Writing in company

Monday, September 1, 2014
Paddy O’Reilly and Kelly Gardiner

Writers Victoria tutors Paddy O’Reilly and Kelly Gardiner chat about writing in company, reading each other’s drafts, and the value of having writerly friends.

Kelly Gardiner (KG): Was I recruited? Must be three or so years ago now. I was invited for coffee with two women I’d met briefly a few times [Paddy and Fran Cusworth]. After we ordered cake, I was asked if I’d like to meet more often and read one another’s manuscripts. Set up. A bit like the CIA. And yet not. Did you plan that? Why?

Paddy O'Reilly (POR): Ah yes, I remember. We recruited you because we thought that the three of us might be good together – three writers of totally different genres and styles, yet all at a similar stage, a couple of books published. And we were each in the throes of writing the first draft of a novel. I don’t show anyone parts of drafts, and I have to admit I’m very cautious about when and with whom I share my work, so I can’t even imagine I said, Hi, let’s share manuscripts. In my memory, that possibility came later. But I did think it would be great to cheer each other on.

KG: It’s a strange thing, though, isn’t it? You spend all this time in your own head, in your own studio scribbling away, and it’s often impossible to articulate what goes on in there except in the work that comes out. And still it seems as if many writers relish the chance to try to wrestle the experience into conversation. With other writers, at least. Because who else on earth is going to understand? Do you have those small-talk chats at parties with normal people? ‘How’s the writing going?’ ‘Oh, fine.’ When what you really want to say is ‘ARRGGH!’ Or that you spent an entire hour finding just the right verb and then did a victory lap of your kitchen. But with another writer, you can admit to wanting to kill off your protagonist in chapter four because you’re sick of them already.

POR: True. There are so many blogs and books and workshops and writers' festival conversations about the process that you’d think we’d have all the information we need to get over those humps, but talking to another person who is experiencing the highs and lows is different. I remember wrestling with a character I was trying to bring to life. When I tried to describe my problem it became clear that the character was fascinating to me, but actually had no place in the novel. Of course I would have discovered that anyway at some point in the writing, some point down the road where I would have written many more words that would then have to be thrown out. Not that I resent throwing work out. I actually enjoy cutting – I love the feeling of the manuscript becoming leaner, more focussed. And often when you cut something out, other weaknesses burst into the light. Phew, might have missed that big hole. But talking about the trouble I was having with that character forced me to acknowledge the real problem. I suppose you can write your way out of a problem or you can think your way out of it, and talking with another writer can help to clarify your thinking.

KG: I’d never really had anyone (besides my partner) read a draft before. Other writers as readers see stuff you just can’t see anymore, from the big structural issues to the repetitive words you barely notice. We must admit, too, lest anyone think it’s all manuscript wrangling and industry chatter that in all of our discussions there was a fair bit of laughter, bordering on hysteria. And a great deal of cake. Both critical elements of the writer’s process, I think. POR: I would include coffee in that. Helps with the hysteria. Don’t forget we also did ‘shut up and write’, which I remember doing maybe four or five times but you think we did weekly. Pretty sure I was onto a different writing project by that time (or else I was pretending while actually Googling pictures of robots).

KG: I was writing two books at once by then – don’t try that at home. Those ‘shut up and write’ sessions were one way I managed to get them both done – we three sitting together at a table, writing madly for 25 minutes, then breaking for cake and talk, then another writing sprint. It’s more than a productivity method. It’s the comradely feeling of working together then laughing together. In a sense it doesn’t matter if you don’t get many words down. I remember one day I wrote 2000 words and you wrote seventeen. Not that we’re competitive or anything. (But I won.)

And let’s be honest. We’ve all faced weary or disillusioned or pissed off moments, when we wonder why we do this or we’re worried about pitching manuscripts or we didn’t get a grant or we can’t face the weeks ahead of waiting for reviews. We need to moan at someone. It’s great having people around who can relate to that side of the writing life. We’ve all had moments to celebrate too – publishing deals and release dates or simply finishing a draft. Any excuse for more cake.

About the authors

Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel, The Wonders, was released by Affirm Press in August 2014. It will be published in the USA by Simon and Schuster in February 2015.

Kelly Gardiner’s latest novel, Goddess, was published by Fourth Estate in July. Depending on who you believe, both books were partly written over afternoon tea.