I can’t remember when I first heard about Tess Woods but the Perth author is an inspiring role model for all emerging writers. Tess was compelled to write her first book, Love At First Flight after binge reading the whole Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers in four days. It took seven years for Tess to land a publishing deal with Harper Collins and since then she has been busy juggling her writing, family life and her day job as a physiotherapist. She is a much sought-after speaker for library talks whose warm and engaging manner will have you loving her for her frankness and wit. When she shared her tips on how to give author talks in her newsletter I followed them religiously. I recently met up with Tess at a beachside cafe in Perth’s northern suburbs to eat cake, talk writing and find out more about her latest book, Beautiful Messy Love. What I discovered about Tess is that she is as lovely in real life as she is in her newsletters.
NLK: How was your writing process for Beautiful Messy Love different from your first book Love At First Flight? Are you more of a plotter now?
TW: I’m still a pantster. I totally fly by the seat of my pants. When I sit down I have no idea what I’m going to write but I work to time limits and word count goals. Writing Beautiful Messy Love was a very different process to writing my first book. Love at First Flight poured out of me super fast whereas writing Beautiful Messy Love was at times like trying to get blood from a stone. My third book has definitely been easier to write than my second which has been a huge relief!
NLK: Does a big ego hurt or help writers?
TW: A strong sense of self-belief I think can definitely take you places so I don’t think having that kind of an ego hurts. You need to be able to take knock-backs and fully commit to the idea that you’ll succeed even in the face of rejection. That takes an ego.
But a sense of entitlement is a different story. Nobody is owed success, we all have to go out and earn it. I had success with my first book but that success didn’t come overnight. I rewrote Love At First Flight eleven times. I sent it off for opinions and spent money on manuscript appraisals. I was rejected by twenty-three agents in a row before I landed my agent and then a publishing contract. I have a strong sense of self-belief but I also remember where I come from and that even though I worked hard, luck was definitely on my side. There are plenty of other writers who I’m sure are far more talented than I am that haven’t been published yet. So I try and remember that often to keep some perspective and have some grace. Natasha Lester once told me that success is where good luck meets hard work. I think it’s a fabulous saying. I worked hard but I also got incredibly lucky and was able to snap up an opportunity when it came along so I don’t let my head get too big so that I never make the mistake of thinking I’m entitled to be the position I’m in now.
Also, ego in the sense of thinking you’re better than everyone else and coming across that way by talking down to others won’t get you far at all. Well who knows, maybe it will get you far but I’ll totally talk about you behind your back with my friends if I think that of you!
NLK: Do you think people can write well if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
TW: If you’re not a sensitive person who really feels emotions strongly, then in my opinion it would be hard to write convincing fiction well. You may be able to put together a great cookbook, or a world class travel guide but for fiction you need to move your readers emotionally. For me personally, writing is a cheap form of therapy; it’s a way for my excess emotions to spill out.
If you’re not passionate in real life, how can you then be authentically passionate on the page? And who wants to read fiction that doesn’t have an element of emotion or passion regardless of the genre?
I have this theory that what you write is a reflection of who you are. And I don’t mean this in the context of the plot, rather it is the emotion and personality that comes through in your writer’s voice. When I read Vanessa Carnevale or Lisa Ireland or Lily Malone or any other authors I know well, I can hear their voices in my head. It’s as if they’re talking to me because they sound the same in real life as they do in their books and I’ve had countless people who know me say the same thing to me about my writing. Even authors I don’t know personally – if you read a Marian Keyes’ novel for example, and then watch her on her vlogs, you can see that bubbly bright personality shine through in her words. So I figure if you’re as dull as a door knob in real life and come across as really cold and aloof, I’m probably not going to go running out to seek your novels because I’d bet I won’t feel anything reading them.
NLK: Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
TW: For me, writing isn’t a spiritual practice in the same way that prayer is for example. But I do believe that writing comes from a spiritual place – you can’t manifest it by yourself and be authentic, it would read as contrived writing unless it came as a gift. I know this isn’t a popular opinion but I truly believe with writing, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Sure you can hone your skills, learn to be better through workshops, improve your grammar and structure skills etcetera. I firmly believe that the ability to spin a yarn that people want to listen to is a gift and being a person of faith I think that all gifts come from a spiritual place.
NLK: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
TW: Oh God, yes! I hide loads of secrets in my books! I hide so many in-jokes that only certain people would get, it just isn’t funny! What fun would it be if you couldn’t sneak a few secrets in your own stories?
Oh, and I also get revenge on people! I’ll let you in on a naughty example of a secret that won’t be such a big secret now! I support the charity, Share the Dignity and we asked a certain Australian entertainer if he would be an ambassador for us. His quite abrasive email response was, “I’m a very busy man you know.” So I put those exact words in a scene from Beautiful Messy Love where I wasn’t exactly complimentary about this well-known person. There’s a lesson for you. People of Australia – don’t cross me or the charities I support or you’ll end up in my next book! Revenge is sweet, my friend.
