Your Writing Fitness

About a year ago, without really intending to, I started to get fit. I am a girl with a permanent moontan who has spent a great deal of her life in libraries, so don’t underestimate how unusual it is in my profession to be physically active or outdoorsy. It started with me buying a bicycle, then deciding I was going to ride it to the top of the mountain near my house. It took a few months for me to get all the way to the top (up the easy side), and then another few to make it regularly all the way around, then a few more to make it up the hard side and around (which is now my regular route). Because I started to get muscles in my legs and feared looking like a Tyrannosaurus, I then signed up with an exercise physiologist to do some upper body work once a week, then did a bit more of that, got back into my pilates, decided to learn to swim, and so on. It was kind of an avalanche of physical activity and I certainly feel wonderful for it (especially boxing; lord how I love boxing). My back has never been better and I’ve put on 4kg of lean muscle (still can’t get lids off jars though) and my resting heart rate is 62 beats per minute. I like to imagine my heart looking like Conan, pumping out such a big whoosh of bubbling blood every second that it can rest and pick its teeth in between.
kim on a bike
But this isn’t about physical fitness, it’s about writing fitness. While riding my bike around and around that mountain, I have had plenty of time to reflect on my writing and about writing habits in general. These are the five lessons about writing fitness I have learned from regular exercise.
1. A 6-week binge won’t improve your skills measurably and permanently. You need to do a little every day if you want results. Think sustainable, not grandiose goals that won’t stick.
2. There is always somebody faster than you. Don’t compete with them.
3. There is always somebody who seems to get to the top of the hill with much less effort than you. Sometimes it’s because they have an advantage, like a personal mentor, or a family who have encouraged them since birth, or expensive equipment. Don’t compare yourself with them.
4. Your writing fitness will be apparent in more than just measurable goals such as word count. It will be in nuanced craft things that you don’t notice at first, but which start to come naturally and readily where they didn’t before.
5. Find a way to enjoy the process rather than solely being motivated by the outcome.

That’s it.

Read, and let Read

In light of this ridiculous article on the differences between “mainstream” and “literary” writing, I’ve decided to reprint here an article I originally wrote several years ago.

So what is the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction? James Cowan says literary fiction “endure[s] in the imagination”, while genre fiction is an “opiate… designed to titillate”. Judy Wilson says literary fiction is “craft” and genre fiction is “production line work”. Nancy J. Holland says literary fiction is “intellectual work”, “artful”, “new richness”, while genre fiction is “low brow”, “flat, without depth”, “the exact same thing”. Rosemary Neill says literary fiction is “chiselled out over six years”, while genre fiction is “tossed off in six weeks”. Hmm…. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a distinct feeling that these people think literary fiction is better than genre fiction. Of course, that would explain why lit fic is the default setting in the Australian literary community: it wins the lucrative awards, gets most of the review space, does better in arts funding. And yet, nobody has ever managed to explain to me satisfactorily why literary fiction is so superior to genre fiction.

But, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I am steeped in the worlds of genre fiction, both as a writer and as a reader, and have been since I found my way through the back of the wardrobe at age 7. I learned a particular way of reading—a set of competencies, if you will—that continues to colour the way I read today. And if there’s any point I want to make above all others, this is it: what we have read and enjoyed in the past primes us for a particular kind of reception of certain works. If you are a fan of lit fic, I can almost guarantee you won’t find “quality” in the genres that I find it in. It may surprise you to know that I don’t find much to like in lit fic either: it kind of all looks the same to me.

I like to explain it this way: there is a lot of pleasure to be taken from familiarity—coming home is always nice, as is putting on worn-in shoes, or heading out to a favourite restaurant, or upholding a family ritual. There’s also the distaste we feel for too much predictability—some of us just can’t be “it’s Tuesday so it’s meatloaf” people. Where familiarity tips over into predictability is going to be unique for everyone. A fantasy novel with a medieval setting is always welcome on my bookshelf (pleasure in familiarity) but I will roll my eyes if it features a farm boy who doesn’t know he’s the prophesied saviour of his realm (contempt for predictability). The interesting thing is that if we read in other genres where we feel no pleasurable familiarity, all that is left is contemptible predictability. So, if you’re a lit fic reader and you pick up a book about dragons and castles (maybe even dragons that live in castles), you’re probably already rolling your eyes. How predictable! But, if you’re a fantasy reader and you pick up a book about the struggles of small-town folk, written in a self-conscious overly stylised way, you roll your eyes pretty fast too. Lit fic is utterly predictable to people who don’t read it, trust me. “But that’s only because they don’t understand it!” you say.

Yeah. Ditto.

