Behind the Scenes

June 11, 2009 at 2:57 am (Uncategorized)

Things have been happening offscreen the past few weeks that you may be interested to hear about. First, one of the Darklings, JB, was shortlisted for the second year running in one of Autralia’s most significant short story awards, the Alan Marshall (woo hoo!!!!! Way to go, JB!!!). This year’s competition was judged by Sophie Cunningham, editor of one of the country’s premier literary magazines, Meanjin. I can’t get anything published in Meanjin, but it’s a great mag, so there’s no hard feelings. I’d be much more distressed if a lousy rag kept knocking me back, whereas Meanjin is entitled to maintain its high standards, and it has my warm blessing to do so. Anyway, I was pretty sure JB’s entry would get some sort of recognition in the Alan Marshall, and I’m very proud and pleased it did. I hated my own entry, and didn’t rate its chances myself (you may even remember my saying so at the time, and I was and am completely sincere), so there was no disappointment at the letterbox, just a sense of justice having been served. I don’t even know why I bothered entering. I guess because otherwise I feel like I’m letting opportunities pass. But the truth is, I shouldn’t send things I know are sub-par. That’s not missing an opportunity, that’s screwing one up. It doesn’t help me and it certainly doesn’t help the poor judge wading through what must be at least 40 percent dross, mine included. Ugh. 

Llew said to me the other day, “Well, you don’t put any work into your short stories, so I’m not even going to talk to you about it anymore because you’re not even serious. Put a fraction of the effort into one of those that you’ve put into the manuscript and maybe then this is a conversation we can have.”


And he’s right. What’s interesting is that JB’s consecutive shortlist placings have been for edited extracts from her full-length manuscript. JB’s a beautiful writer, a real craftswoman, and, you know, she’s done the work. It’s great that she’s being recognised in these short form arenas because it validates the larger project. I haven’t tried submitting excerpts from my manuscript as I don’t think it lends itself very well to that, but there’s no question that’s where all my effort has been spent. Llew’s absolutely spot-on. I always feel like I should be writing short stories, so every now and again I try, but they’re pretty bad, I’m sorry to say, and I can expect them to stay that way unless I fully commit to studying and practising the form.

I wonder sometimes if I’m not more a distance writer in the same way I’m a distance runner… I honesty don’t think much of running 21 kms without the benefit of training – that’s exactly the circumstance in which I ran my first half-marathon, just to see if I could – but I can’t sprint. And as far as the writing goes, I think it’s because I think in terms of character instead of plot, so it takes me a long, long time to get anywhere. I have to hang out with these characters for a long time before I know them well enough and before any sort of plot comes along to direct their actions and decide the thing for me. Short stories, on the other hand, need to have a really clear universal axis around which they briefly spin… an immediacy I haven’t been able to tap. But I want to do well at it. I think short stories are incredibly difficult to do well, and so as a practice building exercise, I’m going to start paying much more attention, and trying much harder. 

As for the manuscript, well, Marcelo, the illustrator, and I have been emailing back and forth since I rediscovered him, and I think we’re almost there. It turns out I can’t afford to get all the drawings done, but I’ve put money aside to pay for some, and we’re pretty much agreed on which ones they’re going to be. Now I can start getting really excited about it all. I can’t wait – CAN’T WAIT – to see someone else’s vision of characters I’ve created. It’s just cool. I can’t wait. And if it all goes horribly wrong and we somehow don’t get each other at all, and it’s a disaster, then that’ll be a shame, and it’ll have cost me some hard-won wedge, but regardless, I’ll have some of Marcelo’s funky art, more knowledge for next time, and a great story to tell anyone who cares to listen. So friends, that’s what’s been going on behind Nana’s venetian blinds. Never a dull moment.



  1. litlove said,

    Do you think there is a world of difference between writing something that’s 5,000 words long, and writing something 10,000 words and then again, something 80,000 words? I always found it so as an academic. Just take your conference paper and turn it into an article, was always the cry, and yet the two things are completely different – what you can say, how you can say it, what you can hope to achieve. I do have you down as a longer length writer, although there’s no reason why you couldn’t do short. What I like best about what you do is the voice, and the amusing way you look at thigns, which is easily transferrable between genres, but you would probably have to cut back drastically on plot. I could imagine you doing vignettes, focusing on one tiny event, but letting it branch out in all directions as the voice explores and plays with it. That would work for you. But all this being said, I do think everyone tends quite naturally towards a preferred word limit, and figuring out what best suits your style is just one more part of this crazy writing thing.

