Authors often pour more than their heart and soul into a book or an article. They may put their own money into a project too, especially if they self-publish or enter a partnership publishing arrangement. That’s why it’s so frustrating to see glaring and embarrassing typos, incorrect word use and clumsy sentence structures in published books. Using a good copy editor and proofreading thoroughly are sensible investments in an author’s work, and not optional extras.
Not all editing oversights are as catastrophic as Penguin’s 2010 proofing error which left a recipe calling for ‘salt and freshly ground black people’. The entire print run had to be pulped, at a cost of about $20,000.
And you thought spellcheck or editing software would do the job…
‘… many of the books are flawed by the inclusion of the kinds of grammatical errors that are in common oral currency… There are also occasional misuses of words… all solecisms that could have been eliminated with more attentive editing.’
These are published works submitted for a prestigious award.
The judges also said, ‘… a few novels that were otherwise excellent lost their place on the Notables list through flaws in their internal logic and character consistency; these issues should be attended to by close editing…’
Use a comprehensive editing service
Proofreading is vital
If you’re planning to submit your manuscript to a publisher, enter a competition or self-publish, it makes sense to use a professional editor. At the very least, use an experienced proofreader. If your budget can possibly extend to a copy editor, it’s a wise investment. Better still, use an editor who provides a comprehensive editing service so that your structure, content, language, style and presentation are the best they can be for your readers.
John Hockney’s memoir is to be published in October 2019 by Legend Press. I was honoured to edit it before submission. It’s a very satisfying aspect of my work to help writers get their book published. Legend Press includes top Australian writers Mark Brandi and Alice Pung on its list.
John Hockney is a professional storyteller and brother of the artist David Hockney. He helps others to write their life stories. I met him at a wonderful workshop he ran in the Blue Mountains. I went on to work with him on his manuscript before he submitted it for publication. That it took only a couple of months before it was snapped up is testament to what a great story he has told.
John Hockney: storyteller
Before I did his workshop ‘Your Life – Your Story’, I heard John talk about life with his brother, world-renowned artist David Hockney. David’s exhibition Words & Pictures opened at Blue Mountains City Art Gallery in October 2017. I remember thinking, ‘He should write a book’.
John Hockney tells his story going back two generations. His grandfather was a founding member of the Salvation Army in Bradford in England’s industrial north. His grandmother would made him a cup of cocoa with whole milk – not the watered-down variety he had at home – after he had dragged home her shopping in his billycart.
You would expect that the world-famous artist David might dominate the book, but John gives every member of his brilliant and eccentric family their due. His father, who liked to wear brightly coloured stick-on dots on his bow tie, was always true to his moral compass. His sister Margaret produced an art work of a squid squashed on her scanner. It was accepted in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The theme that they never worried what the neighbours think runs thorough the book.
With his closely observed detail and exceptional storytelling, John Hockney combines the two essentials of memoir or autobiography: have a great story to tell and write it well. It’s often funny and always honest and true. My understanding of what life was like in post-war Britain was so enriched. My appreciation of what it means to be part of a family – in all its crazy complexity – was deepened immeasurably.
I’m often asked what my role as an editor involves, and why anybody with a reasonable standard of language proficiency would need to use one.
Because we understand different things by the term ‘edit’ in various areas of publishing, I thought it would be useful to outline them here. My job as a freelance editor involves working at three levels.
1. Substantive editing
This is a big-picture edit. I will look at the structure of your document, its suitability for your audience, overall clarity and completeness, and assess whether your writing style is the best one for engaging your readers. A substantive edit can also involve checking copyright issues, such as whether permission is needed to use quotes and images. A substantive edit can also identify other possible legal issues, such as defamation.
2. Copy editing
At the copy editing stage, I focus on the mechanics of the writing. I take a more detailed look at clarity, completeness and style. I work to make sure the piece is consistent in its use of spelling, punctuation, headings, captions, tables and other features. I check sentence structure, spelling, headings, hyperlinks, continuity and all the inner workings of a piece of writing. I make sure that your document is consistent with your organisation’s house style as set out in your editorial style guide. (If you don’t have one, I can create a style guide for you to use.)
