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Writing

Judging a book by its cover

5 December 2018

Let’s face it. No matter what anyone says, we do judge a book by its cover. Which is why the designer’s job is so important. As an editor I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible book designers, and one of the very best is Sandy Cull.

So often when I pick up a book because I’m struck by its incredible cover design, I turn to the imprint page and find Sandy’s name. Her work is striking and imaginative, clever and layered. Perhaps best of all, it’s obvious once you read the book that Sandy has understood what the author is trying to say.

Luckily for us, Sandy allowed me to throw a bunch of questions at her and take us inside her creative process.

Sandy’s notebooks

Irma Gold: What led you to book design?
Sandy Cull: I completed a graphic design course and spent several years working in design studios, advertising agencies and then, when I lived in London for four years, magazine publishing.

Once back in Oz, I began freelancing for various magazines in Sydney before art directing a craft magazine for a few years. Wanting to return to Melbourne, a friend told me about a position for a designer at Penguin. It was love at first sight.

IG: What does a typical day, or week look like for you?
SC: I share a studio space with four designers, two photographers and four animation producers. I cycle either to or from the studio four days a week.

Every day I have at least one deadline, but often there are several things on my to-do list. It could be first cover roughs for a nonfiction book, text design for a fiction book, or time allocated for picture searching or photography, painting some hand type or scouting for props to shoot.

I do a lot of my reading on the train and at night, or on extended holidays. As a freelancer, I don’t tend to have many client/author/publisher meetings. Most communication is by email. Publishers make contact when they have a project in mind for me. If I can fit it into my calendar, I usually say ‘yes’.

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IG: Do you read every book that you design the cover for?
SC: I read every fiction book from beginning to end. I could count on my hands the number of fiction books I haven’t read or finished. If I haven’t the time to read it, I don’t take it on.

For nonfiction, I tend to only read some chapters, as well as an introduction and a summary. Recently I have had several nonfiction books where I haven’t been able to stop reading at just a few chapters. I note Rise and Resist by Clare Press, which I couldn’t put down, and The Rapids by Sam Twyford-Moore.

IG: How do you read? What are you looking for as you read?
SC: I take notes whilst I’m reading. I might sketch out things on a moleskin book, or use a drawing app or ‘notes’ on my phone. If there’s something unfamiliar, like a location or a particular phenomenon, or a moment in history, I will do quite a bit of research.

It’s important for me to get a visual accurate, and it provides, in the very least, a starting point. Recently I had to research a particular area of NYC around the beginning of the nineteenth century when the first blimps or dirigibles were being flown. A few months back I spent a day shooting on Phillip Island, where much of a fiction book was set. This saved me sitting in front of the computer conducting exhaustive picture searches and got me out of the studio for the day.

Then there is also a whole treasure trove of images I’ve being collecting by artists I’ve been watching for years. When I’m reading, some of these will come to mind, and I’ll make a note to revisit a particular artist’s work, to see what they’re up to.

Before I go to the screen, I will usually sketch some thumbnails.

IG: What was the most challenging publication that you’ve worked on?
SC: Rather than mention any in particular, generally speaking, the bigger the author, the more challenging the brief. A big-name author usually needs mass-market appeal, so there’s loads more pressure and expectation for sales, and many more opinions involved throughout the process. Ironically, these projects are usually, though not always, less adventurous and courageous from a design point of view.

I do tend to work on books by big-name authors. It’s a complete privilege to work on them, and it’s a huge bonus if it comes more easily than anticipated. I think I tend to get these projects because I do have good stamina, and can usually go the distance that many of these covers travel. Whether that’s a good thing, is debatable.

Most often the agreement between a publisher and a designer is that the designer will supply three rounds of concepts for their quoted fee. These more difficult briefs often end up being many more than that. It can be eight or 10 rounds of finessing and tinkering. And rarely for an extra fee. I’ve outlined the process in more detail later.

IG: Have you been completely wedded to covers that publishers haven’t liked?
SC: This happens all the time. I’m going through a stage at the moment when just about every favourite concept is usurped by my least favourite. When will I learn to not include the concept I don’t want them to choose?

IG: What is the best thing about your work?
SC: I am in heaven working on books with folks who love books and, without exception, I feel blessed to read a book in manuscript form.

IG: What is the most challenging thing about your work?
SC: I have always loved working closely with editors, and so I do miss the sense of team that’s available in-house, when you can indulge over sets of pages, making the page perfect.

Maintaining balance between lots of work and none is always a challenge. And keeping myself financially viable in a difficult and constantly changing industry.

IG: How long does it usually take to design a book?
SC: It depends on the project, the publisher, and whether I’m lucky to be going through a ‘purple patch’, or am a little uninspired to be very efficient. A purple patch is described in the dictionary as a run of success, but, for me, it’s specifically a wonderfully creative time when I’m firing on all cylinders, when everything seems to come easily. It’s probably quite random but I theorise that if I have too much on, I am probably too stressed to be as creative as I can be.

