on clawing my way back towards my words

I opened up my website this morning to blog about Varuna, and in my drafts folder I discovered a blog post about the process of trying to apply, not quite a whole year ago. So today I'm going to post that, and I'll update you on my actual experience at Varuna a little later.

I'm trying, at the moment, to put together an application for a residency, which would mean two precious weeks not only all to myself (an introvert's dream!), but all to my writing.

And my procrastination is so severe I'm having to employ every trick in the book to fool myself into working on it: I can always turn it down; I won't get it anyway; it's a whole year away. Why am I procrastinating? Because it will mean two whole weeks away from my daughter.

After 3.5 years (4.5, by the time the residency rolls around), during which time I've spent all of one single night away from her, and less than a half-dozen missed bedtimes, my guilt at the thought of leaving her without me for such a stretch is perfectly balanced against my desperation to have something for myself.

My eternal frustration and friction is that I have to choose, between her and writing, two pursuits which are each as all-consuming as the other.

Rufi Thorpe touches on this issue at Vela:

"I firmly believe that having children has made me smarter and better and more interesting, and fuck you to any women’s mag that doesn’t think so too.

And yet, I am profoundly unfree."

"I have tried to say, “I hate my life.” I have tried to say, “I need help.” I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the three-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind."

Last night, in preparing Squawk for my paltry weekly sleep-in (a practice which is barely three months new, if that; and which I "earn" by cooking crepes for the family when I get up), I explained that tomorrow morning it would be Dad who would get up and make her breakfast and play. "And if you want crepes, you need to let me have a really long sleep-in, with no interruptions, OK?"

"Yeah!" she agreed. "Crepes! I'll let you have a big, big, BIG sleep!"

And then she added, with the confidence and shining face unique to young children: "And when I miss you, I'll come in straight away."

How can you get cranky at that? Turns out, if you're sleep-deprived, even though it lights a spark of unquenchable joy in your heart, you can simultaneously feel cranky and despairing about it. Because parenting. Because being needed, being a carer, pins you down. It's a good thing — it grounds you, it shifts your perspective, it makes you necessary in a way that gives you unswerving purpose. And I'm caring for my child, and it's what I want to do. But it doesn't mean I don't also want to do other things.

(Obviously, since I'm writing this from Varuna, I won those two weeks. I actually won the Eleanor Dark Fellowship, which means I was awarded a highly-coveted third week. And just so you're not all suffering, I'm pleased to report the separation has gone swimmingly. Squawk has enjoyed her week home alone with Dad (who on day six was thoroughly defeated and agreed to Tim Tams and grated cheese as a viable breakfast), and I have sunk into the silence and productivity afforded me by Varuna and the new novel is flourishing — in my mind, at least, if not quite yet on paper!)

How on earth do nine authors write a book cohesively?

Ever wondered just how authors collaborate successfully? Today I have a guest post from Zena Shapter, one of NINE (9!) co-authors of the newly-released Into Tordon, where she talks about her experiences with collaborating.



Hi Deb, and thanks for having me on your blog. Collaborative writing seems to be on trend at the moment, and I’m loving it! I’ve been writing collaboratively to raise money for The Kids’ Cancer Project since 2013 and it’s so much fun. You get to brainstorm a plot with other writers who share the same goal as yourself, the writing gets split between you, and then you have automatic critique partners ready and willing to read, critique, rewrite and edit to a deadline. It’s a refreshing break from writing alone in your quiet little author cave!

Of course it also comes with its difficulties, especially with nine writers involved, as with our latest release Into Tordon – this one wasn’t written for The Kids’ Cancer Project, and was quickly picked up by publishers MidnightSun and Scholastic Standing Orders, so everything had to be perfect.

Thankfully, when I suggested the book to the other authors, they were all members of my writers’ group, the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, so were used to my style of leadership (I’m the founder and leader). I’m a diversity advocate who believes in playing to the different strengths offered collectively by a group (the more diverse the better!), as well as a perfectionist (handy for making things perfect!), and a bit of a mum with my leadership – I like it best when everyone feels nurtured, supported and happy with what’s happening. Having a ‘majority-rules’ ethos helps with that.

