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Dear (as yet) unpublished writers,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

How to Write a Book (for those who want to, but have a hundred excuses not to).

Consider this post both a gentle, supportive hug, and also a loving butt kick. I’ve had too many conversations in the past month with beautiful, talented, creative women that go something like this:

  • “Yeah, I’d love to write a book but I don’t want to do it and have it be bad.”
  • “I don’t want to write a book and have people criticise it.”
  • “I’d love to write a book but I know it’s so hard to get anything published [and therefore why would I bother].”
  • “I really want to write a book but I know hardly anyone makes money out of it and I need to be able to support myself… I can’t give up my day job.”

Look, to be blunt, none of this is new. All of this has been said before, by me and every other person with a creative wish. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “your fears are boring”. (Ouch! Hurts just a bit, doesn’t it?)

People get so messed up in their heads thinking about the outcome of their creative project that they fail to even start it.

And in my experience, what happens to your book  after it is finished is largely out of your hands. You have very little control over it after it leaves your laptop and flies off into the world.

Maybe it will sell, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will start a revolution across the world, or maybe it will change a single person’s life and help them through a difficult time. Maybe it will make you really rich, or maybe it will pay a phone bill, or maybe you’ll end up in debt.

Like bringing a child into the world, there is only so much you can do to protect, shepherd and guide her where you want her to go. She has her own journey.

Is this poking at your deepest fears? Can you feel your stomach knotting and your breathing constrict?

Here is something terrifying.

That fear never goes away.

I emailed my lovely fairy godmother, Monica McInerney, not long after getting my contract for The Tea Chest and The Chocolate Promise and asked her how to deal with the paralysing fear that was stopping me writing. She laughed (lovingly) and told me it wouldn’t ever go away and she was going through it right then too, on her tenth novel.

Julia Cameron, master of living a creative life (and famed author of The Artist’s Way) confesses in her book, The Creative Life, that as time goes on, the mind’s tricks, which it plays to stop us from writing, only get trickier.

Please, beautiful people with creative dreams, don’t be a slave to the ego’s fear.

You are stronger than that. You are wiser.

Accept it.

Name it, if you like. (My creative monster, my ever present fear, is called Maureen. Julia Cameron’s is called Nigel.) It is like an unwanted relative. You can’t get rid of it. It will always be at the table, eating your food.

Give it a job if you like. Many years ago, I listened to my saboteur tell me that everything I wrote was crap, turned to the corner of the room and said, ‘Really? Thanks for that feedback. Now go do something useful and find me a book contract.’

But please, write.

Please write.

Write.

Write for the sake of writing. Write because you want to. Write because in this hour, this day, that is what your soul calls you do to. Write because you love it. Write because you have something to say.

What happens to it after that?

It’s irrelevant. The important thing is that you wrote.

Much love,

Jo x

 

 

The Little Red Typewriter

Following, is a special memory and story for me, one that makes up the intricate tapestry of my creative self. And I’m wondering if you have any similar memories like this.

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Do you believe that kids often know what they’re supposed to do in the world from a very young age? In my case, I think I did. I have a very strong memory from when I was around three years of age, the timing of which my mother was able to verify based on where I described we were living at the time.

photo-3On this particular day, my parents took my sister and me out shopping and we ended up in a toy store. I wandered around and was interested in many things, including a plaster of Paris kit, with figurines of Paddington Bear. But then, I saw a little red typewriter. I was struck with an all-encompassing need to have that typewriter. Soon after, my parents announced it was time to go. I began to cry, real tears of utter pain that I would be leaving without that typewriter.

‘What’s wrong?’ my mother asked, kindly. But I couldn’t articulate what the problem was. I’m not sure I even had a clear idea of what a typewriter did, yet I knew for some reason I desperately wanted it.

‘Do you want the typewriter?’ Mum asked, clearly confused. Then, ‘Or do you want the Paddington Bear kit?’

Now, here is where it got interesting. I can’t remember for exactly what reason–whether it was because I knew the typewriter was expensive, or whether it was because I didn’t think it was reasonable that a three-year-old should want a typewriter (I remember thinking both of those things, but am not sure which argument won out)–I pointed to the Paddington Bear kit and said yes I wanted that.

We took it home and I remember spending many happy hours out in the backyard under the trees making and painting those plaster moulds. I did love it.

But what my heart and soul really wanted that day was the typewriter.

For some completely inexplicable reason, I knew that I was here to create stories and bring them into the world, and at that time the way you did that was on a typewriter.

I was telling my mother this story on the phone recently and I choked up. The pain of leaving that typewriter behind was a strong as it had been when I was three. So when I hung up the phone, I searched ebay to see if there might be a similar one out there. And there was ONE. Just one. Sitting there for sale in England. So I bought it. And now it sits beside my laptop in my writing room and reminds my inner child (and therefore my inner artist) that I am a writer. That I’ve always been a writer. That I deserve to be a writer. That I hear that calling and I acknowledge it. My mission in life is there as a very real, tangible object–a realised dream.

If you’re a creator of any kind, I’m wondering if you have any memories like this? Or if you have any symbols around you  in your space that affirm your dreams? Or have you noticed something like this in your own children? I’d love to hear these if you do.

What if following your dreams causes pain?

This was an excellent question posed by a reader of my Dream time article in Sunday Life magazine last weekend.

images-3Opal from Twitter asked said, “I know someone who is so angry they can’t get £ for their passion. Bankrupt over it & dragged his kids all over the country chasing the dream for 20 years. When dreams hurt, I say stop!”

This comment had me thinking for a long time and I decided there was so much in it that I would need to write a whole post on it to reply.

So firstly, I have to say that of course I don’t know anything about the specifics of the person Opal is talking about so I am not making any comment there. And I also have to say, straight up, that if you have small children then your first priority, always, is their welfare, no arguments about it. So if your actions are hurting your children then yes, stop right now.

However, I feel there is always a way to nurture your dreams. Okay, you might not be able to pack up and head to New York or to live in an ashram. But you still have choices. And sometimes, especially when we have human responsibilities (like parenting, taking care of elderly parents and, in my case, a lifelong commitment to more than a dozen animals) that might slow the pace of our actions, but you can still chip away at your dreams one tiny drop in the vast ocean at a time.

I’d also like to suggest that this is closely related to another comment from a reader, this time from Owla on Twitter who asked, “Can we all earn from our passion thou? What about the crazy X factor ppl who want to be popstars?”

Great question. Obviously not every contestant on a talent show is going to win. This doesn’t mean they’re not meant to have a career in music or as a singer. Those careers take many forms and those dreams evolve over the years as we get to know ourselves. Putting yourself out there in a forum like that can be a really powerful life changing experience for many people, despite the fact that they may not make it past the first round. And that could even be the fact that they realise that particular career path is not for them. They may go home with an epiphany of another road to take, such as music for children, composing, leading a church choir, whatever.

I think the real key to all of this is to look for signs that you’re on the right path. If I look back over the twelve years I was writing seriously, and NOT making any money from my work, there were STILL signs that I was on the right path. Little moments here and there, little cracks in the chaos that shone through and said, there! Keep going! For me, if I am constantly banging my head on a wall until it bleeds and there are NO signs that the universe is supporting those attempts, then I need to bail on that pathway. (Again, it doesn’t mean the whole idea is wrong for me, just that chosen expression.)

A very simple example: When I start a new book, I ‘listen’ for the story that wants to be told. And I follow it for a while with research. And while I’m following that trail, I wait for signs that is the way to go. With my third foodie fiction novel (following the first book centred around tea and the second around chocolate), I was very interested in coffee for quite a while and did a lot of research. I was intellectually fascinated about the world trade and export and growing of coffee, the history of it in Australia, and all the cultural associations. But I had no fire for it. I didn’t have the passion in my belly that I would need to sustain it for years.

