I was overjoyed when I heard I’d been awarded a QWC/Olvar Wood Mentorship. Inga Simpson was a participant in the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program two years before me. I knew her writing to be thoughtful, intelligent and magical and was certain that working with her would be an immense privilege. I wasn’t wrong.
After reading my first manuscript, Inga pointed out why it had previously been passed over at a large publishing house’s acquisitions meeting. Her comments gave me insight into my writing at both a micro and macro level. Through the mentorship, Inga also bestowed insights into the challenges of being a writer in contemporary Australia.
Here’s a summary of what she taught me:
1. Keep your day job.
It is challenging to sustain a career as a writer over the long-term. It pays to have another income stream, whether teaching, mentoring or a job in another industry entirely, to prevent the reliance on meeting tight writing deadlines for cash. No full-time writing for me – at least, not yet.
2. Don’t make your only lesbian character the villain.
I was considering reinstating a lesbian subplot in my manuscript. With great diplomacy, Inga reminded me how lesbian characters tend to be revealed as the murderer, or wind up either dead or with the guy in most straight literature. It is my duty as a queer writer to ensure my lesbian characters are balanced, strong and ‘normal’ – or at least as normal as the heterosexual characters. Sure, the lesbian character can be the villain but not when they’re the only overtly non-straight character in the book. And the lesbian should never, I repeat never, fall for the straight guy at the end.
3. Place is everything.
I should have known this but somehow, I’d forgotten it on the gravelly path that has been my writing journey. Inga pointed out to me that place not only reveals theme and character, but also emotion. By extracting the key emotion of the scene, and ensuring each detail of place I picked up fitted with the character’s central emotion, my manuscript developed a resonance I hadn’t been able to achieve before. Place is theme. Place is character. Place is emotion. Thanks to Inga, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting this again.
Place is theme. Place is character. Place is emotion.
4. Less is more.
I had too many characters, too many scenes that weren’t pulling their weight and too many verbs in each sentence. Not to mention the adverbs. They all had to go, even slowly and quickly. Inga was right; paring back to the essential components has made for a leaner, tighter manuscript.
5. The reader is smarter than you.
Throughout the manuscript, I had repeated my main points, concerned the reader would miss my central point. I had failed to realise that readers prefer to work things out for themselves. Since the mentorship, I’ve cut the repetition and introduced foreshadowing for the reader’s benefit. Repetition – not so good. Dramatic irony, on the other hand, is great.
I’ve gone back to reading literary fiction and poetry with renewed insight into how writers weave their magic
Out of all Inga’s advice, this was probably her most potent. With her insights on board, I’ve gone back to reading literary fiction and poetry with renewed insight into how writers weave their magic. Inga’s own novels are testament to how powerful great writing can be.
I can’t recommend Inga’s mentoring services highly enough. The insights I’ve gained have been immeasurable and will assist in my future development as a writer. I was recently fortunate enough to have been granted a two-book deal with Penguin and attribute a large part of my success to Inga’s assistance and advice. Enormous thanks to QWC and Inga Simpson for this generous gift; I couldn’t be more grateful for your help and support.
Susi Fox was part of the 2015 QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program and has been awarded a Varuna Fellowship and a QWC/Olvar Wood Mentorship. Her first novel, Mine, is a psychological thriller and will be published with Penguin Australia and internationally in March 2018.
This article first appeared in QWC’s Writing Queensland (WQ), a quarterly magazine and online site for QWC members featuring articles on writing and publishing. To have access to all WQ articles, join QWC today for as little as $50 per year: qldwriters.org.au/membership.