Criticism: dishing it out, sucking it up

Recently I’ve been working with a group of young writers, offering feedback on their works-in-progress. It’s got me thinking about critiquing and about receiving criticism. In my writing life I’ve experienced two broad categories of criticism, and lots of variations between: the first kind delivers renewed faith in my ability and energises me to tackle my writing problems; the second leaves me paralysed with despair, questioning whether I ought not just give it all away.

Can you relate to either of these experiences?

In this post I’m looking at tips to consider when giving and receiving criticism. A caveat: I am not a professional editor. I am a novelist and a teacher of creative writing with time spent on each end of the reviewing seesaw. If you’re up for it, join me on this crucial part of the writing journey. I would love your input.

Why have your work reviewed?

I have yet to find anything in the revision process that equals the value of frank, supportive feedback from a trusted reader. Novelist Robert Stone likens the revision process to trying to cut your own hair. You may sense that your story needs improving, but without a clear picture it’s hard to get it right. Stone says that an external reader may not be able to tell you how to style the material, but they can hold up a mirror to help you see beyond your normal range of vision.

Writer’s tip: during the manuscript process, carefully consider who you hope to review your work. Your family and friends may love every word you write, but unless they can pinpoint and articulate your story’s strengths and weaknesses, they are probably not the best means of advancing your story. An independent reviewer, a writing colleague, an astute reader, a teacher or mentor, one whose opinion you respect (perhaps even tremble at a little), may be better equipped to offer practical, productive guidance. This doesn’t mean you are compelled to agree with or act upon every point of call. You are the referee of your own story, free to consider each problem and solution.

First flush

The term first flush refers to the first plucking of a tea plant during harvest season, said to yield the purest tea the plant is capable of producing. A reviewer’s ‘first flush’ reading of your work, free of the echo of earlier drafts, is likely to offer the premium yield. That crucial ‘first read’ invites keen observations and astute queries. Unless you have an unlimited bank of trusted readers vying to see your work-in-progress, be strategic about who you will ask to read your work, and at which stage of the drafting process. If you have the luxury of more than one reviewer, look to each of them as yielding a ‘first flush’ reading. Invest wisely.

Writer’s tip: requesting someone to review your writing, especially a novel-length work, is a big ask, best approached with consideration. Such a review amounts to an extraordinary act of generosity and a monumental undertaking on the reviewer’s part. If the reviewer declines your request, be gracious. If they agree, be sure to acknowledge them for their time and input. Needless to say it would be poor form to expect someone to review your work if you were unwilling to contribute in kind.

Respect your reviewer

The degree of effort and attention a writer puts into their draft is sure to have a boomerang effect. When I read a work that demonstrates care and polish, I know I have been entrusted with something deeply important to the writer. But when a work is riddled with typos and poor grammar, where parenthetical notes indicate incomplete business, the review process feels disruptive, at worst dispiriting. You need your reviewer to be on your side, to see your commitment and to want you to succeed. Author Joyce Carol Oates likens the readers’ role to that of ideal editors: a friend of the text and a friend of the writer. Compare the interaction to any important endeavour: it wouldn’t be in your best interest to rock up to an interview without considering your appearance or preparing as best you can. Recently a writer emailed me their work for review. In the week that followed I received multiple updates with instructions to ignore the previous versions. A reviewer is donating their time and expertise. Enough said.

Encouragement, false praise and brutal blows

Do you remember your earliest days of creativity, when the act of forming letters on a lined page, or making up stories, or drawing or painting or colouring-in was unadulterated fun? Do you remember your earliest artistic creations and the joy you felt at a teacher or parent’s words of praise?

What went wrong?

Well, nothing went wrong, other than adulthood. The downside of developing and honing a skill is a rise in self-awareness and with it the inevitable onset of an inner critic. I respond positively to encouragement. We all do. I suspect so much of the child resides in us all. As I write, and when I review my writing, my inner critic is all too ready to give me a serve of self-doubt. I have to listen to that harsh little voice, I can’t ignore it, but left unchecked, our inner critic holds the power to unravel the positives: creativity, confidence, drive, motivation.

An external voice, one that is measured and perceptive, will look to both the strengths and shortfalls in your work. It will offer praise, encouragement, guidance. That said, is there a place for false praise? And how does the need for encouragement position words of actual criticism?

