Browsing Tag

publishing

Editing process rundown

11 June 2020

Given that I’ve worked as an editor for 21 years it seems crazy that I’ve never written a post that breaks down the different kinds of editing, but I’m about to remedy that! Most of the books that I edit are for publishers, but about a quarter of my work is directly for authors who fall into one of two categories. Either they intend to self-publish, or they want to ensure that their manuscript is the very best that it can be before submitting to agents or publishers (most fall into the latter category). Often writers are unsure about exactly what kind of edit their book needs, so here’s a quick rundown. I’m going to focus on fiction because it’s my first love.

Structural/substantive edit

If you’re wondering if your book needs a structural edit (sometimes called a substantive edit), the answer is YES! Every single book needs a structural edit, even those by the most experienced authors. This is the big picture stage where the editor is looking at things like characterisation, plot, pacing, appropriateness of language and style for the intended readership, order of chapters and scenes (including whether there are missing scenes or unnecessary scenes), chapter breakdowns, narrative progression and gaps in the narrative, and so on. Every book is different and the list of possibilities is endless. The editor might recommend that the book should in fact begin at Chapter 3, or that a subplot is enlarged, or that a character is cut completely. Be prepared for anything! You will usually receive an extensive report outlining all the areas that need work.

I love this stage because it’s a long conversation between the editor and the author — two people who care deeply about the book and want to see it become the very best version of itself. It’s always a privilege for me to be a part of this highly creative stage of the editing process, and to work so intimately with a text and its author.

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Copyediting

Cartoon Irma talking on a panel at Noted Festival

With copyediting we move from the big picture down to the fine detail. The editor will go through your manuscript with a microscope, line by line, examining grammar, punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, formatting, clarity and awkward phrasing. At this stage it is absolutely imperative that your editor becomes a chameleon. (As you can see from the cartoon, this is a philosophy that I live by! As a sidenote, the irony of the spelling error follows Muphry’s Law, a lesser-known cousin of Murphy’s Law, that states that whenever you write about editing there will always be an error.) But I digress. Back to chameleons. In fiction, the voice is everything. The editor needs to take on the author’s voice, and work with it to make it the very best version of itself, not impose their own. If they can’t do that the result is death by a thousand cuts. The voice — which is what makes every work unique — can quickly become a dead thing. So choose your copyeditor wisely. Some editors have this skill, some don’t.

Proofreading

Page proofs for a book by Nick Earls

This stage is often misunderstood because the word ‘proofreading’ is used differently outside of the publishing context, often to mean a last-minute, super quick check of a document. With a book, proofreading happens once the manuscript has been typeset and the first set of page proofs have been delivered. And it is not a quick process; it is actually slow, careful and time-consuming work. It is essentially a quality control process where you are checking that everything is exactly as it should be. So, indie authors, please don’t ask your mum (who happens to be quite good at grammar) to do the job — I urge you to employ a professional.

In fact, many self-publishing authors neglect this stage altogether, to their great detriment. It’s like taking all the care in the world to build a limited edition car, only to skip the paint job. Once the typesetter enters the text there are a whole raft of errors that can inadvertently be introduced. What’s more, at this stage it is no longer just about the text, there are a new set of elements to consider in terms of design and layout. When I was teaching editing I used to show my students two sets of proofs for the same book: one with mark-up from the author, the other from me as editor. It demonstrated how even authors (with some exceptions) pick up comparatively little. A professional proofreader knows what to look for. They will ensure that the paint job is flawless.

Where can I find an editor?

Now that I’ve outlined the three stages of the editing process I thought I’d answer the two questions that I get asked the most often. The first is about how to find an editor. Firstly, you need to find someone who is qualified. Like every profession, there are people out there who claim to be editors who don’t have the necessary skills or experience. If you head to reputable sources like IPEd or the society of authors in your state you will find a register of editors. Your local writers centre may also be able to recommend an editor who’s a good fit for your book. But one of the best ways to find an editor is through word of mouth recommendations. This brings me to the second point. You need to find someone who has experience working in your genre. So if a writer friend wrote a fantasy novel and you’ve written a middle grade novel the editor who they used may not be right for you. I emphasise ‘may’ here because it all depends on which genres that editor works in.

