Petronella McGovern came to the Australian Writers’ Centre hoping to prioritise her fiction writing. She had always wanted to publish a novel but was struggling to find the time and motivation to keep writing. Now, her debut novel Six Minutes has just been published by Allen & Unwin, and she spends her mornings writing fiction, working on her next novel.
“I’d always wanted to write fiction and have my own novels published… When Allen & Unwin made an offer, I was home alone in my study and I literally jumped for joy! It was so validating to have others believing in your story.”
When she took her first course at the Australian Writers’ Centre, Petronella had had success in professional writing and ghost writing, but her dream to become a published fiction author was getting lost in the business of everyday life.
“I work from a home office as a professional writer and editor… I was writing a manuscript in my ‘spare time’ but it was hard to find ‘spare time’ with the juggle of work and children in primary school. The necessities of everyday life had overtaken my writing routine. I felt that doing a course, face-to-face, would help me to carve out the time I needed for writing my novel and prioritising it once again.
“The first course I did at AWC was Crime and Thriller Writing with LA Larkin. My aim was to write a psychological thriller so I wanted to find out more about how to create tension, set up suspense and drive the action.”
After that short course, Petronella enrolled in Write Your Novel: 6-month program with Pamela Freeman. “I signed up to the Write Your Novel: 6-month program to kick-start my novel… We had deadlines for chapters, we had deadlines to workshop and give feedback and it really helped give you the support to write a really long piece of work. When you sit down to look at writing a novel of 100,000 words, it’s a large task and the classes really supported me all the way through that process.
“The six-month course created the space for me to focus on writing. I could say to my kids, ‘I have to do my homework’ and they understood that! It showed my commitment to my writing and, I guess, validated it in a way.
“The workshopping process and editing was particularly useful, in terms of looking at a novel as a whole. That always feels daunting but reading other people’s manuscripts and having feedback on your own provided different perspectives on how the story was working.”
Petronella finished her first draft of Six Minutes during Write Your Novel and continued to work on several drafts after that. “Getting published often takes time and involves setbacks, so being resilient, persevering and being prepared to re-write are essential skills for authors.”
Keeping on track
While working through drafts of Six Minutes, Petronella continued to learn. “I did the online course, Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder, which was fascinating… As a result of that course, I decided I needed to do more research into my police character. I had interviewed a few police officers in Canberra and I decided I needed to get a bit more detailed information, so I managed to find two more police officers who generously gave me a lot of time and information about their career.
“When life was again overtaking my writing routine, I signed on to the online course, Make Time to Write. It gave plenty of motivation and inspiration to get me back on track. As part of that, I had the bonus 30-day Writing Bootcamp. It emails a reminder task every day. I really like the ‘write 500 words in 30 minutes’ exercise. So often when I’m writing, I start researching online and fall down a rabbit hole! Setting a timer to write for 30 minutes, with no other distractions, is good discipline and gets the words on the page.”
Petronella also had the help and support of four friends from her Write Your Novel course. “When we finished the Write your Novel course, five of us continued to meet… Pamela Freeman encourages students to create a writing community and I think this is really important when writing is such a solitary undertaking.
“We still meet up, support each other and give feedback on our writing. We all write in different styles and in different genres and I think that helps us in critiquing each other. I was so appreciative of their feedback on Six Minutes – in particular, they helped me to sort out some plot issues and make it a better book.
“Within our writers group, Margaret Morgan had a novel out last year (The Second Cure), and Frances Chapman will be published next year (What It Takes). Katy Pike and Catherine Hanrahan are working on fascinating novels which I’m sure will be picked up when they’re finished.“
The road to publication
When Petronella felt the manuscript was ready, she sent it out to a number of publishers, but she wasn’t successful right away. “One publisher had just commissioned a book with similar themes but she thought it was good and encouraged me to keep sending it out. Others said the writing was great but it was the wrong story for them at this time.”
She decided to do one more edit, changing the first chapter and the climax. “At this point, I sent it to Brian Cook of The Authors’ Agent, who stayed up half the night reading the manuscript because he couldn’t put it down. He emailed it out to a number of interested publishers.” Allen & Unwin got in touch with their offer not long after.
“It has been fabulous working with Allen & Unwin and to have a whole team who care so passionately about the book. Across the publishing process – editing, final proofreading, marketing and publicity – everyone has been great to work with and very enthusiastic about Six Minutes.”
Petronella is now working on her next novel. She still has her professional writing and editing work but has wound it back slightly so she has more time for her creative writing.
“If it wasn’t for the Australian Writers’ Centre it would have taken me a lot longer to finish my first draft of Six Minutes, and a lot longer, I think, to get it published. I really enjoyed the feedback and the support that I got through the Australian Writers’ Centre through the tutors and the other people in our class.
“Even though I came to AWC with strong writing experience, there was always more to learn and take away from each class.
“The AWC courses are very practical and you’ll find lots of different aspects that you can apply directly to your own writing. The presenters are experienced authors who can share their advice on the industry. I liked the online courses for their ease of working at your own pace at home but the face-to-face courses provide a chance to meet other writers in person and create a writing community. The AWC courses give you both the practical skills and the motivation to make your creative writing a priority.”
Petronella’s advice to writers: I would say get started on a course as soon as you can.
Congratulations, Petronella! We’re looking forward to hearing about your next novel.