What lovely news for a Wednesday

Hello internet. It’s day three of the school holidays and I am all out of ideas to occupy the small people. They are both still alive and nothing (including my spirit) has been broken, though. So let’s count that as a success thus far.

And* hey, Twitter just delivered some happy news! The Protected has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. This book continues to prove itself to be the little book that could. I nearly threw this manuscript in the bin and gave up on writing altogether multiple times during its creation. Here’s an understatement: I’m glad I didn’t.

The other shortlisted books in the YA category are:

Croggan, Alison The River and the Book Walker Books (2015)
Groth, Darren Are You Seeing Me? Random House (2014)
Hayes, Nicole One True Thing Random House (2015)
Lawson, Sue Freedom Ride Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books (2015)
Lomer, Kathryn Talk Under Water University of Queensland Press (2015)

What a top notch bunch. I am, as ever, privileged to be amongst them and to be part of the powerhouse that is Australian Young Adult fiction.

When you’re working on a big project, whether it’s writing a book, making a film or creating an album, the whole thing is a gamble. You continue to bet, often against the odds, that something will come of the pain and time you pour into it. You hope that it will find an audience of people who love it as much as you do. If you are someone who is toiling away in the pursuit of a career in the creative arts, please, please hear me when I say that hard work and determination will pay off. Ignore the pressure to ‘grow up and get a real job’. If you’re good at it, stick with it, surround yourself with people who will encourage you when it all seems hopeless and gently guide you when you’ve gone off course.

I still find myself wracked with self doubt when I’m writing. (Especially when it takes me four goes to spell the word ‘privilege’ correctly.) Being shortlisted for awards (and being fortunate enough to win a few) is encouraging beyond words.

Thank you to all the people who helped me on the road to this point. You know who you are. I’m so bloody proud of Hannah right now.

Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

Image

If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…

National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.

Deer Dairy: blogs, diary writing and appalling spelling

Social media is the death of society, no? There been loads of studies by people with Ph.Ds banging on about how we don’t communicate properly anymore. Apparently our only fulfilling relationships are with our communication devices rather than with the people they are designed to enable us to communicate with. (Note, I am generally referring to electronic gadgets such as phones, tablet thingies etc. Far less people are believed to be attached to their morse-code devices.)

I listened to a Radio National program this morning (it appears I have become a grown-up at some stage) which discussed social media’s relationship to the demise of writers’ diaries. Writers’ diaries being those fabled, leather-bound objects bursting with page after page of scrawled inner-thoughts, many of them private at the time of writing. These private, presumably genius, insights into the human condition are usually ‘unearthed’ after their writer’s death and promptly published for all the world to read. Yes Virginia Woolf was intensely private, but look! Here’s all her innermost dreams, fears and desires now downloadable from Amazon for only $3.99!

I suspect that if a similar fate were to befall my daily scribblings, the majority of the said book would be about the bread and Diet Coke that simply MUST be purchased post-haste. Do reminders scrawled on ones hand count? I wonder if Ms Wolfe referred to lists scrawled on her arm in biro. (Were biros around in her time? Questions, questions!)

Finish Mrs Dalloway

Remind Leonard to fix the tap

Buy gin

And what of the young folk? Do they still keep diaries locked with a flimsy keys hidden under their mattresses? (I kept one such treasure trove which today only stands as a testament to my appalling spelling skills and my relentless monitoring of Tim McCallum’s hairstyles, rather than pithy insights into the human condition.)  Now that they have FaceKick, Twitter and SMS and all that, do kids still keep journals or write letters to each other? DO THEY EVEN KNOW HOW TO HOLD A PENCIL?

For the entirety of years seven and eight my BFF and I kept an exercise book in which we wrote letters to each other. The cover was a contacted collage of teddy bears and pictures of a pre-teen Leonardo DiCaprio torn from Girlfriend magazine. We would take turns writing in it at home and bring it to school to hand over. I remember all too clearly the time it was confiscated by our Science teacher after we were sprung reading it in class. How dare you indulge in the sordid practice of daily handwritten communication, thereby improving your writing and general comprehension skills!!!! (The Science teacher did not speak like this, unfortunately.) I kept up my own journal writing for years afterwards: mainly declarations of love for various unworthy males, complaints about my physical appearance and complaints generally.

I don’t keep a journal anymore. But I do blog. And the knowledge that what I write may have an audience  generally keeps the standard higher and stops me droning on endlessly about the size of my thighs and how many pieces of banana bread I have or have not eaten. And that can only be a good thing.

