Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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This is meant to be fun too, you know?

In life and writing, don’t forget to have fun.

I went to the Newcastle Show on the weekend. All was as it should be; the smell of battered savs, the scream of kids on rides and fairground organ music cranking in the background.

When we were in the rides section, I realised it was too long since I’d been on the chain carousel. I have memories of repeated rides on it at Australia’s Wonderland, legs out and arms out, soaring above the whole amusement park and feeling like I was flying.

I got a ticket. Not because one of the kids wanted a ride but because I suddenly couldn’t wait another day to feel like that again.

It was exactly as much fun as I remembered. I blew kisses to my husband and kids, who waved from below. I took in the bird’s eye view and kicked my legs out. They were the only steady thing as the rest of the world spun around me.

Just as the ride slowed down for us to get off, the attendant asked if we wanted another spin. Hell yeah! Double fun. Fun begetting fun.

Fun feels good. Silly feels good. Light feels good. There are plenty of fridge magnets that warn about life being too serious to take seriously.

But in life and in writing, I think fun gets overlooked. We seem to think that our work benefits from struggle and toil and that fun is frivolous and something extra rather than integral.

The tortured artist has a lot to answer for there.

My suggestion is that when you feel like you’re struggling with your writing, not in a challenge-to-be-figured-out way but in a misery-and-despair way, then it’s time to step away and find the fun again. Where do you find lightness, in life and in writing?

Follow the fun in both and I think it’ll bring you back to a better place.

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The Promise of the Premise

What are you promising readers at the start of a story?

Opening pages are like a contract that you make with your readers – here are the people you’ll follow, here is the pace we’re likely to take and this is the tone I’ll be taking. If the reader is up for it, they keep reading and reading. That’s their part of the contract.

Your part is an agreement to give them a story that matches what you offered at the start of the story. You don’t need to mirror the opening or give them the ending they anticipated but I now think that you do at least owe them a sense of balance.

I say ‘now’ because to be honest it’s something I haven’t been in the habit of doing. I haven’t thus far been much of a plotter when it comes to writing fiction, so when I start writing something new, I don’t think about what I’m offering the reader. I can’t because I don’t even know where I’m going yet.

Recent feedback on some of my short stories has made me think about this private pact between the reader and writer. I was writing endings because I liked the image that they left but my readers wondered why after following a certain character for most of the story I would end on another one instead. For someone who believed in promises, I didn’t realise how casually I’d been breaking them.

I think in novel length manuscripts I’m more aware of who is owed the air-play. In short stories if there is a roving POV, I’m not always sure that I divvy up the limelight quite right. It doesn’t have to be about character though. The question is whether you’ve honoured your set up.

I find beginnings and endings tough to write. They can be awkward and clunky and feel like they have a lot riding on them. However, editing and rewriting them becomes less unwieldy when you think about the promise of your premise. There’s a nice circular feeling to it.

If your initial offering doesn’t match anymore then it gives you the chance to think about what and where your real story is and how you could change your opening so that it honours what the story has become.

A promise is a promise after all.

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Are you a goal getter?

With a fresh new year, it’s time to put pen to paper…..and do a little planning.

I’ve always liked the fresh start of a new year. First, I write a letter to the year that was. I reflect and say goodbye. Then, I write a letter to the new year to say hi and have a little chat about my hopes and ideas for the next 12 months.

My 2020 diary (A5, week to a double-page, hard cover, Kikki-k) now has me hooked on setting some goals too. I liked the questions it asked at the beginning of the year. They were an extension of the reflections in my letters and not all of them were about goals. It had regular check-ins and prompts. Then it got granular and asked what I needed to do in the next thirty days to get things moving. It asked about actions and priorities and kept asking about them all year. Actually, it asked every month and week and all that asking kept me on track.

There were no trick questions. It was always the same thing again and again re-checking what my goals were, what the priorities within them were and what actions I needed to do to get there.

So, I nibbled away rather than taking bite-sized chunks and found out that it’s much easier to keep an appetite that way. I also don’t give as much procrastination push-back to small tasks. Once I got some momentum going, I found that actually doing the things you’ve been meaning to do is very satisfying and kinda addictive.

