Literary Mixers - Rachael Johns and Michael Trant

Literary Mixers is an event pairing emerging authors with established authors as they talk candidly about their journeys to publication: their highs and lows, friends lost, and amount of wine and chocolate consumed during the writing process. Authors confess their innermost fears, share their vulnerabilities, and reflect on the joys of being a writer.

On the evening of 2 April 2019, romance authors Rachael Johns and Michael Trant shared their individual journeys to publication at Literary Mixers.

Read a transcript below.

[Transcript]

 

Rachael: We’ve rescheduled this a couple of times, I think that this is the third time lucky. So, we should know what we’re talking about by now. But we were thinking, Michael actually got his very first book published and I took fifteen years to get published. But because you had written that first book, why don’t you tell us a bit about why you decided to write a book and how it came about and how you got it published so quickly? I hate him and I hate anyone who gets their first book published, but luckily he seems pretty nice, and I know a couple of people who got their first book published and they did everything that you’re not supposed to do: don’t do multiple submissions, don’t do that, don’t send unsolicited manuscripts, don’t send your full manuscript – did you do all this stuff too?

Michael: —don’t send the same manuscript three times to the same publisher?

Rachael: All this stuff they did and they all got published! Fiona Palmer from WA also got her first manuscript published for doing everything wrong. So, I want to hear the story. How did it come about?

Michael: I was blogging. When the whole Live Export thing blew up, there were a lot of stories going around about farmers, this that and the other and there were no farmers on social media. There were a lot of people against what we were doing and a lot of things were getting twisted and there was a huge push from the industry to get more voices onto social media and the first thing I was thinking when they said that, I just imagined some of the old farmers I knew and they were going to give these blokes a microphone and I went, God, no, no! So, anyway I started blogging and it went off rather well. Most of it was just me basically taking the mickey out of myself and little funny anecdotes of what we were doing on the farm and things like that. And then every now and then I would write a really heartfelt post about something, obviously we were struggling at the time and you know, bank manager rings up and it’s not raining and you just go agh, writing away and that sort of stuff really took off because people would go: “Ah, if he’s not cracking jokes in this one, maybe it’s a little bit serious”. Anyway, did a series of funny little blogs and post and someone said, “You should write a book!” and I went, “Hmm, OK”.

Rachael: He’s easily led!

Michael: It was going to be a humorous story of farmers – The Murphy’s Law of Farming, because that was the most popular thing I’d ever posted – the golden rules of farming, about a hundred of them I just made up.

Rachael: You should do a non-fiction book about that! I’m serious!

Michael: It’s on the pile of stuff. I’ve got all these drafts of things I’ve started I just can’t quite work out how to…but that’s how it started off. The first scene I wrote was a guy up a windmill and everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Basically the same as every time I fix a windmill. And then I wrote a scene with two dogs, and it happened to a guy who used to cart our stock and I just wrote the scene, didn’t know what I was going to do with it but by the end I thought, this can’t go in a funny book because it’s quite sad. And then I just built from there, we had bushfires come through our station so that went in, we had backpackers come through our station so that went in. This was all for Ridgeview Station because we were doing tourism at the station I thought, Well, I’ll write this thing, I’ll print it and then the tourists can come, they can have a look around, they can read the book and they’ll go ‘Ahh, that’s that hill, or that’s that story they were talking about, or that’s him’.

Rachael: So, you didn’t think about: I’m going to write a story and this is going to be the plot and these are going to be the scenes that happen and the characters have this kind of conflict and they’ve got this goal…

Michael: Yes? No. No, I’ve tried because it’s frustrating when you can’t work out what’s going, but I just don’t seem to be able to plan stuff out. I’ve just finished off a second draft of my fourth manuscript now and I think the third one I wrote was about fly ……. and that’s the most planning I ever did and basically, I had to make sure the guy was away for Christmas, birthdays, Easter – I had to do that because if he’s working and swinging a rosta I had to plan it out so…

Rachael: I was at ARRA at the weekend (Australian Romance Readers Association) book signing, and we listened to Celeste Bradley who’s a historical romance author from the US and she said she just ‘vague-books’ all of that, she never says what day it is, especially because she’s writing from the 1800s and stuff and someone will go: “No! It was not raining on that day!” So, she just vagues it all. I like that, I vague things too.

Michael: I’ve done the same, Ridgeview’s got no town setting, it’s just in the WA outback – I don’t even say Western Australia, I just say outback. So, Queenslanders will imagine Queensland.

Rachael: Did you do that on purpose?

Michael: Yeah, for the same reason because I was writing about us. And at the time I was still living there, working on the place so I wanted to keep it a little bit vague.

Rachael: So, it wasn’t like a marketing decision or anything at that stage, where you were thinking that you were going to make it accessible to everyone or relatable to everyone?

Michael: Yeah, I didn’t want to write about Gabyon Station in the Murchison up near Yalgoo. But I wanted to write about a sheep station so that’s we were doing.

Rachael: Because I know Sally Thorne who wrote The Hating Game which was quite a big hit last year I think, or the year before, a contemporary fiction book. She did it like you, she just wrote a story. I think it was a bet too, kind of thing. Like a friend of hers said, “You should write a book”. So it sounded very similar. And she, for that reason, didn’t set it anywhere. It’s set in the city – in a city, but it doesn’t say where. And so then when she subbed it, the publishers from Sydney thought it was definitely Sydney, the New York publishers thought it was New York, the London publishers thought London and they were all really happy. So, I suppose it’s kind of different in the outback because it’s a bit more Australian. We often have that kind of hurdle of getting our stuff overseas, it’s harder to do because even if you don’t set a specific place, it’s still because of the way you talk, because of the way that the land is and the descriptions of stuff, it’s still very Aussie.

Michael: Yeah, that’s right. It’s clearly Australian. I think the first scene’s got a kangaroo jumping out of the way. So straight away, they know you’re in Australia. But to get back to your original question, I basically had this manuscript finished. And I think Fleur MacDonald had tweeted something about the Friday Pitch and I thought, Oh, that sounds easy. The Friday Pitch is Allen and Unwin, every Friday you can send in the first chapter of your manuscript and if you don’t hear back in two weeks, they’re not interested. But you might get an email saying ‘Yes, send the rest in.’ Or you might get a phone call and that’s what happened to me. But I’d finished this manuscript and I went, Yep, cool finished and I sent it in. And then I realised it was in the wrong font, wrong spacing – just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Everything was wrong. And I never heard back, funnily enough. And so then I just sat on it for twelve months and sort of just played around with it, tightened things up a bit. And I sent it off again. And this time I sent it to a few other publishers who were taking unsolicited submissions and didn’t hear back and I thought, This is it I’ll just print it out myself and self-publish it and then sell it from the station and then friends and family and all that… But I knew I needed help so I did a Kickstarter thing because we were flat broke and I’d had enough following on my blog, I thought we might get the target so I did all the budgets and worked out that about five grand would cover …….. And we raised six. I got blown away. And I had all levels of rewards. People could buy an e-book right up to coming to spend four days on the station. And that was five hundred dollars I think. And four people took that option! It was unbelievable. And three of them I didn’t even know, they were just through Twitter and stuff. So, anyway I sent it off to John ….. down here in Perth and he’d come back with some very good feedback. He was quite glowing in his praise, one of the things he said: “I don’t normally say this but it’s quite good. Change a few little things, send it off to these guys, you might have luck.” I sent it off to ANU again, so that was the third time around. And they were the ones who came back.

Rachael: So, you have to have persistence don’t you, in this business.

Michael: Yeah, you really do. Because you don’t know if the same person is going to read it, three years down the track.

Rachael: And you don’t know if it really got read the first time. There’s so much luck involved.

Michael: That’s something I’ve found so frustrating since. The non-replying.

Rachael: That’s annoying. I think publishers and agents are on another calendar to us. Because I find – people are nodding! – and they’ll say like: “I’m going to send you your cover on Friday”. So, you’re all excited the whole week and then Friday comes and it’s five o’clock and you’re like, “Where’s my cover…?” They forget it’s our book and our career. They’ve got like fifty authors they’re dealing with.

Michael: You send out all these emails to everyone. I’ve had times when I’ve sent out emails to other people and they never got them.

Rachael: So you’ve got to check.

Michael: You do. But then they say, “Oh, you shouldn’t check”. So, for everything they say you should do, there’ll be someone else saying you shouldn’t do it.

Rachael: That is so true. I remember someone who was my publisher and she’s now an agent and she said, “You’ve got to be pushy,” and that sort of goes against the grain of a lot of us. Writers often aren’t pushy people. But she said it’s all about the story, in the end. And so, if you’ve got a good story and you’re a little bit pushy they’re not going to go, “Oh, no he’s difficult to work with”. If you’re a little bit – not if you go totally over the top, like psycho and crazy and you know, you hear stories about people pushing their manuscripts under doors at conferences and stuff – that, no. But being a little bit persistent, you have to be. If your manuscript is fantastic they’re not going to go, “Oh, no. He pushed me. He emailed me twice…I’m going to turn down the next Booker winner because he emailed me twice.”

Michael: When Hailey was talking about phone numbers and don’t ring her. I rang her. Two days after I’d emailed her the manuscript to see if she’d got it. And she was in the middle of a meeting and she said, “I have got it,” and I said, “That’s all I want to know.” And then we go to this event and she’s like, “I hate it when people ring,” and I’m like, Hmmmaybe don’t put your phone number on the internet. So that was all very unexpected. I got an email from Louise: ‘Yeah, we’d like to see the rest of it,” and then she emailed me to see if we could have a phone call, we had a phone call, we tossed a few ideas back and forth, she completely edited the first chapter and said, “What do you think?” and I was like, “I don’t care, that’s sweet let’s just do it”. They just wanted to make sure I was happy to cut a lot of stuff out because I had like three pages to describe a stone tank and a windmill and all this beautiful, iconic outback scenery and really just needed a stone tank and a windmill.

Rachael: So, you’re an over-writer. I think I’m an over-writer too, I think there’s over-writers and under-writers.

Michael: All my books seem to start at about chapter six.

Rachael: I find that I can often get rid of the whole last paragraph of every chapter, at least.

Michael: My first draft I send off to a reader, an old outback fella who worked in screenplays and stuff and he emailed back and it was really, really good and he said, “I loved it when the story started, in chapter six. The first six chapters were like wading through treacle.” And I thought, that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.

Rachael: So, did you then scrap those?

Michael:  He said, “Cut it by half,” and that’s what I ended up doing.

Rachael: You can’t be precious, can you?

Michael: I don’t know about you, but I know how I generally want it to finish, and something in the middle and roughly how it will start but it’s getting from that point to that point. So, I sort of waft on.

Rachael: I waffle a lot! In life and on the page.

Michael: But you see, people like Matthew Reilly where it’s just like POW, POW. And it just doesn’t stop.

Rachael: But, remember and this is something I tell myself a lot, you’re comparing Matthew Reilly’s book that you’ve read in print to what your first draft is. And I know I did the same, I’d compare my book to Liane Moriarty or whatever. And think, Oh golly, I could never do that. But we’re always comparing our first draft, the thing that we’re just putting our heart on the page to start with, to something that’s already gone through the whole editing process or whatever.

Michael: I’ve got a list of books I want to read, but I’m not going to read them until I either bin the manuscript that I’ve got, or I’ve sold it. Because I know what will happen, I’ll read it and there’s similar themes or whatever and I’ll go, “Agh”.

Rachael: And there’s no story that hasn’t been done before. And that’s hard. I think one of the things I really suffer from is that ideas are definitely not my strong point and I’ll think of a vague something that I want to explore or whatever and then I’m like ahh that’s been done before. But everything has been done before so I tell myself: Stop rejecting ideas before you even have a chance to think about them.

Michael: My publisher resigned the day my book was released.

Rachael: And that’s not an unusual story!

Michael: As I’ve found out since! And there’s even a term for it: orphaned, an orphaned author.

Rachael: And people are talking about it a lot more these days. I’m a member of Romance Writers Australia, which a few people are here, definitely a very good organisation in terms of craft – I did a uni degree in writing and it didn’t help me one iota, but Romance Writers Australia definitely did. And one of the things we call a Published Author Round Table a few years back, it was probably about five years ago now and I’d just got published and it was a bunch of authors and the topic was being dumped by your publisher. And so many people were scared to actually say “Hey, I’ve been dumped and I don’t know what I’m going to write next,” or whatever but when you hear everyone else’s stories, so many people have been in that position before and it’s a matter of what you do with it. You can give up then, you could have said Ah well, I gave it my best shot, I had a go. And I’ve had friends who’ve had three or four books in the publishing house and through no fault of their own – because it’s often so much luck, Magda Szubanski put out a book the same day as yours and then everyone bought that or Michelle Obama and for some reason or the other, your book didn’t go as you’d hoped and as the publisher had hoped. And for the publisher it’s like, “Oh well, we’ll get someone else,” but for you it’s your livelihood. And we are lucky, there’s so many more different options, I’ve had friends who’ve decided to self-publish or to try a different publisher or a different genre or to change their names and so it’s a matter of how you face that adversity. About whether it’s the end or you can get past it.

Michael: Still writing, still writing…

Rachael: It took me fifteen years to get published and there were a lot of times when I thought, Golly, what am I doing? I never see my family, I never see my kids, I’m a terrible mother, I haven’t watched TV for ten years and my husband’s always by himself. I should really give up. But stupidly, I had told everyone that I was going to be a writer. So, I think they all though, Oh, she’s really, really bad. And that made me go, I am determined that I am going to do this. But I did get very, very close. Right before I got published – and I also hear this so many times, that people are just about to give up, they really think you know, I’ve spent all this time, I’ve gotten so many rejections, I’m going to do something else – and that’s how I was feeling. I think it was about 2010, I’ve tried a number of different types of writing, I started, as I said, with a literary degree at uni. So they want you to write the Booker Prize winner or they want you to write poetry. That’s basically it. And I hope things have changed a bit now. And depending on who I talk to, sometimes I think they have changed and other times I think it’s still pretty much the same. But I wanted to write Briget Jones’s Diary, that’s the type of book I wanted to write and basically I wasn’t doing that, I was trying to write poetry and literary fiction. And so my literary fiction was a weird combination of Chick Lit and literary fiction, which is not a thing.

Michael: Could be.