So I dropped it. Just like that. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be writing another novel. It means that story wasn’t the right one at that time.

Then I found my next subject and I began to see signs everywhere. I saw movies, pictures, events. I met a local primary producer who invited me (quite spontaneously, since we’d only been talking for a few minutes) to go to his place to see what he did. I looked on ebay for something totally unrelated and the first image that popped up with to do with my book. And I felt the fire–the heat in my belly that would sustain this book for its lifetime.

Opal and Owla, I hope some of this rambling is coming together for you as to my response to your excellent comments. We need to be wise to our journeys, to know the difference between struggle and pain, to watch for guidance to the next step forward that supports us and our loved ones.

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.

Snoopy Dancing: Why I Write

The Tea Chest is just days away from hitting the bookshelves. So today, I’d like to stop and look at what’s brought me to this moment. I’d like to talk about joy.

joy-235x300You see, joy is the reason I write. At a fundamental level, I am happiest when I write and I am a cranky banshee bear when I don’t. (Just ask my husband–I’m tremendous fun to be around when I’ve got writers block.) Writing makes me happy. But here’s the thing. My writing can make the person who reads it happy too. Isn’t that neat? What a great job!

I feel incredibly blessed to have had my book published after spending twelve years writing ten books (five fiction and five non-fiction), with The Tea Chest being the lucky latest. There were some pretty rough patches in that time, with so many heartbreaking near misses. There was at least one time that I came a bunny’s whisker to giving up writing. Like, for good. But as soon as I read a new great story, I felt joy, I felt inspired, I felt renewed, and back to the keyboard I went.

The world’s a tough place out there. Have you noticed? I feel like every day, with more and more technology brining the outside world into our inner world at a rapid-fire rate (often, and unfortunately, without our deliberate intention), we have to work harder and harder to say, hang on a minute, there’s joy out there too. On a bigger level, I want to shout out to the world that I choose something different. I choose kindness, I choose joy, I choose nurturing.

Stories bring us hope, new beginnings and new endings, alternative ways of working through problems, creative answers and a chance to imagine a new life. They let us take risks in our heart and mind, to test them out, before we have to take them in real life. This is why I write. And what an honour it is to be given at the vehicle of a publishing contract, to be able to do that.

So as I work my way through the publication and publicity of my first book, each new step a huge learning adventure, I will ground that intention into everything I do and every book I write from here on. And, yeah, when I see The Tea Chest on the shelves for the first time, I’ll definitely be breaking out a little Snoopy dance.

Books as Prescription Medicine

This is precisely why I write books: to make people feel good.

Books like (legal) brownies for all!

Books like (legal) brownies for all!

I love this story.  From May this year, ‘Books on Prescription’ will begin in the UK, with doctors able to ‘prescribe’ a book to assist a patient and improve their mood. The books include both non-fiction and fiction, as well as poetry. It’s also hoped the scheme could help the struggling libraries. Win-win. How wonderful!

In the first couple of months after my baby was born, life was pretty insane in our house. Something I missed the most was reading and it was only when I began to learn how to get the reading time back into my life that I started to feel normal again. I always read before going to sleep, something that’s a very powerful mood producing activity for me. I literally feel stressed if I don’t have a good book nearby to delve into.

But it has to be the right kind of book. For me, there’s no point in reading something angst-ridden, violent, negative, sarcastic or miserable in order to feel better. Uplifting, comforting, engaging and fun–that’s what I want to read and that’s what I want to write.

My contemporary fiction novel, The Tea Chest, about three Australian women thrust together in a bid to sell tea to the English, will be out in 2014. And if you’re looking for something to make you feel good (a book that reads like a chocolate brownie tastes) then it might just be the book for you.

Read a book to feel better. Hooray!