It also ensures that I write whenever I can. If I set myself the vague goal to post a good few paragraphs once a week, I do my best to meet it. If I was only writing for myself, no doubt in one of the multitudes of overpriced notebooks I have purchased from Pentimento, I wouldn’t manage once a month. The fact that all those notebooks are still mostly empty only proves this.

ImageBut what if the knowledge of future publication sensors my brain and stops me getting to the pithy stuff? Well, I found one of the journals from my late teens and it includes a page with a movie ticket sticky-taped to it. Beneath it is written:

Just like in the movie ‘Elizabeth’, when Elizabeth I keeps Joseph Fiennes alive as a constant reminder of how she was blinded by the affections of her heart, so too will I keep this movie ticket bought for me by the one who has broken my heart. 

Because having ones lover plot ones death in a treasonous conspiracy is quite similar to when the guy that took you to two-for-one Tuesday at Penrith Hoyts dumps you. Bloody hell. I think that pretty much concludes the argument doesn’t it? (Excuse me while I vomit quietly into a bag.) I shall keep that diary as a constant reminder of how unbelievably melodramatic and indulgent ones private writings can be. Thank you, social media, for saving me from myself.

Killing time: on character deaths

WARNING: May contain spoilers. I have done my best to avoid TSSH spoilers, but I accept no responsibility if you are too smart for your own good and inadvertently deduce key plot twists. When it comes to Game of Thrones, if you haven’t yet seen the ending to season one you only have yourself to blame. As for Offspring: everyone knows Patrick is DEAD. (Or they do now.)

Some weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to challenge my prejudices to all things fantasy and attempt to watch Game of Thrones. Despite predictions otherwise, I continued to watch beyond the first episode, largely because of two things: giant wolves and John Snow.  As I approached the end of the season I felt it was okay but given the choice between GoT and Mad Men or Breaking Bad, GoT would lose.

And then the protagonist was killed.

Yep, he of impressive coats, flowing hair and thoughtful gazing had his head chopped off before our very eyes. By a sadistic anime character who bares striking resemblance to a guy I had a major crush on in university, no less.

It was this character’s death that made me want to keep watching. As a rule, writers don’t kill off their protagonists. I watched the scene leading up to Ned’s death in a detached state of boredom: the entire time speculating on how he was going to miraculously escape his demise. And then he didn’t.

images I didn’t know at the time that George R.R. Martin – GoT’s creator and possibly also deep-sea fishing trawler captain – has quite a knack for killing off major characters. But it was the fact that he had killed off his protagonist in the very first instalment which made me want to keep watching. He had created a huge problem for himself and I wanted to see how he would solve it.

I saw a session with Markus Zusak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival a few years ago, where he claimed that he wasn’t actually a very good writer, he was just good at solving problems. He said that his manuscripts were full of major flaws and problems and it was only his ability to fix these that made him any good. This really resonated with me. Story-writing at its core is about problem solving. At its most basic, you have a character at point A and you need to get them to point B.

Killing off a character can sometimes be the start of a problem, yet more often than not it’s the solution to one. I am quite a fan of Offspring. (These days less the ‘Keep em separated’ variety and more the TV show created by Deb Oswald. Although both have their merits). TV shows, especially free-to-air ones, that feature interesting and complex female leads are rare. If you are unsure of the value of Offspring I will offer only one argument, a quote from the protagonist, Nina:

‘My fantasies usually involve men carrying bearskins.’

Enough said.

Anyone who has access to any form of social media will be aware that last week Oswald did the unthinkable and killed off the much-loved Patrick: Nina’s aesthetically pleasing partner and father of her soon-to-be-born child. Patrick was a major character. He wasn’t the protagonist and he wasn’t killed by a sadistic anime man-child (although this too would have been interesting) yet he was still a major player and his loss will provide a much-needed plot revamp. In what can only be described as an act of remarkable generosity, Oswald wrote a piece about her decision to literally write off Patrick on SMH. (This gives you an idea of the level of outrage directed at her from the show’s fans.) In the piece Oswald implies that Matthew le Nevez had to leave the show and they needed to find a plausible and satisfying way to facilitate this exit.

As GoT was a book series before it became a TV show, it’s only fair to assume that Martin wasn’t dealing with a similar issue. As a writer who absolutely does not plan a single thing, I can’t help but wonder if Martin knew all along as he was writing the first book that Ned would die. (If you know the answer, tell me!) Or did he feel that the plot was getting a bit flat and decide to pull the rug out?

