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I am delighted with today’s news that Lily Brett won the major French literary award, the Prix Medicis, for a work in translation for her novel Lola Bensky. It’s a major vindication for Lily’s writing, and a proud moment for me as her long-time editor.

Lily and I first met when I was a junior editor at Pan Macmillan Australia in the late 1990s. I have edited her fiction and nonfiction ever since. After her husband David Rankin, I am honoured to be her first reader.

The author-editor relationship is a little bit like doctor-patient confidentiality. And so while I’d love to discuss in detail how we work together, I won’t. All I will say is that I’m particularly proud of her achievement with Lola Bensky because the novel’s path to publication was less than smooth.

I hope this award spurs many sales of this and other books of Lily’s in France and elsewhere. I love this photo of her in Paris in 1948, aged two, in the new white rabbit-fur coat that her father obtained on the black market. A triumphant return to Paris today for Lily.

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Bestselling Australian author of The Mothers’ Group, Fiona Higgins (at right), is part of the Wordy Women tour of the East Coast of Australia with Allen & Unwin stablemates Kylie Ladd (left) and Maggie Joel (centre) to coincide with the publication of new works including Fiona’s new page-turning novel Wife on the Run. Here are the key dates:

Friday 24th October

  • 11.30am for 12.00pm start. Lunch with an Author: Travelodge, 12 Steel Street, Newcastle West. Bookings essential through Maclean’s Bookshop,  69 Beaumont Street, Hamilton Ph. 02 49692525
  • 5.30pm for 6.00pm. Girls’ night out: Author talk followed by Q&A and signing. Drinks and nibbles served on arrival. Cardiff Library. Ground Floor, Cardiff Marketplace, Cnr Main Road and Macquarie Road. FREE.

Saturday 25th October

  • 1.30pm for 2.00pm. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Tamworth Library, 466 Peel Street. Drinks and nibbles served. FREE.

Monday 27th October

  • 2.00pm. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Chermside Library, 375 Hamilton Road Brisbane.

Tuesday 28th October

  • 5.00pm. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Ebony Quill, next door to Dymocks at 793 Burke Ave, Camberwell Melbourne.

Wednesday 29th October

  • 12.00pm for 12.30pm Geelong Literary Luncheon. Ticket price includes lunch and a copy of the book. La Parisien restaurant, 15 Eastern Beach Road, Geelong. Bookings: 03 5229 3110 or here.
  • 6.30pm Panel discussion at Readings, 701 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. Cost $5.

Thursday 30th October

  • 5.30pm for 6.00pm. Bega. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Candelo Books. FREE.

Friday 31st October

  • 11.30am for 12.00pm. Bateman’s Bay Literary Lunch as part of the Bateman’s Bay Writers Festival. Festival Hub Marquee, CoachHouse Marina Resort, 49 Beach Road, Batemans Bay. Bookings here.
  • 5.30pm for 6.00pm. ACT Writers’ Centre. Author talk, Q&A and signing. Ralph Wilson Theatre, Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra.

Saturday 1st November

  • 12.00pm (noon). Nowra. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Nowra Library, 10 Berry Street. FREE.

Monday 3rd November

  • Sydney. 10.30am-11.30am. Author talk, Q&A and signing at Castle Hill Library. Cost: $7.50. Bookings essential.
  • Sydney. 6.30pm for 7.00pm start. Constant Reader Author Talk at Small Bar, Willoughby Road, Crows Nest. Cost: $10. Canapes included.  Drinks and food available for purchase at the bar.
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This is the cover for Wife on the Run, the new novel from my client Fiona Higgins, the bestselling author of The Mothers’ Group. I don’t know how she does it, but Fiona has the ability to craft sexy, intelligent page-turners about contemporary Australian life.

As Fiona explains on her website and in this video, as a mother, wife, sister and daughter she is “fascinated by intimate relationships, families and what lies beneath the surface of the ordinary.”

Wife on the Run takes off when two technology-related disasters hit the family of Paula McInnes within days of each other. One involves the public shaming of her teenage daughter, the other is a discovery about her husband that shocks her to her core. With her world unravelling, Paula does the only thing that makes any sense to her: she runs away, pulling her children out of school and setting off on a road trip across Australia with her elderly father and his caravan.

