Ep 295 Do you need a book curator? And meet Petronella McGovern, author of ‘Six Minutes’.

In Episode 295 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Do you need a book curator? And meet AWC alumna Petronella McGovern, author of Six Minutes. MOJO MONTH is coming! Discover sweet book nerd merch. Valerie’s journals are now available to order. Plus, we have 3 copies of Little Puggle’s Song by AWC alumna Vikki Conley to give away.

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Show Notes

Gwyneth Paltrow Hired a Personal Book Curator—Here’s What He Chose For Her Shelves

Jubly-umph – Literary accessories for your bookish life!

Book Geek

Valerie Khoo’s Creative Journals

Writers in Residence

Petronella McGovern

Petronella is fascinated by people – what makes us tick, how we view the world, and the lies we tell others and ourselves. She’s interested in the complexities of relationships and the dynamics in families.

Petronella grew up in a large family on a farm in New South Wales – building tree houses, chasing cows and avoiding snakes. Bitten by the travel bug, Petronella backpacked in Africa, Europe, America and Russia.

She has co-written two non-fiction books – an Olympic memoir and a travelogue. After working in Canberra for a number of years, Petronella now lives in Sydney with her husband and children.

Petronella is a member of the Australian Society of Authors and Sisters in Crime Australia.

Her most debut novel is Six Minutes and was published by Allen and Unwin in 2019.

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Petronella, thank you so much for joining us today.

Petronella

It’s great to be here, Val.

Valerie

Oh, look, congratulations on your novel, Six Minutes. It is everywhere. I have seen it everywhere. Literally, in every bookshop that I go to, in, you know… Just everywhere! Because not all books get distributed everywhere, but clearly they think that this one is a winner, because it is ubiquitous. So congratulations on that in the first instance.

Oh gosh, I don’t even know where to start! So let’s start with Six Minutes – for readers who haven’t grabbed their own copy yet, tell us what it’s about.

Petronella

It’s a psychological thriller. And it’s set in a village on the edge of Canberra. And I guess it’s based on a premise that most parents would have gone through at some point, which is just leaving their child with a friend for a few minutes. So one Thursday morning, Lexi takes her three-year old daughter to playgroup, as she does every Thursday. But when she’s there, she decided to pop up to the shop to get some biscuits for morning tea. So she leaves her daughter with the other playgroup mums, but when she comes back from the shop with the Tim Tams, six minutes later, her daughter is gone. And none of the playgroup mums have seen her leave. None of the kids have seen her leave. And so Six Minutes follows the search for the daughter and what happened in those six minutes.

Valerie

Now, I am so intrigued. I have so many questions. But first, let’s start with how did this idea form? Were you… How did it come into your brain that this premise would be a great start of a book?

Petronella

Well there were sort of two different sparks for the book. I was living in Canberra and took my son, when he was about three, to Questacon, to the National Science Museum. And there were so many exciting terrifying exhibits there in the science museum. And he was with me and then just gone. And I didn’t see him leave. So he just disappeared. And we were frantically searching for him. And it was that sort of terrifying moment of having a lost child and really not knowing, did he go out the front, did he go upstairs, is he inside, is he outside, is he with somebody?

Anyway, thankfully we found him. Well, the security guards found him. And he’d just gone back to look at the rockets on the top floor. So he was fine. But I really had that feeling of panic and fear and worrying about all the worst possibilities.

And at the same time, I was with this wonderful mothers’ group, which became a playgroup, and we’d meet each Wednesday. And I started to think about how would everyone react if that situation happened in a safe environment where everyone was friends. What would happen with the friendship group and the dynamics among those women?

Valerie

It’s brilliant, because it sets up so many questions and it sets up so many avenues and conflicts and interactions with people. So at that point, when your son went missing, and this incident occurred, and you were in the mothers’ group, at that point though did you think, oh, I’m going to write this in a novel one day? Or was it just something that happened a while back and you thought about it years later?

Petronella

Well, I was actually working on a different manuscript at the time which was about a group of friends in their 20s. So I kept rewriting that and rewriting that. And I’d had this thought and I’d written a few outlines, very short, just a few brief notes. And then finally I decided to stop the other manuscript and start writing this one. But it was a while later. Probably it was five years later. A long time later.

Valerie

I’m curious to know, did you… Because you were with a mothers’ group at the time, and this thing happened to your son, and you thought, oh, you wondered how would they react. Did you actually raise that question with them? To see what they would say?

Petronella

No, I didn’t. I didn’t at all. And so the characters are obviously all fictional. But then I was worried, I thought I better send it to them before it goes into print just to make sure that no one thinks it’s them! And they don’t think it’s them. They’re all very positive. So I think that’s a relief.

Valerie

So there is this core group of mothers in this playgroup. And the characters are so important in this book, in addition to the plot, of course. But how did you formulate them? Were they based on people? And how did you determine what their personalities were going to be like? The way they were going to behave? And so on?

