From Zero to Writer…

…in fifteen months. And eleven lessons.

This is as good a point as any to describe the journey my manuscript has taken over these past fifteen months.

Back in July last year, I wasn’t a writer. Not in a self-effacing, ‘it’s just a hobby’ kind of way. I did not write. But crazily, I had dreams of being a writer. The last time I’d put pen to page to write fiction was when I was seventeen (a long, long time ago). I left Australia determined to experience life so I’d have something to write about. I was derailed for more than twenty years. Lesson 1: To be a writer, one must write.

In July 2014, due to circumstances, I had to enrol at university. As I’d spent many years already at uni gaining postgraduate qualifications which may never be used again, I made the decision to study something I had always regretted never pursuing. In 1993, I’d done first year of creative writing (with Elizabeth Jolley as my tutor), but had dropped that for the above-mentioned overseas trip. Lesson 2: Stop searching for purpose. What did you want to be when you were young? (I’m sure my parents would say the lesson is ‘Finish what you begin’.)

I enrolled in a postgraduate writing course in July 2014. Pretty scary stuff. I hadn’t written anything…like forever…and one of my assignments was to write the first chapter of a genre fiction book. Genre? Huh? I only read historical fiction. I stressed for ages about what to write, thinking that I should have done a basic writing course first. What on earth was a ‘literary device’? One day in September, I drove home from class, and a story came to me. It downloaded into my mind and I didn’t have a pen at hand. It was about a British girl and the young Rabindranath Tagore. When I got home 45 minutes later, I wrote a four page outline. Lesson 3: A book will come when you least expect it. 

Still, I was paralysed. How does one write? It seems it happens when there’s 30 minutes to kill before class. I’d already done some preliminary research into the setting of my story, and wove this into some fiction. Half a chapter before class. The rest later that night. That was the 18th September. So I’d fulfilled the requirements of my assignment. But I had this whole story rattling around in my head. Structure and themes evolved and coalesced. I knew it was ‘my book’ and I would continue with it. Lesson 4: Obey the muse.

Another chapter followed soon after. At this time, I’d been lurking and reading draft manuscripts on a now defunct writing website, Authonomy. With two chapters I had the start of a book and I uploaded them. It was a massive leap of faith, and I’m sure I squeezed my eyes shut as I hit ‘submit’. At this stage, I still hadn’t received any marks at university so I wasn’t sure if I actually ‘could’ write. I needed to know. Slowly, feedback from fellow writers and readers dribbled in. With every critique, I edited my work. Indiscriminately. I had yet to determine which advice to take and which to ignore. Lesson 5: Learn how to determine good advice from bad. What is right for the way I want to tell the story?

I was writing two to three chapters a week, in the evenings after my children eventually went to sleep. I’d stopped writing by hand and started typing directly into Word. But I picked up my pencil again when I took the kids to Bali. Two chapters. This was around the time self-belief or crazy dreams stopped fuelling my writing, and discipline took over. Later, in the school holidays when I had three weeks child-free, I powered through at least ten chapters. They weren’t very good chapters. But they were words on paper. I felt kind of ill when reading them though. Alongside my disciplined writing practice, I had also read a few ‘writing books’ and taken a course in Scrivener software. I was able to get through a dodgy part in the story, by focussing on the overall structure and character development. Lesson 6: Self-belief and discipline are important to fuel the process, but sometimes you need an idea of where you’re going.

Fast forward a few months. I wrote a novella in January for a writing competition, and I finished the draft of my ms at Easter. Lesson 7: I can write a book.

My book started to feel real about the time I sent it off to my beta reading critique group in April 2015. Sure, a few people had read the first few chapters and helped me polish them. But what about the rest of it? I cringed at the idea that it would be judged, and in turn, so would I be judged. The Women’s Fiction Critique Group of Authonomy was a wonderful and generous bunch of writers. Honest feedback about character motivations and plausible plot lines. My ms went through the fire, got slightly scorched, but survived and became better as a result. Lesson 8: Insert cliches here. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, etc etc.

The book started to gain a few notches in its belt. First, it was voted as Authonomites’ One-to-Watch in April — a peer nominated competition. Then, the HarperCollins editors who looked after the site also picked it as the Authonomy Blog One-to-Watch, saying some very nice things about it (and me). I think I’ll be trotting out the comparisons to Tracy Chevalier for a while to come. So, I had validation. I could do it. But that didn’t mean the book was done. I sent it off for a manuscript assessment by an editor I’d met on Authonomy. Lesson 9: Writing is an isolating occupation. Communities are important for mentorship and confidence building.

Within days the editor sent me a thorough developmental report with many helpful suggestions. But huge changes were to be made, and they felt right (see lesson 3). But, aaagghhh. Lesson 10: No matter how ‘finished’ a manuscript may feel, it can always be improved.

On 1st September 2015, my manuscript made it to the Editor’s Desk of Authonomy: the Holy Grail, securing me a review by a HarperCollins editor. Unfortunately, this coincided with the shutdown of the site. Those who made it to the Editor’s Desk on the 1st August were the last to receive reviews. But…on the 18th September 2015 — exactly one year since I scratched out the first words of my ms — I was rung by the Queensland Writers’ Centre with the news that I had been selected to participate in the QWC / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program. Ahem…I was slightly emotional. It was kind of unexpected. And I still keep checking the web page to make sure I didn’t hallucinate it. Lesson 11: Sometimes you think you know what you want, but you get something better instead.

In two weeks, there’ll be a new leg to this journey. I’m excited to see what’s next for my ms. No roadmap, no plans, just lots of dreams.

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