Last night HARDCOPY participants (past and present) were lucky enough to take part in an online Facebook discussion with Australian novelist Lucy Treloar. Here are some of the highlights of Lucy’s responses (reproduced with the permission of Lucy, and of the HARDCOPY project officer Nigel Featherstone.)
For 90 minutes Lucy was inundated with questions and she gamely fielded them with good cheer and fascinating insights.
Lucy’s debut novel Salt Creek, was published by Picador in August 2015 (click through for my review). Salt Creek has been shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin Award. The novel also won the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year, and it has been shortlisted for one of the Nita B. Kibble Literary Awards – the Dobbie Award.
Just to be clear, the questions were posed on the fly by various 2016 HardCopiers and not by me. I’ve edited only a little, and then simply to tidy up (for example occasionally the conversation drifted to pleasant thoughts of wine!) In some places I’ve changed the order of the questions, simply to ensure similar questions flow from one to the next.
The theme of the discussion, agreed beforehand, was ‘editing’.
Did you have to ‘kill any darlings’ while you were editing, and how difficult was it to identify them in the first place, and then to cut them?
Oh the darlings. I had so many of them. Some I could identify quite easily and let go without too many problems. Others I had to be dragged to. My editor said at one stage, ‘would you like me to kill that darling?’ I said ‘Yes please.’
I would like to know the writing process you went through, from the first draft to the draft you submitted to the publisher?
I had 5000 words when the MS was contracted, and a year to write the rest of the book. There are some parts of the book that are more drafted than others. But basically, it’s the third draft that was submitted and accepted.
Some parts needed extensive reworking, others hardly anything. That side of it was really fantastic. I loved everything after the first draft.
How did you get contracted off 5k words?
I’d won an unpublished manuscript competition, but publishers felt the book was too quiet, and wouldn’t sell. But Picador asked if I had anything else, and I had these words – that was the beginning of Salt Creek.
[It was] the Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Competition. It only ran for two years. Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites won first year, and my book won the second year. I recommend the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript comp though.
I would like to know if you had a plan or did the novel evolve?
I didn’t have a cohesive plan, but I did have a few episodes that I knew would appear in the book. I built the book around these – they’re sort of tent poles that hold it all up. So much evolved during the research. I kept coming across bits of information that led to things opening up. I tried to stay open to that.
Did you have to do any major structural edits between drafts? If so, how invasive were these?
The big structural edits happened after it went to the publisher. I had two first person narrators, but one wasn’t working. I had to write his pov [point of view] out and work out another way to broaden the field of action. A chapter narrated by him was the biggest darling of all, one of the strongest chapters, but it pulled the book out of shape.
No – it was Fred’s point of view. The chapter I loved was when he went on the spree with Hugh and Stanton. It was so hard to write, and it worked well – stronger than the recount. There were a couple of other sections – him exploring the peninsula with Tull, and their journey to Adelaide and a few other things. But his pov was a ‘technical fix’ designed to move the action away from the farmhouse. I had to make him a stronger first person narrator or get rid of that perspective. He was overshadowed by Hester. It was a shame.
I was wondering if you had any tips for strengthening and balancing multiple POV narratives (even though it didn’t necessarily work out in this instance.)
The most important thing is making sure that the characters are pulling their weight, especially for two first person narrators. All the main characters have to be well developed and well realised so they’re not overshadowed and don’t begin to look like plot functions. It’s tricky, but keeping character at the centre of things helps I think.
When you redraft or rewrite, do you work on sections or work from the start to the finish of the MS?
When redrafting I mainly worked through from beginning to end. I set myself a quota of words. It helped to streamline inconsistencies in events. But some bits – that alternate narrator, I had to write out quite quickly, first thing. That was the hardest part.
Do you mean a quota of words to edit in one sitting? I’m finding that my first chapters are in so much better shape than the rest because of the number of times I’ve gone back to the beginning!
I had a looming deadline, so I just divided the words by the number of days and had to more or less stick to it. Maybe you could just read through the first chapters to give yourself a ‘run up’ and only start editing after that point?
It seems so competitive to get your manuscript past the screening processes. Would you recommend getting your draft professionally edited before shopping it around?
Yes – such an interesting question. It depends, really, on how clean your copy is. If you’re not confident with spelling, grammar, layout etc. it could be a good idea. It’s worth developing your skills in this area, because a professional edit can be really expensive.
