A Writers Conference Wrap-Up

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. This month, it’s a wrap-up of the biggest writers conference in Australia. This year’s Romance Writers of Australia Conference was held 7-10 August in Sydney, and was a buzzing success. It offered workshops and pitching sessions for writers, as well as great food and company.

A Group Of Aussie Rural Authors at conference (I'm 2nd Row left) Collective Noun?

A Group Of Aussie Rural Authors at conference (I’m 2nd Row left) Collective Noun?

Despite the name of the event, writers across the genre spectrum flocked to it. The only requirement for those attending the pitch sessions was that their manuscripts contained romantic elements. That is a broad catch-all that writers of all genres took full advantage of. I actually won my first contract with Penguin through such a pitch in 2011.The blog this month will address different aspects of the conference.  Kath writes about the workshops, Sydney describes how she helped one of her students prepare for the pitch sessions and I take a look at self-publishing.

KATH - It’s A Wrap
Apart from 350-ish women, 3 wise men attended this year’s Romance Writers of Australia conference in Sydney. Why were the three men wise? Because the annual RWA conference is the biggest and most professional conference for writers in Australia. Because it attracts best-selling authors and top presenters from Canada, America and the UK. Because they had the opportunity to sit before editors and agents―both local and international―and pitch their novels. Because the learning and networking opportunities at this conference are second to none. And perhaps simply because these men are not limited by preconceived ideas about women’s fiction, in particular, romance. All of the above and more are the reasons these men, like their female counterparts, are so wise. Anyway, if they acquired even a few of the insights I took from the conference, they’ll be better writers for it.

RWA 2014 1

Kathryn Ledson (R) and our lovely Penguin publisher Sarah Fairhall (L) at the conference

For me, the conference kicked off on Thursday morning at Professional Development Day, which offers brilliant networking opportunities and learning around managing the business of being an author. American Jim Azevedo from Smashwords gave us the lowdown on (or rather, the magnificent up-rising of) self-publishing (see Jen’s bit for more on self-publishing). Scientist* Sara Donovan led a session called the Creative Writer’s Brain, helping us discover which “side” we lean towards (left or right) and how to manage that in our creativity. In another session I learned exercises for writers―simple techniques to soothe an aching back and tired eyes. At high tea, New York Times best-selling author, Cherry Adair, entertained us with hilarious anecdotes and advice. In the evening, Penguin hosted a wonderful dinner for their attending authors―more than twenty. I collapsed into my hotel bed, having been up since 3:30 that morning for a 7am flight.

Friday was workshop day―Writing the Knockout Novel―led by American author and plotting guru, James Scott Bell. A whole day was devoted to learning various plotting and structure techniques for improving our work. It amazes me that there is always something new to learn (no matter how vehemently a certain writing mentor tries to get the message through) and that plotting techniques such as Bell’s (and Sydney’s) can be applied across all genres.

On Saturday morning, the core conference started. I missed the first session so I could rehearse and then attend my planned pitch to an American agent. Then, like Jen, I was keen to hear more from Jim Azevedo on self-publishing. There were sessions on managing social media, revising and self-editing, and various craft workshops for all skill levels. The most frustrating aspect of the RWA conference is choosing which session to attend. Between sessions I met with other authors who shared ideas and knowledge.

On Sunday, following my pitch to a UK publisher, I attended a fascinating presentation by award-winning crime writer, Kathryn Fox, on Pixar’s secret to success. Analysing the elements of a break-out movie makes good sense for a writer who hopes to produce a break-out novel. After lunch I listened carefully as Kate Belle instructed her class on writing believable, emotive and, most importantly, red-hot sex scenes. After that, I needed to lie down.

And that’s a very brief wrap on my experience at the 2014 Romance Writers of Australia conference. Next year’s will be held in Melbourne at the Park Hyatt hotel from 21 to 23 August, and is open to non-RWA members also. For further details, keep an eye on RWA’s website: http://www.romanceaustralia.com/p/1
*Just by the by, for those who aren’t aware, romance writers are generally not dissatisfied housewives with slobby, unromantic husbands. They are professional people―mostly women―and this past weekend I chatted with a vet, two former lawyers, a former scientist, former IT specialist, teacher, farmer, business owners, mother of many children… More often than not these women leave behind their careers to pursue romance writing fulltime because it’s just so damned lucrative. And terrifically fun.

