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The other day I found myself with nothing to read so I pulled out my old copy of A Book of Australian Verse, selected by Australian poet Judith Wright. I was reading the collection when I came across the poems of John Shaw Neilsen, whose work I’d always admired. This shy, slight figure, who had almost no education, had a love of natural beauty and could produce lines of effortless simplicity such as:

“I was around by the cherries today: all the cherries are pale. The world is a woman in velvet. The air is the colour of ale.” He is considered one of Australia’s finest lyric poets.

Shaw Neilsen

Shaw Neilsen

Whenever I think of Neilsen, I’m reminded of a story my old friend Lyle Freeman told me. Lyle (gone now, alas) wasn’t a writer, but he moved on the edges of the literary circles in Brisbane and Sydney in the 1940s and early ‘50s. In his late teens, he ran away from the family business in Kingaroy, went to Sydney and with friend Lois Whose-last-name-eludes me, they opened a boarding house in the vicinity of Kings Cross, where itinerant writers and artists often stayed while they found their feet. Or not. At one stage, Charlie Blackman and his wife Barbara (not his wife at the time, but) boarded there.

I think it was his friendship with Queensland poet Val Vallis that would have got him the invite to Judith Wright’s house that Sunday.

judith-wrightWhenever Lyle told the story (it was a story I asked to hear more than once), the house he described was in Mount Tambourine, though Wright never moved there permanently until 1950, and the event Lyle described must have happened before 1941. (Neilsen was at that time up from Melbourne; he returned there and died within twelve months of this encounter.) Perhaps Wright toyed with renting houses in the country outside Brisbane as many of us did in those days before land inflated to preposterous proportions; my partner and I had a weekender at Mt Glorious in the ‘60s.

On this particular day, Lyle told me, a group of seven or eight aspiring writers were sitting in Wright’s kitchen debating the state of Australian arts and letters when there came a gentle knock on the back door. Standing there was a shy, slight man in his early seventies. Perhaps an elderly gardener, they thought.

The man spoke only one sentence. He said softly, “I’ve come for my tiffin.” (He meant afternoon tea.) Wright handed him a cup of tea and a plate containng some cup cakes and he went away. “That was Shaw Neilsen,” she explained to the Young Turks. “He’s staying with us for a while. He’s a bit shy.” Lyle said he felt immensely humbled to see this unassuming man shuffle away with his tea and cake. There they’d all been, debating the parlous state of Australian literature, and there he was, the real thing, just wanting peace and quiet and a bit of tiffin.

Lyle had an interesting life. He was a roadie for the Borovanski Ballet when Kathleen Gorham was one of the principal dancers, and he was gay at a time in Australia when it took real guts to come out and say so. He was once insulted at a party by Patrick White, that dour, sharp tongued Australian novelist.

patrick-whitePatrick White

Wine must’ve loosened my old friend’s tongue sufficiently for him to begin talking about his ambitions for a novel. “Hmph,” White said to him. “You’re a small man, and you’ll write a small novel.” That put my friend Lyle, who was six-foot-two, nicely in his place. White was famous for these bon mots.

Lyle never did write that novel. There were no mobile phones when I knew him, and the only photo I have of him is more than forty years old and somewhat blurry. Thanks to the expertise of Paul Smith I’m able to reproduce it here.

The photo was taken on the verandah of the house I shared with Queensand poet, Michael Sariban.

the-presentation-on-the-verandah

From L to R: Ann Hurley, DdeV holding a young Sasha Sariban, Olga Sariban and Lyle Freeman.

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Girl looking out window

It’s strange the way things pan out in life. My career as a writer almost didn’t happen.

I was in 3rd grade in primary school, slowly getting on top of things, when we were sent home one day with instructions to write our first composition.

I trudged home, very unhappy. My career as an even halfway-coping schoolkid was over. I knew I’d never be able to write a composition.

My mother was in the kitchen, preparing the evening meal. Unusual for him, my father was also home; there’d been very few ships in port that day. When he saw me slumped in misery at the kitchen table, he asked me what was wrong.

I said, “We have to write a composition about trees, and I can’t write compositions.” and I began to cry.

My father put down his newspaper and said, “It’s okay. Whatever the subject is, you just talk about it.”

“Talk about it?” I wailed.

“Yeah,” he said, “like how they’re green and leafy and they give people shade. Do you like trees?”

