Tuesday, February 26, 2013

One thing you never knew about me

You may have noticed an emphasis on writing posts around here lately. This is not because I've decided to renovate the Fibro and go all 'Write In A Pink Fibro' on you. Nor is it because I'm out drinking G&Ts (despite what the image may suggest) while sharing my front room with a dazzling array of guest posters and Q&A victims subjects.

Rather, I've been writing. I've finished the children's book I began back in November with NaNoWriMo (and when I say finished, I mean written, edited, redrafted). I've done some work on my second novel. I've held Allison Dobell's hand while she began a second book. Oh, and with the boys back at school I've been hitting the features hard as well, writing, pitching, writing, pitching (and so it goes on).

My focus is firmly on writing, and so the blog becomes focussed in that direction too. I'm looking forward to a time when I can pull my head out of my, er, manuscript and stop writing about writing, asking questions about writing, and, well, just write again. It might be time to bring back Alla Hoo Hoo (if I can track her down in Sydney).

I also have some news to share regarding my novel Talk of The Town, which is due out in June. Due to the vagaries of publishing, the novel has been rescheduled, with a date later this year to be decided. I hope you don't mind waiting just a little longer. I'll keep you posted!

But I promised you something new, didn't I? One thing you never knew about me. Well here it is.

I draw smiley faces on my hard-boiled eggs so that I can tell them apart from the uncooked ones.

What's one thing that we don't know about you?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Starting Out #6: How to build an author 'platform'

One word you'll hear an awful lot of in publishing circles these days is 'platform'. Authors, whether published or not, need a platform, and the sooner you start constructing one, the better. But what exactly is a platform, and what tools do you need to build one?

One person who's really come to terms with the nuts and bolts of this quandry in the last 12 months is Jenn J McLeod, whose debut novel A House For All Seasons will hit the shelves (physical and cyber) on Friday March 1. I asked her to share her journey with us. 

How I built my author platform
Like Karen Charlton in an earlier Starting Out post, my desire to write did not hit early in life (although my mum is likely to tell you my storytelling was quite prolific from a young age). In 2002, I wrote my first 100,000-word manuscript and received encouraging feedback from a professional editor.

Then life got in the way.

Now, celebrating the release of my novel—House for all Seasons—I wonder how different the experience might have been a decade ago when fiction writers were, for the most part, invisible (just names on book jackets), social media didn’t exist, publishers (and not authors) marketed books, and printed copies sat in real bookstores waiting for customers to walk in and choose from a limited selection.

With the glut of books in the marketplace these days, an author cannot afford to remain invisible. Whether print or e-pubbed, readers and publishers expect more, which is why I’m now a Linkedin, blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking 53 year old. Being ‘connected’ is good, but what helped clinch my publishing deal was having a well-developed author platform, because even though the publisher falls in love with your book, they have to make marketing and sales fall in love with you. So whether you like it or not, as the brand behind the product, you’re expected to do more than write a great novel. 

Of course, you don’t need an author platform, nor do you need to spend hours every day maintaining an online presence, like I do. My non-writing friends think I’m Facebooking for fun! Those same people also think getting published is mostly luck. While luck may have played a hand, I believe ‘luck’ happens when preparedness and opportunity meet—and authors can definitely be better prepared.


Okay, so, you have your submission in—all polished and perfect. It’s a great story. It’s grammatically correct (in an almost freakish way). It’s the right length, the right genre, the right ‘everything’ for the line you’re targeting. But so are the other dozen manuscripts that arrive on the slush pile that day.

What next? Do you:

a) wait to ‘get lucky’?
b) let the Gods (a.k.a. publishers) decided the fate of your manuscript in their own good time?
c) Get busy demonstrating your ability to build book buzz (to increase sales) by having a strong online presence and a brand?

If you picked ‘C’ then you are correct—and the sooner you start, the better. In fact, I established my author platform/brand while still writing my manuscript simply by getting online and getting connected. It’s not hard, but it can be daunting – especially when you aren’t published. I felt like an imposter blogging and tweeting to non-existent fans, but I got over it.

What does an author platform look like and how can you get one?

Some authors come with ready-made platforms. Take, for example, Helene Young, a commercial pilot flying over Australia’s wild places and writing romantic suspense stories with feisty females in planes. Perfect! Your author platform may not be immediately clear. Mine wasn’t. My life verged on ordinary. Who was I? What did I know other than I was writing stories set in small country towns?

I started by brainstorming everything I’d done/achieved/loved in my lifetime, scribbling random words and thoughts on Post It Notes. Those sticky papers littered my office for weeks and each day I’d add, mull, shift, subtract, until I had this:

A city girl by birth, I discovered an affinity with the country in my early twenties while working my way across the heart of Australia, living out of a converted Ford F100 van. I knew about quitting corporate chaos and embracing a second chance at life. And I knew about moving into a small country town and how my tree change was like coming home.

