When words are hard: my journey to writing a book about dyslexia

What do Australian authors Jackie French and Pip Williams have in common?

They’re both best-selling authors.

They both have a love of history and telling the stories of strong women.

They both have dyslexia.

What about Agatha Christie and Dav Pilkey?

Again, both best-selling authors (Agatha’s 66 detective stories and 14 books of short stories have sold over two billion copies, and Dav has sold over 80 million copies of his 48 books).

They are both award-winners.

Also, both dyslexic.

What about Jamie Oliver and Richard Branson?

They’re both hugely successful entrepreneurs and businessmen who have gone on to write books.

They’re both very, very rich.

They’ve both been recognised by the Queen for their service to the country.

They’re both also dyslexic.

In Australia, October is the month of dyslexia awareness. You may see people’s social media pages bordered in red or buildings and monuments across the country lit up red at night. I am lighting up my Instagram page red in October. Why red? Apart from the obvious red/read, it’s part of a campaign by Code Read Dyslexia Network:

By next October, my book sharing some of the most inspirational stories of people with dyslexia will be on the shelves of bookshops and libraries around the country. It’s something that fills me with incredible excitement but also, if I’m honest, also with a sense of trepidation and responsibility. That’s probably the topic for another blog, but today I just wanted to share just some of the incredible writers from around the world who have dyslexia.

Many writers say the same thing – dyslexia slowed them down, especially when they were at school, but it could not stop their love of stories. Moreover, the struggle they had with words, the extra effort they had to give to learn to read and write has just deepened their relationship with language and made the process of writing that much more special.

Awesome dyslexic writers:

  • Jackie French, Australian multi-genre, award-winning author, Diary of a Wombat and my daughter’s favourite, A Waltz for Matilda.
  • Pip Williams, best-selling Australian author, The Dictionary of Lost Words.
  • Catherine Deveny, columnist, speaker and author.

“The more you do it, the more you do. The more a pathway in the brain is used the better and faster it gets. Writing is a muscle. The more you work it out, the better it gets.” Catherine Deveny

  • Dav Pilkey, best-selling US author, Captain Underpants.

“Try to remember that being unsuccessful in school doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be unsuccessful in life. Lots of people who didn’t excel in school still went on to have successful lives.” Dav Pilkey

  • Agatha Christie, world’s best-selling author, Murder on the Orient Express.
  • Octavia Spencer, actress and author, Ninja Detective series.
  • Ahmet Zapper, children’s author (and son of legendary musician Frank). Ahmet left school at 12 due to his struggles with dyslexia but he is now the author of over 20 best-selling books.

“When we had to do book reports, I would pick a book that no one read and just make it up and turn that in. I got praised for my imagination.” Ahmet Zappa

  • Henry Winkler, actor (The Fonz) and children’s author, Hank Zipzer, The World’s Greatest Underachiever.
  • Richard Branson, entrepreneur and author. Virgin owner. Space tourist. Everyone knows who Richard is.
  • Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and cookbook author.
  • Andrew Dornenburg – author of five best-selling culinary books and cookbooks with his wife, Karen Dornenburg.

“As I tell other dyslexics, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be great.” Andrew Dornenburg

  • Sally Gardner, children’s author (and also writes for adults under the pseudonym Wray Delaney). She was considered ‘unteachable’ by her teachers and called ‘Silly Sally’ by her peers because she didn’t learn to read until she was 14. She’s now the best-selling author of over 45 books.

“Keep telling yourself stories and don’t worry if you can’t write them down. Try to find your voice. Don’t be put off by anyone telling you that you can’t do something – believe in your dreams.” Sally Gardner

  • Debbie Macomber couldn’t read until she was 11 but is now the best-selling author of more than 100 romance and contemporary books and she has sold over 200 million copies.

 “Often times when we have a disability in one area we are often compensated in another area by a talent – for me it was storytelling. I wanted to become a writer because I had stories to tell.” Debbie Macomber

  • Jeanne Betancourt, author of over 80 children’s and YA books and scripts, My Name is Brain Brian.

“Since learning to read and write was difficult for me growing up, I paid more attention to the world around me. I took clues to what people were thinking and feeling from their speech and body language. Today, as an author, it is easy for me to imagine what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes.” Jeanne Betancourt

  • Anne Rice, author of over 30 novels, including one of the best-selling novels of all time, Interview with the Vampire (which was made into a movie with another famous dyslexic, Tom Cruise).

“Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is.” Anne Rice

The list goes on…

  • Avi, author of over 80 books for children and young adults.
  • John Irving, American novelist, The World According to Garp.
  • The late thriller writer Vince Flynn.
  • Paranormal and urban fantasy writer Sherrilyn Kenyon (aka Kinley McGregor).
  • Lynda La Plante, best-selling crime writer.
  • Billy Bob Thornton, actor, scriptwriter and musician
  • and many, many more.

In many of the interviews I read, people said a similar thing: that their success was not despite their dyslexia, but because of it.

I pulled my daughter aside, pointed to the hundreds of names in my spreadsheet, and simply said: nothing is beyond you. Dyslexia can’t stop you.

Who do you want to read about? I would ask. Astronauts? Doctors? Actresses? Writers? The man who digs up dinosaurs? And she would tell me, and I would write their story and we would curl up in bed and I would read it to her.

Then I would find more names and write more stories. From Nobel Prize winners, Oscar winners and Olympians to Prime Ministers and Princesses. But not every child, dyslexia or not, can grow up to win a Nobel Prize, and few of us are born princesses.

