Have you got the write stuff?
Everyone, it's claimed, has a novel inside them. Some literary snobs have suggested it's probably best left there but, whether they like it or not, Australia is undergoing something of an amateur writing boom.
The Australian Writers' Centre, based in Sydney, says it's seen a huge surge in interest in its online and classroom writing courses in just the last five years. Its national director Valerie Khoo attributes it to the very thing that was supposed to kill the written word as we knew it, the internet.
"People have discovered it's easy to tell their own stories on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, blogs and so on,” she says. "It's given them a voice - and an audience.
"I think it's encouraged the art of storytelling and we're seeing people who're interested in taking that further.”
But if it's the lure of fame and fortune spurring the growing ranks of part-time writers, they may well be disappointed. A 2015 study of 1000 Australian book authors found the average income from their writing was $12,900 a year.
Entering into this rather austere literary landscape is a dazzling new prize for unpublished authors.
Australia's oldest publishing house HarperCollins has launched its Banjo Prize, a $15,000 advance to the author of the best unpublished manuscript it unearths with a chance of a publishing contract. Two runners-up will receive written assessments of their manuscripts in the hope they'll be able to use them as blueprints to get their work to publishable standard.
It's no exaggeration to say HarpersCollins's head of fiction Catherine Milne is buzzing with anticipation at what she might discover.
"I'm just so excited by what might come in,” she says. "I hope we find some real gems. I actually can't wait to read them.”
It's been some years since HarperCollins has accepted unsolicited manuscripts from budding authors as some rival publishing houses do. The strike rate was just too low. Indeed, publishing rates for first time authors in Australia are infinitesimal but it doesn't seem to deter the punters.
"That's why we're opening the door in this way,” Milne says. "We're hoping the Banjo will become a fixture on the writing community's calendar and give new authors something to work towards every year.”
Allen & and Unwin is one publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. All up, it receives about 1000 submissions a year and that doesn't count the relentless emails and phone inquiries.
So what do publishers look for in a manuscript? Milne says there are some definite pointers but there's also some magic involved.
"My first piece of advice is to read, read, read,” she says. "Have a notion where your work is going to sit within the genre you're writing in. Be familiar with the well-known authors and how they're telling their stories and also the niche authors. Know the territory.”
The next tip is one she can't emphasise enough - to make sure the beginning is compelling. Milne says she can often tell whether a manuscript is going to captivate her just by reading the title, first paragraph and synopsis.
The synopsis is a brief plot summary, required by all publishers. Milne advises writers to put as much effort into it as writing the manuscript itself so it captures the 'spirit' of the work.
"The best way I can put it is that the synopsis should let me know how I'm going to feel reading the manuscript,” Milne says. "It doesn't have to labour through all the twists and turns of the plot but make me want to read the story.”
It's difficult to pin Milne down on what sort of novel the judges will be looking for although she does say science fiction and fantasy are not on the agenda (sorry).
"We're looking for great historical fiction, romantic comedies, family sagas, gritty crime - domestic noir and psychological thrillers are very popular at the moment,” she says.
"But you know, I'm open to being surprised. There's nothing better than coming across something different and unusual.”
When it comes to selecting the winner though, Milne says it's always the more intangible qualities that make manuscripts leap out of the pile: a unique voice, passion in the writing and good old-fashioned story telling.
"That's what you really look for,” Milne says. "I just want to be swept away by the story. I absolutely want to be kept up late at night because I can't stop turning the pages. I want to feel the passion that went into writing it.”
But, most of all, for the Banjo Prize, Milne is just asking writers to have a go.
"Be brave, be confident and, please, just send your manuscripts in because I'm so looking forward to seeing what's out there.”
Entries for the Banjo Prize close on May 25. The competition is open to Australian writers over 18 years of age with a complete, unpublished manuscript.
Find out more and lodge your entry at harpercollins.com.au/thebanjoprize