We’ve all seen those (sometimes cringeworthy) errors in final documents. When you have read something many times over, it’s hard to see them. Proofreading is a final read-through for typos, spelling and punctuation errors, style mistakes, working links, sensible page breaks and the like. Sometimes the final version is checked against an earlier version. A thorough proofread weeds out any errors so that they don’t make it into the final version of a print or online document.
You may need all three levels of edit, or just one or two.
Contact me about your structural editing, copy editing and proofreading needs.
I wrote this from a prompt – The first time – at a class on Writing the Real with Mark Tredinnick.
The first time I went into the black part of Pretoria, I was fourteen.
My friend and I were bored by the boys we hung out with, tired of their talk of
50cc Hondas and Deep Purple and the Northern Transvaal rugby team. We wanted an
adventure. So we decided to go to Marabastad, a kilometre or so from the city’s
cold heart, Church Square.
We took the whites-only bus to our usual stop and walked the rest of the
way. Department stores and record bars gave way to a street of little shops
selling shiny two-tone shoes, colourful saris and rough grey blankets. Indian shopkeepers
tempted us with cheap Levi’s and novelty tee-shirts, but we weren’t there to buy.
We were exploring. As we walked down Boom Street, the dead air began to carry the
tang of masala and coriander. Soon these gave way to the herbal smells for
which we had no names that drifted from the stalls where traditional healers
bought their muti.
Gone were the empty, silent streets we knew. Marabastad was full of
people who looked like our maids and gardeners, but weren’t. Women strolled
past with babies in blankets tied to their backs. Old men called out to one
another across the street. I knew the sound of their words, but I didn’t know
Here, nobody adjusted themselves to the expectations of white girls. Teenage
boys kept on slouching down to the takeaway. Children giggled in surprise at
seeing us there, then mock-shimmied and jived to the kwela music
bubbling from a narrow doorway. That afternoon, for the first time, I understood
that I was the minority.
The Soweto uprising was still a year away. Apartheid would endure
another twenty. Visiting a black township would become fraught and often
dangerous. But on that afternoon in 1975, I saw life, real and throbbing and fragrant
and unconcerned that I was an ignorant fourteen-year-old white girl from the
Sarah Kanowski is a presenter for ABC Radio National’s very popular Conversations. This was in the Review section of The Australian, May 11-12 2019. It sums up beautifully how to interview somebody.
“Find someone who has an interesting story to tell. This will be almost everybody. Greet your guest warmly, offer them a cup of tea and make sure they are sitting comfortably. When they are ready you may begin. To ask a question, make it a question – not your own opinion. It works best if the questions are short and open-ended: Why? What happened next? What did you see? What could you hear? Have a sense of where you want the conversation to head but keep an ear out for the unexpected. Don’t worry about what you are going to ask next, listen instead to what you are being told. Listen also to what your guest is perhaps not saying in the answers they give. Ask about that. Look for stories, zoom in on the details that shine, but don’t get stuck on the trivial. Notice when your enthusiasm sparks. Let curiosity and empathy be your guides. Prodding is OK, pushing is not. Don’t approach your guest like a boxer in the ring; don’t try to make them trip on their shoelace. If they sit back in their chair and gaze out the window while talking, this is a good sign, They are turning away from you and walking back into their memories. If they find themselves hit with grief, don’t interrupt. Give that sadness space. Join them in the joy. Without leaving your seat, stand next to them as they look (with wonder, curiosity, regret) at this thing that is their life.”
This is a guest blog post by Dan Hartman, edited by me. Full disclosure: he is my son.
Last Friday, thanks to my white privilege, I witnessed two acts of casual racism on the same day. Acts that, had a person of colour been there, probably would not have occurred.
