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Helplessness and people power

Last night, one of the last images I saw before I went to bed was of a terrified Chinese toddler being held at knifepoint in the street by her father. The horror of that situation was not distilled by the frozen photo, the detached computer screen, or the fact I could flick away when I chose. Horrendous fear and suffering were transmitted in an instant.

I hadn’t searched this out. I wasn’t planning to read the news at that point. But it broke its boundaries and affected me. As did the Four Corners story this week, which I found out about thanks to twitter. I’m grateful I didn’t have to watch that footage, because I know it would still be haunting me. The photographs I did see were enough.

No one has taught me how to deal with these moments. I have had to teach myself, because, quite frankly, they have brought me to my knees at times. And the way I have come to terms with this is by becoming a more conscious guardian of my emotions, knowing when I can take action and when there is nothing I can do. From what I could gather (the article wasn’t clear), the little Chinese girl was rescued. Twelve hours later, the news has moved on, and I can’t even find it on the same site. I’m pretty sure I won’t ever know what happened to them.

However, with the push to ban live exports, there were at least petitions to sign. Where once upon a time I would have felt this was a fairly unremarkable gesture, I don’t any more, because of the emergence of a few amazing, energetic sites that have recorded some brilliant, measurable breakthroughs as a result of people power. Sites like Avaaz.org and getup.org.au (who ran a live exports petition), and organisations like the Wilderness Society (who send you the results of their actions) are doing a great job of bringing some critical issues to our attention. And despite the desperate, depressing news they bring to my door, they make me feel that there is something small but very important that I can do. They wouldn’t exist unless we were all choosing to add our names to causes we believe in. This weekend my family will be going to climate change rally in Perth on Sunday (there are also rallies in Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Adelaide and Sydney), thanks to the information and reminders from GetUp. Our voices might be small, but they all count, and I’m buoyed by the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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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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Come Back to Me

Book Group Questions for Come Back to Me

1. Explore the different ways that the title theme of ‘Come Back to Me’ resonates throughout the book.

2. What do you think of Alex’s dilemma and choices? Can a person be truly in love with two people at the same time?

3. The changing nature of relationships between parents and children features prominently in the book. Discuss the nature and complexities of adult children’s relationships with their parents.

4. Each character goes on some kind of figurative journey within the novel. By the end, what do you think they each have learned, and how might it change them?

5. Different types of loss feature heavily in the novel. Which types of loss stand out most for you? How have these losses shaped the characters’ lives?

6. Each character in the book has personality traits that appear to be holding them back in life. Can you identify them? Do they change during the course of the story? If so, how?

7. Explore Alex’s motivations and experiences in the story. How much is he a victim of circumstance, and how much does he bring on himself through his decisions?

8. Where did your sympathies lie during the course of the novel, and why?

9. **NEW** At one point, Chloe asks: ‘What had she done to cause everything that was happening to her?’ This may be a harsh question to direct at herself, but it is an understandable one. Discuss how the notion of responsibility plays out in the novel, and the extent to which the characters are responsible for themselves or each others’ actions or reactions.

10. **NEW** Chloe, Alex and Julia/Amy have all pushed memories away or suppressed them in order to get on with their lives. Explore why they have done this, and what it means for them.

11. **NEW** Towards the end of the book, Margaret suggests to Chloe, ‘…maybe Alex is trying to protect you…’ Do you agree with this statement? Is that what Alex was trying to do?

12. **NEW** Throughout the book, there are lots of references to opportunities for connection between the characters, opportunities that might not come round again, or moments when they have to choose whether to speak or to withhold information. Can you identify these, and what do you think of the choices each character makes?