  2. doctordi said,

    Um, yeeees, I guess so, but probably not as much as you’d think. Like most readers and writers, I just spend a lot of time reading and writing, but sure, in the writing there are huge differences of form and content, and some of those are decided by length. But for me, Litlove, it really depends on the task. I can and do write some things very quickly, even lengthy things, but of course there’s a massive difference between, say, a thesis and an essay. A feature article and a review. A novel and a short story. Some of that is word limit, and word limit isn’t meaningless, it certainly influences the thinking and the writing. But as a freelance journalist, I write things of different length all the time, I write posts of varying length here, I write letters, long and short, I write my pitiful short stories and yes, I have an 86,000 word doctoral thesis and an 80,000 word fiction manuscript.

    So I’m honestly not sure if I have a preferred word limit… and I’m interested in why you do think of me as a distance writer (pleased, in fact, because some of my friends have insisted in a very determined fashion that they just don’t see my style/voice suiting novel writing), particularly because what you know of my writing is shorter distance: these posts, most of which are under or around 1,000 words and which take me between half an hour to an hour to write. You’re right about the vignettes – earlier versions of my manuscript, when I was groping around totally plotless, definitely exposed this tendency. I found the mechanics of plot development very much happened latterly. It’s a real weakness of mine.

  3. Grad said,

    I agree with Litlove. You have a definite “voice” which is a mixture of humor, and irony, throw in some joie de vivre here, and a little sprinkle of skinned knee there…but always rebounding. Getting up, and dusting off. I think if you just grew one of the story lines in your posts about your Nana, you’d have a winner of a short story. The dialogues you’ve had with people, and the way you relate them, are marvelously entertaining. Sometimes melancholy and funny all at the same time.

  4. Lilian Nattel said,

    I struggled with short stories as a form until I had a dream where a voice said to me, Your problem is that you want to have the depth of character that requires a novel to write. So I wrote a novel. I like short stories, and admire Alice Munro (who writes quite long ones) because she can get that depth of character in a shorter form. But it isn’t just the characters–I tend to think in a more complex multi-layered way than a short story has room for. I think someday I’d like to tackle short stories, but then I’ll need to dedicate years to it, the same way I do novels.

  5. Simonne said,

    Such in interesting post. Nodded all the way through it. I wasn’t happy with my Alan Marshall submission either, and, having been knocked back by Meanjin too, I should’ve known better and acknowledged that it was still trying too hard. But I also hate missed opportunities!
    Short story writing is so difficult. Llew is one smart, helpful cookie! Mine are very slowly getting better the more I learn to honour the damn story and hack away at my desperate need to try so friggin hard. Grad is most surely onto something. I wrote a short story about my Nonna – just wrote what happened to her, hearing her voice so distinctly in my head, and that story won an award, so there you go. The others continue to decorate my ever increasing rejection pile…! Practice practice practice 🙂
    I’ve had a few goes at taking extracts from my ms too, but it doesn’t seem to work all that well. I’ve sent one to Harvest, so will see if anything comes of that.

  6. doctordi said,

    Thanks, Grad… I’m extremely happy and gratified to think that’s what my ‘voice’ conveys. I couldn’t really ask for more than that. It’s such a FREAKY phenomenon, writing, because I’m not conscious of my voice at all… it’s certainly not something I attempt to cultivate. Most of the time I type things before I’ve even thought them, if you know what I mean. I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t really know how to control it. I’m just glad it’s here because it’s how I communicate and I’d hate to have to resort to hand puppets. And maybe you’re right about the Nana material… maybe I should start there and see what happens. You guys all seem to respond so strongly to it… I guess I just question what fictionalising it would bring to the table – especially in my shaky short fiction hands. But there’s only one way to find out.

    Lilian, I wish I’d have a dream like that!! Wow. How clarifying. What a load off. But yes, you’re absolutely right. If I’m ever going to make a fist of the short-story form, I need to really dedicate myself to it the way I’ve dedicated myself to that 80,000 word fucker on my desktop.

    Simonne, I’d really love to see your award-winner. Is it online somewhere? And maybe we should exchange short stories? Practice, practice, practice is right. And yes, Llew is annoyingly astute sometimes. My fingers are crossed for you – may you reap the Harvest!

  7. Simonne said,

    The story isn’t online unfortunately. It’s in an Anthology called Beyond Words, but I’m not sure how available it is. I can email it to you if you really do want to read it? And I’d love to swap stories. I’m not currently doing that with anyone and it’d be a good exercise methinks (no matter how scary!).

  8. doctordi said,

    Yes, please do email it to me. Let’s discuss a swap via email too.

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