Of course I liked trees. I practically lived in the loquat tree up the back.

“Have a go,” said my father, returning to his paper.

I sat there, chewing the end of my pencil, and tried to write as if I was talking about trees. That half-page took me the best part of an hour.

“How’d it go?” said my father, who must’ve been watching my progress from behind his paper. He read through what I’d written. “Not bad,” he said. “But it needs something.” And he dictated a line about leaves dancing when the wind blew; something quite poetic. “Slip that in somewhere,” he said.

I rewrote the piece, placing the line he’d dictated where, I hoped, a teacher was least likely to notice the extra zing it put into my dreary effort.

 

By the time the English teacher came into the room carrying our exercise books three days later, I very much regretted using the line my father had written. Now, it was all too late, as she began to deal with each composition in turn, from worst to best — a tried and tested form of torture even when your conscience is clear, and mine certainly wasn’t. Eventually, there were no exercise books left but mine. I was convinced she’d saved mine ‘til last because she intended to expose me before the whole class. Why had I let my father talk me into adding that line about leaves in the breeze?

To my surprise, she pronounced my composition the best, and read it out to the class. I felt no elation, though it was the first time I’d ever come first in anything. How, I asked myself, was I going to continue this run? My father was leaving in a few days for a job at sea. What on earth was I going to do?

Inevitably, we were given a new subject to write about. I trudged home and sat at the kitchen table. Nothing came. I felt like the girl in the fairy tale who was supposed to spin straw into gold. Or else.

In desperation, I decided I’d pretend to be my father. Clearly, I had no talent for writing, but he did. Okay, Dad, I said to myself, what have you got to say about pets? And I began to write.

I was stunned when that composition also came first. Around me, there were boys in tears, boys who hadn’t been able to get even four lines onto the pages of their exercise books.

I knew how they felt.

It was pure chance my father had been home that day.

 

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Most writers engaged in producing a novel have some wellspring of hope the work will someday see the light of day. Acclaim would be great, they think, but even publication — ah, publication! — would be a wonderful, perhaps life-changing, event. This hope of publication just over the hill is often the only thing that keeps the writer going through the long, solitary journey.

Long distance runner

In my particular case, it actually appeared as if I was in with a chance of having a traditional publisher for the book I’m about to put up on Smashwords and Amazon this November. Way back in 2003 or thereabouts, I sent the 3rd draft of an animal fantasy set in Byron Shire to one of the foremost agents in Australia. I’d been stalking this agent for years, trying to tempt her with various projects. When she accepted this manuscript without reservation, I was ecstatic, this lady handled big names like Frank Moorhouse. She loved the work, she said, and intended to send it first to HarperCollins. HarperCollins! I was over the moon. I had this crash hot agent, and she liked the novel so much she’d gone for one of the biggest publishers in Australia.

Well. I waited and waited. Gradually, my excitement dwindled. After some months I rang the agent up. The head editor of HarperCollins, said the agent, hadn’t liked the anthropomorphism in the work — hell, it was one 70,000-word piece of anthropomorphism — so goodbye HarperCollins. But never mind, she’d look around for another perhaps smaller publisher.

More months went by. Eventually the agent rang me up: what genre did I reckon this book was, anyway? Yes, dear reader, it was a cross-genre work. Which, if you’re an unknown novelist in Australia is akin to setting fire to your chances of ever scoring a large traditional publisher. I understand their thinking. If you’re a publisher, you can afford to take a chance on a weird, off beat novel with a well-known writer. With a writer such as myself, known only for short stories, the risk was simply too great.

I don’t know when the agent gave up on the ms, I was never informed. I simply heard one day that she had retired. In my naivety I attempted to find another agent for the work. However, having had the big-name agent turned out to be the Kiss of Death for my finding another. ’Oh,’ each of them said to me, ‘if she couldn’t place it, I doubt I could. I’ll pass.’

I then attempted to place the ms myself with small Australian publishers. After all, I did have a track record of pleasing the public with short stories, and had been fortunate enough to win a number of awards with them. Every small publisher I approached with the ms seemed to think I was writing in this fairy tale style because I could write in no other, ignoring the fact that my published stories were, in fact, rather edgy and streetwise. Two of them managed to reject me on Christmas Eve, though I’d sent them the ms many many months before. My mouth fell open when I opened those emails, which occurred in two separate years. Rejecting a writer on Christmas Eve was, as well-known author Susan Geason remarked, like something out of Dickens.

