John Irving and his writing

This morning I read the essay linked to below, at John Irving’s facebook page and was surprised to see it had been published in 1980. It was the mention of one of my favourite Irving novels that caught my eye, THE WATER METHOD MAN:

It’s been 45 years since John Irving published THE WATER METHOD MAN. While his second novel is regarded as a purely comic tale, and John’s current project is a darker contemplation of life’s disruptive forces, the two novels bear some resemblance to one another.

John Irving is once again experimenting with framed narratives and writing about the evolution of a writer—like Bogus Trumper, one who writes screenplays. This time, we see the main character —Adam Brewster—mature from childhood and early adolescence to become a writer like Garp, or Ruth Cole, or Juan Diego, as if writing were an inevitability given the fateful circumstances of his life. And, along the way, despite the darkness, there are points of humor. John’s work in progress may ultimately be his funniest novel since THE WATER METHOD MAN.

And a link to the essay published all those years ago, 3 BY IRVING by Terrence Des Pres, a text credited by Irving as “the most insightful thesis on his writing.” It contains some fabulous insights into and perspectives on fiction writing, particularly his. How he works, how he circles.

I do feel his fiction went off the boil for me, but maybe I had changed, maybe his work is still as vibrant and compassionate (a word that keeps recurring in the essay) and funny as it ever was. (although I have to say, the character name Bogus Trumper is genius but Adam Brewster? Ordinary).

Anyway, I thought it a fascinating read, this morning. It helped restore the juice that I will need to push on to the next project. It has some great quotes like:


Superior fiction asks three things of the novelist: Vigorous feeling for life as we live it. Then imaginative force, strong enough to subvert and rebuild unhindered. And then–but this is rare and so essential that we might call it the “reality principle” of fiction– shrewd sense to keep the first two locked in stubborn love with each other.


Irving’s grasp on fact is firm, yet not so cramped as to dampen his delight in wild fabulation. To manage this balance with compassion and comic liberty is chief among his strengths. Not fact but fact perceived is fiction’s rightful domain, and Irving has been quick to take this special license to its limit. Rampant invention is central to his art, and one of the finest pleasures to be got from reading his novels resides in the multiplicity of styles, the range of forms and abrupt imaginative turns to be found in each book. Irving’s multiple manner, if I may call it such, his will to come at the world from different directions, is one of the outstanding traits of Garp; but this remarkable flair for confluence–stories inside stories, genres circumventing genres–is already handled with mastery in Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, and with a freedom almost wanton in The Water-Method Man, which appeared in 1972. Only The 158-Pound Marriage departs from mixed form; published in 1974, it is as lean and concentrated as a mine shaft. But in every case Irving’s habit of originality provokes surprise and enjoyment.


Willy Literary Festival 2017

I’ve never been to this festival (talk about being a bad Melburnian writer) but it’s on next weekend and I am doing two things and really excited about being there.

First is The Age of Experience on Saturday 17 June, 3.30-4.30pm where Christy Collins, Paul Dalgarno and I talk to Jane Rawson about being debut authors who aint young. Here’s the proper description from the program:

It’s never too late to debut. While many people think ‘young writer’ when they hear ’emerging writer’, Jenny Ackland, Christy Collins and Paul Dalgarno each had their first book published after 35.

Jenny’s first novel, an intriguing mash-up of the great Australian legends of Ned Kelly and Gallipoli called The Secret Son, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2015, when she was 51 years old. Christy Collins won the Viva la Novella prize at 38 years old in 2015 with The End of Seeing, and Paul Dalgarno’s ground-breaking hybrid novel-memoir, And You May Find Yourself, was published by Sleepers when he was 39 years old.

Is the publishing industry too biased toward youth? What are the benefits of publishing once you’ve had some experience under your belt? How do you maintain enthusiasm for writing when life keeps getting in the way? And should you Photoshop the wrinkles out of your author photo?

In this event, Jenny, Christy and Paul talk to Jane Rawson (43 years old when her first novel A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists was finally published) about how to hang in there and not lose heart.

There are still tickets available, here.

Then, on Sunday, I’m facilitating a two-hour workshop on editing, and will bring my mad skills and learning from my time in the Professional Writing & Editing Course at RMIT (I bombed out twice but it wasn’t due to incompetence, I promise!); my work as a sub-editor for a bunch of magazines, my self study and, most importantly, my hands-on learning as a novelist working with a literary agent and the marvellous-wonderful-excellent-kind editors at Allen & Unwin. Can’t wait. It’s sold out though. So maybe next time?

Festival program – have a browse, there are lots of fabulous things on.

On rejections

Michael Hauge and Larry Brooks on story engineering


I’m writing this mainly I guess for any writers who might be reading. Rejections (note the plural) are part of the game. And it is a game, not a fun game or one of manipulation, but of patience, perseverance and professionalism. Another thing: it’s a long game.