There’s oodles of stuff out there about goals and goal setting. There’s a whole industry devoted to it but the simplicity of a regular written reflection was enough for me.

In a pandemic year, I managed to move cities with my young family and finish writing an anthology of short stories. One needed logistics and planning, the other, discipline. Both needed the stamina of ‘the long game’ and I may not have been as match-fit for that if I hadn’t been constantly checking in on them as ‘goals’.

The lesson I could’ve done with learning a decade ago is that it’s possible to think about something you want, consistently do small actions towards making it so and then have it actually happen.

I know. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

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Ideas in the dark

If life’s too noisy to hear your subconscious, try some insomnia or an acupuncture appointment.

I went to the acupuncturist recently. I hadn’t been for ages and as I lay there with the lights dimmed, I had ideas. New ideas for new projects as well as useful ideas to try with sticky plot points in current projects.

I remembered that when I had regular acupuncture appointments, I also used to sit in the car afterwards frantically scribbling in my notebook, so that I didn’t lose all the ideas that I’d had. This also happens sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t get back to sleep. I hate those early broken hours but it’s a consolation that at least I get a few good ideas out of it.

I feel like my subconscious is telling me something along the lines of, ‘Have you noticed it takes a lot of sensory deprivation for me to deliver my most interesting morsels? Do you wonder if there could be an easier way to get new ideas?’

And I do wonder if there could be a better way but I’m never really doing nothing. If I’m sitting down and having a cup of tea, I’m probably also noting the state of the floor or idly adding to the shopping list. If I’m swimming laps or having a walk then there’s still everything around you to process and if I’ve insisted to myself that I need to just sit and do nothing, then I’m probably worrying about how I might be wasting this moment of nothingness by still thinking about something. There isn’t the same release in those moments as there is on the acupuncture table. I can’t move. It’s dark and warm. I have nowhere else to be and there’s no expectation for me to do anything.

This process is described in psychologist Melissa Burkley’s article Where do writers get their ideas? She talks about how our mind is controlled by two systems; controlled and automatic. The controlled system is basically our conscious awareness while the automatic system works outside this. She describes it as “the part of our mind that handles all our dirty work in order to make our lives easier.” Ideas are more likely to come when our conscious mind is settled enough to let us actually “hear the quiet voice of the unconscious mind”.

It would seem that my conscious mind is like one of those babies who needs more than a quiet room to sleep. They need their parents to black out the windows as well.

A lot of people talk about how they have ideas when they’re walking or doing exercise. That’s often how I find solutions when something in a piece of writing isn’t working. But for me, new ideas that come from nowhere usually start in the dark.

Where and when do you get your best ideas?

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So Roxette had it right all along?

I wasted a lot of writing time ignoring 90s pop lyrics.

Let me do a quick refresh for those who aren’t children of the 90s: Roxette was a Swedish pop duo with big hits in the early 90s. Per and Marie usually sang catchy upbeat songs but Listen to your heart was their breakthrough ballad.

We’re all welcome to laugh at pop lyrics but sometimes they get it right in their simplicity – Listen to your heart.

I wish I’d considered that we could follow our heart or instincts in areas beyond love and romance.

Everyone always says that first novels are autobiographical. When I first decided that I was going to write a novel, I was obsessed by this idea and wanted to make sure that this wasn’t going to be the case with me. How embarrassing for it to look like I was in there somewhere. How wrong and un-proper-writer. And of course, how frightening to be so ‘seen’.

So, I tried very hard to make it look like it wasn’t my first novel and put none of myself into it. It was a really hard manuscript to write. So were the next two manuscripts I wrote which I was also determined wouldn’t have any traces of me.

Timed passed, like it does. The more I read, the more I thought it was ridiculous for people to think that writers don’t leave any residue on their writing and why would I think of this as a weakness or something to be embarrassed about?

