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.

Non-fiction picks for EWF14

One of my favourite annual booklets has landed in my hands: the program for Melbourne's inspiring Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’ve already torn out the handy bookmarks and trawled its pages for the best non-fiction picks. Here are my tips for #EWF14…  

The National Writers’ Conference (Saturday 31 May and Sunday 1 June.)

There’s no better way for an emerging writer to transition to the winter months than this packed two-day conference. I am a card-carrying fan of the Emerging Writers' Festival - thanks mostly to this particular event. I’ve been attending for several years and always learn something new. This year I’m chuffed to be a part of the line-up. These are my must-sees for the conference:

The voices on the page (Saturday 31 May, 11am) Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Jennifer Down and Livia Albeck-Ripka will talk about dialogue and interviewing skills. Considering how important dialogue is to non-fiction we’re bound to learn some super useful things from this session.

The new non-fiction (Saturday 31 May, 3pm) Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Gillian Terzis and I will be talking about how digital and the long form renaissance has played into Australian non-fiction. I’m really looking forward to chatting with Rebecca and Gillian (and you) about my favourite subject. If you can’t make it to the National Writers’ Conference I hope you’ve booked a seat at Who can tell whose stories? which is on at the same time in the Southbank Theatre (but sold out already).

Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.
Get your hands on one of these - an Emerging Writers' Festival program.

The lives of others (Saturday 31 May, 2pm) Benjamin Law, Michele Lee, Eli Glasman and Alana Schetzer will talk about the challenges of representing others in their writing. As I move forward in my career I find this topic particularly interesting. Non-fiction writers are highly dependent on the generosity and openness of their subjects. I wonder how these writers navigate this sensitive aspect of our work.

When Australians go abroad (Sunday June 1, 12pm) Hannah Kent, Ender Baskan, Jo Randerson and André Dao. Most non-fiction writers will find themselves compelled to write about events in other nations. Let’s gather any tips this experienced cohort has.

The real live writers’ group (Sunday June 1, 2pm) Jo Case, Rochelle Siemienowicz, Rebecca Starford and Estelle Tang will conduct their regular writers’ group in our presence. I'm already  a member of a writers’ group and it’s been central to my day-to-day writing. I wonder how this group is similar and/or different to my own (awesome) group?

Me-me-me and my memoir (Sunday June 1, 3pm) Liam Pieper, Luke Ryan, Lorelei Vashti and Benjamin Law are talking, well, memoir. As someone who puts my voice into at least half of my writing I feel it prudent to think critically about this approach. No doubt this session will give me pause for thought.

Who can tell whose stories? (Saturday 31 May, 3pm)

If you’re not going to the writers’ conference I hope you’ve booked a place in this session so that you can take some notes for me! John Safran, Alice Pung, Roslyn Oades, Isaac Drandic and Fiona Gruber will talk about the storyteller’s responsibility towards the people whose stories they tell. (BTW you can learn more about John Safran’s experience of writing Murder in Mississippi in this post).

The pitch (Wednesday May 28, 6pm)

Julia Carlomagno, Sam Cooney, Patrick Lenton, Vanessa Radnidge and Nina Gibb will talk about pitching. Even experienced pitchers will get insight from this ever-popular session.

Creative nonfiction writing night school (Thursday June 5, 6.30pm)

Rebecca Giggs will be teaching a workshop that will explore writing and research techniques. Excellent value at $30/$25 for a 1.5 hour workshop.

Filibust (Wednesday June 4, 1.30pm)

Nick Keys’ session considering political oratory and rhetoric promises to be enlightening, engaging and inspiring.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

Are the hills alive with the sound of writing?

Reading my work out aloud is a mantra I take quite seriously. Verily I have spoken the sentences you’re reading many times. I’ve shaped them from prior versions where they sounded wrong. I’ve listened for clumsy transitions and poor grammar. I speak, I read and write – cutting, pasting and retyping all along the way. The process of reading aloud has become crucial to my writing and it’s got me wondering why I do it and what exactly I’m looking for – is it for a kind of music? Writing and music can share a lexicon, says Dr Graeme Skinner, musicologist, writer, researcher and Honorary Associate at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. ‘A lot of the words used to describe music are analogies drawn from literature. I often talk about a musical paragraph as being an analogy for a passage of music. People talk about phrases, and movements – a movement is a corollary of a chapter.’ But are there parallels for someone like Skinner, who knows a lot about both music and writing?

A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.
A blank page...Does music make a difference to our writing? Thanks to calsidyrose for use of this image Very Vintage Music Staff under Creative Commons.

‘I think my sense of writing comes more directly from the tradition of writing than from the tradition of music,’ Skinner tells me. ‘However I think they’re very closely linked. For instance the basis of literature is in works like Homer’s The Odyssey – which was actually intended (or recorded from) what was a recited oral history.’

Philosopher Walter Ong speaks to this point in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy. Recording stories in oral cultures (recording them to memory), writes Ong, involved a need for musicality. Thus works like The Odyssey would have been composed through ‘thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence … in heavily, rhythmic, balanced patterns … repetitions or antitheses … alliterations and assonances … epithetic and other formulary expressions.’ (Ong, p34). In noting The Odyssey as both a precursor to (and example of) early literature, Skinner is suggesting that links to musicality linger in our notions of good storytelling – and good writing.

But it’s not just in the far recesses of our storytelling that the two can be linked. Skinner is currently doing research on 19th century Australia. ‘Most 19th century poems that were written in Australia were meant to be sung,’ he says. Readers who consider them just as poetry, ‘are really missing the point. People imagined them to a tune. That’s how they followed the rhyme scheme and how [writers wrote] them in the first place,’ he says.

