“Name the dog and kill it” – and other fantastic advice from Penguin's gripping and tautly paced School of Writing
Want to be the next Bryce Courtenay or Nora Roberts? The one-day Penguin School of Popular Writing certainly gave you the tools you needed. It was the first in what will be a series of workshops from Penguin. Today coverscommercial fiction, while in future they’ll cater to whatever you make the noise about, be it crime, romance or literary fiction. In the class I spot a few noteworthy journalists wanting to pursue their dream of publishing a book, as well as writers on all stages of their journey.
At the Penguin offices on Collins Street we’re all presented with a goody bag of novels by the two authors who’ll be addressing us today, a Penguin mug and notebook, and encouraged to mingle before taking a seat for the first seminar: The Business of Publishing.
We’re addressed by Penguin’s personable publisher of commercial fiction, Ali Watts, who gives us tips on how to penetrate the fortresses of multinational publishers now that unsolicited manuscripts are generally not accepted. Penguin publishes around 100 first-editions a year, and of the 15 books published in commercial women’s fiction, only a couple are likely to be first-time authors – which is why workshops like these are vital for new writers who understand that the business is rather more complicated these days than just blindly submitting your manuscript to as many people as possible.
Watts walks us through the ideal pitch letter and synopsis, urges us to make sure our writing is on-trend and relevant to the publisher, and enlightens us into the fascinating marketing side of the process. The current way of thinking, for instance, is to make titles possessive (The Hunter’s Wife) or about groups (The Faraday Girls). Around 70 percent of the titles Watts publishes wind up in discount department stores such as Big W and Target, but with reps taking each store up to 300 different titles a month, even once you’ve been published it’s a bloodbath out there.
Which is where publicising yourself comes in. Carol George is the former books editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, then moved to Penguin’s marketing team and now heads up its new digital imprint, Destiny Romance. (Romance, if you haven’t heard, is massively on the rise.) She talks about the importance of accepting the publicity tour as part of a writer’s job, the need to embrace social media and the ways in which to handle unsympathetic journalists who haven’t bothered reading your book in the first place.
The first popular author to address the group is Anne Gracie, who’s here to run us through the Elements of Popular Fiction. Gracie started her career as a Mills and Boon author before finding success as a Regency Historical Romance writer in the States and now the rest of the world. Her titles – including The Perfect Rake, His Captive Lady and Bride By Mistake (I can tell you of the latter that I managed to find the first sex scene before falling asleep last night and you should flip to p142 before proceeding in full) – are full of pleasing exclamations of “Damnit!” and falling down of britches. Once up on a time, Gracie would dismiss her own work as "fluff", but over the years has grown to see the value in genres that provide much-needed escapism; undoubtedly enriching some lives.
Gracie presses upon us the importance of research and creating backstories, and runs us through a written exercise whereby she outlines a scene at a fine party where everybody suddenly stops talking and stare at a girl arranging flowers, then at a figure that has appeared at the door. Provided with the all-important conflict upon which to base their scenario around, everyone finds themselves easily inspired. She sketches out the narrative shape that chapters and a book should both take and describes the need to have the protagonist try, fail, try harder, fail harder, and eventually succeed. Gracie can’t emphasise enough the need to “show, don’t tell”. Having information relayed to the reader through the character’s action or dialogue, for instance, draws them in much more effectively than the author spelling things out.
Almost completely at odds to Gracie’s method of working, but equally fascinating, is Fiona McIntosh. The author of popular fiction such as The Scrivener's Tale and Fields of Gold, as well as a swag of fantasy novels, she has written 26 books in the past 12 years for both Harper Collins and Penguin – presumably no single publisher can keep up with her pace.
McIntosh learned under the tutelage of Bryce Courtenay in one of his workshops and believes in writing at speed and tightening later. In fact, her publisher Ali Watts confesses she might have to lose 25,000 words of McIntosh’s prose at the structural editing stage.
She’s an advocate of treating your writing like a business, illustrating this point with the fact that she writes 3000 words a day, “gunslinger”-style, and will not allow herself to make excuses. Her work ethic, she says, can be likened to boarding a random train without worrying about packing for every eventuality and without worrying when it shoots pass a station you thought it might stop at.
McIntosh warns that reviews for writers of commercial fiction are extremely rare. “Don’t go into this if you’re wanting praise,” she says, “because it’s not going to come.” The pay-off for any cultural cringe you may have, is selling hundreds of thousands of your books rather than the couple of thousand a literary fiction author might shift. And, of course, McIntosh gets to enjoy basing her heroes on the likes of Daniel Craig – to whom she has written a letter suggesting he take on the film role of The Lavender Keeper, but is yet to send.
“Don’t ever reread yesterday’s words,” she says, accusing us of wallowing and vivaciously pretending to vomit on many an occasion. She calls those who plot the backstories of their characters “sad tragics! Get out your slide rules and Post-It notes, then!”
McIntosh runs us through some sensory exercises, asking us to call out what we can smell, hear and feel in the room that we could turn into colour for a scene, and provides some good tips on how to make the reader emotionally involved. The very first page of the first story she showed Courtenay, for instance, had a dog running across the street as a marauding gang rode into town. Courtenay told her, “Name the dog, and kill it.”
With lunch and snacks included, the gift bag and four seminars, today's $195 should be seen as a solid investment to a writer's future. All the speakers today were inspiring and accommodating, answering as many questions as the group could lob at them. The first 12 people to register for the day were given the option to pitch their novels or synopses, but anyway, when the group as a whole exchanges email addresses, Watts makes the surprise move of adding hers to the whiteboard – which, as Gracie gasps, is “very rare”.
“Don’t email me straight away with one chapter,” Watts pleads faintly.
Watch this space for details of the next Penguin course!