Alumni Interview with Taryn Bashford



Di Jenkins

Di Jenkins

Introduction and interview by Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Welcome to the first Varuna Feature for 2018. It’s great to be back, and I’m delighted to be here talking this month with debut YA novelist Taryn Bashford. After winning a Varuna PIP Fellowship in 2016, The Harper Effect is out now, taking teenage readers into the cutthroat world of the international tennis circuit, a truly Darwinian environment where only the fittest survive. 

To my mind, Taryn’s success offers aspiring YA authors (and writers in general, for that matter) a fascinating example of tenacity and what I’m going to call strategic application. She has set herself up for success in a way many unpublished fiction writers still don’t – myself included. Taryn, on the other hand, has applied herself with enormous energy and discipline not only to developing her craft – reading and writing across her category for years – but also engaging with the modern day business of being a writer, developing her brand via numerous digital platforms well before she even had a publishing deal. Now, with her novel hitting the YA shelves this month, she already has a fan base in waiting, ready to receive her debut with wide-open arms. 

It takes a certain amount of commercial acumen and marketing savvy – and just a dash of chutzpah – to prioritise the promotional side of things before you have a book, but if there’s one thing The Harper Effect reveals, it’s that Taryn understands the nature of competition. Traditionally, writers perhaps more readily admitted to finding the profile-building and promotional work a bit onerous – some established authors even managed to opt out of appearances altogether – but for most authors today, particularly those with debuts to flog, those days are long gone. Authors need to actively participate in the sales campaign as much as they can, in order to give their book its best chance of success. 

So as much as I want to talk to Taryn about the fictional world she creates in The Harper Effect, I also want to share with you some of the many ways in which she has approached the job of getting published, and how that translates into the job of selling books now hers is out. I’ve learned a lot from interviewing alumni in the past who excel at precisely this sort of pragmatic, market-driven thinking – like bestselling rural romance author Jennifer Scoullar, and crime writer Catherine Lee, both friends I made at Varuna – and the same is true here. I think some of these promotional strategies are particularly effective for genre writers, but I hope you’ll agree that some of what Taryn has done to help herself along her path to publication bears thinking about, irrespective of what and to whom you’re writing.

Without further ado, please welcome Varuna’s latest PIP success to the Alumni Interview Suite.

DJ: I’m always amazed and impressed when debut authors have really sophisticated websites, but I think yours takes things to a whole new level, Taryn! How long has the site been up and running, how did you approach the set up and did you do it all by yourself? 

TB: I’m pleased you like it, as I’m not an IT expert and found building and designing the website to be quite a challenge. I used WIX as my website platform. It’s lots of drag and drop, uploading your own photos, writing your own text, choosing from a pre-set design and the instructions don’t mention the word ‘widget’. It also optimises the site to mobile.

I built it about 2 years ago and have tweaked and updated it ever since. The key was the brief I gave myself: must be bright and fun to appeal to teens, but also easily navigated to give information about me and my books to parents, librarians, booksellers and so on. I highly recommend that up-and-coming authors set up their website as soon as possible. I know when I got the call from Pan Macmillan to have a pre-offer chat, they had clearly read my website, quoting information I’d put up there. I felt that it was part of the publisher’s evaluation of me as an author.

DJ: How much has your former career in sales and marketing helped you understand and build your author profile in advance of publication, and how important is it for emerging authors today – perhaps particularly in the YA space, because kids lead such highly digitised lives – to really do that promotional work from the get-go?

TB: I’m extremely lucky to have had that sales and marketing background. After you’ve written your book, the learning curve for submitting it, finding an agent and working with the publisher post-contract signing, is very steep. To also have a steep learning curve in the marketing arena would be tough. Also, it’s helped me separate the creative side of writing and publishing a book with the business side.

I encourage all authors hoping to become published to start reading up on book marketing immediately for two reasons: first, to understand the jargon, the various avenues available to you, and to start thinking about your target audience and, most importantly, your author brand. Second, there are many publicity steps you need to start immediately, especially social media, so that by the time the book launches, you have a following. Without a following, you’re shouting into a blank room when you start talking book cover reveals and book launches.

I’m not saying this is an official thing, but I think it’s also something potential publishers look at – my US publisher was impressed I had 1,500 followers on Instagram (mostly teens and twenty somethings), and it might’ve been a factor in her consideration of me for a book contract. Ultimately, the marketing budget of every publisher for debut authors is pretty small, so anything you can be seen to do to help them sell your book is important.