I had breakfast with two friends who brought an acquaintance, L, whom I had heard them mention but had never met. When I ordered a shakshuka, one of my friends asked what it was, to which L responded, “It’s sand monkey food”. When I said, “uh… I don’t think you should say that”, and another friend asked what “sand monkey” meant, L said, “Oh, it means Arab food. I can say it, because I’m half Lebanese, but that’s actually the toned-down version. Normally you’d say sand n — food.” I voiced my disapproval again, but I had just met the guy and wasn’t prepared to make a big scene or take the conversation any further, so we left it there and changed the subject.
That evening, I had drinks at a friend’s house, with eight others who all knew each other. I’d met most of them for the first time that night. My friend was at a BLM protest that week and we’d all had a brief conversation about it earlier in the night. His friends supported the protest. Later, one of his friends was telling a story about buying drugs from a (black) bouncer in Prague. He said that the bouncer had told him to wait in the back alley and to take note of his face and make sure he buy from him and nobody else. The storyteller said that because the bouncer was a “black c — t¹ and, you know, they all look the same in the dark”, it was hard to be sure he was buying from the same guy. I was pretty uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything in this room full of people I’d just met, and nor did anyone else.
From what I know of these two people, I’d be surprised if either of them didn’t agree they wanted to see an end to racism and racial disparity — as most people seem to. Some readers may be horrified by the events that I’ve described, others might see what was said as harmless jokes.
I’m 28 years old, and I can’t remember any time in my life when public conversation has been more polarised and conflict-laden. As we come out of lockdown in Australia and our Fridays are filled with cafe breakfasts and evening drinks, it’s easy to forget that in the US the pandemic has created a much more macabre background for the current discussion of race sparked by George Floyd’s murder. The video and the subsequent protests, riots and self-perpetuating violence, and the continuing protests and public conversation on the topic, are taking place around the world — and especially on social media.
And it’s clear that private conversation, at least as I’m experiencing it as a middle-class white person with mostly left-wing, university-educated friends, has issues of a different kind, where people make comments that, to many, seem fairly benign.
So how do private and public conversation link up? In the public conversation right now, some people are presenting evidence — statistics, or anecdotes like police brutality videos — for the degree to which this brutality is racialised.
I started writing a different post yesterday which looked at some of the evidence on both sides of the argument, but it rapidly changed from a quick post into the makings of a book (which I’m deeply unqualified to write), as well as something that I think was (perhaps rightly²) likely to spark outrage on both sides, to no gain. So I will avoid talking about those statistics at all.
One thing I will look at, though, is a conversation about the video of Floyd’s murder. I’d managed to avoid watching it until yesterday. Having now done so, I am now even more disturbed by it than I had imagined, despite being mentally prepared, being fully aware of the content, and knowing how others have reacted to seeing it. The video clearly shows a police officer with no regard for the life of the man whose neck he is crushing, and a complete lack of regard for the prolonged suffering of another human being.
Almost everyone in the world has condemned this murder — even Donald Trump — but their reasons differ.
The reaction from the BLM movement and black community makes complete sense to me. Let’s imagine that you’re an average black person in an average part of America in late May of this year. If you’re right in the middle of the bell curve of personal economics, your household net worth is $17,150: just over one tenth of the 50th percentile white household, at $171,000. You may have just lost your job, which may well have been only paying $7.25 per hour to begin with. If you’re one of those who didn’t lodge a tax return last year, or if you are in debt to your bank, you may struggle to get your full $1,200 stimulus cheque, if you get one at all. Then, in late May, a video surfaces of yet another black person having their life unconscionably wasted at the hands of the very people who are supposedly there to “serve and protect” them.
Why would you not break social distancing laws to join the protests in the face of these circumstances? Why would you not join in rioting and destruction against a system that has totally and utterly failed you, your family, many of your friends, and your ancestors, who were likely enslaved? What incentive is there not to attempt to destroy society, when playing by the rules of the society has left you in such a dire position?
But, on the other hand, what or whom does this rioting really serve?³ Destroying the property, workplaces and businesses of complete strangers who have been equally damaged by the pandemic seems totally counterintuitive. And for the not-insignificant number of genuine racists in America and around the world, what better propaganda can you imagine than mountains of footage and imagery of black people stealing and destroying property? If you wanted to increase police violence against black people, what better way than to create violent confrontations between them and police?
