Not All Who Wander Are Lost

I’ve just gotten back from a magical three weeks in Europe on the cusp of winter, and as soon as I finish this blog post and all my photos finish downloading off my phone, I’m switching off all other applications and opening my book draft. Sorry in advance for the short post.

I want to talk a little about the ways, both positive and negative, that travelling affects and influences my writing practices. While there are uncountable ways in which seeing the world opens my eyes to new experiences, other ways of doing things, exotic places and unexpected points of view for me to explore in my stories, it is also a simple fact that three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book. Some writers can write anywhere. They use beautiful notebooks, curl up in cafes and parks in stunning cities and let their pens flow. As much as I romanticise this idea and collect notebooks for this exact purpose, it doesn’t happen, because in flow-state I write too long, too fast and too intensively for my hand to keep up with my mind. I need a PC. I need a desk and my own space. I need my music and my drafting documents, which are on my PC, which is on my desk, in my own space.

47688195_2047288622031528_5060002057767878656_nSo a holiday from my life is also a holiday from my hobby. I think in a couple of ways this is a good thing. In one respect, I can’t feel guilty about wasting time not working on my book, because I physically can’t work on it. It’s out of my hands. All I can do is be in the moment of where I am, enjoying my holiday all the more, and spend my dull times – in transit or in lines, so many lines… – with my stories in my imagination, where I can’t write through my ideas but have to let them ruminate and reshape. This gives me more time to consider alternatives and how this could impact the storyline and my characters before I get home to write it down.

As mentioned above, a big way in which travelling affects my writing is indirectly through me. Travel changes a person. You see other ways of living, you see poverty, you see extravagant wealth, you see beauty in art and horror in battle-scarred churches. You fall in love with languages you’d not heard before and feel desperately vulnerable in cities where you thought you’d feel safe. You learn about historic poor choices and how these have echoed through time and been commemorated in monuments and rituals. You wonder how the world could ever have let these things happen and realise they’re not so different from what goes on today. Travel shows you patterns of human experience, similarities and difference all at once, and as a result you grow. It comes through in your writing as you mature and increasingly desire to explore these complicated elements of humanity. In my Elm Stone Saga, readers will have noticed the shift of focus from schoolgirl concerns in the first book to more political and ethical matters as the series progresses. This isn’t something I set out to do; just the natural process of a maturing author using my story world as a medium to explore the issues I’m exposed to in my own experience.

Travel also provides new settings. I fell hard for Prague the first time I visited the Czech Republic three years ago, and it found its way into the final scene of Unbidden. Years earlier, the first city I visited outside of Australia and New Zealand was Paris, and though I was sick and jetlagged and sixteen, I was enamoured of the tall narrow apartment we stayed in, with its tiny retrofitted one-person elevator and antique iron staircase railing and the uneven flooring and the narrow, cobbled street it was on. When I started writing Chosen just a couple of months later, it was this picture that came to mind when writing Emmanuelle’s Parisian home. Her scenes were later cut out or trimmed to make way for Aristea and Renatus’s storyline, but it was the place that provided the authentic details to that flash of inspiration.

The human brain is incredible but flawed, and it can’t keep all the data it processes in its repositories. It has to cull, and specifics of place and experience are lost. How the buildings don’t quite line up, all built at different times with no standardisation, and the bicycle chained up out front has a twisted front wheel from being run over and still isn’t claimed after three days. How the rain drips through the hop on/hop off bus’s canvas roof for so long that a wave pool is generated at your feet by the movement of the vehicle and the headphone jack sparks a little so you opt to go without audio guide this time. How the wintry sun reflects off distant snow-capped hills or how the first view of Rome from the Palatine Hill took your breath away.

Because I can’t not write at all, and because I have all those notebooks I can’t write my stories in, I keep a travel journal for all those little details of place and experience. What I saw, heard, smelt, felt; my impressions, my associations, what I expected and what I learned. I keep the habit of diary-writing while I’m away to help organise my thoughts but also to give myself something to read later that isn’t Wikipedia or TripAdvisor. It’s hard to flesh out a place you’ve never visited – a challenge I accidentally gave myself when I first cast all my original Elm Stone settings. In future I want the descriptions to come from my own experience, to mirror what I saw and knew there, and I have several times pulled my journal off the shelf (it lives next to my home copy of Unbidden) to revisit my words from Prague. You can’t get that personal research from staying at home and working on the book, unfortunately, so while three weeks wandering the world is three weeks not working directly on the book, it is certainly not three weeks lost.

~ Shayla

Shayla is the author of the Elm Stone Saga

Visit Shayla’s bio here

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Finding Your Editor

On a sunny summer morning at the very end of 2013, I met my editor. We met at a local café and I ordered wedges. I mean, I don’t specifically remember the wedges, but I know that’s all I eat at that place, so it must have been what I ate. We ate and talked about my book, because in those days, Chosen and Scarred were one single gigantic Word document and Unbidden was an unnamed pet project, and Sabrina – that’s her name, my editor – had the unenviable task of suggesting to her newest client – me, Shayla – that I make changes to my book. *gasp*

Fast forward five years and I not only have my first three books in print thanks to Sabrina, but a whole new career she inspired me to follow without even meaning to, and I find myself compelled to tell the story of how important my author-editor relationship has been to both my writing and my life. In an age of instant communication, increasingly accessible self-publishing options and changing understandings of literacies, I can see how easy it would be to discount the value of an editor, but I can guarantee I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this, living the life I’m living now, without the ups, downs, challenges and windows of opportunity granted to me through the professional and personal relationship cultivated between me and my editor.

