Writing the Time of COVID-19

When I’m immersed in writing a book, I tend to utilise the wee, dark hours when there’s little chance of being disturbed or taken out of the world I am creating. I may change screens to research a quick fact, or display images that evoke a mood or scene I am writing, but I try to avoid anything that may cause a crack in my fictional universe and send real life flooding in.

This is why I do my best work before 6.30am. Children have the tendency to bring reality crashing down, and there’s nothing more damaging to crafting the fine fabric of a delicate sentence than squabbles over whose turn it is to feed the dog.

I write historical fiction and I love nothing more than diving into a period of time and discovering what life might have been like for my protagonists, from their clothing, the transport system, the food they ate to major events happening in the world around them. My books are always based here in Perth, which means it’s never far to go and visit the locations where my stories are set.

Fortunately, many of Perth’s beautiful old buildings still exist, and there is nothing more satisfying for a writer than to go and be physically present in the space where their story is taking place, even if the story and the writing of it are separated by decades or even a century.

My most recent manuscript, Letting Go is probably the most complicated story I have ever written. It consists of six main characters whose lives are interwoven and who are all implicated in a shocking event. It’s also written in the present, which is a first for me, because I love the concrete detail of history.

If I write about heeled housewives, black and white television, the Australian Dream, Korean War and the appearance of new electrical appliances into the home you immediately know I am talking about the 1950s. The lived experience of the time would be different for all, but there are major signposts which identify it as a specific historical period.

But for everyone who is currently living in the time of COVID-19, you will recognise that this will soon become a neatly packaged historical era in its own right, with its own terminology, apparel, social norms and dramatic world events.

The chance to write about history as it is currently taking place is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I am embracing with both hands. Yet unlike working on other books where the ping of a microwave might pull me out of pre-WW1 Perth or the hiss of an electric train rouses me from the 1970s, there are no noises (other than squabbling children) that can disrupt me from writing about the present.

On the contrary, even the sounds that I am hearing (more sirens but less traffic) will one day become a marker for this unique time. So with my windows thrown open wide, I am listening to the world as I write it, and can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

The First Lines of Australian Novels Rewritten for COVID-19

I admit this isn’t an original idea, but it’s a very good idea. First someone decided to rewrite the first lines of ten classic novels for social distancing. I’m taking the liberty of rewriting the opening lines from 25 of my favourite Australian novels for the Time of COVID-19. Apologies to all concerned.

 

Invisible Boys – Holden Sheppard

There are two ways out of this poxy shithole of a town, but you can’t go either way until the regional travel bans are lifted.

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. I’m really loving social isolation! But then again, I am an introvert.

The French Photographer – Natasha Lester

Jessica May turned on her famous smile and raised her arm aloft. It was all she could do to say hello from 1.5 metres away.

All That Is Lost Between Us – Sara Foster

It was only a memory now. Going to the gym and having a coffee afterwards with friends in the café.

The Sound – Sarah Drummond

My name is Wiremu Heke. But my Zoom name is Billhook.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

His eyes still shut, a dream dissolving and already impossible to recall, Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Working from home was awesome. He could sleep till midday because no one knew when he started work.

You Belong Here – Laurie Steed

Jen sat sketching flowers on the footpath, the chalk worn down to a nub. She took a photo and quickly uploaded it to Facebook, hashtagging it #RainbowTrailAustralia.

The Sisters Song – Louise Allen

My memories of my father are scant and faded, and I only have two photos of him. His aged care home forbids visitors and it’s been too long since I’ve seen him.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

They said I must die. They said I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine. They call me COVID-19 and I am but a wee virus.

Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

‘That doesn’t sound like a school trivia night’ said Mrs Patty Ponder to her cat Marie Antoinette. ‘All non-essential events over 100 people have been cancelled!’

Trip of a Lifetime – Liz Byrski

Later, even when she’d had time to think about it, she still couldn’t remember anything unusual about the evening; UberEats on the couch, a bottle of wine and Netflix. The same thing every night for the past six weeks.

Let Her Go – Dawn Barker

Zoe turned to look out to sea. She was glad they hadn’t closed the beaches in Perth. Take that, Bondi!

The Good Turn – Dervla McTiernan

The waiting room was ugly and neglected. It had been cleaned recently – the overpowering smell of disinfectant was testament to that. ‘Have you been overseas in the past 14 days or had close contact with a confirmed case of corona virus?’ the receptionist demanded. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m just here for a pap smear.’