JENNIFER - The Rise and Rise of Self-Publishing
At last year’s RWA conference there was a real buzz about self-publishing. An energetic debate about its future was in full swing. My, how things have changed. This year, the debate was over. Self-publishing has come of age, a force to be reckoned with that offers marvellous opportunities for all writers. I attended four packed sessions on the subject.

Jim Azevedo

Jim Azevedo

The first was 10 Trends Impacting the Future of Book Publishing, by Jim Azevedo, marketing director of the wildly successful Smashwords. For those who don’t know, Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. It makes it fast, free and easy for authors to publish and distribute ebooks to all of the major retailers, except for Amazon.

Jim talked about how the simultaneous rise of ebooks, self-publishing and democratic access to retailers has transformed the publishing landscape. The power centre is shifting from publishers to writers, as self-published authors realise they have access to the tools to compete with the big publishing RWA Conference 2houses. The former stigma of self-publishing is being replaced by growing pride as self-published authors scale all the international bestseller lists. It was a fascinating insight into the future. He also gave out a free 4GB thumb drive carrying 200+ free ebooks, workshop handouts and an ebook publishing toolkit!

The next session provided a fine example of what Jim was talking about. Self-Publishing 101 by New York Times-bestselling author, Marie Force. She has self-published more than twenty titles and sold more than 1.5 million copies. Marie shared tips and techniques for getting books in front of readers. Topics included cover design, retail challenges and marketing strategies to aid discoverability in an increasingly crowded field.

The most practical, nuts-and-bolts session was presented by Australian authors Cathleen Ross and Kandy Shepherd. Five Main Things You Need To Know About Self-Publishing. A strong message was that traditionally published authors can become ‘hybrids’, successfully self- publishing as well to gain maximum exposure and income. They reviewed different global platforms and generously shared personal knowledge on great cover designers and formatting tips. Help on how to gain premium status on Smashwords, for example. Save files as doc not docx. Strip all your tabs. Read from roughly p. 10 – 34 of the Smashwords how-to guide. That’s where the good stuff is, apparently, and it will save wading through more than eighty pages. They gave advice on US tax numbers, suggested not buying ISBNs because the free ones will do. They generously shared their mistakes so we could learn from them.

SmashwordsI was so enthused by this time that I attended a second session by Smashwords’ Jim Azevedo entitled, Secrets of the Best-Selling Self-Published Ebook Authors. Jim used real-life examples of how authors broke out to become bestsellers. He advised on best practice for cover design (including examples and an intriguing case study). Other topics included pricing, platform-building and distribution.

I’m a traditionally-published author who is very happy with my wonderful team at Penguin Books Aust. Still, the sands of publishing are shifting. Knowing how to self-publish might soon become an essential part of every modern author’s tool-kit.

SYDNEY - The Importance of Preparing Your Pitch
This year, I helped my student, Silk Chen, prepare for three pitching sessions, one with an agent, two with editors. She had worked hard over several years to write her historical novel, SAIGON BELLE. It is based in part on her mother’s life and follows the efforts of Jewel Tse to climb out of grinding poverty and give her ailing mother a decent life in her final years. Once Silk decided to attend this year’s conference, she put all her energies into completing it.

RWA Conf 2014 3Silk understood the importance of making a good impression in her pitching sessions. She had to compress the story into a few sentences that would accurately reflect the conflict and characters in the novel. She also had to hook the interest of her listeners with her first sentence. Plus, she had to point to her market and the themes of the novel: it’s historical fiction, it’s aimed at women, and the central conflict for Jewel is desire versus duty.

Silk did her research. She read up on what a successful pitch looks like. The Romance Writers of Australia newsletter was helpful in this respect. So was Jenny’s blog last month on pitching Brumby’s Run. She had business cards made up with an elegant image of a woman dressed in a cheongsam and the elevator pitch for SAIGON BELLE, the brief outline of the novel that she could deliver in an elevator, if she happened to bump into an editor. Also, and this is an important point, though it wasn’t stressed in the research she did―she chose outfits to wear to the conference that reflected her personality and the kind of fiction she writes. She knew she had made the right decision when more than one editor commented favourably on her appearance. These days, an author has to sell herself, not just her fiction. Her clothes provide vital clues to her character and marketability.

