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Dear (as yet) unpublished writers,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

Books are like children: each one is different

There are many similarities with creating books and creating kids–the gestation, the labour of getting them out into the world, the letting go. And most of all, is the nurturing process, the drafts and drafts of ‘growing up’ with them, of listening to what they want to do while simultaneously trying to shape them into what you want them to do. Writers will tell you that each book’s process is different, just as every child is different. Here’s what I’ve learned so far from each of my very different (published) book babies.

The Tea Chest

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As an aspiring author who’d been rejected over one hundred times, I truly didn’t believe this book baby was going to make it out into the world. Perhaps like a mother who’d struggled to conceive and had lost so many babies along the way, I was well prepared to ‘lose’ this one too. I was shocked when this book sold, struggling to find excitement though it was something I’d wanted and worked so hard for for so long. I didn’t trust it. Fortunately, it all worked out, and it worked out far better than I could have dreamed.

But the biggest thing I learned from this book was to trust the magic. Writing a book takes discipline, sacrifice, artistry and more than a sprinkling of magic. I wrote the book I wanted to read. That was it. It was a lesson that took me twelve years and ten manuscripts to learn, but I got it. Finally.

The Chocolate Promise

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This book was written with a young baby in arms, excruciating levels of sleep deprivation, endless hours on long country roads to doctors, specialists and real estate agents as we make a difficult transition from the bush to the beach, gambling everything we had on a 115-year-old renovator’s ‘delight’, simultaneously relocating our family business to a new geographical region, with many months split between homes. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I drank so much coffee and ate so much chocolate (as research, but it doubled as caffeine too), blindly packing up my stuff to go and write for three hours at a time while a friend came to look after my young son. I never want to write a book under those circumstances again. Yet, I did it. I learned that even if a book feels like it’s going to fail, it won’t. I learned that I can make deadlines under the most crippling of circumstances. And I learned that the story always turns up. Even when I think I have no idea what I’m doing, the story has its own ideas and if I turn up at the page, it will turn up to meet me. Trust. Trust. Trust.

The Beekeeper’s Secret

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This book turned up unexpectedly. I’d been trying to write a family saga set on a coffee farm and had done heaps of research into coffee but I wasn’t getting any ‘signs’ to support that I was on the right track. So I had to sit back and say, okay, what else am I interested in. Everywhere I went, I saw bees, beekeepers and honey. I began researching bees and fell head over heels in love with them. I started to write a story (a corporate sabotage), but it wasn’t working and I had Catholic nuns in the background who were trying to wedge into the story. But they didn’t belong there. Again, I had to stop and say, ‘okay, what do you want?’ Maria Lindsey started talking and she didn’t stop. This book wrote itself so easily. Don’t get me wrong; it’s always hard work. But Maria’s voice was there every time I fired up my laptop. I trusted her, stepping outside of my comfort zone, delving into some darker places, and it all came together. With this book, I again learned to trust the story but I also learned to trust my readers. I was worried my readers would baulk at the change of direction this story took, but they didn’t. They came with me and loved it. I also learned that writing a book doesn’t have to be hard. Easy books are still good books.

Three Gold Coins

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Okay, so fourth novel in you’d have thought I’d learned a few things? Well, as previously stated, each book is different. This one was my most difficult book yet. I wrote three separate versions of this story. The final word count is around 110,000 words but I would have easily written over 220,000 in the process.

I mucked it up.

Firstly, I wrote the ‘wrong book’. I started this book in the Cotswolds in England and it was called Foxleigh’s Cheese Emporium and the novel revolved around two sisters, Lara and Sunny Foxleigh. But I got 50,000 words in (half a novel) and realised I’d written myself into a corner that I couldn’t get out of. So, I did what any sensible author would do and ran away to Tuscany 😉 While in Tuscany, I found a way to reincarnate Lara and Sunny Foxleigh into a totally new story.

