Percentage of fiction focused events at:
* Sydney Writers’ Festival 2019 – 34%
* Melbourne Writers Festival 2019 – 19%
* Canberra Writers Festival 2019 – less than 10%
— Andrew Hutchinson (@adhutchinson) July 14, 2019
That raised a few questions over what this means, whether such matters, and what, exactly, my point might be.
There are a couple of things. For one, as someone who’s interested in literature and writers, I look forward to the release of these programs to see if there’s anyone worth heading along to hear. I was disappointed with the line-ups of both events, largely because of the low representation of any authors I might be interested in – though many others, it’s worth noting, have praised the programs. Worth noting, too: MWF director Marieke Hardy, now in her second year, lead a significant increase in revenue for the event in 2018.
As a literary fan, I dislike the trend away from fiction authors, given there are seemingly fewer and fewer opportunities to hear them speak, but I do also get the financial perspective, the business side of such planning.
But the other issue I have is more pressing – with fewer outlets for fiction writers to generate exposure for their work, I feel like we’re losing a significant opportunity, which could have a much larger cultural impact over time, as our next generation of authors miss out on connection with writers and work that may help them find their own voice.
Of course, literary ‘voice’ is a bit of a fluffy concept – finding your voice is never really a clearly defined process. But I’ll give you an example within this context – as much as I was good at English and literature when I was in school, I was never taken by the assigned books on the curriculum, and I never really found stories and/or authors that I truly connected with till after I started reading for pleasure more consistently, after I’d left the school system.
Through the authors I found – many via events, festivals, bookshops – I was able to discover writing styles that I connected with, that I wanted to write like myself, which then inspired me to try my hand at creating my own works.
A significant part of this comes down to basic exposure – and as noted, there are many authors I’ve come across because they’ve been speaking at events, broadening my literary input and helping me find more of what I like. It’s important to also note that I didn’t go to see every one of these authors speak, but simply having them featured on the bill, seeing them interviewed as part of the lead-up – all of the periphery exposure that comes in addition to being part of a writing festival, particularly one of the majors, helps to connect more people to more authors, and as more and more bookshops close down, and the opportunities for such reduce, authors, arguably more than ever, need that extra push wherever possible.
Excluding fiction authors from a writers festival is a major blow – and again, I do understand the commercial obligations, and the festivals that do receive government funding, and, you would assume, have more of an obligation to promote the arts do feature more fiction writers.
But it feels like a lost opportunity. In some cases, some of the festival events feature whole sessions where none of the speakers or hosts are primarily known for their writing – which, to me, misses the entire point of a writers festival (call it a ‘festival of ideas’ or something if you’re no longer going to focus on actual writing).
Festival directors need to make money. But then again, authors do too. The less opportunity for exposure, the less they’re able to do so, which is another component to the whole chain in lessening cultural impact. In essence, as the balance of power in the Australian book marketplace shifts towards commercial content – and away from literary expression – we also run increased risk of failing to help our next generation of authors find their voice.
Who’s the next Christos Tsiolkas? The Next Richard Flanagan? Right now, I’d say we don’t clearly have another shining literary light coming through – and the way we’re going, maybe we won’t see such anymore at all, and definitely not at the same rate we have in the past.
It’s only one indicator, and there are other signs of positive activity within the fiction space overall. But it’s a concern that writers festivals are increasingly moving away from actual writers, and therefore, the sharing of discussion and exposure around the same.
“Clearness is the most important quality of writing but it’s the most overlooked. People think being complicated or ambitious is the most important part of writing, but the mind is so raw and complicated itself that being clearer will always create a greater depth of complexity. It never leads to reductiveness.”
Dear old Katriece. Stupid ol’ Katriece. Always falling for the next scheme, the next shining lure and swindle.
She knew what they said about her. Dopey ol’, no hope Katriece. She knew what they said. She’d heard them say it, not to her face, of course, but behind her back, when they didn’t know she was listening. She’d heard them at dinner parties and at family gatherings. ‘Oh, Katriece,’ they’d say. ‘When’s she gonna’ twig? When’s the other shoe gonna’ drop? When’s she gonna’ realize?’
She did realize. She wasn’t stupid. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes people don’t go as you expect.
Stupid ol’ Katriece. She was pretty, once. She could have had any boy in high school, don’t you know? She could have married up, bought a house. It didn’t have to be this way. She just made the wrong choices, fumbled down the wrong paths.
She’ll be fine. She’ll work it out. She just needs to get back on her feet. You’ll see.
She’ll work it out.
She’d heard them say it. It’s not like they were discreet about it. But what did they know anyway? Oh, your life’s so perfect, Melissa? Your husband messages me, saying ‘hey, what you up to?’ Late at night when he’s drunk. You don’t know that. You’ve got it all worked out, haven’t you? You don’t even know.
Here’s what happened this time: Stupid ol’ Katriece invited all of her stupid friends over for a dumb showcase party for her dopey new business. This was selling make-up, lipstick mostly. You sign-up for a franchise and you work for yourself, and Katriece signed right on up, took it on. She promoted it to all her friends and her followers online, and they turned up, and they listened. And they smiled their fucking asses off, drinking her wine and eating biscuits and fucking cheese. They nodded and smeared lipsticks across their skin, and then when Katriece left the room, just for a second, just for a minute, that’s when it started. She could hear what they were saying. She wasn’t fucking deaf.
