“My First Time” #3: Fleur McDonald

They say it’s a great thing to find your own niche as a writer, and Fleur McDonald has done just that – over the past six years (and six books) becoming the ‘Voice of the Outback’.

They also say to write what you know, and Fleur also ticks most of that box – living on an 8,000 acre farm in Southeast Western Australia and now regarded as one of Australia’s leading authors of rural fiction.

In March this year she released her sixth book, Emerald Springs (all her titles to date include colours), but we thought we’d wind back the clock to her debut novel, Red Dust. And it was not just any debut – it was the highest selling debut in 2009…

“I think when I started writing it probably never had a term like ‘rural fiction’. It wasn’t a genre. There was one girl writing it, and that was Rachael Treasure, and I read her first book, Jillaroo, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting. I think I could write something like that,’ but never believed that I would actually do it. I live the same sort of life that she was living on farms, and I knew the farming industry pretty much inside out.

“But, there weren’t really clusters of rural lit genre when I first started. So, I set out to write a rural book, but I didn’t realise it was going to be in the rural genre at the time.”

Self-taught storyteller…
“I think one of the things that I’m very lucky with is that I grew up around stories. My nanny used to tell me stories all the time, and they weren’t written, they were verbal stories. I sort of had that storyteller section come across my life. My dad is an incredible storyteller as well; he never writes anything down, he just tells amazing stories. I was probably lucky I had an in-built storyteller in me to get across the fact that I don’t have any formal writing qualifications.

“So, yes… I did actually just sit down and write Red Dust and, yeah, that was my first crack at it all.”

Her lucky three chapters
“The only reason I completed it was because I got a contract. Red Dust was sold on the first three chapters, they didn’t ask for the whole complete manuscript, thankfully, because it wasn’t there! I’ve been very blessed. [My publisher] absolutely positively rejected me for the first time and said it wasn’t what she was looking for at the time.

“I had no idea of the protocol when it came to writing and my parents had always raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to just so long as I put in the hard work. I was lucky enough to be naïve enough to believe that I could do it.

“Anyway, so I popped in these first couple of chapters, completely ignoring all of the submission guidelines, said to her, ‘You’ve looked at this before, just have another look at it, would you mind, please?' And within two weeks I had a contract on those first three chapters and then I thought, ‘Oh, crap, I suppose I better finish it…'”

“I didn’t leave it to the last minute, but I tend to think, ‘I’ve got all of this time,’ and then suddenly I’ve got two months to go and I go, ‘Oh, well, I do have another 60,000 words to write, I should get on with that.’ So that’s what I do. I think I write better under pressure.

Red Dust probably took me six months in the end, and we had a really rigorous edit, and that was over 12 months. So, I was actually signed up in 2007 for Red Dust, and it didn’t come out until 2009.”

Her first experience of a rigorous edit:
“I had no idea in the world what to do! Wendy Orr (author of Nim’s Island) told me at one point, when you get the edits back you look at it and you go, ‘Number one, that editor is so wrong, they don’t get my book, they’re just wrong.’ And then number two is like, ‘Oh, crap, the editor’s right, how the hell am I going to fix this? I can’t fix it. I can’t write, I’m hopeless.’ And number three is like a lightbulb moment, ‘Oh, I know how to fix it!’ I usually sit at that number two section forever…

“Yeah, the edit was really confronting, and I learned a lot. Editing now is actually one of my favourite parts!”

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You can see the entire colourful line-up of Fleur’s books at her website.

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