Next, I mucked it up again. I started writing the story and backstory arrived. But I didn’t like the backstory and didn’t want to go there. I simply didn’t do books like that. So I constructed all sorts of plot and backstory to avoid writing what I didn’t want to write. I sent it off for an appraisal and upon reading my editor’s notes I realised my fatal flaw. I hadn’t listened to the story and I hadn’t trusted myself to write it.

I wrote a third version, one that went to difficult places, far darker than I’ve been to before. It was hard for me emotionally. I struggled. But good advisors kept encouraging me to continue and I pushed through it. I realised how much I have avoided writing about deep, deep pain because I didn’t want to feel it myself. But it was what the book needed and it is far, far stronger now than it was in the second version. It is now the story that wanted to be told from the start. I was a very, very slow learner on that one. In hindsight, I think that the commonly given advice to writers–to write what you’re most afraid of–is actually spot on. I know I am now a better, stronger writer for having gone to the place I didn’t want to go. I’m no longer afraid to go there again. This book made me grow ten-fold over what any of the previous books did.

Book Five?

What’s next? I’m pleased to say that book five is so far behaving itself! Phew! I am hoping it will be the easiest kid yet. It will be out in 2019.

 

 

 

 

Where Do Characters Come From?

Right now, I’m looking for characters. I have a new, delicious novel a-brewin’ and I’m looking for people to fill the pages. But where do they come from?

Main characters I have known and loved…

Kate Fullerton, the main character of The Tea Chest, arrived between the time it took for me to sniff a selection of teas in a tea shop and the two hours it took me to drive home. Her personality was pretty easy to pin down, which made life simple.

Maria Lindsay, the main character of The Beekeeper’s Secret, was such a strong ‘force’ that she pushed aside the novel I was trying to write and instead demanded a whole novel all to herself. She was a dream character, always on my shoulder, always ‘there’ in the space, waiting to talk. She made writing that novel the easiest of all my novels so far.

Tansy Butterfield, the other main character of Beekeeper’s, was based on a woman that sat opposite me on a ‘coast to airport’ shuttle bus I once took. I sat on that shuttle for several hours and she was diagonally opposite me and I had so much time to observe her that I created Tansy around her. The woman was tall, with long limbs, a long nose and dark hair, and she looked like a runner or a ballerina. She was around the right age (29) and I jotted down notes on my phone as we zoomed the highway.

Christmas Livingstone (main character of The Chocolate Promise), on the other hand, took a lot longer to come into ‘view’ and was in fact the third iteration of that character for that book, although she chose her own name very strongly when, one day, I asked her, ‘What is your name?’ Quick as lightning, I heard “Christmas Livingstone” in reply. I said, ‘Really? That’s your name?!’ But it had been delivered so decisively that I couldn’t tell her otherwise.

Supporting characters I have known and loved…

Supporting characters are generally my favourite ones to work with. They tend be the most clearly defined, often larger-than-life, and bring humour, or deep pain, or great adversity. I find that it is often the relationships between my main characters and supporting characters that allow us to see extra dimensions and great truth in our heroes, who will often speak of the unspeakable with a supporting character when it’s too difficult to do so with a close family member, for example. In my first draft, my supporting characters are generally a bit quiet, but start to really find their stride around the third draft, bringing so much more depth and richness to the story.

Often, supporting characters just ‘turn up’ as I’m writing, with little to no forethought at all. Caesar, the Golden Retriever in The Chocolate Promise was a great example of that. I was writing a scene between Lincoln and his father when suddenly I ‘heard’ a scratching on the back door. I thought, ‘What is that?’ So I sent Lincoln over to the door to open it to find a hungry, unloved old dog there. It was as though I saw it happening in the same time zone as Lincoln did. Caesar was a total star character, one who stole every scene he was in, I think.

One of the greatest joys I have with supporting characters is that, as they often turn up unannounced, I might not know why they are actually in the story at all until I’m halfway through the book, or later, and then all the threads come together and I have a truly satisfying moment of thinking, ‘Ohhhh, that’s why you’re here!’ I had that moment recently, while writing the first draft of The Tuscan Feast (to be published April 2018), with Sven, a young Swedish man who turned up unannounced and then later earned his place in the story so perfectly.