In the next room, Katriece leaned up against the wall and listened to them. As they tore her apart. Stupid ol’ Katriece.
She means well. At least she’s trying.
Is she still living with her Mum?
She listened, to every word of it. She’d heard it all before. She knew what those smiling faced held in, their masks slipping away to reveal the worms infesting their swollen bodies. She knew it. Katriece listened in.
At least she’s got something going on now. Remember when she had that breakdown? Remember that?
Katriece listened to it all, every syllable vibrating through her soft bones.
So what does she do? She smiles. She stands tall. She feels the stiffened make-up covering over that pimple on her left cheek. She stands tall and walks upright and Katriece re-enters the room and looks across all of their worm-filled faces. Their synthetic smiles staring back, the colours painted over their pores.
Katriece smiles at them, then she shows them her products. Her own boss. In control of her own destiny. Reporting to no one. Bossbabe. Stupid ol’ Katriece, she swallows it all, gulps it all down into the depths, where it gathers together in her stomach, congeals into a mass, a tumor that’s going to eventually choke her to death. She swallows it, and she stands tall and she holds herself upright before them. A real life voodoo doll, pierced by their stares. She knows them. She knows what they think.
Katriece thanks them for coming, shakes their hands. Hugs, kisses. Because what else is there? What the fuck else do you do here?
She shuts the door behind the last of them – her Mum’s house, not hers – and she holds the cold metal of the handle as she leans forward and touches her head onto the painted wood. As she feels her joints coming apart beneath her skin.
Oh my God. You wouldn’t believe the shit they said.
Language, Katriece’s Mum says.
Oh my God, Katriece tells her. I’m a fucking joke to them.
No, you don’t get it. They tore me apart, they trashed me completely. Nothing’s ever good enough, is it?
Take a Valium.
I don’t want to take a pill, Mum.
You might need it.
They think I’m a joke, Mum. I’m a joke to them.
You’re not a joke.
Katriece sits down at the table. She’s huffing, staring at the patterns in the wood surface. She shakes her head.
I’m just trying to make something of myself.
Katriece shifts her gaze to her Mum.
You think it too, don’t you?
No, you think it too. I can tell by your voice.
I’ve always been a disappointment, haven’t I Mum? I’ve always been a failure. You wish I’d gone to uni and become a doctor or something.
No I don’t.
Why not? Am I too stupid for that? Is that what you think?
You can be anything you want.
No I can’t, Mum.
Katriece taps at the table. Her fresh painted pink nails drumming on the wood.
I can’t, Mum.
The tears build up, catch in Katriece’s long lashes.
I’m a failure, Mum.
No. You just haven’t found your thing yet.
Katriece looks around the kitchen. The house is fairly new, still smells of paint and varnish. The sunlight heats in through the window above the sink.
I’m sorry, Mum.
I’m sorry for failing you.
No. Please don’t.
Katriece looks out to the sky, the clouds against the blue.
I’m gonna’ go.
I’m gonna’ go.
Katriece stands from the table and leaves the room. Her mother watches her, her hands and fingers wrapped round the curve of her tea cup. She hears the front door slam, then she waits.
She looks to the floor. Her daughters’ shoe prints marked across the polished wood.
There’s this bar, this dirty bar that they all used to go to when they were in high school, where everyone went. She hadn’t been there for years, but fuck it, why not?
Why not? Katriece thinks as she drives along with no destination in mind. Funny Ol’ Katriece, still hanging out in the same bars as she used to.
It was different now, the bar. It was quieter for one, and empty. It was early, of course, a lot earlier than when they used to come here. But it was dead. It was dead quiet.
Katriece sits on a bar stool alongside the bar and she looks all around, remembering things that once were. The colours of the bottles, the thump of the music. Forceful kisses with too much tongue and cigarette aftertaste. She remembers this place. Katriece runs her hand along the smooth wood surface.
What can I get for you? The bartender asks.
Oh, sorry, Katriece says. Was totally zoning out. Um, can I just get a beer?
Yep. On tap or from the selection?
Oh, just the tap, the normal.
Okay. Did you want the Lionheart or the Mountain Range?
Katriece narrows her eyes as she ponders the question.
I don’t really know. Whatever you think?
She smiles to the bartender, a young man with a thick, dark beard, wearing a dark coloured apron over a buttoned up white shirt. The bartender smiles back, then he takes a glass and fills it from the tap.
My God. My God. Katriece runs her hand over her tied back hair, stiff with hair spray. My God.
The bartender places her drink in front of her. She hands a ten dollar note across to him.
Keep the change.
Katriece rests her hand onto the bar, then she looks down at her skin. The knuckles sunken in, the tendons flexing. The little lines all across. This is me, she thinks. This is me now.
She takes a sip of her beer from the chilled glass.
It’s only later that she notices.
