Elizabeth Foster: No, I haven’t written any fiction before. I jumped straight in with a novel, not knowing what a huge task it would be. That’s why it’s taken so long to write it: I went through an enormous amount of drafts, and learnt each element of fiction writing as I did, helped out by plenty of critiques from friends, family and manuscript assessors. I’ve probably written about a whole other book’s worth of words that didn’t make it into Esme’s Wish, but I didn’t mind, because the more I wrote the better I got!
GR: How long did it take to get it ready to pitch to publishers?
EF: I had the idea almost nine years ago now, and spent about 4-5 years seriously writing, before I started shopping around for agents and publishers. I still kept polishing throughout the entire submission process though, and even after being accepted for publication, kept at it.
GR: Sounds familiar! Do you still get tempted to pull out a red pen, or are you good at letting go now that it's out in the world?
EF: I am a bit of a perfectionist, so it is always tempting. But the way I polish has a lot to do with rhythm: I focus on the sound of every sentence, sometimes reading aloud, and then try to fix anything that sounds wrong. Eventually, you get to a point where the words resist change. I don’t think there any clunkers left now (I hope).
GR: I didn't notice any, if that helps! Did you have an agent, or approach publishers directly?
EF: I would love to have gotten an agent, but my book fell between the cracks. It appeals to both upper middle grade and lower YA, and agents have very clearly defined categories when it comes to what they'll represent. After working through my list of agents, I then approached publishers directly.
GR: Am I allowed to ask how many rejection letters (publishers or agents) you got before the crucial acceptance?
EF: Thirty or forty! It was soul destroying and I am still recovering. The only good thing about it was that it spurred me on to keep making the book better and better.
I also entered Esme’s Wish in competitions in the hope of finding a publisher that way. I didn’t win any but it was great for my confidence – and a sneaky way to get people in the industry to actually read the whole book. I got some lovely praise for the manuscript when I entered it into the Ampersand Prize, which helped mitigate the pain of the rejections.
GR: Oh, that's great to know! I'm sure you've heard the stories of how many places rejected Harry Potter or Stephen King, so you're in good company! That does kind of connect into my next question... you mentioned critiques from family, friends and manuscript assessors. After sending it out to your "inner circle", are there other places (e.g. online communities, local writer's group, advertised beta readers either paid or unpaid) you sought feedback?
EF: I know that a lot of writers use beta readers but I haven’t had a lot of success with them – apart from my son. He is my main editor and I have relied upon him more than anyone. (And don’t think he’s easy on me just because he is my son! He has an Honours degree in English and is sometimes painfully critical.) The most useful feedback I have gotten, apart from that already mentioned, has come from teens. Teens are totally honest and happy to answer specific questions. I paid for honest feedback from teens in both Australia and the U.S. Interestingly, the Australians were much fussier about character: their criticism has directly informed Esme’s arc and I think made Esme’s Wish a better book overall.
GR: That is interesting, I wonder if there's a reason for that. "Painfully critical" is a good way to put it... What happens if you disagree with your editor or a critiquer about an aspect of your book?
EF: I know my book so well now that I can tell pretty quickly which advice is useful and which isn’t. Luckily, all those who have given me critique have had a 'take-it-or-leave-it' approach, and haven't minded too much if I reject some of their advice. My publisher, Odyssey Books, liked my book as it was and didn’t ask for any drastic changes. The only thing we disagreed upon was some of the punctuation!
GR: That's a good sign that your critiquers are working! This being your first book, there might be things that are a learning curve (or just little things that were unexpected) which veteran authors probably don't think about anymore. What are the things you didn't expect about publishing, that you've had to learn as you go?
EF: I was completely naïve about the publishing world. I thought that if I wrote a book and made it the best it could be, it would get published. In an ideal world that might be the case but publishers have plenty of other considerations, especially in a difficult market environment. They are commercial enterprises and have to make a profit.
Esme’s Wish had two strikes against it. Firstly, the genre. Fantasy isn’t that popular with most publishers – or at least, it wasn’t a few years ago. The other problem was the readership age, as I mentioned previously. Most publishers at that time were looking for books that cater to 8-12 year olds (middle grade) or else have the traditional hallmarks of YA – like romance or violence, or both. Mine had neither. After endless rejections or suggestions to turn it into a chapter book or make it grittier, none of which rang true with me, it finally found a home with Odyssey Books, who have a growing fantasy shelf and didn’t mind the category issue.
Small presses are a great option for authors who have written a story that larger publishers won’t take on because they don’t quite fit the template. They have lower costs, lower overheads, and are therefore more willing to take on niche titles. And they might get lucky and publish something that ends up doing very well!
GR: (As a side note, the fact that it didn't have romance or unnecessary violence was one of my favourite things about your book. I feel like we tell teenagers that being in a relationship is such an essential part of life there are no good stories without them. Which is simply untrue, and for those who take longer to be interested in a relationship, or are asexual, or just want to think about stuff like grief and adventure and friendships without constant asides about hot love interests, I think it's great to have some books out there that break out of that typical-YA mould.)
EF: Thanks! It was a conscious decision on my part not to focus on romance – it might pop up in later books, but it will never be the main focus, because there are so many other things I’d rather focus on. (Like, as you say, grief, adventure, friendships, etc.) Glad to see readers feel the same way!
GR: What happened after you got the acceptance (letter? phone call?) - between then and publication day? Was it a long process?
EF: I was actually in New York (for the first time ever) when I got an email from Michelle Lovi of Odyssey Books saying they loved Esme’s Wish and wanted to publish it. I called my son at 2am Sydney time to tell him! It then took another eighteen months before the book hit the shelves. Partly that was my call as I was still incorporating some of the feedback I had received regarding character. I love that about Odyssey: because they are small, they can be flexible with their schedule.
GR: Obviously, having written fantasy with its own setting, Australia as a location for the story wasn't really a factor, but are there other ways that you think being Australian has influenced your writing?
EF: Living near the water all my life has definitely influenced my writing. The ocean is one of my main inspirations, something you can probably tell from the book. I grew up in Queensland, always looking forward to holidays by the beach, and I find my writing is infused with the sea. It is in my turns of phrase and in my subject matter. I can’t seem to get away from it! My father was a great fisherman and always talked of the sea with such longing. Writerly influences can be hard to pin down but where I live has definitely factored into it.
GR: I noticed somewhere (twitter, maybe? Stalking you at some point...) that you did a course with the Australian Writer's Centre about the promotion and marketing side of being a writer. How are you finding the Australian writing and publishing community? Do you get much advice from other local authors, bloggers or booksellers?
EF: I have found other Australian writers to be a very supportive bunch of people. The online community is great. Australia is such a small market, especially for YA, but the community is strong and people tend to build each other up rather than tear each other down. LoveOzYa is especially active in promoting Australian authors of YA and YA in general. Private Facebook groups, which are easy to join, have been a great source of support and information. Writers’ Centres too. I’m a member of the NSW Writers’ Centre and the ASA, both of whom run events like Literary Speed Dating which put you right in front of publishers. I think the course I might have mentioned on Twitter was Build Your Author Platform, which is an online course offered by the Australian Writers’ Centre.
GR: What about in your own reading? Do you specifically look for Australian authors, or find books recommended by places like LoveOzYA? Or is it more of a cherry on top of a decision you've already made?
EF: I read a wide range of genres but I gravitate towards fantasy, classics, and some biographies. I am always eager to support Australian authors, but I’m a relatively slow reader, so I’m not always as caught up with LoveOzYA reads as I should be!
I have been reading a lot of books by other Odyssey authors recently, whose stories are quite eclectic and surprising. I recently enjoyed Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale, a YA historical fantasy novel about a troupe of travelling players.
l also review books for the CBCA so I get sent lots of books for kids and teens, mostly by Australian authors. The ones I enjoyed reviewing the most were Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr, which is a poetic retelling of Minoan myth, and Hexenhaus by Nikki McWaters, about the witch hunts of early modern Europe told from the perspectives of two of the victims.
GR: *adds to already large TBR pile*
There are some beautiful one-liners in Esme's Wish (I'm thinking of "fear curdled her breath" and "anger leaping from limb to limb like branches caught in a wildfire") . Did you set out with a literary or educational market in mind, or is it just a side effect of your love of language?
EF: Some parts of writing come easily to me, like description of physical settings. I find ‘internals’ – descriptions of emotion – much harder. Those lines took a lot of work to come up with; I came back to them more than once. I had few of those visceral phrases in my book until teens remarked on how much they loved them. I suspect they like the punch and immediacy of them, so I am happy to put the work in to give them more!
GR: Interesting - I'm the total opposite, physical settings are the hardest part of writing for me and critiquers will tell me they want more so they can picture the place! I don't "picture" things, which is probably the problem.
Likewise, much of the vocabulary in Esme's Wish is pitched to quite a capable readership (I've just flicked to a random page and found suspended, wielding, avaricious, converging, embedded, wraith and ethereal, all of which I'd probably put on a spelling test for a year 7 or 8 class or ask them to find definitions for). Was that a conscious decision to extend young readers while entertaining them?
EF: While the decision to add more visceral phrases was conscious, the use of an extended vocabulary was not. There were a couple of instances where I did cut obscure words, but mostly because I thought they were too old fashioned, not too advanced. Interestingly, none of the kids who have critiqued the book for me (mostly girls 12—15) mentioned the vocabulary as a problem, although they have had plenty to say about everything else! Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has a young protagonist and uses very complex vocabulary, but rather than finding that alienating, I think some readers like the challenge. Schools in Australia actively seek texts which offer Year 7's a chance to extend their vocabulary and I’m happy to say that one high school is currently considering Esme’s Wish for Year 7 for exactly that reason!
GR: Yes, as a (now ex-) teacher I would have made use of it. Particularly when you want these same kids to be able to analyse literary texts in 5 years time! I should let you go, but thank you so much for taking the time to share with me! Best of luck for Esme's Wish, and sequels currently in the works.
EF: Thanks so much Gabrielle. Your questions were a pleasure to answer and I look forward to reading your series of blog posts on publishing in Australia. Best of luck with your own writing, too!
You can find out more about Elizabeth and her writing on her website, or follow her on twitter or Facebook.