Garrulous Gwendoline On Writing

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.

35 thoughts on “Garrulous Gwendoline On Writing

  1. Dear Gwen, this is beautiful! I read it at least 3 times because your advice applies to life in general as well. Last year when we first connected, you’d mentioned that you would go to the UK once the borders opened. We went to the UK on 5th April and returned on the 7th May. Our older son is doing a 12 month fellowship there so we really wanted to visit him! And then from there we went to Iceland, Norway and France before returning to London and flying home. I need to write about our experiences but I cannot seem to find the motivation. All I can say is that travelling is enligtening…..look forward to more posts from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • How lovely to hear from you Shubha and with such lovely feedback. We definitely have England in our sights just as soon as we are confident to travel – but I can’t raise any enthusiasm for it at the moment. Wearing a mask for that long distance is particularly off-putting. But of course, you had a much stronger pull. I bet you enjoyed every moment of being able to support your son in his endeavour.

      I’ve never been to Iceland, but in earlier years I had a friend who lived on a Danish dairy farm and she took her grandson on a cycling trip there. (Or was that Greenland?). Anyway, she wrote me an interesting letter about their travels. As for Norway, it’s one of my favourite countries – but then again, there are so many favourites!

      As for your writing, it is hard if you wait for motivation. Maybe if you just write a short piece, one at a time, using a photograph or music of the area for inspiration, you will find you can get started. Perhaps as a letter to someone. Hand writing is known to create neural pathways, and I recommend that. Or if you go for an exercise walk you can record thoughts into your phone and type them up later. I usually type directly into word only because I can’t write fast enough.

      Of course, you could just write a short, illustrated blog post and see where that takes you…

      Liked by 3 people

      • Gwen have you heard of those new travel masks called humidifliers, I bought George one for his trip to Japan, I had one when I went to Seoul and they are marvellous, keep you hydrated and I actually think they’re made in Australia.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s very interesting Charlotte. I hadn’t heard of them, but have just taken a good look around their website. We’d have to check with the airline, but they do issue a warning they were not designed for Covid protection so may not be acceptable to all. I’m guessing that there would be some pushback on account of the extended flying time from Sydney to London. All the same, the humidifier mask looks a great idea for reducing jetlag.

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  2. I love the insights of this post, Gwen. It is so easy for non-writers to think it is a straightforward and easy process. I’ve often heard in my life something to the effect of “You like to write. / You’re good with words. Can you quickly . . . .?” I’m such a slow writer. And that is just to get words on paper, long before the editing process even starts.

    I love how you piggy backed on another writer without even knowing it. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yip, someone was smiling down on me that day.
      Your style of writing is perfectly appropriate, and a good match for your personality I suspect. I imagine you spend time catching the elusive ‘perfect’ word that encompasses the visual you have in your mind. Whereas I consistently over-write and have to bring my sentences back under control. Although, I also tend towards very short sentences, and sometimes have to combine them to make the paragraph have a certain rhythm, not too choppy. I fully intend reading Louisa’s Legacy aloud to myself even though it is embarrassing, especially if someone walks in on you. But I’m hoping that will flush the clunky bits out.

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  3. That’s an incredibly honest and informative post, Gwen. I think it should be flagged up so aspiring writers can read it and learn and also not lose hope. Also you point out the value of going on an intensive course with others to learn and share at the same time.
    Your description of the editorial process explains to me why often in a successful book series the first book reads and feels more complete and less ‘ragged’ that some later books in that series. Is that perhaps because the publishers have a popular author that will sell ‘the next instalment’ and so the editing is not intense and time-consuming?
    Oh I see you haven’t mentioned the success of your professional audio version of ‘I Belong to No One’ read by your good self. 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻 👏🏻 I can recommend it as excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You throw up an interesting point Agnes. Successful authors who have forward contracts for their next books go through a shortened editorial process i.e. they submit their manuscript directly to the publisher and then get it back once or twice from the inhouse/contracted freelance editor in order to hit their target launch date eg Christmas, Mothers’ Day, etc. I’m not sure I’ve felt they’re ragged, because from my perspective, those writers are by then adept at structure and content and the process. Potentially though, there is an element of rush, or idea fatigue. Something for me to think about more. Currently I am simply envious of those writers.

      How lovely of you to reference my audio book. Frankly, I had forgotten about it when writing the above post. I love to tell people I will try anything once, and that was my one time to do that. It was intense, challenging, tiring, anxiety inducing, four days trying to sit in the same position day after day while keeping my voice modulated at the same pitch, and I’m not sure I would ever do it again. I think a trained actor would have done a better job even though it was my story. I cannot cope with listening to more than the first four minutes. But then most people can’t stand the sound of their own recorded voice. So to know you found it excellent and professional is such a positive feeling! xx Gwen

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve probably said it before, but I do listened to an awful lot of audiobooks whilst I am working especially once I am clear of the initial designing part and filling in repeat colours. You know I actually have a list of my favourite professional narrators and it’s a heartfelt compliment when I say you were good at it. There are some well-known actors who I think are brilliant on screen, but they either don’t have the voice skills or the patience to do a good book justice. Also, there are distinguished authors, John le Carré comes to mind, who wrote brilliantly, but were not good narrating their own work (well in my opinion anyway). Honestly, you did a fab job and it must have been difficult for you on so many levels. You’re a star Gwen.🤩

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        • Your regularity with audio books had slipped my mind Agnes, so I am doubly/triply happy to have your positive and supportive feedback.
          And I am listening to a curious one at the moment. ‘The Diary of a Nobody’ written by George & Weedon Grossmith in the late 1800s. It’s hilarious, and just goes to show that we bloggers (and Facebookers) have not gone anywhere new with our daily ramblings. My version is narrated by Arthur Lowe (from Dad’s Army?). He is so bringing it to life for me. When the central character, Mr Pooter, is pleased with himself, I can tell that Lowe is smiling as he narrates because it lifts the voice to that subtle conspiratorial pitch as if someone is secretly delighted but trying to be modest, if you get my drift. That, ‘so what do you think about that?’ nuance.

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          • Oh, I’d forgotten all about ‘The Diary of a Nobody’. It was on one of my readings lists from long, long ago and I seem to vaguely recall a seminar where excerpts were discussed. I think Arthur Lowe must be THE perfect fit for the performance/narration.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ah yes, I’ve heard books narrated by Terrence Hardiman. He is very good, but initially I had to get the vision of him as the ‘Demon Headmaster’ out of my head. The Children’s TV series had been a BIG favourite with my daughter. Of course, once you settle into an audiobook when the narrated is excellent, they as an individual fade away and all the characters come alive from the text.

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  4. We had notions that we might write a book. Having read your machinations of doing so I think we may change our minds! All seems so hard! Congrats to you Gwen for getting there!

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    • Hi JoJo, the process I described was a path to traditional publishing with one of the major houses. You can of course write your book for family and friend consumption and have a run of 50 copies from a printing company, without worrying too much about structure and editing. Many people do that.

      All the same, it is an endeavour that requires times and perseverance. Xx Gwen

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  5. Excellent, Gwen, just excellent. Your perseverance and willingness to step back and see what has to be done to write your story is a model for anyone who has that ‘novel within just waiting to be written’.
    Your rejection of the rejections paid off and you finally found and listened to an editor that believed in you. Too many writers get a rejection letter and are defeated.
    Your breakdown of the important things you learned from your experience should be must reading for any would-be authors. It should be part of any course in Creative Writing. I only wish I had read this advice 60 years ago.
    Well done. I am certain this post will help many of the bloggers that read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post Gwen and well explained. Seems like getting a contract at all is quite an achievement in itself. I do like your attitude though. It would be quite easy to take things too personally when publishing is a business after all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a business, you’re right Karen. And you can be sure I am taking notice of who are the publishers of the books you review, and what are the main themes in those books. There must be a magic key in there somewhere 🙂 .

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  7. Very informative Gwen, but also very daunting. I don’t think I would have the energy to jump through all those hoops. Just as well some people (including you) make the effort so the rest of us have something to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I am glad you stuck to it Gwen. I will look forward to your new release. I don’t think I have the staying power.
    For anyone who hasn’t read “I Belong…..” I can highly recommend it. It changed the way I thought about a lot of things.

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