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Nick Earls

How I got an agent

In a nutshell, this is how I got my agent. I emailed Debbie Golvan a query letter, got up and made a cup of tea, came back to my laptop and there, in my inbox, was a response. The best kind, requesting that I send through the first three chapters. Seven minutes it took her to respond. Just seven minutes. Surely this was some kind of sign?

More emails followed, a request for the full manuscript while she jetted about overseas, conversations that led to me tweaking the ending, and then the official offer to represent my novel. All this took a little over seven weeks.

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There’s a prequel to this story which is terribly complex, but I’ll leave that for another day. For now the manuscript has gone out to publishers and the terrible waiting begins.

‘Seven minutes it took her to respond. Just seven minutes.’

The path to getting an agent is so incredibly varied; everyone has a different story. So I thought I’d fill that terrible waiting space by asking three authors — Carmel Bird, Katherine Collette and Nick Earls — how they got their agents. Sure enough, their experiences were vastly different.

I’ve enjoyed reading these so much that I think this might have to become a series. But for now, let’s kick things off with Carmel.

Carmel Bird
This is a sweet story of destiny, in seven steps.

One: I didn’t have an agent. Ages ago an ex-student of mine said she had just engaged an agent whose surname was the same as mine, and furthermore this agent lived in my small country town. I had not heard of this neighbouring agent, and I made no attempt to find her.

Two: In February 2018 I gave a writing workshop at the Faber Academy. One of the students said her novel was being published the following week, and that she had a wonderful agent who shared my surname and village. I still didn’t wake up.

2016 reading picks

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It’s that time of the year where bookish types reflect on their year’s reading list, so I thought I might as well toss my faves into the ring. In 2016, I read 68 books*, which doesn’t seem nearly enough. Looking at the stats of childless friends, I’ve noticed that they tend to fit in well over 100. Perhaps this is because their reading is not limited to evening hours after children are in bed. Sigh. I look forward to the time when I’m able to dedicate whole weekends to nothing but books and drinking tea.

In the meantime, here are some of my 2016 faves, shuffled into slightly random categories.

what-belongs-to-youClassic: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. I’ve been meaning to read this slim novel for a long time and Radio National’s African Book Club prompted me to push it to the top of the pile. It is a poignant and heart-wrenching portrait of a country undergoing great upheaval.

Queer fiction: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. A sharply observed and beautifully written novel about desire and longing and love. An absolute cracker.

Debut: The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan. A moving portrait of a family coming undone; it is a haunting and stylistically beautiful novel. I’ll be keenly awaiting Anna’s next book.

Short fiction collection: Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh. I found the biting and quirky satire of these stories refreshing. A gem of a book.

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heat-and-lightIndigenous fiction: Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven. Another short fiction collection, and I’m late to this one (it was published in 2014). I found these stories mesmerising; Ellen is definitely one to watch.

Novella: Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls. I’m cheating a bit here because Wisdom Tree is a series of five novellas (disclaimer: I edited them), but I couldn’t possibly pick just one. One reviewer described Gotham, the first in the series, as ‘the most perfect novella in the history of the format’. Nuff said.

Picture book: Smile Cry by Tania McCartney. My whole family (even those supposedly too old for picture books) love this gorgeous flip book that so deftly allows children to explore their emotions.

rebellious-daughtersNonfiction: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro. A rare and revealing behind-the-scenes look at 30 years of publishing at UQP.

Memoir: Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. I am a fangirl. Garner is a living legend. That is all that needs to be said.

Anthology: Rebellious Daughters edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman. These essays on varying forms of rebellion are delicious. I particularly loved those by Marion Halligan, Rebecca Starford, Leah Kaminsky, Eliza Henry-Jones, Jano Caro, Lee Kofman, Caroline Baum… Hell, I could list the whole damn lot.

the-writers-roomInterviews: The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood. I’m cheating again because this book could technically be listed under ‘nonfiction’ or ‘anthology’, but these interviews with Australian writers deserve a special mention. Each is an honest, thoughtful and insightful discussion about the writing process, and I know that I’ll take different kernels of knowledge away with me every time I return to it.

I’ve started 2017 with Peggy Frew’s stunning Hope Farm, which I devoured over two evenings (and a little sneaky daytime reading while the kids were otherwise occupied). I can only hope that the rest of the year’s books live up to this fine start. And if you feel like picking up any of my 2016 faves do try and support the Australian industry by grabbing them from your local bookstore. It makes a world of difference. Happy reading!

* This figure does not include any of the manuscripts that I edited, with the exception of Nick Earls’ novellas. Nor does it include the many literary journals that I consumed, and the countless picture books and middle grade novels that I read to my children.


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Working in publishing is full of ups and downs, and it can be easy to dwell on the ‘downs’, allowing them to taint, or even eclipse, the ‘ups’. So in the spirit of celebrating all the good stuff, I thought I’d put together a newsy post about the ups of the last couple of months.

