OK, so I should really be using these last few days before going back to the real world to work on one, two or all three of my manuscripts. But after the ups and downs of the last five days, I have to get my thoughts down now before the whole episode becomes a series of fuzzy and half-remembered impressions.
I’m not quite sure how to describe what was one of the most intense experiences of my life, so I’ll start by recounting each day.
I arrived in Brisbane on Friday afternoon, checked into the apartments we’d been booked into and met up with my longtime friend, Bek. Bek and I have been friends since we were twelve years old. She moved to Brisbane just after we’d finished Year 12 and we’ve caught up only sporadically since. We’re both married now and she has a couple of kids, and yet whenever we see each other, it’s like we automatically revert to our immature high school selves. It’s awesome.
Later we were met by one of the Queensland Writers Centre staff, who escorted us the 10 minute walk to the State Library where the program was being held. We had a quick intro session, where we met each other and the publishers from Hachette, and each of us had the opportunity to say a bit about our manuscripts.
We were having drinks and canapes when the literary agent arrived and we were all introduced to him. He’d read the first 50 pages of each of our manuscripts, and in the middle of conversation he said: ‘There was one I was particularly interested in…’
He paused and you could feel all seven of us holding our collective breath and thinking please be mine, please be mine. Then he said ‘the Indian one’, and I almost dropped my glass in shock as I indicated that it was mine. This was easily one of the coolest moments of my life, and it lasted approximately half a second before he followed up by saying he’d been expecting to see an Indian migrant among us.
Heart drops. Back to reality. This has been something that’s worried me about this manuscript ever since I started it five years ago. You can’t write a book from the perspective of another culture and not expect the questions to come up. Fair call.
We ended the night with a quick meal at a pub on the way back to the apartments.
This was the day of truth: where we each had an hour-long consultation with a publisher who had read our full manuscript, and I was up first.
I’m not precious about being critiqued. Let me make it clear that it was an honour to have my work evaluated by a publisher of this calibre and reputation, who actually thinks my writing is worthy of consideration. I fully expected to find out there were numerous plot, structure and technique flaws that needed to be fixed. What I didn’t expect was how much it was going to affect me.
The feedback wasn’t too bad – there’s stuff to fix, of course, but not as much as I’d expected. The biggest issue, and the one I’d always feared, is the one thing I can’t change – I’m not Indian, and this could be a big marketing problem. And a marketing problem inevitably means a barrier to publication. I can still edit the manuscript and submit it to Hachette for their consideration, but the problem is still going to be there. So I have a big decision to make about whether I persevere with it or consign it to the drawer of unfinished manuscripts and concentrate on other projects.
When I walked out, the other six participants were all waiting with friendly smiles, eager to hear how it went even as they were probably going internally berserk worrying about their own sessions. I’d like to think I was mature enough to put on my big girl pants and count my blessings to even be there in the first place, but I kind of felt like I’d been kicked in the guts.
I spent the rest of the day wallowing in self-pity. I didn’t do any writing. I didn’t read over my manuscript to start thinking about how to fix it. I just wanted to go home and back to the safety of not really knowing what I had.
But we had a group dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in West End that night, so I got dressed up, painted on a smile and forced myself to interact with everyone. By coincidence, I ended up sitting next to aforementioned literary agent, who gave me some good feedback on my first 50 pages. He didn’t seem to think the non-Indian thing was such a big deal, and he referred me to another book written by an Australian from the perspective of a different culture. So things didn’t seem quite so bad after all. And a few glasses of wine didn’t hurt either. We ended the night with the seven of us participants all cramming into my apartment for more writing chat before we passed out.
The morning session was all about the publishing industry, the role of agents and publishers, and how bloody hard it is to get published. It was great to learn more about the process, and to find out that the industry isn’t the shark-infested ocean that I’d imagined. On the other hand, it was truly depressing to know how hard it really is to get a manuscript to publication, no matter how good you are. There are so many different elements the publishers need to consider before they’ll give it the go-ahead, and most of them are out of the writer’s control. Big reality check.
