Writing Advice

Hello! I am often asked about my top tips for emerging writers, for writing advice, or about books and publishing and agents. Now, here is one page where I will endeavour to answer all the questions, pulling from my own personal experience and what I see floating around online. (This might take me a bit of time, so do check back from time to time to see if updates have been added!)

On Top Tips for Writing…

  1. When you’re starting out, you will hear people say, ‘Write what you know.’ Agreed: that’s good advice for your early ventures into writing. After that, though, my advice is always to ‘Write what you WANT to know.’ That will keep you curious and your writing fresh. It gives your words energy and drive as you discover new things. That will also help to keep you in touch with your project because there will always be new material to discover and you’ll be less like to lose interest yourself.
  2. Don’t try to write a novel straight up. If you think about it, that’s like a toddler trying to run a marathon while they’re still falling on their behind every other day. Crazy, right? Write short stories for a long time. You can write a short story in a day (or a week if you need it). That isn’t a big investment of your time but will give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of learning. Write in different points of view. Write in first person (“I”) and third person (“them/they/he/she”) and, sure, have a go at second person (“you” … but don’t get stuck there for too long; no one really enjoys second person). Write from different characters’ perspectives, not just your own. Try writing a character you don’t really like. Try writing a character older than you and one younger than you. Write in different genres (drama, romance, mystery, fantasy, crime etc.) and you’ll start to get a feel for where your writing strength lies.
  3. Once you start trying to write a novel, you’ll be stuck in it for a long time, possibly years. I think a lot of novels are abandoned because the writer hasn’t found their voice yet. Your “voice” is the thing that holds a reader’s attention and the magical, elusive component publishers are looking for. You will find your voice writing dozens of short stories. Don’t skip that part: it’s your apprenticeship, or the equivalent of your degree.

On How to Increase your Chances of Success

  1. Join your state’s writing centre. I attended workshops with the Queensland Writing Centre for twelve years before I got a contract and I tried a bit of everything: playwriting, poetry, character development, Year of the Novel and lots more. Your writers centre is your go-to for all things writing. They are used to mentoring and developing writers and helping them through the process of pitching to agents and publishers
  2. Find yourself a writing circle or at least a writing buddy. This is invaluable. (NOTE: YOU WILL PROBABLY FIND YOUR WRITING BUDDIES THROUGH YOUR STATE WRITING CENTRE. Also, go to the festivals and conferences. Say hi. Be nice. Find people writing in similar genres to you.) Writers need other writer friends. For years, I met up with writer buddies and exchanged short stories or parts of manuscripts over coffee and food, swapping feedback with each other. A deadline to meet up will keep you on track and you’ll hopefully make some good friends in the process. It doesn’t have to be in person; you might prefer online and that’s cool too. But writing can be a long and lonely game and you need company on the road.
  3. Be generous. Give back at least as much as you get from others.
  4. Know that rejection (and lots of it) is part of the game. It’s normal. It happens to everyone. It hurts! But your writing buddies (that you’ve discovered and cultivated through your state writing centre and associated festivals and conferences) will be invaluable during phases of rejection and you will be there for them as they go through the same. No one gets a free ride through the journey. When rejection turns up, you can say, ‘Oh, rejection, there you are. I must be moving forward in my writing progress. That hurt but I know I can’t hit any roadblocks by staying still. Pass me the chocolate, some tissues and my phone so I can text my writing buddy immediately.’ Trust me: rejection does not mean you should stop writing. It means you need to keep writing.
  5. Enter competitions. It’s a great way to get feedback, get experience with rejection and how to manage it, write to a deadline, sometimes get noticed or published, and perhaps even win some money (the time I won a short story competition and got $8,000 for it was the moment I though, hey, there might just be a living in this for me after all!).
  6. Be nice to everyone. The writing world is SMALL. Everyone knows everyone.

Your Questions! (Actual Questions You Have Asked Me)

Q: can you help my husband write his memoir?

A: I have a great resource for you! I did this free online course on memoir writing with US writer, Wendy Dale and loved it. I highly recommend it. I think that’s a great place to start!

Q: What’s the best process, especially when just starting to approach people like publishers etc.?

A: (1) ALL publishers will have slightly different requirements for submissions. Head to each publisher’s website and look for “Submissions” or similar. They will tell you EXACTLY what they want you to do. Do it EXACTLY the way they tell you to. DO NOT deviate from what they have asked! That’s it. Do that. Also, give them them something really great to read. (NOT your first draft! Or your second draft! Maybe not even your third draft. You will get ONE chance to impress. (2) Your state’s writing centre is your go-to for workshops and seminars on how to pitch to publishers.

Q. Can you edit [your work] yourself?

A: You absolutely must learn to edit your own work. Again, check out your state’s writing centre for workshops and training in editing. Once your book is picked up for publication, you’ll edit all over again (structural editing, copy editing and proofreading). Writing is rewriting. Writing is editing. If you are self-publishing, make sure you do as much editing yourself as possible and I would advise you to pay a professional editor as well. Don’t skip the structural edit. The structure of your book, the big picture (whether ideas are followed through, whether there is enough momentum and pace, whether all loose ends are tied up at the end, whether your content is appropriate/offensive, whether you have things that are confusing, whether you have too many characters or not enough, whether your dialogue rings true or not, whether the story is ready (not the individual words, but the story), whether you have too much research or not enough) is the thing that will ultimately make or break your book. Those structural elements are what will sell your story to a publisher.