Lulu Divine, a fierce and fabulous nursing home character in The Chocolate Promise, was actually sixteen years old and a trick rodeo rider last time I’d ‘seen’ her. She was a character in a Young Adult novel (set in 1958) that I wrote many years ago (but was never published) and one day just popped up in a scene I was writing, surprising me greatly, both because she had walked so unexpectedly into a different novel but also because that wasn’t how I’d ever imagined her life would turn out!

So where do characters come from?

In short, characters come from anywhere and everywhere. They might pop out of the ether, like Maria Lindsay did, or they might be awkwardly wrangled out of thin air and onto the page and then worked and worked until they are ‘real’, like Christmas Livingstone. They might be someone on a bus who catches my eye, who I then take a mental picture of, like a template, and then build from there, like Tansy Butterfield. Writers always have troves of stories that have never made it to print and these can be absolute diamond mines of fully formed characters just waiting their turn for the right story, as was the case for Lulu Divine.

And then there is this man.

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I found myself walking behind him in the streets of Rome on my way to the Trevi Fountain and there was something (something!) about him that made me pull my phone out and take a photo. A week later, sitting under the trees out the front of a sixteenth century villa in Tuscany, the memory of this man came back to me.

Samuel.

Samuel was the way into the story of The Tuscan Feast for my main character, Lara Foxleigh, who finds herself following him on her way to the Trevi Fountain.

But that’s as far as my journey and Lara’s journey went together. After that, it was up to Lara to lead the way out of Rome, and a whole novel rolled out in front of me.

 

 

 

Win ME at your book club!

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Would you like to WIN an hour with ME hosting your next book club or gathering of reader friends? Tell me in 25 words or less why you’d love me to host your book club (and which of my books you’d choose to discuss) in the comments below. Then, share this post and you’re in the running to win! It’s that easy!

Also, if you’re the winner, you and each person who attends your book club event receive a signed book plate for their copy of my book. Check out the terms and conditions on my website if you’d like more info. Entries close on 12 May. I’m so excited to be part of someone’s book club – and it may be yours! Happy posting!

(Click here for T&Cs.)

Should I quit writing?

I am distressed.

Right now I feel like never writing another book. And I’ll try to explain why as simply as I can, trying to untangle the messy political drama that is about to change the entire Australian publishing industry and how it affects me personally.

The government has proposed and recommended that Australia does two things:

  1. Introduce parallel importation
  2. Drastically reduce copyright protection to just 15 years.

(You can sign the petition to tell the government you don’t want this to happen right here.)

How does parallel importation affect me and you?

  • The first point I want to make sure you know is that our contemporaries, the USA and the UK do not have parallel importation. We would be going against them. (Which doesn’t make sense, right?)
  • The next point I want to make is that New Zealand lifted their parallel importation laws and rather than seeing cheaper books their book prices have risen to approximately $37 a book.

When I was offered my first publishing deal (after a long battle of 12 years to crack into my dream career), I was lucky enough to have three publishers offer to buy The Tea Chest. The two biggest offers came from Allen & Unwin and from Penguin (now Penguin Random House). This was a painful decision. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be with either of these stellar publishing houses? In the end, I chose Allen & Unwin, in part because it is Australia’s largest wholly Australian owned publishing house, and because I was a total newbie to the scene and I had seen the merger of Penguin and Random House in Canada not long before, and I wasn’t sure what would happen if the same thing happened in Australia. (An aside, I have also published with Penguin Random House since then and still consider them a stellar publishing house.)

As it turns out, my very choice to choose Australian owned may come to hurt me after all.