Then the two of us got down to the business of writing the pitch itself. Silk wrote her first draft and sent it to me. We worked on the wording. She wanted to sell her characters, not just her plot. She wanted the agent and editors to be engaged by the people in her story and the central conflict Jewel struggles with. Silk recognised that a plot can be cold if the characters don’t come to life. And she wanted to build tension and suspense into the pitch.

The point to note here is that she aimed to persuade the agent and editors to ask for her sample chapters or the whole manuscript. It doesn’t matter how good the actual manuscript is if the pitch doesn’t communicate the characters and convey tension and suspense. She needed to hook the listener with her first sentence: “Jewel Tse is desperate to get out of poverty in 1970s Saigon.” And she had to do all that in a pitch that took her three or four minutes to deliver.

Silk had been booked for three pitching sessions, but after she arrived at the conference, she learned that a number of writers had to bail out because they hadn’t prepared their pitches. Silk booked herself into a fourth session and was lucky enough to be given the nod by all three editors and the agent. And her business card with the elegant image was snapped up by other writers!

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

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That Threshold Moment …

threshold 2I’m really finding my stride with the current work-in-progress Turtle Reef. I’m feeling like a proper, in-charge writer tonight, but for a few years I struggled with the question – When can you call yourself a writer, or more fraught still, a novelist? I don’t mean just thinking that you are one to yourself sometimes, but proudly announcing it when a stranger asks your occupation. I do that now. After writing six (and a half) novels, getting shortlisted for various things and having four of those novels published, I finally believe I’ve passed the threshold. But when did it happen? At what point did I go from pretender to the genuine article?

Threshold 1The problem with writing novels, or painting, or any artistic endeavour is that success is not clear cut. When I became a lawyer, I got a piece of paper to prove I’d earned my title. Our society is geared to work that way. You get a certificate for everything – from trying hardest in grade three last week, to a degree in engineering. It’s not like that with writing. Years ago, a friend of mine travelled to South America and called himself a poet. He made it up. He’d never written a piece of poetry in his life, but for some reason the description appealed. Nobody challenged him. After all, how could you prove him wrong? Before long he felt compelled to live up to his self-proclaimed title. Poetry ensued. By the time he returned to Australia, fiction had become truth. He’s now a respected author and poet with several published works to his name. My question is, when did he actually become a poet? There must have come a threshold moment when one second he wasn’t one, and the next he was.

threshold 3It’s the same with novels. I make up a story in my head. I do a lot of planning, a lot of fitting ideas into three act structures, a lot of plotting character arcs. But I never know what I have on my hands until I start writing, until I start putting words one after the other. It always seems impossible to start with, I’m always a novice in the beginning.Then at some indefinable point in this organic process there is a subtle shift, and suddenly I am writing a novel. The story takes root, becomes powerful, develops a vivid life of its own. It’s most mysterious, like that imperceptible moment when a sapling becomes a tree, or a pupating caterpillar grows wings … but I’m giving myself a headache. Maybe I should just call myself a philosopher (my new made-up imprimatur) and leave it at that. Shall be at the RWA Conference next week, where for a few glorious days everyone is a writer and nobody agonises about a thing!

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National Tree Day

Nat Tree Day 1Today is National Tree Day. Combined with Schools Tree Day it is Australia’s biggest community tree-planting and nature care event. Co-ordinated by Planet Ark, these are special days for all Australians to help out by planting and caring for native trees and shrubs to improve the environment in which we live. National Tree Day started in 1996 and since then more than 2.8 million people have planted almost 20 million seedlings! It is held on the last weekend of July every year – this is the optimal planting time for the majority of Australians towns. However this might not suit certain areas, so you can find a date that suits you. As Planet Ark says, “every day is Tree Day”.

Nat Tree Day 4The organisers put great store in local provenance. This term describes native plant populations that naturally occur in a given area. Many native plant species can be found to occur across a broad geographic area or range. For example, hairpin banksia (Banksia spinulosa) naturally occurs across 3 states, from coastal Victoria to Cairns. However, the plants growing in a specific area have adapted to the local conditions over a long period of time. Although of the same species, a hairpin Banksia from southern Victoria will have a different genetic makeup to it’s cousin in Cairns, just as the same species of plant found on the coast will be different from that growing in the mountains. Different populations containing local genetic variations are called provenances. For true local provenance, the individual plant is grown from seed stock from parent plants within the same population (or as close by as possible). Preserving local provenance populations is an important way of protecting biodiversity. For more information visit the Benefits of Local Natives page.