It all sounds so simple – and for a while, it is. But along the way Paula will meet new, exciting complications, and realise that running away is only a temporary solution. The past has to be faced before the future can begin.

What I particularly love about this novel is that Fiona writes about characters of all ages, and their interactions with each other, with profound empathy, insight and humour. At the same time she keeps the reader glued to the page, wondering what’s going to happen next – yet still manages to surprise us. Or this reader, anyway.

In stores and online in late October.

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After the smattering of positive feedback I usually get from readers seeking to know more about the realities of Australian book publishing, it was thoroughly refreshing to read this lambasting from aspiring author Jeff Martin in response to one of my most popular posts (from 2012), Australian writers: think twice before diving into the publishers’ slush pile. I reprint it in full, unedited, so you can feel the full force of the hot wind that blew in my face as I read it.

Have to shake my head at your utterly off-the-mark explanation for publishers seeking to acquire manuscripts directly. The REAL reason publishers have opened their door to direct submittals is because agents want NOTHING TO DO with authors that write fiction. Especially commercial fiction. They issue knee-jerk rejections of said manuscripts as fast as they can get them out the door. This trend has become so rampant worldwide that publishers are not getting the volume of manuscripts in certain genres that they should. In short, agents are not doing their jobs. These lazy snobs are deliberately damaging the careers of talented new authors because, quite simply, they can’t be bothered to invest in them. Story quality doesn’t matter. Story originality doesn’t matter. Story creativity doesn’t matter. 5-star reviews don’t matter. Nothing matters. Unless the newbie is a celebrity! Then they’ll fall over themselves to request the manuscript. Stephen King himself, if twenty-five years old today, could not get published because of these agents that should be more properly be viewed as roadblocks. In fact, in light of this, some time ago, King advised new authors to skip agents entirely and submit directly to publishers. He said a new author has a better chance of his/her manuscript being plucked from a slush pile and read than an agent reading it. He was absolutely right. Just so you know, Virginia, I sent a query for my outstanding work of (eerie) commercial fiction to thirty-five agents in the U.K. that stated their literary preferences included the genres of horror, the paranormal, fantasy, etc. Thirty-five. The novel had received rave reviews from major websites and top reviewers on Amazon. The query letter contained those reviews, of course. Guess how many agents requested the full manuscript, Virginia. Zero. Guess how many agents requested reading material, Virginia. Zero. Well, that did it for me. I changed course for good. Sent my manuscript (as a soft-cover book, complete with artwork. Very slick looking.) straight to editors/senior editors/editors-in-chief with the top publishers in the world. Within six weeks, four had replied with personal messages! Two informed me they would take a look at it. (One of them — an editor-in-chief — asked for the story in MS Word form.) The third — an editor-in chief — said to get an agent! LOL! (This person is utterly disconnected from reality.) The fourth actually wrote a personal reply, commending me on my ‘compelling’ query letter. Added he is not able to accept unsolicited submittals, however, and wished me well. But he has the book. In response to his note, I thanked him for his courtesy and asked him to give the novel to someone outside the publishing industry for his/her feedback. Should he do that, and that person comes back two weeks later and tells him the story is great (and it is great), he may well skirt the rules, read it himself and take it on. At the very least, he will regard the book differently than before that may lead to something. But NONE of these four publishers would have even become aware of me/my novels had I not done as Stephen suggested. If left to agents, my books would have died on their computers right then and there for agents are in the business of not helping authors of fiction but stopping them from going any farther. They ruin careers. And they enjoy it. They actually think they speak for the literary public when they most certainly do not. 75% of all agent-approved published books are flops. 75%! They don’t make a dime. Book bin material two weeks after release. That tells everything you need to know about agents’ judgment. But ask yourself, Virginia — how many best-selling authors can you name that have PUBLICLY COMPLAINED about the number of rejections they received for their works? Off the top of my head, I can think of Stockett, King, Meyer, Rowling, Grisham and Forsythe. No doubt there are others. No doubt. What do these authors have in common, Virginia (beside the fact they are/were best-selling authors)? I’ll tell you — they all write commercial fiction. The biggest selling books in the world are those of commercial fiction. And what do agents do when they receive this genre from new authors? They reject them out of hand no matter how good they are. Isn’t that amazing?! THAT’S why more and more publishers want to directly deal with authors. Oh, and by the way, the editor-in-chief of Tor Books in London, fed up with the number of complaints she has received from authors regarding agents’ outrageous behavior towards them, invited authors to submit to Tor. No agents needed or wanted. Well, as of late September, Tor has, I believe, acquired nineteen manuscripts that had previously been rejected and likely numerous times by know-it-all agents. If I were the chief editor of Tor and so alarmingly discovered that publishable material was routinely being tossed in the garbage by these incompetents, I would never use agents again. I mean, what do I need them for? They are DAMAGING my business as a publisher, keeping from me tales I can sell. In point of fact, Tor’s open submittals portal has yielded TONS of excellent product neither this publisher nor any other would ever have seen if left to agents. Stephen King was right. Submit to publishers. Forget about agents. Don’t waste your time with agents. And, Virginia, I do not want you making excuses for these people. I have no interest in reading anything you have to say in defense of them. And likely neither does Tor. I have all the proof I need of agent arrogance and apathy towards authors of fiction, and nothing you say is going to change that. But tell you what, Virginia — YOU write a work of commercial fiction and submit it to as many agents as you want anywhere in the world. Use a pseudonym. Jane Smith. See how far you get, Virginia. Yes, get ready to paper your house with form rejection letters from people that didn’t read a word of your manuscript, don’t want to and perhaps didn’t even finish reading your query. Yes, good luck with that.

