Saturday, 26 November 2011

Straight from the Horse's Mouth: Publishing Advice

Tweetpitchers (from left to right): Darren Stephenson, me,
Zena Shapter, Lucy Stone, Monique Kowalczyk
A few weeks ago I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival 2011 in Sydney. 

I was lucky enough to win a free pass in The NSW Writing Centre's tweetpitch competition. The rules were you had to mention @writingNSW, use the hashtag #specfic11, and fit a pitch in however many of your 140 characters were left. The book pitched had to be speculative fiction. I won one of five passes with this tweetpitch:
 'Betrayed by everyone she loves, an assassin must decide who to trust to stop evil gaining the key to immortality'.
For those who don’t know, speculative fiction includes the fantasy and science-fiction genres and, more peripherally, horror. There was some advice given by publishers and published authors that I thought would be worth sharing with my fellow writers. 

Pan Macmillan Australia also announced it is launching a new ebook imprint in 2012. They are the first Australian publisher to do so. They don’t see ebooks as the death of traditional print books, just as a new format. The good news for us as writers is that more people are reading now than ever before.

Publishers' Talk
The first session of the day with a panel of publishers. The panel included Stephanie Smith of the Voyager imprint of Harper Collins Australia, Zoe Walton from Random House, Claire Craig from Pan Macmillan Australia and Keith Stevenson from Coeur de Lion Publishing.

These esteemed publishers had this advice to offer:
  • Don’t look at trends. By the time we, as writers, spot a trend, it’s usually too late to jump on the bandwagon. Publishing is cyclic, so trends come around again. If you can’t sell your book during the current trend, keep trying and your genre will eventually trend again. Writers also need to write to their strengths – there is no point writing what’s trending if it’s not your strength;

  •  The paranormal romance trend has outlived expectations, which means it has hung around long enough for writers to jump on the bandwagon. However, the longer a genre trends, the more saturated the market becomes. At this point publishers are looking for books within that trend but with original and different elements to what already exists. Cross-genres may become more appealing at this point. For trending genres, an original cover can become important in helping a book stand out to readers;

  • Sometimes a stand-alone book will be more appealing to a publisher when the market is over-saturated with series. Don’t dismiss the selling power of a stand-alone novel.

  • Don’t be discouraged by rejections. It’s not just about your writing;

  • Publishers are looking for strong voice, compelling story and superb writing. Especially, they’re looking for what’s different about a book.

  • Cross-over books can work but are harder to sell outside their home country because they are not easy to slot into default genres;

  • Stories that push boundaries are attractive;

  • Traditional high/epic fantasy is the beating heart of speculative fiction (e.g. George R. R. Martin). There is always room for these books. This was fantastic news for me as I write nothing but high fantasy. And of course, I too think of it as the beating heart of speculative fiction. Naturally!

  • There is a lot of interest in sci-fi currently plus room for modern humorous fantasy;

  • Sword and sorcery books are mostly gone, the trend has shifted to paranormal romance. No good sword and sorcery had been seen recently;

  • Traditional fantasy naturally lends itself to series, often trilogies, but there is room for stand-alone books.

  • Publishers do like authors to have a social networking presence but it’s not essential. When the market is flat, an author might have a huge social networking presence – and it can make no difference to sales. However it can help to get the word out and publishers encourage it;

  • Margo Lanagan
  • Don’t send a first draft to a manuscript appraisal service. You should self-edit first. Having had an appraisal won’t necessarily influence the publisher’s decision as they will make their own assessment but appraisal services and editors are useful to improve writing when a writer needs an outside perspective. Writers’ groups and critique groups can also fill this function, usually on a reciprocal basis.
What I took from this is if you’re writing paranormal romance at this late stage in the trend you probably aren’t in a better position than those of whose genres aren’t trending. You should write what you’re good at. And high fantasy ROCKS. 

The question put to the panel at the end of the session was ‘What book would you absolutely be unable to turn down if it crossed your desk on Monday?’ and here are the various responses.
  • A story with great voice and fully realised worlds;
  • A story with great voice, great worlds and lyrical writing;
  • A comic genius like Terry Pratchett;
  • A great gripping story that can’t be put down.
I too would like to see another Pratchett genius! If you’re hiding out there somewhere, there’s a publisher who wants you! Please do stand up. 

