On the weekend I attended a draft swap meeting run by a dear friend of mine, Jan Cornall. Jan’s a great facilitator, she’s led a number of wonderful authors from first concept to publication, one of them being the award-winning fantasy author Margo Lanagan.
We all met up in an enchanting old terrace in Petersham, with green walls and red doors and a giant Geoffrey Smart painting on the wall, to talk about our novels, get some feedback and eventually swap manuscripts with other people to read over the holidays. Margo was guest of honour, bringing along two of her most recent awards, the Printz award and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, which she won this year for Tender Morsels. If you’ve never seen a World Fantasy Award (and really, how many of us have?) they’re actually quite funny – a pewter statue of H.P. Lovecraft looking like one of the Easter Island statues. He has big saucer eyes, so that the overall effect leaves you a bit creeped out, but wanting to touch his head nonetheless. Margo is so down to earth about all the awards; she is one of those people who really deserve the success they experience.
I haven’t read Tender Morsels yet but I’ve read Black Juice, her collection of short stories. It’s an excellent read. One thing that strikes me about how different her writing style is (and what marks it above other more traditional writing) is that she is not caught up in action speech (I did this, I said this), but rather evoking an emotion of experience through train of consciousness writing. It’s something to remember as an aspiring writer, and one of the things that I often notice about first time writers, that they begin every sentence with I did, he said, we went, rather than varying the sentence structure and allowing the fullness of description to enter their writing.
Some more advice I learnt for aspiring novelists is don’t quit your day job! Margo still needs to work on a regular basis, and this is a woman with three world fantasy awards under her belt. Which is a bit of depressing realism; we live in a society where even talented people can’t focus entirely on what they’re good at because of the money factor. She read some of her new book (a racy sex scene!) which is about selkies, the half seal, half humans found in Scotland.
In the afternoon we had a visit from another lovely published writer, Margaret Wilcox, author of Gone. Her book is a gripping memoir of tracking down her kidnapped daughter over fourteen years. Looking at Margaret, a well-dressed, polite older lady, she doesn’t seem like the type to be breaking and entering and dealing with dodgy lawers and cops, but we sat on the edge of our seats as she recollected some of the events of the book and the process of writing. She originally wanted it to write the book as a love letter to her found daughter Tanya, but was encouraged to send it to a publisher. The book has now been translated into several languages and distributed around the world.
Finally it came time to draft swap. We each read a segment of our novel and the synopsis and then paired up with someone else to swap manuscripts over the Christmas holidays. I swapped my novel, The Memory of Blood, with a couple who were co-writing a book set in London and Africa. What was great is that everyone was completely different; there were a few memoirs and literary fiction, travelling from India to Indonesia. And one rewrite of Dracula… mine. Personally, I found it really helpful to share with a group of people I had never met, after suffering a bit of writer’s anxiety, it’s good to get out and talk with other people going through a similar thing. Even published authors have been through the terror of the first book.
If you’re interested in Jan’s workshops (sorry, they’re in Sydney for all you awesome North American readers), you can check out her website: www.writersjourney.com.au
Margo Lanagan also has a good blog over at http://amongamidwhile.blogspot.com/