Not surprisingly, Skinner’s writing revolves around music (it includes scholarly essays, program notes, and a biography of the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe). I wonder what influence (if any) this musical knowledge may have on his writerly compositions. But Skinner eschews this notion: ‘My sense of how to write comes from the fact that I read voraciously.’  He always has ‘multiple novels on the go’ and feels his writing improves when he’s reading good work.

Throughout our interview Skinner has had to explain to me (and even demonstrate on his piano) aspects of music that I don’t understand. I have never been trained in music or its theory and in speaking to Skinner I realise that the connections I’m seeking to draw are tenuous at best – that music may be far more complicated than writing.

‘If you reduce writing to something that could be reproduced as a series of sounds – then obviously it’s much simpler,’ says Skinner. ‘But you only have to see the huge libraries of literary criticism that’s written to suggest that it depends on what you call complex.’ What makes writing complex is the creation of meaning, he says. Whereas music, while physically complex, ‘doesn’t have a meaning.’ The meaning comes from the listener. ‘There’s nothing inherent in the music.’

Yet Skinner also concedes that writing isn’t just about the creation of meaning. ‘You can make meaning [as a writer] and nobody wants to read you. Writing’s also about making the sentences jump along and move elegantly, and move beautifully through space and time.’

‘I read aloud in my head but I certainly don’t read aloud,’ Skinner tells me. However he does believe there’s an element to writing in which you consider the musicality of sentence construction. At times, for example, he’ll put an adverb after a verb. ‘Because I like the sound – you’re getting the verb first and then the “ly” on the end of the adverb after it.’ He prefers not to split infinitives, ‘but sometimes if you don’t split an infinitive it sounds really limping – [you split it] in order to keep the momentum or tempo of the sentence.’

‘Maybe there is a connection between the appreciation of writing that sounds good and inherent musicality,’ Skinner says. ‘But I don’t know. Maybe some really good writers can write perfectly well without [a knowledge of] music. Certainly being a musician is no passport to writing well – quite the opposite.’

For this writer at least, that’s music to my ears.

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.

Sinking independents into libraries

There’s a quote on the Internet that is attributed to Virginia Woolf. ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure,’ it reads. In order to find its source I paste the full quote into a search box, held together by inverted commas. ‘Did you mean: “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”’ Google asks me. Hmmm, I wonder – did I? Be they sunk or sunken treasure, libraries are certainly the places to find them. A library’s collection policy, as Tricia Genat, Managing Director of ALS Library Services says, ‘is not just about working to the mean but also making sure that you’ve got some outliers in your collection.’

It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.
It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.

Where both libraries and bookshops will stock bestsellers, libraries are looking for a little bit more. ‘People are interested in all sorts of weird and wonderful things,’ says Genat. Librarians want to make sure that they’re, ‘expanding the collection to include more unusual [publications] or some new trends or different kinds of formats,’ she says.

Verily libraries provide a solid opportunity for independent publishers to get their work to readers. In contrast to being included in bookstores (which can be complex and difficult for independent publishers), Genat says that there are no disadvantages to getting books into libraries. ‘One of the major advantages for small publishers is that they’re in an open field competitively,’ Genat explains. Librarians have wider mandates and make their decisions about buying a book on a computer screen using filters based on genre, category etc. ‘When the library selector is scrolling through those titles your book has as much chance of getting picked as one from [a major publisher],’ Genat says. There are however, a few provisos.

To be noticed on the computer screen you’ll need a decent cover and a well-written blurb. ‘If you’re a small publisher and you spend absolutely no money on your cover (and it’s going up against lovely covers) then a library selector is just going to scroll past yours and not select it,’ Genat warns. ‘If the blurb that you’ve written is correct, up-to-date, informative and helpful then that’s the second thing that the library selector looks at,’ she says. If you make these elements the best you possibly can your book will be in contention for selection.

Library selectors read blogs, newspapers and sites like Goodreads. ‘If [a library selector] sees a name that pops up as they scroll through the list (ie a brand new author, a brand new publisher, a tiny publisher that’s causing a little buzz) they will [remember it],’ says Genat. The selector’s decision is only a $20 or $30 one – at times they can just order a book and see what happens. ‘If it gets borrowed half a dozen times then that’s a publisher or author [the selector] might add to the standing order,’ says Genat. She says that social media is absolutely essential for publishers in this context. ‘If it’s out there people will be reading it,’ she says. (For more on publishers and social media read this post on vertical marketing).

In addition to considering cover designs and blurbs, independent publishers also need to pay attention to things like ensuring page numbers are correct, that there’s a bar code on the back and that the book has an ISBN. ‘The physical quality is also important. It can’t fall apart,’ says Genat. Recently she had to return an order of over 30 books because of their poor quality. ‘There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content of the book. The printer just did a bad job,’ she says.

In a panel at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference Genat (as chair), Anita Cattogio (Yarra Plenty Library), Michael Mackenzie (Boyd Library) and Leesa Lambert (Little Bookroom) will share some of the joys and frustrations of putting together a library collection. They’ll discuss what a collection policy does, what’s available, what the price points are, what captures people’s attention and what’s important to have on the shelves in the context of independent publishing. (They’ll  give advice on sinking independent treasures into libraries!)

In the meantime my Internet searches aren’t confirming whether Woolf said sunk or sunken (or where she said it). I can see that the British Library are going for sunk, and I figure that’s a reliable source… but I might just need an excuse to ransack my local library this afternoon. You never know what independent treasure I’ll find.