Do you use beta readers, or were you relying on your editor?
I had showed a few sections to my writing group, who’d liked it. But I’d had so many people looking at my first book that I lost my own vision of it and connection to it. With this book I wanted to write the book I wanted, and I did. So it was the editor who read it first.
What were the symptoms of this loss of vision and connection?
I got a bit sick of it, when I’d started completely in love with the idea. I had two different mentors at different stages – high profile, and wonderful writers, but they advised to their personal preferences. One loved memory and poetry, and the other thought I had too much ‘colour’ and ‘lyricism’, so I had to strip out all the material I’d put in. It was all a learning process though. None of it was wasted. Through it I found out what I wanted from my writing.
Do you think it was overall a useful thing to have a mentor/mentors? Would you do it again?
I learned what my writing voice was – and it wasn’t theirs. That was good though. I’d read their books, and had found the book by the one who thought my writing was too colourful, rather colourless. It was quite liberating to realise that you don’t have to write like someone else.
Have you found a difference working with editors v mentors? I ask as I’ve had a convo recently with someone who found their author mentor was trying to get them to rewrite their MS the way the mentor would have written it.
Yes – exactly my experience. The things they emphasised were the things that were of research interest to them or related to their personal writing style. It’s finding your own writing voice that should be the emphasis. My editors were fantastic at just pointing out that there was a problem, and then trusting me to work out the solution. It’s very empowering and confidence building.
I was curious about the process of working with your editor at Picador. How long did it take until the manuscript was ready to go to print? Was is a difficult process, or enjoyable?
This was my favourite part of the whole process. It was incredibly respectful and collaborative. They identified problems but very rarely suggested solutions. The MS was formally accepted in Feb and went to the printer in early June. Picador works very fast in that way – faster than other publishers I’ve heard of. It was intense, but wonderful.
How did you know that the MS was finished? What were the signs that it was time to stop fiddling with it and give it over to the publisher?
That deadline! I loved my characters so much that the hardest thing was sending them out into the world. I sent it to my agent first, still working on it, and she rang up and said ‘Stop working on it! It’s ready now.’ She took it out of my hands or I’d probably still be fussing.
Did you have any sections of the MS that you knew weren’t working but couldn’t identify why, and if so how valuable was an editor in helping with this?
There were parts of the MS that niggled at me. I would try to persuade myself that it was okay. For instance, my book is set on a sheep/cattle station, but I wasn’t interested in the sheep or cattle, so I’d just make fairly generic comments about checking fences and cattle and leave it at that. But the editor asked whether they were ever going to milk the cows, and why was everyone always at home. So, quite a bit of research happened after that comment, and new scenes were written in. It all helped to anchor the action and make it feel real.
How much can you reasonably expect from a publisher in terms of editing?
Well, I suppose the measure of that is that they’ll do this. They will do a lot if they love the characters and your story enough. That detailed editing is their job. They said they’d be forensic, and they really were. I couldn’t be as nitpicky as them – so grateful for that. I do think getting your characters working is incredibly important, the most important things.
I was wondering if you edited for individual issues (i.e.. edited first for character, then for setting, then dialogue etc) or did you try and do it all at the one time?
With some things – e.g. farming detail – I went through and added detail. With characters, I added nuance to some minor characters who were just there as plot points. Dialogue – very little editing with that, just some new material, and with writing Fred out, I had to create some recounts from his pov, and add scenes with Hester and Fred.
Any tips on staying fresh and relevant during the editing process, when you’ve rewritten and changed it so much the pages begin to blur together?
That can be hard, can’t it? If you can, just leave a section that you’ve become blind to. Sometimes I try changing the font so it feels fresh. Or do a different layout – landscape, with two columns so it resembles a book. That’s one of my favourites.
Having gone through the whole process (writing, redrafting, editing, etc), is there anything you’d change about the process next time? I.e. more planning, or more detailed character back stories, etc.
That process thing is interesting. With my first book I wrote from beginning to end. I kept thinking of things I’d put in later, but somehow the energy had gone from the idea when ‘later’ came. With the second book I wrote whatever interested me, whichever character was ‘alive’, whichever scene I was driven towards. One scene I put off until quite late because I knew it would be emotionally draining. Over a week I steeled myself to it. This process worked very well for me. The hard bit was putting all those pieces together in a pleasing narrative order.
I’ll never really be a strict planner – I know that.
