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Five Days Under the Big Sky

It was the best of festivals, it was the best of festivals.

Last week I spent five days as a guest of Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival, which takes place annually in Geraldton, an hour’s flight north of Perth.

I love flying to Gero, not only for the glorious vistas but also because I love watching the flight attendants try and somehow cram meal service into the approximately 35 minutes of level flight time.

I love Big Sky for other reasons, and they are many.

For years, fellow writers and illustrators have been enthusing about Big Sky. It’s the bestival of the festivals! they say. Because they are punsters like that. If you get invited, you absolutely have to go!

This year, I did, so I did. And now I get it.

From the tiny plane trip we took out to the Abrolhos Islands, where we spent a night soaking up the serenity, snorkelling in crystal clear water, communing with a playful sea lion, and generally feeling a million miles away from all things stressful …

… to the visits to local schools, which were full of enthusiastic teachers as well as highly engaged  kids.

From the seamless organisation, creative programming and unfailingly cheerful staff …

… to the warmth and enthusiasm of the audiences.

When I speak at a festival, I always hope that those listening will come away nourished in some way; post-Big Sky, I actually feel nourished myself. And if you know anything about me at all, you’ll know this is a rare feat!

I’ve always loved a big sky, but now I want to live there. It truly is the bestival of the festivals.

Once Upon a Time …

… there was a small rhinoceros.

It hung on the wall of an art gallery in Subiaco, all the way back in 1997. It was part of an exhibition entitled Three Narrative Artists.

And it looked like this:

intrepid-journey220-x-160_edited-1[“Intrepid Journey” by Sue Templeton]

It was right near the entrance, and when I walked in on opening night, it stopped me in my tracks. There was something about the image I found intrinsically appealing.  Or perhaps it was the combination of image and title – the word “intrepid” together with the rhinoceros and the boat.

It stayed with me, as things sometimes do unexpectedly. That’s something I love – that you never quite know what’s going to catch the light for someone. It isn’t always what you’d expect. In this case, it was a small rhinoceros.

But here’s where it gets interesting, because many years passed. Many, many years. And I guess my memory isn’t as good as I thought it was. Because when I thought about the rhino, I saw it as a tiny thing in a tiny boat on a very very wide and vast blue ocean. And I  remembered the title as being simply “Intrepid”. I told myself it was the perfect marriage of that single-word title and the image that lent it appeal for me. Except that it wasn’t a single-word title and it also wasn’t a vast open ocean. In fact, looking at it now I’m not even sure it’s an ocean. Maybe it’s a desert. Maybe it’s a lava field. Maybe it’s the surface of the moon.

When I contacted the artist recently, and she kindly sent me a copy of the image, I was a little taken aback. I loved it still but it was quite different to how I’d remembered it. Somewhere along the way,  I had changed it. I had started to spin my own narrative around it, to transform it into something of my own.

At a certain point, I realised that that something was a picture book. A story began to form around the small rhinoceros, and while I was thinking and writing and letting things percolate, I came across a few interesting things. Like this:


.. which is a still from a Fellini movie entitled “E la nave va” [“And the ship sails on”], which features a love-sick rhinoceros on a cruise liner, among other zany things.

And this:


… which is a sculpture of a wolf in a boat outside a museum in Canada. While I was tinkering with my rhino manuscript, author/illustrator Katherine Battersby posted a picture of this on Facebook. Which of course led me to immediately freak out and write faster because clearly she was about to become similarly inspired and write an identical book.

Because that is the level of paranoia that all writers share.

And then, right near the end of the writing process, when I was musing on all of these images, and wondering whether any of them were connected and if so who had been influenced by whom, I happened to glance up at my corkboard and see this:

samrhino[postcard by Samantha Hughes]

At which point, I realised that for some time, a small rhinoceros had been watching over me while I worked.

While I can’t be sure, it’s no big leap to say that this image probably has something to do with the fact that the rhinoceros finally pushed its way to the front of my creative mind after all this time.

You just never know what the light’s going to catch, and when it’s going to catch it. And it’s in that spirit that I’m so grateful to everyone who creates, who makes art and ideas and adds them to the well from which we all draw; I feel very privileged to be part of this community.

