Last week, I finished editing my novel and sent it back to Allen and Unwin. A few days later, one of my editors emailed to say:
‘It has been such a pleasure to read the revised manuscript this week. I think you’ve tightened the pace of the novel and fleshed out the characters so beautifully … I was held by the spell of the story right to the end.’
This is exactly what I was hoping to hear! When I showed my writerly buddy, Michelle Johnston (whose novel, ‘Dustfall’, will be published by UWA Publishing early next year), she wrote back, ‘This is what it means to be a writer.’
It sure is. Those moments are the highs of being a writer, the little prizes that make all the hard work worthwhile. It was especially nice to hear because A&U had delayed the release of my book so I could spend more time working on it. For the past two months, I’ve barely moved from this attic, spending my days up here ironing out creases, closing gaps, disentangling timelines and developing characters.
In fact, I’ve spent five and a half years up here doing all of that, and more. I don’t know how many times I’ve edited my novel because I stopped counting. It’s definitely over twenty, possibly more than thirty.
I’m onto my seventh notebook devoted solely to my novel. Underneath my desk, I have a plastic box for storing all the research material I’ve used. It holds books on subjects such as saw milling, the birds and plants of Tasmania and the history of the northeast of Tassie. It also contains a manila folder of articles I’ve printed off the internet. That holds write-ups on how to dress a kangaroo and on life in Tasmania in the 1920s and 30s, as well as a print out of a delightful book I found called, ‘Garden and Greenhouse Culture’, which was first published in Hobart in 1895. There are also old newspaper articles I downloaded from Trove, about how to use ration cards and who won the vocal sections of the Launceston Eisteddfods in 1937. And there’s a CD of the calls of native Tasmanian birds, which I played while writing bush scenes.
Then there’s my kindle, which holds more research material, including a quaint series of books on hat-making.
I should add that much of this research hasn’t even made it into the book.
This week, once again I packed everything back into the box and shoved it under the desk and out of reach. I’ve done that before and hoped it would be for the last time, but inevitably, I’ve had to extract it from its hiding spot when I needed to edit further. But this time will be the last. I can hear you saying, ‘Hmm, she’s said that before’. Well, you won’t hear me saying it again, because this time I really am finished; I can feel it in my bones. There are still copy edits to come, but no more structural edits. I promise, and that’s a sincere, dinky-di, cross-my-heart promise.
This story hasn’t been written so much as grafted, sentence upon sentence, layer upon layer. It’s taken years and many, many edits for the story to reveal itself to me. Maybe I should be saying that it’s taken years for me to see and understand my story, because I do believe it’s a two-way thing, a partnership between the story and the author, both growing from each other.
My first draft told a tale, but it wasn’t a very good one. It was rather thin and clichéd, and who knows what its theme was. I certainly didn’t. I had no idea what I was trying to say. I threw in every significant thing I’d ever experienced or seen or heard, as well as a large cast of characters, stirred it all around a bit, made a few links between the scenes, and called it a story. But it was wild and ungainly, and there were a lot of holes. It was also rather grim; I don’t think anyone ended up happy.
However, I wanted to tell that story. More than wanted to, I had to tell that story. It was burning inside of me. Indeed, it was the only story I could have told at that time.
Since then, my story has changed almost beyond recognition, and very few of those original words remain. Yet everything I’ve written since has come from that original tale. Without writing that horrible, messy, unpalatable first draft about something which held so much power for me, the rest wouldn’t exist. I had to write it to get to what I have now.
And I had to write every draft in between, because each stage could only arise because of the one before it. It’s taken a long time, partly because I was new to writing and had to learn how to do it, but also because this tale only came to me bit by bit. Or should I say, my understanding of this tale only came to me a little at a time, because at each stage of its development, I had to develop, too, in order to understand it. I had to think hard about each scene and character, and question what was really happening in a scene, or what was really motivating a character, because sometimes the real reason wasn’t obvious.
I also had to learn to tell the story as it needed to be told, and I, the author, had to get out of the way. I found that hard, particularly when it came to writing my antagonist. At first, she was horrible, really horrible, with no redeeming features whatsoever. Just about every reader of my book commented on her being so unrelentingly horrible that she was just annoying and as realistic as a cardboard cutout.
With each draft, I tried to rework her, to make her more sympathetic, more human, but I found it really difficult. Eventually, I realised why: I had my own agenda. She does things I could never do and they’re things about which I feel very strongly. I wanted everyone to hate her in the same way I did. I didn’t want to make her sympathetic because it felt like I was condoning what she did. In the end, I stepped out of the way, stopped judging her and let her tell her story. Once I did that, she came to life. In fact, she changed so much I’m not sure she can be called an antagonist any more. I ‘get’ her now, I understand her motivations and I’m actually quite moved by her.
When I started writing this book, not only did I want to tell a good story with good characters, I also wanted to tell a bigger story, one that wasn’t just about the characters in my novel, but that had a truth about ourselves at the core of it. I thought I knew what that bigger story would be, but I didn’t. It’s turned out to be something completely different and something I like much, much better.
Writing this story has taken me a long time, but I couldn’t have done it any quicker. When I tried to rush the process, hurrying to get to the end, it didn’t work. Similarly when I tried to bend the story to fit my agenda. I learnt to let it go where it needed to go.
I’ve sat here in this attic for goodness knows how many hours. Sometimes I’ve typed, but often I’ve just sat and stared out of the window or at my computer screen. I’ve walked with this story, taken showers with it, done the washing up, vacuuming and hung out the clothes with it. I’ve driven with it, slept with it and lain awake with it. I’ve scrolled social media with it. I’ve carried it with me almost everywhere I’ve been for the past five and a half years, and I’ve tried to hear what it was trying to tell me. To let it lead me and not me lead it. I’ve tried to tune into that quiet, tender place where stories come from, and trust the process to tell it best.
And this is where I’ve ended up: at a place where I can say I’m proud of my story and I’m ready for it to go out into the world.
In the next post I thought I’d write about the research I did for this novel, particularly the humorous anecdotes and stories I found. I lost days, even weeks, to research, and it wasn’t always because I needed to know the information to write my book. Often it was because it was so interesting, particularly Trove—what a brilliant historical record that is! Every page is a snapshot of our history, and I’m pretty sure on every page there’s also something to giggle about.
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