I started writing a novel in 1993 after finally getting my Arts degree (and having two kids). I didn’t believe in it or myself enough and gave up.
I went and lived: Got a job, worked overseas, witnessed revolution and war, got divorced and had a relationship with an abusive guy.
I wrote another book inspired by some of these events, this time fully supported by my new partner. I received publisher interest, but was rejected many times.
Each time I picked myself up off the floor and went back to the drawing board. I wrote three different versions of my story over 13 years. That’s around 4 years per book! (It doesn’t feel that long.)
Late last year a publisher finally said, ‘I love it. Let’s do it!’
My debut novel, Gunfire Lullabies, will be published in August 2019.
My message to my fellow writers and anyone doing something challenging is:
NEVER give up
BELIEVE in yourself
BE OPEN to constant improvement
And just KEEP ON WRITING!
Now for the next novel…(eek!)
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.
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.
Drama drama drama…
As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…
I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.
Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.
There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:
- Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
- Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
- Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films, documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
- Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
- Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
- Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
- Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
- Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
- When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.
While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?
‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Rules are meant to be broken. Buck the trend of character and plot dominance. Bend language, challenge structure, change points of view, turn narrative on its head: create and be original.
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.