Monday, 31 August 2015

Softcopy: The Road to Self-Publishing an e-journal

‘The road to publication can be rough, take snacks and a friend’ – Elizabeth Hein

Three of us were crammed into my spare room with homemade muffins, chocolate-chip buns, a whiteboard, a laptop and an idea. We had already met a few times, and the plan was taking shape. We felt bold, excited and a little shaky – we intended to create a literary e-journal for emerging writers.

Last year I was one of thirty writers selected for the HARDCOPY 2014 program at the ACT Writers Centre. It was there that I met two friends, Lesley Boland and George Dunford, who would share the road to publication for Softcopy.

The choice to go digital was something we debated. But not for too long. Forums like Facebook and YouTube have over 13 million users each. In 2004 the amount of time people spent on the Internet was around six hours per week. By 2014 it had risen to 17.5 hours per week. If that seems like a lot, it might surprise you to learn that book readers spend above average time online compared to non-readers. With this in mind, we decided to embark on a pathway to independent online publishing.

One decision down. About fifty more to be made. What do we call the journal? Do we have the technical skills to make it happen? What are our design values? Can we secure the URL we need? How often will we publish? Do we have submission guidelines and will anyone want to submit their work? Will we finish our own stories in time? How will we edit? Assuming we make it to publication, will anybody read it?

Some of these decisions were straight forward. Others required cake, coffee, alcohol.

For the inaugural edition, we decided to focus on our fellow participants from HARDCOPY 2014, with sixteen submissions forming the basis of Softcopy Edition 1. George secured the Softcopy URL and provided suggestions on design. Lesley applied her expert organisational skills to editing and version control. I learnt how to use HTML so our stories could be wrangled into the online environment in a consistent format. We juggled jobs, writing and families while we tried to keep up the tempo to complete publication.

Since its launch in May 2015, Softcopy continues to be a success. With more than 1000 unique views in its first two days, Softcopy has proven to be an exciting platform to showcase the work of emerging writers.

The road from concept, through writing and editing, to publication, was a journey of around six months. When I’m asked what I think the key learnings from this experience have been, three things come to mind:
  1. Have the courage to back your ideas
  2. Build a team that shares the vision and has complementary skills
  3. Never lose sight of the important cultural work that storytelling performs.
A few months on, and with rucksacks stuffed full of ideas, we are ready for the next contour on the cultural landscape.

Softcopy Edition 2 will shortly be calling for submissions from emerging writers.

This blog post is part of my Blogger in Residence with the ACT Writers Centre and first appeared in Capital Letters

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Best Things in Life are Free: Copyright and Me

Not much these days is completely free, but copyright is both free and automatic. Copyright involves your moral authority to assert that you are the creator of your work.

In Australia copyright lasts for seventy years after the death of the author. So if you have written that bestseller, make sure you have made arrangements in your will so that these rights are appropriately managed.

As the copyright holder you can reasonably expect that others will seek your permission to quote from or use excerpts of your work. You should consider registering with the Copyright Agency  to enable others to appropriately seek and pay for licensing/using your work.

Alternately you may wish to make your work public and free for anyone to use. If this is your preference, consider using Creative Commons

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Only in Books?

The question is, are we happy to suppose that our grandchildren may never be able to see an elephant except in a picture book? David Attenborough

The ability to read is one of life's great privileges. Reading allows us to navigate our world and to share the creative and imaginative space with others.

Books, as repositories of knowledge, enable our species to record information and store it for the future. A book is a form of memory.

Some have argued that the book is in decline, somewhat like the elephant, but I would argue that the capacity to digitise also allows preservation. With the invention of the digital age, e-books, digital publishing strategies, online databases and libraries can provide unprecedented access to this cultural form. 

Let's wish a long and happy future for both books and elephants.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

No Ragrets

Blogger in Residence, Christine McPaul, caught up with Angela Meyer of LiteraryMinded to find out about her experience as an author, editor and blogger.

If there was a single word to describe your writing journey what would that be?
Intertextual. I am/my work is completely the product of every text I’ve absorbed.
Do you remember the first time you had something published? Could you describe the way you felt? Could you describe the process you undertook?
It would have been a review in Books+Publishing magazine, but more exciting was my first short story publication – though I can’t remember if it was the one in Hecate or Lip Magazine! I remember the room I was in. I remember the feeling of overwhelming joy bubbling up and the way I exclaimed out loud. I guess I was about 21. Every time I have a story accepted it still feels that good. Sometimes there are a lot of rejections in between. But I’m also lucky enough to have gotten to a point where I am now sometimes asked to contribute to a publication.
Were there any significant mentors/supporters who really assisted you when you were starting out?
Yes. Growing up in regional Australia it was a bit different to where I now live in Melbourne. My Oma used to write and encouraged me early, so did a few influential teachers. But Peter Bishop is someone who really saw something in my work as an adult, before many people did, in my early 20s. Peter was the director of Varuna Writers Centre in the Blue Mountains, and has nurtured many great writers. He read my first novel manuscript when he was travelling around to regional places, meeting with writers, and he gave me the feedback I needed (basically, it’s not great, but keep writing). Then, along with a panel, he chose my next manuscript for a residency at Varuna. We had some great and very real conversations about life, writing, and death. I’ll never forget it. I had come from a place where I felt a little starved, to be honest, of intellectual or philosophical (or even just honest, or raw) conversation, not to mention conversations that go deep into ideas of story, character, literary style, and what it even means to be a writer. That manuscript was unpublishable, too, in the end, but it was absolutely worth writing and working on because I learnt so much about my own concerns as a writer and I was on my way to finding better ways to express them, thanks to Peter’s encouragement, and then many others once I landed in Melbourne.
How did that first publication influence your writing career?
I wouldn’t say the short story had much impact on my ‘career’ as a writer, but it was an encouragement to keep writing them. But the first review – that certainly kicked off a whole, completely unexpected career as a book blogger and professional reviewer, which led to work also as a book industry journalist, and frequent festival chair, and eventually contributed to the range of experience which got me my current job in publishing.
If you could have your time as a writer over again, what would you do differently?
no ragrets
You’ve been asked to conduct a workshop for the ACT Writers Centre. In what ways do you think your workshop will benefit emerging writers?
I’m conducting TWO workshops! And both are aimed at inspiring emerging writers and giving them some mad skillz. I’ve been teaching ‘flash fiction’ for a while, as my book, Captives, is a collection of these tiny stories. I really enjoy introducing students to this small, satisfying form. At the end of the day they’ll even have completed a story or two!
My ‘reading to write’ workshop is very close to my heart. There’s no way my writing would have improved so much over the past ten years if I hadn’t also been such a voracious reader, and someone who had to ‘close read’ books for review, for study, for competition judging, and in my work now as an editor. I will encourage the students in this workshop to see their joyous reading time as something that can also be helpful in their development as writers. (And you get to spend time in the workshop banging on about your favourite book, which is always fun.)
Is there any general advice you can give emerging writers?
Others have said it before me, and better than me, but just read a lot and write a lot. Be dedicated. Love it. And go to those places you fear going to. Your writing will be better for it.

This piece first appeared on Capital Letters, the blog of the ACT Writers Centre, as part of my Blogger in Residence.
Thank you to Angela Meyer who generously answered my questions.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Persistence Pays

Persistence Pays. This was the advice from industry expert, Mary Cunnane, when asked what she would tell writers who were starting out.

This persistence can take many forms. Here are my five tips:

1. Keep Writing. This seems so obvious, and yet I often hear people bemoan the range of activities and issues that prevent them from writing. Set a regular time (first thing in the morning, when the kids have gone to bed, at the soccer game, on the bus). It doesn't matter when or where. Keep your notebook or writing device with you and start. Make a commitment to yourself that you will write for 30 minutes each day. It will add up.

2. Join a Writers Group. If you love to write, you probably also love to read. So join a writers group and be the first to read what one day might be a bestseller. Writers groups can provide support and knowledgeable feedback. Learn to give constructive critiques about the writing you read and the other members will thank you.

3. Research the Industry. One way to become successful is to be well connected and well informed. For those unfamiliar with the publishing industry, having an idea about current trends, what publishers want, and how to position your work in the market place will help. With the rise in electronic sources of information, and social media, it is easier than ever. All reputable publishers have websites, Facebook or Twitter accounts. Follow them.

4. Become a Member of Your Writers Centre. These are a wonderful source of information. Not only become a member, but attend some of the workshops they offer. Writers centres are starting to explore online chat sessions, so distance is no excuse.

5. Learn from Rejections. We will all receive rejections. The important thing is to learn from them. Occasionally a rejection will include some feedback. Try to set your emotional response aside and take it on board. Even when no feedback is provided, think about whether your work is suited to that style of publisher. Perhaps you need to refine your query letter, or do a better copy edit on your manuscript. Publishers (and agents) have specific requirements for submission - check that you have complied. Each rejection offers an opportunity to learn about the industry and about your writing.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Homme de Whom?

An insightful article by Catherine Nichols about pitching your work under an homme de plume made me reflect on the construction of a writing identity and on the nature of identity more generally.

When we tell ourselves (and others) who we are, this identity is encoded with our social and cultural environment. This story, this narrative of identity, is simultaneously credible and fabricated. Although people use pseudonyms in all fields - sport, entertainment, music, business - it is perhaps in writing that the credible fabrication touches most directly on the matter of gender. 

For example, it is unlikely that many people could name a novel by Mary Ann Evans, but if I mentioned George Eliot, her homme de plume, Middlemarch comes easily to mind. Likewise, the talented Bronte sisters, Charlotte and Emily, respectively wrote Jane Eyre as Currer Bell and Wuthering Heights as Ellis Bell. At a time when few women operated in the public domain, these savvy writers understood that they needed to fabricate a credible male persona if their society was to take them seriously as authors. 

Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin explored the malleability of gender further, not only writing as George Sand, but cross-dressing. She also smoked tobacco, something considered a male prerogative, further destabilising the writer's gendered identity.

Lest we think that these credible fabrications are simply historical curiosities, contemporary women writers have found it useful to construct their writing identity with an eye to the question of gender. Two that come to mind are Joanne Rowling and Erika Leonard.

Writing for a market of young/teenage boys, J K Rowling can be seen as an attempt at a neutral (read non-female) pseudonym that harks back to J R R Tolkien, another writer of an imaginary world. Robert Galbraith, Rowling's homme de plume for her crime fiction, sat uneasily in the discourse around the books in that series. Perhaps adopting a male first name was a step too far, pushing a boundary already demarcated by her earlier use of initials. J K Galbraith might have been more credible for a female crime fiction writer. Just ask P D James.

Another female writer using initials and a male name as part of her homme de plume is Erika Leonard. Writing as E L James, her Fifty Shades of Grey became a worldwide success. It should come as no surprise that the Fifty Shades Trilogy deals with questions of sexuality and identity.

The experiences described by Catherine Nichols, who discovered that her work was more positively received when it was pitched with an homme de plume, points to the longstanding and dynamic relationship between writing identities and the expectations of agents, publishers and readers. 

There is cause for optimism though. Like gender, identity involves endless, iterative and potentially transgressive constructions. Because writing identities are ultimately narratives, who better to create one than a female author?

Monday, 3 August 2015


Isn't it interesting how poems stay with you years after you first hear them?

The Owl and the Pussycat conjures up a fantastical world where animals speak and take on human qualities.

Their possessions fill me with an envy arguably the colour of the 'beautiful pea green boat'. Oh, to have a small guitar, not to mention a five pound note and that runcible spoon!

Read your children poetry - or better still, write some for them.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Emerging is Hard Work

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up
and go to work.”―Stephen King On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Beetles, bees, butterflies and fleas share something with writers – they all have to emerge if they are to be successful.

Sarah Vincent, membership officer at Writers Victoria, suggests that making this leap from emerging to published writer requires hard work and a preparedness to engage with the writing community. Mary Cunnane echoes this sentiment, believing it requires both talent and commitment.

This engagement can take many forms. According to Vincent, a committed emerging writer will go to literary events, volunteer to help at writing festivals or to support their local writing organisations. Many undertake short courses or study writing at a tertiary level. Belonging to a writing group is another way to seek constructive critiques of your work while making connections.

The important thing though, argues Cunnane, is to just keep writing and submitting. It takes effort to do this, needing both time for the creative process and attention to the various submission guidelines. When asked for advice at a writing workshop, Kate Llewellyn once replied: ‘Put things in envelopes!’ Although many submissions are now accepted online, the message is still the same – no-one will be able to read your work unless you submit it.

Even if you live in a regional area, or have other family or personal circumstances that make it difficult to attend literary festivals and workshops, you can submit online. Many writers centres and blogs provide lists of competitions as well as journals calling for submissions. If you are in any doubt about whether publishers read Australian literary journals, they do. Vincent recommends Kill Your DarlingsThe Lifted BrowOverland, and Meanjin as places to aim for.

Of course, not everyone can be published in these major literary journals, so building a credible writing biography can be a challenge. It comes back to commitment and professionalism. For Vincent it is about creating signposts that can indicate your literary journey. Being a member of your local Writers Centre is easy, essential and should form part of any writing biography. You could also consider applying for manuscript development programs such as at Varuna, or professional development programs like HARDCOPY, run by the ACT Writers Centre.

Seeking out a mentor is another option as an emerging writer. Cunnane acknowledges that mentoring can be valuable in any field, although she suggests that finding the right ‘fit’ and ‘chemistry’ is important. Vincent agrees, noting that having an independent person to provide honest, informed advice is a wonderful aid to an emerging writer. A mentor can help you hone your potential as you prepare your project for presentation to agents and publishers.

Friends and relatives generally do not make good mentors. Better options are a writing tutor or workshop leader. Alternately, an established writer may be willing to take you under their wing. Writers, at all stages, are very generous towards other writers, according to Vincent, but if you have not come across a ‘natural’ mentor, consider hiring one through your local Writers Centre.

Vincent once heard a commissioning publisher say, ‘If you work hard, have a great voice and an interesting story to tell, you will get published. No doubt.’ Cunnane points to her favourite motto: persistence pays. The common denominator here is that you have to work hard and be prepared to be in it for the long haul.

Remember, it’s not the pupa you leave behind that matters, it’s what you become.

This piece first appeared on Capital Letters, the blog of the ACT Writers Centre, as part of my Blogger in Residence.
Thank you to Mary Cunnane and Sarah Vincent who generously answered my questions.