How to Include More Diversity in Your Fiction

The publishing industry is constantly improving in response to reader’s feedback and the natural progression of society and culture in general. For this reason, it is essential that writers challenge themselves to include more diversity in their fiction.

Think about it.

Every day we interact with people whose backgrounds, lifestyles and beliefs differ from our own. People with different ethnicities, sexual orientation, life experiences, physical and mental abilities, classes, education levels … you get the idea. People are different. However, this reality is not always been depicted in fiction or entertainment in general (tv shows, films and music).

When we start talking about the importance of diversity or representation in literature, the conversation quickly turns into a heated debate about appropriation: Who has the right to tell this person’s story?

Ann Patchett firmly believes that she can write about who and whatever she wants, but readers also have the right to tear her to shreds if she does a bad job. Other writers feel a little bit queasier at the prospect of including characters whose backgrounds differ too much from their own.

The way I see it, writers have three options:

  1. Don’t include a diverse cast
  2. Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well (and deal with whatever fall out happens as a result)
  3. Include a diverse cast, but don’t make the story about diversity

# 1 / Don’t include a diverse cast

Does this option really need to be unpacked? I think the title speaks for itself. You are certainly welcome to continue the outdated legacy of writing novels about straight, white, western people.

# 2 / Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well

 If you agree with Ann Patchett, then this may be the best option for you. If you are a white, straight female living in Hobart, Tasmania, no one is going to arrest you for writing lesbian erotica about two Nigerian refugees. Even if you do a good job, the reality is that some people will be VERY upset with you. If you have thick skin and a rock-solid justification for why you want to write this story, then go ahead.

People may not be happy with you, but if there is a story in your heart that is begging to be written, then you have to write it.

However, if you are writing about people whose background differ from your own, please do your research and do a lot of it. Read memoirs, interviews, blogs. Conduct your own interviews with actual people whose lives and experiences mirror those of your characters. And when the manuscript is done, hire sensitivity reader/s. Sensitivity readers are people who review your book and who assess the work for issues regarding representation, cultural accuracy, biases or insensitive language/depictions.

You can write about people from different background, but do it well and know why you want/need to write this novel.

#3 / Include a diverse cast but don’t make the story about diversity

If the above tactic is for brave writers, then this tactic is for ethical writers who are also cautious people pleasers. It is a lot easier—though that’s not to say easy—to include a diverse set of characters when the novel isn’t about their diversity. For example, some may argue that it is inappropriate for a white, straight female to write a coming-out story about an African teenage boy, but it is appropriate for that same writer to publish a novel about a female heroine whose best friend happens to be queer. See the difference?

You will still need to do a lot of research, but the pressure around articulating the internal experience/perspective of this character is eliminated because the story isn’t about sexual orientation, it’s about something else.    

This option has been used to great effect in contemporary YA dystopian novel and children’s book (though of course it also appears in adult fiction). The need to include more diversity within these two categories become very apparent in 2011 when YA authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo realised (during an online conversation) that their (respective) fiction become popular due to the setting: a fantastical version of Asian. This conversation quickly sparked the twitter movement #WeNeedDiverseInBooks and #DiversityinYa.

Adult writers feel that it is especially important to include more diversity in YA and children’s literature so that children and teenagers can see themselves in the fiction they are reading.

As author Walter Dean Meyers, said “[As] a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”

Regardless of which option you chose – okay, hopefully, you are choosing option two or three – the literary landscape is changing alongside our broader social and cultural awareness of those who have been marginalised. Progress is a natural part of human nature. We need to grow, develop and do better. Including a diverse cast won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it is a step in the right direction. And I encourage you to take it.


 

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Is Social Media Killing Us?

When people talk about social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were describing a dysfunctional romantic relationship. We’ve all read countless articles and watched news segments about how harmful social media can be.

For some, these online platforms can cause the user to experience anxiety and depression as they compare their (supposedly) not-so-perfect lives to the (apparently) glitter-soaked-farting-rainbows-totally-perfect lives of others.

People talk about how they hate:

  • the shallowness of social media
  • the ease with which people can post uninformed/misinformed content
  • people’s ability to post nasty, hurtful and anonymous comments
  • that it’s a total time suck

And yet, we all use it.

Walk down the street, sit in an airport terminal, hang out in a waiting room, stand in line at your favourite coffee shop and what will you see? People scrolling on their phones.

We kind of hate social media—and let’s be honest, it’s ‘cool’ to hate on social—but we kind of love it too.