I didn’t want to add to the stress she already finds herself under every day, so I found the stories of people whose names we do not know, with achievements no less breath-taking but more attainable for us mere mortals.

Soon I had so many stories she could pretty much name any career in the world, and I would be able to open the book to a page and point to a person whose story had been told. Chefs, artists, dancers, designers, musicians, sportspeople, comedians, inventors, philanthropists, activists, filmmakers and more.

Incredible people with inspiring stories and I can’t wait to share them with you.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.

– Henry Ford

How I write

At one level, the act of writing is the same for all writers. We sit (or stand!) at our computer and press the keys with our fingers. Some may still enjoy the act of picking up a pen and writing in a notebook, but the mechanics are basically the same.

Letter after letter, word after word.

In practice though, the specifics of how we write can be worlds apart. James Clear in his blog, has a great list of the writing habits of twelve of the world’s most famous writers so I’m not going to repeat that (although it’s definitely worth a read).

And while I am certainly not on the same level as Maya Angelou or Ernest Hemingway, I am still a writer, and probably so are you, and by nature writers are curious and chatty – so here is how I write:

Early Bird

I usually wake between 4.30am and 5.30am. I don’t actually like waking this early, but it’s become habit over the years and if the number on my clock starts with a 4 (as opposed to a 3 in which case I roll over and try to go back to sleep) I will start my process.

Conveniently, this involves lying in the dark thinking about the scene I need to write next, fleshing out the details and dialogue, all the while still tucked up in bed. The mornings I think about my characters, perhaps try and picture them in my head, the setting, how they might have responded to the last thing I wrote, are the mornings when the words flow more freely.

When I blunder out of bed and head straight to the screen, I usually find myself staring at the blank page for ages, which in turn sends me into a panic because I’m wasting precious time. I should point out that I usually have a detailed chapter outline and plot that I am working to, so I already know the bones of what will happen in each chapter. It’s the details I need to imagine in my head while still curled up in my blankets.

Instant Coffee

I keep a kettle in my ensuite and one of the last things I do before bed [coffee purists look away NOW] is make up a little jar of Jarrah coffee, extra instant coffee and sugar. While the kettle is boiling and I am resisting the urge to look at my phone, I just need to tip everything into my B-Max mug and top up with a little cold water. I normally have plenty of milk in my coffee, but the act of walking downstairs, and the chance I might bump into another human, is enough to throw me off my writing game. So it’s instant coffee and I’m fine with that.

My study is just opposite my bedroom, so it’s on with the slippers and dressing gown, rub the dog’s belly when she wakes up, then turn on the fairy lights that are strung around my room. Together with a desk lamp, they are just enough light to work by, and not so bright I burn my eyes out before properly waking.

Time limited

I usually work in Scrivener, and I will read the last few paragraphs of what I have written to get me up to speed and then I will (hopefully) just launch in. I aim to write a minimum of 500 words before I reluctantly finish by 7am when I have to wake the kids and start prodding them to get ready. Thursdays are my least favourite because I have to finish before 6am to get one of my daughters to band practice. Weekends are the best because I can write until 8am, 9am, 10am before I get hungry and need to hunt and gather some food.

No interaction

I’m in the privileged position where the paid work I do can be done from home. This means that I am flexible and if I am on a writing roll and there are words that need to be written, as soon as the kids are at school I can sit back down and write. This rarely happens though, and if I do have time during the day it’s usually spent editing, researching, plotting, blogging, doing coursework or reading. For some reason I tend to do the bulk of my creative work in those dark hours at the start of my day, before the world has intruded, before I remember that I have three kids and a job and a house to clean and a dog to walk (just kidding, I rarely walk the dog).

Record progress

At the end of each session, when I am working on a first draft – like I am at the moment – I tally up the word count and write it on my wall calendar. It’s incredibly motivating seeing that number creep up and the day I scribble a huge circle and write ‘finished’ is always special. Then the work really starts, but finishing a first draft, no matter how shoddy and full of holes it may be, is an achievement worth celebrating.

Don’t aim for perfection

I don’t agonise over every word, but I do consider language carefully. I aim for my first draft to be pretty polished in terms of language, although I know I will certainly have to redraft in terms of story (and pace and consistency and everything else). When it comes down to it, I would rather leave a dodgy sentence in italics, or even a bunch of crosses to indicate further research is needed. As they say, it is easier to edit than write. That being said, I’ve left entire scenes and chapters unwritten if they’re too hard just so I can keep my writing momentum going.

Writing tools

At the end, regardless of whether it’s a short story of 2,000 words or a novel clocking in at 85,000, I then run the piece through Grammarly. Like me, Grammarly is fallible. It doesn’t like my syntax, says I am too verbose and thinks I’m American. At least half of what it picks up is unhelpful for me, but it always detects a handful of major errors I’m grateful to see the back of, usually repeating words words. I seem to do that a lot.

I am a terrible speller and I also find it difficult to see errors (read why my brain is a cheat and liar) so recently I started to use the read-aloud function to read me my story. This is usually when I hear most of my mistakes and to be honest, I find it a much more valuable tool than Grammarly.

More eyes

I am fortunate to have a fabulous writing group who have been critiquing one of my novels. It’s incredibly valuable to have different people look at my work and the conversations we have about small issues (specific word choice, technical details) and big issues (characterisation and plot) are priceless. It’s a relatively slow process though, and I am by nature impatient, so I also work with the fabulous Brooke Dunnell as my mentor. We work in much longer chunks of text (up to 20,000 words or an entire manuscript) and can look at the big picture issues.

