On poetic openings: Katie Keys

‘My preference for poetry is to find the fewest words to say the biggest thing. To carve it down until you’ve got something that evokes a much bigger world and opens it up rather than closes it,’ says poet, Katie Keys. True to her preference, Keys’ poems are tiny (less than 140 characters). She harnesses the new media galaxy by publishing a poem daily via the Twitter handle @tinylittlepoems. New media is to poetry as it is to long form: a medium that has both disrupted traditional channels and provided new ones. ‘I’m a big advocate of Twitter in particular as an amazing creative catalyst for poetry,’ says Keys. Twitter's brevity promotes the clarity and distillation of language she likes to read in poetry. But another big part of Twitter’s appeal is that it often reaches people who might not buy a poetry book.

If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.
If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.

‘Poetry is still (unfortunately) fighting off the bias of being an elite impenetrable art form. The general populace is still recovering from poetry as an idea of something you learn by rote, that is not enjoyable, not for them and not accessible,’ she says. Twitter provides a mechanism for Keys to talk to others about poetry. ‘I spoke to a guy recently who said, “I’m still struggling with it, but you’ve made me think about poetry as something that doesn’t rhyme,” Well great! I’m excited by that,’ she says.

The conversational aspect of Twitter has also helped Keys with her professional development. ‘You get automatic feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. I very rarely get direct critique – but I can see from the number of retweets or favourites which ones are stronger. Over four years that’s helped me hone and develop,’ she says. In addition, publishing poetry via Twitter has lead to Keys’ participation in conferences and events where she works as a poet in residence. At a recent event in Alice Springs she busted out 170 tweets in four days! (And next week she’ll be poet in residence at Melbourne’s Art Centre).

Over time Keys has adjusted not only to Twitter’s size limitations but also to the discipline of publishing daily. ‘I’m a compulsive editor. I had to let go of that in order just to push it out, to be writing everyday and to meet my own deadlines,’ she says. She writes most of her tiny little poems in long hand first – scribbling, crossing out and editing. Like all of us, she has good days and bad.

‘[Before I was a writer] I spent a lot of time and energy getting upset at myself for not doing what I know I love to do: I neglected my writing,’ says Keys. Ahead of starting @tinylittlepoems Keys often told herself she was too busy to write. (Yet she noticed increased productivity when she set her own arbitrary deadlines – such as that for NaNoWriMo!) One day she stopped making excuses and set herself the task of writing and publishing a poem to Twitter every day. This was clearly a turning point in her writing career and something she encourages for all writers.

‘Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s good – it’s just about getting it down and working out whether it’s good later. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with this; but [thanks to writing everyday] I can now happily call myself a writer.’

From July 27 to August 2 Katie Keys will be the poet in residence at Arts Centre Melbourne, she’ll be sending tiny little poems via Twitter as well as the Arts Centre’s LED signage.

A rocket around the future of long form

It’s time for our annual orbit around the future of long form. In last year’s post, The Future of Long Form: An Odyssey we visited seven virtual space stations in the new media galaxy. This year we’ll fly past each one in a rocket travelling at 475 kilometres a minute. We’re cleared for launch and counting down; five, four, three, two….  

Station 1: Traditional Print

If you look through the porthole to the right of the rocket you’ll see this, the oldest station in the long form galaxy – coming out of the Guttenberg inspired revolution: publishing your words in print.

The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.
The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.

Despite its so-called retro look, I still love to see my byline printed at this station. In fact, I think I have more faith in traditional print than I did before I started using my e-reader. (I don’t like e-reading as much as print-reading).

Yet, despite my enthusiasm, the print world continues to be challenged by the disruption new media has brought. I’m not aware of any newcoming Australian or international print-based publications of long form (please enlighten me if you know of any). However, I am aware of print publications moving to entirely digital delivery.

Station 2: Traditional Online

This station is surrounded by a constellation of newly documented stars marking the increase in opportunities to pitch your long form work to online publications. This year saw the introduction of high-profile sites The Big Round Table (US) and Matter (UK). Both were seeded by crowd sourcing campaigns and both are using paywalls (Matter has since sold to Medium). The Big Round Table is donation based (which means that you may not be paid if you are published or you may be paid a lot). Matter uses a subscription/pay-per-read model.

Locally, Tincture Journal has appeared as a venue for long form non-fiction. In contrast to The Big Round Table and Matter (which publish individual articles), Tincture provides an editorial package. It sells in E-pub and Kindle formats. The package includes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Tincture will consider up to 15,000 words of creative non-fiction (and recently tweeted that they find it difficult to source non-fiction work – so pitch!)

There are also opportunities to submit your long form work for e-publishing by some of the leading publishing houses. (Certainly before their merger both Penguin and Random House were keen on more long form, no doubt Penguin Random House will be too).

Station 3: Enterprise Journalism / Community Funded Reporting / Crowd sourcing

Slightly behind the rocket here you may catch a few falling stars. These are the international and local initiatives that provided platforms to crowd fund articles. Our local version youcommnews.com has disappeared offline altogether (perhaps one day it will reappear) and the US version Spot.us might sadly be fading (at time of publishing, the most recent funding requests date back to 2012).

Some journalists (not just writers) have succeeded in using generic crowd sourcing sites to fund their stories (like pozible.com, kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com). However this model is yet to be proven for long form writing.

