Monday, April 23, 2012

The Nuts and Bolts - a post written specifically for professional writing and editing students.

December 1, 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald to Max Perkins:
…I think all your criticisms are true.
a)   About the title. I’ll try my best but I don’t know what I can do. Maybe simply ‘Trimalchio’ or ‘Gatsby’…
b)   Chapters VI & VII I know how to fix.
c)   Gatsby’s business affairs I can fix. I get your point about them.
d)   His vagueness I can repair by making more pointed – this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.
e)   But his long narrative in Chap VIII will be difficult to split up. Zelda also thought it was a little out of key but it is good writing and I don’t think I could bear to sacrifice any of it.
f)    I have 1,000 minor corrections, which I will make on the proof and several more large ones which you don’t mention.
John Kuehl, Jackson R. Bryer (eds), Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, Simon & Schuster, 1991, p. 85.

September 25, 1925, Max Perkins to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
At any rate, one thing, I think, we can be sure of: that when the tumult and shouting of the rabble of reviewers and gossipers dies, The Great Gatsby will stand out as a very extraordinary book.
Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, p. 103.

December 27, 1925, F.Scott Fitzgerald to Max Perkins:
Is Gatsby dead? You don’t mention it. Has it reached 25,000? I hardly dare hope so.
Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, p. 126.

As writers, of course, what we are all striving for, first and foremost, is to write well. After that we’re striving for publication. There isn’t much point wanting to be a writer and not caring about being published. Or is there?

Beverly Jensen, wife of writer Jay Silverman, wrote a 350-page collection of inter-related stories for sixteen years without ever seeking to get it published. She worked on the manuscript seriously – joining writing workshops, editing the work with her husband and working on the stories whenever time allowed.

She died at the age of 49 and her husband submitted her work posthumously, first in the New England Review, which published a story called ‘The Wake’ that was later chosen for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2007. The entire manuscript was accepted for publication by Viking.

You can read the story of publishing these stories here:

Poets have long written poetry with little hope of it being published, other than in the occasional small literary magazine. Most poets are not known outside their own circles, depend on day jobs enriched with the occasional literary prize or grant and feel pretty chuffed if they don’t have to self-publish their poetry collections. The only two  mainstream Australian publishers still publishing poetry to my knowledge are the University of Queensland Press, which publishes about two collections a year – one the winner of an emerging poet’s prize – and the Fremantle Arts Press, which publishes only Western Australian authors.(Do correct me if I'm wrong, poet readers!)

Short story writers traditionally suffer from some of the same publishing problems that confront poets – the industry claims that regular punters don’t read short stories so collections are notoriously hard to sell and market. However, there are many journals that accept individual short stories and competitions for short stories, such as The Age short story competition, which also involve publication and wide readership.

Publishing is in the doldrums – two years ago my children’s publisher was made redundant only three years after she was headhunted to start a literary children’s and young adult fiction imprint. Sales across the board for children’s books appear to be down. Publishing is also changing – e-readers are challenging the way we buy and read books, just as mp3 players challenged the music industry. The book as an artifact may be dying.

In this interim period, while everyone in the industry attempts to understand and rise to these challenges, authors are the most disenfranchised. The ordinary writer doesn’t get highly paid for his or her work. The standard royalty rate is 10% on the recommended retail price. Royalties aren’t paid, of course, until the advance has been made up from sales.

This is not a get-rich-quick business. The occasional story you read in the newspaper about a bidding war between publishing houses, six figure numbers, publishing phenomenon and overnight bestseller are just that – occasional. The real story takes place in studies like mine or yours, in years of hard work, sending out stories, poems to magazines, tearing up (or scrap-booking) rejection slips, rewriting and rewriting, abandoning one story, bottom-drawer-ing another and one day, if you are lucky and in the right place at the right time, if you have worked hard enough, if you have sufficient talent and persistence, you might have a book published.

Should this make you depressed?

The short answer is yes. It should make you depressed for a nation that can’t support, or is indifferent to, the art and culture it produces. It should make you depressed that there are industries which rely on writers and the people in these industries are far more highly paid than the workers they rely on. It should make you depressed that poetry, for example, isn’t more part of our daily lives and that we neither teach it well to school children nor do we routinely read it after we’ve left school or university, or whichever educational institution insisted on us reading it.

Should it make you personally depressed about your own chance for success?

I’ve struggled with this question over the years. I waver between going to bed and pulling the covers over my head and having a wave of liberation at the thought that since the industry is largely indifferent of me, I can be largely indifferent of it.

