Tim Elliott’s Farewell to the Father: from article to published memoir

Farewell to the Father cover

Fairfax journalist Tim Elliott’s memoir, Farewell to the Father, will be published in April. The gorgeous cover speaks to the richness, power and detail of Elliott’s recollections of growing up with his brilliant but manic-depressive and suicidal father, Max. It is a book that explores the pain and joy of a son’s love for his father, and of the son’s love for his own children when Tim becomes a father himself.

I am deeply thrilled to have helped Tim’s story evolve from its origin as a Sydney Morning Herald feature article to its publication as a memoir.

The reader response to the article was overwhelming, and Tim knew he was finally ready to write his story. But how to move from a 3,000 word piece to a work of perhaps 70-80,000 words?

A mutual friend referred him to me, and I helped him develop the chapter outline and clarify the arc of the story for his book proposal. Publisher interest in the proposal was extremely strong. Pan Macmillan won the right to publish Tim’s book at auction, and Tim set to work.

Nearly 18 months and several drafts later, the result of Tim’s fearless and tireless efforts is one of the best memoirs I’ve read. I hope it gets the attention and the readership it deserves.

Tim Elliott will be a guest of the Sydney Writers Festival at two events: My Family & Other Obstacles on Sat 21st May 6.00-7.00pm (with ABC Radio’s Richard Glover), and The Legacy of Family on Sun 22nd May 11.30am-12.30pm.

PS: Manuscript development and book proposal development are two of the services for writers that I offer. Please get in touch if you think you’d like to work with me, or sign up for my monthly email newsletter about improving your writing and getting published.

Developmental editing: Anna Bligh’s memoir Through the Wall

Being based in Sydney again I am happy to be able to attend client events in person — such as the Sydney launch this week of Anna Bligh’s important memoir, Through the Wall, at HarperCollins HQ.

L-R: Virginia Lloyd, Anna Bligh and Anne Summers at the launch of Through the Wall

I was Anna’s development editor. What that means is that HarperCollins engaged me to help her take the book from a great idea to a finished manuscript. I worked alongside Anna as she honed an outline and drafted chapters, and provided editorial feedback on those chapters and the shape of the work as a whole as it evolved, in consultation with Anna’s publisher, Catherine Milne.

At the launch it was gratifying to hear Anna say that I helped her “find her voice”. Through the Wall is not a political memoir.The subtitle explains it best: “Reflections on leadership, love and survival”. It’s an honest personal insight into public life and the highs and lows of leadership, as well as a gripping account of Anna’s successful battle with cancer in 2013.

A book of memoir is very difficult to write — even if, as Anna said at the launch, she “already knew the plot”. But a good memoir is not solely plot-dependent. In asking oneself what is the best way to bring that known plot to life on the page, the writing demands so much of the author emotionally as well as imaginatively. It demands emotional vulnerability and critical distance at the same time.

I see my development work with authors as a tradesperson might see their toolkit: multiple tools are necessary, each with a specific purpose. My tools range from the copyeditor’s forensic attention to each word, to the diplomatic coaxing required to encourage an author to revisit or address aspects of their story that may be undeveloped in the early drafts. Tough editorial love – cutting out redundant material and moving sections around –  is also essential to the task. Developing and maintaining trust between author and editor is critical to a successful collaboration.

Here I am crouching beside the author and another eminent Australian and author, Anne Summers. This photo is particularly significant for me because it was Anne who generously launched my own book several years ago.

Brooke Hemphill on editing and revising her memoir Lesbian For A Year

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.

How I work with my published authors: Q&A with Brad Hutchins

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.