I read a lot of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing. The questions they were asking themselves and their own experiences were imprinted onto to their stories. They did it without shame or secrecy. I started to question this idea that to put yourself in your writing was a weakness and a trap for young players? Isn’t that the courage part, the part where you will be seen and maybe questioned, maybe found wanting, maybe not even ‘liked’ for it?

Now I know that things only get interesting if you take a bit of a risk and follow your instinct or heart. If I’d listened to my heart and followed what I wanted to be writing instead of what I thought I should be writing, I wonder how different things might have turned out.

No matter, all writing is experience and I think of those manuscripts as a kind of apprenticeship. They were long lasting and it felt like I was giving more than I got. But that’s not true, they’re also done and I know a lot more than I did when I started.

For me they were also a lesson in what not-to do. Writing isn’t easy but it also shouldn’t have to be that hard. If it feels like a real push, it might be time to listen to your heart. Are you writing what you need to write or what you think you should be writing? The answer will sometimes surprise you.

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Complaints about the writing life?

Consider who you commiserate with and how you do it.

My Dad died when I was 22. In the immediate years after, when people complained about their father all I could think was, well, at least you have one.

We all need to complain, debrief, whinge and let it out sometimes. But what you complain about and who you say it to matters. I write this because recently I’ve listened to and read a few author essays talking about how exhausting the publicity is for a new book.

Ah creative envy, watch this space. There will be more posts about this because as much as I’d love to be a bigger person, more generous and genuine about the success of other writers sometimes, on the difficult days, it’s the last thing I want to hear. I’m hoping this makes me human rather than mean.

I’m happy to be happy for people’s success but it’s hard to sympathise with the fatigue that comes from too many people being interested in your book, a little like complaining about night feeds to a friend who wants (but doesn’t have) a baby or talking about how work is sooo busy to someone whose industry disappeared this year.

I read Ann Patchett’s (great) book of essays This is the story of a happy marriage. She’s a great writer and I love her books but I was going through a very long dry spell when I read it. There had been no publication, no short-listing, no long-listing, no pitches accepted, no nothing for my writing for a loooong time. It was hard to read about how she just happened to get published in Paris Review at 17, then went on to do a creative writing course, got a grant to write her debut novel, had it published and has been writing and publishing novels ever since. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the trajectory as she told it.

Harder to read though, was the chapter about the Book Tour. She talked about how tiring, relentless and repetitive it all was. All valid and obviously true. I just wasn’t the right reader to commiserate with lonely hotel rooms and interested interviewers.

As writers, at any stage of our careers, we do love to share our stories from the front. There is camaraderie from shared experiences and the creative pursuit of writing offers its own unique agony and ecstasy but Charlotte Wood said something that I think is worth remembering, “Writing is a privilege and a choice.”  

It doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be exhausted or overwhelmed or over it. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t complain but it is worth thinking about who you choose to do it with and the fact that it’s a choice to write in the first place.

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The comfort of shared writing experiences

You’re not the only one who used to write limp internal characters that did nothing.

When I heard Australian author Charlotte Wood read an extract recently, I felt as though she’d taken it straight from my life. But this wasn’t fiction, hers or mine. She was talking about our younger writing-selves and how our uncertainty as women and as writers stopped our characters from actually doing anything.

I’ve never read a novel and thought, ‘This is me. This is my life!’ But last week, as I was coming back from the day care drop-off and listening to the First Time Podcast, Charlotte Wood’s answer to an Agony Aunt question made me stop. I leant against someone’s front fence to let her finish and delay the busy road that would’ve drowned her out. As she continued, she articulated everything I’d never been able to fully connect about the way I used to write.

I am a self-taught writer. I’ve never been a protégé, had a mentor, done a writing course or had a group to bounce things off. And it’s a slow apprenticeship when you do it that way around (I don’t recommend it).

My writing was good but it was muffled. It was as if any action happened in the shadows and any discussion was turned down low. I didn’t want to offend or get things wrong and so it was all slow-motion interiors and nicely phrased details. It was more like a written still life.