And without wanting to go off on a tangent about coronavirus, what do these massive protests do to the credibility of demands for strict social distancing? We are going to be facing the coronavirus for many months or even years to come, and when we consider that the death toll from coronavirus in the US is 118,000 in four months versus 1,000 police killings of people of any ethnicity in all of 2019, we have to wonder which movement is going to save more innocent lives, as unpalatable as it is to think of the trade-off in these terms. But the protestors who burnt down Mineappolis’s 3rd precinct police station are not likely thinking about their actions in those terms. They have seen the social contract ripped up in front of their eyes. This is a last-ditch attempt to have their message heard.
I have seen arguments that the video of Floyd’s murder is not necessarily evidence that the police officer, Derek Chauvin, is racist. He has had 18 complaints made against him, and the only one I can identify comes from a white woman named Melissa Borton. He has been involved in shooting multiple suspects, one of whom was Native American, although investigations apparently showed that Chauvin “responded appropriately”. It’s been suggested that, especially given that Floyd’s murder took place in front of a crowd and was obviously being filmed, this was a murder of extreme negligence, but that Chauvin didn’t intend to kill Floyd.
In following this part of the conversation, I also watched footage of the murders of Daniel Shaver and Tony Timpa, both of whom are white. The videos, like the one of Floyd’s murder, are chilling, but for different reasons. Shaver is bewildered by confusing and seemingly unnecessary commands from his killer, then is shot after begging the police not to kill him and clearly trying to comply with their confusing commands. Timpa is slowly crushed to death by police kneeling on his back for 13 minutes, after he said, “you’re going to kill me”. The officers make jokes as they do so. These videos certainly show a disregard for human life similar in many ways to that shown for Floyd’s, and I’m not sure if we can tell how race motivates them.
But what I wonder is, if educated, middle-class, presumably anti-racist people are casually referring to “sand n — — ”s and “black c — t”s over brunches and drinks in conversation with their left-wing friends, what is happening in the minds of the police officers who, with adrenaline pumping, are restraining the likes of George Floyd or Eric Garner, and hear their cries that they can’t breathe? To what degree do our small conversations enable big inequalities?
While the percentage of people who are overtly racist is not insignificant, I think there may be a lot of damage done in the little moments of negligence in conversations like the ones I have witnessed. Most Black and Indigenous people the world over are massively disadvantaged, and have the odds absolutely stacked against them from birth. If there are any indisputable facts about race, this is one. As anti-BLM proponents will point out, there are plenty of people who manage to ascend from disadvantaged circumstances, regardless of their race. But it’s very hard. It takes a concerted effort on the part of both the society and the individual. If either side doesn’t make that effort, it’s unlikely to happen.
People are marching because they believe society is failing in its side of that bargain. Let’s do what we can to stamp out racism, casual or overt. Be more courageous than I was on Friday; call people out when they do things that perpetuate this cycle. Small conversations can be powerful.
¹Cultural note for international readers: Australians regularly use the word c**t, often affectionately, to refer to acquaintances, and surely to drug dealers. In context, this term may not be as bad as it looks to a foreign reader.
²On one hand, statistics can be dangerous if they unfairly paint the wrong picture: for example, almost all of the data on race and crime come from the very law enforcement agencies we’re talking about. On the other hand, the fact that I can’t even in good faith share evidence on both sides of the debate without expecting backlash from bothsides worries me. How can we begin to have an honest conversation on this topic if nobody is even considering the evidence or arguments of the other side?
³There is talk that the protests were hijacked by far left groups, far right groups, and even the police. This is another important discussion, but leaves the scope of this post (and I don’t know much about it).
We’ve all seen the spelling and grammar police at work on social media. They take delight in pointing out your ‘mistakes’, genuine or not. No wonder we don’t really love having our writing edited.
In a social media post recently, a political organisation’s press release appeared with every ‘error’ circled in red (including some things that were not wrong). The aim was to show how stupid the organisation is, and so to discredit everything it does.
