Teen Buzz: my workshop on writing YA fiction, next month in Sydney!

nswwcDelighted to announce that I’ll be once again presenting my one-day workshop, Teen Buzz: Writing Great Young Adult Fiction, at the NSW Writers’ Centre in Sydney on March 4. I presented this course last year at the same venue and it seemed very popular with participants! So if you’re interested in finding out more about writing YA today–what’s hot, what publishers are looking for, and how you can best hone your writing to reach a YA audience, complete with fun and useful exercises–come along and join us on Saturday March 4, in the beautiful parklands setting of the Centre!

All details and bookings here.

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Interview with Therese Walsh, editor of Author in Progress

12803300_10207051919154843_5638323324479667397_nSome years ago–I think it was back in 2008–I was invited to become a regular contributor to the international writing blog, Writer Unboxed, founded by US writers Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton two years previously. Their idea was to create a community of writers who would find guidance, support and encouragement in WU, as well as great advice and tips. That’s certainly proven to be the case, and Writer Unboxed is one of the most popular and respected writing blogs in the world today, garnering several awards as well as an ever-increasing list of followers, a very active Facebook and Twitter presence, and the hosting of a unique conference–or Unconference, as it’s titled!

And now comes the next step: a book which gathers together a great deal of individual and collective wisdom and advice from Writer Unboxed contributors and community. Author in Progress: A No-Holds Guide to What it Really Takes to Get Published (Writers’ Digest Books), is being released today, November 1 and will be available from online booksellers such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, as well as the Writers’ Digest shop. Edited by Therese Walsh, and with an introduction by respected author James Scott Bell, it features over 50 essays from novelists, editors, agents and contributors from the WU community. The book goes well beyond the usual run of how-to-get-published books: from discussing reasons why people want to write right up to post-publication issues, and much more in between. I’m delighted to say by the way that I have an essay in the book, which is called ‘Writer as Phoenix’, and is in the final section of the book.

And today, I’m delighted to celebrate the publication day of Author in Progress by featuring an interview with its initiator: writer and editor extraordinaire, Therese Walsh.

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Welcome to my blog, Therese! How did the idea for Author in Progress come about? What was your vision for the book, and how did that evolve as time went on?

Thanks for having me, Sophie, and for the opportunity to talk about Author in Progress.

The book came about after I met with Phil Sexton at the Writer’s Digest conference last summer (2015). He mentioned the idea of doing a book with them, and that took root with me over a month or so. I had a follow-up phone call with Phil, and he mentioned the freedom we’d have to do the type of book we wanted to do. After that, the idea for Author in Progress fell into place rather quickly, as I considered what I knew to be true about writing a book – because there are some things I always say when someone who is not yet published asks, ‘How did you get published? What did you do?’

The book is broken into parts, following the stages a writer will likely go through on the road to publication: Pre-writing considerations, the writing itself, critique-related topics, educational considerations, rewriting, perseverance, and releasing the project once you’ve served the work.

Author in Progress is a very different kind of how-to writing book, as it doesn’t assume that the journey ends when your book is published. And it offers the advice and experience of many different contributors. How did you go about gathering and editing contributions from so many people?

Assigning essays was much easier than it might have been, in part because Writer Unboxed contributors are exceptional to work with (I’m not at all biased!). I think the other reason it was relatively easy was because of the adaptability of the contributors, in that many could write to several stages of the book. That said, there was a certain magic to the match-ups and I’m particularly pleased with how that went; everyone delivered something about an issue that resonated with them personally.

In terms of gathering and editing, I created a deadline for essayists to turn in their work and that deadline was met almost without exception. I then read over each essay, and suggested revisions when I thought they might make the book stronger. I then did a final edit for clarity—adding headers—and correcting for typos. This is what was then submitted to Writer’s Digest and our in-house editor there, who took everything to the next level in terms of polish and readiness for publication.

Author in Progress is aimed not only at aspiring authors, but also authors who have already been published. What do you think authors at different stages of their careers could get from this book?

One of the things authors will be able to see is that the stages of story creation are cyclical, repeating with every book. Sure, you learn things early on that you apply to each book thereafter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t hit each stage in some way. We’ve included some articles under a header called ‘Eye on the Prize,’ which addresses how a topic (e.g. critique) becomes important in a different way when you’re a published author (e.g. accepting notes from an agent, editor, even readers). We also have boxes throughout the book marked as ‘Pro Tips,’ which, again, help to root the reader in the reality of why something is important if you’re to make a career of writing.

All that said, I think the larger reason published novelists might want a copy of Author in Progress is because when we’re in the middle of a project—or at the start of one—we sometimes forget that all of this is normal. The anxiety, the doubt, the block, the research pitfalls, the need to go deep with character (and how to do that), the need to continue to learn and grow (and what steps you might take to push to the next level). I think even published authors need to remember that we’re not alone, and that the angst is part of the process, too.

Is there any particular tip or bit of advice that you would offer an author starting out on the journey–and those a bit further along?

