Salisbury Writers Festival – Opening Speech by Poppy Nwosu
My name is Poppy Nwosu, and I am a writer of young adult fiction.
I wanted to start off today, by telling you all, that being asked to come here, and stand up in front of everyone, and talk about my experiences being a writer, is something that feels very surreal to me.
I have been coming to the Salisbury Writers Festival for many many years, but not as a published author. I came as part of the audience.
I attended a lot of events exactly like this, listening to authors give speeches, and trying to understand what I could do to make my own writing dreams come true.
What I could do to become what I wanted to be, which was a published author.
Back then, I thought those authors giving those speeches knew something I didn’t.
Now that I am published, I’m not so sure.
I don’t think there are any secrets to being a writer, but what I do believe is that being passionate about stories, is where it should begin.
Growing up, reading was really important to me.
And in hindsight, the secret power of reading for me was definitely knowledge.
It is the opportunity to use a book to look through a window into a different world,
or to look into a mirror, and see my own world reflected back at me.
And I think the power of stories to change lives, to help people grow and learn and develop, is something to be celebrated.
And that is why festivals like the Salisbury Writers Festival are so important to me.
When I was a young teen, I used to be obsessed with a series of books called Animorphs.
If you don’t know it, it was about a bunch of teenagers who were given the power to turn into animals by an alien.
They had to use that power to fight back against a silent invasion of earth, which no one else knew was happening.
I think that back then a lot of people would have seen me reading those books and thought they were just some silly kids thing, about space and aliens and teenagers,
but they didn’t know that I was busy having my mind opened to ideas I’d never come across before.
I was learning about empathy, and about war, about Post traumatic stress, and responsibility and love and hope and commitment and dedication.
I was learning about the idea of fighting for something greater than yourself.
And I learned all of those things from a series of books about spaceships and slug aliens and girls who could turn into wolves.
People might think that kind of story is silly, or that only certain types of books have merit, but I don’t believe that’s true.
I believe that every story is precious.
And every story has power.
And today, I wanted to tell you mine.
I am a very new author, my debut novel only came out in March this year, and to be honest, all those prior years of struggle and waiting, and hoping, and hearing back nothing, except rejections, still feels very raw for me.
So I thought I might share my story, in the hopes that it may help other writers, in the same way that I always felt encouraged when I came to this festival and listened to other author’s publication stories.
I didn’t always want to be a writer. But about twelve years ago, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I decided one day to become a novelist.
I thought it would be really easy.
So I sat down and wrote a teen fiction book.
It was set in the wild wild west of America, a time period I knew absolutely nothing about, and in hindsight, it was a really terrible book.
When I finished writing it, I sat down again and this time I wrote a YA paranormal romance novel.
All of that obviously took me a really long time.
When I was finished, I sent some manuscripts off into the void, to publishers and agents, and mostly I heard back nothing until eventually after an absolutely excruciating wait, I received my very first ever ……..
To be honest, it absolutely broke my heart, and immediately I quit writing forever.
I got a full time office job, and I spent my time working instead. I decided that being a writer was a stupid dream, and it was time to live in the real world.
But after about three years of not really feeling passionate about anything, I began writing again.
This time it was just for fun. For myself.
I spent a year writing a novel and putting it on the internet. I had two readers, and I LOVED them. They were very kind to me.
At the end of the next year, my novel was finished, and I got a different job, but at this new job I had a really hard time. And suddenly, my fun, silly hobby of writing became a lifeline.
I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, unlike the first time, but I started to feel a little more serious about writing again.
And little by little, that feeling turned into passion.
I became more passionate about writing than anything else I’d ever done. And I wanted to be a published author SO BADLY that it kept me awake at night. It was all I thought about.
By this time I’d written 3 books, the two original terrible manuscripts I mentioned earlier, and then also the one I’d done for fun.
I sent that fun 3rd book out to publishers and received a few more rejections. But I also received a request by an Australian publishing house to view my manuscript in full. Which you can imagine, felt amazing.
I sent that 3rd book to them, and I waited and waited and then, three months later, I received ………… a rejection.
BUT they did say they liked my writing, they liked my story, it just wasn’t for them. They invited me to submit more fiction.
So I did.
By then, I’d written another YA book, my 4th novel. So I submitted it, and I waited and waited, refreshing my inbox every two seconds, and after three months I heard back and received a ………. rejection.
It was another no from them.
So I sent that same publishing house a different YA manuscript. This was my 5th ever book I’d written.
I sent it to them, and this time it took over 5 months, and I was positive they’d forgotten about me, it was killing me the waiting was so excruciating.
But eventually I did hear back, after five and a half months, and from them, my 5th book received a ……. rejection.
But, they sent me more information this time on why my 5th book had been rejected.
It was over 30,000 words too long. It had way too many characters. I didn’t really know how to format my work, or self edit, and in hindsight, the drafts that I’d been sending that publishing house were very very messy.
So this was it.
For me this was a massive turning point. I’d written 5 books. And I’d gotten nowhere.
I’d sent them out to agents, to other publishing houses, all came back with rejections.
So I realised I needed to make a decision.
Was it time to give up on the dream of being an author?
But I couldn’t let it go.
I was still working full time, but my job wasn’t fulfilling my heart, and I wasn’t happy. And I had about a million stories inside my head, and those were what made me feel good.
But….. I wanted to do things differently this time. I realised if I was truly serious about being published then I had to get serious about my writing as a craft.
