Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Professional authorship: The key to living from writing

I am often asked to deliver a guest lecture or a seminar to university and TAFE creative writing classes, or a workshop at a writers’ festival. I am always happy to oblige. What I usually talk about is often considered boring – copyright, contracts and conditions. However, my audience doesn’t seem to think what I have to say is boring, since it relates closely to their ability to make a living from their writing.
They ask me detailed questions about the clauses of contracts, rights, subsidiary rights, what they need to do to obtain permission to use third-party works, how they can avoid defamation, the term of copyright in Australia, whether work published on a website is copyright, what is a standard royalty and a myriad other things with which they have never before had any connection in their course, but which they want to know. I hope I do my part.
The reason I am asked to speak, of course, is because I probably know more about these issues than most teachers of creative writing. I’m not a lawyer, but I can assist with the legal practicalities that are very much part of the professional practice of writing.
But it seems a shame to me that this sort of basic professional knowledge does not form a part of creative writing studies. Journalism courses, in contrast, have mandatory legal strands. They may also cover basic accounting practices for journalists who are freelance. Surely, since most creative writers are entering into what is essentially a freelance career, similar knowledge needs to be given to creative writing students to best equip them for the small business world of the professional writer?
I say this as a constructive suggestion for the evolution of creative writing as an academic discipline. As a graduate of writing classes myself, and some very good ones too, but with a background in publishing and an understanding of copyright, I feel strongly that writing students are missing out on a vital part of the skill set they needed to prosper as writers when they are not offered some legal and financial knowledge to help guide them as writers. The ASA is always happy to assist in the regard.
Another area that does not seem to receive much attention in creative writing at present is a sense of the market for writing. It is unfortunately true that the market for Australian “literary’ (I abhor that word) fiction is particularly dire at present. That doesn’t mean Australian fiction isn’t selling. As I write this, there are four Australian works of fiction in the top ten bestsellers: Matthew Reilly’s The Six Secret Stones is at number one, while ASA members Di Morrissey (Monsoon), Monica Mcinerney (Those Faraday Girls), and Judy Nunn (Floodtide) are at fourth, sixth and seventh place respectively and it is terrific to see them enjoying such success.
But students in creative writing classes ought to be aware that their chances of having non-mass market novels published right now is slim. Does this mean that they should not write them? No, but they would be better prepared for life as a professional writer if they had some knowledge of the dynamics of the publishing industry and the market for books in Australia. I try and provide some perspective on this for those who come to listen to me. I show the dismal statistics and break down sales into genres and categories. My information may not be what my audience was expecting to hear, but at least it provides them a degree of reality regarding their chances of succeeding as a professional writer in their chosen area.
One of the other things I suggest to beginning writers is that they should have more than one arrow for their writing bow. The skills of the craft of writing can be used in more ways than one. One of the suggestions I have put forward to the Literature Board of the Australia Council is for a program of residencies for writers within industry. I’d like to see creative writers learning the skills and craft of writing annual reports, press releases, and internal communications. At the same time, they could be sharing their creative writing skills with other employees. If they were employed on a half-time basis, say, they’d have some income to underwrite their own creative writing as well as the ability to learn other writing skills that can assist them through other lean times. I tend to think we have become too specialist as creative writers, particularly with regard to fiction. My November 2005 plenary address to the Australian Association of Writing Programs expands on these issues and can be read here.
This is not so true of creative non-fiction (which also has the largest market share of the book market at present), but often the writers who succeed at this have a journalistic background. Granted, Anna Funder’s Stasiland had its origins in creative writing classes and an ASA mentorship, but books like Chris Masters’ Jonestown benefit from well-honed journalistic skills. Over the years journalists have offered much to the Australian book industry and perhaps this has much to do with their ability to be flexible in their point of view. The leftish journalist Brian Penton wrote a couple of great Queensland novels (Inheritors and Landtakers) in the 1930s before becoming editor of Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph in 1941 and excelling himself in emulating the outrageous industrial relations of his boss.
But let me leave the last words to the creative writers. Some years ago I was studying under the late, great Glenda Adams at the University of Technology Sydney. Glenda was a wonderful teacher who gently pushed her students towards narrative excellence. It was not her fault that I was too heavy to be pushed far in that direction.
Nevertheless a remark Glenda made in one seminar has stayed with me. Glenda remarked that we wrote, basically, because we were compelled to by our obsessions. She didn’t mean that writers were obsessive. Rather, she meant we were compelled to write because we had something to say. The point she was making was that this was not necessarily enough for our writing to meet a readership. We had to impose the discipline of the craft of writing on our obsessions so that we could most effectively communicate with our readership.
Even more years ago, at Macquarie University, Thea Astley worked hard to imbue me with an appreciation of Australian literature. In her measured fashion, she succeeded very well. Thea taught me to dissect books from the author’s viewpoint. We never discussed obsessions, but in our analysis of Voss, Maurice Guest, The Pea Pickers, To the Islands and Astley’s own The Acolyte this was the not-quite-invisible elephant in the room.
But Thea too concentrated on the art and craft of writing. The obsession was simply the kernel of the author’s desire keep refining their art and craft over thousands of pages and multiple drafts. This hard-working concept of the creative process is the one to which I subscribe. It may be that some people are born great writers, but many need a good deal of training. And all, I posit, need to understand the market they are entering as writers. The fact that a good manuscript receives continual rejections may not mean it is unworthy of publishing – it may simply mean that publishers can see no market for it. This is an unfortunate economic fact of life and we do all aspiring authors an injustice if we do not make this clear to them.

Parts of this article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

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