What it feels like to win a writing competition

Pretty fucking good.

Incensed – winner, Furious Gazelle Spring Writing Competition, 1 July 2019.

Also, just keep refreshing that inbox because maybe this is the start of a wave of acceptances (or is it the end? There have been a few recently).

It’s really just one more brick of proof that I am now a submission junkie.

And I’ve started submitting a novel to agents, just to make my inbox that little bit more explosive and/or depressing. Sucker!



Submissions galore

Last year, I decided to participate in the #100submissionchallenge. The aim is to remove the fear of rejection, and for the most part it worked. I did feel sorry for the journals I submitted to simply to make up my numbers and not because I thought my work would fit with them. That is cardinal sin #1 for submissions, but sometimes you just want to throw something out there and see what happens.

I am, very slowly, getting a better sense of which journals cater for my style of writing. My style, which I’ve begrudgingly accepted is ‘quiet’, does not always fit in online journals which need punchy attention-grabbing words to draw readers in. My work fits better in journals designed to be perused over a bucket-sized cup of tea. Slow reading, if that’s a thing.

Here are the statistics for my year of submitting like a mad woman:

  • I submitted 94 pieces of work
  • I had to withdraw 5 pieces which were accepted elsewhere
  • I had 73 rejections (still waiting to hear about some)
  • I had 9 acceptances (and you can find the published ones listed here)

a48260c645c380f81291e3b595460f9cThat’s an acceptance rate of 12%, which is pretty good I think. But still, 73 rejections feels a bit masochistic.

This year, I’m not counting submissions, but apparently I’m hooked. When a rejection rolls in, I get antsy until I send the story out again. I’ve already sent out 23 submissions, had 11 rejections and 1 acceptance.

As well as all these stories, I am of course still working on a novel (currently titled How big the sky, a fabulous title suggested by one of my fabulous sisters.) I also have copious notes for the next two novels.

I think it’s fair to say that this is how I’m going to be spending all my time for the rest of forever.



When the sun is shining

It’s been a big few months. In April, I was published in Meanjin. In May, I came second in the Winchester Writers’ Festival short story competition. This week, a story has been published in Scrittura.

And I just spent the weekend in Winchester, at the Writers’ Festival. I attended talks, an open mic night (though I didn’t get up), workshops, drank too much wine with other brave and hopeful writers, and had one-to-one interviews with an agent and the director of Salt Publishing. Unfortunately, these interviews confirmed a truth that has been dawning on me for some time: the novel I’ve been submitting still needs work, and even then it is not inventive enough to be a debut. Debuts need a bit of pazzazz. They need to be crowd-pleasing and flashy, a Scott Hastings rather than a Ken Railings, even the literary ones. In some ways this is good, because I don’t need to do the structural changes yet. I’ll keep working on Harriet Starling, as that strikes me as a better debut, and maybe in a couple of years I’ll return to Hold Back the Night.


But back to the weekend. Winchester is leafy, full of old stones and old people and old money, and at this time of year the air is thick with white and pink blossoms, like summer snow. The university is new, it’s all purple and green with squishy chairs and places to meet and sit and eat, as well as learn. I love universities, especially small ones. UCL is a great place to work, but it is a behemoth. The annual question is, how can we have more students than chairs for them to sit in? Winchester wouldn’t have that problem. The campus is set on one of the roly-poly hills so it overlooks the town. Across the road is St James’ Cemetery, full of crumbling headstones and those trees which make fantastic spidery silhouettes against the sky. It’s a city with writing in its soul, and despite feeling dispirited at all the work I still have to do before I have a finished, publishable novel, I at least feel like I’m on the right path. I am Harry Potter chasing down Horcruxes: I know what to do, now there’s just the business of doing it, without going crazy, burning out, or quitting my job. I could probably do with a sword though, that made all the difference for poor Harry, or a gold jacket so I can unleash my pazzazz like Scott Hastings.


Feel that glitter

On Tuesday  I woke at 5am, excited to head to the airport for a three-day Paris trip to visit my sister. For weeks I had been in discussions with an editor at Meanjin, trying to walk the line between what I felt was essential to a story they had accepted, and trying not to be the writer who, despite little experience, refuses to accept changes suggested with only good intentions. After a few disappointing and nerve-wracking days, I woke at that ungodly hour on Tuesday to a link in my email account, and the news that my story was live.


LIVE! The little creature I’d been growing in a secret test tube, which had gone from icky mucus-covered alien to something shiny. I loved it, even the last minute changes which no one but me and the editor would probably even notice. It is a story about grief, but really about the difficulties in caring for others when we refuse to acknowledge our own pain. I immediately sent it on to those closest to me, and basked in the lovely and loving return comments.

It’s tempting to be pessimistic at this point, to think that this might be all there ever is. I’m increasingly aware that my writing can seem simplistic, even though I swear there are layers there like a secret onion. My favourite writers are those who write simply, so this isn’t a bad realisation, but there is a division between writers who think simple is strength, and those who prefer a thick, soupy kind of writing. I will never write a stew, I know this now, and that’s okay because I probably wouldn’t want to read it if I did. All I can do is try to convince people that simple writing isn’t actually simple.

And now, I have returned to submitting. My 100 submission challenge is on target. I’ve had 13 rejections, and have 19 other submissions out there, floating around. I have started the year aiming for the most prestigious publications, and am therefore expecting a high number of rejections. The second half of the year, I’m hoping, will be kinder. But this little bit of glitter from Meanjin will see me through these potential 19 rejections, and spur me on to finish the challenge. After all, if it’s the only publication this year, it’s a pretty good one.



So here I am again. This time last year I was sure that 2017 was going to be The Big Year of Getting Somewhere. I was sure I’d have an agent, and a publishing date, and that if I didn’t have those things then it would feel like a wasted year. I wanted tangible milestones to prove to myself that I was progressing. None of that happened, of course, but it doesn’t feel like a wasted year.

I began contacting agents in November, so of course I haven’t heard back yet. The rest of the year I spent working super super hard to make Hold Back the Night better. I also rewrote another draft of Harriet Starling. Considering I was working full-time, I produced a massive amount of work.

And now I’m quite tired. I’ve spent the first weeks of this year watching inordinate amounts of television, and I’ve also decided to do the 100 submissions challenge. I’ve already submitted to 6 journals/competitions. Last year, I submitted 8 times overall so this is quite an improvement. I am, as the challenge says, going to collect rejections. It feels a little like adding bricks to a mesh net hanging over my head, hoping I can avoid getting hit when it falls apart, but hey, it’s a different kind of work compared to last year.

So for 2018, I’m meandering through a third draft of Harriet, I’m working on my query letter and synopsis for the next round of agent submissions for Hold Back the Night, and I’m reading old stories and trying to improve them, word by word, so that I can find a home for them. I’m ticking things off slowly, between episodes of The Good Wife (and my actual job), and watching that basket of bricks swinging over my head. How many more can it take? I’m hoping as the rejections fall in and I resubmit and resubmit, the load will become lighter. By December, they will be bricks made of foam that simply bounce to the ground, ready for me to throw back up in the air. And who knows, maybe one will turn to sparkles and cover me in glittery dust.dreamstime_xl_37882231_(Custom)


Books of 2017

I reread a lot of books this year. Mainly it was old favourites and I was trying to figure out what made them so good (turning reading into learning, fun!). I also started off the year by reading a lot of non-fiction, which is unusual for me but turned out great. I then ended the year on a more commercial note, when I just needed something to look forward to in the evenings when my brain didn’t want to work.

I’ve already written about some of the best books, this is the whole list (not including Harry Potter x 2.3 times). This year, with stars!

  • Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson ****
  • Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald****
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert ***
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance *****
  • 117 days by Ruth First **** After finishing this I was determined to read more about South Africa. That didn’t happen, but there’s still time! 
  • The year of magical thinking by Joan Didion *****
  • When will there be good news? By Kate Atkinson *** I think Kate Atkinson is great. So readable but not trashy at all.
  • Blue nights by Joan Didion ****
  • Dreams from my father by Barack Obama ****
  • The caged virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali ****
  • Stet by Diana Athill ***
  • Born to run by Christopher McDougall ***
  • Do no harm by Henry Marsh *** This is from the eighties, an account of being a neurosurgeon in Britain. It is interesting, and was a bit of a silly choice to read after my operation.
  • The husband’s secret by Liane Moriarty ***
  • Trio by Sue Gee **
  • Revolutionary road by Richard Yates **** I knew this story from the movie, but the book is so well written it didn’t matter. Unlikable characters but in such interesting ways.
  • Good me, bad me by Ali Land ***
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout *****
  • The English patient by Michael Ondaatje ****
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee *****
  • Pride and prejudice by Jane Austen *****
  • The blackwater lightship by Colm Toibin *****
  • Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum *** A reworking of Anna Karenina apparently, which I didn’t realise until the end. Loved about the first two thirds of it.
  • On Chesil beach by Ian McEwan ***
  • Station eleven by Emily St John Mandel *****
  • The tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte***
  • The light between oceans by M.L. Stedman ***
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago *****
  • Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey *****
  • Conversations with friends by Sally Rooney ****
  • The futures by Anna Pitoniak ***
  • The naïve and the sentimental novelist by Orhan Pamuk ****
  • The circle by David Eggers ***
  • Wishful drinking by Carrie Fisher ***
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ***
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett **** Loved this, one of the highlights of the year. A perfect opening scene. I need more Patchett in my life.
  • Reading like a writer by Francine Prose ****
  • Abide with me by Elizabeth Strout ****
  • The magician’s assistant by Ann Patchett ***
  • The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden ****
  • Swimming home by Deborah Levy *** I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, but it was a bit disappointing. The mysterious quirky loner girl trope is a bit old, even though it was written so well.
  • Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas ***
  • Only daughter by Anna Snoekstra **
  • Sense and sensibility by Jane Austen ***
  • Frog music by Emma Donoghue **** I don’t usually read historical fiction, but I love Donoghue and this novel set in San Francisco around a 19th century murder was great.
  • The misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky ***
  • Negotiating with the dead by Margaret Atwood ***
  • The Martian by Andy Weir ***
  • Position doubtful by Kim Mahood ***** Very interesting thoughts about land and life and connections in Australia.
  • Big little lies by Liane Moriarty ***
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout ***** The perfect novel.
  • Hidden figures by Margot Lee Shetterly **** I saw the movie of this first, and then got annoyed when I read the book and realised how much had been unnecessarily changed. The writing style is very casual and a bit funny – like an aunt’s diary – but the amount of information is amazing. Also, I didn’t realise just how complicated segregation and its removal was.
  • The wonder by Emma Donoghue ***
  • Quartet by Jean Rhys ***
  • The dry by Jane Harper ****
  • The point by Marion Halligan *** I wanted to like this because it was set in Canberra, but Halligan fell for the 90s/early noughties fashion of not using speech marks, so I spent a lot of time being annoyed that I couldn’t follow who was speaking.
  • The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel ***
  • The good son by Paul McVeigh ****A boy growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. Often compared to Roddy Doyle, but I found it better – more sympathetic and genuine, with less caricatures.
  • The end of Eddy by Edouard Louis ***** I’ve been wanting to read this all year and it didn’t disappoint. Northern French working-class boy, gay, trying to figure out the endless violence and apathy around him. 

Lists from other years are here.


Drafts, NaNo, Deadlines and Breaks

I’ve recently returned to editing Hold Back the Night after working through the comments made by my super helpful beta readers. I’m tying up loose subplots and energising the fizzly characters. I’m putting meat on the skeletal draft version and making the words crisper. I had paragraphs where every sentence started with ‘She’ (sorry, beta-readers!) – this is very satisfying to change.

skulls skeletons000

It’s exciting, especially as I’d like to have it finished by the end of the year, ready to start submitting to agents in January.

But the premise makes the endless rereading even harder than it normally would be. A woman recovering (a bit) from sexual assault is distressing to read, even when I wrote it. It’s worse when I go from working on it – trying to find new ways to express shame and terror and revulsion – to reading about Harvey Weinstein, to reading the pages of #metoo stories. It’s become urgent – I want this story out there, but my standards remain stubbornly high. I don’t want to leave the writing floppy just because the marketability is suddenly soaring. The story deserves better than that, as do those wonderful (infuriating) characters.

I’ve realised that not only do I have to give it time to mature fully, I have to give myself breaks from it. I can’t be an emotional mess in the rest of my life just because I’m spending hours in the company of damaged characters. I’ve worked on all the chapters, I’m happy with the story, the words are getting stronger. I need to break my writing life up a bit.

Low and behold, this ‘break’ coincides with November. And we all know what that means…NaNoWriMo! Or, for the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month. 400,000+ people around the world attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during November. It’s mad and fun and the communities that spring up around it are the best bit.