Genat’s panel Libraries and Librarians will be held at 1.15pm, Friday 14 November at the Independent Publishing Conference.

On being underrated (the MUBA)

For Christmas last year Wayne Macauley’s partner gave him a t-shirt printed with the words Most Underrated 2012. ‘I don’t wear it out that often but it’s a beautiful thing,’ Macauley quips. The t-shirt is a reference to last year’s inaugural Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) which Macauley won for his novel The Cook. ‘[The most underrated book] is a very catchy line and I think people like the idea of it,’ Macauley says. ‘[The award] got quoted a number of times afterwards in blogs and reviews and even when the book went overseas.’ As Macauley notes, the title of this award, ‘has a hook’. The MUBA, says the Small Press Network (which organises the award), ‘aims shine a light on some of the outstanding titles that are released by small and independent publishers that, for whatever reason, did not receive their fair dues.’ This year’s shortlist was recently released. It includes Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), Staunch by Ginger Briggs (Affirm Press), Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (Fremantle Press) and The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing). The winner will be announced next week.

Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.
Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.

‘[Last year] there was some uncertainty as to whether this was a badge that authors particularly wanted or not,’ says Martin Shaw, Books Division Manager at Readings. ‘But most people got what it was about – it was trying to make sure that nobody got completely overlooked – which does happen,’ Shaw says.

For this reason Readings gives the MUBA shortlist, ‘the biggest blast we can,’ says Shaw. The books are being promoted online, in their newsletter and on a table in store. Last year Macauley noted a contrast between the MUBA and another award he was shortlisted for (which was announced in the same week). ‘The MUBA shortlisted winners were really prominent in the Readings Carlton store… I couldn’t see anything displayed for [the other award],’ he says. As Macauley notes the MUBA’s tie with bookshops is critical, ‘If the books are not promoted in the store then the award is great for you spiritually but not really commercially.’

Readings reported a tenfold increase in sales of the full shortlist of the 2012 MUBA. ‘[The MUBA] definitely makes a difference,’ Shaw says. ‘Now that we’re into the second year it will build up as a [list on] the best of the small press.’

For Macauley, winning the MUBA also had other benefits. ‘The book had been a runner up and it was great for it to win something. But from a personal perspective I felt like I was being recognised with an independent award for an independent attitude,’ he says. That’s something he values as a person with an interest in independent publishing and theatre. That independence is relevant to buyers too says Shaw, ‘A lot of book buyers out there are looking for something a bit different, something that isn’t massively hyped about from large commercial houses.’

Looking forward Macauley is excited by the potential of independent publishing. The old structures are being broken down he says, and new possibilities are opening up.  ‘My view of that is that we should all be brave and should never be afraid to take risks,’ he says. ‘Everyone should give wholly and utterly of themselves to their work. They should make their work in their own voice. They should make it the very best that they can.’ The thing that never changes with independent publishing, says Macauley, is that ‘we’re making art out of integrity.’

The 2013 Most Underrated Book Award winner will be announced at the Independent Publishing Conference on Friday 15 November.

Big things and humble beginnings: The 2013 Independent Publishing Conference

Anyone in publishing knows the wonderful things that can happen in small spaces. Award winning manuscripts have been produced in back yard huts, burgeoning publishing empires started on kitchen tables and literary classics typed out clack-by-clack at lonely desks. So too this year’s Independent Publishing Conference (14 to 16 November) - for the past few months Tim Coronel, Conference Coordinator, has had his laptop perched on the edge of the only desk in Small Press Network’s office (a space he once described as a fishbowl). ‘It’s a small office which is three by three metres (if that). Like all publishing spaces it’s full of books and bits of paper and a carton of wine – which is very useful at times,’ Coronel quips. This year’s conference came together with the work of an impressive planning committee (Michael Webster, Emmett Stinson, Aaron Manion, Andrea Hanke, Catherine Lewis, Mary Masters and Nathan Hollier – with Coronel bringing it all together). It’s the second of its kind but 2013 promises new ideas. ‘We’ve made a conscious effort not to double up – not to get the same faces back again,’ says Coronel. ‘There’s probably twice as many sessions and speakers as there were last year - both days of the conference are going to be running parallel sessions.’ (ie two sessions in each time slot).

Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.
Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.

Coronel hopes the conference will soon become an ‘annual destination’ for the Australian publishing sector. ‘It’s the only opportunity in Australia for publishing professionals to get together like this. You can be tweeting with people and emailing people back and forth for years and never have the chance to actually meet them face-to-face,’ he says.

Both the industry and academic day programs have been shaped to meet the needs of these independent publishing individuals. There’s over 16 sessions on the topics of markets, marketing, trends, different genres, rights, distribution, reviews, libraries and all manner of publishing. Funding: from crowds to grants will feature a panel including Anna Maguire, author of Crowdfund it!, Sophie Cunningham, Chair of the Literature Board with the Australia Council and Zoe Rodriguez, Cultural Fund Manager at Copyright Agency Limited (chaired by Sam Twyford-Moore, Director of the Emerging Writer's Festival).

Earlier on the same day Charlotte Harper (Editia) will lead Business Models, a self-explanatory session which will include input from publishers at all ends of the spectrum. ‘Those nuts and bolts sessions will be very useful,’ says Coronel. ‘They’ll explore how you do it, how you run your little business and hopefully make a bigger business out of it and make it viable.’

Coronel notes that the act of publishing has become far less exclusive than it once was. ‘I think it’s getting easier and easier to publish in the most basic sense – to get your words out is simple,’ he says. To wit one of the biggest challenges for publishers these days is in finding an audience. ‘To find a paying audience is even more of a challenge and to generate enough revenue to make a sustainable business is hard. It always has been,’ he says.

Still that’s not to say that humble beginnings can’t result in big things – after all this year’s Independent Publishing Conference has been brought together by the efforts of Coronel – a solitary figure with a laptop perched on the edge of a desk.

You are your own props department

Here’s how the props department on the television series Treme recreated a vintage bottle of cognac to use in a scene: First they checked out the real deal on the Internet and then found and copied a label they liked. Then they sourced some empty bottles in an antique shop. Next, ‘we cleaned them up, and Joey mixed water and food coloring to get the right color. He found corks to put in the bottle and wax to put a seal on the top. We put it inside a box and then dusted it an aged it down.’ [sic] These words are from Luci Leary, Property Master on Treme, as told to Dave Walker of I found Walker’s article while researching the making of Treme (a television series written by David Simon, set in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans). The last thing I expected in reading a story about props in a fictional television series was to be inspired about writing long form non-fiction. But Walker (and the props team on Treme) got me to thinking.

Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.
Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.

In as much as producing props and writing non-fiction are different there are similarities. We’re all recreating scenes and conveying character (and to this end, non-fiction writers are our own props departments). Writers are told to show, don’t tell but we can still both show and tell. Props departments can only show. That’s why they must attend to detail like the aging and dusting on a vintage cognac bottle. That’s a discipline we can learn from.

‘It’s important to us that it’s real, that it looks good, and it’s what it would be,’ says, Beau Harrison, Treme’s On Set Property Master. Verily his team breaks down every scene in a script says Walker. They create a list of the objects required then decide exactly what type of object it should be. Mobile phones for example, ‘We usually base this on the character's personality and economic standing,’ Harrison says.

The best non-fiction takes you into a story. It gives you just the right amount of detail; information that’s relevant to scene and character/s. The props team on Treme have the same job only they do the work in reverse. They must acquire objects (including personal effects) to help define their scenes and characters. And then they put all of those objects into a labeled box. Writers start with a page; with the more astute of us collecting detail (props information) about our characters and scenes along the way.

Photographs by Harrison show some of Treme’s props boxes. The character Antoine Batiste’s for example has his watch, sunglasses, keys, ID, iPod and other personal items spread across a table. Separated from the body of Wendell Pierce (who plays Batiste) these objects remind me of toys; of Barbie dolls, clothes and accessories I used to play with as a kid. Batiste may live real in my mind but in truth he’s a fiction and that’s where the work of props teams and long form non-fiction writers diverge.

As someone who spent just a few days in New Orleans over a decade ago, I find the depictions in Treme to be fairly convincing. From the series I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges the city faced in the wake of Katrina. I’ve learnt more about its culture – and things I didn’t know (like their second line parades). But I'm aware that Treme is a fiction, and that to others its fabrication might not be as convincing.

‘I know a real second line when I feel it,’ says Cheryl Austin in a news story on She makes the comment at a sale of the show’s props (following the filming of its final season). She’s a real-life resident of the real-life New Orleans suburb of Treme. She’s not a big fan of the show (any more than many doctors and nurses were fans of ER). To her it lacks authenticity.

‘Don’t make this stuff up!’ I can hear Lee Gutkind (editor of Creative nonfiction magazine) calling to us all. Indeed. The trick is to fill our props boxes as we research – one word at a time.

(Oh, and props to Dave Walker for writing an article that inspired all of this!)

Windows into non-fiction craft

There’s a woman who so regularly walks on the street beyond my desk that a part of me sees her as a colleague. When she passes she seems focused, on her way to do something specific. We’ve never spoken and have only occasionally, briefly (and curiously) locked eyes. I have no idea where she’s going to (or from), nor why. But somehow I’ve felt the need to construct a story about her – and in doing so, to psychologically bring her into my working group (albeit a part of some other ‘department’ in my ‘organisation’). Sure, I’m curious about other people (aren’t all writers?), but I reckon the driving force behind this projection is that I’m a lone (not lonely) freelancer. Just passing by my window brings her into my office. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a writing bull pit – maybe not a newsroom per-se, but perhaps for a magazine. No doubt all the annoyances of shared working environments would be there (office politics, smelly lunches, interruptions, noise). But there would also be that sharing of daily challenges and experiences, that opportunity to learn oodles from those around me.

Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).
Windows to craft within easy reach. My copies of Stein, Blundell and Hart (an e-book but also available in print).

Clearly, on one level I feel isolated enough to project some kind of inclusion on a complete stranger who walks past my window. But I do get daily access to great minds – stalwarts of the international writing community. The truth is, I’m pretty good at reaching out – I simply lift up my hand, stretch out my arm and grasp. There I find the three tomes on writing that influence just about every assignment I undertake.

One of my longest standing mentors has been the great editor (and writer) Sol Stein in his book Solutions for writers: Practical craft techniques for fiction and nonfiction (my copy from Souvenir Press, 2006*). The title says it all: solutions, writers, practical, craft, techniques, fiction and non-fiction. Likewise the title chapters… my favourites include Using the techniques of fiction to enhance non-fiction as well as Liposuctioning flab and Conflict, suspense and tension in non-fiction. Stein’s book has chapters on story, plot, character, dialogue, tension and point of view. Many include checklists (and where they don’t I’ve made my own). I often apply these to my words before I submit. They can flag the obvious and often overlooked – such as ‘Find and delete all the verys and quites that crept into your first draft,' but Stein also poses questions to help improve the story overall. On suspense for example he asks, ‘Can you convert any sentence to a question that will arouse curiosity rather than satisfy it?’ Hmmm, can I?