Rachael: Yeah, could be… maybe. And so I was trying to do what I thought I should be doing rather than what I really wanted to do. And that took me probably about six years. Also, I was seventeen when I started and that was hard because I had no life experience. And had never really read any books. And really, you definitely have to read to be a writer. And now I read more than I write, probably. So I did that and then I decided, Stuff this literary fiction, I’m going to write a Mills and Boon book. Because how hard can that be? I’d never read a Mills and Boon and that was a real problem. Because it’s not as easy as everyone would like you to believe. But that’s when I found Romance Writers Australia. And I threw my heart and soul into it. I started reading Mills and Boon and I thought, You know what, they’re not what I thought actually. And I quite like this tight craft thing. It felt like something I could actually learn and pursue. And so I did that for about five years, got really, really close and came runner-up in a worldwide competition with Mills and Boon. The winner got published. For two years I got to work with an editor. It was supposed to be one year, but I think they felt sorry for me so I worked with them for two years. I got really close, I had to change things all the time. So they have very strict guidelines about what they want and I kept falling between their ‘sexy’ line and their ‘sweet’ line. Because I think I had quite a young, sassy voice which was more sexy but my characters weren’t the alpha males, they weren’t the Greek billionaires and the really domineering guys, they were more your better hero, the working guy. So I just wasn’t getting there. And eventually they said, “Thanks for playing, but if you really insist on writing a book, go back to the slush pile.” And that was really disheartening, after two years of being that close. And I thought, You know what, I should probably give up. I’d been trying for about thirteen years at this stage. I thought, I don’t see my kids, well I do but they were very little at that stage. So while they slept I went and crazy-wrote, while everyone else was relaxing, or doing housework, or cooking or working or whatever. I was, selfishly I thought, going into my own little world and typing away and so I thought maybe I should give up this. Because I could go for another twelve years and still have nothing to show. And it was writing friends actually who I’d met through organisations like this and Romance Writers Australia who said to me, “Don’t give up! Just try something different.” And so I gave it one last attempt. I was living in a small town, Condingup, at the time and I loved the small town life but I wasn’t a farmer. I didn’t have the farming background like Michael, my husband does but we were down there because he was the supermarket manager. But I really, really loved the dynamics of small communities, how everyone knows everything about everyone and stuff. And my friend, Fiona Palmer who had just got published with Penguin said, “Why don’t you write a rural romance?” Like it was really easy. And I thought, OK, I’m going to give this one last attempt, I’m going to write a book that I want to read. Because I was writing at uni a book that I thought I should be writing. And even when I was writing for Mills and Boon, I was writing because I thought, Oh, that’s something I can follow specifically. So I thought, No, I’m going to write a book that I actually want to read – a book about things I love and am passionate about. And that was small communities, and what was going on in them. So I wrote this book and that was the one that Hailey Nash, who you were talking about, bought my first book. But I was that close to giving up, but I sometimes wonder, would I have been able to give up? Writing is like a bug, once you catch it, it’s very hard to get rid of it. So I often say to aspiring writers who come up to me at events and they’ll be like, “Oh, I’m going to give up, I’ve written one book and everyone rejected it and they don’t know how wonderful and brilliant I am, so think I’m going to give up.” And I always say, “Do. Yeah, give up, if you can. Because it’s not easy. Unless you’re Liane Moriarty, or Matthew Reilly, it’s not a way to make millions of dollars, it’s not a sure bet. You might, but you might not. And so you’ve got to do it because you love it.” And I think sometimes, when you get to the stage when you’ve been writing for, now it’s over twenty years, you have to remember that that’s why you started. So that’s my advice to people who are starting out who say they’re going to give up: try. Because if you can give up, then you’re not supposed to do it but if you can’t give up, then you really are supposed to do it. That’s my little rant.

Michael: How am I going to top that! But even like Liane Moriarty, they say she was an overnight success, ten years in the making or something like that.

Rachael: But she wrote I think four or five books before the book that actually took her to huge success. Everyone wants to write a breakout novel. Everyone wants to write that book that our partners can retire on – our partners all want us to write that book!

Michael: That’s why we do it!

Rachael: But the thing is, you can’t predict that. I think that is because these books that do do that, they’re all amazing books, usually. And there are so many books out there that are not necessarily amazing, but the ones that do break the stratosphere, they are amazing. But you never know if your crazy little concept of a dog telling a story is going to be the one.

Michael: I thought I was so original with that idea. And then A Dog’s Purpose came out and I’m like, That was my idea!

