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What I’ve learned about writing *after* winning a publishing prize, with Andrew Paterson

  • 1 February, 2021
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Last May, Andrew Paterson’s life changed forever: he won the coveted Text Prize with his novel, RAINFISH.

RAINFISH tells the story of Aaron, who lives with his single mother and his bookish older brother Connor in a small town in Far North Queensland with a ramshackle chook shed and an old bath full of rainfish in the backyard. Aaron, feeling left out as the younger brother, commits a theft to impress an older, alluringly rebellious kid. His guilt, regret and attempts to put the situation right take him on a journey that’s unexpected, at times humorous and ultimately tragic.

As we eagerly await the opening of Text Prize submissions for 2021, #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios caught up with Andrew to learn more about how RAINFISH is progressing, and what he’s learned so far from working with Text Publishing on the prize-winning manuscript.

When you sent RAINFISH off for Text Prize consideration, did you think it was ‘done’?

I’ve been working on RAINFISH for over ten years. A few years ago, after having it rejected for the umpteenth time, I became convinced it would never get published, but decided that continuing the process of re-editing it would help make me a better writer, so I kept at it.

I did have a good feeling when I sent it off for the Text Prize. However, the editing process with Text has shown me that it was still far from finished.

Text have helped me tailor the language to better suit the target audience, as well as make some changes to some significant plot points.

Have you noticed anything about your writing since starting the editorial process with RAINFISH that you hadn’t noticed before? E.g A natural skill, or a ‘bad’ habit?

I tend to leave speech unattributed too often, which means the reader has to slow down and think, ‘who’s saying that?’ It works sometimes, but was definitely overused in early drafts of RAINFISH.

Have you found any lessons learned from working on RAINFISH with the Text editorial team are now internalised, to a degree, when you’re drafting something new? If so, what are those lessons?

Thinking about potential readership before putting pen to paper is one thing. I think planning in general. I did no planning for RAINFISH and it was a terribly inefficient way to work. I am certain I could have got to just as good a story years earlier with a bit of planning.

How did you engage with your editor (e.g phone; email; comments in a Google Doc)? And what was it like, having someone reading your work with such a close eye?

We emailed and Zoomed and spoke on the phone. Due to COVID we have yet to meet in person. I appreciated having Jane reading my work. I think it makes all the difference having a professional involved and not just friends and family who sometimes don’t want to hurt your feelings so just tell you how great something is.

Before submitting RAINFISH for the Text Prize, had you engaged an editor to look at it, or used writing groups and beta readers? If so, what had they helped you work on?

I sent RAINFISH for manuscript appraisal twice. Two different companies. Each time I was given useful advice. Early drafts had little plot, and required a lot more focus on pacing, having the story keep momentum all the way through.

A lot of writers can find it difficult to receive feedback, which is understandable. Were you wary about the emotional impact of getting criticism, or do you thrive on that kind of thing?

When I show people my work I say, ‘Don’t tell me how good it is, just tell me which parts aren’t working’. I’ve been stung by criticism, but I got over it. I know I wouldn’t have gotten RAINFISH as polished without criticism.

Similarly, what has this process (so far) taught you about storytelling itself (as opposed to the sentence-level craft of writing)?

If you believe there is a good story in your novel, you should keep working at it because eventually it’ll show itself.

More broadly, has winning a major publishing prize taught you any lessons that you can apply to other parts of your life?

To keep entering competitions. It was at least the second time I’d entered RAINSIFH in the Text Prize, possibly the third. I’d also entered another story a few times. The more you enter, the more likely you’ll win something eventually.

Are there any other insights about the RAINFISH evolution thus far you’re at liberty to share — e.g major plot point changes, character developments? Or is the story you submitted for prize consideration relatively intact?

The ending has changed. The original ending, which I’d had for years, was too horrific. I’m doing the final edit now. Hopefully nothing else major will change at this late stage, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it did.