NLK: What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about writing as a craft?
TW: Two things. The first is to trust my instinct while still taking the advice of editors. This is a really hard tightrope to walk. Editors are the experts, I find nine times out of ten they are right and my editor, Di has saved me loads of public humiliation. But when you feel really strongly that a part is right and you know with all your heart that it needs to stay in the story, I think you need to stand up and fight for it. My editor really disliked the ending of Beautiful Messy Love which is an epilogue. But in my feedback from early readers, every single one has talked about the ending and how much they loved it. Literally, all of them. So this has proven to me how much I really do have to trust my instinct when I know deep down that something is right.
Lesson two – you can’t just write when you feel creative. To have a career in writing you have to write when you’re tired, distracted and stressed. You need loads of discipline. Discipline. Discipline. Discipline. It takes discipline to go from an idea to writing 120K words. You still need to sit there and make words appear on the page even if you’ve had an argument with your hubby or your kids are driving you crazy. People who only write when they feel inspired aren’t the same people who can successfully put out a book a year. You need a lot of commitment to see each manuscript through to the end and on time year after year. If you’re unpublished, my advice for you is to write as if you are and as if you have a deadline if you want to get the job done.
NLK: If you had to do something differently as a child/teen to become a better writer, what would you do?
TW: I didn’t have an idyllic childhood. Throughout my life, I’ve had plenty of trauma and grief, to be honest I think I’ve had three life-times worth of trauma which in itself is good grounding for a writer. But what I do wish is that as an adolescent I had been able to go through that rite of passage of pushing boundaries, exploring life and my identity, failing at love, making mistakes. Growing up, I had such a strict home life that I didn’t dare rebel. It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I had my first unchaperoned outing with some friends–we went to K-Mart for a shopping trip. My teenage years went past while I was under lock and key and I think if I had the opportunity to make more mistakes during those years it would have meant I would have matured earlier instead of needing to be a teenager in my twenties, even into my thirties which is when I wrote Love at First Flight. I think my maturity developed at a slower rate than most people because I believe you need to tick off all those stages in life. So as a writer, had I matured earlier in life, perhaps this would have been reflected in my writing and I would have produced more mature work earlier on as well. But hey, I’ll get there, I’m in my mid-forties now and finally feel that I’m ready to be a grown up so hopefully my latest work and the work that follows brings more wisdom and maturity.
NLK: What’s on your bedside table to read?
TW: I’m reading The Pretty Delicious Cafe by New Zealand author, Danielle Hawkins. It’s gorgeous and light and I’m really enjoying it.
NLK: What can readers look forward to next?
TW: Love and Other Battles is my first historical novel and quite possibly my last, mostly because I’m inherently lazy and historicals take a whole heap of extra research. It’s set over three generations spanning from the Vietnam War until today and follows the women in that family. I was inspired to write it by my one of my favourite movies, The Notebook, about a war-torn abiding love affair.
And just like Love at First Flight, and Beautiful Messy Love, I’ve used my all time favourite book The Bridges of Madison County for inspiration as well. In Love at First Flight there’s Matt, In Beautiful Messy Love there’s Toby and in Love and Other Battles there’s Frank. All three men are a nod to the best character ever written, Robert Kincaid from The Bridges of Madison County. Love and Other Battles will be out next year, I just have to finish writing the damn thing!
And I already have my project lined up that I’ll be writing next year to be released in 2019, with the working title (that my readers chose for me), The Problem with Love Hearts. I’m travelling to Venice at the end of the year for research! The book tells the story of what happens when someone receives a heart transplant. The recipient is a Venetian gondolier and there’s an Australian girl in it too and you’ll find out the rest when I’ve written it.
An Excerpt from Beautiful Messy Love
Okay, here’s the opening of Nick’s first scene:
I draped a heavy arm over my grainy eyes as the sunshine broke through a gap in the blinds right onto my face. Why did sunrise have to be so damned early? It was just rude. It was Sunday, for Christ’s sake. People needed to sleep.
I smacked my lips together, tasting last night’s Jack, and turned to face the other side of the bed. It was empty, the sheet was pulled halfway down in a neat diagonal and the indentation from her head was still on the pillow. I listened for any sounds of Bridget in the house. She might have been the type to settle in with a coffee watching Netflix while she waited for me to wake up or, worse, be in the kitchen making breakfast. But all I heard was the distant hum of a lawnmower, my dog Bluey and the Alsatian a few doors down barking in a duet, and the sound of traffic off the main road.