Rachael: Don’t you hate that! Has anyone read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is quite ‘woo-woo’, if you like. But it’s a very good book if you’re a writer. Her portrayal of creativity and how it works is amazing. And one of the things that she says in there is that there are ideas flying around all the time, and so an idea will land on you and if you ignore it, eventually it will land on Holden instead and he’ll be able to write that brilliant idea if you ignore it. And she says, what happened to her – has anyone heard of Ann Patchett who wrote Commonwealth most recently and she’s written a number of other really successful, more literary books – they met, Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett met at an event and they just did that sort of awkward greeting, kiss on the cheek when they first met and then they started exchanging emails afterwards, they became friends. And then it was about a year later when Ann Patchett said to Elizabeth Gilbert, “I’ve had this fantastic idea for a book.” I think she said it’s set somewhere in South America and it’s about a bridge or something. And it was exactly an idea that Elizabeth Gilbert had had but kept shelving and she couldn’t believe that her friend had told her exactly the idea. And she was like, “No, that was my idea! I thought of that.” But she wasn’t ready to write it and so she goes, “OK, you write it.” And she reckons that the idea was exchanged in that kiss and I quite like that! There’s something magical in a way about writing and about ideas. But years and years ago when I first started writing. My friends and I were early 20s, late teens and we were dating different people and getting annoyed at boys, stuff like that and I remember someone said, “We should start a website,” because it was very much just the beginning of the internet and one of us said, “We should start a website called allmenarebastards.com.” And we thought this was brilliant and everyone could just go on there and report about their ex-boyfriends and stuff so other people could be warned about these terrible guys. And then my friend said, “You should write this book!” and I was like, “Yeah, yeah I don’t know…” and then about two years ago, Allison Rushby, you may have heard of her, she’s a YA and kids’ author  and she’s written in cross-genres, she’s from Queensland, her very first book was called Allmenarebastards.com, exactly that. And it was a Chick Lit book, and I was like, That was my idea! So that’s it, if an idea comes to you… I think that’s really scary too! Because I always feel like I’ve either got a complete drought of ideas or I’ve got a few different ideas and I don’t know which one to focus on. And then Elizabeth Gilbert comes and tells me, “Well, if you focus on the wrong one, someone else is going to write the breakout novel with your idea.” So it’s very stressful!

Michael: When I got stuck on the latest manuscript, about the dog-trapper – outback adventure dog-trapper. I got completely stuck, I just didn’t like what was going on, they weren’t doing what they were supposed to, there were too many people so I just shelved it and just wrote a couple of little short novellas on something else. And then I went back and I finished the manuscript! So sometimes, having a few things on the go… I mean, I’d be editing one and then trying to write another and then polishing off a third. After Ridgeview, I went straight onto Ned, the one about the dog.

Rachael: Had you started Ned before Ridgeview came out?

Michael: I waited until I’d had the edits because I knew I’d done sooo many wrong things in the first draft – like multiple points of view in the same scene, I’ve read plenty of books that have that!

Rachael: Oh yeah, Nora Roberts does that all the time and she’s one of the best-selling fiction writers in the world!

Michael: And I got the edits back saying, “You can’t have two people’s voices in the same scene,” and I’m like, “Hang on a minute… what’s this, right here, he does!” and they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s Stephen King, he can do what he wants.”

Rachael: But I think this also shows that it’s all about the voice and the story. Not the rules of writing. So many aspiring writers, I’ve read a few books for competitions of aspiring writers who haven’t been published yet, and some of them you can see they’re just following every single rule. And so they’re like, “Oh, I can’t use ‘was’ at all.” And try and write a whole book without ‘was’! Or ‘that’, or ‘when’, you know they can’t do this, they can’t do that. And so basically what it’s done is stripped their manuscript of the essence of them and the voice that makes a difference. And that’s what’s more important, that’s what a publisher wants. They want that voice that sounds different to somebody else.

Michael: I think I’d have a slight advantage, writing rural fiction that wasn’t a romance.

Rachael: And being a guy.

Michael:  And being a guy too. They can pitch it to the male audience a bit better, saying, “Look, it’s not actually written by a woman about romance…” Which is ridiculous.

Rachael: And also the media, because the media wants that different angle. And there are a million girls writing rural romance.

Michael: Anyway, got one behind me. Which is more than a lot of people so you can’t complain too much too much. And it was good fun though.

Rachael: That’s good! And that’s what we want to remember. I think when you’ve written a number of books, it stops being fun sometimes. You start to think, Oh, I’ve got to do this. And, as much as you’d be able to go off and get another job doing something else, you want to keep the laughs and keep the fun.

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