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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.

 

Literary adventures — around Canberra and on to Iceland

20 November 2019

Is anyone else hanging for the end of the year? I’m so madly busy right now and the pace isn’t going to let up until Christmas Day. It helps that I’m editing some incredible books which I’m so excited to see in print, but I’m also hanging out for the Christmas break when I can drink prosecco and eat mince pies and do very little other than laze about and read. Okay, so with three children that is probably going to remain an illusive fantasy, but a girl can dream.

Let’s stick with November for now which has offered up a few highlights of its own. First up was the annual celebration for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge for which I am an ambassador.

Accepting a thank you gift from one of the Reading Challenge participants

It’s such a joy to be a part of this initiative which aims to transform kids into book addicts for life. The challenge asks them to read a minimum of 15 books but there is no set list — they can read whatever sparks their imagination. This is so important because with so many forms of entertainment competing for kids’ attention, we need to help them find the books that sing for them, the books whose worlds they won’t want to leave.

So it’s wonderful to hear about the Reading Challenge’s success stories. This year one of the standouts was a student from Holy Spirit Primary School who set himself the goal to read 1000 books over the six months of the challenge. He wasn’t previously a particularly avid reader but he smashed that 1000! I must say I’m a tad jealous. I manage about 100 novels a year — if only I could somehow claw back those luxury after-school hours of primary school again! I would only need a live-in chef, housekeeper, gardener and taxi driver to achieve this. Ah, there I go into fantasy land again.

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Another standout was two students with vision impairment who completed the challenge, one in braille and one in large print. Neither of them were big readers before. In fact, the student who read in braille (from Caroline Chisholm Primary) had previously avoided reading at all costs. But the challenge saw her reading at both recess and lunch! Hearing these stories makes my heart swell a little. Okay, a lot. Hats off to all the students who completed the challenge this year, and I look forward to going on more reading adventures with the challenge next year.

Picture book workshop participants dreaming up stories

 

This month I also helped a bunch of writers create their own fantasy lands of sorts when I taught a full-day picture book workshop. It was lovely to hear that it was the ACT Writers Centre’s most popular workshop of the year! This meant that it was elbow room only as we got cosy in the glorious upstairs space of Harry Hartog’s bookshop at the ANU. Could there be anything more wonderful than talking about how books work when you are surrounded by them? (No, is the correct answer.) They were a gorgeous and engaged group and I look forward to seeing some of their names on future picture book covers.

November also marks the end of an era for me. Since 2008, I have spent almost a decade teaching editing at the University of Canberra (yes, I realise those numbers don’t add up but I had a brief break in there). It’s been wonderful getting to know the students and seeing them go on to do all sorts of fabulous things in the world, and I’ve learned so much about myself along the way. A massive shout out to all the brilliant postgrad students who made it such a pleasure.

I’m going to briefly dip into October now because I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing literary superstar Charlotte Wood, who also happens to be one of my all-time favourite authors. As I discovered, she is also a generous and generally delightful human. We spoke about her new novel The Weekend, which is a brilliant book that examines old age and friendship. I devoured it, appropriately, over one weekend, and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same.

Harry Hartog events manager extraordinaire, Katarina, pronounced our conversation her favourite event of 2019. It was for me too! It doesn’t get better than chatting with a writer whose work you have admired for years.

Finally, my most exciting November news — drumroll please! I was thrilled to receive a phone call from artsACT a few days ago to say that my grant application was successful. This means I’m travelling to the Iceland Writers Retreat next April where I’ll be working on my second novel. It is one of the world’s most lauded retreats, with a phenomenal line-up of internationally successful authors running masterclasses. Needless to say I am dying of happiness!

Beautiful Iceland — where I’ll be come April!

Well, that’s it from me for now. Excuse me while I go back to dreaming of mince pies and endless (primary-school style) hours in which to read. And maybe an Icelandic adventure or two.

Contracts, contracts, contracts!

18 October 2019

Okay, there are actually only two new contracts but the rule of threes works better and, besides, excitement levels require it. Rejection is part of a writer’s staple diet, so when you have two big wins in the space of a week it’s time to splash champagne around like a rock star and happy dance everywhere.

Note: If you have children they will be embarrassed by said happy dance and will likely roll their eyes at you. What’s more, after picking my three kids up from school and telling them about book contract 1 their response was: ‘That’s cool, Mum. What’s for afternoon tea?’ Did not miss a beat.

Book contract 1!
So I’m thrilled to share with you, dear reader (who does not require me to provide afternoon tea), that I have been made an offer for my debut novel! I can’t give you a title yet as my working title will likely change. I care about this novel so deeply and I’m so glad that I’ll be able to share it with you soon. Well, not that soon. Publishing moves at a glacial pace, so it’ll be out August 2021. But when I finally have that book baby in my hands I can assure you that I will be drinking all the champagne (again — any excuse). And I will not be making afternoon tea.

