P.M. Newton is the author of The Old School (Penguin Australia, 2010) and its forthcoming sequel, and has contributed the following piece about how her writing has been shaped by tertiary education.
Every writer has their own ‘How I was published’ story. No matter how the details vary, they share a number of traits. They all start with a creative spark, a story, a character, an idea that just won’t let go. Then that spark is cultivated and protected with stubborn purpose, through re-writes, re-drafts, edits and re-edits so that the manuscript resembles an athlete, primed, primped and pumped to make the most of the little bit of luck that comes its way.
And by luck, I mean that moment when your work is put into the right hands, before the right set of eyes. It’s a moment that might only come once and if the manuscript is underprepared then it’s wasted.
By the time I realised that the ‘thing’ I’d been working on for over a year was, in fact, a book it had dug itself into my consciousness. I wanted to hang around with the characters and tell their stories, and I wanted to see them go out into the world. I wanted their stories to be read.
It seemed logical to me to find a way to test the work on an audience, one that was not composed of friends and family who were likely to say kind things. If I was writing a book then the words needed to be strong enough to go out into the world and meet strangers. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do. With 80,000 words written, but being nowhere near the end, I went through the usual beginning writer phases of putting it away, working on something else (an even longer unfinished SFF novel) then pulling it out again, because the character and her story were still chewing away on my brain.
When I returned to university to do a one-year Graduate Diploma course in a new profession, I discovered that the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) had a school of creative writing. I decided that my reward for completing my professional degree would be to enrol in a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing, take my words out and show them to an audience of strangers – or, as I like to call them, readers.
It may not be the route that suits everyone, but for me it was an excellent decision. I walked into my first semester evening class and found a well-known literary writer was the tutor. That was intimidating. I was a middle-aged ex-cop, with no background in fiction and the beginning of a crime genre novel to workshop. Not turning tail and running was the best decision I ever made.
Over the next three semesters I workshopped two chapters of my unfinished novel and received enough constructive critical feedback to give me confidence that it was worth forging on. The Graduate Certificate helped me to make those chapters work – and, more importantly, to realise that I was writing the right character but in the wrong book. What I thought was her backstory was, in truth, the story. In my final semester I began work on another book, still crime, with my character about a decade younger and at the beginning of a police career.
After nearly six years of struggle, I was finally writing the book that would eventually be published as The Old School. I gained the confidence to make this decision and to start a new book by not only having my own work critiqued, but by reading my fellow students’ work. Workshopping has its supporters and its detractors; my experience of it was that I learnt a lot about editing and problem solving from reading and thinking about my classmates’ work. (Oh, how much easier it is to see the flaws in other peoples’ work! After which you re-read and then reluctantly acknowledge them in your own.)
By working with tutors who were themselves published authors, I gained insight into the variety of approaches to writing, plotting, planning, storytelling, editing. By reading the extracts and examples and novels set by the tutors to illustrate various aspects of style, genre and technique, I was exposed to works I would not normally have read.
At the end of my Graduate Certificate, I felt a little adrift. I was about to set out on what I knew to be a big undertaking – the writing of a book. I was also acutely aware of my lack of connection to the writing ‘industry’. I had no idea how I would eventually get a finished book into the hands of a publisher or an agent.
To maintain some structure, I entered a competition for a publication fellowship at Varuna and I applied for a Masters by Research at UTS. I was unsuccessful at both. The letters arrived on the same day just before Christmas. The sense of desolation and fear at how I would continue without encouragement, advice and support was crushing. I accepted the offer of extended feedback on my novel and was encouraged again by the enthusiastic and sensible advice. It was a reminder of how much I valued that and how much I would miss it.
Some days after this feedback session I received a phone call. I had been accepted on the second round of offers to the research program at UTS to start a Masters by Research in Creative Writing.
I spent the next three years (I chose to do it part-time) working and writing and drafting and redrafting and editing and cutting and making my novel as fine as it could be. I had the support of a supervisor to prod and provoke and ask questions that made me think about what I was trying to do. And when the work was completed it was read, by someone in the right place at the right time who sent out into the world of publishing with a good recommendation.The manuscript was read by a few people before it ended up in the hands of an agent who got it, got me, and found it the right publisher.
That bit at the end was the lucky bit – the words finding the right readers. But if the manuscript hadn’t been through such a rigorous process, then all the luck in the world wouldn’t have meant a thing.