How much research did you end up doing, and at what stages of the writing and editing process (all through)? And then how did you go about ‘burying the research’?
I loved the research so much. Finding out about a world is wonderful. There was a huge body of literature to read, which I imagined would provide a sort of window dressing to the plot to give events and characters authenticity, but it was as if that world was trying to be found out. The research began to shape the book, and they grew together. It was hard to leave somethings out. Working out what to leave out isn’t always easy, but I tried to keep character at the centre of all my work. What would that character have been aware of? What would she/he/they have seen? Characters are a kind of blinker, and that’s such a help in some ways.
Do you have a particular trusted reader in mind when you write? Does this change for each piece of writing/project or does it remain the same?
That reader… I think I’m really writing for me, or people like me. Not my age, gender etc. But people who like books with heart and emotion, and an interesting world. I love to reread, and I love to hear from people who are rereading my book. I think, ‘yes, it was you I was writing for.’ I think it’s always that person for me.
How important Lucy is a manuscript assessment, structural edit vs a paid mentor?
A paid mentor should give some structural advice. Manuscript assessment can be great, but depends a bit on who you get I gather. I wouldn’t spend the money on the structural edit. Making your writing and characters compelling and wonderful are more important. No amount of structure will compensate for characters that aren’t fully developed. Hope that helps. It’s tricky, isn’t it?
How difficult did you find writing the synopsis for Salt Creek? Do you have any tips for how to do this?
Writing synopses are the worst – no one likes them. Make sure you have your main character as its focal point, put in something that will hook the readers’ attention, and don’t give the ending away. Also, good luck. They take hours.
‘Powerful words in powerful places’. Can you comment on this in your own writing experience?
Suddenly feel a bit inadequate. For me, ‘truth’, writing something that is ‘true’ is terribly important, more important than the idea of creating something powerful. That might rise out of the truth, but would not be its principal aim. Place is also very important to me. It’s that point of ignition quite often. It was visiting the Coorong that made me start a book that I’d been idly dreaming of for a while. It was the thing that compelled me. But it had to become real for me to write it. So, it’s certainly a powerful and compelling place, and that was significant in the writing.
I am interested in the reaction since publication of your writing of the Indigenous characters. You state in the author’s note that “it would be inaccurate for them not to have presence”.
This is such a hard area. I tried to get some involvement from the Ngarrindjeri, but they declined when the publisher couldn’t give them final approval rights. I pulled right back from them at that point, very early in the writing, and worried about it more or less incessantly throughout. I felt that theirs was not my story to tell. My first person narrator helped with this. There was so much she couldn’t see.
On the marketing side of things, did your publisher set out a plan for how the book would be promoted? And do you find yourself doing much of the legwork?
Pan Macmillan has a huge marketing machine, and I haven’t really done much myself. They created a marketing campaign and it continues to unfold. People occasionally get in touch via my website, asking about talks. The publisher gets involved at that point and sets up links with booksellers for the talk, so there are sales at the same time. They get in touch and ask if I’d be prepared to do things – festivals etc. I just say yes.
I’m interested to know if you’ve ever been a mentor – and what you tried to take to that relationship. Also at what point in your writing career did you get into teaching creative writing?
I’m on the [mentors] register at Writers Victoria! It can be great, and it can also be frustrating. Some people work so hard, and that’s wonderful, but I’ve had a few people who feel that being mentored should somehow get you in front of a publisher. It should be to develop your work. I’ve taught creative writing for quite a while – moved across from other teaching and found it suited me. It can be incredibly rewarding. People learn faster in groups – at least that’s what I’ve found.
I am wondering how you deal with expectations now that you’ve had such a successfully received first novel? Does that make writing the next one harder? Any tips for dealing with external expectations? Other than wine?
I was going to say whisky! It’s a bit difficult at the moment to be honest. Not so much because of the attention, as because of the fragmenting of my own mental space. It makes me realise how lucky I was with Salt Creek, just being able to work quietly on it, in a dull routine sort of way. I’d write my way out of boredom each day. A lovely time – at least in retrospect!
The manuscript I have completed will be the first I will attempt to have published. Do you have any tips for a writer who is anonymous to the wider world, stepping out for publication? Would you recommend pursuing an agent or publisher first for such a writer?
