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BOOK LOVE: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.

We lived in the gaps between the stories.

Set some time in the future, the main character, Offred, has been designated a Handmaid, and her function is to endure mating rituals in order to bear a child for the couple she belongs too.  The Gilead society is cruel and swift to exact punishment on those who disobey its rules. But Offred remembers a life before this, where she had a husband and daughter. Unable to forget the freedom she has known, she makes dangerous choices, and is slowly drawn towards disaster.

This book is right at the top of my all-time favourites, and just writing about it makes me want to go and find it again. I haven’t read it for years, but I can still hear those names called out in the darkness at the end of the first chapter, the brave reassertion of identity under a monstrously repressive regime. Atwood’s writing is mesmerising, and the dystopian world that she has built, where women have no rights and have become classified according to their purpose in relation to men, is both terrifying and heartbreaking. I could contemplate many of the sentences in this book for hours. I was so disappointed when I saw the film – but I think it’s just because there’s no way to translate Atwood’s writing, you need to read this story in its purest form.

 

 

 

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BOOK LOVE: The Light Between Oceans By M.L. Stedman

This is a story of right and wrong, and how sometimes they look the same …
1926. Tom Sherbourne is a young lighthouse keeper on a remote island off Western Australia. The only inhabitants of Janus Rock, he and his wife Isabel live a quiet life, cocooned from the rest of the world. 

One April morning a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying infant – and the path of the couple’s lives hits an unthinkable crossroads.

Only years later do they discover the devastating consequences of the decision they made that day – as the baby’s real story unfolds …

What a sensational debut by ML Stedman! Even the strapline is one of the best I’ve read: This is the story of right and wrong, and how they sometimes look the same. I loved so much about this book. The central dilemma is absorbing, and I found myself alternately rooting for (and sometimes angry with) each of the characters as they struggle to find resolution. Throughout the story, the descriptions are mesmerising. My favourite lines are 96 pages in: ‘In a place before words, in some other language of creature to creature, with the softening of her muscles, the relaxing of her neck, the baby signalled her trust. Having come so close to the hands of death, life now infused with life like water meets water.’ I did find the beginning a little bit slow, but it’s well worth persevering. ML Stedman manipulates her narrative like a master, and I’m looking forward to finding out what she does next.

NB: This book has been optioned for a film too, and I hope it gets made. It would be great to see a story based in Western Australia on the big screen.

 

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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: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

A story of love, ambition, and a spirited elephant called Rosie, set amid a travelling circus during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

I had heard lots of good things about this book, but the subject matter didn’t automatically appeal so I took my time in getting to it. However, I’m really glad I did – the characters and the circus jumped right off the page and every time I picked it up I was absorbed. Highly recommended.

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On pursuing publication

Book pages 1This blog also appeared on the Random House ‘Random Blogs’ website on 9th April 2010

I was recently asked advice on how to become a published writer.

Here’s my take on what it takes:

Originality
In general, the more original your concept, the better. But originality must still be able to be placed within the market. Sometimes what’s original to one person can be just a bit too way out to the next reader, so don’t go too far. Alternatively, you may want to follow a trend – vampires, anyone? – but you still need an original take on it. And you need to get the timing right, so the market isn’t oversaturated by the time you finish your book.

Determination
You have to really want to succeed, be prepared for knockbacks, not get bogged down in them but use them to make you stronger.

Stamina
First of all to finish the book. An enormous feat. Then to go over and over it yourself, figuring out how you can make it better. Then to allow other people to do the same.

Enthusiasm
To learn from those who have been there. Listen to published writers. They can give you so many ideas, and to hear them talk is often inspirational. No one begins life as a published writer, they were all once in unpublished shoes, without exception. Read lots of books. They all have something to inspire you – even if it’s only, ‘I could do better than this!’

Listening skills
Listen to critique. While it’s great to wholly believe in what you have written, it’s also good to remember that your readers might just have a point. Try to look dispassionately at your writing, and pay particular attention if you hear the same comment more than once, even if it’s not what you want to hear.

Insight
Put yourself in a busy publisher’s shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? I can guarantee you that it will usually be the one sent with a bit of razzmatazz from an agent. So then perhaps you should find an agent. If you decide to go this route, put yourself in their shoes. They have thirty manuscripts. Four meetings that morning. Which should they pick up? The one that’s double-line spaced, interestingly presented, with a quick-to-grasp concept. And a covering letter that stands out. From someone who phoned or emailed first with a great, succinct pitch (although do check what type of contact each agent prefers before doing this)? Or the single-spaced scruffy sheaf of papers, appended to a meandering cover letter, from a person they’ve never heard of or from. I know which I would choose.

And finally: Passion
For the written word. For writing for writing’s sake, not just for publishing’s sake. Because that joy and commitment will be immediately recognisable to the reader, and there is little more compelling than that.

