May Dinner Meeting Report

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Two Sides of the Story

There's a wonderful mystery about writing novels that fascinates those of us who do not write fiction, or have not yet written our own novel but dream of doing so. It can seem an almost mystical process. So many questions clamour for answers: what inspires you to write; how do you start; what comes first, the plot or the characters? These questions and more were discussed by three of our leading literary ladies at the Editors Victoria May dinner. Below are just some of the highlights.

Carrie Tiffany is the winner of the inaugural Stella Prize for her second novel, Mateship with Birds. Her first novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living (2005) was short-listed for numerous awards including the Orange Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and won the Dobbie Literary Award for best first book by a female writer (2006) and the 2006 Western Australian Premier's Book Award for fiction.

Toni Jordan's first novel, Addition, was short-listed for the Barbara Jefferis Award and the ABIA Best General Fiction Book, and won Best Debut Fiction in the 2008 Indie Awards. Her second novel, Fall Girl, is being adapted for a theatre production, and her third novel ,Nine Days, is the Fiction winner of the 2013 Indie Awards.

Nadine Davidoff is a freelance editor with 15 years of experience in nurturing authors through their writing process. As 'facilitator' for the evening, she expertly guided the conversation with a subtlety and deftness that allowed it to flow easily and effortlessly, yielding some valuable insights.

Nadine opened the conversation with the deceptively simple question: why write? Carrie describes herself as an observationist, voyeuristic in an 'uncreepy' manner, curious. This curiosity is partly why she writes. Once something catches her interest, she immerses herself in it until she finds a 'heat' or 'urgency'. Then she starts the process of construction. Toni is 'in love with sentences'; she loves turning them over in her mouth and mind, feeling their rhythm and metre, their shape and weight. For her, characters reveal themselves through dialogue. In their responses to this fundamental question, Carrie and Toni set the tone for the evening. They presented two very different sides to the act of writing a story.

Carrie's side of the story was very down to earth. The experience isn't so much magical, as it is just simple, hard work. She reinforced this idea when asked about the 'mystery' of the creative process. Her response was immediate and adamant: 'I hate that…it's a lot of hard work.' For her it's more a physiological process than a mystical one.

Toni's side of the story, while not glossing over the hard work entailed in writing a novel, was a little more romantic. This is perhaps a result of writing in the first person, where she relates so closely with someone else's point of view. The idea of the sentence, its structure and sound, its feel, resonates deeply within her. This is how she hears her characters, how she learns about them.

For all their differences, there were fundamentals on which Carrie and Toni agreed. Primarily, to write, you must read; that is how you learn to write. Carrie asserts that, if you don't read, she isn't sure how you could write. Toni echoed this statement saying that as a good reader you become a good writer.

They both also invest a lot personally into the writing process. Toni describes it as a commitment, emphasising the importance of keeping promises to yourself: 'You cannot let yourself down; be trustworthy to yourself.' Basically, if you set yourself a goal for 1000 words in a day, do not stop until you achieve it. Carrie considers writing a novel to be a very personal journey; through writing, 'something has opened up in the world for me' - not in a mystical way, but in a way that, by the end of the journey, she discovers the question and the answer.

The question about the relationship between plot and character also revealed similarities in thought between Carrie and Toni. Carrie confesses to feeling like a fraud when talking about plot because she writes the first and last scenes of her books early on, then works towards that feeling in the last scene, not a specific action or place. Similarly, Toni is not too prescriptive about plot and character; rather, she likes to 'let it go' in the first draft and just see where it ends up.

The evening was an endearingly comical, honest and valuable insight into the creative process. As editors it is important for us to understand what writers experience when creating a piece of writing. In doing so, we are better equipped to support and nurture them, to help them produce writing that will inspire, motivate, provoke and entertain people for generations to come.

I leave you with some wonderful bits of wisdom from our generous authors. Toni, who teaches at RMIT, encourages her students to have two books on their desk: one they can aspire to, and one that is so bad that they just know they can do better. Carrie upholds Oscar Wilde's advice that 'all advice is fatal'. You have to learn how to write a book by writing it, and each book is a new learning experience because it's never the same. She says that people tend to wait for things to be perfect - timing, place, situations - but if you really want to write, just write. There's no great secret to it. It will be different for everyone.

Alison Proietto