Why do I even care, you may ask. If I like what I like and you like what you like, then let’s stop all this fighting (and may I just add with a petulant whine: “lit fic started it!”). But there’s more at stake, as I see it, than just a squabble over who deserves the good reviews and who deserves the cashola (tip: both kinds of authors want good reviews and cashola, preferably in large measure). The problem is that as long as we perpetuate this divide between worthy writing (lit fic) and other writing (genre fiction), then we aren’t getting a robust idea of what Australian literature really is.

An article published in 2006 in The Australian asks, what is “killing the great books” of Australia. It suggests that in 25 years “nobody will be reading novels” and cites alarming statistics for the “shrinking canon” of “Australian fiction.” How terrifying! You have to look really hard to find the asterisk and the subscript: “excludes genre fiction.” But fiction written in Australia by Australian writers and published by Australian publishers…. that’s Australian fiction, right? Right? Well, apparently not. And the choice of language is so telling: Australian literature has become far too “exclusive” and our understanding of its function and influence is therefore very incomplete. We discuss and analyse Australian literature to understand our culture better, to know what is unique about us. From this discussion and analysis we plan arts policy, decide how government and arts organisations should work together, settle on funding priorities, and review the ways that readers and books are brought together. And yet we are basing all these conclusions on only one small sliver of Australian literature: we continue to exclude the majority of books. It is such a blinkered approach. The defence, often trotted out, that genre books do well in the marketplace and so don’t need any kind of cultural or governmental attention is stunningly naive. Last time I looked, Kate Grenville was selling a lot more books than I do.

Moreover, we need to respect more fully the needs and opinions of readers. They are, after all, the chief reason that writers publish. Anyone can write for the sake of writing, but somebody who seeks publication seeks an audience. That audience is developed in many ways, and one of them is through the mainstream media. But in the literary pages of the mainstream media, again, we see a bias against genre writing. In 2003 Peter Carey’s lit fic My Life As A Fake and Lian Hearn’s fantasy novel Grass For His Pillow were published a month apart (August and September respectively). Both sold in the 30,000 to 40,000 hardcover sales category, a significant bestseller by Australian standards. Over the next nine months, the Australian media ran 70 headlines out of 367 articles about Carey; and only 7 headlines out of 49 articles about Hearn. The same year, Jane Goodall’s The Walker and Gabrielle Lord’s Lethal Factor (both crime novels) sold comparably to Janette Turner Hospital’s Due Preparations For The Plague (11000 to 12000 copies). In the eighteen months surrounding the books’ publications, Goodall garnered 17 mentions in the Australian media, Lord 19 and Turner Hospital 56. The example of romance fiction, a genre usually held in low esteem, offers no surprises. Belinda Alexandra’s White Gardenia attracted 2 headlines (one titled “Flower Power”), while Melanie La’Brooy’s Love Struck attracted 4. Alex Miller’s Journey To The Stone Country, which sold similar quantities in that year, attracted 29 headlines out of a total of 86 articles. Yes, okay Miller won the Miles Franklin that year, but it still shows that books of comparable commercial significance receive unequal attention from the Australian media based on genre. In real terms, these figures suggest that readers are going to have a much harder time finding articles about their favourite genre authors, than about their favourite lit fic authors. Number one: that’s not fair. Number two: is there a chance that the low regard for these books might actually make readers feel ashamed or stupid for reading them?

The latter idea is one that particularly irks me, and feeds into one of my biggest issues with the way that lit fic is assumed to be our default mode of Australian writing: it’s plain undemocratic. I’m always amazed at how elitist lovers of lit fic can be about fiction, especially when so many of them seem lefter than Lenin in other ways. Dan Brown recently published a new novel, The Lost Symbol, six years after The Da Vinci Code. The new book was the very definition of “long-awaited”: both by readers and by snarky reviewers. It was entirely predictable, then, that shots would be fired the moment the book hit the stores. An article in UK publication The First Post, for example, warned readers not to be “tempted” to buy it as there are so many books by “better writers” out there. The article then goes on to suggest a number of alternatives. Some of them look good; some of them, I’m certain, Dan Brown readers will have already found (Stieg Larsson’s for example). But some of them belong to the School of Wha…? Imagine this exchange in a book store:

CUSTOMER: Excuse me, I am looking for the new Dan Brown novel.
SALES ASSISTANT: I’m sorry, but we’re fresh out. However, I do have many copies of Paradise Lost still in stock.
CUSTOMER: Wonderful. I will take a copy as I am sure they will provide a similar reading experience.

