Things I Learning in Writing Class this Semester (Part II)

November 28, 2010 in On Writing, Study

Man I am slow.  Here is the second part of the things I learned in writing class this semester.  Part I can be found here, and there will probably be a Part III…eventually…

Be Persistent

I guess this applies to a number of things.  Of course, the most important thing when you start writing is to try and finish it.  Sounds easy but it’s probably the most difficult thing.  Unless it’s compulsory, it’s so easy to give up.  Just do something else!

We all know the success stories of writers who were rejected dozens of times before the same manuscript got through and became an international bestseller.  These people persisted in finishing their manuscript, persisted in rewriting and editing hundreds of times to get it right, and persisted in getting an agent and/publisher.  If they gave up anywhere along the way, they’d never have made it.

But what I really meant to refer to was journalistic writing, and the act of going out there and getting people to talk to you.  The first thing that crossed my mind when I was tasked with writing an article about something or someone was — why would anyone want to talk to me?  Well, you’d be surprised how many people love to talk about themselves.  Often it’s a matter of getting them to shut up because you just want to go home!

On the other hand, there are people, especially key people you must speak to for a piece, that won’t want to talk to you, or worse, simply ignore you.  I’ve had so many calls, emails, and even an in-person visit knocked back this semester.  For every successful interview, I’ve probably had five knockbacks and three delays/reschedules.  But the key is, as the heading says, to remain persistent.  Forget about people thinking that you are a pain in the butt.  Forget about the humiliation, the disappointment.  Such is real life.

For one particular piece, I must have emailed and called this one guy at least 50 times over the course of two months.  I think he thought that if he jerked me around for long enough (by not answering, by not returning messages, by continuous delays and rescheduling, and by refusing to come out to see me even when I showed up at the time of our appointment), I would eventually give up.  But no.  I just kept going, kept pestering, and eventually I got the interviews and information I needed, and it ended up being one of the best articles I wrote this semester.

Confidence does wonders

This one also has multiple applications.  In terms of journalism, I was terrified when we first had to go out and talk to people.  Petrified.  I prepared for hours and hours, researched, wrote up lists and lists of questions, anticipated responses, basically played the whole interview out in my head.  And, needless to say, I still ended up being a fumbling, mumbling mess that made little sense. I remember wondering at the time how I was ever going to make it through the semester.

But after a few more goes, my confidence started to build up.  I stopped making up so many questions, instead relying on a few dot points covering specific areas I wanted to talk about.  I looked my subject in the eye.  I spoke coherently.  I felt like a real journalist.  And they thought I was one too!

In terms of writing, I’ve also discovered the power of confidence.  Reading back on my old fiction stuff, I realised I was too timid, too afraid to make mistakes.  I kept gravitated towards the mundane, the cliched style that I desperately wanted to avoid.  It allowed me to get to the end, but it wasn’t something even I wanted to read because it bored me to death.

I still struggle with that a lot, especially when I am not focused, but I’ve found that the more you write and the more confident you become, the more you are willing to experiment with things.  Muck around with the structure a little.  Do something more outrageous.  It doesn’t always work, but it’s a lot more fun.  The most important thing is to develop your own voice and style — which doesn’t necessarily have to be the same all the time, but it should be something you can call your own.

It’s all about connections

Sad but entirely true.  I never used to think it would be that bad, but it kind of is.  If you have the right contacts, you can get access to people you would never have gotten access to in a thousand years.  I was lucky to know a friend who knew a pretty famous guy that was kind enough to grant me an interview.  And through that guy, I got a whole bunch of other powerful contacts who were kind enough to speak to me.  The same can be said for another article I did on a writer.

But I basically exhausted all the contacts I had for two articles.  There were some people in class that had a contact for just about everything.  If you want to give yourself opportunities, you have to put yourself out there and get to know people.  I used to think networking was disingenuous, and it probably is, but it’s gotta be done if you want to give yourself a chance in the industry.  Some of it might be fortuitous, but most of it will have to come from actively seeking contacts.