Parallel importation of books is exceptionally complicated, but let me give you one example of how this might affect my publisher. Books are published by ‘territories’. Australia/New Zealand is one; the UK/Ireland is another; and the USA is another. What this means is that books sell into those territories, giving publishers the chance to make their money in their own territory, without having to compete with the whole world. It also means that they can acquire the rights to publish books from other territories. So Allen & Unwin, for example, has the rights to publish Harry Potter here in Australia. As you can imagine, that gives the company good cashflow. That cashflow and security is exactly what they use to reinvest in their Australian authors, and gives them the change to invest in (and take a financial chance on) new and emerging authors here in this country. With that guaranteed cashflow taken away? Well, let’s say that if I was an aspiring career author I would be losing a lot of hope of being published at all.

For me? I am lucky that I have a foot in the door, a good sales record and publishing track record. Still, my publisher is wholly Australian owned. It doesn’t have the backing of the multi-billion dollar publishing houses that are internationally owned to help it through the choppy waters of parallel importation.

  • Cheaper book prices for you? Not if New Zealand is any example to go by.
  • The market flooded with cheaper overseas books at the exclusion of our more costly Australian-written books? Highly likely.
  • A destruction of Australian literature? Highly likely.

How do changes to copyright affect me?

 

Right now, copyright laws in Australia are in alignment with the UK and USA, giving authors full rights over their work for the term of their life plus 50 years, which ensures that any royalties owing to their estate will go to the next generation.

The government has proposed and recommended reducing copyright laws to just 15 years, giving us the lowest copyright protection in the world.

The government claims that a book’s commercial life rarely extends past 5 years. They also claim that most authors aren’t motivated to write by making money, and those that do make money earn such an insubstantial amount that protecting their commercial rights is ridiculous.

Okay, firstly, I can name many Australian authors who are making good money from their writing–enough money to support themselves as a full time job, myself included. (And, dear government, we’re paying a lot of tax to you too.)

Secondly, even if we take that as a valid point (which it isn’t, just to be clear), what about our rights in intellectual property? What about our right as an artist to have ownership over the piece of art we created (generally spending years at a time to create)? What about our right to have our name attributed to our work 15 years after it was made?

What about my right to NOT have to stand by and watch someone take The Tea Chest and reprint it as their own work, make money from it AND put their own name to it?

What about my son’s right NOT to have to watch the same? Or to read his mother’s book at school with someone else’s name on it? How in any way, shape or form is this logical, ethical or fair?

What about my right not to have my heart broken by this insane treachery?

Does this all sound far fetched? It’s not. Do I sound panicked? I am.

So, yeah. This makes me not want to write anything again. Because I would far rather quit writing than to see my work end up in anyone’s hands to be done with as they please and have to sit by and watch helplessly while it’s torn apart.

Or perhaps, I should leave this beautiful country I call home to reside somewhere else that will give me intellectual property rights. And maybe all of our artists and thinkers will do the same, leaving Australia duller and with a shrinking identity because its voices have been stolen.

Please, Australia. Don’t let this happen.

Please, at least, sign this petition.

Thank you.

 

A Writer’s Year Plan

It’s been a great year for me and it hasn’t been by accident. At the end of last year, I wrote down my reflections of the year, I pinpointed the things that went wrong and wrote strategies for how to avoid them or deal with them if it happened again. I wrote down all the great things that did happen and all the things I wanted to change. And I mapped it all out, both personally and professionally and then I executed it, month by month. And I did it all in Leonie Dawson’s Create Your Shining Year workbook.550x381_AffiliateGraphics_2016

You know how they always say that when you write something down it’s more likely to come true?

That is the value in year planning.

In my last post, I introduced you to the year planner that changed my life in 2015. In this post, I want to tell you about some of the things I wrote down in my year planner that came true, even when I thought they were just fanciful, fun dreams.

The funny thing about writing these things down was that, for the most part, I completely forgot about them. And then months later, when checking in, I stopped and went, wait a minute! I just did that! Better than that, often what I wrote down came true, yes, but in a way that was even BIGGER and BETTER than what I’d written.