And my brand was born:

Come home to the country ... Discover it. Love it.

Allison asked: “What have you learned? What mistakes have you made?”

I would be a lot more cautious with my intellectual property.

The temptation to tell the world (or Facebook – same thing really) how fabulous your branding strategy is turning out can be a big mistake.

With so many ways to communicate and with so many ‘friends’ it’s never been easier to get cyber cheers for being clever. But be warned! If another writer likes it, they can have your idea/tagline/blurb on their website and be promoting it as part of their brand faster than you can type the word ‘copyright’.  A victim myself, I now monitor my brand by keeping evidence of ownership (printed/dated pages of my website) and setting up a Google Alerts. (I have one set up for ‘Come home to the country’ and my various book titles.) Although not failsafe and accepting that sometimes plagiarism can be unintentional, an alert at least means Google will email me if the phrase/tagline/book title pops up somewhere online.

Allison asked: “Would you do anything different?”

No (apart from wishing publication had come my way a decade ago when I had fewer grey hairs and wrinkles). I’m giving fate rare praise here. I believe the very long and winding road led me to the right door. I’m meant to be with Simon & Schuster and how I know this is because they assigned Belinda Castles as editor on House for all Seasons. (Oh, did I not mention before that the assessor who encouraged me back in 2002 was Vogel Award winner, Belinda Castles?)

So my journey to publication really has come full circle. Yes I was lucky, but when the opportunity arose I was prepared with an author platform and a self-promotion strategy that would enhance my publicist’s efforts. 

For more on Jenn's journey to publication, you can tune into her monthly posts on the Novel Writing in Australia blog, or visit her website.

Are you a writer? What does having a 'platform' mean to you?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fibro Q&A: Should you self-publish your book? How?

Today's guest in the Fibro's Q&A hot seat recliner is Joanna Penn, author of ARKANE thrillers, Pentecost, Prophecy and Exodus, and the force behind The Creative Penn, which has been voted one of the Top 10 blogs for writers for three years running. (That's her on the left.)

I discovered Joanna's blog a few years ago and signed up for her newsletter recently, mostly to get my hands on her Author 2.0 Blueprint, an ebook aimed at helping indie authors publish and market their books - if publishing (indie or otherwise) is a dream for you, I suggest you have a look at it.

She is a great advocate for self-publishing - and yet recently signed with a literary agent for her novels. So, being the nosy type that I am, I thought I'd ask her why.

Allison Tait: You describe yourself as an author-entrepreneur and strongly promote the idea that authors should take up the reins of their own careers and incomes – what are your three top tips for helping to make that happen?
Joanna Penn: "Authors, like any creatives, need to get to grips with business if they want to make a decent living. Start by reframing business as creative, just as much as writing is. We take an idea and create money from it, just like taking a blank page and creating a book from it.

(1)  Get educated
There are so many authors sharing their journeys online now so you can find out the best ways to publish and market as well as to write. Even if you want a traditional book deal, you still need to know a lot about contracts and the professional side of being an author. I especially recommend following Dean Wesley Smith’s Think like a Publisher series and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Business Rusch for starters.

(2) Network
Relationships are critical. Firstly, as a writer, because our lives can become quite insular without like-minded friends who share the same challenges we do. If I didn’t have my writer friends and Twitter for global contacts, I would go crazy!
Secondly, authentic relationships with people all over the world will lead to opportunities you could never have dreamed of. Through Twitter, my podcast and my blog as well as my books, I have been asked to speak internationally, met my agent, got an audiobook deal and been interviewed on sites like this one!

(3) Be empowered
Don’t let anyone else have power and control over your business if you are serious about this as a profession. If you don’t understand how something works, then find out about it. Don’t leave it until it’s too late because every book you write has the potential to be income for you now until years after your death. The internet and online tools empower us to get our words out into the world but also to connect with people globally. Claim that power!"

You say on your site that you self-published your first non-fiction book and 'made a lot of mistakes', but have gone on to self-publish three novels and rewrite and re-release that first book. What was the biggest mistake you made with the non-fiction book – and what changes did you make before publishing the novels?
JP: "Back in early 2008 when I was self-publishing for the first time, there was no Kindle outside the US and e-books were only for techies. Blogging was very niche and social networks were only just beginning to go mainstream. It was a different world!

But the two biggest mistakes I made are still relevant:

(1)  Doing a print run of several thousand books without having a distribution mechanism for them. This is a common mistake and I absolutely recommend people who want print books now to use print-on-demand unless they have some kind of guaranteed distribution, and definitely start with e-book first to test the market. Otherwise, like me, you may have some very expensive land-fill material.