I can’t share much of my rhino yet, but here is a tiny sneak peek from the proofs, which in turn features an even tinier glimpse of my absolute favourite page.

leiliarhinoproofs[source: Leila Rudge Instagram]

I’ll have more to say about this book over the next few months, but for now it’s enough to announce that Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros will be sailing onto shelves in August this year. It’s illustrated by the always-marvellous Leila Rudge, and somewhere along the way it became a book of my heart. I can’t wait to hold the real thing in my hand and to see it making its way out into the world to readers.

2017 Reading Challenge

I must admit that I’ve never found reading to be a challenge. But for the last couple of years I’ve seen others posting about the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and in the spirit of connecting with other readers, and also perhaps being a little more conscious about who and what I’m reading, I’ve taken the plunge and signed up.

There are four levels of the Challenge to choose from:

  • Stella: read 4 – if reviewing, review at least 3
  • Miles: read 6 – if reviewing, review at least 4
  • Franklin: read 10 – if reviewing, review at least 6
  • Create your own challenge: nominate your own goal

But happily there is a caveat – you don’t actually have to review if you don’t want to. So I’ll be reading and sharing little snippets as I go (most likely via Twitter and Facebook) but I won’t be reviewing as such. For as much as I love talking about books, as an Australian writer myself I just don’t feel comfortable reviewing others.

I initially signed up for Franklin, but am not sure what I was thinking as I’m almost there already. A better challenge for me is to step outside my comfort zone a bit, which tends to be contemporary literary fiction, and I’d also love to get back to reading more poetry.

So I’ve gone ahead and created my own challenge, and here it is:

  • 10 poetry collections
  • 5 speculative fiction
  • 5 ‘classics’ (from the AWW Challenge website: “books that might once have been popular but which have now fallen out of favour.”)
  • 3 romance (I never read this; it’s a huge and possibly snobby blindspot for me. I’m going to give it a whirl)
  • 3 non-fiction (again, not a genre I read much)
  • 3 short-fiction collections
  • 50 total (with the remainder being my much-loved lit-fic and probably a healthy dash of YA & children’s in there, too.)


I will also be running my very own writing challenge, which will be to write 3 books by an Australian woman author, being me. My progress at the moment is slow but steady. I don’t have a fancy logo for this challenge. I could probably make one but that would be procrastinating, and we all know where that leads and it is not to the writing of books.

The Year of Taking a Deep Breath …

… and writing a great many things …

… is here. It’s here.

What is she talking about? you mutter.

Upon which I refer you to my earlier post, The Year of Doing Way Too Much and Nowhere Near Enough.

And then I say this:

In 1999, in an airport departure lounge, I scribbled the beginnings of what would eventually become my first poem.

In 2001, I said out loud to someone for the very first time that I was interested in maybe writing something one day. I remember this very clearly for reasons I will save for a future blog post.

In later 2001, I had an idea for a picture book, and thought it was excellent and bound to be published.

From 2001-2006, I collected approximately 762 rejection letters for that picture book, other picture books, chapter books, Young Adult novels, and novels of indeterminate genre and readership. I also published a few poems.

In 2007, my first novel, Annabel, Again, was published.

In later 2007, my poetry collection, Cleanskin, was published.

                     2782WALK_AnnabelFULL02.indd    Cleanskinhires

From 2008-2015, I published a further 11 books for children and a far-too-small handful of poems.


In 2016, I wrote far too little and was overwhelmed by far too much. I had RSI in my wrists and my broader chronic pain condition was flared up so often it was being described as ‘acute-on-chronic’. I was managing everything very poorly while working very hard to make sure that no one saw that.

In August 2016, I made the decision to leave my day-job, scale back my volunteering, and stop taking on freelance work. I had to stop squeezing writing completely out of the picture and also start looking after myself a whole lot better. I told very few people about my decision, partly because I was quietly freaking out about finances, and partly for day-job confidentiality reasons.

In November 2016, my novel A Single Stone won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, bringing with it an insane pay-check of $80,000 tax-free.


In November 2016, approximately six hours after the announcement, I sat bolt upright at 3am, freaking out because now people might think I was doing all this because of my win. Because all of a sudden I was too good for this other stuff. Because pish-tosh! I didn’t need it any more. Because I had become an instant diva.

In the cold light of the next day, approximately six hours after 3am, I thought, “Meh. Who gives a rat’s what people think?”

And after a long process of extrication and handover and the winding up of many things …

On 9 January, 2017, I woke up to my first official day as a full-time writer.