As a general guide, I usually require a minimum of three weeks to read. I might spend a week researching and shooting, and drawing and scanning, to pull together first concepts, and another week to do another round, and perhaps another week to do a third round.

For the latest Markus Zusak, Bridge of Clay, I received the manuscript in early January and sent final art to press in late June.

IG: What kind of books do you love working on the most?
SC: I love literary fiction and nonfiction. Recently I’ve really enjoyed working on a lot of nonfiction projects that discuss really important and perhaps difficult issues. These books are necessary. Topics have included mental health in the social media age, women and Islam, the ‘Yes’ campaign, the #MeToo movement and, one of favourites of the year, Rise and Resist about revolution.

IG: What’s the most controversial cover you’ve created? Was it deliberately controversial? Or was the reaction to it unexpected?
SC: I recently did a new cover for Charlotte Wood’s Stella award-winning novel, The Natural Way of Things. Encouraged by its courageous publisher, we deliberately chose a rather striking, close-up of a shaven-headed woman staring right into the camera. It was rejected by the supermarket chains who said they wouldn’t stock it with this cover, saying it was too confrontational and aggressive, but it’s completely right for the book. It is amazing that the publisher went ahead anyway. I think more often than not, publishers go for the safe route at their peril, and at the risk of their book being totally overlooked and homogenised with everything else that’s out there.

Another brave cover was Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread. I was specifically asked to avoid horses on the cover because it might pigeonhole the book in the ‘horsey’ romance genre. As it turned out, a horse is exactly what we put on the cover but it definitely didn’t look like one of those. I remember punching the air in delight. The close-up image was so arresting and perfect, that it took my own breath away when I found it.

The first cover for Emma Viskic’s debut crime novel, Resurrection Bay, was another brave choice. Again the supermarket chains complained about the forward slashes and asked for them to be removed; for the typography to be changed. Fortunately, the relatively new publisher [Echo Publishing] refused to budge and it not only sold its socks off, the author went on to win several awards.

Way back in 2005, The Cook’s Companion was quite a radical cookbook cover. Featuring a painting we commissioned by Melbourne artist Mathew Johnson, it still amazes me that we got that through back then, and that it remains the cover 13 years later.

IG: Can you take us through the process?
SC: I send out a general breakdown of my processes to self-publishing authors before we get too far down the track. I find this is really helpful for them and makes things completely transparent. Below is an edited version:

I usually like to receive a comprehensive cover brief from the publishers, with all practical details included in the document.

If we proceed, I would supply the author with a blank brief to fill in.

I supply a minimum of three stages of concepts, each with several variations.

These concepts may use low resolution images found from a variety of sources. My fee does not include any image fees.

From first concepts, we usually go to a second stage, where I present ‘second’ concepts if the first stage was unsuccessful or I finesse one of those first concepts. Repeat this process again for ‘third’ concepts, after which we hopefully have a cover approved. High res and final images are sought and I proceed to final art, which I upload to a chosen printer.

If the concepts are unsuccessful, after three stages, we may choose to part ways. This parting is often referred to in the industry, regrettably, as a ‘killing off’, and comes with a ‘kill fee’.

Printers
I would expect that most self-publishers do the groundwork with their printer of choice and already have made their choices and have print quotes before they come to me. I can put them in touch with a print broker or production person who can liaise with printers.

Text design
I love designing the internal pages as well, and this usually happens after we have an approved cover. I design the text design to match the preferred page extent.

Typesetting
I generally don’t typeset books from beginning to end, but am happy to do so, if I have time allowed in my schedule. Otherwise I liaise with typesetters.

IG: Can you explain the feedback process?
SC: For the mainstream publishers I am dealing directly with a senior editor. They relay all the feedback from the publisher and from the sales and marketing team. I deal with a publisher directly if they are handling a super important author, or if they are particularly hands-on with the book concerned.

Only after the cover has gone through the back and forth of cover meetings and finessing, more cover meetings, more finessing, and is approved by the necessary people in house, does it get shown to the author. It’s often by then a fait accompli. The agent is also involved at this stage. Very occasionally the author or agent might not be happy but this is an exception to the rule.

The rigour a publisher provides can sometimes result in a better cover, and perhaps a more successful book. Sometimes though it can result in a ‘designed by committee’ mediocre cover that looks like the last bestseller.

For self-published books, the process is usually much more fluid and speedy. All the communication has been between designer and author and there is no sales and marketing department to please, and no agent.

This can be refreshing approach. Though they’re acutely wedded and invested in the book, they can be very accepting of your input. They may have no experience in design and marketing, and are pleased to have a designer guide them through, and help them make the right decisions about what will work.