False praise is about as counterproductive as brutality. As a reviewer you are ultimately doing the writer a disservice not to be up front about areas of the writing that need work. At the same time, a sole focus on the negative does not offer a measured review. I haven’t yet read a piece of writing in which there wasn’t something to admire. Acknowledge those high points. I am mindful when asked to review a work of how far along the writer is in their journey. For some, this will be their first experience beyond school at receiving a review unquantified by a grade. As reviewers, the language we use is paramount. Match the tone and advice to the individual. Be clear. Be kind. Put yourself in the writer’s head and imagine receiving your review.

As for brutality, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. The objective of a review is never to crush the writer’s confidence, but to enable the writer to see both the strengths of their work and where it may fall short—to offer strategies that advance the work to become the best that it can be. Writing is a courageous undertaking, a commitment of hours and effort, a never-ending school of learning. I’ve always loved this philosophy from my creative writing professor Dan Mueller at the University of New Mexico, back when I was a writing student. Dan’s words introduce a creative writing workshop, but can as easily apply to any writing or review situation:

I believe that every piece of fiction has contained within it the blueprint, or seed, of what it ultimately wants to be. For the author, fully realising a piece of fiction requires carefully listening to what the narrative is telling you during the act of composition, from the first sentence to the last, and at every stage of revision. In this way, pieces of fiction are born.  —Dan Mueller

How will a review best serve writer and reviewer?

Picture this: the writer has completed her third, sixth, thirteenth, nineteenth draft. Whichever number it is, she tells you she feels close to completion and asks for your feedback. Before undertaking a late-stage reading, it behoves reviewer and writer to clarify their intentions. Is the writer being clear (and honest) about what they want from a review? If it came to the crunch, would the writer be willing to discard and rewrite, or have they travelled way beyond that point? You may be asked to review a manuscript limited to word and line-level comments. Does the writer fully appreciate the time and expertise involved in any form of review? I was asked once to review a multi-page grant application. ‘It just needs a light edit,’ I was told. More of a light kidney transplant. Perhaps you’re being called upon because your particular expertise in life fits the subject matter of the work, independent of writing craft. Are you willing to tailor your reading to the request? If not, think carefully about taking it on.

Writer’s tip: isn’t there a part of us all just craving to be told that the work we have produced is genius? Before surrendering your manuscript for review, interrogate your motives. Consider who you are asking to review your work and what you are asking of them. If you are unwilling to receive criticism or act upon it, set your manuscript aside or submit it for publication.

Your thoughts

Was there a mentor who helped you overcome adversity or gave you faith in yourself? Was there an experience that altered your approach to writing or reading? Do you have advice to share? Drop me a line in the Comments box below or email me via this link. I would really, really love to hear your experiences.

The real cost of loaning out a book

Who hasn’t borrowed a book from a friend, or loaned one out? I raise my hand to having done both. Some time back I even heard the host on a national television book show offer to loan a novel to a fellow panellist. That makes it okay. Right?

WELL, NO.

When a reader tells me that they loved my novel WILDLIGHT, I want to cartwheel through the house then pirouette along the street. But the joie de vivre subsides when the reader adds, enthusiastically, that they’ve loaned their copy to a friend.

OH…

Recently a local book club invited me to join their forthcoming meeting, WILDLIGHT being their selected novel. Yeah! I am delighted to attend book club gatherings when I can, and ever grateful to have my book read and discussed. In fact most authors I know are good sorts, eager to contribute to book clubs, appreciating that each member has purchased the novel, or borrowed it from their public library. With this particular invitation the host innocently explained that she hadn’t yet read WILDLIGHT as it wasn’t her turn. Her turn? The club, it seems, shares a copy, passing it down the line, reader by reader.

IN THE SPIRIT OF TOGETHERNESS, IN THE INTERESTS OF ECONOMY, WHY NOT SHARE?

Here’s why.

When an author has a novel accepted by a publisher, the publisher determines how many copies will be printed based on how many copies they believe will sell. The publisher pays the author a royalty in advance, being an amount per book for predicted sales. For authors in Australia, excluding best selling authors, the print run can be as low as 1,000 copies for a small publisher, or up to 5,000 copies for larger publishers. Royalties will be around 10% of the recommended retail price, amounting, all up, to a few thousand dollars. Modest reward for what amounts, in the case of WILDLIGHT, to two years of writing, months of research, and time and effort in promoting the published novel. I am not alone here. A 2015 survey of Australian authors conducted by Macquarie University revealed that the average Aussie author earns less than $13,000 per year from their writing. Call us knuckle-heads for choosing such a profession. The majority of us supplement our choice to write with other income-earning work. The publisher is not the bad guy here. They carry significant financial risk by investing resources into assessing, editing, producing and marketing the book.

