What a crazy little thing a book is. It begins as an idea in one person’s mind, and eventually ends up on a whole host of strangers’ bookshelves. But what happens in between? I’m not too sure how it works for JK Rowling, for instance, but I can tell you how it’s happened for me, with my second novel Whisky Charlie Foxtrot.
There are a number of steps on the journey to a book, most of which are at best gruelling, and at worst soul-destroying. Sounds like a blast, hey? So what are we waiting for?
Step 1: Write the damn book!
I think Ernest Hemingway described this step in the process quite succinctly:
Yikes. Tell it like it is, Hem. Actually, though, writing doesn’t feel like that for me. It’s hard work, but satisfying, in that ‘I-just-planted-a-field-of-corn’ kind of way.
My approach to writing is pretty organic. When I begin a new novel I don’t have a plot outline, or character sketches – just a couple of ideas that come together in my mind and make sparks fly, and then I sit down and see where those ideas take me. In this case, I had the idea of structuring a novel around the radio alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie etc), and I had the character of Charlie, one half of a pair of twins. The rest grew as I wrote. I relate very much to the quote by EL Doctorow:
[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
I wrote Whisky Charlie Foxtrot longhand on the backs of old bills, training materials (from my day job) and other assorted pieces of scrap paper, (which tell their own story, if anyone would are to look for it).
There’s something revealing about writing in longhand. Re-writing the same sentence, two, three, or even four times, it was clear which words or phrases weren’t working. Once I was happy with the draft of a scene, I would type it up, and then there would be more changes.
The first part of this novel was written on the dining table of my flat in East St Kilda. After I moved back to Perth, I wrote at the State Library. I was the unofficial shushing monitor of the third floor. I had three grades of shushing but on the rare occasion that this failed, I wasn’t afraid to escalate it. I’m all for chit-chat but there’s a time and a place …
Have you ever read one of those articles about people who write novels in six weeks? Well, this isn’t going to be one of those. A lot of other things happened while I was writing this book, including moving interstate, having my first novel published, falling in love, getting married, moving house, changing jobs and moving house again. Oh, and did I mention HAVING A BABY? (Which, though it has its upsides, is not a recommended strategy for finishing a book).
Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen, but, four years from when I started, I came to the end. I didn’t type THE END because that’s just too cheesy. But I knew I had reached it…
At a certain point in the writing of a novel, the time comes to show the work to someone else. It’s a frightening phase characterised by wild mood swings encompassing both paranoid delusions – They’re going to tell me it’s a masterpiece! – and paralysing self-doubt – It’s worthless! But they’ll be too scared to tell me!
Step 2: Getting Feedback
Blogger Karenlee Thompson wrote a post a post about the benefits of being in a writers group which I wholeheartedly agree with. While writing Whisky Charlie Foxtrot I had the good fortune to be a member of a writing trio which also included Amanda Curtin and Robyn Mundy. Amanda and Robyn were each working on their debut novels at that time and we met every month or so to critique each other’s work. Being critiqued as I wrote was like having a compass – I might stray off course occasionally but I could find my way back before I’d gone too far.
My first novel contained almost no dialogue, and I was a little frightened of writing it. In early scenes from Whisky Charlie Foxtrot Amanda and Robyn both commented that it was when my characters started talking that the scenes really came alive. Their encouragement led to the novel becoming more dialogue and relationship-driven, which in turn allowed humour to emerge, despite the somewhat dark subject matter.
When I had a draft ready, I sent it out to a group of six beta readers, of both sexes, and ranging in age from 35 to 65. While it’s tempting to share your book with the kind of friend who will tell you how wonderful it is, it’s ultimately more helpful to have people who’ll tell you what doesn’t work, and even more helpfully, why. And this they did. My long-term mentor Richard Rossiter told me that my central character was a ‘dickhead’. Ouch! On the other hand, three of my readers told me that they ‘loved’ the character of Rosa. (You win some, you lose some). Katie told me that Whisky wouldn’t drink a soy latte. Lucinda told me that she feigned sickness because she couldn’t wait til the end of the working day to finish the book.
Part of me cursed them for giving me feedback which entailed the indignity of…rewriting! And part of me is eternally grateful to them for helping to make my book much, much better.
Step 3: Finding a Publisher
This part of the journey is a little like when Frodo gets to Mordor. Dark forces are at work. You can trust no one. The quest seems unattainable. Alas, that’s where the Lord of the Rings analogy ends. Because, unlike Frodo’s ring, which every man and his orc wanted a piece of, no one seemed to want my book.
I’ve already written about my failed attempts to find a literary agent. Next, I boosted my rejection collection with letters from the few publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts. No matter how polite their rejection, I knew what they were really saying.
An ordinary trip to the mailbox could ruin my day week month.
I responded to rejection in the time-honoured ways – by drinking heavily and eating excessive quantities of chocolate. I considered the possibility that maybe my book just wasn’t good enough, that it was time to send it to the dreaded bottom drawer. But every time I re-read it, my confidence returned. I told myself that the right person just hadn’t seen it yet, and sent it out again.
Then, one fateful day, I received a phone call, and a voice said
– Hi, this is Georgia Richter, Fiction Editor at Fremantle Press
My first thought was, I can’t believe they do their rejections by phone! I mumbled something resembling a greeting, and the voice said
– I just finished reading Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and I LOVED it.
Say whaaaaaaaaaat? I had found the right person! She ‘got’ my book!
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Annabel Smith is the author of Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. She has been writer-in-residence at Katherine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre and the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA), had short fiction and commentary published in Westerly and Southerly and she holds a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University. Follow Annabel on Twitter and Facebook.