My sister is usually the first person to read all of my books. As an engineer, she has a sharp eye for the tiny details and inconsistencies that pepper my story.

Only once have I ever sent my book out to a much larger group of beta readers, a terrifying and rewarding process I wrote about here.

How do I know when it’s done?

If I am honest, I am the sort of writer to send out books underdone rather than overcooked. This is partly because – as I mentioned – I am impatient. I’m also a hopeless optimist and just expect that publishers and judges will ‘get it’ even if it’s not as polished as it should be.

This may end up being my major undoing and one day I will discover that instead of being hopelessly optimistic, I am simply hopeless.

But I also love starting on new projects and have no shortage of ideas of what I want to do next. Since starting writing in earnest in 2017 I have written a book a year, and I often work on two projects at a time.

Of those books, one will be published next year, one is in the bottom drawer awaiting a full re-structure, one is out on submission, one is ‘mostly’ finished but needs a lot of work and one is my current WIP, having hit 17,000 words this morning.

Mix it up

My genre is a mixed bag: a non-fiction book for children, two historical fiction, one contemporary fiction and one literary fiction. I have the outline for a series of decodable chapter books for kids and have been toying with the idea of memoir. I like trying new things although it does make it difficult to explain what I do in a single sentence.

My grab-bag of genres is reflected in my hodgepodge of writing processes. While I covered the mechanics of how I write above, I have tried everything from 100% pantsing, to detailed plotting. I have written in a linear fashion from start to finish as well as jumping about, writing scenes from all over the book then attempting to fill in the gaps (not recommended). Sometimes I do the bulk of my research before I start, more often I research as I go.

It’s safe to say that my writing process is fairly fluid, and I am still determining what works best for me.

Read every day

Probably the most consistent thing about my process is that every night I must read in bed before I go to sleep. Since I wake so early, I don’t function terribly well by dinner time; you won’t get an intelligent conversation out of me let alone a coherent written sentence. Often I am crawling into bed with a book when some of my writing group are sitting down at their laptops starting their writing.

But I must read, all genres, every night before I go to sleep, even when I am so tired I am peering at the words with one eye closed because the effort to have two eyes open is too much.

Don’t feel guilty

One thing I have been trying to control over the years – especially lately when so much of our lives is uncontrollable – is not to let myself feel too much guilt over the things I am not doing. As writers we often start sentences with ‘I should be…’

I should be entering more short story competitions.

I should be writing more than 500 words a day.

I should be plotting that series of books.

I should be planning world-domination.

I should do that load of washing.

I should pick up the kids from school.

When I hear these words slip from my lips, I ask myself ‘who told you to do this?’

If the only person I have to answer to is myself, then I really need to decide if it’s a pie-in-the-sky bucket list kind of thing, or if it’s something I’m actually able to achieve at this point in time.

Being patient with and kind to myself is something I am working on and I remind myself that these things will happen all in good time (hopelessly optimistic, remember).

Except I really do need to remember to get the kids from school…

Seeing the World Through Her Eyes

My youngest daughter is severely dyslexic.

We first noticed a difference between her and her peers when she was in Kindy, and the older she gets, the more marked it is. Diagnosing her dyslexia was a costly and time-consuming process, and despite intensive intervention at school and at home, progress is painfully slow. 

Having a child with reading and writing difficulties is extra strange considering I spend my life reading and writing. It’s my chosen career, and for the most part find I it blissfully easy. Consequently, it’s been hard for me to take a step back and comprehend how the world appear to her.

Until I was sitting on the toilet recently. 

I know that sounds strange, but bear with me.

We have an Auslan finger spelling poster in the toilet that I often find myself staring at.

I pride myself on being able to rattle through the hand signs for the alphabet pretty quickly, just like my daughter now is finally (almost) able to recite the alphabet. We are both pretty good when asked to go from start to finish.

But if you ask either of us to read (or sign) one of the ‘trickier’ letters – for her it might be H and F, for me it would be signing H or G, we will pause, no longer certain, without the context of the surrounding letters.

If someone proficient in Auslan sign language came up to me and started spelling ‘Hello, my name is Sam’ I would panic. I’d have to ask them to go very slowly, one letter at a time, translating the hand shapes to sounds, and trying to hold them in my head while I concentrate on ‘reading’ the next sign.

In an ideal world, when reading H-E-L-L-O, you’re still meant to remember the ‘H’ by the time you get to ‘O’. 

But if I was watching someone sign the letters to me, I would probably be concentrating so much on recognising the ‘O’, that the ‘H’ would be long gone. The word I had just ‘spelled’ would be an incomplete collection of sounds and make no sense. I then imagined how hard it would be to keep an entire sentence in my head.

My heart sank.

That’s when I realised that’s what it must be like for my daughter every time we ask her to read. 

And while I don’t have to learn the Auslan finger signs, she HAS to learn how to read and write English. There is no avoiding it. For her, it is a mountain that must be scaled. Every day for the rest of her life.

For her, reading is excruciating and labour intense, and without any certainly that sounding the individual letters will actually makes any sense once she’s done.

Despite the difficulties she has, she is determined to persist. She blows the rest of us out of the water when it comes to working hard. We are developing little rules that help her remember each letter shape and sound. What is automatic and easy for most of us, involves a number of laboured steps for her.

