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.
Harry Saddler is the author of The Eastern Curlew (2018), We Both Know: Ten Stories About Relationships(2005) and Small Moments (2007), a short novel about the aftermath of the Canberra bushfires of 2003, both published by Ginderra Press. His writing about the ecological, physical, and philosophical interactions between humans and animals has been published online at Meanjin and the Wheeler Centre, and in print in The Lifted Brow, and formerly at his blog, He was the joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb ‘Blog-to-Book’ Challenge, resulting in the book Not Birdwatching: Reflections on Noticing Animals.
Starting a Blog
On the 7th of June 2011 I was at the cinema watching a nature documentary. I’d been writing since I was in primary school but by 2011 I’d been writing seriously for about a decade. I’d had two books of fiction published, but both had sunk without a trace. I’d completed a new manuscript that I was really happy with, a novel about a man adopting a stray cat in the wake of an unexpected break-up. One agent I sent it to said that it was an affecting story, but not commercial enough in the current publishing climate. Nobody else was even slightly interested. To top it all off, my day-job was due to be reduced to only two days a week and then terminated at the end of the 2011-12 financial year. So I went into the cinema pretty ready for a distraction.
The footage in the documentary was spectacular. The script for the narration was dire. So as usual when I’m in a cinema but not quite fully immersed in the experience, my mind started to wander. Watching the animals flash across the screen in front of me I started to think about where I was: in my early thirties; an emerging writer who, groundhog-like, had re-submerged beneath the earth; a lover of animals who’d done a degree in zoology only to realise in the first year that he didn’t have the mind of a scientist. My chance to be the next David Attenborough, paid to travel around the world looking at all sorts of amazing beasts, had probably passed me by. But hell, I thought as I listened to the film’s narration, I could write, and I could surely do better than this!
I’d always thought that I’d definitely never write non-fiction. To be honest I was intimidated by the rigour required: all that research, all that factuality. Of course there are many fiction writers whose work is deeply reliant upon intense research – but I was never one of them. I didn’t have the faintest idea about how to research facts other than dusty school-room memories about “primary sources” and “secondary sources”. Still, I knew a bit about animals, and I knew a lot about myself. What if I started a blog?
I went home after the cinema and created it that night. I called it Noticing Animals. The very first entry was about willie wagtails. It was a few hundred words long, and I kept it simple: a description of the bird, an anecdote about seeing one flitting about a near-empty stadium, a comparison of the bird to the recently-deceased actor Bill Hunter by way of explaining this gruff but adorable little bird’s popularity in Australia. I clicked the “publish” button. I posted a link to Facebook.
From then on I aimed to publish one post a week. It helped me feel like I was doing something productive and kept my mind of the fact that while I looked for work I was paying my rent off my credit card and getting further and further into debt. I’ve always been a quick writer but even so I was surprised by how easy this writing felt: the words flowed out of me. The facts about animals became intermingled with childhood memories, everyday observations, fragile connections. I revealed more about myself on that blog than I ever had before. The writing was deeply personal but it also became a way for me to declare to myself that I was a person worth paying attention to. It was a new feeling.
Learning to Research
And the response to the blog was amazing. Family and friends from all over told me how much they loved it. Over time the posts that I wrote became more and more complex. After a hiking trip in Cornwall with my father I resolved to write the most ambitious post I’d written yet: 10,000 words about the history of the county, from mining to nerve gas manufacture, and how it all unfolded through the natural world that my father and I had walked through. I spent weeks in the State Library of Victoria working on it. I was teaching myself how to research: a dive off the deep end, sink or swim. I probably got a lot of things wrong but I think I did a lot right, too. This was the best writing I’d ever done in my life – and it wasn’t just me who thought so.
In late 2014 I saw a tweet promoting a competition: the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, in conjunction with the self-publishing company Blurb Inc, was running the “Blog-to-Book Challenge”. If you won you got to use Blurb’s software, and the imprimatur of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, to turn your blog into a book. I sent off an entry. A few days later I got a phone call to say that I was one of the three winners.
Encouragement from Fellow Writers
I called the book that resulted from that competition Not Birdwatching, after a phrase that an editor had used in rejecting one of the pieces when I’d submitted it for their publication. It didn’t sell many copies but it brought my writing more attention than it’d ever had before and, more importantly, gave me renewed confidence in my writing. The year after the prize I was on Twitter – it was still good then – and I tweeted idly about a bird I’d long been fascinated by, called the eastern curlew. I said that I was thinking of writing a book about it. And as soon as I tweeted that I got the social media tick of approval: likes. But not just likes: likes from writers I deeply admired, likes from writers who really knew their stuff. In particular Jane Rawson told me unambiguously to put aside my worries and just go for it. And when a writer as brilliant as Jane tells you to go for it, you’d better listen. So I did.
Still, I was a writer in Australia, and I’d learned my lesson from that old novel manuscript: the chances of being published were slim to none. So I took a punt: I wrote a first chapter and put it up online. I worked on it for months: 10,000 words, again, as polished as I could make them, then up on WordPress, then tweet like crazy. Some writer friends warned me against this approach, and they were probably right, but I figured I had nothing to lose.
A Chance Meeting with an Editor
A few weeks later I was at drinks with a bunch of writer friends. I got chatting to somebody who turned out to be Kate Goldsworthy, who at the time was an editor at Affirm Press. I told her about the website. Two weeks later she sent me an email to ask if I could come in to Affirm. Shortly after that I signed a contract. (“Don’t put anything else up online”, they told me, which needless to say I was more than happy to agree to.) That was in mid-2015.
The Eastern Curlew was published on the 31st of July 2018. I can’t ever imagine writing fiction again. I’m a non-fiction writer now. I write about animals and the environment and people and the way they all interact. It’s been a hell of a trip.
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About Annabel Smith
I am the author of US bestseller Whiskey & Charlie (published in Australia as Whisky Charlie Foxtrot), digital interactive novel/app The Ark, and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. I am currently working on Monkey See, an epic quest with a sci-fi twist featuring a monkey, an evil priestess and the mother of all tsunamis.