HARDCOPY 2016 – Intro2Industry

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I have spent the last few days on my couch recovering from a truly horrible flu (seriously: I can’t recall ever having been this sick, even with appendicitis.) But, before that, I was very privileged to be able to attend the second part of Round 1 of the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY 2016 program, Intro2Industry. This was an extended 3-day weekend’s worth of seminars on all aspects of the publishing industry, and it was fascinating. And, I have to confess, sobering in equal parts.

First up, a big shout out to the ACT Writers Centre and the wonderful Nigel Featherstone for convening the course. I could not have asked to be placed in more generous, professional or gentler hands for the weekend. Thank you, Nigel, you are a star.

We had presentations from just about every aspect of the industry you can imagine, from publishers, established authors and agents, to writers festivals, booksellers, reviewers and government arts funding agencies. Catherine Milne from Harper Collins gave the opening session on “What do publishers want?” This was both inspiring and daunting, as she described how publishers fall in love with manuscripts and then have to pitch them to the dreaded acquisitions board – a process that sounds just as terrifying for the publisher as pitching to them is for the author. I loved hearing about how half the time the manuscripts they lose their hearts to are ones they didn’t know they were looking for. “Publishers are like two-year-olds,” she said at one point. “We don’t know what we want, but we know we want it!”

Alex Adsett from Alex Adsett Publishing Services was as charming and engaging as always (I’ve seen a couple of her presentations now) – which is not necessarily what you’d expect from a lawyer delivering a session on copyright and contract law. Seriously, if you get a chance to see her in action, do it. She is great. Jacinta Dimase from Jacinta Dimase Management took us through some case studies from her stable of authors. She also got us to do a fascinating exercise in pulling out seven key themes from our novels and posting them up on a wall of the theatre. Seeing them all grouped together from a field of 28 authors writing across a range of genres was fascinating.

One of the most talked-about presentations was from Patrick Lenton from Town Crier Digital Marketing. He talked to us about the importance of authors having an online platform and talked us through a few different options. He was insightful and deeply knowledgeable and I got a huge amount out of his presentation. A key learning is that whatever online presence you decide to have, it has to be authentically you (otherwise you’ll never sustain it.)

A surprise learning from Allen & Unwin rep Deb Sevens and owner of Dymocks Canberra City, Alison Kay, was that “good sales” for a new author from one bookshop might be only one or two books over a month. This was a very sobering presentation, when us starry-eyed, emerging authors all learned just exactly how many books there are in a bookshop competing for each customer’s attention and how there is only room for a few of them to be placed face out. We also talked about the importance of a good cover. It was frustrating to learn how small the window is for a book to be considered a “success” in sales in bookshops, and even more so when we heard from Linda Funnell from the Newtown Review of Books about how sometimes review scheduling can miss this mark.

But…

For me, in amongst it all was this strong thread of love for the written word. Even the in the moments when we or the presenters gave way to their most jaded or frustrated thoughts, everyone who was there was there because they love books. Because they adore stories and they want to get more stories out there to the readers who will treasure them. Even though every pearl of wisdom we received over the weekend came with a warning about the hard reality of the current times, I think we all finished the course in the spirit of “pragmatic optimism” that Nigel took care to foster throughout. I certainly feel as though I’ve been given the best possible preparation for what (hopefully) lies ahead.

I wish all my fellow HARDCOPIERS all the very best for the next stage of their literary journey. (Photo courtesy of Alex Fairhill)

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HARDCOPY 2016 – the first installment

On the weekend starting Friday 27 May I attended the first workshop for the 2016 HARDCOPY program at the ACT Writers Centre. I confess this post is overdue, but it’s taken me this long to write it out because, wow, that weekend was intense.

2016_HARDCOPY+tag_ColourWhere do I start? Let me set the scene. I was one of 30 Australian writers from all over the country, selected from something like 100 applications to the program. There were people writing in a range of genres, from literary fiction, crime, young adult realism, young adult fantasy, adult fantasy and science fiction, even a verse novel. There were writers creating everything from fun stuff to read (I place myself at this end of the spectrum) all the way through to people making serious Art. It was simultaneously terrifying, inspiring, intimidating and affirming.

It was utterly intimidating to realise just how talented the other people in the room were, and, to a certain extent, what my work is competing against in the broader market. On the other hand, it was quietly affirming to understand that the assessors had reviewed my submission and thought I belonged in that room, too.

It was absolutely terrifying working through the various aspects of our manuscripts over that weekend and realising just how much hard work lies ahead. (And I haven’t even finished the first draft of this particular novel project!) But the flip side was having the golden opportunity to spend 3 days immersed in my writing, and coming out with a clear sense of purpose and a fresh set of ideas.

I’m pretty sure all the writing workshops I’ve done to date have been with authors, and there’s nothing more valuable than learning from someone who is doing what you want to do, and doing it well. By contrast, however, Nadine Davidoff, who ran this year’s HARDCOPY intensive manuscript masterclass, is a highly respected freelance editor. It gave me a different perspective being led through the masterclass by someone whose job it is not to do the beautiful writing, but to pick apart the writing and understand when and why it’s not working and suggest ways of making it better. Nadine turned a razor-sharp, critical eye on every facet of what makes up a novel, and encouraged us to apply our own critical thinking to these things as well.

Then, of course, there was the simple pleasure of sitting down at the end of the day with a bunch of other people who share my passion for words and stories, who’ve been thinking deeply on the things my mind has been occupied with, and just yakking away over drinks and dinner about anything and everything to do with writing. That never gets old.

Most of the time, when you read a book, you only get to see the finished product. Hopefully you’ve chosen a Really Good Book, so you’re holding in your hands a near-perfect balance of intriguing ideas, compelling characters, immersive world building, plot tension, authentic emotion and beautiful turns of phrase. What you don’t get to see – even if you’re beta-reading an early draft for a writer friend – are the long silences when the ideas and words don’t come. Or the tangled, mangled words that don’t mean the thing you want them to mean. Or the acres of grey fog between brightly shining key plot points. Or the hours of (figuratively) smacking your skull to try to beat some tiny, misshapen, vague blobs of something into coherent ideas you can’t even begin to hone with words until you can see them clearly.

Sometimes it’s really hard to keep going.

The most valuable thing I got out of HARDCOPY was that all this is part of pretty much every writer’s journey. (You hear it a lot, but it can be hard to know.) Being in a room with 30 other people, some of whom are pretty far along the road to publication, and hearing that we’ve all had the same struggles; hearing from Nadine, who gave us plenty of examples of successful, nameable writers who have slogged through the same word-tangles and plot-fogs; that was gold. What I got from all that was that I am on the right track. Sometimes I don’t have a map or I’ve wandered into a briar-patch or stepped in a puddle and I can’t feel my feet they’re so cold, but these are the same briar-patches and mud puddles and vague wandering paths that have been trekked by countless writers before me.

This gig is a confidence game, and at its core you’ve gotta be the one to decide whether or not you can cut it. But it’s a long, long windy road to producing literature, and having the opportunity to participate in programs like HARDCOPY can give an emerging writer just exactly the boost they need to stay on the path.

Achievement unlocked!

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I had some exciting news this week: I’ve been accepted into the ACT Writers Centre 2016 HARDCOPY professional development program for Australian writers! This is the third year they’ve run the program, and the second year they’ve focussed on fiction authors (2015 was a non-fiction year). Applying for HARDCOPY involves a competitive selection process, which included submitting a synopsis and the first 30-50 pages of the manuscript, so being offered a place is definitely an achievement in itself.

Even better, my good friend and writing buddy Robert Porteous has also been accepted into the program, so I know I’ll be in very fine company.