From idea to draft...
In an age where everything happens instantly, it seems unbelievable that a novel would take a decade and a half from conception to publication; but that is how long Exuberance took to finally find its way into the world. The idea of it began with a short story, which came into life fully formed (sometime near the end of last century; before September 11, before the advent of social media, before iPads, iPhones and iPods), and developed into a chaotic first draft that was later discarded. The idea lay dormant for five years, patiently waiting while I faced a number of life-changing events, and it woke up again as soon as my new life settled down enough for me to start writing the daily ‘morning pages’ recommended by Julia Cameron in ‘The Artist’s Way’, in 2003. It was on those morning pages that the characters finally began to speak to me, each one in their own distinctive voice.
The writing of the first draft took only (only!) three years of stolen moments amidst the busyness of full time work, study, travel, family, social commitments and unexpected health challenges. Tiring as it was, I will always remember this period of time as one of the most fulfilling and productive of my third decade. It was a fantastic journey, the highlight of which was, undoubtedly, the week I spent at Varuna, the Writers’ house, working on Exuberance as one of the recipients of the Varuna Awards Residential Masterclass. The following article, written about that experience, appeared in the February 2006 edition of Newswrite, the NSW Writers’ Centre Magazine:
Getting to 'The End'
It’s boxing day I am dancing around the house clutching the printout of an email. There is no one at home to dance with – my partner is visiting his father in Adelaide, and I have just said goodbye to my family after spending the holidays with them.
Before I even open it, the email’s subject line is enough to make my heart jump. It reads: ‘Good Varuna News’.
The message is from Peter Bishop, creative director of Varuna, the Writers’ House in Katoomba. The good news is that my manuscript, Exuberance, has made it to the final short list for the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development. Fifteen submissions have made it this far, out of three hundred nation-wide applications.
If HarperCollins don’t choose my project, Peter goes on to say, he wants to work with it in his Residential Masterclass in April. So one way or another, in a few months’ time, I will be staying at the Blue Mountains residence that once belonged to Eleanor Dark.
I spend the rest of the night on the phone. I call my partner in Adelaide, my mother in Sydney, the friend in Melbourne who checked my submission word by word to make sure it was grammatically perfect. I tell them that I don’t mind whether I am selected for the HarperCollins award or not. What is important is that someone in the know (other than my family, partner and friends) has actually said that my work is ‘among the best of a good lot’.
After hanging up, I dance some more.
Fast-forward to April, 2005. It’s a beautiful autumn morning, and I am on the train to Katoomba. I didn’t qualify for the ten-day HarperCollins editorial workshop, but I still get to spend one exciting week at Varuna together with the other four winners of the residential masterclass.
I arrive at Varuna with only three-quarters of my novel written, and still unsure about its conclusion. The ending I had conceived when I first started writing Exuberance has changed beyond recognition, as have most of my characters, their backgrounds, their goals and relationships. The only things that have remained intact are the title and the subject matter: mental illness and the impact it has on its sufferers and their families. For my new ending to work I need a missing ingredient that I haven’t yet been able to formulate.
Peter allocates individual sessions with us practically every day, giving us comments, suggestions, advice and encouragement. His enthusiasm is unwavering and infectious. He talks about the characters in our books as if they were real people, people he knows even better than we do.
We girls spend our nights by the fire, drinking wine, relishing on Sheila Atkinson’s superb cooking, sharing our experiences and reading extracts of our stories to each other.
The place soon starts to work the creative magic it is renowned for. Suddenly, the missing pieces of my novel fall into place, and I become so immersed in writing that I need an alarm clock to remind me of meal times.
At the end of the week, I leave Varuna with mixed feelings. I am thrilled and overjoyed because I have practically finished my novel – all but the last chapter. Yet I’ve also got the blues, because as soon as I write that last chapter, this child, who I have nurtured for so many years, will be ready to leave the nest, to leave me. I can only hope it is strong enough to withstand the perils of the publishing world.
It’s May and I am celebrating the completion of Exuberance with three of my close friends. It took me a couple of weeks to gather the courage to write that final chapter. My friends are making a huge fuss. They toast to the birth of my book, they want to organise a private launch, they want to help me chose the waterfront property that I’m going to buy when I sign my multimillion book and movie deal.
I tell them not to carry on like that – nothing might come out of it.
One of them exclaims, ‘How can you say that? So much has come out of it already!’
She’s absolutely right. No matter what happens to Exuberance next, there is already a lot to celebrate and to fuss about.
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,