Today’s writer in the attic, Stephanie Parkyn, and I have much in common: we’re both debut authors, we’re both published by Allen and Unwin (or soon-to-be), and we’ve both lived in Launceston,Tasmania—I grew up there, and Steph now lives there.
Steph writes about how she discovered what her book needed and, as you’ll see, she finds it in a most unusual place!
‘I realised that what I was doing to my poor character, Marie-Louise Girardin, was giving her terrifying experiences one after the other, without the thrill of achievement or pride in her accomplishments.’
Stephanie Parkyn has always wanted to write stories, growing up in a book-loving home in Christchurch, New Zealand, but a fascination with science led her to a PhD in biology and a career as an environmental scientist. On moving to Tasmania, she learned of the remarkable voyage of Marie-Louise Girardin, the Frenchwoman who joined an expedition to Australia and the South Pacific disguised as a man. Into the World is Stephanie’s first novel. Her short stories have been published in the 40 South Anthologies and shortlisted for the Scarlet Stiletto competition and RSNZ Manhire Award for Creative Science Writing. She now lives in Launceston, Tasmania.
You can find Stephanie at her website and on Facebook. My copy of Steph’s novel, Into the World, arrived last week:
On Building Heart
(And finding writing wisdom in unlikely places)
When we are learning to write we inhale the words of authors we admire, listen to their secrets of storytelling and scour the internet for sage advice from those that have gone before. We read books on craft, share tips with our writing friends – but sometimes the best advice, the lesson we really need to help move our story forward, comes from places we never thought to look.
Writing is not easy and many authors will tell you that getting published is a combination of hard work, perseverance, and luck. One of the most difficult questions to ask ourselves, as hopeful writers with manuscripts in want of a publisher, is when is it ready? Have I given this story the best chance to succeed with an agent or publisher? With my novel, Into the World, I was immensely grateful (and actually did jump up and down with joy) to secure an agent, but I also experienced a day where I received five rejections from publishers – an email with small paragraphs of honest, brutal critique that sent me hiding for days. Thankfully, my eventual publisher, Allen & Unwin, saw promise. But my novel was not ready yet.
‘Rejection flattens you. It grabs you by the foot and throws you face first to the floor.’
Rejection flattens you. It grabs you by the foot and throws you face first to the floor. No amount of reading about author’s rejection letters will prepare you for it actually happening to you. Even though Allen & Unwin was investing an editorial report for me, a hugely positive step, the only words I heard playing in my head were the negative ones. While I was recovering from this body blow to my confidence and waiting nervously for the report to arrive, I happened upon an unusual article by way of Facebook. One of the best things about Facebook is how it pops in your path all the obscure things that your friends are interested in. I would never have gone looking for a specific article on the design of cross-country courses in the Equestrian sport. But a friend’s passion for the topic led me to it, and it proved to be just the thing I needed for my story and myself.
I cannot remember the title or author or name of publication, and I am working from memories that resonated for me at the time, but the nub of her issue in writing this article was that cross-country fences and course design were becoming too difficult, too soul-destroying for the horses. A good course, she argued, should give horse and rider a challenge to overcome, to feel better about themselves and their abilities as they progressed through the course, not be ground down and dispirited and left traumatised. It needed to give the horse courage, to build heart.
To build heart. That was it! In that moment, I saw what was missing in my story. I needed to build more heart. I realised that what I was doing to my poor character, Marie-Louise Girardin, was giving her terrifying experiences one after the other, without the thrill of achievement or pride in her accomplishments. She needed to grow in confidence through the course of her journey. It was not enough to throw harder obstacles at her and see how she coped; I needed to show that she had the strength to make the final fence.
And I wanted to write a novel about healing, not about despair.
So when my editorial report arrived, I was prepared for it. I knew what I wanted my novel to be about and I was ready to make the changes. Both writers and their characters need courage to stay on course. And I learned that words of inspiration can come from all manner of sources, we writers just have to prick up our ears and take notice.
‘And I learned that words of inspiration can come from all manner of sources, we writers just have to prick up our ears and take notice.’