If a book sells in excess of the predicted volume, everyone wins. The publisher finally makes a profit (they barely break even on many books), and the author is paid their due royalty for each book sold. Even more importantly for the survival of the author, book sales help protect our future. When the time comes to offer the publisher our next novel, in a commercial climate that for any writer remains forbiddingly unassured, the publisher will reflect on how the previous work performed in determining whether or not to support the new one.

Every time a book is shared, no matter how well intentioned, it means another chink in an author’s armour.

BUT NOVELS ARE EXPENSIVE TO BUY!

Look at it this way: in Australia a new novel retails for $24 – $32. An outlay, for sure, but one that provides hours of reading pleasure, and can be read again, like a favourite bedtime story. A ticket to a new release movie—2 hours of single viewing entertainment—costs around $20, more for ‘gold class’. If I want to purchase Season 2 of Outlander (which I desperately want to see), I’ll need to cough up $38 in return for 5 chapters of time travel. If I head out to a restaurant, or buy a special bottle of wine… you get the picture.

I SIMPLY CAN’T AFFORD TO BUY NEW BOOKS (as one astute tweeter remarked)

Soak up your public library. Libraries are wondrous, welcoming, switched-on places with bright-eyed staff, themselves keen readers. With each copy of an eligible book held at an Australian public library, the author and the publisher each receive a royalty payment from the Australian government. An author will earn around $2 for each book held at a library, while the publisher earns around 0.50 cents for each book (2013 figures). Public Lending Rights, as they are called, compensate authors and publishers for lost income in a public library situation where a single book is utilised by multiple readers. If your library doesn’t have the book you want to read, request they order it. You’re helping reader, writer and publisher when you make use of your library!

MORE PROSELYTISING? I GET IT.

Okay. Okay. Then let me finish with this. I fully understand the temptation to loan out a book to a fellow reader. I have loaned books. I’ve borrowed books. I’ve also purchased many, many books and continue to do so. Speaking for the authors I know, we work long and hard to carve out a small space on the planet. We owe our existence to our wonderful readers, and of course our publishers, bookstores and libraries. When you next read a book that you love, spread the word around (but preferably not the book). Consider taking 30 seconds to rate and even review the book on GOODREADS, the world’s largest, free, website for readers and book recommendations. Most importantly, give yourself a pat on the back for supporting Australian literature.

HAPPY READING!

Publishing: getting the word right

The Editor

Thinking back to my debut novel, The Nature of Ice, in truth I found the first phase of editing—a developmental review—big and daunting. I felt I could never fully achieve what was asked of me. (Having said that, I was acutely aware of the editorial ‘critic’ whispering in my ear throughout the writing of Wildlight.) When it came to publishing Wildlight, I approached the editing with trepidation. Could I meet the demands? Would I want to? As fortune had it, the editing of Wildlight turned out to be a gentle and joyful experience. Picador’s editor JULIA STILES introduced herself with a cover letter detailing her thoughts on the story—praise, questions and suggestions, along with this reassurance: I just want to stress that any suggestions I have made are exactly that – suggestions; use those that resonate with you and disregard the rest. Julia’s cover letter, along with the annotated manuscript, assured me of how closely and astutely the editor had engaged with the text. Just as importantly, she seemed to genuinely like and believe in the story, inviting a relationship where I remained ultimate arbiter. I was in!
Here, I invite Julia Stiles to speak about the role of book editor. Her conversation is packed with valuable information for writers and readers. For those like me who welcome practical writing advice, be sure to read Julia’s thoughts on the revision process.
Over to Julia, who begins by sharing something about herself:
JS: When I was in my early twenties I had my palm read. I was about to leave my life in Sydney and sail aIMG_5809 Julia Stilesway on a yacht; naturally I was wondering what the heck I was doing and what awaited me on the high seas. Somewhat unexpectedly, the palm reader told me I would live surrounded by cows. Naturally I dismissed him as a phony but in fact he turned out to be right. Ever since I have been surrounded by cows — up in the Whitsundays for ten years and now down here in Bega on the far south coast of New South Wales. When I look up from my
desk I see rolling green hills and well-fed Friesians. Actually, I try not to look up from my desk too often because a) such loveliness is distracting, and b) I might notice my teenagers running riot through the rest of the house.

How did you get into book editing?