While Stein helps me work with my written words, sometimes I get stuck on establishing what my story is about. That’s when I turn to William E Blundell’s The art and craft of feature writing (my copy from Plume Books, 1988). In this book Blundell applies his long experience at the Wall Street Journal to help new writers get their stories together. The introduction describes a young reporter amid a ‘snowdrift of material’:

‘Lacking a fix on his story theme, he can’t begin to write because he doesn’t know where to start. So hagridden by angst he waits for lunch and a brighter afternoon only to find – again – that time is his enemy, not his friend.’

Sound familiar? Blundell’s book includes chapters on shaping ideas, story dimensions, organisation and editing. But the resources I return to again and again are his Noodling around checklists. In them Blundell poses questions to help get to the heart of a story (before writing and even researching). It prompts you to consider your story through questions of history, scope, reason, impact, countermoves and futures. Once you’ve answered all those questions you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your story is about (and what research is missing). And that’s just one chapter (Planning and Execution) of its 200+ pages.

Despite the help that Stein and Blundell have given me, until recently I have struggled with the concept of plot (admittedly in both fiction and non-fiction). Of all the events that unfold  in a story which ones do I choose? Sometimes these are obvious, but other times they’re less easy to find. Earlier this year I finally understood it – thanks to Jack Hart in his book, Storycraft (my e-copy by University of Chicago Press, 2011). Hart articulates the connections between events, complications, conflict, resolution, desire, story and plot. My favourite part of Hart’s book is where he draws a narrative arc and explains how to populate it with scenes, episodes, questions, turning points and the story climax. With this the events from my research can finally be shaped into an engaging plot.

So it is: the life of the freelance writer. For experience and advice we turn to great writers. As for a sense of companionship? Well… there’s always the people walking by our windows.

* Stein’s book is also published in the US by St Martin’s Press under the title, Stein on writing (1998)

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.

At the centre of writing

I remember the moment I decided to join Writers Victoria. I don’t remember where I was, or what I was doing but I do remember noting the significance of the decision. It was the first in a very long series of steps to get me to where I am now. It was the moment I formally identified with being part of a writing community. I filled out a form. I handed over some money. I became (quite literally) a card-carrying writer. Of course the journey into writing was (and continues to be) far more complex than that – but I remain grateful for my membership. In those early years I simply read the member magazine (which always seemed to arrive just when I needed reminding of my writing aspirations). As my focus on writing has increased, so too has my appreciation of institutions like this. The membership fee has transformed from a seemingly indulgent line in my budget to a necessary (and cost-efficient) investment in my writing career. I’m always surprised when I meet a writer who’s not a member.

You're not alone when you're a part of a writer's community. Thanks to Luke Chan for use of this image Not Alone under Creative Commons.
You're not alone when you're a part of a writer's community. Thanks to Luke Chan for use of this image Not Alone under Creative Commons.

As Kate Larsen (aka Katie Keys) Director at Writers Victoria says, at the very least, membership of an organisation like this gives you access to the magazine (10 times a year), which includes articles about writing, and lists opportunities and competitions. Membership can also offer substantial discounts on courses and in some cases, books. If you equate being a member as a financial transaction there’s your rational for joining. For me however, writers’ organisations offer more than that.

‘The majority of what we do is information, advice and guidance,’ says Larsen. ‘We signpost to other people and we help broker relationships.’ Writers Victoria offers courses, workshops, mentoring and manuscript assessments. They hold networking events such as Salons and generally encourage their members in their writing pursuits. And theirs is a diverse group – as Larsen notes, ‘We’re the only organisation in Victoria that works with writers at all stages of their career from early beginners to professional, published and performing writers in all genres and in all parts of the state.’

Most every community has a writers centre. In Australia there’s one in each state including the NSW Writer’s Centre, Queensland Writer’s Centre (which also publishes the uber-useful Australian Writer’s Marketplace), SA Writer’s Centre, NT Writer’s Centre, ACT Writers Centre, Gold Coast Writers Centre and Writing WA.

Larsen is new to the director’s role at Writers Victoria and has set representation and support to all writers as part of her priorities. ‘That means acknowledging that CBD Melbourne is really well serviced so we need to be concentrating outside that. Right now we’re pushing regional, digital and our work with diverse writers,’ she says.

I remember a particular time soon after I left my fulltime job to pursue writing. The Writers Victoria Christmas party was the only one I went to. (And yes, it was the only one I was invited to!) At every event I’ve been to since my community of writers has grown one by one. Those early events were a little daunting but they’re less so now. It’s because I know, no matter where I sit, there will always be a card-carrying writer sitting next to me.

The ideology of ideas

As a student of writing, nothing freaked me out more than that moment in class when the teacher stopped talking, took in a breath and said, ‘Right, let’s workshop.’ Initially I would be embarrassed by my sprawling prose (I’m a perennial drafter). But the main source of my horror was my inability to come up with any genuinely new ideas. No matter what I thought of, I knew that a simple search in Google would render my ideas ‘already thought of’ (except, perhaps if I was writing a profile). As a student of writing I took the notion of an original idea quite literally. I thought it was my job to find something never written about before. Ever. Anywhere.