Versatile Artists
This was the second session I attended, with four Australian published speculative fiction authors. They were:
  • D.M. Cornish – a successful book illustrator who was asked to write a book to go with his illustrations;
  • Pamela Freeman - award winning author of books for adults and children;
  • Margo Lanagan – an author of short fiction and novels; and
  • Kate Forsyth – author of The Witches of Eileanan series and one of my favourite authors.
One of the questions put to the panel was ‘How do you know when to stop a project?’ The answers that most resonated with me were:
  • Supermarket queue/traffic light test – when you are stuck in a queue or at traffic lights with nothing else to do, and you don’t think about your project;
  • D.M. Cornish
  • If it’s not the last thing you think about before falling asleep.
I often fall asleep with one of my stories on my mind! I confess I have never stopped a project. I have put them aside for later consideration (sometimes years of consideration!) but never actually terminated one.

Here’s a little bit about what each of the authors had to say.

Margo Lanagan
  • Noting that the title of the session was ‘Versatile Artists’ she observed that she considers ‘versatile’ to be a nice way of saying ‘flailing around trying to find what works’. She considered that a fair assessment of what she had done.
  • Do not write poetry. Poets generally get paid less than writers i.e. nothing or the next best thing!
  • If you get bogged down in a novel try a short story for instant gratification or to learn how to finish.
To finish her novel, Margo says she had to pretend it was a short story. Some reviews actually say it reads like a short story collection. It’s interesting that she clearly has a strong preference for short stories.

In Margo’s opinion, the value of writing short stories is that they are therapeutic to write, they help writers to learn about finishing, they can help to refresh your writing when you have been bogged down in a longer project and they are useful professionally for keeping your name out there and marketing yourself. Indeed, I don’t like short stories, but I have forced myself to write a few recently and I am about to send the first off to Fantasy magazine – following the advice of Tobias Buckell to start at the top and work your way down.

Pamela Freeman 

Pamela Freeman
Pamela’s first adult book was a thesis for a doctorate. She started writing with short stories and in her opinion, people are usually either short story writers or novelists. In her case, she considers herself a short story writer who managed to write a novel.  

Her advice is that royalty checks only come twice a year so versatility in other areas is valuable to help have a more steady income. 
D.M. Cornish

An illustrator by preference, he had to learn to write while writing his first novel (at the publisher's request). He found the experience painful and difficult and had to force himself to finish the third book. Sometimes writing is just about discipline. 

 Kate Forsyth

Kate has written children’s books for all ages, adult books, poetry and articles. She has never written short stories (I’m jealous). Like Pamela, she considers writers are either short story writers or novelists. Her very first attempt to write a short story grew into the Witches of Eileanan (a 6 book series). She writes smaller projects between big projects as a refresher, but never short stories. 

The advice from panellists on what to do while waiting to get published was mixed. Some authors said ‘don’t write’ and others said write as often as you can, get a job doing technical writing or freelance writing, anything. 

I expect this comes down to personal preference, where your strengths lie, and what kind of income you need. I blundered into technical legal writing myself and I can say that if you do technical writing it can be difficult to keep this technical, formal writing style out of your creative writing. I find myself editing it out. Another technical writer I know has the same problem. But it does help you to hone grammar, sentence structure, word use etc. so it has advantages.

For those of you in Australia, the last advice given was:
  • Don’t sign with an agent who is not a member of the Australian Literary Agents Association; and
  • The avg annual income for an Australian author is $11,000 pa.
Pitching Session

The highlight of the day for me was the one on one pitching session with Stephanie Smith of Harper Collins Australia’s Voyager imprint. I don’t think I have been this nervous since I did my very first mock legal trial at university – to the point where at lunch I felt like throwing up might be a good idea. 

Kate Forsyth
This is ridiculous, given that a lecturer in the role of judge squinting down at you from a judge’s bench, polished to a high gleam fit to blind counsel for the applicant, is inevitably more intimidating than a one on one chat with a publisher in a lounge-style setting (and I was about ten years older!). Nevertheless, that was how I felt. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it – hey, I’m a lawyer, public speaking is supposed to hold no fear, right? Well, mostly it doesn’t… but for those of you who are or have been intimidated by face to face pitching sessions, I will freely admit I was terrified. Fortunately once it got going it wasn’t so bad, though of course it was hard to remember everything I wanted to say. 

I was fortunate enough to be asked to send in a partial. I have my fingers crossed but I’m trying to keep my expectations at a reasonable level!

