On not being a finalist

The story of my life? Yes and no. In many ways I have achieved highly, mostly academically, much less so in creative writing; but I did win the Hal Porter prize for a short story (actually a memoir)  in 2003, and I did manage, with a co-editor, to publish an anthology of contemporary Australian women writers, titled Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing. Before you rush to buy it, it’s out of print! Because we had a lot of emerging writers in the collection we couldn’t get a mainstream publisher, and opted for Ginninderra Press, a small unsubsidised literary publisher that publishes on a cost-sharing basis. My co-editor and I put hundreds of hours in, over 2 or 3 years, to bring this collection to print. We sold 700 copies, and received some very good reviews, and it is in quite a few libraries. It was a quiet achiever, a very small frog in a huge pond.

I find it very frustrating that it is so hard, at least in Australia, to find a publisher or even an agent who will 1) read your manuscript; 2) give an opinion; and 3) publish it. The last is like that pot of gold, and my experience is that it nearly always vanishes, unless you are a) an established writer; b) writing in whatever genre is fashionable at the time; or c) bleeding lucky.

Do I sound disillusioned? Yes, I am. As well as being a creative and academic writer and memoirist, I review books; over the last year, I have reviewed over 20 books, mostly fiction, and with one or two exceptions, I have found them either forgettable and ordinary, or flawed and unconvincing. This kind of puts me off reading contemporary writers. I have to be hit by strong recommendations from readers I respect, or a serendipitous discovery of a review that makes me desire to read that book, to make the effort. Mostly, I’d prefer to return to classics that I love, or to classics that I’ve not yet read.

So I’m not really in the swim of contemporary writing. But I’ve never been one for being in the swim; I’ve always been a dog-paddler, a fringe-dweller, a nomad, a bit solitary and cussed.

Anyhow, now to the title of this piece. Fifteen years ago, inspired by a plea from my eldest daughter, I started writing a memoir of my life. It has been through many incarnations, many name changes and re-writes. About 4 or 5 years ago, I extracted the childhood scenes and put them together in a memoir of childhood, The Smell of Rain. I have rewritten this several times, and submitted it for a couple of awards without success. I thought last year that I would give it one more chance, so I rewrote it  yet again, and submitted it to the Finch Memoir Prize, which is awarded annually, and gives $10,ooo and publication to the prize winner.

I was overjoyed a couple of months ago when I received an email saying I was shortlisted. The website showed me as one of 7 shortlisted authors; I was one of of 70 entrants.

As the end of January approached, I became edgy, anticipatory, waiting and hoping I would be selected as a finalist. The end of January, they said. Finally, the 31st of January came, and just when I had given up hope, I got a phone call. The managing editor and director of publishing asked “Do you have a moment to talk?” Of course, I said, not mentioning I’d been waiting for this call for several days! She went on to say that I was not one of the finalists, but that they wanted me to continue looking for a publisher or an agent, and that my memoir is very strong. She used words like “charming” and even “powerful”. I was touched by her empathy and the fact she bothered to give me personalised feedback,  however brief; no doubt she gave this courtesy and kindness to each of the other rejected authors (3 were selected as finalists; they now have an excruciating wait till May to know who is the winner and runner-up).  I was also deeply disappointed, and for a couple of days I thought “That’s it. It means nothing to be shortlisted, if you’re not published.” After all, it’s not like the Man Booker, where being long-listed is notable, or the Miles Franklin, where shortlisted authors are publicised; in both cases, I believe, sales of these authors’ books, which of course have already been published, increase.

Anyhow, life goes on, as it always does, when our desires are frustrated, destroyed or rejected. I know that it was worthwhile to  have got that far, and I will not give up. I will wait a while, then approach…  maybe one more publisher, and look for an agent. And if that doesn’t work, as the Finch publisher suggested, it would be worth publishing it as an e-book, and seeing how it grows from there.

Are you a disappointed author? Have you been trying to write/publish that memoir or novel for more years than you can count?

Don’t give up. Publishing is a fickle, ephemeral and cut-throat world, and there are more than 9 ways to skin  a cat.