I strongly recommend trying to get a few writing credits here and there. There are lots of journals to try. Seizure, Overland (they have an online publication as well as print copy), Kill Your Darlings etc. publish new writers. That kind of thing is so important when publishing is tough and publishers are risk averse. Helps with getting an agent too. Enter competitions. Writing is a risky business, but you have to take the risk. It’s exciting as well as scary!
Would you recommend doing that before pursuing publication for a manuscript? And any thoughts on the publisher vs. agent debate for an emerging/unknown writer?
If you’re really keen to start submitting, go ahead – but perhaps just one or two, to test the water. The advantage of agents is that they get you out of the slush pile. Mine hasn’t ended up costing anything, since she negotiated a better contract. Financial negotiations are hard if you’re an emerging writer – so much easier to leave it to them. I’d start to work on those publications and comps as selling points for agents/publishers. (It helps them if they can see that other people have judged that your writing has merit.) I have friends with and without agents. Not having an agent is fine up to a point, but sometimes negotiations about rights, esp. international rights, are easier for an agent…
When you’re stuck, do you have any particular tips or exercises for moving forward?
Every now and then there’ll be something I know I should write, but I just can’t face it. Rather than feeling despondent about my lack of will etc., I write around it – ahead, or behind, about something else. I can always do it later. Sometimes I do a stock-take. I get a character to write a letter to someone – anyone – about how things are going right now. Seems to help…
I love editing but I’m so slow. Any tips on speeding the process up?
I wish! Maybe learn to enjoy it? It’s such a great chance to make your work sing, for it to be its cleanest, most eloquent self. It’s very exciting seeing it become its best self.
It sounds like you had a lot of time to devote to your manuscript (in large blocks). Is that true? How did you arrange that (take a leave of absence from work/family/life…)
I work as a freelance editor – work arrives from Southeast Asia in the afternoon. When I was writing Salt Creek – I worked on it in the morning- handwriting 6-7am, into the studio at 9am (roughly), and didn’t leave until I had 1000 words at least. Then my paid editing in the afternoon. At the very end, I stopped all that editing for three weeks and just worked solidly on the ms. I am lucky to have that flexibility. Somehow people make the time.
Great question. The idea of having a 12 month deadline to produce a whole novel from a 5000 word start brings me out in a cold sweat!!!
It brought me out in a cold sweat too! I thought I’d lost my mind. But it was a publisher offering a contract… a powerful motivator.
Have you found that having an online platform has helped the marketing of your book?
I’m not sure – probably not in sales terms. But twitter is good for creating a sense of a larger community. I’ve made some fantastic contacts/friends on Twitter. The other things I just maintain as sort of shopfronts – things for journalists, festival organisers etc. I don’t enjoy spending time on them. They’re a drain on the actual writing – for me anyway. I think these things vary for different writers though.
What’s your hot tip for emerging and aspiring writers?
Get your work out there. Publishers are looking for writers – they really are. Test your work on the market. Be brave. People are incredibly kind, I’ve found. That’s been a nice surprise.
[And there it ended, with a flurry of heartfelt thanks from all the HardCopiers.]
Such great questions. You all must be lovely to work with!
So interesting! Thank you all – I enjoyed it so much, and will look forward to reading your wonderful words!
Want to know more about Lucy Treloar?
Lucy Treloar was born in Malaysia and educated in Melbourne, England and Sweden. A graduate of the University of Melbourne and RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing program, Lucy is a writer, editor, mentor and creative writing teacher and has plied her trades both in Australia and in Cambodia, where she lived for several years.
She was awarded an Asialink Writer’s Residency to Cambodia (2011) to undertake research and to work on her first adult novel, then titled ‘Some Times in Life’. Lucy is the winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize (Pacific), the 2012 Writing Australia Unpublished Manuscript Award and a 2013 Varuna Publisher Fellowship. Her short fiction has appeared in Sleepers, Overland, Seizure, and Best Australian Stories 2013, and her non-fiction in a range of publications.
Want to know more about the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY Program?
Earlier posts about the HARDCOPY program (in order of publication):
- Being accepted;
- First weekend of workshopping;
- Recommended reading;
- A very rough overview of the second weekend of workshops
- What do publishers want?
- Mary Cunnane – wisdom and advice from Australia’s favourite literary agent
- Another HARDCOPY Win!
- How to get your writing read by a publisher (or seven)
The ACT Writers Centre is supported by the ACT Government. HARDCOPY has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.