Petronella

I think I took just characteristics of people in everyday life. Not necessarily people from my mothers’ group. But characteristics of mothers, types that you know. So the relaxed hippie mum, the stressed out mum, the neurotic mum, the can’t put their phone down can’t get off social media mum.

And I sort of was looking at those. But then, you know, I didn’t want them to be stereotypes, so I really went in and looked at their motivation. And everybody has a secret, and everyone has reasons for behaving the way they do. So I really did quite a lot of character background on each one so that they weren’t just a stereotype of someone.

Valerie

And so when you were… I want to talk more about writing the book. But just to give people an idea, do you have a day job?

Petronella

I work in writing. I do professional writing and editing. But I work from home so I kind of work to deadlines when things come up. Yes.

Valerie

And do you work mainly in, I think is it marketing and communications? Is that right?

Petronella

Yeah, marketing and communications. Yep.

Valerie

So how do you divide up your day? How do you… Do you kind of do – work hours are my professional marketing writing, and after hours is my fiction writing. Or do you just do whatever?

Petronella

I found it very hard. This novel has taken a long time to, well, not to write itself, but actually to then keep rewriting and reediting, because I kept having to put it behind any deadlines that I had from work.

So I would, like, I tried all different things. I’d say, I’ll do my writing on Fridays. But that never worked. And then I’ll do it in evenings. But that didn’t work with the kids. So I found what does work is getting up early before everybody else and writing for at least an hour in the morning before everybody else. And I am not a morning person, so this is quite hard for me. But that’s what’s worked for me.

Valerie

Right. And so you would only write for an hour in the morning? Did you write at other times?

Petronella

Oh no, then I’d write later on. But if I got that hour, depending on the other deadlines for work, but if I got that hour in the morning, then I kept the story going in my head so it was always there. So then I could come back to it more easily. Whereas if I just tried to do it on a Friday then I wouldn’t be thinking about it every day. And if I just tried to do it on Sunday afternoon, it left my head. Whereas if I did something each morning, the story was always in my head.

Valerie

Yeah. So can you give us just a rough timeline of when the idea formed, and then when you first started thinking, I’m going to write this into a novel and started drafting it. Just give us a bit of an idea of the key milestones. Like, it took you this long to create your first draft and then the key steps after that.

Petronella

Yes. Well, it helps to look at my son who was three back then and is now a very tall 16 year old.

Valerie

Gosh.

Petronella

So I think it probably took about three years before I started writing the story. And then I just wrote a bit and then put it aside. And then I moved to Sydney from Canberra and I did join the Australian Writers’ Centre novel writing course. And so I’d probably written maybe 15 chapters before then. But I did do then my first draft during that course and I finished, fully finished the first draft.

So that was the six month course. So I finished the draft in those six months having already started it and thinking, having thought about it before.

And then it’s taken probably another four years editing and rewriting and trying to get it published.

Valerie

And you did the six month program, Write Your Novel. And I have to say that your group is a bit of a wonder group. Margaret Morgan has had her novel, The Second Cure, published. There’s also a bunch of other people whose novels are coming out as well. You’re the latest one. And I think all of you are turning into super star graduates, it seems.

But tell me about… Okay, so you wrote the first draft during the Write Your Novel program. And then what did you do? How important was the workshopping process or getting feedback from other classmates or other people?

Petronella

It was really, really good. So we had Pamela Freeman as our tutor. And she gave great feedback in class. And then we did at the end of that six month course there’s the feedback between the classmates. So that was really helpful.

And then from then, the five of us kept seeing each other as a writers’ group on and off. We still get together now. And we give copies of our novels to each other to give feedback. And that was really helpful.

Valerie

So tell us about the journey to publication. So you wrote your first draft, you’ve edited it, you’ve revised it a billion times. Tell us about the actual publishing process.

Petronella

Yes. So I probably first sent it out to publishers about two years ago. And everybody was very complimentary about my writing. And so in terms of rejection, I got nice rejections that said, the writing’s great, but the story’s not right for us at the moment. Or we’ve just had a different book with the same theme. So it was positive, but it was still a rejection.

And so then I decided I would rewrite, rewrite the beginning and the ending again.

Valerie

Like completely differently?

Petronella

Not completely differently, but a bit differently, yes. I thought, I’ll just make the best, the very best book I can make. I’ll just keep on going.

And then I had some more friends read it. I tried to get an agent. They again said, great writing but not the right story for us.

So I think for me it was a real lesson about there’s a degree of luck of getting a publisher who wants your story at a particular time.

Valerie

Sure. It’s timing.

Petronella

And then I gave it to an agent and he loved it. And then he got it in front of a number of publishers. And suddenly it had four publishers interested! So after two years…

Valerie

Fantastic!

