Words by Bec Fleming, ACTWC Blogger in Residence
It’s Saturday lunchtime, I’m sitting on the grass at Gorman House in a large circle of people I have only just met but feel a strong connection to. Lapping up the spring sunshine and listening to the lively conversation, I am truly content. I’m deeply absorbed in a discussion about the future of reading and writing which had started in the session before and is spilling into lunch. The group is talking, with much passion, about how writers preserve their reading and writing time in a digital world. In a world with Youtube, Facebook and Twitter calling constantly, not just for social reasons but as an increasingly expected part of the publishing process, when do writers read? We don’t resolve this tricky question in our lunch break, but it is one of many challenging questions provoked by an extraordinary series of lectures in the Intro2Industry program held for the Hardcopy participants over the weekend.
The Hardcopy Program began earlier this year and was the brainchild of Writers Centre Director, Kelli-anne Moore. It is an incredible program which brings together 30 of some of the best unpublished novelists from across the country in a rigorous Professional Development program for fiction writers. The program aims to give serious unpublished writers with a first draft fiction manuscript an understanding of the steps to publication after that first draft is finished. The group is varied, geographically, in age, gender, genre and vocation. What they share is determination, passion, dedication to their craft, as well as a supportive spirit. Since their first meeting in April they have bonded closely and were kind enough to welcome me into their creative world for the weekend.
The presentations in the program were varied in both the presenters and in their content. The one unifying element was the incredibly high calibre of speakers and insights shared. From panel discussions with successful authors to insights from agents and publishers on what they are looking for in debut novelists, to detailed workshops on networking, marketing and social media this weekend really did offer an incredibly thorough introduction to the industry.
I won’t lie. It was a big three days, and I’ll admit at times I was overwhelmed and intimidated. On the first day, Eva Bui, of Penguin/Random House advised that the data suggests reader numbers are down. She also detailed the expectations in the industry that authors use social media, or at the very least establish a website, to build an ‘author brand’ before a manuscript is even accepted. As storytellers, agent Sophie Hamley reminded the room, we are competing with other mediums for the attention of the audience, an audience who may be more inclined to watch the box set of Game of Thrones than read a book by a debut author. Another challenge, Sophie shared was that agents do frequently close their books for new authors because there are just too many manuscripts, too many aspiring authors in the slush pile for them to read. There were some tough lessons to learn, but there was also a lot of hope.
The hope I saw was in the passion of the presenters. The industry professionals who spoke were genuinely passionate about books and story. For every bit of advice that a particular genre may not be on trend at the moment, or that publishers want you to have an author platform established before you submit, the message also came across that a great story, a story that ‘pins you to the page’ will always interest publishers.
For me the lessons of the weekend can be summed up in two words, persistence and patience. Having patience with your manuscript means waiting until it is what Sophie Hamley calls ‘fully cooked’ before you send it out. Generally your first shot is your only shot with an agent or publisher, so don’t waste that chance on a manuscript you know isn’t ready. Persistence is about realising that a rejection letter from one publisher or agent doesn’t always mean the manuscript isn’t worthwhile, it might just not be the right story for that person. It doesn’t mean it isn’t the right story for someone.
The weekend offered much insight into the industry and in my next post I will share some of the more concrete tips I picked up from the expert presenters. To finish this post, however, I want to share some advice I received from some of the talented Hardcopy participants on finishing a first draft. My three favourite pieces of advice were:
Don’t think, just write.
Just keep going.
Have fun, enjoy the writing.
Great advice from a passionate group who I firmly believe are among the next voices of Australian literature.
Bec Fleming is a Canberra based writer, historian and poet. She graduated with a PhD in history from the University of New England in 2010. She has spoken at the National Portrait Gallery, the Australian War Memorial and for the ABC program Now Hear This. Her poem ‘An untimely death’ was shortlisted for the 2013 Michael Thwaites poetry award. She has loved words for as long as she can remember and thinks it is a little bit magic when they line themselves up in just the right order.