At least I didn’t have to take her out for breakfast, my tried and tested way of getting girls out of my house without hurting their feelings. Taking them out for breakfast was usually enough for them not to run to the papers. I hated those breakfasts, with their awkward daylight small talk and the exchanging of phone numbers and the fake promises to meet up for dinner during the week. But they were a necessary evil.
Thankfully Bridget seemed to have accepted our night together for what it was and left without expecting a romance to spring from it. Hang on, it was Bridget, wasn’t it? Bridie? Could’ve been Bridie. Hopefully she didn’t steal anything.
Shit, did she take any photos of me before she left? Would I be all over social media again today? Would I have Craig ranting at me, about how I was letting the whole team down again and how I was failing in my duty as a role model? My head pounded into the back of my eyeballs.
I reached for my phone and squinted at the bright screen while my heart raced at the thought of what I might find. Nothing. Thank God. I’d dodged another bullet.
I dropped my head back down on the sweat-soaked pillow and stared at the lockscreen image on the phone. It was of Dad and me, standing back to back on the sand, holding our surfboards out in front of us. I was about sixteen when Mum took that shot of us on the Gold Coast. I stared at the screen until it blacked out.
‘No more, Dad, I promise.’
I had half woken up just after 2 a.m. feeling dead inside as I watched the girl sleeping, her long legs entwined in mine. I’d wished in that sleepy moment in bed that we meant something to each other. I wanted to wake her up and apologise for what had happened between us. But I didn’t. And now she was gone.
I’d met her for the first time a few hours before when she slid up behind me on the dance floor and wrapped her arms around my waist by way of introduction, before dropping one hand down and stroking my penis through my jeans in time with the music.
She’d never know that I watched her sleeping and wondered what it was that possessed her to come home with a complete stranger, and what made me do the same thing? It had never felt good afterwards. But it felt particularly shit today. I didn’t want to be that guy any more. I hated that guy.
I swung my legs out of bed, scrounging around for boxer shorts. I was through with this shit. Sunday was technically the first day of the week. New week, new attitude. No drinking, not even one drop, until the end of the season, or maybe ever. My team mates didn’t touch alcohol for the entire season. They all took the responsibility of being in peak physical condition seriously. It was time for me to do the same.
I swallowed against the scratchy dryness of my throat and something inside me knew with full conviction that last night would never happen again. I’d finally had enough.
I’d had enough of having to watch my back for cameras whenever I was up to no good, enough of feeling seedy, of trying to piece together the movements of the night before, of possessive drunk boyfriends imagining something where there was nothing and looking for a fight; enough of feeling like an arsehole. I’d had enough of the whole deal. But most of all I’d had enough of not having any respect for myself or for those girls I ended up with.
Dad was the most respectful person I ever knew. He treated Mum like a queen. And look at what I did. I was worried that a girl whose name I didn’t know had robbed me. How the hell had I turned out like this?
I found my boxer shorts turned inside out in a ball on top of my jeans, which were also inside out from my hurry to get out of them and into the girl last night. I slid my legs into the shorts and stood up.
Uh-oh. There was a sharp twinge in my left foot. I took another step, hoping I’d imagined it. I hadn’t. The searing pain shot up my fifth toe towards the ankle. I put my head in my hands.
Not again. Please, God, not again.
I gulped down the dread along with two Nurofen, and kept the bulk of my body weight on my right foot while I hobbled through the house to the back door. I fiddled with the stiff lock and let Bluey in. He galloped past me, just about bowling me over, and raced mad laps all over the living room. Only once he’d sniffed out every corner was he satisfied that all was as he had left it the night before and he came to greet me. He bent his head down and licked the top of my bare left foot.
‘How can you tell it’s sore, mate?’ I ruffled the top of his head. ‘Clever boy you are, hey? You hungry, Blue? Come on, food time.’
Hearing the f-word, Bluey stopped his inspection of my injured foot and bounced around on his front paws. I left him scoffing dry biscuits on the back deck and made my way back to the bathroom to wash Bridget/Bridie and the remnants of last night off me. My foot throbbed under the hot water and I felt my career slipping away.
Don’t panic, you don’t know it’s that.
But I did know, deep down I knew.
About Tess Woods
Tess Woods is a physiotherapist who lives in Perth, Australia, with one husband, two children, one dog and one cat who rules over them all. Her debut novel, Love at First Flight, received acclaim from readers around the world and won Book of the Year in the AusRom Today Reader’s Choice Award. When she isn’t working or being a personal assistant to her kids, Tess enjoys reading and all kinds of grannyish pleasures like knitting, baking, drinking tea and tending to the veggie patch. She’s also moderately obsessed with the TV series Nashville and taking Buzzfeed quizzes. Tess loves connecting with her readers on Facebook and you can also contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org