In the comments, people expressed their joy at these mistakes. The self-appointed ‘grammar police’ felt entitled to hold others to account, the English teachers were confident they knew right and wrong. The writer had failed an invisible test. Even though the grammar police and the teachers didn’t have it all right either, they shamed the publicity officer who’d sent out an imperfect press release.
People jump on mistakes with glee. Editing the press release would have avoided all this. But too often, people don’t have their work edited by a professional because it feels like having their errors and shortcomings pointed out – sometimes publicly.
I get it, I’m a writer as well as an editor
As a writer as well as an editor, I really do get it. You know the feeling – you’ve paired up with a workmate to edit each other’s reports for the industry event. As your revised document pings into your inbox, your stomach clenches. You open it, dreading that it’s going to come back streaked with red – a typo or two you missed despite spellcheck and a rework of that metaphor you thought was pretty spot-on.
You feel like your work is being marked by the teacher
It’s like having your school essays marked. The teacher has found you out and given you a C+ when you were quite sure you deserved an A. You can almost see the red pen scratching around every error. You feel disappointed in yourself, stupid, wrong. Your colleague’s opinion of you just dropped a notch or seven. How could you have not seen that misspelled word? How did you get the name of your own department wrong?
Making an error doesn’t make you stupid
You’re not alone. Nobody really loves being edited. But being human, we all make errors. And that doesn’t make you stupid. We all have tics in our use of language, words we can never spell and a tendency to overuse terms or expressions. You know the jargon, so you forget that your reader might not. You’ve worked on it for so long that it you can’t imagine it being any other way. A good editor helps with these things. And, depending on the level of edit you’ve asked for, we can do so much more than just pick up errors.
An editor wants you to succeed.The right editor will love what you do. You’re the experton your subject. We learn so much from you. We want to help youto make your work the best it can be.
Webring our years of studying grammar and style, structure and form to our work. You bring your expertise in your subject. We have revised reports, blog posts, articles and white papers across multiple topics, from frothy entertainment pieces to serious academic works. Editors are the gardeners of the written word. We’re there to landscape your writing and pull out the weeds that smother your ideas and stop them from blooming.
An editor is here to help you
Editors are not there to judge your writing. We think you’re brilliant. After all, you’ve done your research and you know what you’re talking about. We respect you as the expert on your subject. We’re there to work out where your structure could be better, where to cut or change things to make your writing clearer, when to fact check and when to change a tense or the spelling of a verb form. We’re there to make your work clear and suited to your reader.
So don’t choose somebody that makes you feel like an errant schoolkid. Use a professional editor who provides a comprehensive editing service so that your structure, content, language, style and presentation are the best they can be and do the work you want them to do for your readers. Because in the end, they are the ones that matter.
The summer of 2019/20 has been hard for so many Australian businesses, what with drought, fires, floods and now the threat of a virus outbreak.
Although it’s hit some businesses way harder than others, lots of us are experiencing a slow patch as a result of the flow-on effect. Even those not directly affected by the bushfires are feeling anxious, angry, and helpless. It’s hard to sit down and write a blog when you’re worrying about your world being on fire!
On the upside, it’s a good opportunity to get stuff done that’s been on the must-do list for a while. Here are some things to do with any spare time you might find on your hands.
Get your financial affairs up to date Now is a good time to sort out receipts before tax time. I’m planning to upload details of all my deductible expenses to my online tax agent’s app. I’ve also checked my invoices against payments – and even found an unsent invoice!
Write blogs and social media posts It’s a good time to get ahead and write a blog (or many) you can use when you’re busy again and don’t have the time to write (yes, it WILL happen). Choose a few ideas, perhaps linked to times like Easter, start of the footy season, Autumn, Vivid Festival, ski season, and have five or six pieces ready to go.
Take a break What better time to go on that trip? Travelling solo can be hugely restoring, as you can spend every moment doing exactly what you want to. My tip: join a walking tour if you’re visiting a city. If you’re going in a group or as a family, why not do the Empty Esky thing and support bushfire-affected communities?
