22 Nov 2017

What it’s like to win $10,000 to write your first book

3:16 pm on 22 November 2017

This aspiring author is going on a road trip.



Richell Prize winner Sam Coley.

Richell Prize winner Sam Coley. Photo: Supplied

Sam Coley’s story about a twin brother and sister’s journey down State Highway One after the death of their parents has won him an opportunity that any aspiring author would dream of.

Picked from 579 entries, his submission was picked as the Richell Prize - an annual “work-in-progress prize” open to unpublished writers of adult fiction and adult narrative non-fiction. It was established in three years ago by Hachette Australia in partnership with The Guardian and The Emerging Writers Festival.


The Richell is judged on the first three chapters of the submitted manuscript, and a synopsis outlining the direction of the proposed work. The winner receives $10,000 and a 12-month mentorship with one of Hachette Australia’s publishers.

“It’s amazing,” Coley tells me over the phone from Adelaide, where he’s studying law and working full time at the moment. (He plans to drop down to one paper per semester in the 12 months he has to finish the book).

“You don't have to have finished the book … They work with you over 12 months to develop the manuscript into a publishable standard.”

Do you have experience writing?

Yeah, I’ve been writing since I was a child, I guess. When I was at Auckland Grammar School I just used to sit in class and fill exercise books with not the things I was meant to be filling exercise books with. In third form I got hauled up in front of the dean ‘cause I did really badly in everything except English in my exams. He was like “well you should just write a book’ and I was like ‘alright, maybe I will then”.

[At this point Sam does an excellent impression of a nerdy 13-year-old boy’s voice.]

So I just wrote. I went to film school. It’s a different way of thinking when you’re script writing, it’s very visual medium, so I kind of forgot in a weird way. Then I moved to London, not long after I graduated. I was there for almost five years before I started to try and get back into prose writing.

What were you doing in London?

I was working in employee relations for a chain of supermarkets. I just went on my OE and stayed a for a while.

Your story feels personal. Is it autobiographical in any way?

No, it’s not. I’m not a twin. I do have a sister, but we get on very well - not at all like the spiteful characters in this book.

I mean, to some degree I think everything you write is slightly autobiographical, but not the story or the characters. The main character has fairly conflicted feelings regarding what home is to him and what it means and where it is and where he lives.

I certainly experienced feelings like that - especially during my first years in London when I wasn’t sure if it was just somewhere I was living or if it was home, or if New Zealand was my home. I eventually figured out that both of those things could be true at the same time.

How far does the travelling in the story go?

The book will end at the bottom of Stewart Island.

Is that a trip you’ve done before?

No. I’m gonna use some of my newly acquired $10,000. I’m gonna book a flight fairly soon and come over just after Christmas and spend 10 or 12 days doing a whirlwind tour. Details are really important when you’re trying to create a setting and depict it faithfully.

There are some places that I need to go where significant events in the book are set. It’s one thing to look up a place on Google images, but it’s an entirely different thing to know that there are bees everywhere or it smells weird.

How is the book actually coming along?

I’m still drafting - I’ve been doing two full time jobs, so I’ve been kind of haphazardly getting at it as and when. I know I have to take it more seriously now, I guess. I tend to write quickly when I’m writing, but quite sporadically. Right now it’s about 150 bound, loose leaf, typewritten and handwritten pages. The first thing I need to do is transcribe my draft onto a computer, because probably somebody will want to read what I’ve done so far.

Did you say typewritten?

Yeah, I use a typewriter. For reasons other than just being a hipster wanker.

I like to draft, not on a computer, because I spend my days staring at a computer screen and I have no desire to go home and stare at one. Also, when I type something up off a typewritten page to a computer, that’s when I start to edit for the first time. It’s like a free round of editing.

I also tend to drink when I write sometimes, so I use the typewriter because otherwise my handwriting just gets so messy that I eventually can’t read anything. The speed that I can write with on a typewriter is the same speed that I can come up with words and sentences and dialogue. It gives a good cadence to the writing.

Is the typewriter noisy? If you get up at 4am to start typing, do you get a bang on the ceiling from the neighbours?

I would never get up four in the morning to do anything. Generally, I would write until four in the morning rather than getting up to write at four in the morning. I’ve never had any complaints.

When do you write?

Just whenever I’ve got time. I try to make time to do it. Luckily I moved to Adelaide, for some reason, I know abut three people here so I don’t have much of a social life to get in my way.

Now that you’ve won this prize, do you feel like there’s more pressure to get the book done?

Oh yeah, most certainly. On one hand, it’s a good thing because it’s been almost two years since I wrote the first couple of pages. I was thinking "for god’s sake Sam, you have to hurry up and finish this, otherwise it’s going to be forever and you’ll never do it." So on the one hand, that time pressure is good, but on the other hand I’ve got this fear that the first three chapters were good and the rest of it’s just a pile of shit.

It’s stressful. If you were just writing by yourself and you were sending your manuscript off to a bunch of publishers and agents and they say "no thanks, not interested," you can fail fairly privately. But if someone gives you $10,000 and puts your article in a couple of magazines, then everybody knows your writing a book. If it turns out to be crap you have to really publically fail, which is fairly intimidating.

That’s one of the things that terrifies me most about being a journalist - my name is on stuff I write, and it’s on the internet. It’s terrifying if you’re someone who grapples with anxiety. Sorry. I hope I’m not making you feel like you should be anxious.

No, no. Nothing you can say can make me more anxious than I already am.

The other part of my mind, the better part, tells me that it’s a prize where publishers and agents and editors, they can see potential, I guess. That’s what I tell myself. Those first three chapters weren’t perfect, but that’s why they give you 12 months and a mentorship to work with a publisher who has hopefully seen something that exists and that isn’t just the result of a fluke.

It’s good to have someone tell you something’s good.

Yeah, it’s the dream for a writer writing their first manuscript to have someone to talk to along the way and say "this is working," "this isn’t working," "change this," you know? Whatever.

Have you had anything published before?


Wow. You really nailed it.

Ha. I’ve always been quite scared [about people reading his work] actually. I think it’s only fairly recently that I was like, "well, if you want to write, someone has to read it, so …" You have to put yourself out there.

The day after I went to the award ceremony, and I was feeling all cloud nine-ey and whatnot, I got an email from a short story competition based in Melbourne that I’d entered and they were like "oh, sorry you didn’t get on the short list, but we really encourage you to keep up with the writing." 

I was like, "thank you, I will". It was a really nice little balance to keep my ego in check.