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A writing life: just putting your mind to it

Phil Originator and one of the judges of The Crocodile Prize, PHILIP FITZPATRICK, reveals how he calls the muse when writing

I SPENT about ten years writing the first 60 pages of Bamahuta: Leaving Papua and got quite despondent about publishing it.

I sent it off to the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University and said, listen, I've been playing around with this thing for years, do you think it's worth pursuing?

They passed it on to Prof Donald Denoon for an appraisal and he wrote a glowing report. I think the reason he did that was because, as an historian, he was interested in having a retrospective look at the colonial period in Australian PNG.

ANU wrote back and said it was worthwhile pursuing, and I wrote the rest of the book in about nine months flat - mostly at night and sitting on aeroplanes and trains.

When ANU's publisher, Pandanus, had its money ripped off it by the Howard government all its books went to the University of New South Wales Press.

My book didn't have a large print run but it sold out reasonably quickly.

There was still a demand for it and it was picked up by Diane Andrews Publishing in Cairns and reprinted.

Diane does print-on-demand publishing, so she doesn't have to keep a big stock and run the risk of being left with books she can't sell. Most of her sales are done over the Internet.

The book has continued to sell steadily and I get a royalty cheque every now and again. She also put the book on the Amazon Books site as an e-book. They pay quite well, and every time they've sold a hundred copies they put money in my bank account.

I've published my other books through Diane too and the system works well. However, it's only a hobby, I could never live off the proceeds.

So how did all this begin? While I was a kiap I started a degree through the Department of External Studies at the University of Queensland. I did a double major in English. Part of the reason was to bring some sort of sanity to my habit of prodigious scatter-gun reading.

I don't think it helped my writing skills very much, except I learned to figure out what the lecturers wanted and gave it to them - that's a handy skill to develop.

I finished off the degree in Australia, the bloody thing took me nine years, then I stupidly went back and added a degree in Government.

My all time favourite author was John Steinbeck and I wrote a short thesis on him for the double major.

I'm also a great fan of Jack London, Joseph Conrad and others who write about the sea. My grandfather was a sailor in WW1 and I spent many happy hours on his knee as a kid listening to him talk about his experiences. He had a piece of shrapnel in his knee that he would let me feel.

He was on the Mary Rose when she was sunk by the Germans off Norway (my mother's name was Mary Rose). People like stories about the sea.

Before I published my first book I used to write short stories and articles for magazines. I also wrote stuff for academic publications like the Records of the South Australian Museum.

I published my first story in Pacific Islands Monthly in 1971 - a piece about the Kennecott exploration around Ok Tedi. After that I got fired up and published stuff all over the place.

In 1972 I transferred from the Department of District Administration to the Lands Department as their publications officer and got involved in things like the Commission of Enquiry into Land Matters.

They were great days and very inspirational. I used to go out to UPNG and watch the plays and buy all the little books they published.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that you have to start small, with short stories etc, hone your skills and then try something bigger. That took me a long time.

The biggest problem is the lack of a place to publish your material. It's a bit like that in Australia now. I used to publish stories in publications like New Idea, Women's Weekly, Man, Penthouse, anyone who would publish stuff.

Unfortunately almost all those old magazines don't publish stuff anymore. Everyone watches television these days.

It was this experience that prompted me to think about the competition. To give writers in PNG a place to publish but also to give PNG readers out in the bush something other than newspapers to read.

My grand plan is to publish books in a really cheap format, with advertisements in them, and sold for a couple of kina in trade stores and stores in the towns. I'm hoping people like Keith Jackson and John Fowke can lend a hand. I'm not expecting to make any money out of it but if we can cover costs I'll be happy. Who knows, it might fall on its face, won't know until I try it.

So, Writer, start small with a few short stories, hone your writing skills as you go and, when you feel ready, start on a book. Write about what you know and keep at it.

You have to cart the manuscript around so that if something occurs to you it can be written quickly. I've never been one to set aside time for writing. I tried that once and all I got was a great big blank.

I spend days, even weeks, thinking about what to write and actually sit down to write at all sorts of odd hours. I write by hand in a big A4 200-page notebook. Once I've got it down I scan it and edit and correct.

Bamahuta09 Then I type it doing another edit as I go. I find that if I write too much the typing is hard so I stick to about 3 -4 written pages maximum.

Sometimes I go months without writing anything and then get inspired and write for days on end. I work on the principle that there's no rush and it will get finished when it gets finished.

I don't think you'll have any trouble writing an article, an essay or even a book once you put your mind to it.

The Crocodile Prize is a writing contest open to all PNG citizens. Read more about it and download an entry form here

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