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Five Books from 2014 that I Can Remember

Hey, look, if I had even a hope of remembering all the books I read during 2014, I’d goddamn do an end of year best of 2014 style list. End of year lists are my jam – I unapologetically love them. I frequently go and read ‘best albums’ lists, and then spend the subsequent year really enjoying them, but being unable to discuss them in cool bars, because they are so last year. Anyway, I’ve decided to just fucking go with the flow and list five books that I read this year that spring to mind, because obviously they mean a lot to me.

1. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

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I love Amy Poehler, so it wasn’t really a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed her book. What was the surprise was the method in which I enjoyed it. Yes, I laughed. I did this weird thing where I grinned really widely on public transport and just breathed through my nose a lot. It is goddamn funny. But it was also entirely genuine, and gave advice in the manner of someone you trust telling you something really relevant and truthful. This book came at a very good time for me – there’s all sorts of racks you flay yourself upon when you’re putting something as momentous as a book out into the world, even if it’s only a teeny-tiny book. Amy’s views on art making were refreshing and revitalising. And to be honest, her whole chapter about prize winning and ‘almost getting the pie’ was SUPER timely for me. God this book. I feel like I’ll be reading it once a year for sanity.

2. Dress, Memory by Lorelei Vashti

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I’ve been a fan of Lorelei’s for a while, having been introduced to her blog by my girlfriend, Bridget, who very rightly pointed out that it would be right down my alley. I enjoyed everything about this memoir – the tactile memories of the dresses themselves, the honesty, the humour, the style of writing. But this was also a very important book for me, because it helped confirm the direction I was going on with my own manuscript ‘Will You Look At All These Things?’. If you read this blog a lot, you’ve probably read some bits from it, but I’m basically writing a memoir, or as I describe it ‘a bunch of anecdotes from my life worth telling’. At various points while writing it, I’ve been filled with doubt about whether it’s worth writing – there’s no overarching narrative to adhere to, I’m not a celebrity, I’m relatively young and people are being mean to Lena Dunham about writing a memoir while young, and SHE’S a fucking celebrity with a TV show – what the fuck have I done? But the very description of this book salved some of those fears: ‘Dress, Memory is Lorelei Vashti’s piecemeal memoir of her twenties in dresses.’ Piecemeal memoir – I love that.

3. The Rook by Dan O’Malley

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Yep. Most fun had in book form. A really humorous yet still suspenseful urban fantasy, it just ticks all my boxes. Oh man. Basic plot: woman wakes up surrounded by creepily gloved dead bodies, has no memory of who she is, but finds letters to herself hidden in her clothing from before she lost her memory. Then basically has to play out a high placed role in a kind of Hogwarts style secret service. I didn’t want to stop reading this, it’s just so wonderful.

4. Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan

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Beautifully written, disturbing, playful, just absolutely excellent. I already talked a bit about this when I raved about how much I liked Scott McClanahanahanahan, but I can honestly say I haven’t stopped thinking about this book since I read it.

5. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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I read this book as part of my Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge, and in doing so totally confirmed why I started doing this ridiculous challenge in the first place, and why I’ll probably be doing it for the rest of my life. But this book is breathtaking – and I don’t mean that in the trite, over-used way we’re used to hearing breathtaking. This book made me hold me breath in suspense, and release it in wonder. It was just gorgeous.

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Urgh, Writing: Please read my horrible Frankenstein thing

I’ve been sending out a lot of horrible Frankenstein things to people and asking for them to pretend it’s a real boy! This has been for two main reasons: 1- I’ve been sending out ARCs of A Man Made Entirely of Bats to writers and editors that I respect and admire to see if they’ll provide a blurb or a fluff or that sentence that you see on the back of the book that says ‘well, this isn’t entirely awful’. And 2 – I recently sent out a manuscript that I eventually submitted to the Scribe Nonfiction Prize to a bunch of people for feedback, of which I have amazingly been shortlisted for, amongst some absolutely intimidating and genuinely lovely and talented writers.

