One’s first novel will always remain special. Mainly for the sheer drive it takes to write a novel and accomplishing it, despite all the doubts along the way. It was a journey where I tapped into my true potential, that what I was writing was meant to come out and nothing could stop me from finishing.
I will never forget the moment when it hit me I was afraid to write a novel. I’d been writing for a few years with the West Coast Writers’ Circle before I joined the Romance Organisation of Writers (ROSA). I attended all the writing events, sat with published Authors, read their books, wrote books reviews, but couldn’t commit to writing a novel myself. Rae Rivers, a successful Romance Author had always taken an interest in me. She sent me emails from time to time enquiring how my writing was going. I’d give excuse upon excuse on how busy I was to write a novel. Then at the Annual Writing Retreat in 2017, Rae sat opposite me and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Sumi, don’t let us meet at another event and you haven’t started your novel!” At first I was angry by her remark. I was ready to remind her of all my responsibilities, but stopped myself realising they were excuses not to commit. Fear was holding me back and winning. I needed to step up and do something about it.
Returning from the Writing Retreat, I made a promise to myself that I would write a novel. I pulled out of a creative writing group I was part of. I stopped writing short stories or anything else that was eating my writing time. Then I started researching tropes and lines I could write for, but nothing felt right. I thought of an idea for my story and nothing came. I prayed about it daily. I was becoming despondent and so close to giving up.
At the time, I was recovering from a knee op and couldn’t run. Instead, I was frequenting the gym, cycling to strengthen my knees. Ryan, a personal trainer friend came to me and we had a conversation about my not running and how much I missed it. There was a guy with boxing gloves, punching the bag ahead of us. Ryan caught me looking at him and said, “Why not try boxing?” I stopped cycling and looked at him in disbelief. “What do I know about boxing?” Ryan tried to convince me it was the best training for upper body strength, especially since I couldn’t run. I didn’t buy into it of course, leaving the gym still in limbo.
Runners World contacted me soon after wanting to do a photoshoot for runners who’d lost weight through running. I thought the universe was playing tricks on me. Why give me this opportunity when I wasn’t even running! But I agreed and went for the shoot and had fun with it. Thereafter, I drove to Sea Point Pavilion and took a 5km walk. I was peckish soon after and decided to stop at a Nando’s restaurant. I chose a table beside a corner wall to give me privacy and ordered. Waiting for my order, my eyes fell on the framed sketch hanging on the wall. It depicted a woman boxer and a story of how she’d taken up boxing to defend herself from abusive men. I couldn’t stop staring at the picture and fished out my journal from my bag and wrote a short story on it.
I didn’t think much of it after. But the strangest things were happening. Wherever I went, I saw a symbol of boxing, a sticker of boxing gloves on a car ahead of me, boxers in the gym training, the punching bag stealing my gaze. I couldn’t deny it any longer – God was steering me in the direction of boxing and I still didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t understand how I was going to write a novel about boxing when I knew nothing about the sport!
Once acceptance set in, I sat down to plot my story. I found visual characters, developed them and slowly but surely, I had something to work with. I was excited about it. I decided to visit a real boxing club to get a feel of it. But when I called the club, I was informed that I needed to train as a boxer to gain inside information. This wasn’t my intention, but I did whatever it took to get me there. I signed up at The Ring and Chris, the coach welcomed me. There was an actual ring in the gym, real boxers were training, hip hop music was blaring. My hands were strapped in cotton wrap in preparation of gloves being placed on them. I joined a mixed class of young athletic trainees. The session commenced with 15 minutes of skipping. I rarely skip because of my arthritic knees, but didn’t want to wimp out, so I did it. Next was all sorts of strength training – planking, push-ups, lifting 5kg balls and cardio. At no point did we stop for a break. Then we were told to strap on our gloves and positioned around the ring to hit speed balls, punching bags and the like. Two by two was taken into the ring to spar with Chris. I was punching the speed bag and praying Chris wouldn’t call me. But he did and my heart pounded as I climbed into the ring and stood before him. He gave me commands, when to jab, when to left hook, right. It was all foreign to me. I couldn’t get the sequence right. Adrenalin was flooding me, fear and anticipation intertwined. Chris even swore at me a few times when I missed punches. When I left the gym that night, not only was I dripping in sweat, I felt like an absolute champion. Now I understood the thrill of boxing. You have to have guts to train like a boxer, to risk everything to win even if it means being beaten to death by an opponent.
I tried to do a few more sessions, but sadly my body wasn’t strong enough for the grueling training. But I had gained valuable research and was ready to start writing. My writing group was instrumental in spurring me on. We signed up for Camp Nano in July 2017 and my goal was to write 10 000 words. It seemed daunting at first, but I got the hang of it soon enough. I found I work very well when there’s a goal chasing me. When Camp Nano ended, things slowed down substantially. I was tackling the first fight scene and I didn’t know how to write it. Procrastination set in. I watched lots of boxing movies and went to live boxing matches to boost my knowledge. I prayed on it, asking God to guide me through the blocked stages of writing.
