Following on from this year’s incredible success of two of her books, I want to introduce you to my friend, Bren MacDibble, whose work is earning her rave reviews and awards.
Starting with the usual first question: Why do you write?
Probably for the same reason I read… and drink for that matter, it makes little connections in my brain fire and I feel good. Of course the reason I attempt to get the writing published is more about the irrational belief that I can create stories from a unique angle that connect with other people and something in their brains will fire and they will feel good too, and then they might say, “That MacDibble, she’s all right.” Which sounds like the worst possible way to seek approval… did I mention, I’m irrational?
What genre do you feel most comfortable working in?
Science fiction most definitely, and I write for all age groups.
What was the first thing you remember writing?
When I was a child I wrote a story about a kitten that was born in a gang house and had to witness the death of its mother and siblings and endure terrible tortures before it crawled away to die. I was into making teachers cry back then. I was an odd child.
How do you work? That is, how do you approach a new project? Do you write different scenes and put them all together or do you just go from point A to point B and you’re done?
I’m an opener. I love openings. I love setting colourful characters in bizarre situations…and I have hundreds of these openers. I type them frantically into my computer whenever they hit, so I have a never-ending supply of short stories/novellas waiting to be written. I’ll pull one out when someone is calling for something, and I always have a few novels/children’s chapter books on the boil. I move between them when I can and as the mood hits me. In short, I write in an erratic and disorganized manner.
If you could have an afternoon with any one of your characters, who would it be and why?
Wouldn’t that be like talking to myself? Oooh, I’ve got a character on a planet far far away dealing with alien symbiotes, and I really need to know where she went when she abandoned her settlement and left it all Marie Celeste-like for those that followed. If she would just tell me, I’d be able to finish the novel.
What’s your favourite story that you’ve written?
“Take Me to Your Leader”, hit a note with eight year olds. Chants of “Me not wittle!” and “Your weader, your weader!” followed me through the local primary school, and the artwork is amazing, so I love that book. And I love that an educational publisher had the wisdom to recognize that egomaniacal aliens with speech impediments are educational. For adults, I like A Complete Refabrication, published by Orb. There’s not enough science fiction published for mothers of teenagers in my humble opinion, also I think I did a pretty good job of exploring what can go wrong with future science and what that means to one person, plus I managed to fit in a talking lobster and a muumuu, logically. Big points for the muumuu.
A new fiction writer approaches you at an event and asks you for advice. What do you tell him or her?
Run away! Basically, I’m of the opinion that the world has all the competent, articulate, intelligent writers it can handle and plenty of others as well. BUT, and this is a big BUT because, let’s face it, I’m still writing after 9 years, and if some one were to make up an accomplishment scale of authors I’d be somewhere near the bottom of the mid-list section (the mid-list consists of writers you’ve never heard of who still get published reasonably often). So, although “Run away!” is really good advice, I haven’t taken it. My reasoning: if a writer believes that there is something that they can bring to a story that all those other competent, articulate, intelligent writers can’t, they should keep writing. New writers need to be aware that being a good writer, and telling a good story, doesn’t equal publication or success, they don’t follow like a truck and a trailer, a horse and a blowfly. Being good, usually isn’t good enough, but I’d be too scared of coming across as mean to say all that to the new writer’s face at an event. So maybe I’d say, join a crit group, it’s not useful for everyone but it means you’re not alone.
What’s the hardest thing for you about writing?
The actual writing. Every word I put on the page isn’t good enough. Every idea is too boring. It’s a painful process of compounding inadequacy, until I sink under the weight of it all and have to claw my way out with half decent prose and original ideas. Writers were meant to struggle, weren’t they?
If you couldn’t write, what would you do?
I’d read constantly and when I wasn’t able to read, I’d be cycling so many stories through my head, that members of the general public would take pity on me and help me to cross roads and wipe the drool from my chin.
Do you write to music? Or do you have certain writing rituals that you do before/during/after your writing sessions?
Sessions? Rituals? In this mad house? There’s always music and TV and noise, teenagers live here, you know. Sesame curry peanuts help me focus, the crunching sound blocks out the noise and everyone knows writers work for peanuts.
Do you share your writing with others as you’re working? Or do you wait until something’s complete? What are the benefits to either approach?
If I get stuck, I’ll show something before it’s finished. Usually I wait until it’s finished, show my crit group, who are all very accomplished writers, and then rewrite it extensively. I’ll still rewrite it extensively if I get a crit part way through, but I may not have the direction to finish it. The act of finishing a work, however much rewriting lies ahead, is much more satisfying, and that is easier to do with less analysis. So it’s probably best to complete first, share second.
Sometimes writers work internal issues out through their narratives. Have you ever written a scene or character that “hit too close to home” for you? How did you handle that?
Terry Dowling once told me in a crit that I don’t, so I’m conscious of the need to write in emotions/pains that I’m familiar with. The problem is that my characters tend to cover up them up with sarcasm, make light of them with comedy, bury them beneath the layer at which life operates and things get done…much like most of us do daily. Avoidance is the psychological term for it. My characters tend to be avoiders, and that is what Terry meant. So perhaps I don’t handle it, but then, if I’m writing it well, the reader can still identify the need not to face pain head on and that will create resonance. There are more problem-avoiders than problem-solvers and the last thing I proclaim to know is the answer to anything. Most of my stories are about common people dealing with the future. If you recognize yourself in that scenario, are entertained, the little happy neurons fire, and it makes you wonder about the future, then I think my job is done. On the other hand, Terry has a lot of books, so I should get my characters a bit of counselling.
What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? What works best for you to improve how and what you write?
I used to do workshops but then I did the first Clarion in Australia, and that it pushed my writing beyond a level that any other workshop could have. It also put me in touch with a lot of other wonderful writers, including my crit group. I usually get to one conference a year, and I always wish I could get to more, there’s always something to glean, someone new with a new perspective, and it’s a good way to find out what other writers outside my circle of friends, are up to.
What are some of the most common mistakes first-time authors make with regard to approaching a publisher?
Their work isn’t ready, although, that is a hard thing for the author to know early on. The publisher shouldn’t be the first person who gets to read it. Another mistake is that the new author’s work isn’t the kind of thing that the publisher publishes. Serious writers find out about the marketplace. They buy the industry mags, read the guidelines, and find out about the editors. Half of them have blogs these days, so it’s basically an investment of time.
Do you make some of your writing available online? How do you feel about e-publishing and e-books? Would you go that route? Why or why not?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with e-publishing. I write a lot of short stories, and e-mags are a good medium for short story, especially flash fiction. Antipodean SF is all about flash, and there have been some exceptional stories there in the last few years. Shiny is a new YA SF e-mag/anthology, off to a sensational start. I’ve also had stories published online at SciFiDimensions and Sputnik57. Antipodean is free, and provides a regular monthly SF fix in under 5 mins per story. Shiny is a pay e-mag but doesn’t cost as much as a paper mag and is accessible by so many more young adult readers than a paper mag might be. I think the key to good online fiction, is good e-mag editors. Anyone can put fiction out there and call it e-published, not everyone can get past a sharp editor.
I have a “free reads” page at my website: www.macdibble.com where five flash, and four short stories published in e-mags await reading by the remotely interested.
I have to print anything over 4000 words to be able to read it properly, so until I purchase an e-reader, I shall have to reserve my praise for e-books. I have downloaded whole novels but only ever read one onscreen, the others I had to print.
What were your best and worst experiences with an editor?
My best fun has been with editors and ex-editors at Blake Ed. I even like they way they let slip that their Christmas parties would be more fun if they didn’t have to invite authors. I also like the quality of the work they turn out and the fact that they find a dozen different ways to sell the same books.
Worst: I approached a company that publish educational children’s series and asked for a copy of their guidelines. They said I had to apply by submitting some work first to be on their “list of authors who receive guidelines” even though I had four children’s books published already. So I submitted and was accepted. Later, when no guidelines arrived, I enquired again. I was told the editor that had accepted me had left and I would have to apply again. I decided I didn’t want to work with that company after all. I’d already wasted many hours jumping through hoops when I could’ve been writing for other companies that liked my work already, although didn’t necessarily like me coming to their Christmas parties.
And finally, what’s your favourite thing about being a writer and what sucks?
My favourite thing is to finish a story and be pleased with how it turned out. At that moment, pre-rejection by anybody, it holds so much promise.
It totally sucks that I have to work for a living. A lot of people say that, but not all of them are trying to make deadlines, and appear professional as a writer, while holding down a job in something completely different, as well as getting up at 6am to get kids to band practice before work, and staying out till 8pm to pick up kids from tennis after work, and perpetually, shopping, cooking up and shovelling a ton of food down those eternally hollow teenage legs daily. Nup, you can’t feed even one teenager on the lower mid-list, and you definitely can’t find the time to scramble up the list when every day is like the “Groundhog Day” day when the main character tries to do every thing at super speed with unnatural efficiency. Actually, that has more to do with being a woman than a writer. Yes, we can have it all! Or, by God, we’ll die trying! Now I think about it, nothing sucks about writing compared to my day job.
Bren MacDibble is a Melbourne-based writer of children’s, YA, and adult science fiction and seems quite normal despite a deep distrust of reality. She often teaches science fiction and satire to 13 year olds and under and is completely intimidated by the quality of new talent she encounters, although she always encourages them to get real jobs. She should know. She’s had hundreds of them.
You can find Bren at: www.macdibble.com
Since the first publication of this interview, Bren is now the recipient of several awards for all her hard work on How To Bee and In The Dark Spaces. Her awards include:
- CBCA 2018 Book of the Year — Young Readers
- New Zealand Book Awards for Children & YA 2018
- Patricia Wrightson Prize, NSW Premiere’s Award 2018