I would tell that author starting out and an author a bit further along something similar. Writing a book is tough at times. Many of us might say, ‘If I knew how long it would take, what it would ask of me, maybe I wouldn’t have finished… But I’m glad that I did.” Perseverance is one of the key ingredients for any author in progress, and so I’d tell both of those writers to keep going, and remind them that they are not on that road alone. Truly, they are not.

The book is closely associated with Writer Unboxed, the writing blog you founded some years ago with Kathleen Bolton, which has become prominent and respected in both the author community and the publishing industry. Can you tell us about the blog, and about the insights into authorship it has given you?

Writer Unboxed  is my writing family, and it’s my hope that we are other writers’ online family as well. We are dedicated to producing content daily about the craft and business of fiction on our website, but it goes beyond that with our Facebook community (5,000+ writers strong in a promo-free zone) and our Twitter feed (@WriterUnboxed). Our ultimate goal is to provide positive and empowering support for writers of any genre.

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about writing simply by being present for the day-to-day business of the site, but I think the most crucial lesson is that it is truly a cyclical process. You envision. You create. You revise. You learn the lessons the book is there to teach you. You serve the work. You release. Repeat. As someone who hasn’t always had an easy road myself, there’s a lot of power for me personally in seeing that this process is what it is. It’s the job of being an author. It’s not always easy. In fact, it can be grueling and draining and crazy making at times. But it is a wonderful and gratifying thing to be able to do this job—build stories, reach readers. Writer Unboxed has helped me persevere to do just that.

Thank you again, Sophie. Write on!

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A unique book project: an interview with romance writer Jan O’Hara

jan-ohara-writers-digestOnce a family doctor who prided herself on providing her patients with birth-to-death healthcare, Canadian writer Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. She writes for the popular blog, Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and two children.

And today I’m interviewing her about her first novel, Opposite of Frozen, which has just been released and which is part of a unique and most intriguing series, the Thurston Hotel Books.

First of all, Jan, congratulations on the release of your novel, Opposite of Frozen! It’s the second in a unique, multi-author series. Can you tell us about that? How did it come about? And how did it develop?

Thank you for having me, Sophie. I’m honored.

My local chapter of the Romance Writers of America (https://www.calgaryrwa.com/) has a reputation for facilitating independent publishing and hybrid careers within its membership. In December of 2015, word went out that our treasurer, Brenda Sinclair, was looking to launch a group project, for which she had a very clear vision. I was interested because Brenda had participated in a similar project before, and had internalized many of the lessons learned during that time. Also, romance is a digital-friendly genre, and I was leaning toward independent publishing.

Accordingly, in a somewhat cloak-and-daggerish moment, the interested parties met secretly in a Calgary restaurant. Brenda loosely outlined the series idea: 12 standalone contemporary romances set in a fictitious town in the Alberta Rockies, revolving around the Thurston Hotel, its employees and long-term residents. Each author would take ownership of one month in the town’s life to tell their story. In addition to writing our own story arc, each book would tell a portion of a long-running series romance.

Brenda had already begun construction of a series bible—which she maintained throughout the entirety of the project. She had thought through the project deadlines, the cover artist, and the series editor. Her level of professionalism was vastly reassuring to this writer!

When all was said and done, 11 authors signed on, and Brenda, herself, agreed to write the first and last installments in the series. coverfinalmedwithgreyoof

Writing as part of such a unique series must have presented its own unique challenges! Tell us about how you constructed your story. And did the writing of your novel differ to other fictions you’ve written?

Though I have been writing a long time, I have never completed a piece of long-form fiction to what I consider publishable standards. As you might imagine, I was nervous about my abilities to do so while adapting my story to the requirements of 10 other writers. So from the first, I looked for a way to keep my story somewhat self-contained within the Thurston world. I wanted to limit the number of moving parts.

That was the impetus for having my characters arrive on a tour bus and depart from Harmony within the month I claimed. Also, for claiming an early month in the year, when I’d have to adapt to the fewest changes possible due to other author’s requirements. (In my case, I volunteered for February.)

Happily, those constraints ended up creating some of the story elements of which I’m most proud. For example, I needed a tour group to populate the bus, and who would most logically have the time for a prolonged multinational tour, but seniors? (I so enjoyed writing my seniors!) What unexpected event could complicate their February trip, but a hypothermic stowaway? What elements about the seniors’ lives could bring my co-protagonists together, and facilitate their healing? Etc.

I must say, it was thrilling and confidence-inducing to see how my brain could come up with story ideas to match the project’s requirements.

Also, I was dealing with time constraints and a gargantuan case of the Impostor Syndrome. Without a commitment to the other writers in the group, I’m not sure I’d have pushed through to completion. I do know OoF would not exist in its present form if not for the project’s boundaries and invitations.

The books are all set in the same town, although around different stories and characters. How did you all plan the background of the books–and will that evolve over time, or will you all keep to the same basic framework?

Between our first and second in-person meeting, each author wrote a story synopsis and shared it with the group, via private Facebook page. We also found avatars for our characters and constructed one-sheets, when applicable, so that other authors could use our characters in cameo appearances without much difficulty.

For more intensive cross-pollination, when using another writer’s characters, we sent relevant passages to one another, to ensure we weren’t violating a character’s personality or mannerisms. The same held true for micro-environments. For example, I borrowed Ellen Jorgy’ creation—a bar known as the Wobbly Dog—for several scenes in my book.

We made a good many decisions together, in-person, like the décor of the hotel, the final design of the cover art, the name of the town. Other decisions were made individually, and then coordinated with the group via Facebook.

For instance, I needed a store that sold computers, so I constructed the Tech and Tock, and invented its proprietors. One of the series continuity editors, Suzanne Stengl, then added it to the map of the town, which she maintained throughout the project.

I should mention that various authors contributed their skillset to make the project work on the whole. Win Day, for instance, used her technical background to construct the Thurston Hotel Books website. Sheila Seabrook helped with formatting issues. Everyone helped with title selection.

Without their direction, Opposite of Frozen would have been called Hypothermia and the Hottie. (A title which still makes me laugh, and would have been great for SEO, but doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel.)

Do authors in the group have input into each other other’s stories? Who edits the novels?

Beyond the planning I’ve mentioned, the group also benefited from the hard work of two continuity editors: Brenda Sinclair, who wore about five hats during this project, and Suzanne Stengl. They both read my book for continuity errors. Twice.

Then we all used the same editor, Ted Williams, for a final appraisal. He used the series bible for guidance and reportedly enjoyed seeing how Harmony came to life within different stories, told by different voices.

Tell us about the publication journey for the series. Will the books be available internationally?

We intend to put out a print version of the series in the near future. At present, the books are available exclusively in ebook via Amazon and the Kindle Lending Library, wherever Amazon exists.

The first installment was released September 29, 2016, and will be followed by another novel on each of the following 11 consecutive Thursdays. (We are using the hashtag #ThurstonThursday on Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to follow along.)

 

 

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More about Opposite of Frozen:

Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recovery from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

Jan’s website: http://janohara.net/

Facebook: http://facebook.com/janoharabooks/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/

For more on the series itself: http://thurstonhotelbooks.com/

Across the Tasman 3: Kyle Mewburn

kyle-mewburn-375I first met Kyle Mewburn, one of New Zealand’s most prominent writers for children, a few years ago in my capacity back then as Chair of the Australian Society of Authors, and Kyle’s as President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. Well, Kyle is still NZSA President, and very active in advancing the cause of writers and illustrators in NZ, against a not very positive background of change and difficulties in the industry there. And in this very interesting interview, he looks frankly at some of those issues, as well as his own literary work.

Kyle, your recent picture book, illustrated by Sarah Davis, The House on the Hill, recently won the Hell Children’s Choice Awards–love that award name by the way 🙂 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Can you tell us something about the book, and how you and Sarah created it? And how have young readers responded to the book?

The idea for the story had been simmering away in the back of my mind for several years (as they do), though ‘idea’ is possibly too grandiose a term for what was, in effect, simply a refrain – “the house on the hill”. But that’s often how my stories start – with just a phrase that won’t go away. I knew there was going to be a journey of some sort, but had no idea who, or what, was going to make the journey. It wasn’t until I was Writer-in-residence at Otago University in 2011, that the story started coming to life, infused with an unexpected Edgar Allan Poe-ish vibe.

It took three weeks of solid, focussed writing for the story to come together. At the end of each day I’d go home exhausted, but satfisfied, despite having completed one stanza or less. I sent the story off to Scholastic and got a reply within an hour – “We love it.” Excellent, I thought. But over the next few months a sense of trepidation started filtering through, as the publishing team started second-guessing themselves. Was the story perhaps too scary? Fortunately, Diana Murray (publisher at the time) had a chat to the head buyer at a major bookstore chain whose verdict came as somewhat of a relief – “Embrace the darkness.” Having strived to make the story as scary as possible, having confidence in my young readers’ willingness, and enthusiasm, to have their pants scared off in a caring, controlled kind of way, I would have been hugely reluctant to water the scares down.

The next question was, of course, who should illustrate? I seldom get asked this question, but I jumped at the opportunity to put Sarah’s name forward. I’d always admired her work, not only for her undoubted technical ability, but also the fact she’s such an eclectic illustrator. Each work is unique with its own distinct style, and she was, I believed, the kind of illustrator who would push the boundaries and come up with a style to perfectly complement my story. Unfortunately, she was rather busy, so I was faced with a choice – wait 2+ years or choose house-hillsomeone else. I didn’t hesitate. Sarah it was.

One interesting, and unusual, aspect of working with Sarah was the unexpected rigour with which she addressed the text. Ultimately there were several stanzas which required re-writing and another which was dropped simply because it didn’t advance the story sufficiently. I really had no input into the illustrations, so can’t comment on that. Apart from saying they’re brilliant throughout and genius in numerous places, especially with their use of perspective. The art of illustration at its finest.