If you are a writer (or a creative of any kind) that having a social media presence is pretty much essential. (Though, some people argue against this point). While there are some authors who’ve achieved success without having a ‘platform’, these people are outliers. They are the exception, not the rule.

Social media is a part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to be. When and how we use social is the key to whether it supports or hinders our endeavours. The following blog discusses:

  • why having a social media presence is important
  • how these platforms are distractive and addictive
  • how to create boundaries around your social media use and why you should.

Author Platform

It doesn’t matter if you are a freelance writer, a traditionally published author or an indie. If you are a writer, you need an author platform. (More or less). An author platform is how you create trust with your audience and cultivate opportunities with other professionals and publishers in the industry. You could look at it as digital networking (socialising while staying at home in your jammies) or you could see it as another way to build relationships.

An author platform typically includes a stagnant(ish) website, an active blog and a presence on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even YouTube.

To build an audience, you must create valuable (and free) content on your blog and social media pages. If you produce quality content on a consistent basis, then you will attract an audience over time because a) you are reliable and b) you are adding value to their lives.

If you have an active blog, frequently publish guest posts and chase freelance writing opportunities, you’ll quickly develop a solid body of work. This will add to your credibility as a writer. Plus, industry professionals will see you as reliable, proactive and prolific. In case you didn’t realise, these are good things to be seen as.

A healthy author platform can open doors to publishing opportunity, speaking gigs, invitations to networking events and collaborations with other creatives.

If you work your author platform, you can make it work for you.

Distraction & Addiction

Now that you understand the value of having an author platform, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Social Media (can) = Distraction & Addiction.

Writing an article, working on a novel or developing a short story takes time. These creative endeavours could be likened to a turtle race or a game of lawn bowls because they are so damn slow. Making something out of nothing requires hours of dedicated focus, research and considered revision. That being said, the completion of these tasks can lead to a deep sense of satisfaction.

You can’t bang out a novel in an afternoon.

Writing an article or publishing a short story or novel is delayed gratification. There may be a yearlong gap (likely longer) between your initial idea and the date of publication.

Social media is the complete opposite. You think of something, publish it and then experience immediate gratification in the form of heart symbols, thumbs up, and comments.

Hello, Love/Admiration/Acceptance/Acknowledgment-of-my-existence!

There is no delay with social media. That is why it’s so addictive. No doubt you’ve heard about the dopamine hit that occurs every time there is an increase in our number of followers, likes or comments.

Social media is easy and fun.

Writing a novel can be a lot of fun, but few would describe it as easy. Ever noticed how you may reach for your phone or open your web browser whenever you hit a difficult point in your story or are unsure what to say next?

Social media is a source of distract because it is easy and it offers immediate rewards.

This need to constant ‘check in’ causes our mind to become scattered making it that much more difficult to focus on our high priority tasks. Like you know, writing shit.

(If this part of the blog piques your interest, check out Cal Newport’s work).

Creating Boundaries

This is why we need to create rules and boundaries around how we use social media.

The one rule that ALL creatives should live by is to create before you consume. Let me say that again in a way that looks more official and Twitter-worthy …

Social Media Rule #1: Create Before You Consume.

That means you post your original content whether it be a piece of flash fiction, a photograph, a video, blog, article, short storysomethingbefore you start scrolling other people’s feeds, channels or websites.

In regards to boundaries, there is a slew of ways to reduce social media’s ability to distract you. Here’s just a few:

  • Keep your phone in your desk drawer during writing sessions
  • Use apps like Freedom.to to block specific sites/apps for set time periods
  • Schedule your social media time, for example, fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the afternoon
  • Spend one hour a week automating your social media posts using sites such as Hootsuite (that way you don’t HAVE to go on every day or at certain times of the day)
  • Make it a personal rule that you do not use social media before 8am or after 6pm and that you have one screen-free day a week.

Social media isn’t evil …. Okay, given the fact that it is literally DESIGNED to be addictive … it’s a little evil ….

The truth is, technology has created work opportunities that creative people couldn’t have had twenty years ago. It’s possible to go out there and to sell directly to your audience and to have full creative control over your product. And that is something worth celebrating!

But we also need to acknowledge that social media, if left unchecked, can become a hindrance to our creative process.

Milk this tool for all the golden latte deliciousness it can deliver, but also know that your Tweets, Instagram posts and YouTube videos will not exist forever.

The book that beats in your heart and that itches to escape through your fingers will outlive you, but only if you write and publish it.  

The difference between an author and an emerging writer is your resolve and dedication to the projects that really matter—the ones that are going to move the needle.

A solid author platform will help build an audience, but an audience is no good if you have nothing to sell them.

Your book has to be your top priority.

The work must always come first.

Create before you consume and you may wind up with a career beyond your wildest dreams. Write. Write a lot. And share those stories with the people who are hungry to read them.

Being an Active Member in Your Writing Community

Also Known as Good Writing Karma

Let’s be honest, as creatives, we can sometimes become a little self-involved with our creative process, our routines and art-making. This seclusion and intense inward focus is often a necessary part of the practice, but it’s equally important that we take the time to support other creatives and members of our writing and reading community. That’s just good karma. If you’re running a little thin on ideas don’t worry, the below suggestions will help get you started.

Write Reviews and Leave Comments

As a writer, you know how much time, energy and sacrifice goes into the creation of a book. That’s why it means so much to us when someone takes the time to acknowledge or praise our work. If you’ve enjoyed reading a particular book, take the time to write a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Not only are you telling the author how much you loved their book you’re also supporting the success of that book as the number of reviews – especially positive reviews – greatly effects book sales.

Lots of positive reviews = More book sales.

No reviews = No sales.

We’ve all experienced the warm fuzzy feeling that follows ANY compliment; doubly so when the compliment is about our creative work. Giving the gift of praise to another writer is damn good karma. Cos let’s be honest, so often we slave away on a piece of writing that even our parents and friends can’t be bothered reading. That’s why it’s so important that we support one another and that we give each other praise and feedback. Not only do we value language and story in a way that non-writers do we also know the discipline and sacrifice it took to make that book, article or blog.  Let writers know that you enjoyed their work. Write a review, leave a comment and spread that writerly love!

Shop Locally

It’s vital that we support small local independent business whenever we can. Yeah, you can buy books cheaper online, but such purchases rarely come with a smile, additional recommendations or bookish banter. Plus, you don’t have to wait 1-7 days for said purchase to arrive. Instead, you can crack that spine within thirty seconds of leaving the story. Instant gratification!

If you DON’T support your local bookstore, then one day you may not have one. Ask yourself the following question: do you really want to live in a town that doesn’t have a bookstore?

The books at your local store may be a touch more expensive, but you’re paying for the privilege of leisurely browsing, picking up physical books, flipping them over and reading the blurb. You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases. This small freedom may introduce you to a new book or novelist; pleasures yet to be experienced. You are also paying for the bookseller’s expertise. If you give the assistant a few clues, they’ll meet it with a handful of recommendations – books that you may not have instinctively picked up.

You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases.

A bookstore is not a shop. It is a community centre where authors, budding writers and readers can meet in real life. It is a place where you can discuss the latest Zadie Smith, Tim Winton or Ann Patchett novel and you won’t be met with blank stares. It is our place. That’s why it is so important that we show up and support it with our time, money and presence.

Critiquing

Writing can be a lonely business and we don’t always do a good job of assessing the strengths and weaknesses in our own work. If there is a member of your writing network (physical or virtual) whose company or storytelling you enjoy, consider offering to critique their work. Remember, the ideal critique partner is someone who is kind and honest. Always start your critiques with positive feedback by highlighting the works strengths and any sentences that you found beautiful, poetic or technically impressive. Whatever weaknesses you do identify, be sure to deliver that criticism kindly followed by a suggestion on how they could potentially resolve it. You shouldn’t offer to critique someone’s writing with the expectation that your generosity be reciprocated. If your partner does make such as offer be sure to take them up on it and say thank you — just don’t expect it!

Sensitivity Reader

If your novel deals with some heavy themes or if you’re representing marginalised groups, then you should consider hiring a sensitivity reader. Of course, writers can write about anything, but readers (and critics) also have the right to tear that author to shreds if they do a bad job. Sensitivity readers are useful if you are writing about an experience you haven’t had, or if you are writing from the perspective of a character whose race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental abilities are different from your own. You are responsible for your representation of people from marginalised groups and people who’ve had traumatic experiences, so act responsibly. A simple Google search will provide you with a host of readers you can approach. Once you’ve made contact, they’ll be able to tell you whether they are the most appropriate person to proofread your work.

The last thing the world needs is more poorly research literature. Books and words have power and we need to be careful about the way we use these tools.

It’s important that we make time for the crafting of our stories, but it’s also important that we make the time to support other writers, readers and book lovers. This is our tribe and we need to take care of it.

 

Five Things That Will Derail Your Writing

Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.

Lack of sleep

This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.