Two beers in, sunlight reaching through the wall of windows at the front. It’s only then that she realizes she knows him. The man across the way, sitting alone at a booth over in the corner. She knows him.
Given any other time, she’d make a mental note of it and move on, but two beers in, Katriece knows this man, and she decides to go tell him, to go talk to this person. To see how he’s been. She hasn’t seen him in years.
The man looks up, startled by the sound. He squints up at Katriece from beneath the dim light directly above the table.
Derek, it’s me, Katriece. Do you remember me? From school.
The man shuts his eyes tight, moves through his memory.
Yeah. From school. Do you remember?
Katriece stumbles back on her heels slightly.
Yes, the man says. Yes. Katriece.
Katriece slides into the opposite side of the booth, falls into the seat.
Oop- little clumsy.
The man watches her, his eyes narrowed. She straightens herself and her drink and its cardboard coaster beneath it, then she looks across the table to the man.
Derek? She asks.
You remember me right?
Stupid ol’ Katriece. She’s made a fool of herself again. The room feels as if it’s expanding all around.
Oh, she says. I’m sorry.
Katriece goes to move.
Wait, Derek says. Just wait. He closes his eyes.
Katriece, he says.
He nods, then he opens his eyes.
I remember now.
The first thing is, Derek smells. She can smell him in detail, the notes of alcohol and body odour, the hint of damp clothes. The years have been harsh for Derek, already wrinkled in. Scars from acne healed into craters, pores gleaming with sweat. Dark hair, grey along the roots. Cheeks weighed down with sadness. The years have been harsh for Derek.
So what have you been up to? Katriece asks.
Like, since school, what have you been doing?
Katriece laughs. Derek takes a sip of whatever he has in the cloudy glass in front of him.
It’s weird seeing you here, she tells him. What are the chances?
Pretty good odds, Derek says. Pretty good.
He leans back into his seat, slouches down against it.
I’d take that bet, you know? He tells her.
Katriece sips at her beer. She looks over Derek’s worn hands, the dirt clogged beneath the thick slivers along the edges of his fingernails.
Do you still see anyone from school? She asks him.
Why are you asking me about school? That was a lifetime ago.
I know, right? It feels like so…
Then Derek sits up and leans forward onto the table.
Fucking school. Fuck those fuckers at school. They don’t know shit.
Katriece looks around, checks if anyone is looking at them. She smooths her hand over her stiffened hair.
Okay, she says to him. Hey, are you okay?
Katriece from school, he says. Thank you for stopping by.
Katriece looks around again, then she goes to slide out from the booth, grabs her drink.
Do you know? He says. That all that shit they talk about isn’t true?
Katriece pauses. The chill of the glass inside her hand.
The things, the pictures they put up, where they’re all smiling and happy and they look so successful. All of that’s not true.
Katriece rests her glass onto the wood again, settles back into the seat.
The people from school, where we used to go. They’re not what they say.
Really? Katriece asks. She angles further back into the booth.
Really, Derek says.
What do you mean?
I mean, the things they say. They always show these pictures and talk about their holidays and all the money they have, their perfect fucking kids.
Derek shakes his head.
It’s not true.
What do you mean?
It’s not true is what I mean, Derek says, getting louder. They just pull those things out from the mess, they pluck them out of the shit and then they wash them all off and they send them out. Derek fans a hand up through the air.
Katriece runs through the images of friends, former classmates in her head.
Why do you say that? Katriece asks.
Because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen them for myself. I know.
Derek shakes his head again.
I know that shit.
He takes a drink.
Those bitches, Katriece thinks. Those worm-faced mask women sitting on her couch. Those liars. What makes them so special?
I can show you, Derek says.
He leans back from the table. The light from above highlights the gaps in his thinning hair.
I can prove what I’m saying.
Dog drunk, driving in the wet night is not a good prospect, but fuck it. Fuck it all. Derek’s car out in the car park is scratched up and clapped out and Katriece notices two child seats strapped in behind the back windows.
Hey, Katriece says. Have you got kids?
The seats. Katriece points to them.
Derek waves her off.
Don’t worry about that, let’s just get going.
They shut the doors and move to pull the seatbelts across, and for a moment, their faces are right up close to each other. She stares him in the eye.
None of that, Derek says.
I don’t have any need for that.
Katriece clips in her seatbelt and sits up in her seat. She flips down the visor to check herself in the mirror as Derek starts the car.
Now, he says. Before we go into this, I need to know that you’re committed to the task.
Katriece looks to him, then the world takes a moment to re-frame itself, catch-up in her view.
First, you need to take this.
Derek opens his hand to her. There are two yellow ovals of pills stranded in the centre of his palm.
Don’t ask, just take it.
Well I need to know what I’m taking.
It doesn’t matter, the important thing is that we stay high. We come down and we’ll realize what the hell we’re doing and where the hell we are, then everything falls apart. We stay high, you got that?
Fucking Katriece, stupid Katriece. Of course, she takes the pills. She swills up spit to soften their journey down her throat.
Derek watches her, smiling. His glossy eyes glint in the streetlight.
Now let’s go, he says.
The car bumps too hard over the curb side, and out into traffic.
