AUTHOR INTERVIEW | Meet the incredible Melanie Dimmitt, supremely talented writer + journalist, all-round lovely person and author of the phenomenal book Special: Antidotes To The Obsessions That Come With A Child’s Disability (follow Mel here: @the_special_book and find the book here).
Mel and I met when we worked together at Collective Hub magazine and have stayed great friends in the years since, with many a long phone call talking each other through the myriad of twists and turns we've both encountered, from first babies, freelance writing, books, more babies and both of us farewelling life in inner-city city for new horizons on opposite sides of Australia.
Like all great friendships, I have such respect and awe for this amazing lady and all the things she's triumphed through with grace and aplomb - not least, writing (and absolutely nailing) her first book!
Here, Mel tells all on how to write a book, from writing mentors and market research to how long it REALLY took to write her finished manuscript...
Tell us a little about your story – what is your book about?
Special is the book that I needed when my 6-month-old son, Arlo, was diagnosed with cerebal palsy and I felt like my whole world was ending. I was obsessing over things, like ‘Why me?’, and I was so scared about what the future would look like.
I was really desperate for a glimpse of ‘older Arlo’, just to check that he would definitely be walking. Him being able to walk was the biggest deal ever for me. What I didn’t want to do at that point was meet other parents raising kids with disabilities (that was the last thing I wanted to do) – but it was a thing all of the specialists were saying I should do.
Why did you decide to write Special?
In order to avoid socialising, I put my journalist cap on and decided to at least pretend to be writing a book, so I could interview parents, in a very one-sided interview style, to ask them what they did to feel better when they first got the diagnosis, or when they realised that their child wasn’t travelling a typical path. I wanted them to tell me that they felt happy, and that in hindsight, this wasn’t what they thought it was going to be.
I ended up interviewing over 50 parents all over the world, with kids with all sorts of disabilities, and this book is a big mish-mash of their advice, their insights, their hindsight. I also spoke to professionals – psychologists and specialists in the disability sector – who gave me expert guidance, meditations, those sort of things, to help as well.
Did you have any mentors during the writing process?
When writing the book, I had an amazing mentor in Amy Molloy, who’s a journo [and published author] I’d worked with before. I went and had breakfast with her at her house, and just told her the idea, and she was the one who said to me, ‘Do it with an outline, get that down,’ and that just helped me so much.
And she said, ‘Treat every chapter like an article’. Because you don’t know that you can write a book, but I knew that I could write 30 articles, so breaking it down like that really, really helped me get it out.
Amy also looked over my pitch material for me, she looked over my introduction and my Part 1, and really helped me nail that so I was ready to pitch.
How much research into the current market did you do before writing your book manuscript?
With regards to market research, it was cool because I was right in the thick of it, I was around these parents in the waiting rooms with their kids doing the therapies.
I was very aware that there was a need for a book like this. There didn’t seem to be one like it – there were lots of memoirs, and lots of resources that organisations give you that are really quite clinical and a bit lame, they’re all rainbow-coloured and they have children’s handwriting on the front and look like they’re catering to the kids rather than the parents…
I also did market research when I started pitching out to bigger publishers. Allen & Unwin I think came back to me and said, ‘Can you prove the need for this book?’. So I got in touch with my friend at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to ask them to figure out how many kids with disability are actually living in Australia, and it worked out that 1 in 10 households has a child with a disability. And we figured out that when you factor in parents and grandparents, there are millions of people caring for children with disability in Australia.
So I got all those figures together to prove there was a market – there was this idea that it’s a niche, and I really don’t believe that it is, when you look at the statistics of how many kids are diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, it’s quite considerable. And I’m also thinking quite globally with this, not just Australia, so I included global statistics as well.
How long did it take you to write your manuscript for Special?
I started interviewing parents when Arlo was one. That bit took ages because every interview was at least an hour, and then the transcribing took bloody ages! Then collating all that was a mission. Because it wasn’t a neat book, it’s not like it’s, ‘Here’s this person’s story,’ it’s more, ‘Here’s this topic’, so weaving all that in together and coming up with the structure of it took quite a while.
Then I started writing it just after I had my daughter Odie, when Arlo was two. I got the book deal maybe four months later, and submitted the manuscript in December of 2018, so what’s that, two years? So in book terms I suppose that isn’t very long, but it certainly felt like a LONG process.
Once I’d done all the interviews and had most of the content, I sort of ordered everything and planned everything. I wrote a chapter outline that helped a hell of a lot. As soon as I had that, it simplified things, so the actual writing of it probably went a lot quicker than the interviewing and putting together and planning and structuring of it.
How did it feel writing a book about subject matter so close to your heart?
I think writing about your pain and your worries really helps. It’s really therapeutic to do that, and it really did fast-track me to acceptance. It was a tough slog, because I was writing it alongside writing stuff that I was actually getting paid for. There were certainly days where I had to force myself to knock out a thousand words, but generally I found the process really healing. The words just came because I was being quite honest, I suppose, with how I was feeling at the time.
Find Special by Melanie Dimmitt here. Want more insider info from a published author? Read Part 2 of this interview series (How To Get Your Book Published) here and read Part 3 (Marketing Your Book) here.