Writing a bestseller isn’t easy. The market is unpredictable and misses are far more common than hits. It’s almost impossible to know what’s going to take off. Who would’ve thought boy wizards could enchant entire countries or that angsty vampires would drain parents’ pockets worldwide. Who expected to be tantalised by badly written S&M? All the basis of blockbuster books, but could anyone have guessed?
Graeme Simsion probably didn’t guess the world was going to adore Don Tillman, the looking-for-love genetics professor with undiagnosed Asperger’s in his debut novel, The Rosie Project. He might not have intended to, but Simsion wrote a bestseller through a combination of planning, support and hard work. Oh, and a little talent as well.
After winning the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, Simsion’s unlikely romantic comedy started a bidding war among publishers. After the dust settled, Text prevailed and published the book at the end of January this year. The rights have already been sold in over 34 different countries for an estimated 1.8 million dollars. At the moment The Rosie Project is sitting atop bestseller lists around the country and shows no signs of slipping.
‘It’s been absolutely extraordinary,’ he tells us from his house in Fitzroy. ‘When I was shortlisted for the Premier’s Award, that’s the point where everything changed. I wrote it as popular fiction, so the fact that it was getting noted in a literary context I said, “Wow, it’s really jumped a level”. So it’s just been extraordinary. Every month has taken it all to a higher level that I hadn’t really expected.’
Since publication it ‘hasn’t stopped’ for the former data modeller. Simsion had visited ten bookshops the day before we spoke. In February he appeared in three sessions at the Perth Writers Festival, went to London for a week and toured four cities in America.
But that whirlwind wasn’t on Simsion’s mind in 2007 when he enrolled in a Diploma of Screenwriting at RMIT. Before beginning classes, he knew he’d need a story to apply the teachings to. Inspired by a friend ‘who struggled socially’, The Rosie Project started life as a screenplay.
‘I essentially had five years working on the screenplay, going through all sorts of stages with it, going from a drama to a comedy to changing the plot,’ he explains. ‘The only thing you’d recognise from the original story is Don. So there was a lot of time as I was learning the craft. This was my school project as it were, so it started off very rough and it got better as I got better.’
Budding writers hoping to emulate Simsion’s success should take note of the book’s beginning as a screenplay. The Rosie Project is almost cinematic in its structure, and when proposed this he agrees that screenwriting informed his literary approach.
‘There’s a tremendous emphasis on story and story structure in screenwriting. Twenty years ago when Hollywood films were analysed, they found that they had generic structures. It’s not quite connect-the-dots but it’s very close. You’ve got to know where to put the turning points, inciting incidents.’
With a screenplay time is of the essence. With only 90 minutes in the typical romantic comedy, you’ve got to move quickly to tell the story. In an era where people read less and infer information in snippets, speed, and its literary counterpart pace is paramount.
‘Screenwriting above all informed the idea of story structure. It tends to make you write in scenes, which is a very visual sort of way of writing and makes you conscious of pace. You get into the scene as late as you can and you get out as early as you can to tell a story.’
By the time he’d finished Screenwriting, Simsion moved to Professional Writing and Editing and took novel writing classes. There he adapted his screenwriting skills into a literary context. Armed with three chapters of The Rosie Project, he workshopped the first and when his class reacted favourably, he offered up the next two. All but one person took him up on his offer.
‘At that point I thought, you know what? It doesn’t matter if my writing is a bit awkward or unpolished, if people are laughing and want to turn the pages then we’ve got a foundation that we can build upon and that gave me a lot of confidence.’
Humour isn’t an easy thing to master, and when asked Simsion again mentions The Rosie Project’s beginning. Despite technically being a drama, people laughed along with Don. Simsion learned from comic Tim Ferguson that if you’ve got a funny character, comedy will just happen. ‘I never felt I had to create gags, after you’ve written it, you refine it but the basic humour comes out of Don’s personality.’
