We at Kill Your Darlings love short fiction, so we’re pretty thrilled to present three masters of the form.
Tomorrow’s Short Story Masterclass at the Emerging Writers Festival includes a range of workshops, presentations and panels with writers and editors. But for those of you who can’t make it (or are considering going) here you’ll find a taste of the sort of advice and expertise on offer. So go forth and write more short stories! Finish those you’ve started! We’d love to read them.
Elizabeth Flux is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of Writers Bloc. She is about to start a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship to work on a series of essays and is the winner of the 2017 Feminartsy Fiction Prize.
Melanie Cheng is a writer of fiction and non-fiction from Melbourne. Her debut collection Australia Day will be officially released in July.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. Her first novel The Wood of Suicides was published in 2014. Her short story collection The Love of a Bad Man is out now.
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Meaghan Dew (KYD): Hi and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and today we’re featuring the Emerging Writers’ Festival Short Story Masterclass. So if you need something to listen to between events or you couldn’t make it down to Melbourne for the festival, here’s a good chance to benefit from the combined wisdom of Elizabeth Flux, Laura Elizabeth Woollett and Melanie Cheng. We’ll start with Liz, telling us about her experience editing short fiction.
Elizabeth Flux: So I was previously the editor of Voiceworks magazine for two years so we worked with writers under the age of twenty-five who wrote fiction, nonfiction and poetry and worked with them for about one or two weeks to get them to the point of publication. So most of my fiction editing experience is from that, as well as swapping work with friends, talking about that and also working on my own fiction pieces, so…mixed bag.
KYD: Is there something particular that you look for when you’re reading a piece for the first time?
EF: So the main thing is to read it all the way through, because a piece can seem great at the beginning and then really fall off at the end, or vice versa – it can seem like it has no potential at the beginning and then suddenly come through with something amazing that’s worth pursuing. So reading something all the way through, finding what is at the heart of it and then drawing that out and then working on it.
KYD: You must come across a lot of pieces while you’re reading that have potential but perhaps might need a little bit more work than a publication can dedicate to it. Where do you draw that line, and does it change depending on what sort of work you’re doing?
EF: Yeah, so it depends on the publication you’re working for. If you’re doing something that has, like, quick turnarounds, within a week, that factors in – so first thing is time. Most pieces are salvageable in some ways– it’s very rare that you come across a short story or a longer piece and you go, ‘there’s nothing here, you can’t build on that.’ If everyone had a year to work on their work then I’m sure whatever is sent in, with very few exceptions, could be made into something very good. But it does depend on the publication, so with Voiceworks we had more time than is common, so we’d be able to work for two, three weeks depending on the turnaround for the cycle. Basically time comes first, and after that you try and find the right home for a piece. So sometimes I’d get something that would need a lot of work coming through, and I would say no to that early on. Because it’s not right to try and shape a piece of fiction to the publication, you should try and find the right home for the work. So people shouldn’t be trying to fit their work into the schedule helping us if they need longer.
KYD: So you were saying that sometimes a piece isn’t suited for the publication that you’re working on at the time. Do you ever give advice on different publications, that somewhere might be better suited to…?
EF: So if I think the publication’s not the right home for the piece I’ll say that straight away and give them a list of suggestions of where to go, because I think a publication and a piece should work together. Writers should not shape their work to a publication if there’s a better home for it somewhere else. So I’ll always tell a writer if there’s somewhere better, like if they’ve got a short story that would work better as a longform piece, and we’ve got a 3,000-word limit and their story needs 10,000 words to breathe, I’ll send them to somewhere else that can give them that space. Obviously working with Voiceworks is a luxury there, because we had more time, and our whole goal was to develop writers. Other places that are about printing things might not have that luxury, so I think the advice to writers is not to take it personally if something is rejected– and remember that sometimes it’s about the publication, not the work.
KYD: More generally, where are some places that you’d advise emerging or aspiring writers go to look for support and development in the early stages of their career?
EF: So I’m possibly a little bit biased here, but if you’re under 25, Voiceworks is always the first stop, I think, because they give you support, they work with you every step of the way and they hear what you’re saying, you work together very closely and that’s unusual in the publishing industry. Beyond that there are things like Writers Bloc which also, full disclosure, I am the editor of. Otherwise I think sending your work out to competitions, to various publications is always worthwhile. Not everywhere gives you feedback but you get an idea of what works for where.
KYD: What are some things that writers can do on their own to develop their skills or to develop their work before it ends up in front of an editor?
