An author, 20 years in the making. Trust me, there’s still time for you.

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Dear (as yet) unpublished writers,

I realised recently that this year it is has been 20 years since I declared I wanted to be a full-time career author. Twenty years! That might have made me feel the teensiest bit old.

(Do you know what else made me feel old recently? My six-year-old came home from school and told me he’d joined the junior choir and they were learning John Mayer’s song, Waiting on the the World to Change. I was thrilled. When I was six years old, I also joined the junior choir and do you know what was the first song I was taught? God Save the Queen!!! I’m not even joking. The second song was Advance Australia Fair. Yep.)

Anyway, back to the writing thing…

I still remember that moment well. It was 1999 and I was in my first year teaching. I had gone to a weekend workshop with the Queensland Writers Centre. I was so inspired that I had a ‘full body moment’ where I decided this is it. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wish I could remember who the teacher was that day. Clearly, she was so inspirational that she changed my life.

I’ve been writing ever since, short stories, poetry, flash fiction, contemporary novels, kids books, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine articles, online articles. Not all of it has been published. Not all of it is good. Most of it didn’t make any money. Sometimes it was exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking. I made friends, a community. I won some prizes, was shortlisted for some, and on one memorable occasion was ranked in the last (i.e. considered ‘worst’) twenty-five per cent of entries.

It all changed in 2012 when I was signed by an agent. My first book, The Tea Chest, was published in 2014, but it was actually the tenth full-length manuscript I had written.

Sometimes, you’ll hear about a writer who just decided to write a book and it got published. If you’ve been slogging away for years and years at your craft, this can be deflating. But everyone’s journey is so different. A writer might publish one book and never publish another ever again. Another writer might publish a book and it’s a runaway hit, only to never have another book live up to the first one’s sale ever again. Another writer might write twenty books and make the same amount of money as the one with the mega hit, just over a longer time period. Another writer will start with modest sales and then build, and build and build.

There’s still time and space for you too. Perhaps you just haven’t truly found ‘your voice’ yet–that important but difficult to describe quality to your work. Perhaps you’re just not writing in the genre that’s right for you yet. Perhaps the timing of the market just isn’t there to support your work yet. Yet. Most writers I know slogged it out for years before they were published. You’re definitely not alone.

This year, I am blessed to have two books hitting the shelves (fiction, with The Gift of Life in April, and non-fiction with Buddhism for Meat Eaters in July), bringing my list of published books to seven. Seven doesn’t sound like a lot, I know. But writing is a slow game, a long game, and you’re going to need stamina to turn it into a career. There’s no one path to publication and no guarantees of outcomes after publication. It’s a game of luck as much as skill. The thing that keeps you going, the thing that must be there to keep you going, is passion. You write because you have to. You write for love. You write for the bliss moment, the moment when the real world falls away and it’s just you racing to keep up with the story your characters are telling. There is no other way.

Write on!

p.s. the story of my little red typewriter is here

Heavenly Retreat

** This post was first published in 2009, but I’m posting it again here because 2015 will be ‘The Year of Retreats’ on this blog **

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75323_173120436038856_3551589_n‘Welcome to Heaven.’

This is how our small cohort of writers was greeted at our DIY writing retreat over the long weekend. Five of us (four full-time participants and one part-time participant) locked ourselves in a tiny cabin at Heaven in the Hills in Maleny. We were surrounded by rain forest; were warmed by a fireplace that glowed 24-hours a day for four days; slept to the sound of silence; were without mobile phone reception; lived without television or radio; and had the most wonderful time. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that we had gone with a cheap DIY option and were crammed into such a tiny cabin that left one man sleeping on the verandah in a pink ‘fairy’ bed and one man sleeping on the floor in a nest of cushions. (Sometimes there are advantages to being female.)

Locked into such a tiny space we talked and brainstormed and problem-solved our way through twelve hours of conversation at a time. And never once did we fight. On the contrary; we were bursting with enthusiasm and support and laughter.