The response to the story has been phenomenal. Despite several parents, teachers and even reviewers initially worrying about the scariness level, the reality is that kids enjoy a good, safe scare and are happy to embrace the ‘game’. As one 6 year-old pointed out when his mum questioned whether or not he was scared – “No. I knew they weren’t real ghosts because there was a cat. Cats don’t like ghosts.” Winning the kids’ choice award is, I think, the ultimate accolade.

Though you are especially known for your picture books, you have also written chapter books and early readers. What are your favourite types of books to write, and what are the main differences between creating texts for all those different formats?

Picture books are my first passion. Almost a vice. My ideas are almost instinctively for picture books, and they seem to be the genre that most suits my thought processes and my writing voice. They’re also the biggest challenge and I get a lot of pleasure pursuing picture book ideas. (Also a lot of angst and anguish, but that’s another story…) Chapter books and junior fiction require a more measured approach. It’s more about building upon a concept than simply chasing an idea. For me, junior fiction (especially for so-called ‘reluctant readers’ or transitional readers) really has to begin with a strong character, ideally a child character. Once I have my hero sorted (whether that’s the first evolved boy in a Neanderthal tribe, or a shape-shifting dragon boy who wants to go to Knight School) I can view their world from their own unique perspective. It’s all about building relationships and interactions. Then, additionally, I add extra details and levels of meaning which encourage and reward re-reading.

dragon-knight

All my writing is child-centric. It’s all about creating stories which reflect their lives, or more specifically, some critical aspect of it. Generally my stories are about making or maintaining friendships. I guess the biggest difference between writing picture books and junior fiction is the former is a distillation process – reducing grand themes to its essence; while the latter is more a process of accretion – adding layers and details to a simple idea.

What are you working on now?

Currently I’m experiencing a bit of mid-career-itis, so not quite sure what I’m working on. The house on the hill was the last picture book I sold, so the drought has dragged on a bit. I’m not 100% sure why my picture books don’t seem to be hitting the mark any more. Possibly it’s me. Having never settled on a single style of story, I’ve generally always pursued whatever ideas tickled my fancy. And after writing over 25 picture books I’m reluctant to rework old ground. So I’ve been experimenting with different styles and approaches to writing, just to keep myself amused and challenged. Maybe that’s not what the market wants at the current time.

In the meantime I’m developing a new junior fiction series and tinkering with re-writing some of my early adult novels. A musical friend and I are also playing around with a script for a musical. It’s all good fun, but as the main breadwinner I can’t afford to spend too much time on non-profitable diversions, no matter how inspiring. So we’ll see what happens. 

Born and brought up in Australia but living in New Zealand for a long time now, you are one of New Zealand’s most prominent authors of children’s books, and you are also President of the New Zealand Society of Authors. In both capacities you’ve had a good deal of contact with the Australian literary world as well. How do you see the similarities and differences between literary New Zealand and literary Australia, both in terms of the kinds of books that get published, and also the literary scene–both in the children’s/YA and adult fields?dinosaur-rescue

There are enormous similarities between the two countries’ literary worlds and I’m rather perplexed by the fact there still seems to be a huge wall with respect to the sharing of books and writers. The key differences, I think, stem largely from the smallness of the local literary  community and market. Despite the size of the population (think Melbourne) there are very strong cliques and factions which are more based around protecting funding turf than  anything else. Which means local writers are very reluctant to criticise anyone or anything for fear of offending the wrong person. You could all-too-easily end up on the outer with no chance of funding or reviews. I’m sure every country has the same rivalries and divisions, but here, because of the population, it is much more distilled and rather potent.

The small market also makes it difficult to make a living. Print runs are often only 1500 and you can make the bestseller list by selling 100+ copies in a given week. I’ve been fortunate insofar as many of my stories have had some longevity (several are still being reprinted 10+ years later), and have had numerous titles published into international markets. Sadly New Zealand publishers are increasingly acting like imprints of their international parents, insofar as they have become much more focussed on publishing stories with local flavour. In the picture book market there has always been a demand for kiwi stories (literally stories about the bird) but this has become massively more so over recent years. No wonder when many bookshops report most people are buying picture books to send overseas to relatives or take away as souvenirs. There has also been a huge growth in stories translated into Te Reo (ie Maori language). While all this might be worthy and understandable from a business model point of view, it has not only made it that much harder to make a living as a writer, it has also created an unfortunate quandary – ie write for this market and accept your income is severely ring-fenced, or you don’t, and stack the odds against being published at all.