First up, the big news. I recently signed a contract for my next picture book, Seree’s Story, with Walker Books (publisher of Megumi and the Bear). Getting the call from your editor to give you the thumbs up is The Best. Let’s just say there was much dancing around the house and celebratory mid-afternoon champagne.

As a self-confessed elephant nerd, this book is very close to my heart. The manuscript has emerged from the culmination of many experiences, beginning with a trip to the circus at age seven. I started writing the book at 3.30 one morning when, seemingly out of nowhere, the opening line popped into my head. By 5.30 I had a first draft. Then came an artsACT-funded trip to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, which saw a complete rewrite, and now a book contract. I’ll save the full story behind the book for another time since it won’t be out for two years, but the story itself is about a captured baby elephant, forced to work in the circus, who is eventually rescued and brought to a sanctuary.

Picture books take a long time to come together (painfully long for the author who can do nothing but wait). One thing most readers aren’t aware of is that the publisher, not the author, chooses the illustrator. At this stage an illustrator for Seree’s Story has not yet been finalised, but Walker has such an incredible stable of talented illustrators to draw upon that I am awaiting the decision with great anticipation.


Another call came at the end of last month from CAPO (Capital Arts Patrons Organisation) with exciting news of a different kind. The organisation has awarded me a travel grant to research a new full-length work. It’s a fledgling thing at the moment and a grant like this means everything in allowing me to develop it. I don’t want to say much more about it at this stage, except that I’m grateful to CAPO for believing in its potential.

On to more tangible things, and the publication of a couple of new short stories in Westerly and Contrappasso literary journals. Westerly is one of Australia’s oldest and most respected literary journals, and is always chock full of good stories and poetry. So I’m stoked to see my story, ‘Rescuing Chang’, in its pages. It’s set in Chiang Mai and features tuktuks, elephants, ladyboys and a magnetic attraction. It was pretty much the most fun I’ve had writing a story in recent times. ‘Hose’, on the other hand, which appears in Contrappasso is a much darker tale. It features alongside a Nobel Prize winner, no less. In fact, the line-up in this issue is crazy, with writing from China, Malaysia, Iraq, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Russia, Ireland, England, Argentina, the US, New Zealand and, of course, Australia.

I must also give a shout-out to Duncan Felton and the Grapple Annual which has just picked up a MUBA. This award is close to my heart as Two Steps Forward was shortlisted for its inaugural award, but Grapple Publishing has gone one better and actually won the thing. It’s great news for publishing in Canberra, and I’m so pleased to have a short story included in what is now a multi-award-winning publication. Look out for the next annual which is due out before the end of the year.

Still on short fiction, the ACT Writers’ Centre invited me to run a six-week short story critique group which turned out to be even more enjoyable than expected, largely because I had such a lovely group of emerging writers to work with. I’m told feedback was entirely positive (a rarity, apparently — so how nice is that?) and I’ve been asked to run another next year. So if you’re a writer with some stories in your back pocket keep an eye out.

As always I’ve been working on all of the above around editing books for various publishers. November has been editing madness with two novels, two picture books, one non-fiction book, and five novellas all at various stages. There’s lots to be excited about but I’ll mention just two. The first is a stunning picture book by Coral Vass called Sorry Day (out with National Library of Australia Publishing 2017). This is a heartfelt and beautifully-written story about the Stolen Generation that moves so cleverly between past and present. I can’t wait for kids to get their hands on this book, and I’m sure it’s going to become a staple of schools around the country. The second is really five, that is five novellas by Nick Earls (out with Inkerman & Blunt 2016). There’s a lightness to these stories that is so enjoyable, but then they sneak up on you to reveal deep truths about families that are struggling in different ways. Working with Nick on these novellas has been such a pleasure, and I really hope they do well; they certainly deserve to. So look out for the Wisdom Tree series, launching early next year.

As we head into December I’m looking forward to getting back to my own writing (I have barely put down a word during this madly busy November). I still have another three books to finish editing before Christmas but then come January I’m jetting overseas on a writing adventure! And my littlest is off to preschool in February, which means two-point-five days to write and edit and read! I know I’m imagining that I can pack in way more than I actually can (the literary version of eyes being bigger than the stomach) but nevertheless it’ll be the first time in 13 years that I won’t have to fit in everything around full-time mothering. And that, my friends, is thrilling.

The real value of books

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Unless you’ve been in seclusion forBook heart the last week you’ll have heard that just ten days into office Queensland’s new Premier, Campbell Newman, scrapped the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. Since then I’ve read countless articles by authors and members of the arts community condemning the move and being forced to justify their own worth.

Let’s get a few things straight. Campbell Newman has a $47 billion state budget. A $244,475 saving is merely small change. It’s like stealing five cents from a wishing well — no one will notice the difference. But while it’s small change for the government, it has a huge potential to impact writers.