If you don’t know where to start your learning process, try Dana Kaye’s Your Book, Your Brand. It was the simplest to follow, and very comprehensive. Or start following a blogger or podcaster who specialises in book marketing. If any emerging authors have any specific questions, feel free to ask me through my website or Facebook.

DJ: The Harper Effect started life as a manuscript you wrote when you were just 14-years-old, called ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ Did you find it in a dusty box one day and think, ‘Wow, this thing I wrote as a teenager actually has legs!’ – or was it always there in the background as a project you believed in and planned to return to? What has most surprised you about your path to publication?

TB: ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ was handwritten and bound with a little ribbon; it was part of an English assignment when I was 14. I’m not sure the teacher expected a full-length novel, but she marked it nonetheless, and encouraged me to work on it to get it published. So the novel was always there, something I would one day return to, and it indeed followed me in a trunk across the sea to Australia.

It took over ten years to settle in Australia and get down to focusing on writing. It was after reading a teen novel by [Varuna Alumna] Susanne GervayThat’s Why I Wrote This Song, that I dug out poor ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ The reason was that after reading Susanne’s novel I realised that had I read her book when I was 15, it would’ve helped me get through some teen angst I was going through – namely my relationship with my dad. Her book would’ve felt like a helping hand, a metaphorical hug, and I knew without a doubt that that’s the type of book I wanted to write. So I set about reading YA books and they only confirmed my decision.

From the age of 5 I planned to become a writer. I still have the little books I wrote and made back then. I went to university to study English Literature to become a journalist and the plan was to write the novel alongside that job. But life got in the way. Recession meant a lack of journalism jobs, so I went into sales and marketing. I was going well up that particular career ladder, so writing became a hobby. I played at it. Toyed now and again. But I did keep reading voraciously. It’s only when I came to Australia, and facilitated being able to write full-time, that I seriously set my sights on publication.

What surprised me most about the path to publication is how supportive and helpful the YA writing community is, from fellow writers to publishers. Writers are willing to share their experiences and suggest ways to get ahead, and editors who rate your work, but think it’s not quite there, are so willing to give advice and even their email addresses to send your revised work. There’s a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together, so let’s help each other,’ and I love that. It banishes the feeling of being isolated, because writing is such a lonely profession.

DJ: Debuts often – not always, but often – contain autobiographical influences. The Harper Effect tackles the international tennis circuit and I read your brother used to play competitively. Playing any kind of professional sport from a young age must mean existing in a very difficult and occasionally warped environment – what drew you to fictionalise this world through Harper’s eyes?

TB: Yes, you’re right about my brother. To this day, he’s still coaching in America. I was also an athlete, training to enter the Olympics in the 400m. I guess it was the two of us together, fighting for our dreams, that made me think about what makes teens go above and beyond the norm. This concept fascinates me – not just in sport, but in academia, music, art…the flipside of this is asking if teens who make it big in any field have the same angsts and vulnerabilities as your average teen in high school.

I also think that the world of professional ‘anything’ is an interesting place to look inside. I loved sitting across from Agassi as he ate his lunch in the players’ lounge at Wimbledon, and having a pizza with Amelia Mauresmo. I loved the inside stories about locker room etiquette and competing for coaches. I figured others would like to hear these stories too.

Finally, I wanted to inspire young girls to see themselves taking part in sport – to see it’s realistic and normal. With girls being twice as likely to drop out of sport as boys ( Women’s Sport Foundation), I think part of that’s due to the lack of strong athletic role models within our teen literature. I know that my sport got me through a lot of dark teen days. It’s something that was stable, that I could immerse myself in, and forget the pressures of exams and school bickering and issues with the parentals. We need more strong, fit, confident female sporty role models.

DJ: Hear, hear! Now, pressure: tennis is a pressure-cooker sport and adolescence is a pressure-cooker period. Combining the two in YA fiction is a stroke of creative genius – I can instantly see the international commercial appeal – but I imagine bullying, self-harm, eating disorders, verbal abuse and more are rife within the real teenage tennis community. How did you tackle fictionalising some of the issues?

