Guest Post by
Things don’t always turn out how you expect them to. Plans change and events outside your control happen, leading to something that was never on your radar before. And for me, one of those things was becoming a published author.
In high school, English was my most disliked subject. I saw a joke recently where a line in a novel read ‘The curtains were blue.’ The English teacher proclaims the author meant the character is depressed and drowning in a sea of despair, or some such. And what did I think the author actually mean? The colour of the curtains was blue. That was my English classes in a nutshell.
In 1997 I finished school, sat the exams and decided to return to the family farm. From there I met my future wife, did a stint as a marine draftsman in Geraldton before taking up farming fulltime on our recently purchased Geraldton properties. Any writing I did was limited to a few strongly worded letters to contractors explaining why we would not be paying their exorbitant rate for shoddy work.
We were travelling quite well, managing to survive a couple of nasty droughts in 2006 and 2007. Those droughts were painful but they led to us setting up a sheep feedlot, which in turn led to a contract with a large export company to depot sheep for them. Three years of hard work and we were able to purchase Gabyon, a sheep station two hundred kilometres east of our Geraldton farms, fulfilling the dream my wife had held for years.
After a couple of seasons setting the new place up to fit in with our farming and feedlot operations, by 2011 we were set for a big year. Our first load of Gabyon bred lambs had arrived into our feedlot, with many more to follow. This was it. Five years of slugging it out and we were about to kill the pig. And then Indonesia happened. The fallout from that saw us go from getting top dollar to not being able to give away our stock.
Regardless of people’s views of live export, few agree the handling of the ban was done well. As sheep producers, we weren’t affected straight away, but I was so angry at what I had seen on the 4 Corners report I penned one of those aforementioned strongly worded letters to the Chair of the MLA (Meat & Livestock Australia) the following day. It must’ve made a mark because he tracked me down a few weeks later at a rally to discuss it.
At the time I wasn’t online much, only using Facebook to keep in touch with school mates. But I could see there were a lot of people on there making some wild claims and accusations, with very few of us farmers to refute them. The MLA recognised this and pushed to get more Ag folk on social media, so one Sunday afternoon I decided to start a blog, Farmer’s Way of life, which ended up being listed by the National Library as a Rural Blog of Significance.
Through all my rants, ramblings, musings and wisecracks, I kept getting told I should write a book, until I finally decided to give it a crack. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing (still don’t), so I wrote a scene with a guy swearing up a windmill, mimicking pretty much every windmill fixing episode I’ve ever been in. The original idea was to make a funny novel based on a series of blog posts I called The Golden Rules of Farming; effectively Murphy’s Guide to what goes wrong on farms. After I’d finished the first scene, I wrote a second involving two sheep dogs and found it going from a joked filled observation on farm life to a more contemporary rural story.
Over the next two years I chipped away, sometimes not looking at it for months on end. This was never going to come to anything and we had bigger things to worry about; bushfires, lost markets, government ineptitude and the general shitty situation we found ourselves in. Eventually I managed to finish, hit save and left it at that. Then I heard about Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch, so out it came again for a once over and the first chapter was sent off; in the wrong font, wrong format and wrong everything else. Needless to say I never heard back, but I had the bug. What if?
In between selling off the two farms and generally trying to survive out on the station, I reworked the first few chapters and sent it off again to a couple of other publishers who took unsolicited submissions. Again, nothing. By now I was working FIFO to pay some bills, while still doing the odd blog post. Back on Gabyon we’d just begun a tourism venture, so I started thinking a book would be a good way to get people interested but I needed professional guidance, though there was no way I could justify spending money. I came up with a Kickstarter project, and after a month of campaigning hit the target thanks to eighty one generous backers. This meant I could send it off to a manuscript assessor, whose report came back with some very complimentary remarks and a few suggestions on where to go from there.
Unfortunately in the months that followed my wife and I separated, so the manuscript stayed in the draw for almost a year while stuff got sorted, until one R & R break I found the report, re-read it and got the nerve to try again. The first chapter was sent in one last time, the plan being once that was rejected I’d print it myself, send out the copies to the patient Kickstarter backers and let the rest collect dust or something. And then an email from A&U arrived asking for the rest. Oh wow. Don’t get too excited, they still have to like the rest. But what if?
After a lot of back and forth it finally happened. A contract turned up for WYDJAWANNA STATION. That’s what I’d originally called Ridgeview Station, because that’s what everyone asked when we bought ours. ‘Why’d you want a station?’ The elation of that email was seconded only by the day my advance copy arrived in the mail, twelve months later. Holy crap, that’s a real book! With my name on it! Upon seeing the book, my girlfriend grabbed it and put it on the shelf, next to authors such as Stephen King, Bryce Courtney, Wilbur Smith and G.R.R. Martin. Of course, I was mortified and immediately pulled it down. We’re not quite at that level just yet.
So here we are, with Ridgeview Station on the shelves. I do hope you enjoy it, and if you do, I hope you are able to go for a drive to Gabyon Station. My former wife and her family are still out there. It really is lovely spot with lovely people and you’ll recognise a few things.
As for me, I’ve got two manuscripts I’m polishing up in the hope they’ll get published, and working on a third. I’ve learned quite a lot in the last year, and if I had my time again would do things a bit differently, but for any aspiring authors out there I would offer the following advice.
- Follow other authors. They were in the same position once as you are. There’s many blogs and posts out there about pitching your manuscript, promoting it and what to do when that elusive contract arrives.
- Get good feedback. Find an experienced reader who won’t mince words. If you want praise, let your Mum read it. But it’s the criticisms that will tighten your work. It stings, but sometimes something only becomes obvious once someone else points it out.
- Read the guidelines. Before you pitch your wonderful piece of work, make sure you do everything the pitchee requires. Is it the right genre? Is the formatting correct? Are they even taking submissions? Every agent’s and publisher’s website I’ve looked at has their guidelines there in black and white. If you can’t make the effort to follow them, it’s doubtful they’ll make the effort to read your work.
- Don’t be shy. You have to promote your work. The publisher will do the basics, but it’s up to you, especially as a first time author, to get out there and sell yourself. It can be hard, especially if you’re not the type to spruik yourself. It’s a fine line between promoting and spamming, but as a first time author people will be reluctant to buy unless they’ve seen or heard good things about your book. So visit the book stores, introduce yourself. Contact book bloggers, offer giveaways on Facebook pages. Setup a website, do newsletters. You need people to recognise your book if they see it in the stores and you have a very short window after release to do so.
- Don’t sit on your laurels. This is a tough game. Unless your first book went gangbusters don’t assume you’ll automatically get a second one out there. All the same rules apply, and you might find it even harder the second time round if the first one didn’t go so well.
- Don’t give up. You may have to do re-writes, accept rejections, and never hear back from agents or publishers. This is completely normal. Frustrating, but normal. If you’re lucky, the agent may say why they are passing. That’s a good thing and gives you something to work with. Almost every author has their rejection stories. But eventually they broke through and there’s no reason you can’t either.
I hope these help. At some point I’ve failed to do every one of these things, so don’t feel bad if you have too. It’s very up and down, this writing gig. But when a stranger messages you to say how much they loved your book, I find that’s the best thing to shake off the self-doubt and keep at it.
More About Michael:
When he’s not writing, Michael can be found plucking away at his guitar in attempts to replicate his idol Tommy Emmanuel, or swearing at his beloved Fremantle Dockers. He still travels to Three Springs to drive tractors ‘just to keep my hand in,’ but despite the advent of autosteer machines, refrains from taking the laptop to write, as that would not end well for power poles, fences or trees.’
Michael currently lives in Perth. Ridgeview Station is his first novel.