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

I’m flying down the Hume Highway at 130 kilometres an hour. Since everyone’s been told to stay home and isolate, there’s no one on the roads.

Postcards from Surfers – Helen Garner

We are driving north from Coolangatta airport. Our flights have been cancelled and I’m mad as hell. I’d better get a full refund.

They’re a Weird Mob – Nino Culotta

Who the hell’s Nino Culotta? That’s what you asked yourself when you first picked up this book, wasn’t it? Well he’s the guy who started Bin Isolation Outing.

Dustfall – Michelle Johnston (Ch 2)

Raymond. That was his name and he emerged from the mire with two small suitcases stuffed to the hinges with items hastily chosen; now he had two weeks compulsory quarantine in a city hotel at the expense of the Australian taxpayer.

Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

Jasper Jones came to my window. Ever since we had to close the restaurant, drive-through has been going off!

Searching for the Secret River – Kate Grenville

In the puritan Australia of my childhood, you could only get a drink on a Sunday if you were a ‘bona fide traveller’. During the lockdown you can’t get a drink any day of the week, and travellers, well – we hate ‘em.

The Shadow Years – Hannah Richell

It is the smallest details that come to her; the damp grass underfoot threaded with buttercups, the air humming with insects, the snap of her nightdress catching in the breeze. She’d spent more time in her backyard during the last month of lockdown than she had in the previous year.

Beautiful, Messy Love – Tess Woods

It’s funny what you remember about the biggest moment in your life. But I think in a year or two, we all will have forgotten the lessons we learned during COVID-19.

Fractured – Dawn Barker

Tony’s footsteps echoed as he hurried across the underground carpark and into the lift. He saw the look of alarm on the old woman’s face. Tony removed his face mask. ‘I’m not sick,’ he said, but she had already stepped out of the lift.

An Indecent Obsession – Colleen McCullough

The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the large cruise ship, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. An armed guard for the off-duty crew of a cruise ship? Were they going to sing and dance their way to escape?

If I Should Lose You – Natasha Lester

Patient care: stethoscope whispers, the lubdub or footsteps, but no huddles of family. Corona victims must die alone.

Sister Madly Deeply [Well Behaved Women] – Emily Paull

As I bring the clippers toward the soft dome of my head, all I can think about is how much I do not want to do this. But I am so bored in isolation and everyone else on Tik Tok is making videos of cutting themselves a fringe, so I’m going to do one too.

 

What other Aussie novels can you re-write the first line for?

When should you say goodbye?

It’s certainly not my favourite thing to do, but every now and then I follow my business mentor’s advice and think about boring things like SEO and search terms. Deep down I’m a writer, and my greatest joy is putting words on a page and sending them out to the world. Worrying about whether those words make it to the right audience or land on the first page of Google isn’t something I tend to worry about, until reminded by my mentor (and my bank balance) that in fact, they are quite important.

Fundraising Mums - comprehensive fundraising ideas for schools and sporting clubs

Digging around in my website’s rear-end sounds like a rather private and uncomfortable activity but what it really involves is me looking at the search terms people have used before winding up on my Fundraising Mums page.

For example, type in ‘how to run a cake stall’ and up pops Fundraising Mums ‘How to Run A Profitable Cake Stall’. Type ‘lessons from fete’ or ‘escape room for kids’ and my articles will pop up.

But sometimes people type in rather more obscure search terms only to be directed to my page. One of my favourite requests is the very specific ‘how much onion on average on a sausage’ which directs you to my Bunnings sausage sizzle article (answer 10kg of onions for 400-600 sausages).

I have been writing for Fundraising Mums since 2015 and I started it on a rather cynical yet optimistic note. I have always been heavily involved in the P&C, fundraising and events at my daughters’ school. I will be at my local primary school for thirteen years as a parent – I figure I should roll my sleeves up and get involved – but if I was going to do the work, I may as well write about it and share what I learned. There are over 10,000 schools in Australia and over 6,500 community sporting clubs. I figured if there was just one person in each school and club who wanted fundraising ideas then I would have a readership.

Like most things though, being a primary school mum is a phase that eventually you pass through and leave. My youngest daughter is now in Year 3, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. While that doesn’t necessarily mean I will no longer be involved in fundraising at all, it does seem that a natural end is upon me. One I am seriously considering embracing.

According to a 2009 survey, 95% of the 133 million blogs in existence had not been updated in 120 days – and were considered abandoned. Today, there are over 500 million blogs in existence (five of which belong to me) which if I extrapolated, would mean there are 475 million abandoned blogs littering the virtual highway (three of which belong to me).

