On writing and persistence

In 2017, my manuscript was one of five shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award. None of the writers on the list had a book published at the time. Here’s an excerpt from the announcement:

I started the creative non-fiction manuscript that became Full of Donkey in 2010. I had my first essay, an extract from that work, published in a literary journal in 2015, and was awarded a Varuna Fellowship the same year.

In short, I’d been chipping away at the project for a while by the time of the KYD shortlisting.

SJ Norman ended up winning the Unpublished Manuscript Award that year. Which was disappointing for me, of course.

After, a publisher did ask to read my full manuscript. She ended up rejecting it, but did give me some useful feedback.

My Name Is Revenge book cover cake

In 2018, Full of Donkey was also shortlisted for the Impress Prize for New Writers. Once again, it didn’t win.

I kept working. I changed the manuscript’s scope, and it eventually morphed into My Name Is Revenge, my first published book, which came out in 2019.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch

In sum, I started that project in 2010, and the book came out – in a very different format – ten years later.

Author Ashley Kalagian Blunt signs stacks of My Name Is Revenge book

And even though SJ Norman won the award in 2017, it still took a while for the book to find a publisher. Permafrost came out in 2021, and went on to be longlisted for the Stella Award.

In 2017, I didn’t know any of the other shortlisted writers. They were just random names on a list.

I’ve since gotten to know Susan White through a writing alumni group, and so I’ve heard how hard she’s worked to revise Cut and get it to publication.

Cover of Cut a novel by Susan White

Cut is coming out from Affirm Press this month. (Sue had her first book, a YA novel, published in 2019.)

I’ve also gotten to know Amy Lovat, founder of Secret Book Stuff. We interviewed her for ep 34 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, and she was so fantastic (incisive, generous, well read, enthusiastic – I could go on), I convinced her to join my writers’ group at the end of 2021.

And not long after that, Amy signed a contract with Pan Macmillan for the release of Halfway to Nowhere. After working on the novel for ten years, it’s coming out in July 2023.

That leaves Sevana Ohandjanian. I don’t know her, and there’s no book news on her website, but who knows. She might have a publication deal for Black Grass in the works right now. (Sevana, if you’re reading this and that’s not the case, keep going!)

I think you can see my point.

If you’re working on a book that feels like it’s going nowhere, don’t give up. Take a new approach, maybe start a new manuscript, whatever you need to do. But keep going.

~

And if you’re working on creative non-fiction and keen to develop your skills, whether you’re writing essays or a full manuscript, join me this my six-week online course with Writing NSW starting 31 October.

Online: Creative Non-Fiction Workshop with author ashley kalagian blunt, information about this course on the Writing NSW courses website and a copy of her book cover, How to Be Australian, a memoir

Online: Creative Non-Fiction course
Monday 31 October to Friday 9 December 2022, online
Writing NSW

This six-week online course with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt is an opportunity for you to delve into the dynamic world of creative non-fiction. You’ll try new techniques to stretch your writing muscles, and receive feedback in a supportive and encouraging setting.

Each lesson will include writing exercises designed to help you practise a wide range of skills, and weekly deadlines for short assignments will provide motivation. You can work toward the completion of a short-form piece for submission at the end of the course, or develop your skills for a longer project. For full details and to enrol, visit Writing NSW >>

Ep 60 How to write a prize-winning novel with James McKenzie Watson, author of Denizen

When he was 22 years old, James McKenzie Watson began to experience the first symptoms of what doctors suspected was Guillain–Barré syndrome. To test for this, they gave him a spinal tap (not the rock and roll kind). After the procedure he had to lie on his back for two hours. In that time, he typed out his initial plan for what would become his prize-winning novel, Denizen.

James McKenzie Watson writes fiction with a focus on health and rural Australia. His novel Denizen won the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. Denizen also received a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship and a 2021 KSP Residential Fellowship. His writing has appeared in Meanjin and the Newtown Review of Books.

James was eventually diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), the relapsing form of Guillain–Barré syndrome, and lives with the condition today. Born in Coonabarabran and a past resident of Sydney, he now works as a nurse in regional New South Wales.

I realised early on that the idea I felt very strongly about was probably not marketable or readable in the form it was in. I do believe passionately about the issues that I’m addressing … but I have to have more consideration for the reader.

In episode 60 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, James opens up about the hurt and mentally unwell 22-year-old he was when he started the novel, and the 29-year-old author he’s become.

He also tells us about the process of writing the novel, how it developed over a series of drafts and through feedback from other emerging writers, and why he decided to enter it into the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize. James shares his number one tip for aspiring writers.

I feel very lucky to have a physical, tangible thing that people who know me can read and know that I am okay in a way that I’m sure a lot of them were worried I never would be, when I was a teenager.

He also shares what his mum thinks about the book!

Plus, are James and Ashley married?! Or did they just not think through their podcast name? Find out in episode 60, along with the alternative (and even worse!) name they ultimately rejected.

Join us for the the launch of Denizen!
Thursday 28 July, 6:00pm
Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road Glebe
Tickets $0-12

A gothic thriller from the winner of the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize, exploring rural Australia’s simultaneous celebration of harsh country and stoic people – a tension that forces its inhabitants to dangerous breaking points. Join me for an in-conversation to launch one of the best books of the year! Get your ticket here >>

You can find all of James’s upcoming events on his website.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
– David Vann (of course);
– Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor;
The Liars by Petronella McGovern (from ep 12), out in September 2022;
– The Writer Laid Bare by Lee Kofman (from ep 4);
– RWR McDonald (from ep 32);
– Lyn Yeowart (from ep 39)

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Ep 58 When your body betrays you with author Rae Cairns

After a broken finger brought on a debilitating illness, author Rae Cairns lost two years as her doctors searched for the right treatment. A bad reaction to drugs caused her hair to fall out. When her health had stabilised enough for her to return to writing, she lost her literary agent.

Undeterred, Rae self-published her first novel. After being shortlisted for a major award, she had a new agent and a two-book publishing deal with HarperCollins with a few weeks.

In episode 58, Rae talks to James and Ashley about living with chronic invisible illness, coping with brain fog, and cultivating the resilience to share a story that, in her words, she just had to tell.

Rae Cairns’s debut novel, The Good Mother, was shortlisted for the 2021 Ned Kelly Awards for Best Debut Crime Fiction, and was published by HarperCollins in 2022. Her second novel will be out in 2023. Rae lives in Sydney.

Rae’s rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis came out of the blue. ‘My body had been my strength, and all of a sudden it was betraying me.’ Later she learned that at least one other person in her family had the condition, but when she first began experiencing the onset of symptoms, they came as a shock.

To return to novel writing and go on to achieve the huge success she’s had with The Good Mother, Rae has had to learn how to manage her symptoms, including the brain fog that still causes her to lose entire days and struggle to recall even the simplest words.

She wrote the first draft of The Good Mother by hand – ‘now, with joint issues, that’s not possible.’

‘I had to get a new relationship with everything in my life,’ she says, including her husband, her children, and her writing.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
The Missing Among Us by Erin Stewart (ep 54);
Daughters of Eve by Nina D Campbell;
Black and Blue by Veronica Gorrie;
Autumn by Ali Smith;
The Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet;
Negative Space by BR Yeager;
My Name Is Revenge by Ashley Kalagian Blunt;
Goat Mountain by David Vann;
It by Stephen King

Listen to this episode of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

But how does your HUSBAND feel about your memoir?!

When I started writing, one major thing I had absolutely no idea about was narrative structure. I thought I just had to write a good story – and that’s true, but it was only later that I discovered how essential structure is to good stories.

It took me an embarrassing number of years to even realise this, and then I had to learn how to actually do it. That took a less embarrassing number of years.

In fact, once I started microplotting, scaffolding scenes and applying story structure to my writing, that’s when I suddenly started getting interest from publishers.

That’s why I was so excited to delve into these aspects of writing with the fabulous Michelle Barraclough on the Writers Book Club podcast.

I loved her concept from her very first episode: “It’s a no-holds-barred insight into an author’s writing craft and process, applied to a real-life novel.”

Or in this case, memoir.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

In Writers Book Club episode 11, I walk through the process behind writing my memoir How to Be Australian, including how to shape your voice on the page, how I structured the memoir to best reflect the narrative and character arc, how I plot scenes and specifically focuses on scene turns, the role of truth in memoir, and the lessons from fiction writing that help with writing memoir.

Michelle asks great questions, including why I decided to write a memoir in the first place, what that process looked like, when I decided on the themes.

We also talk about what lessons I took from fiction, how to include conflict and stakes in memoir, and the pesky concept of “truth”.

I give some readings How to Be Australian to illustrate my approach to some of these topics.

Caramel Slice on How to Be Australian

Plus we talk about the eternal question – what does my husband feel about my memoir?! (He’s the other major character.)

Michelle is a writer whose first novel, As I Am, a contemporary drama, was Highly Commended in the 2017 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and earned her a 12-month mentorship at Hachette. She’s also a lot of fun.

And if you’re interested in starting a memoir, or would like to get some more insights into the process now that you’ve delved in, you’re in luck! I’ve got an upcoming online workshop just for you.

Tips and Tricks to Writing Your Memoir
Tuesday 22 February 2022, 6:15-7:30 pm AEDT
Online via Zoom
Tix $9-14

So you’re thinking of writing a memoir and you’re not sure how to start. Or you’ve already started and you’re not sure how to keep going.

Writing a memoir can be a therapeutic process. But it can also be challenging, whether you’re doing it to better understand yourself and the events of your life, or with the aim of publication.

In this workshop from published author Ashley Kalagian Blunt, you’ll learn tips and tricks to make the process easier and rewarding.

This is a workshop for novice writers in the beginning stages of writing a memoir or thinking about starting one. Get your ticket here >>

Ep 50 How to remake the world with author Sarah Sentilles

“We have these narrow stories about what it means to be a human being,” author Sarah Sentilles says. But we have the power to expand them, just as we have the power to remake the world.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Draw Your Weapons, Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own and Taught by America. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Her latest book is Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours

Stranger Care is a memoir of Sarah and her husband’s experience with the foster system in Idaho and the ten months they parented an infant named Coco, only to return her to her loving but vulnerable mother. She describes the book as “a keening, a song of grief, a love letter”.  

In episode 50, Sarah joins us to discuss coping with unexpected loss, who counts as family, and how at heart, all of us are baby monkeys.

She also shares how each of us can use our creativity to remake the world around us. She believes being an artist is urgent and reparative work. When we turn towards our creative work, Sarah teaches, we turns toward the world.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
– ‘The abortion I didn’t have‘ by Merrit Tierce
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Listen to episode 50 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.