Finally, know that good editors are in demand and will likely be booked up several months in advance, so be sure to factor this in. Picture books are the exception (for me, at least) because they can usually be fit in around larger jobs.

How much will I pay?

The way it works is that you send the editor either a few sample chapters or the whole manuscript (the latter is better). They will assess whether the manuscript is a good fit for them, how much work is required and how much time it will take. They will then send you a quote that you are under no obligation to accept. After over two decades of working as an editor, my quotes are usually very accurate, but if a manuscript takes me less time than anticipated I always reduce the fee accordingly. If it takes longer, I never increase the fee. It is standard to expect to pay at least half the fee upfront, with the rest paid on delivery of the manuscript. For smaller jobs — for example, editing a picture book manuscript — expect to pay the full fee upfront. You may also be required to sign a contract that will protect the interests of both parties.

Occasionally I am contacted by new writers who think a structural edit of a 90,000-word manuscript is going to cost them a couple of hundred dollars. Remember that you are paying for a professional’s time. And if you don’t employ a professional, your money is probably going to be wasted. Which brings us back to the earlier point — and the most important one to end with — that you need to make sure that you find the right editor for you and your book.

If you have any questions about editing or publishing, please drop them in the comments. And no question is too silly!

Irma has been an editor, both in-house and freelance, for 21 years. She is a professional member of the Canberra Society of Editors and for a decade was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. For examples of her work and endorsements, or to get in touch about editing a manuscript, see Editing services.

 

Dream realised: on being a debut author

6 May 2020

Releasing a book into the world is both terrifying and exhilarating, even more so when it’s your debut.

It’s a precarious business being a writer. As John Steinbeck once said:

The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

For debut writers, entering into the world of publishing for the first time often brings with it a confusing cocktail of doubt and fear, validation and joy. So I asked debut authors Anna Downes, Donna Ward and Holden Sheppard to share the highs and lows of their experiences.

Anna Downes
On the day I received my first offer of publication, my friend took a picture of me.

We were hanging out at her place, trying to keep our kids cool in the ridiculous February heat, when an email popped up on my phone. My friend, reading my expression, froze. As the kids splashed and shrieked in the pool, I held my breath … opened the message … and burst into joyful tears. Squealing, my friend ran inside, returning eventually with a lone can of Jameson’s Smooth Dry and Lime she’d found hiding at the back of her fridge.

‘Congratulations!’ Click.

In the picture, I am sitting on the ground, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel. I’m holding my phone in one hand and a can of whiskey in the other. I’m crying, though you wouldn’t know it from my smile. My face is bright red, my shoulders rounded. I look like I’ve just run a marathon. Out of shot, my children screech and laugh and demand to be fed.

For me, this image pretty much sums up my debut author experience. The woman in that photo, the me of just over a year ago, is knackered, overwhelmed, distracted and a little bit drunk. She’s also very happy; the happiest, possibly, that she’s ever been. She’s worked so hard, sacrificed so much. She’s proud yet stunned that people want to read her words and see them fly. Agents and publishers are handling her precious creation carefully, as if they are the lucky ones. Oh, the validation! Oh, the sweet relief!

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She doesn’t yet realise, however, the length of the haul, the intensity of the work still to come. She hasn’t yet stumbled over the many tripwires of self-doubt (What if it bombs? What if I can’t write another? What if I never write a decent sentence ever again?), pressure to perform (I only get one shot at this, I’d better not stuff it up) and the fear that the editing process will actually kill her dead (I can’t do it, I’m just not the writer they think I am). The girl in the photo is also blissfully ignorant of the complications this dream-come-true will heap on her family, her marriage. Deadlines. Responsibilities. Endless logistical conundrums, and the tug-of-war that will play out between work and home. Some days, she will wrestle with chronic mum-guilt; on others, she will feel resentful, like a teenager at a party whose family want to drag her away and spoil her fun.

