Tweetpitchers (from left to right): Darren Stephenson, me,
Zena Shapter, Lucy Stone, Monique Kowalczyk
A few weeks ago I attended the Speculative Fiction Festival 2011 in Sydney. 

I was lucky enough to win a free pass in The NSW Writing Centre’s tweetpitch competition. The rules were you had to mention @writingNSW, use the hashtag #specfic11, and fit a pitch in however many of your 140 characters were left. The book pitched had to be speculative fiction. I won one of five passes with this tweetpitch:
 ‘Betrayed by everyone she loves, an assassin must decide who to trust to stop evil gaining the key to immortality’.
For those who don’t know, speculative fiction includes the fantasy and science-fiction genres and, more peripherally, horror. There was some advice given by publishers and published authors that I thought would be worth sharing with my fellow writers. 

Pan Macmillan Australia also announced it is launching a new ebook imprint in 2012. They are the first Australian publisher to do so. They don’t see ebooks as the death of traditional print books, just as a new format. The good news for us as writers is that more people are reading now than ever before.

Publishers’ Talk
The first session of the day with a panel of publishers. The panel included Stephanie Smith of the Voyager imprint of Harper Collins Australia, Zoe Walton from Random House, Claire Craig from Pan Macmillan Australia and Keith Stevenson from Coeur de Lion Publishing.

These esteemed publishers had this advice to offer:
  • Don’t look at trends. By the time we, as writers, spot a trend, it’s usually too late to jump on the bandwagon. Publishing is cyclic, so trends come around again. If you can’t sell your book during the current trend, keep trying and your genre will eventually trend again. Writers also need to write to their strengths – there is no point writing what’s trending if it’s not your strength;

  •  The paranormal romance trend has outlived expectations, which means it has hung around long enough for writers to jump on the bandwagon. However, the longer a genre trends, the more saturated the market becomes. At this point publishers are looking for books within that trend but with original and different elements to what already exists. Cross-genres may become more appealing at this point. For trending genres, an original cover can become important in helping a book stand out to readers;

  • Sometimes a stand-alone book will be more appealing to a publisher when the market is over-saturated with series. Don’t dismiss the selling power of a stand-alone novel.

  • Don’t be discouraged by rejections. It’s not justabout your writing;

  • Publishers are looking for strong voice, compelling story and superb writing. Especially, they’re looking for what’s different about a book.

  • Cross-over books can work but are harder to sell outside their home country because they are not easy to slot into default genres;

  • Stories that push boundaries are attractive;

  • Traditional high/epic fantasy is the beating heart of speculative fiction (e.g. George R. R. Martin). There is always room for these books. This was fantastic news for me as I write nothing buthigh fantasy. And of course, I too think of it as the beating heart of speculative fiction. Naturally!

  • There is a lot of interest in sci-fi currently plus room for modern humorous fantasy;

  • Sword and sorcery books are mostly gone, the trend has shifted to paranormal romance. No good sword and sorcery had been seen recently;

  • Traditional fantasy naturally lends itself to series, often trilogies, but there is room for stand-alone books.

  • Publishers do like authors to have a social networking presence but it’s not essential. When the market is flat, an author might have a huge social networking presence – and it can make no difference to sales. However it can help to get the word out and publishers encourage it;

  • Margo Lanagan
  • Don’t send a first draft to a manuscript appraisal service. You should self-edit first. Having had an appraisal won’t necessarily influence the publisher’s decision as they will make their own assessment but appraisal services and editors are useful to improve writing when a writer needs an outside perspective. Writers’ groups and critique groups can also fill this function, usually on a reciprocal basis.
What I took from this is if you’re writing paranormal romance at this late stage in the trend you probably aren’t in a better position than those of whose genres aren’ttrending. You should write what you’re good at. And high fantasy ROCKS. 

The question put to the panel at the end of the session was ‘What book would you absolutely be unable to turn down if it crossed your desk on Monday?’ and here are the various responses.
  • A story with great voice and fully realised worlds;
  • A story with great voice, great worlds and lyrical writing;
  • A comic genius like Terry Pratchett;
  • A great gripping story that can’t be put down.
I too would like to see another Pratchett genius! If you’re hiding out there somewhere, there’s a publisher who wants you! Please do stand up. 