So I came at last to the wild and woolly territory of indie publishing, which contains its own pitfalls as set out in my previous post . Currently, I’m working on the first set of proofs from CreateSpace – but more of that next week. (If you like horror stories, don’t forget to tune in.)  After that, it’s back to the Hill of Bewilderment for more agonising over categories – Amazon allows writers two.

Will it be worth it? Money wise, I doubt it very much. But it will be nice to finally hold a published copy of the book in my hands and to know it’s out there somewhere after all this time.

Writing. It’s a great life if you can last the distance.

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Janet leigh

For those of you who might be wondering where I’ve been these last ten weeks, I’ve been investigating Indie publishing, particularly the publishing of Print on Demand (POD) books with CreateSpace, a subsidiary of Amazon. Those ten weeks have been most illuminating, and I thought I might share my discoveries with you. If you’ve already published a POD book, stop reading now, I won’t have anything new to tell you. If you haven’t, gird your loins, and read on.

For most writers, the journey into indie publishing follows a certain pattern. First, we have:

1.   The Sylvan Glades of Writing the Novel, where the Wellsprings of Hope bubble to cheer the fiction writer on his/her way. The writer thinks the going is tough, but they ain’t seen nothing yet. Emerging from this glade, the writer who chooses to indie publish must traverse:

2.   The Desert of the Last Copy-edit, a fearsome place littered with the bones of writers who didn’t know what they were doing with commas. Crawling out of this desert, writers encounter:

3.   The Fork in the Track, where the writer must decide whether to do only an e book (much cheaper, and easier on the nerves), or to take their courage in hand and rapell into:

4.   The Dizzying POD Chasm. Should the writer choose to do only an e book, Nos 6-10 will still apply, but they will, to some extent, avoid:

5.   The Slough of Despond, where the writer realises that s/he must either format the print book themselves or pay someone else to do it. Even if they decide to pay someone, as I did, they will still have to traverse:

6.   The Forest of Dread, where they must choose two categories for their novel. A great deal is riding on their choice, especially the novel’s findability. Having negotiated this forest, and there is no way around it, the writer comes to:

7.   The Hill of Bewilderment, where s/he must choose seven keywords which Amazon buyers might (the operative word here is might) use to discover the writer’s novel — again, very important for the novel’s findability. After this, they arrive at:

8.   The Lakes of Confusion, where they must set a price for their beloved novel and try to understand Amazon’s royalties system, e.g. a $9.99 price for a 250 page, standard-size paperback will yield the writer US $2.14. What happened to that 70% (or even 35%) we heard so much about? If, after this, the men in white haven’t taken our writer away, s/he must then cross:

9.   The Bridge of Tears, where, if s/he is a non-US resident, s/he must attempt to prevent the US Internal Revenue from taking 30% of his or her earnings. To do this, she must do battle with monsters ITIN, W-7 and W-8 BEN, go on a quest for a Notary (cross his palm with silver) and also find the elusive Apostille, without which the writer will continue to pay the dreaded 30%. Finally, the writer comes to:

10.   The Well of Disappointment, which s/he quaffs while contemplating the novel’s sales figures. If you think I’m being unnecessarily gloomy here, Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords says that, for most writers, the average number of e books sold per title is 100.

What does all this mean? In a nutshell it means that the average indie writer/producer of a POD book will be flat out getting their money back. There are hidden costs to producing a POD book that exist regardless of whether the newbie writer outsources, or designs the cover and interior themselves.

In the meantime, I’m camped on the Hill of Bewilderment, right next to the Lakes of Confusion, having taken over a week to negotiate the Forest of Dread with nothing but a hurricane lamp to guide me.  While camping out and enjoying the sights, it occurred to me that I might be able to do some good by devoting one post to each of the steps I’ve described above, so that newbie writers will at least know what lies in store for them.

Forewarned is forearmed. So they say.

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For years now, in summer I’ve slept in the downstairs bedroom of my 2-storey apartment with the back sliding door to the garden jammed open a few inches for coolness. Around 1 a.m. the perfume from the white ginger blossoms blooming near the steps would start to filter inside, and along with it would come beautifully cool, dew laden air. After the insane heat of the day, it was like being touched by the hand of God.