We started by establishing that common goal I mentioned. We wanted our book to appeal to 8-14 year olds, both boys and girls, it had to be speculative fiction, and address issues relevant to kids today. My kids were (and still are!) obsessed with Minecraft, as were some of the other writers’ kids, so we quickly decided that our main characters would have to be online gamers. In fact, thirteen-year-old Beth and her online nemesis Zane are both playing in the anniversary championship of their favourite online game, Tordon, at the start of our book.

My hubbie asked me the other day where the name ‘Tordon’ came from and I was proud enough to admit I got it from ‘Flash Gordon’. I love semantics and word play and, after looking through the most popular online games, I knew ours had to be a strong-sounding name of two-syllables. I started to think about strong word endings and ‘don’ was among them. After playing around a little, ‘Flash Gordon’ came to mind, and then it was simply a matter of finding a strong-sounding first letter. ‘Tordon’ was born!

tordon-launch-zena-shapter-reading-1But we didn’t just want our heroes playing an online game, there also had to be adventure, risk, excitement! We wanted to invent a new world! So we played to our strengths and brainstormed all the different countries the nine of us had visited, our different interests and childhood struggles. This gave us plot elements and stakes our characters would risk. We divided up the chapters according to who had the most relevant experience for that chapter, as well as whose writing style best suited its pacing, then we were off!

Several drafts later, it was time to play to our strengths again and, while others researched publishers, I took on rewriting the manuscript so it had a single ‘voice’. This was one of those difficult aspects – with so many people writing, chances are against everyone having the same writing voice. There can be only one! So I set about re-working everyone’s words until they sounded alike. The story’s action remained the same, it just came to sound different, well, the same (he he)!

It was harder to do than when re-writing my own work because I wanted to be respectful of my fellow authors’ originality. If diversity is a group’s strengths, you don’t want to lose that in a rewrite. So instead of simply re-writing a sentence until it reads better, as I would with my own work, I had to justify each amendment to myself – is this really necessary, how would I feel if someone rewrote one of my sentences that way, is there a less drastic option?

Thankfully, slowly, it worked! We soon had a beautiful manuscript that everyone was proud to offer to publishers. We ended up getting three offers!

We were of course very happy to sign with publishers MidnightSun, who are going from strength to strength at the moment. Into Tordon is coming to all good bookshops right now and I can’t wait to see it on the shelves!

Next year I get to see my own book on the shelves too, as I’ve just sold my debut novel Towards White (written by only me!) to IFWG, who are also going from strength to strength. It’s called “Towards White” and is set in a fictional Iceland. Scientists have discovered where the electrical energy in our brains goes when we die, which brings about certain cultural developments. Becky’s brother visits Iceland to study those developments, but goes missing… Updates will go on zenashapter.com or my publishers’website, IFWG, as production progresses. Back to my quiet little author cave to get that ready for readers!

In the meantime, I’d love to know what readers think of Into Tordon, the book that sees two gamers discover there's more to life than winning on an adventure that's out of this world. We’d love to know what readers think! They’re welcome to drop us a comment via zfkingbolt.com

Thanks for having me Deb!


zenashapter100pxZena Shapter writes from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud, creating what-if worlds and adventures. She’s the winner of twelve national writing competitions, including a Ditmar Award and the Australian Horror Writers’ Association Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous online and print venues including the Hugo-nominated ‘Sci Phi Journal’, ‘Midnight Echo’, ‘Award-Winning Australian Writing’ (twice), and ‘Antipodean SF’. Reviewer for Tangent Online Lillian Csernica has referred to her as a writer who “deserves your attention”. She’s the founder and leader of the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group, a book creator and mentor, creative writing tutor, movie buff, traveller, wine lover and all round story nerd. Her novel “Towards White” will be published by the IFWG in 2017.


Into Tordon

Only champions dare to enter!

Thirteen-year-old Beth has been waiting for weeks to play in the championship of her favourite online game, Tordon. Now tribes of beastmen roar through her speakers. Game on! She plays to win, until her gaming nemesis Zane challenges her to a real-life risk that has them sucked into a strange world. Here they must push their skills to the limit just to survive!

Faced with riddles, a multitude of dangerous creatures, exotic cultures and scientific impossibilities, Beth and Zane are forced to take on challenge after challenge if they’re ever to return home.

‘a pacy, exciting read’ Books+Publishing

The Miseducation of Mara Lys an Aurealis winner!

