Inspired by Gillian Flynn’s frenetic suspense and Stephen King’s masterful world-building, Christian White’s The Nowhere Child (Affirm Press) is a combustible tale of trauma, cult, conspiracy and memory, the remarkable debut of an exhilarating new Australian talent.
When Kim Leamy is approached by a stranger who thinks she is Sammy Went, a little girl who disappeared from her Kentucky home twenty-eight years earlier, at first she brushes it off. But as Kim scratches the surface of her family history in Australia, questions arise that aren’t easily answered; to find the truth, she must travel to Sammy’s home of Manson, Kentucky, a town whose dark secrets are revealed as the mystery of Sammy’s disappearance unravels. Here, Christian White reveals the process of writing the novel.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.’ Be forewarned: I’m about to exhaust the hell out of that metaphor.
In part, King is talking literally. You should shut out your kids, your partner, your housemates, the TV, and just write, write, write. But what he’s also saying is, the first draft is your chance to work in private, to get freaky with the written word without anyone looking over your shoulder to check your spelling. You’re allowed to fudge plot points and use clichés without fear of judgment. You can leave notes in the margins that a future version of yourself will have to clean up. Mine are all in caps and say things like, THIS NEEDS RESEARCH, FIX ON SECOND DRAFT and I’M PRETTY SURE YOU PLAGIARISED THIS FROM AN EPISODE OF THE WIRE.
With the door shut, you can write without fear of failure.
This is an essential part of my process. I have a bad habit of listening to every piece of advice that’s thrown at me, and when you listen to too many people too early, you might end up with a camel – a horse designed by committee. But working in isolation is not without its challenges. Writing isn’t easy and I don’t think it should be. Procrastination is always just a few clicks away, and so is the nagging fear that you might be spending all your time working on a steaming pile of literary dogshit. But for me (and I expect for a lot of writers) this is the easy part. It’s fun to pretend you’re working on the single greatest, most profound and compelling thing ever put to paper. But eventually, if you take the craft seriously, you’re going to have to open the door and let someone in. That part is a little more difficult. And by difficult, I mean terrifying.
I have a bad habit of listening to every piece of advice that’s thrown at me, and when you listen to too many people too early, you might end up with a camel – a horse designed by committee.
The Nowhere Child is my debut novel, but it’s the fifth manuscript I’ve started, second I’ve finished and first I had the guts to show anyone. I spent years behind the closed door. The truth is, I was happy there. I yearned for an audience and fantasied about a publishing deal, but the trouble is, it’s warm and safe back there behind the door. It’s familiar and comfortable. It’s womb-like (sorry – that sounds more disgusting than intended). But as time passed, all those unread words started to feel like the tree that falls in the forest with nobody around to hear it. So I got off my arse and opened the door.
The first person I gave my manuscript to was my wife, Summer. It’s not always a good idea to seek feedback from a loved one. You need someone you trust, but who can be straight with you, someone unafraid to crush your hopes and dreams. Luckily, my wife is not only a born storyteller, but brutally honest as well. It felt appropriate to let her in first, because showing someone your work is not unlike getting naked in front of someone for the first time. All those little moles and scars and bad tattoos and fat deposits you’ve worked so hard to hide beneath your clothing are exposed. You’re stripped bare and forced to say, ‘Look, I know it’s not perfect, but it’s what I have to work with.’
After listening to Summer’s feedback and killing the appropriate number of darlings, I entered the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Oddly enough, after letting someone I love and respect read my stuff, sharing it with a stranger on the other end of a competition entry form was easy. It still felt a bit like getting naked, but this time it was more like stripping down for a doctor. Sure, they might be silently judging your little paunch or that strange birthmark on your back, but you never have to see them again if you don’t want to.
Showing someone your work is not unlike getting naked in front of someone for the first time… You’re stripped bare and forced to say, ‘I know it’s not perfect, but it’s what I have to work with.’
Then something unexpected happened. My manuscript won the competition, I got a publishing deal with Affirm Press, and my novel was sold into a bunch of countries around the world. The door wasn’t just open now. It had been removed from its hinges and cast aside.
After a decade and change spent behind that door, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the editorial process and was worried they’d come in asking difficult questions, make challenging suggestions and expose the flaws in my writing. And of course, that’s exactly what happened.
Working with editors is one of the most important cogs in the machine, and also one of the most enjoyable. With an open door, mind and heart, you quickly discover that these grammatically gifted creatives are working to make your book better, to make your writing stronger, your characters more believable. They’re working – and working hard – to bring to life what you first put down on paper months or years earlier, back when it was just you and your MacBook. Editors work to achieve your vision. And the crazy thing is, they were there all along. All I had to do was open that goddamn door.
I guess my point is: I share your pain. The idea of emailing a friend your manuscript, entering a writing competition or sending a few chapters off to a publisher is scary and crippling and nauseating…but it’s also pretty damn exciting. So do it. Open the door. Click send. You can’t stay in there forever.