I came up with the idea for a DIY retreat after reading an article in The Writer magazine. I wanted to go on retreat and wondered who I could convince to come with me. I cast the net wide and left it up to fate as to who turned up. It worked like a charm. I wrote a program and everyone agreed to it. I offered a choice of two locations and everyone unanimously voted for the cabin. We slept little but dreamed lots. We wrote little but received more prizes than any of us thought was possible. We solved the big questions of our writing before we headed too far down the wrong path.

I simply could not have imagined a better time. (Okay if everyone had had their own bed/bedroom it would have been better… but I still wonder if that was part of the magic of this ‘writer survivor’ experience.)

Today I am struggling to keep hold of the magic of the weekend and carry it with me like a candle throughout my day lighting up my characters and plot with every breath I take. But as the wonderland fades a little with every chore found here in the ‘real’ world I know that I only have to open my book and write a sentence in order to find it again.

*** Does a retreat sound appealing to you? ***

If you want to join me on retreat, I’ll be running a retreat on the Sunshine Coast hinterland in October 2015. Click here for details.

I’m also open to visiting you on your own self-organised retreat. You can email me to chat about that too 🙂

The Life of a Recovering Perfectionist

My most popular post for 2014 was this little piece… Enjoy!
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“I enjoyed your article in today’s ‘Sunday Life’ but please, please, please – ‘slither’ is what a snake does, ‘sliver’ is a small piece of kitchen bench!” (Fiona)

Yesterday, I had a first-person feature article published in the Herald Sun’s Sunday Life magazine, talking about the importance of following your dreams and I related my experience of being in the wrong career, of suffering chronic fatigue syndrome at just 29 years of age, and the long road to recovery. Part of that journey was learning to manage my inner perfectionist. (I don’t think I’ll ever truly get rid of the perfectionist, so I have to learn to manage her instead.) I received some wonderful feedback on the article, including the quote above from a reader named Fiona, who helpfully pointed out the typo in the very first paragraph of the article.

imagesI do actually know the difference between slither and sliver, but my fingers went for the typo while I was writing the article (probably precisely because I was writing it with all those distractions I describe in the first paragraph) and there it stayed, even while multiple editors read it and sent it to print. It’s just one of those things that happens in life.

Now, let me sidestep here and tell you about a teenage girl I met at one of my library talks, who was so passionate about writing and just bubbling with conversation about what she was doing. BUT, she also talked about how she would sit in a cafe for hours to write, but only ever get a few sentences on the page because she would work them and rework and, essentially, be so afraid of getting it wrong that the words she wanted to get just didn’t make it to the page. Truly, this broke my heart. How unbelievably sad. That girl has words waiting for the world and her fear is stopping them getting there. This is a clear example of how perfectionism is a destructive force in our life.

Perfectionism is NOT about excellence. In fact, ‘perfect’ doesn’t even exist! It is a constructed idea in OUR OWN MIND. It is the perpetual search for the worst in ourselves, not the best. And because it is a constructed idea, in your own mind, no one else can ever convince you that something is good enough, no matter how much evidence they present. Only you can decide to trust and let go.

So, back to my reader feedback. Of course, as a recovering perfectionist, my first response to that was horror, shame, humiliation. Stories running through my head like, ‘Oh my God, my article is out there for the whole country to read and there’s a spelling mistake in the first paragraph!’ ‘No one will buy my book now because they’ll think I’m a crap writer!’ ‘People will think I’m stupid!’ ‘How could I have been so stupid??!!!’

But then, as a recovering perfectionist, I quickly identified these thoughts as illusions in my own mind. Sure, some people might think those things. Many people wouldn’t even notice. And many people, going by the rest of the feedback I received, took away something really valuable from the article. Was it better for it to be out there at all? I’d like to think so.

I used to be an editor of books, and despite four or five sets of eyes looking at them before they went to print, they invariably came back with at least one error in them. It’s just one of those things that happens because we are human in all our imperfect glory.

I also realised that Fiona’s feedback gave me a wonderful opportunity to once again heal my perfectionist and choose to NOT lie awake at night fretting about my errors but instead go to sleep feeling really peaceful that my article brought so much joy to so many people. Perfectionism is a choice. Self nurturing and acceptance is also a choice. I choose to be kind to myself. My words may not be perfect but they can still have power.