With respect to making a living as a CYA writer, I think Australia has massive advantages with respect to creating a secondary income stream from school visits and festival appearances. However it is a lot more cut-throat. In New Zealand school visits are arranged mostly through the Book Council, while in Australia it’s all done through agencies. So in Australia it’s much more a case of the more popular you are and the better your presentations, the more visits you get. Here it’s a bit more communal with visits shared around. On the negative side, we earn half as much for a visit as you do in Australia. It’s still very difficult to convince the majority of schools there is much value in author visits… as opposed to visits by sportspeople… or magicians… or the local fireman…

kisskissyuckyucklgeAs President of NZSA, you have been involved in helping to organise the first ever National Writers Forum in New Zealand, which has just been held. What are you expecting from the forum? And what are the issues that are most preoccupying authors and illustrators in New Zealand today?

The National Writers Forum was a huge success. The feedback has been extraordinary. The main goals were, firstly, to offer some serious professional development opportunities through masterclasses and expert panels. Secondly, it was about creating opportunities to discuss the business aspects of a writer’s life at every stage of their career. There’s plenty of information out there but seldom do writers get an opportunity to ask specific questions pertaining to their own, specific careers directly to a panel of experts. Finally, and for me most importantly, it was an opportunity for writers to assemble at the national level in a collegial and congenial environment. There are way too many divisions within the literary community, and this doesn’t help the literary cause in the wider context. The only way to break down barriers and cliques is to strengthen personal relationships by talking to each other directly rather than shouting at each other over the parapets.

As in most countries, the biggest issues preoccupying us in New Zealand centre on the increasing difficulties of making a living. New Zealand books are expensive in comparison to international titles available on-line, so there has been a concerted effort to exclude books from GST. Wishful thinking under the current government. We already have parallel importing, so have long ago come to terms with the long-term (all negative) consequences. As with writers everywhere we’re also concerned about the push to change (ie water down) copyright laws.

A very recent research report published by the New Zealand Book Council contained the rather disappointing finding that New Zealand readers were biased against NZ fiction, saying that they rarely read it–but also could not name any NZ authors–and that only 3-5 percent of fiction bought in the nation was by NZ authors. What are your thoughts on this? Is it a matter of cultural cringe? Do you think it could be turned around? If so, how?

Cultural cringe with two capital Cs. In many ways it reminds me of Australia in the 80s when I was at high school – nobody admitted to reading OzLit. When I arrived in New Zealand in 1990 there was a huge push to make NZ Music cool. The government pumped in $5million per year and introduced a radio quota. And (surprise!) within a generation NZ Music became cool. There was an attempt to do the same with books but with a budget of $100,000 and divisions within the industry, it gained little traction and soon disappeared. In the last 10 years, NZ has become a massively flag-waving country. Kiwis are enormously proud of their sportspeople, their music, their films (well, Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop, anyway), but there remains a total reluctance to wave the NZ flag when it comes to books and writers, despite local writers garnering increasing international awards and respect.

I suspect the cost of local books has something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that NZ “literature” is still discussed in such reverent tones while genre and/or popular fiction hardly gets a look in. It fosters the impression that local literature is rather intellectual and elitist. We have many world-class, internationally best-selling writers across all genres. It would help enormously if these were celebrated a bit more.     

Last year NZSA instigated a grassroots NZ Book Week with a very limited budget. Hopefully it will continue to grow and, over time, leach into the psyche. But generally I feel it requires a much greater level of government action and investment. It also is a long-term project. I’m constantly frustrated by the lack of commitment to involving local writers/titles in literacy programmes. The “as long as they’re reading something” approach does little to improve literacy, in my opinion. The only way to grow literacy is to promote local authors and stories and instill some pride in local literature. Imagine how few kids would be playing rugby if the All Blacks were considered also-rans, nobodies, rather than superstars. Pride – whether in rugby, music or literature – begins with aspirational role models. We need to start kids on NZLit from the get-go.

 

Kyle Mewburn is one of New Zealand’s finest, and most eclectic, picture book writers. His titles have been published in a dozen countries and won numerous awards including Children’s Book of the Year (Old Hu-hu), Picture book of the Year (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!),two Children’s Choice awards (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck! andMelu) and a Flicker Tale award in North Dakota (Kiss!Kiss! Yuck!Yuck!). His stories are noted for being multi-layered, funny and linguistically creative.

He has been a frequent Finalist at the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards and many of his titles have been included on Notable Books Lists in both New Zealand and Australia.

As well as picture books, he has published numerous School Readers and junior fiction titles, including his popular Dinosaur Rescue series which has been published in over 20 countries. He was the Children’s Writer in Residence at Otago University in 2011 and is currently President of the New Zealand Society of Authors.

Originally from Brisbane, Kyle lives with his wife, Marion, a well-known potter, in a house with a grass roof in Millers Flat. When he’s not writing, Kyle’s free time is almost wholly consumed trying to maintain a semi-self-sufficient lifestyle … or watching the endlessly entertaining drama of chickens trying to get to bed under the watchful eyes of two teasing cats.