Perhaps ideas, like 'energy', take new forms as they travel through our cosmos. Thanks to cmbjn843 for use of this image Waterfalls2 under Creative Commons.
Perhaps ideas, like 'energy', take new forms as they travel through our cosmos. Thanks to cmbjn843 for use of this image Waterfalls2 under Creative Commons.

In my efforts to better grasp what makes an idea, I did a search on Google. There’s nothing original in the action of searching a topic, nor is there anything original in including those results within the body of your prose. But there was something interesting about the results that I got for ‘ideas’. Many of the page one results had nothing to do with ideas per se. They used I-D-E-A as an acronym for something else. They connected ‘idea’ with other things. As an aggregation of worldwide use of the word, they were as confused as I was. Inherent in their inability to give true shape to the word, these results pointed to my hunch that ideas are idealised.

Among them was an online idea generator. ‘Type a single word and receive a page chock-full of inspiration!’ it reads. It then pulls images, quotes, colours and other paraphernalia relating to that word from the Internet. It’s a system that recognises that there’s no such thing as an original idea. No one ever comes to an idea in the absence of inspiration (direct or indirect). Creativity experts have long established that you can’t have an original idea without first understanding the domain in which you’re working. You can’t build an original idea in a vacuum. You need other ideas. To me what they’re saying is an idea is never really original. Ideas are by their nature, derivative.

I’m not a scientist (not in the vaguest) but this week Professor Brian Cox has captured my imagination in his series Wonders of Life. He explains ‘energy’ from a physics perspective. ‘Energy is conserved. It’s not created or destroyed,’ he says. It seems a physicist can calculate the potential energy at the top of a waterfall and observe the exact energy output at its foot (the movement, sounds, heat and so on). In nature, says Cox (if I’ve understood it correctly), energy moves through different forms, but it doesn’t multiply - the total amount of energy on our planet remains. Perhaps this is what happens with ideas; one idea gives shape to another. Maybe a transfer of energy is what makes it possible for the same idea to have new life in the words of different writers. Maybe an idea’s energy simply takes a different form.

Currently I’m working on a long form piece about a topic that’s interested me for a long time. But as I get deeper into the research I can see that other writers have also dabbled in aspects of it. My younger writer-self would have come to a grinding halt at this discovery. ‘Oh dear, it’s been done,’ I would have thought. But now I realise that the originality involved in the piece isn’t so much about the main idea as much as the exposition, execution and context of the words. What is it that I uncover about this topic? What is it that my readers will want to know about this topic? In what ways will this topic be framed differently for the publication I’m writing for? What effect will my voice have? In what ways will my perspective shape the energy of this idea differently?

Last year at NonfictioNow a writer put a question to keynote speaker Jose Dalisay (from the Philippines). The writer wanted to know Dalisay’s perspective as a Pilipino writer who writes about the Philippines. What did Dalisay think about writers writing about their home countries while living abroad? What authority did those writers have if they weren’t actually there to observe things first hand? That, Dalisay answered, is precisely the authority they have. A writer’s authority is inherent. Every perspective is unique. Ideas might circulate in our collective consciousness (and on search engines) but what makes each iteration different is what the writer brings to it.


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.

A short list of choice cuts from EWF13

Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival may be over for another year, but I’m going to sustain myself with some writing-protein with these choice cuts. They’re my favourite words of advice from the established writers who presented at Seven Enviable Lines. These are paraphrased and comments from me are in brackets: Melinda Harvey: There is no such thing as 'made it' when it comes to writing. The blank page always waits.

Thanks to Cyril Bosselut for use of this image Scissors vs Paper under Creative Commons.
Thanks to Cyril Bosselut for use of this image Scissors vs Paper under Creative Commons.

John Safran: Churn out ideas. (As a copywriter Safran had to generate a page of 30 ideas before he was allowed to pitch at creative meetings). Stop being in love with that one idea. Also don’t micromanage a killer idea; just keep writing.

Kharani 'Okka' Baroka: Work for the heart, not for the hype.

Jennifer Mills: You’re not a brand; you’re a person. Challenge yourself creatively and technically. ‘Let your work be worth something that is more than the cover price.’ (I loved hearing Mills tell us we’re not a brand – so often emerging writers are implored to ‘build a platform’ aka a brand).

Walter Mason: Become a fan of writers and books. Be enthusiastic about literature and writing. (Plus:) Run, don’t walk! Use up every bit of enthusiasm you have. Enthusiasm and a sense of time passing can take you a long way.

I’ll be resuming normal prose in a fortnight’s time. In the meantime I hope these cuts can sustain you! (And if they don't, check out my previous posts)

Circling worlds (with Walter Mason)

‘If you could have dinner with anyone outside of your circle, who would it be?’ It’s a question asked both at celluloid dinner parties and by journalists aiming to learn more about their subject. Some find the question easier to answer than others, but most agree that the opportunity is one to seize. Tapping into new knowledge from someone well respected helps us to understand our world more deeply, to see it through others’ eyes and to learn from their experience. I wonder if The Control Room is a concept unique to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. It’s the conference equivalent to that dinner-date. An established practitioner sits at the head of a table, ready to take questions. Conference delegates circle around and drive the conversation entirely. There is the occasional conversational lull, but the freedom to ask an expert anything makes the awkward easy to overcome, particularly when the writer is as generous as Walter Mason.

In more ways than one Walter Mason encourages writers to get outside. Thanks to toastkid for use of this image Where I work: turtle cafe, new dehli under Creative Commons.
In more ways than one Walter Mason encourages writers to get outside. Thanks to toastkid for use of this image Where I work: turtle cafe, new dehli under Creative Commons.

