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.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of How to Be Australian (Affirm Press, 2020). Her first book, My Name Is Revenge (Spineless Wonders, 2019), was shortlisted for the 2019 Woollahra Digital Literary Awards, and was a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, Australian Book Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, Westerly, the Australian, and Kill Your Darlings. She co-hosts James and Ashley Stay at Home, a podcast about writing, creativity and health.
Step 1: Accept that you’re terrible
At least I definitely was, when I first started, and if I’d had enough humility to recognise that, I could have improved a lot faster.
But it all went wrong in grade 1, when my family lived in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and I had a tiny story published in a school district compilation. My name was in a real book! (Even if that book had staples down the spine.)
This convinced my seven-year-old self that I was ‘a writer’. Over the next decade, that belief fused into my brain’s neural wiring. I did a lot of writing – rhyming poetry with no sense of metre, heavy-handed short stories, a rambling magical realist novel.
What I didn’t do was take any feedback, either in the year-long creative writing course I enrolled in at university, or in the year-long college mentorship I had with a published author in Winnipeg. I interpreted any feedback as negative criticism, as the readers not taking the time – or not wanting – to understand the story.
Step 2: Accept help
It’s embarrassing to admit that this didn’t change until I was 28, after I’d moved to Australia. I was doing a masters of cultural studies, and had a short story accepted by the university anthology. I’d taken a hiatus from writing for a few years. I don’t know if it was way the editor I worked with phrased her feedback, or just that I was old enough to adjust my attitude – probably both – but this experience changed everything. Suddenly, I understood that role of an editor wasn’t to point everything ‘wrong’ with my writing, but to help me make it better. This was revolutionary for me.
Step 3: Throw yourself in too deep
I decided it was time to write something serious, so I spent three years and thousands of dollars researching my family’s connection to the Armenian genocide. During this process, I interviewed 140 people on three continents and spent two months backpacking solo through Armenia. Then I sat down to write a book about it. I couldn’t figure out how to narrow my focus, so I methodically wrote up everything I’d learned.
Step 4: Find people who know more than you
The first draft was 192,000 words. I wrote it pretty much in isolation. I’d grown up in nowhere places like Moose Jaw and Winnipeg, in an insular military family that moved frequently. I didn’t know anything about connecting with like-minded people.
But through an academic conference in Sydney, I met another emerging writer who directed me to Writing NSW. I started to attend festival and courses, and despite being socially anxious and all types of awkward, I gradually met more writers. Which is how I learned that a first-time manuscript should be more like 80,000 words.
Step 5: Rewrite
Draft by draft by draft, I worked that behemoth down to 95,000 words.
Step 6: Cry
My first rejection from a publisher confirmed my writing was still terrible, though it used more technical terms than that.
An author I’d taken some classes with had offered to send it to the publisher on my behalf. She’d only read excerpts, but her confidence had made me feel like all these piles of words might one day be a book. Now I was back to considering this all a tremendous waste of time.
Step 7: Rewrite the rewrite
I might have tossed it all in then, if I’d had anything more interesting going on in my life. Instead, I got a manuscript assessment. One of my writer friends had recommended author Claire Scobie. She gave me clear, detailed feedback that I committed to faithfully carry out. It took another two years, but I got the manuscript down to 75,000 words.
Sometimes I was so tired of it I hated every sentence and chapter and the entire universe. Other times I felt like I was doing the thing I’d always wanted to do.
Step 8: Try everything
That essay publication made me realise I could be trying different things while I worked on longer manuscripts. I tried different types of creative non-fiction, both serious and humorous, got into book reviewing, and played around with short fiction. Slowly, my portfolio grew. I still cried, but not as much.
Step 9: Even more people
The Armenia manuscript was shortlisted for the 2017 Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Award and the 2018 Impress Prize. A few Australian publishers read it, and gave me some generous feedback, but they said there wasn’t much market for the book in Australia. I’d learned enough about the business of publishing to understand to accept that.
I wrote another manuscript, a memoir about living abroad. It didn’t quite work, but I didn’t know why. I got another manuscript assessment. I kept writing short pieces. I started a third manuscript (fifth, if you count the ones I wrote as a teenager). I committed to getting more involved in the writing community, and started attending events as often as once a week.
At a Writing NSW event, a writer friend introduced me to another writer, who wanted to form a new writing group.
This group was the second major turning point in my writing. I took their feedback seriously, and their knowledge of the technical aspects of writing, like macro structure, made me realise how little I knew.
It was like all the work I’d done had gotten me to a point where I was finally ready to start learning.
Step 10: Try it different
I’d moved on to other projects, but one nagging fact about the Armenian genocide of World War I continued to nag at me. The Turkish government’s ongoing denial of the genocide had led a few groups of Armenians to commit a series of retaliatory terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 80s. These bombings and assassinations took place all around the world, including in Sydney and Melbourne.
These terrorist attacks got under my skin. I didn’t agree with their methods, but after years studying the genocide, I intimately understood their motivations. I had the idea to write a fictional account of the Sydney assassination from the point of view of the terrorists.
By now I understood I was not nearly skilled enough to take that project on. But the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, so I applied to do a Master’s degree in creative writing. I ended up writing that story as a novella for the program. I workshopped it with my supervisor, my writers’ group, and then another writers’ group.
Combined with a collection of my essays on the genocide, that novella became my first book, My Name Is Revenge. It was published in 2019, nine years after I’d started the project. It’s just been released as an audiobook.
Over many drafts and five years of rewrites, that third manuscript was also published as How to Be Australian. I still write essays and book reviews, and now I’m working on a novel.
The more I learn about writing, the more I realise there is to learn, and that I’ll spend the rest of my career seeking feedback and sharpening my skills, and the true joy is all the people and books and events that help you along the way.
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Annabel Smith is 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.