Seriously? Paradise Lost? I’ve read both John Milton and Dan Brown and, just quietly, they’ve not a lot in common. There’s so much wrong with this article. It bags the common reader’s taste; it assumes (incorrectly) that it knows why the common reader reads the books they do; and it suggests that the common reader read something a little less common as it would be Improving. I am reminded of the shout line that appears on Umberto Eco’s official website regarding his book Foucault’s Pendulum: it’s “a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code.” A thinking man? Let’s put aside the gender issue (that noise, by the way, is the grinding of my teeth) but what on earth has given Eco the notion that Dan Brown readers don’t think? Is it just because they’re not thinking of Foucault because, I’ve got to tell you, I sometimes go weeks without a single Foucault-related thought. Making an audience feel dumb is a really good way to lock them out of an art form all together. Why would you read if you were in danger of being outed as an unthinking woman? Every time I hear somebody say they felt embarrassed about reading a book on the train (usually a romance), I want to weep. Read what you like; life is so short and books are so much fun.

I realise that much of what I say may be uncomfortable for many supporters of lit fic to hear. Am I an insane relativist, hell-bent on the destruction of all that is good in overworked metaphors? No, I’m not. I am a critical reader, and I acknowledge that some writing is much better than other writing. I just don’t believe that all the quality is located in one genre. This is an idea that gains traction by our insistence on seeing lit fic and genre fiction as opposites. They aren’t. Lit fic is a genre, just like crime or fantasy or romance.

Genres aren’t as rule-bound as people generally believe. Sure, there are some familiar aspects to genres (that’s how we recognise them as genres), but genres are actually a product of complex processes that are continually being negotiated and renegotiated between authors and their readers and the industry that brings them together. Genres are changing and shifting all the time, spawning sub-genres and hybrids. The real difference between lit fic and genre fiction is that lit fic is the only genre that doesn’t know it’s a genre. It likes to think it follows no well-worn paths. But it does: that’s how you know a lit fic novel when you see one. It centres on recognisable material, follows a recognisable trajectory, makes use of a recognisable style.
It’s interesting to note that film criticism has nowhere near the difficulty talking about genres that literature does. Romantic comedies, thrillers, and art-house are all genres. Nobody tries to claim that some films fall outside classification because of their quality and originality. Art-house produces quite a few pointless turkeys, and the occasional romcom is a work of art (ah… The Wedding Singer…). If you take the 10% across the top of all the genres you find the best quality films. Same for literature. We must move past the idea that, in the field of writing, all the quality is aggregated in the one place.

How we define quality is, of course, a slippery operation. It seems to me that we are stuck in a mindset, characteristic of the late 20th /early 21st century, that says originality is king. Originality is great, I absolutely agree, but I’m uncomfortable with holding it up as the single defining marker of quality writing. Are writers supposed to be telling stories or conducting experiments? Forgive me, but I believe very firmly it’s the former. The impulse to experience a story—to move through beginning, middle, and end—is a profoundly and uniquely human pleasure. I think, in our attempt to define quality, one thing has been continually overlooked: heart.

Heart is what I always look for in a book: a deep, human connection with the characters that is unique and feels real. I like a book that can make me cry, or make me laugh, or frighten me, or provoke joy, or temper my fear of death; then slam me home again, leaving me with the feeling that I’ve been somewhere wonderful and I’m a better person for it. For preference, I like all of these things in the one book. A book should read as though it’s been written with care and passion and deep commitment. And I don’t care if it took six weeks or six years: just however long it took is fine. Nobody calls Handel a hack for writing The Messiah in 24 days. Problem is, heart is often confounded with sentimentality, which, I understand, is a very grievous sin in the lit fic world. And so, much lit fic, to my mind, is detached, cold, overly intellectual, circuitous, iterative, never quite gets to the thing of it. But, yes, I concede that it’s often more original. Though originality doesn’t inspire me to press a book close to my bosom and sigh.

But I don’t hate lit fic; I don’t see it as my enemy. I want lit fic lovers to keep reading it and loving it. People who love to read are the best kind of people in the world. All I’m trying to do in this article is challenge a few misconceptions, and open up a space for mutual understanding instead of mutual suspicion. Read and let read, I say. Write and let write.

The joys of being a plotter

In November last year, I was involved in a “plotters versus pantsers” debate at Genrecon. I’m a long-term devoted plotter of books, which means pantsing (making it up as you go along) is really not for me. Here is my speech.

An unplanned ice sculpture

An unplanned ice sculpture


Exhibit A: what you are looking at is not a glass of water, but a poorly planned ice sculpture.

Pantsing is better than plotting? Are you mad? Can you imagine if any other field of human endeavour throughout history thought this was a good idea?