All in all it was a fantastic day, although I couldn’t stay for as much of it as I would have liked. I hope the advice I have shared here may help some of you.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

I Have Never Met the Person Who Gave Me My Greatest Gift

‘Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here’.

So reads the sticker across the back window of my parents’ 4WD, where it’s been for more than 6 years now.

Ever since my Dad received a heart transplant.

He is one of the lucky ones, the ones who didn’t die while waiting on the organ donor list, or because they couldn’t afford the surgery (here in Australia this is a 100% government funded operation).

We never knew how sick Dad was until he was more or less listed for a transplant. We were aware he had cardiomyopathy but we had been left with the distinct impression that this was a manageable heart condition that wouldn’t affect his lifespan.

How wrong we were....

Five years after his diagnosis, Dad’s heart was so bad he couldn’t get out of bed without gasping for air. It just couldn’t pump the oxygen around his body. Since we were unhappy with the management by his current doctor, we sought a second opinion.

Needless to say we were rather shocked when the new doctor told us that 50% of sufferers are dead five years after diagnosis and most of the rest in another five years after that. That fast, Dad went from a manageable heart condition to being dead in five years.

My Dad couldn’t die in five years. I wasn’t even married yet, I’d be lucky if I had children in five years. I didn’t want my children to miss out on their grandfather and I didn’t want Dad to miss out on my children either. There were so many things I’d lose – he’s the one I ride horses with, the one I share my Wheel of Time theories with. A girl needs her Dad. And in five years, there wasn’t much chance I was going to have yet published a book. Indeed, that was 1 year ago now. And I don’t have a published book (due, at least in part, to the fact I haven’t even tried).

The doctor told us that at this stage there wasn’t anything more that could be done with drugs. Dad’s only possible option was a heart transplant.

Despite not being sure he wanted to take that step, Dad went off to see the transplant team at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney. Shockingly, the doctor there told him he was a walking heart attack waiting to happen and promptly admitted him to hospital. While he was there, they ran the tests to see if he was eligible to be listed on the transplant list. You have to meet certain criteria you see. There’s not much point in giving a donor heart to someone who either isn’t healthy enough to recover from the surgery or who is dying from something else. Things like drug abuse also tend to disqualify you.

I was engaged to be married in a few months time. Ten days before my wedding, Dad was officially listed on the transplant recipient list. We were told that the average wait was 6 months to 4 years, though some people wait longer. Some people don’t survive their wait.

So we idly discussed what we’d do if Dad received a donor heart before my wedding – but it wasn’t going to happen, so it didn’t matter.

Dad and I, 8 days after his heart transplant
Thirty-six hours later Mum wakes me up at 1am to tell me the hospital has a heart. They live an hour away and I’m virtually around the corner, so I tell them I’ll meet them at the hospital. My brother has his boys for the night, so we tell him we’ll call him when we know for sure what is happening. The hospital routinely calls two or three potential candidates to do cross-matching tests and then gives the organ to the best matched recipient, so we didn’t know for sure anything would happen.

We waited around at the hospital for a few hours. Another family came in, with a daughter I suspected was had cystic fibrosis, and therefore probably a potential recipient of the lungs. Did you know that one person’s decision to donate their organs can save the lives of up to ten people and improve the lives of more? That’s without counting their friends and family. Heart and lung transplants are done at St Vincent’s in Sydney, other organs at other hospital around the city.

We waited for someone to tell us if Dad was getting the heart but it wasn’t until they wheeled Dad off for surgery that we knew for sure. It was so sudden there was no time to call my brother.

My fiancĂ© came to pick Mum and I up and take us back to my apartment. Mum called my brother on the way. He headed over immediately, so we all got about an hour’s sleep before he arrived and had us up for breakfast. Exhausted and worried we headed back to the hospital for another five hour wait, including one heart-stopping moment when alarms went off and nurses skidded down vinyl-floored halls in alarm. Whoever they were responding to, it wasn’t Dad.

Mum had a book the hospital had given her, called ‘the purple book’. The first half is about being listed for a transplant and coping with the wait. The second half is about post-transplant issues. None of us ion my family have read the first half of that book. We were lucky not to have to experience the fear and anxiety that so many families endure while waiting for loved ones to receive organs. But the go to whoa experience sure was one hell of a rollercoaster ride.