It makes me want to climb into the picture and whisper kind words in that poor woman’s ear. ‘Breathe,’ I would say. ‘Don’t be afraid. All that stuff I just said? You’ll figure it out. You have a new job now, with money and legitimate ‘office’ hours. You’re going to meet such wonderful, supportive people. Your teammates, both at work and at home, will look after you. And the words will always be there. No matter what happens (and let me be clear, ANYTHING could happen — a global pandemic, for example, that will put a gigantic cat among the pigeons), the words will see you through.’

Then I’d pat happy crying me on the back. ‘Come on,’ I’d say. ‘Drink up. Get up. No more tears. Because the kids need food. And, despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), your life is about to get so good.’

Anna’s debut novel The Safe Place comes out in July 2020 with Affirm Press (ANZ), Minotaur Books (US) and Hodder and Stoughton (UK). Translations have so far also been sold to Germany, Russia, Hungary, Netherlands, Croatia and the Ukraine.

Donna Ward
The best aspect of being a debut author is being a debut author. There is nothing as grown up as your own book coming out through a nationally respected publisher like Jane Palfreyman at Allen & Unwin.

Many compare publishing a book with having a baby. And in fact, one person referred to my book launch as like a wedding. A key message in my book is how the narrative of family life distracts us from knowing the way life goes for those without families. Naturally, I railed against these comparisons. For me publishing a book is nothing like the intimacy and domesticity of family life, and everything like an initiation into one’s society as a whole. And, since I’ve been a spinster all my adult life, I have missed any kind of initiation. Consequently, being a debut author has utterly transformed me from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan.

Knowing the publishing process so well helped me understand and negotiate the contract, prepared me for working with an editorial team, and allowed me to know when to engage and when to step back in the cover design process and the publicity campaign. I understand intimately the importance of letting the publisher do the publisher’s job, though sometimes I had to breathe out and let go. But only for minor things.

But nothing prepared me for the moment of truth — the reality that my book will come into the world. In my experience this usually happens when an author receives their box of author copies in the post. For me it came when I picked up an almost final draft I had printed and bound at Officeworks so I could sit down and scribble on it with a red pen. When looking through the document on the screen, I had not noticed the watermark on the bottom of each page. In the paper copy the words ‘unedited proof’ in upper case, feint as a morning shadow, ran along the bottom of each page.

I stood silent at my desk. I breathed in, then I heard myself say: ‘I never thought I’d ever see ‘unedited proof’ on something I’ve written.’

In closing, being a debut author for me had only minor hiccups. Nevertheless, there is an inherent challenge when one crosses the floor. At my book launch in Melbourne, people flowed into Readings Carlton for the event. When I felt the crowd grow to a certain readiness I automatically went to the microphone to welcome everyone. The event host pounced. He whisked the microphone from my hand and guided me ‘backstage’ behind a bookshelf. He said, ‘No! Donna, you are not the publisher, you are the talent tonight.’ We laughed. I was simultaneously surprised and embarrassed. He told everyone about my reluctant role change for their amusement. They were amused. As was I. And I remain amused by how easy it is to forget oneself when treading a new path over familiar ground.

Donna Ward’s book, She I Dare Not Name: A Spinster’s Meditations on Life, was released by Allen & Unwin in 2020. She is the publisher at Inkerman & Blunt. Her essay, ‘Mortality’s Hour’, will appear online in Griffith Review 68: Getting On.

Holden Sheppard
The best part of having my debut novel, Invisible Boys, published was the sense of accomplishment. I’d wanted to be a published novelist from age seven — a dream realised at 31. In the intervening decades, I grew accustomed to a constant but unquenched thirst for validation. Telling people I was an unpublished writer made me feel like a permanent loser: the admission sparked atomic eye-rolls and pitying smirks. But you’re smart you could be an engineer, doctor, lawyer! Maybe get a big boy job?

I’m glad I didn’t listen. Finishing a novel gave me intrinsic satisfaction, but being traditionally published, winning awards, and selling well gave me the external validation I’d always craved. I could pretend I didn’t want other people’s praise, but that’s a fictional level of humility. Critical and commercial acclaim is a very pleasant high.

