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The big picture – and what’s next

I’m still pinching myself that now I have two books out in the big book-buying world. Friends keep asking me how it feels, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ve really taken it in. What with the busy promotional blitz and caring for a toddler, I’m usually doing something work or child-related from the moment I get up until I go to bed, and when my head hits the pillow it’s lights out pretty quickly! But the publication of Beneath the Shadows marks the end of my first two-book deal in Australia, and already I am thinking about what I want to do next. I have two firm ideas that seem to be developing in tandem in my head, and I’m really excited about both of them. I don’t like sharing much of my writing until I’m finished – I’m a bit secretive like that – but my overall plan is that the first will be a complicated love story set around a passion for the sea, and the second is a family mystery with photography as an underpinning theme.  

It is both daunting and exciting to be very close to moving on from projects that have consumed the last few years of my life. I can’t wait to write something new, but thinking about what I hope to achieve next has led me to some reflection on what my overall goals are in my writing. Many aspects of my writing lend themselves to lots of other books too – most of us are touching on universal themes of love, friendship, journeys, psychology, freedom, fears and longing in one form or another. But I’m very interested in examining the psychology of traumatic events, and the different ways people try to cope with what fate deals them. I want readers to grow attached to my characters – not necessarily agree with them, but certainly relate to them, and recognise aspects of them in themselves or others.

I love to tell stories through the medium of suspense, with compelling chapters and twists and turns, because it’s what I want to read –there’s nothing better than a story that grips you. All that drama! The biggest compliment you can give me is saying you couldn’t put my books down – I want to grab my readers, pull them into the world I’m creating and completely absorb them until we’re finished. I hope I’ve achieved that in my first two books, but there is still plenty more to come.

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GUEST BLOG: NATASHA LESTER, author of What is Left Over, After

Why does inspiration never strike at a time when I can write it down?

I blame my children for this – they’ll end up blaming me for almost everything when they’re older so I might as well get in first. Except that, in this case, it’s true.

 Having recently had the luxury of nearly a whole week to do nothing but write, courtesy of my lovely husband who subjected himself full time to the 3 cherubs, I have discovered that I get the best ideas in the most uninspiring places. Places where there are no pens. And even if there were, it would be impossible to write anything down.

 The first day inspiration struck in the shower. I was washing my face and the solution to a major plot problem that had been niggling me for months suddenly and perfectly appeared. Short of inscribing myself with shampoo, there was no way to make a note of the idea. But I’ve learned that if I don’t write it down, I won’t remember it later. So I had to chant it in my head – Dan gets run over, Dan gets run over – while I jumped out and dried myself. My mental monologue was interspersed with shouted directions at the children: ‘Your headband’s in the doll’s cradle’ – Dan gets run over – ‘Your shoes are in the fridge’ (don’t ask) – Dan gets run over. I’m just lucky that, when I got to my study, I didn’t end up writing in my notebook: Dan runs over a doll with the fridge.

The next day we were at the Disney Live concert surrounded by a million mini Cinderellas and my two year old needed to go to the toilet. While I was holding her on the toilet seat, more inspiration struck. This time a brilliant plot twist that I knew would make the book impossible to put down at the critical halfway mark. ‘Please hurry, darling,’ I begged, desperate to get out of there and back to my notebook and pen. ‘But Mummy,’ she piped up, ‘I shouldn’t rush. I need to get it all out.’ Of course my oft-repeated advice, which was never remembered if she was in the middle of jumping on the trampoline, was thrown back at me the one time when rushing would have been very welcome.

 The day after that, the ideas came while I was driving on the freeway. No way to jot things down at one hundred kilometres an hour and I’m sure it wasn’t quite the emergency that the stopping lanes were designed to accommodate.

 Later, I realised that the reason I keep finding inspiration in unlikely places is because they are quiet places, places where the kids are either absent or silent – shower, toilet, car.

 I wonder whether this means that the ideas are there all the time but I just don’t hear them, drowned out as they are by the four year old yelling at the two year old, ‘She took my Barbie,’ and the baby delighting in his new found ability to shout Mum-mum-mum at the top of his voice.

 So my New Year’s Resolution is this: to somehow build a quiet moment into every day. The girls received a cubbyhouse for Christmas so perhaps I need to rig up some kind of lock on it – not to lock them in but as a place for me to hide! I know I won’t be lucky enough to dream up a new story idea, solve a plot problem or come up with an unexpected twist in every quiet moment, but the important thing is, I’ll be ready, pen and paper in hand, if the ideas do choose to come.

