In order to make a living most writers take on a range of different work, and Nigel Featherstone may have one of the best jobs in the biz. Managing the HARDCOPY program, he works with emerging writers and industry professionals — agents, publishers, editors — from around the country. Having been involved in a very minor way (speaking on a panel of authors one year, assessing applications another), I’ve seen firsthand what a unique and transformative program HARDCOPY is. So I asked Nigel to share the top ten things he’s learned from spending time with so many industry greats.
Although I am lucky enough to spend the majority of each week writing, and primarily writing literary fiction, I am also lucky enough to spend a day each week at the ACT Writers Centre delivering HARDCOPY, a national emerging writers program funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Having been involved in every element of the program — behind the scenes and as well as facilitating some of the sessions — I have had the opportunity to meet many key figures in the Australian publishing industry and authors, as well as get to know almost 120 new Australian writers, some of which have work that has hit the bookshelves or are about to. Needless to say, I have learned a huge amount, and in a moment I’ll share with you the ten key things I have learned from coordinating HARDCOPY.
But first, what exactly is HARDCOPY?
Established in 2014, HARDCOPY is a six-months-long national professional development program that helps build the capacities, aptitudes and resources emerging Australian writers need to reach their potential. The program is the flagship initiative of the ACT Writers Centre.
By creating an environment that is educative, vigorous and nurturing, HARDCOPY helps writers develop their manuscripts; increases industry knowledge; facilitates relationships between writers and publishing professionals; and breaks down the barriers of location and geography. HARDCOPY aims to develop writers who will have longevity as Australian writers, and the program is underpinned by the principle of pragmatic optimism: being aware of the challenges, but also being positive about the future.
There are three key stages to the program: a three-day manuscript development intensive with Nadine Davidoff, in May; a three-day series of industry presentations and panels, in September; and one-on-one feedback sessions with prominent Australian agents and publishers, in November. Each year, thirty emerging writers are selected to participate in the first two stages, with ten of the thirty then being selected for the agents/publishers feedback sessions.
So what have I learned about writing from coordinating HARDCOPY?
1. Write about what makes you scared — it’s important that you don’t try to predict publishing trends or write ‘to market’. Write what makes your blood boil, write about what makes you think that people reckon you’re crazy. As Nadine Davidoff says, ‘Write about what makes you blush.’
2. Binge on your work — set a goal (e.g. write the first draft by year’s end) and then work hard to meet that goal. By ‘writing hard’ I mean write on a regular basis. Put into your work all the blood, sweat, and tears you can muster. At some point you’ll discover the story feels finished. Brilliant; celebrate that moment. Put the manuscript aside, then do some more work on it, but it’s okay to reach the stage where you draw a line under it and move onto a fresh project. Sure, some stories take a long time — years — to write, but there’s wisdom in saying, ‘I’ve done enough on this. I’m going to start something new.’
3. The world treats writing as a vacuum — resist distraction. As per the above, set aside time to write on a regular basis and guard that time fiercely. Everyone and everything will want to encroach on that time — the kids, the dog, the bills piling up on the fridge — but learn to boldly say, ‘This is my time to write. It’s critical to me. Leave me alone.’
4. Agents and publishers are invariably good people — they are passionate about words and stories and writers and books and readers. They live and breathe this stuff, and they work incredibly hard, often seven days a week. Treat them well, and by ‘well’ I mean politely and with respect. Sometimes they will take a while to get back to you; sometimes they will take a VERY long while to get back to you. That’s okay, it’s only because they are busy. By all means, gently and succinctly chase them up, but don’t be annoying and certainly don’t be rude. Agents and publishers have very long memories and you never know where they might end up.
5. As writers, we’re not trying to produce books; we’re trying to write stories that will move readers. Often in HARDCOPY — and more generally — I hear conversations that make writing sound like a game that folk are trying to win. To my mind, it’s a vocation. We write because we love words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, plot, structure, ideas, themes. We write because we would go a little mad without it. In terms of publication, what will be, will be — it’s more or less out of our control.
6. You don’t have to do this alone — there is a wide range of writing programs out there, such as HARDCOPY, as well as other opportunities like residencies and funding programs. By all means focus on your writing and keep the world at bay, but sometimes it’s productive to seek help and connect with other writers. Take note of the opportunities presented by your local writers centre and the various funding bodies (state/territory and national). Also, attend literary events and meet other writers and authors.
7. Be wary of social media — one of the things that is discussed a lot at HARDCOPY is social media: is it worthwhile or evil? The consensus seems to be that it’s probably a bit of both. It can be a good way to get information and feel connected to a broader and diverse writing community and share news, but it can also be a time-trap. For emerging writers there is no doubt wisdom in putting some rules around social-media use: what are you trying to achieve with your online engagement and how much time (or how little time) do you need to invest in it to get the result you want.
8. Rejection is part of what we do — most writers and writing programs say this because it’s true. There are many more writers in Australia than there are publishing opportunities, and every writer worth her or his salt has copped a set-back, or quite a few set-backs. Whatever negative event comes your way in your writing life, reflect on it, learn from it, and then just keep going. As former publisher, agent and HARDCOPY advisor Mary Cunanne says, ‘Persistence pays.’ I’d add to that: ‘Patience goes a long way.’
9. Read, read, read — by reading you’ll become a better writer. It’s as simple as that. But it’s worth noting that agents and publishers, not to mention authors, love it when you read. If you can, spend money on the publishing industry, i.e. buy books, and buy books by Australian authors and Australian publishers. Also read as widely as you can, including works by authors with very different life experiences to your own.
10. It’s okay to ignore all the writing advice you’ve ever heard and go your own way.
Applications to HARDCOPY 2018 close on Friday 16 March. For more information visit www.actwriters.org.au
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction. He is the author of 50 short stories that have been published in Australian literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel’s critically acclaimed first novel, Remnants, was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books. His award-winning series of three novellas was published by Blemish Books between 2011 and 2014. Nigel has been shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year award, and has also received two Canberra Critics Circle Awards. He has held residencies at Bundanon and Varuna. In 2013, he was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra / Australian Defence Force Academy, during which he explored different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; his war novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019. In 2014, Nigel was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretto for a new Australian song cycle, with the music composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music; this work has been developed by the Street Theatre in Canberra and had its world premiere in early March 2018. Nigel was the founding editor of Verity La. He is represented by the Naher Agency in Sydney, and lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. For more information about Nigel, please visit www.opentopublic.com.au