Filed under not being a finalist

18 responses to “On not being a finalist

  1. I’m so glad I’m one of those readers who has no desire to be a writer. Well, scratch that, I’d love to be a writer but I know I don’t have the creative writing skill (I’m way too prosaic in my thinking) so I read and enjoy! I feel very sorry for you writers and your struggles. Good luck …

  2. Christina Houen

    Thank you for your empathic response. You’re right, I’m sure, it’s much happier to read and enjoy other’s writing. Once you’ve crossed that line, there is no peace. But we need readers like you, who are passionate about good writing and are wonderful networkers. You make the publishing scene look like Coles and Woolworths; the real stuff is happening there in democratic, informed networks like yours, which are not commercially driven!

  3. Having never gotten far enough to even submit something, I admire your tenacity as much as your talent. I, too, find myself re-reading classics rather than contemporaries because new authors often leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed. You may be right—it’s bloody luck to some degree. So I will wish for you some of that :-). Nonetheless, congratulations on what I consider a marvelous achievement.

    • Christina Houen

      I think your writing and the images you choose to illustrate your visions are very powerful, winsomebella; perhaps blogging is the right medium for you, because it is free, and you can reach a wide audience. YOur pieces are unique, in the genre of nature writing that goes back to Thoreau and the romantic poets, and I hope you keep writing and posting.
      Thank you for your lovely congratulations!

  4. Christina, I found your piece very moving and evocative. Commiserations on not being a finalist/prize-winner, but congratulations on your bravery in expressing your disappointment and showing your tenacity.

    Last year I read a marvellous memoir by Perth poet Jacqui Stewart about her life in Bangkok with her army-servie husband and young family. ‘First Bite of the Cherry’ is a fascinating story, with all the insights I’ve come to expect from Jacqui from her poetry and told with the benefit of many years of reflection. She self-published the book after it was rejected by several publishers and has since had a lot of interest from readers. Now I believe she is planning to upload it as an ebook.

    Maybe it’s time talented writers like yourself took your fate into your own hands? Australia needs the stories, insights, compassion, strengths, hopes and adventures of each generation. Those stories shouldn’t be prevented from being told by gate-keepers whose publishing decisions are based on what they believe they can market. They may be right, of course. Your audience may end up being small, but you won’t know until it’s out there.

    Do you/your co-editor and contributors have the e-rights for Hidden Desires: Australian Women Writing? That would be an obvious first step for an ebook as it has already been professionally edited (something I’d recommend for your memoir, too, in any case, if you can fund it). There’s ready information available from other writers about how to upload and market your books, if you need it.


  5. Dear Elizabeth

    Thank you for your appreciation and good wishes. It is heart-warming to receive messages like this from informed readers like yourself. I think what you say is so true: “Australia needs the stories, insights, compassion, strengths, hopes and adventures of each generation. Those stories shouldn’t be prevented from being told by gate-keepers whose publishing decisions are based on what they believe they can market.” We need to build our own library of memoirs, in whatever form we can. I prefer print, only because it is my favourite medium. I loved Philip Adams’s piece in last weekend’s Australian Magazine, called Shelf LIfe. Do read it if you haven’t already. He suggests not only keeping your books, but having them buried with you. Since he has 40,000 books, accumulated over nearly 70 years of reading, he’d have to be buried in a mausoleum as big as a library. I don’t have that luxury, as I’ve had to move so many times, I’ve shed many times the number of books I now own; I’ve vowed to keep my collection within the space of two bookcases, about 4 tea chests full. Philip concludes his piece with the wonderful lines: “…books are the sleepers on the railway of life, the pickets in the fence of your history, the bricks with which you’ve built your brain.”
    Back to your suggestion re Hidden Desires: I’ll give it some thought, but I think that as each author in the collection (there are 34) has copyright, it would be too hard to get in touch with them all and get their permission. That is, I really don’t have the time.
    But I can also see that e-publishing can be a stepping stone to print.

