From Phd to Publication

I had been writing short stories for a long time before I began my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University a few years ago, so it was only natural that I should decide to write a collection of stories, and not a novel, for my PhD. I’ve always loved writing short stories, primarily because of their variety. Reading a novel you are (usually) bound for hundreds of pages to the same limited number of characters, settings and one overarching story. Also, generally (but not always) novels are told in one particular style. In Australia, the style is usually realist, and realism can become a bit dry after a while. However, in a short story collection, each story can feature an entirely different setting, an entirely different set of characters and be told in a variety of styles.

During the first year of my PhD I read hundreds of Australian short stories, from the time of Lawson onwards, but the period in Australian literary history that appealed to me most was the 1970s. This was a time of experimentation in Australian short fiction led by writers such as Peter Carey and Murray Bail. Short stories were told in different forms, and often embraced subjects and genres that had long been at the margins of Australian literature.  I’ve long been fascinated by what might be termed ‘experimental’ fiction, that is, fiction that diverges in form, style or content from the prevailing literary modes of the day. So the collection of stories I began to work on for my PhD featured many experimental stories, such as a story told through book reviews, and a story told through graphs and charts. However, I also wanted the book to include stories told in a more traditional fashion. As I worked on the collection, I began to submit completed stories to literary journals, and over the next few years many of these stories were published in journals and anthologies.

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I was delighted when one of these stories, ‘The Eunuch in the Harem’ was selected for Black Inc’s annual Best Australian Stories. A short time later, Black Inc asked if I had a novel I could show them, and I said that I didn’t, but that I had a short story collection which they probably weren’t interested in. (A few years before, I had tried to get a different short story collection published, and was rejected by just about every publisher in Australia.)  I was surprised when Black Inc asked to see the collection, and even more surprised when they said they would like to publish it.  There followed several months of editing The Weight of a Human Heartand rewriting (and a lot of discussion about the title and the cover) before The Weight of a Human Heart was published in May last year. Soon afterwards, the publishing rights to the books were sold to the US, the UK and Israel, and it was also shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. At the moment, I’m looking forward to seeing the book come out in hardback in the US in July. All in all, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate.

If you intend to do a creative writing PhD, I don’t think publication should be an expectation, but a hope. There are more writers out there than ever before, and the state of publishing is very uncertain. Above all, you have to be happy to write for the sake of writing. Anything that comes after that is a bonus. Saying that, if there is a secret to getting a book published, then I think two of the key factors must be persistence and luck. All writers have to face rejection, often many, many times. One of my favourite writers, David Markson, had his book, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, rejected 54 times, and that is a masterpiece.  Since I’m not half the writer Markson was, I’ve, unsurprisingly, had many more rejections; perhaps a couple of hundred for individual stories. Some of these I took in my stride, and some of them smarted a little, but I kept submitting. Then there’s luck. A writer should write with one hand and keep their fingers crossed with the other, that one day their manuscript will fall into the hands of the right editor at the right time. But the right time will only come if you are still writing. It will never happen if you give up.

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Guest Blogger: Ryan O’Neill, author.


Read an excerpt of Ryan’s story ‘The Murder Victim‘ from the Crime edition of Seizure here.

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