First Australian Manuscript Assessors Conference

Manuscript Asseessors conference 2Next week Writers Victoria is holding the very first Australian Manuscript Assessors Conference at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (Tues 2nd – Wed 3rd September 2014). This two-day event will bring together assessors and editors from around the country, for a mix of inspiration and information about this emergent field. I am thrilled to be giving the first day key-note address, in conversation with my very first editor/assessor Clare Allan-Kamil. So I thought it would be a good idea to look at just what a manuscript assessment actually entails.

manuscript assessment conf 1I’m a great fan of assessments, especially for brand new authors with a finished first manuscript. After having spent a long time, sometimes years, completing your book, it’s tempting to think the hard part is over. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Robert Graves so wisely said, ‘There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.’ This is worth remembering when you suddenly decide you’ve written 90,000 words of rubbish. Difficult as that first draft may be, in some ways the real work has just begun.

At this point there are three options. Go it alone, rely on friends and beta readers or consult a professional guide. The first option is reckless. It might work for the talented few, but allowing nobody to read your work and getting no feedback at all is a recipe for a rejection slip. You can’t possibly be objective about your own writing. Friends find it manuscript Assessors conferencehard to be objective too. Writing peers can make good beta readers, and this is the lowest cost option. But if you can afford it, I’d suggest getting an assessment from a reputable agency, endorsed by your state writers centre or the Australian Society of Authors. They will essentially provide you with a structural report, focusing on characterisation, themes, dialogue, point-of-view, pacing and plot. Frankly, when I started writing my first novel I didn’t even know what half these things were! I certainly didn’t know about head-hopping and that each character needed their own narrative arc. I found a lot of this out via my first manuscript assessment. Now you might be a lot more knowledgeable than I was back then, but even multi-published authors go through a structural editing process. Just make sure you use a reputable agency.

The Manuscript Assessors Conference will begin a broad national discussion about this topic, looking at best practice, professional competencies, pay rates and pathways, ethics and future directions for manuscript assessing. Hear a writer and assessor in conversation. (Clare Allan-Kamil and moi!). Get an introduction to the industry with experienced assessors Clare Strahan, Antoinette Holm and Brian Cook. New and emerging assessors can get a step-by-step guide to undertaking an assessment. Established practitioners can join conversations about best practice and share their skills and expertise in a Manuscript Assessing Masterclass. Get an insight into the role of assessing in the publishing industry with special guests Michelle Madden (Penguin Australia), Mandy Brett (Text Publishing) and Louise Swinn (Sleepers Publishing). Join the discussion about what constitutes a living wage for manuscript assessors. It should be fascinating! Hope to see you there …

BB14

Keep Australia Beautiful Week 2014

KAB GRUNDFO LOGO_2The tenth Keep Australia Beautiful Week starts tomorrow (Monday 25th to Sunday 31st August). Its aim is to raise awareness around the simple things we can all do in daily life to reduce our impact on the environment and encourage action. The results of the National Litter Index are also released during this time, which is a count of litter by number and volume at 983 sites across Australia. Cigarette butts consistently feature at the top of this list so it’s time to butt out and bin it!

Keep Australia Beautiful 2

Dame Phyllis Frost

Keep Australia Beautiful is a not-for-profit environmental organisation which was established in the early 70s by the wonderful Dame Phyllis Frost, a lady who had a vision for a litter-free Australia. It runs programs throughout the year focusing on all aspects of sustainability.

Have you ever driven through a country town like Toowoomba in Queensland or Horsham in Victoria and seen a sign proclaiming it to be Australia’s Tidiest Town? Well, that’s a Keep Australia Beautiful program. The Sustainable Communities Awards promote pride in communities Australia-wide. There are Tidy Town awards for regional/rural areas, Sustainable Cities awards for urban areas and Clean Beaches awards for coastal and inland waterways. What a great idea!

eco-schools-287x300Keep Australia Beautiful runs many other marvellous programs like the Beverage Container Recycling Grants scheme, and the LITTLE Committee, a team of young Australians tackling litter issues nationwide. Research shows that people over the age of fifteen litter the most, while those under that age hardly litter at all. Keep Australia Beautiful has recently launched the international Eco-Schools program in Australia, teaching sustainability through fun, hands-on learning. I have always believed that the next generation will be much wiser stewards of the land than we have ever been. Programs like this make me even more certain of it.

There are many ways to take action during Keep Australia Beautiful Week. Pick up some rubbish. Spread the anti-litter message. Do something to beautify your favourite spot or simply reduce your waste. If you live in Western Australia, doing the right thing could even win you an iPad Mini! Post your positive activity and/or photo on the Keep Australia Beautiful WA Facebook page  or email it to them at binit@kabc.wa.gov.au. The promotion starts  from Monday August 18, so make your post or email any time till September 30.
BB14

 

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.

BB14

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!

BB14