Samantha Valentine has two degrees in English, but when she decided to try out fiction, she knew she had to work on her creative writing skills. She was drawn to Creative Writing Stage 1 at the Australian Writers' Centre because she could fit it in around her busy life and the assignments were short and not too onerous.
She went on to develop one of those short assignments into a manuscript that she worked on in Novel Writing Essentials, where she met some wonderful fellow writers. And now that manuscript is her debut novel, Normal Functioning Adult, out now with hybrid publishers Shawline Publishing.
“Four of the people I met through Novel Writing Essentials are listed in my acknowledgements because they were such an integral part of helping me write Normal Functioning Adult,” Samantha told us. “All the courses I've done through the AWC have been extremely helpful in developing the craft of writing and building my confidence in my storytelling abilities.”
A long-held dream
Samantha has always loved books and had long harboured a desire to write her own fiction, but she established herself in her university career before taking the plunge into creative writing.
“The desire to write a novel was growing stronger and I knew that if I was going to take this novel writing seriously, I needed to build upon what I had already learned and get serious about writing a substantial piece of fiction. I came across the Creative Writing Stage 1 online option and it seemed like a good course to give me a refresher of what I’d learned at university, and to give me the opportunity to develop new skills and learn more about the craft of creative writing. I also liked that it offered the chance to get feedback on short pieces of writing – not too overwhelming!”
One of those short pieces started with the simple idea of two people, who had lost their spouses, meeting in a group therapy situation.
“Following the advice in the course audio to ‘go with the idea that speaks to you the most’, something about this therapy room and the character in it spoke to me, so I ran with it and started developing some characters and a plot. Once the course finished, I sat down with my iPad and a keyboard and bashed out a 50,000-word draft manuscript over two months. It was terrible, but I kept telling myself ‘don’t worry about the quality of the writing – no one is reading this, just write and fix it later’ and that mindset really freed me up to focus on getting the story down rather than worrying about the actual words used.”
Samantha workshopped that manuscript in Novel Writing Essentials, and found the feedback aspect helped to shape the opening chapters, which then carried on through the rest of the novel. She also enrolled in several self-paced courses that she could fit around her busy lifestyle, including Fiction Essentials: Characters, Fiction Essentials: Dialogue and Pitch Your Novel: How to Attract Agents and Publishers.
“Cut, Shape and Polish is another course I really enjoyed and found useful. Although I did editing as part of my master’s degree, I hadn’t done a lot of fiction editing. Finding yourself with a 90,000-word manuscript that needs to be revised and edited is overwhelming,” Samantha says. “This course broke down the task into a step-by-step ‘power editing process’ which made the job a lot easier. The listing scenes step was particularly helpful, and I use that framework for all my stories now.”
Samantha felt like her manuscript was in good shape and started submitting to publishers, competitions and literary speed dating with the Australian Society of Authors. Although she had positive feedback from several major publishers, she couldn’t quite land a traditional publishing contract.
“Being a first-time author of Australian contemporary sapphic and lesbian fiction made the traditional publishing options that bit harder, I think, because there really isn’t a huge market for my genre,” Samantha says. “Minority and marginalised groups are hugely underrepresented in fiction, particularly in Australian women’s fiction.”
That’s when she decided to go with a hybrid publisher. “I decided to go with them as being with an Australian publisher was important to me, and I also wanted help with the publishing process,” Samantha told us. “I liked that they were an Australian publisher who were part of the small press network and were selective in what they took on. I decided to submit to them and after a couple of months received an offer.”
Normal Functioning Adult follows Amy Campbell who goes from a perfect life with a beautiful wife, a good career and great friends, to a broken thirty-five-year-old widow who copes with her grief through sex and alcohol. Amy reluctantly attends group therapy, but the more she tries to redefine herself, the more her old self comes to the surface until the two collide. Can Amy find the courage to move on? And what’s so good about being a normal functioning adult anyway?
Building an author platform
As well as launching her novel, Samantha has been hard at work on her author platform and marketing Normal Functioning Adult.
“I’ve been interviewed for a couple of podcasts and had a book launch. I started a monthly newsletter which I make sure I consistently deliver, and I ensure my website is always updated. That’s the business side that’s ongoing,” Samantha says. “It’s important if writers want to build an author brand and continue in their writing career.”
She has also written the draft of a sequel to Normal Functioning Adult, and has another novel out on submission.
“It was supposed to be a short romance—something to focus on to stop thinking about the same characters and trying to get published—but I loved the new characters and story so much it grew into an 85,000-word novel! On a whim, I entered it into the Romance Writers of Australia Sapphire Award competition and was very surprised when it made the top fifteen. It’s currently being considered by publishers and I’m hopeful it will be published through a traditional publisher.”
Samantha fits her writing in on weekends and evenings around her fulltime job, but says that fiction is now everything to her. Whether she lands a traditional publisher or continues to self-publish, creative writing is now firmly a part of her life, and she’s dedicated to telling contemporary sapphic stories.
“I always tell aspiring writers to look at the courses on offer at AWC to find something that suits them. I often recommend Creative Writing Stage 1 to aspiring fiction writers as a way to build their confidence and start sharing their writing for feedback. I also recommend Cut, Shape, Polish to writers who are looking to revise and edit their manuscripts, and Novel Writing Essentials to people who want to go that little bit further. I also tell people about the Focus On seminars because I find them great bite size sessions.”
Courses completed at AWC: