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In April 2018, my husband Richard and I visited the most gorgeous little town, called Rothenburg ob der Tauber, in Germany. I had presented at a conference in Amsterdam the week before, and since I was fascinated with the history of the region, and so close to Germany compared to where we live in Australia, we were travelling along the ‘romantic road’ at the suggestion of a German colleague of his.
The town was like it had been captured in a time capsule – it appeared just as it would have centuries ago, and absolutely captivated my imagination. I had always been interested in the history of witch trials, and this town was reminiscent of that period in time with the most extra-ordinary crime museum, housing thousands of artifacts from that era.
My mind came alive with a story during that trip – but I had no idea how to get those words out of my head and onto paper, or a screen. I had written several science texts before, but writing non-fiction was nothing like writing fiction – it is easy to describe a fact or chemical reaction; it is far harder to capture the thoughts and feelings of a person, especially one that does not exist, and bring them to life for a reader.
The story rattled around in my head for the next three years. In that time, I got to know every character and saw how the plot unfolded, but did not have the tools or knowledge of how to extract them from my mind. It was very much like a movie playing over and over in my head – but that’s unfortunately all I could do with it.
It was on a family holiday in April 2021, where I’d had some time out to devour a book within a few days, that I said to Richard, “I really want to write my book.” He had of course heard me talk about the story several times, and also knew my frustrations because I just couldn’t find the way to put the words down on paper correctly.
“So, find a course online that tells you how,” he suggested, as blunt as that.
I turned to my good friend google and searched. This was the start of my journey, but still took quite a bit of research to find an online writers’ program I was comfortable with. I eventually found the Australian Writers Centre, and was so glad I did; if my story is resonating with you, then I could not recommend them highly enough. I enrolled in several of their short-course creative workshops. Within a few days, the words that had been trapped in my head for years quite literally flowed out onto the computer.
I completed the first draft of my first novel within four weeks – before I had even finished some of the programs I had enrolled in! I wrote whenever I could – while my children attended appointments or their music lessons; when I was a passenger on a long car trip; when my family were watching something on tv. I even blocked out an entire weekend just to let those words escape. Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; this first draft was by no means final, and in fact, still needed a lot of work. But, my head no longer rattled with the story, it had finally taken form, and was something tangible I could work on.
That first draft was just 56,000 words. To help you understand just how much work occurred after that first draft, please know this: the final draft came out at 86,500 words (more on this shortly). I ‘write lean’, as it is termed in the industry, but at least, at that word count, I had the bones of the story to develop further. The plot was down, and the characters now existed.
Over the next eight weeks I finished several workshops with the Australian Writers Centre, including taking part in a group where you could work with other writers and get their feedback. By the time I reached my fourth draft, I sent my work out to beta-readers to get their opinions and comments too, and when I knew I’d reached the limit of my ability (about the sixth draft), I went in search of a professional editor. There was so much I knew I still needed to learn, so I looked for an editor that ‘got’ me, and would provide the feedback I needed to grow my writing skills.
You’ll hear more about the editorial stage in a coming blog – but for now, some tips I want to share with the aspiring authors reading this post:
- Make sure you attend some writing courses – look for ones that will suit your abilities where they are now, as well as provide you with the potential to explore more specific courses in areas where you know your writing needs to grow.
- Careful with cost! Don’t go for the cheapest – if you pay peanuts, you can only expect monkeys – but that doesn’t mean you need to go for the most expensive either. I picked the Australian Writers Centre courses because they had a general beginners program, as well as specific programs focusing on certain writing skills I knew I didn’t have. From my non-fiction writing, I knew I had tense and flow under control, but I did not understand point of view very well, or how to bring a character to life. I also wanted to focus on historical fiction, as that was the type of stories I wanted to tell.
- I work full time running a training organisation, have three children (one of them is autistic, which takes up a surprising amount of time), plus two stepdaughters and two dogs. In other words, I knew I needed a flexible, on-line program that was relatively short, so I could keep my momentum going around all of my other commitments. If your life is busy, I would recommend you look for these features in the course you choose too.
- My study and writing time soon became my ‘me’ time, and my family could see how happy this creative outlet made me feel. They were incredibly supportive of me and became my first and most avid readers. Surround yourself with supportive people too.
- BE REAL about your expectations. From writing non-fiction before, I knew the first draft is the worst draft, but you have to get it written. Don’t stop and polish as you go – you’ll struggle to reach the end. JUST WRITE IT. You can’t make something shine if it doesn’t exist, so write it, however it comes out, then be prepared to revisit your work several times to make it better.
- Be open to feedback and listen to your inner voice. If you are proofing your work and something jars you, even slightly, then you really need to fix it. If a beta-reader or family member makes a comment, or has a suggestion, consider it carefully – especially if you have had doubts about that part of the story too. The great thing about writing is it doesn’t take long to fix some elements, and the end result can always be reverted back to its original if you don’t like it. Try it, you could be surprised.
There is so much of my journey I want to share with you and hope it helps not just authors out there, but anyone starting on a major project. Writing a book that you want to publish is a major project, and there is no way I would have let my work stay at that original 56,000 words. Not just because a novel typically needs to be 80,000 words or more, but because those first 56,000 words were not the best in so many ways. There was so much detail and background I had to add for the reader to fully understand my characters motivations, not to mention a world of colour I had to add to my characters to make them three-dimensional, and more than just ‘black and white’. Tense, point of view, characterisation, even grammar… these needed to be fixed too! But at least they existed and could be worked on.
Finally, please don’t consider my timeframe as ‘normal’ or compare it with the time you have taken. I have been told this is an incredibly short time to write, but please also remember, I have written multiple textbooks, some of them over a thousand pages, and I’d had this story, and its characters, running around in my head for three years before I let them out. I had also read multiple historical works that covered the era in detail, before I even started writing my novel or took my first writers’ course. In other words, I had already done a lot of research before I learnt from the courses what research to do. I had already constructed the plot line and the characters before I knew how to craft them on paper. My mind had already mapped out a lot of what I wanted to write – I just needed those very first lessons to figure out how to turn on the tap. Once I did that, the words came out in a flourish, but they certainly were not the final version.
Be prepared for your writing to take time, and don’t be hard on yourself as you write that first draft. Just get it written, take some courses, and be prepared to proofread your work A LOT once that first draft exists.
Stay tuned… next month you’ll hear more on my writer’s journey as I intersperse these with other blogs about interesting historical facts. I hope you’ll stick with me as we travel together, and it gives you some motivation for whatever big project or writing task you are currently undertaking.