At the end of May this year I had an idea. One I couldn’t stop thinking about. I tried to push it away. I didn’t want this idea – I already had a manuscript I was working on and I didn’t have time for others. But the idea kept gnawing at me. I even had a dream about it. I woke one morning, frenzied, with words dancing in my head. I grabbed the closest notebook I could find and scribbled the words down. There, I thought, done. Now this idea can leave me alone! Oh, how wrong I was. The next morning I had more words in my head, swirling round and round. I did my very best to ignore them. I washed the dishes. I put a load of laundry on. I checked the mail. Vacuumed the floors. But the words were still there. The idea was growing. Suddenly I could see characters in front of me. I could even hear their voices. I could see the street they lived on, the short stubby lawn outside their house, the white picket fence. Finally, I knew I had to give in and write this idea but I really didn’t want to. I was meant to be rewriting my Penguin Prize shortlisted manuscript but suddenly I found that I had lost interest in it. This new idea had taken hold of me, utterly and completely, and it was all I could think about. But I knew that I wanted to approach this story differently to the way I usually write.
I have completed four manuscripts over the last seven years and each one of them has been a huge learning experience for me. I like some of them more than others but they’ve all taught me something and they’ve all pushed me closer to my dream of publication. Earlier this year, when my manuscript ‘Helen Hope’ was shortlisted for the Penguin Prize, I freaked out. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was some kind of joke, it didn’t seem real. I was also shortlisted for the same prize in 2020 with a different manuscript (‘Found Again’) and I really thought publication was going to happen then. When it didn’t, I spiralled into a mix of depression and anxiety. It didn’t help that we were in lockdown here in Melbourne and all the days felt exactly the same, blurring into one another. Things felt dark and I began to think nothing would ever be bright again. Writing seemed so hard and I felt like such a failure. As I watched friends and peers reach writing milestones and receive publishing offers, I wondered if it would ever be my time. I pondered giving up. After all, I had given it a good shot but maybe this was as far as I was meant to go? Not everyone who writes a book can get a deal and it’s such a competitive industry. But still I worked slowly on ‘Helen Hope’, putting the words down on the computer and finally I wrote the end. After receiving feedback from beta readers, I sent it to a few publishers who had expressed interest in my work before. The feedback was kind, thoughtful, encouraging. But nobody wanted it. I cried. I will be honest – I cried a lot. Here I was again, with another completed manuscript and no offer. Had I just wasted my time again? Why was I writing? What was I even trying to do anymore?
Reluctantly, on the last day of the competition, I entered ‘Helen Hope’ into the Penguin Prize. I didn’t think anything would come of it. I was quite sure the first shortlisting was a fluke. Maybe they hadn’t had many entries that year. Maybe they felt sorry for me. All these thoughts went through my head. As I clicked submit, I even laughed to myself. Yeah right, as if you’re going to get shortlisted TWICE, get a grip, Katelin!
So in March of this year when I received word that the manuscript had been shortlisted, I didn’t know what to do. I stared at the email. I rang my husband. I burst into tears. I felt oddly embarrassed. I didn’t want to celebrate it. I wanted to hide under the covers in bed. Then I wondered what I would do if I won? Could I win? No, that was absurd. But yet…yet I might? I told myself I wouldn’t think about it. I would just push it to the back of my mind and let whatever was going to happen happen. But of course I thought about it every single night. I lay awake at night and obsessed over it. I tried to imagine myself winning. I tried to imagine myself losing. I was anxious, sick, depressed, crying nearly every day over it. I should have been happy, proud of myself – I should have been celebrating – but I wasn’t. I hated the waiting, the uncertainty, the not knowing. I was a loser. I was a loser who was incapable of getting a book deal and everyone could see it.
When the publisher from Penguin called me to tell me I didn’t win, I was oddly calm. I still cried after I got off the phone from her but I felt a strange sense of relief. So, I hadn’t won. Well, what did that mean? All it meant was that I hadn’t won. She told me she would be more than happy to read a reworked version of the manuscript and I was pleased about that, pleased to know that it had obviously resonated in some way. But I didn’t know where to start or how to tackle the rewrites.
Then this new idea came to me. This new, exciting, stupid idea that I didn’t want! I was busy with ‘Helen Hope’ and I was almost angry. Can’t you just leave me alone, I wanted to scream. But when the idea comes to you, sometimes you can’t ignore it. The problem was, writing had been tied up in anxiety, depression and pressure for the last few years and I wasn’t sure how to write it. I didn’t want to write this new idea in the same way I always wrote. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to feel more connected to the story and I wanted to stop worrying about if the prose was ‘perfect’ or not. So I decided to handwrite it. I wanted to write freely, with no expectations, no anxiety over whether it sounded good or made sense, no worrying over a clunky line or two, no ability to go back and delete a sentence or phrase.
This new process has changed everything. It’s hard to explain how liberating it has been. Every Thursday, which is my day off, I go to the library and I sit there with my $2 A4 notebook and my bright yellow Lamy pen, and I write. I let the words spew out. I don’t worry about whether they sound amazing. I don’t agonise over how the sentences are fitting together. I don’t check Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. I just write. And it is so much fun. It is the most fun I have had in years. I love this new idea. I love my characters. I love the plot. And I love just sitting there and exploring it on the page. I don’t know whether I will go back and rewrite ‘Helen Hope’ – I don’t know if I want to be tethered to it anymore, I don’t know if it’s the story that was truly inside of me, that I was burning to tell, but I know that writing it helped me get to the place I’m at now. Sometimes, you have to write the wrong thing to get to the right thing. The manuscript I’m working on now feels like the book I was meant to write. It feels like all this time I was working my way to it. And now that I’m here, I never want to leave. Writing has become joyful again. Writing has become something I look forward to doing again. Maybe this book will be one that finally gets me over the line and finds a home with a publisher. Maybe it won’t be. But maybe that doesn’t matter. What matters is the joy.