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Chapter 5: Counting down to the launch

It’s been an exciting few weeks – holding the novel for the first time (a real book, not just a wad of double-spaced A4 pages splattered with ink from our ageing printer), being interviewed by Lynn Freeman at Radio NZ, Unity Books saying they’ll sell at the launch, hearing that All Our Secrets will be reviewed in The Listener…. And then, last week, turning on my radio, out of the blue, just in time to catch the book’s first ever review (listen to it here).

And with only five days to go, I’m now nearing the end of my pre-launch to-do list (getting dangerously close to ‘clean the house!’ – the exclamation mark emphasising how desperately this needs doing before my family arrives from Oz).

But before I do anything drastic like the vacuuming, I need to mention another important part of my long journey: the Wellington Writers Group. I’m pretty sure there’s another group with the same name now, but Wellington Writers Group was what we called ourselves without knowing (or caring) whether another more official group existed.

We met once a month to say (mostly) nice things about each other’s work, and once a year we headed up the coast for a weekend retreat. We’d explore the beach, cook feasts, drink wine, let off fireworks (not because we were pyromaniacs, but because our inaugural retreat was on Guy Fawkes night) and, if there were a few spare minutes between unpacking and heading home, we’d write.

Our meetings were a big source of inspiration, a monthly deadline hugely motivating, and I really valued the feedback of everyone in the group. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with this novel if it wasn’t for their encouragement and support.

The photo below is the Wellington Writers Group in its original form – Janis, Sarah, me, Chris, Niamh and Mark – at our first retreat in Foxton, late 2005 or whenever flarey jeans were last in. Although we definitely devoted more time to eating than writing, I’d like to point out that I was pregnant at the time, not full from lunch.

Foxton

I won’t get around to posting again before the launch, so I hope to see you there…

Chapter 4: The publishing journey

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I was born in the wrong era. Once upon a time publishers bought manuscripts for ludicrous sums and paid equally ludicrous advances. Why can’t I have launched my writing career in those days? Even if I was forced to wear a corset while writing and had to publish under the pseudonym ‘George’, at least the publishing industry was thriving and companies welcomed new authors. (Well, at least this is my impression of those days.)

One good thing about today’s era is Google. Given that my novel is set in a fictional Australian town, it seemed logical to try my luck in my motherland first. A few hours’ googling taught me:

  1. Many publishers won’t stoop to considering your manuscript if you don’t have an agent.
  2. Many agents won’t stoop to considering new authors.

I soldiered on nonetheless and eventually, hooray, found an agent in Melbourne who did take on new authors. Even better, she was willing to accept me – on the provision that I reworked my novel to make it more ‘young adult’. So after a few deep breaths and a lot of swearing, I began work on another, more young-adulty draft under the guidance of an amazingly talented person known only to me then as The Reader (she later revealed herself as the young adult fiction writer, Emily Gale. Fortunately, I was happy with the results – and so was the agent.

The moment the agent offered me a contract was one of extreme excitement. My jump of jubilation caused my daughters, who were downstairs from me at that moment, to drop into ‘turtle position’ (something they’re well rehearsed in doing in the event of an earthquake). I finally had an agent! The hard work was over. My novel was in a professional’s capable hands now. All I had to do was wait….

…and wait

…and wait.

I received a lot of positive feedback, but sadly, no takers. ‘Young adult fiction’ publishers thought the novel wasn’t ‘YA enough’. So the agent focussed on ‘Adult fiction’ publishers. Nope. It’s ‘more of a YA novel’. Aghhhh!

After two up-and-down years (during which I started and completed the first draft of my second novel), I stopped crossing my fingers. Once again, I turned to my NZSA mentor, Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira Books, for advice. She came to the rescue by reinstating her offer of publication, later going one step further by offering to bring out a hard copy version as well as an ebook.

So that’s how I got to where I am today. It’s been a heartbreaking process, but I’ve learned a lot along the way – from Penelope and Emily (and Google) – and believe that my manuscript is better because of it. Is it ‘young adult’ or ‘adult’ fiction? I don’t know. All I know is I wrote what I wanted to write (albeit several times) and if someone enjoys reading it, the long long journey will have been worthwhile.

