A true example of turning a writing dream into reality, Jessica Shirvington’s career continues to go from strength to strength. Author of the popular young adult series, The Violet Eden Chapters, Jessica has also delved into the world of picture books recently with Just the Way We Are (HarperCollins, 2015). Her incredible journey has seen her go from stay-at-home mum to a bestselling author with 10 books and a television deal under her hat in just a few years. And her story is far from over.
Jessica was living in Sydney and her new role as a stay-at-home mum – coming after a frenetic life running her own coffee importing business – was proving difficult to adjust to. Jessica admits that at this stage that she had a “touch of the baby blues”, but what she did next led to an astonishing new career.
“I just started writing one day, and it was literally a one day, one moment, one minute decision. I opened the laptop and I started writing. At the time, I had been reading copious amounts of books. I mean I was just churning through them and it was just my coping mechanism,” she says. “It was keeping me kind of centred and giving me a bit of escapism. But maybe I went through a bit of a run where I wasn't reading the book I wanted to read. I just finished a book one day and I opened my laptop and started writing.” It was soon after that Jessica discovered the Australian Writers' Centre.
A story begins
Like most writers, Jessica always loved reading. But, also like most writers, the urge to tell her own stories faded in her 20s as her career took off and she headed overseas.
“I always loved stories. I went through a stage in school where I was really into poetry and always writing a lot of poetry. But, then it kind of faded out. I was working, I had a business, I got married, had a family… I just didn't consider that [writing] was an option for me,” Jessica says.
But very soon a story Jessica had been writing began to flesh itself out and she realised she had the beginnings of her young adult series. “At some point, very close towards the end of the first draft of the manuscript, which ended up being Embrace (Hachette Australia, 2012), I realised I might be writing a book.”
In fact, she was writing what grew into a five-book series. And it was at this point she decided she needed help to keep her on track.
The next step
“I was writing a story and I was so passionate about it. I really believed in it, but I was like, do I have any writer friends? No. Do I know any authors? No. Do I know any journalists I can talk to? No” she says. “So, I thought, well, I just need to – if I want to give this a go, I’ve got to just put myself in this writing world.”
Her entry into this writing world was the Australian Writers’ Centre. Being a new – but clearly committed – writer she needed guidance on her writing. But she also needed to know how to go about getting a book published. So she enrolled in the Australian Writers' Centre Creative Writing Stage 1 online course in late 2009.
“My main motivator was to put myself around people who knew the industry and could talk through how it all worked. The other motivator was to simply learn more about the rules … structure, plot strategies and so on,” she says.
“A big plus in doing the online course is you can give it as much time as you want and you not only get feedback on your work but you can read the feedback on everyone else’s and that is very valuable.”
Honing her craft
Throughout the course, Jessica continued to work on her draft, reworking and rewriting everything from sentence structure to whole chapters. Once that early draft was finished, she had a manuscript assessment done with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
The manuscript assessment confirmed many of Jessica’s intuitions, clarifying the issues and forcing her to work on them. “There were two really big things I got from the manuscript assessment,” says Jessica. “The first was to cut back on exposition, which I knew I had to do but really needed someone to put it there in black and white to force me to start cutting. The second was a suggestion that actually led me to create a new character in the book and add an additional chapter to the front half. Now, I can’t imagine the story without that character, so I am completely indebted!”
In 2010, Jessica enrolled in an Australian Writers’ Centre classroom course called Advanced Fiction Writing Techniques.
“By the time I enrolled for the second course – I had written and re-written Embrace a number of times. I did the course at that time just to keep myself moving forward, really,” Jessica says. “I knew I wanted this so much and was hoping my manuscript would get picked up, but if it wasn't I didn't want to just drop the bundle so I used that course to just keep moving on.”
Jessica sent the finished manuscript to veteran author agent Selwa Anthony midway through completing the Australian Writers’ Centre Advanced Fiction Writing Techniques course.
By the last couple of weeks of the course, her hard work paid off. Selwa signed her as a client and told Jessica that publishing powerhouse Hachette were interested in Embrace, the first book in what came to be known as The Violet Eden Chapters.
Jessica can still recall her joy at realising her dream. “I smiled. A lot. For about a week, everywhere I went I had this huge cheesy grin plastered on my face,” she says.
Embrace was quickly followed by four more books – Entice, Emblaze, Endless and the final instalment, Empower. No doubt fans will be disappointed the series has come to an end, but Jessica is adamant this will be the final book. “I love the characters in the series. I think this is their time – this is their time to end. I can’t see myself in all honesty ever writing another book after this one from Violet’s point of view,” she says.
But there are plenty of new challenges ahead. All of her books, including her one stand-alone novel, Between the Lines (Hachette Australia, 2013) have been sold into 13 countries, including the Czech Republic and Brazil.
She’s also working towards an adaptation of Embrace for a television series to be produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television for the CW Network in the US.
For now, though, Jessica’s main priorities are her two daughters. But she says that being able to write and tell stories means she’s also “living her dream”. She has since released a stand-alone book, Between the Lines, and the Disruption series.
“If you want to be a writer, the Australian Writers’ Centre is a great place to learn. You can’t force writing but you can refine it. The Australian Writers’ Centre helps with this,” Jessica says. “It’s also a good way to surround yourself with people that want to be doing it, too. You get to hear from published authors that have all been there, done that.
“The time when I took the first writing course was definitely a landmark time in my life – and the Australian Writers’ Centre was a part of that.”