Window onto some of Sandy’s designs
The China Garden by Kris Olsson
This is quite an old cover but it is still one of the ones I’m most proud of. I bought the cups from an op shop and broke them in the studio, photographed them and superimposed the tulip onto it.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey
Another old cover, but I’m really happy with the typography. I placed an old print texture of CMYK dots over the top so it had a 1950s feel.

My Mother, My Father edited by Susan Wyndham
This cover still makes me smile. I put a call out to my friends asking for old watches that I could borrow to photograph. One belongs to my husband and one to a friend, but they are like an old couple, and perfect for this book.

Reading the Landscape: A Celebration of Australian Writing
I only presented one or two concepts for this UQP anthology. I spent hours handwriting some type with a paint brush, as well as producing this more fluid type in the Illustrator program. It felt so right to me. The publisher agreed and went with it immediately. Love that!

This month I have a copy of Sandy Cull’s latest design of The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood to give away. If youd like to get your hands on this incredible Stella Prize-winning novel, simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before 5 pm on Monday 17 December to go in the draw. 

Knock outs: on writing rejection and success

19 September 2018

Wanting to be a writer and not wanting to be rejected is like wanting to be a boxer and not wanting to get punched.

David Barr Kirtley speaks the truth. Successful writers are those who have been knocked out and got back up, over and over again. In spite of that, writers are notorious for focusing on their failures, not their achievements. So I asked three successful writers — Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester — to reflect on both their most biting rejections and their most affirming successes.

Eleanor Limprecht
My first was my worst rejection. The first book I wrote (Mothwings — it even sounds like a first manuscript) never found a publisher despite years of hard slog writing and rewriting it. I even had an agent representing it. Publishers said it was ‘too quiet’, ‘didn’t go far enough’ and that ‘the characters are lovely but nothing really happens’. That was the hardest rejection to take, because I felt like I would never be published. Like I’d wasted years of my life. Like I would never be a real writer.

The way I responded was by writing something new, an idea which had been in the back of my mind, about a mother with postnatal depression who leaves her baby. Giving up on the first book and giving myself permission to write the next was like clearing a clogged drain. This book became What Was Left, and was published in 2013 with Sleepers Publishing. It is a novel which still means so much to me. I have gone back every few years and revisited Mothwings, but I think it belongs in the drawer now. It was really difficult to let go of at first, though. I still think of the characters sometimes, but I learned so much about writing from them. Like how to create momentum and tension rather than just characters in a room, talking.

Since then I’ve had ego-shattering rejection again, of course. I think that the writers you see published aren’t the lucky ones, but the ones who get back up after being knocked down time and again. And since then I’ve had bad reviews. My latest novel, The Passengers had a shocking anonymous review in The Saturday Paper. So I hear, I’ve never read it and I don’t plan to. If a reviewer does not have the guts to put their name on a review, it is not worth reading. Jeff Sparrow said this succinctly in Overland: ‘If you expect an author to suck up your assessment of their book, you should at least be exposing yourself to equivalent scrutiny.’

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I’ve also learned to not read Goodreads reviews and to look inward rather than outward for my confidence. Easier said than done, of course. But even though kudos are lovely to receive, the best feeling is watching the word count creep up and seeing the story take shape. The best feeling is putting words on a page.

When I think of my most affirming experiences as a writer, I think of two. One was the Chancellor’s Research Scholarship I received to do my Doctorate of Creative Arts for my novel Long Bay at UTS, and the other was the Australia Council grant I received to write my most recent novel, The Passengers. Both were affirming because I felt as though they were formal investments in my work, in my career, without being tied to commercial outcomes or pressure. They gave me the time to research and write both novels and they gave me the sense that there were people I respected who think I am capable of doing those things. And then there’s the actual money. That’s nice too.

Eleanor Limprecht is the author of three novels: The Passengers, Long Bay and What Was Left. She teaches writing as a sessional academic at UTS, writes short fiction and blogs occasionally about subjects like self-doubt at www.eleanorlimprecht.com/blog/

Annabel Smith
When I finished my first novel, A New Map of the Universe, I entered it in the Vogel award. Though I wasn’t shortlisted for the award, Allen & Unwin wrote to ask if they could consider it for publication. I mistakenly assumed that if they were asking to consider it, they must already know they liked it, so it would be a shoo-in. Needless to say, my assumption was way off. But this was before social media, so at that stage I hadn’t yet read 2000 articles about how difficult it was to get published so I had the bombastic overconfidence of the blissfully naive. Several months later they wrote to tell me they didn’t think it was quite ready for publication and enclosed a three-page report with suggested changes. After reading the letter I sobbed uncontrollably, lying on the floor, until my face was red and my eyes were puffy. In hindsight, I know that this is an incredibly favourable response from a publisher. But it was my first experience of rejection and it felt utterly devastating.

