Did I mention it's a beautiful face?!
I'd heard horror stories of authors who hated the cover of their book. So I set my expectations low, didn't dwell too much on what I thought it should look like ... then I got the email from my editor that the cover art was in and it was sitting in my inbox. I couldn't open my inbox fast enough!!
And what I saw took my breath away. A gorgeous piece of art that perfectly captures my girl, Bel. Vulnerable, but strong. Determined. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the delight of staring at this cover. My book was finally becoming a reality.
But I couldn't share my cover with the world until marketing had launched it into cyberspace and that glorious day was today. Only a matter of hours ago, in fact! the thrill has been so great, I cannot imagine how the joy of holding my actual book in my hands will match it. I know only that it will.
It took the first step inside Varuna last September to seal the place in my blood.
A house steeped in literary and family history, belonging to Eleanor and Erik Dark, it smells of old books and inspiration. The walls are filled with the spirit of writing, and when you sit down at Varuna, magic happens. You write. Stories pour out, and there's nobody and nothing to interrupt them.
Inside the heated walls of Eleanor's house, the same house where she raised her boys and wrote so many novels, I got to sit in solitude and write my heart out. Stopping only for wine by the fire with four other writers and the incredible Sheila who cooks up a culinary feast every night.
Last year, I was jumping circles round my lounge room when I received an email at 6 pm one winter's night, telling me I'd won a Litlink Residency to spend two glorious weeks at Varuna in Katoomba. I fell in love with Varuna in minutes. It's as though the walls have soaked up all the cheer and banter, all the creativity of all the writers it has ever sheltered, and it slowly leaks the joy and inspiration back to you.
So this year, when I found out my manuscript had won a PIP Fellowship at Varuna and I'd get to spend another week there, I could have cried. It had been a tough twelve months with my husband away training for his new job in Japan, and me at home trying my best to juggle the needs of our five amazing girls ... with a couple of hospital admissions, illnesses, a surgery, homework, sports, and just the day to day extravaganza of having five kids (turns out when you have five girls plus yourself, hair takes a LONG time to get through each morning! And don't get me started on lunches!). So upon Chad's return from training, I let him take the reins for a week, something I've never been able to indulge in before, while I invested in some quiet creative time at Varuna. Which I made the most of, breaking my record for word count by pumping out over 20,000 words in one week!
My first time at Varuna, I was so lucky to get to stay in Eleanor Dark's. It's a divine room, as is the writing studio attached to it! The second time, I got Eleanor's writing studio ... an unforgettable place to write, surrounded by her relics, and full of small drawers where those who have gone before me have dropped a couple of pages of their works-in-progress, many of which have gone on to be published. It literally feels like you're writing with the ghosts of other writers urging you on.
To top it off, both stays I was fortunate enough to spend my time with incredible people ... each of them so talented it was really quite daunting at first ... until that first night when the ice is broken by the fire and a glass of wine, and the chatter flows seamlessly, until there's just laughter and writers talking writing and life and darkness and humour. Many a night I couldn't sleep for the hyper-stimulation of the evenings. But what a reason to lose sleep, because you are among kindred spirits!
I know I will get back to Varuna one day. Hopefully in the next couple of years with my latest novel. Until then, when life drowning me to the ears in sibling arguments, or medical concerns, in school obligations, or afternoon activities that make each day feel like a marathon ... I have these photos to remind me that somewhere out there, over the Great Dividing Range I look over from my balcony, there is a place of utter serenity, and it's just waiting for me to snatch another week from the merry-go-round of life to return.
After the Vogel Prize night in Sydney, my agent Clare Forster went all guns blazing with my manuscript. It felt like I was getting a VIP pass into publishers - she was shopping it around like nobody's business. Having an agent at this point was so valuable, and Curtis Brown, of all agents? Dream stuff.
For the last three years, I'd been in contact with an editor at Penguin Random House who had seen something in my writing that by some miracle, she believed in. So she'd already taken my previous manuscript to an acquisitions meeting. When it was turned down, she asked for my next one. I was determined my next one would get across the line because I didn't know how I'd cope with another knock back.
But I'd fallen pregnant with our fifth baby unexpectedly and realized time was of the essence. If I was going to write this next story, I'd need to write it hard. So I did. Pumping out my first draft in eight weeks, then polishing it for the next two months. This manuscript was INSIDE THE TIGER and when I first sent it to the editor at Penguin, she kindly told me it was an 'early stage manuscript'. So she gave me some revision notes, which I worked in before submitting it to Varuna. Much to my shock, I won my first fellowship on the back of that manuscript. Then I went one further.
It was the last year I'd be eligible for the Vogel Prize, so I polished INSIDE THE TIGER as much as I could and shot it off. The deadline for the prize was midnight. I worked on it till the last moment, and hit submit at 11.58 p.m. with shaky fingers. My manuscript hit the competition inbox at 11.59 p.m. With seconds to spare on my last year to enter. Talk about cutting it to the wire!
After months of hearing nothing back, I was certain my manuscript hadn't been successful, so to find out I'd shortlisted was an incredible shock.
Within a week of the Vogel Prize winner being announced, my editor at Penguin took INSIDE THE TIGER to acquisitions. I was out of range of mobile reception when the decision came through. It would be the making of a childhood dream, or a crushing blow. So I made a special trip back into range, heard messages coming through on my phone. I pulled over the first second I could, and there it was. A text from my agent.
