Sarah Bacaller talks about how she started out as a writer and what led her to publish her first book.
Why did you start writing?
Was it a general compulsion? Did you have a story in mind that needed to be told? Grand ambitions of a new career?
I decided when I was 7 to be a writer. I adored books and lived in them. I did a lot of writing as a child and teenager—journaling, public-speaking, essays and competitions—but writing didn’t seem a valid career option when finishing school! Then I started university and found a home of sorts there. After a while I realised—Wow! Research, essays, tutoring … all this is writing! It was like my writing dream had come back to find me; I had come full circle.
Many of us know what it’s like to be in places where what we say, think or feel doesn’t count for much or isn’t heard. For me, writing has always been that place I’ve been able to find myself, to figure out what I think about things, to work through and explore ideas and possibilities, to ask questions and create space for myself—even if no one else around me is interested (but sometimes, they are … and that’s delightful!).
How did you go about it?
Just open your laptop? Books? Courses? Degree’s? Workshops?
My writing journey has been multi-faceted. I did well in English at school and in essay-writing at uni. The latter forces you to work to a style guide, to measure your words carefully and to construct clear arguments. One of my lecturers became my research supervisor and then a trusted colleague and mentor — and he is a writing machine. He has helped me with focusing my writing, especially through writing to word-limits (which massively challenged my early swirly emotive writing style). He’s also helped me trust in ‘increments’ – little bits at a time build up to something substantial – especially important for me when juggling babies, study, work and other life-stuff.
I’ve done courses with the Australian Writers’ Center, through MasterClass (online), joined writers’ groups, attended conferences and made as many connections as I can (usually virtual). I’ve written book reviews for academic journals and have gotten to know the publishing process in that way. I’ve also connected with some amazing authors through my work in the audiobook industry. Writing a PhD is great writing discipline because you are being guided through a massive project by real experts in the field. My PhD is in philosophy so that complements my writing; philosophers tend to be highly engaged in writing practice. I also must mention my writing/mothering/life buddy, Becca; our friendship is a constant source of happiness and writing encouragement.
How did you come to writing your book?
What draws you to particular stories/themes? What is it about the story that ‘hooked into you’? Did you go looking for it, did it just arrive or was it in you in some way all along?
With Fault Lines, I needed to consolidate and crystallise some serious and painful life events and changes I was going through. This story felt like the space where I could explore those things in a reflective way that was hidden, but also wide open for others to share in. I had written bits and pieces when in swirly moods over a few years, and as a plot started to emerge, I began drawing those bits and pieces into some semblance of order.
I decided to aim for 20 000 words because it seemed manageable, and committed to working on my novella every weekend, focusing on a chapter at a time. It was a natural progression after writing shorter pieces for years (articles, poetry, research essays, teaching notes etc.).
Finishing Fault Lines was very satisfying because I could look at what I’d written and feel that, ‘Yes, this expresses what I’ve been through, and the beliefs I’ve changed and formed in that time’. And I felt passionate about the story because I believed in what it was sharing — lessons that were hard won and important to me.
Developing the work
What helped you along the way?
This could be people, practices, process’…
I mentioned a colleague and writing mentor earlier — it’s great to have a range of these, because each have different strengths and areas of expertise, and I’m so grateful for mine. One thing my key mentor challenged me with early on was writing to word-limits: 50, 100, 200 words. This forces you to encapsulate an idea, an anecdote, a reflection into its crucial elements. You can’t waste words and you learn to tinker with them persistently in getting to the nub of any issue.
I was really sceptical about this approach at first. I was of the ‘let it all out!’ mentality, as though that was the only way to find or articulate myself truthfully. But this was in the context of academic writing, where you have to condense a huge amount of background research into a small space that creates a clear narrative line. It’s fine to write for the joy of self-expression; it’s an added challenge writing in a disciplined manner for others, recognising that when others spend time reading your writing, it’s a gift. That gift should be respected. Writing to limits forces creativity and directness, and that has been a huge leap forward for my writing development.
Agents and Publishers
How did you get your first book published?
What was your approach, did you have a strategy, what were the set-backs? Did you have to change your approach?
I made a list of publishers who published in the genre I was writing in and explored their websites for submissions information. To be honest, I feel like the publication of my novella was a fluke. It’s quite niche.
I originally submitted to one particular imprint of Wipf and Stock who rejected it, but who said they had passed it on to another imprint who were likely to take it on (and they did!). I was really keen to narrate it as an audiobook and loved that experience, and Wipf and Stock were happy for me to do that.
Any advice on rejection?
You often hear writers saying that if you want to be published, you have to get used to rejection. I adopted two goals for 2020: To give everything a crack (i.e. writing opportunities, like competitions) and to get used to rejection. I figured, if I wanted to really be a writer, I had to do both and I had nothing to lose. I followed those goals and came a long way. Nowadays, I’m always working on the next thing, so by the time rejection comes, I’m not as emotionally invested. But I’m still super stoked when things come through!
A note on critique:
When I began writing longer research essays, I was quite fragile; I found it so hard to read my supervisor’s edits and feedback. I wanted my work to be ‘perfect’—and supervisor suggestions showed that it wasn’t. If this is similar to how you feel about feedback — it’s okay and it can change.
Now I love feedback because I know it makes my work better — and I go first to the people who I trust because I know their feedback is given in the context of their positive regard for me. But I also know they will be honest and give skilled critique. There is no final ‘perfect’ for me in writing anymore. Ideas are always evolving because we are dynamic, living, thinking beings.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Bacaller, Author
Sarah is a writer, audiobook narrator and researcher from outer Melbourne, Australia. She is a PhD student in Philosophy at Western Sydney University and is Co-Director, Producer & Narrator with Voices of Today, a spoken word audio production company in Australia. She also works in online teaching support in a tertiary learning environment and has recently published a novella: The Fault Lines Founding Liberty.
The Fault Lines Founding Liberty by Sarah Bacaller
Novella. Wipf & Stock, 2020
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The Fault Lines Founding Liberty explores the tensions inherent in growing up and moving on from faith, family, and past versions of ourselves. With unanswered questions and hovering guilt, a young woman comes to confront the spectres of her past through dialogue with an unexpected companion.