A tale of two covers: Becoming Westerly by Jamie Brisick

‘The sharp, riveting narrative of Becoming Westerly deserves to transcend the tiny canon of surf writing and be recognized as a work of mainstream literary nonfiction,’ writes Andrew Lewis in his thoughtful review of my client Jamie Brisick’s wonderful book, about former Australian professional surfer Peter Drouyn who is now Westerly Windina.

Part memoir, part indictment of surfing’s failure-to-launch culture, Brisick’s new book is a raw, intellectual triumph of American surf writing.

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin earlier this year, the book has just been published in the US. A striking difference in cover treatments, don’t you think?

US cover
Australian cover


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.

Becoming Westerly by Jamie Brisick

I’m thrilled to announce the publication of Becoming Westerly by my client Jamie Brisick.

The book explores the extraordinary life of Peter Drouyn from his days as a champion Australian surfer to his transformation into the woman he always believed he was meant to be: Westerly Windina.

I met Jamie at The Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2013 when we attended a nonfiction workshop with Geoff Dyer, a writer we both admire greatly. At that stage Jamie was working on the first chapter of Becoming Westerly.

Jamie, a longtime sports journalist, is a wonderful writer. I compare this book with Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief in its ability to weave together biography, surfing history, the complexities of gender identity, and Jamie’s personal observations as a former pro surfer himself.

Lily Brett wins Prix Medicis for Lola Bensky

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.

Fiona Higgins tour dates for Wife on the Run


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.

About Fiona Higgins’ new novel Wife on the Run

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.

Why is this aspiring author so angry at ‘lazy snob’ literary agents?

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.

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.