Drafting a Blurb – the craft of catching a reader

Standard

Once I started thinking about blurbs, it became clear how little I rely on them these days.

I usually choose books to read because I’ve already read or heard about them – on blogs, in reviews, in articles, on podcasts. It’s rare for me to pick up a random book, read the blurb on the back and buy it. Even at the library, whether or not a book takes my fancy seems to very much depend on my mood at exactly that point in time.

But that said, when I pick up that book I’ve seen reviewed, or heard about on a podcast, or saw mentioned in an interview with an author – I still read the blurb. And only then do I either buy or borrow the book, or put it back on the shelf. I can’t imagine choosing a newly released book that didn’t have a blurb (although I reckon a classic might get away with it).

Do you read the blurb on the back? How seriously does it influence your reading choices?

Because here I am, agonizing over the blurb for my own book.

Below is the text I’ve agreed with my editor Read the rest of this entry

Advertisements

How to edit a manuscript

Standard

So the manuscript is returning to me gradually, a few chapters at a time.

My editor at Text, Jane Pearson, met with me before sending any of it back. For over an hour she walked me through the first few chapters, explaining what she’d done and why. It looks pretty confronting on the page but really, that’s because she’s thorough. If two sentences need to be joined into one, she marks up all the relevant punctuation – delete that capital letter, delete that full stop, add a comma. Nothing is assumed, which in fact makes it easier to work through.

There are no vague statements like ‘add more depth’, or ‘this chapter needs to be shorter’.  If I say something in one chapter, then repeat myself a few chapters later, she lets me know exactly where and on which page the repetitions are, and which I should delete, and how.

The first page, pictured on the right, has more comments on it than most others but it gives you a sense of how it looks. Jane kindly drew up a glossary for me, pictured below, so that I could learn and refer back to the editorial symbols she has used. Again, they definitely help me to accurately understand what she is suggesting. With luck I’ll become fluent enough in their use to be able to apply them to my day job.

Jane has suggested no real structural changes – her efforts are more about weaving the narrative more tightly and 99 per cent of the time I think her suggestions are spot on. Then I think very hard about the remaining 1 per cent. At no point has Jane ever suggested I should accept all her changes without consideration. That’s why she edits in pencil, otherwise she could just use Track Changes, I could press ‘Accept All Revisions’, and we’d be done. Instead I have to work through each of her suggestions manually, one at a time. I’m finding it a useful discipline.

Occasionally I pick up an error Jane has missed, which enables me to feel smug for a moment or two (although obviously it was me who made the error in the first place!) And at least once so far I’ve picked up an error Jane couldn’t have known about, where I used the wrong name for someone – referring to Elizabeth Macarthur’s mother as Grace Hathaway instead of Grace Hatherly. I’ve no idea how that happened. I know perfectly well her name was Hatherly.  I’ve looked up Grace’s father; also, obviously, called Hatherly. I’ve spent time wondering if the family was originally from the nearby village of Hatherleigh. No smugness for me then, just an appalled horror about how easily other errors may have crept in…

Jane also provided a few pages explaining her overall thoughts about the manuscript.

It’s wonderfully researched, rich and fascinating and Elizabeth is an enigmatic and intriguing subject. But there is a problem I feel with the balance between the main narrative and the accompanying background and peripheral detail. Getting that balance right is important so that Elizabeth’s story doesn’t get swamped. There’s a need to be selective, to give details which enhance the flavour of the story and of course give necessary scene setting and context, but not to take the narrative too far into these areas.

These comments came as no surprise and I’ve heard plenty of similar comments along the way. You should have seen how much I cut before submitting the manuscript! But Jane is quite right, there is still more cutting to do and it’s very cathartic to simply discard whole paragraphs at a time. And in my view it is much easier to cut than it is to add, so I’m finding it quite pleasant to trim here, and rearrange there. It’s a great deal like gardening, now I think of it, with all the hard work of landscaping, soil preparation and planting already done.

Next steps? Jane has crafted a back-of-the-book blurb for me, which I’ll share with you in a future post. She also mentioned a launch date in April next year, so that’s exciting. I’m meeting with my Text publicist in the next week or two because I want to pick her brains about what happens – and what is expected of me – once my book is out in the world. The publicist (her name is Alice) has sent me long list of questions, about me and about the biography, the answers to which I presume she’ll use to tout the book.