Nat Tree Day 3One of my favourite singers, country music legend and former Australian of the Year, Lee Kernaghan has supported National Tree Day for over a decade.

“I grew up out in the bush and everyone living and working in regional Australia knows how important trees are to the land. National Tree Day is all about individuals, communities and the country coming together to plant trees and to make a big and positive impact for our great nation and future generations,” Lee says.

This year the campaign aims to reach the milestone of planting its 20-millionth seedling. Everyone can help by getting involved in one of the hundreds of organised community events, or just planting an indigenous tree in your own garden. Every tree makes a difference!

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Bush Heritage Australia

Bush Heritage 2Since I dedicated my last book Billabong Bend to Bush Heritage, I thought I should write a post about it. Bush Heritage is a non-profit conservation organisation dedicated to protecting Australia’s unique animals, plants and their habitats for future generations. They have a simple and practical formula for protecting the bush – buy land of outstanding conservation value, then care for it

Liffey Valley Reserves in Tasmania – the first Bush Heritage Reserve. Photo: Wayne Lawler

Liffey Valley in Tasmania – the first Bush Heritage Reserve. Photo: Wayne Lawler

The organisation began in 1991, when Dr Bob Brown bought several hundred hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania to save it from logging. Using prize money from an environmental award as the deposit, he sought donations to gather the remaining funds, and Bush Heritage was born.

My fictional property of Billabong Bend is based in part on the beautiful Naree Station, acquired by Bush Heritage in 2012. Located on the inland floodplains of northern NSW, Naree sits at the head of the nationally significant wetlands of the Cuttaburra Channels and Yantabulla Swamp. During flood events it becomes home to an incredible fifty thousand breeding water birds and is rated as one of the twenty most important water bird sites in Australia.

Bush Heritage 4Bush Heritage currently owns and manages thirty-five reserves throughout Australia, covering nearly one million hectares. Reserves are managed like national parks – the land is legally protected, with the intention of safeguarding it forever. Bush Heritage also builds partnerships with farmers. These partnerships account for a further 3.5 million hectares of land under conservation management. Their long term goal is to protect more than seven million hectares by 2025. This will only be possible with our help.

Bush Heritage 2If you need a gift for someone who cares about the environment, how about sending a Bush Heritage WILDgift? Not only does your friend or family member receive a beautiful card featuring stunning photography from the Australian bush, but together, you also make a real and lasting contribution to nature conservation in Australia. For ten dollars you can provide a warm, safe nesting box for the endangered red-tailed phascogale. For twenty-five dollars you can save a slice of the outback, helping to buy one hectare of native habitat. Every hectare makes a difference!

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Pot-Holed Paths To Publication

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. This month we tell our how-we-got-published stories and welcome your questions and comments

SYDNEY
Some years ago, Griffith REVIEW accepted a short story of mine called “Flame Red” for its first fiction edition. After reading it, Text Publishing emailed me, asking if I had any book-length manuscripts they might be interested in. I pitched them a few ideas and went away to write a novel for them. Then it stalled at 45,000 words. My novels always stall at either that length or 30,000 words.

For several years, I had been trying to write about my fraught and turbulent relationship with my mother. I had been wrestling in particular with a strong internal prohibition against exposing her and myself. I had published two short memoirs with Griffith REVIEW that explored aspects of my relationship with my mother. I knew I wanted to write a long work about her but I couldn’t find the right way in. To me, writing a piece, whether short or long, is like trying to get into a house where all the doors are locked. You have to hunt around, rattling handles, testing windows, before you find the one that will open and let you in.

At the end of 2010, I applied for a weeklong workshop with Robin Hemley on writing nonfiction, hoping it would loosen one of those barred and padlocked doors. We were asked to submit fifteen pages and an outline. I had no pages and no outline. Also, I had applied the day after submissions had closed, getting down on my knees and begging the program officer who was administering the course. She let me in and I had only a day or two in which to send in my fifteen pages.

