We had a great launch of the Oxley Men’s Shed anthology, Offcuts: Stories from the Shed, on Saturday 27 November in Brisbane. Nine men from the Shed contributed to the collection, and the first (modest) print run sold out! 70 to 80 people turned up to hear a brilliant launch by local Councillor Nicole Johnston, listen to music from the band Crossed Fingers, and enjoy a scrumptious morning tea.
This is no ordinary collection of stories. It draws on the varied experiences of nine men who have led very different lives, but whose paths have eventually crossed at Oxley Men’s Shed. In this book these mostly first-time writers have taken the opportunity to share some of their fascinating stories from the past with their families and with the wider community. Many of these are never-before-told tales, entertaining anecdotes that not only illuminate the writers’ earlier lives, but often trigger our own memories too.
In these stories we meet a former fitter and turner who as a boy decided to see what would happen when he packed gunpowder from leftover fireworks into a fruit tin and lit the fuse; a retired meat inspector who had to escape hand over hand down a rope off a high church roof when his ladder collapsed; an ex-plumber who starred in a Bollywood movie and dodged bombs and bullets while driving a tour bus in the Middle East; a former photographer who once had the ultimate hand in a boarding house poker game; and a retired insurance underwriter who relives his late-night dash home to dive under the bedclothes before the resident ghost appeared.
Then there’s a Vietnamese veteran driving an Army forklift who literally backed himself into an embarrassing corner with his commanding officer; an ex-teacher who was driving his prized first car through South Brisbane when the back seat caught fire; a former electrician who turned jackaroo to help out his mate on a cattle drive in northern NSW; and a retired agronomist who as a young man led a hiking group down a mountain during a cyclone, with intriguing romantic results.
This is a heady mix of yarns from a group of writers keen to tell their often remarkable stories – sometimes humorous, occasionally hair-raising, but always from the heart.
Offcuts: Stories from the Shed, Armour Books, Brisbane.
(A poem triggered by a comment from my late mother that people who weren’t there didn’t understand what it was like to live through WWII)
They do not know,
those who came after,
how the bugle call sounded
and the men went away;
when ration cards sold
in back streets of the city
and meat cost as much
as a decent week’s pay.
They do not know,
those with buds in their ears,
how we listened to rumours
of invasion to come;
how we lived with anxiety,
with gossip and blackouts,
and ran for the shelters
but refused to succumb.
They do not know,
those folk on high salaries,
how we once had sweet fun
on minimal pay
in the arms of young soldiers
at dances and parties
knowing the foe
was just islands away.
They do not know,
the punters and brokers,
how we bet on the future
with our wounded and dead;
not knowing if lovers
would ever come back,
not knowing if there were
more dark days ahead.
They do not know,
those planning grand houses,
that there was a time
we had hopes and dreams too;
but our visions were clouded
by tears for the dying;
the best we could pray was
we’d all see it through.
They do not know,
those who came after,
of that unreal existence
when nothing was sure,
or why we still yearn
for missed fun and laughter:
those who grew up
when the world was at war.
Copyright Darryl Dymock 2021
*Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”. It is observed on 25 April each year, the anniversary of the landing of Australian, New Zealand and British troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915.
Feel free to make the count, but I can assure you there are exactly 300 characters including spaces.
The Small Truths competition ran for a month in late 2020, in conjunction with the better known Horne Essay Prize.
The winner of the Horne Prize itself has been announced, but I’ve yet to find any mention of the Small Truths short list or winner. And I’ve given up waiting for my congratulatory email😉. But at least I can share my entry with you here.
I like to think my micro-essay displays ‘keen insight and depth of knowledge’ about modern-day Australia. I know some of the references will mean more to Australians than most other readers across the world, so I’ve provided links to follow up if you want to.
There’s nothing like having a word limit (or a character limit) to test your ability to be succinct.
As most students know only too well from high school onwards😉.
Until next time
* The Persian Army was led by King Xerxes, a name which seems to me to be a good Scrabble word, if it was allowed.
A few weeks back I posted an interview with Fiona Stager, co-owner of Avid Reader bookshop in West End, Brisbane, Australia. You might remember how strongly engaged Avid Reader is with its community, both locally and online. So I thought you might like this recent post from Fiona, from the bookshop website:
“This Saturday 3 October we celebrate Love Your Bookshop Day which was created by the Australian Booksellers Association to celebrate bookshops across the country and highlight what makes local bookshops great. There will be facebook events, online events and giveaways galore.
Here at Avid Reader we have decided this year to rename it Love Our Customers Day! This is a chance for us to thank you for your continued support of our bookshops during this very uncertain time.
We have been overwhelmed with the many acts of kindness shown to us since March. An example is customers John and Jo who acted as our free couriers to 4005 and 4006 postcodes. Many people said it was the highlight of their day to receive a parcel and have a friendly chat with them.
We had orders from across Australia from family and old friends and concerned customers. Authors and publishers have also given us so much support. Along with an understanding and supportive landlord we have survived!
We thank you for everything you have done to support us.
Happy Love Our Customers Day,
I hope that message makes you feel good as we continue to stutter through extraordinary times.
When you’re writing, do you sometimes go off at a tangent? Head off in some absolutely fascinating direction, only to discover later that’s not where you wanted to go? Or perhaps you decide the tangent is the new direction, and that what you wrote before is mostly irrelevant. (Maybe life is like that too?)
In this final blog of this series, which first appeared as guest blogs for Margaret River Press, I’d like to re-introduce the three people I interviewed for the earlier blogs and let them talk about tangents in a different way.
Each of them introduces a fascinating spin-off from their main area of work, a spin-off that in its own way tells us something special about writing and publishing in Australia.
Where the Wild Things Are – Fiona Stager
How big a market is there for children’s books in Australia? Big enough to generate a spin-off specialist bookshop alongside an existing one, according to prominent independent bookseller Fiona Stager.
If you’re a regular, you’ll recall that my second blog in this series was based on an audio interview with Fiona, co-owner of Avid Reader Bookshop in West End, Brisbane. In the audio extract below, she explains how a flourishing children’s ‘corner’ in that bookshop developed into a stand-alone bookshop when the property next door came up for rent.
It augurs well for the future of books and bookshops in Australia that 30% of sales are of children’s books.
Of the two passions Fiona mentions – cook books and travel books, I reckon sales of the former might have risen during the Covid-19 slowdown as locked-in citizens looked for creative in-home activities.
I’ve heard that banana bread was a hot favourite (perhaps literally), but no doubt there were some who pushed the culinary boundaries.
The sales of travel books, especially for overseas destinations, must have surely slumped this year, however, and Fiona was no doubt fortunate she expanded into children’s books instead 🙂
Ambassadors for editing – Karen Lee
If you’ve seen earlier blogs in this series, you may remember that Karen Lee, CEO of the Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd), told me that if you really want to upset an editor, then suggest to them that what they do is ‘just proofreading’.
To try to address what they see as a major misconception of their contribution to the writing process, IPEd developed an initiative to send out some of its members as ‘ambassadors’ to explain what they do.
Karen tells us the origin and purpose of this IPEd ‘spin-off’ in this video clip.
Funded by the Copyright Agency, access to IPEd ambassadors is free, and Karen encourages writing groups and classes of all kinds to contact the Institute if they are interested in hearing about how editors can help them.
Postcards from future Queensland – Kim Wilkins
In addition to being a well-published author of fantasy and historical adventure stories for women, Kim Wilkins is Associate Professor in Writing, Publishing, and 21st-Century Book Culture at the University of Queensland (UQ). You might have met her through video clips in the first blog in this series.
In April this year, Kim and a colleague, Dr Helen Marshall, launched an initiative from UQ’s School of Communication and Arts which invited senior high school students to imagine a better world, post Covid-19.
In this video clip, Kim talks about the project’s aims:
You can catch up with the progress of the postcards project and see some of the many postcards Queensland high school students have submitted on the project website.
I suggested to Kim Wilkins that asking students to use their imagination in the postcards project fitted closely with her own use of imagination in writing her fantasy and historical fiction novels.
You can see her thoughtful response to that suggestion in the video clip here:
I hope that your own imagination has been sparked by Kim’s comments and also by the insightful inputs from Karen Lee and Fiona Stager into this blog. I’m very thankful to all three of them for their willingness to take part in this series and for their stimulating responses to the questions I posed.
What impressed me overall was not only their openness but also the enthusiasm each one showed for their particular contribution to the writing and publishing world.
Through these four blogs I’ve learned a lot about writing, editing, publishing and bookselling and a little bit more about technology. I hope you enjoyed the ride.
If you haven’t yet seen the three earlier blogs in this series, you can find them on my Writesite blog: drdymock.wordpress.com
Author, editor and journalist Gary Kamiya said an editor is responsible for making a piece of writing ‘more like a Stradivarius and less like a woodchip’. He intriguingly suggested that the primary responsibility of an editor is not to the writer but to the reader.
Karen Lee, CEO of the Institute of Professional Editors Limited (IPEd) sent me Kamiya’s short piece on editing when I first made contact with her about contributing to a guest blog series for Margaret River Press in August 2020.
So as part of that series I was interested to follow this up with Karen, and explore with her the purpose of IPEd and the role of editors in the writing process.
This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview with Karen. The short video clip below will serve to introduce her and give you some idea of her passion for what editors do.
I asked Karen how IPEd had come about. If I wasan editor, I said, why would I want to join IPEd?
Karen said that the majority of IPEd’s members are freelancers, sole traders, mostly working independently from home, and therefore potentially professionally isolated. She said the association came about when a number of smaller societies came together because they saw the need to network, to talk about professional standards and to consider professional development. Last year the Australian-based IPEd extended its reach to New Zealand, and is also seeking to better serve those working in-house in business and government.
Editors join IPEd for reasons similar to those of authors who join writing workshops and go to writers’ festivals, Karen said – to improve and hone their skills, and also to network, to get to know other writers. IPEd provides an opportunity for editors to get to know each other, she said, to form some connections. And sometimes there’s an additional spin-off – new business.
As a result of the various constraints and working-from-home requirements over the past few months, many organisations have moved to a new reliance on technology to keep staff in touch. It seems IPEd was already ahead of the game, as Karen explains in the video clip here:
While IPEd’s use of technology and its paperless office have helped the organisation cope smoothly with recent external changes, I asked Karen how members were faring under the Covid-19 slowdown. After all, editors, particularly freelancers, normally have a bit of ebb and flow in their work because they’re reliant on writers who also have ebb and flow. How had it been for them in recent times?
Karen said that they had undertaken a survey early in the closedown period, and from more than 200 responses, about half said it was too early to tell if there would be any effect on their business, and about the same number were already experiencing some downturn, with advance bookings dropping and workflows slowing. ‘But we’ve heard of some others,’ she said, ‘who say they’re going gangbusters.’ It seems that some authors were dusting off their manuscripts now that they had time to work on them again. At the time of this interview, Karen said IPEd planned to regularly monitor how members were going.
I also asked Karen about the impact the pandemic might have on IPEd’s future operations. You can see her reply here:
In reply to my question about how a writer might find an editor that’s just right for them, Karen assured me that the Editors Directory on the IPEd website is the way to go.
The next question a writer might of course ask is how much is having a manuscript edited likely to cost. It seems that there is no standard fee, and that IPEd members may use different criteria for a quote, as Karen explains in this video clip:
A major question for writers is, of course, whatever the basis for the fee, is it worth paying an editor to edit your manuscript. Is there likely to be sufficient value added to justify the cost and effort? Should we expect a Stradivarius? Karen Lee said that if you want to really incense an editor, suggest to them that what they do is ‘just proofreading’.
As a professional association, IPEd has to look inwards to serve the needs of its members. But at the same time, it extends its influence outwards into the community of writers through the activities of those members.
I asked Karen Lee the rather large question of what contribution she thinks the body of editors as a whole makes to the publication process. You can see her response here:
In that video clip, Karen Lee mentions that she is also a writer. I finished the interview by asking her whether she has a favourite author.
Karen said that of the authors she admires and who inspire her, Amy Tan is right at the top of her list. Also, recently she’d been introduced to the writing of Elif Shafak, a Turkish author who writes about religion in Turkey and the status of women in that country. Karen said that Elif Shafak’s writing reminded her of that of Isabel Allende, in that she writes very lyrically and very passionately, but also that she writes about issues that pick up on her country’s political nuances .
Another favourite is Yangsze Choo, a Malaysian author in America. ‘It was such a delight to read stories that were based in Malaysia with Malaysian-Chinese culture,’ Karen said, ‘and that had been well received at an international level.’
You will have seen even from her responses in this blog that Karen Lee is passionate about the role of editors and the purpose of IPEd.
In the short piece she sent me from Gary Kamiya, he admonished editors to ‘make it light and tight and strong so that it sings’. Writers and publishers alike would be glad to hear such a song.
Still to come
In the final blog for the Margaret River Press series, each of the three people I’ve interviewed adds another fascinating dimension to the writing and publishing process.
If, like me, your senses respond to the feel and smell of books in a bookshop, you’ll like Avid Reader.
This award-winning independent bookstore has been in the high street at West End in Brisbane for 22 years and has firmly established itself in the local community. In recent years they’ve spun off a successful children’s bookshop next door: ‘Where the Wild Things Are’.
