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Writing

Literary adventures abroad

26 March 2019

Irma working with rescued elephants in Thailand

As my novel set in Thailand is currently out with publishers, I wait. It is, in short, excruciating. In the meantime I am working on a new novel, which is the best antidote, and of course continuing with my usual editing work on other writers’ books. But still I can’t help my thoughts returning to my debut novel, taking fledgling steps out into the world, hoping that it finds a good home. There are many joys and challenges in writing a novel set overseas, and so I asked three fellow writers — Angela Meyer, Angela Savage and Leah Kaminsky — to share their experiences. I could relate to so many aspects of each of their stories. I hope you enjoy them too.

Angela Meyer
I don’t have any personal connection to Scotland. My ancestors are Dutch and Norwegian. But when I first stepped off the train in Edinburgh I fell in love. I’ve been to Scotland four times now, and for extended periods of time. I’ve been all over the Highlands and islands. And when I am there something just feels right — I feel at home, while also feeling the excitement and stimulation of difference. After all, it is the exact opposite environment of the temperate beach town I grew up in. When I am not there, I do long for the place, the way you might long for a person. I don’t have any explanation for it. I also love Scottish people. My partner is half-Scottish. My ex-boyfriend was half-Scottish. This just seems to happen! My partner’s grandmother told me that she can tell, from my temperament, how I would fit in well in Scotland.

Angela Meyer on top of Beinn Eighe, Torridon Hills (Wester Ross), Scotland

When I first realised I wanted to set a book there I was of course nervous about getting everything wrong. And I questioned my desire to do so, when there are so many great Scottish writers writing about Scotland. But the desire would not go away, and I knew that the lens I was applying would be Australian — my character, Jeff. Once I knew I was going to at least have a go of it I did a ton of research — both in Scotland and via books and online. After I’d drafted the manuscript I went back to Scotland and put myself in the same conditions as my characters (isolated, no electricity, in nature) so I could even get the feel of it right. I was in correspondence with the museum in the area my character Leonora is from, and I bothered them often, as well as going back over all the photos I took in the museum.

One of the hardest decisions was whether or not to have Scots dialect. When I am in Scotland, I do not have any trouble understanding the accent. I can easily think in a Scottish accent, and so when I was writing the draft, I let some of the dialogue come out how I heard it. I also used a Scots dictionary online to add some words in dialect (particularly for the nineteenth-century dialogue). Recently I have been going over this with my UK publisher, who is Scottish, and I have been greatly relieved that I haven’t made any major stuff ups. The fact a Scottish publisher wants to publish it in fact has been a dream come true. I can’t wait to go back!

Angela Meyer’s writing has been widely published, including in Best Australian Stories, Island, The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow and Killings. She has worked in bookstores, as a reviewer, in a whisky bar, and for the past few years has published a range of Australian authors for Echo Publishing. A Superior Spectre is her debut novel. literaryminded.com.au/

Angela Savage
My relationship with Asia started more than 30 years ago when, after working in France for a year as an au pair, I flew home to Melbourne via Bangkok. I thought I’d reached peak awe after Europe, but Bangkok blew me away. By the time I left France, I could pass for a local; however, that was never going to be the case in Thailand. Then as now, I was intrigued by the question of how to get by in a place where blending in isn’t an option.

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I ended up living in South-East Asia for most of the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, intent on becoming a published author, I turned to Asia for creative inspiration. Writing fiction set in Thailand provided both a means to process my experiences and an outlet for the travel stories nobody would listen to.

Angela Savage in Krabi, Thailand, suffering for her art

Ironically, an early rejection of what later became my first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar, suggested there weren’t enough ‘sights, smells and sounds of Thailand’ in the manuscript. I realised I was too close to the experience, writing so soon after returning to Australia. I had to take a step back and reconnect with the sense of curiosity and wonder I first had — and still have — on visiting Thailand. To remember the details that make the place unique.

One of the great joys of setting novels outside Australia is doing fieldwork in order to gather those details. As part of the research for my forthcoming novel Mother of Pearl, I visited Thailand in December 2015 in search of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and texture that give a setting what James Bradley calls, ‘the imaginative thickness it needs’. Some examples that found their way into the novel include the flayed frogs, legs still kicking, in metal dishes at the morning market in Sisaket; the blast of cold air at the entrances to Bangkok’s plazas; and the smell of brine and barbeque at Bang Saen Beach. The landscape seemed to offer up ways of ‘showing, not telling’ — signs on Bangkok’s Skytrain asking passengers to Please offer this seat to monks, for example — while physically moving through the settings that I imagined my characters to inhabit also helped bring them to life.

