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Dos and don’ts for writers trying to get published

Dos and don'ts for budding writers from publishers and authors at the Voices Plus Literary Festival...

A writer has to get inside the head of a publisher, and really understand them. This session at Voices Plus was helpful: “What does the publisher look for?”.

University of Queensland Press children’s book editor Leonie Tyle, and Dr Martin Buzacott, who heads the Queensland Writer’s Centre, had many practical suggestions and here are just a few, along with their favorite books.

Both speakers seemed upbeat about the chances of getting published, saying that publishers wanted to find books to publish.

It usually came down to a personal preference:publishers wanted to publish books they personally enjoyed.

Leonie Tyle said that publishers or editors could tell very quickly if they were going to enjoy a manuscript, usually on the first page.

She said you had to examine your motives for writing and not just be writing to get published, but because you loved language.

She received about 25 picture book manuscripts a week, and adult literature would probably get more.

She liked manuscripts that took a refreshing look at life, respected the child reader and the adult reader, and that would probably be profitable.

Selecting a manuscript for publishing was very personal, and writers should read and see what publishers are publishing and find the editors’ tastes because that’s what gets published. Find out what the editor’s name is in your research so you can personalise your submission and show you are trying to do your homework.

Most publishers were busy and read manuscripts at home, and sloppilly presented manuscripts were a turn-off. It should be A4, double-spaced, A4 envelope. Find out who to send it to. Don’t send manuscripts by fax or email, send it in a nicely presented manuscript the publisher can read in bed.

There should be a cover note with some information about yourself and the book, but she said she read the cover note after reading the manuscript so it wouldn’t color her opinion of the manuscript.

The finished manuscript should have a good plot: each scene and character should be necessary to carry it forward. It must be a page turner so the publisher will go on the journey with the writer.

It’s not good enough to say that your kids liked it or the local school liked it because they were just saying that. There had to be a reason a reader would part with money for your book.

As for favorite books, Leonie Tyle liked Possession by A.S. Byatt; The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin; and Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (a children’s author from the 1930s).

Author Martin Buzacott said the work had to grab you in the first line if possible.

He cited the opening line of Moby Dick: Call Me Ishmael, and said that there was something in that line that made you want to go on the journey with the narrator for the rest of the book. He gave the example of a Beethoven symphony that had you hooked by the opening chords.

He said you’ve got to hook the publisher into the book, that you were either in or not when you read a book. The writing must be alive and grab the reader. Make sure publishers will want to miss their next meeting because they’re so engrossed by the first few pages of your manuscript.

You need a distinctive voice. There shouldn’t be words, words, words, but an inherent drama in those words. It had to be alive, and not just theoretically correct, or following the rules of writing. A lot of writing in manuscripts he’d seen wasn’t alive, he said.

A concept that excites publishers is good. He gave the example of someone who made a successful pitch to a movie producer with only five words. “Danny DeVito. Arnold Shwarzenegger. Twins.”

Don’t try to meet what you think are a publisher’s expectations, as hundreds of others will be, too. Don’t try to be the next J.K. Rowling because thousands of other people will be trying the same thing.

He said it’s not just the idea, it’s the language, and the publication is the by-product of this love of the language and words.

Publishers shouldn’t be looked at as the enemy, but as potential business partners who were putting up the money. The book had to be liked by the publisher personally, but it also had to make money, and the writer and the publisher help each other.

Most manuscripts came to publishers through agents, otherwise they’d end up in a slush pile.

Another option recommended by the speakers was self-publishing as long as you got the distribution worked out, which was where most self-publishing ventures failed, leaving you with piles of books under your house. There were distribution firms who would put your books in stores if they thought there was money in it.

Book sellers, too, chose books they liked personally.

As for favorite books, Dr Buzacott liked Madame Bovary by Flaubert; Watt by Samuel Beckett; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; and an academic book called Rabelais and his World by Russian formalist academic Michail Bakhtin, which was about the carnival in Rabelais’ work.

There were a lot of other suggestions and advice given by the speakers, and if you are a budding writer you could do a lot worse than go to these literary festivals and learn as much as you can about the whole business of writing. Writers are usually very helpful to people who approach them for advice, and you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by learning from their experiences.

-Next issue: a young film-maker making a documentary about the musicians of the New York subway.