(2)  Knowing nothing about sales before publishing. Like many authors, I assumed that once my fantastic book was available, “everyone” would buy it. But of course, no one knew who I was and I sold very few books, even once I got the hang of traditional media marketing. Once I started learning about blogging, social networking, podcasting, video and content marketing, things started to take off and I’ve never looked back! I recently rewrote and republished Career Change and it sold more books in one month than it did over the first two years of the original version!"

While self-publishing is easier and more acceptable than ever, having your books stand out amidst the 'noise' is not. What, to you, is the key to building a successful author platform?
JP: "The most important thing is to get your book into the hands of readers who will be interested in reading it. So you have to understand your market in the first place, and where you fit in terms of the category on Amazon and other online bookstores. That means you do need to understand genre and not just say your book is original and can’t be categorized. That won’t help you!

"Make sure you optimise your book page on the retail sites as much as possible. This means ensuring the book is professionally edited, with a great title, description, use of keywords and correct category as well as a stunning sample that makes people want to buy.

"Next, make sure you have at least a static website and a way for people to sign up for your book. You can see how I do it for my fiction at www.JFPenn.com. At the very least, you should have a page at the back of your existing book asking fans to sign up. This will build the list for your next book.

"From there you can do anything else you like - blogging, podcasting, paid promotion, use of free pricing, social media, speaking, events - and you will always be collecting a list of eager readers ready to buy the next book. Remember, this is a long term game!"

In June 2012, you signed with a literary agent to pursue a traditional publishing deal for your fiction. Why did you do that when your self-published books were selling well?
JP: "I am a very happy indie author but I believe there are benefits to having one foot in big publishing and increasingly, successful self-published authors are going hybrid, with books spread across multiple modes of publishing. Digital Book World recently released a survey showing that hybrid authors earn more money and are the most entrepreneurial and with examples like CJ Lyons, Scott Sigler and now Hugh Howey and Colleen Hoover, I think it will become more common to do both.

"Here’s my full post on why I signed with an agent and why I will consider a publishing deal if offered one. But basically, I think that traditional publishers can still offer a quality print product and better print distribution as well as open up possibilities for new readers and different opportunities.

"However, I have researched contracts ad infinitum and so I know about protecting as well as exploiting my rights. I will only be signing a deal if it is truly mutually beneficial because at the rate the publishing industry changes right now, we all have to mind our own businesses!"

You're running a successful website, uploading new podcasts and ebooks constantly, writing fiction, consulting with authors… How do you make the time to fit everything in?
JP: "It was much harder when I had a day-job as an IT consultant but in September 2011 I gave that up to become a full-time author-entrepreneur so it is much easier now. Back then I would get up earlier every morning and work for an hour, plus every evening and weekend to get everything done. The process is still the same now - I chunk my time and make sure I concentrate primarily on production, rather than consumption.

"So every day I have a word count target of new writing and then I move into the other projects I have on the go, like preparing slides for a speaking engagement or doing some author consulting, or doing a podcast interview. I am a hardcore diariser and every day is scheduled, including my downtime! It’s the only way I can get everything done and have quality time with my husband.

"In the evenings, instead of watching TV for hours, I might watch one show on the laptop (I don’t even have an actual TV) and then spend the rest of the time doing an interview like this, editing the podcast, scheduling some tweets or responding to email from fans.

"If this sounds rigid, you have to remember that this is my fun, my passion and my life as well as my business and my “job”. I spent 13 years as a miserable IT consultant and this is my dream life - writing and travelling, speaking and networking. This is a serious career for me and I am driven to achieve, plus I love it!"

Visit Joanna at The Creative Penn or say hello on Twitter. You'll find more information about her novels at www.JFPenn.com. And give some thought to signing up for that newsletter. It's really worth handing over your email address.

What do you think of self-published books? Would you ever do it yourself?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Could this be the best app for kids ever?

Mr9 has a new crush. Fortunately, it's not (shudder) a girl (his mum is sooooo not ready for that), but rather an app. Specifically, myCreate, which allows him to make films. With Lego. Thereby combining two of his greatest loves with one simple swipe.

His new-found love of film-making began late last year when he discovered that he could make videos on my iPhone. Cue David Attenborough-style documentaries, in which he'd wander around the house, filming us all 'in the wild', whilst narrating the whole thing in a very special Narrator voice. This kept him entertained for hours - but meant that the rest of us had to sit through the child version of the 1970s Slide Night pretty much every night. It's not as much fun after the first 26 times.

Then he got ambitious. He would film, he announced, his own version of The Lord Of The Rings. He wrote the script - all seven pages of it - lined up about 30 kids to be in the movie, made a very fetching paper beard for The Builder to wear in his role as Gandalf... and then realised, as many a director has realised before, that getting people to actually show up for filming was just not that easy.


Fortunately for all of us, his teacher told us about SAM Animation. We visited the website and discovered the app, myCreate, which allows him to make animations with his Lego in just a few simple steps. I downloaded it, looked at the (lack of) instructions, shook my head and handed the iPad over to him. Within minutes, he'd worked it all out and was hard at work. One hour of blessed, golden silence later, he strolled into the kitchen with a two-minute animation, The Adventures of Fred (clearly he gets his naming conventions from his mother).

