‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ they say, but when negotiating with your publisher the image for the front cover of your book, the upmost thought in your mind is how people are going to judge it by its cover. A good cover needs to jump off the shelf and grab the potential reader’s attention. It needs to indicate the type of story contained within and be culturally sensitive to its contents. It should look good as a thumb nail, and work with the title to intrigue and seduce the reader. But, for me, the best cover is the type you fall into, that you flip back to and stare at intermittently to discover the image contains new meaning as you advance into the story. I adore the cover MidnightSun’s designer, Kim Lock, created for my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree.’ It is not the mother of a tree as described in my book, but it works on other levels which only become evident as the story unfolds. I am so grateful to my publisher Anna Solding, who was sensitive enough to listen and work with me on the decision for the final imagery on the cover. I have heard horror stories from novelists without agents to negotiate for them, who ended up with broken hearts over the cover of their book. My heart is captured every time I see this cover. Hope it makes your heart intrigued too.
When I received the news that I had been selected for a Litlink residency at Varuna, the National Writer’s House, I thought they had made a mistake and I waited for the email stating this was the case. After a few days, when another email arrived confirming the residency, the truth of the fact settled inside me like bubbles trapped in a bottle of champagne – I found I could hardly eat or sleep from excitement. I wanted to randomly run and scream and leap in the air at inappropriate moments. Was I really going to spend two whole weeks in a beautiful mansion where I didn’t have to cook or clean or be a mother? Where amazing culinary delights would be provided every day? Where I would be with other writers – real, already published writers who could share their wisdom? Was I really going to be allowed to spend two whole uninterrupted weeks working on my book?
As the residency drew closer, my excitement turned to nerves. I am a very private and at times neurotic person, so thoughts of the four other writers started to erode at what was left of my sanity. I was about to be trapped in a house with four ego maniacs I wouldn’t be able to stand, and worst of all, I wouldn’t be able to get away from them. How big was the house anyway? The picture on the web site made it look large, but we all know how misleading real estate photography can be. What if I ended up feeling suffocated? I wouldn’t be able to work under those conditions. Or even worse, what if they all knew each other and didn’t think I would be worth talking to, because I was new to the industry and not yet published? They were going to ignore me and leave me out. I was about to feel so lonely and rejected, I wouldn’t be able to write. What an absolute nightmare this was going to be! I wish I had never applied for this damn residency!
Of course, my imaginings were unfounded. The four writers I had the pleasure of sharing my stay with were beautiful, down-to-earth, like-minded women, each talented and accomplished, and all five of us were mothers.
I found as the residency unfolded, I had made four new life-long friends. All of us began to look forward to coming together in the evening. Over our gourmet meal we would laugh and drink wine and share industry secrets…well they shared, I listened, fascinated, wondering if it would be rude to take notes.
I worked hard during the day, in the peaceful solitude and comfort of the enforced silence. When I wasn’t working, I floated in a state of utter gratitude, not quite believing I was living the writer’s dream. When the editing became too hideous, I would walk, either to the national park along the spectacular cliff face of the gorge, or into the village of Katoomba where I discovered a scattering of the most wonderful opportunity shops. Winter was turning to Spring. I found myself and the world around me began to blossom, we opened to find the sun, expanding in warm delight. Ah Varuna…how I dream of you still.
I now live in NSW, but when I was writing the first draft of my debut novel ‘Beneath the Mother Tree’, I was residing in Queensland, in the Redlands on Quandamooka country, where I was lucky enough to grow up. Queensland regional creatives have access to the Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF), in which Arts Queensland partners with local governments to support regional artists. Sadly, in NSW no such fund exists, and no unpublished manuscript awards exist either. NSW writers are greatly disadvantaged in this regard. (The Queensland Literary Awards, the Arts South Australia Wakefield Press Unpublished Manuscript Award, the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards are all state based categories for unpublished manuscripts. It does make one wonder why the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards doesn’t have a section for unpublished manuscripts).
But back to the subject of this post – because I was based in QLD at the time, I was able to obtain a RADF grant to work with freelance editor Nicola O’Shea. In 2004, Nicola left her senior editing position at Harper Collins to go freelance. Her clients now include Pan Macmillan, Random House, HarperCollins, Allen & Unwin, Hachette Australia, and freelance writers who are fortunate enough to secure her services. She is always booked up at least a year ahead. There is a reason for this. Nicola weaves magic.
She took my skeletal first draft and turned it into a suspenseful mystery. Working with Nicola was a crash course in novel writing. She seized my flimsy story, cut it up into little pieces, repositioned everything and put it all back together again like a spellbinding puzzle. I remember staring in awe at her pages and pages of editing notes, wondering what kind of brain can do that? What kind of brain can hold a story with parallel strands in their head, reposition all the events of the plot and place it all back together without losing a strand, without making one big ugly mess?
I took her detailed structural edit in hand and reworked, filled out, cut, layered, fell in love with my characters and found magic.
I hope to work with Nicola now for the rest of my days, and if she dies before me, I will recommend her brain be dissected and studied, so future generations aren’t disadvantaged, so her wisdom can be passed on…because, let’s face it, every writer needs a Nicola O’Shea in their lives.