Funnily enough, one thing she can write with no issue is the phrase ‘I love you’. She writes it a lot. On cards and pictures, on scraps of paper, on the shopping lists, on post-it notes that she leaves next to my bed. 

Yet the other week, when she had to read ‘YES’ it took about 10 steps.

First I wrote the phrase ‘I love you’ next to her word list. Then I circled the ‘Y’ in Yes and the ‘Y’ in You and joined them together, and then I waited. I watched her eyes dart from one phrase to the next, as she mouthed the sounds to herself.

‘I love you’ she whispered under her breath, ‘You’ and then she got to ‘Y’.

‘Yuh’, she said.

Then she looked back at the word YES. ‘Yuh – Eh – Ess’. She turned to be with a big grin ‘YES’ she shouted.

To which there was only one appropriate response: ‘I love YOU’ I replied.

This story originally appeared on Relentless, November 2018.

Journalling the Pandemic

It was around March last year that here, in Perth, we really noticed our world beginning to tip sideways from the COVId-19 pandemic. Those early days of the pandemic were memorable for heightened anxiety, fear, uncertainty, disbelief and hesitation. No one knew what lay ahead, we were treading a new path.

It affected so many aspects of our lives – how we dressed, how we spoke with new words being introduced to our vocab on a daily basis. It affected how we interacted with each other; social distancing, elbow bumps replaced handshakes, we stood on circles on the floor. Our first lockdown and closure of the schools was a terrifying and novel time.

I began keep an online journal around this time, recording not only my personal experiences and observations but links and excerpts from online news articles and screen shots of statistics and images. I bought an archive box and dropped in pages from the newspaper.

By April 2020 I had decided I wanted to write a novel which would capture this new historical era with its new social norms and dress code and speech patterns (I am a historical fiction writer after all). I wrote a bit more about the book here: Writing the Time of COVID-19 – shannonmeyerkort.com The book was initially called Letting Go, but after I completed it in June 2020, I changed the title to 100 Days of March. I think it’s a lot more evocative.

The novel is finished and I am seeking a home for it, but the journal is still growing. As of today, it is over 51,500 words and 175+ pages long. I wonder sometimes, how big it will be before the pandemic becomes an endemic and we stop referring to it as something that can be stopped or fixed.

Some excerpts from the journal…

2020

2021

to be continued…

Researching the Past (in Perth)

I recently had the honour of being asked to present to a sub-group of Family History WA. I was in my element, having an open floor (and captive audience) while I discussed my journey researching and writing my historical fiction book The Teacher.

It didn’t start out as a book. It started out as a university assignment in 2014. That grew into a submission for the local History Awards. Then, after researching the people and places for a year or two, consolidating them so firmly in my brain that I now considered them family, in 2017 I decided to write a book.

I’d never written a book before, unless you count the cringeworthy novella I penned in high school. (Note: never count the books you write in high school unless you’re someone like Dav Pilkey or S.E Hinton.)

So I started enrolling in writing courses, and since then have done no less than nine – some short, some long. I am constantly learning and pushing myself. I have a long way to go.

But this short post today is not about writing, but researching.

I created a handout for the FHWA Writers Group that listed some of the websites I have discovered (or have been shared with me) over the years. Most of these are relevant only to West Australian researchers, but I feel confident there would be similar sites for other states that wouldn’t take much to discover.

West Australian Legislation: this site details the historical acts and amendments passed by Parliament all the way back 1832. You can search by portfolio (ie Minister for Mental Health, Minister for Small Business etc) or ‘As passed’ which is the year they were passed ie Lunacy Act, Elementary Education Act etc. It makes for some fascinating reading.

https://www.legislation.wa.gov.au/legislation/statutes.nsf/home.html

State Library of WA: It seems pretty obvious but this site has a wealth of resources, including the Wise post office directories, police gazettes, music, film, images, private collections and more. I also recommend following the SLWA on Facebook because they often release collections of historical photographs, which makes a nice change from cat videos and pictures of people’s breakfast.

https://www.slwa.wa.gov.au/explore-discover/wa-heritage

Post Office Directories: the specific link to the Post Office Directories which is a great way to find people in the past from 1893 to 1949. The directories provide name, address, locality and trade/professions. These have actually been one of the greatest sources of information for my research – finding people, seeing how stable or transient they are, determining their ages and relationship status, following their careers and families. It’s amazing what you can deduce from the directories.

https://slwa.wa.gov.au/explore-discover/wa-heritage/post-office-directories

World War 1 Service Records: if you’re researching anyone who did service in WW1, the National Archives have detailed records for each soldier, which can include ‘bonus’ extras such as health records (did they contract VD during service?), commendations and wrong-doings, letters to/from home and more.

https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/defence-and-war-service-records/army-world-war-i-1914-18

11th Battalion AIF website: If you’re specifically interested in the West Australian 11th Battalion, this website has personal histories and diaries, images as well as enlistment and embarkation details of Western Australia’s soldiers.

http://www.11btn.wags.org.au/    

Landgate: If you’re researching the previous owners of your home then you can apply to Landgate for the historical title deeds. It will include information such as name, address, occupation and sometimes information about bank loans and mortgages.

https://www0.landgate.wa.gov.au/titles-and-surveys/historical-records

Local museums: Did you know there are more than 150 museums in WA. I didn’t! This Wikipedia lists a huge range of museums from the Aviation Heritage Museum to the Colonial Hospital Museum and the WACA Museum. Most of them have websites which means you’re only one step away from learning about the history of cricket in WA.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_museums_in_Western_Australia

