|Writer Tash Hughes|
WRITERS ON WRITING
Featuring Tom Petsinis, Eva Sallis and Janet Evanovich
Radio National produced a series of talks in which twenty-one writers spoke about various aspects of their profession. The seven part series (or eleven part television alternative) aimed to introduce writing to adult writers, both beginners and those considering becoming writers.
Each part provided a slightly different focus on the topic and was presented by three or four writers. The second part revolved around the concepts of sparking ideas, creating characters, selecting a viewpoint to write with and the writer’s life in general. Three writers spoke on these issues, utilising their most recent works as examples.
Eva Sallis is an Australian fiction writer with an interest in Arabic literature and orientalism. She spent some time living in Yemen, researching for her PhD. The beauty of Arabic culture and her family’s migrant experience has inspired much of her work.
Her first novel, Hiam, was published in 1998 and won the 1997 Australian/Vogel Literary Award and the 1999 Nita May Dobbie Literary Award. Also in 1998, she published Scheherazade through the looking glass: the metamorphosis of the "Thousand and One Nights", followed by The City of Sea Lions in 2002 and Mahjar, a novel-in-stories, in 2003.
Eva finds that ideas for her writing come from anywhere at any time; when she is involved in writing a piece, all sorts of relevant things come to her attention and become incorporated into her writing. This could include seeing the colours in the sky fitting into a scene or overhearing a conversation that provides a new angle.
In writing Hiam, Sallis developed a character that she could believe in herself by building her on women of that culture and mothers in general. This gave an outline of the character; the whole character only fell into place when Sallis mentally had a complete physical picture of the character. Sallis postulates that having one aspect of the character set allows the others to fall into place, and for her it may be the physical description that finalises the character.
Choosing a name for a character can be a lot of fun – Sallis considers this a pay off for much of the slog that goes into writing a novel. Utilising meanings of names and swapping names around can eventually lead to the “right” name being selected.
Hiam is written in the third person as Sallis finds she can better manipulate the novel’s world using this viewpoint. The first person view is a lot more restrictive for Sallis; she likens writing in the first person as more intimate and resembling eavesdropping.
Writers block is a well-known phenomena, but Sallis suggests that it is linked to lack of confidence and a belief that everything written must be off high quality. Based on this, Sallis believes that writers block is mostly a new or younger writer’s issue and that it can be overcome with greater confidence. She suggests a writer should be writing some prose every day, without fail, and that each writer “has a layer of crap they have to write through before they get to the good stuff.” By writing continuously, the “crap layers” don’t reform and the writer accesses their “good stuff” all the time.
Beginners can gain some good practice by imitating an admired writer. It is very difficult to imitate something perfectly, but attempting this teaches a lot about style and technique. Young writers, in particular, relate to this as they may feel heavily influenced by a specific author from their own reading past.
Writing is a very isolated profession, and many would-be writers seem unaware of this. It is valuable to learn that the finishing of a manuscript is the signal to begin the next, and it can be reassuring to know that many others have done this in the past and that many first manuscripts are unpublishable. Collecting rejection letters is part of being a writer; it shows that the writer is participating in the industry and experiencing that vulnerability. All authors have been isolated and received rejection letters, so beginners should not take such things personally.
The best aspect of being a writer to Sallis’ mind is the feeling when something is working well. Words and sentences can fall into place and just fit together, feeling “right”. Seeing this affect and not always realising it was “within your own capabilities” produces a natural high in Sallis.
Janet Evanovich, on the other hand, sees the whole lifestyle of a writer in a very positive light; she enjoys it immensely. One of her favourite aspects of writing is the communication with the reader; plus she loves the freedom of working in her pyjamas if she wants to!
She also enjoys having fun with her readers; for instance, her readers will suggest the title of her tenth Plum book through a competition. In her bio on her web site, she says “I motivate myself to write by spending my money before I make it.” One review of her detective series says he enjoys the amusements to be found on each page, and the one or two “belly laughs” in each chapter. Evanovich aims to have an interesting opening to her books, and maintains the reader’s entertainment throughout.
Evanovich is an American writer best known for her series about Stephanie Plum, a bounty hunter in New Jersey. After attempts at being a painter and a secretary, Evanovich wrote twelve romance novels before heading into the crime genre. Her first two romance books, published in the eighties, were written under pseudonym Steffie Hall. Some of these romance novels were republished in 2002 and their characters taken into new works soon to be published.
