I took the photograph above at the Blue Pool in Bermagui on the New South Wales South Coast early on January 1, 2014.
There were a few people around, but not as many as I had encountered a bit over a year earlier on holiday in Italy when I watched a spectacular fireworks display over the Venetian basin on New Year’s Eve.
My fortunes changed just a month later when I returned home and slipped in the hallway on transit to the fridge to get a cold beer on a hot day
I never reached the fridge. I broke my leg (fibula and tibula) and I suppose I should be thankful the ambulance attendants gave me one of those green pain-killing whistles to suck on.
If that had been all the damage done, I might have successfully resumed my career on newspapers. That had begun in 1976 when I was barely 18 and had taken me to papers up and down the eastern seaboard of Australia and to Papua New Guinea.
But I subsequently contracted golden staph, and had to endure five or six more operations, machines attached to me 24/7, more antibiotics and painkillers (administered both intravenously and orally) than you’d reasonably expect to have to have in a lifetime, months in and out of hospital and hospital waiting rooms and a hospital diet than left me anaemic. I did eventually get back to work (determination kicked in) but I wasn’t the same.
When it was suggested I retire early on medical grounds, I didn’t think there was any point quibbling. It wasn’t the way I had planned to go out but c’est la vie.
We went to the beach the next Christmas. It felt so good to sink my plaster-free toes into the sand.
But I wasn’t up to going out on New Year’s Eve. I’m sure Bermagui has fine fireworks but I doubted they’d be as good as Venice’s.
Instead, I got up in the dark the next day and went down to the Blue Pool to watch the sun rise out of the Pacific Ocean.
I like to think that’s the moment I was reborn as a fiction writer.
Somewhere around home I have a copy of The Karwyn Chronicle, which a mate and I produced for Christmas 1980 for the 30 people, most of them Australians, and my future wife, who lived in a house in Trinity Rise in Tulse Hill in South London. We did a lot of typewriting, used letraset stencilling for headlines and shelled out for a bit of photocopying. I only tell you this because I think it might have been my first foray into self-publishing. I can only hope that a libel lawyer never finds my copy though because it was all quite scandalous. If one of those Australians abroad is now rich and famous, it was the other bloke who wrote the libellous stuff. OK?
My brush with someone else’s fame
In 1982 I worked as a sub-editor on the Post-Courier in Papua New Guinea. We had been working on computers and in clean, quiet offices in Australia for some years — but at the Post-Courier we stepped back to typewriters and hot metal. Many were the times I scribbled a headline on a piece of copy paper and handed it to the bare-foot copyboy to take to the print room, and he’d return a few minutes later shaking his head. Sorry, but the printers had run out of the letters L, P and T. Could I write something without those letters in it? That added a new skill set to my writing bow! Why am I telling you this? I’m just trying to give you some context. PNG was grappling with its fairly recent independence at this time, and there were many rewards ahead for bright up-and-comers the country was producing. One such fellow we knew was a very bright mathematics student at the local university. One day he came to us and said he had packed in his studies to buy the PNG franchise for something called Microsoft software. Now remember: we were still using typewriters and getting our international copy on telex machines. So what if our friend got in on the Microsoft ground floor?
A is for Apples
I actually wrote my first paperback novel in 1993. It was called Apples. I still have some copies in my garage. I self-published at a time self-publishing was a dirty word. But I had baggage. I grew up in a household that had a couple of my father’s old novel manuscripts around. He had submitted them to umpteen publishes before he gave up. I always thought bugger that for a joke. In 1993, I found myself with the time to go it alone. I was single and I had just stepped down after three years working as chief-of-staff of a daily newspaper in Tasmania. The job entailed managing reporters and photographers, and helping direct the news agenda for each day. It was very full-on. By choice, I returned to the sub-editor’s desk. Instead of working 70 hours a week, suddenly I was working 40. So I decided to have a crack at writing a novel to fill in my new spare time. I had a computer with word-processing software, I had the skills to write it, the skills to edit it, the dubious skills to design the cover, and the ability to oversee the printing. What I didn’t have were the skills to market it. My idea of marketing was to drive around Tasmania begging book shop owners to take a few copies of the book. I wasn’t very good at this, and when I look at the book now I realise I didn’t really know much about writing novels either. The inverted pyramid style I had mastered on newspapers didn’t really cut it with a novel! This story has a happy ending though, if you care to keep reading.
I ventured on to the Internet for the first time in 1996. It was in Goulburn in New South Wales, where I went to work on the local newspaper, the Goulburn Post. The Internet then seem a thing of wonder. My wife and I bought ourselves a modem and a long phone cord that we snaked from one end of the house to another. We soon found the trick was to start loading a page, leave it and go and get a cup of coffee, and when we returned the page would be visible. Maybe.