You wouldn’t believe it, you’d think they would never make it. The car stumbling along through evening traffic, switching across lanes, flashing beneath traffic lights. They should have never made it.
Their destination is a house in the suburbs, a quiet street in a new housing estate. It’s dark out, and the lights are on above the streets and inside the houses, and they drive along and pull into a driveway, behind another car already parked. Derek turns the engine off and then the headlights and Katriece lets go of her seatbelt, the pattern of it indented into her palm.
Derek leans forward. He twists his head to fit over the steering wheel, peek out.
Here we are, he says. Let’s go pay a visit.
Who’s house is this?
Derek opens the car door.
They knock on the front door, both of them wavering like reeds in the darkness. The outside light isn’t on. The house is not expecting visitors.
A light flicks on above them, squinting them away, then the door opens up. A man with red hair and a red beard looks out at them through a screen door.
Pete. Derek raises his arms. It’s me, come to visit.
The man looks to Katriece, who’s standing just behind Derek.
Head churning like rocks being dragged over concrete, muscles melting away beneath the thickness of her skin. She looks at the man inside the house again. She re-focuses on his features.
Peter? She says.
Katriece, I haven’t seen you in years.
Pete looks to Derek, who’s smiling, eyes closed beneath the bug-clustered light.
What are you doing here?
Do you live here? She asks.
Yes he lives here, Derek says. Let us in, Pete, come on.
Peter opens the screen door, nostrils twitching from the tang of alcohol. He holds the door for the two of them to come through.
Peter’s house is polished wood floors and white everywhere, and he leads them through into the lounge. A large, cream-colored couch sits bent before a huge TV screen.
Take a seat, Pete says. Can I get you anything to drink?
No, no, Derek tells him. But something to eat. We haven’t had any dinner, you know.
Oh, Pete says. I’m not sure we…
Ah, I’m kidding, Derek laughs.
Katriece sits down onto the couch and it feels like the room is moving. It feels like a memory of the sea, the waves nudging by. The couch fabric feels kind, rolling across her palm.
A woman comes in, looks over the two of them. The woman has short, bleached white hair, tied back, so that the dark roots are showing. She has big, dark eyes and she’s wearing a tank top. Katriece notices the outline of her nipples pushing onto the fabric. The woman smiles with her mouth closed, holds up a hand.
Oh, Katriece, this is my wife Louise, Peter says. Katriece and I went to school together.
The woman looks at Peter.
Pete, you need to keep it down, I just got them to sleep.
Yes, yes, Peter nods.
We’ll be quiet, Derek whispers. Derek puts a finger to his lips. Louise throws Derek a glance, then Peter. Then she leaves the room.
Peter sits down onto the end of the couch, the opposite end to Katriece. Derek’s sitting in a beanbag now, up beside the TV.
Peter nods, then laughs.
Louise comes back into the room and hands Peter a bottle of beer, holds a glass of water for herself. She sits down beside Peter on the couch.
This is your house, Katriece says.
Yep, yeah, Peter responds. We’ve got a few things to do to finish it, but it’s coming along.
It’s lovely, Katriece says.
Thank you, Louise replies. We were very lucky to get a place in this area.
Then silence. Derek watches, reclined into the beanbag.
So, Katriece, what have you been doing with yourself? Peter asks.
Oh, she replies, and then the instinct kicks in, flicks into presentation mode.
Well, I run my own business, selling make-up. I have my own line that I promote.
Louise raises her eyebrows, nods politely.
I’m looking to hire some new people next year. Just building slowly.
Katriece can feel herself sitting up straighter, her face constricting into a smile. She knows this. This is what she does. Then she stops. Katriece drops her head. She looks at her hand, the veins and lines and tendons in the light.
Actually, Katriece says. That’s not true.
She looks up, looks across to Peter and Louise.
Actually, I don’t make any money. I might. I have a lot to sell. Some people are interested. But I don’t sell anything much yet. It’s really hard to get started, you know?
Katriece stares at the couple, sitting together on their couch. Till they blur into shapes in her view. An abstract form beneath the downlights.
Actually, I live with my Mum. I still live at home and I’m not doing anything and not going anywhere. Katriece’s stare fades, drifts across. But if I don’t do it, if I don’t try something, then what do I have, you know? Then what am I?
Katriece stares into the blur, the void of shapes. Into nothing.
You’re still pretty, Derek says, and Katriece looks to him.
But that’s not why we’re here, Derek says. Pete, he says, tell Katriece about your life.
What do you mean? Peter asks.
Louise is now holding his hand, her fingers wrapped over his.
Tell Katriece about how all this, this house, this life, tell her how its bullshit.
You know what I mean. You told me.
Louise looks to Peter.
Told you what, Derek? Peter asks.
You said how… Derek takes in a deep breath, leans his head back onto the bean bag.
You said how you hate your life sometimes. Your wife, your kids. You said how you feel trapped.
Louise is staring at Peter now. Staring through his skull.
I didn’t say that.
Yes you did. When you came out with us.
Did you say that? Louise asks.
No, Peter shakes his head. No. Why would I say that?
