This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is Australian YA author Pip Harry revealing hers…
Guest post by Pip Harry
I wrote my first book at 23. Bursting with youthful confidence, I scribbled an outline for a middle-grade story on a backpacking adventure around Europe. I came home, took off my hiking boots, blasted out 30,000 words, polished it up, and sent it off to a couple of agents.
Within a few months I had signed with a local literary agent and was getting ready to send the manuscript out on submission. It all happened fairly seamlessly and I might have even been foolish enough to think, Hey, this authoring thing is pretty straightforward. What’s the big deal?
But I didn’t quite get the happy ending I’d expected. In a nutshell—nobody wanted to publish the book. A dozen or so polite, opaque rejections later (and two poorly written, rushed, and clichéd novels after that) I was unceremoniously dumped by my agent. Washed up at age 25.
Having taken my first beating, I did what writers should never do—quit. I threw a little “it’s too hard” tantrum and extinguished the dream of being a published author.
For the next five years I focused on journalism. At least by writing about celebrities for weekly gossip mags I could get my byline out there. But even as I climbed the ladder as an editor, I couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling of a lost love. A true passion that I had turned my back on.
My confidence was badly bruised from all those knockbacks and at the mere mention of creative writing I closed up like a frightened sea creature. “I’m done with that,” I told people who were brave enough to inquire if I still wrote novels.
Secretly, I yearned to write fiction. And without it, I felt incomplete. I just couldn’t find my way back.
It took turning 30 to jolt me back into action. I was THIRTY. No longer a twentysomething. It was time to stop sulking over a failed book. I had other stories to write. Other characters to meet.
This was my first turning point.
I bit the bullet and enrolled in a creative writing course at University. A serious one. One that required me to turn up every week and read my work aloud (terrifying). And also to read other writers’ work (illuminating).
It was transformative. I skipped to class, wrote madly, felt my brain fizz with new ideas, smiled, and felt whole again. At the end of my studies I submitted a short story to the university anthology—it was accepted and published in a real book. Reading an excerpt of the story at a bookstore I have never felt so deliriously happy. This was what I wanted to do.
Since graduating, it’s the friendships I made in the classroom that have kept me going as a writer. Many of us swapped emails and have met up in pubs, cafes, and Japanese restaurants. We’ve shared our scraps of writing, our insecurities, and struggles.
It’s because of them (and knowing I wasn’t alone in wanting to write creatively) that I built up enough confidence to start another novel. YA this time—a darkish tale of an angry Goth girl whose parent’s had sent her away to boarding school. Slowly, tentatively, it took shape. I ran parts of it by my writing buddies. They offered suggestions, encouragement. I kept going.
Finally, a few years later, I had a draft of I’ll Tell You Mine. I was holding it pretty close to my chest but when a journalism friend mentioned she knew a senior fiction editor at HarperCollins, I decided now was not the time to be shy and retiring.
I asked for the HC editor’s email, made nervous contact, and she agreed to read my manuscript. Maybe this is it! I thought. My second chance. Then a few weeks went by. Then a few months. I didn’t have the guts to inquire if she’d finished it, or liked it. The silence was crushing.
When I caught up with my friend at a swish media function, I mentioned (faux casually) if she’d heard from her HC editor mate—had she read my work?
The look on her face said it all. It was a horrifying mix of pity and embarrassment. Sitting at a table of journalists over a seafood lunch, she muttered something about it “needing work.” I fled the restaurant and burst into tears standing on a pier on Sydney Harbour. Snot, tears. The works.
As horrible and humiliating as that moment was, it was my second turning point.
I realised one bad review wasn’t enough to shake me this time. I was going to recover. A fancy editor didn’t like my writing? Yes, it hurt, but she was just one person, in a world of readers. And besides, she wasn’t the teenage girl I was writing the book for.
So, I wiped my eyes, put on sunglasses, returned to lunch, and decided to get a second opinion. In fact, I got two. Crucially, both were experienced in the Young Adult market. One was a retired children’s book publisher, the other a rights manager for Allen & Unwin who loved YA.
They both read quickly and respectfully and gave me amazing, positive feedback and constructive criticism. They told me not to give up, even in a tough market.
And I didn’t. I took their suggestions on board, got together a list of agents, queried, and received a lovely phone call one sunny Monday morning. Sophie Hamley of the Cameron Creswell Agency was on the line. She loved the manuscript and wanted to meet me. This time, it felt like the stars had finally aligned.
Sophie and I sat down to coffee (totally clicking on what the book was about and who it was for) and a few months later I was accepting an offer from UQP, a respected publisher of quality YA novels.
So, twelve years after I finished my first novel I was signing the dotted line on a book deal.
What’s happened since has been a gilded fantasy of copy edits, covers, and breathy press releases—but I will never forget those years chipping away at an idea, mostly alone, hoping that one day it would be a book. And that book would rest in the hands of a teenage girl.
Whether or not I’ll Tell You Mine is a commercial success—it was worth it.
Pip Harry is a freelance Sydney-based journalist who has worked on Australian magazines for many years, including chasing celebrities as Entertainment Editor for NW and Deputy Editor for TV Week before turning herself into a yoga-loving frequent flyer as Health & Travel Editor for Woman’s Day. She’s the co-founder of relationships website realitychick.com.au and has had short stories published in the UTS Writer’s Anthology and Wet Ink. Pip lives in Sydney with her partner and their gorgeous daughter, Sophie. When not at a keyboard, she can be found searching for the perfect flat white and competing in ocean swimming. Her debut YA novel, I’ll Tell You Mine, was published in Australia on April 2 and is about finding friendship and love in the most unlikely of places, a boarding school.