After two years of “retooling”, the character Stephanie Plum was created. Evanovich spent these years “drinking beer with law enforcement types, learning to shoot, practicing cussing.” Her research included talking and travelling with bounty hunters so that her stories and characters would be true to life.
Writing a series of books, rather than a stand-alone novel, has the advantage of allowing character development and continuity. The difficulty is writing each book to allow for new and existing readers; new readers need to be introduced to the continuing characters and settings, but existing readers don’t want a repetitive introduction each time. Evanovich is always trying to find ways to produce her characters in a “new, unique, exciting, fun way to tell the reader exactly who my protagonist is.”
The Stephanie Plum character is not autobiographical as such, but there are many commonalities between the two women. They have similar histories and reactions to life events; both are Jersey girls – something of a stereotype in the USA.
When she started writing, the untrained Evanovich had trouble writing realistic dialogue – most of her characters sounded very wooden. Aware of this and the importance of dialogue to hold a story together, she decided to learn about the process of reproducing conversations. She attended acting classes and participated in stage improvisations to learn about dialogue and the presentation of characters to an audience – something that both actors and writers do. Additionally, she consciously listened to people as they talk to get an understanding of flows and idioms used in real life.
Early in her writing career, Evanovich needed lots of feedback on her writings: “This transition is a little rough, this character doesn’t work, this dialogue is too long,” and the like. As she progressed, she found that such editing became easier and more instinctive. Now, after 70 to 100 pages of a new book, Evanovich has a better understanding of her characters, the plot and particular events so often returns to the beginning and partially rewrites it at that stage. Once the book has been written, she lets it sit for a week or so before returning to it for a fine-tuning process.
In order to succeed as a writer, Evanovich suggests that “you just have to be persistent, and you have to be very open-minded and very honest with yourself, and you have to get used to rejection and to taking criticism, and to being very analytic. And I think that if you do all of those things, you can succeed.”
Tom Petsinis lists the major attribute of a successful writer comes from working like a disciplined craftsman. Muse is fickle, so it takes discipline to follow through on ideas. He also believes that ideas are all linked and progressive within each person’s mind, and that ideas can be borrowed and assimilated to form something different for the writer to write.
Petsinis has always had a love with both maths and words and literature. He eventually linked the two parts of his life by writing a thesis on an obscure French mathematician, Évariste Galois, in novel format. The resultant fictionalised book, The French Mathematician, was published in 1998 followed by a related poetry collection, Naming the Number, later that year.
A Greek Macedonian by birth, Petsinis migrated to Australia at six in 1959. He is trilingual and is influenced strongly by his heritage. His multicultural experiences in Australia sparked two novels, two plays and three poetry collections in the nineties.
In writing The French Mathematician, Petsinis found that using the third person view didn’t really work. As his subject was an emotional adolescent, the first person use was more suitable for describing the events. “My work would not be a conventional third person narrative in the past tense; I wanted to get close to my character, explore him in ways others had not done, see and hear things that were beyond the range of biographers, and for this I needed a first person voice in the present tense.”
The novel is about a mathematician and only includes enough mathematical references to show Galois’ intellect in comparison to his romantic, rash ways – Galois died at twenty-one in a duel over a woman, but not before developing Group Therapy as a mathematical concept.
He found the research to be hard going as there was so much material to be filtered and sorted. The research went beyond just Galois as he had to build a real knowledge of the era and places Galois lived in. “In order to understand my subject and his work, I studied and researched the mathematical, political, social and cultural aspects of Galois' world. Post-Napoleonic Paris was in a state of chaos.”
It pays to know that sometimes a project may come to a dead end. By recognizing this, the writer can move onto new projects to avoid frustrations and a waste of energy. There are plenty of ideas around, so the loss of one is not a catastrophe. Later on, the dead end project may gain a new freshness and be rebuilt; when returning to a work, the writer will have new ideas gained from experiences in the intervening period and this could present the solution.
Evanovich, Sallis and Petsinis have different styles and write in very different genres, they use different viewpoints and see the writing life in individual ways. Each of them however, points out that ideas are available to anyone receptive to them and that writing consists of a number of skills that can be developed. To each of these writers, the act of writing is necessity and pleasurable for them.