ROSA was promoting it’s Strelitzia Contest around November 2017. I don’t enter competitions, but what stood out for me was the mentorship they were offering to guide entrants through their novels. The requirements was the first three chapters of a novel and a synopsis. By this time I was already 50% into my novel and was considering entering. I spoke to Neil and Dawn Rae (Author and writing group friend) about it. They encouraged me to give it a go, to see what happens. The moment I entered, I knew 2018 was going to be a super-busy year for me. But I was up for the challenge and God was holding my hand every step of the way.
In January 2018, Romy Sommer, Chairperson of ROSA emailed me letting me know that my mentor was Rae Rivers! I couldn’t believe it! It was as if the universe had brought us together in some wonderful way. I knew Rae and was comfortable with her. She contacted me and I promised to send a draft of my first three chapters after I’d edited it. When I received Rae’s email response to my work, I didn’t open it immediately. I was so afraid she’d hate everything I wrote, would tell me I had no talent and was wasting my time pursuing a writing career. But she was so gentle and supportive. She thought my writing was pleasant and I had a voice. Except for lots of backstory in the beginning chapters, she was positive we could make it work. I was ecstatic. Rae’s approval of my writing, her guidance throughout the process taught me so much and I am forever grateful.
I submitted my first three chapters and the synopsis on 1 May 2018. It was a very trying period for me. My darling dog, Roxy was hospitalised and was very ill. She soon passed on and I was devastated. I didn’t write much and thought nothing of the contest either. As far as I was concerned, I’d already achieved my goal, having submitted my entry and told myself I wouldn’t make it into round two. But the universe had other plans for me. The week of the results arrived and most contestants wanted the outcome. Not me. I hate the build up to announcements, the pressure it places on people, the anxiety and stress – things I didn’t need at that stage. When I received the news I was a finalist, I couldn’t believe it! My first novel was chosen as one in three to go into the next round!
Then the it hit home how much work I had to get done in 6 weeks! I had to finish writing my novel, edit it myself and submit my entry by 31 July 2018. I had no time to waste and forced myself to finish. It took so much out of me – but proved I could push myself beyond my limits. I finished Sydney’s Boxer on 2 July 2018. It had taken me 1 year and 1 month to write and I was thrilled. What an achievement! I did it! I requested Dawn to assist me with the edits and reading my book. She told me to send it to her and take a break from it. Fear set in. How could I send her something so raw? I hadn’t had a chance to edit it myself, but she said I needed to listen to her and trust her. I did, of course and it gave me a much needed breather to get my mind away from the book.
I decided to make arrangements to go to the ROSA conference in Johannesburg. I booked a flight, arranged hotel accommodation and tried to take my mind off the looming deadline. But as time passed, I was panicking. Dawn was under pressure to finish her work and return it to me. Two weeks before deadline, I commenced on draft two and so began a grueling period of editing my work. I took time off work as I couldn’t get it done with all my commitments. My family took over all my duties. I slept very little, worked myself to a frenzy, had meltdowns on a daily, but managed to finish and submit my book on deadline by 31 July 2018!
The relief of having achieved my goal was golden. I was on a high for days. All the hard work, foregoing sporting activities, days of little sleep had paid off. I could sit back and indulge in wasteful activities without a care in the world. I had given it my absolute best and stayed positive that Sydney’s Boxer would do well. As the days drew closer to the announcement, anxiety set in. But I’d come so far, I needed to attend the ROSA conference and make the most of it.
I was glad I attended the ROSA conference. I learned so much, got to network with lots of Authors and built friendships. However, the gala dinner where the announcement would be made was fast approaching and trepidation was building. I went to my room and prayed real hard to steady myself. I took a nap, then a shower and got ready for the dinner. One of the finalists was there, Mandy Verbaan and we sat together, holding hands when the announcement was made. Rae Rivers opened the envelope and announced that Mandy had won, Tracy was the first runner-up and I was the second. My heart sank, I was disappointed. I’d worked so hard on Sydney’s Boxer, I’d given it my all. But it wasn’t meant to be and I had to accept it. The next day I got to spend time with my mom and sister in Pretoria and it was exactly what I needed to forget things for a while.
Returning to Cape Town, I had time to think about the experience. Yes, I didn’t win the contest, but I was one of three finalists who went into the second round on my first novel. That’s huge. It wasn’t what I expected entering the contest. All I wanted was to work with a mentor and I gained so much more. I had to pick myself up and vowed that it would not spell the end of my novel.
Sydney’s Boxer, my first novel, my idea from God, my hard work, sweat and all my tears, will be published.