Sydney Writers’ Festival 2010: Lucky Breaks and Big Bucks

May 21, 2010 in Book Reviews, On Writing by pacejmiller

Sydney Writers’ Festival

I attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival for the very first time today.  It’s an interesting yet odd experience, watching so many writers and wannabe writers converge in the same location.  As expected, it was primarily an event for oldies (considering I went during work hours), and there was barely a person without grey hair (if they had any hair at all).

Things didn’t get off to a great start when I was stuck in traffic at the foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this was compensated later when a stroke of luck gave me an unlikely parking spot right outside the venue where the event I was attending took place.

Having been inundated with writing assessments all week, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to check out some of the sessions that interested me.  I ended up choosing a ticketed event (about half the sessions are free and the rest require purchased tickets; most of the popular events are sold out very early) called “Big Deal”, where acclaimed writer Debra Adelaide (author of the hit The Household Guide to Dying) interviewed Kirsten Tranter and Rebecca James, two new Australian writers who have hit the jackpot with their respective debut novels, The Legacy and Beautiful Malice.

I’m a sucker for inspiring stories of “beating the odds”, and as a writer, there’s no secret  fantasy greater than selling your book for enough money to quit your day job (or in my case, render it unnecessary to look for one).  Of course, if the book sells well, that’s an added bonus, but the key is always to secure that mega advance or multi-book deal with a publisher that will put in the time and effort to promote your book.

The session went for only an hour, beginning with Debra asking each writer how they managed to sell their books for loads and loads of money, how it has changed their lives, followed by an extract reading of their novel.

Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten Tranter’s story is very interesting, though slightly less relevant to most writers out there — because she worked as a literary agent, her mother is a big time literary agent, and her father is a famous poet.  These things gave her a natural advantage in the publishing world, but still, she had to write something worthy of selling.

Her debut novel, The Legacy, tells the story of a beautiful Australian girl who disappeared during 9/11 and is a contemporary homage to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.  At the time of writing the book, Tranter and her husband were struggling financially thanks to the GFC.  However, she was fortunate enough to finish the novel with the assistance of an Emerging Writer’s Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts.

Being a literary agent herself, it wasn’t hard for Kirsten to find representation (ie her mother).  They decided to put The Legacy to auction, something I wasn’t very familiar with.  Effectively, books usually only go for auction if there is sufficient confidence that it will sell and sell well.  Kirsten’s agent sent the manuscript to seven of Australia’s biggest publishers and gave them a deadline to make an offer.  Fortunately, at least one of them did, and it was for a very handsome sum.

Rebecca James

Rebecca James’ story is closer to a true publishing fantasy for the ordinary writer.  Her novel, Beautiful Malice, rose to prominence in the media after it sparked a bidding war amongst publishers.  It’s been promoted as both young-adult and adult fiction, and centres around the friendship of two girls, one of whom is still getting over the murder of her “perfect” little sister.

Beautiful Malice is actually not Rebecca’s first published work.  Apparently, after she finished her first novel, she was so excited about it all she sold it to an E-publisher for $100.  Yep, a hundred bucks.

Rebecca has four children (which makes one wonder how the heck she ever found the time to write!) and earned her income through a small kitchen business with her husband.  However, the business struggled and they had to close it down.  The very next day, she got her first six-figure book deal, and it changed her life forever.

Rebecca said she wrote around 80 query letters to agents in Australia, the US and the UK.  It’s a lot easier these days, because agents are now more willing to receive queries and manuscripts via email rather than hard copy.  She eventually scored an agent from the UK, also a relative newbie to the publishing world.  And together, they turned Beautiful Malice into a worldwide phenomenon even before it was published by selling it to 37 different countries around the world.  Insane, I know.

Throughout the session, there was no exact sum mentioned when it came to just how much these lucky ladies earned for selling their book rights, but from what I could gather Kirsten must have gotten at least several hundred thousand dollars and Rebecca at very least a million.

In all, it was an inspiring hour.  Both Kirsten and Rebecca were very down to earth and humble.  Kirsten, of course, had that natural writer’s aura around her.  You can just tell her life revolves around reading and writing fine literature.  Rebecca, on the other hand, had more of an everyday person vibe.  She’s the type that never thought she would be earn seven-figures for writing a book but kept writing because she knows how to tell a good story.  Nevertheless, both are very deserving of their success and financial rewards.  They also sent me rushing home to work on my own writing.

[PS: I was supposed to go to another free session later in the day about the future of e-readers and e-books, but the outrageously expensive street parking in Sydney made me give up on the idea.  Maybe next year.

PPS: Stories like theirs prove that the book publishing world isn’t dead, at least not yet anyway.]

More info:

Kirsten Tranter’s website (and her blog)

Rebecca James’ website (and her blog)

Debra Adelaide’s website

Finding a distinctive narrative voice

May 21, 2010 in Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

Narrative Voice

One of the most important things in creative writing is find the right voice for the narrator.  Admittedly, it is also one of the most overlooked.  I used to write without giving much thought to voice other than whether I would use the first or third person perspective, but I’m finally starting to realise that having the wrong voice can absolutely destroy what may have otherwise been a good story.

When I say “narrative voice”, what I mean is the way in which the narrator tells the story.  It’s the style, the tone, the use of words.  Do you want the narrator to be up close and personal, like a father telling his son a bedtime story, or do you want to be more distant, like eavesdropping to a stranger in a bar?

Picking the right narrative voice can be tricky.  For example, if you’re telling a story set in the 1800s, using contemporary language and prose probably won’t work.  Conversely, if you’re writing a story about the technologically advanced future, you wouldn’t want to write it like a Jane Austen novel.  Who knows, maybe you would.  That’s the thing — you can’t be perfectly certain until you try.

Finding a Distinctive Narrative Voice

Some writers always write in the same way and with the same narrative voice.  Some others like to experiment and try different voices in telling a story.

Regardless, finding a narrative voice that is distinctive and stands out is crucial.  Especially if you want to get it published.

I was reading a magazine the other day that interviewed a few successful authors.  When asked what the recipe for success was, most of them answered that it was to “stand out from the crowd.”

Usually, I would presume that to mean having a fantastic, original premise, or at least an original slant on an old premise.  And while I still think that is probably the quickest way to get noticed, this particular publisher (Louise Thurtell for Arena) said:

A strong or distinctive narrative voice is gold to a publisher.  So many manuscripts we receive are marred by a bland, forgettable narrative voice.

And that was when I said “Crap!”  She’s absolutely right!  I thought about some of my favourite novels and what I liked most about them — The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (off the top of my head) — and I realised that apart from having a pretty decent story to tell, what I loved most about them was the way they told the story.

If you have a great idea for a story, you might be able to get away with it, but let’s face it, considering how hard it is to come up with anything truly original these days, it won’t hurt to put a bit more thought and effort into creating a distinctive, powerful narrative voice.

Which just reminds me — I’ll probably have to do something about that when it comes to my stagnant novel, when I eventually get back to it…