I knew it. Louise sits up from the couch. I fucking knew it.
Then Louise slaps Peter’s face, and when she does it, you can see that she’s pushing her teeth together inside her mouth, that she’s trying all she can. The sound claps off the white walls, then Louise stands up from the couch and leaves the room, her head up, her footsteps thumping.
Peter stands up just after. He touches at his red cheek.
Fuck you, Derek, he says. Just cause your life is fucked, just cause you can’t stand to go home and face your wife and kids, you don’t need to drag everyone else down with you.
A door slams further back inside the house. A child starts crying.
Fuck, Peter yells. Get out Derek.
Derek leans forward, then falls back into the beanbag, then he leans forward again. Peter pulls him up.
Fucking get up, get out.
Katriece stands up too, steps forward. She keeps her eyes away from Peter as she moves by.
Katriece and Derek stumble out onto the front porch and the front door slams behind them. The crying inside, the yelling, muffled behind the brick walls.
Then the outside light switches off, dropping them into darkness, and the cold of the night chills through. The wind rushing along the street.
The two of them drop back into Derek’s car and Derek sits behind the wheel. Watching the house. Watching. His face is stalled in a drunken stupor.
Behind the blinds, someone, something is moving inside. The shadows flashing across. Katriece watches them, then she watches Derek. Smiling. Eyes reflecting the glimpse of moonlight.
Is that true what he said? Katriece asks. About you being afraid to go face your family?
Derek’s eyes drop and he looks away. He looks down at his legs, feels at his pocket for his keys.
Now, I don’t see what the fuck that matters, Derek says.
He starts the car. The dashboard lights shadow his features like a campfire.
I don’t see what difference that makes, Derek says.
Main image via Pexels
One of the biggest key challenges in modern publishing is raising awareness of your book – which basically boils down to simply getting people to know that it even exists.
It seems like this shouldn’t be such a hurdle, but publishing industry stats indicate that awareness is a critical factor in selling your work, and that it’s also an element which is becoming increasingly more challenging over time.
For example, over the past decade, many smaller, independent bookstores have been forced to close due to pressure from online providers, and larger retail chains forcing them out of the market.
Indeed, according to stats from Macquarie University’s Australian book industry study (published in 2016), large chain stores like Big W, Dymocks and QBD dominate the Australian bookselling landscape, with independent booksellers now only making up around 27% of total book sales.
That makes logical sense, given their scale and presence, but larger chains stores are also more driven by market factors – i.e. commercial fiction gets priority, and other literary works lose out.
The summary outcome is that it’s now harder than ever to even build that initial awareness of a book by a new author or a literary fiction work – if it doesn’t fit into the genres preferred by the large chains, you’re already starting on the back foot, as your outlets for potential stockists, and their subsequent influence on word of mouth, is simply less than what it used to be.
That’s likely contributing to the decline in sales of lit fic. The same Macquarie University study mentioned above also found that literary fiction is now the least popular book category in Australia.
As reported by The Australian:
“The most popular genre is crime, mystery and thriller novels, followed by biography and memoir, cookbooks and historical fiction. A minority of readers, 48%, say they are interested in literary fiction, but here’s the knockout number: only 15% actually read it.”
There are various arguments around why this is, exactly, but it may well come down to the exposure, and the lack of available opportunities to get your work in front of potential readers.
That also influences larger reading trends over time. If readers are only being exposed to certain types of work, that will be reflected in the subsequent content they create, which will lead to a new wave of authors coming through being funneled into genre fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – getting people to read at all is good, and rewarding genre writers for their efforts is also a net positive, both for the authors themselves and the wider industry. But it may also be impacting the diversity of our literary landscape over time, leaving us with a lesser reflection of modern Australian society through our art, and fewer great Australian authors being discovered or getting their ‘big break’ because the financials simply don’t add up.
It’s logical, of course, there’s no argument against this, but the declining interest in literary fiction does pose longer-term challenges, which will have impacts stemming into future generations. That doesn’t mean that publishers should be just throwing money at ideas in the hope that some stick either (though, essentially, that’s often what literary publishing boils down to), but it does beg the question of what can be done to preserve our cultural identity through the literary arts, in order to maintain and build upon our broader cultural landscape.
There’s a place for all kinds of fiction, and while commercial realities will dictate the outcomes in every market sector, in the arts, there’s also a need for balance. And that balance, given the reduced opportunities of exposure, is seemingly being shifted too far into one direction.
There are no easy answers on how to fix this, but it remains a salient point – if you want to maximize your opportunities as an author, you need to be thinking about how you can spread the word, how you can raise awareness, and how to build your profile to reach the largest amount of potential readers.
Traditional marketing and outreach programs simply don’t have the same reach and impact they once did – it’s become an obligation for all authors to think about how they, personally, can expand their messaging and build interest in their work. Because fewer people are going to simply come across your work in bookstores, fewer readers are going to hear about your work from a friend – your exposure potential is not what it used to be.
So your outreach planning and strategy also needs to evolve in-step.
