The ‘Eyes on the Prize’ session at the Victorian Writers Centre mentioned in my last blog was well attended, mostly by emerging writers with manuscripts near completion. VWC director and regular judging panellist Joel Becker opened the session with some practical tips on preparing a manuscript to submit to a competition:
- Do proof read and spell-check
- Do print double-spaced and single-sided with wide margins in a minimum font size of 11 points (Joel suggests using recycled paper if concerned about the environmental impact, rather than skimping on these
- Don’t use purple paper or an imaginative design to attract attention to your manuscript; the kind of attention it attracts is not what an aspiring writer wants (i.e. people will think you’re a wanker).
Joel then invited his guests, myself and Andrew Hutchinson, to talk about how we prepared for the prize–in our cases, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.
I began by apologising if people had come to the session under false pretences, but I never did prepare for the prize–I was only ever preparing for publication. Joel nodded, Andrew murmured in agreement, and that was probably the key message the audience took away with them. You’ve got to write to get published, not to win prizes. Prepare well for one and you increase your chances of bagging the other as well.
Andrew’s debut novel, currently titled Rohypnol (due to be published by Random House in July this year) explores the dark themes of date rape, misogyny and social alienation. He spoke about being influenced by the writing of Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club amongst others, and his sparse, punchy (pun intended) style. It felt like I was coming across as a ‘cosy’ author by comparison, despite the fact that my debut novel explores the dark themes of corruption, paedophilia, and neocolonialism. But we had a few things in common in addition to both being winners of the Award for Unpublished Manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer. Both of us were mentored by Christos Tsiolkas: me, informally as a friend; Andrew through the Express Media Mentoring Program. Both of us treated being transferred to Canberra as a great opportunity to get some writing done (there being few distractions in our nation’s glorious capital). However, Andrew is a lot further ahead of me on his second novel, seeing as how he’s still living in Canberra and, unlike me, doesn’t have the exquisite distraction of a 14-month-old daughter.
That said, I am making progress on the sequel to Behind the Night Bazaar. My fantastic partner Andrew Nette (aka Roo) now looks after our daughter one night a week so I can go to the home of my cousin-friend-neighbour-colleague-artistic patron Mary Latham for a few hours to work on the book. The first couple of nights I managed to write 1,000 words. Last week it was closer to 2,000–despite having had a crap day at work and feeling as if the last thing I wanted to do was write fiction. I had some notes on a scene that I’d written on the train en route to work one morning, and the writing just took off. Note to self: reclaim your commuting time for creative work, especially in the mornings.
But I’m digressing from the original topic of this post, which is about preparing manuscripts to win prizes and/or get published. Andrew and I concurred on the importance of involving critical readers in preparing a manuscript for publication, getting people whose opinions we respected to read through drafts along the way. We both found individuals more valuable than groups, though this is obviously a personal preference. I benefited from multiple perspectives and insights by using lots of readers in the early stages, but had relatively few people read over the later drafts. And once I’d signed a publishing contract with Text, my editor was keen for me to avoid canvassing too many opinions: I think only Roo and Christos read the last drafts.
Finally, Joel had a couple of people in the audience talk about their experience of using manuscript assessment services available through the VWC. The feedback was positive, and I would have considered using such a service myself if I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with poet and editor Susan Hampton in Canberra.
It’s strange the way that becoming a published author gives you enough credibility to advise others on how to become a published author. When asked how I became a writer, I’m tempted to paraphrase Sir Robert Helpman when asked how he became a dancer: ‘One does not become a writer, one enters the writing via the path of obsession.’
If the compulsion is there, you must write. If your work is good, it will speak for itself.