blasting your message above that crowd through a single firework.

Writers with no ‘marketing spend’ will need to gather their gunpowder nimbly. ‘Part of marketing your e-book would be having the book [or information about it] in as many free places as possible,’ O’Neill says. He cites as one example. Free sites like this give you a chance to be discovered. ‘Especially if you do the meta tagging and descriptions correctly,’ says O’Neill.

Consider also who can promote on your behalf. Taking the example of my recent fundraiser, O’Neill suggested asking the Red Cross to promote it or retweet about it. Asking for retweets is particularly easy, ‘It’s definitely an appropriate way to go about promotion because you’re asking someone to do something in the medium,’ says O’Neill. (Do a logic test first however, because it needs to make sense that this person or organisation would retweet). Calling on friends and family for their pyrotechnic assistance will also help. ‘It’s getting other people to amplify it for you rather than you having to do all the work,’ O’Neill says.

As a professional digital expert O’Neill knows the value that search engines can bring. ‘Search is definitely going to play a role and search optimisation should play a big role if you don't have a media budget,’ says O’Neill. First decide on a page or domain where you will concentrate all of your marketing efforts (for example mine is Then use search optimisation techniques to get that page ranking highly on search engines like Google (this is a complex venture, so I won’t try to explain it here: try this PDF instead ). You may even want to invest in a paid campaign (but take care to set it up correctly as these ads can cost more than your royalties).

‘In the product development phase app developers will ask things like who the audience is and whether there is a need and a demand for it. If there’s no immediate need or demand they ask how they will create that demand,’ says O’Neill. These are the kinds of questions that will define the avenues on which you market your e-book. What’s it about? Who would like to read it? Who needs to read it?

The trick to big-bang marketing is preparing all of this information in advance, making the contacts and setting up the day, or week for all of the marketing to happen. As with handling explosives you will need to take particular care and concentration. But this might be the difference between a blast of sales or a disappointing implosion.

A contractual obligation

Looking from a tall city window I see the uniform shape of panes in the building opposite. Each gives me a little scene (of desks, chairs, shelving and cabinets) in a cookie-cutter tableau. I see a world of difference between these offices and my humble desk at home. It’s a distance from ‘business’ that is typical of writers. I even nurture it: I vary my hours daily, I don’t have a filing cabinet and some days I start work in my pajamas. But there’s one thing about business from which distance is non-negotiable and that is understanding contracts – particularly for writers who want to be paid. Shrinking newsrooms, merging publishing houses and the proliferation of free content all sit on the not-so-great side of the income-earning ledger. On the other hand new initiatives like digital-first or digital-only publishing houses and print-on-demand technology have been encouraging. For some writers there may be potential income in exploring in these new spaces but Alex Adsett, Consultant and Literary Agent with Alex Adsett Publishing Services, says we should check the fine print.

You may be contracted for life if you don't take care! Thanks to Michael Cory for use of this image Empty Office under Creative Commons.
You may be contracted for life if you don't take care! Thanks to Michael Cory for use of this image Empty Office under Creative Commons.

‘Writers should be aware that a lot of digital-first or digital-only contracts still try to get everything,’ she says. By ‘everything’ Adsett is referring to rights (such as film rights, translation rights, audio, merchandise, serialisations, the right to on-license, print rights and more). ‘If [the publisher is] going to do something with them then that’s fine and that’s always a decision the author needs to make... But if they’re just some little company that just wants to sell your e-book then they shouldn’t be getting that broad a range of rights,’ says Adsett. Limit rights where appropriate (for example with a digital-only company writers should try to license only digital). Keep in mind what’s appropriate. (Writers often take care with regional rights, but in a digital setting world-rights might be needed given the costs of geolocating / blocking and the small profit margins involved in publishing).

Those of us excited by the opportunities new technologies bring need to understand the affect of these on the old ‘out-of-print’ clause. Traditionally this clause reverted rights back to the author when a work was no longer in stock. ‘With e-books and with print-on-demand technology, that’s just not realistic anymore. A book is always going to be available for sale,’ says Adsett. She warns that the out-of-print clause applied to digital or print-on-demand technologies could mean a publisher holding rights to your work in perpetuity (even if they have no intention of making that work available).