Main image via Max Pixel
An old man had pulled up in his car outside the shop. We could see him through the front window, parked out beside the petrol pump. Sitting in behind his steering wheel. The old man was alone. His car was an old, boxy Ford, shaded with dust and rusted through in little patches. He sat there, staring over the wheel, looking through his glasses. He sat there for a long time.
‘Are you alright, mate?’ My Dad asked. First, Dad tapped on the drivers’ side window and the old man flickered to life and looked up and he wound down the window just a bit. The old man stared up, eyes like a puppy, looking out to my Dad.
‘Yes, yes, fine,’ the old man told him.
‘Well, you’ve been here for a while, mate. Do you need some help or something?’
‘No no,’ the old man raised a hand as he turned his head. ‘I’m okay, thank you.’
Then the old man settled back into his seat, looking on ahead. In the front seat, Dad told me later, there were all sorts of plastic drink bottles, both empty and full, all littered about the place.
Dad let the man sit there for a moment, just watched from beside the car. Dad looked up the road ahead. There was nothing there, nothing to see. The road and the trees and the yellow grass beneath the sunlight.
‘Do you wanna come in for a bit?’ Dad asked, his voice reaching in through the still wound down window. The old man looked down a bit, dropped his head, then he looked back up through the windscreen.
‘Okay,’ the old man said.
He unclipped his seatbelt and opened the car door, stiff and creaking, then he hefted himself out onto the crushed stone of the car park.
He came into our shop, the old man. I remember that he was wearing a brown cardigan that was so thin you could see straight through it, a sky blue shirt underneath. Old-style dress pants with folded lines along the middle, brown leather shoes, the tops of them worn away like callouses round their curves and edges. The old man had white hair that flailed out at the back, thinned into sprouts and dots on top. I don’t know how old he was, but I’d guess in his eighties.
He shuffled along the linoleum floor, a slight hunch. He moved with the grace of a fridge being shifted by a single person.
The old man came out into the back room and sat on a chair by our table, the surface of it covered in papers and lolly wrappers, crayons and pictures that had been left by my little sister. The man let out a breath as the chair took up his weight, leaned his head back. He looked tired, sun-worn. The gaps in his hair shined with sweat.
Dad gave him a cup of tea and the old man sat and looked around, staring out through his thick glasses, squinting to see.
‘You been on a big drive, mate?’ Dad asked.
‘The longest I’ve ever been done.’
‘Really?’ Dad sat down at the table too. There was no one in the shop. It was a quiet time of the day.
‘Yes. I’m taking a drive up the coast.’
‘Okay. How you going with it so far?’
‘It’s okay,’ the old man told Dad. ‘It’s a lot of quiet, there’s a lot of quiet periods with not much to see.’
‘Yeah,’ Dad said. ‘A lot of paddocks.’
The old man was still looking around, looking behind himself, at the brick wall, the calendar on it.
‘Are you going okay?’ Dad asked.
‘Okay, yes,’ the old man said. ‘Just…’ The old man turned to look at Dad. ‘I’m not sure where I am right now.’
‘Oh,’ Dad said. ‘So you’re lost?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Well, I guess you are then, hey?’ Dad laughed. The old man showed no response.
‘I’m not as good with maps. My wife did the maps, you know?
‘Where’s she then?’
‘She died. Some years back.’
‘Oh,’ Dad said. ‘Sorry to hear that.’
‘She died, then the dog passed away last week. Then I decided to go for a drive, go see the coast, you know?’
‘Okay,’ Dad said. ‘Wow, that’s a lot to take on. Really sorry about your wife, and your dog.’
‘I couldn’t go before,’ the old man said. ‘Because who would feed the dog?’ He looked at Dad.
‘Yep, no. I don’t know, mate.’
The old man bowed his head a moment. And when he lifted his face again, his eyes glistened beneath the overhead light. He was crying.
‘Well,’ the old man leaned forward, a hand on his knee. ‘Time to get moving.’
‘Hey, no, it’s okay,’ Dad raised a hand. ‘It’s fine, just stay here a bit, just rest a moment.’
‘No no,’ the old man said. ‘I need to crack on.’ The man stood up, arched his back up slow.
‘Well, where are you headed, mate? I can help you with directions.’
‘That’s the thing,’ the old man smiled. ‘I don’t really know.’
The old man shuffled back across the shop floor, in front of the shelves of biscuits and pasta and canned soup. He stepped carefully down the concrete steps, then he moved across to his car. He eased himself in, a steadying hand on the metal frame.
‘Really,’ Dad told the man. Dad was holding the door open, helping him get in. ‘I’d rather you stayed for a bit.’ The old man settled into his seat, shuffling across. ‘Is there someone we can call for you?’
‘No, no one to call,’ the old man said. ‘I’m fine. Just need to get back on the road.’
‘Well mate, if you need anything, just come back, alright? Do you have a phone or something?’
‘No,’ the old man pulled his door shut, the slightly open window quivering in its frame as he did. ‘Time to get going,’ the old man said.
The old Ford rattled across the car park and out onto the road, the old man’s head hidden behind the headrest, which I could see through the back window, shadowed beneath the sunlight. Dad and me stood out in the heat of the day, watching him leave. The red lights of the car blinking on as he approached the curve. Then he was gone.