My second novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, is about twin brothers who become estranged and then Whisky has a life-threatening accident, leaving Charlie to contemplate the part he’s played in the breakdown of their relationship. After the book came out in the US, I had an email from a man telling me he had been estranged from his brother for many years and had given up trying to mend their relationship. After reading my book he said he was going to give it one last try. Several months later, he wrote to tell me that he and his brother and their families had spent Christmas together for the first time in more than a decade. Positive feedback from readers is always a treat to receive, but to think that your book has changed someone’s life in a profound way is truly a wonderful feeling.

Annabel Smith is the author of The Ark, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot and A New Map of the Universe, which was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Book Awards. Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot, published in the US as Whiskey & Charlie, has sold in excess of 70,000 copies. In 2012, Annabel was selected by the Australia Council as one of five inaugural recipients of a Creative Australia Fellowship for Emerging Artists, for her interactive digital novel/app, The Ark. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from Edith Cowan University. Visit her at annabelsmith.com

Natasha Lester
Ah, rejection. The thing that makes us better, stronger, and more resilient, right? The internet is awash with pretty quotes that tell us why rejection is good for us but, in the moment of failure, it’s hard to find reassurance in upbeat aphorisms.

When faced with the most difficult rejection in my writing life, I honestly thought it was over; I would never publish a book again. But it turned out that the prevailing wisdom about rejection and failure is right; being rejected was the best thing that ever happened to me.

My first two books were contemporary/literary fiction, with the first written as part of a Masters in Creative Writing it was the type of book I was expected to write in a university environment at that time. My second book was similar.

Then I wrote what I thought would be my third book, similar again to the first two. I hated writing it. I couldn’t get the voice right. The idea just wouldn’t become a story. I reached the end and knew it wasn’t working, but I didn’t know why or how to fix it. More than that, I didn’t want to fix it. So I rejected myself. I threw the entire book in the bin. My then-agent, rightly, concurred that I’d made the correct decision.

I honestly couldn’t imagine what I would do next. I was terrified to write another book because what if it turned out the same as the one I’d trashed? To make myself feel better, I took every book off my shelf that was a favourite and, for an entire month, I read. It was a wonderful month, full of inspiring sentences and marvellous stories and characters I could never forget. At the end of the month I asked myself why I liked those books. And I realised that what I liked about them was very different to the kinds of books I had been writing.

It made me think: what if I wrote a book I wanted to write, rather than a book I thought I should write?

I sat down at my computer and let myself play with an idea that had been sitting in my head, and which I’d rejected because it was nothing like the books I’d written before. But now I had nothing to lose.

I loved every minute of writing that idea into a story. It became my first historical novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, the book that kicked off my writing career. So I owe my rejected book a great big thank you for setting me on the right path.

This ties into my most affirming experience as a writer. The whole time I was writing A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, I was terrified. I was changing genres, which would mean changing agents — if anyone else would have me — and also changing publishers — again, if anyone would have me. What if that was too many things to change at once? What if I couldn’t get a new agent or publisher and had to bin yet another book?

It was lucky I loved writing the book so much because the pressure of doubt might otherwise have made me give up. When it was finished, I sent it to an agent. She loved it, and took me on. When she submitted it to publishers, we received three offers. I could choose who I wanted to work with, which was a most unexpected outcome!

It was the most affirming experience I’ve ever had because it told me to trust my gut and that, if I wrote what I loved, it would find a home. It made me believe that throwing away the previous book had been the right thing to do, that I had learned the right lessons from that process, that I had become a better writer, and that I was definitely stronger and more resilient than ever. And, let’s face it, you need both strength and resilience to survive in the world of writing!

Natasha Lester is the author of the  bestselling historical novels The Paris Seamstress (2018), Her Mother’s Secret (2017) and A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald (2016). She is also published in America and Europe. The Age newspaper has described her as ‘a remarkable Australian talent.

This month I have a Natasha Lester book pack to give away A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald and The Paris Seamstress. If youd like to get your hands on these fabulous books, simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before before 5 pm on Monday 8 October to go in the draw. 

How I got an agent

7 August 2018

In a nutshell, this is how I got my agent. I emailed Debbie Golvan a query letter, got up and made a cup of tea, came back to my laptop and there, in my inbox, was a response. The best kind, requesting that I send through the first three chapters. Seven minutes it took her to respond. Just seven minutes. Surely this was some kind of sign?

More emails followed, a request for the full manuscript while she jetted about overseas, conversations that led to me tweaking the ending, and then the official offer to represent my novel. All this took a little over seven weeks.

There’s a prequel to this story which is terribly complex, but I’ll leave that for another day. For now the manuscript has gone out to publishers and the terrible waiting begins.

‘Seven minutes it took her to respond. Just seven minutes.’

