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Craig Cormick

Four launches and a festival…

…is much more fun than four weddings and a funeral.

The festival was the annual Flash Fiction Weekend, aimed at writers wanting to develop and hone their craft, held in the beautiful East Hotel. I had the pleasure of convening a panel on the writing process with superstars Graeme Simsion, Karen Viggers, Jack Heath and Susanne Gervay. I wish I could give you a sense of what we discussed but when I’m on a panel it’s always a bit of a blur afterwards, even when I’m the one asking the questions! So instead I give you writer Amanda McLeod via Twitter: ‘This panel was the business. I have many, many notes.’

Read More »Four launches and a festival…

With fellow panellists Graeme Simsion, Susanne Gervay and Jack Heath

I also ran my workshop on editing flash fiction and was thrilled when one participant told the marvellous organiser, Suzanne Kiraly, that my workshop was worth the price of the festival ticket alone. That kind of feedback is always happy-making. (Thanks John!)

There were lots of short keynotes and I enjoyed them all. Graeme Simsion of Rosie Project fame was up first. He spoke about how writers need to devote as much time to learning their craft as a neurosurgeon would to learning theirs. What’s more ‘there are more jobs for neurosurgeons than there are for writers’, he noted. Graeme is a keen plotter and encourages all emerging writers to carefully outline their plot before beginning to write.

Flashers (of the literary kind) unite

The inaugural Flash Fiction Festival, dedicated to the shortest of literary forms, kicked off in Canberra recently. One of the nicest things about festivals is hanging out with other writers, and there was plenty of that. But there was also ‘work’ to be done. I ran an editing workshop, and spoke on what was possibly the biggest literary panel ever, with five of us talking about our writing processes.

Me with Sheryl Gwyther, Marion Halligan and Carmel Bird

Read More »Flashers (of the literary kind) unite

In the spirit of flash fiction, there were a series of short keynotes addresses. Jackie French spoke about how writers have just seven seconds to hook an editor or a reader. ‘You can tell within seven seconds whether it’s good, or you can put it aside … And if it’s good you’ll get another seven seconds, and another and another.’ She also spoke about the importance of being edited and taking on tough feedback. ‘If you are a professional you are going to love it. A good strong editorship is wonderful. You get to work with a professional team on all the ideas from your brain to make them better.’ Not surprisingly, I heartily agree. She finished by reading a passage from Hitler’s Daughter, possibly my favourite book of hers (if you haven’t read it yet, you must) and told us to: ‘Write what matters. Use your words as spears.’


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Writers write in weird places.*

I do all the standard things: scrawl notes in the middle of the night, while I’m out walking, when driving in the car (I pull over, of course, often bunny-hopping to my destination). I’m forever using the back of receipts or whatever I can lay my hands on (I’ve always been disorganised with notebooks, even though I’m always buying them).

editing in cafesCafes are hands down my favourite place to write but I’m not fussy. I’ll write any time, any place. This has included in the back of a tuk tuk in Chiang Mai as it veered all over the road, in a tent in Tanzania with the sound of hyenas scuffling outside, and in a hospital while I miscarried. It’s possible that only writers will understand that last one.

But perhaps the most bizarre experience was going into labour with my third child while writing a grant application for The Invisible Thread anthology I was editing. The deadline was just around the corner and I knew that if I didn’t finish it right then and there it wouldn’t happen. So I kept going, pausing every ten minutes to breathe through the contractions. I managed to finish the application and submitted it (cursing the absence of a special consideration category for completed-while-birthing-a-small-human). I shut down the computer, called my husband, went into hospital, and 90 minutes later had my little boy in my arms. Oh, and we got the grant.

946868After posting this more benign tweet, fellow writer Kaaron Warren suggested I collate a post of the strangest places writers have written. So I put the word out to my writer friends and their stories came flooding in, so many in fact that I’m going to split them into two posts. So here goes number one (you’ll see that hospitals emerge as a bit of a theme).


Brooke Davis: As a kid, I wrote sitting in a favourite pine tree, and in a paddock full of long grass, and while watching the tennis at the Australian Open. As a teenager I wrote on long car trips around Australia with my family. I had to hold my notebook above my head and almost write upside down because that was the only way I wouldn’t get car sick. As a uni student I once tried to write at Oktoberfest in Canberra. It was the kind of experiment you do in your 20s: What level of genius will I come up with when drunk? You probably know the answer: No level of genius in any way whatsoever. These days, I’m writing on lots of things that move. Ferries, buses, trains, cars, bikes, my own feet, planes, trams. I like how the movement gives me the feeling (i.e., tricks me into thinking) that my writing is moving. But to be honest, the older I get the more boring I am about it. These days, I crave places where I can hole up in a corner somewhere and think I’m invisible while I look at all the weird and wonderful people, like a creepy ghost with a laptop. This mostly happens in cafes and pubs and parks. Maybe I should go back to climbing pine trees?

