Writing Gunfire Lullabies: An exercise in patience and persistence

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In the beginning…

I began writing Gunfire Lullabies, or rather a version of it, in 2005, and it’s being published later this year. I sold my old home in Canberra and used the proceeds to fund a year off work to write it. This writing year felt wickedly indulgent yet very right, and I absolutely loved it. It’s often said that the first book has a radical creative freedom about it that no future one does because you’re truly writing for you, unhindered by publisher, editor or market constraints that come later on during the process of being, or trying to get published.

But how can one novel take so long to write? Am I just really, really slow?

It happened like this…

First, I didn’t write it full-time after the initial year. I either had to work, my book was being vetted by publishers while I waited, or I needed a break from the damn thing. A couple of times, when a publisher was interested, they would request rewrites before committing, which would take another six months to complete. These never came through for me, but they took a lot of time.

Second, Gunfire Lullabies is a bit of an epic at over 120,000 words long. Long novels take more time.

Third, I was learning to write, which meant I needed to do a lot of rewriting as I learned my craft. It’s unusual for writers to get their first novel published. Often it’s their third of fourth story that succeeds.

Fourth, I wrote three different versions of Gunfire Lullabies. In other words, I wrote three novels in that time equating to each one taking around four years. That’s a normal amount of time for plenty of literary fiction writers.

Fifth and finally, my manuscript was rejected many times, meaning I had no choice but to go back, perfect my craft and try again. The only other options were to self publish, which I felt was too early to consider, or give up.

The value of determination

What does my prolonged writing process really point to? For me, the learning was that persistence and determination pay. Overnight success is a rare thing, no matter what people might claim or how the situation appears. Usually people spend years learning and perfecting their craft. So many times writing teachers talk about talent meaning little if there’s no bum on the seat. I doggedly kept on writing an East Timor story until I got it right. I say simple, but honestly, it was really hard.

A deeper aspect

But, there was another key element in the process for me: the spiritual one. There were plenty of times when my bruised ego and I would have a discussion. Quit, you’re a rubbish writer, you’re a slow learner, you’re not a natural.

At these times, I would need to get really still with myself, delve deep and answer some questions with bare honesty. Is writing really it part of my purpose? Do I believe in my story? Do I want to do this story justice by writing it well?

Sometimes I would recall that when applying for my first posting, I had in mind to write a novel. It had been a long-term dream. So I wished for a posting where something momentous would happen that I could write about, and that’s exactly what happened. First I witnessed the downfall of dictator President Soeharto, which then paved the way East Timor’s journey towards independence. But wishing for something and experiencing it are different things. The cost was horrendous in terms of human life and suffering, and the impact on others and me was profound.

In conclusion

So the answer to my questions about whether I should finish the story was always, and inevitably, yes. With this realisation, the need to pander to my bruised ego after repeated rejections would drop away, my fears of rejection and failure would fall back, and I would realise again that I was writing the story for what felt the right reasons for me: because it was my purpose, because I believed in it with all my heart and soul, because I felt it needed to be told, and because I couldn’t not write it.

 

Gunfire Lullabies – Why write this story?

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This is part of a blog series in which I give a personal account of writing and publishing my debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, being released in August 2019 on the twentieth anniversary of Timor Leste’s 1999 autonomy ballot

The beginning

I knew I wanted to write a novel from when I was young. As a kid, I wrote prize-winning children’s books. Then nothing much for years apart from poetry and short stories, largely because finding a topic sufficiently compelling to carry me through the difficult process of writing an entire novel eluded me, or so I believed. I got a degree and landed a job that involved formal writing and living overseas in the hope of gaining more life experience and a suitable topic.

Be careful what you wish for

It certainly did give me life experience. I became a diplomat and was posted to Jakarta during a momentous period in Indonesian history. I experienced first hand on the streets and in the political backrooms, two revolutions; first, the downfall of dictator president Soeharto and, second, the liberation of East Timor. In my job as a political officer I covered both issues, which were of enormous importance to my Australia, Indonesia being my government’s closest neighbour and East Timor being less than two hours away by plane.

Either event would have made a great story. But East Timor’s struggle was long-term, full of heroic and appalling characters (often a mix of both), pride and dogma, violence and drama, Machiavellian political conflict, dogged determination, good and evil. It was a true David and Goliath story.