EF: Give yourself a false deadline. So if you’re writing fiction, in particular, you’ll never feel like it’s finished, even when you’ve sent it off, even if it’s published in a book you’ll always be like ‘oh, it would be better with this’, so give yourself at least a week after finishing your draft to let it rest so you can read it with fresh eyes and make the changes that you would otherwise be a bit too close to to change. Another thing is to read it aloud ’cause you find things that don’t quite flow as well from that. But with fiction in particular giving it time to rest, so that you can take another look at it is the main thing I have found that helps me.
KYD: So obviously there are pieces that you enjoy as a reader, and there are also going to be times when you’re looking for pieces for a particular publication. Do you have the same taste when it comes to both forms of reading: reading as an editor and reading for pleasure?
EF: I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve been able to edit for publications that I enjoy reading so basically there’s no Venn diagram, it’s just two circles on top of each other, and I feel that if you can’t empathise as a reader for a publication then it’s gonna be hard to be an editor for the same publication cause you don’t understand what your readers are looking for, so I’ve been quite fortunate in that… they overlap. But at the same time editing has in a way ruined reading for me a little bit, because I go, ‘that was good, this is what I’d change – oh wait, it’s a book already and I’m not working on this.’ So it’s made me a bit arrogant.
KYD: I think that’s probably it – is there anything else you’d like to mention that perhaps we haven’t had time to today, or anything you’re going to be mentioning in the masterclass that it would be good to mention now?
EF: So at the masterclass people will be bringing their own work and I’m working on editing it there, but I think the point is, write what you want to read, not what you think other people want to read – because if you’re not interested in your own work, why would other people be?
KYD: Not to mention it would make it a really boring experience to be working on it, which, I mean, no one is really doing it for the immediate financial rewards, so I imagine being interested in your work is probably a plus…
EF: So you’ve got to at least enjoy it because, yeah, the money is not exactly rolling in at a speedy rate.
KYD: All right, well that might be the place to leave it. Is there anything that you’ve read recently that you really loved in the short fiction realm?
EF: I’ve been reading Abigail Ulman’s book on and off for the last year, so I’ve read it all the way through. It’s called Hot Little Hands. I read it all the way through last year and I dip back into it every so often because it’s just so varied yet also so cohesive as a book, and I’ve probably bought more copies of it than is a normal amount because if something… if a friend is going through something, or has something that coincides with the book I’ll be like, ‘have the copy and read it,’ and then I’ll check in on them in an annoying way and be like ‘What did you think the book? What did you think of the book?’ So yeah, don’t be friends with me, I think.
KYD: That was Elizabeth Flux, writer and editor-in-chief of Writers Bloc.
Melanie Cheng: 20 years ago supermarkets didn’t stock Chinese mushrooms. Now they had a whole aisle dedicated to international cuisine. Lebanese, Greek and Mexican on one side, Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian on the other. Mrs Chan hardly ever went to the shops by herself. On Wednesdays her eldest daughter Lily took her to Footscray Market to buy fresh vegetables and every Friday her youngest daughter Daisy ordered bulky items like toilet paper for her online. But today was her grandson Martin’s twentieth birthday and Mrs Chan wanted to surprise him – to surprise all of them – by cooking a family favourite: Chinese claypot chicken and mushroom rice.
She found the chicken thighs towards the front of the supermarket cradled in polystyrene. The meat would be days old by now but it would have to do. In Hong Kong Mrs Chan would have sent her maid to choose a live chicken at Wan Chai Market and pick it up an hour later dead, plucked and washed. When the Chan family feasted on the flesh for dinner, the meat would be less than six hours old. That was why the meals Mrs Chan made in Australia would always be poor imitations, bland and watery substitutes for their Hong Kong originals. But today she was heartened by the plumpness of the ginger and the crispness of the spring onions, and on finding a familiar brand of Chinese mushroom she was eager to start cooking.
It was only once she was waiting in line that Mrs Chan noticed the Australian flags hanging from the ceiling. As she looked around she realised the entire store was decorated with green and gold balloons. Now she remembered her grandson shared his birthday with an Australian holiday.
When Mrs Chan reached the front of the queue, the pretty girl behind the counter in the yellow head scarf smiled and said something in English. Mrs Chan shook her head and said ‘no FlyBuys’ like her daughter Lily had trained her to do. The girl seemed amused by this and Mrs Chan wondered if perhaps she had asked her something else. She would never know. As she watched her items being scanned and bagged, Mrs Chan turned her attention to the magazine rack. A sea of women and with pouty lips and cascading hair returned her stare. They reminded Mrs Chan of the Barbies her granddaughter had played with as a child. Once, long ago, Mrs Chan had been the local bombshell, but that was in the 1960s and hers had been a real unspoilt kind of beauty. Her fair skin and high cheekbones had caused a stir among the neighbours, some of the more jealous ones starting a rumour she had Caucasian blood in her.