Versatile Artists
This was the second session I attended, with four Australian published speculative fiction authors. They were:
  • D.M. Cornish – a successful book illustrator who was asked to write a book to go with his illustrations;
  • Pamela Freeman – award winning author of books for adults and children;
  • Margo Lanagan – an author of short fiction and novels; and
  • Kate Forsyth – author of The Witches of Eileanan series and one of my favourite authors.
One of the questions put to the panel was ‘How do you know when to stop a project?’ The answers that most resonated with me were:
  • Supermarket queue/traffic light test – when you are stuck in a queue or at traffic lights with nothing else to do, and you don’tthink about your project;
  • D.M. Cornish
  • If it’s not the last thing you think about before falling asleep.
I often fall asleep with one of my stories on my mind! I confess I have never stopped a project. I have put them aside for later consideration (sometimes years of consideration!) but never actually terminated one.

Here’s a little bit about what each of the authors had to say.

Margo Lanagan
  • Noting that the title of the session was ‘Versatile Artists’ she observed that she considers ‘versatile’ to be a nice way of saying ‘flailing around trying to find what works’. She considered that a fair assessment of what she had done.
  • Do not write poetry. Poets generally get paid less than writers i.e. nothing or the next best thing!
  • If you get bogged down in a novel try a short story for instant gratification or to learn how to finish.
To finish her novel, Margo says she had to pretend it was a short story. Some reviews actually say it reads like a short story collection. It’s interesting that she clearly has a strong preference for short stories.

In Margo’s opinion, the value of writing short stories is that they are therapeutic to write, they help writers to learn about finishing, they can help to refresh your writing when you have been bogged down in a longer project and they are useful professionally for keeping your name out there and marketing yourself. Indeed, I don’t like short stories, but I have forced myself to write a few recently and I am about to send the first off to Fantasy magazine – following the advice of Tobias Buckell to start at the top and work your way down.

Pamela Freeman 

Pamela Freeman
Pamela’s first adult book was a thesis for a doctorate. She started writing with short stories and in her opinion, people are usually either short story writers ornovelists. In her case, she considers herself a short story writer who managed to write a novel.  

Her advice is that royalty checks only come twice a year so versatility in other areas is valuable to help have a more steady income. 
D.M. Cornish

An illustrator by preference, he had to learn to write while writing his first novel (at the publisher’s request). He found the experience painful and difficult and had to force himself to finish the third book. Sometimes writing is just about discipline. 

 Kate Forsyth

Kate has written children’s books for all ages, adult books, poetry and articles. She has neverwritten short stories (I’m jealous). Like Pamela, she considers writers are either short story writers or novelists. Her very first attempt to write a short story grew into the Witches of Eileanan (a 6 book series). She writes smaller projects between big projects as a refresher, but never short stories. 

The advice from panellists on what to do while waiting to get published was mixed. Some authors said ‘don’t write’ and others said write as often as you can, get a job doing technical writing or freelance writing, anything. 

I expect this comes down to personal preference, where your strengths lie, and what kind of income you need. I blundered into technical legal writing myself and I can say that if you do technical writing it canbe difficult to keep this technical, formal writing style out of your creative writing. I find myself editing it out. Another technical writer I know has the same problem. But it does help you to hone grammar, sentence structure, word use etc. so it has advantages.

For those of you in Australia, the last advice given was:
  • Don’t sign with an agent who is not a member of the Australian Literary Agents Association; and
  • The avg annual income for an Australian author is $11,000 pa.
Pitching Session

The highlight of the day for me was the one on one pitching session with Stephanie Smith of Harper Collins Australia’s Voyager imprint. I don’t think I have been this nervous since I did my very first mock legal trial at university – to the point where at lunch I felt like throwing up might be a good idea. 

Kate Forsyth
This is ridiculous, given that a lecturer in the role of judge squinting down at you from a judge’s bench, polished to a high gleam fit to blind counsel for the applicant, is inevitably more intimidating than a one on one chat with a publisher in a lounge-style setting (and I was about ten years older!). Nevertheless, that was how I felt. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it – hey, I’m a lawyer, public speaking is supposed to hold no fear, right? Well, mostly it doesn’t… but for those of you who are or have been intimidated by face to face pitching sessions, I will freely admit I was terrified. Fortunately once it got going it wasn’t so bad, though of course it was hard to remember everything I wanted to say. 

I was fortunate enough to be asked to send in a partial. I have my fingers crossed but I’m trying to keep my expectations at a reasonable level!

All in all it was a fantastic day, although I couldn’t stay for as much of it as I would have liked. I hope the advice I have shared here may help some of you.