Penguin had made us an offer! It was the most bizarre feeling. Smiling, floating, disbelief ... but it also felt like the end of a long journey to publication. When I drove back to our country property, Mum and Chad came up to the car to greet me, questions on their face. I couldn't hide my smile as I told them Penguin had a new author. They jumped on me and hugged me, while I was still half-stunned.
There were stiff drinks around the campfire and I felt like anything else could happen in my life at that moment, but nothing could quell the joy.
I knew it was coming. I'd signed a confidentiality deed swearing me to secrecy. Still, seeing myself with these amazing writers, and reading words I'd toiled and sweated over in print, made my stomach churn. How would my words read to an outsider?
I almost didn't submit my manuscript to the Vogel prize. It was the last year I was eligible to enter. It would be my first and last entry. The deadline to submit was midnight. I worked on my manuscript to the last moment. Submitted it at 11:58 p.m. I think it hit the Vogel inbox at 11:59. I wasn't even sure it quite made it in. So when I learnt over the phone that Inside the Tiger was a finalist, my hands trembled. It was completely, thrillingly unexpected.
Tomorrow night, I get to attend the Vogel Awards night. An incredible privilege, mixing with other writers and industry professionals. Making the Vogel shortlist has also meant finding an agent. And I didn't just manage to get an agent, but the agent of my dreams, Curtis Brown.
So no matter what the outcome of tomorrow night, I'm honoured to have been able to partake in the Vogel Prize. How fortunate young writers are to have opportunities for visibility in a literary world that is notoriously difficult to crack into.
I'm looking forward to meeting the winner and offering him or her a huge congratulations!
I've had faults in my stars before. Plenty of them.
One of the big faults was the book itself, by the amazing John Green. I have nothing against his book, it was fabulous. The problem was that The Fault in Our Stars coincided with my first novel The Other Side of Tomorrow, both of which dealt with a teenage girl suffering from cancer. The Fault in Our Stars was the reason my manuscript didn't get across the line with two major publishing houses, despite reaching the board meeting level. The timing was incredibly unfortunate. And John Green's book was such a hit, it was hard to sell a similar story, said the publishers. So, after feeling sorry for myself for a few weeks, back to the drawing board went I.
By the time I started writing Inside the Tiger, I already knew I was pregnant with surprise baby #5. And that I had six months to get this novel onto the page before my life reverted into a chaotic frenzy of midnight feeds, mastitis, one-armed cooking and the rush to get everyone out the door for school. My baby at this stage was only 18 months old, so I'd barely left that craziness. Still, I knew it would multiply once #5 came along.
I wasted no time, pouring my story onto the page in record time. Then after our beautiful little Lacey was born, I grabbed the odd free minutes, sacrificed sleep and food and substituted with caffeine, to edit my novel. I sent it to the editor at one of the publishing houses, who'd worked hard to get my last novel across the line. She gave me some suggestions for revision, and I edited again. I am learning the painful lesson that publishing houses move slowly. Really slowly. The good news is, this slowness gives you time to enter your manuscript in competitions.
Which I did earlier this year. After some prompting from fellow writer Stephanie Holman-Lee, I entered my manuscript in the Litlink Residential Fellowship for Manuscript Development offered by the Varuna Writer's Centre. This is a competition open to regional writers to develop their manuscripts with a mentor in the peaceful setting of pioneering Australian author Eleanor Dark's house in the bushland surrounding Katoomba. It's two weeks of unadulterated quiet and solitude to write. Ha, two weeks. Can a mother of five kids ranging from 1 to 9 really take two weeks out of life's crazy demands to do something as indulgent as writing? As if I would win a residency anyway, I thought. Varuna won't be interested in my 'commercial' style of writing. They like award winning stuff. But as part of the process of getting my work out there, I gave it a shot.
A few months went by. I wasn't chewing my fingernails to the nub, because I knew my manuscript barely stood a chance. Besides in those months, Chad applied for a new job in Japan, which involved exhaustive testing in Tokyo. A couple of weeks later, as I was racing off to school to pick up Mia and Zara, he texted me the words, "I job the job with ANA."
I floated into the school yard, barely able to feel my feet. After a tough three years in aviation (and life), it seemed we were cutting a break. This was Chad's dream job, and solidified our belief that 2016 would be our year of change. Later that night, while bathing and getting everyone into their pyjamas, I heard my own phone buzz. Nonchalantly, I checked my emails. There was something sitting in my inbox with the subject "LITLINK 2016". It took me a second to realise it was from the Varuna Writer's Centre. I wasn't expecting an update from them for a couple of weeks. I clicked on it and instantly read the word, "Congratulations". What?! I'd won a two week residency. A Varuna consultant had read my manuscript and felt it worthy of developing. Support like that is bolstering.
What followed was a frantic run around the house calling my Mum, Chad, my aunty, my sister and my best friend. All people who've read my manuscripts and guided me with ideas and enthusiasm. Varuna writer's centre. I hadn't even allowed myself to invest in the idea of it as I was so sure I wouldn't get the chance to write there.
The stars rarely align for Chad and I so beautifully, and for it all to happen in the one day was thrilling.
The fellowship starts in a couple of weeks. In two weeks, I am writing at Eleanor Dark's house. With other writers, amongst my own kind. In quiet solitude instead of trying to steal an hour or two while Chad 'looks after' the girls and they hammer on the door, yelling 'MUMMA' as they fight and strangle each other. That's my usual 'writing space'. So peaceful. Now I only have to hope the total serenity doesn't throw my harried inspiration out the window!!
Varuna, the countdown is on.