Brooke Hemphill on editing and revising her memoir Lesbian For A Year

Brooke H with her book

This is the courageous and utterly charming Brooke Hemphill, clutching a copy of Lesbian For A Year, her memoir about, well, I’ll let you take a wild guess.

Brooke is appearing in two events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. One is the Queer Literary Salon at 7.30pm on Saturday 30th August at the Toff in Town (ticketed). The other is Lesbian For a Year, an in-conversation with Festival director Lisa Dempster, at 10.00am Sunday 31st at AMI The Cube (free).

Author – agent Q&A
In an effort to lift the veil on the enduring mysteries of the book publication process, I’m posting an occasional series of Q&As with my clients on their respective paths to publication. You can read the first one here

In her responses, Brooke is characteristically forthright, self-deprecating and modest.

Why did you want to write this book? For how long had you thought about writing it?
I’ve always wanted to write a book since I was a little kid. My sister and I used to write awful illustrated books about some bloke with a mustache who had a little pet dog.

I have a discarded 50,000 word document on my computer I stumbled across recently that was a very rough attempt to write a book about my alcohol fuelled drinking adventures called Run the Gauntlet. But every time I started, I gave up or got distracted. Last year, I decided if it was ever going to happen, I had to get serious. I spoke to a couple of published authors and asked how they did it and what it did for their careers.

Everyone said the same thing: they didn’t make much money but the book opened up other opportunities.

At that time, I was editing a magazine that was tanking and I knew I needed something else in the works. So I went for it with the book.

Describe your drafting process.
I had this romantic notion of disappearing somewhere for a month or two to write. The first 20,000 words were already in the can when I jumped on the plane to Los Angeles in November last year. With 20,000 down, I had 40,000 to go! [Editor’s note: I sold Brooke’s book on the basis of a partial manuscript, a process described here.]

I rented an apartment in Venice Beach and set myself a quota of 2,000 words a day. Some days, I wrote double that. And so the first draft came out pretty quickly. I printed it off and marked up typos with a red pen, made the changes on the document and thought life was pretty sweet. Little did I know…

What happened after you finished the first draft?

I have to come clean. I had a very naive view that once the first draft was done, it’d be smooth sailing from there. It’d just be a couple of weeks of polishing then the book would be in the hands of the typesetters and proofreaders. Oh, how wrong I was.

When I got my first round of notes back on the first draft, I had been forced to take six weeks off work before I started a new job so I had time on my hands to deal with what turned out to be a complete redrafting of the book.

My lifesaving agent [Ed’s note: aw, shucks] suggested I get some butchers paper and plot out the key scenes and moments in the book. At the time I was staying at my partner’s house and I plastered these enormous sheets of paper to cupboard doors in his bedroom which essentially listed every person I’d ever slept with. Fortunately, he was away at the time.

What kinds of revisions did you do between the first draft and subsequent drafts? What were the main challenges for you in developing the manuscript?
The main challenge was pacing. How much of this story should go in compared to another one? How do I jump forward five years here or a week there? The main message I got on the first draft was that the book needed to “get to the lesbian part faster”, which made sense since the book’s title is Lesbian for a Year.

Choosing what to keep in and what to chop out was also a challenge. After editing other people’s work for several years, I’d forgotten just how hard it is to be objective with your own words. You’re just too damn close to see what needs to be chopped and so having one or two experienced hands to give you feedback is key.

During this process, Virginia gave me a piece of advice that was so pertinent, I mention it in the acknowledgements of the book. “Think of your first draft as a rocket being launched from Cape Canaveral. When it takes off, there is all this scaffolding that falls away as the rocket goes out into the atmosphere. The rocket is in the air. It’s taken off. You just need to let the scaffolding fall away now,” she said. And she was dead right.

Did anything surprise you about the process of getting a book published?

Writing a memoir is a little bit like enforced therapy: somehow the editor just seems to know where the sorest points are that you’re brushing over. And they ask for more. This makes you examine and reexamine, over and over again, moments you might really like to forget about. So I would say I was surprised what I learned about myself from writing the book.

I was also surprised at just how tough a process it was to get the book over the finish line. But what I learned was that a lot of writers feel similarly as they get toward the end of the process. They also hate their books and don’t ever want to read them again. I have to say, during the final stages of drafting, every time I opened the manuscript, my shoulders would tense. It was very stressful but overall, worth it in the end. I mean, I hope so. I’m on standby for any scathing reviews.

Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?
Polish, polish, polish your pitch and the first 20,000 words of your manuscript. Then get yourself an excellent agent. Virginia talked me down off the ledge several times when it all seemed overwhelmingly hard and she was there with a word of encouragement or two when I most needed it. “You’re capable of good writing,” she told me during the drafting process. I wrote those words down in my notebook and went back to them whenever I wasn’t so sure.

Ultimately, I say dream big but be prepared to work your ass off.

Writing a book and having a full time job is hard bloody work and just when you think you are finished, here comes another round of notes and changes.

What questions do you have about Brooke’s comments, or about the process of editing and revision she describes? I’m always interested to hear from readers of this blog and welcome your questions and responses.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Whilst I have no problem with someone writing about their experiences with sexual fluidity and i haven’t read the book but what is insensitive is the idea that lesbianism is merely about sexual acts. I am constantly getting asked by men for threesomes with my girlfriend or if we make videos!? because lesbians are seen as purely sexual creatures whereas my definition of lesbianism is about love and being able to have a long term relationship with a woman wanting that and the potential for something like that . I could and can have sex with a man but I would have no intention of gaining a deeper relationship with the male species becuase i have a strong preference towards women somewhat biologically and somewhat mentally . you have to understant that whilst theoretically there is nothing wrong with your title it belittles the steps lesbians are trying to take around the world to make gayness less about sex and more about people taking seriously the fact that two women might love each other and care for each other beyond the physical . Nothing wrong with what your doing just dont sensationalize or trivialize our version of love and sexuality . Love and sexuality are fluid but some people have strong preferences that arent easily swayed and whilst we should be open to possibilities for some it is not always as fluid or interchangeable . I am gay because i love woman (more precisely a particular woman) not because i fuck them .

    1. Hi Holly,
      Thank you very much for taking the time to comment so openly. The tension between book publishing as a business (how does a publisher help a new title stand out in a crowded market?) and as an art form (in which authors sometimes bring highly personal and often difficult and complex subjects into the public sphere) is clearly demonstrated in the title of Brooke’s book, which has understandably raised hackles. One of the main reasons I wanted to help Brooke find a readership was that her story is one about the search for intimacy, which is precisely what you describe when you refer to wanting love and a successful long-term relationship. Like you, my preference (in my case, for men) will not be swayed. And yet I am not alone in being fascinated by the struggles and choices of people whose preference is not so fixed. Which is why I was able to find her a publisher. Perhaps if you read the book you would see that Brooke’s story is more nuanced than the attention-grabbing title might suggest. — Virginia

  2. Thanks 🙂 visualising the butchers paper diagram of lovers made me laugh – tis good to keep the humour during such a long process. Congratulations to both of you.

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