Today, the 18th January, I completed the draft of my new crime novel City of Rubber Stamps, which was written in its entirety over the past four months while I’ve been on Long Service Leave from teaching. I’m having a beer to celebrate, but here are some stats (I love stats):
Word count – 85, 306
Approximate hours of actual composition, excluding planning, re-reading and revision – 220
Actual writing days – 81
Words written per hour on average – 387
Non-writing days – 36 (this includes my wedding day and two week honeymoon in Tasmania).
Cups of coffees drunk – at least 250 and probably well over 300
Days until I’m due back at work – 11
Time for that beer 🙂
I’ve been busy this week, not only in chipping away at the draft of City of Rubber Stamps, but also with some other writerly events. Firstly, my review of David Whish-Wilson’s excellent Perth crime novel Old Scores is up at Westerly’s Editor’s Desk. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the novel’s launch at the suitably noirish Buffalo Club in Fremantle on Wednesday night. There I caught up not only with David but with a cadre of Perth crime fiction aficionados and writers like Ron Elliot, Bruce Russell, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Ian Reid. Old Scores is a rip-roaring trip through eighties Perth and highly recommended. You can read more about it and even a sample chapter over at the Fremantle Press website.
Tonight I’m off to my second launch for the week, this one at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. It’s launch day for Writing the Dream from Serenity Press, which is a book of non-fiction pieces on writing and publishing by 25 mostly WA authors, including the likes of Juliet Marillier, Natasha Lester and Louise Allan. If you are keen on meeting the authors and picking up a signed copy, then you’ll need to head up to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount on Sunday 27th November for the second launch date. I’d love to attend this myself, but as I’ll be on my honeymoon in Tasmania it’d be a long way to travel. Writing the Dream is an outstanding and highly practical ‘how to’ guide to writing and publishing as well as being a source of inspiration for aspiring writers. It’s available now from any number of online outlets such as Amazon and Booktopia.
The year was 2005. I was a 23 year-old Dip Ed student, my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I was about to complete my final teaching practicum. My prac teacher and one of her colleagues, whose names I’ve forgotten, said that while I’d probably be able to get a job teaching the following year, I could forget about ever earning any Long Service Leave. ‘They’ll get rid of it before then,’ one of them said.
They were wrong.
When I started teaching in Merredin in 2006, the Long Service Leave date on my payslip read 31/01/2016, at which time I’d be entitled to thirteen weeks paid leave. It might as well have read 2099 for how distant that date seemed, but as the years rolled by, and I became a teaching survivor rather than one of many casualties, 2016 drew inexorably nearer.
In 2007-8 I became fixated on the idea of winning the TAG Hungerford Award for my first novel, The Kingdom of Four Rivers (eventually published by the now-defunct Equilibrium Books), and when that dream evaporated, my hopes were transferred onto the thought of winning the Vogel. I’ve written about this before so I won’t dwell on it now, but suffice to say that 31/5/2016 was my final Vogel due date, the final year I’d be young enough to be eligible. Thus the two dates became intertwined in my mind. I’d do my ten years of teaching, take Long Service Leave in early 2016, and give the Vogel a red hot crack.
It didn’t work out like that.
In 2012 I spent nine months working for the State School Teachers Union of Western Australia, which was an interesting experience and a nice break from teaching, but it also blew out my Long Service Leave date to October 2016. Too late for the Vogel. My last chance at that turned out to be my crime novel Thirsty Work, written 2013-4, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. I went back to teaching in 2013, put in another three and three-quarter years, and voila, I became eligible for LSL on the fourth of October of this year. I started my leave on the tenth. Including school holidays, I’d have more than four months off.
All I ever wanted was the time and money required to sit down and write, and now I had one hundred and twenty eight days to produce an entire novel, one that had been brewing in my mind for a couple of years, City of Rubber Stamps. The plan was (and is) to produce a solid draft of the novel of around 80,000 words by Monday 30th January 2017, the day I’m due back at work. Given that I average around 1000 words per day when writing, that seemed (and seems) an achievable goal. I’ve written about my writing tribulations and occasional successes in my piece, ‘Hard Travelin’, which is soon to be released in Writing the Dream from Serenity Press.
One of the greatest days of my life, then, was the 23rd of September 2016, my last day of work for the year and co-incidentally my daughter’s eleventh birthday, the same daughter who was yet to be born in 2005.
Six weeks into my eighteen week block of writing, things are (touch wood) progressing smoothly. I had 3,000 words of the novel already written by the time I started my LSL, and in the intervening six weeks I’ve added another 30,000 words at a rate of 5,000 words per week. 5,000 words doesn’t sound like very much to me, but I can assure you that those words are all hard-earned. It takes me between two and three hours to write my 1000 words for the day and I’ve recently decided that three black coffees is my limit (incidentally, the quote in the title of this piece is from the song ‘Super Disco Breakin’ by the Beastie Boys. Along with Beck and Radiohead, these are the three most important bands and artists to me in the music world. I often listen to the Beasties, especially their album Hello Nasty, as a way of jump-starting my brain in the morning).
