2013

Behind the pages, between the lines

Francesca Millena 

Some describe the process as gruelling, for some it is an eye-opener, others call it a nurturing experience. But its writers and editors agree: working on the annual UTS Writers’ Anthology, one of Australia’s longest-running university published collections, is not to be missed.

On a recent afteroon, as the final proofs of the 27th UTS Writers’ Anthology, The Evening Lands, were being put to bed, a crowd  gathered at the UTS Loft bar. It was the first time the 30 contributing student writers met their editors face-to-face, although dozens of emails and phone calls had been exchanged over the past five months.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate,” said Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, of UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, who has overseen the production of five anthologies.

While public attention often focuses on the authors – who have included future luminaries Gillian Mears, Bernard Cohen and Arabella Edge – this event is as much about the editorial committee as it is about the writers.

The UTS anthology is edited, typeset and printed in just six months – half the time it takes most commercial books. Despite the speed, there is never a compromise on quality. In her review in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, Kerryn Goldsworthy wrote: “The latest University of Technology, Sydney, anthology is the best one I’ve seen so far.”

In October, before the book reviews are published, before a single flyer is handed out, before the first email announcement calls for submissions, Debra Adelaide began to assemble the editorial team. Although she supervised production, guided the material selection, editing, design and promotion, ultimately the seven student editors took the lead. By the end of the process, each editor had spent over 200 hours reading, reviewing and working with their selected writers, as well as all the other tasks involved in launching and publicising the anthology.

“Sometimes things go pear shaped and everything has to be reviewed, but that rarely happens,” Debra said.

Six weeks later, as most students headed off for the end of year break, the editorial committee whittled down 300 submissions to a short list of 30. The pace was taxing, according to Rhys McGowan, a BA Communications graduate and anthology editor.

“One of the most memorable experiences was the night before we were due to meet and select the shortlisted pieces,” he said. “It was about 2am but I still had dozens of pieces to read and my eyes felt like they were hanging out of my skull. You start to ask yourself, did I make the right decision? But the positives outweigh all of those things.”

By mid-December, the cover design was settled, a title selected (a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian) and a well-known writer approached to draft the foreword – all decided by the editorial committee.

“There’s a quote about the camel being the horse designed by committee,” Rhys said. “So I went into the process fearing the worst. In fact, when the committee first came together to choose the shortlisted pieces, it was a whole-day meeting and it was exhausting.

“But I discovered that the diversity of tastes and interests can actually strengthen a piece rather than confuse it. For example, when we were discussing the submissions, other editors would highlight a story written in a genre that I might have overlooked due to personal preference. It made me more aware of the story’s merits and aspects of it I might not have noticed before.”

By January, the anthology’s social media campaign had picked up speed. Editor Zoe Adler Bishop, a Master of Creative Writing student, co-ordinated the Facebook page and Twitter account. It made her aware of the need for writers today to maintain a presence in the digital sphere. “It’s a great platform for sharing work, building your profile and communicating with writers and editors. That knowledge is something I can now offer to online authors as I can promote their work online to a broader audience.”

Zoe’s short story was published in I Can See Your House From Here (2010) and, like other students who have crossed over from being anthology writers to editors, she found editing sharpened her writing ability.

“I’ve learned a lot about what works, what grabs you in the first sentence, what it is about a story that stays with you after you’ve read it. There’s no other occasion where you’d have to read such a large volume of stories in such a short time, so you really learn to recognise what shines,” she said. “Also having been edited myself, I thought I could approach the task with the utmost respect, with care and also with honesty, as there’s absolutely no point if someone’s not honest about editing your work.”

Around February, as the university teaching year was about to begin, the students who had been shortlisted were contacted. Sinead Roarty, a Master of Creative Writing student and self-described “serial abuser” – having been published in the anthology four times previously – said the process was very respectful.

“The work gets really challenging and unexpected but there’s a lovely engagement between the editors and writers. Some editors are really hands-on while others are more interested in making sure the meaning is there rather than looking for grammatical errors.

“Either way you don’t feel the editors have any agenda other than to make your work a more beautiful piece, so it’s like you’re handing your baby over to someone who nurtures it as much or as little as is needed.”

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A previous anthology writer, journalist Susanna Freymark, whose short story featured in The Life You Chose and That Chose You (2011) and who has since had her first novel Losing February published, says having her work edited is routine, but fiction is much more exposing.

“When I write for a newspaper, I’m telling someone else’s story. When it comes to fiction I’m telling my own story, so it becomes intensely personal,” she said.

“Having my short story edited was a huge learning curve but the process really helped when I finalised the manuscript for my book. It meant that when the time came to work with the editors at Pan Macmillan, I went in with the knowledge they would make my piece much better.

“What you gain from being published in the anthology, or working on it as an editor, you can’t teach that in a class at university. Even for the people that submit and don’t get in, I think the process drives you to be a better writer.”

The 2013 UTS Writers’ Anthology The Evening Lands was launched last night by Amanda Lohrey, with readings from contributors and the UTS Anthology Writing Prize, and Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism, presented by Jane Cadzow. 

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