TB: Discussing the dark territory that is embarked on would be a spoiler, so I’ll say no more. But ultimately, The Harper Effect is a coming-of-age story, hung out to dry in the world of international tennis, so I was keen to ensure most of the issues the characters face are ones every teen can relate to (from the fear of leaving the safety of childhood behind, to making the wrong choices, which now have bigger consequences), except that the stakes are perhaps a bit higher in Harper’s world. I guess one of the biggest issues addressed is the image of our self in this life: how to find the answer to the question, ‘Who am I and why am I here?’

DJ: The biographical timeline on your site is fascinating. As a 23-year-old, you were ‘steadily writing many adult novels’ – so how many ‘bottom drawer’ manuscripts are you currently sitting on?! ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ turned out to be the makings of your YA fiction debut, so are you thinking about resurrecting these adult manuscripts now as well?

TB: I’m not very proud of the many unfinished manuscripts I have in a big trunk in the attic, and I certainly wouldn’t want to count them! I guess the upside is that I was practising and improving my craft, right? I’m sorry that I left it until I hit my 40s to take my writing seriously, rather than play at it. It was always an important part of my life, always there nagging at me, but as I said before, life got in the way.

In terms of writing adult novels, and perhaps continuing one I started writing many years ago, that is certainly a possibility. However, for now I’m keen to maintain my mission to write books that can be that helping hand, that metaphorical hug, for teens around the world. I love the genre, love hanging out with the readers of this genre, and for now I feel like I’ve found my fit.

DJ: I’ve been interested in your progress since we both won Varuna PIP Fellowships for YA manuscripts last year. Yours went to Pan Macmillan and was picked up straightaway, which is a dream result – congratulations! Lots of aspiring writers are going to be keen to know more – myself included, quite frankly – so can you tell us about how it all happened? Did you get the contract immediately upon winning the fellowship, before doing your residency, or did it come afterwards? And did you have agency representation before the PIP or did landing an agent come after the Pan Macmillan deal? Any tips for writers who maybe haven't reached the fellowship stage yet?

TB: Are you ready for a yarn? Because the answer is that I was juggling a lot of opportunities at once, and they each had a knock-on effect that led to agency representation, the two-book deal with Pan Macmillan, and then an agent and contract with a publisher in the USA. It all happened at once.

I had the following irons in the fire:

  • I submitted The Harper Effect to Curtis Brown after meeting at the CYA Conference six months previously. 

  • After meeting another Big Five publisher, again at the CYA Conference, the lovely editor there informed me via email that she was taking my novel to an acquisitions meeting. They had also taken Sassy Jam, another of my manuscripts, to acquisitions the year before, without success.

  • I was a winner of the Pitch Wars USA, which put my novel in front of many American agents three months previously.

  • I submitted the novel to an American agent who requested it after a Twitter Pitch Fest the month before.

  • I won a Varuna PIP Fellowship.

This is how it all unfolded: Curtis Brown offered me a contract. I accepted. When I won the Varuna Fellowship with Pan Macmillan a week later, my new agent gave them 3 weeks to contract the book, or she’d submit wider, and that second Big Five publisher was also interested. Pan Macmillan offered me a two-book deal and it was the second book I actually worked on at the Varuna residency later that year, not The Harper Effect. That same week I got an offer from the USA agent, who was impressed with my Pitch Wars win, but she was not keen to work with Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown immediately asked for five days to find me an alternate agent in the USA. I’m so glad I went along with their plan because I’m now represented by the amazing Jill Grinberg Literary Management, who has brought many amazing Australian authors to the USA, from Andy Griffiths and Markus Zusak to Liane Moriarty and Fiona Wood. I felt so privileged. Indeed, they negotiated a publishing contract with a medium-sized publisher in New York, and the book will be distributed across all English speaking countries, including USA, Canada and the UK.

The advice I’d give based on my experience is to put yourself and your work out there as much as possible, and hopefully one or more of those opportunities will lead to publication. So go to conferences, meet agents and editors, enter competitions, go on residencies, learn about the market. This is as important as the writing of the novel. But make sure that you have a finished, splendid manuscript before you submit anywhere. Also – all this takes time. Many of my ‘irons in fires’ had been there for a few months before they came to anything.

DJ: Your success is obviously a fantastic endorsement of Varuna’s PIP program – tell us about your experience in residence with four other writers, and about working with your Pan Macmillan editor at Varuna?