Since then, Fred has been through many ups and downs, usually involving at least three battles, and now has audio, theme music and background sounds. Next step: The Lord Of The Rings, featuring a cast of thousands of Lego Hobbits, wizards and orcs, all of whom will turn up when he wants them, do exactly what he wants them to do, and make no demands for a larger trailer/green M&Ms.

It is the best $5.49 I have spent in a long time. 

Which apps do your kids love?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Starting Out #5: You've signed a publishing contract... now what?

This week, the Starting Out* series takes a crossroad into fiction.

It takes a long time to learn to be a writer. That might seem like a strange comment in a time when anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can just... start, self-publish, whatever. But the truth is that there's more to being a writer than simply 'writing'.

One person who is learning this on the job is Sarah Ayoub. I've watched Sarah's journey to being a published author unfold on Twitter and on her blog, and it makes for interesting reading because she's so damn honest about it all. But I'll let her tell the story...

Living the dream can be a shock to the system
Most people take a long time to figure out what they want to do for their careers. Some start out in certain jobs, work their way up their field, and then jump on the lowest rung of an entirely different career ladder, all in the name of pursuing a dream they didn’t know they had.

That’s what happened to me when I put journalism on hold and stumbled (quite madly) into creative writing. I was bored one night when I wrote what would become the first chapter of my now-forthcoming novel. I shelved it for years, returning to it sporadically as the story came to me. Before I knew it I had ten chapters and an-it-happened-by-luck meeting with one of Australia’s most sought-after Literary Agents. She told me I didn’t need a writing course, and the number of stories in my over-flowing bookshelves could finally be justified because it seemed like they taught me fiction by osmosis. Before I knew it, I had a publishing deal with Harper Collins, a Facebook page with ‘likers’ who weren’t related to me, and a smile permanently stamped on my face.  I had achieved something I only recently discovered I wanted: to be an author.

Unfortunately, my joy has been short-lived. While I am thrilled to be living the dream, having no idea what ‘the dream’ actually involves is a lot harder than I thought. I don’t know anything about print runs or advances. Admittedly, I only just think about whether or not the advance is enough to justify a writing trip to Paris, and what kind of dress I could potentially wear to the launch. People ask me questions and I respond with blank stares. I’ve never had an interest in ‘the state of things’ where books and e-readers were concerned, and so talk of the market baffles me. I say the wrong things in publisher meetings and although I wrote a 66,000 word book, I can’t think of a title. I have no ideas for a cover and my friend has been left with the lucky task of brainstorming ways to help me promote it.

But the worst part? Having to perform to the standards set for me, and on some level, the standards I have set for myself. I’m no longer the girl with a manuscript, I am now an author. I signed a contract verifying myself as thus, and I now have gatekeepers: agency, publishers, editors, publicity people – all anxiously waiting to see if the gamble they played on me would pay off, and whether or not I could replicate that pay-off.

I’m my own gate keeper too.  I’ve had a year’s notice for a second novel, and yet, six or so months out from the deadline there are less than 4,000 words to its existence and I am in a crisis of my own making.

I’ve slowly figured out that being my own sort of writer doesn’t work where contracts are concerned. I can’t have five years of writing at my own leisure anymore, and as it turns out, the editing process is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. Between changes I made, changes my agent requested, a change my publisher wanted, and the seemingly infinite markings of my structural editor, my book has morphed into an entirely different creation (slight exaggeration, but you get the gist). Worse: I have lost confidence in my own abilities, out of the fear that whatever I produce next will not live up to what’s expected of me. What I committed to, signed for, promised to deliver in my excitement of things.

So if I could sum up the biggest lesson from my start-out, it’s to get to KNOW what you’re doing. Writing my first book was like sharing a part of my life: it followed the old writing adage of writing what you know. I understood my character’s history, I gave her a school like mine, I used my own sentiments from high-school as story fodder.

 I thought I’d be cool and set a challenge for myself for book #2. I thought I’d write in a way that was so far removed from what I knew and experienced, and to this day I question what I was thinking, even though my publisher’s enthusiasm for the idea means it’s not something I can change and I should just move on.

I’m watching friends who started after me progress with their stories at full speed. They’ve got plans, story ideas and excel spreadsheets tracking their progress. They know their print runs, their titles, their plans for future books. They knew what they were doing when they committed to their deadline. They follow lessons like 'write as much as you can', and edit way afterwards. I make the biggest mistake by editing as I go, or deleting everything that doesn’t meet my standards. Or is the biggest mistake that I am waiting around for a story instead of making it up? Isn’t that what I signed up for as an author of fiction?

Turns out, I am a lot like the person who abandons everything to climb an entirely different career ladder, only sillier. I chased the career bliss of a publishing deal in what seemed like the blink of an eye, bypassing a lot of lessons that I could have learned at each rung.

Maybe I am taking the ladder backwards, maybe I’m free-falling, but either way, I’ve taken the liberty of chronicling my journey for those who might follow it, if only to save them from insecurities akin to my own.

And in the mean time, I can take comfort in the fact that by doing so, I am writing another special story: my own, and one that only I can turn into a best-seller, if I learn to see it for what it is. A blessing for my career, despite the climb, expectations and the gamble for the characters on each rung.

You can follow Sarah's journey to the publication of her first novel in August 2013 here.

*Starting Out is a series of guest posts by new writers/authors who are at the beginning of their writing careers and making it work. You may also enjoy What kind of writer will you be? and Learning to embrace the editing process?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fibro Q&A: How to write a book proposal

I've received a few emails lately from people who are writing non-fiction books and wondering what on earth to do with them once they're finished. Enter, the book proposal. The proposal is what you send an agent or a publisher to give them an overview of your book, a taste of your writing style and, hopefully, the impetus to get in touch to see more.

It's true that non-fiction books can be sold on proposal, but usually the writer has a proven track record, so if you're writing your first book, it's generally a good idea to finish it before sending out a prop. If the publisher or agent wants to see the rest, they'll want to see it NOW. 

But the book proposal is an art in itself, and to explain how and why, I thought I'd invite an honest-to-goodness commissioning editor into the Fibro and, er, politely grill her. Kristen Hammond is a Senior Commissioning Editor with Wiley Australia (we worked together on my little pink book, Credit Card Stressbusters). She's also, as most editors and publishers are, a lovely person, who's passionate about books and authors. It's worth remembering, when you send off a book proposal, that it will be someone like Kristen who's reading it. It makes the whole thing much less scary.

Allison Tait: Can you explain what a senior commissioning editor does? 
Kristen Hammond: "My role primarily involves market research, developing ideas for books or reviewing unsolicited manuscripts, finding authors, contracting authors, developing manuscripts, briefing covers and working with designers and authors to finalise them, working with editors and authors throughout the editorial, interior design and typesetting phases, liaising with marketing and sales about the campaigns for books, general author and list management, forecasting and strategic planning.

How many proposals do you receive each week? What makes you sit up and take notice?
KH: "This varies so greatly. Sometime we will get no proposals or unsolicited submissions for a whole month, other times you can get 2-3 per week. Proposals and unsoliciteds vary in quality and in appropriateness for Wiley. We don't publish fiction but we still get novels sent in. It pays to do your homework about which publishers are the right ones for your manuscript. In Australia, in my team, we publish business and finance books, so if you have a book on either of these subject matters, your proposal will certainly be read.

"Gimmicks don't work or make me sit up and take notice, not in any enduring sense anyway. I once got a manuscript wrapped up like a Kit Kat and including chocolate. It was much appreciated by everyone in the office. But if the proposal itself doesn't have substance and validity, then it's wasted energy. Good proposals don't need chocolate, a good proposal is its own reward!"

Is there an ideal format/presentation for a non-fic proposal? What sort of information do you need to decide whether to take things forward? 
KH: "At the most basic level, any proposal should include a bio of the author, synopsis, table of contents, sample chapter/s or full manuscript and a cover letter explaining the market for the book, positioning of the book, competition for the book and why the book is needed. My preference though is to ask authors to fill in our proposal template, which we have refined to ensure we get all the information we need from an author to consider the book and whether it will be a good fit for Wiley.

"Following receipt of a proposal form, if we are interested or want to know more, you can't replace a face-to-face meeting with an author to get to know them, get a sense for how they work, what they know about publishing and what their aims are for publishing with a professional publishing house."

How important is an author 'platform' when you're making a decision about a book? What do you look for?
KH: "Platform is key, but definitely not something that can be identified in a checklist. And it obviously needs to be complemented by a good manuscript of interest to an audience. With the platform it boils down to how large and how engaged and active is the author's audience in response to the author's message. How influential are the authors? Will their audience be motivated to purchase the author's book?

"A platform could consist of any combination of email database, client list, workshop business, speaking events and conferences, Facebook, Twitter, blog or other social media, access to influencers. Some authors are strong in one area, some have good representation across all. So you just have to look at the total package. Authors and publishers also cannot rely on a book to build a platform. The platform needs to be developed already or a substantial work in progress."

Do you read blogs? What might make you reach out to a blogger to discuss turning their blog into a book?
KH: "We definitely read blogs and are out there scouring social media for potential new authors or ideas. We have published bloggers following an approach from an editor at Wiley. We have got leads from Facebook and Twitter.