There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.

The internet, email and social media

This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!

Excessive noise

I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.

Not knowing what needs to be done next

This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.

If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.

When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.

Skipping breaks

This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.

Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.

You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.

In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.

These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!

(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).

Desires vs Goals

(Note: The video version of this blog can be found here)

As writers, we all want to write amazing novels. We want to write the kind of novels that readers can’t put down. Novels that take readers on epic journeys far away from their everyday life and that allow them to experience the world through another’s eyes. Novels that challenge readers, that teach them something, that inform them about important issues or that move them in some profound way.

As writers, we want to get agents, sign deals and see our books in stores. We want to go on a book tour and do interviews with smart journalists. We want our online platforms to explode along with our sales. We want readers to send us fan art or emails detailing what our book meant to them.

These secret desires can be rocket fuel on days when inspiration is running thin. Be warned though, these same desires can quickly lead to disappointment and apathy. When these thrilling futures fail to materialise, we may wind up asking, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s the point in trying anymore?’ or worse, ‘Maybe I’m no good at this.’

Dreaming about hitting the New York Times Best Seller List or winning a prestigious award can be a fun way to occupy your time while waiting in a doctor’s office or lazily drinking tea on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a big difference between desires and goals.

Getting an agent, a book deal, winning a literary award or experiencing skyrocketing sales are desires. You have absolutely no control (or very little) over any of these events becoming a reality. However, you are fully in charge when it comes to goals.

Goals are specific, measurable and they have deadlines.

Getting an agent is a desire. Querying five agents in the first quarter of the year is a goal. The former is ambiguous and disempowering, the latter is exact and empowering. Goals are specific and measurable. In the case of the above example, you have set the goal to email five agents, and the self-imposed deadline will help keep you on track and focused.

Of course, some goals will involve others, but it’s important that you continue to recognise the difference between a goal and a desire.

Desire: The proofreader will find all the typos in my manuscript.

Goal: The proofreader and I will complete the final round of edits by October.

While it’s fun to imagine the future our current WIP may one day experience, it’s important that we keep our feet firmly on the ground. After all, that shiny ‘one-day’ future will never happen if you don’t do the work.

When working on a project, there is tremendous value in setting goals. However, setting vague goals like “Write a Book” can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. It’s just too damn BIG! Plus, it will be a long time before you experience the satisfaction of crossing that item off your goal list. Instead, it’s much more productive to break that one massive goal into much smaller goals.

Remember: A goal is something you are in charge of.

Instead of setting “Write a Book” as a goal, consider the steps involved in that process. This one goal could easily be broken down into something like this:

  1. Read a craft book such as Save the Cat by Jessica Brody
  2. Spend one week creating character profiles
  3. Spend one week outline the novel using the Save the Cat principles
  4. Write 500-1000 words a day, five days a week. Hit 80,000 words by July 12.
  5. Re-read manuscript in one/two sittings while making note of any large structural issues or plot holes
  6. Spend one week creating a plan on how to revise initial draft
  7. Spend one-two hours, five days a week, revising
  8. Spend 2-3 weeks re-read the revised draft and make any final adjustments
  9. Ask five friends to become beta-readers
  10. Drink copious amounts of whiskey while waiting for beta-reader feedback.

Of course, some of these goals could be broken down further, but you get the idea. For instance, I prefer to complete step ten while clutching my battered copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and crying.

Desires can be inspiring, motivating and energising, but they can lead to dissatisfaction. Goals may be less thrilling, but what they lack in shimmer they make up for in pragmatism. Please, do not underestimate the energy and motivation that comes from real progress. It may not be the Ra-Ra excitement you experience when imagining hitting the New York Times Best Seller List, but those big exciting moment won’t ever happen if you don’t first build the habit of setting realistic and achievable goals.

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!

Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

Author Interview with Jay Ludowyke

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Dr Jay Ludowyke is an author and academic with a research focus on narrative nonfiction, objects and artefacts. She holds qualifications in writing, history and library services. Her writing has appeared Meniscus, Visible Ink and TEXT. Jay’s debut novel, Carpathia, was released earlier this year by Hachette.

Carpathia is a dual narrative that follows the Carpathia‘s legendary rescue of the Titanic survivors in 1912 and the discovery of the ship’s wreck nearly 100 years later.

Jay and I met two years ago at a writing saloon on the Sunshine Coast. At the time, she was completing a Doctorate at USC and I was completing a Masters. Jay’s intelligence, talent, and enormous generosity are obvious. Hearing about her debut novel Carpathia, I knew I wanted to have Jay on the blog. Being the generous person that she is, she agreed.