• Bridge design. “Ah let’s just chuck up some poles and gaff a few popsicle sticks together and see where it takes us, hey? We don’t want to be too anal.”
• Psychiatric experiments. “Oh, just poke them a bit with electric rods and write down what happens, and we’ll see if something emerges and if not, well… no great harm done, right?”
• Brain surgery. Let me tell you, there weren’t enough marshmallows and tomato sauce sachets for me to make my unplanned brain surgery exhibit.

Why should writing be any different? Do you want your stories to resemble a bucket of beige slop with sickly curds floating in it and some kind of fart-smelling froth on top? Ladies and gentlemen, the difference between plotting and pantsing is the difference between success and disaster, between the sublime and the abject.

Pantsers are an odd bunch of people. They like to paint their laziness as noble unconventionality, I think. They say stuff like, “But plotting is so uncreative,” in between harvesting their mung beans and knitting their own yoghurt. I’d like to remind them that I still have to make my stories up. Being a plotter doesn’t mean you’ve succumbed to some evil overlord who chains you into your office chair and kills puppies if you don’t do as you’re told. It just means that you can consider the ideas more carefully, place them more precisely, and overuse your adverbs more thoughtfully.

The other panster go-to move is, “How do you motivate yourself to write once you know what happens?” To which I’d respond, “How do you motivate yourself to do all that editing once you’ve written a big amorphous turd?” By then, you also know what happens, and you’ve got to wrestle with it for months if not years. By contrast, plotters write stories that, like well-formed stools, come out the right shape and the right colour with minimal clean-up required. And don’t tell me you don’t know the value in life of a well-formed stool.

I sense the room would rather I moved on to a more palatable metaphor, so here it is. Writing is like travelling. Pantsers are those people who say, “Oh I just like to put on a backpack and see where the spirit takes me.” Plotters are those people who book their connecting flights and take the stress out of travel. Pantsing is, in effect, turning up at the airport and choosing a plane based on its colour; spending too much of your money on it and not really knowing where you might land; finding yourself in a city where you don’t speak the language and then wandering the streets for hours looking for a nice place to say, to find the last vacancy is in a hotel on a street where cars are regularly set fire. There you climb up the eight flights of stairs to your crusty room, only to find there are pubes on the sheets and you can hear the guy in the next room pissing.

Plotting, however, is knowing where you’re going to go before you leave the house; packing appropriately, knowing how much to budget so you don’t run out of money before you come home, and then stepping on to a German Inter-city express train. It’s really fast, it’s super comfortable, it’s even a little sexy. And it arrives on your editor’s desk, precisely on time.

Finally, I want to finish with this thought. In the last 15 years, I’ve published more than 2 million words of fiction over 22 books. Your argument is invalid.

The Year of Ancient Ghosts

For those who have enjoyed my books in the past, there is a new one in the world. It’s a collection of five novellas called The Year of Ancient Ghosts and all the stories are fantastical or scary or both. I think it is the best stuff I have ever ever written, and you can buy it here in hardcover, paperback, or limited edition hardcover. It also has an introduction by Australian fantasy writer Kate Forsyth, and illustrations by newcomer James Blake.

I launched the book on Thursday night at Avid Reader in West End, and was so humbled that 100 people came along to support me. To all who were there, your ongoing interest in me and my work is so appreciated. I had such a lovely, lovely night. I’ve added some photos below.

Relaxing with a glass of Veuve before the launch.

Relaxing with a glass of Veuve before the launch.

Doing 5 readings in 5 minutes.

Doing 5 readings in 5 minutes.

These are my awesome launch boots.

These are my awesome launch boots.

Signing books (with wine)

Signing books (with wine)

One of the fabulous illustrations

One of the fabulous illustrations

That which we are, we are.

I grew up in Redcliffe in the 70s and 80s, when it was pretty rough and socially disadvantaged. In fact, I was pretty rough and socially disadvantaged too. We were welfare class. My dad had an accident at work and was on sickness benefits, which he spent almost wholly on beer. My mum worked hard to support us all. I was bullied at school, never really fit in, and went to work in rubbish jobs in fast food. cover Then I finally got my shit together, went back to high school, then got out of town.

For a long time, during my university studies and with my new inner-city friends, I was faintly (if not entirely sometimes) embarrassed about having been a Redcliffe chick, one who used to hang out with boys in cars or wag school to sit on the jetty and smoke. I didn’t speak of it. I made myself anew; I tried to stop saying “Me and my friends” went somewhere or did something, or “brought” when I meant “bought”. I got a PhD. I published books and spoke elegantly and eloquently in public places.

