Finding my Author Identity: A Story of Alienation and Belonging

How many authors struggle with finding their literary identity? Some know exactly who they are and what they want to write and it never enters their mind to deviate. Others struggle to find their way. My story should be a warning to budding writers. It’s far better to have things all figured out in advance. Here’s my story.

It was early in 2009 when I first thought to write creatively. I’d already composed a memoir of the life I was leading then, a work since shelved. When that little seed of inspiration germinated in my awareness I was transported instantly to one of my former homes: The Canary Islands, Spain. A powerful, all-consuming energy filled me. I didn’t know what to make of it, other than that I knew it would radically change my life. By July that same year I’d left my home, my broken marriage, my friends, my whole life to chase this dream, this insatiable desire. I fled to Melbourne. It took many months to orient myself. I had no idea what I wanted to write.

In 2010, under the intensive gaze of my literary mentor, I wrote another memoir, Lovesick, which I self-published in 2011. Lovesick captures a decade of my life spent as one of Thatcher’s have-nots. Sex, drugs and rock and roll in the 1980s with about a third of the story set in the Canary Islands. With Lovesick written I turned my hand to short stories. An independent student for many decades (I even undertook my PhD by distance ed) I gleaned what I needed online, read Alice Munro and slaved over every word. When ready, I submitted to literary journals. Only one was published, in the USA. Two were shortlisted and I received some very nice rejections along the way. Eventually Ginninderra Press published all eight in 2012. It felt like progress.

#TheDragoTree - a tragi-comic love story set on the island idyll of Lanzarote. Literary fiction at it's most entertaining. "Held together with a mouth watering descriptions of the landscape and history."

At the end of 2012 I embarked on my first novel, The Drago Tree, a literary love story set in the Canary Islands. I drew on every skill I had. It was then that I realised my literary voice was distinctly British or European. I began to feel uneasy. Voice is everything. How would a British voice be received by the Australian publishing industry? In 2014, I submitted The Drago Tree to every publisher in Australia. It was demoralising. Most didn’t reply. I was thinking, should I emigrate? Then, in January 2015, Odyssey Books made me an offer. They were a tiny small press back then but what did I care? I leapt at the chance. It was my big break. Luck, at last! I was set.

Meanwhile, I’d already begun another three novels, each distinct. Little did I know the crisis that loomed as a result. For me, back then, all my stories were literary fiction or general fiction. It was only after The Drago Tree was published and book reviewers were asking me what genre it fell into that I started to cotton on to the importance of these literary categories. Until then, I thought I could bypass the genres and exist in a literary fiction bubble. Not, it turns out, if I wanted to sell more than a handful of copies of my books. Suddenly, writing became all about genres and markets. An author needs to be a social media wiz, have a strong online presence, and preferably write a series in a single genre. It’s Creative Writing 101. But I’m self-taught, and this was the gap in my knowledge.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

My aspirations came crashing down in August 2016 when I launched my little literary masterpiece, A Perfect Square, a work I’d poured my heart and soul into, actioning a huge amount of pre-release promotion, including co-opting my musical genius daughter to write the music to go with it. see https://isobelblackthorn.com/a-perfect-square/  We launched the book and music together at a café in Melbourne. That day, the city suffered a tempest. Almost no one ventured out. Only ten people made it to the launch, with a few stragglers arriving at the end of the event because they got the time wrong. I went home demoralised. Reality soccer punched me and I landed on the harsh, immutable  concrete of the modern fiction scene with a thump.

That’s when I started to take the genres seriously. I was already at work on a mystery set in my beloved Canary Islands, a work that was giving me gip. All the while I kept asking, what sort of author am I? Where do I belong?

 

In 2017, I had another lucky break when a small press, based in the USA, offered to published my dark psychological thriller, The Cabin Sessions, which I’d written thinking it was horror. On the strength of that delusion and that offer, I thought horror was my thing and proceeded to write a second novel, The Legacy of Old Gran Parks. HellBound Books have since released both titles and I’ve been networking in the horror scene ever since. But through HellBound Books, I have come to realise my writing is not horror. It’s more Noir, or dark fiction, but definitely not horror. Yikes!

So where does that leave me? I need an author identity to hold all my writing together. I can’t keep starting afresh with each new book, hoping it will attract readers. Like all authors, I need a following of loyal readers. That same year, I started shooting arrows into the dark, trying out different pathways trying to build a career. Drawing on my past life as a teacher, I delivered a creative writing course for domestic violence survivors. I applied for a creative writing fellowship with the National Library of Australia, for which I was shortlisted. I applied for, and secured, a mentorship to co-edit the Australasian Horror Writers Association magazine. I applied for travel funding for a new work, which I didn’t get. I thought if I shook the door hard enough, someone would let me in and then I would know who I was as an author. JK Rowling never had this trouble. It all seemed horribly unfair. Was I, am I, my own worst enemy?

Now, in 2018, it feels as though the forces of progress are against me, as though I’ve entered a dark phase, one of retreat and incubation. I have eight works in progress on my desk. There’s a noir thriller, the mystery set in the Canary Islands two and a half years in the making, a fictional biography of an occultist which I regard as my opus (it’s based on my PhD), and various other works, many gothic, most literary. What do all these works say about me? Should I answer in the negative and say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not a crime writer … How bleak! I want to say I won’t be pigeonholed. But I also want to say finding my author identity has proven astonishingly difficult and has evoked deep feelings of alienation. If I can’t find my literary home here in Australia, then do I even belong here at all?