I wrote about rejection here, for author Lee Kofman, and how me submitting a terribly-written travel article back in 1990 (and getting rightly rejected – and in retrospect it was a LOVELY ‘No’ letter, I have the feeling it came from Jonathan Green) meant that I didn’t submit anything for years. I didn’t stop writing, I’m not that precious or thin-skinned, but If I’d known then what I know now, a slow-dawning awareness that started building once I started writing seriously with a view to publication from 2008 onwards, I would have seen that not only was that piece a draft, wholly unworked and not worthy of appearance outside of my diary pages, rejection does not mean you are shit.

Now, as I am sitting with a completed second novel manuscript, the first draft of a third ready for next-stage development, and fourth in its early stages, I am so glad that not only was that pathetic travel piece denied its place in the canon lol, but also that the first few submissions I made to literary journals were nixed as well. I know now that my novels need a long, long time in the oven, with the preparation of them like one of those crazy recipes that have so many ingredients you almost decide not to cook the bloody thing, but then you think, well, give it a whirl, it’s the weekend, I’ve got the whole day, and you make the hugest mess of the kitchen, use every pot and pan, and you kind of enjoy it but kind of think ‘why am I even doing this?’ And it took me a while to realise that if  I can manage my impatience by thinking ‘the thing will improve, take your time, this is nowhere near finished’ and resist rushing it to readers, an agent, the publisher, then the pressure comes off a bit.

Another thing that helped me with my manuscript development is the idea of a conscious structure and deliberate story points. There are a bunch of people who have written about these (American screenwriting guru Syd Field; Michael Hauge; Larry Brooks) in ways that are clear and helpful. I consider myself a literary fiction writer, but reasoned there was no reason why I couldn’t also incorporate some of these dudes’ systems. (And the story points don’t have to be big obvious clunky ones; they can be subtle shifts, emotional changes or realisations).  It seems there is a move happening, driven by readers, booksellers and therefore publishers, away from novels that are ‘only’ beautifully written, interior and character-driven (all such hard things to do well in the first place) to books that have all those elements but with extra elements of storytelling that publishers believe will sell the novel to larger numbers of readers (cross-over books). I wonder whether this is because of long-form television and how people are accessing their preferred narratives. It’s also possibly because of how we are distracted by our phones and cannot settle to fiction in the way we used to. (Noam Chomsky talks of the perfect dyad between a man and his television set. I think it’s true, but between a human and their phone.)

Wonderful woman and agent Virginia Lloyd (who represented my first novel and sold it to Allen and Unwin two years ago – two years ago on Melbourne Cup Day it was acquired), has written about attracting the attention of a publisher here:

Advice on how to attract a publisher

Virginia is super professional and smart, lovely to deal with and has extensive experience – she worked as an in-house editor for PanMac before setting up as a literary agent, in Brooklyn NYC where I met her in a very hip bar, and now in Sydney. She represents some authors, as well as offering editorial services: mentoring/coaching; manuscript assessments; editorial and structural development.  You can read more about her services here. While she no longer represents my work, occasionally I send a (panicked) email to her and she talks me down, and for people who might feel they need some help and are happy to pay*, I can’t recommend her highly enough. Like I said above, it’s a tough business and it is important to try to build a group of people who will champion your work, be in your corner, make you feel supported to keep going. Much of it is about endurance and not cracking under the strain, not giving up.

Finally, I came across this article about the reasons a manuscript gets rejected by agents, written by an agent’s reader (an agent is often the first person a writer will be submitting their novel manuscript too, although in Australia they are harder to get than a publisher it seems!)

I’d love to know if any writers are reading. I know I have some readers who are readers, and as I still work out what I want to do with this space, in terms of blogging, I’d love to know what people would like to read about. It’s clear my book ‘not-reviews’ are sporadic at best. I do the 6 Degrees posts, and occasionally share articles of interest I come across. It’s a bit of a mess, really, but I guess it’s okay.


* Virginia is very clear on her website about how the fee structures work, in terms of literary representation (where there is no upfront fee) and other services. A reputable literary agent will never ask for money upfront, or to take on a client. Lit agenting is done on spec, and sometimes, if you are lucky, they will put in a lot of unpaid work with you to develop the manuscript before approaching publishers with it. This is what happened with me and Virginia, on not one but two novel manuscripts. You can see why I love her so much, she stuck with me and believed in me, even though it took two years to get a book contract.

2, 2 and 2 at Amanda Curtin’s blog

The lovely Amanda Curtin (who I met at the recent Ubud Writers Festival) asked me if I’d participate in a series she runs on her blog, looking up looking down.

The idea is you write about 2 things that inspired your book, 2 places connected with the book (geographical or metaphysical) and 2 favourite ‘anythings’ somehow connected to the book.

I really enjoyed working on my responses and you can read them here:

Jenny Ackland talks about The Secret Son

By the way Amanda’s blog is a fine repository of gorgeous and interesting photos. Have a browse why don’t you?

My first author Q&A for The Secret Son

Beyazıt 1910s

My publicist at Allen & Unwin was approached by a reviewer, who’d read my book and reviewed it on her website. Would I consider answering some questions, about the book and how I wrote it?

Oh, yes I would!

The questions were fantastic, and it’s made me realise that after so long with a book, so long spent writing and formulating and planning and processing and thinking and developing, and then there’s the never-ending revising, and then there’s all the formal bits, such as the editing process, and synopsis writing, and it goes and goes, it’s really nice to be able to talk about the craft and the hows and whys of how the book came to be. When you’ve spent so long with a project, there’s quite a bit to say.