The first emotion that swamps my brain like an upside down portaloo is fear and guilt, because here I am pushing this thing on somebody and I have no idea if they’ll like it. And the second emotion that I feel, and the one that I embrace after I’ve done the breathing exercises to get rid of the first, is gratitude. Gratitude because I have the immense privilege of knowing people who will go out on a limb and read my Frankenstein thing, who will take time out of their incredibly busy lives to give me feedback. What an amazing thing to do for someone. And in my case, an amazingly useful one – the feedback I got for my nonfic manuscript polished it to a level I believe I wouldn’t have been able to achieve normally.

My mate Daniel East wrote this great post about receiving criticism, in which he makes the point that ‘No book is perfectly written’. I think it helps if you consider your creation a thing that needs to be tended by a whole team of medical experts, rather than one lonely weirdo in his crumbling castle. If Dr Frankenstein had a couple of nurses, maybe his monster would’ve been known as Frankenstein’s Totally Normal Guy (you can’t even tell he’s had work!).

All criticism is useful – any issue that a reader has had is an issue that could be shared by any reader anywhere once the book is published. But, again as East points out, it means you just have to consider the info, see it as being highlighted. It might make you say ‘yes, correct, I will definitely change at least one name to something other than Billy Burpton in my manuscript’ or it might make you say ‘actually, Billy Burpton is a choice I’ve made, I’m obviously going to have to push the Billy Burpton issue so that the reader really gets what I’m going for.’

Because I am me, with my Scribe manuscript I couldn’t just settle on general feedback from my readers – I gave them a colour coded ranking system, so that each story in the book was either Green (yes, this is good, choose this) Orange (Not as good as another similar story, has a dud ending but a great beginning, just remove the paragraph with the gratuitous wank) or Red (no, hell no, not for me). This was meant to make the cutting down of a roughly 30,000 word manuscript to a lithe 10,000 word excerpt easy – which like most brilliant plans, mostly worked? There was only about six sections that were universally loved. For most Green, there was someone who gave it a Red. People who have never met provided amazing arguments and counter-arguments to why something was excellent/bad. It was amazing. It was extremely helpful. In some cases I rewrote things entirely to incorporate both perspectives. In other cases I decided that one side was a crazy person, who’s been huffing too much crazy gas.

As well as wandering around asking for feedback, I’ve been doing a bit of feedback myself. It’s a big responsibility. There is a lazy part of my personality that just wants to get along swimmingly with everyone and have tropical cocktails in a pool. That part of me whispers ‘just say it’s all amazing, it’s all perfect, c’mon they’re playing reggae-fusion in the dining hall!’ But writers don’t ask people for feedback to get lied to. I feel like you’re giving them a much bigger insult if you do that. I think the rule that people have to realise is that if someone cares enough about your piece to tell you the potentially upsetting truth about how you believe it can possibly be better, then you have succeeded in writing something that people care about.

The generosity of people who have spent time helping me out with my writing not only really makes me uncomfortably grateful, it also makes me really excited. I think if there’s one thing I’ve always wanted in my life, it’s to be a part of a vibrant, passionate, creative community, and I definitely feel connected at the moment, like there’s a big mob of people with pitchforks and torches marching up to my house, but you know, those pitchforks and torches are gifts perhaps? Maybe I’m digging a big garden and setting fire to it. I dunno. I let metaphors run way too long.

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The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: NYWF 2014

The National Young Writers Festival 2014 starts on Thursday, and I am ultra excited. This year will be very different as we will be bringing our dog Ernest, soooo that’s going to be amazing, but also I don’t know how well he will go at attending panels.

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Ernest is named after my favourite play The Importance of Being Ernest and also Ernest Hemingway, who Bridget loves with a fiery passion.

