Guest Blogger Hazel Barker

“Lessons you may learn from my writing journey.”

My love for books started from an early age when my mother used to read to me even before I went to school at four. I also remember her gathering my 2 brothers and sister around her to tell us about stories she’d been reading. She used to read out the exciting scenes and fill us in on the rest of the story.

When about the age of 7, I read Little Women and longed to be like Jo March and write books someday.

I started writing when I took early retirement from teaching at the turn of the century. I first wrote my memoir in the third person, but as I grew more courageous, I changed the manuscript to the first person. Impatient for recognition, I foolishly sent the memoir off to the big publishers, one after the other, but faced rejection after rejection.

We learn from our mistakes. I put my manuscript aside and concentrated on writing my husband’s life. Here again, I made another error and after just one rejection, I sent it away to a subsidy publisher. I trembled with excitement on seeing my work in print.

In 2004, I had a radio interview in Brisbane and full-page write-ups in two local newspapers. We drove to Portland, Victoria to launch my book, as this is where the major portion of the book was set.

The book-launch in the Portland library proved a success. All our friends turned up and bought books, but the profits failed to cover the cost of publication.

Looking back now, although the book brought me much joy and gratification, I should have worked longer on my manuscript before presenting it to a traditional publisher.

All this was a learning experience. I finally did what I should have done earlier. I joined a writing group. It helped me overcome my bashfulness and taught me how to accept criticism.

Besides this, I attended several writing workshops. masterclasses, Writers’ Festivals and author talks at libraries. I discovered my writing strengths and weaknesses. I discovered that SETTING is important. Just as we are shaped by our environment, so too are our characters. They are also shaped by their motivations and the challenges they face.

I needed to be careful not to clutter my story with too much detail, too much back-story and too much description. We live in an age where readers become impatient with huge slabs of information, so our description should be woven into the narrative and fused with the point of view of our character through their thoughts and reactions, through their interaction with the world, and through their speech.

We need to focus on our writing. The words we use to tell our story make the difference between a good read and an amazing story. We need to tighten our writing, improve the flow of our story, and fine-tune our creative voice. Editing isn’t just about finding grammar mistakes and misspelled words. It’s about tweaking sentences from ones that tell to those that show. It’s about balancing sentence structure and length to create a compelling narrative. One never stops learning.

Once, when attending James Frenkel’s Writing Masterclass, at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, he advised me to first make my name by penning short stories. I love writing novels and short-stories are not my forte.

Upon consideration of his advice, however, I used excerpts of my manuscripts and converted them into short stories. The result? Two of them were published in the Carindale Writers’ Seasons’ anthology, and my short story, ‘Hunger’, was selected for publication in the 2013 Redlitzer anthology.

The following year, I won the Omega Writers’ Narrative Hook competition, and ‘June’s Death’, another excerpt from my memoir, Heaven Tempers the Wind. Story of a War Child, was published in the nation-wide Grieve anthology. My short story, ‘Love at First Sight’ an excerpt from Book 2 of my memoirs, has also been Longlisted in the Lane Cove Literary Award Competition.

Book 1 of my memoir Heaven Tempers the Wind: Story of a War Child was published by Armour Books in 2016. The manuscript was shortlisted in the Barnardo Great Aussie Book Competition of 2014, and the book was short listed in the Australia and New Zealand-wide CALEB Competition of 2017.

My debut novel Chocolate Soldier. The Story of a Conchie, was published in September 2016 by Rhiza Press. The protagonist, Clarence Dover, is a conscientious objector, who volunteers to work in China with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit during World War 2.

Readers will empathise with Clarence as they accompany him through the horror of the London blitz and his journey to exotic India and mysterious China. His life in India during the famine and his work in China will edify the reader and win their admiration

The theme running throughout is courage and perseverance. His is not the courage stimulated by the lust for battle but born of the instinct to tend the sick and wounded.

Hardships test Clarence in the crucible of suffering, but he holds his head up and says, ‘To save others, I risked my own.’

Book 2 of my memoirs, The Sides of Heaven was released by Armour Books in February 2018. Whether you enjoy memoirs or historical novels or not, just borrow a copy from your local library or better still, buy a copy from Koorong book stores or the Book Depository. You’ll soon be hooked!

By reading my blog, I hope you’ll learn not the make the same mistakes as me.

Hazel Barker

Hazel’s debut novel Chocolate Soldier was released by Rhiza Press in October, 2016. Book One of her memoirs Heaven Tempers the Wind was published by Armour Books in August, 2016. Both books are set during World War Two – the former in England and the Far East; the latter in Burma.

Heaven Tempers the Wind was a finalist in the non-fiction section of the Australia and New Zealand-wide CALEB Competition of 2017. It’s sequel, The Sides of Heaven was released by Armour Books early in 2018.

Hazel Barker lives in Brisbane with her husband Colin. She taught in Perth, Canberra and Brisbane for over a quarter of a century and now devotes her time to reading, writing and bushwalking. From her early years in Burma, her passion for books drew her to authors like Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Her love for historical novels sprang from Scott, and the love of literary novels, from Dickens. Her short stories have won awards and been published in magazines and anthologies.

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