Mason describes himself as a ‘writer, scholar and dreamer’. He’s researched and written while circumnavigating the globe (check out his book Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam). He gives us some great tips on international research and navigating cultures outside of our own. ‘When travelling, say yes to everything. It gets you into crazy situations,’ he advises. Those crazy situations give you unique things to write about, and take you deeper into the local culture than otherwise.

Mason encourages writers to get into the undertow of different cultures but warns that in doing that we need to respect all aspects of those cultures – including protecting our sources and subjects from the legal and political frameworks in which they live. He often changes up genders, locations and gives his characters aliases to ensure they don’t get into trouble when he writes about them. ‘Put yourself in their rule,’ Mason advises writers. This phrase applies to both what we choose to write about our sources and how we conduct ourselves overseas. Be very careful of filing your writing from within a foreign country says Mason (if you can, it’s better to wait and file from home). Think about where and when you need to label yourself as a ‘writer’ (particularly in paperwork).

With an almost-filled notebook in hand, Mason shares his travel writing process. In one trip of three to six months he’ll easily fill half a dozen of these hand-written tomes. He has special marks he uses to index and navigate them. He is always careful to note specifics (names and addresses of places for example). He uses those details to help fill up his imagination once he gets to writing. Mason also allocates two hours a day for writing during his travels. One hour has to be outside with his journal taking hand-written notes. The other hour is inside with his computer (this writing is more prosaic). Mason writes both on location and once he returns home.

He describes himself as a post-modern writer. ‘I just write about what I want to write about,’ says Mason. He doesn’t worry too much about plot-progression while he’s writing and says his stories are more impressionistic than involving a narrative arch. Mason questions the value of the ‘journey narrative’ in travel writing, arguing that because readers are travelling more themselves the journey itself has less interest.

Emerging writers are always interested to know how more established writers got their first break. Mason is a firm believer in networks (indeed at the Seven Enviable Lines session that kicked off the conference ‘network’ was Mason’s number five: ‘I’ve never been hired on my skills and abilities,’ he quipped). ‘Do stuff for other people,’ he tells The Control Room. ‘Get ahead by helping others.’ Mason says his sales job in publishing gave him the contacts he needed. But it wasn’t the job itself that got his work read by editors, it was the efforts he made in navigating that world, in meeting and helping people.

Soon the hour-long session is up, and we are all closing our notebooks and gathering our coats (this writer at least, feeling very much inspired). ‘Let me know what you’re doing. I’d love to help out in any way I can,’ Mason says in closing, encouraging us to extend our network. We all nod shyly.

Later I realise there is something he might be able to help me with, so I introduce myself to him at another session. Dinner, I’m sure, would too awkward (and anyhow, he’s based in Sydney) but I do appreciate the possibility of a telephone call or email exchange with someone who is not only outside of my circle but also well respected.

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.

A telling story…

‘You know your story is being heard, understood and received by the way your audience is breathing,’ says Julie Perrin of Telling Words. She’s not only a storywriter, but also a storyteller  – she performs many of the stories she writes. ‘Whether they make those little gasps or laughs or sighs, whether they’re relaxed or fidgeting and on edge: all of these bodily, nonverbal communications are part of what carries it. Both from you to the audience but also between them.’ Perrin’s seen what happens when a story falls flat and she knows when a story is resonating. She’s aware of the nonverbal communications that can keep writers distanced from our readers. As a writer for print I hate being in the same room as someone reading my work, every twitch and raised eyebrow sends me into a tangle of anxiety. Yet the way Perrin describes the conventions of telling stories, I wonder if the ability to have such a tangible connection with the audience might be a benefit.

Julie Perrin (top right in blue, talking) of Telling Words has an understanding of her audience that many writers don't.
Julie Perrin (top right in blue, talking) of Telling Words has an understanding of her audience that many writers don't.

‘There are lovely conventions of repeated rhythms, alliteration and internal playing with sound that make it more memorable, and can lull people. There are repeated refrains that are like being rocked and (in the right moment) the people really appreciate that,’ says Perrin. In person or on paper, her awareness of how this musicality is received must surely be an asset. ‘There are other moments where it needs to become really sharp, witty and acerbic,’ she adds. These descriptions of hers make me wonder how different her writing process is for print and performance (she’s been published in The Age, The Big Issue and Visible Ink).

In fact, when she has a story idea, Perrin isn’t always sure whether she will print it or perform it. ‘I often run two different versions – not wildly different – but there’s just a slightly different inflection,’ she says. As her stories evolve Perrin decides whether her words will remain in print or be pared back for performance. When chosen for performance the artifact changes. ‘Ultimately you can have the most beautiful text but [if you’re going to tell it rather than print it] you can’t just sprout a text like a recitation because all of your energy is in remembering those words you’ve tried to learn,’ she says. ‘Audiences can see you trying to remember.’

Perrin breaks the to-be-told stories down to key words and storyboards, and she maps their locations and objects in the space around her in order to ground her listeners. The story might even change in the performance itself. ‘In any spoken story there’s a reciprocal relationship between the story, the listener and the teller. How a story is listened to by a group of people effects how it can be told. The story shifts with the quality of the listening,’ she says.

‘You really can’t make it too literary, so it’s about being artful with the everyday rather than trying to be really clever with very intense and dense language,’ Perrin says of choosing words for spoken delivery. But to me her advice seems apt for written work. Perrin describes the delivery of spoken work as ephemeral. ‘Essentially speaking it is just shaped air. That’s what it is. It’s here today and it’s gone in a second. The beginning of uttering a word: it’s almost over before it’s begun,’ she says. To me, a first-read is similarly fleeting.

