Did you always want to be a writer?

After the FallI often get asked this question. My answer is: I always wanted to write (and read) but I’m not sure when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I think it took me a while to realise that being a writer was actually an occupation. Which brings me to this month’s guest blogger, Kylie Ladd, whose book After the Fall begins with this fabulous proposition:

 ‘I had been married three years when I fell in love. Fell, collapsed, stepped off the curb and found nothing but air. Oh, I already loved my husband of course, but this was different.’

Kylie’s journey to being a writer was, like mine, circuitous and indirect. She also shares many of my loves, such as Mr Pinkwhistle, Malory Towers and Moonface. Many of you know the story of my writing journey so, rather than talk more about that, I wanted to share Kylie’s story. I hope it resonates with you as much as it did with me. Over to Kylie:

I first decided I wanted to be a writer at the age of eight, when in my free time at school I penned a novella (OK, it was about 100 words and it was in texta, not pen, but stay with me) called “Pip and Peppy go to boarding school”.  I’m not sure it was particularly original – I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s ‘Malory Towers’ series of boarding school books at the time- but I loved writing it and imagining all the adventures my two doggy protagonists got up to. I probably should admit that as much as I loved writing it, I loved what happened next even more: my adored teacher adored my manuscript, gave me five house points and read it out loud to the class, who were duly encouraged to clap. I kept Pip and Peppy, and I can tell you that it’s really pretty ordinary, but every would-be writer should be gifted with such a reception for their first book. God bless you, Mrs Whitla.

I continued to write stories all through primary and secondary school, switching to terrible tortured poetry at university. By this time my long-held plan to study journalism and become a real writer had been overturned by my parents (you can read the whole terrible story here: http://bit.ly/a5gb2B ), and I found myself studying psychology via a short and ill-fated detour into medicine. Thankfully, I discovered that psychology was also full of stories, full of motive and deliberation and impulse, and came to love it, eventually completing a Bachelor’s, Master’s and then PhD in the area.

But I never stopped wanting to write, and to write something other than academic papers or grant applications. A year after I finished my PhD, my husband was relocated to Edinburgh with his work, and I happily threw in my own job and our life in Melbourne to go with him. Edinburgh will always be incredibly dear to me: it was where I had my first child and wrote my first novel. I’d always wanted to write, and suddenly here was my chance: though I’d secured a job at the University of Edinburgh before we left Australia, it took six months for the funding for the position to come through, and while I was waiting, I wrote. That first novel was dreadful- “Pip and Peppy” had greater literary merit- and I think I knew that all along, but it was still an incredibly useful exercise… nine months after we’d arrived in Scotland I had a 100,000 word manuscript, the knowledge that I could do the hard yards of actually sitting and thinking and writing day after day, but more importantly the realisation that that was all I really wanted to do.

I stopped writing to have a baby, wrote a second unpublishable (though slightly better) novel, moved to Canada, had another baby, and eventually- unable to return to psychology in Montreal due to language laws and my French being limited to ‘croissant’ and ‘Yoplait’- began a third novel. During this time I also made my first forays into freelance journalism, which I kept up when we returned to Australia. Over the next five years I was published in The Age, Good Health, Reader’s Digest, SMH, Oprah magazine, Griffith Review, Good Weekend and a slew of parenting magazines and websites- particularly Sydney’s Child, who were incredibly generous with their advice and encouragement. I learnt a lot in those freelance years. I learnt about writing to deadline and to a proscribed length; I learnt about tailoring my work for differing audiences and different editors; I learnt about being edited (the horror!) and eventually how to edit myself. It was all fabulous experience, and I loved the regular publication and pay cheques… but I still wanted to write fiction.

By this time the third novel, which I’d begun in Canada, had been finished, sent out to publishers, roundly rejected and shoved in a drawer with the other two attempts. Undeterred (OK, rather seriously deterred, but unable to give up) I turned to non-fiction, and had two books published: Living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias (arising from my work as a neuropsychologist) in 2006, and Naked: Confessions of Adultery and Infidelity (arising from my innate voyeurism) in 2008. A few months before Naked came out I saw an ad in the Victorian Writer’s Centre newsletter asking for submissions for a literary speed-dating event at the upcoming Emerging Writers Festival. Successful candidates would be allotted ten minutes each with ten different publishers to pitch their work… I hauled out my third manuscript, dusted it off and wrote my application.

Luckily (oh, how grateful I am for this) I was one of the ten selected to participate from around 300 submissions. The session itself was rather intimidating… actually, it was pure, distilled, essence of terror: ten meetings of ten minutes with ten publishers trying to convince them that they should publish- or at least read- your manuscript; almost two solid hours of non-stop pitchpitchpitch. It worked, though. The next day I had emails from five of the ten publishers present asking to see my book. Elated but confused, I called the agent I had only just acquired when Naked was sold, explained the story to her (given my track record, I hadn’t even told her I’d written any fiction) and she swung into action. An agent is a beautiful thing: Pippa (not Pippy, but ooh- how symbolic) read my third novel, suggested ways I could improve it and held my hand through the rewrite, then sent it out to the interested parties, having in the interim explained the situation to each.

Within six months she had an offer from Allen and Unwin. After The Fall was published in 2009, almost exactly ten years to the day I started writing my first novel in Edinburgh in 1999. It’s been a fascinating if somewhat convoluted journey… frustrating and depressing at times (writing is hard and lonely work; rejections suck, and they continue to suck even after you’ve had your fair share), but ultimately incredibly rewarding. Hopefully it’s one I will continue on: after its publication in Australia, After The Fall was picked up by Random House in the US and will be released there in June 2010. My second novel has been signed by Allen and Unwin and will come out soon. On the personal side, my family has once again relocated- we’re having a year’s sea change in Broome in the far north of WA, where I’m attempting to write what I hope will be my third published novel, and not just spend every day at Cable Beach. Broome is wonderful. I love the climate and the calmer pace, all the new experiences my children are having here. It’s only a small town, but thankfully we live opposite the wonderful public library… where just three days ago I borrowed the first Malory Towers book for my own 8 year old daughter.  Who knows what journeys it will take her on?

If you liked what you read here and want to know more about Kylie, you can follow her on Twitter. For now, I’d love to know where you’re at in your writing journey and how you got there.

This blog first appeared on Fleur McDonald’s website. Fleur is the author of Blue Skies and Red Dust.

2 comments

  1. What a fabulous, inspiring story. Thank you for sharing it (both Kylie and Natasha!). It’s good to know that not even three children can deter a determined writer.

  2. Hi Shannon – I’ve always said, and I wonder if Kylie will agree, that having kids makes you a better writer in some ways because you become more attuned to your imagination through watching your childrens’ imaginations develop and by coming up with ever more ridiculous stories as bribery for eating all their dinner!!

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