And spent it writing this post.

The Year of Doing Way Too Much & Nowhere Near Enough

So it’s come to this, November. Or perhaps I should call you by your real name — almost-December-dear-god-where-has-the-year-gone?

2016 has been a year of many things. But mostly of two things, which are subtly connected. For me it will go down as i) The Year of Doing Way Too Much and ii) The Year of Not Writing the Novel I Should Have Written Long Ago (subtitle dear-god-where-has-the-year gone-is-that-my-editor-coming-quick-everybody-hide!).

In 2016, I encountered a perfect and unrelenting storm of day job and volunteer work and family stuff and RSI and book-related commitments and assorted essential but fundamentally not-writing administrivia, all of which combined to leave me with an amount of head-space/writing time which can be best characterised as nowhere near enough.

Herewith a Twitter-ish chronicle of my descent into chaos…


This is why I haven’t been blogging. Because although there has been a lot of bloggable news, I simply couldn’t justify writing here when I wasn’t putting words on the real page.

Good things have happened in 2016. Many good things. And many of those have revolved around A Single Stone, otherwise known as my ASS, out of which the sun seems to have shone. (As a side note, I recommend bearing acronyms in mind when titling books; this enables you to receive email with subject lines such as “Your ASS is on fire!”, “I love your ASS” and “I saw your ASS face-out in Dymocks!”, to list just a few.)

As if last year’s win at the Queensland Literary Awards wasn’t enough, in 2016, A Single Stone was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards, and the West Australian Young Readers Book Awards. It was longlisted for the Davitt Awards for Crimewriting, named an Honour Book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, and won an Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction. Phew.

Then, just when I was catching my breath, the most incredible thing of all happened. Two weeks ago, it took out the Young Adult category of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Being shortlisted for any award is a very fine thing, and the idea of winning any award feels improbable and faintly ridiculous. But to win this one, with its accompanying tax-free prize money is absolutely life-changing, and it still hasn’t sunk in that this has actually happened.


A few people have said things to the effect that I must now feel validated, consider myself a success, be basking in some sort of shiny glow, and so on. And I’ve had to reflect for approximately 5 seconds to discover that I don’t feel that way at all.

To be brutally honest, what I care about is the money, because of the writing time it will buy me. Because fundamentally what I care about is the page that’s in front of me, my struggles with my work-in-progress, the story fully formed in my head that I can’t seem to shake loose, the characters I’ve fallen in love with to whom I am not doing justice at all. Yet.

The thing that makes me feel validated, successful, shiny is writing a sentence I’m happy with. And the simple fact is that in 2016, I wrote far too few sentences.

So there are changes coming. It took reaching this tipping point for me to sit up and do something about my too-many commitments. Things have been done, are being done. And with those changes, I’m hopeful that 2017 will be The Year of Taking a Deep Breath and Writing a Great Many Things. Because it has to be about the work. And the work has not been the work this year; the work has been shoved into a corner, almost completely sidelined. And that is just absolutely and totally ASS-about.

The UK Has Me Covered

As 2016 rolls on, I’m getting ready for the UK release of A Single Stone.

One of my favourite parts of this process is seeing the different ways in which the same book is packaged for new markets.

With Surface Tension, I loved my original cover so much I couldn’t imagine an alternative. And then when I was presented with the US version – which ended  up having both a new cover and a new title – I surprised myself by loving it equally, and differently.

SurfaceTensionhires     Belowhires

In this case, we’ve kept the title, but opted for a new cover. And here I am again – loving the Australian cover of A Single Stone, being incredulous at the prospect of a change …

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Ten Years and Still Counting

Last week, I posted a little something about where I was ten years ago versus where I am now.

It’s a post I almost didn’t write because I was worried it would seem braggy. CHECK OUT ALL MY SWAG! AND THIS IS JUST IN ONE WEEK! NEXT WEEK I’LL SPLIT THE PUBLISHING ATOM!

It wasn’t meant to be like that. It was intended as a kind of self-talk, a rejoinder to the messy stuff that goes on in my head, which seems to focus almost entirely on how I could be writing faster or better or differently or just plain more, and never mentions – hardly even seems to notice – the good stuff.

When I shared last week’s post, I prefaced it with the comment: “A few things have changed.”

And that’s true. But here’s something that’s even truer: most things haven’t.

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