Book contract 2!
Just a few days after the excitement of book contract 1, I received word that my fifth picture book, Where the Heart Is, had made it through acquisitions. It’s based on a true story that is so extraordinary that I began writing a first draft immediately after hearing it. The illustrator, Susannah Crispe, has her own personal experiences that link so incredibly to this story — there couldn’t be a more perfect person to partner with. More on all that closer to release because, again, it will be June 2021 before it’s sitting on bookshop shelves.

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My kids received said news with similar levels of enthusiasm to book contract 1. Luckily the bloke made up for it.

Book contract 3!
But before both those books, my fourth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in September next year. And yes, I signed this contract forever ago but I wanted to mention it here because I have been watching the uber-talented Wayne Harris’ illustrations develop with something like awe. Okay, exactly like awe. In short, I am madly in love with them — they have such heart and are so utterly beautiful and moving. I’m itching to share them with you, but you’ll have to wait.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here enjoying another glass of bubbles.

Taking licks: On writing rejection and success

26 June 2019

Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil — but there is no way around them. Isaac Asimov

It’s an inescapable fact that the writing life is bound up with rejection. Successful authors are those able to survive the lacerations. So in this second post in a series, I asked three successful authors — Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson — to share their experiences of both rejection and success. They have all been so generous in offering up these honest and wise words, and if you’re a writer you might want to paste Ben’s pep talk next to wherever you write.

Anna Spargo-Ryan
I think the worst rejections are always the ones that mirror some insecurity you have about your writing. For me, that’s being wordy and obtuse. When my first novel, The Paper House, was published I remember waiting for reviews that would reflect what I ‘knew’ about the book and myself: that I had used six words when one would do; that the writing was florid and tiresome; and OH GOD the metaphors, why were there so many?

I felt it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered these truths, and so it was. A review in a major newspaper described the book as being poetic, but, you know, maybe not in a good way. Musical like a little kid learning the violin. Magical in the sense that I must have cast a spell on someone to get it published.

Realising someone else sees your flaws is devastating. I hoped — but didn’t believe — that I’d managed to cover them up. I thought I had dialogued over the top of my wailing symbolism. I had tried so hard to craft a plot to hide the layers of semiotics. But this reviewer had seen them anyway, and pointed right at them.

I responded by writing a whole other book with almost no metaphors in it. Eighty thousand words to prove that I could do it and the reviewer was wrong. Reader, that is too many hours to invest in someone you should probably just never think about again. Drink a Milo instead.

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On the other hand, being seen can be extremely affirming. When my second novel came out I did an interview with the legendary literary journalist Jane Sullivan. We went to my local café on a cold day and I think she had a tea and I had nothing because I was so nervous. The Age was going to publish a double-page spread about me. Terrifying. Glorious, as well, but it made me want to die a bit.

I tried to be articulate. I talked about family violence and toxic masculinity in ways that I hoped reflected my intentions. I didn’t know what I was saying. Jane wrote in shorthand, which meant I couldn’t peer over and try to better articulate myself. I sped up. I blurted. I accidentally talked about my divorce, my own experiences of violence, my mental health. I wished I hadn’t. I remember thinking I had wanted to be professional, and that talking about myself as a depressed, anxious, no-good hack was not a particularly good way to do it. I might have even cried afterwards, although I cry at so often that it could have been unrelated.

A few weeks later, the interview was published. I was absolutely shitting myself, obviously. I think I made my partner read it first and promise to white-out any dreadful things I’d said (all of them, I was sure). I was so afraid I had revealed too many pieces of myself.

I peeked. It was a beautiful spread, with a full-colour portrait and an enormous headline. The stuff of dreams. And I took a deep breath and read the first line:

‘Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t seem at all like a miserable person.’

I was so shocked and so grateful I felt my heart was on fire. It’s my Twitter header image to this day. I carry a print-out around in my handbag. Jane had listened to me talk about the black clouds of melancholy and realised that wasn’t all there was. It was like having my portrait painted.

Anna Spargo-Ryan is the author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and was the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Guardian, Good Weekend and many other places. She lives in Melbourne with her family and more pets than is strictly appropriate.

Sheryl Gwyther
Like every other writer I’ve had rejections galore … over 20 years they’ve become the wallpapering in the room of my determination to never give up.

I’ve repapered over the most disappointing rejections, but I remember a review in Magpies magazine of my first children’s novel, Secrets of Eromanga. It was a positive review, except for one line about the villains being one-dimensional baddies. The reviewer may have been right or not but, mortified that school librarians and my contemporaries would read it, it’s all I took in. Mind you, it did make me work harder on every single villain I’ve written ever since.