The Lost WomanFor some years, I had been trying off and on to write about Boxing Day when I was nine years old, a day when my difficult relationship with my mother reached a crisis and I decided the only way out was to kill myself. I knew some of the things the piece would contain, but I couldn’t find the door that would let me in. Now, on a tight deadline, I sat down at my computer and wrote those pages. They came to exactly fifteen. The workshop was okay. Robin Hemley is a brilliant teacher. But somehow, it turned out to be irrelevant. Those fifteen pages was my way into the book.

Over the next few weeks, I wrote another chapter and thought about how committed I was to this project. Finally, ready to give myself wholly to it, I emailed Text, saying I had 10,000 words of a memoir and asking if they would be interested in having a look at them. Publishing houses sometimes offer contracts for nonfiction books before they have been written. They asked me to send the pages to them, along with a book proposal. I wrote another 8,000 words, to show them I could do it and to prove to myself that I really was committed. They read them and called me in for a meeting.

This meeting was crucial. I knew they wanted me to prove I could produce the whole book, not just words but readable words. At the end of the meeting, they asked me to send them a chapter breakdown. I did that, and in mid-April, I got the contract. This included two things: a word limit of 75,000-80,000 words and a deadline. I had to send them the completed manuscript by 15 December. I also had another problem. My chapter breakdown outlined a book that was longer than the word limit. I decided I would deal with that once I had finished the draft.

I had never before written a book to a contract. Every morning I woke in a panic. I had to write this book AND I had to do my paid work as a mentor AND run two classes on plotting and structure. So I divvied up my week. I gave three days to mentoring, three days to writing, and had a floating day which could be used to take up any extra paid work or be used for writing. I cancelled all social engagements, telling my friends why. I knuckled down in a way I never thought I was capable of, writing a chapter a week. Along the way, I pared back my chapter breakdown so that the finished manuscript would come in on length. Don’t ask me how I could do that when I hadn’t written the whole draft yet. I just did.

On the last Thursday of August, four months ahead of the deadline, I sent in a 76,000-word manuscript titled The Lost Woman. It was an amazing experience.

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her blog.

KATHRYN
I wish I’d known at the time how intriguing and very unique each getting-published story is. If I’d known, I would have made careful notes so that when I shared my story, I’d remember the way it happened. Looking back, I realise I was very naïve, entering the grown-up world of publishing without a clue as to what might happen.

Rough Diamond Front Cover FinalAnd so, the exhausting saga is, in brief, this. I finished a professional writing and editing course end-2008 and started writing Rough Diamond. Two years later, (I thought) it was ready to submit and I sent the manuscript to various competitions and publishers’ weekly submit-your-manuscript-and-we’ll-tell-you-if-we-like-it offerings. I made it to first base with Hachette’s program*, but heard nothing from the others.

When I eventually emailed Penguin my query letter, they replied almost immediately. “Yes please!” Exactly the sort of response you would hope for! They requested the full manuscript, and the waiting started. Meantime, I’d contacted a literary agent who also asked for the full manuscript. At the three-month marker, I sent them both an email asking if they were interested. The agent said that yes, she was. Nothing more than that. Penguin wanted more time. Two more weeks they promised, respectfully.

So, Penguin called. But not with the news I’d hoped for. They didn’t feel Rough Diamond quite made the cut (I found out why later – something about the plot and the fact that there wasn’t one), but they loved the voice of my lead character, Erica Jewell, and wanted to know if I had any other manuscripts that I’d thrown in disgust into some proverbial bottom drawer. I didn’t, but I had an idea for another series. They wanted to meet. On that basis, the agent offered me a contract.

In my meeting with Penguin, we chatted about my series idea. However when I mentioned that I’d since signed with an agent, the conversation came back to Rough Diamond. They’d give it another look, they said.

More waiting. What I hadn’t realised is that the commissioning editor does not have final say in whether or not a contract is offered. She can only champion the manuscript, “selling” it to the rest of the team at the weekly acquisitions meeting, which is attended by the head-honchos of all departments. And they ALL have to agree. This process can take forever. Finally, I was offered a contract. When I got the call, I was standing in my tiny, grotty, yet-to-be-renovated old lounge-room with my niece and her two children, baby Richie and five-year-old Molly. With Richie thrown over my shoulder, I danced in circles with Molly. Richie threw up. Molly fell over. I stubbed my toe. It was a moment to remember.

