Do your finest work

Friday, September 8, 2017
Sam Cooney interviewed by Amy Adeney

Sam Cooney headshot
Sam Cooney

When working with industry professionals, be patient, be polite, but don't be a pushover, says Sam Cooney. Ahead of his upcoming workshop, we talked to Sam about how getting published in literary journals can be a great springboard in a writer's journey.

You say that behind every great writer is a bunch of editors, publishers, designers, publicists and other highly-skilled people – what advice can you give aspiring writers about working with these industry professionals?

Be patient! Be polite! But that doesn’t mean you have to be a pushover! (No one should ever get annoyed at a writer asking questions, but it is easy to get annoyed at a writer asking questions who then follows up two hours later with a ‘Hi, just giving this a bump’ and then two hours later with a ‘Hey, just making sure you got my email’. Two days later, sure, but no one wants to be ‘bumped’ or ‘prodded’ two hours later, and yes, we’ve always always always received your email.)

Learn as much as you can about what a particular person’s job involves – because very often a writer isn’t actually aware of the eleventy bajillion tasks that a publishing industry person is responsible for. If a writer can learn this stuff, then they can do what is best, and that is help this person in their job. (Try and learn by not-asking the person in question in that moment, but by googling or by talking with someone else who knows.)

Do your finest work. And then you can expect someone else to do so in return.

You have taught creative writing and publishing subjects at several universities – what would you say are the main benefits of undertaking tertiary or post-graduate study in these areas, rather than simply immersing oneself in the writing life?

Every single person can be their own best teacher – but also can be their own worst distraction. University/tertiary study is worthwhile simply because it provides a structure through which learning and opportunities for growth are funnelled to you. This could be a creative writing degree, though I know a tonne of terrific writers who studied a bunch of other subjects/courses/degrees. Also: early on in a writer’s career, maybe a very bad thing to believe is that everything you ever need to be a good writer is already within you, because this is almost 100% not the case. A good writer isn’t born: a good writer is someone who is able to represent and/or re-present the world to readers, and here ‘the world’ that is being represented/re-presented is always a more interesting world if the writer has seen more things and interacted with more people and read more books and watched more films and listened to more music etc.

How can being published in a literary journal act as a springboard in an emerging writer’s career?

First and foremost it’s a ‘springboard’ for several reasons: because other editors and publishers and curators and etc are reading these literary journals, looking for talent which they can exploit (in every sense of the term), and if you want to be a writer who sustains a career in Australia then you gotta be ready to be exploited (in every sense of the term). (And even if these editors/publishers/curators don’t come immediately knocking, having literary journal bylines in your CV/bio will only help you when you submit work to more publications/prizes/etc, because this is what an editor/publisher/curator thinks when they see a trusted literary journal publication in your byline: Cool, this writer has been vetted by other editors/publishers/curators who I trust, and also this writer has been through the process of being edited and published, which means it’ll likely be a smooth process for me if and when I want to publish this writer’s work.

More importantly: a new/emerging writer is a giant baby who needs to learn the most basic literary-physiological functions, including: how to submit work exactly to the provided guidelines; how to be rejected; how to be accepted; how to be edited; how to be published; and how to help a publication promote the work. Where does a giant writer baby learn all this? At literary journals (be they in print, or online, or digital, or live magazine programs, or whatever) as well as at non-literary publications.

How do you find the process of editing books differs from editing submissions for literary journals?

I have edited editions of literary journals that are 90k words or more in total, and they were infinitely easier to edit than a single 90k word book, because 20-30 pieces that together equal 90k words is most often akin to eating a bag of peanut M&Ms (i.e. delicious and no challenge) whereas editing a book of 90k words can be like trying to eat a single peanut M&M that is the exact size and shape as your misshapen skull (i.e. something that should be done slowly and with care and also an act that makes you feel tiny and maladroit). 

You say you are most interested in publishing works that are ‘artistically daring and culturally critical’ – what are some of the most exciting examples you have come across recently?

Shaun Prescott’s The Town is the smartest and perfectly subtlest dig at Australia I have read for a very long time, and I am not grossly saying that because I/Brow Books published it – whoever published this book, I would say the exact same thing.

I’ve finally started reading Alexis Wright’s novels which I should’ve done centuries ago (every single Australian chump in high school should be reading these books), largely because several people whose readerly opinions I respect more than anyone’s have recently reminded me that she is without a doubt the best living novelist in Australia today, and probably beats out the not-living too.

Anything and everything that wins or is runner-up to our Prize for Experimental Non-fiction each and every year.

All the books listed here.

About Sam Cooney

Sam Cooney runs the not-for-profit publishing organisation The Lifted Brow, which produces a quarterly literary magazine (also titled The Lifted Brow), publishes books, posts commentary and criticism online every week, stages events, awards writing prizes, and more. He is publisher-inresidence at RMIT University, teaches sessionally at RMIT and University of Melbourne, is a freelance writer and book reviewer. He also judges literary prizes, sits on a couple of advisory boards, chairs events, and in 2017 is taking part in the Small Press Network mentorship program and the Australia Councils ‘Future Leaders’ professional development program.

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.