Charlotte Wood talked about how her younger writing-self believed that beautiful sentences and a good eye for detail should be enough to sustain a book and a reader’s interest. That was definitely me. Quoting from a speech explaining what Kate Jennings book Save Me, Joe Louis had taught her she said:

“My characters were invariably Sensitive Young Women. Inexplicably, men treated them callously. My young women observed their worlds closely – they noticed things… like dust motes floating in the air, or the dropped flower of a frangipani on a wet footpath…….

They arranged themselves in picturesque domestic scenes and, by keeping very still, themselves became decorative. They watched, and felt things, and ‘said nothing and turned away’.

The one thing my characters never, ever did back then was act – because to act would be to show yourself, to take a risk. And I was not ready for that.”

It was so comforting to be in good company and know that I wasn’t the only young female writer who had muzzled herself with self-doubt and didn’t trust herself to ask questions and take risks. I was looking for approval and to be liked.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still looking for approval. But one thing that passing time and an output of words does is liberate you. Charlotte Wood mentioned that fiction can lack a certain type of energy when you don’t take risks. It’s true. You’re clipping your own wings if you spend all your time needing to be liked, so it’s lucky that you eventually get bored of your characters being so passive and listless.

It’s a reminder though, that putting your name to words is no small thing. But with curiosity and a bit of courage comes liberation.

You can find the transcript of Charlotte Wood’s complete speech here. And if you’re going to listen to the First Time Podcast episode (which I recommend, I got a lot from her advice to the writer of a ‘quiet novel’) she reads the extract at 23 minutes and 20 seconds in.

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The Secrets Submerged in Single-Author Short Story Collections

Sometimes it’s the writer who is revealed rather than their characters when you read short stories in succession.

I’m a big fan of short stories, reading and writing them. My bedside bookstack and rescue reading posts are testament to that.

There are plenty of reasons I love short stories, but one of the unexpected outcomes of reading lots of them is suddenly realising that you now know a lot more about the author than perhaps they thought they were telling you.

Writers tend to circle around similar ideas and questions in their body of work. When you read a novel, it isn’t so obvious because it might be years until you read another book by the same author. But when you read short stories side-by-side, and especially if you read a ‘collected works’ which covers a lifetime of writing, you start to see the same things recurring again and again; adolescent insecurity that lasts into adulthood, a longing for mothers to be more maternal, fathers who are unreliable, people who try and create their family outside of their bloodline. These are a few I’ve picked up on in recent readings.  

Initially, it felt a bit underhand, like seeing someone undressed through a crack in the door. But writers write to make sense of things as well as to be seen. That’s where the fear and the vulnerability is.

I like seeing into other people’s lives. I’d like to find a nicer word than nosy, so it doesn’t feel so intrusive. Inquisitive perhaps? I’m endlessly curious about what motivates people, what’s formed them and causes them to act and see the world the way that they do. I’d be just as happy to find out if they told me directly but people aren’t always forthcoming about their internal worlds or even so reflective. So, I love it when they reveal themselves and what they’re trying to work out through the stories they write.

I’m in good company here. In a recent episode of The First Time Podcast, short story writer Laura Elvery (Ordinary Matter) talks about liking single-author collections for this reason. She also mentions American short story writer Laura van den Berg who says that she likes it when reading short stories feels like roaming around a house where there’s a new discovery about the author with every story.

As someone who’s currently working on a collection of short stories, I wonder exactly what it is that I’ll be revealing to readers.

Is this something you’ve noticed when you read collections?

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20th Century female short story writers you should read

Rescue Reading for troubled times Part 3

My Rescue Reading series is suggested short reads for people who want the bliss and escapism of words but can’t concentrate on anything beyond a few pages.

Rescue Reading Part 2 was 10 female Australian short story writers you should read.

Part 3 is a list of 20th Century female short stories writers. Some of them are pioneers of the form. All of them are interesting to read and if we read them enough, we might replace the tendency to think of the big-names of the genre as male.

Mavis Gallant – Collected Stories

Mavis Gallant is a Canadian writer. I went all in and have a giant doorstopper of collected works that I slowly worked through over a year. She spans such varied eras and landscapes but really settles in with post-war Europe.

