More to Australia than the Opera House: Why I decided to produce an anthology of short stories with Australian settings

Opera House

 

Several years ago, I heard a presentation at the Emerging Writers’ Festival on the importance of place in story. Author Rachael Hennesy was one of several writers on the panel, and she observed that to her, place is personal no matter where you live. She had spent years living in various cities and towns around Australia, and her experience of them was ultimately different from that of others living in the same place. By this, she meant her time in Sydney was in a scuzzy one bedroom student apartment that was still so ridiculously expensive that she had no cash left over to experience any of the luxuries of Sydney living. Compare this experience with a millionaire (of which there are many in Sydney) living on the waterways, or even a middle class white collar worker in the same city. The things they see, the people they interact with, their daily lives are inherently different and this colours the experience and perception of place.

On a personal level, I related to what she was saying. I grew up in Whyalla, a small city in regional South Australia. It’s economy is based on mining, and One Steel (formerly BHP) was the largest employer when I was growing up. I was the daughter of a professional and my parents’ friends, for the most part, were other professionals. We lived in a nice house in a well maintained street, and were basically well and truly middle class. It was only when I went to the local State High School instead of the private catholic one, that I began to understand not all people in Whyalla lived the way my family did. There was a large trust home estate ‘out west’ consisting of utilitarian cement blocks, usually of a cheery prison grey. Lots of my peers at the high school came from these homes, and many of them had different life experiences, aspirations and expectations to me. The way they dressed, the things they got away with (drinking, smoking, wearing metal band t-shirts etc) and their lack of respect for homework would have seen me grounded forever had I tried to act the same way.

I’m not saying one way of life was better than the other, I more than made up for my sheltered goody-goody upbringing once I was in my twenties. Let’s just say I was a late bloomer who is glad her twenties are behind her and she’s comfortably boring and goody-goody again. My point is that in a city of approximately 25 000 people (it’s now less I believe), my Whyalla was so vastly different to other people’s Whyalla. My story and experience of this town is legitimately my own, and yet it won’t resonate with many others who lived just streets away.

All of this is a long winded way of getting to my point, which is this: a good story can be set anywhere. Setting is part of  story, and it will be unique to the teller of the story no matter where the location. Example: Angel and Californication. Both set in LA, both very different versions of LA. Friends and Gossip Girl: both set in New York, both different versions of New York. A Tiger in Eden tells the story of an ex IRA soldier and presents a different Irish world to the one readers experience in the books of Marian Keyes. Ultimately, point of view influences setting, and while you may have the same landmarks and weather, everything else about a place can be different.

I’ve written a book. It’s set in Adelaide, South Australia. Several readers (note I said ‘readers’ not ‘friends’) have given enthusiastic feedback and look forward to seeing the published version. The reality for new authors in this digital age is that the prospect of a traditional book deal is less likely than a digital first imprint. In other words, publishers are more prepared to take a chance on an untested author through an e-book deal with later print copies if demand is high enough, than a traditional ‘straight to the bookstore’ deal.

Here’s where my problem arises. Submission guidelines from many digital publishers state that they prefer an  ‘international setting suitable for a global audience’ (yes that is a quote from one such digital publisher). Reading between the lines, that means if your story is set in Australia, it better be set in Sydney or some stereotyped version of the outback. Melbourne might be OK in some circumstances. But Adelaide? Fuggedaboudit!

This gets my back up. As a reader, I love reading about places I’m unfamiliar with no matter where the physical location, and a new perspective on a place I know well is also great. If the story is good, location should not matter. Why is a lesser known city in a lesser known state of Australia preclusive of my story being acceptable? I mean, all Aussies know there’s far more to Australia than the Sydney Opera House! And that’s what spurned my idea for an anthology of short stories with diverse Australian settings. I would produce it myself with editing assistance from another professional writer pal (Jo South) and get it in all the major e-book stores. To learn the process, I did a course run by digital publishing guru, Emily Craven (http://ebookrevolution.blogspot.com.au/). She makes it look easy-peasy!

I decided against stipulating a theme or genre so the book could showcase all types of stories, so long as they take place in Australia. I wanted the good, the bad, the luxurious, the slums, the rainforests, the incredible drive between Mt Barker and Strathalbyn. Get what I’m saying? Quite simply,  I wanted to show the world that  there’s so much more to Australia than restrictive stereotypes would have international, and even other Australian, readers believe.

