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Ten confessions of an aspiring writer

Since I’m redrafting my novel Misplaced again in anticipation of finding an agent, or a publisher, or some good news, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learnt along the way that might help other writers. You can read a short synopsis of Misplaced here and a new extract I’ve posted here. The extract is a controversial scene that takes place in the Orthodox church.

Lessons during my eighth draft:

1. The internet is evil. Don’t justify it by saying it’s great for research. If you’re like me and you can’t control checking twitter and facebook every five minutes, unplug the internet cord and give it to your partner to take to work. I did that today and instead of editing half a chapter, I edited one, but above all, I felt liberated and immersed in the world of my novel.

2. You are not an emerging writer. You are an aspiring writer. Emerging writers have had a book published, you haven’t.

3. “Don’t send out work expecting to get accepted. Send it out expecting to be rejected, that way when it’s accepted you’ll get a lovely surprise.” Angelina Mirabito, aspiring writer.

4. Don’t get caught up in ‘show don’t tell’. When I first started writing I would make sure every sentence was showing instead of telling, but this actually adds a lot of words to your manuscript. Show don’t tell is about showing the reader what it is you want to say thematically.”Now your job is to subtly teach the reader your themes without them know it.” Anna Kannava, director, writer and inspirational mentor.

5. “Really, at the end of the day, what publishers are looking for is a really great book, not how many short stories you’ve had published. Limit your creative projects and focus on what’s important – the book.” Fran Cusworth, author and novel teacher, RMIT.

6. Art inspires art. I can’t write without listening to music. Sometimes when you can’t get in the zone you just need to be inspired. When I need to write a depressing Greek family scene, I play the Greek classics. When I need to write my aussie band, I listen to a great band I’ve just discovered called Trial Kennedy. They write poetic lyrics with a political edge.

7. Still can’t get in the zone? For the last six months I haven’t been able to figure out why I can’t work at my computer desk and prefer to use my laptop on the couch which is awful for my back. Someone recently asked me if I could study at a desk as a student, which I couldn’t, I was always on the couch or the kitchen table. That’s when I realised I can’t get in the zone unless I’m in a relaxing place that doesn’t signify work. So now I start working on the couch, get in the zone, and then move to my computer desk(no internet attached).

8. Every literary competition is a lottery draw. The only places I’ve sent my manuscript is to two competitions with no luck. “Sometimes it can just come down to what the judges ate for breakfast.” Christos Tsiolkas, brilliant mentor. The fact is that because the judges are pressed for time, you’re lucky if they give your manuscript a page before they move on. An agent or publisher with less time constraints may give your manuscript a chapter or so before they give up.

9. Don’t do your redraft in a big vomit over a small period. The come down is awful and you’re more likely to blur fiction with your reality. Instead treat your writing like a job. Set designated days just for writing. When you submit your manuscript somewhere, don’t stop working on it for six months until you find out if you’ve won that competition. You probably haven’t. Have a few weeks rest then start the next draft.

10. Yes, you do have to redraft. A draft isn’t about fixing words, it’s about exploring a story. With each draft you learn more about your characters. This is the first draft I’m not completely rewriting – I must be on the right track.

11. I know, I said ten, but this one is important. Exercise. It’s great for your back and clears your mind. It’s also great to get you in the zone.

Any more advice anyone would like to add?

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Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

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  1. On point 2, there are a few criteria that determine your “level” as a writer. Last time I put a funding application in to Australia Council, they called me up after a few weeks and said, “You’re actually no longer an emerging writer, we’d class you as a developing writer so you’re eligble for more money”. That was 5 years ago. I am still bookless.

    And, I’d add these:

    12. There are no rules.

    13. http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16549

  2. Hi Koraly,

    Can I call myself an emerging writer if one time a short story of mine was published
    Dolly Mag, when I was 14? Hypothetically?

    I would add, talking about your novel to people at parties, dinners, etc, is a lovely diversion, but if you’re talking about it more than writing or redrafting it, then maybe you aren’t a writer at all, maybe you are a dramatist or philosopher or maybe you just talk too much (the glazed eyes around you are a dead giveaway)?

    Also it’s not ok to call people at 3am to talk about the novel, even if they say call anytime, they really don’t mean it, trust me.

  3. 2. Laughed at this one, I like the distinction. (:

    3. I dunno about this kind of attitude. It seems like it’s one tenuous step away from just not bothering to submit at all. Unless if by expecting your work to be rejected, your placing the responsibility of that rejection wholly on the editor/judge rather than your ability. Then I guess that lets you have the egotism that all writers require. d:

    8. I’ve always suspected this! It’s kind of a result of judges being human. I mean, I know I go through periods of disliking a band or author or artist, and then suddenly I’ll turn around and be amazed. Why didn’t I see this before? Judges have periodic tastes as well, methinks.

    I whole-heartedly agree with ‘zz’ above with regards to the ‘talking not doing’ thing. Talkign shop with otehr writers is aewsome, and it can help you get excited and motivated. But do it too much and you risk becoming one of those people that like to talk about being a writer more than doing the requisite deed of, y’know, putting words on paper. Walk the walk before talking the talk, yo.