Adsett says that good publishers are applying new ‘reversion’ clauses to cover out-of-print in both e-book and print contracts. In these contracts out-of-print is defined as either relating to a sales limit (for example, if less than 50 or 100 copies are sold in a 12 month period) or it’s defined as relating to an expiry date (in the form of a fixed-term contract). The dwindling sales or the expiry date trigger a reversion of rights back to the writer. On self-publishing platforms Adsett says we should check for similar ‘escape’ clauses. She warns that publishers refusing to negotiate fairly on rights may be a part of a new numbers-oriented breed that has emerged alongside new technologies.

‘There was always a high cost to publishing. You had to actually believe in a book to put your money into the printing of it,’ says Adsett. Because of this, traditional publishers invested in editorial, design and marketing. They contributed their expertise and hard work and in doing so they gave writers a stamp of quality. By contrast, new technologies have reduced the cost of publishing significantly. Some new publishers are adopting a more hardnosed model. They sign up hundreds of pieces and invest in little or no editorial.

In this scenario if one in 100 pieces sell through, the numbers add up and the publishing business (and one writer) is successful. But it’s a poor deal for most writers says Adsett, ‘All of the other 99 authors have signed away their rights for almost nothing, for almost no sales, and not a lot of chance of getting their rights back.’ If you send your work into that cookie-cutter framework you’re likely to be worse off. You may even find yourself sitting, in a suit, at a desk, from 9 to 5 in one of those tall office buildings making back the income you lost.

Contracts may be complex, but our contractual obligation is simple. ‘Even through all that excitement of [getting a publishing offer] think about what you’re actually signing and why,’ says Adsett.

Lost in translerpretation

That I don’t know the right word in my native tongue shows how fraught this activity can be. I’ve googled ‘journalist translator’ and other variations of these words for weeks. The results are not what I’m looking for. Finally one link takes me to another and I realise my problem: what I’m trying to understand is the process of working with an interpreter. Although related, translator and interpreter are two different things. So just in case you’re as naïve as me, let’s get this difference sorted: a translator works with a printed text and translates it into a different language (also of printed text), an interpreter works in an interpersonal situation interpreting real-time speech from one language to the other.

Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.
Interpreters and translators: language-bridgers when we research across the pond.

Nic Low, Manager of the International Writing Program at Asialink, says the process of working with an interpreter can be challenging. ‘When writers get together they’re some of the most excitable and talkative people you could ever hope to meet. It’s in that fluid exchange of ideas through conversation that connections are made [and] that parallels in your work are formed,’ he says. Introduce an interpreter and that fluidity can feel a little swampy.

‘It’s like being underwater. It all happens in slow motion because after everything you say you have to stop and wait while the interpreter translates,’ says Low. Yet a change of pace can also be helpful: waiting half a minute between exchanges gives writers the opportunity to formulate stronger questions. ‘It can [also] allow for some of the most succinct and concise conversation,’ Low says.

I try to imagine this painstaking exchange in the context of the questions writers must ask. ‘Some people find it incredibly difficult. It’s like having an intimate conversation with someone but having someone else in the room,’ says Low. I feel the awkwardness of putting the hard questions to an interviewee, and then picture that with an interpreter. Are there times when an interpreter fudges or slightly rephrases something contentious or culturally sensitive?

‘My observation is that their training is all about staying neutral,’ says Low. If you ask a personal or culturally challenging question, your interpreter must also ask it. Qualified interpreters are fluent in both languages. This means writers working with these interpreters should feel confident not only about their questions getting through (eventually) but also about the quality of responses. ‘With a good interpreter there won’t be any broken English or odd turns of phrase. It’ll all come to you crystal clear in either language,’ says Low.

The emphasis on neutrality means that interpreters can’t be expected to help navigate the cultural terrain. What you need for this is a fixer. ‘This is someone who can walk you through the potential pitfalls and can show you how you can do what you need to do in a way that’s respectful,’ says Low. These folks have connections and ideally some knowledge in the field you’re researching in. They’ll help you get around a foreign country, linguistically, culturally, geographically and bureaucratically.