While the community funded reporting model may be dimming, there is a little sparkle when it comes to crowd sourcing long form publishing houses. Both The Big Round Table and Matter were seeded in this way.

Station 4: Publishers Funded by Philanthropists

Thanks to the generosity of Wotif founder Graeme Wood, Australia still has The Global Mail (funded by a grant from Wood) and now our own masthead of the UK’s Guardian (an investment rather than a donation). In the past 12 months Wood has also donated $1.5 million to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He’s certainly committed to the idea of  ‘Philanthrojournalism’.

Shimmering brightly in this cluster of stars is the long-standing Centre for Public Integrity – more substantive proof of the viability of this model.*

Station 5: Writers funding philanthropy

There are initiatives such as Write for Life that are compiling articles into books which are then sold to raise funds for charity. It’s a nice idea but no doubt suffers from the same challenges all small publishing does – namely finding enough readers.

Incidentally, in the past year I’ve tried to raise funds by selling my long form article online. I got a lot of exposure, but didn’t raise a lot money. You can read all about that in my post Goodwill Hunting.

Station 6: Writing for free / Self Publishing

As always, if you don’t want or need to get paid for your work, you can publish your long form article on your own site or blog.

Be aware however (to reformat the old adage) if you publish it, they may not necessarily come. Readers can be as elusive as those stars you only see from the corner of your eye.

Station 7: Entrepreneurial Journalism / Self Publishing

It’s vast – but despite this, station seven is the most crowded in our orbit. Literary-astronauts are lured by the ease of access and the promise of 70% royalties. But setting a long form piece into the new media galaxy alone is not enough. It has to be heavily marketed, and even then may not find readers. Most of the work published from this station just drifts aimlessly into space.

That’s our 2013 rocket trip on the future of long form in the new media galaxy concluded! I’ll be most interested to see what the journey will show in another year’s time. Keep checking the Venues and Resources page of this blog to learn of new publishing opportunities.

* If you’re interested in a good overview of journalism funded by philanthropy read this recent post by Matthew Knott on Crikey.

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.

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 meetup.com).

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.

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.

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.


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, pepironalds.com) 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! http://www.pepironalds.com/help-japan

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 slideshare.net 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 pepironalds.com/help-japan). 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 pepironalds.com/help-japan

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 pepironalds.com/help-japan

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.

Non-fiction stories

I’m in a gallery looking at photographs. Well, in this context ‘photographs’ may be a misleading word. These images are on photographic paper but actually they’re abstract moments in chemistry and light. They comprise dribbles, daubs and geometric shapes in different tones of browns, oranges and blue. Apart from one image, which has the faint impression of a silhouetted head, there is nothing particularly ‘photographic’ or recognisable in what I see on these sheets of paper. I step into the next room. Here are journalistic portraits. These images feel far more accessible, and I realise that despite my openness to considering new applications of photography my true interest is in photojournalism. I notice the connection between this and my writing. ‘It’s non-fiction for me!’ I quip to my companion.

What does the reader need to know? How is this relevant to the story? Thanks to ippei + janine for use of this image Through the Mt Martha scrub under Creative Commons.

The heat in the gallery is stifling. So we head outside to deckchairs at Federation Square where I sit in the breeze by the river watching the world go by: non-fiction at its purest. Yet my eye is constantly drawn to the colour and movement on the big screen above the empty stage. At first I am ashamed at how easily the packaged visuals distract me from the non-fiction around me. But then I realise the advantage the screen has: story. That’s what makes the edited footage more interesting. It’s not pure non-fiction that I love. It's non-fiction stories.

I’ve always known that story is important to writing, but understanding and applying that as a writer can be difficult. When I am researching a non-fiction article I am generally able to find a good story (and angle). But when I’m writing something non-fiction that’s based on my own experience I get completely flummoxed. Of all the moments in any experience, which are relevant to the story? Recently I sat on a boardwalk next to an estuary, and I realised that I might be drawing closer to an answer for this question.

As I sat a fisherman appeared. He threw his line in the water and settled nearby. I asked him what he was fishing for. He answered. Then I asked him if there are fish that swim in the ocean as well as the estuary (forgive me, I don’t know about these things). ‘Well, I’ll tell you a story,’ the fisherman said. And then he proceeded to do quite the opposite. He started by noting a new housing development somewhere, and then there was some connection to his accountant, and something about his tax return. And then there was a barbeque (maybe in the accountant’s house?), and then we were back at the new housing development and it ends up it was built on a watercourse. And toward the end of all this noise I got the story: someone somewhere up a river once saw a gummy shark, and apparently that’s surprising.

Jack Hart’s book Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, has been a turning point in my understanding of how best to tell stories. Thanks to him, I now have a mantra: ‘What does the reader need to know?’ By asking this constantly as I write personal (and other) non-fiction stories I feel more able to sort the story from less relevant real-life action: the gummy shark from the accountant, the big screen from the passing parade. If I don’t tell my readers what they need to know they will be sitting at a barbeque with an accountant when in fact I want them back at the gallery with the abstract photographs.

These abstract images contrast sharply with the photojournalism in the next room. Yet there is something curious in them for me and that comes from their story. The exhibition blurb explains that they are darkroom rejects – sheets of paper fished from rubbish bins then reinterpreted by photographers Greg Neville and Greg Wayn. The images alone are open to a wide interpretation. But once I have their story, I can picture much more.