Toni Jordan is one of Australia’s most loved authors. A former self-confessed science nerd, she left an established career in the sciences (as a protein chemist, to be precise) after being tempted by RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing courses.
A decade later, she is the author of four books and has taught writing at RMIT herself.
Toni Jordan is the author of four novels:
- Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, published in 2016
- Nine Days (2012), which was awarded Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards, shortlisted for the ABIA Best General Fiction award and named in Kirkus Review’s Top 10 Historical Novels of 2013
- Fall Girl (2010), which has been optioned for film
- Addition (2008), which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin award.
- Graeme Simsion, fellow alumni of RMIT's professional writing course, argues the exact opposite of Toni and advocates plotting your work. Sofie Laguna, awarded the Miles Franklin Literary Prize in 2015, is also an alumni of the course.
- In this episode Toni recommends Ryan O'Neill's Their Brilliant Careers, and we played the audio to Ryan himself after he was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
- Toni is most definitely a ‘pantser’, meaning she writes ‘by the seat of her pants’ (as opposed to planning out what she will write). You can read about the ‘pros and cons of plotters and pantsers’ at The Write Practice.
- Toni read Enid Blyton, and was devoted to The Faraway Tree series. She also loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series.
- You can read about the satirical parody of Enid Blyton’s work mentioned by Nic here.
- At the time of recording this interview, Toni was reading Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neil by Black Inc. Books.
- Toni completed the Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University.
- Nic mentions Don Tilman, Graeme Simsion’s character in The Rosie Project.
- Toni admires the work of Zadie Smith.
- Georges Feydeau was a French playwright who wrote farces.
- Faulty Towers was a famous farcical British sitcom that ran from 1975 until 1979.
- Dario Fo was an Italian playwright who wrote We Can’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! and Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
- Toni discusses the writing style of another Australian writer, Kate Forsythe.
- Toni teaches at the Faber Academy in Melbourne Australia.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. Toni Jordan is a top writer, a fun writer, her four novels have made bestseller lists in Australia, and around the world. Her novel Nine Days won Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards, and her latest novel, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, is a ‘tour-de-farce’.
We record our interviews at the State Library of Victoria. During this chat with Toni, if you listen closely you’ll hear some of the music that was played outside the library on that day.
In this episode, Toni talks about her belief that she shares a trait with all of her characters, and about her love of limits, why she makes sure her characters deserve their endings, and why she is proudly a ‘pantser’.
It is my great pleasure to welcome Toni Jordan to The Garret.
Toni Jordan: Thanks for having me. It’s quite a nice looking garret, you can’t actually tell from the inside that there’s that oldy-worldy medieval brick work and turrets.
Nic: We are in the board room of the State Library of Victoria, which is the nicest garret I’ve ever been in.
Nic: What books and authors did you grow up reading?
Toni: I don’t think they had YA when I was a kid, so I went kind of straight from Enid Blyton to kind of grown up books. As a teen, I was obsessed with all the Sherlock Holmes, the Conan Doyle’s. I read them over and over.
And just kind of obscure things. For one of my birthdays my mum – who wasn’t a big reader, she must have just gone to the bookstore and asked the ladies there – gave me this enormous cardboard box wrapped up, filled with you know my first Austen and things that I’d never heard of, and it was just amazing.
Nic: Do you still have them?
Toni: I still have some of them. Yeah, there is a couple of, there is one short story collection, ‘Best Ghost Stories’ or something, which I have kept. And just a few of these odd quirky ones.
Nic: What was it about Sherlock Holmes that appealed so much?
Toni: They’re still quite surprising. Like they still have twists that you don’t see coming, but of course the character. I mean, Holmes is one of the great characters. I just couldn’t get enough of them.
Nic: And where you a Famous Five or Secret Seven fan?
Toni: I was neither of those.
Nic: Neither, so which ones did you like?
Toni: I was devoted to The Magic Faraway Tree…
Nic: Ah, ok.