There are various grades to interpretation. Cost will depend on your location and other factors. At times Low says, a top-grade interpreter can charge in the order of AUD$700 to $900 per day. ‘But it’s very unlikely that any [writers] would be able to afford them,’ he says. Instead he recommends we find our own champions. ‘If you’ve got someone whose English you trust, who can come along with you voluntarily, that’s the most feasible way of doing it,’ he says. [See also this post on International Research].

Low advises writers on the Asialink program to learn as much of their soon-to-be local language as possible before leaving Australia. No matter how organised or cashed-up you may be there will invariably be times when you will be without an interpreter (or getting by with the help of someone who has English as a second language). He also tells writers to, ‘be constantly signaling your intention to communicate, your intention to listen and to understand, to not show impatience or frustration… Be very present in your listening, maintain eye contact to give the kind of phatic communion signals that we give in everyday conversation.’ These non-verbal signals can take you a long way.

Dealing with translation may sound far less complicated but Low warns us not to underestimate this work either. ‘There is a real creativity to good literary translation,’ he says. ‘It’s not about creating your own work but it’s about having sufficient expertise, depth of knowledge and being a really good writer yourself.’ Literary translators need an ear for a writer’s rhythm and emphasis, and for the music of language.

Appreciating the difference between translators and interpreters has captured me in a semantic loop. I realise that many times I’ve said ‘lost in translation’ when ‘lost in interpretation’ would be more correct (but something more is surely lost in applying the words correctly!) For now I’m going with ‘lost in translerpretation’.

For a great long form read follow this link to Nic Low's piece about the Christchurch earthquake in the Griffith Review.

The sound of wise words

If I stop typing now there is relative silence. There’s no editor talking shop while pacing through my room. No fellow writers sit nearby. I can’t overhear someone conducting a difficult phone interview the in the next cubicle. I don’t get ongoing circulars to all staff about new research tools or resources. I can’t ask a respected sub a quick question about grammar. I can’t readily get a colleague to help me find the right structure or lead. Sometimes this silence is golden. All I can hear is the wind in the trees, birds tweeting above and children playing at the nearby school. But other times – when the silence is due to my isolation and inexperience – it’s all too frustrating. It’s the silence that comes from not having the information, skills or expertise to move forward. It’s the silence that’s got me to thinking about the idea of a mentor.

Without a mentor my ear might as well be made of stone. Thanks to Anja Jonsson for use of this image Ear of a stone head under Creative Commons.

With the downsizing of newsrooms and publishing houses more and more writers are working in isolation. ‘They want someone who can guide them long term [and who] they can turn to more than once,’ says Sally Williams, Marketing and Membership Coordinator at Writers Victoria. Williams runs Writers Victoria’s twice-yearly mentorship program. ‘When we open applications we get absolutely swarmed with people, and in between… we get loads of enquiries,’ she says. So it seems I’m not the only one interested in a bit of professional guidance.

According to Williams, the key to a successful mentor-mentee relationship is being prepared and totally clear about what you want to achieve. ‘Don’t just come into it and expect the mentor to be able to wave the magic wand and make things better. [Writers need to set] clear measurable short and long term goals that they can achieve.’

‘If we didn’t have that goal-setting process I could see the relationship falling into a weird, useless exercise in not much,’ says Samantha van Zweden, freelance writer, blogger and bookseller. She has a mentoring arrangement with writer, editor and reviewer Laurie Steed. Steed and van Zweden’s mentorship evolved organically from a professional association. But other writers find mentors by approaching directly or going via a program like the one at Writers Victoria.

One of the biggest challenges for all writers in mentorships is in meeting expectations says Williams. ‘A few mentors will really crack the whip and have expectations of what they think the mentee should achieve by the next meeting.’ Williams has often seen writers struggling to keep up. ‘The mentor offers the guidance but the writer still has to go away and do the hard yards,’ she says.

