Bear with me, this will take a bit of explaining.
So about five years ago I was training for a half marathon. I didn’t enjoy this training one bit. I don’t like running at all and these days I only run if: 1) there’s an emergency, 2) I’m putting a cow back in or 3) the children want me to play monopoly. But I’d committed to the fundraising event and people had pledged their money and I was obliged to train so that I wasn’t tempted to hide in the shrubbery on marathon day and face potential cheatery exposure and shame. So train I did.
One training run was easier than the others. I was flagging about three km from home, wondering whether I could have a little lie down in a ditch. Instead I tried distracting myself with random ideas. I let my mind wander. And with about four km left to go before I was home, the idea for a novel came to me. After about one hundred more metres, this idea had taken a firm hold on my brain and quickened my feet. I got home in record time so that I could note down my thoughts before they drowned in lactic acid.
The notes for this novel filled two notebooks. The idea lasted quite a lot longer than my marathon career (which stopped dead after the one half marathon, marred by me almost shitting myself on the finish line). I wrote a chapter of the novel, then another. The voice came easily; irreverent, crude, raw. Possibly very irritating. I shoved it aside, it came back and I shoved it aside again. Eventually, like many development phases that just seem a little risky to invest in, the notes just sat in a drawer. The idea, however, stayed with me.
Fast forward a couple of years and I happened to mention the idea to my friend Maggie. Maggie Mackellar, many of you will know, is a wonderful writer whose books I am utterly in awe of. The sort of books that contain scenes, descriptions or turns of phrase that rock you, then return to you again and again forever. I didn’t give Maggie much detail; just a few words. She said, “Write it.”
And so I did.
The process was far from easy. I loved the actual writing but I was plagued with self doubt. I kept thinking, “What if all this is just a huge waste of time?” “Shouldn’t I get a real job?” and “If I’m not in a real job, shouldn’t I be scrubbing the socks and waxing the dresser?” But by then the characters had become my friends, and I was getting more entrenched. So I borrowed every bit of time I could, and wrote on it. More often I stole it. I stole time from my children, from my friends, from my chores, from my sleep. Mostly from my sleep. Most nights I worked until almost midnight. I stole and borrowed enough time to get to the point where not finishing would be a far worse travesty than failing.
And so, eighteen months after I started writing this novel, I finished it. I had 120,000 words, not a single clue whether they formed anything worthwhile and no confidence to let anyone read them.
Maggie suggested I send 10,000 of the words to a publisher at Penguin Random House. I did. The publisher them a bit, had some suggestions. I changed things, edited the manuscript fiercely until I had it down to 95,000 words. Then I froze. I didn’t know how to improve the novel any further, but I was petrified to let anyone read it. Particularly anyone I know. So, again at Maggie’s suggestion, I emailed it to a literary agent in Sydney. I pressed ‘send’, screamed a bit, then tried my best not to think about it.
About three weeks later, whilst on a skiing trip in New Zealand, I heard back from the agent. Fiona Inglis is her name. She is, I’m told, top of her game. I saw her name in my inbox and (much like the marathon) I almost shat myself. Her email began with something like, ‘Meg, I’m going to be completely honest with you, when I first read your manuscript I thought it was a bit twee…” And I stopped reading and thought, right well never mind, it’s okay, I can possibly go back nursing, start rearing the calves, it’s not the end of the world, it was a learning experience, it’s probably time to stop dreaming… and then I steeled myself for the rest of the email.
On her second sitting, Fiona said, she loved it. She hadn’t been able to stop reading it. She would like to represent me. It all seemed like a foreign language. It was honestly as though she’d got my book muddled up with someone else’s. I read the email again. She definitely referenced my book, my characters. I yelled out to my husband, I cried a bit. It all seemed quite real. I was on top of a mountain and on top of the world.
Fiona, it turned out, is definitely the business. She is not only completely gorgeous but within a few weeks she had sorted a two book deal and an advance for me with Penguin Random House. People listen to her. I was completely overwhelmed but also deliriously, disbelievingly, happy. Becoming a writer, an actual writer, looked suddenly as though it might be more than a pipe dream. I drank quite a lot of champagne whilst waiting to meet my editor.
Then, because this is how being a writer works, I received an extensive document from my Penguin books commissioning editor, Kimberley. She had a clear understanding of the book, an obvious love for my characters, and a lot of very, very good ideas for a compete rewrite. Fuck, I thought. Fuck.
And the dream seemed a bit more up the pipe again.
I had a contract, but I also had an obligation to meet a scary deadline. And summer holidays looming, which means needy children. So I stole more time that I ever have before. I turned more things down, ignored more chores and school assemblies and megoracle. I inflicted spaghetti bolognaise upon my family more often than they’d like.
And two days before the end of the school year, I emailed my re-written manuscript. Now I find myself back at the nervous stage. What if I’ve buggered it all up? What if, under my new title as Writer, it seems forced and annoying? I think it seems forced and annoying. I know it does, I should never have sent it…blah blah.
Anyway, while I suffer my insecurities and try to relax into holiday mode, I can conclude these things:
- Dreams don’t just happen. You have to work your bottom right off. And then, when you think you can’t possibly work any more, you have to work some more. You have to work the bones inside your bottom off. It’s not pretty and it hurts. You will miss out on things, lose touch, let things go, piss people off. But if you have your heart set on something, you have to sacrifice more than just your bottom bones.
- You have to love what you’re doing. If you don’t, you will give up.
- You have to have understanding people around you to support you. You have to be able to tell someone when you think your work is crap and your about to burn it, because they will stop you, calm you down and tell you to just put your damn bottom (and its bones) on your seat. If they don’t understand, you have to hope they’ll support you anyway, or one day forgive you your distraction.
- You have to Keep. On. Trying. The first novel I ever wrote (when I was in my early twenties) is still inside my filing cabinet. It is terrible shite. It sits there with some equally terrible articles and short stories. And some rejection letters, course certificates and notebooks full of ideas. My try-hard file. You have to be a try hard. You have to shove your pride aside and let yourself fail. You have to not give up. You will improve. You really will.
These all sound like utterly cliched, eye-rollingly annoying things. But I promise you, at least for me, they are true.
But don’t listen to me, I’m not there yet. I’m just a little way there. The book, if it gets there, is not out for another year. In that time I am contracted to finish it, plus at least a draft of a second novel. And then there’s all those other stories I have in me.
A lot to do. I’ll try to keep you posted on the progress/process, if you’re intrested. And I’ll try to write about other things too. I’ll promise to keep megoracle going as much as I can. Without it, and my readers, I know for sure that my writing couldn’t have evolved into a manuscript that someone noticed.
So thank you, thank you. And sorry for my silence. Keep being great, working hard, being kind and being happy. Mostly happy.
Happy, happy new year.
Love Meg xxx