"One of the key things about blogs in terms of publishing a book, is that there must be enough depth in the blog or subject matter to create a whole, cohesive book. It is not enough to just reprint a collection of blog posts, or at least not in the business and finance space. Often we work with authors on helping them develop a book structure which they can add their posts to and develop and rewrite and polish. With bloggers, certainly their readership is a big factor in why you would approach them. But it is certainly not the only reason. It might be the reason to start an initial discussion, but then all the other attributes and qualities that you are looking for in an author and manuscript come in to play."

You'll find more information about Wiley and the kinds of books they publish here. Follow Wiley on Twitter here. If you'd like to discuss the Wiley proposal template, telephone (03) 9274 3100 and ask to speak to the editorial assistant.

Are you working on a non-fiction book?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How much time do you spend on Facebook? (Really.)

"I need to break up with Facebook." I've heard this so many times over the past few weeks that I'm thinking poor old FB should by lying in a bath, drinking wine, listening to soppy power ballads and resisting the urge to call its many exes by now. And yet...

When I go into Facebook, the newsfeed seems as full of babies and weddings and motivational quotes and inspirational what-nots and political statements as it ever was. More so, maybe. If everybody's moving on, dropping out, and deleting their accounts, there's little sign of it in cyberspace.

There are things I don't like about the book. Friends of mine click 'like' on things that make me cringe (and see them in a new light). People who just a few years ago were complaining about how much new mums talk about their babies have now had babies and, you guessed it, their newsfeeds are full of nothing else. Some people feel that it's their duty to use Facebook to change your opinion to gel with their opinion. And, it has to be said, somewhere along the line people got confused and began to think that simply 'liking' a picture was the same as doing something about an issue.

But most of this can be glossed over as the newsfeed rolls on.

What I love about Facebook? It lets me keep in touch casually with people I don't see much anymore. Nobody has to make too much effort, and yet I still feel part of their lives. As well, it's a great place to really chat to the Fibro community, in real time, and with many laughs.

There are 1000 reasons for breaking up with Facebook. Most of them have to do with privacy. But, just like that bad boy you went out with in your late teens, somehow you just can't bring yourself to do it.

I do think it's time to come clean though. When I'm asked how much time I spend on Facebook, I usually say 'oh, I pop in and out during the day... to check on my page, you know'. Today I thought I'd check the real stats on that statement. The sums look something like this:

I 'popped in' five times. During each of those times, I checked both my author page and my personal profile, for a total of at least six minutes.

5 pops x 6 minutes = 30 minutes.

Thirty minutes of my life spent faffing around on Facebook. That's 3.5 hours a week.

And that doesn't count Twitter, blogging, and all the rest.

Could it be that I'm spending too much time in cyberspace? I decided I needed some stats for comparison. Please help.

How much time do you spend on Facebook - really?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Starting Out #4: Learning to embrace the editing process

If there's one thing that every writer - fiction, non-fiction, features, freelance, experienced, inexperienced - must learn to embrace, it's the editing process. Sounds straightforward. But it's not. Whether it's learning to work with an editor (not always easy), learning to edit your own work (really not easy) or learning to turn off the self-editor as you get your first draft down (often impossible), editing is a skill unto itself, and its importance cannot be underestimated.

If you've been visiting the Fibro for a while, you may remember me talking about the first (to this day unpublished) romance novel I wrote, many, many years ago, featuring Celeste of the winter-white suit. After I'd bashed out my 50,000+ words, I sent it off to Harlequin, quietly confident that I'd get 'the call' within weeks. Instead I received a polite rejection letter. Actually, it wasn't even polite. It was a form rejection letter. The lowest of the low.

Bewildered, I sent it off to a manuscript assessment agency run by two experienced romance writers. Their assessment? It might be okay after a good edit. Having no idea what they meant, I put it in a drawer.

Fast-forward a few years when I sent off my first complete 'women's fiction' manuscript to my agent at the time. Her assessment? It needs a good edit. Hmmmm. It seemed this editing caper was something I was going to need to learn to do. I'm still learning. But I've also learnt the value of getting the words out first.

The importance of editing is something that every writer learns as they progress. As our Starting Out* guest writer Kelly Exeter has been learning. Kelly's blog A Life Less Frantic is the place I go when I need to escape my own messy mind for a while. But, as she outlines here, sometimes you need to let go of your own idea of perfectionism to really get to the heart of what you're writing.

Dealing with the horror of a terrible first draft

"You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." ~ Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is not the first author I have heard say the above, and she certainly won’t be the last.

But it kind of goes again the grain of what I used to think the average day of an awesome writer looked like. In my head they sat down at their computer, cracked their knuckles, and then proceeded to pour forth beautifully structured sentences on to their screens like a veritable river of literary delight.

In my quest to emulate their awesomeness, I either compulsively edited as I went … or I simply didn’t write when all I could muster was tripe.

So I was a bit shocked when I took part in NaNoWriMo last year and was admonished by the more experienced writers for my apparently unsavoury editing-as-I-go habit.