For van Zweden these hard yards are part of the benefits a mentor arrangement can bring. ‘That’s to do with accountability. Because I know there’s someone rooting for me, I want to reach that point. He won’t expect something of me that I can’t do,’ she says. So when Steed sets her a challenge she does everything in her power to achieve it.

Right now van Zweden and her mentor are working on preparing pieces for publication and stretching her multi-sensory descriptions. ‘He’s encouraging me to use all my senses and setting me specific exercises to work towards that.’ Steed has also helped her with goal-setting, improving her writing and pitching stories.

The Writers Victoria program involves six one-hour sessions. The first is an overview mapping expectations and goals. ‘From there each session is about looking at progress made and focusing on any weak spots that the mentor might identify in the work (or parts that the writer’s really struggling with),’ says Williams. Van Zweden and Steed take a less formal approach. They’re based in different states and prefer as-needs email correspondence.

A paid mentorship can cost anywhere between AUD$50 and $100 per hour depending on who your mentor is. (It’s $60 per hour in the Writers Victoria program). There are also mentors who aren’t paid, or who are paid in kind by mentees who undertake research or other tasks. Van Zweden says that it’s important for mentees to show their appreciation, ‘I know that it’s very generous for [Steed] to give me a mentorship in terms of time and brainpower. So I make [the tasks he sets] a priority, to show it the respect it deserves,’ she says. And let’s not forget that there’s something in it for mentors too. ‘By identifying problems in someone else’s work and helping them through it [the mentors are] learning about their own writing,’ says Williams.

In addition to providing guidance, Steed has helped van Zweden build her confidence and expand her perspective. He’s helped identify weaknesses in her writing and even at times, what music to listen to (they both write to music). He’s also acted as a champion for her work, and made relevant introductions. ‘The doors that are opened because he’s there… wouldn’t be there otherwise. I’m eternally flattered about how much he’s gotten behind what I do,’ she says.

All in all Williams says that mentorships hum along nicely, bringing benefits to all parties. ‘There have been a lot of ‘ah ha’ moments,’ says van Zweden of her exchanges with Steed.

‘Ah ha!’ - sounds like just the words to fill my silence of inexperience.



Help me raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims

Last week I wrote a post about remembering 3/11. You can read more about my experience of the Japanese Earthquake and make a small donation to earthquake and tsunami victims by downloading my long form essay.

All royalties on sales this month (March 2013 inclusive) will go to the Japan Red Cross Earthquake and Tsunami fund.

More details are outlined on my website

If there’s anything you can do to help spread word of this fundraising effort I’d be most appreciative.


On story and spin: Remembering 3/11

It’s that time of year. I want to add the word, ‘again’ – but the repetition is pre-emptive. Today is the first time I mark the anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake outside of Japan. Last year I went back for the official memorial service. Two years ago, when the earthquake struck, I was living in Sendai, the closest city to the epicentre. As a long standing graduate of Media Studies I thought I had a good understanding of how the media machine worked. Yet it took my experience of being in that disaster to grasp these processes fully. Being the reported-on rather than the reporter increased my sensitivity to telling a story fairly, to checking facts and being considerate of those I’m writing about. Story is crucial to non-fiction but there is a fine line between story and spin.

The perspective from where I was standing when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck.

I never missed my media more than in the days after the earthquake. My partner and I were in the eye of a media storm. We had no electricity, no phones and no internet. We couldn’t speak Japanese, so talking to our neighbours was out. We sat, ignorant and in darkness while screens across the world glowed with information about what was happening around us. The earthquake struck at 2.46pm Japan-time (4.46pm in Melbourne). It wasn’t until 9.00pm that we learned a huge tsunami had inundated communities less than 10 kilometres away. This was five hours after the event.

Of course, when our electricity and internet was restored a few days later I was hungry for information. The first thing I did was go to the websites of English language newspapers. It didn’t take me long to wish I hadn’t.

It wasn’t that these newspapers were giving me dire information. I already knew the situation was pretty grim. It was that these newspapers were taking a sensational angle on the information they had. They were highly selective in what they chose to publish, and from my quiet perch in Sendai I could finally see the play between story and spin. I could understand it too: the readerships of these papers (and some of their reporters) were safely ensconced overseas.