The path to getting an agent is so incredibly varied; everyone has a different story. So I thought I’d fill that terrible waiting space by asking three authors — Carmel Bird, Katherine Collette and Nick Earls — how they got their agents. Sure enough, their experiences were vastly different.

I’ve enjoyed reading these so much that I think this might have to become a series. But for now, let’s kick things off with Carmel.

Carmel Bird
This is a sweet story of destiny, in seven steps.

One: I didn’t have an agent. Ages ago an ex-student of mine said she had just engaged an agent whose surname was the same as mine, and furthermore this agent lived in my small country town. I had not heard of this neighbouring agent, and I made no attempt to find her.

Two: In February 2018 I gave a writing workshop at the Faber Academy. One of the students said her novel was being published the following week, and that she had a wonderful agent who shared my surname and village. I still didn’t wake up.

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Three: Another student in the workshop said he was giving his manuscript to his agent (a different one) the following Monday. Then he said she would have response from publishers within a month.

Four: Now something about that ‘month’ really got to me. I am sure the student was exaggerating about the speed of response, but as I sat on the train going home, the three points above came together and said ‘agent, agent, agent’. Shazam!

‘A sweet story of destiny…I’m glad I gave in in the end’

Five: I went to the website of Sally Bird, Calidris Agency, and we had a meeting, and we realised we lived within five minutes of each other, and, even more important, that we could work with each other. It is a strange relief to me to feel that a professional and widely experienced agent is now going to present my work to publishers.

Six: As well as having a business relationship, we enjoy each other’s company. ‘Bird’ is my married name, and also Sally’s married name. We have discussed the fashionable idea of having hyphenated surnames: Sally White-Bird and Carmel Power-Bird. How mad would that be? I began here by saying this was a sweet story of destiny – I am wary of events that seem to be working in sync with destiny, but I think I resisted this little series of steps for long enough. I’m glad I gave in in the end. A five-minute walk can do you the world of good.

Seven: Sally is now representing my new novel Field of Poppies. I am so confident and delighted about all this.

Carmel Bird’s novels have been shortlisted three times for the Miles Franklin, and in 2016 she received the Patrick White Literary Award. Visit her at www.carmelbird.com

Katherine Collette
Recently, I interviewed my agent, Jacinta di Mase for a podcast I’m doing with a friend, the author Kate Mildenhall. I sent Jacinta the questions a week before the interview, and she came early to the studios. While the tech crew set up, Jacinta pointed to the bit where I summarised how we met. ‘We better get our stories straight,’ she said. ‘Because I don’t remember this how you do.’

The bit Jacinta didn’t remember, where we differed in our recollections, was that in my mind, she rejected my manuscript twelve months prior to signing me. In her mind, she said maybe, and asked me to re-submit.

So this is my version of what happened.

In 2016, I had a finished manuscript of my novel, The Helpline. At the time, Jacinta di Mase was president of the Australian Literary Agents Association (ALAA) and top of my list of prospective agents. I sent her an email describing the book and then tried to forget about it. They say if you haven’t heard after twelve weeks then the answer’s no. But surprisingly, she responded quickly, saying she’d love to read it.

I bundled it off, in electronic form. Two weeks passed slowly, and then she called. It was a polite Thanks but no thanks (I think).

I was upset, of course. I sent it to other agents on the ALAA website, but none of them were interested either. So I put in a drawer.

‘She rejected my manuscript twelve months prior to signing me…you always get a second chance’

Flash forward six months and I was picked for the ACT Writers Centre’s Hardcopy program. Hardcopy runs across three weekends. The first involves workshopping, and the second is a serious of presentations from a range of industry insiders, including agents.

Jacinta was there. After her talk she stayed on for morning tea. While she drank her coffee, I angsted about going to talk to her.

Dear reader, I did not want to talk to her. It was only the sense that if I didn’t I’d be disappointed in myself that made me do it.

I’d like to say I was impressive, charming, thoughtful (etc.) but I wasn’t. It counts among moments I cringe at remembering. I was… not articulate. But she remembered the book and gave me some feedback, which I incorporated into the revised work.

We met again a couple of months later at the third round of the Hardcopy program, where participants have one-on-one meetings with ten different publishers and agents, all of whom have read the first thirty pages of your manuscript.

Given Jacinta had already rejected the work I wasn’t very optimistic about seeing her. What would we even talk about? She’d already said no. But that meeting counts as among the highlights of my writing career so far. Not only did she end up signing me, but she went on to secure me a two-book deal with Text Publishing.

In our recent podcast interview, I said to Jacinta, ‘We’re so often told that you get one bite of the apple, only one chance with a publisher or an agent. Yet, with you I had two.’

But again, she had a different take. ‘You always get second chance,’ she said. ‘It’s never really over.’

Insofar as there’s a moral to this story, that’s my take home message. It’s never really over, you always get a second chance.

Katherine Collette’s first novel The Helpline comes out in Australia in September 2018 (Text Publishing), and in North America (Touchstone), the UK (S&S) and Italy (Garzanti) in 2019. Visit her at www.katherinecollette.com

Nick Earls
I got my agent at a time when I really needed one, and through the generosity of a friend. It was 1994, and Brisbane still felt at more than arms’ length from the world of Australian publishing. I had toiled away at my writing throughout the 1980s in something of a vacuum. In 1989, I met Laurie Muller from UQP, and that eventually led to my first book (Passion, a collection of short stories) being published by UQP in 1992. But the critics mauled it, it didn’t sell, UQP rejected my next novel manuscript (or two) and I needed a fresh start.

‘Maybe I was actually about to get an agent? But I had to hear her say it’

Veny Armanno was back in Brisbane by then, and our first books had been launched together in 1992. By 1994, he was doing everything right. Jane Palfreyman was a gun young publisher and she’d signed him up to Picador and he was putting out novels. I was in a hole. Fiona Inglis had just left an editing job to join Tim Curnow at Curtis Brown and Veny was one of her first clients. My CV included a book that had tanked and some rejected manuscripts but, despite that, he pitched me to her. I sent Passion and some newer material, and she said she’d meet me. I either went to Sydney to do that, or happened to be going there anyway (despite the ridiculous early nineties airfare it would have involved, this meeting was the ultimate big deal for a writer who had wanted a break since 1978, so I would have paid if necessary). We talked. I liked her. At the end of our conversation she handed me a pamphlet about Curtis Brown and discussed their commission structure, etc. I was still anxious that this was an illusion, or that everyone got this conversation and then, ninety-nine per cent of the time it ended with her saying, ‘But that’s for other people. We won’t be signing you.’ I’d become far too conditioned to rejection. She led me to the door. She hadn’t rejected me, yet. I still had the pamphlet. Maybe I was actually about to get an agent? But I had to hear her say it. I said, ‘Does this mean you’re actually taking me on?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes, sorry, didn’t I say that?’

Then I just needed to write something she could sell. From my multiple piles of possible novel ideas, instead of picking something I thought would best showcase my towering intellect, I decided to pick two that people might actually want to read. They ended up as After January and Zigzag Street. With After January, my connection with UQP was part of that working out, but with Zigzag Street the credit goes to Fiona. The manuscript missed out in the Vogel, but she knew Laura Paterson had just joined Transworld to set up an Australian fiction list, and that she was coming to a reading I was doing. Fiona did the groundwork beforehand, Laura liked what she heard, and off things went from there.

When Fiona went on parental leave maybe fifteen years ago, her assistant, Pippa Masson (who had been managing my diary), acted as my agent. When Fiona came back, it was clear Pippa was never going back to being an assistant, and she’s been my agent since then. It remains an important relationship, for a number of reasons. She knows me, knows my career and I trust her judgment. Also, I have a network of other agents too, but she’s the hub of that wheel. Through Cutis Brown, I have worked with literary agents in New York and London and, through a copy of Zigzag Street being shared around in LA in 1997, I have a film agent there. I also work with booking agents for events. But everything ultimately funnels back through Curtis Brown, where Pippa manages the bigger deals for me and Caitlan Cooper-Trent manages my diary.

‘The writing you needs to be passionate about your work, the business you needs to be as cold-hearted as an assassin’

When I was starting, there were fewer agents and I had no clue. I was too far from the publishing industry and there was no way to connect. Now distance isn’t what it was and the industry isn’t what it was either. It’s both more developed and a bit more desperate. If I were starting now, I’d definitely be trying to hook an agent, and fortunately there are quite a few good ones around. Having Fiona as my agent in the early days allowed me to focus on the writing while she — someone way more connected than I was — was there to keep putting my manuscripts in the right hands until something stuck. What I need now is different, but that’s what I’m getting from Pippa and Caitlan. I need someone to handle complicated things like film and TV contracts (sure, most of them go nowhere, but you need the paperwork right, just in case), to connect me internationally, to ask for more money than I’d dare to, to act as a sounding board and to provide me with industry intel while I sit here in Brisbane instead of turning up to events in Sydney or Melbourne night after night.

When trying to hook an agent, I think the key thing is to pitch yourself to them on their terms, as well as you possibly can, and then look away. Focus on something else while your work slowly rises higher in their slush pile. You need to separate yourself into two versions of yourself — a writing you and a business you. The writing you needs to be passionate about your work, the business you needs to be as cold-hearted as an assassin. Spend most of your time writing the best stuff you can. Send your work out to your current preferred targets, expect rejection, and then send it out again. That applies to agents as much as it applies to publishing outlets. If you get useful feedback, take it. But try, to the extent you can, to detach emotionally from negative outcomes, because they’re the norm. If your year has twenty rejections and two acceptances, your CV is two lines longer, you have made progress and no one needs to know about the rejections.