Toni: … And I was absolutely unstoppable. I was reading under the bed – under the doona, you know with the torch – kind of kid. And then I would wake up like a dead person in the morning.
Nic: And on weekends, did you spend your time then in treehouses and walking along creeks and… imagine yourself…
Toni: It sounds good. I like that whole, you know, English picnic thing with finger sandwiches and lemonade.
Toni: But, no.
Nic: Lashings of ginger beer.
Toni: It sounds good, doesn’t it?
Nic: Did you ever see the comic strip parody of Enid Blyton, it was very funny, they just did this satirical… and they all spoke like that and just wandered around and it was very funny, very funny.
Nic: Enid Blyton was a huge influence on people, absolutely.
Toni: Really, the structures of them, I mean, you know, the way story works is a fantastic thing to learn when you are young.
Nic: Absolutely. Do you think people learn stories, and the way stories work, inherently? Do you think its taught or do you think it comes just from reading? Do you think you need to be shown? What do you think?
Toni: I think that on one level your unconscious mind does all the work and gets none of the credit.
Nic: I agree.
Toni: It’s kind of built up over these years of things that are so obscure, and its not just – I’m predominantly a reader, I don’t do anything else, still, still I read two novels a week, and there’s always one in my bag and you know that’s still my world – but I think television teachers you about story structure. And there’s also something innately human – like I don’t know enough about this from a sociological or psychological perspective – but there’s something about the way we used to sit around fires in prehistory telling each other stories and how that is such an integral part of the architecture of how our brain works.
Nic: Absolutely. Which is why, you know, I think it is inherently… We understand inherently how to tell stories. And sometimes when we are trying to write we can over complicate it, and forget that we actually do know, because from the moment we are born we are constantly being told stories.
Nic: And then as we grow up we are sitting around the dinner table talking about your day, and doing it through stories…
Nic: So what do you read now? What’s in your bag now, what sort of stuff are you reading?
Toni: What is in my bag now… Can I give it a little plug?
Nic: (Laughs) You can certainly give it a plug.
Toni: Can I do that? I’m absolutely loving it; it is one of my picks of the year. It’s actually not a novel, it’s Their Brilliant Careers by the short story writer Ryan O’Neil. Have you seen this?
Nic: No, I haven’t.
Toni: It is just fantastic. It’s biographies of famous lost Australian writers.
Toni: Likes it all, it’s not real. Like they’re all, like you know, a guy that is called the ‘Chekov of Cooloomba’,
Nic: I was going to say, the Chekov of Cooloomba.
Toni: It just hilarious, hilarious.
Nic: What a great idea.
Toni: It is the perfect gift for the writer in your circle, because it is entertaining on any level, these made up biographies, but there is also enough allusion to the publishing scene and the publishing history of Australia so that you can pick, kind of, who this person might be intended to be. It’s just delighting me.
Nic: That’s great. Well it’s called Their Brilliant Careers, and we’ll put a link up on our website for anyone who wants to buy it. It would be a great Christmas present for anyone.
Ah, Black Inc. Books.
Toni: I have no conflict of interest whatsoever. I’ve never met him but…
Nic: My friend is at Black Inc. Books.
Nic: So do you read non-fiction, or are you predominantly a fiction reader?
Toni: Look, I sometimes read non-fiction, and I think it is a very nice category of books, and I am absolutely patronising towards them, and I think they are called non-fiction to differentiate the little dears from fiction, which is the thing, and then non-fiction is the ‘other’.
Nic and Toni: (Laugh)
Toni: I mean, I have a vast collection of non-fiction, but fiction is just the world, isn’t it?
Nic: Ok. Well, I actually read more non-fiction than fiction, actually.
Toni: Oh dear.
Nic: And funny enough, I read – and I know an area that is of interest to and which we will talk about because it crops up in your books – I love non-fiction books about science and about maths.
Toni: Well I do like this too.
Nic: And what I love – I don’t understand them – but I love what are those books, the lay people guide to something... I love them.
Toni: I quite fancy writing something like that one day.
Nic: I think you’d be wonderful at it.
Toni: A non-fiction science book.
Nic: So tell me about the path from being in love with Enid Blyton, and really in love with Sherlock Holmes, to then becoming a writer. Tell me what happened.
Toni: Well, kind of an accidental route. I, you know, I left school. I kind of had a standard working class upbringing where, you know, the idea of going to university and studying Arts, I would have thought to myself ‘But I’m not a painter’. Like, I just didn’t even have a concept…
I knew I couldn’t have been a lawyer, or something like that, that didn’t really appeal to me. I knew I couldn’t be a teacher, so it was quite accepted... I ended up working full time and going to university part time through a few little lucky coincidences. But I studied science and became a protein chemist. At the time, we called it biochemistry, I suppose, but now they call it protein chemistry.
Toni: So, I did that. And I did bench research for a few years at the University of Queensland. In, actually, horse blood protein. So, if you would like to discuss horse blood protein, I’m your girl.
Nic: No… we might keep that for another podcast. We’ll wait until you’ve written a book on it.
Toni: Tell you what, when you get the blood protein podcast up and running, just give me a hoy.
Nic: Because it will have a vast audience.
Toni: (Laughs) And then I worked in research in a biotech company for a while, doing, making restrictions enzymes, which are other proteins that bacteria make.
Nic: I’m not understanding a word of this, but keep going.
Toni: You just told me you loved science!
Nic: But I always said I don’t understand it, and I need it explained very simply. But we haven’t got time for that. Keep going.
Toni: I did all this. Anyway, and then I got a job managing a lab for a pharmaceutical company, and eventually they moved me into this department called Reg Affairs, which means every time they want to bring out a new drug or want to change a drug someone has to write this massive submission.
You once attempted to teach me corporate writing, I reminded you before. So it is that kind of thing.
Nic: There you go. I played a tiny role in your development to this point. Absolutely not.
Toni: But, I kind of, this whole thing made me really fancy the whole sitting down and writing caper. And then I kind of had a slightly but not very early mid-life crisis, and my husband, who is a very wise person, said ‘If you go back to uni and get a qualification in writing, you can start your own technical writing business from home. You don’t have to work for companies, you can, you know, be a technical and scientific writer from home’.
So I enrolled in the diploma at RMIT, and my same wise husband, same husband, also wise, still wise, said ‘You know how all you want to do in your spare time is read novels? Why don’t you just pick one of these creative subjects just for the fun of it’.
And I never do anything for the fun of it, I don’t have a ‘fun of it’ sort of bone.
Nic: I don’t believe that. (Laughs)
Toni: And, so I did. I just ticked the box that said novel and rocked up, among all these people who knew what they were doing and I didn’t. And my first novel, Addition, was a first-year assignment for that subject that I just couldn’t stop working on.
Nic: While I was reading Addition, I was struck by the similarity to Graeme Simsion’s character in The Rosie Project, in that obsessiveness. And that also came out of the RMIT…
Toni: Yes, yes.
Nic: I’m thinking, what is RMIT doing in creative writing? Is there a special course in obsessive, with characters that have to be totally obsessive about things.
Toni: Graeme ended up being one of my students, actually, when I went back and taught there for a few years. But not when he was writing The Rosie Project, for the sequel. But truly I think it was because it is the kind of course where you can have a career in something else, and then make that a further kind of way that your career moves.
Nic: Do you think you could have become a writer, let’s say your husband said ‘just look, have a go at writing a novel’. Do you think you needed to do a course?
Toni: Yeah. I think it short cut the process. I think I learned how to read as a writer, instead of just read as a person, like as a punter. Likes there is, for me, a very different experience to reading something going ‘oh my god, I love that’, to going ‘that is fantastic, how did she do that?’ How did she do that?’ Like, analysing it. And that’s a shift that has to happen, I think.
Nic: I think that is a really important point, because when you are an emerging writer and you’re reading, when you notice something that really grabs you, it’s not enough to go ‘that really grabbed me’, it’s, you really have to think about what has the writer done, ‘why have they grabbed me?’ And similarly, if you are losing interest, you don’t just close the book, you go ‘what is it that has now lost my interest?’, so that I don’t do that.
Toni: Exactly. I think of it, I remember when I was buying my first house, when I was a very young idiot…
Nic: Oh, you are not an idiot for buying a house young. That’s very clever. II just realised, you don’t have a fun bone in your body.
Toni: Oh. In the wrong order. You know, no travel or frocks or parties or anything, but property! Yay. Oh, fun life.
But anyway, my step-father, who was a builder, came – like I asked him to come and have a look at one house with me – and I’m upstairs looking, kind of looking at the gorgeous floorboards and the lovely little tizzy bits, and he’s underneath the house with the flashlight looking at the termite stuff on the stumps. And I kind of sometimes explain it to people it’s like that. You can’t just stand in the house and look at the pretty, you know, cornices, you’ve got to be the one underneath the floorboards with the torch looking at the termites in the stumps and figuring out how the house stays up.
Nic: Absolutely. To what extent are your novels based on you and your experiences. I mean, I notice as I said before there are the characters who are obsessed with science…
Toni: Yeah, I love science.
Nic: It is hard to have a ‘non-sciencey’ book.
Nic: It’s hardly a coincidence, is it?
Toni: My historical fiction is not science.
Nic: Obviously. But the other three, the other three. Are they based on you or people you know? Do you look at characters, and do you… I mean obviously, all fiction is to some extent based on observation, experiences.
Toni: Yeah, yeah.
Nic: Is that for you a deliberate thing, or is it a process of osmosis to you… To use a scientific term that I remember from my high school days.
Toni: (Laughs) Very good. Yes, it is osmosis Nic. No, I really think that fiction is, for me – every character, not just the main characters, even the not nice ones, like all of them – are a kind of fractional slice of me. And it is all about that emotional truth moment, Like, there is a moment in there that I’ve felt exactly those feelings. And it might not be precisely in the circumstances as I‘ve described them, but it is taking that feeling that was so vivid to me and popping it in somewhere else.
Nic: Is it hard not to with contemporary fiction, isn’t it? Because you’re describing the world in which you live.
Toni: Yeah, that’s right. Absolutely.
Nic: In what ways have you got better as a writer, as you’ve progressed?
Toni: I’ve learned to realise that it is not going to be good enough. I’ve learned to stop worrying about that it’s not going to be good enough. I used to look at pages, when I’d done a first draft – I’m fairly relaxed about a first draft – but then I would look at things and go, ‘well this is rubbish’. Or I would read something and, I’d read like Zadie Smith or I would read somebody else, and I would go ‘right, that’s it. I’m just going to stop now because this is a waste…’
Nic: I have felt that same… We were just talking about Zadie Smith before. I am in love with that women. She is just extraordinary.
Toni: Oh my god, Zadie Smith. I just, you know…
Nic: I know. It makes you want to give up.
Nic: It makes you want to throw up your hand and say ‘why do I even bother?’
Toni: Exactly. At the beginning, I was very much like that. I would look at a paragraph, and I would actually look at a paragraph of mine and a paragraph of hers, and say ‘just stop now’.
But I’ve come to a position now where I realise that’s not my call. Like other people will make that call, can make that call. My call is to write the thing that I can write, and only I can write. And the relationship is between me and that work, and I’ve become better at understanding that putting it out is my job. Doing it and putting it out there is my job. And working out that it’s not as good as Zadie Smith is everybody else’s. So, I don’t worry about that anymore.
Nic: Tell me a little bit more about the redrafting process. Because everyone sits down, they do their first draft etc, and that’s all good and fun. And then the work begins.
Nic: And people don’t actually… I’d love to get some insights into how you deal with the redrafting and redrafting and redrafting, both on your own and once you get comments back from the publisher and the editor. How does that work with you?