But there was more waiting to come. It was around July 2011, and Penguin wanted to publish in January 2013. OMG! Surely I’d drop dead of impatience before then? I didn’t, and Rough Diamond launched eventually, and suddenly Monkey Business is out there as well, with Grand Slam on the drawing board and a novella to be squeezed into the mix somewhere.

Monkey BusinessAfter all that, do I have any advice? Indeed I do:

  • For a start, I was lucky. Lucky because I’d written what today’s market would consider a saleable product. Commercial women’s fiction, with a romance at its heart. The reason a publisher will offer you a contract is because they think they can sell it.
  • Network. Join a writing group, surround yourself with supportive people (other writers). When you think you’ve written rubbish, you’ll need these people to tell you it’s not as awful as the rubbish they’ve written, and that lots of rubbish has been published. And let me say this, even with a publishing contract and a couple of books out there on the shelves, you will still think you’ve written rubbish.
  • Regarding above, you need to get over it. Put that rubbish-talking devil in a box and nail the lid shut.
  • More networking. It was through networking that I had an email address for the commissioning editor for women’s fiction at Penguin. And a personal introduction to a literary agent. And the reason half my Facebook friends are authors, all of whom share my successes, commiserate with my failures, offer brilliant advice and more encouragement than I deserve.
  • Take how-to-write courses. Read how-to-write books. I always learn something new. Always.
  • Read.
  • Before submitting your manuscript, research how a particular publisher wants to receive it. Read A Decent Proposal by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth. It will give you a thorough insight into effective pitching. Learn what the agent/publisher wants to know. For example: what your book is about, where it will sit on the shelves, why you think it will sell, why you’re the right person for the job of writing it. In other words, make it easy for a publisher to say “yes please!”
  • Show nice manners. When you submit your manuscript to an agent/publisher, let them know who else you’ve sent it to. If someone shows further interest in it, let the others know this.
  • Good writing and good luck!

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com

JENNIFER
I received my first contract with Penguin books via a conference pitch. It shows that, despite all the doom and gloom about the industry, it is still possible to be picked up unagented by a mainstream publisher, if good fortune and good writing coincide.

My first bit of good fortune was being in the same writing group as fellow rural writer, Margareta Osborn. She asked me to go with her to the national Romance Writers’ Conference, held in Melbourne in 2011. At first I wasn’t keen and told her I didn’t write category romance. ‘You don’t have to,’ said Margareta. ‘All sorts of writers go. It’ll be fun―and you get to pitch face-to-face to publishers. Not just any publishers, but key industry professionals like Beverley Cousins of Random House, Annette Barlow of Allen & Unwin and Belinda Byrne of Penguin.’

‘Really?’ I said, my ears pricking right up. ’Publishers?’ Now all I needed was a novel to knock their socks off. I already had two completed manuscripts, but maybe I needed something fresh, something that fused my passion for the land with an equally passionate love story. It was January, and the conference was in August―eight months. It was worth a try.  I threw myself into it. When I wasn’t asleep or working I was writing, seven days a week. I wrote and wrote, revising as I went. After a great deal of hair-tearing, wine, chocolate and dreadful doubts, I had a polished first draft of Brumby’s Run just in time for the conference.

I scored two pitch sessions, one with Bernadette Foley of Hachette and another with Belinda Byrne, a commissioning editor of commercial women’s fiction with Penguin. For some unknown reason the five-minute pitches were reduced to three-minute pitches. Not much time to impress anybody. I agonised over my lines, practised ad nauseam and was sick with nerves. The moment finally arrived for that long walk into the room. A smiling publisher sat at a table. ‘What have you got for me?’ I drew a deep breath and launched into my memorised pitch.

2nd BR Cover‘Brumby’s Run is a 90,000-word rural fiction manuscript, with an environmental theme. A comparable title is The Cattleman’s Daughter by Rachael Treasure. It’s a novel about romance, identity and the fabled wild horses of Victoria’s high country.

Identical twin girls, separated at birth, Samantha and Charlie. Charlie remains with her teenage mother, Mary, in the small, upper Murray town of Currajong. Samantha grows up in all the wealth and privilege of Melbourne’s Toorak, with a smothering adoptive mother and a distant, emotionally unavailable father.

When the girls are eighteen, Charlie falls ill with leukaemia. Samantha is approached to donate stem cells, and discovers that not only is she adopted, but she has a sister. She also discovers they both share a love of horses; Charlie is a champion camp drafter, and Samantha is a contender for the national dressage squad.