I wasn’t going to do NaNo. I don’t need any encouragement to write daily, nor to write quantity over quality (hello every first draft ever). But perhaps this is the break I need. I have a first draft I’m saving to work on during a Writers’ HQ online editing course, and I have half of another draft. But you can never have too many first drafts to bash into shape, particularly when you work full-time and can’t luxuriate into ideas organically but need to vomit them out wherever possible to then chisel away in bite-sized pieces.

My list of novel ideas contains nothing that could be called ‘fun’, but maybe I’ll think of something. I have four days, after all, that’s 64 waking hours and 32 hours of dreaming. Loads of time.



What to do when you’re not publishing #2

A while ago I wrote a post about what to do when you’re not publishing. I read it again recently because, low and behold, I’m still not publishing! I think it needs an update though, because I have discovered many new things to do that are more energising. The worst thing about constant rejections is their tendency to sap energy for everything – writing, work, life in general – and so finding things that can feed you (metaphorically, though delicious food is a good distraction as well) is life-saving.

11. Watch TED talks. They may be a bit cliched, but motivation is only lame when you don’t need it. It can be surprisingly effective when you’re feeling low.

12. Discover new artists. Artists of any kind, though my favourite is musicians. Find amazing art created by people who just got on and did it, and built an incredible back catalogue of work while apparently being ignored. My current anthem is Don’t Come Easy by Patty Griffin.

13. Try to find community. This is hard, though my recent discover of Writers’ HQ is helping me. They have free short online courses, cheap(ish) longer ones, they’re active on social media, and they run retreats in England if that’s your area. They also have a wonderful way of making it all seem fun, probably because of all the swearing.

14. Find some writing you love and type it up. It’s amazing how much more achievable it seems when it’s typed in Word rather than printed in a printed book.

15. Submit. Whatever you have really. The rejections (let’s be realistic here) won’t come in for months by which time hopefully you’ll be feeling better, and the little spark that comes with pressing ‘submit’ will do wonders right now.

16. If you haven’t already, download Scrivener and spend hours figuring it out and imagining how much easier it will be to do really good drafts in the future.

17. Take a weekend off. You’ll be dying to get back to it on Monday.

18. Imagine you’ve been given a death sentence (I mean weeping-in-a-courtroom, choosing-a-last-meal kind of imagining). What would you work on? Do that now.

Time for me to crank Patty, load up Scrivener, and find some old work to submit to something.



Top 10 books of 2017

I love books and I love lists of fun things and I’ve just found this website, Broke and Bookish, which has top ten book lists every Tuesday! The most recent one was post your top ten books of 2017.

I’ve reread a lot of things this year so it’s good to go back and look at what’s stood out so far, among old and new favourites. In chronological order of when I read them, because that’s the way my mind works.

read all the books

  1. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

This book has been talked and written about a lot since Trump was elected, since it’s apparently about ‘his’ voters – disadvantaged, frustrated, rural, white people. The nostalgia is strong. There is a theme of: we were violent and poor in the past but at least we had a work ethic! Vance seems to blame the welfare state and drugs for ruining his people’s sense of purpose, but he is also scathing of parents treating their kids badly, not putting enough emphasis on education, and allowing potential to be wasted out of disinterest or a kind of reverse snobbishness.

2. The year of magical thinking by Joan Didion

At the beginning of the year everyone seemed to be talking about Joan Didion in that infuriating way of presuming everyone knows who she is and what she does. So I decided to read her and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read her before. This book is a beautiful, surprisingly lucid account of the grief after her husband dies and her daughter is very sick. I’ve read a couple more since this one but Magical Thinking remains at the top.

3. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

An old favourite. I haven’t read much of Coetzee in a while because the most recent one (The Childhood of Jesus) was very disappointing. It was good to return to this. It amazes me when protagonists can be unlikable without making the novel unlikable. His characters seem to have more than three dimensions – is it possible to have a six-sided character? Because that’s what they are.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Another old favourite that I read while in Winchester, as seeing Austen’s grave made me want to reread her. This was the first Austen I read and while I have since come to prefer Persuasion, I am appreciating P&P more and more as the TV show grows distant in my memory. The TV show is awesome, but there are extra layers in the novel – and I’m possibly liking Lizzie less and less without Jennifer Ehle’s bright eyes to make her inspiring.