Easter weekend, for me, was given over entirely to Contact2016. (I even sacrificed chocolate! Although, come to think of it, Sean Williams did come to the rescue on that front. Although he kept making me promise to give it to Squawk.)

Without hesitation, it was a fabulous con. The programming was engaging and interesting, being devoted less to the introductory "how do I write/get published?" level and far more to discussion of issues and themes and social commentary. Initially I had to pull out of all programming events, because I was unsure of Squawk-minding and my own internal resources and how the two would intersect — but even so I still managed to land myself on a panel at the last minute, and got to wax lyrical about the role of hard choices and how that intersected with racism/sexism in character redemption arcs.

I've now come home with a head buzzing with industry talk, some new friends, re-connections with established friends, a touch of con-lurgy, a veritable slab of post-con blues/introversion burnout, and, oh, that's right … two Aurealis Awards!


My story "The Miseducation of Mara Lys" — which is about classism and the privileges that will inevitably corrupt any social hierarchy, and what happens when merit encounters a "meritocracy" — won for Best Horror Novella and for Best YA Short Story.

Having every story in the collection as well as the collection itself be shortlisted in this year's awards (how is that even possible?! I still can't believe it!) was humbling to the point of incoherency. To be fully half the Best Horror Novella shortlist was made even better when Squawk turned to me, each time my name was read aloud, and said with the innocent wonder only 3yo's can muster, "That's you! You won!"

It's so fitting, then, that the story which did actually win was Mara Lys. The lengths to which the characters go, in order to win the chance to practice their art in peace, was born in no small part from the fevered imaginings of the mother of a newborn who wanted just one uninterrupted hour a week to write. And the monster of the tale, the famed wyrm… Well, that wouldn't be what it is, and the story wouldn't work, without its dandelion hair, sparse and fine and drifting on the wind … and wholly inspired by the follicles of my little gumnut baby.


It's also fitting that it should have been given to me in Brisbane — the city where, as a 2005 Clarion South student who'd never before met anyone who took writing seriously, let alone people who did it, let alone people who did it so successfully as to be lauded and awarded for their efforts, I attended my very first Aurealis Awards ceremony. And this year there I was, on a stage, with my week one Clarion South tutor and at least some of my Clarion South cellmates in the audience.

All in all, I simply couldn't be happier. (Especially since, at the rate I write, this win will have to last me and my self-doubts quite some time…)

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AurealisAwards.org features the full list of award winners and the shortlists. If you're looking for some new fiction to fuel your minds, it's one hell of a good place to start.

and then there were six


Hot on the heels of Cherry Crow Children and its stories picking up four Ditmar nominations, this morning brought me a flurry of Facebook notifications and the news that it's also picked up no less than SIX Aurealis Award nominations:

  • The Wages of Honey, The Miseducation of Mara Lys and The Cherry Crow Children of Haverny Wood are each shortlisted for Best Horror Novella
  • The Miseducation of Mara Lys is shortlisted for Best Young Adult Short Story
  • The Briskwater Mare is shortlisted for Best Horror Short Story, and
  • Cherry Crow Children itself is shortlisted for Best Collection

I didn't even know I wrote horror.

Over on Facebook Alisa has just reminded me of the Embiggen podcast where I first met most of the other Twelve Planet authors, and listened to them talk about their (published, award-winning) collections while I sat, tiny and horrified and totally drowning in the deep end of the big kids pool. This is what I said of it at the time:

It was great fun to record, and absolutely fascinating to get an insight into everyone else's collections, actual or still planned, so it's well worth the listen. My own collection is still very much nebulous, so there's no much to glean about the stories I'll produce, but you do get an insight into how I work: namely, panicked.

Panicked. Heh. I'd just thrown out 40,000 words of The Briskwater Mare and started from scratch yet again, and still had two more stories to write (The Cherry Crow Children of Haverny Wood, and The Miseducation of Mara Lys). Plus, I was pregnant with Squawk — but had yet to tell anyone, even my parents, and was quaking with the certainty that babies and stories don't mix and how was I going to deliver anything worthy of the Twelve Planet series?

Thank all that's thankable for publishers like Alisa, who commit to making such initiatives possible, even if it means waiting 3 years longer for a book than she expected to.

To everyone who nominated, and to everyone who helped make this book a reality, and to everyone who think it belongs in the top 10 of any list, I'm truly humbled. Thank you.