Sydney Smith On Author Branding

In this post, Sydney Smith, author and writing mentor extraordinaire, adds her words of wisdom to our previous Author Branding discussion (see last post)

sydney-smith_regular‘Different and yet the same. Whenever a writer submits their manuscript to one of the opportunities out there, like the Friday Pitch or Manuscript Monday, they’re asked who they write like. They have to offer the same thing, but with something in there that’s different. Jenny, you quoted a reviewer who likened Kath’s work to that of Janet Evanovich. There’s that point of similarity. But anyone who’s read the Stephanie Plum books will know that Kath’s work is also unique to herself.

When you set out to brand yourself you have to be very careful. Is the brand you choose the one you want to be defined by? I didn’t give a thought to branding when I approached Text with my memoir. All I was thinking was that I had a good story to tell. But I know now that it was the wrong move, strategically. I’m “branded” as someone who writes literary narrative. But that isn’t who I really am. I have a literary bent, sure. I love reading Tolstoy and Henry James, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, Ian MacEwan and Elizabeth Kostova. I love reading fiction that makes me think about the characters and feel potent emotions.

Crime FictionBut I also have a genre bent. I’m a crime fiction addict. I read five crime novels a week. No kidding! As a writer, I’m trying to access my inner psychopath in order to write about murder. This morning, I started my first murder story, having figured out that I might be able to get at it if I go by way of a missing persons investigation. Don’t ask me why that works for me and a more direct approach doesn’t. I’ve got no idea. I just know that I can work with a missing persons investigator, not with a homicide detective, even if, at some point, I have to get to a murder.

So what does that have to do with branding? Well, I suppose this is my brand. Or anyway, it’s the one I’m trying to create. It feels confining. I am a whole lot more than a single, narrowly-defined product. But there’s no way around it.

By the way, are there any crime fiction buffs out there? If you want to chat about crime fiction and crime TV shows, drop me a line.

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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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 …

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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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