So let me tell you about my illuminating morning at a Sydney Writers’ Festival event last Thursday morning. It’s the first SWF workshop I’ve ever attended, and whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s also going to be my last, I must say the experience was a bit of an eye-opener. It was cannily, perhaps perversely called ‘Getting Published.’ I don’t need to tell you why I was there: when it comes to fiction, that’s a trick I’ve thus far failed to learn.
I had to go directly from the workshop to the airport for my flight to Melbourne, so I hauled my bag from home to the ferry, then right along Pitt St from Circular Quay almost to Chinatown. By the time I arrived, I was in desperate need of a decent coffee, but the workshop had already begun. I checked my watch and it suggested I was right on time, but there was no mistaking that feeling that I’d already missed something crucial. I meekly sat down and started fantasising about caffeine. At the front of the room, proceeding full steam ahead, was editor Melanie Ostell. Around the table were 14 other participants. We all took up our pens and started busily writing down everything Melanie Ostell said.
Was it useful? Well, yes, because Melanie is an insider, and therefore knows directly of what she speaks. Also she’s obviously good at her job, and for people who usually can’t get in front of an editor, that means just being in the room with her was valuable. But I will say that anyone who is serious about writing and about getting their work published really needs to do as much research as possible anyway, and so much of what Melanie was saying I already knew because I’ve consulted many other sources looking for consistent information: don’t send agents or publishers entire manuscripts, don’t send whiz-bang colourful, edible, or scented proposals, don’t harangue people for an answer, understand the difference between an agent and an editor, think about which publishers publish books like yours, believe them when they say they are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts until further notice, and so on. This is all very consistent with everything I have read and been told. Helpful for that, no question, but there wasn’t really anything new, at least not for anyone who has done a reasonable amount of research into the wiles of the publishing industry. To that extent, I wondered if the workshop was perhaps more intended for beginners, people who’d quite like to write but probably haven’t yet dipped a foot. In that case, the SWF might want to consider renaming the workshop. ‘Getting Started,’ say, instead of ‘Getting Published.’
On to the workshop side of things, which only started after the break, halfway into the 3-hour session. Melanie had run another session the day prior, so she knew time was of the essence and told us we’d each go one at a time. My palms started sweating. A mature lady at the top of the table volunteered to go first, and as it dawned on me that I’d have to actually read the first page of my MS, I clutched my stomach and seriously considered vomiting across the table. I should mention here that the room itself was frigid, thus setting the scene for my trip to Melbourne rather too well. It was the coldest meeting room I have ever been in, and I ended up wearing my coat at the table. I think it was a combination of no coffee, cold, and nerves, but I was rattling up against the people on either side of me as though in a fit.
Melanie’s suggestions to the mature lady, who was writing a creative non-fiction account of her parents’ journey from the wartime Ukraine to Australia, were really sound. She thought it had the makings of a novel more than a non-fiction book, and that seemed right to me and to others. It also took about 15 minutes of discussion before it moved on to the next person (after that first volunteer, Melanie chose, starting at the head of the table on my side and working her way down), so I started calculating what would happen if the next couple of people also got 15 minutes of discussion time. Obviously we’d run out. Fifteen participants had no chance of splitting that hour and a half evenly. Tick tock, tick tock.
I won’t tell you about each proposal, although there was a lot of fantasy (yes, fantasy… one guy had written something like 220,000 words and a cast of thousands… to give you a comparison, my PhD thesis was 86,000). I hadn’t expected that. And overall I felt like I was with a group of fringe-dwelling enthusiasts, not people who will be “Getting Published” any time soon. It was by turns alarming and disappointing going around the room listening to some of the proposals. One of those sliding doors moments, where you’re sure you’re in the wrong place, and you can’t get out.
But I will tell you that I did get my chance, and when it came time to read from the start of my MS, I had to fight back tears. The nerves were overwhelming. I’d never before read aloud from it, and this was a roomful of dead silent and occasionally kooky strangers. I found it agonising, and surprisingly emotional. I needn’t have worried, though, because Melanie cut me off before I got to the bottom of page one. She asked me to read the opening of chapter two, which of course I didn’t have because we’d been clearly instructed to bring no more than 4 pages including a one page synopsis. No matter, Melanie could still comment on what I’d just read, which she said was too expositional.
Thud. If you’ve ever rewritten something as many times as I’ve rewritten the opening page of my MS, then you’ll understand just how gutting it was to have it binned just like that. The dialogue and action starts just beyond page one in the current draft, but yes, page 1 and 2 are expository because up until Thursday I thought it was important to introduce the character and give a bit of background. I understand a reliance on exposition leads to telling not showing, apparently the deadliest sin, but I’d always thought a bit of exposition was helpful, if not essential. Nope. What Melanie said after less than a page made me wonder if I need to start the action right there on the opening page, leaving the exposition ’til after I’ve hopefully already got the reader’s attention.
It makes sense. I have even less time to impress a prospective agent or editor with a typed, mailed, slush-pile proposal than I had face-to-face with Melanie last Thursday. What I read out did not sufficiently impress her, so chances are that in the hyper-competitive marketplace of unsolicited submissions, I’m going to have to do a lot better than that if I’m ever going to impress anyone enough that they ask to see more. I may have to change my beginning.
That realisation in itself makes the workshop invaluable to me. I was frustrated by some of the assumptions Melanie made about my MS because I didn’t have a chance to correct them. She went off on some tangent about American Psycho that made me realise she must have completely misunderstood something I’d said. She gave a kind of summary of what would be in my book that was completely off the mark, so that, feeling increasingly desperate, I eventually had to break in and say “Actually, there’s a lot of levity.” She asked “Is there much dialogue?” as though the three paragraphs I read out suggested I’d written a novel based entirely on exposition (there’s a load of dialogue). It was frustrating, as I say, because there was no time to set her straight. And therein lies the rub.
Melanie’s impressions came from my synopsis, and my extract. If she was unclear it was because I wasn’t clear enough. A part of me wants to pout and say “She got it wrong,” but the other part of me that wants to build my writing practice and improve my own processes knows I didn’t get it right. Rule number one: don’t make it hard for the reader (yes, I have a rotating roster of what constitutes Rule No.1). It’s my responsibility, not Melanie’s, to alleviate that confusion about what my MS is about, and how it’s written, and its tone. How would she know, how could she know, that there’s plenty of dialogue when there’s none on the first page? How could she know that when I mentioned three novels in my synopsis (no, I did not say anything about American Psycho, I don’t really know where that came from), it wasn’t because I think my book is like any of them, but because I think they all belong to a category of writing about young adulthood that I aspire to? I didn’t say that clearly enough. Clearly. And that’s my job, after all, not Melanie’s. She did hers, and for that icy shard of criticism alone, I’m glad I went.