Delivering to audiences has taught Perrin the importance of a moment in storytelling – of the tangible aspects of what writers make. Yet although an audience’s response may seem telling in one performance, unlike me, Perrin knows to take each twitch and raised eyebrow as they come. ‘There are all these different kinds of breath-response. There are all these different kinds of stories,’ she says, stating that just because one audience doesn’t scream with laughter or sob in sadness, it doesn’t mean your story and your writing is any less powerful or beautiful. ‘You just need to seek to inhabit it,’ she says.

Why I’m a card-carrying Emerging Writers' Festival fan

In amongst the crowd, everyone else seems to know one another. This time last year, I doubt I’d have known anyone. But this year I find someone I know (and there’ll be two more as the evening continues). While my friend and I chat, the official launch of the 2013 Emerging Writers' Festival (EWF) program looms and EWF staffers usher us to our seats. When one gets to me she smiles. ‘Oh! Hi Pepi! I didn’t know you were going to be here,’ she says warmly, ‘but then again…you’re always at EWF things!’ And I smile too, because it’s true. I am. I only learned about the EWF a year ago. But I’ve been an absolute fan since. This is because the EWF has been at the foundation of my achievements in the past year.

I might not be the greatest at making and designing fan-cards but I am one of EWF's biggest fans.
I might not be the greatest at making and designing fan-cards but I am one of EWF's biggest fans.

I might be new to EWF but this year it’s celebrating its tenth anniversary. I can’t begin to imagine how many careers it has ignited in that time. For me it started with an encouraging PS on a kind of ‘rejection’ email to last year’s call for writers. I’d expressed my interest in the context of experiments I had done using Kindle as a way to publish long form non-fiction. ‘PS’, Karen Andrews (EWF's Program Manager) wrote at the bottom of the email, ‘On a personal note, I really like your idea of long-form work potentially finding an Amazon/online audience. Good luck with it.’ I liked that she liked my idea, and her encouragement fed another idea I’d been kicking around for a while. A week later, the first fizz of EWF-inspiration took action, and I started planning this blog.

The 2012 Festival arrived and I was heartened by what I learned. I paid just $65 for a weekend of Town Hall conferencing which was unbelievably good value. This was one of the best investments I’ve made in my writing career so far. At the conference I made a new writer-friend. I learned that I was not alone in my goals and aspirations. I was inspired by the experiments of other writers dealing with our changing publishing environment. I became convinced of the need of a platform in which to write regularly.

A month later I launched this blog. My original intention was to write and post a few weeks in advance, but I was far too inspired. So I uploaded four of the five posts I had already written, backdating them to May. (Read my first post: Give up the newsroom or your career gets it). That may have been enough inspiration from one festival, but for me at least, the EWF is a festival that keeps on giving. Andrews’ PS and the Town Hall Conference were just steps one and two. There were plenty more to come.

I kept writing my blog every week. I started with no readership, but loved the discipline of writing and thinking about writing regularly (and still do). When the EWF put the call out for Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers Festival I put my hand up. I’ll never forget the thrill of learning that Future of Long Form had been selected. I was whooping through our empty house. The EWF had given me a great opportunity.

In August 2012 when the Emerging Blogging gig began I was struck by the warmth of both EWF and MWF staff. I didn’t know it yet, but EWF was making me a part of a writing community. I now had new writer friends and industry contacts (including my fellow Emerging Bloggers). Thanks to my MWF/EWF calling-card doors opened to interviews with prominent writers and organisations like Creative Nonfiction magazine, Robin Hemley and Margaret Simons. Plus I had ten days of uninterrupted inspiration with my cherished free festival pass. At the end of the festival I wholeheartedly thanked both the EWF and MWF for an amazing experience - somehow thinking their contribution to my career couldn’t get any better than this. Ha!

From Andrews’ PS, to the Town Hall Conference, to starting my blog, to becoming a blogger for MWF came a new opportunity. Based on my interview and post about Robin Hemley I was selected as an official blogger for the NonfictioNow conference. It’s another opportunity to interview great writers of international stature and I was gifted with more days of inspiration at that conference.

By then I'd developed the discipline of writing everyday, and I felt that my work was all the better for it (of course, I’ve still got a long way to go). I also learned a huge amount about long form, writing craft and distribution. I had some impressive names on my blog, which lead to more great names, which increased my readership. All of this makes me consider that none of this would have happened without the EWF. But it doesn’t even end there! It’s no wonder I’m a card-carrying fan.

In January 2013 I got two more whoop-worthy emails, which I wouldn’t have, were it not for the journey that EWF began. Imogen Kandel, Online Editor of Killings (Kill Your Darlings blog) invited me to be a 2013 columnist on Books and Writing. (My work was first exposed to Kandel during MWF). And the Wheeler Centre awarded me a Hot Desk Fellowship. I doubt I would have applied for the fellowship if the EWF team (especially Karen Andrews) hadn’t encouraged me and my new writing career all those months ago. (Props too, to former Director Lisa Dempster and new Director Sam Twyford-Moore - love their work!).

So yes, that’s why I am a card-carrying fan of EWF - and that’s why you’ll often see me at their events. I hope you'll all go to plenty of events (view the program here) because you never know what might happen. And when you do go, come and say hello. I’ll be at the Town Hall Conference and other events and will be tweetings.