It really does feel like we’re getting to the fun part… stay tuned!

Esther Abrahams – convict, farmer, drinker and an all-round admirable woman

Standard

Esther Abrahams in 1811 (aged 39). State Library of NSW

In July 1786 a teenage girl with dark hair and a long, attractive face, stepped into a shop, took two cards of black lace to the counter and asked the price.

“Twenty-five shillings,” she was told.

Young Esther Abrahams, for that was her name, tartly replied that she would pay no more than a guinea and soon left without buying anything. Moments later, the shop assistant rushed out onto the London street and caught up with Esther, angrily accusing her of theft. Esther denied it, but the shop lady was insistent. The disputed goods were found and, ever so predictably, Esther was charged, jailed and – despite excellent character references – sentenced to transportation. Seven months after the incident in the shop Esther gave birth, inside Newgate Gaol, to a baby girl she called Rosanna.

So far, so very much like every other story of convict-girl-with-heart-of-gold-forced-into-theft-by-circumstances-beyond-her-control.

Except that Esther and her family made a genuine and important difference to the course of Australian history. And she lived quite an interesting life along the way. Oh, and she was Read the rest of this entry

Winner 2017 (Australian) National Biography Award

Standard

The 2017 winner is Before Rupert: Keith Murdoch and the birth of a dynasty by Tom D. C. Roberts (UQP).*

The annual National Biography Award of $25,000 for a published work of biographical or autobiographical writing aims to promote public interest in these genres. The award is administered and presented by the State Library of NSW on behalf of the award’s benefactor Mr Michael Crouch AO.

The total prize value is $31,000 – $25,000 for the winner and $1,000 each for shortlisted authors – making it the richest national prize dedicated to Australian biographical writing and memoir.

The shortlisted works for 2017 were:

  • The Unknown Judith Wright (Georgina Arnott, UWA Publishing)
  • Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow (Suzanne Falkiner, UWA Publishing)
  • Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories (Kim Mahood, Scribe)
  • Evatt: A Life (John Murphy, NewSouth Publishing)
  • The Long Goodbye (P J Parker, Hardie Grant Books)

I wrote about the shortlist here. I confess that I haven’t read the winner and I was barracking for Mahood (Position Doubtful is excellent).

The information below is sourced entirely from the State Library of New South Wales.

Judges’ Comments

Tom D. C. Roberts’ biography of Keith Murdoch reveals how a critical engagement with a life that has been much written about, and richly mythologised, can yield new perspectives and insights, thus liberating the reader from the realm of myth. Before Rupert is deeply scholarly yet utterly accessible and enticing. The author draws on a remarkable range of sources, many for the first time, to show how the founding father succeeded in his boundless ambition. Before Rupert gives readers a new understanding of Keith Murdoch and the genesis of the family dynasty. The subject is thoroughly yet fairly interrogated, or perhaps we should say unmasked. The life is richly contextualised, particularly with reference to war, high politics, modernism and modernity, and notably the advances that Murdoch was quick to add to his newsprint business — radio, newsreels and air travel. With the title as a clue, the full meaning of this legacy builds slowly as the masterly narrative reveals the template for corporate ambition that was handed to Rupert. Roberts has successfully isolated what may well be called the ‘Murdoch gene’.

Roberts has crafted a masterful biography, full of remarkable insights into a celebrated figure in Australian business and political history. This is a full biography in the best sense – from Keith Murdoch’s uncertain beginnings to his spectacular ascendancy in the First World War and on to his corporate and political crusades in the decades thereafter. The coverage of Murdoch’s race fanaticism, his genius for tabloid sensation, his innovations in newspaper enterprise and his interventions in national politics are stand-out features. Before Rupert is distinguished by deep research, an eye for vivid quotation and the wonderful narrative skills of the author.

About the author

Tom Roberts is passionate about uncovering and reanimating tales lying hidden in the archives. His doctoral research at Macquarie University, and membership of its Centre for Media History, laid the groundwork for his writing of Before Rupert. Following its publication, Tom acted as the historical consultant and featured in the BBC’s landmark documentary investigating Keith Murdoch’s actions at Gallipoli. Tom’s work as a researcher has seen him collaborate with some of Britain’s foremost journalists, contributing to the success of numerous nonfiction titles. His latest book, co-authored with Peter Oborne, is How Trump Thinks: His Tweets and the Birth of a New Political Language.