Interview with Joel Naoum of Critical Mass

 Version 2Today, I’m very pleased to be bringing readers an interview with Joel Naoum. Joel is a Sydney-based book publisher, editor and consultant. He currently runs Critical Mass, a consultancy for authors and publishers, and previously ran Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-first imprint Momentum. In 2011 he completed the Unwin Fellowship researching digital publishing experimentation in the United Kingdom.
I met Joel when he was at Momentum and published two adult novels of mine, the Trinity duology. It was a really fantastic experience to work with Joel and the rest of the Momentum team, and it was with great regret that I heard last year about the closure of Momentum as a stand-alone imprint, and the subsequent departure of Joel and his team. So it’s been excellent to catch up with him and chat about his very interesting new business, Critical Mass.
First of all, Joel, congratulations on launching Critical Mass! Can you tell readers about how you came up with the idea for the business, and what you see as its main objective?
Well, the name is a bit of a joke from my previous job at Momentum. We used to bend over backwards to avoid using the word “momentum” in conversation (which used to come up quite a bit in a fast-moving digital publishing imprint). One of the phrases we used to use was “building critical mass”. 
 
In a lot of ways Critical Mass is a logical follow-up to Momentum. When we conceived of Momentum six years ago we were trying to compete as a traditional publisher with the growing self-publishing trend. When digital sales began to plateau for traditional publishers, however, and I knew I was going to be leaving Momentum, I thought “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Self-publishing is still growing at a healthy rate, and authors have access to a massive range of services to help them. One thing I felt was missing, though, was the personal touch of a publisher or agent. Someone who can advise an author strategically, for their own benefit, about what steps to take next – whether you’re just starting out or you’re an established author. So I thought I could use the skills I’ve built up over the years to become a publisher-for-hire.
What have been the challenges and discoveries in setting up such a unique enterprise? 
It’s been difficult to find a way of framing the services I offer and pointing out the value in them. If an author has never been published before (or represented by a good agent) then they likely don’t know the advantages. For a lot of indie authors, publishers are the enemy – someone who has stopped them from publishing; not someone who helps them make better decisions or finds them better services to improve the quality of their publishing. It’s also been challenging to wear two hats – Critical Mass is a consultancy both for authors and for publishers, so finding a way to do both without compromising either service is a juggling act.
 How do you think your experience as founding director of Pan Macmillan’s digital imprint, Momentum, as well as the rest of your experience in the publishing has influenced and informed the direction and focus of Critical Mass?
I think Momentum in particular helped me make a transition from the slow-moving but high-quality world of traditional publishing to the lightning fast world of indie publishing. I understand what compromises need to take place to self-publish, but I also understand where not to cut corners in order to not compromise the book.
Critical Mass is aimed at three groups: authors, publishers, and content producers. With authors, you are offering a range of services to improve and streamline a self-publishing experience, which can be quite an undertaking for people attempting it alone. Can you explain the kinds of things you can do for authors going down the indie publishing route? In your opinion, when is self-publication a viable option for authors?
My first port of call is always to have a chat to authors who aren’t sure what they want to do to see if the type of project they’re working on suits self-publishing, or if they should attempt to pitch to a traditional publisher. If they’re better off attempting traditional publishing, I can help them polish their work and their pitch. If the project they’re working on suits self-publishing then I can help them decide on a publishing strategy, and then connect them to the various freelance editors, proofreaders, designers, marketers and other services to help them publish their book.
The biggest indicators for me that an author should self-publish is that they’re writing something that suits the market (books in series, genre fiction), they’re prolific (writing a book or two a year at least), they’re self-motivated and that they’re willing to experiment.
You are offering publishers a focus on technology solutions and possibilities for their business. Can you describe what’s involved? 
There are a lot of advantages to introducing digital technologies to all aspects of a publishing workflow that a lot of publishers, particularly the smaller ones, haven’t yet considered. End-to-end digital workflows save money and time, and automate work as much as possible so that the human beings inside an organisation can make intelligent decisions where needed instead of wasting their time on repetitive tasks that don’t sell more books or make them any better.
Moving to content producers, such as bloggers, you are looking at an earlier stage of writing than is implied in the services you offer to authors, with advice, for instance, on whether their content might be suitable to produce as a book. What kinds of things would you be looking at, in such content?
“Content producer” was a difficult category to come up with, and I’m still not 100% happy with the phrase. Basically I’m talking about businesses or individuals who have content, but they’re not sure if it’s a book and if so what they could do with it. This includes anyone from advertising agencies looking into book publishing for their brands, or an individual blogger who has built a platform but isn’t sure whether their content would suit book publishing. Given the breadth of what “content” is, it’s hard to make general observations, but the idea is that I’ve spent most of my career making commercial decisions about whether digital content is a book or not, and I figure other businesses and individuals might find that experience useful.
What are your views on the publishing industry, both nationally and globally? What do you see as the trends? 
 Publishing of all stripes is in a pretty good place right now. Traditional publishers are making money from both print books and digital, all the while authors have more access than ever before to top notch services and platforms to get their books out there – whether they go with a traditional publisher or do their own thing. 
 