CHAPTER 3: LOSING THE PLOT

I lost count of the months I devoted to the first draft as I drifted in and out of my early-motherhood haze, but I eventually produced something that vaguely resembled a novel. A beginning, a middle and even, amazingly enough, an end. Even so, I knew the beast wasn’t finished.

As well as several plot holes (I didn’t get around to creating a chapter plan, so the story at the end was quite different to the one at the start), the narrator’s voice was inconsistent (I struggled to settle on her age).  Even the narrator’s name was inconsistent. In Chapter 1, Draft 1, I christened her Evie. But halfway through, I fell in love with the name Gracie. I thought bestowing the name on my narrator would remove the temptation to have a third child (back in the real world) for the sole purpose of calling her (or, as luck would have it, him) Gracie. It worked! Tess and Matilda remain our only children. It took a while to weed all the Evies out of the manuscript though.

By this time I felt that if I laboured over the novel any longer, I’d lose either my mind or the will to live, possibly both. So it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) mentorship programme saved my life.

The mentorship included a full manuscript appraisal as well as guidance – a total of 20 hours’ mentoring from an experienced New Zealand author. For free! I joined the NZSA, laboured over an application (devoting only slightly less time to it as I did to my manuscript), and was lucky enough to secure a mentorship with Dunedin author, Penelope Todd, now of Rosa Mira Books.

It was a fantastic experience – and one I couldn’t recommend more highly. After working in isolation for so long, it felt indulgent to have someone get to know my characters as well as I did – questioning their motives as if they were real people, actually caring about what they did and said. I had a whole world – well, a whole fictional town – living (and dying!) inside my head. To have someone else spend time in Coongahoola, my town, was exhilarating.

More than anything I valued Penelope’s encouragement. She went beyond her role as mentor and offered me publishing advice – even going so far as offering to publish the manuscript herself (as an ebook) under her brand, Rosa Mira Books. It was a very exciting offer, and one I would later grab. But at that stage, I was still attached to the idea of a traditional book, so I was keen to pursue the traditional publishing route.

I now had something that didn’t just resemble a novel. It was a novel! I had around 80,000 words, in a logical order! ‘All Our Secrets’ was ready for a publisher to snap up and unleash to the world…

Chapter 2: And the winner is…

I’ve won few competitions in my life. So few that I can still remember winning St Michael’s School’s Christmas raffle when I was in kindergarten (and my prize: a plastic nativity scene, silver glitter snow shining on the stable’s roof). As for writing competitions, my story Dominic finds a way scored me first prize in Year 6 (I took home a hardback copy of Anne of Green Gables) and Jude topped Salient’s short story competition in the late 90s. But that’s about it. So when I heard about NZ Book Month’s Six Pack competition, I didn’t race out and buy a bottle of Moët in anticipation of my success.

Entries could be either a short story or an extract from a novel, and the six winners would be published in the Six Pack book. I combined two chapters of a novel I’d started writing, turned them into a story (Scout’s Honour) and sent my entry in, feeling satisfied that I’d accomplished something more than helping my baby get a greater amount of pumpkin in her mouth than on my face, though not expecting to hear back.

I wrote the following blog post about what happened next (for the NZ Book Month website):

For me, it all began when an email with the subject NZ BOOK MONTH/SIX PACK COMPETITION/SHORTLIST magically appeared in my inbox. I clicked on it, and as I waited, waited, waited (we had dial-up back then), two possibilities wrestled in my head:

  1. It was an email to all entrants announcing the shortlist (none of the names bearing even a close resemblance to mine), praising the high standard of entries, congratulating the rest of us and urging us to try again next year. 
  2. It was an email informing me that I’d made the cut.

I can’t describe how I felt when I discovered the latter was true. Had I not been a responsible (and breastfeeding) mother, I would’ve headed straight to the nearest bar (some distance away since I’m a responsible mother who now lives in the burbs) and celebrated in a way DBC Pierre would’ve been proud of.

That was back in May and as the months dragged by, the possibility of being a Six Pack winner was always on my mind. On hearing I was a winner, I once again had to limit my celebrating, this time to just an extra cup of green tea, having just discovered I was soon to be a responsible mother of two.