IMG_5647 Bega rolling hillsJS: Oddly enough, when I was about twenty I woke up one morning with the thought in my head that I was going to be an editor, even though I didn’t have the first clue what an editor did. I was at uni in England at the time and the careers adviser laughed at me and told me I should become an accountant. Thankfully I came to Australia instead because I have the sneaky suspicion I would have ended up in jail for embezzlement. In Sydney I sent out my cv to every publisher in town, still completely ignorant of what an editor did. Thankfully James Fraser, then the publishing director at Pan Macmillan, offered me a job as his secretary. Whilst I was proving myself incompetent at that I was given the opportunity to read through the slush pile and then eventually to learn from two very skilled editors – Jane Palfreyman and Fiona Giles – who gradually trained me up into an editing role.

What do you regard as key qualities of an effective editor?

JS: For me the most important quality is to be able to listen very carefully to a writer’s intentions. This means being able to silence your own inner voice in order to inhabit someone else’s words. When I am editing I am not trying to fix anything or to impose my meaning on the text. I’m trying to help the writer to clarify their intentions, to find those areas of the manuscript they themselves are uncertain about, and to explore and trust in their own capacity to find the necessary solutions.

It’s important, too, to be a sensitive and perceptive reader. When I first started editing I had never studied the mechanics of writing but instinctively, having read so much, I understood how stories were put together. I don’t think you can be an effective editor, or writer for that matter, if you’re not an experienced reader.

How important is the relationship between author and editor?

JS: It’s the quality of the relationship that is most important – a writer needs to trust their editor and to know that they are valued and respected. It very much depends on the individual author how significant their relationship is with an editor. I’ve worked with some very successful writers who don’t place a great deal of importance on the relationship — as long as the quality of the relationship is high, they will work with any editor; they don’t need that continuity of care and insight to produce terrific work. On the other hand I’ve worked with writers for whom a personal ongoing relationship with their editor is paramount. One author I worked with for many years said that editing was like taking her clothes off in front of someone and she was only prepared to do that in front of me! The relationship can be extremely dynamic and creative and productive, but I don’t kid myself that an author isn’t able produce great work without me.

I felt that the editing empowered and contributed to the creative strengths of Wildlight. What result do you strive for? Do you have a memorable moment?

Wildlight front coverJS: I love your description of the editing of Wildlight and that was exactly what I hoped for. More than anything I want a writer to learn to trust themselves – as you say, to feel empowered to trust in their own creative capacity. It’s very satisfying when an author says, yes, I knew that wasn’t quite right but I didn’t know how to fix it, and then, simply through the process of having their manuscript reflected back to them, they find exactly the right solution. This is a very enlivening process, for them and for me.

Funnily enough, it’s not the moments I remember that are most significant. Often I will say something quite unremarkable and it will trigger in the writer a cascade of productive ideas. It’s not me doing the work; it’s the writer.

Does it ever happen that an author outright rejects editorial suggestions? How do you overcome differences?

JS: Actually, I’m delighted if an author thinks carefully about my suggestions and then rejects them. (If they reject my ideas without careful thought, well that’s their prerogative too.) I’m not the authority on their manuscript, they are, and if they think something isn’t going to work they need to trust their own judgement not mine. My sense is that differences tend to be minimised and are more easily overcome if you have communicated to the author the ways in which you appreciate their work. It’s easier for them to trust your response if they know you have read their manuscript with care, empathy and respect.

What might surprise the everyday person about the editing role?

JS: Perhaps that the role exists at all. People often seem to think that the writer sits down and produces the work pretty much word for word as it appears in the finished book. They’re not aware that sometimes quite a considerable amount of developmental work has been done, or that in some circumstances the editor has in effect rewritten the book.

How would you define a great book?

JS: For me there’s a distinction to be made between great literature and great books. Great literature, well, that’s endlessly debated and very much depends on your cultural, historical and personal context. A great book, for me anyway, can be defined by its impact on the reader (and it may or may not be considered great literature by other people). A great book shifts something in your internal world; it creates ‘slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious’ (to borrow from WG Sebald). A great book makes you experience the world in a different, more expansive way. It opens you up to life, even if occasionally that opening is savage.

Before ever submitting a manuscript to a publisher, many writers spend a lot of time rewriting. Speaking for myself, it’s never easy to switch hats from writer to self critic. Do you have advice on ways an author can approach the revision process?

JS: Give yourself time. Put the manuscript aside for as long as you possibly can, so that when you return to it, it seems unfamiliar to you. Basically this is what an editor is bringing to your manuscript – perspective. Pay attention to the small voice that tells you something isn’t quite working; invariably it’s right and what is holding you back from listening to it is weariness or boredom. When you get stuck, set the manuscript aside and daydream; walk, swim, garden, dream – do anything but try to find a solution. It’ll come eventually, often in an unexpected way.

Of course saying ‘give yourself time’ is all very well, but time is often in short supply in publishing, not to mention in our daily lives. If you have a deadline I would recommend having a clear plan for your revision process. The following process reflects the way I work; it may not suit you, so find your own way with it.

Firstly, read the manuscript from start to finish without changing a word (this is surprisingly difficult to do). Then try to think about the story as a whole. You’re looking for a general impression, as though glancing at the story out of the corner of your eye. When you come to look at it head on (that is, when you look at it scene by scene, line by line) those initial impressions will fade (or you’ll try to ignore them), but in fact they’re an extremely valuable guide. Think about which parts were satisfying, which weren’t; what didn’t make sense; where the pace slowed; which characters were vivid, which flat.

Once you’ve identified the patchy areas, go in scene by scene and try to understand how each one contributes to the storytelling, or how it holds it back. I like the technique Ford Maddox Ford and Joseph Conrad called progression d’effet: ‘we agreed that every word…must carry the story forward and, that as the story progressed, the story must be carried forward faster and faster and with more and more intensity’. Think about how those scenes might change, and what effect this will have on the rest of the novel.

When you’ve made those broad changes to individual scenes, then start looking line by line at the whole manuscript. (Yes, it’s a long process, but many writers I have worked with say they enjoy the revision process.) Read aloud to someone if you’re not sure whether something sounds right or makes sense.

It’s helpful to show your work to readers whose judgement you trust, but make sure they are prepared to be honest with you, and you are prepared to hear what they say without holding it against them.

Are you able to switch hats, to go from editor to everyday reader? Do you have a favourite book?

JS: Yes, thank goodness, otherwise one of the greatest pleasures and consolations of my life would become confused with work. I read as an everyday reader all the time but I’m very choosy about what I read and I don’t persevere with a book just for the sake of it. I have so many favourite books it’s impossible to choose only one.

Huge thanks to Julia Stiles for this wonderful interview.

Top Shelf: Annabel Smith

TOP SHELF showcases a talented writer or artist who I admire. This month I welcome long-time writing colleague and friend Annabel Smith whose personal journey I find as compelling as the novels she creates. Annabel is the author of A New Map of the Universe; Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot (branded in the USA as Whiskey & Charlie); and The Ark. Annabel regularly chairs and presents at writing festivals.

2016 Annabel Smith author photo

Annabel: I always feel proud to cite you as an inspiration to writers, particularly for these two reasons: No. 1: in the time of writing Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot, you married, became a new mother and, despite the associated joys, felt despair at ever again finding time to complete your manuscript. Tell us about the writing deal you struck with your husband.

AS: Idiotically, I had imagined having time to write each day while my baby napped contentedly. My son shattered my delusions by deciding that two half-hour naps a day were plenty, which meant that, not only could I not write in the day, but by the evening I was too exhausted to even contemplate it. So on Saturday afternoons my husband would do his fatherly duty and I would go off to the library and write furiously until they threw me out. Those three or four hours each week saved my sanity.

No. 2: When I think back to Whisky, Charlie, Foxtrot’s long…long road to publication, I cite you as the Diva of Perseverance, particularly to fellow writers who are dealing with rejection. Spill the beans on that episode.

AS: Initially, I submitted the novel to agents—a dozen or so, mostly in Australia, a couple in the US and UK. On one occasion I came close to securing representation but in the end the agent was ‘not sufficiently enthusiastic’ (a phrase they’re fond of in their rejection letters). Then I began submitting to those publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts—mostly small independent presses—collecting more rejections.

Each time I received a rejection I’d lose confidence for a while, but then I’d read a part of my manuscript and my confidence would return. If your work is good enough, finding someone who loves it becomes a numbers game: you just have to keep sending it out until you get it in front of an editor who connects with it. After 17 rejections I found that editor in Georgia Richter at Fremantle Press. Cue: tears, champagne.

Whiskey & Charlie was subsequently adopted by a USA publisher and chosen by megastore Target as their Book of the Month. What d’you say to that!