The carriage that drove Dad and I to my first wedding
Dad was still in hospital the day I got married but he was well enough to be allowed out on day release. My uncle drove into the city to pick him up while we all got ready and brought him back to my parents’ house. Dad got to ride in the horse and carriage with me and he was there to walk me down the aisle.

The marriage didn’t last but the memories of Dad are something I’ll have for a lifetime.

Dad took his second chance rather seriously. He did a few things he wanted to do, like flying in a seaplane and piloting a helicopter. He’s lived to walk me down the aisle a second time and he’s seen his only granddaughter born. He’s going well enough there’s no reason he won’t live to see my second child born.

I’ve promised to take him to Scotland, where he was born. He’s never seen it since he left when he was two. I have and I want to share it with him. There’s just something about Scotland that feels like home. It’s like you can feel your ancestors in the bones of the hills there. I won’t be able to go back for a few years owing to small children and Dad worried he might not make it, though right now there’s no reason to believe he won’t. I promised him if he didn’t I’d scatter his ashes in the highlands. I have no idea what the customs regulations are around that and hopefully I’ll never need to find out, but... promise made.

Dad and I, at my second wedding
Not enough people donate their organs. Too many families overrule the wishes of their loved ones and refuse to donate organs, even though it’s what that person wanted. More people just never think about the importance of organ donation or don’t think to tell their families what they want. When I told my colleagues Dad needed a heart transplant, one of them when home and immediately registered herself as an organ donor. People don’t think about organ donation, but when they do, they realise its importance. I’m an organ donor. Are you?

Don’t take your organs to heaven. You can’t use them there. More than ten people here can. You can change more lives than just those of the organ recipients.

I never met the person who gave my Dad his heart. I never can, since they died to give me this gift. I never met their family, who cared enough to make this gift to people they didn’t know and would never meet. I am grateful to them, more than words can ever say. If you have a loved one who donated their organs in Sydney, Australia, in 2005, it might be you I’m grateful to. 

Be an organ donor. You could be giving someone like me the greatest gift possible.

The gift of a father. The gift of life.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

This World Will Not Change Me

So it’s past overdue for me to write another blog post and I just couldn’t find the inspiration. Or maybe the energy. I’m anal enough to write potential topics down when they come to my attention, so I have plenty of things to rant about. But I just don’t want to.

I can see the shocked looks of the people who know me. It’s rare that I get off my soap box. It could be new love… but it’s not. I’m still happily married to the man I fell in love with five years ago. 

I think I’m just tired. But of what?

Of the debate about whether self-publishing is better than traditional publishing. You know what? It really doesn’t matter. We can talk about the percentages until the cows come home. We can talk absolute dollars until the cows come home. Everyone can choose the model they prefer. And if you don’t want to traditionally publish, that’s great! I won’t have to vie with you for some publisher’s attention. You are, in effect, improving my odds. Thanks. 

What I do care about is quality. Get it right. But I’ve ranted about that before and if you missed it you can get it here

I’m tired of bad drivers. I regularly drive up and down Heathcote Rd in Sydney between my parents’ house and my house. It has a 100kmh zone that someone invariably drives 70kmh in and it is single lane most of the way. It’s an hour drive between my house and my parents’, with a baby in the backseat, and of course an hour back, so my time is precious. Shit or get off the pot. 

Unfortunately an all too common sight on Heathcote Rd due to drivers who drive either too fast or too slow
I’m a little bit tired of social media. Not Twitter so much, I have a mad Twitter addiction. Facebook, yes. I’ve never liked Facebook. Its lingo of ‘being friends’ is corrupting the meaning of the word. Just because someone is in your Friends List does not make them your friend. When you read Friend on Facebook, you should mentally translate this to ‘Contacts’. They might be your friend, but some of them will be acquaintances or just contacts.

Facebook is really a tool for reconnecting with and keeping contact with people you lost contact with. These people are not your friends. If they were, you wouldn’t have lost contact with them, would you? And you don’t need Facebook to keep in contact with your friends (except maybe the friends you've made online). You have their phone numbers, remember? It’s mostly only useful for keeping your friends in the loop for things you might otherwise wait months to tell them. And don’t get me started on how Facebook has influenced the trend for people to ask ‘Can I be your friend?’ What are you, five??