I am trying to decide if I should add another to that number?

When is it time to say goodbye to a project that you have nurtured for years? Should it be an economic decision? A question of time? Or is it when you have lost the joy?

woman looking at pig

I don’t think I could completely abandon Fundraising Mums. It’s been my primary project for the last five years, and represents thousands of hours of my time spent researching and writing. I see my stories making their way out into the world, to places I never imagined. Ireland, India and Germany feature in the top 10 countries of FRM readers. I have built relationships with readers and advertisers alike. I am proud of the work I have done.

But over the past year I have been drawn in a different direction – away from the real world into the fictional worlds I have created in my novels. It’s there I want to spend my time.

The closure of schools, cancellation of sports and decimation of the events industry has been reflected in the readership of Fundraising Mums. I fear that by the end of the COVID-19 crisis there will be fewer Australian fundraising businesses than there was at the beginning of 2020. There will be casualties and perhaps Fundraising Mums will be amongst them.

But as long as I write a new story every 120 days then at least it won’t be entirely abandoned.

Just neglected.

 

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

When Good Comes From Bad

The last few months have seen some of the worst bushfires in Australian history, probably world history. Almost 16 million hectares burnt across 7 states and territories. Over 3,500 homes lost. More than 1 billion animals perished.

And 33 lives lost.

In early January, two Aussie authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman decided to do something about it. They put the call out on Twitter to other writers to donate something for auction, with the money raised going to fundraisers supporting the bushfire effort.

Enter #authorsforfireys

The original goal was modest: to raise $13,000 to support our beloved fireys, but before long it was clear that the twitter auction was going to be much more.

By the close of the auction, more than 1,200 items had been donated included signed books, the chance to named as a character in a book, manuscript appraisals, introductions, author visits to bookclubs, personalised poems, original illustrations, even a handmade rug.

I bid on a number of items, including Tess Wood’s incredible Italian feast for eight people. For much of the week I was the leading bidder. I had already chosen my guests, a mix of new and established Perth-based writers and I could already taste the tiramisu. Sadly, it was not to be, although I could hardly begrudge the winner, especially when they more than doubled my final bid.

There were a few other things I bid on with more success.

Last year I finished a manuscript called Behind Closed Doors that won me a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program and KSP First Edition Retreat. Wise advice from facilitator Laurie Steed suggested I get a sensitivity check on a scene involving one of my characters. I needed to find out if something I wrote would be realistic for a closeted gay man in the 1970s.

The problem being of course, I didn’t know any closeted gay men who were around in the 1970s.

‘Talk to Holden Sheppard,’ he suggested. Not that Holden is closeted or anywhere near old enough to be alive in the 1970s, but he is generous and open and a very good writer.

I had read and loved Holden’s incredible book Invisible Boys, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not the sort to send an unsolicited email asking for help.

Then the #AuthorsForFiries auction happened, and Holden was offering a one hour chat about anything writing related over a cup of coffee. It was like the universe heard what I was saying and delivered it in a neat, hashtagged parcel.

At the very last minute I was outbid by a measly $1. I was devasted.

But then, about an hour after the auction closed, I received a message from Holden. If I was happy to donate my bid to another good cause, he would give me the one hour consult. See what I mean about being generous?

Shannon and Holden Sheppard

With Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys

There was no way I was missing out on being the winning bidder for a manuscript appraisal by Louise Allen, author of the very beautiful The Sisters Song. I even upped my own bid at one point, because it was such a good cause. I had been following Louise’s blog for a number of years and there is no one else I would have wanted to read the first few chapters of my novel set here in Perth just before the start of World War 1 [click here to find out how it all started].

This week we met and sat for two hours, just talking about my book and characters, the real life people whose stories form the basis of the book, and my own journey as I researched.

Anyone who spends much of their lives closeted away writing will know how indulgent it is just to talk about your precious project with another writer. It was instructive and enlightening and has given me much needed motivation to pick the story back up and keep working on it.

Shannon and Louise Allen

With Louise Allen, author of The Sisters Song

The #AuthorsForFireys auction raised more than half a million dollars in less than a week. One nice aspect was that each author or illustrator who offered something for the auction was able to choose the specific cause they wanted their winner to donate to. This meant funds were spread around the country, benefiting local fire volunteers and animal rescue, local charities and greening groups.

The twitter auction also forged connections and relationships between writers across the country, bringing a tightknit community closer, and showing the real power of words.

And I made a couple of friends.

 

Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.