I can undertake completely non-commercial projects. I can abandon projects that have become personally boring. I can relish in what is published and not take too much notice of what gets rejected. If I temporarily take a fancy for writing haiku or a six-sestina poem sequence, I can do that without anyone asking me why I’m fooling around with that nonsense. I am free to treat my writing life as a life, rather than a career.

This doesn’t mean that I’m happy writing badly written, sloppily revised work of any kind. I’m happy to revise and revise for the sake of the finished artifact, no matter whether or not it is ever published. It’s that artifact that matters – and my feeling of satisfaction that I’ve made it as perfect as and taken it as far as I can.

Of course there are other days when depression gets the upper-hand and I simply want to be something else – a merchant banker or a waiter.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I think students often get the wrong idea about what maintaining a writing life is like. So here are some basic facts to think about:
·        An editor rarely tells you how to fix up any particular problem. They just tell you there is a problem. How you fix it is up to you.
·        Deadlines must be met – if you miss a deadline, it could mean that your story doesn’t make an anthology, or your book isn’t published the year you hoped it would be.
·        The industry rule for children’s books is that a book must be submitted twelve months before it is published.
·        The average print run of a first time children’s writer is around 2,000–4,000, not a huge number!
·        Most children’s writers in this country earn as much, if not more, through Education Lending Rights and Public Lending Rights, as they do from royalties. (And Education Lending Rights are always under threat from the government. The ASA regularly campaigns for it on the behalf of writers for children and young adults)
·        Most writers have day jobs – sometimes that can be touring as a writer in schools (for children’s writers); sometimes it is dishwashing at a local café.
·        Picture book writers’ income from writing has been worked out to average $2,000 for the year – no one has bothered to work out a poet’s, but it would be less.
·        If you’re a professional writer you can’t afford to sit around waiting for inspiration.
·        If you’re a professional writer you understand that rewriting and revision is as important as the original triggering idea that started the story or the novel.

Of course there are brilliant first-time novels and wonderfully inspiring publishing stories – but often you find that behind that first novel are at least two bottom-drawer attempts and that the publishing story is a phenomenon that is largely inexplicable and inimitable. Who could have predicted that Harry Potter – essentially a pastiche (and a fabulous one) of a boarding school meets magic meets the Famous Five – would have such success? Certainly not the first publisher who turned it down! Who would have thought that a series of novels featuring break-the-rule vampires, werewolves and a spineless accident-prone narrator would turn into a three-movie deal and inspire teenagers around the world to wear t-shirts with ‘Edward Rules’ on them? Or, for that matter, that a young dude who self-published his first boy’s own adventure story, would go on to be a bestselling author before he was twenty-five?

These are exceptions. Most writers spend their days writing – or not-writing – pick up a little money here or there, maybe get a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts, count themselves lucky if their advance money goes up or they get published overseas and don’t expect anyone to know their name, let alone recognise them in the supermarket. Most of us would probably keep on doing it whether or not we were paid or published, because it’s what we like to do.

There are ways you can maximise your own writing. I was lucky enough to have Hazel Edwards as a mentor in my early children’s writing career and she was very much a nuts and bolts mentor, talking about how to make the most money out of an idea or a book.

Here are some ideas that might help you (and also help you with organising your study!):
·        You should be able to produce at least one publishable article that’s related to any novel you’re writing – this serves as both publicity and extra income.
·        You should use any research you’ve done for several projects. So, for example, if you’ve been researching 19th century urban living in Australia for a fictional project, you should use that research for a short story, or a short non-fiction book (for children, perhaps?).
·        You should try the same idea for a couple of forms – a novel/a screenplay, for example.
·        You should be alert to any competitions or grant opportunities – this might mean joining the Victorian Writer’s Centre or another relevant organisation.
·        You should find the ‘hook’ in any project and use this for promotional purposes.
·        You should, at a certain point, make sure you attend appropriate writing events and begin to network.
·        You should develop a submissions calendar and be constantly sending work out to small journals and competitions.

But you know what else, you should just have a pleasure writing! Here's Jane Yolen to conclude:

All we can count on is the joy in the process of writing. 

Uncover, discovery, recovery are all part of that process. 

So take the joy behind publishing's shadow. The joy in the process.
 Jane Yolen, Take Joy, a book for writers, The Writer Books, 2003.

1 comment:

Ange said...

On the publishing of poetry: Black Inc. is responsible for the annual anthologies of best essays, stories, and poems. They also published the late Dorothy Porter's verse novels and collections:

I'm not sure if it was through the Wakefield Press unpublished manuscript award or otherwise, but I know that Robyn Cadwallader had a book of poetry published through them:

Also, I don't know if it counts because it is only an anthology of winning entries that gets published, but that's still good enough reason for me to consider entering the Newcastle Poetry Prize: