Mark Brandi is the author of the award-winning novel Wimmera, described by one reviewer as ‘a dark and disturbing story from a substantial new talent’. It’s both a crime thriller and a coming of age story, set in rural Victoria. Recently he discussed what it’s like to be an author at a wonderfully relaxed session at Varuna the Writer’s House in the Blue Mountains.
1. It’s true: write what you know.
This maxim holds if you want your work to be the best it can be. Wimmera’s closely observed reflection of small-town life feels all the more real because the author grew up in rural Victoria. He captures both how free this life is for kids, who can go yabbying and stay out until dark; and how claustrophobic it is for adults when the world closes in on them. He also draws on his experience in the criminal justice system as an advisor to the police minister, and the experience of his three brothers, all of whom work in the police and justice system. But remember, you don’t have to have experienced every single thing you write about either.
2. Find a way – and it might be unconventional.
Mark gave up a full-time job as a policy advisor, enrolled in a writing course and – wait for it – WON $50,000 ON MILLIONAIRE HOTSEAT!* And by guessing the final answer! He could have ignored the entry form his brother sent him, but instead, without telling anybody, he applied for this most unlikely source of literary funding for his new life as an author. He doesn’t suggest you give up your day job, but the point is to make it happen if you’re serious about being an author. Find an hour a day or a couple of hours at the weekend. Join that writer’s group. Apply for those residencies that will give you some time out to focus on your writing.
3. Use the support and inspiration that’s out there.
Attend courses and writer’s festivals. Take a look at everything Varuna has to offer, from one-off events to fellowships. Two residential fellowships at Varuna helped Mark to develop the manuscript for Wimmera. Join Writing NSW. See what the Australian Writers Centre has on offer.
4. You can start with a short story.
Mark’s book began as a short story called To Skin a Rabbit (click to listen to the RN audio version). Two of the main characters in the novel continued to haunt him after he had written the short story. He pursued them, and Wimmera is the result. Often aspiring writers are told to focus on either novels or short stories as their demands are so different. Break the rule. If finishing a short story will inspire you to get that novel out, go for it!
5. Enter competitions and awards.
If nothing else, it will give you the discipline to work to deadlines and get your writing finished. You may even win! Plus, you will attract interest from publishers if you are shortlisted. When Mark won the 2016 Debut Dagger, publishers contacted him. But…
6. Get used to rejection.
Don’t take it personally. Use any feedback you get to learn and to improve your writing. Mark submitted his book to different publishers and programs and got plenty of what he described as ‘nice rejections’. Some of them contained useful feedback, which he took into account as he reworked Wimmera. Instead of regarding rejection letters as negative, consider what they have to say and try to act on the feedback. Publishers may say no for a range of reasons, and many of them have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Keep going.
7. Enjoy the editing process.
I know, it can feel a bit like the teacher got out her red pen and pointed out all your errors, but editors bring perspective and loads of experience to your work as well as fixing your grammar and punctuation. Mark described how an editor researched and corrected details in a scene in which he described a cricket match on TV in the background to a scene in Wimmera. You can be sure one reader will be an expert in almost anything you write about and errors undermine the quality and credibility of an author’s writing. I recently read a book which had the name of one of my uni mates spelled incorrectly. It’s not hard to check that. My reaction was to wonder what else in the book was inaccurate. A good editor will fact check everything as well as look at the broad scope of your work, switching between a sweeping overview and a microscopic focus on detail
8. Revel in being an outsider and an introvert, if that’s what you are.
Mark was from the only Italian family in town. School was tough and he was bullied and excluded. But, as he said it, the excluded tend to be sharp and thoughtful observers. Use what you see and hear around you every day to inform your characters and your stories. Mark does this so well, conveying how children cannot and do not understand adult motivations, how the adult world is inscrutable to his characters in boyhood, and using this point of view to drive the narrative in Wimmera.
I learned so much from Mark Brandi’s generous sharing of his experience at Varuna’s Open House Day. There were other sessions, including one that explained Varuna’s programs and included a speaker from the Australia Council who fund writers and writers’ organisations. Above all, it inspired me to stop dreaming get back to my desk and write. I hope these 8 tips help you do the same.
*Writer Melissa Lukashenko also won big on Millionaire Hotseat. Read about it here.