But the past few months of 2020 have been tough for storefront bookshops, and I recently talked to co-owner Fiona Stager about how Avid Reader has coped. This is an edited version of that telephone conversation. It first appeared on the guest blogger page at Margaret River Press in August 2020.
First I asked Fiona about changes she’d seen in publishing in the past two decades. You can listen to her response in this audio clip.
The developments Fiona mentions in that audio clip were of course all before a certain pandemic swept across the world and turned many businesses upside down, including bookshops.
I asked Fiona how Avid Reader had responded to the constraints of Covid-19 measures. You can hear her reply in this audio clip.
Despite the limitations of Zoom-based events, Fiona says they will continue with them after the current restrictions have gone:
Using Zoom has really allowed us to engage with a much wider audience. Each time we’ve done a Zoom there’s been an interesting story that’s come out of it. After our first Zoom event we did a survey: ‘I’ve always wanted to come to your events but I live in Western Australia’; ‘I used to come to all your events but now I’ve moved out of Brisbane and with Zoom I can come to all your events.’
Fiona has also moved all her book clubs to Zoom. But despite the geographically expanded audience, she says that sales are down compared to walk-in events. With an in-store book launch, for example, people often not only buy that book, but they also browse the shelves, and pick up other books that appeal to them on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, Fiona says they will continue with Zoom even when face-to-face events restart because they know it does reach people beyond the immediately reachable community:
For any number of reasons people can’t come to the shop, but we’ve built such a strong reputation that people jumped at the chance of coming to Zoom events. It’s really opened up the world for us. It also means we can curate our program to even finer detail. So we’ve been able to match the best interviewer for the author, and they don’t have to be in the same city. For example one author was in Melbourne and the interviewer was in Sydney.
‘An ecosystem of small business’
Fiona actively fosters a sense of community, not only among the bookshop’s clients, but also among local businesses. She says that after such a long time in West End, she sees Avid Reader as an ‘anchor tenant’ which relies on other small businesses but has an obligation to them as well:
I made a commitment to our staff, our publishers and writers that we would be here after this [the Covid-19 shutdown]. But also I was really committed to being here for other businesses around us. It’s an important ecosystem of small business, that we all really need each other. That’s something I’m really passionate about.
And there’s been unexpected spin-off from the constraints:
I must say I’ve never been so pleased to be near a chemist. I’ve always thought it was important to be near good retailers, like a good shoe shop, good fashion, good food, a good bakery … . But now, I think it’s been really great to have been close to a chemist. People come out and go to the chemist for something, and then they come to us because the chemist is right next door.
Clearly Fiona is always on the lookout for ways her own business can survive alongside and with the other retailers in West End. But as a bookshop, Avid Reader faces particular challenges at this time.
I asked Fiona about her predictions for the future of publishing and book-selling in Australia in the coming months. You can hear her response here:
Fiona added that in the emerging sales climate, not all the books released later in the year will make it. And that’s got nothing to do with the quality of the books, she says, but to the fact that they’re ‘competing for everything from our shelf space to media and what will get coverage and traction.’
As for Avid Reader itself, I asked Fiona how she was feeling about the bookshop’s future in the midst of this uncertainty. You can listen to her prognosis here:
Fiona’s response is the experienced and pragmatic voice of someone who’s been in the book trade for more than 20 years. It’s clear she sees some hurdles and unknowns ahead. As with the spread of the pandemic itself, retail businesses are in uncharted territory, with a compass we’re all learning to use as we go along.
Nevertheless, in the midst of predictions of retail gloom and doom, and her struggles to maintain a solid client base, Fiona maintains a pro-active and optimistic outlook. Not that she hasn’t had her doubts. ‘At one stage I was just too stressed to read anything,’ she told me. ‘But now I’ve got myself out of that hole.’
So, with the stock of a whole bookshop to choose from, what does Fiona like to read?
I read mostly new fiction. I read a little bit of non-fiction. It will often depend if I’m being any kind of book judge – if I’m judging a literary award, I will read fiction, non-fiction, children’s books as well, and a little bit of young adult.
You’ve probably realised by now that Avid Reader is not only a bookshop but a dynamic part of its local community. We need all the publishing outlets our pockets can sustain, and power to them, but independent bookshops seem to have a special place in our communities, whether you visit them in person or online. And at the end of the year, you might think of Fiona’s prediction that for authors, publishers and booksellers alike, ‘it will depend how Christmas goes’.
Until next time
In the next blog, I’ll bring you another perspective on writing and publishing: a video interview with a key figure in editing.
Kim Wilkins smiled when I asked her what the main stumbling blocks are for aspiring writers. ‘Some writers think that if they see a lot of Marvel movies, they can write a good book,’ she said. ‘ But you have to serve your apprenticeship.’