For my own part I wrote the death of one of my own characters in complete surprise. I typed the words with my own hands, yet I felt like a helpless witness to the event, practically screaming with disbelief as this character breathed their last breath. So why do it? Well, things were getting a bit flat plot-wise and I figured if I could make myself cry there was a fair chance I could get the same emotional response from my readers. I don’t think people will like it. But that’s not the point.

I was horrified when lovely Patrick died and when noble Ned lost his head. (No rhyme intended, I swear.) I didn’t want either of these things to happen. But when they did I found a whole heap of new respect for their writers. Because, good writing isn’t about taking the reader on a lovely journey they want to take, it’s about convincing them to come with you to a place they’d rather not visit at all.

This is why I will be eagerly awaiting season four of Game of Thrones and why I will be sobbing solidly between the hours 8.30 and 9.30 tonight.

Kids’ Book Review Interview

http://www.kids-bookreview.com/2013/08/author-interview-claire-zorn.html

The kind people over at Kids’ Book Review have published an interview I did with them. You can read it bellow or follow the link to view it and lots of other interesting things on their site…

Author interview: Claire Zorn

KBR welcomes Claire Zorn, author of The Sky So Heavy, a gripping new novel for Young Adults that is released this month.
 
Can you describe The Sky So Heavy in ten words or less?
A group of teenagers struggles to survive a nuclear winter. Or … A bit like The Road but with more jokes.
How did the idea for the book come to you?
I started thinking about the story roughly two years before I even wrote a word. I remember I was sitting on the train — I find train travel strangely inspiring — and I saw a scene in my mind: a teenager in a dark, cold place, trying to protect a group of people and feeling way out of his depth. I also got a line in my head: ‘I’m sixteen years old and this is the first time anyone’s held a gun to my head.’ With a little tweaking this ended up being the opening line of The Sky So Heavy.

I kept turning those ingredients  over in my mind for a couple of years. Then the debate over Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers flared again and I was struck by the way a person’s life — their access to food, shelter, medical care and education — is decided by a line on a map. I’ve always really struggled to understand the fear of asylum seekers; I feel that if people could imagine themselves and their families in those circumstances, there would be so much more compassion. So I imagined what it would take to put the average, middle-class Australian in that situation.
Is there a message in the book that you would like readers to grasp?
I hope that the story can contribute in a small way to the debate over asylum seekers and perhaps reflect the complexities of the issue. I also wanted to engage with the idea of a generation inheriting the stuff-ups of their predecessors, especially global warming. I didn’t set out to allude to that with the climate change in the book — but I like the way it is a sort of inverse global warming.
Why did you choose to write in this genre?
I like the immediacy of Young Adult fiction. I’m a very impatient reader — I want to get to the meat of a story as soon as possible — and I think that translates to my own writing. I tend to have no trouble ruthlessly pruning my stories to get to their core, which suits YA. Young readers have such a strong, shall we say, ‘crap detector’. You have to work to hold their attention. There’s nowhere to hide and I like that challenge.
I also find teenagers to be the most fascinating characters. They’re so savvy, yet there’s such vulnerability to them as well. Those years on the edge of adulthood are so complex and I really like stories that push their characters over the edge from childhood into adulthood. All my favourite books are about characters taking that journey.
Your manuscript was picked from the slush pile! Did you have the manuscript professionally edited before you sent it out to publishers?
It was picked from the slush pile in a round-about way. I reached a point with The Sky So Heavy — which I think every writer gets to — where I couldn’t keep working on it without some quality feedback. Which was when I paid to have a structural report done on it. I chose someone with lots of experience in YA, who was very well regarded in publishing circles and it was the best thing I could have done. The feedback she gave me really helped me get the manuscript to a standard it couldn’t have reached without fresh eyes. I re-drafted the whole thing after I got that report back and then submitted it to agents.
While that was happening UQP put out a call for YA manuscripts. They stipulated that they weren’t looking for speculative fiction, so I didn’t submit The Sky So Heavy, but another manuscript. They were interested in this other story, but it wasn’t quite ready enough for them to offer me a contract. By this time I had signed The Sky So Heavy to an agent and she suggested that they have a read of it. I think I submitted it to about four agents before it was picked up.
The Sky So Heavy, UQP, $19.95 RRP