If you’re writing to an agent and you’ve won or been shortlisted in anything notable, let them know. If you’ve got publishing interest, let them know. If through a competition or a mentoring program (or anything) you’ve connected with an established writer who likes what you’re doing, see if they’ll pitch you to their agent, or other agents they know. It’s no guarantee you’ll get signed, but it takes you out of the slush pile and says you’re someone worth paying attention to.

Nick Earls is the author of 26 books, including two that have been adapted into feature films and five that have become stage plays. His most recent work is the award-winning novella series Wisdom Tree. Visit him at https://nickearls.wordpress.com/

This month I have a complete set of Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree novellas to give away! Described by The Australian as ‘one of the most ambitious fiction projects being undertaken in Australian publishing’, all five books have garnered the highest praise. (‘You can’t write better than this. It’s simply perfect’—Elizabeth Gilbert.) If you’d like to get your hands on this linked set of novellas, simply sign up to my newsletter before 6 pm Thursday 23 August (link to the right). Open to Australian residents only. Winner will be randomly generated. Good luck!

Literary adventures

21 June 2018

This month I thought I’d bring you a newsy post about my latest literary adventures. First up, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with two brilliant writers, Kate Mildenhall and Katherine Collette, for their new podcast, The First Time, which is launching in August. Katherine has recently signed her novel, The Helpline, and the podcast is part reality show, following Katherine’s journey through the publication process, and part masterclass as the pair interview writers about their experiences of publishing a book for the first time. It’s such a brilliant idea and I had way too much fun recording the podcast. The first ep comes out in August but in the meantime you can follow the podcast on Twitter and Insta.

Later that night we met up again for an event hosted by the ACT Writers Centre in the Canberra Contemporary Art Space (CCAS). It was rainy and stupidly cold (please hurry up, spring) but CCAS was deliciously warm and there was a lovely audience waiting for us. With Jack Heath and Karen Viggers, we chatted about writing and publishing. Jack revealed that with his first advance (as a teenager!) he bought a pair of outrageous boots that he wore to school visits. Sadly, my first advance was swallowed by dull things, like bills. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re all grown up and sensible, but I’ve resolved to buy something indulgently wonderful with my next advance.

Following us were Rosanna Stevens who read a brilliant new essay that had us laughing and wincing, and Jacqueline de-Rose Ahern who spoke about the overwhelming experience of having her first picture book published. There was also a panel of visual artists talking about their processes which I found fascinating. I particularly loved Jodie Cunningham’s ‘Talking to the Tax Man About Poetry’ series which converts eight artists’ lives from stats into sculptures, examining the balance of time for creating art versus doing work that pays the bills. I’m sure all the writers in the room could relate to the struggle to reconcile the two.

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Our panel continued chatting afterwards over dinner, and can I just say how much I appreciate having such intelligent, thoughtful and just generally lovely writers around me? Well there, I have.

Kate Mildenhall, Jack Heath, Karen Viggers, me, Katherine Collette

The following day I threw a bag into my little car, fuelled up on coffee, and headed down the Monaro to Merimbula to present a workshop on writing picture books for the Writers of the Far South Coast.

The drive there is stunning — yellow baked plains, violet hills, huge blue skies. I listened to podcasts and snacked on chocolate and generally enjoyed not having to entertain three children. I arrived a little early so I ate lunch on the beach, digging bare feet into sand. The one thing that I miss about living in Canberra is the beach, and on this day the ocean was dead flat, completely at peace.

There was an enthusiastic crowd at the workshop and I had a great time chatting all things picture books. I wish I’d taken a piccie of the lovely writers who came  but we were so busy that I completely forgot. Instead here’s me in a quiet moment before everyone arrived, looking longingly out towards the ocean. I mean, if Canberra had a beach it’d be perfect.

After two days of writerly goodness I was smashed, so that evening I crashed in my cute little Airbnb place and ate a takeaway pad thai and drank prosecco and watched bad TV and caught up on emails. Ah, the glamorous life of a writer! In the morning I spent one blissful hour walking an empty beach before heading back home.

I want to now step back in time, by a few weeks, to  mention a particularly special launch of the Sorry Day picture book by Coral Vass and Dub Leffler. It’s always a lovely moment when a book that you’ve edited is released, but the Sorry Day launch was a particularly moving experience. Anita Heiss did the official duties and there were several speeches that left me feeling quite teary. This is such an important book and it was a privilege to be involved as editor. Sorry Day allows us to open up conversations with our young people about a terrible part of our history in an age-appropriate way. I hope it makes its way into every school and home around this country.

Well that’s it for now, but there are more literary adventures ahead. Onward!