From history to story

I had my topic, and having witnessed the bloody struggle myself and understanding both sides’ points of views – and in a way having played my own part through my government reporting – I knew it was one I could write about confidently with depth and subtlety.

Yet this story could not be mine. It had to be much greater. It had to be driven by a theme. It had to present a terrible dilemma to be solved. It had to be dramatic. In other words, it had to be a fictional account of actual events, much of which had been already written in the history books and numerous PhDs.

Is it based on my experiences?

When I tell people about my book, I’m frequently asked whether it’s based on my own experiences. Yes and no. I would say my personal experiences in Jakarta and East Timor were inspirational. I was there, a witness. It was my work focus and I met the people involved.

On the other hand, East Timor was been written about extensively, and I’ve read a lot of these analyses in the press and in books. When I needed to create a dramatic event or a character, there was plenty of material to turn to.

Are the characters real?

In short, no. As any writer will tell you, characters are fictional, created to serve whatever the story requires to move it forward, create tension and heighten drama. Characters are metaphors or archetypes of what is going on, or of an organisation, or a prevalent mood.

In other words, characters are what ever the story demands; a medley of every person a writer has ever met mixed with their personal observations and understanding of human beings. While they come from within – a strange mix of parts of the author and their imagination – they also come from someone they might have overheard talking in a café or their great aunt or another historical figure. Somehow, they come together on the page.

Authenticity

It would also be true to say that having been a diplomat on the ground at that particular time, my novel has a sense of authenticity. There’s a writing maxim that says, write what you know, for just this reason.

Yet this downplays imagination and what a writer gleans from other sources. Many writers write about completely different times in history or about events they never witnessed or create a fictionalised version of long-dead historical figures. Every writer who has ever tried to written around historical events knows you cannot translate things literally. It is characters who drive story, not places and events.

Why this topic?

Much has been postulated about what really went on in East Timor. It was a vexatious and complex issue that called into question Australia’s definition of national interests, its morals and integrity. I found ample open source material representing a plenitude of views and interpretations, which was great fodder. Even the Australian foreign minister of the day felt compelled to write an account, and today other Australian institutions are drilling down into the matter with greater scrutiny for a revised official record.

It’s been nearly twenty years since the historical vote took place in East Timor that led to the birth of a new country. What Gunfire Lullabies does is cobble together a fictionalised picture of what went on from the point of view of history’s often forgotten players: women, one being a part of the political elite facing moral choices in her presentation of events to her government, the other being a young local woman suffering the consequences of the lofty decisions and political games being played far away.

 

 

 

 

The value of perseverance in writing and creating: A personal account

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Recently I went from having no publishing offers to having to decide between two – I know, the irony! This is for a novel I wrote in two very different versions, and after deciding that the first one was best, going on to rewrite it many times.

My writing pathway to finding a publisher

My process over more than ten years included the following steps:

  • Redrafting my manuscript over again
  • Engaging editors for the first and part of the second-to-last major redrafts
  • Paying a mentor (a costly and negative experience)
  • Reading countless writing books and doing my best to apply the learning
  • Undertaking many writing-related courses in person and online, including on poetry, book publishing and creativity
  • Submitting my manuscript, garnering interest but being rejected many times
  • Nearly giving up a few times, before picking myself up off the floor and starting over
  • Taking on the feedback for two advanced drafts from my long-suffering writing group.

It’s often said that a writer’s first two novels are their learner books and that the third is publishable. Alternatively, people talk about writers needing to practice their craft for ten years before reaching a publishable standard. For me, redrafting the same story in various forms was how I progressed my craft. I didn’t want to let go of my story, focusing instead on improving it ad nauseam. And so ten years passed by…

Until finally, it paid off. (Although I’m well aware that having found a publisher, I haven’t achieved publishing success yet. But that’s a whole other journey.)

It was nothing! (Lies)

It would be easy to look back and say that it was worth it, or even that it was fun or easy. Ten years – nothing! But the truth is that like all writing, it was both wondrous and torturous, easy and impossible. For years there was rejection after rejection, no promise of publication (ever!) and no guarantee of any return for my hours of toil, the income I forewent or the money I spent on my book.