Lost Perth: This fabulous site and its respective Facebook page are full of brilliant old photos from Perth – but it’s the accompanying comments from hundreds of readers that add a level of personal detail that is priceless when you’re writing a book. A great place to get a feel for the history of Perth.

https://lostperth.com.au

Old Maps of Perth: This site provides links to vintage online maps from 1800s (across the globe).

https://www.oldmapsonline.org

Old Perth: historical photographs of old buildings and streets predominantly from the Perth CBD.

http://oldperth.org.au/

Collections WA: historical WA images and stories organised by theme – such as environment, immigration, people, popular culture, social history, war etc.

https://collectionswa.net.au

The Royal Western Australian Historical Society: Go to their book sales which are held twice a year – the local history books are inside and there are tables dedicated to WA as well as Australian history. Take a big bag!

https://www.histwest.org.au

Local councils: Your local council often will have a heritage department and dedicated staff who can assist with historical questions relating to their suburbs.

And last but not least Family History WA is a brilliant place for anything associated with historical research. Not only do they have multiple sub-groups focussing on special interest topics, they have a well-stocked library and research room that is accessible for members (or a small fee for the public).

https://membership.wags.org.au

What sites have you found most helpful when researching the past?

Your brain is a cheat and a liar

Every writer knows you should read your work out loud, and traditionally this is what I have done. Hours upon hours of my droning voice reading short stories and articles, correspondence and novels, trying to hear how it sounds and find mistakes along the way.

However, it turns out your brain is both a cheat and liar – it sees what it wants to see – so it will happily skip over typos and omissions in your work, telling your mouth to read it anyway because that’s what you want to hear.

Your brain is that friend who flatters you insincerely: no your adverbs don’t look big in that sentence. It autocorrects your clangers so you aren’t embarrassed by your own stupidity.

It’s only recently I have discovered the wonder of the Read Aloud function in MS Word, but it’s pretty much changed my (writing) life.

When you choose ReadAloud, you’re choosing an ally who reads only what is there  ̶  the typos, the bad grammar, the repeated words and the over-dependence on certain phrases. It doesn’t seek to flatter or reassure. It is a true friend – the one who tells you there is a huge piece of spinach in your teeth, which has probably been there since breakfast.

My book 100 Days of March has gone through multiple drafts. I have stared at its pages for over a year. I felt confident enough to send it to a publisher, but when I recently opened it back up and turned on Read Aloud, I was mortified by the sheer number of errors peppering my novel. Errors I could not see, but I could hear when someone else read them to me.

For example:

To my mind this paragraph looked fine, but when it was read out loud, it became clear just how many times I had used ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the same sentence. Not to mention the missing word. I needed to completely rewrite it.

It seems obvious now, but until this was read out loud, my brain didn’t register the double use of ‘care.’ 

I must have read this paragraph a dozen or more times over the past year, but it was only when I used readaloud that I realised I had used the wrong name halfway through.

Sometimes your brain doesn’t see an error because in a different context it wouldn’t actually be an error. In this example I use the wrong tense, it should be made instead of make.

I couldn’t see this tiny typo until it was read to me

Even when writing this blog I still couldn’t see what the error in this section was and had to go back to my full manuscript to find the difference. I could not see the absence of the word ‘to’ but when it was read to me, I could hear it clear as can be.

Another example of the brain seeing what it wants to see. Two words are inverted but I didn’t realise until it was read aloud.

It’s possible readers of this blog saw all the errors immediately, they probably jumped out of the page and body slammed you. But to me, these and many more like them had become invisible. It took about a week to have the computer read my entire book to me, but in that time it alerted me to a range of errors:

  • Typos (I had written modestly, but it should have been modesty)
  • Repeating the same word, phrase or concept in adjoining sentences/paragraphs
  • Where a word is omitted or in the wrong order
  • Lack of commas or too many commas (the voice pauses at a comma)
  • An over-dependency on certain mannerisms. For example my characters kept shrugging and rolling their eyes. Once the voice had alerted me to the repetition, I did a search to count how many times I used them throughout the text, and replaced them with alternate mannerisms where appropriate.

You can find Read Aloud in the ‘Review’ tab of MS Word. You can choose between voices (my old Word version has posh Catherine or even posher James, but I think newer versions have more options). You also need to be prepared for the occasional massacre of words and names. For example, Posh Catherine would pronounce Saoirse (which should be see-sha) as ‘sour-arse’. Go on – try it!

You can vary the speech at which the voice talks, but apart from a sweet spot in the middle, the two extremes are both utterly ridiculous and were probably just included as a horrible joke.

I doubt I will ever send a piece of work out again without first having Posh Catherine (not her real name) read my work to me.

Luckily I practice what I preach, or else I would have hit ‘publish on this.

Really old books and how they disproved an ancient grudge

Yesterday I went on my annual pilgrimage to the Royal WA Historical Society’s book sale. I scoured the tables laden with local history books and only stopped when my bag got too heavy to carry home.

Far at the back, away from the main crowds, was a table labelled ‘old and rare’. Moth-eaten, crumbling and decayed – I knew I would find something special to take home.

Image of two very old books, both worn and damaged. One has a marroon cloth/cardboard with the name Lefroy carved into it. The other has a black spine and corner pieces and a faded/grazed patterned cover. Owned by Annette (Bessie) Lefroy 1856-1896.

As most of these older books don’t have their titles printed on the cover (or have long lost their dust-jackets), I was careful to pick each book up and look inside.

