After putting off the idea of creative writing for many years, Jenna Guillaume signed a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan for her YA fiction. Her latest novel is You Were Made for Me and her debut was What I like About Me published in 2019.
Sometimes it takes a ‘sign’ for things to fall into place. For Jenna Guillaume, she had previously signed up for a creative writing course as an elective while at university, but walked out after one class because she was too nervous to share her work with anyone else.
Fast forward a few years and Jenna was frustrated at not doing anything about her desire to write fiction.“I was in my mid-twenties and working as a journalist, but I was yearning to do something more creative and take some steps towards my lifelong dream of writing a novel,” she recalls.
“I was contemplating giving it another go when I saw that the Creative Writing Stage 1 course at the AWC was being taught by one of my favourite writers. I couldn't pass up the opportunity.”
What Jenna learnt from AWC:
For Jenna, hearing more about the creative writing process and how a working writer approached things like structure, plot, dialogue, and character development was vital. Already familiar with writing in general, the course was a great opportunity to learn the specific tools of this trade.
Jenna also went on to complete a second AWC course – How to Write for Children and Young Adults, online. With this format, she found it valuable to receive feedback on assignments from the tutor as well as other writers taking the course. “Being able to ask professional writers with industry experience direct questions was especially helpful.”
“The courses helped me understand the tools I'd need to write a novel. I'd always felt overwhelmed by the prospect – like I didn't know where to begin – and I came away feeling like I had a starting point at least. A lot of the lessons I learned stuck with me as I was writing – things like how to build empathy for your main character, create realistic dialogue, build a narrative arc, and show rather than tell.”
As editor-at-large for BuzzFeed Australia, Jenna’s day job already involves a lot of writing. And at first, fitting her fiction writing around days spent consuming pop culture, on social media, and writing posts was a challenge.
“I'm naturally a night person, and for a while, I had the goal of writing a little bit every night, but I found that I was too mentally wiped out by the end of the day to really achieve much. So I created a schedule for myself and started getting up an hour earlier to write – which was a real struggle for me at first, but I always felt better having done something in the morning, and sometimes I'd feel so inspired that I'd write again at night-time, too.”
Jenna started writing her first book about two and a half years ago. “I'd write about 10,000 words, get stuck, and put it away for a few months before returning, rewriting the same section, and getting stuck all over again. I was so frustrated with myself for what I felt was a lack of progress, but in hindsight, I needed to go through those stages to understand the characters better and unlock my protagonist's voice. Once I'd done that, the story really flowed from there.”
Getting into that routine of writing every day before work forced Jenna to keep going despite that little voice in her head telling her she couldn't. Within a couple of months of doing this, she had a completed manuscript. At this point, she took a break so that she could come back and edit it with fresh eyes.
Jenna sent the manuscript to some agents, and was thrilled when Danielle Binks at Jacinta di Mase Management offered to represent her. “She totally got my writing and was so enthusiastic about it, and it was really exciting to have someone in my corner whose opinion I valued, who could help me navigate the publishing process.”
From there, things only got better. “I'll never forget when I got an email from Danielle telling me I'd received an offer from a publisher – I was completely over the moon. There was definitely some screaming and dancing involved, which scared my dog a little. Then when I signed my contract with Pan Macmillan, I celebrated all over again. Multiple times. I'm still pinching myself, to be honest.”
That deal was in fact a two-book deal – for the story that was submitted and another that she was in the “thinking” stage of. They have both been published and are available right now. “I’m re-establishing my routine of writing in the mornings. Like so many writers with full-time jobs or other commitments, I fit it in where I can.”
“I've always dreamed of being a published author, but I've also always been riddled with self-doubt, so it felt impossible to me,” admits Jenna. For her, the prospect of pouring so much time, energy, and emotions into something on the very tiny chance it would ever be published felt very daunting. The turning point was when she let go of the angst about ever being published, and just enjoyed the writing.
“Everything clicked into place from there. It still feels very surreal – I can't quite believe my dream really is coming true!”
And as for someone else considering doing a course, Jenna has some simple words. “Consider what type of learning is most effective for you – online or in person – and have a clear idea of what you want to get out of it. That will help you to make the most of it. And get ready to put your learnings into practice. The most important advice given to me in both courses was, above all else, just WRITE.”