So that’s my rant, and that’s why I want to do this. If you have a story you’d like included, I’d love to hear from you. The word limit is between 1 000 – 5 000 words, so that gives you quite a lot of leeway. Let’s show the world that there is so much more to Australia than our lovely Sydney Opera House.

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/wibbles/71160546/”>wilf2</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

How to create fictional characters from scratch – tips from Nick Earls

On Sunday 3 November 2013 (the day my baby girl turned 10 months old!) I attended a workshop on ‘Characters’ presented by bestselling author, Nick Earls (Bachelor Kisses, Zig Zag Street, The Fix, plus about a trillion more) .

The thrust of the workshop was how one goes about creating characters out of thin air, or in Nick’s case, out of props from a sack. His advice was that there’s less magic to the information gathering process than he once thought. Bringing a character into existence is about asking questions such as:

  • Who is the character (male, female, age etc?)
  • Why are they in the scene or story?
  • What do they bring to the story?
  • Why do we like or dislike them?
  • What is the character’s background?
  • Do they have a rival, love interest, pet etc?

Following this, participants were herded into small groups. The presenter had a sack full of props, and each person took one from it. My small group ended up in possession of:

  • WA Performing Arts course guide
  • Sunglasses sponsored by a beer company
  • Miniature disco ball
  • Broken remote control

The next step was to discuss who this character might be and what we could know (make-up) about him or her just from these objects. We had to list ten things about this character. This is what we came up with:

  1. It’s a male in his late 40s.
  2. He teaches performing arts.
  3. His background is in singing and acting, and once, he was quite famous.
  4. The glory days are behind him, and now he spends his nights at a local karaoke bar (that’s the disco ball bit).
  5. As a result of his late boozy nights trying to forget he’s a washed-up has-been, he arrives at work hung-over in his dark sunnies most mornings.
  6. One night after arriving home drunk, he throws the remote control at the wall and smashes it.
  7. He does this because he caught a promo for the new season of Dancing with the Stars, and his one time rival, Markus Twait, is the new host. They started out their careers together.
  8. There’s talk Marcus Twait may be appointed new head of the performing arts school, and our guy (his name is Julian we’ve just decided) will probably lose his job.
  9. Julian can’t lose his job. He won’t be able to afford his booze and karaoke and they’re the only things left giving him pleasure in life.
  10. To hold onto his job and claw back some professional standing, Julian has begun mentoring a stand-out singing student. He thinks if she becomes successful, he’ll get the credit and the school will let him keep his job.

Phew, that’s it! The next bit was to write a short passage in first person POV utilising the information and evoking the voice of the character. Here’s my piece:

Annabel is a star. No fucking doubt about it. The legs, the arse, the face, and most importantly, the voice. I knew it in that first stinking class of the year when she sang Celebration. It’s the same song I make them all sing year after fucking year and for the first time, I actually heard it. I figure any sucker who’ll sing that stinking song as though it matters has got to have stars in their eyes. Some misguided belief that they’ll be the one to make it. The difference with Annabel, is that she will make it. And when she does, I’ll make damn sure she knows who to credit.

                This was me once. A kid who believed the impossible was possible. That out of the thousands of wannabees, I’d be the jerk to make it onto your TV and radio. And I did, so I know what I’m talking about when I say Annabel is a star. I see those greasy haired, greasy faced embryos staring at her. Fantasising they’ve got some chance of ending up in her bed. I won’t have it. I won’t have my beautiful Annabel derailed. I won’t lose my one chance to make it back to the top. She’s last chance station for me.

I could go on from here and develop the story if I wanted to. For this, I’d need to introduce some conflict. Something Julian wants, and an obstacle or obstacles preventing him from obtaining it. Perhaps Annabel falls for one of the greasy haired embryos and stops turning up to class regularly. Julian may have to fight to convince her to stay on the true path. Or maybe Annabel has a rival mentored by Julian’s nemesis. Or maybe Julian’s karaoke and boozing are more of a problem than he’s realised and he can’t help himself, let alone Annabel. Either way, problems must be thrown at this character for him to overcome, or not. That is the essence of story.

If you want to try this exercise yourself, try filling a pillow case with random objects from around the home. Or ask a friend to put together a bunch of props for you. Pull out three or four to group together, and use them to amass information about your character and see where it takes you.

Happy writing.