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?

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.

 

I Don’t Think I Am a Stalker

Have you ever had the experience where you read something, and think ‘Oh my God. That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. That person must know me. We must be, like, TWINS.’

I have that experience on a fairly regular basis when I read a column by Perth writer Ros Thomas, every Saturday morning in the West Australian.

Although she is a few years older than me, and her eldest child is a teenager and a boy, and she is actually qualified to call herself a writer (she was a journalist for more than two decades), I often feel that her words could be my very own, and the experiences she writes about, could be something that happened to me only days prior. It’s kinda spooky, but it gives me the (false) impression that I KNOW her, or (even more creepy), that she knows me. Which she doesn’t.

She smiled at me once though and looked in my direction. I went with a friend to one of her book launches, because my friend actually knows her, and was kind enough to introduce me. And then they went back to talking about stuff that I wasn’t involved in. But that was okay, because I was so excited to just see her in person. When you read someone’s words regularly, you begin to form ideas of what they look like and sound like, more than the tiny little photo in the corner of the magazine ever gives away.

When she began to talk to the assembled group about some of her favourite columns and how she came to be a writer, I did what I always do when people around me are being smart – I began to write down everything she said. Part of me (the overly optimistic and possibly delusional part) sometimes thinks that she is me in five or ten years time, and that her writing success could be mine if I continue down this road. She is a mum with three kids who is also a writer. So am I! She just happens to have a book deal. So I was eager to soak up everything she had to say.

At one stage I felt that she was describing me when she said that sometimes she jumps out of bed to write down a funny thought, that she is constantly writing notes, ideas and overheard conversations on bits of paper. I wanted to put my hand up and tell her I keep a white board in the shower in case I get a really good idea when I am washing my hair (but I didn’t).

So, fellow writers, here are some of the pearls that this fantastic – and very humble and real – writer had to say:

  • Don’t write about anything you haven’t experienced yourself. It will keep you authentic and on track.
  • Writing is a discipline. Force yourself to sit at your desk even if you are not inspired, eventually something will come.
  • Do a lot of research. Even for a simple story, there are more facts or background that can help improve a story and make it even richer.
  • Be forensic in your observations. Go back to a place where a thought or story came into your head. Take pictures. Look at the colours, the smell, the texture. Make it authentic. If you are secure in your mental imagery, it will make you a better writer.
  • Remember the musicality and rhythm of language. Your writing must be able to be read effortlessly.
  • The hardest thing to get right is dialogue. If you are writing about a conversation you had, get it on paper as soon as possible.

At the end of the session we had the opportunity to buy a copy of her book and have it signed. I desperately wanted to ask her an intelligent question, but I could only babble my name. I wanted to tell her how she told my stories, and asked my questions and (occasionally) lived my life. But as I listened to other people in the queue, I realised that they all felt the same way. They felt an attachment to this woman as well, whether they were young or old or male or female. Mostly female though.

It was a timely reminder of the value of being common, and I certainly don’t mean that in a derogatory way. By common, I mean recognisable, universal and familiar. It is our shared experiences which bring us together, whether we are reading a column in a newspaper or a blog on the internet. Being told I am common is the comment I value the most by my own readers – ‘you have written exactly what I have been thinking’ or ‘I am so glad I am not the only one who does that.’

Ros Thomas put into words a common experience. She just does it very beautifully, and effortlessly. I wasn’t able to tell her any of this, but I’m sure she already knows.

When I got home and looked at the book she had signed, I saw she had written ‘it was lovely to meet you’, and I thought to myself: thanks to the power of words, we already know each other.

 

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The Future is Unread Books

A woman’s wardrobe is a place for her most private possessions. Intimate, cherished, well worn. But clothes no longer take pride of place in my walk-in-robe. Clothes are merely items to modestly protect the eyes of others. My wardrobe has spontaneously forged a new existence – as a bookshelf.

What started as a humble pile of books stacked neatly on the floor by my bed, has now grown to a seemingly impossible load of novels waiting to be read. Every book, recommended by a trusted friend, or teacher. Or website. Titles scribbled down on scraps of paper, plugged into my phone, or jotted into my notebook. Searched and purchased as soon as possible. Brown cardboard boxes waiting for me on the doorstep, and that feeling of erudite anticipation as I unwrap my future.

