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I am currently reading one of the longest, most talked about books of last year on my smallest new device. Jonathan Frantzen’s Freedom is over two thousand pages long on my iPhone, and it is the first book I have ever downloaded to it. The writing is way too small, and with a wayward swish of the finger I sometimes find myself back on the title page. However, over the last few weeks it has been easy to snatch reading time on car journeys, while waiting in queues for changing rooms, and in the darkness of an aeroplane with a sleeping toddler lying across my lap. And when we all shared a hotel room, hubby and child could go to sleep, and I could still carry on reading in the dark. Hurray!

Since I always want more time to read, it has been great to have such a flexible and portable way of accessing a book. But the rise of the e-book has brought with it some very serious concerns. Bookstores are struggling to maintain a viable market share; publishers are worried about maintaining control of rights; and authors are concerned about impacts on sales and royalty rates. Meanwhile, what is happening to the art of reading itself? Because that cold, hard little phone screen doesn’t encourage me to savour each word in the same way a softly turning page might give me pause. With an e-book you no longer hold a complete work in your hands (does this make the story itself less tangible?). Instead, you can simply switch your book off – or, when you are in the middle of a particularly moving passage, a message pops up over the top reminding you that your battery is dying.  

No, I might venture into e-books now and again, but I desperately need their printed older brothers and sisters to survive too. Let’s hope they can eventually be friends and work together.

Watching the King’s Speech last week served as a great reminder of how quickly things change. All those nervous comments about broadcasting being rather dangerous and distasteful seem so innocent now. And yet, back then, how long would it have taken to get word out about the terrible flooding in Queensland, and all the help needed? In fact, technology has been an incredible ally in the past week, and it’s been inspiring to watch everyone supporting each other.

I’d love to hear what other people think about the rise of e-books. In the meantime, happy reading everybody, in whatever form it takes!

To donate to the Queensland flood appeal, go to http://www.qld.gov.au/floods/donate.html, or check out some fantastic fundraising initiatives set up by writers:

Authors for Queensland: http://authorsforqueensland.wordpress.com/ Signed copies of Come Back to Me and Beneath the Shadows are on there, as well as a fantastic array of signed books, and other writing and reading related services and ideas. You can even bid to get a character named after you in upcoming novels!

Writers on Rafts – Rebecca Sparrow and the Queensland Writers Centre are putting this together, offering more chances to win an amazing host of writing/reading prizes for a small entry fee. Details to follow soon, but you can read about it now on Rebecca’s blog.

PS Look out for the lovely Natasha Lester, my very first guest blogger and author of the fabulous What is Left Over, After, who’ll be featured here next week.

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A group of wonderful writers spent last week collecting donations and setting up an auction website where you can bid for signed copies, tickets to events, manuscript assessments and mentoring, or even the chance to have a character named after you in a novel. All money goes to help those affected by the Queensland floods. For full details go to: http://authorsforqueensland.wordpress.com/ On the site there’s a chance to win signed copies of Come Back to Me and my second book Beneath the Shadows, which won’t be out in bookstores until 1st February 2011. Bidding closes 11 pm on 24 January (Sydney time). Good luck with the bidding, and thank you for your support.col-md-2

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.col-md-2

Happy New Year everyone!

For me and my family, this month has been a blur of Christmas preparations, culminating in a wonderful week in Singapore. You can’t fail to get into the Christmas spirit there – it seems everyone has wholeheartedly embraced the festival, and the kids are treated to all sorts of rides, shows and activities. The schoolchildren singing carols in our lobby on Christmas Eve were particularly special. My only low-light was seeing shark fin soup in so many restaurants on Orchard Road. We’re shark fans in our family – in fact, two of the highlights of my life were seeing hammerhead sharks on a dive in the Galapagos, and swimming with whale sharks in Exmouth, WA. Many ocean and conservation experts tell of the plight of sharks and the ecological disaster that is unfolding as they begin to disappear from our seas. Turning the tide seems a daunting task but a critical one.

The New Year has also brought me a new-look website, a new blog … and, soon, a new book! Beneath the Shadows hits the shops in just a few weeks time, and I’m excited, nervous, and busy working on promotion. There will be a dedicated web page for the book on the Random House site that includes a short film, a trailer, an extra chapter, and background to the book, which will be going live in just a few weeks. In addition, I am doing events in the west in February and the eastern states in March – all details will be advertised on my site.

The wonderful team at www.holidaygoddess.com have a beautiful travel book coming at the end of this year too, and I’m very excited to be part of that project. Plus, there’s an idea that I hope to turn into a book draft by the close of 2011. Phew, it sounds busy – but then that’s just the way I like it.

From now on, I will be blogging regularly on writing, reading, and life in general…and I hope to have some guests dropping by to say hello too. Please follow me on facebook or twitter for regular updates.

Wishing you all the very best for 2011.

Sara F xcol-md-2

I was very excited this morning to read Jessica Rudd’s blog on Mama Mia, speaking out in defence of chick lit and commercial fiction. Go Jessica! While my books don’t fall easily into the chick lit category (they are a bit too dark, although they usually have at least one female chick-lit-style character doing her utmost to lighten things up) they are certainly commercial. And I’m very proud of that. I want everyone, and I mean everyone, to read them!

The joy of reading is that it’s such a personal experience. We form relationships with the characters we read about, and we have our own reactions to the journeys they are on, which are interlinked to our own feelings and experiences. Stories are places of freedom, of escape, and of personal interpretation, so it’s a sad state of affairs when any kind of snobbery begins to try to dictate our reading passions. Besides, sweeping whole genres into generalised definitions is plain daft. I’ve read some brilliant chick-lit that has had me crying with laughter – Watermelon by Marian Keyes springs to mind. I’ve also read plenty of books in the same genre that I thought were a load of old rubbish (and will therefore remain nameless!). It’s the same with ‘lit fic’ – I’ve waded my way through a few prize-winning, critically acclaimed doorstoppers wondering why I felt compelled to waste my time; and yet other books have had me in awe – Swimmer by Bill Broady, and Beloved by Toni Morrison are two of my all-time favourites. But I should add that I did my dissertation on Beloved. It was by studying it that I got such a lot out of it. In fact, I think I gave all my friends copies of Beloved for Christmas that year, and, in hindsight, since most weren’t doing English degrees they would probably rather have had the latest Bridget Jones.

Wouldn’t it be great if all types of writing could simply co-exist and try not to squabble? But it’s unlikely, isn’t it. Life just isn’t like that, at least not yet. In the meantime, I have made a conscious choice to try to write the kind of books I love to read. And there is nothing I enjoy quite as much as a spine-tingling mystery with characters you can’t stop thinking about. If that makes my stories your guilty pleasure, then so be it. I promise you’ll get your money’s worth!col-md-2

BENEATH THE SHADOWSI’m very proud to present the cover of Beneath the Shadows. I’m really thrilled with it, and can’t wait to see it on the shelves. I realise I have been very quiet of late,  but I have been up to my ears in deadlines, and also struck down by a cold that won’t go away…sniff. I’m currently working hard on finishing the edit of Beneath the Shadows – in just a few weeks I’ll get to see the book in print. I can tell you that the prospect is no less exciting the second time around. Now I can’t wait to start promoting it. 

I’m also hoping to revamp my website a little over the next couple of months, so keep checking in and I’ll keep you posted…col-md-2

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…col-md-2

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!col-md-2

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.col-md-2

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