It was only one face Mrs Chan recognised amid all the others on the covers of the glossy magazines – a woman with kumquat coloured hair. When Mrs Chan had first come to Australia the redheaded women had been outspoken about Chinese migrants, but thankfully nobody, including the redhead, talked about the Chinese anymore. Now it was all about Muslims, like the pretty girl in the yellow headscarf scanning Mrs Chan’s Chinese mushrooms.
KYD: That was an excerpt from Melanie Cheng’s collection Australia Day which is out now with Text Publishing. In 2016 Australia Day won the award for an unpublished manuscript. I ask Melanie whether the award had had an impact on the manuscript’s reception.
MC: Oh, definitely. I mean, I don’t think I really appreciated how much notice publishers and agents took of that award, and not just the winning entry but just being shortlisted, so it’s really been crucial in getting the the manuscript looked at and published.
KYD: And did having that deadline shape the way those stories were formed?
MC: I think, in the main, it really was a driving force to actually put things together. I mean, and that’s what I’ve used throughout my writing career to date, those deadlines as a kind of, you know, fire up the bum to get things organised rather than being able to procrastinate on it constantly. So in that sense it was great but, to be honest, when I submitted it I wasn’t entirely happy with, you know, all stories I’d put in there. So to have had this opportunity between winning the prize and publication to kind of cut out some of the stories I wasn’t as happy with, to write new ones, to polish the existing ones, and now I am really happy with the final piece. I had thought that you know you’d need to have that polished piece to submit but perhaps I think they are looking for potential sometimes, the judges.
KYD: You mentioned that some of the stories have changed since they originally presented as being unpublished manuscript. Were stories that you weeded out, where they because you weren’t happy with them as individual stories, or because you didn’t fit the thematic links in the collection as it stands today?
MC: Yeah, I think when I was writing stories initially I was never really writing a collection per se. You know, I was writing about my preoccupations, and things are interested me, and writing for journals or competitions. And so there was a little bit of repetition I guess, along the way, and so there were certain stories that I felt, you know, that they didn’t elaborate on some of the themes, and then looking at the collection as a whole I realised there were maybe some gaps in exploring the themes of identity and belonging that I wanted to explore more.
KYD: How important do you think a common theme or a narrative is to a short story collection when an author is putting together the first work?
MC: It was a very organic thing for me because I never went, when I was writing the stories initially, I wasn’t envisaging collection necessarily at the end of it. But in the process of meeting publishers and in putting a collection together myself, I do realise now the importance of, not necessarily having the stories linked in some explicit way, but in, yes, having some some theme that the collection explores. And I think to be honest that will emerge regardless, because every writer is interested in particular themes and preoccupied, as I say, with certain things, so they naturally do come out in our stories.
KYD: You have a pretty demanding day job – how did you go about carving out time to write?
MC: I mean when I had the luxury of a lot of time, I did kind of just snatch it when I could – but it’s interesting ’cause when I was younger and I didn’t have children and I was studying, I didn’t take advantage of some of the spare time that I did have. So sometimes I think it is that pressure of being time poor that makes you value it, which is a bit ironic – when you don’t have it, you value it and you can do more with it. But definitely now having deadlines… I think I do, I am much more structured in how I divide my time. So I do have like a dedicated writing day when the children are in care or at school, and that that time is really important for me. And I still grab snatches in the evenings, you know. But you do, to be able to look at your work as a whole you do need some extended length of time, so yeah, I’m lucky that I had that.
KYD: Were short stories the first form that you were drawn to? Or was it a result of perhaps being time poor when you started some of these stories?
MC: I think that, yeah, definitely played a part in it. Part of it was also my kind of, like, fear of the longer form, I guess. Yes, I think perhaps initially I thought the short story might be easier, which I think is not true – I think in fact short story writing requires a lot of discipline. But then in the process of writing short stories and reading them I also fell in love with them. But also in Australia, you know, and in many parts of the world, a lot of writers make their mark initially in short stories, and that’s, you know, short story competitions, you know, something that’s quite well recognised within the literary community – and as I realise now, something that publishers and agents to take notice of. Yeah, so it was a combination of all those things.
KYD: Given your involvement in the Short Story Masterclass, this is probably a question you’re going to be asked a lot – but what do you feel the most important advice is that you can give to emerging or aspiring writers?
MC: Um… (LAUGHS)
KYD: I’ve put you on the spot completely here, so, at least a week in advance of the masterclass where you might get asked this, so…
MC: Yeah, there’s quite a few pieces of advice, I think, that I’ve been given over the years that have really helped me. Um, one is to just write, of course – even if you think what you’re writing is rubbish it is all helpful in the, in the process. So you know, often the first paragraph or two of any short story I write I end up ditching, and it’s just me kind of finding the story and finding the voice. So it’s not even though those words don’t count if, you know, the process of writing them does. And I find that a lot of us writers do talk a lot about writing, but… and spend not as much time actually doing it. So that is important. And I think finding writer friends and mentors has been hugely helpful for me. I only really got any success with shortlistings once I found people to read my work and help me with the rewrite, so yeah, I think that fresh pair of eyes and kind of helpful constructive critique can really make or break a story. So those would be kind of the two main things I would say to people that are thinking about writing, yeah.
