I'm an educational author dipping his toes in the murky waters of literary and contemporary fiction. I mostly write short stories and novellas around themes of love, loss, guilt and banjos, set in coastal and rural Australia. Working on that first novel.
One of the many things that two years’ writing on Medium and Substack has gifted me as a writer is a delight in illustrating my stories.
My main interest is adult fiction (interspersed with quasi-factual meanderings like this one). In this field, the word is deemed sufficient. Illustrated stories are for kids — or for magazines. That’s the received wisdom, whether or not we choose to thumb our noses at it.
A lot of it was once simple economics, not any superiority of the printed word over the printed image. Until quite recently, illustrations used to be prohibitively costly to integrate with text. ‘Plates’ were literally etched plates. Full colour required four separate plates, four passes through the printing press, four times the expense of black-and-white. Even black-and-white photos needed to be printed on expensive coated paper and bound in discrete sections (signatures) of the book.
Digital printing technology has freed a lot of that up, but illustrations still add to cost, and fiction readers expect cheap books. Hardly any of the hundreds of novels on my shelves have illustrations integrated with the text.
So — publishing illustrated stories on Medium and Substack is a unique opportunity that I make the most of … in the certain knowledge that none of my illustrations will make it into the print editions I have planned for the last quarter of this year.
I enjoy the promotional aspect of writing, mostly. Whether it’s scheduling newsletters for my Substack, updating my website and blog or making little videos for Tiktok, I experiment boldly and gladly. I accept defeat philosophically, dust myself off and try something else.
Sometimes, though, the sheer unrelenting effort of getting folk to clap eyes on my stories gets me down.
Today is one of those days.
Many people who read this will be in that same crowded little boat. In online writers’ groups, whether on Medium, in Twitter’s writing community, on Substack or on Booktok, we’re mostly promoting our writing to a supportive but time-poor crew of fellow writers. Each with a long To Be Read list already.
Out there, somewhere, amorphous and shifting like fog on the horizon, is the Greater Reading Public. It seems a wide gulf between us.
Finding my way in the thicket of advice for new fiction authors
There’s no shortage of advice online for fiction writers. Indeed, rather the opposite.
I see novice writers on Twitter obsessing over whether they are telling when they should, in fact, be #showing? What about adverbs: are we allowed adverbs? How many per paragraph? Does my inciting incident have to come before page 10? Is my writing sufficiently inclusive — but not culturally appropriative? What’s my genre? How many comps do I need for a synopsis? Sex in YA fiction: yes or no? Is 250K words too many for a first novel? Can I write it in the second person, future perfect tense?
There’s nothing wrong with this seeking and proffering of advice. The problem lies in the corollary: sifting, evaluation, often rejection.
Any piece of advice offered to a writer needs to be viewed suspiciously from all angles like an apple in the supermarket. Unlike with the apple, the writer can — must — take a bite, give it a good chew before maybe spitting it out on the figurative floor of the metaphorical Fresh Produce Department. Without the cashier calling Security to deal with a disturbance in Aisle Two.
A male writer’s fascination with female perspectives
Fiction writing is — in equal parts — imagination, empathy and transmogrification of lived experience.
The alchemy which turns my leaden autobiography into fictional gold (hopefully) is often a change of viewpoint. It’s the ‘What if?’ which sparks the narrative from the inciting incident.
Very often, I find myself wanting to write fiction from a female perspective. I’ve been told, by female readers whose opinion I value, that I’m good at it. About seventy per cent of my regular readers are female, so I guess I can’t be too lousy.
That’s gratifying praise, but I would be sad if it were unusual. Why should biological sex be a barrier to empathy or imagination? A man who cannot step outside his own ego to consider what a woman might desire in a lover, what she might hope for or fear in life, her insecurities, passions and preoccupations, is a sad specimen of humanity.
We consider it unremarkable that a female author might write a male protagonist well. The converse should also apply. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of study material, in terms of literature by female writers, and — shock! horror! — real live women to converse with.
A teen obsession
One of the great passions of my teenage years — that turbulent time of consuming and confusing passions — was the music of Kate Bush.
Do you ever find that your creative projects take you to unexpected places? I get that all the time. It’s one of the reasons I’m a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘plotter’ in my fiction writing. When I start writing a story, I never know how it’s going to end.
I don’t want to know yet: I’m telling myself a story. If it turns out okay, I’ll refine it and tell it to others. The ones which turn out too odd, too personal or too grim — I keep those to myself.
Thus also in the visual arts. In woodcarving I had many ‘happy accidents’ where the timber ‘wanted’ to go in a different direction to where my eye and hand directed the gouge or chisel to take it. (Some unhappy ones too, of course. We don’t talk about those.)
Last night I was exploring ideas for a masthead to my new monthly newsletter for Tall and Tiny Tales — my Substack fiction project.
On the occasion of my wife’s birthday, we’re in Melbourne for the week. For the first time since COVID hit our shores, we find ourselves in the CBD with time on our hands.
Suze likes to spend hours poking around markets; I’d sooner stick wasps up my arse, frankly. Luckily, we’re accustomed to giving each other space to do our own thing, rather than approaching every outing as a joint activity.
Fear not: we also have a shared calendar of events with multiple highlights and points of interest and time spent with friends – those who haven’t contracted COVID in the last couple of days. I’m not leaving the poor woman entirely to her own devices on the august occasion of reaching three-score years and ten.
So anyway, this morning, Suze was buying music-themed socks at the Vicky Market (hey, it’s her birthday) and trying to work out the location and name of that pub she went to with the girls that one time that sells Belgian cherry beer: an absorbing task for a woman with scant sense of direction and a love of Kriek.
I have no idea whether I’m going to click ‘publish’ when I’ve finished this. Perhaps it will languish as a draft for weeks; perhaps it will be published in the small hours of the morning. Then I may tear back the bedcovers with a resounding ‘Nooooooo!’ at break of day and rush to my computer to delete it.
It wouldn’t be the first article of mine to meet that fate, not by a long chalk, so you’d best read quickly, hypothetical reader.
Let me start by acknowledging that this is written in a wider context in which my petty sorrows and existential trivialities are of infinitesimal consequence. Further, that I have, as an individual, an Australian, a person of pinko-grey complexion and the possessor of a Y chromosome to go along with my X, much to be thankful for.
That said, as individuals we must walk and chew gum: strive to be both decent members of our multiple overlapping communities and attentive to our own emotional housekeeping. Each is perhaps the corollary of the other.
And all is not well in my untidy inner household. It has not been well for a long time; perhaps it has never been well. I suspect that goes with a writer’s job description. To distil my current malaise into a single sentence:
Reflections on a first attempt at writing a historical novel
‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953
Out of my comfort zone
I grew up an Englishman on English soil. The past of the land I lived on was my past; I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I understood it intimately, intuitively.
These days, I live on the other side of the world, in a country where, until 1788, there were no Englishmen, other than a tiny number of whalers and sealers at a few points around our continent’s vast coastline — and no Englishwomen at all, as far as is known.
Stolen land, stolen history
The ‘settlement’ of the land that I live on, here in Victoria, began in 1835 with the landing of John Batman and his party.
It’s so close that I feel I can almost reach out and touch it. There are still descendents of the first settlers living on the same land their ancestors took possession of. Let’s not mince words: the land that they stole, with the connivance of the British Crown.
Launching a Substack storyletter — progress and plans
I decided towards the end of last year that I was going to launch a fiction newsletter on the Substack platform. Tall and Tiny Tales went live on 1 February.
Substack seems to be rather the flavour of the month, although evaluations differ, and some, if I may say so, miss the point entirely. Substack isn’t really a community like Medium. It’s primarily a publishing platform. Your potential readership isn’t other Substackers: it’s anyone who likes to read your genre online. (Truly: forget about other Substackers. Stats on them are irrelevant.) The snag is: you have to do all the publicity for your publication yourself. No friendly algorithms are going to carry your word to the masses.
When I was young and silly, I had an absolute terror of making a fool of myself in public. Like most of us, I got over this by doing it repeatedly.
Mostly, I didn’t jump — I was pushed.
Piss-poor in Wigan
Six months into my first job as an editor, my friend and colleague Stefan saddled me with giving a talk on ‘Trading with Germany’ to the worthy members of the Wigan & District Chamber of Commerce.
He’d given one a few months previously and they’d asked him back, but he was coming down with a cold. As he was German, this required languishing at home for a week, being pampered by his lovely Dutch girlfriend.
I had neither a cold nor a lovely Dutch girlfriend, and I was the company’s other ‘German expert’.
‘It’s easy, Steve, you just stand there and talk a bit, then answer questions. They’re very friendly.’