One of the reasons I love hosting this series is because every writer is different — in the way they approach their craft, their sources of inspiration, how they set up their writing days and how they structure their writing lives. Certainly, there are common threads — like persistence and perseverance despite setbacks. Another would be following pathways other than those the writer had planned — taking the route less travelled.
Today, I’m thrilled to share Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s story about her pathway to publication and the unexpected route she ended up taking.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a Sydney-based author. Her first book, My Name Is Revenge, was shortlisted for the 2019 Woollahra Digital Literary Awards and was a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Her writing appears in Griffith Review, Sydney Review of Books, Westerly, the Australian, the Big Issue and Kill Your Darlings. Ashley has appeared at Sydney Writers’ Festival, Story Club, and the National Young Writers’ Festival, and is a Moth StorySLAM winner.
Going Where the Writing Takes You
In 2018 I was lucky enough to go on writing retreat with a brilliant friend. (She received a full scholarship to Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so ‘brilliant’ might be an understatement.) We rented a little cottage on the south coast of NSW, and spent four days rising early, writing in libraries and cafés, and reading each other’s work over dinner.
While there, I wrote the first draft of a short story, worked on a book review, edited my current manuscript, wrote a piece of flash fiction, and revised another short story.
Meanwhile, my brilliant friend worked on a single short story for the entire four days.
On the train home, I compared our strategies. ‘You’re like a laser beam, focused, working on one thing until you get it right,’ I said. ‘I’m like a machine gun, splaying words everywhere and hoping I hit something.’
I’ve thought about this a lot because my first book was published this year, and it came as a surprise. Not that I was published, but that I’ve written five manuscripts, and this first book wasn’t one of them.
I started my first novel at age 14. It was speculative fiction about killer bees from Mars. It was as bad as it sounds (and it has its own Twitter account to prove it). Then I spent four years in university writing a magical realism psychological thriller. I had the good sense not to submit these to publishers.
After taking a break from writing for a few years, I decided to get serious in 2009. I began a major research project on my great grandparents’ survival of the Armenian genocide. I knew very little about the topic, so I spent three years doing interviews with 140 people on three continents, and even wrote a master’s thesis on cultural identity. Then I sat down and wrote a 200,000-word first draft.
Over the next few years, as I received rejections from publishers (including one scathing email I’m amazed I recovered from) and started working through manuscript assessments, I realised the key problem: I didn’t actually know how to write.
I also didn’t know what I wanted to write. I did want to write this serious book about the Armenian genocide because of its significance to both my family and world history. As the event that laid the blueprints for the Holocaust, it deserves better recognition.
But I also wanted to write satirical comedy pieces about the ebook debate. And light-hearted personal essays. And short stories based on laboratory test results. And book reviews. And when I’d eventually worked the manuscript that became my Armenian travel memoir down to 75,000 words and started sending it to competitions, I decided to write a romantic comedy (manuscript number four, for those counting along).
And I still didn’t know how to write. I was getting better, but I was receiving minimal feedback from experienced writers. I took a few classes and got the occasional manuscript assessment. I’d also ask my friends to read my work. But at that time, my friends weren’t writers, and while they gave me some useful feedback, they didn’t know how to actually write any more than I did.
It was only once I joined a writers’ group that my writing skills significantly improved. Receiving regular feedback, I began to figure out what was and wasn’t working in my writing – and in theirs.
I still wasn’t sure what to do with that fourth manuscript, and in the meantime I’d gotten excited about a fifth one, a comedic memoir about coming to Australia as a Canadian. So I started on that.
But I also had a persistent idea to write about an international wave of terrorism connected to the Armenian genocide, from the point of view of one of the terrorists.
The idea intimidated me, and I didn’t want to do it on my own. I applied to write it as part of a master’s degree in creative writing. The program’s requirements shaped that piece of writing into a 12,000-word novella.
I spent over a year working on those 12,000 words. I studied narrative structure and how to craft tension. I received feedback from my supervisor and my writers’ group. On top of that, I enrolled in an online feedback course through Writing NSW, and also received monthly feedback from a writing tutor and my classmates. I knew it would be tricky to get my novella published – 12,000 words is an awkward length. But it didn’t matter, because I’d learned so much in the process.
My Armenian travel memoir was shortlisted for the Kill Your Darlings Unpublished Manuscript Awards, and then for the Impress Prize for New Writers. I also kept chipping away on the draft of that fifth manuscript, using my new skills. I was sure one of these would become my first published book.
I entered my novella in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, along with an essay providing historical context. When it was announced as a finalist, the publisher said she’d like to publish it in print, but it needed to be longer. Did I have any companion works?
Of course I did, because I’d been drawing side projects out of my travel memoir for years, building a portfolio. One had been published by Griffith Review, another by Sydney Review of Books.
In hindsight, it’s perfectly fitting that my first book, My Name Is Revenge, is both fiction and non-fiction, a compilation of side projects drawn from the still-unpublished manuscript I began researching ten years ago.
My brilliant friend is entering her second year at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The entire time I’ve known her, she’s written feminist speculative fiction short stories. She knows what she wants to write, and she works hard at it. That works for her. But if I’d tried to stick to one project at a time, I probably would have given up years ago. My path has been haphazard, but I’ve let myself go where the writing takes me, and that’s worked for me.