TB: Varuna’s PIP program (and indeed any of the fellowships offered) is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for any writer. You get the chance to retreat from the world and your responsibilities and focus on your novel. No one can tell you how much that’ll benefit your writing until you experience it. You are immersed in your story world so completely; it really does improve your work.

In addition to the time to write and peace of mind, you get to meet other authors, often in the same boat as you. Sharing stories, advice, tips, reading out your work and just relaxing with like-minded people has untold benefits. To this day (my first fellowship was some 4 years ago), I’m in touch with writers I met at Varuna, and we support each other at book launch time and in social media spheres. It’s about immersing yourself not only in your manuscript, but in the world of writers too.

My editor at Varuna worked on my first draft of the second book Pan Macmillan contracted. It was a lot of fun discussing the book at this early stage with someone so knowledgeable and experienced. My editor asked pertinent questions and helped me brainstorm subplots and characterisation. I believe the benefit in this instance was that the next draft I wrote was more complete than it would’ve been, so I saved myself a whole bunch of time.

DJ: Are there any other ways in which you feel Varuna has assisted your development as a writer?

TB: Yes. One of the most important ways it helped was in my mindset – winning something like this, working alongside other writers, helped me see myself as a professional writer, rather than a hobby writer. It boosted my confidence. For instance, I cast my eyes over the shelves of books in the lounge every night at dinner, and realised those writers were once in my shoes, here at Varuna. I was motivated to one day have my novel on those shelves. Another writer in residence told me to start telling people, if asked what I do for a living, that I’m a writer, and to buy a writer mug so that I could start believing I was a writer, even if I was unpublished. That small tip has helped me on my journey. The benefits of being at Varuna are infinite.

DJ: You’ve travelled to New York to meet your American agent and publisher – does this experience feel completely surreal to you, or did you always feel this kind of breakthrough was your future? Were there any rejections along the way, or are you that rare thing: an overnight success (who’s been writing all her life)?!

TB: That trip to New York was a dream I’d had in my head since being a girl. Actually living it was totally freaky. I can’t say I knew it would happen, but I never stopped dreaming that it might happen. And yes, there certainly were some rejections on the way – mainly of my first manuscript, ‘Sassy Jam’. It was submitted and requested a few times, it even went to acquisitions twice, but never quite made the cut. I learned a lot though, and practised with two more manuscripts that are part of the ‘Sassy Jam’ trilogy, before writing The Harper Effect. This time, there were fewer rejections and more acquisition meetings.

But way before any of these manuscripts, I submitted an early draft of ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ to an American agent at SCBWI – during the editor slot you can pay for. Her feedback was, ‘I can’t see much here that I like – do you have anything else we can talk about?’ Of course, I was crushed. I nearly gave up, deciding I had no talent for this writing lark. But after a month of ‘giving up’ and not writing, I couldn’t accept that my dream was over. That’s when I wrote ‘Sassy Jam’. I would later return to ‘Proud Now, Ma?’ – now published as The Harper Effect

DJ: Despite that American agent’s response, ‘Sassy Jam’ won its own PIP and went to Scribe for consideration in 2013. You’ve since written #2 and #3 in the Sassy Series – what’s happening with those manuscripts now?

TB: Based on publisher feedback, it’s a book series that I think will be more successful in the US market. The main character, Shae, is American, and while the other two main characters are Australian, the book follows Shae’s solo crossing of the Pacific as she runs away from a dark secret back in L.A. The setting then becomes Samoa before Shae finally heads to Queensland. The US publisher has shown initial interest, but they are focusing on The Harper Effect and the companion novel to that book, which I’m about to submit for their approval. I do hope that ‘Sassy Jam’ will one day be published and I will strive to make that happen.

DJ: We have another parallel beyond the PIP, Taryn – once upon a time, I also worked in advertising sales in London. A few years after you were at OK! magazine, I was an Account Manager at heat! Personally I do think that commercial sales background is extremely helpful (even though I once had a magazine editor tell me back in Sydney that she would never have hired me as a freelancer had she known I’d done time in advertising), but what other skills do you think are essential for maintaining focus and productivity as an unproven fiction writer?

TB: That’s so cool – all these parallels. We’ll have to meet in person one day. Perhaps at my launch in Sydney!