Hearing from readers is a thrill. I get many messages from people for whom Invisible Boys resonated deeply, helping them process trauma and making them feel seen. This is both altruistically and selfishly rewarding: their messages make me feel seen, too. Knowing readers connect with my work spurs me on to keep writing, sharing and showing up.

The challenging aspects of being a debut author revolve around expectations. Before publication, writers are solo acts hunched over laptops, totally autonomous. Publishing a book means working with others: editors and publicists. Even though everyone at my publishing house is a total legend, relinquishing some control wasn’t easy —  but it was vital. My book isn’t solely my baby anymore. Shared custody means letting the experts work their magic and trusting that they, like me, want the best for the book.

An unexpected downside of being a debut author is that what feels like the pinnacle of achievement is only the minimum entry requirement into The Published Authors Club. Sometimes you meet established authors and think, Ah, compadre! We are the same! and they think, Ah, who let this noob into the greenroom? While almost all authors are supportive and encouraging, it stings when some don’t take you seriously. Others will outright snub you — sometimes those you thought you would surely get along with.

Publication also doesn’t fix your life. It’s an awesome milestone, but not a panacea for personal issues. Your insecurities will persist, and can’t be remedied by achievements. For me, achieving my dreams was also disillusioning in an identity sense. I was a lifelong Aussie battler, so experiencing success was rad, but confusing. Who was I, if no longer a hard-working, struggling author? But once the dust settled, I realised I will always be that battler, because a career is made not of one book, but five, or 10, or 30.

This is the crux of being a debut author. We climbed a mountain peak to discover the summit is much further up — and we may not even reach it in our lifetime. The best thing I can do is enjoy the climb and be amazed and grateful for it all. I want to relish in how scrambling up rockfaces makes my muscles work; how joyous it is to connect with fellow climbers; how the view from each beautiful ledge on the ascent is absolutely magnificent.

Holden Sheppard is an award-winning West Australian author. His debut novel, Invisible Boys (Fremantle Press, 2019), won several accolades including the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, Westerly, 10 Daily, and The Huffington Post.

This month you can win a book pack of these incredible authors’ debuts: an advance copy of Anna Downes’ The Safe Place, Donna Ward’s She I Dare Not Name, and Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before  5 pm on Thursday 28 May to go in the draw.

Picture book illustration: Dub Leffler

6 April 2020

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into the illustration process of a picture book, this is the post for you. Illustrator Dub Leffler is a descendant of the Bigambul people of South West Queensland and one of Australia’s most sought after children’s book illustrators. He has created 23 books and I’ve been fortunate enough to edit two of them — Sorry Day by Coral Vass (2018) and Strangers on Country by Kirsty Murray and Dave Hartley (out April 2020).

In this interview he takes us behind the scenes on his creative process and gives us an insight into the publishing process, which is particularly invaluable for emerging picture book creators wanting to understand the nuts and bolts of it. I didn’t manage to get him to dish the dirt on working with the illusive Banksy (damn it) but he explains how new books have come to him through psychics and werewolves, how coffee and salt can be a medium for illustration, and what makes him want to illustrate an author’s manuscript.

Irma Gold: You are one of 13 kids, what was life like growing up? And did you spend a lot of time drawing?

Dub Leffler: Yes, it is a big family, however I didn’t grow up with my family due to being adopted at birth. Growing up in my adoptive family — who had five boys including myself — I always had time for drawing and did so quite frequently. I remember drawing a lot — before and after school, usually using spare pages in my school exercise books. I even made my own picture books using spare paper and dodgy staples.

Storyboard for Our Dreaming by Kirli Saunders

IG: What led you to illustrating children’s picture books?

DL: My mother went to a psychic and the psychic told her, ‘Your son, is going to write a book and he will travel overseas.’ A few months later, I moved back to Sydney and the following morning a lady came to the house I was renting to speak with my flatmate about working on children’s books. So it literally came to my doorstep. And the rest, as they say, is history.

IG: What does a typical day or week look like for you?

DL: A typical day for me is — drop daughter off at school, take dog for a jog and then work until 12 pm. Coffee break and then work again until about 2 pm. I often work late into the night/early morning too, because it is the quietest time. Going to bed between 1 am and 2 am is not uncommon.