Guest post: Under the bed

1 June 2018

Every writer’s path to publication is different, and most writers have at least one novel that for one reason or another didn’t quite make it. Robert Lukins has 24 of them, but none of them were ever intended for publication. In this guest post, Robert reflects on how and why he wrote a book a year — only to file them away or burn them — before plucking up the courage to write for an audience.

My debut novel was published in February 2018. My first novel was completed in February 1994. Between these two dates I completed a new novel each year; each one printed, economically bound, and placed under my bed without being seen by anyone other than the person at the counter of the photocopy shop. I was teaching myself how to write but, I now realise, I was also avoiding the act of stepping into the world for fear of the consequences.

When I say that my first novel was written in 1994, I mean really that I finished my first novel-length piece of writing. Importantly — to only me, of course — this was never intended to be a thing that I would attempt to get published. Somewhere in childhood I had attached myself to the idea of becoming a novelist and this was a job that I was prepared to spend a lifetime readying myself for. Just as a musician might not expect the first song they ever wrote to end up on the radio, so I didn’t expect my first attempts to end up on a bookshop shelf. So I would not write novels but novel-length exercises. I was going to learn to write by writing, and suspected this may take some time.

My first books (and let’s generously call them books) were all conscious attempts to ape my writing heroes. This seemed a logical step: when getting to grips with guitar I started by learning to play my favourite songs by my favourite bands. So then, I wrote bad versions of the great novels. It was an extension of a much earlier habit of typing out my favourites: I would sit at my typewriter and copy out, word for word, comma for comma, the books I most adored. I wanted the feeling of being in the writer’s mind or perhaps just to feel what it was to have writer’s hands. So the next step was writing my own stories but making them as near as I could to the style of my greats. You’ve never read a bad novel until you’ve read a knock-off Don DeLillo written by a Sunshine Coast teenager who has an X-Files poster above his bed and no driver’s license. A bad Charles Dickens. A bad Edith Warton. Later — while traversing the first of many perfectly disgusting Brisbane student share houses — a bad Andrew McGahan Praise and an unbelievably bad Garner Monkey Grip.

This was all, though, the plan: I was learning to write.

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The second, longer phase was one of writing a book (again, that generous term) each year, that attended to a specific self-set challenge. Can you have the adult and child characters in your story switch minds? Can one strip one’s novel of every kind of expression of heightened emotion? Can internal thought processes be spoken and, what would be verbal, internalised? Can you set a whole novel on a bus? Can one be set in a single, completely empty room containing no characters (and written in second-person perspective, for good measure)? The answer to these questions, and all the others I plucked from the sky, is yes, but it does not mean they will be novels that are interesting, innovative or entertaining, and certainly not that they should be sent to a publisher with a note attached: urgent!

So this went on and all the while it seemed like progress. All this writing was done in as near to secret as I could manage. It became part of the process that I was not proclaiming to the world that I was a writer. I didn’t go to writing classes. I didn’t join writers’ groups. I didn’t enter competitions. This was the plan: that I would learn until I was ready.

However, the years ticked over. Room under the bed diminished. There were moments of silly melodrama; manuscripts were made into unimpressive little pyres and set alight in the backyard. Where the self-flagellation was ramped up and I completed the task of writing three books in a row where at their completion the Word file was simply deleted from my computer. The poor things not even making it to the Office Works printing queue. It was proving something to myself, it seemed.

This went on and it became 2013.

The realisation came not like a thunderclap but rather like a steadily rising flood that this was all an excuse. All this work, just noise. I was writing novel-length things because I was terrified of writing my first novel. What if I couldn’t do it? I had constructed my life and psychology around the idea of writing novels. What would happen if it were all a lie? The truth is I had never found the courage to write that first. All the words, millions in the end, just treading water.

So, for the first time, I would write.

Robert Lukins, photo by Eve Wilson

Looking at The Everlasting Sunday now, I find it curious that it is a novel that seems to have abandoned all the things I thought I was learning with my previous exercises. There is no hyper-analysis, no trick. It’s a novel written peacefully and on what felt like pure instinct. Gone was all the self-torture. I simply did what you’re supposed to do: pluck up the courage to try, and try your best.

I don’t regret all the years (lonely ones, really, looking back at them) and I don’t regret all the abandoned words. The truth is that I likely did learn a little craft from all those unreadable books and, for the most part, I took great satisfaction from writing them. And we’re all just looking for ways to cope; mine was simply working to avoid trying. I wish though that I’d joined the world a little sooner. Trusted a little the lessons available from other writers and readers. Because I’ve now taken my first steps into the world and I’m finding it a hospitable, forgiving place.

The Everlasting Sunday is available now, published by University of Queensland Press. Visit Robert at robertlukins.com

To go in the draw to win a signed copy of The Everlasting Sunday simply subscribe to Irma’s newsletter before 6 pm, Monday 25 June. Sign-up box is on the right-hand side of this page (or down the bottom in mobile view).