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

A few nights ago, as I was watching an episode of The Mentalist on TV, I was distracted by the strange behaviour of my younger cat Tim, who was sitting on top of the air cooler near the back door. He kept looking down at the floor between the cooler and the door, and back to me. As time went on, he grew more and more agitated. Suddenly, he leapt to his feet and puffed himself up. I thought it must be the tom from across the road, come to torment him: Ha ha, look at you, what a pansy, to have to be locked in at night!

But instead of rushing forward — Tim’s neutered, but he likes a good fight, I’ve got the vet bills to prove it — Tim came back to me.

He looked horrified.

Now this is a cat that has brought in six-foot-long pythons in the past, and once, a yellow-bellied black of about five feet, which my daughter, up on holidays from Melbourne, inadvertently took a shower with. Says I to myself, If Tim’s horrified, maybe I should be horrified too. I jumped to my feet to close the back door against the rabid dog, vengeful tom, whatever, but when the sliding door reached three inches, I hit an obstruction. The door wouldn’t close any further.

What was stopping it? I couldn’t see. The only light was behind me and the air cooler threw a shadow into the space between it and the back door, and my eyes aren’t very good, anyway. I peered over, still holding the door as shut as I could.

This isn't me! It's Tanya BennettPhoto by Manly Daily, n.d.

This isn’t me! It’s Tanya Bennett
Photo by Manly Daily, n.d.

The python raised his head and looked up at me, a sort of: What are you doing? look. Python? Correction, make that humungous python, one of the biggest I’d ever seen, already halfway into the room. He had come for the old cat who was sleeping on the corner of the bed near the back door. I grabbed both cats and flung them into the living room, snatched up my mobile phone, turned off the TV and fled. I closed the door that led from the study to the rest of the apartment, and jammed the space underneath with a length of wood held in place with two heavy pot plants.

Now I’ve lived with pythons before, always against my will, mind you. There was one in the ceiling of the house I moved into in the bush in 1978. But he was a gentleman, he had guidelines. He never came down to hunt mice and bush rats until after nine at night when I and the children were safely tucked up in bed. (With no car, no phone and no power, there was little to do in the bush once the sun went down.) This South Golden Beach python was singularly lacking in manners.

The wildlife people came out next day, but they couldn’t find him. Perhaps, they said, he went back out in the night through the back door I’d left open for him. Perhaps, perhaps … The back room leads to a space under the stairs crammed with things I’ve accumulated over the last 14 years, he could have been anywhere there among the boxes.

But they thought he’d gone, so I locked the back door into the garden and rang for a repairman for the back screen door. I also needed a screen door for my upstairs bedroom; I’d had no screen door upstairs for years – with a mosquito net over the bed, I’d never felt the need of one. Now I did! This place is subtropical, surrounded by lush vegetation and big trees, the python could easily get into my upstairs bedroom unless I kept the glass sliding door closed, which turns the room into an inferno in summer.

And there the situation stands. I come in here to work on the computer for an hour or so a day, and I’ve begun to clear out under the stairs, a job that was more that overdue. But I won’t let the cats in here until I’ve completely torn the place apart. I’ve lost cats to pythons before, it’s not a nice experience.

All up, the event produced some good outcomes: I get two much needed screen doors, and the back bedroom gets its first really good going-over in 14 years. I’m all set for whatever the Mayan calendar cares to throw at me.

Now it’s on to sorting through the 35 years of papers I’ve been carrying around, and the 14 years of useless objects I’ve collected while my head was stuck in a computer, writing.

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 My guest blogger this month is Ed Griffin, who teaches creative writing at Matsqui Prison, a medium-security prison in Canada. Ed has just released his new eboook – a novel entitled Prisoners of the Williwaw – on Amazon. Over to you, Ed.

 

In the 1980s, my wife and I owned a mom and pop commercial greenhouse. Our business was prospering, but something was wrong. My life was planting seeds, growing tiny plants and selling vegetables and garden plants in the spring. I was becoming what I grew — a cabbage, or maybe a petunia. My mind was dying and I knew it.

          I started playing around with writing. After supper every night I would go out to my ‘office,’ a little added-on room between our house and the garage. It had windows to the front and back and a space heater that was adequate for spring and fall, but not winter. I would sit down at the typewriter and follow my creative muse.

          Whole worlds opened to me. I wrote about the area behind my childhood garage where I practiced pitching, and dreamed of reaching the major leagues. I wrote a short story about a group of prisoners on an island. I wrote a poem about getting along with the Russians. Hours passed. Suddenly, as I wrote, an alarm would sometimes ring in the house. The alarm meant I hadn’t turned the heat on in the greenhouses. I had to shut the door on the vibrant world that grew on the paper in front of me and hurry to the greenhouses to start the furnaces.

          An hour later I’d be back at the typewriter. Type a sentence, stop, look at it, realize it wasn’t quite true and then search deeper. Layers of middle-aged half-truths disappeared, the comfortable maxims I had surrounded myself with — “Business is good. Don’t make any changes,” and “Relax. You’re getting older.” The fires of my youth burned again — civil rights, world peace, a place in the sun for every person. The idealism that had lain dormant for eight years sparked back into life.

          Isaiah was on the scene again, reminding me of the words I read in the seminary and tried to live when I was a priest:

          I have appointed you to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison and those who live in darkness from the dungeon. [Chapter 42-6]

          As I wrote I dug, I searched always deeper, trying to reach the truth. It might be easy to speak a lie, but it wasn’t easy to write one. I started to unravel the tangled skein that was me. These revelations came, not from writing philosophy or self-help dictums, but from writing fiction. Put a man and a woman in a fictional situation. What does the woman really think? What does the man think? Is this real? Is this how people are? Where do I get my ideas? What is human nature all about? Who am I?

          For example, as I wrote about the prisoners on the island, I got to know each one of them. How did they get into crime? Why were they different than me? Did they have a religious education as I did? What did they think about God? Was God a mean father for them or a gentle parent? What did I think about God?

         Amazing. The seminary had tried for twelve years to teach me how to meditate, and here I was doing it while I wrote.

http://www.amazon.com/Prisoners-of-the-Williwaw-ebook/dp/B005S33Q7S/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1342834442&sr=1-1&keywords=prisoners+of+the+williwaw

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I had a funny experience the other day: I’d gone to the pathologist for my annual blood test, which required fasting – always a stressful time for me. I’d been fasting for 14 hours by the time I came out of the pathologist’s. As I was maundering, a bit light headed, through the shopping centre afterwards, I noticed the weighing machine.

The machine and I are friends. We have a date, once a fortnight. It was only five days since our last tryst, but there it stood, and I thought: Wot-the-hell, it won’t hurt to weigh myself again. I tend to put on weight in winter. It was mid-winter now, and I like to keep an eye on things.

I fished out a dollar coin and stood on the machine, which informed me that I was four pounds lighter than I’d been five days ago. Four pounds lighter! For an instant, I was jubilant, but then I began to have doubts: Four pounds in five days — in the middle of winter? Not likely. I wandered away, thinking that, with my low blood sugar, perhaps I’d read the numbers wrongly.

I really was feeling a bit strange. I went into the coffee shop and wolfed down a cappucchino and a large piece of banana bread with butter. That should do it, I thought. Then I read the local paper for a while, to give my body time to catch up; but I couldn’t really concentrate on who had just grown the biggest pumpkin in Goonellabah. I was still brooding about the weighing machine, and how I couldn’t possibly have been four pound lighter.

Out with another coin. I returned to the machine. This time it told me I was five pounds lighter. Five pounds! But I’d been four lighter, twenty minutes ago. Dearie me. I began to do the math. One pound in twenty minutes was three pounds an hour.

I was fading away. At this rate, I’d be lucky to last two days.

The banana bread, plus the sugar I’d put in my coffee, still hadn’t kicked in. I made it to a bench in the shopping centre and sat down. Two days. I’d never get my e-book out in that time; I was only up to page 82 of Mark Coker’s Smashwords Guide, and I hadn’t even opened the How To Kindle book. I’d never get the sequel finished, and I’d never get to see my daughter, who was arriving at the end of August.

Biochemistry’s a wonderful thing. After about ten minutes of this, my blood sugar finally decided to get the message, and kicked in. With this came the realisation that there must be something wrong with the weighing machine. I went into the chemist shop and reported it. Bad machine, to have let me down in my hour of need.

Waiting for the bus that would take me home, I was struck by how beautiful everything looked — the trees, the sky, even the shopping centre’s crappy banners flying in the wind. And I thought: Reminders of mortality are a good thing.

Nothing <i>too</i> big, mind you. Just something small that can be fixed with a cup of coffee and a piece of banana bread.

Danielle de Valera
twitter.com#!/de_valera

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