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For each book, most of the time working on them comes down to research. I create a huge folder of images for inspiration for each story, as well as creating a soundtrack for each book so I have something to listen to while I work. I create my own mini deadlines for each book — finish the storyboard by this date, and so on. Being an illustrator, you work unconventional hours and often weekends.

IG: You have written and illustrated your own book, Once There Was a Boy, but you have also illustrated other authors’ stories. What is it about a manuscript that makes you want to take it on?

DL: If I connect with the story in some way, I usually illustrate it. It makes no difference to me if the author is established or being published for the first time. If the story is good and I can already see images in my head just from reading the text, then I usually say ‘yes’ to illustrating it.

Cover image of Once There was a Boy

IG: You have collaborated with internationally recognised illustrators like Shaun Tan, Colin Thompson and Banksy. Tell us more!

DL: Years ago, when I had illustrated only a handful of books, I met Colin Thompson at my wife’s cousin’s birthday party. The theme was fur and I went dressed as a werewolf. I had a very interesting conversation with Colin Thompson in the middle of a dance floor surrounded by people dressed in fur. Quite surreal. Colin ended up asking me to collaborate on a book with him. That book also contained work by Quentin Blake, Freya Blackwood, Shaun Tan and Sarah Davis. It was called The Bicycle Book and came out the same time at Once There Was a Boy, in 2011.

As for Banksy, I can’t talk about Banksy — circle of trust and all that.

IG: What mediums do you work in?

DL: I illustrate using an architect’s pencil for roughs, paint and draw with watercolours and use very, very expensive paper. Sometimes I use coffee, paint and salt on wet watercolour paper to build up texture on the paper and then draw back into it.

IG: What was the most challenging book that you’ve worked on, and why?

DL: Sorry Day was the most challenging story to illustrate due to the emotional content involved. Researching for Sorry Day was hard too — there is so much negativity out there in cyberspace in regards to Aboriginal people. I would often come across comments and replies to posts and videos filled with racism. And there was A LOT of it. This spurred me on to make Sorry Day the best damn book I could. It’s the most important book I have and possibly will ever illustrate.

Storyboards for Sorry Day by Coral Vass

IG: Out of all your books and illustrations, do you have a single favourite illustration?

DL: My favourite illustration would have to be in Sorry Day when the children are hiding in the creek among the bullrushes. You can hear the crinkle of the blades of grass and the children holding their breath. It has a quiet intensity.

IG: Sorry Day uses a dual narrative, with one narrative strand set in the past when the children are being stolen, and another in the present at Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations. The two colour schemes that you use for the two threads cleverly demarcates them. How did you come up with this?

DL: I have an old photograph of my mother. It is a faded black and white photo that has yellowed with age. I knew that this is how the ‘past’ section of Sorry Day should look. I worked closely with Amy Cullen, the graphic designer, in deciding how to use sepia tones throughout the book — at one point both full colour and sepia were proposed to be on the same page. It’s a good example of showing two different times using just illustration.

Storyboards for Strangers on Country

IG: Tell me about Strangers on Country by Dave Hartley and Kirsty Murray. How did you go about bringing this real people to life?

DL: The short answer is — research. The longer answer is — after I had done enough research and have collated enough reference images to form a coherent idea, I made sure to illustrate each image as if they were a still from a film — as if they could move at any moment. I try to imbue all of my illustrations with some type of movement — even if it’s the suggestion of someone breathing, this approach can help your images come alive in the viewers’ mind.

IG: What is the best aspect of your job?

DL: Being able to work from anywhere and choose my work hours. It’s great being your own boss. Plus, you get to travel — whether it’s to a conference or a book festival. These things help your career and it’s great connecting with people doing the same job.

IG: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

DL: Having to work long hours. Although it’s a pretty cool job — I get to draw pictures for a living!

IG: How long does it usually take you to illustrate a book?

DL: I have been known, from time to time, of going WAY past my deadlines — a lot of authors/illustrators do it. I actually had to push back Sorry Day a whole year because of the detail needed in the work. Plus the book was published on the 10th anniversary of when Kevin said ‘Sorry’. But usually I aim to finish one to two books a year.