So as a lazy snob who rejects commercial fiction manuscripts no matter how good they are, I can’t really explain my excitement at news overnight that advance copies of Wife on the Run, the new novel from my client Fiona Higgins (whose The Mothers’ Group was the bestselling Australian commercial fiction title of 2012) will soon be in my destructive hands.

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Brooke H with her book

This is the courageous and utterly charming Brooke Hemphill, clutching a copy of Lesbian For A Year, her memoir about, well, I’ll let you take a wild guess.

Brooke is appearing in two events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. One is the Queer Literary Salon at 7.30pm on Saturday 30th August at the Toff in Town (ticketed). The other is Lesbian For a Year, an in-conversation with Festival director Lisa Dempster, at 10.00am Sunday 31st at AMI The Cube (free).

Author – agent Q&A
In an effort to lift the veil on the enduring mysteries of the book publication process, I’m posting an occasional series of Q&As with my clients on their respective paths to publication. You can read the first one here

In her responses, Brooke is characteristically forthright, self-deprecating and modest.

Why did you want to write this book? For how long had you thought about writing it?
I’ve always wanted to write a book since I was a little kid. My sister and I used to write awful illustrated books about some bloke with a mustache who had a little pet dog.

I have a discarded 50,000 word document on my computer I stumbled across recently that was a very rough attempt to write a book about my alcohol fuelled drinking adventures called Run the Gauntlet. But every time I started, I gave up or got distracted. Last year, I decided if it was ever going to happen, I had to get serious. I spoke to a couple of published authors and asked how they did it and what it did for their careers.

Everyone said the same thing: they didn’t make much money but the book opened up other opportunities.

At that time, I was editing a magazine that was tanking and I knew I needed something else in the works. So I went for it with the book.

Describe your drafting process.
I had this romantic notion of disappearing somewhere for a month or two to write. The first 20,000 words were already in the can when I jumped on the plane to Los Angeles in November last year. With 20,000 down, I had 40,000 to go! [Editor’s note: I sold Brooke’s book on the basis of a partial manuscript, a process described here.]

I rented an apartment in Venice Beach and set myself a quota of 2,000 words a day. Some days, I wrote double that. And so the first draft came out pretty quickly. I printed it off and marked up typos with a red pen, made the changes on the document and thought life was pretty sweet. Little did I know…

What happened after you finished the first draft?

I have to come clean. I had a very naive view that once the first draft was done, it’d be smooth sailing from there. It’d just be a couple of weeks of polishing then the book would be in the hands of the typesetters and proofreaders. Oh, how wrong I was.

When I got my first round of notes back on the first draft, I had been forced to take six weeks off work before I started a new job so I had time on my hands to deal with what turned out to be a complete redrafting of the book.

