Posted on November 1, 2018 by ACT Writers Centre
By Jen Seyderhelm.
From feeling like the lurking impostor in the room, to proudly donning the title of ‘Writer’, 2017 Hardcopier and 2018 Hardcopy blogger, Jen Seyderhelm, shares what she gained from this rich writing and publishing development program. (Hint, if you look carefully at this piece, you’ll see Jen’s had a little fun spelling something out.)
Applications for the 2019 HARDCOPY: nonfiction program will open in early 2019.
Have you ever fantasised about walking into a bookstore and seeing a person walk out clutching YOUR BOOK to their chest?
I’ve had so many 3am uncontrollable spells of intensive writing without the foggiest of how to tame these vomit briefs (believe me, this is a ‘thing’) into something cohesive. When I sent my stuff off via post or email, how did I know if my manuscript reached an actual person? Were my musings unspeakably execrable? How could I possibly consider myself a writer when I don’t have anything tangible to show for it?
I applied for HARDCOPY in 2017 as a lark. I was so certain I would be rejected. Once accepted I felt that fabulous imposter syndrome. Without any qualifications or published work, I was clearly the elephant in the room. Everyone felt so much better than me. But, and I will return to this later, I kept hearing my inner voice tell me that I had to give this a crack. I needed to write.
Are you confused by the bewildering world of agents, publishers and editors?
As part of HARDCOPY you are fortunate to have access to a representative from every corner of the publishing industry. Even booksellers and social media experts are covered. I have lingering memories of the first weekend spent with freelance editor Nadine Davidoff who, despite saying she doesn’t write herself because she hasn’t yet had the inspiration, waxed lyrical on the perfectly nuanced sentence. She spoke of setting up chapters contrary to your expectation. Thinking about your audience. Writing in your voice.
There are so many people involved in the chain that dictates whether your book will see the light of day. Author Leife Shallcross, who also happens to be a HARDCOPY alumnus, was told she was going to get published only to have the person who had chosen her book up and leave the company. That same book, The Beast’s Heart, still went ahead, and deservedly so.
Luck is involved. You too are part of each step of the process. That’s obvious, you say, I’m writing the damn thing. HARDCOPY shows you that you are also responsible for the promotion of this marvellous wad of paper you have created. And the promotion of yourself. You become a sellable entity, and the better you are prepared for this, the easier it is for a publisher or agent to market you.
Oh, that heartless word!
Every single day, every single session, rejection was present in the room. How to deal with it when inevitably you receive it. Authors who had received multiple ‘Thanks, but no,’ letters but persisted and eventually found their niche in the market. Editors and publishers showing how to best avoid the dreaded response by making sure that what you sent out in the first place was in the specifications that your intended audience required. Making sure you weren’t binned before being read because you exceeded the allotted count by 20 words. I had always thought that you were giving them a bonus—they think you can’t read instructions.
As part of HARDCOPY you are put into a small group with around four other aspiring writers. You share your chapters and are expected to read your colleagues and be able to offer both support and critique for each other. We were all so vastly different in our writing styles, my group. We all gave each other respect and feedback. Due to our inexperience, and being nice people, we were loath to offer harsh criticism as, after all, what would we know? I can recall my cohort’s book excerpts clearly and the heart and soul that went into them. I remember all their names and keep an eye out for their published work. Anne, Shannyn, Belinda and Hannah, thank you.
I had a moment in 2017 where Nadine Davidoff walked over, looked me in the eye and said, “Who is your book for, Jen? What is its hook and purpose?” I cannot tell you how this crushed me at the time because I did not know the answer. I knew it less when in the final weekend of Intro2Industry I discovered that copyright issues would mean that my book, in its current incarnation, would never, ever get an agent OR a publisher. These things were not the fault of HARDCOPY and I’ve realised that the asking of such questions by Nadine, plus practical information about the research and permission that is required for a nonfiction book stopped me from giving up entirely. I know my book better now. I’ve fixed my mistakes.
Don’t quit your day job.
The second most common theme during HARDCOPY, alongside rejection, was of the penniless writer variety. Every author espoused it. I couldn’t believe how many held full time jobs while somehow finding time to write as well. Turns out they have to.
Becoming a rich and famous author is about the same odds of becoming a supermodel; only a very small percentage of us have the right body of work. Sometimes becoming a rich, famous and recognised author can be like playing an acting role that you are forever identified with. You are always seeking the same success. You can get locked into a set of books on the same theme when you’ve moved on. You feel forced to write the same scenarios over and over just with different place and character names. Sounds awful.
In the 2017 nonfiction group, I think it is fair to say that most of my cohort didn’t want riches and fame; instead they sought respect and admiration from their peers for the time, effort and research that went into the necessary accuracy required for such work.
My nonfiction book was about me and my life through pop music. I hoped that Oprah would read it and then decree that every person on the planet should own a copy. So yes, I hoped for fame and fortune, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with hoping that your book might someday, somehow, change someone else’s world. I learned too that it was important to not write for yourself but to keenly see your work through the eyes of your audience. On that note—
Can you see your audience?
You give your manuscript to your best friend to read. He or she loves it. Tells you not to change anything because it is so brilliant. You then give it to your Uncle Bill, who used to be a parliamentary script writer, because your Mum told you to. He says there is way too much young person stuff and no one will understand. He spends a further hour telling you about how writing was so much better in his day.
You submit it to HARDCOPY and are accepted. It must have some merit, right? But perhaps you are a little like I was; I thought that if I wrote, my readers would just galvanise all over the world and somehow sense that their masterpiece has finally emerged ready to purchase via good bookstores everywhere. Goodreads reviews would be universally 5 out of 5. Everyone was my audience; they just didn’t realise it yet.
This was my greatest lesson from HARDCOPY, and not a lesson I truly understood until well into this year. As mentioned the HARDCOPY group I was allocated into have been immensely supportive of me as a writer, but they are not my audience. Because they know me, like my Mum and my best friend, they’ll likely buy my book or attend a function near where they live because they care about me, but my book is not really for them. Your friends and writer network are immensely important though because they read your rough drafts, tell you that you’ll get published and come to each and every event to support you. And you will do the same in return.
During HARDCOPY 2017 I made two friends, Bede and Laura, who approached me upon hearing my book spiel as it was then, and said that they would read my book. On hearing theirs, unequivocally I would do the same. They understood and identified with what I was trying to achieve with my writing. I’ve remained in active contact with them both because we are each other’s audience. I cannot rely on my friends to buy ten thousand copies of my books to languish in their garages out of kindness. I needed to find my people who will actually find something of themselves in my characters, or something of what they want to become.
Being able to sell your idea is also very important. I interviewed the author Margaret Morgan about her book The Second Cure and the Conflux Festival which celebrates all forms of speculative fiction. I didn’t know what speculative fiction was until I scheduled the interview. I am also not a science fiction or fantasy reader. Ever. But Margaret spun me a web about her strong female characters who lose their inhibitions via a parasite that invades human’s brains, particularly in Queensland (Margaret I hope I broadly did your book justice). So impressed was I by the love she invested in her characters—and the concept that an uninhibited populace of women in Queensland could affect the whole of Australia—that I decided I would buy and read Margaret’s book, even though I didn’t think I was her audience.
On my own.
The sweet bliss of subtly dropping in a song title as a header which virtually no one but tragic music buffs like myself will have heard of. So much of writing is pleasing yourself with your words and language, you have to remember that you are actually hoping someone else will derive pleasure from it too.
I heard this fabulous story during one of the 2018 sessions where a very famous author whose name I can’t remember (okay I can, but I’m not dobbing) was doing the publicity trail for their newly released tome. On being asked to talk this person got up and said,
“I thought the whole purpose of writing was so I didn’t have to actually speak to any of you again.”
Then they sat down and refused to say any more.
Writers are introverts. I’ve yet to meet one who has said differently. We find it hard to sell ourselves, our books and be the bubbly exponents we seem to see on Sunrise regularly. Tips on this (the bubbly bit, not the refusal to speak) are also provided via HARDCOPY. The whole process of writing is usually almost entirely intimate. If you spend all this time, by yourself, writing, writing, writing, how do you know it’s not a pile of manure? Every author experienced crises of confidence over their books. Many can recite verbatim bad reviews.
HARDCOPY is so important to an aspiring writer for the networks it provides to you, the lonely writer, to draw upon. The Facebook group is up to 159 members from four years. Nigel Featherstone, the coordinator, and the ACT Writers Centre staff are immensely helpful face to face, or if this is way too much interaction, via email or social media. I pushed myself this year to approach the 2018 cohort, as a 2017 has-been, blogging for the ACT’s Writer’s Centre’s Capital Letters. With the brief blip of the lady whose seat I accidentally stole (writers do like consistency and order after all) everyone was open, hopeful and actively interested in each other’s ventures.
A successful writer embraces their colleagues and friend’s success. Whether you have received a rejection letter and your HARDCOPY mate has just been told they will be published, dig deep and help them celebrate. It may not be your moment but, if you want it enough, yours will come and you will remember the people who supported you.
Did you know that dried oregano packets in Australia have been found in general to contain less than 50% actual oregano? If it isn’t oregano in those packets then what the hell do I put in my spaghetti?
See how easily I get distracted?
It is deeply ironic that I (despite the order) left this header till last as I have been putting it off due to extraneous distractions. Work, kids, extra-curricular activities, Facebook… I could change the world if I could just apply myself wholehearted to things. I take great pride in my social media skills, but perhaps I would be a fair way further along with my book if I took great pride in my proactive writing skills instead.
HARDCOPY taught me to ration my social media and to allocate an amount as a reward when I wrote a certain amount of words. One of my 2017 cohort writes for at least 15 minutes a day every day. It was written into her schedule. She (Melissa Pouliot—Google her, she’s amazing, and as lovely as she looks in her pictures) has several books published and writes from a very personal point of view. When you are more of the procrastination variety, being paired with the Melissa’s of the world is immensely beneficial as it pushes you to be and DO more than you otherwise would of your own volition.
Deadlines are fantastic too. Authors are given them, sometimes to the detriment to the care and attention they would have otherwise have been able to give their work. I work very well to a deadline but it doesn’t fully allow the freedom of creative expressivity as a flowing timeline.
I interviewed the author Anthony Hill a little while ago. For his book, Captain Cook’s Apprentice, he was able to access Cook’s diaries for short periods of time while wearing sexy white handling gloves. He was prepared to travel overseas and interstate to research seemingly small facets of his stories. He told me that he never leaves his writing until he has the next part already brewing in his head. This was a revelation to me. Why would you stop when you have all the impetus to keep going? This way, he said, he never gets writers block. I totally understood.
After the interview he contacted me and invited me for a coffee if ever I needed advice, motivation or direction. I have found that the industry as a whole is like Anthony. If you need a push then someone will make themselves available to provide that for you.
You ARE a writer.
Even if you don’t plan to write a pop culture fiction novel with ‘acceptance and growth from profound grief through sex’ as the main theme, we are the same. We are writers. I include it on my social media and other profiles, because the title sits comfortably with me now. I’ll bet the first minted copy of my book that you are reading this and don’t want to include the word “writer” or “author” on anything public because you don’t know yet if you deserve or are worth it.
The need to write is there isn’t it? The desire that one day someone contacts you and say that your words mattered to them? Every single published author I met via HARDCOPY, and beyond in my role as a radio presenter and announcer, has said this. They have their inspirations and the burning need to continue to have their unique writing voices heard.
If this has resonated with you then HARDCOPY 2019 will be here before you know it. Why not apply, and give yourself the tools, allies, and the magical moniker of ‘crazy book writer person’ to help you succeed?
Jen Seyderhelm is a writer, comedian and radio presenter. Currently a senior lecturer with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Jen was part of HARDCOPY 2017 and is still working on her fictional pop romance novel, Wednesdays With Kate.