Sometimes I wonder about the old man. Who lost his wife, lost his dog. Sometimes I wonder where he ended up next, where his travels took him.
Sometimes I think about him, when I consider what it is to be in love. And how the beings that have your heart eventually become your home.
Main image via Good Free Photos.
After watching the Netflix series ‘The Umbrella Academy’, I was inspired, for the first time in a long time, to go check out the original comic books of the same name. Written by Gerard Way, and illustrated by Gabriel Ba, both of whom have storied histories of vastly different backgrounds, it’s been interesting to take a moment to drift back into the comic book world and get that surge of nostalgia and recognition – even if the modern comic universe looks almost nothing like the one I knew when I was a kid.
What’s been most interesting, from a writing perspective, is analysing the stories from a more mature viewpoint. The first thing? Comic book narratives are unlike anything else, and it’s almost impossible to compare them, for the most part, to any other form.
Yet at the same time, these narratives were part of what lead me to being a writer. I was hugely into comics between the ages of 11 and 14, and while I couldn’t understand the moral complexity of the stories, the narrative style definitely had some impact, at least early on, as to how I approached writing.
That was then refined by novels and screenplays, so it’s hard to say what elements stuck with me, if any. But in particular, it has been interesting to note just how much is left up to your imagination in comic books, how you’re only getting a brief snapshot of this whole other world, and whatever else is going on is only alluded to between the lines.
That lends itself to the writing style I prefer, in minimalism, which puts increased onus on the reader to connect the dots. That, to me, is a more engaging style, as it demands attention and lets you piece things together a bit more than a descriptive, prescriptive style, which is what most genre work caters to. In Umbrella Academy, the main storylines are actually very brief, but you can imagine the lives of these characters and the worlds they live in outside of the focus narrative, which makes it a more engaging, and dare I say it, obsessive experience for those readers who connect with the work.
You can see why comic book fans are so passionate, they’ve been asked to invest a lot of themselves and their own imagination into these characters and worlds, which is what keeps them coming back. Because it becomes part of them – each person’s vision of each world is unique to them, which helps solidify their relationship. It’s also likely why comic book fans get so upset when a film adaptation veers from what they know, from the rules that have been established within the lore of the source work.
Of course, there are longer form comic books – graphic novels and the like – which more closely align with a traditional Hero’s Journey type narrative structure. I’ve checked out some of those over the years (did you know that Chuck Palahniuk’s two Fight Club sequels are both available in graphic novel form?), but they’ve always felt, to me, like a hybrid form that straddles the line a little too much, which has left them, in my mind, less satisfactory. But the traditional comic format will always have a place in my heart, getting small insights into these worlds one episode at a time. Writing such is a dedicated skill within itelf.
It’s been interesting to note why that is, and what engagement elements work best within the format, which may help to inform other writing approaches.
Two simple pointers to help you improve your fiction writing are:
- Avoid flat description
- Eliminate unnecessary adverbs
The first point is fairly obvious – your writing will be more mentally engaging if you can add more to your descriptions, and provide context, as opposed to instruction.
Here’s a basic example – in a recent short story I wrote, the first line was originally:
“When I was sixteen, I had this girlfriend, and one day she didn’t want to go home.”
That’s not so bad, but it’s fairly basic, right? I’m telling the reader, straight up, that ‘I was sixteen’. That, to me, is flat description, and I think there’s always a better way to communicate such detail.
On my second edit, I changed it to:
“Back before I was old enough to drive, I had this girlfriend, and one day she didn’t want to go home.”
That’s a small change – going from a direct age reference to an experiential one may seem like nothing. But reading both examples back, the latter is more engaging – it’s active and prompts a recollection, it engages a little more of your brain than just reading a summary detail.
Subtle changes like this can add significantly more depth to your work, and invite the readers to invest more of themselves, and their own experiences, into the story, which can help bring it to life. Reading a flat description doesn’t do the same, and it’s a fairly easy element to correct.
By pushing yourself to think of a more engaging description, as opposed to relying on prescriptive detail, you add more creativity to your work, and offer more ways for your readers to connect.
The second element to be wary of is unnecessary adverbs – words like ‘quickly’, ‘sleepily’, ‘sadly’, ‘hurriedly’ etc. There’s likely a better, more engaging way to say the same thing, normally within the surrounding context – when you go to use an adverb like this, it’s an opportunity to consider whether you could add in extra description, a more visceral reference, it there’s another way to add depth to your work.
“He moved quickly across the room and hurriedly scrambled with the lock”
“He rushed across the room and clawed at the lock, as if it was hot, burning at his fingertips”
That’s an average example, but it illustrates the point – instead of relying on simplistic description, it’s an opportunity to provide a simile, a way for the reader to ‘see’ what you do, as opposed to simple noting the detail.
These rules, of course, are not definitive, and your capacity to judge when, and how, to apply them will be what truly separates your writing (which is why teaching creative writing is difficult). But they are some additional points to consider, which may help you improve your description and context, and build more engaging scenarios with your words.