I’ve always been a fan of number crunching and statistics, so here goes. An 80,000 word novel draft ought to take me around 16 weeks to produce. At 2.5 hours per 1,000 words, that’s 200 hours of actual composing at the keyboard, not to mention an unknowable number of hours planning, tinkering, thinking and redrafting. This isn’t 200 hours of punching the clock in the way we all do in our quotidian lives, but 200 hours of actual creative endeavour. I’ll also consume at least 240 black coffees in the production of the novel draft and an unknown amount of extra strong Dilmah tea.
Six weeks in, I have 33,000 words done and at least 47,000 words to go. I’m slightly ahead of schedule in that I’m 41% of the way through the draft and only 33% of the way through my LSL. I hope to get even further ahead of the curve over the next fortnight before I take a fortnight off from writing while honeymooning with my new bride in Tasmania. I’ve never written an entire draft of a novel in one block before, mainly because I’ve never had this much time to work on a project in my adult life, so I’m hoping that the fortnight off will act as a much-needed refresher.
City of Rubber Stamps will be the twelfth novel I’ve written, my first being completed twenty years ago when I was still in high school, and I’m hopeful that it will be the fourth to be published. I ‘only’ have to work another seven full years to accrue another thirteen weeks LSL, but the thought of having to wait that long to have another crack at a novel doesn’t appeal, so my intention is to enrol in the Deferred Salary Scheme in 2017, whereby I’ll work four years at 80% pay and thus earns the fifth year off at the same 80%
Roll on 2021, the year I’ll turn forty.
In the meantime, I’ve started how I mean to continue on the current project. With any luck, I’ll have a complete draft of City of Rubber Stamps in under three months time. Writing is hard work, finding the time to do it even harder, but this has been my path. As the Beasties say, ‘you gotta have the dreams to make it all worthwhile.’
It’s not easy being an emerging writer in Australia, or probably any other country for that matter. Arts budgets have been slashed, bookstores are closing, even the Australia Council is under threat. In this landscape, The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award is a beacon of hope, offering Australian writers under 35 the possibility of breaking out of obscurity and earning $20,000 as part of the bargain. For a long time it was my overriding literary ambition to one day win the Vogel, and I knew that my final, final deadline was May 31st, 2016. By 2017, I’d be too old to enter and thus for the best part of a decade I’ve seen thirty-five as my expiry date, Logan’s Run style.
I had a plan, one that I first concocted in 2008. I’d churn out a novel every two years in the twelve weeks of annual leave afforded to me in my role of English teacher in WA’s Wheatbelt. For the most part, I kept my end of the deal. I entered my dystopian novel Yellowcake Springs in 2010, and while it didn’t get anywhere in the Vogel it later won the IP Picks Award and was thus published by IP in 2011. I didn’t enter Yellowcake Summer, reasoning that it was a sequel and not likely to feature, but I was unperturbed. I had another far off date in mind, Jan 31st 2016, by which time I’d have completed ten years of teaching and thus would be entitled to thirteen weeks Long Service Leave. I’d take this as soon as it became available, in Term 1 2016. This would give me the opportunity to give the Vogel one final crack.
Unfortunately, but seemingly inevitably, it didn’t work out like that. In 2012, I spent the best part of the year working for the State School Teachers Union of WA, which made for a welcome break from teaching but blew my Long Service Leave date out to October 2016. I knew exactly what this meant: there’d be no last hurrah in 2016. If I was going to win the Vogel, I’d have to do it the hard way. The novel that materialised, my first crime novel, was Thirsty Work, which was written in part during my Katharine Susannah Prichard residency in 2013. I put what I thought to be the finishing touches on the novel in April 2014, during a second residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA. I sent off my Vogel entry a month before the deadline and then, reasoning that it was folly to put all one’s eggs in the one basket, sent an extract of the novel to Fremantle Press. I went back to work with high hopes.
Six months later, Thirsty Work hadn’t been shortlisted for the Vogel, Fremantle Press had rejected it (albeit with words of encouragement) and my marriage of twelve years was over. In the summer of 2014/15 I had two choices: to stick with Thirsty Work and try to make the changes Fremantle Press had suggested, or twist and try to write a new novel in time to enter it into the Vogel in May 2016. I stuck, and struck out: Fremantle Press rejected the revised version of Thirsty Work, the novel was rejected by at least a dozen other Australian publishers, and I’d be turning thirty-five in less than eighteen months.
I did have an idea for a subsequent novel, City of Rubber Stamps, but it failed to cohere in time. I produced an abortive 10,000 word start on the novel in 2015, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t ready. During these months, I produced a handful of short stories when I had the chance and had some success in publishing these. Writing short stories seemed an altogether happier task than slogging my way through drafting novels that’d likely never see the light of day anyway. In the summer of 2015/16, I wrote only two short pieces: ‘Hard Travelin”, which will appear in November 2016 in Writing the Dream, and ‘The Not-Bird’, a retread of an earlier story. I was, and quite probably still am, at a low ebb.
Now, in July 2016, a month shy of my thirty-fifth birthday, I have that Long Service Leave up my sleeve, but by next year I’ll be too old for the Vogel. My last day of school for the year will be September 23rd, my daughter’s eleventh birthday. Thereafter I’ll have four glorious months to get cracking on City of Rubber Stamps. I’m getting married again in that time, too. My partner and I will be spending two weeks trekking around Tasmania in a campervan, but I’ll have my laptop handy. I might be too old for the Vogel, but with any luck there’ll be other dawns and new horizons.