What drew you to the story of the Carpathia?

Jay: I first heard about Carpathia while watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow, a British television program where people bring in artefacts to be appraised by an expert. The program featured a commemorative medal presented to a crew member who served aboard Carpathia during the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors. The expert told the story of how Captain Arthur Rostron diverted steam from the ship’s heating and lighting, sending it back into Carpathia’s engines. Then they sailed full speed through the black night, directly towards icebergs, desperately trying to reach the stricken ocean liner.

Carpathia’s rescue mission was brave and heroic, but few people know this story, despite its connection to the most famous maritime disaster of the twentieth century. I have never liked tragedy, but I have always been drawn to heroism and nobility and romanticism, and Carpathia brings these elements to the Titanic story — at least for me. Her rescue mission captured my heart.

This year marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the sinking of the Carpathia. Why do you think now is an important time for people to learn the story of the Carpathia?

Jay: We seem to have a fascination for centenary anniversaries — perhaps because so few humans reach this milestone. Carpathia was sunk by a U-boat while leading a convoy out of Liverpool during the final year of the First World War. Five men were killed that day — 17 July, 1918. In addition to the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors and her war service, Carpathia was built when the shipping industry was still transitioning from wind power to steam power, which coincided with a period of intense immigration from Europe to the United States. She was also one of Cunard’s first holiday cruisers, traversing the Mediterranean. In 2000, after several failed attempts, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) located Carpathia’s wreck and she was subsequently dived by a group of amateur technical divers in 2001 and again in 2007 during an artefact salvage expedition, in one of the deepest ever UK wreck dives. Any one of these elements warrants mention in the historical record and their cumulative effect makes Carpathia a significant artefact of the twentieth century. So, the one-hundredth anniversary of her loss is the ideal time to commemorate her.

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Your book alternates between the early 20th century and 2007 as you explore the history of the Carpathia and the recent discovery of her wreck. Was it difficult to construct a voice that could move between these two-time periods? Is that why you chose to use a narrative voice rather than a “standard” non-fiction voice?

Jay: I did have to contend with one significant issue of narrative voice while writing Carpathia. This was caused by using both an historical and contemporary timeline in alternating chapters. I felt that each timeline deserved a voice that accurately reflected the period and people within. For example, the historical chapters are written in a style that favours a lyrical voice, with a significant degree of detail and world building that gives verisimilitude to depictions of Edwardian society and life aboard steamships. However, the contemporary chapters dial back the lyricism, particularly since the protagonist here is a down-to-earth, plain-speaking firefighter from Manchester. It would have been a disservice (to him and to readers) to depict Ric Waring and the other men who dived Carpathia’s wreck with the lyrical voice used in the historical chapters — inauthentic to who they are and the way they speak. The key was to find a balance so that the two voices harmonised.

I used the genre of narrative nonfiction to write Carpathia because I wanted to tell people a story – albeit true. One that would captivate them. Too often, the ‘standard’ nonfiction voice to which you refer fails to engage a reader’s mind and emotions, because it focuses on recounting facts, figures and dates. That’s easy. Enlivening nonfiction is much harder.

Can you tell us about the research that was involved with this book? Both the historical research and your interactions with Ric Waring and his diving team.

Jay: So much research! Too much to list it all here, but among other things it involved reading

reference works (at first, with a dictionary in one hand to look up all the nautical terminology), locating primary sources, reading historical news accounts, contacting Titanic experts and maritime archaeologists, and interviewing the divers. I even visited Las Vegas specifically to attend a Titanic exhibition, and in New Zealand I went for a cruise on TSS Earnslaw, the only remaining coal-fired passenger ship in the southern hemisphere (where they allowed me into the normally restricted engine room and let me throw some coal in the boiler’s furnace, and to visit the bridge and steer the ship!)

I also went on a research trip to the United Kingdom, which was funded by the University of the Sunshine Coast. This involved visits to multiple information repositories. The major ones included, in London: The National Archives, and the National Maritime Museum; in Liverpool: the University of Liverpool, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum; in Newcastle: the Tyne and Wear Archives, and the Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum; and in Belfast: the Titanic Belfast Museum and Slipways. Because it was winter in England, the nights were long and it was always dark when I entered and exited the archives. For weeks, it was like living in perpetual night. While researching Carpathia, I remember missing the sun for the first time in my life.