Do some networking Actually turn up in person – there’s nothing like it. Find a group of compatible professionals and go along to an event. If you can find one that’s running something you can learn from, so much the better.
Do a short course Now’s a good time to learn how to work spreadsheets, build a website or speak in public. There are so many really good, low-cost courses online too. Take a look at Udemy and Skillshare for starters.
Tidy your office, computer and phone Use the time to file, sort, organise and declutter, both in your physical environment and your electronic one. Delete those emails you will never read and unsubscribe from those that are no longer valuable to you.
Help another business owner This is the most important thing you can do right now. Share, follow and like, and think about what else you can do to help. Buy their product. Use their services. In my area, the Blue Mountains, which has been hard hit by the fires and the drop in tourism, a group is planning to collaborate on offering discounts, referrals and affiliate programs via a women’s networking organisation, Women with Altitude.
I didn’t live in Australia during the Hawke years. I knew nothing about Australian politics; I was caught up in the turmoil of my own country, South Africa.
But I went to the memorial service for Bob Hawke. It was by chance, really. I was in Sydney and the morning news reminded me that this was the day. I was catching the ferry to Circular Quay anyway, so I strolled over to the Opera House for a bit of a stickybeak.
After an hour or so of celebrity spotting, chatting to friendly strangers and snapping politicians alighting from their official vehicles, I felt compelled to stay for the ceremony.
I left feeling rather emotional, and with some unexpected reflections on my adopted country.
I can’t claim to be as deeply affected by Hawke’s legacy as the 40,000 Chinese students he allowed to stay in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of these told me, tears welling in his eyes, how he owed his life to Hawke. Another was there with his wife and daughter. They each carried a bouquet, his daughter’s made up of natives and wildflowers; his with orchids. He showed me the condolence card which read: ‘Always in my heart. As many Chinese students, my life changed forever when Mr Hawke offered us to stay in 1989.’
Xuesu Dai with his bouquet for Bob Hawke
My homeland, South Africa, owes a debt of gratitude to the former PM for his support of economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I was ambushed by a rush of emotion when he and Nelson Mandela, who was beloved to us as Hawke was to Australia, appeared on the big screen in front of the Opera House steps. Back in the 80s, sanctions were one of the prongs of attack that that led to Apartheid’s downfall. Trade unionist Bill Kelty told the crowd how Nelson Mandela had been buoyed by Hawke’s support. I was a hopeful twenty-something in South Africa at the time. A woman who had travelled from Hobart specifically for the memorial service confided that Hawke had shaped her and her generation. Across the Indian Ocean, he had also played a part in shaping mine.
had many conversations outside the venue. We agreed: Penny Wong for President,
we missed Malcolm Turnbull in the light of subsequent events, and didn’t
Quentin Bryce present as the epitome of elegance. The easy friendliness, the
lack of pomp and ceremony and relaxed, happy atmosphere was striking. Those who
had come to pay our respects and to spot a politician or two mingled with MPs,
actors, media personalities and past politicians. Security was undoubtedly
there, in the form of police patrols, a helicopter circling overhead and
security details for many of the guests. But there were none of the machine
guns and flak jackets we have come to see as normal in a post-9/11 world. I
reflected on how lucky were to live in a
country where you could walk up to an MP or an ex-party leader and shake their
hand and say hi, love your work.
Australia before Hawke
I hadn’t been aware of just how significant the changes Hawke brought were. Before him, Australia didn’t sound much like a place anybody would want to come to. It was shut off from the Asia-Pacific region and in ways to the rest of the world, far away and insular and with a government that wielded more power than is comfortable. Hawke’s granddaughter Sophie Taylor-Price reminded us that Antarctica could have been a mining site were it not for her grandfather. One of her first memories is of sitting by her Pop’s side as he pleaded for rejecting the destruction of one of Earth’s last wild places. The four-year-old with a coloured pencil in her hand credits this moment as the start of her journey to being an environmental protector.
we sat on the steps, around us life went on as usual. People jogged by on their
lunchtime runs, groups of schoolkids made their way to the ferries and trains at
Circular Quay, looking mildly curious about the crowd of mostly grey-haired
citizens on the steps; not concerned enough to stop. Bob Hawke understood that
we owe it to these kids, the young office workers out for their midday runs,
the baffled tourists, to do better.
