At least, those of you kind enough to still be reading this blog.
I wanted to let you know where I've been these last months.
I've been writing a book.
Remember way back when I drove around China for half a year? In a camper van?
“You should write a book about it,” said my writer friend Rebecca at the time. A book sounded like something I might be able to do, after blogging for three years. "Yeah," I told her. "Maybe I will."
Following that conversation the first thing I did was to google How many words in a novel? Because that's precisely how much I knew about writing a book.
The answer? Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Hah! I thought. That's only about 80 (longish) blog posts! I could do that.
Rebecca introduced me to her author husband’s agent, based in Sydney. I remember our first conversation, four
weeks after the end of our epic road trip, and just days after leaving Shanghai to return to Australia. My thoughts about writing a book at that moment were chaotic, to say the least, as were my thoughts about everything at the time - leaving China, moving house, going back to work as an ER doctor, getting both children settled in Australian schools, living in my home town again.
agent listened patiently on the other end of the phone while I rambled with ideas about photography books, travel books, and books about China's ethnic minorities and regional foods. I had no clear single idea of the book I wanted to write, only a burning desire to get it all down on paper and get it published. As all beginning
“It might be too recent
in your mind,” he said, tactfully. “After all, you've just completed the journey. Give it a month or two. The story will emerge.”
I told him I didn’t need to wait a month or two. I planned to begin right away and would send him my first draft in six months. After all, I'd already written 48 blog posts during the trip. That only left about 30,000 words and a spot of editing, right?
On the first day I sat at my desk and looked over those 48 blog posts. Problematically, many were lists of foods I'd eaten in different provinces, which, although interesting to me, weren't really a story. Only 30 were actually usable, leaving me with a yawning 50,000-word deficit. This seemed suddenly overwhelming, so I stopped work and decided that was enough for Day One.
On Day Two, I realised I really, really needed to sort out the washing, a task I only ever approached as a form of procrastination.
Over the next three months I did a lot of washing. It turns out that writing elegant and coherent 5,000-word chapters is quite tricky, way more tricky than I anticipated. I slowly filled in the 50,000-word gap in my story with transcribed diary entries, notes, random conversations, and any memory I could dredge up. Some days I wrote 3,000 words, only to delete 2,950 of them the following morning, some days I wrote fifty words, all of them rubbish, then went to the movies.
|So obviously I'm not the only person with washing procrastination.|
On most days, the work felt excruciating. When someone reminded me of Oscar Wilde's quote about writing, I felt a pang of recognition, without the satisfaction of writing anything remotely Wilde-worthy.
“I spent all morning putting in a comma. And all afternoon taking it out.”
That's how it felt to me. Like very hard work.
But after a year and a half, I had close to 75,000 words in a long-winded and very unwieldy document that was still eight chapters short of being finished. It was immense in its clumsiness. 'The Uncharted Kingdom' was a non-fiction novel about our journey around China in which I had included everything: every trivial thing, every boring thing. It changed tense every few paragraphs, which made it jarring to read. It was, I realized with a sinking feeling, dreadful.
Every so often I sent revisions to my agent. Or outlines for new chapters, or re-revisions of revisions I had already sent. When I look back on those emails now I cringe but remain impressed by his patience and strength-of-will. I am even more impressed that he took me on, based on the idea of the book alone.
And I kept writing, every day, even if only for a quarter of an hour. I started a year-long course on writing non-fiction and another on editing through the Queensland Writer's Centre, one of Australia's best supports for emerging writers. I joined an immensely supportive writing group.
As a way of terrorising myself into finishing the first draft, I submitted my best fifty pages to the Hachette Manuscript Development competition. If you were lucky enough to be selected you had just 72 hours to hand in the full manuscript.
When they called to offer me one of ten places out of three hundred entries around Australia, I wept over the phone. Then didn't sleep for the next 72 hours and sent off 108,000 words by the deadline. Yeah, it was a little long.
The Hachette Manuscript Development Programme was life-changing. Four days of intense professional development meeting editors, publishers, agents, booksellers and established authors. I had a one-on-one meeting with Hachette's chief publisher, where she told me my manuscript had a lot of promise, and asked me to redraft and resubmit. I was over the moon. And I forged wonderful friendships with nine other writers who, like me, were finding their feet.
After the workshop I revised and redrafted, cutting 10,000 words and completing the second draft early this year. This draft was less ugly, but still needed subtlety, and character development, and better pacing. Each draft felt like climbing a densely forested mountain, scrambling through the undergrowth step by step. It was only once I reached the top that I could clearly see the gently curving path I should have taken.
Draft Three, the trying-to-make-it-beautiful draft, took another six months. I rearranged my work life, working two intense weeks of back-to-back shifts at the hospital, then spending two weeks writing.
'The Uncharted Kingdom' was now the story of a journey around China in a camper van, but also a story of journeying through the uncharted kingdoms within ourselves, where we secretly chase dreams and search for meaning and insight in our lives. That sounds heavy, but there were lots of funny parts too. Like the time we unknowingly camped next to a dynamite depot, cooking outside with a open flame because it was a balmy night, and were rescued by four of the most stressed-looking men I've ever met.
And after writing every single day for so long, a strange thing happened. I stopped worrying about getting published, and instead became
obsessed with writing the best story I was capable of. Not the best travel narrative of all time, just the best I could tell, at that moment in time.
Three months ago today I sent the manuscript of 'The Uncharted Kingdom' off to Hachette, for acceptance or rejection. As I sit here waiting for news, I try to remember what I learnt from the editors and publishers I met: book publishing is a business, with risks and returns. A rejection is not personal, but may just mean that a book about China from an unknown author might be a stretch. Profits are not certain. It may be better suited to another publisher.
Writing is now part of the fabric of my life. Regardless of what transpires with my book, writing has became a reward in itself. Although I've been blogging less I've been writing much, much more. Recently I was accepted into the Masters programme in creative writing at my local university, and this work will become the backbone of my next book, a book about food and travel, and the way those can connect us.
So dearest readers, thanks for sticking with me. Wish me luck as I embark on the journey of
my second book. It begins in China, but travels out beyond those borders to
parts of the world I never dreamed I would visit. And there's plenty of food
in it too.
Will you come along with me?