There seems to be a misconception among the general public that when you publish a book you’re on a gravy train. Writers earn only ten per cent of the RRP of every book sold. An average print run for a first novel is around 5000. So a paperback selling at $29.95 will earn the author $14,975 (if, and it’s a big if, the whole print run sells). Most books take years to write, diluting any funds earned down to a miserable ‘wage’. Say you’ve spent two years writing your novel, that equates to earnings of $144 per week. If you spent five years it equates to $57 per week. Who in their right mind would work for that? Not Campbell Newman, that’s for sure. As author Justine Larbalestier says, ‘The life of a novelist is, financially speaking, a mug’s game.’ So the money from major literary awards can dramatically boost a writer’s income, often allowing them to devote more time to their writing instead of undertaking all manner of other writing jobs to pay the bills. But the benefits are not just monetary. More importantly, awards can make careers. Being shortlisted or winning a major award signals to readers that this is a book worth reading. It impacts sales and boosts the industry. It generates business. What’s more, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards did all this for the equivalent of 18.3 cents per Queenslander.

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Queensland was only one of two states (the other being South Australia) to offer an award for an unpublished manuscript that included a publication contract. It was also the only state to offer a prize for an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous writer (David Unaipon Award), and the only state to offer a prize for short fiction (Steele Rudd Award). All three of these awards supported emerging writers and helped establish the careers of writers like Tara June Winch, Nerida Newton and Patrick Holland. Fortunately UQP will continue to run the first two awards categories and publish the winning books. (They were rightly fuming that Newman cancelled these awards given that UQP established the David Unaipon Award before the Premier’s Awards were even in existence).

You can sign a petition to demand that Newman reinstates the awards here. However, Queensland authors Matthew Condon and Krissy Kneen are in the process of establishing a new independent set of awards, along the same lines as the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards but without the prize money.

Those who support Campbell Newman’s act have been vocal in condemning ‘government handouts’ to writers. Let me quote author Nick Earls extensively, who puts it nicely here:

“To the caller to talk back radio this morning who said ‘you don’t see the government giving money to apprentice plumbers,’ please open your eyes whenever you’re ready to. An apprentice is eligible for $5,500 in Tools for Your Trade grants, $7800 Adult Apprentice Support in year one if they’re over 25 and $5200 in year two, up to $1000 a year in travel support and up to 13 other Centrelink benefits. Plus the government pays their employers to have them. I don’t have the figures for plumbers, but for apprentice brickies the employer incentives total $19,800 per apprentice. It’s a rare writer who is good enough to win awards that might pay them an amount comparable to the tax dollars that go towards each and every apprentice training anywhere around the country…

To the caller who said ‘You don’t see governments handing this sort of money out to other industries,’ okay, you’ve got a point. The federal government recently committed a thousand times this much to one initiative in the car industry, for whom $250,000 proabably wouldn’t fund one meeting in Detroit. The government would never bother earmarking $250,000 for the car industry.

Governments give huge amounts to industries all the time, and we don’t notice much of it. A lot of it’s probably very useful, but it’s not there to be noticed. Writers’ awards are there to be noticed—it’s partly what they’re about. But don’t go saying governments don’t give out money to other industries.”

Like Earls, I’m sick of arts practitioners being forced to justify their worth. And I’m sick of hearing that the arts are not essential. The arts feed us, nurture us, teach us about ourselves and the world around us. They offer beauty, truth, grace. They have the potential to grow us as human beings. Even in places of poverty you’ll find music, dance, storytelling. They are fundamental to our society.

Other politicians have understood this. During World War II, Winston Churchill resisted closing down theatres at the beginning of the war and defended cuts to the arts*, and during the worst days of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln regularly attended the theatre because the arts replenished him. Campbell Newman could learn a thing or two from these men.

It’s the National Year of Reading and Newman has just sent a clear message that he doesn’t give a toss about literature. As Stuart Glover says, ‘He has signalled that he doesn’t understand the way artists and writers help us make a civilized society, and the way they help us discuss and negotiate who we are.  Newman may not like to read, but he is mistaken to think that we should not encourage others to do so.  While the writing community roils today, the rest of arts community might well shiver.’

Newman has saved $244,475 but the cost to Queensland’s cultural reputation remains to be seen.

*When Winston Churchill was told that the war’s mounting costs called for cuts to the arts, he is famously said to have responded, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’ Sadly, this quote appears to be fictitious. It is nowhere to be found in his 15 million speeches, papers, letters, articles or books. He was, however, a supporter of the arts and recognised their value. When the then director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, suggested that the gallery’s paintings should be sent to Canada for safekeeping, Churchill responded with an emphastic ‘No’. He minuted, ‘Bury them in caves and cellars. None must go. We are going to beat them.’