I’ll end on a positive. There are two essentials readers can expect from me: I write about the occult and my favourite setting is the Canary Islands. The two are not mutually exclusive.

 

 

 

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On continuity errors

9781922200365-Cover (1)I’m currently at work polishing a second draft of my fourth novel, in readiness for other pairs of eyes. It’s an intense process involving steady concentration and a decent memory. It’s about containing whole themes in my head and watching when they appear to ensure that what I wrote before, what’s right there before my eyes and what comes after in later chapters, flows along nicely. I haven’t put Saturday before Friday. At noon there’s definitely a sense of time flowing by after the last time I mentioned said theme, say at dawn. I might find that character x couldn’t have known said event had taken place unless I do something to make it possible. Worse, I haven’t allowed enough space between events one and two, for a third event to be squeezed in between.

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Evidence of a poor writer? Someone cobbling a story together in piecemeal fashion?

No.

Then where’s the planning? Surely these things shouldn’t arise. They wouldn’t arise if I’d planned it all out properly.

Not true.

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Perhaps some authors plan out every detail in advance. They have lists of scenes and detailed timelines. They are meticulous from the off.

I write differently. I start with a sketch of an idea, maybe a sense of a theme, and one or two characters. I might have a cast of characters thinly conceived. I always have the setting. Always a strong sense of place. And I will have incubated the story for years.

Then, within a paragraph, the muse has taken control of the narrative. Up pops a character with such potency and so much to say, she demands a parallel narrative of her own. New themes emerge. Events present themselves. Little twists. I run with ideas, stream of consciousness style. I write with only a dim memory of what I wrote before. And I don’t look back, I press forward. I don’t care about grammar or syntax. I trust to luck that I’m not stuck repeating myself. That the ideas are evolving. And the characters too.

Once I have the bones of a whole draft, I set it aside for a few months. When I come back to it I have to battle through a jungle, hacking out paths, weeding, planting and transplanting, grafting this to that. I scrutinise every paragraph on every page. I develop scenes. Flesh out characters. Strive to get the balance right between all the elements of story – action, dialogue, reflection, description.

I go over the story three times before I call what I have a second draft. I put in eight hour days. Sometimes twelve. I fix every single thing I can find. I don’t want to say there are five people at a table and only describe the four of them that were there, a flaw I discovered in a highly praised work of literary fiction I read recently, a flaw that had me flicking back the page and re-reading the scene several times. A flaw that had me thinking, how the hell did that get past the copy editor?

I read a popular work of fiction a few years back in which the author had gone to some lengths to describe the dim light of a wintry New Year’s Eve, then the character walked into a bright and sunny kitchen. Huh? In the same book, the character was swimming in a pond on a wintry day in January, at four in the afternoon, with the sun high in the sky. Whoops!

I’ve softened my condemnations of such errors. They shouldn’t be there in published works, but I can see how easily they slip by. The author is so close to their own writing they can’t see it. When we make certain changes to one spot in the narrative, there’s a ripple effect. Every single related point has also to be changed. If you change Burt to Ed, he has to be Ed forevermore. No mention of Burt. It’s the same with place and time.

I think continuity errors are most likely to arise when the author makes small changes and forgets or misses the ripples. For example, there might have been five people at that table, and the author got rid of one of them. But overlooked the ‘five’ stated on the previous page. 

Just now in editing the middle of my story, I noticed the lack of development of the character of a frog. In my last round of edits I’d inserted the frog as a motif, thinking to add texture and interest. But I’d been lazy. I hadn’t tracked the development of the frog throughout the story.

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After posting this piece I shall return to the frog and do that tracking. Otherwise it might slip my notice. It’s that sort of meticulousness that fixes the continuity errors. And it’s up to authors to do that work because they are the only ones to know it that intimately.

the magic of writing

For me, writing fiction is all about trusting the imagination. Out of that darkness emerge all sorts of surprises and happy accidents. It’s as if hidden in the depths the story is already complete, and it’s up to me to bring it into the light of day. Whoever it is in me who creates these stories knows far more than I do.

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Creative people are often required to appear humble and self-effacing, receiving all praise with bowed head, when really such praise isn’t humbling at all, it’s gratifying. What is humbling is the relationship we have with this other creative entity within, one that eclipses the ego entirely and makes us slaves to our craft.

I believe this is where the ideas of automatic writing and channelling come from. If I were to give my creative self a name and claim a special relationship with this superior being, claim that she was somehow extraneous to me, ironically I would have fallen foul of my own ego. I would have attached special importance to something that exists in all of us and is owned by none of us. It’s simply a question of gaining access and to do that is hard work as any artist will tell you, for many skills must be acquired, an artistic trade learned.

All I know is this relationship is the most precious thing on earth. This is what makes us fully human. I pay homage every time I pick up the pen.

I might have written more but my neighbour has someone in felling a tree in her garden. There’s something about the sound of a chain saw…