Random Thoughts: On writing tips and publishing insights from the Sydney Writers’ Festival. By Linda Funnell
As the Godfather continues to recuperate, the NRB editors take turns to share some random thoughts. This week Linda writes about the Sydney Writers Festival, which finished last weekend.
I’m told there were 450 writers participating in this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. I saw a mere handful of them. But each session gave some insight into the writing process, whether it was George Saunders speaking in his opening address about taking four years to write a story, or Anne Enright in her conversation with Annabel Crabb revealing that she liked sentences ‘to be dancing on a sprung floor’.
There were also some invigorating insights into the world of publishing. Each year as part of the Festival the NSW Writers’ Centre presents the day-long seminar Forest for the Trees at the State Library, which focuses on current trends in writing and publishing. This year the keynote speaker was writer Michael Mohammed Ahmad (his debut collection of stories The Tribe was one of my books of the year for 2014), who also runs the Sweatshop writing workshops in western Sydney, working with writers from non-English-speaking backgrounds. He emphasised the importance of people telling their own stories; it can be tempting to tell someone else’s story, but empowering people to tell their own stories is more important.
To illustrate this he read a story from the new Sweatshop anthology, Big Black Thing, told from the point of view of a little Iraqi boy whose house is bombed. This story had begun life as three sentences, expanded under the guidance of Sweatshop.
Writing as hard work was Michael Mohammed’s other theme: writing is a skill and writers needed to put in the work to succeed. He was scathing about much self-publishing, believing that most of it wouldn’t have found a mainstream publisher because it was bad – the authors hadn’t done the work: ‘My argument is not that people shouldn’t self-publish, but that writing is a skill.’
Anyone who has ever had to engage with a publisher’s slush pile knows that there is no shortage of bad writing in the world, or of authors convinced their work is better than it is. Hachette publisher Sophie Hamley seemed to confirm this later in the day when she revealed that over the past three years she has only published two manuscripts from the unsolicited pile.
Pitches to publishers and agents came up in discussions on a panel with US publisher Sarah Crichton, who runs her own imprint at Farrar Straus & Giroux in New York, and international scout Catherine Eccles, of Eccles Fisher Associates. How do you pitch a book? Can you sum up your book in a sentence? It’s so important to be able to do that when you’re pitching. (If you can’t, maybe the book lacks focus and hasn’t yet decided what it wants to be.) And of course those opening chapters are very important, too. Though as one panellist pointed out, no one ever said, ‘You must read this, the first third is great.’ A book has to be great all the way through – beginning, middle and end.
Though for any authors feeling the sting of rejection, Alex Payne, UQP’s non-fiction publisher, reminded us that publishing decisions are inevitably subjective; the challenge for writers is to find the publisher who gets what they do.
The panel ‘Reading the Signs’ presented the latest statistics from the book trade and the latest research into book reading habits. Julie Winters from Nielsen Bookscan had a slide showing the slump in book sales in 2009/2010 and the partial recovery in recent years. Millenials, she said, are spending more and becoming a more significant part of the book market; they are fans of ‘griplit’ – crime fiction for young women of the Gone Girl/Girl on a Train variety – and prefer healthy eating cookbooks to the traditional celebrity variety.
Dr Jan Zwar of Macquarie University is one of the authors of the Australian Book Readers survey, which was launched during the festival. This report reveals many fascinating things about how Australians think about books, including that readers found the term ‘literary fiction’ a turn-off, but responded warmly when asked about individual books which might be classified as ‘literary’. Depressingly, the survey found that the top 25% of Australian poets earn only $4000 a year from their work.
A lively panel at the end of the day that featured Michael Mohammed, Sophie Hamley, author Julie Koh (who would be revealed as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists the following day) and Juliet Rogers of the ASA became a discussion about diversity – or lack of it – in Australian publishing. There was broad agreement that it was important to have people from diverse backgrounds working in publishing and editing as well as having writers from diverse backgrounds.
Finally, it was great to see NRB’s Godfather Peter Corris at the Festival – albeit in a wheelchair as he recovers from various broken bones, including a broken ankle. Now on the path to recovery, Peter nevertheless described his injuries as ‘worse than anything I ever did to Cliff Hardy’.
He talked of how he discovered the PI novels of Ross Macdonald while he was in San Francisco and became immersed in the crime genre. So when he decided to write a detective story of his own, he felt he was writing in a genre he knew well, having read so much.
It took four years for the first Cliff Hardy to find a publisher. While this process ground on, rather than doubt himself he simply got on with writing the second book.
For the Cliff Hardy books his aim was to keep the writing lively and intelligent and to challenge the reader to follow the action and put scenes together for what they implied. The actual writing he found intensely enjoyable — ‘I was very lucky.’
In terms of writing tips, my favourite was that offered by Anne Enright, the Irish Fiction Laureate and Booker winner, who said: ‘If you chip away and work on your sentences, you will advance.’