**disclaimer: I am once again writing this at 6.45am while my toddler watches Peppa Pig so I will embrace all errors ahead of time 🙂 **

Getting published: There’s no reason it can’t be you

In February 2009, QWC published an article I wrote called ‘The Power of the Positive’ in their WQ magazine, and I’m betting more than a few people thought I was a little nutty and ‘woo woo’. 

I started off by saying, “It seems to me that there can be a tendency in writing circles to dramatise the negatives… the main message is all about how difficult writing is, how it’s nearly impossible for a first-time writer to get published, how the annual salary for full-time writers in Australia is ridiculously low, how you ‘shouldn’t give up the day job’, how you ‘shouldn’t get your hopes up’, how everything is so competitive and how the slush pile is so high and the editor’s time is so short.”

 
Sound familiar?
 
An excerpt from my article, 'The Power of the Positive'

An excerpt from my article, ‘The Power of the Positive’

The rest of the article goes on to talk about the importance of believing the positive, visualising success, and channeling all that creative energy you have into something useful, rather than something that’s going to tear you down and bring others down with you–incorporating some sports psychology and some new age theory too.

But most importantly, it poses the question, ‘Why can’t it be you?’
 
Now, my first novel, The Tea Chest, has finally made it out into the world. And I am living proof that you can rise above all that negativity out there that will shoot down your dreams before they’ve even started. I’m not saying it’s easy to face more than a decade of writing books (10 manuscripts in 12 years for me before I got a publishing deal) and literally hundreds of rejections. It’s emotionally hard going when you’ve put your soul into a piece of art that other people criticise. And then it just sits silently and invisibly on your laptop with no where to go (which is why I’ve turned some of my manuscripts into books via http://www.lulu.com, just so I could see the completion of the project). 
 
And just for the record, The Tea Chest was submitted to every mentorship program and manuscript development program out there and not picked up.
 
You’ve got to do the work. Of course you do. I guarantee your book won’t get published if you don’t write it. But there is no predetermined expiration date or outcome on this. The sky truly is the limit (or maybe not even then).
 
Having said that, I do actually want to ‘ground’ this notion in a larger philosophy: that of art for art’s sake. Because I’m not saying you WILL achieve all those things you dream of. Sometimes, good work just won’t get published. This is not about bulldozing your way into perceived success via milestones and paycheques. The most important thing of all is to write. Just WRITE. 
 
If you are going to become attached to anything, become attached to being a writer, not to your manuscript. Then you will be able to move on from the wonderful manuscript you’ve worked so hard on for so many years and write a new one, or indeed something else entirely.
 
And just for once, I won’t quote Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way (I do not work for Julia Cameron or get commission  though the amount I plug her I probably should…), but instead I will quote Australian author, Torre de Roche

Forget the stats, the numbers, the wealth, the prestige, the popularity, the things you imagine to be waiting for you on the other side of ‘success.’ They’re not there, and if they are, they won’t stay long. Instead, work tirelessly to make your soul happy. Keep going until you’re standing before a big, glorious creation made by you, for you. Your baby—made of cells, or paper, or clay, or words. That’s yours.

Be proud. You did it for the simple joy of creating. There is nothing more to life than that.

So don’t quit.” 

What I’m saying here is that we write because we must. We write because it makes us happy. That is why we do it. So do it.

But there is no harm in expecting the best along the way. There is no harm in valuing a financial reward for your art. Imagine your biggest, scariest possibility of whatever you deem to be ‘success’. Got it? Good. File it away somewhere in your heart and mind to revisit at a later date, shrug of the criticisms and the crazy looks you get when you say you’re working on a book (to which someone will instantly say, ‘oh, do you have a publisher?’ and you’ll squirm inside and say, ‘no, not yet’), and go write. It doesn’t matter what anyone else has to say about your ‘chances’ of being published. That’s their reality, not yours. Feel free to invent your own.