As the piles grew and teetered, and occasionally spilled over, a more permanent home was needed.

A pile of clothes, unlikely to ever fit these hips again, were unceremoniously dumped into a plastic bag and shoved in a corner, and space made for the future of my nights.

My future is unread books. My evenings tucked up in bed can be measured against Funder and Capote and Didion. And Drewe and Moss and Brown. Forget the worlds of science fiction or fantasy for me. I prefer to read stories that I know could happen. Even better if it did happen.

My future is grounded, real and covered with dust. But not too much dust, as new surfaces are constantly being added, and the pile keeps growing, faster than I can possibly read them.

My future of unread books is stretching, at this rate, into years.

It is an easy decision to buy a book. It is a much more difficult one to choose which next to read. That feeling of relief and loss when a great story is finished, and the book moved into a permanent space is quickly followed by the anxiety of what to follow it with. Do you switch genre entirely and risk losing the familiar warmth of a world and characters you literally took to bed every night? Or does the bed grow cold when it is just more of the same.

Like a man, sometimes the book can be right but the timing all wrong, and it needs to go back on the shelf.

And what of the book which proves a major disappointment? Whose pages you struggled through, one eyelid drooping in anticipation of sleep, the other pressing on, waiting for ‘the good bit’ that was promised. And never finding it. That book is resigned to the box, to be donated. To be dumped.

So many on my shelf are big names and big titles, usually found on a ‘read before you die’ list. I now – finally – own all the Larsson books, picked up for a song as a recent second hand sale. ‘You have to read them,’ I was told as I debated over my purchase. I have to… and I will, but when? I no longer have the stamina I had. Bedtime is becoming a time of… well… sleep. In my future of unread books, to devote what could be months to a single series is a major commitment. I really need some return on my reading investment.

Each time I am faced with the choice of selecting a new book, I think about my future, and what if this is the last book I ever read?

Better make it a good one.

 

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What other books should I add to my hidden bookshelf?

Machiavellian Bastards

In the not so distant past I attended the ‘Writing Dramatic Dialogue’ class run by author John Harman. I had hoped that it would help me limber up my writing muscles: what I didn’t realise is that it would give me licence to kill – in the literary sense that is.

John started by telling us:

‘You sit in a room by yourself, making up words for people who don’t exist. It’s madness.  They can put you away for that.  You either get paid or put away.’

 And towards the end of the day he admitted:

 ‘Writers are allowed to steal anything. If it is nailed down, get a crowbar. There is no copyright on lines of dialogue or ideas.  You can steal anything.’

 No wonder no one’s Mum wants them to be a writer when they grow up – it’s nothing to do with hanging on the fringe of dubious society or the non-existent pay cheques.  Writers wind up being thieving mad people.  Personally, I cannot wait.

After a second workshop by John Harman, I was able to extend the notion that writers are ‘thieves and mad people’ to include the proposition that writers are also promiscuous Machiavellian bastards who can defy the laws of physics.  Cool hey.

He told us:

Figure out the worst thing possible you can do to your hero, and do it. Show them you are a bastard as an author.  You’re meant to be.  You are God. You have become Machiavellian.

 John was explaining the concept of chiasmus, the Greek word for cross, where the story reverses on itself.  Such as ‘what matters is not the men in my life, but the life in my men’ or ‘You do not live to eat, you eat to live’. He told us that we must constantly be looking for ways to reverse the story and, if possible, torture our protagonist by putting them in situations that would put them under complete and utter duress.

His complaint about first time writers was that we are all too nice to our heroes, and very rarely want to hurt them.  Imagine how lame ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have been had Shakespeare decided to let them live happily ever after.  Why is this story one of the greatest of all time?  Chiasmus.  The story starts with our protagonists alive but apart, and finishes with them dead but together.  Neat.

Then we were told:

Writers are promiscuous.  We are writing one story but we keep thinking about another.

 Finally he concluded:

 Writers are not subject to the laws of gravity.  If you are an architect you must start with the foundations or your building will fall down. A writer can start anywhere: the middle, beginning or end.

 I think the key though, is that writers need to actually start. And once they start (as is particularly true in my case), they need to continue.