My lifesaving agent [Ed’s note: aw, shucks] suggested I get some butchers paper and plot out the key scenes and moments in the book. At the time I was staying at my partner’s house and I plastered these enormous sheets of paper to cupboard doors in his bedroom which essentially listed every person I’d ever slept with. Fortunately, he was away at the time.

What kinds of revisions did you do between the first draft and subsequent drafts? What were the main challenges for you in developing the manuscript?
The main challenge was pacing. How much of this story should go in compared to another one? How do I jump forward five years here or a week there? The main message I got on the first draft was that the book needed to “get to the lesbian part faster”, which made sense since the book’s title is Lesbian for a Year.

Choosing what to keep in and what to chop out was also a challenge. After editing other people’s work for several years, I’d forgotten just how hard it is to be objective with your own words. You’re just too damn close to see what needs to be chopped and so having one or two experienced hands to give you feedback is key.

During this process, Virginia gave me a piece of advice that was so pertinent, I mention it in the acknowledgements of the book. “Think of your first draft as a rocket being launched from Cape Canaveral. When it takes off, there is all this scaffolding that falls away as the rocket goes out into the atmosphere. The rocket is in the air. It’s taken off. You just need to let the scaffolding fall away now,” she said. And she was dead right.

Did anything surprise you about the process of getting a book published?

Writing a memoir is a little bit like enforced therapy: somehow the editor just seems to know where the sorest points are that you’re brushing over. And they ask for more. This makes you examine and reexamine, over and over again, moments you might really like to forget about. So I would say I was surprised what I learned about myself from writing the book.

I was also surprised at just how tough a process it was to get the book over the finish line. But what I learned was that a lot of writers feel similarly as they get toward the end of the process. They also hate their books and don’t ever want to read them again. I have to say, during the final stages of drafting, every time I opened the manuscript, my shoulders would tense. It was very stressful but overall, worth it in the end. I mean, I hope so. I’m on standby for any scathing reviews.

Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?
Polish, polish, polish your pitch and the first 20,000 words of your manuscript. Then get yourself an excellent agent. Virginia talked me down off the ledge several times when it all seemed overwhelmingly hard and she was there with a word of encouragement or two when I most needed it. “You’re capable of good writing,” she told me during the drafting process. I wrote those words down in my notebook and went back to them whenever I wasn’t so sure.

Ultimately, I say dream big but be prepared to work your ass off.

Writing a book and having a full time job is hard bloody work and just when you think you are finished, here comes another round of notes and changes.

What questions do you have about Brooke’s comments, or about the process of editing and revision she describes? I’m always interested to hear from readers of this blog and welcome your questions and responses.

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If you read or heard about The Mothers’ Group, the debut novel by Fiona Higgins that was one of the biggest selling Australian novels of 2012, then I have some good news.

Wife on the Run, Fiona’s new novel, will be published in Australia in November.  Which, as most of us know too well, isn’t as far away as we like to think.

Fiona is not only my client but my good friend, so I am doubly thrilled to report that she’s done it again. In Wife on the Run she’s created a page-turning story full of characters who face recognisable contemporary dilemmas but who also challenge and defy stereotypes about people of all ages. She also manages to provide enough plot twists and turns to count reading the book as a yoga class.

In this video Fiona introduces Wife on the Run and thanks all the readers who helped make The Mothers’ Group so successful. To stay in touch with Fiona as she moves through the final stages of the book’s production towards publication and promotion, consider joining her Facebook page.

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Here’s the latest GriffithREVIEW. I’m proud to have an essay in this edition, which is all about the transformation of work in the 21st century. Editor Julianne Schultz has a particular genius for identifying contemporary subjects for her themed issues in a way that both leads and responds to public conversation.

My piece is about Skype and how it’s both an invaluable tool and a bit of an illusion, especially for an expatriate daughter living and working a long way from home.

GriffithREVIEW 45 cover

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How do I work with the writers I choose to represent?
I’ve heard from a few Australian writers recently who wanted to know a bit more about how I work with the authors I represent. In response I thought it might be useful to hear from one of my freshly published authors, Brad Hutchins, whose GAME SET CASH has just been released in Australia and online.