KYD: That was Melanie Cheng, author of Australia Day. She’ll be discussing collected works at the EWF Short Story Masterclass alongside Laura Elizabeth Woollett.
You’re participating in the Emerging Writers Festival Short Story Masterclass, and one of the questions that you guys will be addressing is how to move from individual stories to a collection. How did that journey start for you with The Love of a Bad Man?
Laura Elizabeth Woollett: Well for me it was, I always conceived of it as a collection of short stories kind of tied together by the same idea, which was all these stories being about women who’ve loved bad men from history. And you know I actually originally, when I thought of the idea for the collection, I was considering writing a novel just about one or another of the cases that I covered, but instead I started thinking about similar stories and if I could possibly get a whole collection out of them and it turns out that I could.
KYD: There’s a lot of perhaps common wisdom or superstition that’s quite difficult sometimes to sell a short story collection. How did that work out for you?
LEW: Well I think it is a pretty good time for it, I feel like they are coming back in some ways. But it definitely helped that I already had a novel in progress, and that the publishers were interested in that – took them both on at the same time. So it was a two book deal, and the short stories were taken on to be published first, but there was always going to be a novel after that. I think that definitely helped, because they knew that I was working on something else.
How many stories did you have completed when you pitched the collection? It was actually complete when I was doing that and, um, yeah, I think that helped as well. But I ended up swapping one story and rewriting, or writing a completely new one. So yeah, I always was pitching it with 12 stories.
LEW: When you were first writing them, as you went along, did the way you wrote stories that you started later in the collection prompt you to go back and revise earlier ones at any point? Well I was kind of approaching them one at a time and trying to get each of them as good as it could be, so I think that was a level at which, like, I was happy with them, but also during the editing process there were things that I changed, but I tried to just approach them one by one.
KYD: Not all collections are as tightly linked thematically as yours – do you think that that really helps as well with pitching it?
LEW: Yeah, I think it definitely helps because you know, I would, I would tell people, ‘oh, I’m working on a short story collection,’ and they would be like, ‘Oh, okay’, and then I’d say it what it’s about, and that always was like ‘oh, okay!’ like that’s actually a good idea, great idea. And so I think having a concept that held it all together, and that was really easy to encapsulate in one sentence… That did make people interested.
KYD: Is the novel that you were working on / are working on, is it, is that one of the bad men? Or does it involve a bad man that you decided to write a longer piece about?
LEW: Yeah, it does, actually, and, um, it’s one of the women who I researched was this woman called Carolyn Moore Layton, who was the mistress of Jim Jones, the cult leader. I wrote a story about her originally, but I just found her really difficult to embody in a single short story, so I ended up scrapping that story and starting this novel which focuses on her, but also on the other characters, and some more fictional characters as well.
KYD: You must have done quite a bit of research into each of the – and I would say that I know it’s The Love of a Bad Man but of course it really is about the women in each of these cases. How did you decide to, how did you work out which details to include and which not to?
LEW: I guess when I research, I read a lot of stuff but I don’t always take a lot of notes, so you know, I would be reading things and basically the things that just stuck in my mind were the things that, not all of them, but a lot of them were the things that I included. It was kind of like, I guess, throwing a bunch of stuff at a wall and seeing what stuck. Details are important but you don’t want to get bogged down in details, and often it’s just a matter of picking the right ones and it was quite an intuitive thing at times.
KYD: So I suppose last off, just as a bit of practice before the masterclass, do you have any advice for emerging writers?
LEW: Well I guess my main advice is to write what you’re actually interested in, write what makes you happy, not try to predict what’s going to be popular. When I was writing this collectionI think it just came out of subjects that I was interested in and reading about. I didn’t really think too hard and far ahead, I was just pursuing ideas that were interesting to me. I think that’s what makes you happy and that’s what makes it work, really.
KYD: That was Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Her collection, The Love of a Bad Man, is published by Scribe Publications. That’s all we have time for, so thank you to Melanie, Laura and Liz for sharing their short story experience with us today. For more from them and other fantastic writers, check out the Short Story Masterclass at the Emerging Writers Festival on Tuesday 20 June. I’m Meaghan Dew, and this has been the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. If you enjoy the podcast, please rate or review, it helps new listeners find us on iTunes. And don’t forget to visit killyourdarlings.com.au on a pretty regular basis. See you next time!
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