Three unexpected lessons I’ve learnt about writing and publishing – Polly McGee
By Polly McGee
Can I let you in on a secret? I don’t think of myself as a novelist. A writer yes, but more of a business writer, a report writer, a non-fiction serious kind of writer. I certainly had the intention to write a book, but I assumed it would be a very different beast to Dogs of India. When I thought about writing a novel, which I occasionally did, invariably my inner narrative would pull me up with a ruthless ‘what story have you got to tell?’ comment that would put me back in my box and back to writing business blogs. ♥
The first unexpected thing I learned about the writing and publishing process is that your story finds you. My story found me in India. That a country as colourful, ancient, exotic, sacred and diverse as India would inspire storytelling is not surprising. What was unexpected was the clarity with which I knew what I had to do. It was in a park in New Delhi, the very park in which much of the book is set, where I first met some of the dogs of India. As I watched sweet bony puppies rolling around having dust baths, and mangy older dogs transiting the bushes and byways, determinedly going somewhere, I became aware of the legion of monkeys that seemed to dominate the park. The monkeys weren’t hungry, or threadbare, and it got me thinking about equity. The Sanskrit epics of Hinduism had set up a role model in the god Hanuman who was a Vanara – a race of fierce forest-dwelling warrior monkeys. Hanuman guaranteed the monkey’s position in the hearts and minds of many Indians. But where were the dogs? Nowhere to be found in literature, or worship. At best invisible, at worst dirty pests more than pets. I wanted there to be a hero dog, who could rewrite that story and elevate the dog to a place of reverence. The dogs of Kamla Nehru Ridge were oblivious to my musings, and missed the moment when, like a tap on my shoulder, the directive to write that novel came through loud and clear. There was even a title. It was to be called Dogs of India.
The second unexpected thing I learned about the writing and publishing process is that you don’t have to know the ending, you just have to begin. When I came back to Australia from my trip, I approached the writing process with an entirely practical methodology, based on how I’d undertaken screenwriting projects. I set out to resolve the entire story arc, every character in detail, mapped out all their interactions, their turning points, their drama and resolution. Layered on top of this was my intention to also weave into the story the structure and nuance of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, only two of Hinduism’s most revered texts. Easy right? So I was busy planning and mapping and post-it noting and writing synopsis and taglines. No actual writing of a novel, but a lot of activity. Vogel award winning writer Danielle Wood was mentoring me through a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, which I had enrolled in to help motivate me with deadlines to get the book done. I proudly showed her all my planning documents, and she gently, but firmly, suggested that I put it all aside, and simply write. Write fiction. Just write the story. Let it unfold organically and, it seemed to me, somewhat magically – how would you know what to write without all that structure. I am an obedient student, and did as she suggested. As the characters of the monkeys, dogs, humans and landscape emerged and enmeshed, the solutions to their dramas and the next page of their exploits appeared. Sometimes I’d be doing something completely unrelated: working, eating, running or sleeping and boom – I’d have a thought which would give me the next part of the narrative. This process was so joyful, so exciting, so fist-pumpingly triumphant, that the actual story writing was glorious, and I remain very grateful to Danielle Wood for prizing my fingers off the tight grip of writing methodology.
The third unexpected thing I learned about the writing and publishing process is that when the novel and market is ready, the publisher appears. When Dogs of India was finally ready to be let out, I went down the traditional route of sending off manuscripts and excerpts to publishers. As the then chair of a literary magazine, I had a very realistic understanding of the Australian publishing industry. It’s hard for new and unknown writers to get a break, with a lot of great talent competing for a relatively small market of readers. Luckily, I had (and have) an unshakeable belief in the story, and knew that I just had to keep knocking on doors, and asking for help and that sooner or later, I’d find the person who would be the enabler of my novel getting into the world. Being a gal of action, when a year of posting, emailing and asking hadn’t got anywhere, I decided to self-publish. I figured that I had to back myself if I wanted someone else to invest in me and my brand. Undertaking the process of what is involved in publishing and distribution is experiential genius for a writer. It empowers you in understanding the whole creative supply chain, and your part and role in it. The excitement of holding your book for the first time is a moment of unparalleled satisfaction. For me, after a couple of months of selling and spruiking, I realised that my influence in literary circles had reached its limits, and I really needed some expertise in the industry and a much bigger reach. So I asked for help, and this time, that ask lead me directly to Lou Johnson and Tom Galletta from The Author People in a piece of perfect synchronicity. Everything about the disruptive model of publishing and author-centric management they had developed to meet the challenges of the contemporary publishing market was a values match with me, and I was very proud to be the second author signed to their new venture.
Ok, so there is another secret I better share with you. When I was writing Dogs of India, I wanted to make it a visual and visceral story, as that is the narrative experience of place across the sub-continent. And that lends itself perfectly to a Bollywood film. Which, I’m hoping, is the next chapter to be written once Dogs of India is released at the end of November 2015, and the dogs of India will find their place on the page, screen and hearts of people everywhere.
Polly McGee is one part writer, and many parts assorted thinker, do-er, talker, eater, drinker, explorer and dog wrangler. She has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multi-million dollar innovation grants programs, worked with hundreds of start-ups to refine their business ideas and source funding, and championed causes from a variety of soapboxes, lecterns and stages.