Radiation fears from plant explosion’ is a harrowing headline to read when you’re less than 100 kilometres from said plant. I remember looking for information in detailed articles like this while I was in Sendai. But I realised that though I was among the most in need of information I was not the target audience. The reports weaved information with schadenfreude and titillation. For me, the spin went in the wrong direction.

I read about a colleague reported as missing when in fact he wasn’t. I heard stories of TV journalists insisting interviews with locals were conducted outside one of the few significantly damaged buildings in Sendai city. These reports invariably ended with speculation. They were guaranteed page-turners investing an appetite for the next day’s news. The best advice I got that week was from an Australian consulate official. He told me not to look at news sites but instead, the embassy sites. These were produced by people in the business of providing information. Understanding this difference between news and information was a revelation for me.

In the past week I’ve seen reports anticipating the second anniversary of the earthquake. Again I am reminded that distance makes a difference to spin. So many of these English-language reports are focused on the worst and most tragic of the situation: a story about lingering radioactivity, another about suicides.

Watching and reading these with the perspective of someone who was there heightens my awareness of my duties as a writer. Lee Gutkind says, ‘you can’t make this stuff up,’ and serious writers of non-fiction try not to. But what we choose to focus on is critical, the way we frame our questions, select our words and write up our stories will always put a spin on things. Writers, take care.

Not surprisingly I am super sensitive to reports on this particular event. It brings up fears and memories that at times I’d like to forget. I don’t appreciate the negativity put on the futures of people I care about. But as a writer I am grateful for what will be an annual reminder of the need for balance. It will always encourage me to use my words respectfully.


Help me raise funds for earthquake and tsunami victims

Make a small donation to earthquake and tsunami victims by downloading my long form essay about my experience of the earthquake.

All royalties on sales this week (11 to 17 March 2013 inclusive) will go to the Japan Red Cross Earthquake and Tsunami fund.

More details are outlined on my website

If there’s anything you can do to help spread word of this fundraising effort I’d be most appreciative.


The feedback loop

It’s interesting that the Macquarie Dictionary defines feedback in the mechanical manner first, ‘1. The returning of a part of the output of any system, especially a mechanical, electronic or biological one, as input, especially for correction or control purposes, to alter the characteristic sound of conventional musical instruments, etc.’ It’s the second meaning that usually defines my general use of the word, ‘2. An indication of the reaction of the recipient, as of an audience.’ Feedback is a big part of my writing process. I regularly get writer-friends to read my work. I’m part of an ongoing writers’ workshop. My partner is made to read almost everything I write. I look at the stats of my blog to establish the popularity of some posts over others. When I write for online publications I seek what feedback I can from readers’ comments. That loop of feedback and refinement pushes many writers along.

Maybe this device can help process feedback?Thanks to greetings.from for use of this image True Bypass/Feedback Loop Pedal (WIP Pedal 1) under Creative Commons.
Maybe this device can help process feedback?Thanks to greetings.from for use of this image True Bypass/Feedback Loop Pedal (WIP Pedal 1) under Creative Commons.

This week my writers’ workshop met in a wood-lined Melbourne café among the clatter of cups and saucers. Joining the din of the crowd we gave our writers feedback. We had one of those sessions that divided the group. Our usual quorum of five was down to three – so it was a hilarious case of two heads banging with contrasting opinions and one writer listening carefully to the debate. Thankfully I wasn’t that writer. I wondered what was going through her head.

In the first year of my writing course I had a teacher who was loath to give specific feedback. We’d read something together and she’d give an opinion, then in a moment she’d take a completely different position. Sometimes she’d say nothing at all. It was the first class of my first year and I wanted to Learn To Write. As long as my teacher didn’t tell me what was right and what was wrong I thought my goal to Learn To Write would be thwarted. I found the class infuriating and dropped it after one semester.

Years later an administrative glitch forced my return to the second part of that class. I’d completed the entire course bar that one semester. I resented more time with the seemingly undecided teacher. I went to the class with my brow pre-furrowed. I wasn’t the only first-year dropout forced to return, familiar faces from years ago confirmed my notion that this was a pointless class.