Here’s some:

  1. Get new author pics. I was lining up a friend or my sister to do this for me and then about two weeks after I wrote this, my publisher emailed out of then blue me asking if Allen & Unwin could organise this for me, with a professional photographer and a makeup and hair person. Whoa! Yes please! Thank you, A&U, you are generous and wonderful and make me look much better than I feel.
  2. Do yoga. I wrote this down, thinking I’d like to do a class. But you know what? We did better. My husband and I decided we needed a private yoga teacher and it was possibly one of the best things we’ve ever done for ourselves.
  3. Fly to Sydney to see my publisher and agent (for no other reason than to see them). I did this and it was great not only to catch up when things weren’t so hectic but because EXTRA things came directly out of the fact that I did that: (1) totally unexpectedly, I was invited to submit a manuscript for a children’s book that I’d been scribbling away on; (2) I got a new title for my next book, The Beekeeper’s Secret (thanks, Tom); and (3) I booked a flight to the UK! (see next point)
  4. Fly to the UK. I did it! That one was totally a ‘wish list’/ ‘in your dreams’ thing and yet… it came true!
  5. Pay off the mortgage. Okay, this one was also an ‘in your dreams’ thing. But the thing with this one is that I didn’t specify which house to pay off. In my head, I was thinking our family home. But what has happened is that our beautiful tenant has left our other property (our family home before this one), so we put it on the market and we’ve just got a contract for it and that will pay it off. So it’s all good.

I also invested in my business systems.

  • I changed my focus from social media and began a quarterly newsletter, and when I mentioned it to my publishers, they offered to help out with some prizes for some issues. (Did I mention how great they are?)
  • I made a book trailer for The Chocolate Promise / The Chocolate Apothecary.
  • I got a personal assistant. This was also an ‘in your dreams’ thing (almost laughable). But guess what? I did it! Only for a couple of hours a week, sure. But it is a great move and I’m so pleased I’ve done it.
  • I invested a lot more time into my financial bookkeeping systems, spreadsheets of what contracts are where and when reporting periods happen, actually went and found all my contracts (I know, I know). In other words, I really took the legal/financial stuff a lot more seriously and set up processes to help manage the growing correspondence about this. (Truly, I’ve no idea how authors who have ten or twenty books all published in different regions and with translation rights keep on top of it all. But since I do hope that will be me one day, I guess it’s best I try to figure it out now.)

The other great thing that happens when you start writing down not only what you want to happen, but also what does happen, and what unplanned successes came along, is that you get into the FLOW of synchronicity and more and more good things come your way.

Great surprises and beautiful blessings for the year of 2015

  • A New York agent took on The Chocolate Promise and is hopeful of selling it.
  • I have contracts for The Chocolate Promise to be translated for the German market!
  • Kim Wilkins (Kimberley Freeman) gave the most beautiful speech about me and my book at the launch of The Chocolate Promise this year and it will stay in my heart forever.
  • I received an ABIA nomination for The Tea Chest and my publishers flew me to Sydney to attend the awards.
  • I got to take my sister, nephew and Dad with me to the UK, for fantastic family support on my research trip there. Lots of gorgeous memories were made and I even got to tick off another of my year’s ‘fanciful’ things to do… play Canasta!!! (We are Canasta tragics in our house and spent many hours laughing ourselves silly over the cards in the Cotswolds).
  • I have learned so much about myself as a writer, woman, mother, creative and human being this year (and I’ll get to another post about that soon).

Leonie Dawson’s 2016 Shining Year Workbooks  are on sale now but stocks are already running low. I cannot recommend them enough. You can choose just the personal life book, or the business book, or both, and you can get them in digital and print copies. They are a small investment in what could be a huge return on your dreams.

Leonie’s books get right to the heart of what it means to live, of what it means to have a business (the big ‘why’ of why we do what we do), of what it means to be alive and have dreams, and then grounds that in real visionary activities. I can’t wait for mine to arrive and to dive into planning the next beautiful year of my life.