7 Tips for Aspiring Authors

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I recently had the opportunity to teach a workshop at Writers Victoria on Young Adult Fantasy. I’ve been a member of both WV and, before that, the Queensland Writer’s Centre from when I was first trying to get published over ten years ago. So to say the prospect was both daunting and thrilling is a bit of an understatement.

I needn’t have been so daunted, however, as everyone who attended turned out to be bright and eager and articulate and engaged, and together we discussed all things YA Fantasy, as well as the challenges of working on a manuscript and trying to get it published.

More than anything, it took me back to when I was working on my first (unpublished) manuscript, toiling away with what felt like a dim hope that somehow, someday, it might end up as an actual book. I remember feeling very confused at the time, and frustrated, and uncertain.

I’m often asked what advice I have for aspiring authors, and it was no different with the workshop. And in thinking it over, I came up with the advice that I know I could have used when I was starting out. So with that in mind, these are my 7 tips for aspiring authors. Why 7? Because I had to stop myself somewhere, otherwise I’d still be going.

 

1. Think three-dimensionally.

We read a book from beginning to end, so naturally we think we have to write a book from beginning to end. Not so. If you’ve gotten to a point in your manuscript that you’re stuck on but you have an idea of what happens later on in the story, then jump to writing that part of the story. Come back later and fill in the blanks. Nobody will know the difference in the finished product. You’re not a bricklayer. You’re a time traveller. Don’t be afraid to jump around.

 

2. Work on more than one project at a time.

When you’re writing your first manuscript, you naturally want to put everything you have into it. All your time, all your imagination, all your passion. And that’s as it should be. If you’re going to sit down and write tens of thousands of words, those words need to be on something that you care deeply about.

The problem comes when you start re-drafting, and re-drafting, and re-drafting. You want this manuscript to be perfect. You want it to have the best possible chance of finding an agent, landing a deal, becoming a bestseller. Your entire worth as a writer and aspiring author becomes laser-focused on this one book.

But nobody wants to become an author so they can publish just the one novel. Unless you’re Harper Lee. Or JD Salinger. And I’m going to stop listing counter-examples now because it’s not helping me make my point.

Most writers want to go on keep writing books. So my advice is this. Write your manuscript. Re-draft it. Make it the strongest piece of writing that you can. But while you’re doing that, permit your imagination to wander. Think of what you might like to write next. Jot down notes. Write a fragment here, a line there.

In other words, start developing the idea. Filmmakers often develop multiple projects simultaneously, and end up going ahead with the one that gets the most amount of momentum and interest behind it.

And the reason for doing this as a writer is two-fold; firstly, it means you don’t live or die on the fortunes of one manuscript. More importantly, it means that if you end up getting a meeting with a publisher or an agent and they inevitably ask if you’re working on anything else, you can say that you are and then pitch them that project at the same time.

 

3. Nothing comes out as perfectly as the way you imagined it.

Before the story moves onto the page it first lives in our heads as a sequence of images, possibly tied together by a few select words and phrases. The work comes in trying to connect the dots and transmit all those images, thoughts, and feelings into the heads of our readers.

We are very rarely happy with how we accomplish this. We can be satisfied, we can feel that we’ve more or less done it, but it’s never the same as how we first envisioned it. It might be better, it might be worse, but mostly it’s just different.

And I think one of the major reasons we keep writing is because we keep striving for that moment where we reach into our skulls, pluck out the ideas exactly as we imagined them, and plop them down in front of everyone as if we’ve just pulled a rabbit from our hats.

But if you’re having trouble with that, don’t get frustrated. Don’t give up. You’re just experiencing the same anxieties as every other writer, from beginners starting out through to Booker winners working on their latest masterpiece.

 

4. Know what your book is about and where it sits in the market.

I was once talking to a friend about the book they were writing and I asked them what it was about. They couldn’t say. Now to be fair, “What is your book about?” is a deceptively tricky question, especially when you’re in the midst of writing it and still discovering that for yourself. But it’s a question you’re eventually going to have to answer, and that you’re going to have to answer confidently.