LAUNCH OF THE SISTERS’ SONG
There are still a few spots left, so please come along if you live in Perth.
The giveaway of The Sisters’ Song is still happening over at Goodreads. It’s on until 20 December, so click here if you haven’t already entered.
Congratulations Stephanie on your debut novel – it must be such a good feeling to send your book out into the world (scary-good I suppose, but good, I hope!) And I now have the perfect excuse when I want to spend time on Facebook, guilt-free 🙂
Thank you also Louise … I’m addicted to your attic series!
Thank you! Yes isn’t this series great! Louise offers this lovely space to expose our honest struggles with the craft. And yes scary is right!! But also totally wonderful.
Scary-good is what life’s all about, don’t you think. Where would we be if we didn’t take risks? Full of regrets, I suspect.
I’m so glad you’re still enjoying the series, Fi. 🙂
Oh what a great post! Talk about inspirational. I jotted down heaps of notes from this and will try to plot the course for my poor nag in this next book a little more sympathetically.
Thank you so much! So pleased you found something useful. Isn’t it great the way you can get inspiration from completely random things you never would expect. I love how everything around us feeds into our writing. (and give your nag a hug from me!)
I agree, Kali, and I found it inspiring, too—everything about it, including that Steph found a blog post about equestrian eventing helpful in writing her book. It just goes to show everything is connected! 🙂
Lovely notion, to give heart. Heart in the sense of hope perhaps and courage and all those other things we need as writers. thanks for an uplifting post, Stephanie. We need all the help we can get when it comes to bearing rejection.
It’s a really uplifting post, isn’t it? ‘Heart’ is really what elevates a book and makes it something special. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into Steph’s novel! 🙂
Thanks Elisabeth, we certainly do! It is such a rocky road this writing thing we do, baring ourselves to judgement. Wishing you much heart.
This was a wonderful essay Stephanie! How exciting that you’re getting published by Allen & Unwin!! They’re may favourite publisher even though I’ve been rejected by them so many times I think I’m pretty flattened by now!! Hahah. Thanks for sharing such an uplifting piece, I absolutely loved this line ‘To build heart’. You can definitely tell when a story is missing ‘heart’, and I think it’s something I need to work on. Thanks!
Thanks Milly! Yes we are juggling so many things in writing a novel, trying to get all the threads of story to connect, write beautiful words, create complex characters…it took me so long to understand what the beating heart of the novel actually was! In fact, it probably only properly sank in when I was trying to write the blurb. I had to ask myself – what is the human story in all this? Good luck with your next submission to Allen & Unwin, they are fabulous, you can do it!
‘Heart’ is the crux of every story—it’s a boring read otherwise.
I also second Steph’s endorsement of A&U—they’re a fabulous publisher!
Hang in there, Milly—your perseverance will pay off. 🙂
I felt a spark of inspiration when I read Stephanie’s paragraph about building heart for her character – giving her the thrill of achievement to counter the terrifying experiences she faces.
So much advice is written for would-be-authors about putting conflict and obstacles in a character’s path to keep a story interesting, but I rarely see advice about the upside of that – the achievement and pride a character can feel in their accomplishments. Very timely and helpful advice. Thank you!
Thanks Marie! Yes you are so right about the advice on obstacles, rarely anything on the accomplishments. I tried to work towards a slow build of confidence that gives us a sense of her ability to succeed, and hopefully rings true. Thank you!
I’ve always believed that a story is really the emotional journey of the characters and plot just serves to tell that. I’ve read books where the protagonist faces one hurdle after another, seemingly just for the sake of it. It’s meant to be thrilling the reader, but it’s not unless it means something. I suspect all of that comes under your definition of ‘heart’, Steph. 🙂
Yes, that’s a really good way of putting it Louise, the hurdles have to mean something. Thanks for creating this lovely space to talk about writing, Louise, you have a wonderful community here!
I’m glad you feel comfortable in my little piece of cyberspace—I’m quite fond of it, too! 🙂