In Manchester, I stayed with Ric Waring and interviewed him about his experiences diving Carpathia. Ric was very patient with me, because at that stage I knew next to nothing about any kind of diving, much less technical diving – the kind of deep diving required to dive Carpathia – which is highly specialised and very dangerous. The rest of the team also shared stories with me, but because they were spread over the UK, Italy and Germany, I focused on Ric, who was the 2007 expedition leader. I was quite nervous about meeting him, but he was welcoming and very forthright about his experiences — the good, the bad and the funny.

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What were some of the most interesting facts you uncovered during your research?

One of the most interesting archival documents I located was a letter written by Charles H. Marshall to Cunard, concerning the naming of Carpathia. This was quite extraordinary because Marshall was actually a passenger aboard Carpathia when she went to rescue the Titanic’s survivors, amongst whom were three of his grown nieces!

I also found records and photographs indicating that 2,000-year-old stones from Hadrian’s Wall, a UNESCO world-heritage listed Roman site, were displayed in a glass case aboard Carpathia. In the book, the stones are portrayed as her sunken treasure. Previously, I’d only ever seen brief mentions that the end of Hadrian’s Wall had been found in the shipyard while Carpathia was being built — never that the stones were placed aboard her.

Finally, after a great deal of time and effort, I uncovered the real name of the baby born on Carpathia’s maiden voyage and heretofore known only as ‘Carpathius’ —  but I’m not going to spoil that scene by revealing the name here!

What challenges did you encounter while writing a historical non-fiction narrative?

I love history and I wanted to tell the reader absolutely every interesting thing I discovered. And I thought everything was interesting! When I send an early draft to my supervisor, Dr Ross Watkins, he, very constructively, told me it was boring. I’d forsaken the story in favour of reciting facts — the antithesis of what I was trying to achieve when I chose narrative nonfiction as my genre. When I became aware of the problem, it was still incredibly difficult to resolve because I struggled against privileging my desires over the needs of the narrative. In the end, I had to reconcile myself to writing drafts that were factually overwritten. I could only resolve this kind of overwriting during the editing process, after giving myself time and distance so I could evaluate the text more objectively. Only then, could I ‘kill my darling’ extraneous facts.

Can you tell us a little bit about your routine? Are you a morning person or night person? Do you write every day? Do you research and write at the same time? Do you outline? 

Jay: I won’t start writing until I’m satisfied I’ve done enough preliminary research — that’s not to say all the research will be done before I put fingers to keyboard – far from it, but I’m a plotter and I need to know my organising structure (or at least the beginning, conflict, climax and ending) before I begin. This gives me direction. Once I start writing, I’m still always researching, but then I’m seeking the type of information needed to construct scenes and create verisimilitude. I work best during the day, which can be a little difficult since I’m also a night owl. When I’m at the writing stage of a project, I treat it like a job and do it every day.

There are two strategies I found particularly useful for writing historical nonfiction. During the research stage I created a detailed timeline of events relating to Carpathia. I compiled the information from the many sources I consulted, adding fact after fact to create a more comprehensive history of her than any single source offered. It was extraordinarily useful to have a chronological timeline that I could refer to, even though the book’s plot is not structured chronologically. The timeline was fully referenced so that I always knew from where the information came. Then, when writing the book, I used footnotes (always intending to remove them in the finished version) to continue to maintain that link with the original source. This was a huge help when my editor was fact checking, and I had to confirm the validity of something that was being queried.

I usually only do a written outline if I have a limited word count. I’ll note what I need to achieve per 500 or 1,000 words, so that I don’t hit my limit and discover that I’m only half done with no words left. If there is no word limit (or its several tens of thousands), most commonly, I just begin writing. This is because by the time I’m ready to begin I always have a mental plan and know where I’m going to start. Things usually flow organically from there, because of the mulling I’ve done beforehand. Then, at about the halfway mark, I’ll assess what I’ve done, make a list of scenes I still need to write (I have a better idea of them by this point) and continue. After completing a chapter I’ll often do a one-paragraph summary so that I don’t forget what I wrote in that chapter or what threads I’ve left hanging. Excepting major plot points, I usually work out the details of a scene during the act of writing. It’s part instinctual, but always informed by that preliminary research and mulling.

If you would like to find out more about Jay, all her contact details are below. Carpathia is available in bookstores now or can purchase directly here.

Dr Jay Ludowyke

Email: jay@jayludowyke.com

Website: www.jayludowyke.com

Twitter: @JayLudowyke

Facebook: JayLudowykeAuthor

 

 

 

 

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