  6. Thanks, Christina, I’m glad you found my response heart warming. Print is a worthy goal and I sincerely hope you find a publisher. They’re likely to put it onto digital, if you do. If we’re thinking of preserving the stories for future generations who knows which will survive best?

    I missed PA’s piece, but Late Night Live is one of my favourite shows and has been for many years. I feel like I’ve “read” some of his library just from listening to so many interviews!

  7. He’s certainly a polymath; I’m a butterfly in comparison to his busy bee devotion to producing honey from the most unlikely or unheard of sources.

  8. Self-publishing ebooks and print on demand paperbacks has become something that is now very easy for a writer to do. And it doesn’t cost anything to upload them, or get an ISBN for them. Well, through the site I go with, which is Createspace, but there’s also other sites similar, like Lulu. This means a book never goes out of print. It is disappointing when a publisher isn’t able to take on your book. Sometimes the best books, which are challenging that are the ones a publisher considers too much of a risk. I’d like literary prizes to be a little more like art prizes such as the Archibald, where there’s controversy in what it means to paint a portrait. What if there was controversy in what the genre, ‘memoir’ is? I think that’d be interesting! I found publication in London with Chipmunka that I entered into the Finchprize. Australia has a tendency to reject first-hand experiences accounts of mental illness, but are quite happy to publish second-hand and third-hand accounts. But Chipmunka specialise in memoirs by people with a diagnosis. So, I think sometimes it’s a matter of looking around the world, as well as in Australia, to find who publishes your subject matter.

    • Thanks for sharing. Your story is heartening. I’m interested in your comparison of literary prizes with the Archibald. I guess the difference is that the foundation or whatever it is that mounts the Archibald doesn’t have to take the risk of selling the works, as the publisher does. Publishing is all about making a profit, except for some of the presses that are subsidised, and even they are driven by the market. I’m glad you found a publisher for your memoir. I agree that mental illness is an important and relevant subject, and we need more first-hand accounts, so people can understand what it’s like to go that journey. What is the title of your memoir?

  9. My memoir is called, ‘Naked ladies’. It’s only available in ebook at this stage but will be in paperback in a few months time: http://chipmunkapublishing.co.uk/shop/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=2264

  10. Marvi Ruegg

    Dear Christina.
    Let´s count your blessings:You live in the lucky, sunburnt country, you are a good writer ( even if not a published author yet), you were able to enter a competition and were shorlisted!
    Let me whinge a bit: in 2001 I fell madly in love with Austrália and wanted to call it home. I lived on the Northern Beaches for 11 (happy) years. I attended creative writing courses, entered minor competitions and had minor success with 2 short stories.Then I wrote my memoir. I couldn´t enter the Finch competition as I am not a permanent resident.
    Then in January 2013 when returning from a trip to NZ I was detained, searched,interrogated, sent to a detention centre and deported. Note: I had a valid visa and had abided by the law.

    I need to be heard so I submitted the manuscript of THE VISA SAGA and had 6 refusals, including Finch.
    I am now considering self publshing. Would love to hear your opinion.
    Best regards Marvi del Nero( A Swiss/ Brazilian citizen)

    • Dear Marvi

      You are entitled to whinge! That is a very sad story. I can’t understand why you were deported. This may be the lucky country, but it is unlucky for many. The current management of refugees, treating them as criminals, less than citizens, is savage; and immigration management is infected by this attitude as well.
      I think self-publishing is a good idea; have you considered e-publishing? You might find a ready audience, as I think many are concerned about our immigration and refugee policies, and many have been affected by them.

  11. Marvi Ruegg

    Dear Christina.
    I first contacted you with a bit of whinging about publishers and the unfair Dept of Immigration in Australia (February 2014).
    This time I am contacting you with happy news: I did get to self publish my memoir and my book was launched on 24th August 2014 at the Biannual International Book Fair in Sao Paulo.
    I am currently living in Basel(Switzerland) and marketing my book in Europe.
    I am happy here but I will always call Australia home; that is where my heart lives.
    Best regards and all the best
    Marvi del Nero

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