As per Maguire’s speech (re-printed in The Guardian):
“When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.”
No doubt you’ve experienced the same – some books are serious, others not so much, and if you were really serious about literature, you wouldn’t waste your time on the latter.
Maguire’s focus was more related to the dominance of the white male perspective in ‘the right books’, but the point relates to all reading, and writing, more broadly. No one can truly say what the ‘right’ books are, nor define, in absolute terms, what literary merit is. Sure, there are certain elements that I would argue are relative to what I consider literature to be, but they may not definitively be correct. What I look for in a book is likely very different to what someone else seeks – and that’s really what’s most important, that you find the work that speaks to you, which aligns with what you want to read, when you want to read it.
Some people read to educate themselves, some for pure pleasure, others for both. Some look for realism, some escapism – as a writer, the key point of reading as widely as possible, in my opinion, lies in finding writing that sticks with you, that catches in your soul and ignites your own thinking, connecting with you on a deeper level than the mere words alone. And that, really, can be anything.
Of course, if you want to actually be a writer who sells books, there are certain commercial realities, but those can and do shift, things change in the marketplace, new readers raised on different stories and formats grow up to expect books and movies to do different things. As such, there’s a wide range of readers looking for a diverse variance of stories, which means that rather than trying to enhance your work’s appeal based on a market-defined set of rules or ideas, you’ll likely be better served by simply finding what works for you, what you love to write, and going with that.
Will that guarantee you success? No it won’t, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether your work will connect with readers and find its people. But you have to work with what speaks to you, what feels true to what you want to create. That’s a harder path, in terms of how you then, ideally, go on generate income from the same. But literary culture is made richer through diversity, through the sharing of many perspectives, which enables readers to see things they otherwise would not, and cannot, experience.
If you’re ever stuck thinking about what you should write, how you should write, what works best – go read. Read through many styles, many genres – not hundreds of books from each necessarily, but enough to understand what connects with you and what doesn’t. Absorb what you can, think through it. Then, as you start to connect further with those sentences and stories that spark in your mind, your own prose will eventually start to come clear.
It’s interesting to consider what it takes to become a writer.
It’s a key focus among the questions that people commonly ask – ‘How did you get published?’ ‘What’s your writing process?’ ‘What word processing program do you use?’
As evident by the raft of self-publishing platforms out there, many, many people want to be able to call themselves writers, and want to be able to generate income by doing what they love. And they’re looking for the secret, the magic trick that will transform them from amateur to professional.
But the truth is, there really is no one thing.
Of course, you likely know this, but when I consider what I’ve done, in comparison to others I speak to who haven’t yet seen the same success with their writing efforts, I think the main difference is that I get it down and I send it out.
I’ve always been fairly disciplined in this respect, and good at maintaining a level of writing momentum. Even when my most recent novel slowed me down (significantly), I still kept writing, I kept working on other things. Within that process, I had to really re-assess whether this is what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to keep pushing, and once I had decided that I needed to stay with it, I had to re-arrange my day-to-day scheduled to make time for fiction work.
And eventually, I got it down, and I’ve written a lot more since (in what may come as welcome news for those struggling with a difficult project, once I’d gotten my second book out, and freed my mind of it, I was back into full swing, and I’ve written more in the last 12 months than I had in the previous 5 years).
For me, I feel like that’s been key – having the persistence to get the work done in the first place, then the confidence in it to send it out.
Many aspiring writers I talk to will say that they’ve always wanted to write, but they’ve never had the time. You won’t get anywhere unless you actually do it. Then there are others who would never dream of showing anyone else their stuff – or at least, not until it’s 100% perfect, and that, in many ways, is a noble, logical approach. But at some point, you need to send it out. So what if it gets rejected, or if you don’t hear anything back? At least you’re pushing. At least you’re trying to get to that next stage.
There is also a level of natural ability, and research required. I guess that’s another element which is often overlooked – while you might not necessarily see it, writers are constantly reading in the genres they write in, and in general, they’ve thoroughly studied writing theory and process too. It may not be obvious, but every writer has to do this work – if you want to write and be published, you have to know the market, and you have to understand what works.
Reading what’s out there, and understanding literary analysis is key.
As a basic example, sometimes my wife will be like ‘why don’t you just write some big selling commercial fiction book and set yourself up financially?’ Because I can’t – because in order to do that. I would have to read hundreds of books in that genre, in order to understand the language flows, the tropes, the ways in which to best communicate that type of story. Genre fiction may seem more straight-forward than ‘lit fic’, more formulaic to a degree, but you still have to do the work to make your stuff great. You have to know the style, in and out – you have to read, a lot.
Again, this is what all authors do, and that’s likely why there is no magic pill, no secret tip that can turn you into a published author. Because, for one, there is no set path – there are no prescriptive guides, everyone’s evolution is different. And really, it comes down to work, to your capacity to learn and adapt, to your commitment to understanding your story, your genre, and your ability to connect everything together into a compelling piece of your own.
Maybe, then, that’s the secret. It’s not easy, it’s no shortcut. But the truth is you have to do the work.
Get it down, fix it up, then send it out. Then start on the next thing.