Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Writing Competitions - Yay or Nay?

At the moment there are several short story competitions being promoted, with large prize money on offer. One of these is run by Australian Book Review - the Elizabeth Jolley Prize which is worth $5000. When you look at the shortlist from last year, you may well wonder if it was worth entering. After all you'd be up against the likes of Cate Kennedy! But the site gives you the opportunity to read last year's stories on the shortlist and there was a Readers' vote award, too. But the thing that will make many newer writers pause is the entry fee - $16. If you're up against such stiff competition, is it worth the money to enter?

It's a good question. In fact, it's a good question to ask about any competition that requires an entry fee. How big is the competition? Is the fee too much? $16 is a lot to many writers, especially students or those on low incomes. The long-running Alan Marshall Short Story Award (closed two weeks ago) had an entry fee of $15. However, many of the smaller competitions have smaller entry fees. Try this site to have a look at what is open at the moment. For example, the Katherine Susanna Pritchard which is for speculative fiction (short stories) has an entry fee of $7 and a first prize of $600. Is it starting to sound a bit like a lottery?

What are the advantages of entering a competition, whether it's fiction or poetry?
* It gives you a deadline to get something written, revised and sent off.
* If the competition has a specific theme, it can provide a good challenge.
* Hey, you might win or get a placing!
* Sometimes a number of the best entries are published in a book (but not often).
* Judges are subjective, even if they deny it. Your story may strike a chord with the judge (but it still needs to be well-written). To me, this is the lottery part of it. You just never know.

What are the downsides?
* It usually costs money to enter (The Age Short Story Award is one of the few that doesn't charge a fee - maybe that's why they get about 1400 entries!).
* The bigger competitions are the ones that the more experienced writers enter so you're up against them.
* Unlike magazines that send you a rejection or acceptance note, you rarely hear from competition organisers unless you have won. It can feel like sending your work off into the never-never.

How do you decide what to do?
If you are a newer writer, start with the smaller competitions. Check the entry conditions very carefully. Not obeying the rules, even if they seem silly or pedantic, can lead to your entry being discarded. Choose a competition that sounds good to you - one where the entry fee is smaller but the prizes are still worthwhile. (Avoid a competition with a $10 fee, for example, and a $200 first prize.) Write something for your entry, give yourself plenty of time to revise and polish it up, and send it off. Keep doing this. And when you don't win (which is likely - it is a lottery!) then polish it again and send it off to a magazine instead.
Or save it for the Age competition!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Have You Been to Booktown?

Today I went to Clunes in country Victoria, where each May they hold a Booktown weekend. Over the past few years, more and more bookshops have opened in this old town, and during Booktown, many more come in and set up and sell (mostly secondhand) books. Kind of like a mini Hay. Clunes Booktown has the perfect venue, as there are many historic buildings that are "unrenovated" and they add to the feel of old books and historic happenings.

What the Booktown organisers have also done is add a variety of writers' events to the weekend, including soirees, master classes and talks. As I'd not been to a writing class of any kind for quite a while, I decided to sign up for the master class with Peter Corris. I've been a fan of his Cliff Hardy crime novels for a long time and was keen to hear what he had to say. I have to confess that I went along with some trepidation. Everyone has a different idea of what a "master class" should be, and we were specifically told NOT to bring manuscripts. Hmmm...

The limit for the class was 10, and in the end there were four of us, plus Peter. We settled in a circle of old armchairs and waited to see what he would say. It turned out to be over an hour of simply talking about the ins and outs of writing crime and historical fiction. Relaxed, informative, insightful and enjoyable! We all got to ask every burning question we had, we got to talk a little about our own trials and tribulations in writing our novels, but mostly we listened to Peter talk about how he does it (and isn't that what we always seek - the experiences of others who've been around longer than us and gone through it all many times?).

Some of the things I can share include: Peter never writes outlines - he starts with Cliff Hardy and a client with a problem, and goes from there. I was interested in how he perceives the PI novel, with a very simple structure I'll share with my class one day! He talked about pacing, how much information and characterisation to put in, and how he thinks the writer firstly charms the reader (with that stuff) and then grabs them with immediate action. He used to write a Hardy novel in about six weeks, and now it takes him 9-10 weeks (and he mentioned Simenon who wrote Maigret novels in 48 hours!).

It's easy to sum up the time with a few quotes, but I came away feeling as though I had received some great insights, and confirmation that really, when it comes down to it, we all have to write our novels in our own way. What counts most is finishing them, seeing your vision through to the end. Peter said he thought that whatever we are writing, it needs to matter to us, and I agree.
(How many books did I buy? Two. Must be a record for me!)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Where Are Ebook Sales in Australia?

Statistics are flying around the net at the moment, quoting large publishers such as Hachette and Random House as saying ebook sales are up to 22%. Of what? Or do they mean by? A Google search revealed nothing. But I suspect these kinds of figures are going to be flung around for the forseeable future until things settle down, and goodness knows when that will be. Every second day I seem to get an email from Barnes & Noble that wants me to buy the new colour Nook. Not much point really, as a lot of the books I might want are not published in Australia, and copyright laws prevent me from downloading them from US sites as an ebook.

Where does this kind of restriction leave us in Australia? Even if you have a Kindle, you still can't download Kindle books that don't comply with the copyright laws. It hardly matters if you want the latest bestsellers, but if you don't, it's easy to find yourself with nothing to buy. Back to "real" books then. I wonder how Australia is going to fare over the next 2-3 years. People are jumping onto ebooks with great speed, there's no doubt about that, wherever you get your statistics. And it's also hardly surprising that ebooks are taking over from hardbacks (traditionally how most books in the US get published first).

We don't do many hardbacks here. So our competition is between trade paperbacks (currently selling at $32-39 each) and ebooks, with ebooks still behind, I'd say. Although the iPad2 might change that. So what is happening here? You can get an "Australian" Kindle, you can buy an iPad2 or 1, there are various cheap ereaders around (that are pretty hopeless). But where do we get our ebooks? Do we download the software from Readings site and go with their platform? I would bet if you asked people what DRM is, hardly anyone would know (it's a formatting thing that supposedly is to stop you "stealing" ebooks).

At least if you want to self-publish an ebook, it's easy to do. Either on your own or through sites such as Smashwords or Bookbaby. It's the thing to do right now, especially if you think you can generate enough publicity and word-of-mouth to sell several thousand copies. Industry pundits are saying that the rush of self-published ebooks will fade as readers sort out the good from the truly awful. I'm not so sure - a visit to any large bookshop will soon show you how many books are being published the traditional way. How do we find these?

My feeling is that Australia is still way behind on ebooks, and not catching up. I looked up Cate Kennedy's new poetry book today - The Taste of River Water. It's available as a book for $24.95 from both Scribe and the Readings site, but also available as an ebook from Readings (but not Scribe) for $14.99. In fact, most Readings ebooks are around $15. But when I went and looked them up on various publishers' sites, many of the same books are only listed as paperbacks. Or, in the case of Random House Australia, their ebooks are listed as being available from Amazon.

It's all very messy really, and it'll be interesting to see if and how things change over the next year or two. Because if there's one thing you can guarantee, this is an area of huge change at the moment - the question is - change to what? And what will it mean to both readers and authors?