I’m very tired and depressed about how much writers get paid. Not because I was hoping to get rich and famous, you understand? I’m a lawyer by day and I get by all right. Of course it would be nice to get paid lots to daydream, but it’s not necessary. It’s just sad that we pour so much of our time and energy into something that is both an art form and a contribution to culture, for little monetary reward. Is literature so poorly regarded? 

Don’t even think about what a writer earns from the sale of one book for months or even years of effort as compared to what a rap artist makes off one song that took maybe twenty minutes to write. You’ll just depress yourself even further. Is rap music even art? Culture, maybe. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say art. Artists of visual arts might even feel the same. Often art doesn’t gain real value until the artist is dead. That must suck something shocking. 

Starry Nights by Vincent van Gogh. He was virtually unknown during his lifetime, but a van Gogh sold in 1990 for $82.5 million ($144 million in today's dollars). He appears 5 times in the list of 17 most expensive paintings ever sold. 
I’m tired of the endless unethical (and often ineffective) marketing practices I come across. I’ve ranted about this before, but I’ve come across a few new ones, including people taking money to write false reviews and people who constantly pester you to read their blogs, leave comments, like their books etc. but who never take the time to read your blog, comment, or like your book. For that matter I object to ‘liking’ each other’s books, pages etc. without having read the book or having any clue as to the quality of the product you are promoting. More on that in my next post…

Which leads me into bad reviews and Amazon. I’m still tired of that too, though I’ve come across a few new suggestions to solve the problem, including weighting readers reviews to make them more meaningful and giving authors some kind of ‘higher rating’ if they have professional editors work on their book. I’ve also heard Amazon is taking steps to improve their systems. I look forward to it. But it’s not today, and today I’m tired. 

I’m tired of clients who call me at the office and want to know stupid things like why they can’t get copies of their original documents certified as true and correct copies, only to be told they didn’t take the original with them. Well, how do you expect someone to certify it’s a true copy of the original if you don’t show them the original? I've suggested that we implement a stupidity surcharge...

I’m tired of the kind of stupidity that has people calling maintenance about a lack of hot water only to discover they turned off the pilot light for their own hot water system. I am definitely tired of the kind of stupidity that has people entering asbestos-filled houses after being locked out by the landlord for their own safety. Natural selection, perhaps? There is a reasonable chance this person will kill themselves out of their own stupidity but probably not fast enough to have any evolutionary benefit for the population. It’s always possible with that kind of stupidity they’ll do something else to speed the process along a little faster…

I am also tired of news stories about a parent who has a reversed over their own toddler in their own front yard, severely injuring them or killing them. It seems like lately there has been one of these every week. Before you drive your car anywhere, make sure you know where your own child is!Worse are the stories about child abuse, children beaten, killed, starved and tortured. There is something wrong with people who perpetrate these horrible crimes. It's not like there is a grey area here, people! It's just plain wrong. These stories make me want to cry. 

I’m tired of contradictory policies like these. In Australia, real estate agents rank single mothers the worst tenants, and therefore at the bottom of the list for rental properties. Because, what, single mothers are automatically bad people? My friend is a qualified accountant with two children going through an unfortunate divorce due to no fault of her own, and because of that she can’t find somewhere to live? Single dads are great, though. They rank ahead of single mothers. He must be a star!

On the other hand, I am told by my cousin (who has a son out of wedlock with a woman he no longer has a relationship with) that recent legislation means he can’t have his son overnight until he is three, because of fear of abuse by the other parent. So single dads are stars if they have custody of the kids, and single mums are not, but those single mums are better people than the single dads who don’t have custody of their children, because these poor guys are star candidates to abuse their kids…. Yeah, like all that makes sense somewhere? 

I guess what I’m really saying is I’m tired of all the stupidity, ignorance, immorality and depravity (or, in some cases, all of the above) in the world. Not everyone is like this, but it seems I’ve been over-exposed to it this week. Or maybe it’s the last month. No matter what I do, it seems to be a drop in the ocean and nothing ever changes. 

Garth Brooks
On days like this I try to remind myself of ‘The Change’ by Garth Brooks. 
‘And I hear them saying, you'll never change things, and no matter what you do it's still the same thing, but it’s not the world that I am changing, I do this so, this world will know, that it will not change me.’
It would be nice to change things. It would be nice to make a difference. But if nothing I do does make a difference, then I can at least be true to myself and not allow the world to change me.

Well, world, you won’t change me. Consider yourself on notice. 

No matter how tired I get, I'll never be that tired. 
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