How to Become a Writer: Jenny Ackland

This series is based on an early short-story by Lorrie Moore called ‘How to Become a Writer’, a wry account of all the seemingly random events, choices and missteps that led a young woman to dedicate herself to a life of putting words on paper. This is a subject I’m fascinated by. Whenever I talk to authors, read their interviews or hear them speak, I’m struck by the enormous variety of routes there are to the same end-point.

There are those who come to writing through study, others are self-taught; some begin early while others are ‘late-bloomers’; some are lucky enough to find mentors, others go it alone; some begin as teachers, editors or in other word-related professions, others come from lives as accountants or sheep shearers. I take tremendous comfort in knowing there’s more than one way to pack a sack; that just because you haven’t done certain things (like gone to university), doesn’t mean you can’t become a writer; we must each find our own path to the writing life.

Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. She has worked in offices, sold textbooks in a university bookshop, taught English overseas and worked as a proof-reader and freelance editor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and listed in prizes and awards. Her debut novel The Secret Son – a “Ned Kelly-Gallipoli mash-up” about truth and history – was published in 2015. Little Gods is her second novel.

I first got to know Jenny through Twitter, and then we had lunch together when she came to Perth Writers Festival a few years ago. But I really got to know her when we found ourselves staying at the same hotel during Ubud Writers Festival in 2015, where she was launching her debut novel The Secret Son. We had breakfast together every day, as well as lounging by the pool, and talked about reading, writing, parenting, marriage, and even romantic dreams! Since then we’ve shared other reading and life adventures, including an overlapping retreat at KSP Writers Centre, a Bad Diaries Salon, a super-crazy night at Fringe Festival and KARAOKE (Jenny has a super-chill karaoke style – she lies on the banquette and sings like she could take it or leave it; it’s very impressive). Her latest novel knocked my socks off and I’m thrilled to feature her journey to writing here.

Little Gods

A rare, original and stunning novel about a remarkable girl who learns the hard way that the truth doesn’t always set you free – with echoes of Jasper JonesSeven Little Australians and Cloudstreet.

As a child, trapped in the savage act of growing up, Olive had sensed she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue. But like looking at her own nose for too long, everything became blurry and she had to pull away. She’d reached for happiness as a child not yet knowing that the memories she was concocting would become deceptive. That memories get you where they want you not the other way around.
Here’s Jenny on her journey to writing:

The reading

I’m not one of those people who talks about ‘always having wanted to be a writer.’ I was always good at reading and spelling, English and writing in school, but it was the love for reading that I think is key to me being drawn to creative expression through writing. I read voraciously all the way through childhood, adolescence and into early adulthood. I kept diaries for years, noting down small observations, writing pages of banal accounts of my daily doings. But in those pages, there was some kind of synthesis going on, a circling around my eventual destination, and with the reading and the recording, I was developing a ‘nose’: for observation, for drama, for interesting detail.

For me, as I suspect for many writers, to trace an author’s beginnings you only have to look at their reading history. I’ve met only one author who, when I asked what did you read when you were growing up, told me they ‘didn’t really read’. I found this staggering, almost unbelievable. How can a writer form and shape their craft without innumerable books informing the DNA of their own work? Maybe it’s possible, but for the most part, writers read. A lot.

I read on the toilet, in bed, on the couch, in tents while camping, in cubbies, on the lawn. I read all weekend, for hours during the day on holidays. I read Enid Blyton Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair books, then later the Mallory Towers boarding school series. I read CS Lewis and various one-off magic books: The Little Broomstick. I remember going through a Grimms Fairytales period. Library borrowing. And then the classics like Heidi, Peter Pan. Charlie Brown comics. I was mad about horses so there were all the horse books too: Jill’s Pony Club. I was obsessed with Thelwell, BC caveman comics, as well as Asterix and Obelix, and Tintin. Then, in my adolescence, I segued into more adult fiction: Dick Francis, Robert Ludlam. I read the classics at school – I adored Wuthering Heights – but my personal reading was ‘easier’. I read James Clavell. I read Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. I wasn’t at all snobbish in what I read; I inhaled all of it. Then, in my twenties, I discovered John Irving, and Peter Carey. Carey’s Illywacker made a big impression on me. I think you could trace the genesis of my own writing back to those early authors I adored.

The nuggets of encouragement

All writers have these, but they can be few and far between. I remember a teacher in Year 7 reading out one of my stories to the whole grade; a tutor in university who said maybe I could publish a short story I’d written as part of assessment. Then my first publication, a short story published in a university magazine – that was in 2000. I estimate ten years elapsed between the first nugget and second, and maybe more than twenty between second and third. But these three things stand out for me, looking back.

Once I had decided to have a proper crack at writing to be published, slowly more nuggets started coming my way. I worked hard, I kept going. I built a small list of publishing credits: a short story, then a creative fiction piece, a poem. Getting an agent was incredibly affirming. Having ‘excellent’ rejections from publishers was also encouraging. Applying for and receiving a Creative Victoria grant. Being awarded fellowships at writing residencies. All of these things accumulated and gave me confidence and the feeling that I had some small industry credibility. But they don’t come floating along on the breeze; I realised I had to make them happen and put myself out there.