But by the end of the second semester the teacher became one of my favourites. In the years that intervened I’d learned more about writing. I understood now what she had been trying to teach me in first year: that there are essentially no rules to this process – the important thing is to write. Just write and see what comes. Don’t feel success is in mimicking other writers. Trust your voice and understand that what you’re writing will not resonate with everyone. By refusing to give a specific opinion (rather than accepting many varied opinions) this teacher was trying to nurture our own unique voices, creativity and judgement.

I struggled with an essay earlier this year. It wasn’t finished (and I knew it) but I wanted some forward motion on the damn thing. So I muddled an ending I wasn’t sold on and sent it out for feedback. I got the most diverse set of feedback I ever have. Opinions were polarised and the essay even sent a few people on thought tangents ‘Blah blah…sorry, wrong place!’ one wrote after a few pars of commentary. My desk seemed as noisy as the café where my workshop meets.

As my fellow feedbacker and I continued to disagree in the cacophony of the café I took pity on our writer. How fraught the process of getting feedback is! In this sense, the dictionary’s priority of a mechanical definition is more appropriate. Sometimes feedback is just noise. It’s your inner voice that speaks the loudest. That’s where you must return.

Looking at literary culture

There’s a slight reflection on the bookstore window. In it I can see the streetscape - pedestrians, a café and a tree behind me. But I ignore the reflection and peer into the store. Hundreds of books sit on shelves and tables and in potential buyers’ hands. These books have made it. They’ve been written, edited, designed, published and now put on the shelves of a bookstore. The work has been done, right? ‘Why is it that some books are the books that everyone talks about and everyone reads, while other books just languish?’ asks Beth Driscoll, Lecturer in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. It’s a question we all ponder, and one that Driscoll is particularly interested in. She’s curious about the place books have in society: what they do, how they work and how they circulate.

Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.
Looking at literary culture (all of it). Thanks to Pat M2007 for use of this photo Decisions, Decisions! under Creative Commons.

‘It’s pointless to take a book in isolation and study it for what qualities it has [and how those qualities alone] create its value,’ says Driscoll (noting that theorist Pierre Bourdieu has informed her thinking). ‘It really is the whole field together which combines to make the value of the book.’

We’re not just talking about the work of writers and editors. Or even the work of designers and publicists. We’re also talking about the literary milieu: reviews, reviewers, adaptations for TV or film, university reading lists, book clubs, prizes and festivals. ‘I like to look for patterns that emerge from that – from the interactions between different people in the [wider] field,’ Driscoll says. So what are the patterns she’s seen so far?

‘I’m thinking about resurrecting quite an old and fairly pejorative word: the middlebrow, to describe the main way I’m seeing value being created… To me the middlebrow combines a kind of a reverence to the literary culture and the object of the book and authors,’ says Driscoll. The middlebrow also combines art and money. It’s reader-oriented, aspirational, entrepreneurial and often at the centre of distribution systems (like book clubs). Plus the word ‘middlebrow’ tends to be associated with women, and Driscoll notes that it’s often women attending literary events and driving literary efforts like book clubs. These women exert an influence on our literary culture. They’re not just passive recipients of books she says, ‘They contribute to the value that books have in society.’

Driscoll and I are sitting in a café next to the bookshop and I become more aware of her point. A writer’s journey doesn’t start in a publishing deal, a good cover design, a good review and nor does it start on a bookstore shelf. It starts when readers engage with your words, when they suggest your work for a book club, or talk about it over coffee. I see this literary zeitgeist at work around me daily: people reading in cafes, people reading reviews, people – like us – talking books. But how does this manifest in the digital space – particularly for digital-first publications?

‘The zeitgeist is changing,’ says Driscoll, but our literary culture is also responding. Take Oprah’s Book Club – a middlebrow institution contributing to the success of many writers’ careers. The recently relaunched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 focuses on social-media. The new club ensures digital editions are available, with personal notes from Oprah appended (using social reading tools). The first book was Wild, by long form non-fiction writer Cheryl Strayed. ‘For the first time [the digital edition] outsold the print copy,’ says Driscoll. ‘This possibility of enriching digital books might increase the role for readers and cultural intermediaries [like Oprah].’

