In an earlier blog, I told you that my narrative non-fiction book, Hustling Hinkler, which was selected for the 2010 Queensland Writers Centre/Hachette Development Workshop, will be published by Hachette Australia in August this year. If you’re a non-fiction writer, I’d like to tell you that the first most important thing I’ve learned along the way is that narrative non-fiction tells a story. This may seem self-evident, but what matters is how you tell the story.
Although the basic and remarkable story of Bert Hinkler, the trail-blazing aviator, has stayed the same, and is based on extensive research, the style of the writing is quite a way from where it started. Vanessa Radnidge, the publisher at Hachette, continually said to me, ‘You know Hinkler’s story so well. Just tell his story.’ The manuscript went through a number of iterations, and I read lots of other non-fiction before the penny fully dropped. I clearly remember saying aloud, to myself, ‘I get it, Vanessa. I get it!’ Tell the story! Build word pictures! Engage the reader! And Vanessa agreed I’d got it too. And she convinced the rest of Hachette Australia that I’d got it. And now it will be published. On 30 July. With my name on the cover. Awesome.
On re-reading the paragraph above, I can see it is an inadequate summary of my journey from when the book was chosen for the 2010 Development Workshop, and where it is today, about to come off the press. The truth is that I sweated, I doubted, I was up, I was down, I almost cried and damn near died! But I didn’t give up.
This leads me to the second most important thing I’ve learned: write, rewrite and rewrite again. Of course, it’s likely that no author is entirely happy with every aspect of their story, whether it be non-fiction or fiction. But nor should we be satisfied with our first draft, or even the second or third. Keep writing until it’s the best you can make it. I wrestled with that manuscript, I wrote it and rewrote it in response to what I learned at the QWC/Hachette Development Workshop, and I wrote it and rewrote it in response to what the Hachette publisher and editors wanted, before I was offered a contract. And I’ve revised it at least twice since. (It also had a change of title along the way – better to get the storytelling right, then worry about the title.)
Some of what I initially regarded as brilliant writing, cleverly linking parts of Bert Hinkler’s life together in a way that readers would no doubt find fascinating, perhaps even highly amusing, ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. And good writing needs good editing – check the spelling, check the grammar, and don’t be cute with fonts and embellishments. Write, rewrite, proofread. As my former tutor, Kim Wilkins, said in the June 2013 issue of WQ magazine, aim for excellence.
And the third piece of advice I have from my relatively short literary career is: don’t give up. Publishing is a tough industry, and arguably more volatile than ever. The demise of bookshops such as Borders and Angus and Robertson means there are fewer outlets in Australia, and e-publishing (into which I have also recently entered, with Xoum Publishing) is still a developing and uncertain field for writers and publishers alike. Nevertheless, writers are still getting published.
Above the desk where I write, I have pinned a quote from the late Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer,
and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, who wrote more than 500 books. Asimov said:
You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.
I’m a great believer in persistence.