When Rebecca Higgie won the inaugural Fogarty Literary award, she received $20,000 and a publishing contract with Fremantle Press, which she says, after working on her book for 12 years, was a dream come true. What she didn’t realise was that the work had only just begun.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Business of Being a Writer seminar organised by Fremantle Press on 22 February 2020, where Higgie hosted a panel on preparing your manuscript for awards, which I found particularly interesting. During the workshop, three publishers Georgia Richter (fiction, narrative non-fiction and poetry publisher at Fremantle Press), Terri-ann White (director and publisher at UWA Publishing) and Rachel Bin Salleh (publisher at Magabala Books) shared their tips, wisdom and pet peeves regarding everything to do with manuscripts.
How do you feel about multiple submissions?
Bin Salleh: ‘Hell yeah. We’re human, and we completely get it.’
The general consensus regarding this question was that it is perfectly acceptable to submit to a few places, as waiting for a response can be a slow process. Etiquette is to let publishers know when the manuscript is out for consideration with multiple publishers, and if it gets accepted elsewhere.
How can a writer best edit their book before submission?
Bin Salleh’s advice is to keep doing whatever you’re doing until it no longer works for you, then, open up to new ways of thinking. If you are unsure about certain parts of your manuscript, you should read it aloud, like a ‘lunatic loose in the attic upstairs’.
White acknowledges that sitting in a room alone writing what you think is a masterpiece isn’t likely to ever result in a good book. Be an active reader; be in the world! Being in a writing group is a fantastic shortcut to the completion of a manuscript. Learning how to give feedback and engage with other people’s writing will help with your own. Make sure that there are a few people in the group who are not afraid to pick the writing apart and give you constructive criticism.
Richter says that you should never submit your first draft to a publisher. Before submitting, you need to take your manuscript as far as you possibly can – draw on feedback from trusted critics to help you with this process.
What is the worst mistake you most often come across in manuscript submissions?
Bin Salleh is a no-nonsense person and recognises her answer as subjective. She advises against using too many words. Rather than a torrent of adjectives, she wants to be taken away with the story.
Richter advises writers not to send in an uncooked manuscript. The submission should have gone through multiple iterations before it is ready.
When White gets a piece of work that is ‘too confident’ submitted for an award, she wants everything to be brought down a little and its measure to be found. She particularly dislikes ‘weird’ formatting styles. Especially wingdings. Avoid wingdings.
What do you look for in a manuscript?
While Richter looks for promise in the work and the feeling that she’s ‘in good hands,’ she doesn’t expect it to look like the polished end product that will appear in bookstores. She is often drawn to something larger than itself, by which she means ‘a story we feel other readers will think is new and untold,’ bigger than one author telling their story and giving the unheard a voice. This is one element that helps publishers to see a destination or market for the book.
What White looks for in a manuscript is pleasure, passion and modesty. She is not plot driven, and instead is interested in language and distinctive voices. Her technique is to look initially at the first line, the last and something in the middle.
Similarly, Bin Salleh looks for storytelling, voice and authenticity rather than structure. Does the writer have a connection to the reader? Do they understand the audience they’re writing for? Have they stuck to the genre?
A conversation about editing:
Richter explains the actual stages of editing a writer can expect when their work is accepted for publication. The editor should get your work and be excited, feeling they are the right person for it. Edits will start large and gradually become more and more specific. When you ‘push the work and it no longer wobbles,’ you know it’s done. Then you get your advance copy, and then comes marketing. The responsibilities of an editor include any potential issues around defamation and permissions – is anyone in your life going to be very angry about the publication of this work? One must take into account that a manuscript existing is very different to a book being published.
White notes that the relationship a writer will have with their editor is nuanced and empathetic, needing to be invested in just like all others. She discusses what should be done if a writer and editor find themselves really disagreeing. If the publisher is separate from the editor, writers should speak with them regarding how to actually deal with that conflict. However, White mentions she has never had to place a manuscript with a ‘next’ editor. More often than not it is helpful to sit on the manuscript for a while and see what comes of it. It is important to remember that the editor is never trying to ‘take over’ a manuscript but to make it better than the writer could have on their own, while honouring the writer’s vision. There should be no shame attached to making large changes as long as they are working.
Bin Salleh states that editing is always a bit like ‘eating a shit sandwich,’ no matter how open and flexible you are. Even if you fully trust your editor, it is uncomfortable to be challenged on what you’ve written. Some of the things a writer may think are important and true might not actually be important to the plot. Writers should remember that their editor is the best person to talk to as they actually live in the world of the manuscript. The reader isn’t ‘in the trenches’ as the book is being created.
If you are interested in submitting a manuscript, check out the following awards suggested by the three publishers: Daisy Utemorrah Award (Magabala), Dorothy Hewett Award (UWAP), Fogarty Literary Award and City of Fremantle Hungerford Award (Fremantle Press).
About the author
Baran Rostamian is a second-year student studying English Literature and Law and Society at the University of Western Australia. She is also a current participant in the Inclusion Matters mentoring program for emerging local writers from CALD backgrounds at the Centre for Stories. In her spare time, Baran enjoys bubble tea, cats and critiquing French cinema.