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Come Back to Me

CBTM for web‘As a writer, an exceedingly good book to me, is when I don’t notice how it’s written, but find myself completely wrapped up in the story. Come Back to Me by Sara Foster was one of those books. I couldn’t put it down and lacked sleep for a few days.’ Michelle Dennis Evans

 

‘Set in both London and Perth, this is a moving story about impossible choices, about love, and about keeping a promise you made years ago, even if it risks everything you have now. I read this in one day and was left thinking about it for days afterwards. Keep a tissue close.’ July 2011 book of the month, www.ourbookclub.com.au

 

‘Come Back to Me is a complex story of relationships and how ones long ago finished can reappear at any moment and change the path you’re on. Despite the intricacies and twists in the storyline, it’s a quick and engrossing read – I powered through it in an afternoon. So very readable  – will keep you wondering and guessing (and in my case, praying that two certain people end up together) until the very last page.’ 8/10, 1girl2manybooks – to read the full review, click here

‘…this is a book that is big on secrets, everyone seems to be keeping secrets from everyone else, and it is a book that everybody’s stories seems to somehow intertwine with others, it is a story of love and loss, how being strong and taking charge can make us a better person, and how others perceive decisions that have been made even though they were too young, or not involved enough to know the reasons behind those decisions. 4.5/5.’ The Hungry Bookshelf – to read the full review, click here

 

CBTM Kindle for webSuspenseful, heartrending and transcontinental, Come Back to Me’s dynamic scenes extend from debauchery at an office party to a shocking outback crime. A complex psychological tale, Sara Foster’s debut novel…throws us headfirst into marital distress. Set in a middle-class world of city lawyers and designers, Come Back to Me is essentially a story of consequences…With its easy prose and short chapters, this is a novel suited to air travel. Yet it is sophisticated in two ways: it carefully considers the ramifications of split-second decisions on human relationships, and it highlights the importance of a strong question to a narrative…Each character, trapped in  this undercurrent of longing, makes the story somewhat earnest. But there is a balance in carefully placed moments of the everyday, like those in the relationship between Chloe and her wayward cousin. As a result, we, the avid readers, are continually reminded of the particular strength of the characters. It is a gentle strength, but a relatable one: the strength that comes from the simple, gallant act of moving forward.’ Kirsten Law, Australian Book Review, March 2010

This taut psychological drama will keep you enthralled as the mystery and tragedy of ten years ago gradually unravels.’ Northern Daily Leader, 20 February 2010

‘Come Back to Me is a wonderful debut novel. The stories of the four main characters are interwoven, with the reader taken on a journey through their past lives and the present, with revelations continuing right till the end… There is nothing not to like about this story – intriguing characters, plot twists, action and beautiful writing combine to produce a satisfying package.’ Sally Murphy, www.aussiereviews.com

‘The novel is both a stunning thriller and complex love story. It is an entertaining read.’ Border Mail, 27 February 2010

‘A new voice on the Australian fiction scene, Foster has taken an incident that she read about years ago when travelling and uses it to tell a haunting tale about relationships and the history that binds them.’ The Examiner [Launceston], 20 February 2010

‘…a dark psychological guessing game that will surprise you all the way till the end.’ ‘Read of the Week’, NW, 22 February 2010

‘Alex is happily married when he unexpectedly comes face to face with the girl he once loved. He has to decide if he should revisit the past, and risk everything with the wife he adores. This clever novel is deftly pulled together with secrets revealed right through to the last page.’ New Idea, 13 February 2010

‘Come Back to Me is a book for anyone who likes to be surprised by multiple twists and turns. Brilliant.’ http://www.thereadingstack.blogspot.com/

‘This is a very promising debut, with a storyline teeming with slowly revealed secrets and unexpected turns.’ http://www.chicklitclub.com

‘There’s no leisurely introduction to this story. Chloe and her husband Alex go to dine with her colleague Mark and his new date, Julia. But when Alex is introduced to Julia, it is soon apparent that something is very wrong. Julia vanishes, Alex is silent, Mark is furious, and Chloe struggles with her own secret as well as wondering about Alex’s past. Alex decides the only way for closure is to take Julia back to Perth where something dreadful happened. But in doing so, will he lose all he has? Can Julia face the past – and finally tell the truth? It’s a book to read in one sitting – you’ll be enthralled by the disquieting possibilities.’ Woman’s Day, 1 February 2010

‘What-ifs are the heart and soul of any good relationship story: what if we had stayed together, what if I had married someone different, what if I wasn’t having a baby? Here, Foster ties together all those life-crisis questions with the mysterious arrival of a missing ex-girlfriend. Although this will almost exclusively appeal to women, it is far from light and fluffy… [Rated 4/5 stars]’ The West Australian, Tuesday, 26 January 2010

‘A gripping read. Rewarding to the very end.’ Nicole Alexander, author of The Bark Cutters

For author interviews and general media, click here