So I stopped writing anything new.
Instead I joined a writers group, the Adelaide Novelist’s Circle.
They taught me how to format, they showed me how to edit, they gave me feedback on my work and I studied writing as a craft.
I attended workshops and looked up resources on the net, and I learned everything I could about story structure, about character development, about theme, about dialogue.
And I studied all the boring stuff too, or at least the stuff I found really boring, the sentence structure and word placement and all the self-editing information that I had been ignoring for years because I didn’t find it fun.
So basically …. I got serious about writing as a craft. And I made time for it, and I worked hard at it.
I also joined a book club, so I could understand more about the YA industry in Australia.
I wanted to find out what people were reading and what was popular and where my work actually fit into the marketplace.
I attended writing festivals, this one included, and I was brave and I went up and talked to writers that I admired, like Vikki Wakefield, who was amazingly kind and offered me feedback on my work.
I started getting up at 5am and doing two hours of work on my own writing goals before I headed into the office for my full time job.
I basically took a whole year away writing anything new, and just focused on learning and on tidying up my existing stories.
And I rewrote that 5th manuscript. From top to bottom. I took that publishers advice and I cut multiple characters from the story, I changed the entire structure and I cut out over 35,000 words.
And finally, after about a year, I sent that 5th manuscript back to that publishing house. I waited over six months to hear back and then finally FINALLY I received a …… rejection.
But …… it was the most positive and encouraging rejection that I’d ever gotten before.
In fact, it was such a lovely rejection letter that I actually pasted it on my workboard, and I still have a copy now which I keep in my little achievements folder.
It was a rejection, but it was a rejection that recognised that I’d improved massively, and that my work was good, even if it didn’t fit their list.
And it actually felt like a win.
It wasn’t. But it was a good rejection.
So what did I do?
I wrote another book.
My 6th ever manuscript.
But I didn’t send it anywhere. Because earlier in that same year, after on and off 7 years of working hard, harder each year, toward my goals, I had actually entered my 4th manuscript into the 2018 Adelaide festival Unpublished Manuscript Award.
So that was in April 2017.
For me, it was a last ditch effort to try and get my 4th manuscript published. I felt like I had tried everything and gotten nowhere, and to be honest, I was ready to let that book go.
I had decided to post it on the internet for free if I didn’t get anywhere within the year.
I had decided to give up on my 4th manuscript.
But in December 2017, I received an email saying my 4th manuscript had actually been shortlisted down to the very last two entries in that unpublished manuscript award. And I …….. FREAKED OUT.
This was my first ever tangible proof that maybe I could do this.
After so many years of working hard with nothing to show for it, except my really nice rejection letter, suddenly I had something to put into my author bio.
I was shortlisted!
So that shortlist happened in December 2017.
I then waited until the awards ceremony in March 2018.
The winner would have their novel published by Wakefield Press, our local Adelaide press, and I was so excited.
I attended the ceremony in March 2018 and I ……..
… did not win.
But actually I kind of felt like I did. To me, it felt like my very first ever tangible step in the right direction.
And I was right!
Things happened quickly after that.
At the awards ceremony, someone came running after me shouting my name.
It turned out to be a publisher at Wakefield Press, Margot Lloyd.
She told me she loved that 4th manuscript that was shortlisted and that she’d been a judge in the competition.
When she walked away I promptly burst into tears all over my husband.
I remember saying to him, she wants to publish my book!
And he was asking me exactly what she had said, and of course, immediately I was like….. I have no idea what exactly she said.
So of course I began to doubt myself. I was like, did she actually say she wanted to publish my book?
It took another couple months before I went in for a meeting with Margot, and by then I was so twisted into knots that I had no idea why I was going in, I was sure she didn’t really want to publish it.
But in the end I sat down and Margot just pushed a piece of paper across the table toward me, and was casually like ….. so here’s your contract.
And that was it. I had finally broken through.
That 4th manuscript was called, Making Friends with Alice Dyson, and it was published this year, in March 2019.
Since then, it was shortlisted in the 2019 Readings YA Book Prize, and the American rights were sold to Walker Books US, so my little Australian debut will be released overseas next year in 2020.
And Wakefield Press are also publishing my second novel, called Taking Down Evelyn Tait, in April 2020,
That book, Taking Down Evelyn Tait, will be the second book of mine to be published, but it is the 8th novel I have ever written.
But that is a different story.
If you can take anything away from my very long and winding journey to publication, its that sometimes things take a really really long time. And it’s not always pretty. It’s not always easy.
But I think sometimes, maybe success is in embracing failure. And keeping on working hard anyway.
And as cheesy as it sounds, I think success is about not giving up.
Which I think leads me into the theme we are celebrating tonight.
The theme of the Salisbury Writers Festival, which begins today. And that theme is EMBRACE YOUR STORY.
The absolute beauty of this theme to me, is that it will probably mean something slightly different to every person who hears those words.
Just like every reader of a story will gain something different from reading it.
To me, embrace your story, means to choose your story.
And so, on that note, I wanted to leave you with some words I actually first heard here, at the Salisbury Writers Festival, quite a few years ago.
These words were said on a panel by local author Jennifer Mills, and they really stuck with me. They really MEANT something to me.
She said, Persistence is more important than talent.
Which is another way of saying, you can do anything you set your mind to. If you care about it enough, you can do it.
Thank you for having me here tonight. :)