 

I’ve been to NYWF for many, many years now, and it has never failed to be a magical time. There is also some kind of weird curse, where I generally have a weird illness that I’m suffering from, such as the time I had shingles on my leg and had to stick it out of my sleeping bag for the cool air to caress. I am hoping that this year’s curse is fulfilled by my weird stress acid stomach ulcer thing, which means I’ll probably not be drinking coffee?

 

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This photo is from SEVEN YEARS AGO at NYWF.

 

Anyway, the program looks absolutely BANANAS this year, and I’m so excited. Bridget has already been a giant dork and drafted up an itinerary and already I’m sad about some of the things I’ll have to miss because I don’t have a time-turner. Also, if you want to see me do things, I’m involved in the following events:

IS JURASSIC PARK A THING THAT SHOULD REALLY HAPPEN?

Bridget and I are the affirmative for this debate, and we really have something very odd prepared, so I think you should come.

MY FAVOURITE IS PROBLEMATIC

I will be continuing my NYWF tradition of talking about the TV show ‘Friends’, in this case, how I love it, but how it has some godawful aspects.

WHY ROMANCE IS HERE TO STAY

Putting on my Momentum hat and facilitating this panel about the romance genre, with two wonderful panelists.

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Urgh, Writing: What are editors? We just don’t know.

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After a few weeks of back and forth, I am mostly done with my edits for A Man Made Entirely of Bats. Yay! This was a pretty quick process, due to the incredible thoroughness and promptness of my editor, Kathryn Moore, and also probably my general lack of preciousness about line-to-line stuff. One thing I have noticed about some of my writer friends is that they generally have no real idea what an editorial process entails. Sometimes they seem uncomfortable talking about it, like it’s secret cabal stuff which they really shouldn’t be exposed to. But what are editors? Why should we love them? Are editors witches?

HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

 

No, well, not as a rule. But the comparison is worth making, mostly because of the weird medieval peasant attitude that a lot of writers have to editors. They seem to have this idea that they should go and see this person about fixing their gangrenous arm (manuscript) and that they are probably going to be better off afterwards, but the process might be painful and they aren’t really sure about the methods these witches (editors) will employ, such as satanic worship/track changes, and maybe their gangrenous arm is fine, it’s meant to smell like wet almonds?

In reality, unless you’re unlucky one of the very rare examples of bad editors, having an editor is a privilege that a writer should be endlessly thankful for. I’ve had several awesome relationships with editors or my shorter stuff, which has ranged from cutting the beating heart out of the obese flab of my story and placing the core of my story into a slick robot body from the future, to subtly pointing out that my story used the word ‘inexorable’ eight times. I’ve worked with editors who have helped me come up with the very beginnings of an idea and kept in close contact throughout the entire creative process, like with Justin Wolfers on my recent Alt-Txt series. I’ve had editors who after working with me once have championed my work and continually pushed me and offered me more opportunities and growth, like the wonderful Geoff Lemon. An editor is often the next person to be enthusiastic about your work after you, and much like in a relay, it involves you passing the baton over after you’re exhausted and sick of it and never want to think about it ever again, and then suddenly there they are, full of vim and vigour, ready to run the next mile.

Kaythryn and A Man Made Entirely of Bats was my first experience with a book-length project. The key things that Kathryn did for me was identify tone and voice in my stories and make sure they were consistent throughout them. Because a lot of my dialogue is ‘comedic’ in nature, I have a tendency to follow patterns and repeat words that are almost invisible to me, because that’s how my brain works.

I think writers feel like editors offer a kind of binary choice – like an editor says ‘your sentence where you liken a horse to a government-run skatepark was confusing at first, perhaps some kind of other park? Perhaps a jungle gym?’ The writer thinks he has two choices – go with what the editor says, or stick to his guns. Except the editor is a reader, first and foremost, and if they are confused by an image, it’s very likely that everyone will be. One confusing sentence can fuck everything up. But actually there are three options, and that secret invisible one is to say something like ‘I just really feel that a government run skatepark has a lot of humorous implications which I’m trying to explore – how about I shorten the sentence so there’s not so many confusing nouns, and follow it up’. If the editor feels that works, they’ll be like, yay! Great! Ps, that analogy I just used was so fucking torturous, I could really use an editor.

I think because of my theatre background, I’m very used to the notion of collaboration in art. For the majority of my plays, I had the very good fortune of writing my script, and then throwing it to my director and actors and other creative in Sexy Tales and getting their input. So much of this wasn’t simple ‘workshopping’ but important factors like ‘Patrick, we can’t have an actual bear on stage which breathes fire’ and then I would have to discover why I wanted that bear, and was it really necessary (no) and could I change it to a pair of creepy retail twins? In the theatre world, working as closely as I did with a director is a bit of an anomaly. It’s entirely likely that the writer would only see how their play had been translated onto stage on opening night. In a lot of ways, it’s the editors job to take the idea that the writer has written down and translate it into a book that people can read.

A lot of the debate around self-publishing focuses on the fact that an author has the potential to do a far more thorough and sincere and effective marketing and publicity campaign for themselves than a publishing house can in the long run. The vast majority don’t have the skills or background for this, but could learn and do a really great job at it. This is because of lots of reasons, and deserves a whole different article, but the essence is 1. marketing in the current climate is about facilitating genuine and sincere connections between author and reader, and an author doing that will tend to have more sincerity on their side, being actually the author and 2. An author is only working on their book, whereas a marketer/publicist is probably juggling around twenty books at any one time. What is often and generally disregarded in this conversation (and I almost did it again) is the role of the editorial process. A self-published book does not have the standard of editing put into it that a publishing house provides. This is often as basic as layout, format – but a poorly laid out ebook is a deal-breaker for me personally. It’s usually noticeable in punctuation and grammar, and I think the rule with novels anyway is not about this crazy idea of elaborate and painstakingly correct grammar that an editor enforces, but rather about making grammar as unnoticeable as possible. And that takes practice. But a good structural edit, which gets in there and restructures the order, examines motivation, gets rid of a surplus character – that’s impossible to replace. I didn’t really explain the editorial process. Does anyone want to know? I dunno. Ask me anything, I’m cool.

Anyway, editors are great. They rarely get thanked publicly either. Can you name who edited famous books? They’re like ninjas.

Grammar ninjas.

Urgh, Writing: judge my cover

So, I had a meeting with the designer who is hopefully going to design the cover of A Man Made Entirely of Bats. As per usual, I over-planned everything and arrived with a folio of covers I like and then babbled about colours and stuff, before finally having to admit that I am actually colour blind.

But covers are really important, it’s this horrible fact. I’m afraid that some books fail because the cover isn’t great. So, yeah. I’m heaps keen to show you my designers art, because he’s a genius, but I’ll wait for later. But I will show you so covers that I like. I asked people on Facebook too, and got some good uns. Are there some covers that you really like that deserve a mention?

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CURRICULUM WORSTAE #9: BEAN DOWN SO GODDAMN LONG

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‘Err, umm, God bless?’ I muttered as I handed over my resume to the angry looking woman behind the counter. She immediately and visibly brightened.
‘And God bless you too!’
It had been rumoured for a long time that Gloria Jeans was owned by the Hillsong Church and was staffed entirely by brainwashed evangelists. I’d been wandering the streets forweeks by that point, desperate for any sort of casual wage so I could pay the rent. I felt that passing myself off as a believer was a small price to pay
She took a cursory look at my one page CV and winked at me. ‘We’ll give you a call.’

A week later I stood behind the counter at Gloria Jeans for a trial shift. The place smelt like coffee in pain. They taught me various ways to torture the beans – the crushing device, the milk burner, the thing where you put the ingredients and steam goes in it? In seemingly no time at all, I knew all the basics of how to utterly mutilate a cup of coffee.
‘Here you go, have a cup of the coffee you made!’ said my excited sixteen-year-old manager.
‘Please no’ I whispered. She looked at me like a puppy meeting a sassy tropical bird.
‘I’m lactose intolerant’ I told her.

My Bible-fearing, milk-hating web of lies collapsed by the third day, when my carefully contrived persona was shattered when one of the ‘baristas’ handed me a boiling hot metal thing that you packed full of beans and then shot boiling water through. The boiling hot coffee thing. He handed it to me, potentially to clean the beans out, but not being able to read his mind or identify the contraption, simply grabbed it in my hand.
‘JESUS CRAPPING ON A DOG’ I screamed, as the super heated metal burnt my hand skin.
‘God fucking mother shit’ I continued, running it under water. All the teen management looked at me scandalised. The customers, people who willingly put our boiling bean-swill in their mouths, couldn’t care less, obviously being either incredibly tough or devoid of feelings and taste. Later that day someone asked which church I attended. My breezy answer of ‘the one around the corner, you know, Saint MUrmbls’ didn’t seem to cut it. I was caught by a manager sitting at a REAL coffee shop on my break, desperately inhaling un-poisoned caffeine into my face.

When I was let go at the end of the week, in an exit-interview held by two High School dropouts, who were concerned that in the end, I might find somewhere else which would make me happier to work (re: literally anywhere else), I took my trial shift money and realised that sometimes, no matter how desperate you are, you have to draw the line. Look what I’d become – a creature of lies and malice, literally burned in the course of trying to make a buck. It was time to take a stand, and never again would I blasphemy like that – from now on, I would never impugn the holy name of coffee. Because if there’s one thing I believe in, in this crazy, mixed up world, it’s coffee.

CURRICULUM WORSTAE #8: KNIFE FIGHT

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Hey, think you’re pretty tough working at the LAVA FACTORY or in the SWORD FIGHTING PIT, I bet you do. Oh, you save kittens from fires, do you? Oh, you climb tall mountains to study goats, that’s pretty dangerous, I suppose. If you’re, like, I dunno, a giant wuss?

Me? No, I don’t working in the danger-field anymore, I got out of that racket, you can bet on it, whoo-boy. Yeah, I worked at Boyles Hotel in Sutherland. Yeah – that Boyles. The Boyles on the ass of the Shire. They say bikies used to frequent the joint in the eighties, and start fights and do other things that bikies do. Like sing ‘Leader of the Pack’ and turn into werewolves. Yeah – bikie stuff. And you know, all the bikies who didn’t die from their violent lifestyle – they’re still there. Yeah, you can see them in the corner, on dialysis and shit. And let me tell you, they sure get mad if you don’t mix their Toohey’s Old and Toohey’s New in exactly the correct amounts. Real mad. Mad enough to cough a whole bunch and nearly die right in front of you.

And yeah – the bottleshop attached to Boyles was legit dangerous. Lots of undercover cops hoping to catch us selling to teenagers. And let me tell you – they were right to suspect us. Not because we made it a habit, but because I was so shit at maths, I would regularly fuck up calculating their age from their license. And once, and I swear I’m not even fucking with you at all, some guy came and threw a knife directly at my head. A knife! And then my supervisor, who now represents Australia in some form of martial arts, vaulted over the bar and chased him down and like, kicked him in the face. Apparently this guy was a serial repeat offender in the ‘throwing knives at us’ game.

Why did I leave? I guess you could say I got burnt out – staring danger in the face and not flinching takes it out of you. Or I guess I decided that maybe serving beers to the worst people in the world had lost its glamour. Or I guess, more truthfully, the managers were giant homophobes and took all my shifts away because “they don’t want to work with a fag” yeah, I guess that was probably it. And then one evening, I’m coming home on the train and one of the supervisors is high as a kite and he comes and tells me, ‘yeah, man, nobody would work with you because you were gay’ and for some reason the only thing I can think to say in response is ‘I’l show them gay’ and shake my fist a whole bunch, while this guy just chews and chews on his tongue.