The reality of writing fantasy – Margo Lanagan speaks

Sea Hearts by Margo LanaganMargo Lanagan was our guest author for week five of Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course in Sydney and shared her writing tips, nerves, ruthlessness and more.

If you don’t know Margo’s work yet, she is four-time World Fantasy Award winning author of stories including novels Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts. I am immersed in Sea Hearts at the moment – reading is not a sufficient term when it comes to this book. If you want writing that propels you into another world so that you think you can taste it, you will enjoy Sea Hearts. The story is fantastical in the way that fairy tales are, which I presume must have their roots in European society before the industrial revolution. I have read a lot about the reality of European witchcraft accusations but what lacks in these accounts is the mentality of the people who made them and those who actually believed they were witches. Margo’s imagination fills this gap for me. To understand the mentality we need to believe witches are real for a time, and that is what Sea Hearts gives the reader. And, to boot, the story is very sexy in the messy, physical way that sex actually is, without actually describing sex – what a writer! I hope I have whetted your appetite now so that you are anxious to hear the pearls of wisdom from the sea-bed of her experience as a writer.

Margo Lanagan

  • You do not have to write every day to be a writer. Margo Lanagan does not always write every day—she works as a technical writer three days a week. She’ll set up a regimen of regular writing when there are deadlines involved, but she’s found that writing every day with no particular goal in site turns the writing stale very quickly.
  • Margo sometimes uses visual prompts to support her vivid writing. She does this by collecting images from newspapers and magazines that appeal to her and then selecting from her collection and devoting a scrapbook to a short story or a novel. These scrapbooks help her get into and maintain the atmosphere and tone of the story/book when she is writing her drafts.
  • Margo shared with us her nerves, even after her first big success with her collection of stories Black Juice. She was under a lot of pressure to deliver a novel and knew the draft of the novel she already had could not be made to work. So decided to use an existing, traditional story as scaffolding for her story and build out from that. She still often works that way.
  • In Tender Morsels she drew on the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red”. She resented the way the fairytale implied that if women and girls put up with all men’s poor behaviour towards them, they would end up with a prince. So she subverted this tale to produce her story. It kicked off her imagination and she ended up writing about men turning into bears, rape and revenge on those men who committed it, without descriptions of actual rape. She did this deliberately so that if a young person read the book they would not fully understand or be disturbed by it. Only adult readers would get the full meaning. This interested me particularly as it meant one could tackle difficult themes for a young adult and upwards audience without telling them about stuff they had not yet discovered (ruining their innocence) and traumatising them, which has bothered me a lot in the past.
  • She learnt that her stories worked better if she “coughed them up” i.e. wrote only stories that demanded to be written for their own sakes. I took this to mean that it could be a theme or an insight that you build out a plot and story from. She said that what took her off course (and led to her abandoning a novel that she had spent a long time working on before she wrote Tender Morsels) was trying to be commercial and thinking about audiences. By writing what she really wants to write, she has become a much acclaimed and prize winning niche author; not everybody likes her work, and it is through accepting that and trusting her instincts that she writes so well.
  • She repeated what James Bradley, our excellent course tutor said in an earlier session: getting your characters to talk to you from the start is very important and working out what their conflict with each other is. Margo spends a lot of time thinking from the outset how she can make her characters more interesting.
  • Margo says don’t have the mind-set of saving what you’ve already got. She has been ruthless in throwing out huge chunks of stuff that did not work and sometimes keeping hardly anything to move forward with.
  • With her first novels, which were short romances written for a teen audience, she set very specific rules for herself. She created a chapter-by-chapter plan for the book, and wrote a chapter (3500 words) every day for two weeks. She did not let herself read back or revise until the entire draft was finished. If she felt, during a writing day, that the plot wasn’t working, she made herself pause, rewrite the chapter plan – without allowing any rewrites of earlier chapters – and complete the current day’s chapter, deleting as little as possible to fit that chapter into the revised plan. As she progressed through the plan, she had good days and bad, like we all do – days, when it all went swimmingly, days when she thought she had written badly. What she found interesting was that when, on completion of the full draft, she read through it, she couldn’t tell which had been the good days and which had been the bad. So I took this to mean don’t assume, because you are feeling not in the zone, that you’re writing badly: it may well be much the same quality, whatever your inner editor is telling you, so don’t stop writing; forge on and it’s likely that your novel will not be the worse for it.

I came away from Margo’s session amazed at her ability to let go in her writing and interact with all sides of herself, dark and light—and she seems such a normal person, like you or me, which means we can do it too! If you are anything like me and found it difficult to take yourself seriously as a writer earlier in your life, then one of the battles you face in your writing may be the same as mine: how to fully let go, how to realise when you are not doing that. Margo conveyed to us that she was once like we students are now: learning, making mistakes and then discovering what she was capable of.

Read more insights from Margo Lanagan’s session from fellow Faber Academy student Sarah Price. Margo is an internationally acclaimed writer of novels (Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts—published as The Brides of Rollrock Island in the UK and the US) and short stories (collected in White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes, Yellowcake and Cracklescape). We’ve been publishing her for many years, and her short stories have even formed part of our interview process for editors!

Her novel Tender Morsels was decried as “sordid wretchedness” by the Daily Mail in the UK, while Neil Gaiman called it “one of my favourite books in ages… powerful and moving.” After reading Sea Hearts, British author Mal Peet said: “Margo Lanagan’s writing is dangerously beautiful; it knows how to dance, and it knows how to fight.” 

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