My brief sentences don’t do her range and sympathies any justice, so I’ll let the eloquence of Francine Prose do the talking. “There’s a light voice on the surface that you can very easily slip beneath, and it’s so deep and where she’s going is so profound.”

Zora Neale Hurston – Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

Zora Neale Hurston wrote from the 1920s. She was the only African American student at a New York university and during that time became part of the Harlem Renaissance. 8 of the stories here are ‘lost’ from that time.

She also worked as an anthropologist and the story is that she packed a pistol together with her notepads, so she sounds as feisty and no-nonsense as her female characters who take on race and relationships and try to even their odds. Some of the stories are written in a vernacular that adds a cadence to their narrative.

Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women

She’s a new addition to the canon of female short story writers. She wrote for years, but this collection, which was published a couple of years ago, has brought her to a wider audience. I’m one of those grateful recent readers.

Read. This. Collection. She has a vast range and is bold with style and brave with content. Could definitely be categorised as ‘before her time’ writing, among many other things, about single parenthood, addiction and the taboo of female desire and seduction.

Elizabeth Bowen – Collected Stories

I have a brick of a book that is her collected stories. They can feel almost genteel to read (she was born in Ireland and lived in England) but then you get to one like The Working Party where a hostess desperately tries to hide the dead body of one of her staff because it’s finally her turn to have the local ladies over for tea.

She liked to peek under the lid of all that etiquette and respectability. A lot of her stories are set in London during the Second World War.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Grace Paley is another feisty one. She was a writer, teacher and activist and that intensity and passion is there in her stories. She’s at home with the ordinary lives, loves and losses of the common people. Her stories span the 1950s to the 1980s, definitely interesting for the modern reader considering the eras of social change.

This is a current constant in my bedside bookstack and I work through it slowly one story at a time. Check out my earlier bookstack post for some of my favourite quotes.

Alice Munro

Does she sneak in as a 20th Century writer? She crosses into the 21st Century but I think she’s been so influential on the form that I’m including her on this list. She won a Nobel for her short stories for crying out loud!

What can I say about Alice Munro that hasn’t been said before? She’s been at it for years, charting our small lives in just-enough words. We skate along with the narrative of her economical prose and there it is all along, what lies beneath.

Lithub has put together a list of 25 of her stories that you can read online.

Katherine Mansfield – In a German Pension

Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealand writer and another one who straddles two centuries (this time 19th and 20th) – even more reason to include her because she was writing as a woman and across topics that weren’t usual for the time. Her writing has also influenced what we think of a modern short story, so take that Hemingway.

Her stories and characters sometimes feel like psychological studies where characters are so tightly wound that the smallest vibration will set everything off. Some people feel her stories read a bit cool or stilted. I think it’s always interesting to see what people have been doing with the form over time. In a German Pension is a good place to start, but probably has a lighter touch than her later work.

Dorothy Parker – Collected Stories

Dorothy Parker is famous for her wit and wisecracks. She was a staff writer at The New Yorker and no one was safe in her reviews and essays.

Her stories are clever but where a one-liner is a quick hit, these carry bruises and have a sadder tone. For all the new freedoms of the age, women were still at the mercy of the men around them; for money, acknowledgement, access to power. If you’re looking for a light read, don’t start here. This is an honest take on mental health in the jazz era.

Shirley Jackson – The Lottery and Other Stories

I’ll fess up that I haven’t read any of her collections. I’ve read her novels and I’ve read her still-gives-me-goosebumps short story The Lottery. It’s her most famous story and I won’t say much for fear of spoiling it.

Shirley Jackson is way ahead of her time. Everything should be normal in her stories but it’s all just a bit off. She leaves an eerie and haunted residue on her pages that is part unnerving and part thrilling. Read The Lottery at the very least. You can read it or hear A.M. Homes reading it for the New Yorker.

Do you love your 20th Century shorts? Let me know any other suggestions you have for collections by 20th Century female short story writers.

I’ll be posting more suggested anthologies and collections for short reading over the next few weeks. Keep an eye out on Twitter @ninakcullen and Facebook or subscribe to my newsletter below for updates.  

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