The transplant is a success. However, Charlie faces months of recovery in Melbourne, and requires Mary to stay and care for her.  Samantha offers to go up-country to their property and look after things. Townie Sam finds a rundown parcel of land, mongrel country on the edge of Balleroo National Park. She also finds herself in the middle of a conflict between the traditional alpine cattlemen and a new breed who want to exclude hard-hooved animals from Balleroo, including the brumbies.

Sam falls in love with Brumby’s Run, and with the town of Currajong. This new life, Charlie’s life, intrigues her. Bit by bit she takes on her sister’s horses, her friends, her work―and she finds romance with Drew Chandler, her sister’s ex-lover. Sam begins to wish that Charlie might never come home.’

Then came my second piece of good fortune―a manuscript that suited their wish lists. I like writing outback stories, and both publishers were interested in new rural fiction. Brumby’s Run just happened to fit the bill. They took my three chapters and synopsis.

After several encouraging emails from Belinda she asked to meet me and in October, eight weeks after the conference, I received an email headed Penguin Letter of Offer for Brumby’s Run. At last! I printed that letter out and carried it with me for weeks, looking at it occasionally to check it was real. I now have my fourth contract with Penguin, all because I went to that conference. There’s more than one way to skin a publisher!

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

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The Mighty Murray Cod

Murray Cod StampThere is a Murray cod character in my latest novel, Billabong Bend. So I’m dedicating this post to Guddhu, guardian of the river, charismatic fish of legend!

Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii) are the largest freshwater native fish in Australia. They were originally very common throughout the Murray-Darling basin. Mounted specimens and photos of long-ago giants are on display at almost every riverland pub in south-eastern Australia. After a few beers, old-timers come out with tall stories of fish bigger than a man, territorial lions of the river, big enough to drag unwary swimmers under by a paddling arm or kicking heel.

mc 5Murray cod are handsome fish, scales mottled with green and black roses and bellies silvery white. Their grouper-like bodies are deep and elongated, with broad, scooped heads and powerful blunt tails. They can weigh more than a hundred kilograms and measure over 1.6 metres. A long-lived fish, they’re known to reach at least seventy years of age. It’s likely they can live for much longer, a century or more. Murray cod are an ancient species and an animal central to Aboriginal mythology. Fossils have been found dating back twenty-six million years. They may well be as old as the Murray-Darling basin itself – sixty-five million years. That’s when the age of the dinosaurs was coming to an end.

mc 2Contrary to some fishery department literature, the first serious decline in Murray cod populations was caused by extreme overfishing by Europeans. In the latter half of the 1800s and in the1900s, they were caught in unimaginable numbers. In 1883, 150,000 kilograms of Murray cod were sent to Melbourne from Moama alone. This was a devastating blow to such a long-lived and slow-breeding species.

Cod mature at about four or five years old and breed in spring when water temperatures rise above fifteen degrees. They favour sheltered snags in the main channel of rivers. Males guard the eggs, and continue to watch over the newly hatched larvae for a week or more. The young fish then drift downstream.

mc 7Modern threats include exotic diseases, overfishing, pollution, dams and weirs blocking migration routes, and flood regulation for irrigation. Fifty percent of Murray cod larvae are killed when they pass through weirs, and cold water released from the base of dams stops adults spawning. Competition with introduced fish is also a problem, even though adult cod do a good job of eating carp.

It’s a great tragedy that these fabled fish are now  extinct in many of their upland habitats, particularly in the southern Murray-Darling. They’re listed as critically endangered by the ICUN, a United Nations organization that maintains the Red List of Threatened Species. We can’t protect Murray cod without protecting the rivers that they live in. Let’s make it a priority!

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Rocking Horse Hill

Cathryn Hein Author PhotoIt is with great pleasure that I welcome to Pilyara fellow Penguin author and horse nut, Cathryn Hein. She is here today answering a few questions about her new novel Rocking Horse Hill (love that title!) Congratulations on the terrific reviews Cathryn!

Thanks, and thanks for hosting me on your blog, Jennifer. A lovely place to be!