Toni: I’m very obsessed with ‘pantsing’ the first draft. Where I just make it up as I go along. That’s a really, really important thing for me. And, I think that the magic of it, as we were talking before about the unconscious, the magic comes from getting out of my own way. My most important thing is getting out of my own way. I am not the boss of this, I am not the boss. Like, I am so bossy. Like I am the most naturally bossy control freaky person ever. And so part of this, something that I have learned about the making of something that I think is art, is how can I leave behind that allusion of control and actually and get over myself, get out of my own way, and write something, you know just like that.
Toni: And then I get to put on my very serious thinking Toni hat, and then I am very self-critical, where… I actually look at something and go ‘that is just rubbish’, and move things around with a real forensic… Structure is very important to me, so a real forensic understanding of how structure works, how character works, what’s going on here, both in the big picture in the story as a whole and on the sentence level.
Nic: Can you give me an example of something when something big has happened in the redraft. Such that ‘that character is not going to work’, or ‘I’ve got to completely change that character’, or ‘this whole plot line just doesn’t work’.
Toni: Yeah. Frequently, frequently that happens. In my most recent novel, Our Tiny Useless Hearts, it was more of a thematic decision. Because it’s a story of infidelity in the suburbs, marriages and relationships in the suburbs, and of course there is a realism perspective of going at that, so I had to think ‘is that going to be the stylistic choice I’m going to make’. And in the end I decided no, I decided that we could all, including me, do with something a bit sillier, so I went with kind of an old-fashioned bedroom farce.
Nic: It is funny you said that because when I started reading it, and I have a background in theatre, I felt as if I was in the middle of a Feydeux farce.
Nic: And I had this image of you with this model of a set, moving the little characters around the set….
Toni: Yeah, I wanted to be..
Nic: … and when are the doors going to open, and what I loved at the end of every, well not every chapter, but so many chapters, somebody suddenly appears. Oh, my goodness, and it just so had that feel. It was extraordinary.
Toni: That is really what I wanted to do. So really tight in terms of timing, very short period, one set, people coming and going. All the things that, you know, I think about in things like, almost like Faulty Towers or something like that. Like escalating levels of silliness. I love silliness.
Nic: Yeah. And one of the things that was fascinating about it, I realised as I was going, this is not going to move out of this house. Like when you say one set, sure there is some flashback scenes, and I think we go into the driveway at some point, and then we see out the back garden, but it almost is one. And I was trying to remember reading an novel – as opposed to seeing a play or something like that – where it just takes place in one set. It was extraordinary.
Toni: 36 hours, one set, I wanted. But it limits, I love the idea of limits. To me, that is where the interest comes in. Like, you know, if sport for example, sport is all about limits. So if sport has no limits, so if football is like no rules just do whatever you want. Like I’ll just get on a motorbike and put the ball under my arm, if you can do anything you want it’s just floppy. Limits give it grace and guts, and you have to make something within these parameters. I love that.
Nic: Because it had that farcical element, was it a book, a story that you consider was driven by the plot rather than the character? Was that unusual for you, or was it still driven largely by the characters?
Toni: I’m a big fan of the idea of neither and both. That the characters dictate… the weaknesses in the characters dictate what happens to them, and the things that happen to them dictate the weakness in the character. So that is kind of a continuing circle. My character, the one that is the sleaziest, completely falls apart when he thinks his own wife is cheating on him.
Toni: So, he’s got to have a weakness in his character that means that is the perfect thing to happen to him. It doesn’t matter which comes first, it’s a chicken or an egg argument.
Nic: Sure. Again, I think it was, the story was a really great example of that, you hear writers talking about it all the time, the need to just keep making things worse…
Toni: Oh yeah, I love that.
Nic: It just got worse and worse and worse, and every, you know, every turn or the head, every turn of the page, it went on. Oh no, so-and-so had appeared again, at the wrong time. Which is what you want to do as a writer, you want to make things as bad as possible.