I also remember the day I met with HarperCollins publisher, Lisa Berryman, to chat about my latest manuscript, Sweet Adversity. This is it, methinks! She wants my story. But of course, it wasn’t. She listed several things that needed sorting out — one of which would require a major rewrite of the book’s last quarter. My hopes of a contract were dashed.

Despondent with failure, I returned home to my logical-scientist bloke. He rolled his eyes at my tragic recount of the meeting. ‘Sounds to me like Lisa wants your story,’ Ross said. ‘You just have to fix up a few things.’

He was right, of course. Two weeks later, I send the manuscript back with eight extra chapters plus a much stronger ending. Lisa rang me. ‘You’ve nailed it, Sheryl,’ she said, ‘I’m taking it to acquisitions next week.’ Sweet Adversity was on its way. Truly a lesson in being proactive rather than reactive. And more important, the ability to listen to an experienced publisher … no matter how much extra work it means.

Writing for kids prepares you for total honesty — they don’t bother with sugar-coating. I love it. I remember a review of Secrets of Eromanga by a Year 8 student from New Zealand. He ‘didn’t want to read this novel’ and, just like he expected, ‘it was a dumb story’. Poor guy — being forced to read something he didn’t want to!

But then you get brilliant feedback too. Recently, at the Darling Downs Readers’ Cup Quiz where Sweet Adversity was on the reading list, I signed a copy for an 11-year-old boy. ‘I wouldn’t normally read this sort of book,’ he said. ‘Harry Potter has been my favourite book,’ he added, ‘but now it’s Sweet Adversity.’

I laughed … thinking how sweet he was to be so kind. But his teammates, all girls, said, ‘He’s telling the truth! He did love Harry, but now all he talks about is Adversity.’ Ahhh, the joy of writing for children!

Award-winning Queensland author Sheryl Gwyther writes novels, chapter books, short stories and plays for children and adults. Her recent historical adventure Sweet Adversity (10+ readers) is set in the Great Depression with Addie, a brave, vulnerable hero, a Shakespeare-quoting cockatiel, a tribe of lost children and enough dastardly villains to chill the bones.

Ben Hobson
Rejection is important. It’s training. It’s you running a 100-metre sprint every day practicing for the Olympics. If you want to run that race in front of that crowd then you have to practice. You have to take your licks. Trip over your shoelaces, faceplant into the gravel. Rejection moulds the writer. It is your training ground and every writer must endure it, because those made of weaker stuff are the ones that fall away. It is the refining fire of authordom.

The rejection that stung the worst for me also turned out to be the thing that kept me going. I entered To Become a Whale into the Vogel award, and it was really my last gasp. It was the last sprint I had in me. I pinned all my hopes on that thing so when it was rejected, my dreams felt like they were crumbling through my fingers.

The thing is though, that rejection also contained these words; this is a moving tale of father and son relationships, masculinity, blood, all in a unique setting. And then a ‘but…’ So while I was down — and I mean, I was — I eventually managed to pick myself back up again, read those words, and knew that I’d done something. It felt like I’d almost made it through. Those words spurned me on to rewrite once more (one more sprint, damn it) and send it on to an agent. Who sent me a very excited email.

There’s an old biblical adage: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope. This is rejection for the writer. It’ll either make you turn away, or buckle the hell down and grit your teeth that bit harder. And in that perseverance your character will be made. Character that allows you to be charitable to other authors who are suffering. Character that fights with bared teeth for what you believe in. And lastly, hope is produced. Because when you are a published author and you are engaged with everybody who is still suffering you are a beacon of what might be.

It’s awful. Every time one of the stories you’ve laboured over gets rejected feels so hard. I don’t mean to minimise it at all. In fact, I want to emphasise this. I want to acknowledge it. It is damn hard. You spend years working on a novel. You make all the right moves. Get pre-readers, hire a manuscript assessor, take it through a program. And at the end you send it off with your heart attached to it with paperclips and you hold your hands together and sit by the mailbox like a dog waiting for its owner to return. And then you get the form letter.

It sucks. But I’m saying to you: you can persevere. You’re a writer, damn it. Get off the floor and clench your fists and edit and send it out once more. You can endure. You are being refined. Collect rejections like UFC fighters collect scars; each one of those things is a mark that has created this warrior you’re becoming. Be proud. And send it out again.

Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at a Queensland High School. To Become a Whale, his first novel, was published in 2017, and was longlisted for the ABIA debut book award, and shortlisted in the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2018. His second novel, Snake Island, will be released 5 August this year.

This month you can win FOUR books by these incredible authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House and The Gulf, Sheryl Gwyther’s Sweet Adversity, and hot off the press Ben Hobson’s Snake Island. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before  5 pm on Monday 15 July to go in the draw.

Read the first post in this series with Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester.