Cristy Burne

Author, editor, science writer


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15 things I learned redrafting my novel: how to edit your own work

Regular readers may remember a post I made this time last year, after I emptied a bottle of water into my laptop case and drowned my WIP.

Today, a year later (!), I’m STILL working on the same book, draft 15, to be precise. It’s never taken me this long to finish a book before, but I’ve learned a lot along the way.

15 things I learned redrafting my novel

1) Better Out Than In
Don’t wait around for the perfect book. I wrote the first ending for this book in a flurry of activity. Almost none of that ending survives, but because I’d finished writing, I could start editing. You can’t sell half a book. But you can work on a mediocre book to make it better.

2) Time Really Helps
Each time I finish a draft, I think I’ve written The Final Draft. By the time I get around to reading The Final Draft again, I see errors in logic, continuity problems and rushed writing. This is one of the rare cases where being able to write only sporadically is very useful.

3) Beta Readers Really Help
Swallow your embarrassment and Just Do It. Ask a book-savvy friend to read your manuscript and give Big Picture Advice. This includes things like: I don’t think this scene is necessary, your ending sucks, have you thought about making more of this point, etc. This does not include things like: You made a typo on page 96.

4) Rewriting Really Helps
I have rewritten over and again, killing characters, shifting motivations, driving trucks across town and then back again only to explode the truck and move to a different city. And the more I write, the closer I get to something that actually works.

5) Throwing Out Scenes Really Helps
Deleting half-baked scenes frees me up. It’s fiction, after all, so you can bend and meld the story to your will. Forced scenes can be cut and better scenes can be written.

6) You Need To Make A Hole To Fill A Hole
Did I mention throwing out scenes? I threw out my main character, the main plot and main premise. But I finally learned that you sometimes need to make a hole to fill a hole. Don’t be afraid to prune like mad.

7) Not Writing Makes Me Cranky
I can’t go more than three or four days without working on my WIP. Any longer and I lose my grip on the story and its challenges. Plus, I start to resent anything that postpones my writing, which does not make for pleasant company.

8) Writing Too Much Makes Me Cranky
Writing for mega-long stretches (like I used to pre-children) makes me cranky too. The solution is an uninterrupted hour or three at the keyboard. One luxurious morning in a coffee shop. I appreciate these things so, so much.

9) Talking To Other Writers Is Inspiring
Join a critique group, do a writing workshop, meet a writerly friend, let seeds of info and encouragement filter through. Your WIP will love you for it. I play with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, am inspired by students from my writing workshops, attend writing expos, festivals and library nights. All of it helps.

10) Pen And Paper Work Differently
I’ve spent hours on the couch with pen and paper, working through plot options the Old-Fashioned Way. Pen and paper free you up to scribble and cross-out. I make flowcharts and diagrams, I propose a new course for my novel. Then, I go write it.

11) Tea And Coffee Work Differently.
A pot of green tea works for long, sustained, flowing concentration. A short mac works for turbo-boosting through a difficult bit of manuscript. (Two short macs works for tossing and turning all night, wishing I could sleep.)

12) Hard Work Is Worth It
Each of my books has taken longer to write than the last, and not just because of life being busy. Aiming for growth is hard, but it’s also satisfying. Stretch your boundaries; you can always un-stretch when you need to.

13) The Story Is More Important Than The Writing
There’s no point polishing a scene when you’re going to cut it a week later. What’s more important than writing is story. If you have a well-structured, clever and compelling story, your writing will flop over this skeleton like a decorative shroud. You can decorate and colour and primp and preen all you like, but if the skeleton’s flawed, you’re losing the battle.

14) The Writing Is More Important Then The Talking-About-Writing
Bum-On-Seat is the only way to finish a book. I tried new software, new desk, new theory, new bribes. The only proven way is to sit down and write.

15) There Will Always Be Another Draft
I know there’s more that can be done. There always is. But at some point you need to type The End and take a risk. If you’ve done the best you can, hopefully it’ll grab an editor’s attention. For me, it’s nearly that time. And that leads to Rejection, but that’s another post, and shall be told another time.

Good luck and happy editing!

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How to get published: a second year of secrets at the Perth Writers Festival

The secret’s out!

This time, last year, I was secretly pregnant and attending the 2011 ABC of Publishing seminar at the Perth Writers Festival.

This year, my secret is literally out, so I took him (3-months-old already!) and sat at the very back of Publishing: The Whole Shebang.

Since I could only sit for as long as he would quietly sleep, my coverage of the seminar is incomplete, but…I did grab some choice quotes from the first session of the day. Thanks to everyone who spoke and to storyteller and MC Glenn Swift for a fabulous and interesting morning!

Shona Martyn, publishing director for Australia and New Zealand at HarperCollins

What is she looking for? “It’s not all about money, but it is about books we can sell.” Shona publishes around 150 new Australian books every year. Of these around 40 are childrens books, 40 are fiction, and the rest are non-fiction or from the ABC books list. Around 30% of HarperCollins books now sell through BigW, including commercial and literary fiction.

What are your chances? Shona’s keen on manuscripts arriving via an agent, “someone who can target individuals within the organisation and knows how they may respond to a particular manuscript”.

No agent? Shona recommended entering awards such as the HarperCollins Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development, administered via the wonderfully inspiring Varuna House. (I had a couple of weeks at Varuna a few years back and it was amazing…tapping away up there in the treetops, I felt I was a writer for the first time.)

Any advice? Shona stressed that you need to do your homework before you submit anything: first impressions count, she said, so don’t send your manuscript too soon, and research the publishers you send it to: know their specialities. She also said writers courses and writing workshops were “very worthwhile.”

End comment? “Research, and professionalism. That’s the best advice I can give you.”

Erica Wagner, children’s publisher at Allen and Unwin

What’s hot? Erica mentioned trends in:

  • series
  • YA or crossover novels (with appeal to young adults and adults)
  • graphic novels
  • mid-level fiction (10- to 12-year-olds)
  • Indigenous stories (“These books could be put out as adult books, but to me it’s really important that children read them.”)

What’s not? The non-fiction market, says Erica, has “just fallen right away.” There’s also been a general downturn in book sales, partly because of the crash of REDgroup retail (booksellers Borders and Angus & Robertson), which effectively removed 20% of the market. To illustrate, Erica pointed out that where once a picture book print run might have been 3000 or 4000 copies, it’s now just 1500 or 2000 copies. (But, the news was not all gory: she also said book club sales are on the rise and that a book club order can add 3500 or 4000 copies to a print run.)

And what about apps? Apps? What apps? “We have yet to discover a business model that works,” says Erica. Apparently the people who make apps only want to work for real money (as opposed to the people who make books, who seem prepared to work for next to nothing)(and yes, that includes me!)

What is she looking for? Erica works three days a week and paints in her spare time. She refuses to get bogged down in the business of publishing. “The way I cope is to focus on the content,” she says. And that means you need your story to explode off the page. Erica said she’s always hoping to discover “a stunning new voice,”(and wow, that hit me hard. My work doesn’t just have to be ‘good enough’. It has to be ‘stunning’. That’s an awesome call-to-arms! Yee ha! Inspiring stuff!)

No agent? Fear not! You can still get your manuscript to the people who need to read it. Check out Allen & Unwin’s Friday Pitch for the low-down on submitting to their weekly slush pile (but a slush pile that will get read!). (The Friday Pitch has a tiny two-week turnaround. Bravo Allen & Unwin!)

Any advice? “The most important thing is knowing where you’re going to sit in the shelves on a bookshop. What will your book sit next to? What is it competiting with?”

Henry Rosenbloom, of independent Melbourne publishers, Scribe.

What is he looking for? Serious non-fiction and fiction. Henry is a passionate publisher and will pass on a commercially viable book if he doesn’t agree with its politics. “It’s important we have a very good book available on issues that are current. There must be a strong case for why your book should come into existence. ” This policy is paying off: Scribe were Small Publisher of the Year in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011.

What are your chances? Scribe put out 60 to 65 books a year, but only about a quarter of these are sourced from Australia. Henry said there are two reasons for this:

1) By going overseas, Henry can access very good, quality books that are unavailable to him on the Australian market (because they get snapped up by the larger publishing houses), and

2) Going overseas is simpler: Since Scribe doesn’t have to create or edit the books, they can publish more books. “We employ roughly 12 people, not all full-time,” says Henry. “If we tried to put out 60 books in a year, everybody would be dead in about three months.”

So what are your chances? “We take punts on debut fiction all the time, and sometimes those bets pay off.” But today’s industry-wide Australian book sales figures for February, says Henry, indicated a 29% drop on last year’s sales. “The book industry in Australia is in a state of transition, to put it politely,” he says. “To put it more directly, it is in a state of crisis.” Aussie book sales, he says, are not just declining, “they’re falling off the back of a cliff,” and the same thing, he says, is happening in America and the UK.  “At least half the books we publish fail.”

If you want your non-fiction book to sell, Henry recommends you either be an expert in your field, or have an “extremely compelling” memoir.

No agent? Send a professionally writen letter. “First impressions are vital. All that letter does is get you through the door, but without it, you can’t get through at all.”  Henry suggested submissions to Scribe have about a two-week turnaround. (More efficiency for nervous writers…thanks Scribe!)

Any advice? What makes a successful work of fiction? “It’s the voice. It’s the story. It’s the character. It’s the plot. It’s none of those and all of those. It’s being captivated by what you are reading.”

Question time…

Question time yielded more interesting tidbits, two of which really grabbed me:

Would you take a self-published book?
Yes, Yes, and Yes. Although all three publishers indicated that if you want to pursue this route, you need to show you have readers for your book, and that your market hasn’t already been exhausted.

Should writers write to trends?
Shona: “Write what you care about, and be aware of trends. Go for what you know.”
Erica: “I can’t bear to think of trends. By the time you’re written and published you might be at the very end of a trend.”
Henry: “It’s very hard to publish cynically and succeed. Don’t write cynically. You have to write what you know about, care about and believe in.”
(I think that’s ‘no’, ‘no’, and ‘no’?)

So there you go…and that was only the first session!!

Can anyone suggest any links to coverage of the rest of the program? It was lovely fun playing peek-a-boo under the trees, but it did mean I missed large chunks of the day!

Cheers and see you at the festival!