A year or two later
I was working as a sub-editor on the sports desk of The Canberra Times, and I was really annoyed whenever I heard about a student designing a home page as part of their studies at high school. I think I had The Fear of Missing Out way before the expression was coined. I shouldn’t have been annoyed. I started working life using a typewriter and by now I had worked on several different computer systems. But I thought I was missing out of an exciting, new technology. In the late 90s, most Australian newspapers embraced the web in a very half-hearted way. Often the copy person was instructed to take the main stories of the day and put them on the newspaper’s web. I knew this wasn’t right. What drongo thought putting yesterday’s news up today was a good use for this technology. But there weren’t too many visionaries running the newspapers. They really thought publishing newspapers on line would never catch up because no one would come at sitting in front of their desktop computers. I can’t tell you how many odd looks I got when I told people they had to start envisioning the portable devices that I thought would soon to developed, and would drive the revolution.
In circa 1998, a colleague and I decided to venture into this Internet frontier alone. I call it a frontier, but it was really geocities.com. We decided to teach ourselves how to build web sites. We had to learn rudimentary html, which wasn’t so hard. We had used similar commands on various newspaper computer systems. We exchanged tips and blundered our way to make a reasonable go of it. The problem for me once I learnt how to drive it, was what content I was going to populate it with. What came to hand were various humour and parenting columns I had written for newspapers in recent years. Next thing I know I was contacted by a bloke in the United States who was starting a group called The Netwits, a group of internet humour writers. At the height of my involvement, there were 140 of us — most from the US. We critiqued each other’s columns and articles, shared market opportunities, bombarded plagiarises we found with nasty emails (I had some of my columns plagiarised by a weekly newspaper editor in Calgary, something I would never had known about but for the eyes of colleagues in that part of the world). We even did some work together. One job was writing humour content for WAP-enabled cell phones in Canada — something for people to read when they were stuck in traffic. I wonder why that technology didn’t catch on! Oh well. They paid in American dollars and we had a very favourable exchange rate at that time, so I earnt a bit of drinking money.
2004: my first eBook
You heard it here first, folks. Before Kindles and iPads, .mobi and ePub, I did a PDF eBook called Adventure by flip-flops under the Southern Cross with independentbooks.com. From memory, I offered the content free for charity. I just wanted to say I had done an eBook. Again, the content I offered were just old columns and scribblings I had lying around. In 2004, I packaged some of those same columns into a print-on-demand book called How Much Is That Scorpion in the Window? I followed this up with another POD novel called Major BS: A Top-Secret Mission in 2009.
A giant leap for mankind
When I was in grade six in Hobart, I remember watching Neil Armstrong step for the first time on to the moon. It was July 21, 1969, and the grainy vision came to us on a black and white television at the front of our classroom. I can’t say this event inspired me to become an astronaut or even a collector of moon rocks. But it did concide with the awakening of my creatives juices. I own up to writing some bad poetry in 1969 and 1970, along with awful plays and wildly imaginative stories. In grades six and seven, my teachers encouraged me on my journey on the very start of the writing learning-curve. Unfortunately, it all stopped in grade eight. These were less enlightened days in the Tasmania education system and I guess the focus was preparing kids for bricks-and-mortar jobs. Writing books lived more in the airy-fairy zone. You were very unlikely to make a living that way. So for the final five years of my schooling, creative writing wasn’t part of the curriculum at all. We only learnt about other people’s stuff, and some of it was on the stuffy side. I did well enough in English and history to get to the finish line but don’t ask me to do maths equations or science experiments or expect me to build something out of wood because those subjects were far from my strength. In 1976, my father told me the local newspaper was looking for a copy boy — and told me I ought to apply. I did, got the job and started my way up the ladder. I have no regrets. I learned about the mechanics of writing and the sanctity of deadlines (try telling your news-editor he can’t have that story he’s waiting for because you have writer’s block, and see how that kicks along your career?). I also gained an insight into arenas I would never have otherwise been exposed to — crime, sport, politics, business, etc – and I got to travel a bit. This has all given me a deep well from which to draw character types and ideas. Still, I am envious of today’s young writers and wonder how things would have panned out for me in this era. There really has never been a better time to publish.
My new beginning
When I was retired on medical grounds, I decided to explore digital book writing to fill in my time. I had to negotiate a steep learning curve but I realised I already had words lying round I could use. Most of these were old columns I had written for various newspapers and had saved on floppy disks. But I also had a full manuscript for Apples. I treated this as a first draft for a novel I called Who Knew Tasmanian Tigers Eat Apples! This became the foundation for a whole series of books. Windy Mountain. This novel has now found its way into more than 80 countries. I’d consider that a happy ending, seeing as I found it so demeaning just trying to sell it in Tassie from the back of a green Torana.