One name kept recurring: Lefroy.

It was scrawled across end pages, decorated on fore pages and scratched into covers. Either this person really didn’t want to lose their books or they were very bored in class.

Fun fact: I went to a certain maroon-clad girls’ school located in Perth’s northern suburbs. There are six houses at SMAGS: Riley, Wardle, Craig, Wittenoom, Hackett and – you guessed it – Lefroy.

As a Riley (dark blue) girl, it was automatically assumed that I would uphold the long-standing grudge against Lefroy house (light blue). I don’t know how long this rivalry existed, how it started or if it persisted after I graduated in the mid-90s… but I always viewed the name Lefroy with a mix of suspicion and begrudging respect.

The school also drilled into us that each of the six houses had a long and venerated history and were named after six worthy individuals.

So when I saw these ancient books, clearly owned by a member of the Lefroy family, I knew I had to buy one.

Sideways view of old textbook School History of England. Lefroy has been carved into the front cloth cover and painted on the forepages. Owned by Annette (Bessie) Lefroy (1856-1896)
Bessie Lefroy wrote her name on every single surface of this book

School History of England is interesting because I am currently writing a novel set in 1913 at the Claremont teacher training college. I am curious to understand what student teachers would be learning and teaching at the time, although this book seemed significantly older than the period I am writing about.

The book has lost its first few pages, so I cannot determine when it was published. It ends with a page titled ‘Progress of Civilisation’ A.D. 1837 and a footnote refers to ‘a princess royal’ being born on November 21, 1840. When I googled her name, I discovered it to be Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria.

So I can only surmise that the book was published in 1841 or soon after.

I’d love to say the book is in great condition considering it is 180 years old, but its owner has had a lovely time writing her name across its cover, front page, forepages and end pages. In her wonderful spidery copperplate, her tools of the trade include ink, lead pencil and unbelievably, coloured paints. She has also carved her surname, presumably with a knife, in the front cover, something I find hilarious and entirely at odds with how you would expect a mid-19th century schoolgirl to behave.

End page and first page of old book published circa 1841 'School History of England'. Printed by John W Parker and Son (London). Spine is broken and pages missing. Lefroy is written multiple times over inside cover in pencil and coloured paint. A bookplate with a crest has been stuck over the writing - reads MUTARE SPERNO
Watercolours add an unexpected splash of colour to this 180 year old book

At a later stage, she has stuck a bookplate in the front bearing a coat of arms with a side profile dragon, atop two smaller dragons and what looks like a poop emoji but is most likely a rock. The Latin motto reads Mutare Sperno, which loosely translates as ‘to spurn change’ [please correct me if I am wrong].

It’s only when you look closely do you see her full name ‘Bessie Lefroy’ in the top corner written in pencil.

The other book is in slightly better shape and titled The Monthly Packet. It sounds like an obscure reference to women’s health concerns but is, in fact, a selection of readings for the ‘younger members of the English Church.’ Its contents include plays that can be performed, information on the local birdlife, the crusades and the solar system.

It is dated January-June 1855 and I bought it because I plan on writing a book set only a few years later. It will be valuable to understand how the world was perceived and understood at the time, what facts were known and what the commonly held attitudes were. Also because it is over 165 years old and quite beautiful.

Title page of Monthly Packet (published 1855) inscribed 'Annette Elizabeth Lefroy from her affectionate brother, as a birthday present, April 24th 1871.
Charles E.C. Lefroy gave this book to his sister Annette Lefroy as a gift in 1871

An inscription inside this book reads: Annette Elizabeth Lefroy from her affectionate brother, as a birthday present. April 24th 1871.

Curious to see how Annette and Bessie were related to the Lefroy family who gave my alma mater house its name, I immediately searched for them.

Apart from sharing a surname, initially there seemed no other connection between the two book owners. There could have been potentially three decades between their owners, and the handwriting was different. Was I looking at books owned by mother and child? Siblings?

I found Annette first. A document from the State Library lists a collection of letters from the Lefroy, de Burgh and Brockman families. The document is 22 pages long and lists hundreds of letters, but Annette’s full name and marriage in 1878 to Henry de Burgh are mentioned in the explanatory paragraphs. Clearly, she is the matriarch of this large and influential family.

A bit more exploration and I could see the names de Burgh and Lefroy peppering early West Australian white history as two of the early settler families, with ancestors of both arriving in 1841 when the Swan River Settlement was a youthful 12 years old.

I got excited for a moment thinking that perhaps the settler Henry Maxwell Lefroy (who I determined to be Annette’s father) may have brought the little school-book with him on that long voyage out from England until I realised he arrived in January of 1841. I doubt the book publishing industry has ever worked that quickly.

Born in 1856, Annette would have been 15 years old when her brother gave her the book (side note – she was a year younger than the book itself!). And while he doesn’t name himself in the inscription, it was quite easy to determine that the affectionate brother who gifted Annette the book was Charles E. C. Lefroy (also referred to as Charlie) not only because there was a lot of correspondence between the two, but because Annette called her youngest son Ernest Charles, and you don’t tend to call your kids after people you hate.

And while the gift of church-appropriate readings may be considered a little stuffy for a fifteen-year-old girl, it was the 1800s and a few decades later Charlie would end up being the Anglican Archdeacon of Perth.

Trawling through the large State Library document it became apparent that Annette Lefroy – with her neat and tidy book of church readings – was in fact the same as Bessie Lefroy – who liked to carve her name into books and paint all over the pages. Bessie must have been a nickname taken from her middle name, Elizabeth.