And Kim should know. She’s the author of more than 30 novels, the first one published over 20 years ago. As Kim Wilkins she writes fantasy – epic, paranormal and urban, and as Kimberley Freeman she’s the author of historical adventure stories for women. You’ll meet her in this video clip as she talks briefly about what she likes to write about.
For fantasy, try the first book in Kim Wilkins’ recent trilogy, Daughters of the storm , and if you want a taste of her historical fiction, Kimberley Freeman’s most popular book is Wildflower Hill.
When Margaret River Press invited me to be a guest blogger, I decided that the best thing I could do for a struggling publishing and bookselling industry was to talk to people in the frontline. I’m delighted that Kim, prolific author and Associate Professor in Writing, Publishing and 21st-Century Book Culture at the University of Queensland, agreed to be the first in the series. This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview.
Darryl: Kim, you write popular fiction and you also need to publish in journals in your academic role. Are there challenges in writing concurrently across different genres like that?
Kim:What’s been really interesting to me is how many of the techniques of creative writing I’ve been able to transfer across to academic writing. The further I go in my career and the more certain I am of my ideas, the more I like to write academic work a bit creatively. I think that if you do want to convey your message, you do have to write it well.
I would like my ideas to get out there, especially the stuff I’ve done on genre communities. Because I’m sure the genre communities themselves would like to read some of that. So I try to use techniques of levity, metaphors, etc.
You prove your intelligence in your ability to communicate your message, not in your ability to befuddle your reader. Big words that are hard to read don’t belong on the first page of a novel and they don’t belong where you want to reach your audience either.
I asked Kim where she thought publishing was heading and what changes she’d seen in publishing since her first book was published in 1997. In this video clip, she provides a succinct summary of the key changes she’s seen over that period:
Darryl: So, against those developments that you’ve just so nicely charted in that video clip, what’s your best guess about the future of publishing?
Kim:Instead of thinking about it as books and publishing, I like to think about it as storytelling. We always have told stories.
There’s heaps more room for writers to be published. There’s just not more money. The very definition of publishing has changed. You’ve got to stop thinking about getting published by a Big Five publisher. Contraction of big publishing is a story in itself that does not bode well for writers who have aspirations for a best-seller like Harry Potter.
Everything’s changed since that first Harry Potter book came out about 20 years ago. But it does mean you’ll be able to get your story out more easily. It will just look a bit different. And some people will still be best sellers.
What the publishing industry itself needs to do is recognise what its unique value proposition is, what it does better than any other industry. I’m a big believer in small regional presses. I believe that’s going to save the publishing industry.
I first met Kim Wilkins 15 years ago when she was a tutor for a Queensland Writers Centre course, ‘The year of the novel’. As a neophyte writer for a commercial market, I was in awe of her achievements and impressed by her teaching ability. Kim helped me realise how little I knew about ‘constructing’ a story, as distinct from simply telling one. Her course was also my introduction to the mysteries of the publishing industry and its quirks and expectations.
Given Kim’s long experience as a writing teacher, mentor and well-published author, it seemed appropriate to ask her what advice she had for aspiring writers.
Kim started off by telling me that Nick Cave once said that ‘all artists, writers included, are egomaniacs, with low self-esteem.’ She told me with a self-deprecatory laugh that she thinks that is one of the best descriptions ever.
In this video clip, Kim talks frankly about the sorts of attitudes and practices she thinks aspiring writers need to overcome if they are to take their writing to the next level:
Darryl: Finally, Kim, do you have a favourite author or book?
Kim:My favourite book of all time is Lord of the Rings . I love Marian Keyes – her Walsh sisters books are great. I read a lot of non-fiction – very interested in books about ideas and how people think, politics. I read omnivorously and I like to be surprised by books.
I hope you’ve enjoyed Kim Wilkin’s perspective on writing and publishing. If you’re a writer seeking publication, she has suggested that there are more opportunities than ever for writers to publish their work, but that they need to be looking outside traditional pathways. And she champions regional presses (as well as regional writers’ groups).
After many years of teaching and mentoring, Kim has also shown us a hard-nosed approach to the craft of writing – don’t expect instant success in your writing, she says. Do the hard yards, and don’t let social media distract you.
And in discussing her own writing, whether in fantasy, historical fiction or academia, Kim Wilkins makes it clear we can’t go past the old adage: good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes.
Until next time
Coming up on this blog: Watch for interviews with an award-winning bookseller and a key figure in Australian editing.