And yet writing and creating was and remains the only thing that makes me feel professionally fulfilled. I actually become restless and irritable if I don’t write creatively.

Key things I did to find a publisher

After I announced the two offers on a Facebook writing group, a couple of writing colleagues contacted me to ask how I found a publisher? Some had achieved agent interest, which after a time had waned.

While I’m no expert, I answered them because writers need the camaraderie of others to help pick them up when they’re feeling uncertain. These are the key things I told them. They’re simple and probably obvious, but nonetheless powerful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves:

  • Always be open to improving your craft and never be complacent or arrogant – Too often authors become attached to their work. Get some distance and reevaulate after a break. Kill your darlings etc.
  • Believe in your story (or let it go and move on) – If you don’t, who else will? Believe in it to your core
  • Believe in your abilities – Again, if you don’t, no one else will. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things. Writing is an art, but it’s technical and involves a lot of craft
  • Find your publisher fit, only going where you’re wanted – Whether that’s a large publisher, an independent one, or a small one. What’s their speciality, do they love your kind of work and genre, what are their values? Alignment is key. Publishing is business but it’s also a relationship
  • Get philosophical (or zen, or something similar) – While I’d got to a point where I believed – paradoxically and blindly – that I’d find a publisher, I honestly didn’t care anymore. I knew in my gut that my story was good and that was enough, so I sent it out and let go. Me and my story were ready and, amazingly, the world responded
  • Above all, persevere! As Churchill said, never give in. When you’re ready, dust yourself off and continue. Logically, you must to get there, in the end.

Are you ready to be published?

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou

The state of book publishing (in Australia)

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Publishing in Australia

The novel I’m trying to get published now is an Australian story, with universal themes and appeal of course, but there’s much in the subject matter that Australians will relate to. This means I’m touting it in Australia first before looking elsewhere.

But getting anything new published in Australia can be challenging. It has been for a long time, but with foreign competition, it’s even more difficult.

Some publishing facts (and some opinion too):

  • Big W is reportedly the single biggest book retailer in Australia, so if you don’t write commercial fiction of 70-90,000 words that Big W wants to sell, you may be at a disadvantage
  • The price of books has gone down with overseas competition, putting greater commercial pressure on publishers
  • If you write literary fiction (my novel is literary-commercial crossover) places reserved for new voices are very limited, as in maybe 5 novels per year one publisher claimed. Yes – 5!!
  • Fulfilling publishers’ commercial requirements seems more front of house than ever with increased competition
  • Character and plot rule, so if you’re attempting to push the boundaries and break some rules, your first novel may be considered too risky, but then again maybe not if you’re brilliant
  • All this competition has in my view pushed the Australian mainstream publishing industry towards conservatism. I find a lot of new Australian formulaic and disappointing
  • That said, small, independent publishers are taking risks that are paying off. These are the books I tend to find inspiring. Perhaps this is where the future lies for Australian writers whose work may not satisfy mainstream commercial criteria?
  • The pool of book readers isn’t growing in Australia
  • Bricks and mortar booksellers are the key to sales for debut novels by Australian authors
  • Around a third of trade (commercial) books published in Australia are fiction
  • Print books remain the most popular, with e-book sales decreasing before plateauing
  • How many times have I heard publishers say they’re looking for the next Bryce Courtenay or Andy Griffiths or Fleur McDonald? Interestingly, I’ve only ever once  heard them say they’re looking for the next Patrick White or Geraldine Brooks.

So what can you do to get published?

Should you tailor your fiction to what you think publishers want? Should you cut your text back to fit the word length, make your characters more mainstream, latch on to the latest trend and write in that genre?

Not unless that’s where your passion lies or it will improve your work. Your writing must be the best you can make it, which demands authenticity and tenacity. Writing is testing at the best of times, let alone if you’re not working on something that fires you up, even during the dark times. First and foremost, love what you’re doing.

Don’t compromise, improve your work

Instead focus on making your manuscript the best it can be. Then continue to seek a publisher until you find someone who believes in your work. There are alternative publishing routes you might consider too, which I discuss here.

Publishing is a business, but never forget that writing is an art.