Work in progress – a first draft completed

Cotton milling demonstration, Museum of Industry & Science, Manchester
Cotton milling machinery, Museum of Industry and Science, Manchester

Just before Christmas I reached a milestone in my “work in progress”. With a little over 50,000 words clocked up, I completed the first draft of my book. Now I’m working through the suggestions and comments of my primary editor, my daughter Amy, whose opinion and insights are always immensely helpful.

It has taken a long time to reach this point. Nearly eighteen months, if I begin the count from when I finished editing my last book. Sometimes it has been a case of writing a hundred words here and there, rather than producing a steady flow.

Oddly enough, one of the biggest barriers to writing another book has been the previous book, The Edward Street Baby Farm. Being a published author has its drawbacks! While I’ve been giving interviews and preparing talks about Edward Street, I’ve needed to keep all the material from that book fresh in my mind. I haven’t felt as though I have room in my head for another book’s worth of information. Perhaps it has something to do with my age.

Apparently ‘second book syndrome‘ is also a real thing (though I’m actually writing my third book). It’s difficult not to compare the first draft of this book with the final version of the last one and think ‘Could I ever produce another book as interesting as that? Didn’t I just fluke it?’ It’s harder this time to focus on the work itself and forget about publication, at least for now. Fortunately I don’t have a contract to worry about, which would make it five times worse.

Writer’s block has also played a part. After I’d written a few chapters, I hit a wall. For several weeks I found myself reluctant to go back to writing the chapter I’d started. Eventually I realised that what I was trying to write was boring me. And if it bored me, it would probably bore readers even more. It wasn’t material vital to the story. so I cut that section, and then the words began to flow more readily.

About 30.000 words into the first draft, I came to a halt again. I’d begun to lose confidence in the whole project. It seemed little more than a succession of ‘this happened then that happened’ without really going anywhere. I toyed with the idea of turning it into fiction, but soon gave that up. Eventually, after discussing the issues with other writers online, I began to see more promise in it, and decided to keep going. Just putting the problem into words seemed to help.

So now the first draft is done. The delays haven’t been all frustration. I’ve continued to collect research material, and my concept of what this book is about has been evolving. Having completed my sketchy first draft, I’m ready to start reshaping it, adding more colour and developing the threads and themes that have appeared. I’m very much looking forward to this year’s work.

May I take this opportunity to wish all my readers a very happy, peaceful and satisfying new year in 2022. Without readers, writing would be far less satisfying.

The amazing Abrolhos Islands

View of part of the Abrolhos reefs from the plane

A few weeks ago I was a guest at the Big Sky Readers and Writers Festival in Geraldton.  This was the first writers festival I’ve been to, but other writers told me that it’s one of the best in the state. I can believe that. I certainly had a fantastic time.

One of the highlights for those of us taking part was a day trip to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, on the Thursday before the festival began. This chain of hundreds of small islands and coral reefs lies about eighty kilometres west of Geraldton. A few of the islands are home to cray fishermen and their families, but most are uninhabited.

We flew over the chain from south to north, with the pilot of the light plane providing a knowledgeable commentary. After about an hour, we landed on uninhabited East Wallabi island for a picnic lunch and a walking tour. Any nervousness I had about flying in a very small plane disappeared because it was all so fascinating. Most of us decided not to go snorkling after one of the pilots entertained us with his hair-raising stories. But those who braved the water said the reefs were fantastic.

Gripping scenery, grim history

Abrolhos is a contraction of the Portuguese phrase ‘open your eyes’. the name seems appropriate, given the number of ship wrecks that have occurred on the reefs. The most famous of these wrecks is the Batavia, which ran aground on Morning Reef on 4 June 1629 while on her maiden voyage. She was bound for Batavia (now Jakarta) with a cargo that included chests of silver coins. Aboard were about 340 people. Most were crew and soldiers (to guard the treasure) but some civilians were aboard, including a few women and children.

Longboat of the Batavia, which sailed from the Abrolhos to Indonesia seeking help.
Replica of the Batavia’s longboat outside the Geraldton Museum.
It was a very small boat for such a long journey.

After the ship struck the reef, Commander Francisco Pelsaert and forty-seven others took off in the ship’s longboat, hoping to reach Indonesia to find help. They made it to Java in just over a month. The rest of the passengers and crew who hadn’t drowned trying to reach land remained on several small islands, without shade or water. Eventually they found fresh water. But life must have been miserable on these completely flat, tree-less reefs in the middle of winter.

What followed was a mutiny in which the third in command, Jeronimus Cornelisz, took control. He and a few accomplices began a massacre of those he disliked or who opposed him. By the time Pelsaert returned to the Abrolhos three months later, over a hundred people had been murdered. Pelsaert executed Cornelisz and his chief allies, and took others prisoner back to Java. You can read the full story on the Western Australian Museum website.

(This is an edited version of an article from my monthly newsletter, The Scribbler. To receive your own copy directly to your email inbox, subscribe now.)