IG: Can you take us through your illustrative process? How do you work with the publisher and author?

DL: It’s important to not only work with the publisher when illustrating a book, but also to work with the graphic designer if you can. They help hone your illustrations into something beautiful.

The process changes from publisher to publisher. Some are more hands on, some trust your judgment and let you do your thing. Sometimes you get notes suggesting what the illustrations should be. Sometimes you’re given free reign to interpret the text. Generally I work closely with both the publisher and graphic designer if I can, and make it a rule not to consort too closely with the authors. If you do work closely with an author, they have to realise that you have a job to do and that they (the author) are not the illustrator and should not tell you your job. In my experience, I unfortunately have had this happen. I have never come across an illustrator who told a writer how to write. You’re all working on the one book and it should be collaborative.

 

My personal process starts with small sketches of anything that comes to mind in regards to the story. I write notes on the story and underline key words in the text that should be illustrated. I read and re-read the story many times to make sure I illustrate true to the text. From there I begin storyboards. I have a special book just for storyboards and draw many different panels exploring things like colour, technique and composition. Along the way, I may do one or two concept illustrations — they are basically finished illustrations. They give me a good idea of what the tone of the book should be and how the finished artwork will look.

Throughout this process, there is a lot of correspondence between the publisher, graphic designer and myself and once we decide on a final storyboard, I begin the final art. This usually (but not always) is something I do quite quickly — I usually finish the final art in less than a month — but it’s the preparation I under take beforehand that takes a lot of time. The final art is basically the afterthought of all your prep.

Once I finish a piece of final art, I send photos of it to the publisher and graphic designer to make sure I haven’t missed anything, or if anything needs changing. I always draw final art to size — I mark the dimensions on the paper and am always aware of where the text will be on the page — you don’t want anything important in the illustration to be covered up with the story. It’s the illustrators job to support and enhance the story.

Once the final artwork is complete, a courier is organised and the artwork is picked up from my studio and six months or so later — BAM! You get a new book in the mail. And then the whole process starts again.

 

The dance between character and place in fiction

11 March 2020

Place is so important in fiction writing. It is more than just setting, more than just a space that characters inhabit. The way each of us views a place is different, filtered through our subjective experiences. And the way characters interact with the space around them can reveal so much about their interior lives. So, for me at least, place is intrinsic to story.

Usually the characters and their setting arrive in my imagination in tandem. They are already entwined. But occasionally the characters arrive in search of a home. Before I travelled to South Africa, I had a trio of characters playing in my head who I knew were destined for a short story. And on a trip to Boulders Beach, near Cape Point, I found the perfect space for them — a place that offered echoes for the things my characters were wrestling with.

My brother and I took the train from Cape Town to Simon’s Town. It was the most glorious ride and the footage below gives you a glimpse of why.

 

From Simon’s Town we walked to Boulders Beach, which was swarming with tourists and penguins. I’m not a fan of tourist traps but it was worth battling through selfie sticks to see these cute little guys. African penguins look very similar to Magellanic penguins from South America, who feature in my next kids book, Where the Heart Is (June 2021), so it was extra special to see them sunning and squawking and swimming. We also smelt them, oh how we smelt them.

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But back to the short story, which is called ‘Pole pole’. The way each of my characters experiences this particular place in South Africa is specific to them, with all their worries and joys and frailties. It is not my experience, or my brother’s, or anyone else’s for that matter. It belongs only to Dexter and Adelaide and Lix. The title is a Swahili saying (pronounced ‘polay polay’) which means ‘slowly slowly’. You’ll have to read the story to find out the significance of this saying, and how the characters and the setting (with its tuxedoed inhabitants) interact. It’s in issue 7 of StylusLit and you can find the full story online. I do hope you enjoy it.

And if you’re interested in reading more about how place informs writers’ work, Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky wrote some wonderful words about their literary travels previously for this blog.