Toni: (Laughs) That’s right, oh I love that. I would be a terrible god, I would be so mean to everybody. ‘You, turn to stone. You, get this’. Like I would just be.. I love seeing them all squirm.
Nic: The one thing that, again, was a little bit different: farce is often, I’ve seen quite a lot, a few farces on stage, they’re usually very predictable. But there was so many things in here I did not see coming.
Toni: Thank you.
Nic: So, that was great.
Toni: The first farce I saw was Dario Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!
Nic: Ah, my favourite playwright.
Toni: I was about 14, and I honestly thought I was going to wet my pants. I was just laughing so much.
Nic: I remember reading Accidental Death of an Anarchist, what I think is his greatest play, on a train, and laughing so loudly the whole carriage was just looking at me. And to me he is an absolute genius. Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Is wonderful.
Nic: What parts of the writing process have always been hard and remain hard?
Toni: Getting started.
Nic: Getting started, really?
Toni: I’m a nightmare with that. Like, I run into people, you know, I’m friendly with people like Kate Forsythe who is like ‘Oh yes, I’ve got 17 books lined up, and you know, I’ll finish three on Wednesday and then I’ll start another’.
II just can’t. You know, it takes me… I have seriously written four novels and had four ideas. And, it is just, you know, the difficulty at the beginning. Once I know what it’s about I’m actually very fast and extremely efficient.
Toni: And very disciplined, you will not be surprised to find out. (Laughs) But this, you know, the period where I am in now, where ‘maybe this is going to work, and maybe I’ll do it in this voice’… And I’ll do 5,000 words, and I’ll go ‘that is rubbish’ and that ‘oh no, that is shocking’.
Nic: Having said that, have you ever started one off and not finished?
Toni: I haven’t not finished, but I’ve got two, well I have not finished because I’ve done half a draft of another one. So I’ve sort of got two and a half drafts in the bottom drawer of books that I’ve put a lot of effort into that are just rubbish.
Nic: And why do you think they were rubbish?
Toni: The voice, I think didn’t work from the beginning. I had no clear idea of what it was about, I just kind of hoped that if I followed these people around something would happen.
Toni: Yeah, I think when you are making stuff up in the first draft, and I am, you know, a huge fan of ‘pantsing’, I think there is an inefficiency. There is magic, because you get to places you never thought you would, and that’s really exciting. But there is an inefficiency. I don’t sit down and work out scene by scene and turning point by turning point. Sometimes you make something and you go, ‘yeah, no’. That was a waste of a year.
But I am not disappointed with that as that as part of the process, because I think if you don’t, if you’re not prepared to walk that edge of ‘is this going to work or not?’, and everything then is safe, and everything is derivative of something, or, or bounces of the work you have done in the past, I don’t know if that is how I want to be.
Nic: Can you explain or define what you mean by ‘pantsing’, and the process?
Toni: Well, you know there is kind of two schools of thought. And one is that it’s a good idea to sit down and work out in advance who your people are, what’s going to happen, sometimes scene by scene and turning point by turning point, so you have – you know, in screenwriting they would call it a treatment, an outline of how a novel is going to be.
Or, you do what I do. You sit down from day to day, start with your blank page, and go, ‘Ok what’s going to happen today?’ And just make it up as you go along.
Nic: You were talking before about voice. Coming back to Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, which is in first person, I’m always intrigued by people, by writers who choose first person, because – you were talking before about limits and limitations, it does, there are so many limitations and you can’t be where every character is. That was obviously a choice you made. What did you make that choice?
Toni: See, I love that, that you think it’s a choice I made.
Nic: Well, eventually you did make it.
Toni: It’s all I can do. It’s really all I can do.
Nic: Oh really?
Toni: I’m trying to do third person now, and it is so much more difficult.
Nic: Tell me why, why do you think that?
Toni: First person is the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do – it is more like method acting than actually writing anything. You’ve just go to sit down at the beginning of the day.