Then one day I was coming home in a plane from Sydney, and we flew over Moreton Bay, that body of grey-blue water that I grew up looking at. And it struck me how magnificent the bay is, how it gives me the feeling of being home, of being somewhere that everything is all right. I looked down at the islands, and a story idea came to me. The story became Ember Island, the book I worked on over the summer (a Kimberley Freeman book). Imagine my surprise and delight when they sent me the cover and the jetty on the front is actually Redcliffe jetty. “We managed to get an actual picture of Moreton Bay,” the publisher told me excitedly. But she couldn’t know just how familiar that part of Moreton Bay is to me. Redcliffe jetty, on my book cover. Fifteen years ago I would have been appalled. But now, this just fills me with strange pride.

I am a Redcliffe girl. I am rough as guts. I did work at every fast food chain you can think of. And then I did something different; and I am not a better or worse person for growing up bogan. I am so proud of this book and the fact that it is set somewhere unexotic, maybe even parochial. I am what I am, and I am fucking proud to own it.

Writing, Parenting, Careening

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Just out of shot: three kids and a harrassed mother.

The title of this post arose from a Facebook discussion I had about balancing writing and parenting. Fellow writer Fiona McMillan said that “balancing” was possibly a bad choice of verb, as it indicated there was some kind of control in place. She’s right. That’s when “careening” came to mind.

The thing about parenting is it’s so unrelenting. Writing is also unrelenting, especially if you have deadlines, which I always do, and especially if your deadlines are very tight, which mine always are. I’ve been single-parenting these school holidays, while trying to write 30 000 words a month. I’ll be frank with you: if I don’t deliver on time, I don’t get paid on time, and so I need to write to feed the children whom I also need to parent.

So I careen, from one task to the other, doing a little here and a little there, arms wheeling wildly, trying to gain purchase with my feet. I am always certain that I am short-changing both tasks. I skim across sentences and dinner-times, I write in bed in the mornings while my children lie on either side of me asking me questions I don’t remember later; I play Lego distractedly while planning out scenes in my imagination. From time to time, when I offer up pre-packaged ravioli, my son (who is very interested in cooking) will say, “You know, we should make our own pasta from scratch”, and I want to laugh hysterically and perhaps even set my own kitchen on fire so that I never ever have to make pasta from scratch. Or ice cream. Or organic wholemeal omega-3 anti-oxidant treats that will make my children into a übermenschen. (Please note: any comment about how “easy” it is to make pasta or ice cream from scratch will be instantly deleted and possibly also set on fire). It got so nuts, that I went on a writing retreat with my kids. That’s right: I took my kids and was writing with one hand and making cheesy toast for morning tea with the other.

Fiona is right. This isn’t balancing anything. This is simply a constant struggle not to fall over. I am two-thirds finished this book. Don’t wish me luck, just wish me the ability to function on fewer hours of sleep.

The Hobbit: You Want Chicks With That?

So I saw The Hobbit. The LOTR movies are my favouritest movies ever, so of course I was so happy to be back in Middle Earth and this isn’t a review of the movie. This is about the chicks.

Or lack thereof.

There were so many ways that Jackson could have worked some more women into the film, and that’s what I’m going to write about. Now, before you say, “but it was an adaptation of Tolkien and he was being faithful as all good adapters should be” let me just offer you a pre-emptive BULLSHIT, MATE. Adaptations do not have to be faithful to be good. They have to be good to be good. Case in point, what Jackson did with the structure of The Two Towers. The book is boring; the movie had pace, plenty of narrative interest, a clever interweaving of multiple threads.

This is what I reckon he could have done:

* Kili and Fili could have been female dwarves. Think about how RAD that would have been. Female dwarves are awesome! They’d not be all slender and holy-looking like Arwen and Galadriel; they’d be dirty and nuggety and rough as a bear’s arse. Massive missed opportunity.

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* Radagast could have been a woman. Birdshit hair-product and all. Imagine, a cool old forest witch character, a crone with a cackle and gnarled hands.

* Smaug could have been a female dragon. Like Onyxia in World of Warcraft (who my cat is named after). Female dragons are cool.

* The Goblin King could have been a Goblin Queen. Let’s face it, we were all thinking of David Bowie as the definitive screen goblin king anyway (“you remind me of the babe”); why not get Judi Dench to voice her and have her be a wormy piece of womanly nastiness instead?

Maybe I’m biased because these are my ideas (worked out in conversation with my terribly clever boyfriend), but I think if Jackson had done all of the above, The Hobbit would have kicked arse. It would have been a movie that truly thrilled me, and a great many other fantasy movie fans, on many levels.