Gabriella Kelly-Davies becomes a published biographer with debut book ‘Breaking Through the Pain Barrier’

Retiring from corporate life was the perfect opportunity for Gabriella Kelly-Davies to pursue her passion for biography. After completing Patti Miller’s popular Life Writing course at the Australian Writers' Centre, Gabriella went on to write the biography of Professor Michael Cousins AO, a trailblazing Australian pain medicine pioneer. Gabriella then followed on with the Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers course to learn how to get the book published.

“The pitching course was immensely helpful. It taught me everything I needed to do to attract a publisher from creating a platform to writing the book proposal and making a pitch,” Gabriella says. “I followed AWC’s advice to the letter, attracting a publisher within weeks.”

Her debut biography Breaking Through the Pain Barrier: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Michael J. Cousins has now been published by Hawkeye Publishing.

From a reader to a writer of biographies
Gabriella is a self-confessed biography addict. Growing up, she actually wanted to become a biographer, but went into the corporate world instead. Over the years, she read hundreds of memoirs, biographies and autobiographies, until she realised that it was time to return to that childhood dream; what she wanted to do next was write people’s life stories. She began to read books on writing non-fiction, including ones written by Patti Miller, before enrolling in Patti’s course.

“Patti’s Life Writing course taught me to create scenes that show what is happening rather than telling the reader about these events,” Gabriella says. “It also taught me to include dialogue in the narrative.”

The key takeaway Gabriella learnt was that she needed to incorporate more fiction writing techniques into her non-fiction.

“My first few drafts read like a CV. The manuscript was encyclopaedic!” she says, about the early versions of Breaking Through the Pain Barrier. Using the skills she learned from Patti, Gabriella was able to transform her manuscript. “It dramatically changed the flow of the narrative. One reader told me it was gripping. Another said it was enthralling and he read the book in one sitting because he couldn’t put it down.”

Telling the story of Dr Michael Cousins and chronic pain
Gabriella found herself drawn to life writing stories about doctors and scientists. She knew Dr Cousins from his treatments for her own chronic pain. She had suffered from 20 years of daily migraines after being knocked from her bike.

“What followed was over a decade of Michael Cousins trying every possible treatment to manage my migraines. I sensed his determination in the way he persevered, even when my migraines didn’t respond to treatment,” Gabriella says. “When we finally had a small breakthrough, I felt as if he had given me my life back.”

But she was aware that their professional relationship risked turning her biography into a hagiography – a biography that idealises its subject.

“This risk was uppermost in my mind every day and I drew on advice from Patti about how to avoid this issue. I was determined that after reading the book, no-one would accuse me of being under Michael’s spell.”

Gabriella met up with Michael on a weekly basis, either in person or using FaceTime, and through him she also found other pain management experts to draw on for material.

“Michael patiently answered my hundreds of questions and provided me with access to his private archives and photo albums,” she says. “He also opened doors to the pain world, introducing me to people across the globe who, like him, had shaped pain management as we know it today. I interviewed 100 pain medicine specialists, colleagues, family and friends and over the course of nearly three years turned those interviews into a narrative.”

The pain-free road to publication
After putting in so much work, Gabriella wasn’t sure if her book would even be published. But after taking the Pitch Your Novel course, she found that her manuscript was snapped up.

“Once I retired, I was determined to pursue my dream, never expecting that one day a traditional publisher would offer me a contract for a biography I had written,” Gabriella says. “I couldn’t believe it when I was offered a publishing contract. I thought maybe I had misread the email. But once the contract arrived in my inbox I realised it was true and the hard work of turning the manuscript into a published book began.”

Now that she has rediscovered her passion for biography, Gabriella has turned it into a business, helping other people tell their stories through her boutique life writing services. 

“I would highly recommend Patti’s Life Writing course to help writers create engaging memoir and life stories. Patti’s teaching forms the foundation of my approach to life writing,” Gabriella says. “I would also highly recommend the pitching course to anyone who longs to publish their manuscript. The course taught me the essentials of selling your book to a publisher.”

Courses taken at AWC:
Life Writing
Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers

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