I think things seem fairly stable right now, but the next five to ten years will likely see some more big shifts in the way audiences consume books, especially as the core audience for print books begins to age, and the people who grew up with iPads start to have kids of their own. I suspect the biggest areas for disruption are the health and wellness / lifestyle books and children’s books. I think this likely something to look for in the medium to long term, though, not in the next couple of years.
 
As always it’s also worth considering Amazon. They’re looking into launching more bricks and mortar bookstores in the US, and their in-house publishing imprints are becoming ever more powerful. If this end-to-end strategy pays big dividends you could see an even bigger juggernaut in the industry, which will likely cause more of the big traditional publishers to merge together in order to stay competitive.
Visit Critical Mass here.

Taking the independent road: an interview with Jon Appleton

Jon_AppletonI’ve known Jon Appleton a long time: since I was a pretty newly-published writer, and he was an articulate teenager passionate about books and writing to the extent that while still at school he founded, wrote, and edited a fabulous magazine called Rippa Reading. Since those days, Jon has gone on to have a stellar career as a publisher, in Sydney and in London, working with great authors and illustrators. And now he’s embarking on a new challenge–taking the independent road, as a new author and self-publisher.

First of all, Jon, congratulations on the release of your first novel, Ready to Love! Can you tell us a bit about it, and its road to publication? 

Thanks, Sophie! Ready to Love is about the way we see ourselves and how we think other people see us, and the different kinds of attachments we form to those around us: family, friends, lovers, colleagues. Ultimately, it’s a rom-com.

Its London setting is quite important to me, and I began the book when I was living in Australia for a year in 2011, feeling quite homesick. I put it aside for twelve months when I came back to England, and then returned to it, working on it continuously for the next two-and-a-half-years.

Comedy is difficult to pitch to agents and publishers, I’m told, because it’s not viewed as a commercial genre. (Of course, we can all think of exceptions!) But I submitted it to agents nonetheless. Quite a few never replied (which I took to mean a ‘no’) but of those who did, several responded encouragingly from a reader’s perspective. I thought, ‘If only I could get past the gatekeepers, to readers, they would enjoy it too.’

Working in publishing, so much of my time was spent rejecting really good books (for reasons not dissimilar from those by which my own work had been rejected), and it was quite dispiriting dishing out ‘no’s all day only to come home to more ‘no’s from the other side of the desk. So I looked into the self-publishing option.

I knew the stigma of self-publishing has lessened dramatically in recent years. At the London Book Fair, there is a whole corner devoted to independent publishing that is reported on and taken very seriously. The timing was right.

I found the right outlet – Clays, the printer, recently established an independent publishing strand of their business – and began the process.

Putting together a book, from manuscript to finished product, is something you have a lot of experience of, in terms of other people’s work. But what was it like being in charge of your own?

I love the completeness of publishing a book – from discussing the concept with the author through to sending them advance copies. So the process of getting Ready to Love was extremely satisfying because I took a very hands-on route. Clays put me in touch with editors, designers, typesetters, Nielsen (who handled the bibliographic data), etc, but I did the legwork. It really helped maintain a sense of ownership of the process.

I sometimes think that writers feel they hand over their work without fully understanding the process – and why should they? But they can always ask! – and feel they’re being excluded. It’s never worse than when a book ends up with a cover a writer doesn’t like and the book fails to make it onto shortlists or in-store promotions. The author feels a sense of surrender when, in fact, the publisher really is on their side – or means to be.

I made all the decisions so I felt very much in control. Let’s hope I made the right decisions …9780993547317

You have just moved from the corporate publishing world to becoming a freelance, independent author/publisher. What has that move been like–the challenges and the pleasures? 

I’ve known so many authors – and freelancers – that I’ve always felt I sort of knew what it was like to be them. I appreciated how isolated authors could feel. I’d sit at my desk, and suddenly think, ‘Haven’t heard from Author X for a while. Wonder what they’re up to …’ and get in touch – particularly in the long periods when there wasn’t anything formal to do on their current book.

That’s changed, in recent years: there’s always something to do on a book, especially after it’s been published. You can revise your Amazon profile or write a blog, or reach out to potential new readers on Twitter. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of years encouraging writers to be active on social media – and we’ve spent more time than ever on revising synopses and pitches (because, for many authors, it is harder to get published than ever before).

Now I’m learning, first-hand, exactly what all that entails. The main thing I’ve learned is to be focused and to think always: ‘What am I trying to do? Who am I trying to reach? What kind of writer/publisher do I want to be?’ I’ve got a blog that explores these questions – www.jonappletonsbooks.com – and it’s very much an exploration and I’d love people to join in. There are no finite, permanent answers!

You worked for a long time as a children’s publisher: but as an author, you are writing adult novels. Do you think your publishing experience has influenced your writing in any way? 

I think I realised early in my career that I love children’s books because I love the idea of children being confident and able through literacy, and cherishing the books they read when young their whole life through. I really like helping an author shape the sound of the voice of, say, an eleven-year-old boy. But I have no interest in trying to locate that youthful voice myself. I’m not one of those children’s editors who read only children’s books. My adult, reading self is nourished by other books which are more akin to the novels I want to write, and write about.

