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Rebecca Starford is the publishing director of Kill Your Darlings. She is also the author of The Imitator, which was published in 2021 in Australia/NZ, and in the US, Canada and the UK under the title An Unlikely Spy. Her first book, Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, was published in 2015. It is currently in development for adaptation into a TV series with Matchbox Pictures and Stan. Rebecca recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

What does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ mean?

In a nutshell, it is telling the writer that the dramatic elements a reader yearns for in a story are lacking. That the elements of rich storytelling, such as engaging dialogue, internal reflections, the wielding of landscape for mood are undeveloped, or more effective elsewhere in the scene. I’ve found it more useful to recast this mantra as ‘When to Show, When to Tell’, because strong writing exhibits both these methods of expression, and because all writers are working to find the interesting parts of a person and their story. Showing is generally the most effective pathway to those interesting details – the kind of revelations that make us keep reading – so we tend to want more of that in our writing. The kind of descriptions that speak to us authentically. That fascinate, intrigue and sometimes repel. That give momentum to our writing, our characters and their stories. Having said this, there are times when showing – or exposition – is absolutely necessary. For expediency, for shifts across historical time, to convey dense detail in an efficient manner.

You write fiction and non-fiction. Is there any difference in writing process between the genres?

Not for me. I have only written two books, so perhaps this process will change in time, but right now I don’t see that happening. My first book was a memoir set across two timeframes (teenager and then mid-twenties). From the outset, I decided I wanted to shape the memoir as I would a novel: with a focus on deep characterisation, establishing a remote and at times harsh setting that played a significant role in the story, and the natural arc of the timeline across this year away at a boarding school. I even went back and did more research on my own life – re-familiarising myself with the place, and the feelings this campus evoked in me. That process was very similar when I came to write my first novel, despite it being set during the Second World War in London. It required a lot of research, a deep examination of character, consideration about how setting interacted with character, as well as the specific timeline and historical era. Both these books have been about investigating character – one just happened to be me.

You have conducted creative writing courses for many years in schools, universities and workshops. Do you think creative writing be taught?

Absolutely. In that I believe the craft of writing – the way we can use literary tools to the best effect in our prose – can be taught. Most artistic practice, whether it be writing, sculpture, piano playing, acting – has at its foundation in formal instruction. Writing is no different. One of the most transformative aspects of my undergraduate creative writing degree was that I was taught how to read critically. To begin to identify the many and varied components that make up works of fiction and non-fiction. Once you know how to read other literature in this way (as in, reading as a writer), you can start to understand how it could be applied to you own developing work.

What aspects of writing do you struggle with?

The pandemic has worn away at my energy and concentration, so I am lately not always firing on all cylinders, though I am hopeful it won’t stay like that for too much longer. I find plotting to be something that challenges me – for my new book project, I’ve been doing a lot of plot work well in advance of writing (or at least concurrent to some early passages of writing) to ensure I don’t get myself lost, which I tend to do in fiction. I’m also a writer who needs to layer her characters – a bit like a painter – to really reveal the complexity of these people. That’s one reason why I enjoyed producing the ‘When to Show, When to Tell’ course – it made me think so much about my own process, and how I will approach future characters in my work.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

This wasn’t given to me personally, but above my desk at home is the quote Nevertheless, she persisted. This phrase was made famous in 2017 after the Republican-controlled Senate attempted to silence Elizabeth Warren on a debate around human rights. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted,’ complained the ghoulish Mitch McConnell. I draw a lot of inspiration in my writing – and the resilience writing requires – from women who persist. It keeps me going on the days when it’s difficult to get to the desk and stay there.

You can find Rebecca’s latest writing courses here: