Guest Blog: Jeff Toghill

When I met Jeff through my writing cours, straight after I left school, I never realised what an impact he was going to have on my life.

I know the first few assignments for The Writing School I hadn’t put my best into and Jeff’s comments reflected that. Suddenly I became too busy to do something as ‘un-cool’ as writing and shelved the modules.

When I finally went back to it about five years ago, my writing must have matured because Jeff contacted me and said I really needed to try and do something with my writing. “You’re good enough to write a published novel,” he told me.

Jeff has been instrumental in my journey of writing.Whenver I’ve fallen by the way, he’s picked me up. He’s critiqued my work and offered nothing but strong and worthwhile advice. His teachings have also helped with me understanding the business of writing and how, even though I don’t have face to face contact with the publishing world, that I remain professional and business like. One of these rules is to write every day – I still don’t do that, but it’s something I’m working on!

It is very clear to me that I wouldn’t be where I am toda, without his help. I still never submit anything to Allen and Unwin without him reading it!

This is his story…

I was about 9 years old when I was first published!  I wrote a short piece about a funny incident on our farm and sent it off to a publishing house in London.  Imagine my astonishment when it appeared in a “fun” column in a national magazine and even more, imagine my astonishment when a cheque arrived!  I’m not sure if it was the cheque or the fact that it was published, but something triggered off a latent desire in me to write more.

At 14, I wrote an instruction book (freehand in one of my school exercise books) on how to carry out the various farm activities such as haymaking, ploughing, harvesting, etc., all of which were part of my life in those days.  I sent it off to Hodder and Stoughton, also in London, and to their everlasting credit, although they turned it down (they had to!) they did so very gently and sympathetically then asked to see any work I produced in the future.

Hodders have been one of my main publishers since that time and when I came to Australia in the 1960s, I literally transferred across to their Sydney office and became firm friends with their CEO and his publishing staff who have continued to publish many of my books.  Apart from an immeasurable number or articles and stories in magazines ( I was for a number of years editor of a national magazine) my current tally is 65 books  published here in Australia, in the USA, Britain, Canada, NZ and other English speaking countries.  My publishers, other than Hodders, include Angus & Robertson, MacMillans, New Holland, Reeds, David & Charles (UK), Ward Lock (UK) and a few smaller boutique publishers.

Although I had a brief fling with fiction for a few years in my early days, non-fiction is my preferred genre, probably because when I started to write seriously I was serving at sea as a navigating officer and I wrote travel stories about all the ports, places and people around the world which my ship visited.  When I swallowed the anchor (nautical term for leaving the service!) my writing blossomed and I was producing books and articles on a wide spectrum of subjects including travel, Australian history, sport, treasure trove, education, maritime affairs and maritime litigation.  I was at that time a consultant to the legal profession on maritime matters, which resulted in my spending much of my time in courts around the country.  I also ran a maritime business with sailing and navigation schools in Sydney, and as a maritime surveyor was instrumental in raising the historic barque “James Craig” from her watery grave in Tasmania.  After a $12m refit she is now fully restored as a working windjammer running tours and excursions out of Australian ports.

Throughout all these activities I continued to write and because I love teaching, I also tutored new writers through The Writing School, a branch of Lifestyle Learning Direct.  My pleasure in tutoring is in meeting budding new writers and helping them to get a start in the literary world.  I usually ask them to send me material they have written with a view to publishing and I then analyse it to see where I feel that particular student has potential.  I then suggest that either they take a course in basic writing skills in order to get a good grounding in the basics or, if I feel they are good enough to make a start, I coach them along through editing their work, pointing out where I feel they can improve or where, hopefully, they are already approaching the stage where they should submit work to a publisher or editor.

As far as picking a winner is concerned, I guess it is just intuition.  For example, when I first read a short story by Tim Winton (long before he wrote his first novel) I knew instinctively he was a brilliant writer and it was no surprise that he went on to be one of Australia’s finest novelists.  Not only does he write a good story but he has a way with words which only the lucky few ever achieve.

Another and more recent example is a lady I taught through a Writing School course.  She impressed me greatly with her writing ability.  When she finished her course, despite being a busy farmer’s wife and mother of two young children, she continued to produce very saleable material.  I was particularly taken with some of her short stories for children and suggested she contact a publisher.

Fleur McDonald is now one of the bright stars in the Allen & Unwin stable of new Australian writers.  I worked with her on her first novel “Red Dust” which, apart from being a huge success here, was also published in Germany.  A&U are one of Australia’s top publishers and they can’t get enough of her work.  With two more Australian novels in the pipeline she obviously has a very rosy literary future.  I am delighted and proud to have been Fleur’s mentor because I am certain that she is going to make a huge impact on the literary scene in this country in future years.

Jeff Toghill

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