Rosanna Stevens: I am currently writing in the only place that has Internet for five kilometres: I’m sitting in a garden, in the dark, listening to the shouts of women performing a fire ceremony at a shamanic women’s mysteries retreat in Las Chullpas — an hour from Cusco in Peru. I am also surrounded by puppies. Come at me, deadlines.

Susanne Gervay: Post operative after major surgery with drips and drains, I couldn’t move with pain and I kept thinking, I have to finish my novel in case I die. That’s what I did. Write my novel, not die.

Tania McCartney: Probably the ‘weirdest’ place I’ve ever written is super ordinary — my bed. Sometimes, if I wake in the depths of night with some urgent prose, I’ll fumble for my phone, set it to video, hide under the covers and whisper the text into the phone for transcribing the next day. My husband sleeps right through!

Craig Cormick: That was probably on a trolley about to go into the operating theatre for day surgery, telling the anesthetist guy, ‘Just a moment, just one more moment, I have to write this down before I forget it.’ Second weirdest would probably be in Antarctica, sitting down to write some notes by the edge of a penguin colony (where you are not allowed to get closer than a few metres to a penguin), and looking up and finding all these penguins waddling up to check out what I was doing (clearly the exclusion distance rules that applied to us did not apply to them).

Lee Kofman: The most bizarre place I’ve ever written in was in my living room, this week, when I sat on the couch with both my laptop and my toddler on my pregnant lap, while my boy’s nanny sat close by my side trying to cajole him away. She wasn’t successful though. My child wrapped his arms around my neck, teary, while I kept typing away an essay I had to send to an editor within an hour. The nanny kept talking to my boy, he kept sobbing, and I kept writing, feeling trapped, guilty and loved. I really don’t know more bizarre place for me to write from than this metaphorical, yet very tangibly claustrophobic, space of motherhood.

SJ Finn: One of the more obscure places I’ve found myself writing is on a support boat for an outrigger competing in a marathon race, 72-kilometres long, in the Whitsundays. While the outrigger was a slender boat — full of women going hell-for-leather with a fat-ended paddle — the support boat (a tag-team arranged on its deck) was a large wooden affair, more like a fishing boat than one for leisure but without the fishy smell, or the equipment of nets and pulleys on its deck. As a support boat was paired to every rigger it made for a busy flotilla of twin vessels on a choppy sea. I can, however, be pretty sure there was only one writer. Head down in the beautiful wooden cabin for the entire 8 hours, I wrote as my partner coordinated the ‘changes’ (baton-relay-like) for the paddlers to get spells from the gruelling effort to get to the finish line. Head down amongst the yells and cheers and instructions (when paddlers saw their number held up they had to jump from the rigger and swim to the support boat, another teammate already swimming to replace them) I blocked all this frenetic activity out and became a little famous — at least among a bunch of very excited outrigger competitors — for doing so.

Paul’s view in Arnhem land

Paul DaleyWhen I was a full time journalist, I, like most, found myself writing in some unusual places. The great thing about journalism is that it conditions you to write anywhere, no matter the degree of discomfort and regardless of noise. There’s really no such thing as writers’ block when you’re punching out words to a deadline. So I found myself writing: in the backs of cars; in burnt out hotels; on helicopters; in too many bars; in frozen fields; from police stations and court foyers; while sitting in gutters and on roofs.

With my creative fiction I’ve been more choosy. I started my last novel with a few scrawls in a notebook on a sun lounge on a remote Greek Island and while most of it was written at my desk in Canberra, it developed in cafes, the National Library of Australia and in my dreams (that’s why, like so many writers, I keep a notebook by my bed). My last published short story I wrote in one take in an airline lounge. I began writing the current novel I’m working on while staying in a small bungalow in North East Arnhem Land (the view from my writing desk is pictured here) and I wrote some of it on a boat. I’m heading back to Arnhem Land soon to write some more. Sometimes I write at the kitchen bench between cooking the spag bol, feeding the dogs and overseeing homework. I don’t need aromatherapy and dolphin recordings or solitude. But I do have a lot of false starts and a rewrite a lot in my head, especially while I’m out in the bush with my dogs.

Part 2 of ‘Where Writers Write’ will feature Karen Viggers, Jack Heath, Nicole Hayes, Kirsten Krauth, Melinda Smith and a bunch of others. Stay tuned!

* Not all of us! For some writers routine is everything. Alec Patric, for instance, wrote to me to say, ‘When it comes to writing I’m pretty boring. Can’t really write anywhere else other than at my desk, same place every day. The habit, or ritual, is the only way it happens for me.’