The learning

It was around 2009 that I decided to stop thinking about it and do it. I bought and read ‘how to’ writing craft books. I got busy with workshops, went to festivals, immersed myself in the literary world of Melbourne. I formed a writing group with people I met at a year-long ‘write your novel’ course through Writers Victoria, and for a few years I was a serious workshop junkie. My teachers have included Carmel Bird, Andrea Goldsmith, Sallie Muirden, Chris Womersley, Craig Sherbourne, Jon Bauer, Rebecca Starford, Antoni Jach, Toni Jordan, and even MJ Hyland and Colm Toibin at writers’ festival masterclasses. I took something new from each and every workshop. Over time, the understanding of what I wanted to do and how I thought I could (maybe) do it started to cluster like filings to iron.

The first completed manuscript

Completing a book-length piece of fiction is only the beginning. It almost certainly requires much much more work – and even though it’s possible to seek help by way of feedback from trusted first readers, paying an editor to help develop or strengthen it, I knew achieving progress in a real sense was all on me. I had to do the work. Some people write two or more novel manuscripts that never get shown to anyone. They then write a third or fourth and that’s the one they use to try to get an agent’s interest.

The agent

In Australia, the scene is so small and publishers often are open to submissions, a writer doesn’t need an agent. But for me it was important to have an agent. For professional reasons – again in terms of credibility – but also for practical reasons. I didn’t want to be negotiating contracts or otherwise dealing with the business side of my creative writing.

While the large publishing houses have certain times when unsolicited manuscripts can be sent in, it’s important to be aware that the person on the other end, going through those submissions, is likely a junior assistant. It won’t be a publisher who has power to take a novel to the acquisitions meeting, to champion your work. So, to avoid disappearing in the slush pile, an agent is preferable, or a connection to a decision-maker. Smaller publishers are different, and in some ways, being published by a smaller house has many advantages. There are different avenues of getting there, and what works for one person may not for another.

The publisher

An agent will match a manuscript to the publisher they believe will most likely love it. I can’t emphasise enough how much timing, personal taste, and other variables affect whether a manuscript is acquired or not. It’s something I learned to accept. It truly may not be that the quality is lacking in any way; just that they published (or will publish) something on a similar topic, or the main character reminds them of someone they used to go out with. And still hate. Or some other seemingly innocuous reason. And it’s not just the commissioning publisher who has to love it and want it. They then have to sell it to the rest of the team; marketing and sales have to be in agreement, and sometimes that is where an acquisition attempt falls over. I’ve heard stories of publishers in tears because they wanted to publish a manuscript they dearly loved and believed in, but could not get the rest of the company on side.

These are all the things no one really tells you – you come to know it by experience and over time. This is where you need to be tough. Rejections are a part of the game. Usually, repeated rejections are part of the game. Remember the nuggets above? And how they might be scattered across years or even decades? Well the rejections are often what fills in the spaces. You need a tough hide to stay in the business and keep pushing forward. In my case, my first published manuscript was actually my second one written. I had many rejections for both, but eventually both were published and I couldn’t be happier. But just because I’ve been published twice, it doesn’t mean the next is a given. Each will stand or fall on its own merits, especially as the industry tightens, publishers become more risk-averse.

The juggling

I run a teaching business – with a partner – and we train educators to deliver health and human relationships sessions in schools in and around Melbourne. It’s been interesting building the business in parallel with devoting more time to my writing. I’ve had conversations with people about whether I want to teach creative writing but I don’t think that would work for me. I like to earn my money from another field and that way it doesn’t affect my writing, other than when I struggle to find time. But being self-employed means there is a lot more flexibility with regards to work hours and it has worked well for me. Many writers also work in arts fields, and they talk about being exhausted, struggling to get invoices paid, and then with no time or energy to do their own writing. I don’t know what the answer is but the juggling is real for so many writers.

The nerve, the desire, the patience, the persistence, the confidence

These are all essential and at various times I found I needed them in bucket loads. That saying ‘fake it until you make it?’ It’s not something that comes easily to women. But we have to be more ballsy. It’s easy to lose confidence but I found myself many times having to hold my nerve; while waiting to hear from agents, publishers, editors and so on. Publishing moves slowly for months even over the course of a whole year or more, but then will quickly spin into action where deadlines loom and the pressure is on.

It’s tempting to give in to panic, and rush to complete something, rush to show it to someone else before it is properly finished.

The community

The writing community in Australia is pretty small and Twitter seems to be the hub where I found friends. There is nothing more interesting, instructive and enjoyable than talking about books, writing, craft with other writers. It’s a generous bunch of people and there is a lot of support. I am really grateful to have found so many authentic connections with wonderful humans who are also writers.

Tips I got from others, that helped me

1. Follow every lead, you don’t know where it will lead you
2. Say yes to everything
3. Back yourself


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2 thoughts on “How to Become a Writer: Jenny Ackland”

  1. This was great. Thank you. Very real and genuine. And quietly encouraging. I loved the quote at the beginning of the article. Definitely makes me want to read Little Gods.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. real is our brand here! But glad it was also encouraging. It is a wonderful read – add it to your pile!

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