My bedside table…

Bedside table Aug 10I like to keep my current reading matter on my bedside table, but although I try very hard to maintain a small, neat pile, sooner or later it always deteriorates into a precarious tower of half-read books. I’ve just taken an inventory and thought I’d share it with you.

On the top is A Mercy by Toni Morrison. I wrote part of my Bachelor of Arts dissertation on Beloved, and I can’t begin to tell you how much I admire Morrison, but I wouldn’t call her stories easy reads. With this one, the haunting lines that close the first chapter will see me through to the end of the book on their own. Underneath A Mercy is The True Story of Butterfish by Nick Earls, which I’ve only just started, but it’s good and I’m keen to keep going. Next comes a children’s book – The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis – which I’m reading because a) it is set in Yorkshire, England, and b) on the cover is a brilliant but terrifying picture of a black barghest (a black dog that is legendary in the area). Both Yorkshire and the barghest also feature in my upcoming novel, Beneath the Shadows, and I want to see what Jarvis has made of them.

Halfway down the pile is Mandela, which is there because I watched Invictus the other day and wanted to find out more about ‘Madiba’.  And below Mandela are two books a friend lent me: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and The Observations by Jane Harris. Pretty much everyone I know has raved about The Book Thief, while I’d never heard of The Observations. When I’ve finished them, I’ll report back on both.

I always have some kind of inspirational reading by my bed too. At the moment there is an old book called the Handbook for the Soul, edited by Richard Carlson & Benjamin Shield, and a recent book called The Shift by Wayne Dyer (who I saw speak in Perth on Saturday, and who was tremendous). I love these kinds of books as they inspire me and challenge me to keep thinking about things differently. Alongside those I’ve got Karma Kids, because I’m keen to instil some Buddhist values in my daughter at some point, perhaps in a few years’ time when I can slow her down for a few seconds! And I’m also gradually making my way through two Lonely Planet books – a guide to Wildlife Travel Photography, and A Year of Watching Wildlife – because in my dreams of an ideal life I’m often in the middle of nowhere, stalking something with a camera.  

And, finally, last night I added my own Come Back to Me to the pile. The smaller paperback edition will be coming out in February along with Beneath the Shadows, so I thought I’d better refamiliarise myself with my old friends!

And that’s it…! It’s messy, I know, but at least it means I can choose just what I feel like reading on any given night. And I’ll get through them all…as long as they can keep close to the top of the pile. Because I was in New Edition bookshop in Fremantle yesterday, and there were thousands of undiscovered worlds wrapped in shiny covers, all calling out to me…

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Don’t get rejected before they’ve even read a word…

writing (2) 75 dpiPeople who work in book publishing always have a ridiculous amount of reading to get through. I once worked on what is pejoratively termed the ‘slush pile’ in the HarperCollins fiction department, where I would often be the first reader. As such, I would get to decide if the story was worth further consideration by those higher up the chain. There were so many submissions I don’t think I was ever on top of it.

So, when submitting your work, to give yourself a head start you need to make your book stand out. Why does the publisher HAVE to read it? (If you’re not sure, how can they be?) Why do you believe in what you are doing? What is it about this book that warrants the attention of the book-buying public? If you are able to provide an agent or publisher with this kind of information BEFORE they look at it, then – as long as they are enthusiastic, of course – you’re a step ahead.

How can you make a potential agent or publisher want to read a script? It’s a big question, and you should take your time and consider your approach. First and foremost you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a marketeer. Can you condense your story down into one or two awesome sentences? If you can, you’ve developed a pitch, and depending on the policy of the publisher/agent in question, you can use this to get people interested – either on the phone or via cover letters/emails. I realise this can be scary, as you might get an immediate no. But the pitch will remain important right through to the book-buying stage, because in this frenetically paced market you never have very long to grab anyone’s attention.  Don’t start pitching until you’re ready, as a publisher isn’t going to take very seriously the person who develops a new pitch every few weeks. They want to know you are focused and serious about what you are doing.

Do you know which market you’re aiming for? Have you thought about how your book will compete with others on the shelves? Why is it different? Why will readers pick up your travel book on Rome rather than the Lonely Planet’s? If you can give a publisher answers to these kinds of questions (without them having to ask), you will pique their interest. Otherwise, if such questions come up and you have no reply, you will look naïve.

Look at submissions policies very carefully and use them to your advantage. A script that comes in clean, tidy, correctly formatted according to guidelines, and with a concise covering letter will get more attention than the dog-eared, single-spaced tome with a rambling two-page explanation. Are there small embellishments you can use to draw people’s attention – artwork, for example? Be careful with using unusual fonts – only attempt it if they fit the kind of book you are working on, and remember they must still be easily readable. If you make the presentation too much of a challenge for a publisher, you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve begun.

Can you do anything else differently to get people’s attention? Your ploys need to be subtle, as at this stage a busy agent/publisher is doing you a favour by reading your work. When I worked in-house we would get writers ringing up demanding why we hadn’t yet got to their synopsis and outline, and that didn’t go down well. Never mind the writing, who wants to work on publishing a book with a stroppy, argumentative author. If you haven’t heard anything for a while, keep your inquiry courteous. You can remind them why they really should read your book, but be careful how far you push.

The submissions stage is one where books and dreams are made or broken. Success is a combination of skill, perseverance, patience and good fortune (and much more besides) – but the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up. Good luck!

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BOOK LOVE: Breath by Tim Winton

When paramedic Bruce Pike arrives too late to save a boy found hanged in his bedroom, the unusual circumstances of the death return him to his memories of adolescence, a turbulent time of unlikely friendships and recklessness that pushed him towards the darker edges of life.

I am a little ashamed to admit that this is the first Tim Winton I’ve read, since he is perhaps the most prestigious author in my home state of WA. I have long had Cloudstreet and Dirt Music on my list as well as this one, but when a friend suddenly gave it to me all other books were cast aside. I read it in a couple of days, and while it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, on reflection I think it was better. I am regularly disappointed by lauded, award-winning books – perhaps the hype kills them for me. Yet Tim Winton’s prose here is beautiful, stark and spare – it’s to-the-point, incisive fiction. The subject matter and the plot didn’t grab me all the way through, but the writing did – Winton absolutely lives and breathes his characters. I’m really looking forward to Cloudstreet now.

NB: At the moment, Save Our Marine Life (Australia)’s page on facebook features an open letter from Tim Winton about the importance of marine conservation. It’s well worth reading.