5. The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

I read this year’s ago and had it mind as a great Toibin book. I’ve felt the more recent ones – Brooklyn, Nora Webster – were missing something which Blackwater and The South had. A deeper immersion in life, perhaps. Other than a random flashback section at the beginning which I didn’t like, this was as good as I remembered. Families in all their tense, judgmental love, complicated by the fear and grief of AIDs and the moodiness of the Irish seaside.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

A new book! It was listed for the Bailey’s Book Prize this year. I have this idea in my head that I don’t like sci-fi, and then I realise most dystopians are counted as sci-fi and I love a good dystopia. A flu epidemic, unlike anything that’s come before, wipes out 90% of the population. What I loved was how the structures of modern life were adapted despite the lack of modern conveniences – I mean, of course an airport would be a great place to set up a community, even without electricity. I should see how far away Gatwick is for when the apocalypse strikes.

7. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Another dystopia and one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’d heard great things about it, and although it took some time to get into the style (no names, rare paragraphs, no dialogue tags, long long sentences), it’s reputation is well deserved. What would happen if everyone went blind? What a question, even without all the disturbing allegorical layers to it. The chaos is quick and brutal and disturbingly believable. I don’t think Saramago has much faith in governments and after reading two dystopias in a row, I might not either.

8. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This movie came out and everyone started talking about it, but I didn’t realise it was a YA novel from a few years ago. Small Australian country town in the sixties, prejudice and frustration and cricket – it all feels very recent and could easily have been set now. The mother was thoroughly unlikable, full of petty anger and tending towards masochism, and I can’t wait to see Toni Collette play her in the movie (when I get round to it).

9. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Another new one. This is on lists of ‘best debuts in 2017’ so I thought I’d give it a go (I am trying to read more debuts). It’s about two university students in Dublin who befriend an older, semi-famous couple, and begin a mixed-up mess of relationships with them. All the characters were so enigmatic, and while that seems a little unbelievable, it also felt like one of those cliques of famous people a la the Bloomsbury group or Taylor Swift’s posse.

10. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose

I’m cheating a bit with this one because I haven’t quite finished, but it is amazing. It’s just really good examples of different types of writing – and writing that is good for different reasons – with super enthusiastic analysis of why it’s so good. It encourages readers/writers to slow down and sink into words, which I have been finding hard lately. Writing and reading frenetically around full-time work does not scream ‘spend an hour on each sentence!’ so this is a really good reminder which I will have to read over and over again. I also love that the author’s name is ‘Prose’.

Suggestions for the second half of the year are very welcome!






Calling all volunteer readers

We all have moments when we’re reading books and we think, wait what? What is the author doing? WHY DID THEY WRITE THAT? I WISH I COULD TELL THEM THAT WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA!

Now is your chance!

I need readers. I have a manuscript called Hold back the night. It’s 74K words, which is slightly on the shorter side of standard for contemporary fiction.

The elevator pitch, blurb, or whatever you want to call it, is:

New Year’s Eve 2015, Dublin, a young Australian woman is sexually assaulted by a man she sees on a daily basis, in a bar, in front of a camera. Her instinct is for silence but, as she is continually exposed to her attacker, the pressure builds, and she must learn to accept the support of those around her or risk blaming herself forever.

If you’re intrigued, I’m happy to send the first chapter so that you can see if it’s something you would like to read. I will not be offended at all if you read it and say no!

What I need:

People who like to read, who can read it in a month or so, and can make critical but useful comments. I have thicker skin than it might seem, and I need it to be good. So bring it on! I’m specifically looking for:

  • As much information as possible about scenes/paragraphs/sentences that you like or don’t like, and why
  • Any time you are confused
  • Anything that seems clichéd
  • Anything that seems unnecessary
  • Anything that you want more information about (particularly subplots or characters)
  • Anything that would make you stop reading and why (e.g. boredom)
  • Typos, clunky sentences, bad grammar (only if that’s your thing)

What you will get:

  • My endless thanks
  • Book vouchers! Because who doesn’t need more books in their life?
  • (If you actually don’t need more books in your life, this can be exchanged for something more useful)

Things to know:

  • It’s a draft, there are mistakes
  • It’s about sexual assault, right from the first chapter, and may not be for everyone
  • It’s fiction, please don’t look for yourself, people I know, or me
  • Projects are fun, and if you like reading and/or writing, something like this can be quite rewarding!

So, for an obligation-free sample of the first chapter (as the salesmen on TV say), send me an email (

Also, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, check out the haunting Ms. O’Connor.