Bushfires and the mess of novel writing

17 February 2020

What a start to the year it’s been. Summer is my favourite season, but this year we have just survived it. In Canberra we suffered months of smoke from the South Coast and Braidwood fires, which meant my three kids — like all of Canberra’s kids — were confined indoors and didn’t get a proper holiday. After a brief but glorious break at Jervis Bay over the long weekend we returned to fires threatening Canberra’s south, where we live. Our suburb was on notice to potentially evacuate — we could see the fire from our home, and it was terrifying. So we packed up our most precious belongings and temporarily moved to my parents’ place.

 

On the fire went, chewing through over 80,000 hectares. We returned to our home and grew used to living with a fire that was permanently in our field of vision. I constantly switched between the ESA website and Fires Near Me app. Eventually cooler weather came, and then rain. Thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the firies and their support team, no homes were damaged during the worst conditions of 42-degree days and ferocious winds. The fire is still burning but its perimeters have been contained and the anxiety that we were living with is gone. But we lost our whole summer holiday to the effects of climate change. And this is only the beginning.

 

Amidst all this I was working on the edits for my debut novel, due out in March 2021. This was a lovely distraction. I love the editing process, which is probably not surprising given that I am an editor myself. I’ve turned in the first round to my publisher and am looking forward to the next.

In the meantime I have also been working on a new novel. Whereas my debut just flowed out of me, this one has been more challenging. My freelance editing work overwhelmed me at the end of last year and I didn’t work on the manuscript after August. In truth, I was also stuck. I had 50,000 words but it felt like one big hot mess and I wasn’t sure how to progress it. Then this month I received an email to say that my manuscript had been longlisted for a British manuscript award based on the first 5000 words. Suddenly I had nine days in which to submit the finished manuscript. That I didn’t have.

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I knew when I submitted to the competition that I would have to deliver the full manuscript in February and I had planned to use the deadline as a driving force. But I didn’t bank on getting stuck, and in any case I never really believed that I would be longlisted for an international manuscript award. It didn’t seem like something that would happen.

I remember Inga Simpson talking about being in a similar position with the manuscript that became her debut novel, Mr Wigg. She had submitted the first 50 pages to a competition and then received a phone call to say that she had 36 hours to submit the full manuscript. It was 5000 words short of the minimum word count. She joked that the only reason  she named her main protagonist Mr Wigg was because it was two words, instead of one. She made the deadline and has since published another three novels. So it can be done.

But could I do it? I had nine days and at least 20,000 words to write. But it wasn’t just a case of just adding words, the whole draft needed careful shaping. I’m a slow writer, and a dear author friend cautioned me against cobbling something together. There is a danger that once the words are on the page it can be harder to remove them, or undo a narrative path that doesn’t work. And in any case a substandard draft won’t make the shortlist.

Nevertheless, I opened the manuscript, which had been untouched for five months, just to see what was there. I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t written this book in a linear way, as I did with my debut, so there were gaping holes in the narrative and sections that weren’t working, but it wasn’t as much of a mess as I had thought it was. I concluded that back in August it was really a mess in my mind. In the intervening months, although I hadn’t been writing, I had been thinking, trying to figure out where the heart of the book lay. And now it seemed so much clearer to me. So I started cutting, reworking and writing new sections. Better yet, I rediscovered the energy that had made me start writing the book in the first place.

There are now just a few days until the deadline. Will I meet it? I’m almost certain that I won’t. I’m annoyed at myself that I’ve missed the opportunity to get my work in front of the prestigious line-up of judges, but I couldn’t have done the process differently. Back in August I wasn’t ready to finish the first draft. Now I am. And I’m grateful for the boost of confidence that the award has given me.

During the early stages of a writing a novel it’s just you and the page and it’s so easy to be overtaken by doubt. One of my favourite quotes is from Zadie Smith who once said, ‘It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. And the main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone.’ It’s the truth. So the longlisting has helped me get my mind back in the right place, and it’s also helped reignite the kind of energy that drives a book, for me at least.

The word count is rising again, and in April I’m heading to the Iceland Writers Retreat to work on the novel. I’m particularly looking forward to a workshop with Nigerian writer Elnathan John on ‘Fiction in a world of fiction: writing that matters’. Wish me luck, or at least the continuing ability to trick myself into confidence.