After lunch, I had a consultation session with Kim Wilkins, author of 21 books and mentor for the duration of the program. By this time, I was pretty low and starting to wonder what I was even doing there given that I was such a shithouse writer, but this session was a real turning point for me. Kim helped me to see that, while I was reluctant to let go of something I’d put so much into, I wasn’t passionate about the manuscript any more. I’ve moved on, and there’s no shame in having manuscripts that never quite made it. Most writers don’t get their first project published – Kim wrote 10 manuscripts before her first published novel (to the writing gods – I would like for this to not happen to me, please). Being able to acknowledge this without feeling like I’d failed in some way was huge.
That night a few of us gathered in one of our apartments for take-away Thai and yet more writing talk. You’d think we’d get sick of it, or run out of things to say, but not so. On this night we got an education in genre fiction, care of Charlotte, and I finally found out what steam punk is (and a few others I’d never even heard of, such as cyber punk and clock punk – the list is seemingly endless).
The morning session was on participating in writers festivals as an author, which was interesting, but I think all of us were feeling a bit gloomy about the prospect of ever making it to one after the previous day’s session. The afternoon was all free time, so I tried to write for a while, then gave up and went to the mall for a spot of shopping, followed by a bit more writing in my apartment. That night four of us went to a ramen noodle place for a quiet dinner.
This morning session was on book sellers and their relationships with publishers and authors. Again, interesting from an information perspective but seemed a little remote at this stage in our careers. After lunch, we each did a reading from our manuscripts, with the help of a glass of wine. I was quaking in my thongs at the prospect, as I am terrified of public speaking of any kind, let alone reading something so personal. But it was actually really good to hear the others’ work, and to realise how privileged I was to be there in the company of such talented writers. And I managed to read mine without making a fool of myself, so all good.
I went back to my apartment after this and did some more writing before getting ready to go out to dinner with the other participants. We all piled in a maxi taxi (love the term, wish they called them that here) and went to Kapsali’s, a Greek restaurant in Southbank, to celebrate our final night together. The food was good, the company excellent, and the main topic of conversation – writing, of course. After feeling homesick for the last few days, the thought of returning to the real world the next day was bittersweet. After dinner we went to Max Brenner’s, a chocolate lover’s paradise, where we drank Italian hot chocolate and sank into a chocolate coma.
The final session was on being a professional author, including building networks, finding agents, how advances and royalties work, and just generally not being a crazy person. It was all really interesting.
After lunch it was all over and time to go home, and suddenly the five days seemed to have flown by. While the whole thing was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, I definitely feel the better for it. It’s confirmed to me that I really can write, and that I’m actually quite good at it. And anyway, I couldn’t stop if I tried.
It was a fantastic experience, and the industry contacts I’ve made will be invaluable. And it was such a pleasure to spend five days in the company of other writers at a similar level. We’ve set up a Google group so we can stay in contact, and I look forward to hearing about their successes in the future, and hopefully be able to share some of my own!
So now I have a plan – pitch my other project to Hachette, and if they like the idea, I’ll work on that first. If not, I’ll go back to the other and make it the best it can be, knowing that anything that hones my craft is not wasted.
I still have this weird sense of unreality, like I’ve been in another world for the last five days. I’m struggling to deal with the idea of real life concepts again, like work, or walking my dog, or talking about other topics. It felt ridiculously self-indulgent to devote such a lot of time to learning about, thinking about and talking about…oh, and actually doing…writing.
It’s made me realise that this really is what I want to do. I’m not silly enough to think I can ever do it full time, but I can at least dream of the day I can devote at least half of my time to it.
Now, as I have spent far too long on this, I think it’s about time I went back to writing my novel, and finally finish the scene I started before I left…and hopefully the whole manuscript, so I can start the editing process.