Write the book that only you can write by guest blogger, Wendy Orr

I always worry when I hear an aspiring writer say, 'My aim is to be a famous author.'

Don't get me wrong: thinking positive is great. Visualising success is great. And if what you want most from your career is fame, that's great too, though I'm not sure writing is the easiest way to attain it.

But if what you want most is to become a great writer – the absolute best you can be – you have to be prepared to fail.

I've been writing for thirty years now, and writing full time for about twenty-five. I've had some wonderful successes: a CBCA Book of the Year for Ark in the Park, a Hollywood feature film of Nim's Island, followed by an Australian feature film of Nim at Sea (Return to Nim's Island), and many other shortlistings and awards in Australia and around the world.

But believe me, I've had some failures, and so I'm going to be brave and tell you about one of them: Mokie and Bik.

Mokie and Bik was a story I cared passionately about. It's based on my father and his twin sister's early childhood on a boat in Vancouver, with various dogs, a tortoise, a nanny, a rather disinterested mother, and a father who was usually away at sea as the first mate on a rumrunning ship. It took me years to work out how to tell this story as a children's book, especially as the twins and the nanny spoke their own private language until they were six, and I wanted to capture that feeling. In the end I invented a language for them, mostly based on spoonerisms and confusions, eg the mother rides a botormike instead of a motorbike, with a sideboat instead of a sidecar.

It was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin with delightful illustrations by Beth Norling, and in the USA by Henry Holt, with beautiful, evocative period drawings by Jonathan Bean. It had a couple of nice reviews in Australia, and a few fabulous ones and a Junior Library Guild award in the US.It appeared just in time for my father and aunt's 80th birthday, and they were delighted with it, even blurring some of the distinctions between fact and fiction.

So how is that a failure? Simple. They didn't sell – neither edition earned out their advance – there's a box of each under the bed. That matters. It matters to my publishers (though they were all very nice about it) and it matters to me, because I like money. I find it useful to pay treats like groceries and mortgages.

But do I regret writing it, or writing it in such an unusual way? No. I wish it had sold more copies, but I don't regret the year I spent pushing myself as a writer by experimenting with that language and story. I couldn't tell you exactly what I learned by doing it, but I know that every time you experiment seriously with your craft, you learn something.

And so, two and a half years ago, when the story that became Dragonfly Song was still insisting that it wanted to be told in verse, despite my spending the previous five years telling it that the story was too complex for verse, I found a compromise. I would write the protagonist's parts in verse and the background, exposition or other characters' points of view in prose. I thought it was risky, because I hadn't heard of another book told this way, but my publisher was happy with the idea. The story was happy because it simply insisted on still being mostly written in verse, by hand, and then it didn't mind how much I transposed back into prose. And I was happy because I was totally immersed in this story and the way it wanted to be told. Naturally this joy was interspersed with periods of sheer terror about how it would turn out and how it would be received, but I never felt that I had a choice in how to tell it. And when Dragonfly Song came out last July, the reactions suggested that I was right. I suspect it's too different and difficult to be a huge financial success, but it will pay out its advance, and I was very pleased to see it on the West Australian Young Readers' Award, which is a children's choice, as well as winning the Australian Standing Orders Librarians' choice for Secondary Schools. 'I hope you don't mind,' said a children's literature lecturer, 'because I loved Peeling the Onion and Nim's Island – but this is the best thing you've ever written.' Or a well known author, when I commented on the three many best-selling books she'd written during the same two years, who said simply, 'But Dragonfly Song is a masterpiece.'

Remarks like these aren't bankable, if we want to revert to that definition of success, but they validate my decision. Because I firmly believe that stories dictate how they want to be told, and as writers, we have to accept their challenge and give them what they need. No book will ever be as perfect and shining as it is when it's an unwritten idea, but only by accepting the risk of failure can we write something truly original with the chance of greatness.

Every book you write needs to be the best book it can be within the form you've chosen – but sometimes, you have to go a step further, risk it all, and write the book that only you can write.If you do that, you even have a chance at the fame that aspiring writer wants.

To learn more about Wendy and her books, visit http://www.wendyorr.com/ 

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Sunday, 22 September 2019

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