The digital zeitgeist can also facilitate conversation within our literary culture. ‘It is a slightly more democratic space where readers can write directly to writers and publishers, and be part of a conversation,’ says Driscoll. Commenting on social networks during literary events enables writers and those in the literary culture to convert the symbolic capital of the event into social capital. It helps writers and readers build networks. (Mind you, it’s only the quick and the dead – as Driscoll warns, ‘if you want to be part of the conversation you have to tweet at the moment it happens.’)

‘I care about readers and how they respond to events in literary culture,’ Driscoll tells me. As I pass the bookstore again on my way from our meeting I realise that I do too. The reflection on the bookstore window is as important as the books within.

Follow your heart

Last week, a writer-friend whom I greatly respect told me I was ‘dedicated’ to my writing. Embarrassed, I brushed her compliment aside. But later I had to accept that what she said was partially true – at least in the context of my own life. I am now more dedicated to my writing than ever. So the saying goes: ‘If you want to be a writer, write.’ I never really understood that until this past year. Until then I had taken it very literally: ‘If I write, I might be able to become a writer,’ I thought.

It's in there, telling you something. Thanks to fujur for use of this image, Crying Heart, under Creative Commons.
It's in there, telling you something. Thanks to fujur for use of this image, Crying Heart, under Creative Commons.

Nobody becomes a writer without writing. But there’s an extra dimension to the call that I now understand. It’s about making writing a priority. Until a year ago I prioritised non-writing work over writing work (because I knew there was a buck in the former and this was unlikely in the latter). Verily my energies got sucked into the vortex that was ‘not writing’. The only aspect of my life not drained from this choice was my bank account. Professionally speaking, writing was my primary desire, but I put it into the appendices of my life.

Earning money is obviously a hurdle for many pursing writing as a priority. But that can be said of all the arts. History documents countless artisans and wordsmiths who have focused their efforts on their craft, but their income came from somewhere else. True, it is a privilege to be able to do this, and if you’re reading this with any interest, you’re most likely to be living in a first world economy. This means that you too may be able to follow your heart.

We all have to juggle the income situation. And this was certainly a factor in my procrastination. Eventually I realised that the one good thing about those years of toiling in an office was that it paid. I could now make good on that. I devised a hypothetical budget that enabled me to understand the consequences of not earning full-time. I knew what changes I had to make to allow writing as my number one professional priority and I set myself to it.

For me, the difference between just writing and prioritising writing is huge. I’ve given myself time to pursue more pitches. I’ve allowed myself time to study my craft. I’m now more able to chip away at my work. I have more time to research and write my stories. I read far more. I write far more. And in my writerly travels I’ve met lots of kindred spirits – people who also love reading and writing. They have made my life all the richer.

Of course I am not yet the writer that I’d like to be, but I am certainly trying, and trying feels good. As a septuagenarian friend of mine would say, ‘It feels good within yourself.’

The past week has reminded me how short life is. It goes by far too quickly. The older I get, the faster it goes. The older I get, the more I wish I’d had more belief in myself as a youngster and pursued what I’d always wanted: to tinker with words and ideas daily. I envy and admire those of you in your early twenties pursuing your writing careers. How much richer your lives will be as consequence. I do recognise that my years in an office helped fund my first year out of it. Still, I will always regret having dilly-dallied for too long. I may be ‘dedicated’ now, but I’m merely trying to catch up on the years already lost.

So I join in the chorus: if you want to write, write. If it’s really what you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it happen.

Future of Long Form will resume normal (ie, no sot philosophical) programming next week.

International Research II: ‘As long as I don’t die, this will be a great story.’

Long ago, when I returned from a year of working and backpacking overseas, I lived in a shared house. A few months into my tenancy, my birthday came up and I was chuffed that my five other housemates cooked me a simple meal to celebrate. In the chilly winter air we talked over candlelight and cask wine. That night, every conversation spun around travel. As I’d recently returned from overseas my new friends asked about my adventures, and listened eagerly to my answers. And then, bang on 11 o’clock, they all stopped talking, wished me a happy birthday and left the room. One paused at the door to explain: this had been my birthday present, ‘A chance to talk about your travels,’ she said.