Like, I wrote my historical drama Nine Days… It was nine different first person narrators of you know, both sexes, spanned over seventy years. And, I just, you just have to sit down and go ‘Right. Today I am a 14-year-old boy and it’s 1939. Let’s go’.
So I kind of spend, its method acting. I sit down for half an hour at the beginning of the morning, and get myself into the headspace of this, whoever it is, and then I just type.
Nic: But, it does also then limit it limits the plot doesn’t it, because you can’t have that character… If there are certain things, the character has to know everything that’s going on. Or…
Toni: Yeah, it does limit the plot. Like, the reason I’m trying, in a difficult way, to do third person now is because the story that I have in the far reaches of my brain is not going to work as a first person story. So either I have to give that up, and as I said ideas are like impossible to find. Unless I actually completely, you know smash myself on the rocks, I’m not going to give it up easily. So, that is why I am trying to do it. But I think that is rare. Most stories, if you think about it, a lot of third person is close third person anyway.
Nic: Oh sure.
Toni: So, you can get across the line. But there are some stories that aren’t going to work.
Nic: You teach writing now as well.
Toni: I do. I’m at Faber Academy, where it’s fun over there.
Nic: Fantastic. I learned more about writing when I started to teaching. Is that the same with you?
Toni: It really does help. Because it, you know, you think about… Students are great, especially writing students. My students are great. And they will say why? What makes you say that, how do you know that? And you kind of go, right, how do I? Let’s just see if what I’m saying can be backed up. So, that’s great experience too.
Nic: What are some of the common – I hesitate to use the word mistakes, but let’s call them mistakes – that emerging writers make? You know, when you look at manuscripts, is there things that make you go, ‘oh, here we go again’.
Toni: They over explain. That’s the top thing, they over explain. And, I can see where that comes from, I think it comes…
I love writing groups, I think they’re a fantastic way to learn a craft and share your expertise and help other people. I was in one myself when I started writing. But I think what happens is everyone feels such good will toward everybody that they want to help, they want to contribute. And if there is nothing to say, they will say ‘I don’t understand why… you know, Meg is afraid of clowns’. And that’s true, they don’t understand why Meg is afraid of clowns. But the writer takes that on to be… and they ‘Write must explain why Meg is afraid of clowns’. And then we get a 3,000-word flashback scene about Meg being horrified by a clown when she was 4, or whatever.
And really, what they are saying is… To me, ‘I don’t understand why’ is often a good thing. That creates a narrative drive, that ‘I can’t wait to see how this turns out’. And instead people explain every little thing and kill their own narrative tension.
Nic: Good point. Any other common… That is fantastic. Any other common…
Toni: I think there is often… I also judge a lot of unpublished manuscript competitions. And there is, and in the past I have been convener of judges for the Premier’s Prize for an unpublished manuscript, and I would say almost half of all the manuscripts I get I would really like to chop off the first three chapters. Because, I think, people take a long while to figure out that what they need to know in order to write the story is a different thing from what the reader needs to know in order to read the story.
Toni: And I think writing your way into a story is great. It’s a great thing, I am all for it. But then you just chop it off before you send it out.
And it is the same with short stories. I think, often, three paragraphs can go. I can’t tell you the number of short story competitions I judge where really great stories begin with someone waking up in the morning.
Nic: Absolutely. Exactly.
Toni: You know, when the thing that happens at 3pm in the afternoon, but they don’t know how to begin. And that is fine, you write it like that. You right it from the morning, and then you work out what to chop.
Nic: That’s it. And you either get rid of it, or… There is plenty of space in an extended story, a novel or novella, to explain lots of things. It doesn’t all have to come at the beginning anyway.
Toni: Yeah, that’s the thing. Flashbacks, I think, are really problematic in the first three chapters. I like to see them at the end. Because at the end, you have a pace issue, often, when things are steaming towards the end, and judiciously placed flashbacks that might explain some of those questions that have been hanging around for a while are a really great way to control the pace in the end. So, I’d like to move all those flashbacks to the end.