It makes sense that she would not deface the gift from her older brother, especially since it would be expected she read aloud from it in respectable company (although she clearly had no such qualms about her school books).

I had discovered two sides to the matriarch of one of Western Australia’s oldest families, but I still hadn’t made the direct connection to my old school.

According to the school’s website, Lefroy House was created in the 1980s after the ‘pioneering family’ but with specific references to John Henry Maxwell Lefroy [aka Maxwell] (1865-1936) and Sir Anthony Langlois Bruce Lefroy (1881-1958).

Maxwell, it turns out was Annette/Bessie’s brother and apparently a great mate of Reverend Charles Riley, the namesake of my own house.

(Fun fact: Charles was made Bishop in 1894 when Perth was then the largest Anglican diocese in the world with an area of over 2.6 million square kilometres, albeit with a tiny population of 100,0000. He was promoted to Archbishop in 1914.)

So after swanning around in a rabbit hole for a few hours, I have discovered the heritage of not only my newest old acquisitions but also that the so-called rivalry between Riley and Lefroy houses is a complete stitch-up. The namesakes of these houses were best buds and both families went on to do some amazing things.

Two olive green, cloth covered books. Titled Western Australian Reader. Books V and VI. Published by the Western Australia Department of Education. Vintage books published 1932 and 1945.
Western Australian Readers published by the Education Department 1932, 1945

(Final fun fact: I also purchased two issues of the Western Australian Reader, a selection of stories published by the Education Department for schools. The 1932 book was owned by Lennie Fletcher of Mt Hawthorn while the 1945 edition was owned by Laurie Flanders. I googled Laurie and discovered him to be a well-loved local boxer and trainer for the West Australian football community who sadly passed away in 2018. When purchasing the books, the older lady tallying my purchases laughed and said remembered the readers from her time at school. Some of the excerpts in the books include Victor Hugo, Henry Lawson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hans Christian Anderson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Whitman, Shakespeare and Dickens. A rather impressive list for schoolkids!)  

Laurie Flanders Western Australian Reader, published 1945. Love dedication on end page reads FF [heart] JB.
Discovered on the end page of Laurie Flanders school reader. I wonder who JB was?

UPDATE:

After sharing this blog on my socials I got some great feedback from readers (hi Niall!) who found out that the bookplate stuck in the front of the book is one of the Lefroy family crests (which I really should have figured out myself), and the poop emoji is in fact a hood. The hood represents those opposed to the Duke of Alva who basically was a tyrant and squashed anyone who revolted against Spanish rule (ie Protestants). The Lefroy family was one of those who fought back and their family motto, which I translated as ‘to spurn change’, is more accurately understood as ‘I refuse to change (my religious convictions)’. So there you go!

Fun Fact: Niall also informed me that the ‘dragon’ in the crest is actually a wyvern because it only has two legs!

References

Microsoft Word – MN0647_1_De Burgh_Brockman_Lefroy correspondence.doc (slwa.wa.gov.au)

Charles Lefroy – Wikipedia

Lefroy family history Lefroy (fremantlestuff.info)

Taking your character out for tea

Last week I took my character, Isabelle, out for tea. She made a real effort, turning up in her authentic early 1900s clothing, buttoned boots, hat and gloves. She even squeezed herself into a corset for old-times sake. She caused quite a stir.

I was quite nervous, because even though I have been writing her for four years, this was the first opportunity for the two of us to chat.

It’s strange to think that someone who has been part of my life for so long can be so unknown. It’s even stranger when you consider that I am her creator. She does not blink without my writing it on the page. She has no thoughts except those which I give her, cannot speak unless I put the words in her mouth. I am her mother, her conscience and her puppet-master – yet she has remained at arm’s length this entire time. A shadow. Arcane.

Much of my problem as a writer has been basing Isabelle on a real person. You can read more about it here. I wanted to keep the integrity of the real story, which would have been fine, except I didn’t know the real story. I had the beginning and the end but I was trying to write the middle. It’s been like attempting to build a life-size Eiffel Tower out of a spool of wire using only a picture postcard as a guide.

No other character has ever caused me such grief. Yet no other has been so important to me.

Isabelle was the first character to ask me to write her story. There have been others since, many others, who were kind enough to hand me their stories—their thoughts and motivations, their goals and growth—neatly packaged, ready for consumption. Some of these characters were completely foreign to m; they were neither based on people I knew nor stories I had heard, yet they came to me intact. Established. Known.

Taking Isabelle to tea was an idea suggested by my writing group, writers more experienced and knowledgeable than me. We meet monthly to share our words and offer our thoughts. Over time we are getting to know each other’s characters – you can see it in the thoughtful comments: would Isabelle really think this? Isabelle would not have said it like this. I wonder if they can see Isabelle more clearly than me because they can understand how they would write her, unburdened by one-sided obligations to a long-dead woman.

So last week I closed Scrivener and opened Word.

I started by asking her which table she wanted to sit at, and that answer alone told me so much about her. I asked her question after question – things I, as the writer, should already know – and waited to hear what she had to say. Our exchange spilled out of me and onto the page, and 6,500 words later, we are still deep in conversation (the staff have cleared away our dishes and are waiting for us to leave).

Unlinking the real person from my character has been a momentous development for me. It has been harder than I imagined. But removing the character from her book has been even more significant.  

The last time we spoke she was ready to leave the café – she said she wanted to show me something. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I suspect it will have major implications for her story.