Petronella

I suddenly had four publishers interested.

So I accepted an offer from Allen and Unwin. And they’ve just been fantastic. I’ve really, really enjoyed working with them. And the process has actually been quite fast in the end. So we signed a contract last October, and it’s just come out now in July.

Valerie

Brilliant. Yeah, absolutely brilliant. So that’s so good. Four publishers interested. And of course, it is a fabulous book. And Lianne Moriarty herself is the blurb on the front cover, and she says, “impossible to put down. Full of twists and turns you won’t see coming. I loved this fabulous debut novel.” And of course launched your book recently to a huge crowd, which is fantastic. So congratulations on that, as well.

Now I’m always in awe of people who write thrillers. Because the plot and the ideas have to be so strong for people to have a satisfying… It’s not just about beautiful writing. It’s so important to surprise the reader. Because otherwise who would want to read it if you knew what was going to happen, right?

Petronella

Yeah.

Valerie

So did you know what was going to happen yourself from the outset? Or did you just discover it as you went along?

Petronella

Well I knew the beginning and the ending. But I didn’t know what happened along the way. And when I say the ending changed. So how it ended changed but the same storyline was there.

I think it’s true that you write a first draft to work it out for yourself and then subsequent drafts are really to put in the red herrings and the secrets and the plot thriller parts, and work out the pace and the suspense. So I think once you know what’s happened, once you’ve done that first draft, then you can really work on the pace and the suspense.

I also think that… So the book’s written from five different character perspectives. And I think that helps the suspense because not every character knows what’s going on.

Valerie

Yes.

Petronella

And obviously the detective has different information to the parents so that that brings a different level to it as well.

Valerie

So when you were writing it, though, so you knew the beginning and the end, but when you were writing it, did you plot it out and then write it? Or did you just write the middle bit without knowing what was going to happen? Even though you knew the end, there’s still many steps before the end.

Petronella

There are, yes! I think I knew. So as I wrote, I would write I guess in thirds. So I think I thought, oh this will happen. As I started writing, then it led to me – this’ll happen in this third, and then I thought about what might happen in the next third. And then the last third.

Valerie

And did you have to… Was it hard to get into the mindset of the different points of view? Not so much in terms of the character – because if you really know your character you can do that. But in terms of remembering what they were supposed to know and how they fit into the story, if you know what I mean?

Petronella

Not really. I don’t know why not. But not really. No. Because I really enjoy books from different character perspectives, so I just really enjoyed swapping heads. I love jumping in. And I love that idea that everyone has a different understanding of the situation. Because people know different things.

Valerie

What was the most enjoyable thing about writing this?

Petronella

Oh, that’s a hard question.

Valerie

Hopefully there was enjoyable things about writing it!

Petronella

I really liked, I’m really interested in the police side, so I did interview a number of detectives. And I found the real life stories really interesting.

Valerie

I think a lot of listeners would be interested to know how you got in touch with the detectives.

Petronella

Actually through friends of friends and people’s cousins who kindly said, I said, I really need someone to talk to. And they asked friends, which was very nice.

Valerie

Oh okay. And what was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Petronella

I think the ending. So I probably wrote the ending, the climax, six times. And then even when it went into a structural edit stage they said, oh now there’s too much in the climax, you have to take some of it out.

I’d gone from not having enough in the climax to having too much in the climax!

So I think that was probably the trickiest part.

Valerie

At what point did you know you wanted to do fiction writing? From a young child? Or much later?

Petronella

As a young child. I’ve always liked to write. Yeah.

Valerie

So you always wanted to write a novel from then?

Petronella

Yes. Yep. Always a novel.

Valerie

Okay. So what finally got you started to write one?

Petronella

I think… I’ve written two, ghost-written two nonfiction memoirs. Which I think help a lot with understanding structure.

Valerie

Yeah.

Petronella

And I’ve always been trying to write this in the background of my life, but it’s hard with the kids and work and everything else going on. And I think I just thought, I’m getting older, hurry up.

Valerie

Did you give yourself a deadline or something?

Petronella

Well, I think my deadline was 15 years ago. So I might have failed that deadline!

Valerie

So what happened to the manuscript about the women in their 20s that you spoke of?

Petronella

It’s still in my drawer. I did look at it recently and I think it’s a much… It’s not a psychological thriller. It’s a much slower paced story. So I think it would need a lot of work in this climate to have that kind of oomph with it.

Valerie

Right. So in that case, are you working on something else now? Because obviously this book is out.

Petronella

Yes. I’ve just finished the first draft of the next book, which is another psychological thriller.

Valerie

Right. And so that’s exciting. So tell us, how did you come up with the idea for that? You might not want to share yet what the idea is. But it’s kind of another way of saying, where do you get your ideas from? Did something happen to you again?

