How To Become a Writer: Louise Allan

How to Become a Writer is a series about the many and varied steps (and missteps) people take on the way to writing and publishing a book. My guest today is Louise Allan.

Louise grew up in Tasmania, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. She has had several short stories, essays and articles published in literary anthologies and medical journals. Shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship,her first novel, The Sisters’ Song, is out now with Allen and Unwin. 

Set in rural Tasmania over a span of seventy years, the strengths and flaws of motherhood are revealed through the mercurial relationship of two very different sisters, Ida and Nora. The Sisters’ Song speaks of dreams, children and family, all entwined with a musical thread that binds them together. 

From the first time I met Louise, I was impressed by her absolute commitment to her writing, and her willingness to redraft again and again…and again, until she got it right. Louise takes every opportunity to hone her skills, attending workshops and festivals, as well as supporting other members of her writing community. The publication of her first novel is testament to her dedication and tenacity. Here’s her story:

Ending her Career as a Doctor

I was a doctor for 16 years, working as a GP and then as breast physician, diagnosing breast cancers and giving bad news. It’s not the kind of job you can do lightly or without feeling; nothing in medicine is. I was the director of the clinic, so administrative tasks also fell to me, negotiating with hospital management, hiring and firing, and other aspects I didn’t particularly enjoy.

At the same time I had four children I was trying to mother. Each morning when I woke, I broke into a run, hurrying everyone out the door and to school, before speeding into work, always slightly late. I felt as if I was always running but never on time. I was forgetting appointments, missing school assemblies and hanging out the washing at 11pm. I had no time to just sit and breathe, and I was worn out.

Medicine’s hard to give up because it’s not just a job, it’s part your identity—it’s in your title, for a start. Apart from that, it was the last remnant of my pre-motherhood self I’d retained. Nevertheless, one day I decided I couldn’t keep living at full throttle because I wasn’t giving doctoring or mothering the attention they deserved, and I made the decision to stop work.

An Online Writing Course

I knew if I didn’t work, I’d need something to keep me occupied. I’m not one for morning teas or tennis, and, for a few years, in the back of my mind I’d felt a niggling urge to write, to do something creative. At school, my marks in English hadn’t been impressive, so I wondered if I had the ability, but my children had won a few writing awards, and I did wonder where they got it from.

To test the waters, I enrolled in an online writing course. I deliberately chose an online course because I wanted the anonymity and safety a screen provides. Our second assignment was to light a candle and describe it. I threw caution to the wind and let the words flow uncensored onto the page. It felt like a pressure valve on my brain had been released, and I hadn’t had so much fun in years. By the end of the course, I knew I wanted to write a novel, so I enrolled in a few more courses and workshops, all the time musing about my novel.

A Writing Community

Writing a novel is hard and it can’t be done in a vacuum, particularly your first. I sought, and found, mentors and teachers, authors who gave me tips and encouragement. In 2012, I joined a group for writers working on a book-length project—aptly named the Book-Length Project Group—and started writing it in earnest.  The Booklength Project Group provided accountability, as each month when we met, I wanted to say I’d worked on my novel.

Time and again it came up that writers need to build an online presence and to start early, long before your book is ready to be released. Although I wasn’t sure what I had to offer readers, I took this advice on board and set up a website and blog in early 2013. Through my blog, I met wonderful people, including the lovely Annabel Smith who introduced me to my first writing group. Those poor writers suffered through very crappy drafts of the early scenes of my novel.

The writing community is so supportive and welcoming, and generous in sharing their knowledge, and their comfort. I remember going out with a group of writers a few days after I’d missed out on a place in a manuscript development programme. I was still feeling fragile, but all of the writers, some of whom I respected immensely, told me of their experiences with rejection. I felt like I wasn’t alone.

A Residency & an Award Shortlisting

Each year, I told myself that if my novel stagnated, I’d enrol in a formal writing degree and learn to write properly. But by the end of each year, something positive would have happened that indicated I was improving, despite my ad hoc learning style. In 2013, I was awarded a residency at Varuna, and in 2014, my novel was shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award. I didn’t win, but being shortlisted told me my manuscript had potential and motivated me to keep going.

An Agent & a Rewrite

Following the Hungerford shortlisting, I sent my novel to an agent, Lyn Tranter. She spent considerable time on the phone to me, bluntly outlining the many flaws in my novel, and I decided to rewrite it. A few people questioned why I’d rewrite a novel that had been shortlisted for an award, but she was a publishing professional, someone inside the industry, and she was giving me valuable advice. I’d have been an idiot not to take it on board.

This was the turning point in the manuscript. I found two other doctors who were also rewriting their novels, and they gave me feedback as I tore my manuscript apart, ditched whole chapters and characters, and gradually stitched it back together. I changed the ending and made it uplifting instead of bleak and depressing, and that transformed the novel. I didn’t want a contrived ending, but one that arose organically from the story and had an inevitability about it. I had to dig deeply into the layers of my novel to discover it, and in doing so, I found a better story than the one I had before, one that’s more universal, and one that’s much closer to my own beliefs and values.

Lyn accepted my revised manuscript and the first publisher she sent it to, Annette Barlow at Allen and Unwin, bought it. So, once I had the story right, things moved quickly. I then spent a year editing my novel under the direction of a publisher, and that improved my novel by at least as much again.

So, I’ve come a long way from that poem about a candle that started me on this journey. My life’s completely transformed from my busy life as a doctor to an equally busy life as a published author. The difference is, at least now creating is my job and that’s when I’m happiest—when I’m here at my computer, making up a story.

I took a gamble when I stopped work and started writing; there was nothing to indicate I had any talent or that my novel would ever be published. There have been disappointments along the way, rejections and missing out on awards, but I’ve ended up exactly where I’m meant to be.

Connect with Louise on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Want More?

Check out Emma Viskic and Ryan O’Neill on their journeys to writing.

4 thoughts on “How To Become a Writer: Louise Allan”

  1. Great post Annabelle and very inspiring words from Louise – thank you
    It’s great to read of people’s writing journey and gives me hope and motivation to persevere

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