Rhiannon Wilde has been telling stories for as long as she can remember – inside her head, as well as through working as a journalist, terrible barista, and high school English teacher in Brisbane’s inner north. Rhiannon’s particular interests are caffeine, characters both real and imaginary, and the power of well-strung words to challenge and change us. Her second-person short story inspired by urban Brisbane, You Deserve Nothing, was longlisted for the Queensland Young Writer’s Award in 2014. Henry Hamlet’s Heart is her first novel, and won the Queensland Literary Awards Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019.
Discover more about and buy Henry Hamlet's Heart here.
A writer I loved as a teenager once said something like, “publishing will break your heart.” She wasn’t at all wrong, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the caveat that goes on the end, the one most writers are familiar with, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Another writer I love, a friend, and I spoke the other day about how strange it is when a book or piece of prose is in late edits near release, and Real Other People are suddenly reading and synthesising what has for months felt like a private intimate thing. Of course, that’s exactly what we sign up for, and part of why we create the thing in the first place (though truly good writing, I think, comes when you also write because you want to) – in the hope it reaches the hearts and minds of other people. But it is a soft kind of necessary heartbreak, the pre-release grind of finding the way to tell the story exactly as it’s meant to be told.
My suburb flooded in the last weekend of February and I anxiously turned to nostalgia, devouring baked goods steeped in vanilla and the entire docuseries on the making of the second Frozen – a three-year process as its writer, Jennifer Lee, wrangled an ever-evolving story into sparkling shape. Jennifer is also the creative director at Disney, overseeing all of their animation projects; she was the first female director of a Disney animated feature film, is the first female director to create a film grossing over a billion dollars, and an all-round powerhouse. I won’t compare us because that would be doing big dirty to Jennifer, but I was transfixed watching the process: because I knew it exactly. Repeatedly over the course of months and years, the developing story is presented to a panel of other animation film experts to be dissected and discussed, its narrative combed over and questioned and reshaped. Jennifer describes this process as feeling like a kick in the stomach – and then two days later, new ideas come.
When I signed a contract for my first novel I was twenty-five and knew virtually nothing of what goes into the publication of a book. The focus is so often the goal (and it is an exceptionally difficult, though not at all impossible, goal to achieve in the current market – the getting-to-the-publishing-stage), and not on the after. As authors we often talk through our writing process – cafes, dreams, walks along the beach to clear the tangled-Christmas-lights thoughts in our heads. It's rarer we think of the leading-up to publication phase of our work being presented to our own experts panel for combing and reshaping as just as relevant a part of the book-making experience. When I was twenty-five and just starting out, I knew little of what that process of shaping and reshaping looked like; that virtually no book we ever read started out in the form we eventually see, or even particularly close to it.
The image of a markedly different rough-cut being presented to top storywriters of Disney, Jennifer Lee’s expression openly sad as she diligently took notes on intense feedback, over and over again until a plot unravelled and shone, stuck in my mind so much that it reshaped the direction of this piece. That is the nature of writing: editing and being willing to edit, over and over again. Because we love them, these intimate private precious parts of us, it can be tempting to see the first completed manuscript as our work’s best form. The magical part of bookmaking – and storytelling in general – is that it almost never is.
The phrase ‘kill your darlings’ is used a lot in the editing process. Some ideas or manuscripts, rarely and devastatingly in the moment, can be dead darlings in their entirety. That’s okay. We shift gears. Start again until the idea feels alive. I’m lucky to have had a partner in editing for both my books over the last two years whom I trust implicitly. We’re flexible and open with one another, so very rarely does it ever feel, when Felicity kills them, that my darlings are dead.
Often, we put the darlings safe in a box; or (usually, actually) move them somewhere else (several key scenes of my first novel are dead darlings taken from said box, repositioned and polished somewhere new). I watch and let her, and my publisher, brilliantly do their job, which is different to my job, and the story shifts into something infinitely better. Being flexible (within reason) is, I think, the second most important quality a writer can cultivate after creativity. Like Jennifer Lee – and I promise, on the exceedingly off chance she were to ever read this, this is the extent of my comparison – I feel the kick in the stomach of each draft not being the final form the book is meant to be yet, and then the new ideas come.
Watching Jennifer go back the drawing board and thumb through diary entries she’d written in the voice of her two protagonists, I thought of how incredibly, bone-tiringly hard the editing process is. How much I still love it because it shows you how mind-blowingly much is possible. How I loved watching it unfold in visual form. I came back to the quote I memorised as a bookish teen about publishing breaking your heart. I believed it then, mostly because publishing a novel felt like too lofty a goal for me to have and seeing it as confirmation said goal wouldn’t happen made sense. Now I think that publishing only breaks your heart if you let it. Your darlings will always be there, tiny magic living things dreamt up inside your head, to pick you up and take you somewhere new.
A huge thank you to Rhiannon for this guest blog! Make sure to get your copy of Henry Hamlet's Heart (soon to be available in the US).