My previous post, Wrapping up at Bundanon, garnered such interesting feedback that I am inspired (by Don Ostertag initially) to write a follow up.
Paol Soren asked if the process was similar for I Belong to No One, and the answer is yes. My first chapter was written around June 2005. The paperback arrived in bookshops in June 2015. At the outset I was a green, untrained novice writer who moved cargo around the world for a living, writing by instinct, with no understanding of accepted terminology such as ‘narrative arc‘. The memoir began as a tribute to all the strong women who had supported me in my younger years. I wanted to honour their role in forming me into the resilient woman who stood up to give an impromptu speech at her fiftieth birthday party. I took inspiration from my memories, our family photo album, and memorabilia that my brother hoarded. I wrote it on a personal level, imagining I was addressing just one friend, very much like my annual Christmas “missive to the masses letter” which often ran to seven pages. With little time for writing, at the end of three years I had written seven chapters – and I was still only seven years old. I kept going over and over those chapters, trying to perfect the language, never knowing where I was going. It wasn’t until I retired in 2008 that I realised I just had to write the darned thing. I even wrote past where it now ends, until deciding I didn’t want to relive those years, and so deleting those chapters. When I finally understood that it was always going to be a book about surrendering a child to adoption, I had to go back, remove all the random family history, and ensure that what remained showed any potential reader the path of my life that led me to that point. In some places I had to climb off my soapbox. Once, after a conversation in our bar area, I “wrote drunk and edited sober” (Hemingway?). Once, at a group restaurant lunch, I bowed out of the conversation while I wrote phrases on a paper napkin. Other times on my exercise walks, recalling scenes from my past, I recorded random thoughts and sentences on my phone and transcribed them later. Eventually, only a few paragraphs of those first seven chapters made it through to the final book.
After belatedly completing a six week course on life/memoir writing, the brain neurons really switched into gear. I will never again experience that creative fizz, no matter how many workshops I do, but it launched my book from an entertaining family history to something that an outsider might read. It was like having been illiterate and finally being able to read a page of text (with assistance). It was a great achievement, but now I can never return to that absolutely naive state.
That course led to a manuscript assessment, where a professional reads your work and provides a report on its strengths and weaknesses, six pages in my case. It’s like the old ‘can-do’ sandwich. This is good, this could be improved, this is good. They are designed as constructive criticism, not to destroy your mental health. No assessment will ever tell you your work is rubbish and don’t leave your day job. The report was extremely valuable and heartening, but it did have reservations about whether the narrative was strong enough for a publishing deal, and furthermore I mistakenly interpreted I should include a prologue, which set me back a bit because it meant I kind of told the story before I told the story.
After working through the suggestions in the report I pitched the revised manuscript to a literary agent who only wanted the first twenty pages. That darned prologue! I cringe with embarrassment now when I look back and know I actually sent her that. Not surprisingly, she rejected me and said I needed an editor.
The hunt for an editor led me to a woman who originally said words to the effect that, many are called but few are chosen – but send me your manuscript anyway. After a quick read through she emailed back to say she would work with me. At this point something hilarious happened. The lady who led me to that editor had been one herself, for Hodder & Stoughton. Now retired, she saw much promise in my work, and we began to work together to tidy it up before it went off to the other editor. We became firm friends, and it was a labour of love on her part, which often saw us both sitting up until 3am, emailing corrections back and forth. We were neighbours, and could see each other’s study lights still on. It was something akin to when I had a demanding job and so employed a housekeeper. I’d run around the night before tidying the house before she got there 🙂
Anyway, along came the timeslot that the (paid) editor had allocated, and my baby was sent off to her. That led to two rounds of structural editing, which is a much deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of the manuscript. An eleven page report for starters, and much toing and froing by email and phone. Months of interaction, which finally led to the editor being prepared to stake her reputation on my work. She recommended me to an agent who read the latest version and agreed to take me on. The agent pitched to around a dozen publishers, one of which, Hachette Australia, offered me a publishing contract.
After all that, you could say I was an overnight success 🙂
In the early days of this road to publication I was prone to throwing myself on the bed, kicking and screaming like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, but these days I am much more philosophical about the whole process. Here is what I have learned along the way:
Important Thing #1: No one in the process is your enemy.
Important Thing #2: Some days you think your writing is brilliant. Then, when you wake up the next morning you think it is the worse piece of c- – p ever written. Neither is true, and neither is a reflection of you as a person, but sometimes it is hard to separate the writing from the ego.
Important Thing #3: No one in the process hates you.
Who does what?
The writer’s role is to say what they want to say, and to entertain the reader. Sometimes those two goals don’t line up. You have to keep at it until they get close together – even seamless if possible.
The editor’s role is to help your writing be the best version of yourself you want to put on show. To get there, the writer has to take some hard truths on the chin, and/or mull over brainstorming conversations to arrive at their take on how to express that scene or suggestion in their own words. The editor doesn’t tell you what to write. He or she challenges you on how to express what you have written (or are yet to write) in a more coherent, logical, effective, emotional way which connects the reader to the characters and engages them in the story. They make you dig deeper, get under your character’s skin, and rarely let you skim over important events/themes or lead the reader down a dead end. In my friend’s case, she also pointed out my purple prose, and offered simplifications. Same idea and words – different sentence structure. (Never use one word when ten will do perfectly, I say!)
The agent’s role is to get the writer a traditional publishing deal. That’s it. Encouragement, guidance, advice on content and story arc are all elements of the main game. They may love your manuscript, but know that in the current market it will fail to attract a contract from a major publisher. The agent places hundreds of books a year. I’ve written one. When my agent told me I was ten years too late with my sailing ship story, she knew what she was talking about. That theme had been done to death. Equally though, agents are human. They have certain preferences. The agent for I Belong to No One, for example, wants Australian authors for Australian readers – of commercial women’s fiction. She does not style herself a literary agent, and only handles a few memoirs each year. Nevertheless, even though my hybrid memoir/novel manuscript, Florence & Lucy, was not really her preferred taste, she sent it on to my publisher (the afore-mentioned Hachette Australia) for a second opinion. My agent has yet to see Louisa’s Legacy in its current format but I feel it would be a better fit for her.
The traditional publisher’s role is to sell lots of books, and to do that they have to keep their finger on what readers like now. The Australian market is infinitesimally small. I Belong to No One sold its print run, which is a great achievement. That print run was around 7500 books. There is a system that dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s whereby bookshops can return books for credit if they are unsold after six months. In my case, around 1000 books came back. That gives you some idea how small the market is. I struck it lucky because the sister company Orion UK also picked up I Belong to No One. On the day of my book’s English release an established crime thriller author released her latest, titled You Belong to Me. Some wag in the Tesco marketing department bundled them on a ‘Two for One’ offer. I rode on Samantha Hayes’s coat tails to sell very well. Thank you, Samantha, who was the one who actually let me know what had happened, and shared in my joy of it.
So when Hachette declined Florence & Lucy, they weren’t saying it was rubbish. Actually, they said it was very well written, interesting, etc. But they predicted it would not sell a print run. And since they have fixed overheads to cover even before they start on further editing, proof reading, legal clearance (my memoir needed a barrister’s advice on defamation), graphic design, printing, warehousing, distribution, bookshop margins, returns, finance and administration, etc, etc, etc, then anything less than a seven thousand print run is not worth their while.
Meanwhile, I just keep plugging away at writing. It keeps me occupied and off the streets, and takes me to wonderful places such as the artists in residence retreat at Bundanon. And, as promised in an earlier post, here are some final photos from that week.
Arthur Boyd’s Homestead, now open to public viewing on weekends:
Arthur Boyd’s Studio, now open to public viewing on weekends; with replica Aboriginal bark canoe on the verandah:
The landscape in the vicinity of the homestead and studio (what would have been drought stricken two years ago is now lush and green after so much rain):
Some kilometres/miles away at Riversdale, some of the buildings in the main art gallery complex including the library where we gave our public talk (attended by 10 people 🙂 ). Note the Shoalhaven River in the background:
And that, folks, is a wrap of that week’s adventure which wound up on Sunday 1st May 2022. Thanks for following along and commenting, xx Garrulous Gwendoline.