Back in February of 2017, I blogged about a story that was about to be published.
That story was ‘The Banksia Boys’.
And in June just gone, that story won the Australian Shadows Award for Short Fiction for 2017.
Having already previously blogged about the creative inspiration behind the story, I thought this month I’d blog about the creative process (as best as I can remember, at any rate).
I’ve always leaned heavily toward the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants spectrum of writing — that is, making it up as I go, rather than planning it out.
Back in November 2011, I had a notion of wanting to set a story in the bush around where I grew up.
I started with a bunch of vignettes about the Royal National Park tracks I used to trek, eventually adding a nameless boy hiking through the landscape.
Thus was Henry born.
But the story went nowhere and I abandoned it after two months.
There was no hint of the rest of the cast at that stage, nor the climactic setting. It was just a boy walking his troubles off in the bush. (Like a scene from my own adolescence!)
A year down the track, I re-wrote the story, completing a zeroth draft in about six months (yes, I really do work that slowly).
I’d obviously found my inspiration for the eponymous heroes in the interim. The Banksia Boys had arrived.
But so had Roger and O’Neill — Henry’s nemeses — and the relationships that helped define Henry’s internal conflicts.
Henry, however, was an insipid and hapless victim of sexual abuse.
This never sat right with me.
(It always feels like a cheap trick, using sexual abuse for character motivation.)
I parked it and worked on other projects.
I don’t know why I came back to it two years later — a great many other stories have never seen the light again after disappearing onto the external hard drive.
There must have been something about Henry that I needed to tell.
I’ll admit, there are faint echoes of my own childhood in his story. I wasn’t really abused as a kid, but in many ways I was a loner and I was bullied.
Disappearing into the bush for an afternoon or a day was my downtime as well.
Perhaps writing Henry was partially cathartic.
I tidied the story up enough to share with my invaluable writing group.
For memory, it was one piece of feedback in particular that strummed a chord — something about Henry not reacting authentically enough to a physical threat from an adult.
It led to discussions about the ability of some victims to dissociate themselves from an abusive situation, to mentally go wherever they needed to go in order to escape.
And that in turn got me thinking that maybe Henry didn’t have to be so helpless a victim after all — maybe he could fight back in his own way.
Someone who fought back but still lost felt like a much stronger character — and a much stronger story — to me.
Thus Liam was born.
It took me another six months to re-work the story once more.
But in the end, Henry was just right.
I over-write when I draft — I ‘tell’ far too often and in far too much detail.
I think I do so in order to get into each scene.
So editing for me begins as a process of whittling down what I already have.
I cut so much of Henry’s meanderings through the bush that I reckon the story was reduced by a quarter.
The word count decreased even further when I dropped a character, removing some complexity and confusion from the story — there was otherwise just too much happening to Henry.
My editing process, however, also involves adding description and turning my ‘tells’ into ‘shows’.
It’s a process of cutting, then adding, then cutting, then adding again, until I have something the excites me to read.
Very little, in life, comes close to the feeling of nailing a scene.
There is a tenant in the craft to ‘write what you know’.
I generally dislike these sorts of commandments — I think they can discourage writers in the budding stages of their career.
However, drawing much from my own memories of hiking in the bush made the story particularly vivid for me.
I think the tenant should instead be ‘write what you feel’.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned of the stories I have and haven’t sold over the years, it’s that those that touch something personal within the me are by far the strongest.
Passing the Milestone
I was especially proud of selling this story — a career milestone for me.
I had sold two stories prior to this one. But they had been written while I was undertaking the AHWA Mentor Program.
Kaaron Warren was the best mentor I could ask for — I learned so much under her tutelage.
Yet, for some time after I finished the program, and the two stories we had produced had long since been published, I wondered if I would ever be able to sell a story that I alone had worked on.
‘The Banksia Boys’ marked that turnaround for me.
The lovely slush readers at Andromeda Spaceways Magazine saw something in it.
As did the judges of the Australian Shadows Awards.
Which marked another career milestone I hadn’t expected to reach for some years to come.
I will be forever grateful to both for their faith (and good taste, obviously).
And all from a desire to write about a place I cherished as an adolescent.
I sometimes wish I could go back in time to that awkward, pimply kid, hiking alone through the bush to get away from everything and everyone.
Not to change anything — I am who I am, after all.
I would just tell him not to lose too much heart — his angst would one day earn him the external validation he so desperately seeks.
If you’re interested in reading the story, shoot me an email, with your preference of MOBI, EPUB, or PDF format, and I’ll get a copy to you.
In the not too distant future, I should have it available on Amazon.
Enjoy. And let me know what you think.
All images from pixabay.com