Michelle Upton goes from school teacher to successful author

A few years ago, Michelle Upton made the life-changing decision that she wanted to be a writer. So she focused her efforts on learning about the craft and getting as much practical experience as possible. This included entering literary competitions, enrolling in the Romance Writing course at the Australian Writers' Centre and taking part in the Centre’s Furious Fiction competition.

Her hard work has paid off. And now Michelle has carved out a career as a successful author. Her second novel is Emergency Exit Only. And she’s well on her path of writing a book a year.

However, Michelle’s journey has included putting herself – and her writing – out there. Her debut novel was Terms of Inheritance, which was picked up after she entered it in the Banjo Prize.

“Every year, HarperCollins Australia runs The Banjo Prize, a free unpublished manuscript competition. I entered this fantastic competition … and my novel Terms of Inheritance was shortlisted. Two weeks later, I got a call from HarperCollins Australia to say that they loved it so much they wanted to publish it,” Michelle says. “It was an amazing experience. I cried and laughed and danced and was overjoyed, but what I really felt most was proud of myself. I just kept thinking I was right to keep going. Through the rejections, the self-doubt and the sacrifices, which come hand-in-hand with being an author, I believed deep down that if I persevered, did the work and kept the faith, then getting published was a possibility, and one day it could happen. And I’m so glad I believed in myself.”

Even with a contract for publication, Michelle knew she had more to learn and enrolled in Romance Writing at the Australian Writers' Centre.

“My novel had some romantic moments in it, which was so much fun to write, and I knew going forward, there was a high chance there would be some kind of romance in my future works – and I was right. My next novel, Emergency Exit Only, which is also published by HarperCollins Australia, has major rom-com vibes.”

Writing furiously

Another key factor on her writing journey was her unwavering participation in the Australian Writers' Centre’s Furious Fiction challenge. She was attracted to the monthly challenge of writing 500 words in 55 hours.

“I entered Furious Fiction every month and lost count after submitting for the 42nd time,” Michelle told us. “It played a huge role in my writing journey. I always looked forward to the challenge of writing something within the space of 55 hours, and knowing there was the possibility that if I got shortlisted my story would get printed on the AWC website was exciting. Over the years, I got longlisted twice, but every month, once the winners had been announced, I would upload my story onto my website. I would then post about it on all my socials and I received some wonderful feedback from readers. This was a real confidence booster.

“One of the other great things about being part of the Furious Fiction Fanclub is the online community, which is so supportive. Writers are always cheering each other on and congratulating each other after submitting, and their encouragement and support always reminded me that I wasn’t alone on this writing journey.

“Some months the words flowed easily and the joy of being transported into the fictional worlds I’d created was such a rush. But there were also months when I had no ideas for my Furious Fiction story and writing a story in less than 500 words was like drawing blood from a stone. Yet I persevered. Even if I knew what I’d written wasn’t the greatest, I hit submit because the real reward came from doing the best I could within the time frame that was given. Month after month I showed up, put down some words and hit submit. Sometimes I was frustrated that I couldn’t quite create exactly what I’d wanted to and other times I was sad to say goodbye to my characters when we were just getting to know each other. Entering Furious Fiction kept me writing when life got busy, when the writing conditions weren’t right, when I had no ideas, when I thought I was the greatest writer and also the worst writer. It filled me with joy, made me frustrated, got me excited and on occasion overwhelmed, but it also convinced me of one thing – that writing was what I wanted to do until the end of my days.”

Finding a dream job

The premise for Michelle’s second novel was inspired by what she experienced after her father’s passing. “The idea for this novel came from my own wake-up call after my dad died at the age of fifty-nine. I was a primary school teacher on maternity leave at the time of his passing and for the first time in my life I understood that the future is promised to no one.

“I kept asking myself, if I could do any job I dreamed of, what would it be? And the answer was, to write. This changed everything for me. Instead of going back to teaching fulltime, I decided to do casual work and put everything I had into learning the craft of writing.”

Emergency Exit Only is about Amelia Harris who, after a freak accident, suddenly realises how short life can be. As her life starts to fall apart, and during a particularly bad day at work, she loses her cool and dramatically quits the accounting job she’s had for the last ten years. But rather than getting another job doing the same thing somewhere else, she decides to try out all the jobs she’s ever fantasised about doing.

“Here the fun and games really begin as she tries her hand at being a florist, a zookeeper, a teaching assistant, a wedding planner and more. Throw in some romance and family drama, and Amelia is in for one hell of a ride,” Michelle says.

A new career

With two novels published with HarperCollins, Michelle is now writing fulltime and takes her process very seriously.

“At the moment I’m writing a book a year which means there are deadlines that have to be met. But there’s nothing quite like a ticking clock to make you get those words on the page,” Michelle says. “I’m a huge plotter, so before I start writing a novel I spend quite a few months planning it on index cards, which I pin to huge felt boards. This allows me to see the big picture, play around with the scenes and check that I have the right moments in the right places.

“Once I’m happy with this, I make place and character profiles, which I print out and put in a reference folder. These are mostly images with some descriptions of where the characters live, work and what they would typically wear, etc. I love having these visuals to hand when I’m writing because it stops me from going onto the internet to search for these kinds of details while I’m writing and getting easily distracted.

“The number of words I do a day for my first draft really depends on the deadline and I pretty much divide the number of words I need to write by the number of days I have to write it. For Emergency Exit Only, there weren’t many days off during that first draft, but I’m trying to get better at making sure I have some time to recharge my batteries during those busy months.”

And even though she has found success, Michelle knows there’s still room to learn.

“Taking writing courses is a great thing to do when you’re learning the craft, but it’s also valuable to do throughout your writing career as there’s always something new to learn. Even redoing courses and applying what you learned to new projects is invaluable.

“It doesn’t matter how many courses you’ve done already. I think you always learn something new when you take a course. I believe it helps you to focus and fine-tune what you are working on and gets you to ask the hard questions about your current work-in-progress, for example, do I have the essential elements in my novel? Are the stakes high enough? Will the reader be satisfied with this ending? I’m currently planning my third novel, but I’m always drawing on what I’ve learned and asking myself, does this work? And how I can make this better?”

Course completed at AWC: 
Romance Writing

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