It’s 5.30am. Gabrielle Tozer, 28, shuts the door to her study and sits at her desk. Sydney’s concrete jungle is quieter so early in the morning and Gabrielle likes to write in silence. A gumtree stands outside her window – the only greenery among the nearby buildings. It’s a reminder of where she came from: Wagga Wagga, regional NSW.
Gabrielle focuses back to her PC monitors – she uses two of them now. Her desk takes up half the room and it’s covered with Post-it notes and paper, cups of undrunk green tea and water bottles. “Writing is hard work,” she says. “You need to keep hydrated.”
One Post-it, stuck on the wall before her, reads: “You’ve done this once. You can do it again.” Gabrielle is in the process of writing her second young adult novel: a sequel.
Her first novel, The Intern, hit book stores in February 2014. It’s about Josie Browning, a high-achiever who lands an internship at a glossy fashion magazine – a profile that resembles Gabrielle’s own.
Where it all started
Rewind to 1990. A five-year-old Gabrielle already knows she wants to be an author. “Once you get a hang of reading, you want to start telling your own stories,” she says. She started with Babysitters Club fan fiction.
She had a book review published in Year 8; a poem published in year 12. And in 2004, while studying journalism and creative writing at the University of Canberra, she was a winner of the ABC Heywire competition – where young regional Australians submit scripts for radio stories about their lives. “I’ve had all these experiences that keep reinforcing that I’m doing what I love.”
After a journalism internship at Monitor Online, the newspaper of the University of Canberra, she moved to Sydney and, at 21, landed her first job as a sub-editor of ACP Magazines’ kids’ titles. “One of the fabulous things about working in magazines is the amazing experiences you come across. It’s a great industry with a lot of colourful, crazy characters,” she says. It was these experiences that formed a foundation for her first novel. “The novel is absolutely fiction; however, there are moments that have happened to me, or that I’ve included and exaggerated to the extreme, just for a bit of fun.”
Now, after eight years of working in magazines, Gabrielle works full-time for Hoyts as a senior editor and copywriter: writing and editing communications, web copy, flyers, booklets, social media and anything else they throw at her. But between 5.30am and 7.30am, before work, she’s an author, sitting at her desk, writing the sequel to The Intern. In those two hours before work, she just writes and worries about the editing later.
A double life
The privacy and silence of Gabrielle’s study contrasts sharply to her corporate workspace: open plan, people rushing in and out of the office, phones ringing. “I’ve had to learn, over the years, how to write surrounded by people. And I will tell you, it is tough.” She must have learnt well; she’s written for DOLLY, Girlfriend, Cosmopolitan, Mamamia, Bride to Be and The Canberra Times, among others. She’s worked as a managing editor, deputy editor, chief subeditor and senior features writer.
But at her desk in her two-bedroom apartment, writing is not as glamorous. She wears a faded navy tracksuit and Ugg boots. And her hoodie is stained with peanut butter: battle scars from the writing process – she eats from the jar when stressing out.
Gabrielle has always been this proactive in her writing. After completing a writing course in 2009, she stayed in touch with her teacher who, impressed by her writing, forwarded Gabrielle’s details to HarperCollins. The publisher contacted Gabrielle around September 2011, asking if she was interested in having a chat. Gabrielle pitched some ideas and some sample chapters and they asked to see a full manuscript. She wrote a first draft of The Intern in less than five months, while working as a full-time journalist.
“I wrote and wrote and wrote, without planning, without plotting. I just got everything out of me and put it on the page. It’s impossible to edit a blank page so I got the words out and fixed them up later.” She sent HarperCollins a polished manuscript in June 2012, suggesting a sequel or series; Harper Collins replied, offering a two-book contract – which was officially announced in October 2012.
Gabrielle follows Stephen King’s advice from his book, On Writing. He suggests, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” For Gabrielle, creative writing is a solitary task. “I fly quite solo on the creative thing. I don’t even like to talk about the details,” she says. No workshopping groups, no feedback from family or friends. Her husband is allowed to read the manuscript only when she’s finished the draft; only then does she open the door to her work.
While writing her first novel and working full-time, Gabrielle was also planning her own wedding. “It was the most stressful time of my life,’ she says. “Daily meltdowns. But I am determined.”
“It was a struggle between feeling like I didn't have the time or the energy to do it all and not wanting to miss out on a wonderful opportunity. It was difficult and I wouldn't encourage it,” she laughs. “If you can space out your life events a little bit more, I’d highly recommend it.”
After a meltdown, she makes sure she has enough breaks. Perhaps she’ll binge watch a season of a TV show – she’s passionate about good TV and good movies, though she also treats them as research. She confesses to being a big procrastinator, susceptible to the lure of Twitter and social media. And she doesn't want to neglect those close to her. “Juggling my social life is difficult with juggling my author life. I love my friends and family and I want to make sure I’m not dropping the ball in that department.”
In her author life, when writing The Intern, Gabrielle swapped daily between writing journalism for work and writing young adult fiction in her spare time. But she found the switching of gears easy. It was being in gear that caused problems. “The hardest part was, I was spending so many hours a day in front of a computer, writing. It was just the number of hours dedicated to one type of task that became very, very difficult. I ended up having to see physios for my back and my arms and neck. It’s quite dangerous, writing,” she says, laughing.
“I didn't know how to cope at the start. What has helped me is being a creature of routine.” Gabrielle gets up so early in the morning because it’s when she writes best. She also dedicates at least three to five hours of her weekend to the task. “Writing a novel is absolutely one of the hardest things I've ever done. It’s a daily, weekly, monthly struggle.”
Her routine is simple: “I always write the blurb of the book, I usually have the opening scene or two in my mind, very vividly, and then I usually have a bit of an idea of where I want to take the story. But nothing set in concrete. And then I just sit down and start. Once I've run out of energy, I’ll stop and re-evaluate and brainstorm in a separate notebook. I put a bit of a plan together for the following chapters.”
Gabrielle also keeps spreadsheets, tracking her word counts. “It’s a little bit nerdy— and it’s weird because I barely know how to use Excel – but I find it incredibly motivating to see that number rising,” she says. “Once you get rid of all the self-doubt, all of a sudden inspiration starts flowing. And when it rains, it pours. You just have to back yourself.”
Chasing her dream hasn't been glamorous, and it’s involved meltdowns and stress-induced peanut butter cravings, but none of that matters for Gabrielle if that’s what it takes to make her dreams to come true.
Gabrielle sets down a cup of green tea and starts writing. The door to her study is closed; the door to her writing is closed. For the moment, she just writes. She’ll open the doors later.
Ara Sarafian is a freelance writer based in Melbourne who travelled the world for eight years. You can find him on Twitter at @ara_sarafian.