It’s funny how travel itself is so often exciting - yet listening to other people’s adventures can send us into comas of boredom. Not so at the recent session, International Research, at the NonfictioNow conference. The four speakers, Mieke Eerkens, Benjamin Law (The Family Law, Gaysia) Stephanie Elizondo Griest (Around the Bloc, Mexican Enough) and Desmond Barry (Cressida’s Bed, Falkland Diaries) had the rapt attention of their audience. They shared a few of their travel tales and some great tips for writers considering international research.

You may think that you’re well organised but Eerkens warns us that some things (such as accessing archives) can take much longer than expected. She approached one institution eight weeks before her arrival only to discover that they needed four months’ notice. Once there, signing documents and making other commitments chewed into her research time.

Eerkens spoke the language in the country she was researching, but many of us won’t have bi- or multi-lingual abilities. Griest says it’s ‘profoundly important for writers to learn as much as possible of the language.’ Even speaking it poorly can be an asset – it infantilises you and can help to equalise any power imbalances when you’re in a country with less power than yours, she says. Still, some of us will need translators. If you’re on a budget, Law recommends approaching local universities, and using students of translation and linguistics.

Learning the basics of the language will take you some way into another country, but trying to understand those you are researching will take you further. One of Griest’s mantras is: the subject is always, always, always, always right. ‘If they’re not right, I haven’t done my job,’ she says. ‘They are acting in their own truth and it is up to us [as researchers] to find out what that truth is.’

To help us understand our subjects Griest advises writers to ‘live the lives’ of those we’re researching as much as possible. Rent a room in their neighbourhood. Eat their foods. Hang out at their haunts. And practice humility. ‘Understand and deeply appreciate that what we do [as writers] is the greatest possible privilege,’ she says. Her respect for her subjects is so strong that Griest shows her work to them before publication. 'It’s a partnership.' Plus, no matter how careful you are you will make mistakes. (And yes, she has had to make changes and cuts as a result of this approach).

Being open to change is pivotal to writing good stories Law says. Sometimes you may not be able to get access to a subject by virtue of who you are and the cultural biases associated with this (for example your gender, your race etc. may create or remove hurdles). Barry says we can, ‘overcome suspicion by talking and engaging with as many people as possible.’

Griest’s first book, Around the Bloc started with this principle. She simply approached strangers and asked them where the orphanage was (in Russian, of course). She did this for days, until she found an orphanage that led her deeper into the story. ‘There was literally no method to my madness,’ she says, ‘I would hit the street everyday, looking around, taking notes and being there for a very, very long time.’ Being there, being open, being flexible and talking to the locals are central to successful international research, ‘But in pursuing our research, we can [inadvertently] ignore our instincts,’ Eerkens says. The story is important, but so is our safety.

Eerkens once found herself seriously considering an invitation to enter a stranger’s house in order to access photos for her research. (Even though she would think twice about this in her home-country). ‘In my eagerness to get the information I was ignoring my gut feeling,’ she says. ‘It’s easy to go along in pursuit of what your goal is, but take care.’

Eerkens also flags the importance of having an emotional outlet when researching overseas (particularly when you’re on difficult subjects, such as war). For her it was the solitude of her apartment. For others it can be hanging out with friends. As Eerkens shares this advice her fellow speakers nod. Later Law cites an occasional thought he had while researching, ‘As long as I don’t die, this will be a great story.’

Travel in itself can be a churn of fun, frustration and fear. Adding research whips up a storm of technical, cultural, emotional and physical challenges. ‘An international research project needs an idea that you’re really in love with,’ says Barry.

Once you find a story you love, you’ll be all set to tell others of your adventures. And if you write it well, you may even get an opportunity to regale your readers far beyond my 11 o’clock birthday curfew.

An audio file of this panel on International Research will be available on the website in early 2013.