The same can be said for the publishing industry.  If you know the right agents and the right editors, or people that can get you through to such people, getting published becomes much much easier.  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you can’t catch a break…

Okay, now I’m certain there will be a Part III because there’s just a couple more things.  Stay tuned…

Manuscript Assessment is a Rort!

October 19, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study



Hold up.  Let me make myself clear.  I think the concept of manuscript assessment is a terrific thing.

For those who don’t know what it is, it’s a service whereby a writer (or potentially, a publisher or a literary agent) submits a manuscript to an assessor, who reads it and writes an appraisal report for a fee.  The report will tell the author what is good and what is bad about the manuscript, and maybe provide some tips for improving it – but the most important thing is that it tells the author whether the manuscript is likely to generate interest from a potential publisher.

There’s nothing wrong with a writer wanting to know how they are progressing with their writing.  After all, many first time writers have little idea whether their writing is good enough to be published, and want to know what they have to do to make it happen.

So why is it a rort?

Well, this week we had a session with a manuscript assessor.  The guy works for an agency that specialises in manuscript assessment, but there are also some freelancers out there.  Guess how much he makes for one manuscript?

Think about it.  He has to read the entire manuscript from start to finish.  It could be 500 pages, or longer (first novels are usually doorstoppers).   He has to write a report on it.  And it’s got to be comprehensive, considered, and most of all, helpful to the person that paid for it.  How long do you think that would take you?  How much do you think you should be paid for it?

$200-$300.  Australian dollars.  Per manuscript.  That’s how much the market rate is.

This guy is now a bit of an old pro with the process, and it still takes him a couple of full days per manuscript. He says any longer than that and you’re just wasting your time.

For $200 a manuscript, even if it only takes you two days, is still a waste of time in my opinion. You’d make more working at McDonald’s!

Don’t do it for money, the guy said.   Do it because you enjoy it, you want to help people, and so you can improve your own writing and critical thinking.

That may be so, but when it takes up so much time, it’s not something you can do on the side or for a hobby.

How can you, as the great George Dubya Bush once said, “put food on your family”?

As for the author, they are forking out anything between $400 to $1000 (to the agency) for someone to read and assess their manuscript.  Is that worth it?  I don’t know, but the guy told us that around 95% of the manuscripts he assesses are pretty hopeless and don’t stand a chance of being published.  Do they really need to pay someone hundreds of dollars just to be told that?  Wouldn’t it be better spending that money on a writer’s course to improve their skills, or heck, even self-publish the manuscript?

This is not to put down anyone who has sought that path.  Finishing a manuscript in the first place is a fantastic achievement.  And wanting to get it published is every writer’s ambition.  My issue is with the money — the amount that the manuscript assessor gets paid for the time put in, and the amount that the author has to fork out for what he gets in return.  One doesn’t get paid enough, and the other potentially pays too much.  There’s no easy way to reconcile this.

One way is for assessors to not go through an agency and work as a freelancer, though, as we were told, sticking with an agency that takes 50% of the money might actually be better.  It avoids all the messy stuff that comes with dealing with an inexperienced author, who may bug you constantly and ask for additional ‘chats’, and worse still, want to meet up and become friends.  And of course, advertising costs a lot of money.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.  Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining.  There are people out there willing to spend time assessing manuscripts for a pittance, and there are also people out there willing to spend money for their manuscripts to be assessed.  Supply and demand.  As long as both sides get what they are looking for and don’t mind the money (received and paid), what’s the big deal?

The Depressing World of Publishing

August 4, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

I’m back into the swing of things with my writing course, which has so far been extremely satisfying and enjoyable (for the most part).  Two of my subjects this term are editing and writing feature articles, both aspects of writing I’m really looking forward to.  The classes this first week have been small (less than 10, though a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t rock up) — and about 50% of students are ex-lawyers!  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it was interesting and depressing to learn about how difficult it is to crack into the publishing world and how difficult it is to stay there once you make that breakthrough.  It’s hard, it’s rough, and for the vast majority, little money to be made (especially in a small market place like Australia).