The author took a gamble
When Brad queried me, the manuscript was a long way from ready to show a publisher, though he had approached publishers through the slush pile of unsolicited submissions, and had been rejected. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, by the time he approached me, Brad knew he needed editorial development but wanted to see if a publishing professional thought his book might interest a publisher. So it was a bit back-to-front and not what I recommend, but the publishing path is never straight.

This was a gamble, because:

  • if a writer has already approached and been rejected by publishers, it can be impossible to go back to them; and
  • most agents will only consider completed manuscripts at a high degree of polish.

But then, gambling is largely what GAME SET CASH is all about.

The agent took a gamble
Agreeing to represent an author is also a gamble. Well, let’s call it a calculated risk. The agent’s work is speculative – all the editorial/pitching work up front to pay off (relatively speaking) with commission from the author’s advance and (hopefully) subsequent royalty and foreign rights income.

So why did I choose to work with Brad?

  • lads’ stories from young Australian men are in high demand but short supply
  • it was a memoir incorporating an unusual angle – tennis trading/betting – as well as the combination of sport and travel
  • crucially, Brad knew he needed to do more work, and was prepared to do it.

My willingness to mentor Brad through further editorial development makes me either a romantic or a fool, depending on who you ask. Admittedly it’s sometimes a poor decision from a profitability point of view, which is why I have to be so selective. (And which is why I do writing and editing work for companies and other authors who are not my agency clients.) But the satisfaction of helping a unique Australian story take its final shape, and then finding that manuscript a home with a publisher, is enormous.

Agent’s Q&A with Brad Hutchins

Why did you want to write GAME, SET, CASH! ?

I’ve always loved reading and writing. I’d been writing fiction as a hobby for a few years before I realised non-fiction had a much better chance of being published. When I finished court-siding on the tennis tour, life suddenly became a whole lot quieter and I needed a passion project to sink my teeth into. It hit me that I had lived a story many people found intriguing and seemed very interested in. So I started looking for an agent.

Besides that, there is a lot of confusion and misconception from the general public in regards to court-siding. So it is nice to be able to set the record straight and share the fun of the road with people while dispelling any sinister myths surrounding the practice.

How long did it take you to write it?

Because it was all there in my head I managed to punch the first draft out in less than three months. Editing then took another six months, working with both you and the publishers.

When you approached me, did you think your manuscript was finished? 

Negative. I’d barely started because I knew I’d need guidance toward a winning formula and I didn’t want to invest too much time in what could likely be the wrong direction.

[Editor’s note: this is not entirely true. I read a complete manuscript, but it was a rather rough draft. Which would be why Australian publishers did not take any interest in it as an unsolicited submission. See quote in bold below, and my post on unsolicited submissions.]

How did I help you to strengthen your manuscript?

You gave me an idea of how to shape the whole book and helped me solidify ideas to focus on for each chapter. Once I’d written my draft you then gave it a thorough cut and polish. Cutting out all those lame clichés, adverbs and unnecessary bits made the manuscript much more concise and engaging.

You were very frank and non-judgmental with your feedback and helped me realise the general public might not be as interested in certain sections I’d written. I agree with your approach of editing before heading to publishers because it makes their job easier and gives us a better chance of getting the tick of approval.

What surprised you about the process of finding an agent, a publisher, and the process of getting a book published?

I had no expectations as the whole process was new. I think most people are unacquainted with the publishing industry and are a little daunted by the task. I knew it wouldn’t be a quick or easy goal to achieve but I figured I’d only find out if I had a real crack at it.

Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?

Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. I was knocked back a number of times by other agents and publishers. From the outset I wanted to be realistic so I expected that to happen. However, I stayed optimistic regardless and in the end it all paid off.

How does it feel to see your book in bookstores and online?

It’s a trip! It’s very fulfilling and exciting. You may want to edit this cliché, but it is a bit of a life-long dream come true! I’m incredibly stoked and want to thank everyone who helped make it a reality.

What else would you like to know?
Okay, keep your questions coming because they help me understand what you’d like to know more about. I plan to do more of these Q&A-style posts if readers like them. So I need to know if this one’s helpful!

Brad Hutchins with his new book.

 

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