ELLIE MARNEY: “Write the stuff that is your personal catnip”

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Ellie Marney is a teacher and author of the Every series, a crime trilogy for Young Adults. Ellie has helped spearhead a collaborative group of literary sector professionals under the banner ‘#LoveOzYA’ to advocate for and promote Australian YA literature, and she hosts a book club – ‘#LoveOzYAbookclub’ – online. She is an Ambassador for the Stella Prize Schools Program, and is a regular speaker at schools, events and festivals.

When did you start writing?

I started writing when I was in primary school. I was the dorky, geeky, under-confident kid on the bus – I guess writing stories in a folder and reading thick books did nothing to dispel that image – and I used it as a form of escape.

What advice would you give to emerging creators who are just starting to dip their toes into writing?

Think about what it is you love in a story: what elements or tropes do you, personally, drink up like water? What things do you read to nourish yourself, as self-care? What do you enjoy on rainy afternoons, or days you have off school or work? What books do you treasure? Write about that. Write what you love. Because writers don’t get paid enough to write stuff they don’t really really love. Then, every time you write something, aim to improve, even in some small way – improve your ability to express meaning fully, or create realistic dialogue, or bring a character to life. Work out what works for you.

Don’t get stressed out about your voice or your style – those things somehow happen over the course of many years of writing. But concentrate on writing the stuff that is your personal catnip, with the aim of getting better each time. And read heaps, of course.

Writers don’t get paid enough to write stuff they don’t really really love.

You recently self-published No Limits. How have you found self-publishing vs. traditional publishing?

Self publishing is bloody fantastic. The tech stuff, the back-end stuff, is becoming more accessible every day. It’s still a huge amount of work, which I think is one of the aspects which what puts people off. But you can produce the story you want, in the form you want it, with absolute control over every aspect except whether or not it will sell (and no one can predict sales with certainty – even traditional publishers can’t predict that). You get an enormous sense of accomplishment, plus the joy of high royalty rates. It’s also very democratic – so if your story, your catnip story, isn’t on a shelf or in an ebook somewhere, then there’s really no obstacle to you writing that and releasing it. I think it’s a fantastic tool, particularly for people who feel their voices aren’t represented or are under-represented in trad publishing (and let’s face it, traditional publishing can be very narrow).

No Limits was a passion project – and I knew it wouldn’t sell to a big market like the U.S., as it was very bogan and very Australian. But I also knew it was a solid story with two great characters – a hardcore Australian rural setting, two working class characters, and a drug subculture that was dark and deep – and it was worth sharing. I’m so very glad I was able to get it out into the world, and I’m so very grateful that people are getting to read it!

You’re an avid supporter of the #LoveOzYA community online. What do you love about Australian YA and its readers?

Australian YA readers are very open to new things and alternative points of view. They like to recognise themselves and their landscapes – both urban and rural – but they also like to discover new things, experiment, and try out different ways of seeing. They’re not totally locked into reading only the things that are packaged and managed and hyped for them – I think they still have a sense of adventure, a willingness to try new things and explore new ideas. As a Western democracy, we’re still a young country with a very old history, and our population and influences come from everywhere, so we’re a real mutt of a country – and as readers we’re still open to different experiences.

Australians in general have inordinately high rates of reading – we’re one of the biggest book-buying countries in the world – and I think that our social history gives us a sort of intellectual adventurousness. You don’t see it in our politics enough, unfortunately, but you see it in our literature. I also think our culture (which is an amalgamation of many cultures, but still has an essential toughness, a sense of endurance) is about seeing past the bullshit. We like honesty, straightforwardness – and I think that translates very well in YA.

Teenage readers like a forthright, honest voice. It’s something I think of when people ask me ‘what characterises Australian YA’: I believe that’s why you can recognise Australian voices, whether a story is set in the Australian outback, or a modern city, or a dystopian future, or a spaceship – you can hear that no-bullshit voice shining through. It’s something I tend to aim for in my own writing.

What have you learnt about yourself as a writer? Is there anything you wish you could go back and change?

Sure, I’d change a few things! I would’ve liked to start a bit earlier – I’m about to turn 47 years old, and I only developed the confidence to really write hard in my thirties. I shouldn’t have been so scared. I should’ve just plunged in when I was still young and had more energy! I should have trusted my instincts more on some things. That’s what I’ve learned the most, I think, about myself as a writer – in your career, and in your writing, you have to trust your gut. It’s a bit like the Kondo method – if the book you’re writing isn’t bringing you joy, you might not be writing the right book. If doors are closing in one direction, maybe that’s not the direction for you. Go for the open doors. Go for the things that make you love the work, and feel alive, and bring you happiness. Because those things are what will appeal to readers too.

If the book you’re writing isn’t bringing you joy, you might not be writing the right book.

You are a teacher as well as an author. Are there things in your everyday life that influence your writing?

Yes, absolutely, always. I think the thing that inspires me the most, that I take away from my day job as a teacher, is how incredibly tough teenagers are. How resilient and resourceful and courageous they are. I have so much respect and admiration for teenagers, and kids generally – figuring yourself out, at that time in your life, is such a hard bloody slog. You’re trying to work out who you are as a person, and how your body is growing, and relationships, and parents, and school, and exam pressure, and job prospects, and how to get by in the larger world… It’s like the perfect storm of Everything Happening At Once. And people are always complaining, ‘Oh, teenagers are so moody! Teenagers are so difficult!’. I feel like saying ‘Hey, lay off, you think you’re working hard? They’re working SO much harder!’. And a lot of teenagers are contending with poverty, or parental neglect, or mental health issues, or sexuality issues, or racism, or substance abuse issues as well. So really, I give them props just for getting by.

I remember my teenage years as one long desert – I mean, seriously, I felt like I was walking through the Sahara. To make it through, to get out the other side with a sense of self, and a feeling of purpose and an ability to be creative…it’s a bloody miracle I made it out alive. So teenagers are fucking gutsy, every single one of them. That’s my takeaway message from my day job.

What do you prefer to write: a standalone novel, a series, or a short story?

I like a series, really. I think it’s just that I don’t want the story to end! If you find a great book, you don’t want the story to be over, you want it to just go on and on… I mean, I know when a story has run its course, and then I’m happy to say goodbye, knowing I’ll be able to return and re-read. But I just like getting lost in a good story, and I like the feeling that the characters have a life that continues off the page. So I do like standalones, and shorts, but I guess I really love a good series.

What have you got coming up?

You tell me! I’ve got a book coming out – White Night is releasing in March, which is exciting. And I’m working on a YA rom-crime trilogy set in a circus. I’m nearly finished the second book, and I’ll be starting the third book in a month – at this stage, I’m hoping to self-publish those books late next year. But those books are already planned out, and kind of written in my head, so right now I’m looking around for a shiny new thing to write. And I’m open to ideas, y’know! (so send me your suggestions, lol. No, seriously! I’m always open to suggestions!) It’s quite a lot of fun, figuring out what to write next. I have lots of ideas, but finding the one that will consume me, that will keep me happy even when I’m in the middle of the long drafting slog… That’s always the thing, finding the whatever-it-is that lights you up for the long haul. That’s the fun part about writing.

You can visit Ellie’s website HERE. You can also find her on Twitter.


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