Q. How do you get an agent without getting scammed?

A: Again, head to your state’s writing centre. They deal with this all the time. As a start, you can try the Australian Literary Agents’ Association to see who is listed there. But not being listed there doesn’t necessarily make them scammers (my agent isn’t in that organisation) but it’s a start. It’s also worth joining the Australian Society of Authors. They provide subsidised access to legal advice for contracts.

Q. Can you choose your timeframe/deadline contracts for writing books?

A: My cheeky answer to this would be that it depends on how big you are 🙂 But as most of us aren’t and will never be literary superstars, it’s helpful to remember that publishing is a commercial enterprise so just like any other business the publisher will have quotas they need to meet. Some things can be mutually negotiated, some can’t, and these are best discussed at the beginning of the relationship, or as early as possible if a problem arises (such as serious illness, death in the family etc.)… not two weeks before a book is due! Ultimately, if you are in a contract with a publisher you are working in a business agreement and you need to meet the deadlines and expectations that have been agreed upon.

Q. I am thinking about writing a picture book about [a specific topic]. How do I do it?

A: Children’s books, and picture books in particular, come with their own set of rules and standards. (One place to get excellent, helpful info on this is the CYA Conference.) I’d say it’s generally more difficult to get a children’s book published than an adult novel and that is exponentially greater for picture books. Picture books are so incredibly expensive to make and therefore far less of them are made than novels. You can of course offer your manuscript to a publisher (see question above on ‘what’s the process…?’) but these days it’s easier than ever to self-publish so that’s always an option too. Self-publishing is often ideal if you have a very specific topic and you know exactly where that market it to sell it.

Q. Should I write fiction or non-fiction?

A: Before I answer this, I’m just going to clarify the difference because I know a LOT of people get those two terms confused.

‘Fiction’ means (a made-up) story (like Goldilocks and The Three Bears).

‘Non-fiction’ means ‘not made up’ or ‘not story’ (like a text book, history book or memoir).

Okay, in terms of global book sales, non-fiction outsells fiction. That doesn’t mean that your particular non-fiction book will outsell the fiction book next to it on the shelf; it just means that as a share of the market, non-fiction wins. Some stories can be fictionalised and still pass on a lot of truth. We see this often in historical fiction, which draws on real people, places and events of the past, and even in contemporary fiction, which draws on the realities of life in the current day. (I do loads of research for all my fiction books… it’s my favourite part.) Ironically, it is often easier for a reader to accept (and remember) core truth from fiction than it is from a non-fiction book. But that’s another conversation…

As to the process of writing, I have written both fiction and non-fiction and, for me, non-fiction is significantly easier to write. The reason for that is that when I’m writing non-fiction, the information already exists. It’s often tangible, with real objects that can be touched, photographs and recordings, and living people who can share their story. For me, non-fiction is just a matter of taking the information and putting it together in a way that works. The structure is generally easier and there is more flexibility in how to arrange information.

Fiction, on the other hand, means you are creating a whole world from nothing. It’s far more difficult to find the boundaries of the story (as you could take it in any possible direction) and it’s more difficult to find the starting and ending points. You also have to create all the information about characters and decide what events should happen (rather than recounting what events did happen).

Both non-fiction and fiction require research (in my opinion). I have some strong feelings about writers who don’t do any research because ‘it’s all made up anyway’… but again, that’s another conversation. They both require drafting and re-drafting and many hours at the keyboard. But for me, non-fiction is a far simpler process.

Q. Should I look into creating a website now myself, or could I leave it until I’m successful?

A. I didn’t have a website or social media up and running when I got my first deal, but that was back in 2012. A lot has changed. In short, I would say you need a website as it’s not difficult to set up and it gives your prospective publisher/agent a place to head to in order to get a vibe or just feel connected. It’s also a great space to list your progress and achievements along the way (such as being shortlisted or winning a competition) and making notes about conferences or workshops you attend. It’s something you will need once you are published so you’ll have had time to work out all the technology and find your style and voice by the time you get published. As well, it’s something you can use to be connected to other beginning or emerging writers you connect with along the way. (Connecting with other writers is a high priority–see previous notes above.) If you happen to have a bit of a following by the time you submit your work, all the better.

Social media can work for or against you, honestly. You might want to consider separating your private life from your public life and being a bit more thoughtful about your public space. But your presence is also something that the social media platform can disable at anytime and you can lose all your followers and all your hard work. A website is a must, and is a fairly stable, reliable beast; social media is another thing altogether.

Q. What’s the go with word limits and chapter limits? Are there rules?

A. There are loads of rules, especially if you are writing in the children’s sector. (Children’s books are very specific.) Having said that, rules are often a bit bendy and they can change depending on your publisher and what you are writing. A lot of commercial general fiction writers write manuscripts of 80,000 words, and some will be quite fixed on 2,000 word chapters. My fiction books have ranged between 100,000 – 120,000 words. My chapters are usually around 3,000 words, give or take. (Some are closer to 2,000 and and some are closer to 4,000. It really depends on where in the book they are and what’s going on in the story.) Some commercial fiction or historical fiction writers write 150,000 words in a book. Non-fiction has different rules again. The best way forward is to go to workshops and conferences. Connect with the organisations I’ve mentioned above.