5 Sep 2007

Forging Writers

By Daniel Donahoo
Daniel Donahoo reflects on the forces shaping Australia's new generation of writers and thinkers

There is a nervous anticipation and exhilaration involved in reading any review of your work. The anxiety makes it the writers' equivalent of extreme sport.

I have had that rush several times reading reviews of my first book, Idolising Children. It is a heady feeling. Even more than seeing your own words in print, because feedback is so crucial to ideas-based writing: good, bad or otherwise. Engagement provides relevance. Silence is entropy.

I recall similar emotions when I signed the contract with UNSW Press to write the book. The contract came in the post and I lingered over it with a coffee at the kitchen bench at home. It was the last place I thought such deals were made, but in that moment I found the secret space where writers and publishers coexist. I'd found the symbiotic relationship not ultimately required by writers (as it doesn't stop us from writing), but essential for the life of your work if you seek remuneration, attention and an alluring front cover.

We all know that the art of writing and articulating ideas is different to the industry of publishing and selling books. But with the rise of creative writing courses, of Nielsen's Bookscan and the popularity of cooking and cleaning books with publishers and book buyers alike, there continues to be room to discuss and explore the relationship between the two. Or more simply to keep asking the question, 'How the hell do I get published?' Especially for writers looking for a space, an audience and a market interested in their stories.

It is hard for a writer of any genre to find someone willing to commit to his or her words. Any emerging writer needs some specific 'point of difference' that becomes a tool for the marketing department beyond just the words on the page. Today, a writer must be a personality, able to perform on TV and radio, at festivals and events and have a good-looking head shot to boot.

Of course, writing talent is essential, but these other factors increasingly help. If a publisher knows they can sell 10,000 books before you've even put pen to paper, you are in a much stronger position than most if a book deal is what you seek.

While it might not be desirable, we shouldn't be surprised that increasingly emerging writers are learning the language of publishers. We pitch ideas and write books that are aimed at a market first and a reader second. It may disappoint the purists, but the reality is if we want to get published, then we have to find a way into the market to begin with and bend a bit to its needs. We feel as though we have to convince the publisher that we might just be that next up-and-comer who'll do more than just make a smudge on their financial reports.

This doesn't mean we don't have passion for our chosen subjects or the skill to write the stories we want to write. It simply means we are choosing to go about the process in a different way and are willing to make sacrifices from time to time to help us get our foot in the door.

A joke amongst writing friends of mine is that if you want to write a best seller the easiest path might be to try and get a spot on the Australian cricket team. It is tongue in cheek, but the fact that the joke exists says something about our experiences seeking publication and how we go about managing the landscapes between the world of writing and the world of publishing. It also says something about how many books Australian cricketers sell.

For me, a key purpose of Idolising Children was to get a start in the world of ideas. Of course, to even get to that point I'd had to build a profile first with a suite of opinion pieces, essays, research and a portfolio of mentors willing to support me and provide me with a level of credibility.

However, writing my first book was not the final piece of work, but the equivalent of Test cricketer's first game wearing the baggy green. Yet, while no one expects the debut cricketer to do any more than get out there and face a few balls, the expectations on a first time author from publishers, critics and contemporaries are intense.

Image thanks to Lukas.

The success and failure of Idolising Children has been that it is writing for a market that exists somewhere between academic thesis and self-help book. In principle, the idea seemed like a good one. To produce a book that contains some intellectual weight, but isn't obsessively weighed down with the rigour, complexity and academic detailing of a PhD thesis turned into a book. The book's accessibility is demonstrated in the fact it has been reviewed in the Australian Literary Review, A2 and the academic website the Australian Review, but also been reviewed in the opinion pages of the Herald Sun and discussed on the Today show and Today Tonight.

The challenge is that the book is really trying to create its own market, rather than tap into an existing one. In trying to meet the needs of many, it at times fails to meet the needs of readers and reviewers alike. But that is part of the risk. The art of writing a book and trying to get ideas into the public arena must be seen as such.

I couldn't have further pushed my book down into a five-point plan for raising children and sat it alongside hundreds of other parenting books (which is where it physically sits on the bookshop shelves anyway), because that wasn't what it was about. I could have spent another five years formulating my magnum opus by spending more time away from my young family and fitting the research in around paid work, but no-one would give me a suitable advance to do that. Neither of these options would have satisfied my publisher or I anyway.

We were willing to take a punt on making Idolising Children the book that it is. It is a result that is extremely satisfying, especially each time an email from a reader hits my inbox. Not all of them agree, but the book has certainly provoked a lot of thinking. And in the pursuit of good ideas, more thinking is always a good outcome.

As a teenager, writing became a space where I could succeed and was a career I wanted to pursue. The desire to write the great Australian novel is still strong within me, and always will be. But as an early student of the now popular university creative writing courses, I learned that if I was going to make a living out of words then I was going to have to be adaptable.

That realisation came when Christos Tsiolkas started attending a few of our events and writing classes. He was a successful Australian writer. His book Loaded had become a film and he was about to publish his second book. Yet he was still working part-time, just to make ends meet.

As a graduate of creative writing my first job was in children's services. There I learned to write policy and procedure manuals. It might not seem like much, but it was writing and it was in some small way bearing influence over the way things were done and thought about.

So, when I'm not working on my research, my ideas and plugging away at that great Australian novel, I continue to work at my day jobs. I just try to make sure they are about words.

Consequently, I've written speeches and media releases for politicians, newsletters and corporate communication material for a range of organisations, briefings and letters that are signed by other people so they can pretend they are theirs. I've scrawled poetry on toilet walls, delivered spoken word performances on stage and radio, written for theatre, tried to write comedy and taken any opportunity to do something with words. Because words are how I engage.

On a panel at this year's Sydney Writers' Festival, I told the audience that writers do not emerge they are forged. That isn't completely true. Some writers are naturally gifted, like Steve Waugh as captain of the Australian cricket team was a born cricketer and leader. Some write, send it to a publisher and find success. And good luck to them and cheers to their brilliance. But me, I'm being forged and I know it because I can feel it. It isn't an easy process, but it is exhilarating, excruciating and inevitable.

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