For starters, most big publishing houses these days don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.  They just don’t have time for slush piles, 99% of which is unpublishable drivel anyway (or so they say).  That means you need a literary agent, but not many agents accept people who have never been published.  Does that even make sense?  You can’t publish unless you can get an agent but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published.

Secondly, publishing has evolved into an industry where it’s all about making money.  Gone are the days where commercial fiction is used to prop up the literary fiction that generally don’t make any money.  If your book is unlikely to sell, then chances are the publisher won’t even consider it.  It could be a masterpiece, but if there is no market for the book, it’s unlikely the book will see the light of day.

There are some boutique publishers these days more willing to take on unknown writers and literary fiction writers, but the money to be made there is very small (clearly not enough to live off) and their budget for advertising/promotion etc will obviously be a lot more limited.  But at least there’s a chance.

Thirdly, and relatedly, it’s hard to keep books on the shelves these days with the increasingly accurate counting of book sales (thanks to systems such as Bookscan).  Bookscan essentially tabulates real sales from most bookstores across Australia (I’m sure there are similar systems across the world) into an exact, concrete figure.

This is important because back in the old days it was easier for publishers to inflate the success of their writers by manipulating the numbers.  For instance, you may print 5,000 books in your first run, and 4,000 of them are sold to bookstores.  The publisher might then say you sold 4,000 books, which is technically true — but of those 4,000, perhaps only 2,000 are sold from the stores, with the rest returned.  Now, there’s no hiding the truth.  If you sold 163 copies, you sold 163 copies.

So if you finally managed to get that first book published but it sold poorly, your chances of getting a second book published becomes that much harder.  You can’t even go to another publisher and lie about the success of your first book because they’ll have all the numbers right there in front of them.

Fourthly, and also related, is the fact that books don’t stay on the shelves for very long.  New titles that don’t perform well are pulled off the shelves within 3 months.  3 months!  How does that even give people a chance?  How can you build any momentum, any word of mouth?  It may take 3 months just for some people to read the book!

The need to make money out of every book on the shelf as become a recurring nightmare for aspiring authors.  That’s why we have the vicious cycle of the same books remaining on the bestsellers lists every week — you know, the Stieg Larssons, the Stephenie Meyers, the JK Rowlings and the Dan Browns — because these books are proven sellers.  People tend to gravitate to what’s “hot”, what everyone else is reading.  Hence instead of bringing in new books, book stores prefer to stock new versions (often just different sizes and covers) of existing titles to freshen them up a bit — the best example I can think of are the movie-tie-in versions and the Twilight red page-edge versions.

Let’s face it, the chances of becoming one of those superstar authors mentioned above are a hundred million to one.  Those guys can live (well, except for Larsson because he’s dead) off the sales of one book for the rest of their lives.  For everyone else, they’ll have to keep writing.

The advances on royalties for new authors in Australia are excrutiatingly small.  Essentially what they do is make a prediction of how many books you will sell, and then multiple that by 10% of the price of the book.  So if the book costs $30 and they think you will sell 2,000 copies, then your advance is $6,000.  Considering the book may have taken you 10 years to write, that’s not a lot of money.  And if the book ends up selling more than 2,000 copies, then each additional copy sold will earn you 10% in royalties.

The problem is, in a small market such as Australia, selling around 15,000 to 20,000 (in total) would be considered successful.  Even if each book is priced at $50, that’s still only $75,000-$100,000 — not exactly money you can retire on — and that’s only if your book is a success.

Look, there are still plenty of local success stories out there, such as Rebecca James (author of Beautiful Malice), which I talked about in this post here.  But these are rare, rare cases.  It’s like winning the lottery.

Few authors can become international superstars like Meyer and Rowling, but there are many minor to moderately successful writers who have been snapped up for multiple book deals at a price equivalent to working in a decent job (say $100,000-$200,000 a year).  That’s a pretty comfortable living.