*Apologies for the delay in posting this – the winner was announced weeks ago!

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Standard

Hunger is so raw, poignant and compelling that it hurts to read it.

At the most superficial level Hunger is a memoir about Roxane Gay’s body – specifically her very tall (6’3), very large (200 kgs +) body. Gay details her daily indignities and humiliations as a woman of size moving through a world designed for much smaller people. And if that were all Hunger was about it would probably be enough. But at a deeper level Hunger is really about Gay’s mental discomfort. Her shame, her anger, her guilt and her intellectual awareness of the way those feelings are contradictory to her beliefs, ideas, and values.

  • Gay is an avowed feminist who wishes she were pretty while fully understanding that no woman is ever pretty enough.
  • Gay, an academic with a PhD, understands that to reduce her size she needs to eat less and exercise more yet despite the gyms, the diets, the trainers and the programs she fails to lose weight, over and over again.
  • Gay supports the social movement to accept and celebrate the fat body, although she has little but loathing and hatred for her own.

Early on in the memoir, Gay explains that at the age of twelve she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his mates. At the time, Gay told no-one. But those boys told all their friends and Gay subsequently became known as the school slut. Once more, Gay told no-one. Gay continued to see the boyfriend, who continued to abuse and humiliate her. Again, Gay told no-one. At the end of the school year Read the rest of this entry

2016 – the latest Stella Count

Standard

Women write about two thirds of all the fiction books published in Australia. Yet books written by men are still more likely to be reviewed in the Australian mainstream media. The situation is changing, but very slowly.

The 2016 Stella Count surveys twelve Australian publications – including national, metropolitan and regional newspapers, journals and magazines – in print and online. The Count assesses the extent of gender biases in the field of book reviewing in Australia.

In order to do this, it records the authors, book titles and book genres reviewed, as well as the gender of reviewers, and number and size of reviews published.

For the first time, the 2016 Stella Count also surveyed non-review literary coverage, broadcast reviews on radio and television programs, and cover-to-cover bylines in leading magazines and journals.

For the first time, all twelve of the publications surveyed in the 2016 Count either increased or maintained the percentage of women authors they reviewed compared to the previous year. But the good news ends there.

  • Across all publications in 2016, books by men were more likely to be reviewed by men, and books by women more likely to be reviewed by women.
  • Gains in the reviewing of books by women have been made mainly in relation to small- and medium-length reviews. The long reviews, the feature reviews, are still largely written by men.
  • Of all the titles reviewed in 2016, nonfiction books by men were reviewed more often than any other gender/genre combination – at 28% of the total reviews.

I’ve seen articles where the editors of these publications try to justify their decisions. We have to review the important books, they say. Which of course begs the question – What makes for an important book? Who decides that? It’s too hard to find women book reviewers, they say. Which is one of the reasons behind the establishment of the excellent Australian Women Writers Challenge. Men pitch their reviewing ideas to us more often, they say. Which is just one more instance of putting the onus on women to change their behaviour, instead of thinking about how to change an unfair system.

While the overall figures may be trending in the right direction, unfortunately it is the biggest players in the market who are making the least progress.

  • The Saturday Paper and Weekend Australian magazine routinely favour male writers over women, with women writers accounting for only 35% and 37% of these publications’ total number of bylines respectively.
  • The Monthly’s book-related essays were dominated by coverage of male authors (75%).

Kudos to the Stella Count for tackling this issue. You can read their full report here. The Stella team are also looking at the issue of diversity (or lack thereof) in Australian publishing. See this article in The ConversationDiversity, the Stella Count and the whiteness of Australian publishing.

So now I’m judging a writing competition

Standard

With some trepidation, I recently said yes to judging a writing competition. The Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition  for short stories and creative non-fiction. Sian Prior is judging the non-fiction and Mark Brandi and I are judging the fiction.

Yes, there are a lot of entries to read. Yes, the stories vary widely. And of course picking a winner is not an easy task.

So what insights can I give you into the judging process? Read the rest of this entry