AS: It was beyond my wildest dreams! When I received the email from my publisher to say that Target wanted to print 30,000 copies, I wrote back to check that they hadn’t accidentally added an extra zero! When they confirmed that it was THIRTY THOUSAND I was so overwhelmed I actually cried. I had to sign 5,000 pages to be inserted. (A little known-fact about mass signings is that it is not the signing arm that gets tired—it is the other arm, which has to keep taking off the signed page to expose the next one.) The market is so ginormous there. It has made me so happy to know that many thousands more readers have read my book as a result of my publication there, and I’ve had some lovely responses from US readers. To be honest, I still have to pinch myself every time I get an update on the sales figures. (Check out Annabel’s hilarious time lapse)

What do you most treasure about your writing life? What are you most proud of?

AS: I treasure being able to build a life around what I love—so many people do not have that luxury.

I treasure the quiet space and time alone at my desk.

I treasure the momentum that occasionally comes after long periods of hard work, when the words pour out effortlessly. Writing feels like climbing a hill (or a series of them). You climb up—sometimes energetically, sometimes listlessly, meandering from side to side, perhaps limping, sometimes the progress is so slow you feel like you’re crawling. Then, suddenly you’re at the top and the view is unbelievable, and you go charging down the other side and it all feels worthwhile.

I treasure being part of a community of writers. I have met so many lovely people—writers and readers—through writing: online, and at libraries and bookshops and talks and festivals. Book people are the best people.

I’m proud of each book for different reasons: A New Map of the Universe, because it was my first book and I didn’t even know if I could write a book; Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (branded as Whiskey & Charlie for the US market) because it was so difficult to find a publisher but I believed in it enough to persevere; and The Ark because I tried something completely new and different and I learnt so much from the process.

What kind of things pose the greatest challenges?

AS: Balancing the need to earn money with finding time to write is an ongoing challenge. I’m always trying to work out ways to earn the highest possible amount of money in the shortest possible amount of hours, so that I’ll have more time for writing; this week, for example, I toyed with the idea of becoming a foot model! At the moment I work two days a week teaching English as a Second Language to international students entering postgraduate courses at Edith Cowan University. I enjoy it a lot but i would give it up in a heartbeat if it meant I could have those two days for writing instead.

Another great challenge is rejection. As a writer, it is part of the terrain, but accepting that at a rational level and coping with it at an emotional level are two entirely different things. The writing life is an endless round of competitions—or publication, for grants, for awards, for sales, for reviews—most of which you don’t win. Sometimes it feels excoriating and I feel like I can’t bear it anymore. But somehow I always do.

Your career has progressed from a debut novel to two subsequent novels. You now have a fourth in the making (Monkey See). What I find remarkable about that collection is the breadth of imagination—four different worlds, four markedly different modes of writing and story…

AS: Two of my novels are firmly in the realist mode, whereas two have speculative fiction elements. One spans half a century, while the other three take place within compressed time periods of a couple of years. One is very poetic, the others are much less consciously prosaic; more conversational. In one we see everything from a single character’s point of view, whereas the other three have multiple narrative voices. The Ark has no real authorial voice as it is an epistolary novel, told as a series of emails, blog posts and other digital communiques. One has historical elements, one is set in the present day, one in the near future, and one in a distant future that resembles the past! I could go on, but I think you get the picture: they are all very different.

But none of these choices have been conscious. I don’t say ‘I’ve tried historical; now I’m going to write something contemporary’; I never set out to write a certain type of book. I get an idea for a story, and the structure and the voice(s) seem to make themselves felt as I begin to write. Commercially, I know it’s not recommended to write books which are all so different to each other, as many readers like authors to produce something ‘same same but different’. But creatively, the thought of being confined to a certain genre, or style is anathema to me. Doing something different with each book means I’m always learning and that’s what keeps me interested. Having said that, I do sometimes wonder why I always have to make things so difficult for myself!

Those who know you might coin it ‘an Annabel moment’—one of disarming honesty—when, as an established author, you posted your meager annual salary online for all to see. What did you learn from the flood of responses to that blog post?

Royalties                   $2,210
Speaking events             $4,350
Other publications            $500
Lending rights                $260
Total:                      $7,320

AS: The first thing I learnt is that telling the truth about what you earn (if it’s not much) is practically unheard of, which is why it received so much attention. The responses suggested that I was far from being alone in my lowly financial position: most writers make a pittance. But perhaps my most important takeaway from that post was the realisation that it is perhaps a little entitled to expect to make a living from writing when so few people do. Why should I be different to the rest? There are many writers out there who fully expect to have to work full-time to support their writing, and the idea of being able to write for a living is a fairly modern (and mostly unrealistic) one. I explored some of the issues around why writers earn so little in a follow-up piece I wrote for The Wheeler Centre.

You read a phenomenal volume and range of novels, and you regularly review them on your blog. Do you fork out squillions on books? How do you make the time to read and review?

AS: A majority of the books I read come from the library. For the most part, I only buy books if I’m a long-term fan of an author’s work, or if I start reading and love a book so much I want to underline all my favourite bits! When I am really into a book I neglect all my other duties in favour of reading. I let my son watch TV, tell my husband it’s takeaway for dinner, and ignore anyone who tries to speak to me! I’ve stopped reviewing now. It was very time-consuming, and began to feel like a chore instead of a pleasure. Also I got into some sticky situations with other writers who took umbrage at what I’d said about their books.

As well as writing, reading and blogging, you chair writing festival sessions, to fine acclaim! Do you ever feel nervous? How important is the chair to making a scintillating festival session? What advice would you give yourself, and the author(s) you interview, when readying for a session?

AS: I was extremely nervous when I first started chairing. I felt a tremendous responsibility to give each author a chance to showcase their books as well as making sure the audience felt ‘entertained’ by the discussion. I’m not really nervous now I’ve had more practice; I enjoy it very much, and I’ve been blessed with very lovely interviewees who’ve made me feel at ease.

My mum always said ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ and this holds true when it comes to chairing: even a first-rate chair can’t make a dull guest interesting. But a poor chair can ruin a potentially fantastic discussion (and I have, unfortunately, seen this happen many times).

The most essential ingredient for the chair is preparedness: you have to know the books to be discussed inside out. (I usually read each one twice, making notes as I go). It’s vital to craft questions that dig into the most important or interesting aspects of the books—whether those relate to origin stories, style, themes etc. After that, you just have to get out of the way as much as possible and let the authors talk.

Monkey See, your new work in progress, is at its final stage of revision. Can you give us a sneak preview?

AS: I always feel a little embarrassed when I describe this project because, even to my own ears, it sounds totally crazy. So, keep an open mind folks! It’s a contemporary take on an epic quest story, or what I like to describe as a rollicking tale of adventure!

In a post-technological future which resembles the past, the city of Santiago, Chile is in thrall to a sadistic cult which claims to ward off tsunamis by sacrificing mute children to the ocean. When a young, mute boy is captured, his teenage brother Uardo joins the cult in a bid to protect him. But after encountering Chacho, a super-intelligent, technologically-enhanced spider monkey, and his sidekick, a cocaine-addicted former scientist named Danior, Uardo realises that the only way to save his brother is to overthrow the cult before the next tsunami strikes.

Bring on the unleashing!

Finally, any words of advice to fellow writers?

AS: As a writer, it’s easy to get fixated on outcomes: finishing the book, getting an agent, getting a publisher, winning a prize, making a bestseller list etc. But, for most writers, the outcomes are not the reason you started writing; they’re simply perks along the way. The real and lasting satisfaction comes from the work itself, so I always remind myself to enjoy the process.

Visit Australian author Annabel Smith at: http://annabelsmith.com

Publishing: getting the word out

The Publicist

When a new book is launched into the world, the attention it receives—being seen, being talked about—may seem par for the course to many. But is such exposure entirely natural, without planning and effort? When my new novel Wildlight was wending its way to the printer, I was introduced to Pan Macmillan’s publicist, powerhouse LARA WALLACE. Whew! It didn’t take me long to appreciate the energy, enthusiasm and professionalism Lara commits to her role, and to see how an effective publicist makes a significant impact on a book being noticed. Lara kindly agreed to shed some light on her highly proactive but largely behind-the-scenes role.

Firstly, will you share a little about yourself, at work and beyond?

Lara and Puddles the Clown

Lara Wallace poses with Puddles the Clown during the 2016 Adelaide for Writers Week.

LW: I have worked as a book publicist for the past eight years and within the Australian publishing industry I have been employed by HarperCollins, Allen & Unwin and Pan Macmillan. I did a one year stint overseas in 2010 where I worked for an independent publishing company based in London called Kogan Page. Outside of work I enjoy travelling, seeing live music and art exhibitions, binge-watching TV series (House of Cards and Nashville are my favourites at the moment) and it must be said, reading.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty. How do you get a book ‘out there’ in the public eye?
LW: It very much depends on the kind of book being publicised and the author’s availability, but the things that remain the same for all books are:
— Review copies are sent out to journalists, bloggers and other influencers who we feel the book is likely to be of interest to. They are also sent to journalists and bloggers who request the book, provided the request is legitimate, and to media contacts the authors has provided.
— Publicists then follow up with media contacts who have received review copies and source interest in interviews, extracts, reviews, cover placements and giveaways.

