I sent my manuscript off two weeks ago. The publisher I think would be best for my biography now runs an annual competition for an unpublished manuscript, so it seemed a perfect goal. I’m catching my breath after eight intense months in which I wrote half of the book. (The first half took more than two years.)
It was failure which spurred me on: two literary disappointments on one day in November last year. The novel I’ve been working on for years, The Remains, was turned down tersely by a publisher I thought I had a good chance with. Then I found out an excerpt from my biography hadn’t been placed in one of the few biography-specific literary competitions. Some people take a scatter-gun approach to submissions and entries, but I work the opposite way – a small number of targeted, well-prepared attempts. My two big hopes for 2016 hadn’t come off.
Rather than sink more time into the novel, I decided I was going to put everything I could into finishing book one of my biography and having it ready for this other competition, closing 1 August. One chapter a month, that’s all it would take! I had to turn down a lot of other opportunities and neglect friends and family but I also loved being so focused on the book, doing so much writing. The rhythm was just right for me. A couple of weeks of further research for the time period in question, starting with KSP’s account in her autobiography, Child of the Hurricane, followed by collating all archival sources for that time frame, then a close search of Trove’s newspapers, and through it all, background historical and literary reading. And then a couple of weeks of writing. (Or in fact, a messier process than that, writing paragraphs as I researched, but somehow a chapter forming in time each month.)
Three years ago, I started the biography worried I wouldn’t have enough source material, because that’s what everyone warned me about – apparently it was why no-one had written a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard in forty years. It meant I spent a long time finding obscure and tangential source material for the early chapters. Yet there’s more than enough material for a comprehensive biography of KSP, especially in the age of Trove’s digitised newspapers. By the end, I was realising how selective I needed to be; there were many small aspects of KSP’s life which could not fit even into a 100k word biography of her early life. I’ve also come to realise that biographies are never perfect – there is always one more source you could track down and check if you had unlimited time and resources. Given a month in the archives of London, for example, perhaps I could have unearthed more information about Katharine’s time there. But it comes down to how much time and money you can spend. And how much detail your subject warrants; James Shapiro has written two books on single years of Shakespeare’s life.
I’m somewhat lost now I’m not working to my deadline. It seems I’ve forgotten how to blog; I’ve been stuck on this post for a week. There’s a lot of non-writing things I need to catch up on. But I’m also eager to keep going with book two, covering KSP’s marriage. And yet I also want to hear back about the existing manuscript first. I am far from sick of KSP yet – I’m just getting warmed up for the rest of the journey.
PS: I am so grateful I’ve got an understanding wife, Nicole, and two excellent supervisors, Tony and Van, who have helped me get this far. Also, Thomas, now two, who makes me value time more than ever before.