As a teenager you founded a respected literary magazine, Rippa Reading, which focused on books and authors. Can you tell readers about that, and some of your favourite stories from that time?

Rippa Reading was a fan magazine for authors which I began in late 1986 and edited until the end of 1995, just before I moved from Sydney to London. It was published and supported by my old school, SCECGS Redlands and, joyfully, the entire children’s publishing industry. It was an amazing time for which I am hugely grateful.

The magazine was born out of my desire to be a writer and to find out what writers were like, and it led to my career in publishing. Undoubtedly, it was inspired by The School Magazine which not only presented the best in new writing but made its creators available to readers through the magazine’s pages and especially to me with personal friendships with the staff.

There are so many highlights and stories from that time – genuine friendships with brilliant, creative people, many of whom now are no longer with us, but other connections endure 30 years later, like our own! It was fun being part of the CBC committee and appearing on TV and radio to talk about new books. It was an honour to receive awards, and even more so to be an early fan of brilliant new voices, like Jackie French to whom I was introduced by the wonderful Cathie Tasker (through whom you and I met, Sophie!), who was then at HarperCollins and Ursula Dubosarsky, who once taught at Redlands.

But the story I want to share now makes me happy because it brings my connection to Australian children’s books more or less up to date. When I joined Hachette Australia as Children’s Publisher at the end of 2010, I finally got the chance to publish books by Australian authors and illustrators – some of them award-winners but others, excitingly who were new to the industry. The concept for a children’s edition of the bestselling book about Tom Kruse the outback mailman had lingered for some time, but the concept hadn’t been fully realised, nor, crucially, the right illustrator found. I remembered Tim Ide from when I’d done work experience at Omnibus Books back in 1990. (Jane Covernton, who established Omnibus with Sue Williams, was always hugely supportive of Rippa Reading.) One afternoon at Omnibus, I’d been lucky enough to be taken to tea by Tim and Max Fatchen to celebrate their new book, A Country Christmas, which perfectly evoked the South Australian countryside in years gone by. So, many years later, I got in touch with Tim he agreed to work on the book. At that point, everyone in-house (and the author!) felt energised by the project, and it went on to win the Eve Pownall Award in 2012.

What’s your view on the situation for authors, and publishing today–the issues and the opportunities?

For the majority of writers, it’s tough to make a living. The obstacles are numerous: small advances, a paucity of review space, overstretched marketing budgets. More than ever, authors are expected to sell their own books – whether they publish independently, or through a mainstream publisher. That doesn’t suit everyone, I realise, but I do think that, usually, the author is his or her book’s best advocate, so it makes sense. And there are so many ways for authors to engage with readers – it’s not all about author visits and festivals. Authors need to be authorpreneurial, a term I hear a lot now. It takes time away from creative work, of course, but it’s necessary. It’s part of being a writer.

What are you working on next?

I’m planning a new novel, but I’m really aware of the need to make the most of the opportunity created by publishing Ready to Love. So I’m very happy to write about it or talk about it and to engage with people – anywhere! – in the hope that they might choose to read it, and to be receptive to further novels by me. At a practical level, I’d like to recoup some of the cost of publishing it by selling subsidiary rights – audio, translation, US and Canada and, of course, Australia!

I’m also in dialogue with writers’ groups and students who need help not just with writing, but preparing themselves for a writing life. People are aware of the challenges I outlined above (and many others), and part of my new work portfolio is helping them find ways to pitch themselves successfully and achieve an audience in the face of these challenges.

An interlude to introduce the Juvenilia Press

I’m delighted to learn today that the Small Beginnings series on this blog is being featured on the Facebook page and linked to the website of a wonderful specialist press publishing out of the University of NSW, the Juvenilia Press, which focusses on the very early writings of authors, including classic authors like Jane Austen! Here’s something about them:

The Juvenilia Press promotes the study of literary juvenilia, a category of literature that has been largely neglected. Its editions are slim volumes of early writings by children and adolescents (up to the approximate age of twenty), including published and unpublished works of young authors – both those who achieved greatness as adults and those who did not become adult writers but whose writing is full of percipience and zest.

Founded in 1994 by Juliet McMaster at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the Press has since 2001 been based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, and has an international team of contributing editors from Britain, Canada, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand, the United States, and Australia.

The volumes are normally devoted to one author and are edited by an expert in the field, with the assistance of one or more students, usually postgraduates. Student involvement in the research and editorial process is an essential part of the pedagogic aim of the Juvenilia Press; and the illustrations, often executed by young aspiring artists or by the original young authors themselves, aim to capture the tone of the original productions. By contributing to the recovery, publication, and critical exploration of childhood writings, the Juvenilia Press actively promotes literary research and the professional development of students. At the same time, they endeavour to provide, for a wide audience, an insight into the creative energy of this rich and varied body of writing.

Do check them out on Facebook, and visit their website for more information: https://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/juvenilia/