Media Schedule combined— Once media coverage starts to be confirmed, the author is provided with an outline of the media due to take place for the book, and receives regular updates on media coverage and any interview requests.

How important is publicity to a new book?
LW: Of course being a publicist, I would argue that it’s incredibly important. But in all seriousness, if you consider the books that have been successful over the past decade, they have almost always been supported by strategically planned, carefully executed media campaigns. For a book to sell well, it needs the strong backing of the sales, marketing and publicity teams. For this reason sales, marketing and publicity departments tend to work very closely together within publishing houses.

 Wildlight front cover angled copyWhen I think about the cover of Wildlight, I love its gothic undertones, and how the design stands out on the book shelves. From your point of view, can a cover make a difference?
LW: Yes, it’s without question that a book’s cover makes a huge difference. A book with a striking or beautiful cover is almost always commented on and the more it’s talked about, the more attention it receives. That being said, a brilliant book with what might be considered as a rather plain cover can still do well, but having a cover that is of wide appeal to book buyers is certainly beneficial.

Picador logoPan Macmillan is an international publishing house with several imprints producing an impressive range of material. How many titles do you manage at any one time?
LW: 
A publicist’s workload tends to vary over the course of a year, but on an average month most publicists work on between three and four titles. If there is a particularly large media campaign taking place in a certain month, it may be that the publicist only works on one book that month. By the same turn, if the media campaign for a book is less extensive (perhaps because the author isn’t available for media or the book is aimed at a more specific audience), the publicist may work on three or four titles. Personally I like to keep busy and work across a variety of titles, and most publicists I know feel much the same.

In your role you would have encountered the full gamut of book reviews. How are you affected when a professional review is less than favourable?
LW: 
It’s true that we see all different kinds of reviews as publicists, and some authors like to see all reviews for their book while other authors may wish to see none. The most important thing is not to take any one review personally. My feeling is that the author, publisher, editor, sales and marketing teams and publicist are doing everything they can to ensure the book will be a success, and there is really no point in wasting time or energy on a negative review. If a book is good, no one negative review will ever be able to significantly affect its potential. In the interests of being honest, it does really annoy me if I read a review that is badly written or includes incorrect information.

I agree. To me it is apparent and impressive when a reviewer has engaged closely with a book—it can’t always be easy—but there are a few occasions when I scratch my head and wonder if we’ve read the same thing!

What do you enjoy most about your job?
LW:
The thing I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity I have to meet interesting and different people all the time. This includes authors, journalists, Writer’s Festival employees and other people who work in publishing. I also really enjoy having the chance to read lots of wonderful books that I may not have been able to read if I didn’t work in publishing. I think most if not all publicists are faced with curly challenges at some (or many) points, but these challenges also give us an opportunity to develop new skills and to continue to get better at our jobs, so it’s not all bad.

What are the key qualities of an effective publicist?
LW: 
To be a good publicist you need to be organised, efficient and a strong communicator. These days most journalists have a very short amount of time to listen to or read a pitch for a new book, and you need to know how to make the most of that time.

What are the key qualities of an effective author when it comes to publicising their new book?
LW: 
From my point of view, the most effective authors treat their publicists in much the same way as they treat their publishers. They are hardworking, make sure they are available for interviews they have committed to or submit a piece of writing at the agreed time, are courteous and are mindful that like publishers, publicists are often busy and there is much work that is done behind the scenes to achieve results.

If someone reading this post were interested in a career as a publicist, what advice would you offer them?
LW: The best advice I received on this was from one of my university tutors, the talented author Peter Doyle. Peter told us that if we wanted to work as journalists or publicists, we should make sure we were doing it for the right reasons. Not for the opportunity to meet celebrities, go to parties, travel and maybe even become famous ourselves, but because we were interested in what other people had to contribute, in how and why the world keeps changing, and to share stories that may have a positive effect on someone’s life.

That strikes me as sage and gracious advice, for any career. Let’s finish with this scenario: Lara is on vacation, kicking back. What is she likely to be reading?
LW: 
Anything by Liane Moriarty (I can’t wait for her new book, Truly Madly Guilty, publishing in August), or Elena Ferrante’s ‘Neapolitan’ novels. I read My Brilliant Friend over the Christmas break and I was happy to discover that it lived up to the hype.

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A huge thank you to the wonderful Lara Wallace, publicist at Pan Macmillan, for making time to contribute to this post.