I suppose this is what they mean when they say something has taken on a life of its own.

Some thoughts on short story plots

I am a short-story novice, I will admit that straight up. Until last year, the only short stories I had any success with, were memoir or history based. None had any of the typical short story conventions you would expect, like character… or plot.

There are a wealth of courses about how to write short stories, how to perfect the form, nail the opening and I’m not going to go over any of that here, because – and I repeat – I am a short-story novice. But one thing I find lacking is information about the content of short stories. What you can write about, the plot, the story itself.

I grew up reading my dad’s collection of Jeffrey Archer, so naturally I returned to some of his short stories. Older style stories like Archer tend to feel heavy handed by comparison to today’s more lyrical prose, but they almost always have a twist or reveal. At the very least they have a definite and neat ending, something which many current short stories seem to deliberately avoid. Today’s literary short stories often have ambiguous endings, which can feel unfinished but not necessarily incomplete.

Here are some plot devices that you might consider using when writing short stories:

Ask a question within the opening paragraphs of your story from your protagonist or narrator’s point of view. Will I get the girl? Who stole the gold? Why did he disappear? What is in the box? Where did I leave my briefcase with my manuscript? Now both your character and reader are curious to find an answer.

Historical periphery where your story takes place on the margins of a well-known, historical event, giving it a different perspective.

The snapshot Your story is a short, slice of life, almost a memory of recollection of an extraordinary event (or an ordinary event made beautiful by capturing it in words).

Invert assumptions Switch the identity or value of something in the final lines of the story, make the reader realise they have made (incorrect) assumptions while reading. One of the best examples of this is Jeffrey Archer’s The Perfect Murder, which you can read for free here.

The running gag Choose a joke, image or motif that is repeated throughout the story.

The rivals Set up two characters who are in competition with each other, a great way to build tension. Naturally, they will become friends/lovers/partners by the end of the story. Or will they?

Getting away with it A lie, a murder, a robbery, an affair set up in the opening – the reader wants to know what happens – will they get away with it?

The situation Put a character in an unusual or uncommon situation and use the story to explore how they got there.  A boy wakes up in a small boat in the middle of the ocean. A woman has a bleeding head and a bag of fish. A famous movie star has only fifty cents left and a sold gold statuette.

Every story has two sides Tell the same story from the point of view of two different characters.

The Parallel Where an event (or character) makes the protagonist recall a similar event (or character) and both are written about in parallel.

Sleight of hand When a single element that you slip by the reader, has the power to subvert the entire story. It might be that the narrator/protagonist is an animal or potplant, that they are dead, that they are the villain all along.

Sliding Doors Where the story can go two completely different ways as a consequence of a seemingly small detail.

First line set up Where the clue, answer or conclusion to the story is set up in the very first line/paragraph and repeated at the conclusion at which point it finally becomes clear/obvious.

If you’re still looking for an idea for a short story, you can use Reedsy’s short story plot generator. Even if you stumble on their character suggestions (when I generated a plot it gave me a college student who loves owls and a prosecutor who speaks Wookie) it does offer some great themes and twists which might inspire something.

What is your favourite short story?

2020: My Best Year Yet

This year I had a success rate of 14% and it’s my best year yet.

I realise that sounds embarrassing/pathetic/suspicious (pick one) but bear with me, because those numbers are something I am really proud of.

I have written about my ‘Submissions Database’ before; an otherwise unremarkable Excel spreadsheet where I list every story I send out into the world, every competition I enter, every residency or job I apply for.

Dating back to 2009 there are a total of 115 entries. Some years I only entered one competition or sent a single story off for consideration. Those were the years I was blogging prolifically, spending most of my energy on my blogs such as Relentless, the now abandoned but rather amusing Meat, Three Veg and a Bottle of Wine (an idea I blatantly stole from Julie and Julia where I blog about cooking my way through a recipe book) and of course Fundraising Mums which I sold earlier this year.

In the outcome column, some of the cells have been highlighted in a washed-out shade of red, my colour of success, indicating the story got published, I placed in a competition or some other marker of accomplishment.

There’s not a lot of red in 2020.

But there are 36 entries this year – almost 1/3 of my lifetime’s writing efforts this year alone.

I entered 10 short story competitions (I was highly commended/published in two).

I entered 5 full-length manuscript competitions (two different books, no luck here. Time for a rewrite).

I applied for 4 writing residencies or mentorships (bit bummed to miss out on some of these).

I pitched 5 articles to magazines/websites (no joy. Goal for next year).

I entered 2 flash fiction competitions (fun but no luck).

I did 3 virtual pitches to publishers (2 asked to see the full manuscript. Hugely exciting).

I submitted my books to 6 publishers or agents (the agent wasn’t interested, still waiting to hear back from the publishers. Fingers crossed).

I was asked to write one guest blog post.

I also found an editor for my children’s book, joined a local writing group of like-minded history-lovers, completed three writing courses, found an awesome mentor, wrote 41 42 blog posts, sent my novel to 10 beta readers while book-keeping/admin-ing for my husband’s company and mothering three daughters and a fur-baby.

My goal at the start of the year was simply to put myself and my writing out into the world. This meant in 2020 I was entering or applying for something three times every month.

Luckily for me and my 14%, being successful wasn’t my ultimate goal (something I shall have to reconsider for 2021). Perhaps at times I was a little over-zealous, but I have learned a lot from those rejections, from the near-misses and will go into the new year with a fresh and more finely-tuned approach.

What are your writing goals for 2021?