Petronella

No. I was actually… Oh, I don’t think it happened to me, no. But it’s funny, I was cleaning up my study the other day and I came across a newspaper article that I pulled out. And it must have been six years ago and it was the spark for this story. And I’d even forgotten that I’d had it that long ago. I knew I was thinking about it three years ago, but I didn’t know I was thinking about it six years ago.

So it was a story in the paper that I’d read.

Valerie

Wow, that you had just hung on to all these years?

Petronella

Mm. Yes.

Valerie

Okay. And that has, that’s the jumping off point for your next book?

Petronella

Yes.

Valerie

So obviously you’ve already done the first draft for that, and you’ve followed that routine of writing it in the mornings so that you keep it in your head, presumably. Do you ever… Obviously that’s what you do during everyday life, while you’re still working in your professional capacity, looking after your family, whatever. Do you ever take off and decide, oh, I need to go on a writing retreat? Or I need solitude so that I can really crack this for some reason?

Petronella

Yeah. I have, I’ve done two short weekend writing retreats, which were wonderful. I went with another author up to the Central Coast and we just wrote all day. We were exhausted. I think we wrote for eight hours. We just sat there and wrote. We had lunch and wine in between.

Valerie

Of course!

Petronella

So that was really good.

But I think also, I think because when you work from home there’s always so much to do here. So I do sometimes just leave the house and go to the library or go to a cafe and just try and get away from the home environment as well.

Valerie

Okay. You mean to… So if you go to the library or the cafe, let’s just get practical here, what do you do? Do you take your laptop? What do you write on? Is it just boring old Word?

Petronella

I’m writing in Scrivener.

Valerie

Oh you are writing in Scrivener?

Petronella

Yeah. I like… And I think when you have different character point of views, it’s good to be able to see the list down the side about who’s had which chapters down the side, you can see which characters have had their chapters.

Valerie

Yes. And so with, do you use the function in Scrivener, the index card function where you summarise each scene or chapter?

Petronella

I did a little, but not a lot. I probably use it like Word, but because it’s…

Valerie

Yeah, okay.

Petronella

But I do like the chapter, just down the side, where you can see whose chapter it is. It’s really helpful.

Valerie

Okay. Did you use Scrivener to write Six Seconds?

Petronella

Yes. Six Minutes. Yes, I did.

Valerie

Six Minutes. Sorry. Yeah. Six Minutes. I’m holding it.

Petronella

You’d have to be very, very quick in six seconds.

Valerie

Yeah. Exactly. I’m holding it and it says Six Minutes.

Okay cool. And what’s the most rewarding thing about writing fiction to you?

Petronella

I think it’s now, when other people are reading the story and they’re just so excited about it. And for me, the reason I write psychological thrillers is because I love a psychological thriller.

Valerie

Yes.

Petronella

And all these people have said, I can’t put it down. And one woman said, I had to send my Kindle to work with my husband because otherwise I was just going to read all day and I had to do work.

And so just that… That people are getting hooked into it. It’s just wonderful.

Valerie

Oh yeah, brilliant.

And finally, what’s your top three tips for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position where you are one day, as in a published novelist?

Petronella

Well, I guess these are tips that really are my tips for myself, really. And so firstly I think is to prioritise your writing. I found it really hard, as I say, it’s taken longer than I’d hoped to get to this point. With work and kids, it’s hard to prioritise your writing. So I’d say give yourself permission to write and give yourself time to write away from work and kids and other family responsibilities, other responsibilities.

I think it’s really helpful to get external deadlines. Even though I’m a freelance writer and I have deadlines, with my novel I would make a deadline and it would just whizz by because no one else was waiting for that deadline. So I think joining, going into competitions, so short story or novel competitions so you have a deadline to finish a work. Or joining, you know, like the Australian Writers’ Centre, a course, where you have deadlines and the homework. I think that’s really helpful so you can actually finish a project and not just keep rewriting and rewriting.

And I think thirdly, for me was to find some writing buddies. So I knew a few writers already, but doing the Australian Writers Centre course, then we did get this great group of writers that we can give each other feedback and support.

And you know, I think writing can be such a lonely process and you don’t know what the reader’s thinking because you’re so close to it. So getting that feedback from other writers is really useful.

And I think you never know where you might find writers. Like when I was in Canberra, I found another writer doing canteen duty at my daughter’s school. So then we started getting together and having coffee and giving each other our work to read. So that was really, really good.

Valerie

Oh great. All right. Yes, it’s so useful to be with likeminded people who understand what you’re going through. Basically to find your tribe, right?

Petronella

Yes.

Valerie

All right, wonderful. Well congratulations again, Petronella. It’s already showing the signs that it’s going to be huge. I can just totally see a mini-series coming out of this.

Petronella

That would be great!

Valerie

Yes. Very, very excited for you. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Petronella

Thank you so much, Valerie.


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