In keeping with a narrative theme, Sabrina is honestly a fairy godmother. What does that make me? I don’t know – princess? It’s definitely been said before, meant in an entirely flattering way I’m sure. Sabrina runs her own indie press, a small publishing imprint called Ouroborus Books, and with her near-magical skills of editing, formatting, graphic design and tech-wizardry, she turns people’s unreasonable 200k-word manuscripts into two beautiful, coherent, saleable books. Well. Your book mightn’t be 200k words and in need of a tidy split, but mine certainly was. Not that I necessarily wanted to hear that, because, you know, I’m a writer, and writers don’t need editors telling them what to do, because they already know their work is perfect. Ahem. So, there was me, a relatively newbie teacher with an oversized manuscript and a publishing dream, thoroughly impressed by Sabrina’s CV of skills. I wish I could smugly say I knew what all of those were, but as we talked I became aware of just how much I didn’t know about this process I wanted to take my book on and how valuable someone like Sabrina would be to have onside. She could help me make my dream real. Thus began my professional relationship with my editor.

It also started something else – a newfound fascination with the publishing industry. But it came about through some less-than-fairytale moments. It’s a well-kept secret that I am, in fact, a control freak, well-accustomed to running a classroom of wild magical children and getting to decide everything from what colour poster paper you get to how far we can stretch free writing time out to. So, like for most writers, it’s quite terrifying to hand over your precious creation to a relative stranger – or, in fact, anyone – and allow them to judge to your work, but for me there was this other layer of twitchiness, this silent fretting of “What’s she doing to the book that I can’t do?” It became an obsession, constantly wanting to know, every step of the way, and wanting to do anything that remained in my power to do. And wanting all the power. Wanting to view every single change to the cover. Wanting it explained why a cover feature had shifted due to spine thickness, which in turn was due to word count. Wanting double quotation marks because that’s how I was taught, and silently seething when I was told that it was non-standard practice and would make my book look unprofessional. Sabrina, accustomed to handling this whole process on her own, got an opportunity to practise tactfully managing an overbearing author, an opportunity I’m sure she much appreciated. I got an opportunity to practise compromise. It’s not very fun. I recommend either tennis or calligraphy instead.

Regardless, the first book was born, and when I unpacked the first box in Sabrina’s driveway and held Chosen in my hands for the first time, I realised quite suddenly what this professional relationship and all this practise at compromising had brought me. Not just a book. Not just a whole box of books. A better book. And a new understanding of how it got there. With her skills, talents and no shortage of patience, Sabrina had guided me to this moment and made it real.

Here’s the link to the video of that moment, so you can see the enlightened joy in my eyes for yourself, along with how nice my hair looked that day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-UB1UCcN44

When we started work on the second book, I knew a bit better what to expect – what I would be able to help with, what kind of quotation marks I would have to live with – and Sabrina knew a bit better what to bring me in on. Things fell into place, things got moving, and then suddenly there was a second book to join the first. Physical proof that Sabrina’s initial careful suggestion to split my manuscript was a very sound idea, since holding Chosen and Scarred in the one hand and pretending like anyone would buy a debut book that size is just silly. Very glad she persevered in pushing that agenda with me way back when, and glad I wasn’t too stubborn to agree.

Two other things changed around this point, too. The first was that my fascination with the process Sabrina has guided me through, and my emerging awareness of how undoubtedly irritating I’d been in my ignorant determination to be involved, led me to the door of the path of a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. I was really just eager to learn and be more involved and helpful to Sabrina and my books, but a Grad Cert led to a Masters, which led to both a thesis and a group project to start our own publishing collective to publish other people’s books, which led to freelance editing work. The thesis led to a Doctorate, which is where I find myself now. I’m still not entirely sure how I got here. Pumpkin carriage?

The other thing that happened was that along the way of testing one another’s patience and tolerance, challenging each other to justify and explain our every decision on Chosen and then Scarred, toiling together to make them the best they could be and to bring them to the world, Sabrina became my friend. I learned to read between the lines of her editorial comments and know when she was being firm and when she was being funny. I learned how best to ask for advice as a new editor, because I know now that she’s straightforward and grounded and knowledgeable. We can agree and disagree very comfortably now. When we took Unbidden through the same processes as we had the first two books, it was all smooth sailing, and when Sabrina asked me to edit her debut novel, Blank, the open professional and personal relationship we had developed over so many years ensured the sort of honest, positive conversation that kept the success of the book at the forefront of our minds. I knew when a protagonist’s mentor betrayed her that it was a plot decision Sabrina wasn’t happy with – I knew her well enough to be able to tell from her prose, and I could suggest ways of rewriting that motivation to iron out the plotting that had forced her into that scene. Our boundaries were already established, so it felt perfectly natural to intersperse editorial comments with personal reactions (like, Lol, ‘as’ has one ‘s’, or KILL THIS CHICK I HATE HER!!!) the way Sabrina does with mine. And I knew, from my time spent on the other side of the fence, how terrifying this process was to a writer having handed over the reins to her editor, and how much trust and faith was involved. We had learned that trust and faith from each other. Together, we made Blank a better book. Go buy it. It’s cool.

A few weekends ago, on a fine wintery day otherwise reminiscent of that first meeting, Sabrina and I met a Masters student at a Brisbane café to discuss our relationship as editors and authors for her thesis project. That frank and open conversation reminded me both of how far we’ve come in five years but also of how valuable this relationship has been to me and my growth. Working with my editor and cultivating our two-way editor-author/author-editor relationship has not only made my books better; it’s taught me to look at writing in a more objective and professional way, it’s sent me on a whole new career trajectory, and, very importantly, it’s given me a fabulous package deal: a professional contact and a friend in one. Thanks, Sabrina.

~ Shayla

Shayla is the author of the Elm Stone Saga

Visit Shayla’s bio here