    As someone who still very much considers himself a hobby writer, I wish I hadn’t shown so much of my stuff to people. If there was one thing I could go back and change it would be to keep a lot of the awful, ill-thought-through pieces I’ve written to myself. Not every experimental/edgy/transgressive masterpiece is actually that! D: Perhaps a soft limit of 5% would be appropriate?

  4. Hi all, thanks for your comments. Great to see others sharing my grief. I have another one, following on from Tara:

    14. The industry takes advantage of aspiring writers. This is a part of life. Accept it and move on, but don’t enter competitions where they ask for money if you have no money. You won’t win anyway.

  5. I used to think that anyone that had one or two things published was an emerging writer. I then found out that it’s a term the grants system developed. It’s not exclusively about having a book, though a book gives you enough grant points to qualify. 10 stories, published in 10 national magazines for a payment, gets you the same amount of points. Similarly you could publish poetry, but that’d have to be 25 poems. They also have a few other rungs along the way to being a ‘Revered’ writer (or whatever they call the final destination) but I don’t know if it matters what you’re designated as, outside of applying for grants.

    Underlying what you’re saying is a question of recognition, not a designation. As we move along our courses, develop and evolve as writers, at what point can we rightly call ourselves Writers and Authors? Sometimes that’s a psychological question and there are writers who still find that an elusive proposition even after having published a few books. Some might feel comfortable calling themselves that even when they’ve published nothing. So there’s probably two parts to recognition, how we see ourselves and how the world sees us.

    That ‘expect to fail’ attitude is not possible of course, (otherwise we wouldn’t submit) but it’s certainly a safer attitude than the hope that everyone, everywhere, will always love what we commit to paper. Both extremes sound foolish, but I think most writers fluctuate from one end of that spectrum to the other. It’s difficult to find your way to the reality between those extremes.

    I think that what often messes up our own valuing system is the prevailing capitalist paradigm, which throws a kind of business viability model into our minds. Asking us to determine our motivation, commitment and success through charted achievement criteria. At the other end of that spectrum is the entirely abstract sense that whatever we write is great as long as we’re writing. The difficult space between is what we all negotiate for ourselves. Aspiring, emerging or established are probably just points on the compass for that daily journey.

    • Alec, I know I am a writer. I define a writer as someone who writes as their primary occupation, but I’d go further than that and say someone who writes cannot exist without their writing. Whether or not the publishing industry decides to publish me is beside the point – this is who I am.

      But yes, I am a little annoyed with the capitalist paradigm of the publishing world. Lately I feel like it’s almost as if journals are publishing the same people over and over because so and so journal had so and so write for them and so we should have them in our journal etc etc. Nobody is willing to take a punt. I guess I’ve come to realise that what I’m waiting for as an aspiring writer is someone to take a punt on me. Anyway, I’ll keep going until someone does.

  6. Love this advice – and I would add to the ‘expect to be rejected’ one – BUILD RESILIENCE. Sometimes it takes me weeks to get over a rejection (for heaven’s sake I need to get over myself!) I liken it to the performing arts – you have to develop a really thick skin to succeed. There are a lot of talented people out there. It’s the stayers who will get there in the end.
    Oh – and read. Writers used to ‘emerge’ from literary studies not professional writing courses. Writers learnt the craft of writing through reading and studying other’s work. A book you love is great for inspiration too.

      • Unfortunately the TAFE courses seem to lack this component. I’d very much like to study such a subject, but do take it upon myself to read as much as I can.

  7. I had to laugh because I started reading this when I was listening to 50 Cent’s ‘Ayo Technology': ‘I’m so tired of using technology.’

    American writer Wells Tower has a fiction desk and a non-fiction desk — the fiction one doesn’t have an internet connection.

  8. I like the ‘read’ one too – I’d also add one that is equally simple: ‘write.’

    It’s the only way to get better at writing I suspect, to write every chance you get. It actually sounds too simple, doesn’t it? But it helps me (I hope) keep improving.

    • Ashley, agreed, with each draft I feel my writing getting better and better.

      Estelle, this is essentially what I was doing in the past working on my laptop with no internet connection. But I’m still always venturing over to my computer to check my email and because of this I don’t get completely in the zone, especially when all that seems to be coming through my inbox is bad news. I think it would work well for an established writer, but as an aspiring writer, it’s de-motivating and distracting.

  9. I completely agree about reading… and beat myself up constantly about not doing enough (even though I probably am). I’m always astounded by how much I learn about writing from reading, and never sure why it comes as such a surprise each time.

    And I also agree that the internet (and mobile phones that allow you to check your email) are evil.

    The only other thing I would add is to remember that writing is hard work and that you’ll probably hate it sometimes — but persistence is worth it!

    As for the labels ‘emerging’ and ‘aspiring’, I have no idea where I fit in. I try not to think about it too much… but thanks for mentioning the distinction — it may come in handy when I’m looking at grants.

  10. Coming from an internet junky and obsessive warhammer nerd, I definately need to switch the interenet off. Or better yet, have a friend take the chord connectong the router to the phone line and have him/her only give it up if I can give them a compelling argument as to why I need it.

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