Welcome 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
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.
For 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.
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.
And 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.
After 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.
- 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
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.
‘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!