That’s not what NaNoWriMo is about they said.

You need to get out 1666 words every single day - there’s simply no time for editing they said.

Just get the words down on paper and whatever you do, don’t look back they said.

"But what if those words are utter shit?" I asked.

It doesn’t matter they said.

It doesn’t matter? I am sorry but this did not compute.

Still, I am nothing if not a good student and when the masters speak, I listen. So I dutifully wrote two chapters of my book without editing. Without looking back. Without spending 20 minutes making a three line paragraph ‘perfect’ before I moved on.

And when I went back to those chapters, I sobbed at their sheer awfulness and grudgingly spent two entire weeks wrestling them into some semblance of readability. Suffice to say I was a bit traumatised after that experience and immediately returned to my previous modus operandi.

Two months later I took part in a webinar series on writing. And had my thinking about horrible first drafts turned on its head.

Thirty brave participants in the group volunteered up pieces of writing for critique despite knowing that the person doing the critiquing is not known for her tact. And as she went through each piece I listened on in fascination as she showed how, in even the crappiest piece of writing, there was always one line or underlying concept that was an absolute cracker. And how a whole new piece could be written around that line or concept.

And that’s when I came to appreciate the magic of the horrible first draft.

That sometimes you can’t get to the cracker concept until all the crappy words have been poured out first.

You can visit Kelly Exeter here, or say hello on Twitter or Facebook. Her writing has appeared at Mamamia, The Hoopla and iVillage, as well as in marie claire and The Canberra Times. She is working on her first book, A Life Less Frantic.

How do you find the editing process? Do you find it impossible to turn off that self-editor as you writer?

*Starting Out is a series of guest posts by writers who are at the beginning of their writing careers, and making it work.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

50 of the best Australian authors and writers on Twitter

I'm working on a little surprise here at the Fibro, and it made me realise that there's a hole in my posting schedule. Despite my general references to Twitter and writers on a regular basis, I've never brought the two together. What an oversight!

Anyway, to rectify that, I've decided to put together a list (in no particular order) of my favourite Australian authors, writers and bloggers on Twitter. They're all great with the written word, but that's not why they made this list. There are a lot of great Australian authors, whose books and writing I love, who are not here.

This list is about people who are also great with 140 characters. They play with Twitter the way that it should be played. With wit, with sparkle, with charm, with intent, with humour, with smarts, with engagement - sometimes all at once.

They're worth a follow.


Writers and bloggers

Who would you add to my list?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Starting Out #3: Do you need to do a course to be a writer?

When I did year 12, right after the year 11 work experience fiasco, there were only a couple of places a NSW girl could consider going to uni to study journalism. Mitchell College in Bathurst was one, UTS was another.

Over the following decades, Communications courses bred like mice proliferated, but by then it was too late for me. I'd opted instead for the school of hard knocks that is a journalism cadetship, followed by years of on-the-job training across various magazines, with a light flirtation with a Bachelor of Arts when I was about 21. By the time I came to freelance writing at around about the age of 30, I was well and truly immersed in my craft.

Which is not to say that I don't advocate for a course if you're starting out. I've done a lot of short courses in different aspects of fiction - including a memorable one by Sue Woolfe which took me about 12 years to understand (I get it now, Sue, I really do!) - and if there's one thing that my tutoring experience at the Australian Writers' Centre has taught me, it's just how much you can learn in a short time if you're given the right info. But does that mean that a longer course would be even more valuable?

 This week's Starting Out contributor is working that out for herself. I can't even remember how I came across Karen Charlton's blog Rhythm & Method, but I do remember being hooked from the start. Let's just say she has a way with words. Knowing what to do with those words, however, was quite a different matter, and it's something that she's been working out ever since we first 'met' via our blogs.

But I'll let her tell the story.

Starting out, in mid life – is study worth it?

The decision to pursue writing for me was not a conscious one, it was more of a red hot compulsion that overtook me in my early 30s, like the wanderlust that overcomes so many in their 20s. “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Mary Oliver once asked. The answer to me seemed simple: write.

Discovering my writing voice was one thing; knowing how to create larger, publishable works was an entirely different proposition. In order to go pro, I’d need some further training. I began with a short course.

Getting down to business: short courses
Short courses offer a brief overview of the business of writing, and if you’re considering this as a career, it’s a good investment in retooling yourself. I was limited as to where I could study (I had three pre-schoolers to care for) so went with online study with the Australian Writers’ Centre back in March 2011. TAFEs, adult education centres (like CAE in Melbourne) and some community centres also offer short course options in person. To find the right one for you, do some shopping around.

Most writing centres are staffed by industry members with years of writing experience. The freelance features course I did ran over five weeks and gave me enough knowledge to start mulling over pitches and get my head around what kind of stories I might be able to write, and for whom. It wasn’t until I enrolled in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing* course in early 2012, though, that I really found my stride and starting pitching.

Trade school for word nerds:
TAFE or university writing programs differ to short courses, in that they hone in on writing craft. You will learn all the grammar you didn’t learn in high school, and all you need to know to rightfully call yourself a professional writer. You will work on voice, you will discuss your reader, markets, blurbs, drafts, and pitches. You will talk book marketing and shelf life and remainders. They will make you write – in class and outside of class. Then they make you write some more.

Most courses also offer subjects in a range of writing styles: non-fiction, fiction, writing for magazines, writing for children, YA fiction, and so on, so when you do graduate, you’re skilled in a number of areas.

Writing schools endeavour to create a nurturing learning environment. If you’re in a small cohort of students, and you’re regularly workshopping each other’s work, you’ll soon find clusters of people who you know to turn to for advice or constructive criticism. Having formally graded assignments also ensures that your work is measured against industry standard. Grades, plus detailed written feedback from teachers means you always know where your work sits in the scheme of things, and what you need to work on. It gives you something to work with, rather than the empty feeling you get when the only feedback you’re receiving is “No thanks”.

Writing school will definitely teach you to be a better writer.

The cost:
The downside to study is the cost; it takes time (anywhere between one year fulltime and three years fulltime for a bachelors degree, double if you’re part-time) and money. If you’re studying fulltime, it also means your earning capacity is limited to part-time, so unless you have savings to fall back on, you’re going to be living on tinned tuna and Weetbix for a few more years.

Making it fit in your life can also be a real challenge, particularly if you’re encumbered (like me: mortgage, partner, kids). Committing to a writing course is a gamble, like running away and joining the circus or sailing across the Pacific ocean with a guy you met in a bar. You’re paying to learn a trade that you mightn’t earn much money from (depending on who you write for), and that’s something you need to come to terms with. I think you need to do it for the love of it, or not at all. I often remind myself, if I wanted to have a traditional career, I could go back to being a project manager even though the thought of doing that job again makes me want to poke my own eyes out.

The benefits:
Writing school stretched me beyond my comfort zone. It made me show up to the page and work out exactly what it was I was trying to say. Reading my drafts aloud was a little traumatic for me, a self-confessed backroom girl. Every class I would get up to read, and every class I would walk away hot with embarrassment, my every thought broadcast across my face in varying shades of crimson. Did this particular form of self-torture make my writing better? Absolutely.

Anna Funder once wrote “creative writing ... requires a slip state of being, not unlike love”. For some, trying to get into this slip-state while listening to the nose whistle of the dude sitting next to you will be impossible. For me, this meant writing drafts on the train on the way home, my headphones whiting out the world and allowing me to nestle down into that place where stories are made.

The biggest thing writing school has taught me is to trust the creative process. There’s something to be gained in watching other people’s stories shaping up, from a wandering blob of prose to a sexy, sharp piece of writing. It gives you faith to keep going, knowing that all creative work (not just your own) ‘swings between the wild and the tame’, to use Mark Tredinnick’s phrase.

Despite my various writing school adventures, the writing business still confounds me. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “becoming a published writer is sort of like trying to find a cheap apartment in New York City: it’s impossible. And yet…every single day, somebody manages to find a cheap apartment in New York City.” (For the best advice I’ve ever read on becoming a writer, read this).

The answer? Keep going. Read, Write, Repeat.

*I’m currently on leave from this program.

Karen Jane Charlton is a freelance writer who has contributed to The Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life and Mamamia. She is also a Kidspot Village Voice. In real life she lives on the Mornington Peninsula with Mr Karen, their three young sons and a chicken named Peggy Olson. 

If you enjoyed this post, you'll also love Starting Out #1 (So you want to be a freelance writer) and Starting Out #2 (What kind of writer will you be?)

So have you done a writing course? Which one? Would you recommend it for someone starting out?

Friday, February 1, 2013

Little boys and big school

Mr6 is underwhelmed by his first few days of Grade One. I asked him what he did yesterday.

"Ohhhh," he sighed. "First we put our lunchboxes in the tub, then we learned some stuff. Then we coloured in a picture of someone - God, I think. Then we learned some stuff. Then we had recess. Then we learned some stuff. Then we had lunch. Then we learned some stuff. Then we finally got to go home."

"Goodness," said I. "That's a lot of learning."

He sighed again. "Do you know what the worst part is? Every time we learned something, we had to sit down at our desks. We hardly get to move around at all anymore."

The lament of every boy in every classroom in Australia.

"It must be good to be in grade one, though," I said, looking for positives. "You're not the smallest in the school anymore."

Another sigh.

"I thought we'd be bigger," he said. "But those new kindy kids are almost as big as we are. Last year, the grade ones were much bigger than us. How come we're not much bigger than this year's kindy kids?"

Perspective is everything.

How are your kids coping with the new school year?
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