“There’s a story here. There’s definitely a story here.”
That was Jennifer Smart’s hunch, having worked behind the screens in film and television for many years, including five years on Home and Away. And she was in a position to know – having even penned two scripts of the hit soap herself.
However, it wasn’t the characters in front of the cameras that she was talking about; it was those who operate behind them. Jennifer had been working as a Director’s Assistant for TV – overseeing continuity and supervising scripts. And she was just starting to write for the screen when she left the industry to have a baby. “So that kind of nipped that one in the bud…” she grins.
But now she has her debut novel, The Wardrobe Girl, published through Random House – a fictionalised take on life behind the scenes. As it turns out there was indeed a story there. So, how did she get from leaving the industry to writing about it?
A novel approach
“I started doing screenwriting courses, but script-writing is so incredibly structured, and it’s actually really quite difficult because you just have dialog to rely on,” explains Jennifer. “You can’t explore those wonderful inner ramblings of somebody’s brain and how that all works. So I found it a little frustrating, and just thought maybe I should actually just try writing a novel. Maybe that’s where I’m more suited.”
She adds with the smirk of retrospect: “I thought it would be easier and more interesting than writing a script!”
Fortunately, Jennifer’s years around scripts and information she learnt on courses had taught her a lot of ‘in late, out early’ efficiency skills. “The hellos, how are yous, the goodbyes, see you tomorrows; you just don’t use them, you don’t need them,” she says. “They’re boring and they add nothing. I also had quite a good understanding of transitioning, so from chapter to chapter or scene to scene, to try and get the reader to want to move on with you.”
As for the content, it’s her most asked question. “The actual details of the work process are all real,” she says. “But in terms of the people and the characters, they’re all fiction. There is not anybody who would be able to put their hand up and say, ‘That’s me!’”
“Once I got Tess, the protagonist, once I heard her voice and got her happening, everything else just sort of spun out around her. And I needed characters to bounce off her, so there’s bits of different people from all over the place.”
From draft to delivery
For Jennifer, one aspect of novel writing surprised her. “Just the sheer amount of rewriting, I just wasn’t prepared for how much rewriting I was going to do. I did a [novel writing] course with Pamela Freeman at the Australian Writers’ Centre, and she actually said, ‘You will only be as good a writer as the number of drafts you’re prepared to do.’”
So ever the attentive student, Jennifer revised her manuscript an impressive 47 times. I did happen over five years though, the final two years focussing more seriously on the project.
“It took me a long time to actually go, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this, maybe other people would want to read it’,” she explains. “It’s easy to sit in your own little world and say you’re writing a book. It’s another thing then to go, ‘But I actually want this book published’.”
And publish she did, admitting it was a dream run in that department – a chance meeting with another writer who loved her manuscript and recommended her to her agent. Of course, debut novelist Jennifer thought this was normal. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK, thank you,’ thinking everybody says that when they meet someone!”
The agent loved the story, and thought it would sell, and after some straight-talking realities about harsh deadlines, took Jennifer on. Simon and Schuster were a no, before Random House said yes to the book. From there it was just over a year to the release of the book.
And there were plenty of deadlines along the way – with Jennifer ensuring she met every single one. “It’s not just one edit process, you have several along the way, and you have all of these different deadlines that you’ve got to meet,” she says.
That has been her lasting theme throughout this process. “Just keep rewriting, and try and enjoy some of it,” says Jennifer. “When you open that package and your very first copy falls out, and it’s just you and your book. That’s amazing.”