Here’s the interview, over at Love That Book, with Melissa Sargent.

And here’s Melissa’s review of The Secret Son too.

Things of interest (to me anyway)

Once more I have a raft of open browser windows across the top of my screen. I haven’t made much progress on the footy scarf I’m knitting for my husband’s boy. Luckily I told him it would probably be ready for next season. The reason why I’m going slowly with this project is mainly because the knitting pattern requires more attention (K2, P2 for those up on knitting lingo) than the other project I’m working on (just K, K, K, K). Here is a pic of what will be our blanket (my daughter is in on the action):



I did ballet as a girl. Probably only for a couple of years but it seemed longer. I went to a place run by a married couple, to Sollymossys (spelling?) and got up to points and then stopped cause it was too hard. The end of year concerts seemed to consist of all the ballet students providing backdrops to the two Sollymossys, who would dance in the middle and we would be trees at the back, or peasant girls picking flowers or seahorses, dashing through in diagonal formation. For a long time now I’ve believed that inside of all of us is the child we once were, and inside of me is a girl who loves ballet, which is why I’m considering doing this:

Going to adult ballet classes.

Anybody want to come with me?


Ulysses. I don’t think there’s another book that I am so determined to read before I die. I’ve tried a couple of times. The furthest I got was listening to it in audio as I drove to Adelaide and back by myself a few years ago. So I either need to go for a bigger drive or set aside a chunk of time and set myself to it. Someone at my book club is in another group and they are doing Ulysses – how fabulous. There was talk of doing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but there weren’t enough takers. I would love to be in a group that did longer works, so if anyone wants to start something up, let me know!

I read on twitter one person who read it in a day.

Here are a couple of posts from Bloomsday on the 16th, both from Biblioklept, probably my favourite bookish blog:

Bloomsday blog

How to read James Joyce’s Ulysses (and why you should avoid “how-to” guides like this one


I found this blog recently, called Write Like Rowling. I haven’t had time to look through it properly but this post, called Rowling’s Life as an Author: What it Was Really Like Writing HP looks very interesting. One thing seems to becoming clearer and clearer to me: that regardless of what type of writing people are doing, genre, non-fiction, memoir, any long-form project requires the same amount of dedication, persistence, attention to craft and so on. And reading about other writers and their experiences of getting it done is really inspiring and affirming.


Ah the Mildura Writers Festival. I went last year and what a hoot it was. You can read about it here and here and here.

Author and blog buddy Tracy Farr is going this year and she is the inaugural festival writer-resident. She’s appearing on several panels and will enjoy not just the writerly atmosphere of Mildura during the festival but the fab climate, good eating and beautiful location of the place. I joked last year that this is a secret I wanted to keep on the low-down but honestly, it’s such a solid drive from Melbourne, I think the distance keeps anyone other than the most determined of us away. It’s the distance that’s keeping me away this year, but I’m happy I’ll be meeting up with Tracy in Melbourne Town.


Reading: I know it will shock or confound some of you, but I am almost finished with a third or fourth re-read of Donna Tartt’s THE LITTLE FRIEND. I know, I know. What am I thinking? This is a book that has been described as the least-successful of Tartt’s books, and it’s a book that when I first read it, I didn’t know what to make of it and was disappointed with the ending. But each time I read it I see more and am dazzled by the density of what she’s attempted: the themes, the characters, the narrative and plot. And before you ask ‘why’, I’ll say ‘it’s for research’ – I am trying to see how she has done it. It’s ambitious and sweeping in scope. I think I just love people who have a go and try and I think it’s my favourite of her books. With GOLDFINCH I think she has scaled herself back to make it more popular, more accessible to the common reader (not sure that worked either).

I wonder if other people return to books over and over, and not just for reasons of love?

Gone fishing



Leaving Friday for my trip but wanted to close the blog down now, as I have a lot to do before I go. Like googling directions and printing them out. Making sure I have enough boots packed. And hats.

When I come back in mid Feb I have a first meeting with my new publisher. Allen & Unwin have bought my first novel The Sugar Men, which will be published later this year (it’s slated for September).

I can’t tell you how exciting this is. Other novelist hopefuls will understand what it means, especially if they have been submitting and getting rejections, and especially if they are determined to be published by a traditional press. Authors who are already published will know what it means. But family members, friends, even serious readers and critics and reviewers won’t understand truly what it means. They will note the excitement, the joy, the champagne, but they won’t know what it feels like in the heart.

It is a dream come true. I couldn’t ask for a better publisher, and a better person at that publisher. I am truly elated and feel very lucky. Yes, the work has to be good, and yes it has to be marketable, but also I feel there is some luck involved. Right person, right reading-time, right opening in the list. All that.

I’ve kept a lid on this for a while. Contracts were signed and counter-signed before Christmas so I’ve been excited for a while now. But 2015 is going to be wonderful, if only for this. Nothing competes with the feeling of someone loving your book and wanting to publish it. Nothing.

See you when I get back.