What is your story about?
Rocking Horse Hill is a rural romance with a strong family drama and an emotional lovers reunited story.
As a teenager, Emily Wallace-Jones made a mistake that has haunted her since. So when Josh Sinclair saunters sexily back into town and her life, she has a chance to finally put things right.
But there are dramas affecting both families. Digby, heir to the Wallace-Jones fortune, has arrived home with a fiancée no one has ever heard of. Em’s best friends both have troubles and her naughty donkeys are causing havoc. Meanwhile, Josh’s family are coping with heart-breaking news. Then there’s Rocking Horse Hill…

With their families’ struggles and so much baggage from the past, can Em and Josh really resurrect a relationship? Or will holding onto trust be impossible? Not just for them, but for everyone touched by Rocking Horse Hill.

What or who inspired it?
The original inspiration was a bit obscure. I’d read an article in a Sunday paper about women who fall in love with men serving long-term jail sentences and found it fascinating. The next day I was zoning out on the exercise bike, thinking about the article, when I had this idea for a thriller-type story. I was so excited I jumped straight off and scribbled it down. Being a totally different genre to my rural romances, I set it aside but my brain wouldn’t let it go, and there were things about the premise that I really liked – the family drama mostly but also the heroine. Over time, I kept reworking the idea until Rocking Horse Hill was born.

RHH cover - resizedAre there any parts of it that have special personal significance to you?
There are quite a few parts of Rocking Horse Hill that are special. Number one is the setting. The book is set in the south east of South Australia and much of the action takes place on a property right at the foot of an extinct volcano. Though fictional, the volcano is based on an amalgam of Mt Schank, a crater to the south of my home town of Mount Gambier, and Mt Elephant, near Derinallum in western Victoria. As kids, a brilliant day out was climbing to the top of Mt Schank and sliding all the way to the bottom on your bum, like a great big dirty slippery-dip.

I also gave the heroine Emily my beloved dog Cooch as her darling collie Miss Muffet. There’s also an Indian runner duck that was based on one my brother owned. Plus, being set around where I grew up, there are all sorts of little things that I love from the area that have made their way into the book.

What do you see as the major themes in your book?
One of the things that Rocking Horse Hill explores is how we judge others, and how our experiences influence that. Perhaps even blind us. Em comes from a very privileged background and there was a time in her past when that made her think herself special. As a result she caused immeasurable hurt and it’s not a mistake she’s going to make again, which is why she’s determined to welcome her sister-in-law to-be into the family.

I also wanted to look at how hard it can be for a stranger to find their place inside a tight-knit family. The tensions that arise when one of more family members don’t like the newcomer can cause major rifts. It doesn’t take much to find real-life examples: the boyfriend everyone thinks is a bad influence; the second wife everyone hates; the father-in-law no one trusts…

I think we’ve all had experience with families judging and sometimes misjudging people. And I love the sound of those animals! Looking forward to reading it Cathryn. Thanks very much for visiting today.

RHH cover - resizedROCKING HORSE HILL
by Cathryn Hein
Who do you trust when a stranger threatens to tear your family apart?

Ever since she was a little girl, Emily Wallace-Jones has loved Rocking Horse Hill. The beautiful family property is steeped in history. Everything important in Em’s life has happened there. And even though Em’s brother Digby has inherited the property, he has promised Em it will be her home for as long as she wishes.
When Digby falls in love with sweet Felicity Townsend, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Em worries about the future. But she is determined not to treat Felicity with the same teenage snobbery that tore apart her relationship with her first love, Josh Sinclair. A man who has now sauntered sexily back into Em’s life and given her a chance for redemption.
But as Felicity settles in, the once tightly knitted Wallace-Jones family begins to fray. Suspicions are raised, Josh voices his distrust, and even Em’s closest friends question where Felicity’s motives lie. Conflicted but determined to make up for the damage caused by her past prejudices, Em sides with her brother and his fiancée until a near tragedy sets in motion a chain of events that will change the family forever.

Rocking Horse Hill is a moving family drama and passionate love story from the author of Heartland. Follow these links to find out more about Cathryn and her terrific rural novels.  Website, Twitter via @CathrynHein, Facebook, Google+

And now, to announce the winner of the Billabong Bend draw. I received so many wonderful comments about people’s favourite rivers and why they love them, thank you. The winner of a signed copy of Billabong Bend is Sophie Grant. Congratulations Sophie. I’ll send you an email shortly.

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