However, the pressure of churning out one or even two books a year could take the fun out of the writing, and more importantly, the quality of the books will suffer.  Can you imagine being contracted to write one book every 12 months, especially if you say took 5 years to write your first one?  Can you write one every 6 months, and expect to put in the same amount of effort and ensure the same level of quality as your previous books?

That’s exactly why we have so many reasonably well-known authors (not going to mention names) that seem to continuously bring out new books, but each one is worse than the next.  It gets people wondering why the quality of their new stuff is so much less inspiring than their old stuff.  But at the end of the day, they still sell, and that’s what publishers care about.  After all, they are the ones putting up the money.

So it’s hard to get an agent.  It’s hard to get published.  It’s hard to stay on the shelves.  It’s even harder to get republished.  The money is unlikely to be good.  And even if you do get signed for more books, it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

And yet, despite all of this, I continue to write, and I continue to dream.  Why?  It reminds me of this awful movie I just watched (review coming shortly) where a woman says that her daughter is studying and wants to get into creative writing.  Her male companion is shocked and says, “But how is she going to make any money?”  The woman responds stoically, “She’s doing what she loves.”  I can relate to that.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2010: Lucky Breaks and Big Bucks

May 21, 2010 in Book Reviews, On Writing

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

A Word About Novel Word Counts…

March 11, 2009 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing


Potentially my finished manuscript

 As the first draft of my fantasy novel surged past 90,000 words, I started to worry about the final word count for the very first time. 

It was never something I gave much thought to before – after all, most fantasy novels you see on bookstore shelves these days are thicker than some of my law textbooks (not many though).  However, with my story not even at the half way mark (or so I think), I’m beginning to wonder just how much of a door stopper the finished product is going to be.  250,000 words?  300,000?

While I will be ecstatic just to finish the book, I’d be lying if I said publication has never crossed my mind.  But forget about selling any copies – would any sane publisher even contemplate publishing a 250,000-300,000 word book from a first time writer?  I’m certain the answer is a decisive ‘no’ (if I was James Joyce, maybe, but unfortunately I’m not).

So what is a publishable length for a novel?  I was lucky to come across this blog post at The Swivet (the blog of Colleen Lindsay, literary agent).  The post is almost a year old, but I doubt the publishing landscape has changed that much in a year.  According to Colleen, the ideal length of a fantasy/sci-fi manuscript is 100,000 words, and up to 120,000-130,000 for a truly spectacular epic fantasy.  Agents and publishers tend to think that if a novel is too long, it probably reflects a lack of writing ability (in my case it’s probably true).  The limits don’t necessarily apply to established, published authors who have already proven they can sell.  There are also exceptions like Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian (which I have read and personally don’t think is that great), but she was already a star and award winner, which few first time writers are. 

If you scroll down that post, you’ll see a message which lists the word counts of recent and historically popular novels.  Some of them caught me by surprise, like the first Harry Potter novel, which was roughly only 77,000 words, or the entire The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was only around 455,000 words!  Really?  I could have sworn both felt significantly longer when I read them.  Part of this might be because I’m already up to 90,000 myself and I feel like nothing much has happened in my story!

Yes, it’s just a first draft, and there will be a lot of re-writing, editing and cutting (A LOT!), but I just can’t fathom squeezing the completed manuscript down to a publishable 100,000 words.  So…perhaps a trilogy?  One that comes to mind is Patrick Rothfuss, who wrote The Name of the Wind (which I can’t wait to read).  He originally wrote a mega-long book entitled The Song of Flame and Thunder, which was rejected by all publishers he submitted to.  However, after he won the Writers of the Future competition, he managed to sell the book by splitting it into 3 volumes, the first of which was The Name of the Wind (which is still a ridiculously thick book that I’m sure exceeds 100,000 words).

Anyway, enough dreaming for now.  Have to try and finish the damn thing first.

PS: I can’t believe this is my 100th post!