Hello again and welcome back to my blog. I’ve had a busy week ‘Varuna-ising’ my life: creating a new private work area in my bedroom (my desk was previously in the middle of the house), clearing out lots of old papers, tidying bookshelves, organising some quiet time and, as usual, walking a lot. It’s been an ‘out with the old, in with the new’ preparatory time, and now I’m ready to begin work on the memoir. During the week, I also had a ‘phone-meet’ with my mentor, Judith Lukin-Amundsen. As mentioned in a previous post, my memoir has attracted a lot of interest over the last few years, and last December I was awarded an Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Mentorship to develop the manuscript. Each year, fifteen to twenty mentorships are offered, and the winning writers receive thirty hours mentoring from a professional writer or editor of their choice. For many emerging writers, it is a step-up to publication. This is actually my second ASA mentorship with Judith; we worked together during 2010 on my other manuscript: ‘Yahtzee and the Art of Happiness’. Judith is one of Australia’s most respected editors, and I still can’t believe I have the opportunity to work with her for another year. We’ve never met, but we have regular ‘phone-meets’ which last an hour or so, and I really enjoy her involvement in my life as a writer.
As part of the mentorship, Judith reads my manuscript at the beginning and then again at the end of the re-working process, and in between we discuss any issues that arise. We’d only had one ‘phone-meet’ before I left for Varuna, during which we’d mainly discussed issues to do with structure and content. So, last week, I filled Judith in on what had happened at Varuna, and about the suggestions I’d received from Anne Reilly, my HarperCollins editor. You’re probably getting confused at this point: yes, it is unusual to have input from two editorial programs like this. But, basically, Anne Reilly is working with me at the structural editing stage (and will move into fine editing when the memoir is ready, and will then hopefully champion the memoir to publication – yes!); while Judith is working at the mentoring stage. For me, it helps to compare it to the process of having a homebirth (my children were all born at home). The memoir is the baby. Anne Reilly is the hands-on midwife who is responsible for bringing my baby safely into the world, and she will be with me till the very end; Judith Lukin-Amundsen is my extremely knowledgeable support person, ready with hot washers and back rubs to help with the pain, but she can only offer me thirty hours of her time during this labour. That’ll be more than enough, I reckon: the three of us are going to be a dynamic team and we’ll get this baby out by the end of the year (ready to be submitted to HarperCollins, that is).
Judith was very impressed with Anne’s re-shaping ideas, and also with how much productivity Anne had drawn out of me during my time at Varuna. We discussed the life journey writing activity – which generated 66 000 words of what I now call the Varuna ‘blah’ – and I also told Judith about Anne’s idea of structuring the memoir into a ‘five act plan’, similar to how Shakespeare organised much of his work. It runs something like this: Act One sets up the problem, the background or context, and introduces the characters; Act Two builds on the troubles that concern the lead characters; Act Three is where the agent of change enters the scene; Act Four describes the crisis that precedes the major change; and finally, Act Five sees the resolution of the story, where the key test has been passed. This final act often includes a twist in the tale, something the reader isn’t expecting.
When I finished explaining all this, Judith admitted that she would be feeling a little overwhelmed if she was me, but she went on to reassure me that it was all very ‘do-able’. How’s that? A reduced version of the current manuscript will form acts three, four and half of five; selected parts of the life story ‘blah’ from Varuna will form acts one, two and the end of five. According to Judith, I have ‘bucket-loads’ of stuff already written, my re-structuring notions are ‘terrifically organised’ and she has great faith in my ability to get the job done.
At some stage of the conversation, Judith commented that a good narrative (or story) has brights and darks, just as life does. I love that expression: brights and darks. How true it is. But although I’ve had my fair share of darks – the reason behind all that weeping at Varuna – I’m not writing a ‘misery memoir’. I want my story to lift people’s spirits, to be funny as well as moving, to offer hope. So, before I begin to write acts one and two (starting next Monday), I’m doing a bit of reading to see how different writers integrate ‘dark’ material into their stories without it becoming depressing or boring for the reader. Anh Do does a great job in ‘The Happiest Refugee’ … I bought his memoir on impulse the other day and I’ve learnt heaps already, even though I’ve not yet finished the book. Writing about his early life as a Vietnamese refugee, Anh Do shares plenty of hard times, but I still find myself laughing out loud as I turn the pages. Brights and darks. Also, by the end of the first page, he had me hooked. His story punched me in the guts; it has emotional truth and I need to find out what happens next. That’s the sort of reader-response I’m aiming for.
Before I finish this post, I want to thank Anna Hedigan for setting up this blog for me when we were at Varuna (and while I was at the masseur!). Anna’s wide-ranging knowledge and resourcefulness was remarkable – if my oven ever catches on fire, she’s the sort of woman I want in my kitchen. I had planned to enlighten you about an index-card method I’ve stumbled across (which will hopefully make the task ahead a little less overwhelming), and also mention the supportive writing-relationship I enjoy with my friend, Edwina Shaw, but those topics will have to wait till next time. Until then …
Great post Helena. Very interesting to hear about all the advice coming at you from different quarters and good to have that five act structure in mind – all writers. Tha’s what I call the narrative arc. Reading all the short storeis I’m marking you can really tell when someonés nailed it.