The short of it

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TWO STEPS FORWARDWith the release of my debut collection of fiction I’ve been talking about the short story a lot and it’s got me thinking. To my mind the short story is undervalued. There are a plethora of short fiction competitions and a handful of literary magazines that will publish them, but a collection in book form? Unless you’re Tim Winton forget it. Nam Le’s debut collection The Boat (2008) is one notable exception. It won every award imaginable and became an international bestseller. Then A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Writers were no doubt hoping all this was a sign of changing times, a sign that the short form was gaining greater recognition. But even Marion Halligan, one of our most celebrated authors with 20 books to her name, recounts how when her latest short fiction collection, Shooting the Fox, landed on her agent’s desk she phoned her up and groaned, ‘Oh, Marion. Short stories?’

As Halligan says, ‘Publishers don’t think much of them, though they may be changing their minds.’ Craig Cormick who’s published over 100 stories and eight collections does believe publishers are ‘starting to value (or re-value) short stories again’. Just five years ago when he was working for Ginninderra Press on their Mockingbird imprint, dedicated to producing short fiction collections, he felt ‘the short story in Australia was on life-support’. ‘It was obvious that in places like the Queensland Premiers’ Steele Rudd Award [for a collection of short stories, the only one of its kind in Australia] there were not the number of contenders they were getting in other categories. During that time Mockingbird had several collections shortlisted for the award.’

Read More »The short of it

The recent announcement of this year’s Queensland Premier’s Awards proves Cormick’s point that short story collections are regaining some favour. The shortlist includes a more diverse range of publishers: Patrick Holland for The Source of the Sound (Salt Publishing), Amanda Lohrey for Reading Madame Bovary (Black Inc.), Wayne Macauley for Other Stories (Black Pepper) and Emmett Stinson for Known Unknowns (Affirm Press). But as Cormick says ‘there is still a long way to go’. Note, for instance, that these four publishers are all small independents who are willing to take risks to publish books they are passionate about.

Martin Hughes at Affirm Press knows all about risk and passion. When he announced his Long Story shorts series, six collections of short fiction by new writers, everyone from the commercial side of things told him he was ‘absolutely bonkers’. Of course the initiative was highly valued by new writers because it is so difficult to get a collection published before having a number of runs on the board. As Hughes says, ‘publishers are not interested in short story collections, unless you’re Nam Le or already a celebrated novelist and they just want to repackage your earlier work.’ Little wonder then that they were flooded with 450 manuscripts. Fortunately for me my manuscript, Two Steps Forward, was selected as the series’ swan song and has just hit shelves. And fortunately for Affirm the series has garnered critical acclaim. Among other accolades, Long Story Shorts author Gretchen Shirm was named Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist of the Year and Emmett Stinson is up for this year’s Steele Rudd Award. The illustrator and designer of the series, Dean Gorrisen, also picked up Silver at the Illustrators Australia Awards 2011 for the first three covers in the series.

So what’s to love about short stories? For Hughes ‘it’s the vitality of short fiction that excites me most; how it forces you to imagine what happened before and after, and how a story gets precisely the number of words it needs rather than approximately the number of words it needs to find a place in a bookstore and be commercial’. And for Halligan it’s the form’s ‘brevity, its elegance, its subtlety, the fact that you have to make such drastic choices about what to put in, what leave out. I think it is like a poem, in that it is much larger than the sum of its parts. I like the small window it gives on to a much larger world.’

The short story is also the ideal form for our fractured, time-poor modern existence. Nigel Featherstone and Alec Patric have been capitalising on this with their online literary journal, Verity La. It is an unexpected pleasure to be eating breakfast or enjoying an idle cup of tea when a new short story arrives in my phone via Verity La. The pleasure of these ‘lovely little distractions’, as Featherstone calls them, is that ‘the work is coming to readers; readers don’t have to make a conscious decision to go and search this stuff out’. He adds, ‘I sometimes get frustrated with writers who whinge and complain about publishers and readers not valuing short stories…Verity La is a way of saying, as writers, we value short stories so how can we get them to readers; in a way it’s writers doing it for ourselves.’

Halligan goes further: ‘A lot of people say they love reading short stories, but don’t actually do much about it—don’t subscribe to magazines, etc. Years ago Elizabeth Webby [former editor of Southerly] said if everybody who tried to get published in Southerly took out a subscription the magazine would have a large and viable circulation. There are few outlets and those that exist are disappearing fast, for example Heat.’ And just days ago Island magazine announced that after 32 years the Tasmanian Government has withdraw its funding and the publication’s future is uncertain.

So if you love the short form why not go out today and buy a collection or subscribe to a literary magazine or check out an online journal like Verity La. As Cate Kennedy says, ‘the short story is alive, part of our collective national voice, and a form to be treasured’. Viva la short story!

Thanks to Craig Cormick, Nigel Featherstone, Marion Halligan and Martin Hughes for their contribution to this conversation, and to Dumbo Feather for some of the quotes from Hughes. This post was first published on Overland literary journal’s blog here.