The greatest challenge in setting novels outside Australia, and specifically in Asia, is to avoid Orientalism and stereotyping. As a non-Asian Australian writer, I am acutely aware that Western writing about Thailand still trades largely in erotic and exotic stereotypes — and when I look at ‘bestsellers’ set in Thailand, I wonder if that’s what readers want.

I also wonder if there’s a market for books set in Asia written by non-Asian Australians, or if readers prefer Own Voices writing — in this case, stories set in Asia by writers with an Asian background. For my own part, I enjoy perspectives that both ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ bring to fiction.

Being transported by reading is one of life’s great pleasures for me. I hope that my own writing brings readers some of this same pleasure.

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria. angelasavage.wordpress.com/ @angsavage

Leah Kaminsky
‘To travel far, there is no better ship than a book.’ Emily Dickinson

In my debut novel, The Waiting Room, the coastal town of Haifa plays the role of character. More than just a particular place, it is evocative of an era in time where a palpable sense of dread accompanies the protagonist, Dina, as she walks through the market or drops her child at school. Set in 2001, during a turbulent spate of terror attacks in the Middle East, the setting explores the dichotomy of living in a war-torn country which is a vibrant and pulsing locale populated with a colourful community of people as they go about their ordinary, daily lives. I worked as a doctor in this region during that time, so the images, smells and sounds of street life were embedded in memory, waiting in the wings for me to conjure them up on the page.

Landscapes shape people. A strong sense of place in a novel can demand a huge amount of research so that every detail resonates with the reader. In my second novel, The Hollow Bones, I pinned the narrative around true but distant events. My protagonist, Ernst Schäfer, was born in 1910 and grew up in a small village in Germany, spending afternoons playing in the forests of Thuringia. By 1930 he had become a zoologist and adventurer, travelling to Philadelphia to partake in a joint American–German team on two expeditions to China and Tibet. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler ordered his return to Germany, to lead a group of German scientists into the foothills of the Himalayas, on a hare-brained mission in search of the ‘true’ origins of the Aryan race. Questions of landscape moved to the forefront of my novel as my characters negotiated the changing mood on the streets of 1930s Berlin. Later, Schäfer treks through the ‘mystical’ terrain of Tibet. The demands of the narrative insisted the need to capture these places as they changed over time, framed against the backdrop of turbulent world events.

Setting can be the bedrock of atmosphere in a novel. When I first came across the story of Ernst Schäfer and the German Tibet Expedition of 1938 I tried to find a way to fund a huge research trip, but finances and time were against me. At that stage I almost gave up on writing the book, but then the words of my wonderful friend and mentor, the late painter Yosl Bergner, came back to haunt me. ‘I never want to visit any place that I have painted through my imagination. It ruins the magic for me.’ I suddenly realised that the settings I had started writing about no longer existed — they were impossible to travel to physically. Berlin and Lhasa of the 1930s had completely vanished.

This was strangely liberating, and I started reading widely. I did visit the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia while I was on book tour in the US for my previous novel. There, in the archives, I came across a wealth of information for my research — field diaries, letters, newspaper clippings, photos and film footage from the expedition — including a taxidermied panda encased in a diorama that Schäfer had brought back from Tibet in 1931. Eventually, the museum ended up becoming an unusual part of the setting the book as well.

Books are the fastest and cheapest way of travelling; imagination has always been the terrain of a writer, and as a novelist I feel I act as a trusty tour guide for my readers, sharing magical and reinvented geographies.

Leah Kaminsky is a physician and award-winning writer. Her debut novel, The Waiting Room, won the prestigious Voss Literary Prize. She conceived and edited Writer MD, a collection of prominent physician–writers, which starred on Booklist and is co-author of Cracking the Code, with the Damiani family. She holds an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. leahkaminsky.com

To go in the draw to win a book pack of A Superior Spectre, The Dying Beach (signed) and The Hollow Bones (signed) simply subscribe to Irma’s newsletter before 5 pm, Monday 22 April. Sign-up box is on the right-hand side of this page (or down the bottom in mobile view).

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!