Nic: Well, talking about pacing, I recall reading something from one of the great screenwriters of all time, talking about the three-act structure. Saying that Act 1 is easy, you come up with the inciting incident, it’s got the set up. Act 3 is easy, you’ve got the climax and the resolution. But most of your story is Act 2, where you just… That’s the most difficult to write, isn’t it?
Toni: The sagging middle.
Nic: How do you make it not sag?
Toni: How do I make my middle not sag?
Nic: Other than writing a farce where everyone is in bed with everyone else, with doors open and closing.
Toni: (Laughs) You have to actually think about the actual steps that the character has to go through to earn their ending. I think a lot about how a character earns the right to have the ending that they want. And they have to often change in some way, or have something about them revealed, I’m a big believer in devising a plot that reveals people’s inner character. And so I often ask myself, ‘In order for this person to deserve the ending, whether it is a happy ending or a sad ending, but to have control of that ending, what needs to happen to them and how can I devise those things’.
Nic: So you’ve got to put them in situations where their character is revealed.
Toni: That’s right. I’m a big believer of that.
Nic: Yeah and that’s the great thing that writing students are taught, ‘show don’t tell’. That’s the way to do it, isn’t it?
Nic: Instead of telling us what someone is like, put them in a situation where they have to act in a way you want people to understand the character.
Toni: That is exactly right.
Nic: How important do you think it is for emerging writers to understand the publishing or media industry, and also get to know the people in it? How big a part does networking and understanding how things work play in publishing?
Toni: Well at the beginning you are in this beautiful space where they are two separate operations. And that’s the only time in your whole career that they will be two separate operations. So, my advice is to make the most of it when they are two separate operations, because that will never happen again.
So, I think that when they’re writing their first… the manuscript that might become their first published work, this is a very special time when they get to have a relationship with that manuscript, and think about the characters in that, how they work, and then when they’ve done as much as they possibly can do, then interact with the other side of it.
I think for emerging writers – and of course there are exceptions to this, there are people who are extremely attuned and very commercially and marketing driven – but I think for the bulk of people it is really good to divide that into two separate operations. Because once your book is published, that’s all gone. Then, the voices of the reviews are in your head, and the voice of your editors are in your head, and critics and book store people and readers… And you never have that period of experience again. I think you should make the most of it.
Nic: How critical are the editors in making your product as good as it can be?
Toni: They are fantastic, fantastic. I like a really tough edit. (Laughs) Which is difficult, more difficult to get as time passes. I have been in tears, and I like that. This is making me sound slightly S&M, but anyway.
Toni: I think that anything that she says to me in her office with the door closed is not going to appear in the book section of The Age, and that is what I care about. So, I just want it, anything, the smallest thing, just whip me. I’m really happy with that.
Nic: Have you had bad reviews, and how have you dealt with them if you have?
Toni: I’ve been pretty lucky. I had a few bad reviews in the States. I don’t do very well in America, I do terribly in America, actually. It’s by miles my worst market. They just… There is just some kind of disconnect between my brain and their brains..
Nic: Well, given the election result, there is a lot of disconnection going on, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Toni: So, you know, the very worst review I’ve ever had was The Washington Post, actually. Which is not where you really want to see a bad review.
Nic: How did you deal with that? How did you feel?
Toni: I think I had a couple of advantages. One was that I was a bit older than the normal person when I started. And you know, I’ve been divorced twice, so there’s really nothing anyone can say to me that is going to upset me. I’m quite bullet proof.
And I tell this to my writing students too. I think, understanding that you’re not going to make everybody happy, and some people are going to disapprove of you is not just an important writing skill, it’s an important life skill. And I really drive this home in my classes.
I give one class where I bring these mystery one star Amazon reviews for books like Anna Karenina or, you know, so they can read these people going ‘This is the greatest rubbish, I don’t know who this joker Tolstoy thins he is’. That kind of thing, to show that whatever it is you do, someone will dislike the work and, as an extension, disapprove of you, and you’ve got to accept going in that that will happen, and you’ve just got to suck it up.