I think I outlined the benefits of having that sales and marketing knowledge earlier, but the other benefits include treating writing like it’s a job. I’m sure you don’t only need to be in commercial sales to learn this, but I think an essential part of my productivity and focus is sticking to a workday routine and setting deadlines and goals. For instance, I write every day from 8am to 3pm without exception. On weekends, I write for three hours before the kids get up to ensure I fit in writing time with family time. If someone calls to ask if I want to go for a coffee, I tell them I’m writing. If another suggests a game of tennis in the morning, I tell them I’m writing. My writing room has no access to emails or social media so I cannot be interrupted. Eventually, people stopped asking if I could meet up – and I hope they understand that I have to treat my writing as a normal job, and be there, bum in seat, at start time.

I also set deadlines – they vary according to the task at hand – but having a written set of deadlines ensures you stick to them, rather than having a vague sense of what you plan to do that month. The tasks can be anything from reading one book per week (as per Stephen King’s advice), to entering a Twitter Pitch to gain feedback on my logline, or entering a writing competition. The key is to then follow up and chart any progress, just as you must if given a task in a paid job. I also always ensure I finish one book, before starting another project, so that my trail of unfinished manuscripts never happens again!

DJ: Another timeline reveal: you moved your family to Queensland to ‘enable’ your writing – enable it in what way? Financially? Has it been a worthwhile move and how do you manage the juggle with your husband, the demands of his and your work and your kids? Are they old enough to read your books and if so, are they among your first readers?

TB: Yes, that’s right. I actually moved from London to Sydney to enable my writing – believing that we’d set up our business first off, then I’d leave my husband to run it while I wrote. My London job was an 18-hour-a-day type of job – it wouldn’t be possible to write a book at the same time. But as we launched in Sydney, the advent of 9/11 meant our business was going to take a long time to get off the ground. Plus, I fell pregnant. After eight years in Sydney, we felt secure enough to move up to the Sunshine Coast, where life was less busy (traffic jams, queues, other time-thieves), and where we bought a house at a quarter of the price of the one we had in Sydney. I was able to stop working in our business and write full-time.

To juggle the demands of work and kids, I carve out my writing time and then devote myself to family time, ensuring there’s a good balance. 

My children are only just old enough to read my books, but I’ve never used them as first readers as I decided that whatever they said, good or bad, I wouldn’t believe it. I needed more impartial feedback. My son did motivate me once, though. He was about nine years old and asked me why I didn’t just give up because after all these years I obviously wasn’t good enough. I swore to prove to him that giving up is never the answer, and that one day I’d take a little pleasure in him having to eat his words. On the day the book is published, I hope he learns a life lesson.

DJ: From your teen self-esteem Project Awesome web videos, you seem like a very sociable, outgoing sort of person - are you part of an active literary community where you live and how else do you try to connect with your future readers?

TB: One of the first things I did when I decided to write YA was join the SCBWI in Australia. It’s also a worldwide organisation. I have received so much support and feedback from this market that I highly recommend others writing in the children’s and YA market join. I attend the local chapterhere on the Sunshine Coast and it’s very fulfilling to now be giving advice to writers still hoping to be published. I can’t wait to have their books in my hand too.

In terms of connecting with my readers, I love Instagram, and enjoy watching live video and engaging with YA readers there. I’m excited to start school visits too. I’m a great believer in helping teens improve their self-esteem as I believe it’s a key success factor in life. My school talks will focus on this subject, while linking it back to characters in The Harper Effect.

DJ: Who are your own all-time favourite authors and why?

TB: As always, this is an impossible question to answer, because I can never narrow it down. I love different authors for different reasons, but in the interests of being disciplined and limiting that list:

  • L.M. Montgomery because the Anne of Green Gables series had me reading until past midnight even as a ten-year-old.

  • Enid Blyton because her work ethic was impeccable and she was the first author to get me hooked on reading, thanks to The Magic Faraway Tree.

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez because I love the ‘far out’ imagination skills required to write such incredible magic realism. I get lost in his worlds for weeks!

  • Markus Zusak for his insane ability to paint pictures with words.

  • Margaret Atwood for her original plotting and unique voice – and stories with flare.

  • Jandy Nelson for her poetic language and ability to make us entirely love her characters.

  • Cath Crowley for being our very own Aussie Jandy Nelson.

DJ: What a judicious selection! Thank you for playing, Taryn, and best of luck promoting The Harper Effect – something tells me it’s going to be the game, set and match to you!

Clive Jones