Unlike the dreams I’d had leading up to the launch of the Six Pack book, I didn’t turn up at the wrong place, my name was on the winners’ list, and the $5000 cheque was of a standard size, not a really big one like in TV game shows. It was a day of surreal experiences: reading an extract from my story on a marae, introducing my mum to Elizabeth Smither, and of course, seeing my story in a book, alongside some of the best writers in NZ. All this was a week ago now and I’m still buzzing…

At that moment anything seemed possible. I was practically a novelist. It didn’t matter that I’d only written four chapters (and actually had no idea of how the story was going to end). 5000 words of it had already won a prize; I assumed publication would be a given. It was only after I’d finished one, two, three, four drafts, under the guidance of first a mentor, and then an agent, that I understood that writing is the easy part. Getting published is a completely different story.

The Six Pack

Chapter 1: The beginning

All Our Secrets was conceived when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Tess. She turned eleven this February, so to say it’s been a long journey is an understatement of monumental proportions.

All Our Secrets began as a short story about, coincidentally, a birth. In developing a backdrop for the birth, I created a fictional New South Wales town (Coongahoola) that grew much bigger than its original purpose, and stuck around for the next ten years. But while Coogahoola and its characters lived on, the short story itself only survived as a backstory for the narrator:

Standing at the 10 Items or Less counter, Martha never let me slip past without winking and nodding towards the Pasta, Rice and Sauce aisle, the aisle in which I was nearly born (Mum’d been buying the ingredients for spaghetti bolognaise when I decided to make my entry into the world).

Fearing a fate similar to the one I’d inflicted on my narrator’s mum, I’d arranged to start my maternity leave four weeks before my due date. I’d imagined my waters breaking mid-meeting in dramatic fiction-style fashion, and the baby introducing itself (Tess was still an ‘it’ back then, having stubbornly crossed her legs throughout the 20-week scan) to my workmates seconds before an ambulance came to my rescue.

As it turned out, life didn’t imitate fiction; my baby wasn’t much of a drama queen. Nor was she in much of a hurry. Instead, I finished work with my dignity (and my waters) intact and devoted each morning to writing for three or four luxurious hours, my growing stomach pushing me further away from my desk each day.

Over the weeks, that short story grew into one, two, three chapters. I didn’t have a plot in mind, I hadn’t written a chapter plan or anything sensible like that; the story just evolved. This is why, before I knew it, a religious cult had drifted in and taken over Coongahoola. It took me a while to realise where I’d stolen that idea from.

When I was around 15, there was a ‘sighting’ of the Virgin Mary at a river, not far from our favourite swimming hole. Soon after, a religious cult set up a camp nearby and we were warned to keep our distance. Not wanting to give up our swimming hole, we’d race past the camp on our bikes, pedalling a million miles an hour, in fear of being stoned to death (that was my fear anyway, I’ve no idea what it was based on).*

Apart from this cult and some of its questionable goings-on, I can safely say that the rest of All Our Secrets and its characters are mostly fictional. In fact, due to my own mum’s paranoia that my fictional mums are based on her, I deliberately made this one – ‘Nell’ – as different from her as humanly possible:

Not even three simultaneous screams had been enough to wake Mum. I found her lying flat on her back on top of the worn-out green bedspread, one arm flopped over the edge of the bed, an almost-empty glass bottle poking out from under the blankets. She was snoring louder than Grandma Bett snored when she had the flu, and her breath stank like one of the sprays she cleaned the bathroom with. I shook her until her red eyes blinked open and stared at me. Her hair was a tangle of knots and blue eyeliner snaked down her cheek…

Happy, Mum? Your hair is never knotty and you don’t wear eye-liner.

Talking of mums, I was about to be one! Where was that baby? When the due date passed just like any other day, I struggled to focus. I closed novel.doc, opened a new page, and wrote a piece of non-fiction – So… Where’s the Baby? When the Due Date Comes and Goes later published in Sydney’s Child and Wild Space magazine. (You can read it here.)

As panicked as I was, I was lucky that Tess was late. Never before (or since) had I enjoyed so much time to write, and in the months that followed, having a shower was considered a significant achievement; writing didn’t even make it onto my daily try-to-do list. I’d only completed a few chapters, but I had a quirky town, a crazy cult and a dysfunctional family, all of which would come in handy when I heard about New Zealand Book Month’s Six Pack writing competition a year later. But I’ll save that for next time. It took me ten years to get around to writing this, so what’s the hurry?

*The name of the cult will remain anonymous (in case my fears were founded, and my next trip to Australia comes to an abrupt end with my stoning).