Therein lies another of The Rosie Project’s strengths – Don. As Simsion has mentioned, almost everything about the original story has changed apart from the protagonist. The strong central character and his unique voice is inevitably a huge contributor to the success of the book.
‘I’ve heard it said that a character is a third of yourself, a third of someone you know and a third made-up. My experiences inform Don. I’m not as extreme as him, but I’m male, I’ve got a physics degree, I’ve worked in academia and in technical fields. I have a specific friend whose voice I channelled initially, so basically I took my friend’s voice as a core and added things on and then slowly I got to know Don and he evolved his own distinct mannerisms.’
Creating the book’s titular character was a similar experience. Rosie was originally Clara, a nerdy Hungarian physicist. Deciding the character was too similar to Don, Simsion aimed to create his protagonist’s antithesis. Though not deliberately based on anyone, once Rosie was reborn he noticed an ex-girlfriend and a member of his writers group in the character. ‘And she speaks a little like my daughter, so you draw on what you know.’
Simsion’s daughter isn’t the only family member to impact the book. His wife is also a writer and the two often collaborate. Once he thought the book was done, he read it aloud to his wife over two days and found it still needed work. We wondered how important being married to a like-minded person was to the process.
‘It’s tremendously helpful. We kick story ideas around together. I bring her stuff and she makes suggestions, it’s tremendous to have someone who actually understands what’s involved in writing a story and how it works in a practical sense.
‘There’s a mutual respect for the writing process. If it’s her turn to cook dinner and she’s on a roll, then I’m going to cook dinner. You have respect for each other’s writing. It’s an absolutely huge positive having her support.’
Simsion has been on a roll. Sure to become the stuff of legend, he reportedly finished the manuscript in seven weeks, from writing to refinement. Contrary to what you’d think for someone who appreciates planning, he doesn’t assign time specifically for writing.
‘I fit my writing around other things and I fit other things around my writing. When I was writing The Rosie Project, I just grabbed every moment that I could. So I was sitting in bed writing, on the weekend I would put in eight hours, then I’d have to do the day job, so I’d go three days without doing anything.’
But that’s not to say that he’s writing blind. Using another screenwriting technique, the scene breakdown, he knows what he’s trying to achieve each time he writes.
‘I sit down and say, “I’m working on chapter three, in chapter three Don has to test the sample from Peter Enouch, work out if it’s her father and tell her the bad news.” I have a short statement about what’s going into each scene.’
Many writers simply sit down and let it flow but if it doesn’t flow you’re in trouble – writer’s block. This is the reason for Simsion’s prior planning, and didn’t you know? He’s got a PhD in Creativity Theory.
‘The single most important piece of advice I can give on the creative process is that if you find something that works – stick to it,’ he says very deliberately. ‘If you have brilliant ideas in the shower, take long showers. If you get good ideas when you’re jogging, go for a jog. This isn’t rocket science. If you can write without a plan and it works for you I’m not going to argue, but if it’s not working and you’ve got writer’s block, then try something different. If writing without a plan is not working, think about having a plan.’
When these obstacles are overcome and the manuscript is complete, next comes one of the most important parts in the writing process – rewriting. ‘Good writing is rewriting. If you’re not prepared to do any rewriting then don’t even think about being a writer.’
Simsion admits that other writers have intimidated him in the past. A fan of John Irving, he would pick up an Irving book and think it was beyond him, that he couldn’t ever write that well.
‘That’s absolutely true – you can’t do it with one draft. You can’t go from zero to that, you go form zero to a piece of crap, and then to something not so crappy crap, and then you get something you think is passable and then you polish it, polish it, polish it. You have the power to make it better, repeat as often as necessary until you’ve got a masterpiece.’
He’s got another bit of advice that might be of interest to would-be authors.
‘There’s a lot to be said of having a group around you who can give you feedback on your work. So either join a writers club, enroll in class or do both – I did both.’
And now he’s got a bestseller.