From Prize to Publication with Julie Keys

Julianna Toth  

As the deadline for The Richell Prize for Emerging Writers for 2018 approaches, Julie Keys shares her experience, tips and how she increased her chances of publication.

Julie Keys was shortlisted for The Richell Prize in 2017.  Her debut novel, Triptych, will be published by Hachette in the first half of 2019.

Tell us a bit about your entry and now to be published, Triptych.

While writing Triptych, I had in mind that it was a story about marking your place in history. The narrative traces two timelines from the perspective of two strong women: Muriel Kemp, an unconventional artist known for the work she produced in Sydney’s bohemian 1920s, and Jane Cooper, her contemporary investigator.

The 1920’s is a fascinating era in Australia’s history and required a fair bit of research. Aviation in the 20’s was one of the areas that I needed to read up on. Planes back then weren’t much more than cloth and plywood and fell out of the sky a lot easier than they do today. I read a couple of instruction manuals on how to fly them, emailed an expert, and read personal accounts from aviators but wanted to capture the experience firsthand, which meant going on a bi-plane flight. It was worth battling my fear of heights and possible motion sickness for the insights it gave me and the unexpected benefit was that I enjoyed the flight.

How has shortlisted for The Richell Prize helped your career?

I poured myself into this novel and had to wonder if it would end up more than a messy pile on the floor.  Being shortlisted for the Richell Prize changed all that.  Hachette took me, and my work, seriously.

What makes a good synopsis?

I try to keep in mind that a synopsis is succinct, that it’s not meant to be a detailed account of the plot or a back cover blurb with a hook. A synopsis captures the essence of the narrative including who the story is about, what the conflict is and how it’s resolved.  It should give the reader an indication of what they’re going to get when they read your manuscript.

What’s key to writing a compelling chapter breakdown?

Once again, I think brevity and clarity is best.  A chapter breakdown should reflect the progression of your novel so includes the conflicts along the way and the climax.   I’m conscious of not overloading the outlines as the main points can get lost in the detail.

What sort of things have you done to build your writers’ profile?

If you googled me you’d probably find some short stories I’ve published in journals. I’ve been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, Overland short story prize and was awarded 3rd place in the Boroondara Literary Awards.  Last year I received a LitLink Residential fellowship with Varuna and was shortlisted for the Richell Prize.

But this has taken some time. Prior to this novel, my writing happened somewhere between work and family commitments. My plan, if you can call it that, was to keep plugging away and to look for opportunities as I went along.

How important is it to enter prizes/ awards for emerging writers?

I think it’s important for emerging writers to get their work out there. This includes prizes and awards.  For me, entering a prize or an award is a way of setting myself a deadline. It motivates me to edit and review the work, especially during busy periods.  It also makes me feel like I’m moving forward, even if my name doesn’t show up on the longlist.

I was drawn the Richell Prize specifically because of the emphasis it places, as part of Matt Richell’s legacy, on nurturing emerging writers. The prize is an attractive one – a combination of money and mentorship. On the pragmatic side it doesn’t require a completed manuscript, you only need to submit the first three chapters and its free to enter.

I also think it’s better to get your work out there as opposed to leaving it on the computer or in the bottom of a drawer where it’s got no chance of being seen.

How far were you into finishing the full manuscript for Triptych when entering it to The Richell Prize?

I ‘d written about half of the first draft.

What’s the best advice or feedback anyone has given you a writer?

I left my job after I had a run-in with a B-double truck. That’s when I started to write Triptych. I escaped uninjured but that near miss motivated me to resign from full-time work and immerse myself in writing, which included enrolling in a PhD in creative arts at the University of Wollongong. I was lucky enough to get Catherine Cole as my supervisor.

In the months leading up to the course I wrote and threw out about 60-70,000 words.

I had a lot of preconceived ideas about how I thought I should write and part of me was concerned that I’d given up my job for nothing. Cathy encouraged me and told me to keep going and then I had an epiphany – Cathy would tell me if I was writing rubbish. As simple as that seems, it worked. I began to back myself and write in a way that was natural to me.

Who’s your favourite writer (emerging or established) and why?

I always find it difficult to pick just one writer, there’s such a wealth of talent and good books around. I’m keen to read this year’s Stella prize shortlist for example.

I don’t tend to stick to one author or style/ genre of writing but I know I’m enjoying a book when it feels as if I’m in the narrative alongside the characters or the author presents me with an unfamiliar but fathomable perspective.

During my research for Triptych I read quite a few books that were written or set in the interwar years and came across writers such as Olga Masters and Amy Witting whom I enjoyed.  Miles Franklin is another author whose style I find compelling. I’m part way through her novel Back to Bool Bool.

In contemporary fiction, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels are stand out for me. I’ve also just finished and enjoyed reading Sally Abbot’s Closing Down and have started and am engaged by Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race.

What’s your overall advice for anyone wanting to enter The Richell Prize this year?

Get your work as ready as it can be. Edit and pay attention to detail.  But enter. There’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

The Richell Prize is proudly presented by EWF, Hachette Australia and Guardian Australia. Entries close 1:59pm AEST Monday 9 July.

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