‘I don’t exude morality’
of the audience would remember a kinder time when politicians were not
crucified for their imperfections. Anthony Albanese remembered Hawke saying: ‘I
have credibility because I don’t exude morality’. Hawke could be a bit of a
boozer, loved a punt on the horses and could lose his temper with people in his
office – including Paul Keating – without being excoriated on Twitter. I don’t
think Scott Morrison would get away with synchronising parliamentary
adjournments with the races, as Hawke did with the Arbitration Commission
according to Bill Kelty.
d’Alpuget, Bob Hawke’s widow, asked that we make his death a turning point in
the history of Australia. Everybody who spoke pleaded for us to listen to the
young, to take a long view on our children’s future, and to remember that the
reforms of the eighties, tough as they may have seemed, made Australia a better
Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.
What these two
magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about
characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the
story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it
So how did they keep me hooked?
Neither has a complex
plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a
novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly
draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a
complex and damaged main character?
It’s all about narrative point of view
In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is
a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and
streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well
as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal.
The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by
Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim
Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and
all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view.
They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem
that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person
narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class
writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind
of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are.
We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the
story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it.
Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character
is going to end up. Until we don’t.
In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.
Patti Miller has created the complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction
People who have attended Patti Miller’s highly rated memoir-writing workshops have recommended this book to me to me more than once. I’ll admit to not having read it cover to cover yet. But I want to approach it like a course in creative nonfiction writing and work through it systematically.
Writing True Stories grew out of writing workshops the author ran at Varuna, the Writer’s House in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. And this shows in its practical approach, as it is written as a series of workshops, covering sources, voice, structure, narrative and style and editing.
Take the masterclass
Part Two consists of masterclasses that extend the skills in the first part. It deals with genre: memoir, creative nonfiction, essay and more. The last (brief) chapter is about publishing. Miller writes about commercial publication and self-publishing and how to present your work to agents and publishers. Although there’s a lot more that could be said about publishing, that’s best left to a another book.
A reading list and a page of useful contacts rounds out Writing True Stories. I can’t wait to get started on honing my skills before I get my project, now at the research stage, underway.
Anybody who loves clear writing knows – and loves – Don Watson. I took the opportunity to hear him speak as part of Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s public events program last week. His books on language include Weasel Words, Bendable Learnings and Death Sentence: The decay of public language.
This question-and-answer session focused on language in political discourse, about which there is plenty to lament. We’ve seen a profound change in news media in the last while, Watson argued, which has changed news into a combat between talking heads. And while there has always been lies and trickery in politics, we are now less able to judge truth and lies as politics has become so tribal. The suggestibility of the public has risen at the same rate as the lies.
And along came Trump
Trump, of course, had to be discussed. Watson pointed out that he ‘didn’t drop from the sky’: Bannon et al figured out that what we saw on our screens was what was important. All he had to do was make sure Trump was the centre of the story. And we can agree that Trump has been pretty good at keeping himself there, front and centre day after frustrating day.
So what’s the answer?
The refreshing thing about hearing this witty, accomplished and intelligent speaker and writer is that he didn’t pretend to have the answers. Is it education? That’s part of it. Better journalism? It would help, and it would go a long way if journalists bothered to consult academics when writing their stories. Are independent candidates making things better? At least they save us from the party operatives who are presently running the show, and make us begin to think again.
And those weasel words?
I discovered that a book is to be referred to as a ‘cultural externality’. When he was asked what his (least) favourite weasel words were. Watson listed:
impact, and more particularly impactful learnings
window of opportunity
appropriate and/or inappropriate
You can contribute your own to Don Watson’s website. The next day I noticed this one in Sydney’s Hyde Park:
‘For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.’
If I’m not wrong, that’s a piece of tree falling on your head, whether anybody’s there to hear it or not.