Natasha Lester lives in Western Australia and is the author of What is Left Over, After, winner of the TAG Hungerford Prize, published in 2010 by Fremantle Press. Check out her website, www.natashalester.com.au, or visit her blog, While the Kids are Sleeping.

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Sources of inspiration

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s a question I am asked regularly. And my answer is ‘everywhere’. Considering my profession is writing, I spend much more of my time thinking about what I might write rather than actually noting it down. I am a compulsive thinker – not just that, but I like to replay, analyse, deconstruct, reconstruct, rewind and fast-forward. Occasionally I might even add a soundtrack. I find it difficult to switch off the whirring of my brain, though I have trained myself to get better at it, and my thoughts are widespread and random. I wonder what the cat is thinking on its morning prowl around the back garden. I wonder who made all the things in my house, which hands these objects passed through, and how curious it is that through them I am connected in some small way to hundreds of other stories I won’t ever know. I wonder who first thought of putting vinegar on a potato chip, or chilli in chocolate, and whether they received the recognition they deserved. These thoughts and others zip through my head all day long, and when I’m building a story, occasionally something will linger for a moment, and I’ll connect it to a character, and it eventually becomes part of my book. That’s if I can stop my thoughts long enough to find a pen and write them down. I often seem to have my best eureka moments just before I fall asleep, which is an endless source of frustration. I’m either constantly switching the light on and off to make notes, or trying to repeat ideas like mantras so I might remember them in the morning (which I rarely do).

I can’t ever imagine running out of inspiration, because I can’t see that I’ll ever run out of these streams of questions. And somewhere within my fascination with them, and the possible answers to them, is the place where a story begins to form.

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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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Bye bye editing, hello life!

Finally, after six long weeks of work, I have finished the structural edit of Beneath the Shadows. It’s lovely to put my head up again, as I’ve literally been working morning, noon and night, around my toddler’s waking hours, to get everything done. I am already thinking of things that need changing or tweaking, but I will get another chance to do that when the copy-editing begins. I have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with this side of the editing process, which is ironic since I’ve been a book editor for the last ten years. But editing someone else’s work is fun. Editing my own novels seems to be much more gruelling, since I find myself continually re-examining every aspect of plot, characters and writing, and coming up with more and more problems or weaknesses that need fixing. However, I thrive on the challenge, and so far I’ve had two great editors who have really pushed me to make my books stronger.

So, while I’ve been taking a break, I’ve been dabbling with my bookshelf on goodreads.com.  I now have an author profile, which I’m still working on, and you’ll find my latest book reviews on there as well as on this website. You’ll notice they all tend to be rather positive, but I often don’t finish books I’m not enjoying, and as a result I don’t feel entirely qualified to comment on them! I’m currently reading and loving Water for Elephants, so you can expect another positive review soon!

Lately, quite a few aspiring authors have asked me for advice on what to do when you feel your novel is ready to go out into the world. So, while I have some downtime, I’ll shortly put up a blog or two with some general advice and information. Good luck to you all. Book publishing is a tough world, but it’s a very exciting and fulfilling one too, and I love being part of it.

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When characters get minds of their own

Book pages 2This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 5th April 2010

I find it very easy to lose myself in my writing, and once I do, I often feel more like an observer within the story rather than its creator. On coming back from one of these reveries it can seem like I’m waking up, since I’ve usually forgotten where I am. During these times, one of the absolute pleasures I get from writing is when my characters turn around and do something completely unexpected. When I was working on Come Back to Me, my husband would give me the raised eyebrow on occasions where I would excitedly announce that ‘Wow, my character did something so strange today… it took me completely by surprise’, or, ‘I found out something I never knew about my character today’. And I don’t blame him – depending on how you look at it, this sounds anything from a little bit pretentious to borderline insane. However, I’ve heard many other writers talk about experiencing the same thing. I’m inclined to believe that it happens when your imagination is firing so well that the process of creation is occurring spontaneously rather than through concerted effort. This doesn’t happen to me all the time, but it does occur now and again – and then I find my stories going off in directions that I’m quite sure were not in the original concept.

However, on evaluating such occurrences, while sometimes I love them, at other times it looks more like my characters have just been having fun running amuck in my head upon realising I’ve let them loose. Which is why it is great to be able to put my editor’s hat on again, and examine just what these new events are doing for my story. Ultimately, are they contributing to it, or taking it off on too much of a tangent. Because now and again it’s not a bad idea to remind my characters who’s boss.