If this is a question that baffles you, my suggestion would be to think of it this way; if you worked in a bookstore and you were trying to recommend this great new novel, how would you do it? What other books would you compare it to, what would you identify as the “hook” of the story that would capture a reader’s imagination?

And if that’s too tricky, I’d suggest breaking it down further. Still imagining yourself as a bookseller, pretend that a customer comes in raving about your book. What do you imagine they’d pick out as its distinguishing characteristics? What other books would you in turn recommend to them?

When a publisher is considering picking up a new manuscript, they look at how it fits with what’s currently popular and what they think is missing from the market. If you can identify those elements in your work, you’re already one step ahead of all the other manuscripts that are stacked up on the publisher’s desk.

 

5. Take all advice with a grain of salt.

When we’re starting as writers, we naturally seek out the advice of those who’ve gone before us. Many authors will provide you with long list of “Dos” and “Do nots”. But those “rules” are the ones that worked for them. Pick and choose the advice that works for you. Try different methods. Don’t worry if you’re doing something “wrong”. Writing is an art form. There are no rules in art. But that said, try to avoid using too many adverbs. And don’t mix your metaphors. And eat all your vegetables, they’re good for you.

 

6. There is no straight line to publication.

No author can tell you the secret of how they got published in a way that can be perfectly replicated. Just as every story is different, so is every path to publication. You might get an agent on your first try or it might not happen until your second, or your third. It might not happen at all, and you may never even need an agent in the first place. You may know someone in publishing who can help you, you may live in the back of nowhere with no contacts and no place to start. There are no qualifications you need, there are no tests to be taken, there is no secret door to pass through. All you can really do is…

 

7. Just keep writing.

Don’t get bogged down in research. Don’t focus on one element of your story at the expense of all the others. Don’t draft and re-draft and polish and tweak and hyperventilate and rinse and repeat. Write. Keep writing. Finish writing, and start writing something else. Send your writing out into the world, and celebrate or console yourself as need be. And then go back and keep writing.

The only time it’s guaranteed that you won’t succeed is when you stop trying.

Writer Under Wraps: Notes from a Bookshop Window

As mentioned in my previous post, I spent National Bookshop Day writing in the window of Eltham Bookshop. This window, to be exact…

Though I was only in there for a little over an hour, I had a lot of fun and even managed to get some work done. When I wasn’t scribbling away in my notebook or sipping takeaway coffee contemplatively (I only started drinking coffee this year and I think it’s destroying me), I was talking to whomever happened to stop by.

Mostly this was bookshop customers with questions about the process of writing and publishing – something I greatly enjoy discussing at length, even after the light in the listener’s eyes has long gone out.

But I also got to speak with illustrator Celia Bridle, who was manning (personing?) the bookshop window just before me, as well as author Nicola Connelly, who was launching her debut picture book My Dad is a Bear the next day at Eltham Library.

And this is what’s great about National Bookshop Day, as well the bookshop in general. The community it fosters. The work it inspires. The encouragement it provides. My sincerest thanks to storeowner Meera and the staff at Eltham Bookshop for the opportunity.

If you didn’t get the chance to visit a bookshop on National Bookshop Day, don’t let that stop you from still heading into your local store and showing your support. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together my pitch for “Writer Under Wraps”, a writers’ festival reality event that rips off Regurgitator’s Band in a Bubble concept ten years after the fact.

I’m only half-joking.

A Couple of Words From Your Friendly Neighbourhood Author…

…and those two words are;

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Okay, well…maybe not.

I just wanted to let you all know that if you’re looking to see me in the wild and possibly get a book or maybe even a baby signed, you can find me this Saturday at Eltham Bookshop from 2-3pm. I’ll be appearing as part of National Bookshop Day, with the store hosting a ‘Window on Writers’ event.

This means I’ll be seated at a desk in the window, busily writing away when not answering whatever questions the customers may have. Come and say hi!

*

On an entirely unrelated note, I have an addendum to a previous post. Months ago, I indulged in a bit of dream-casting for an entirely hypothetical Vanguard Prime movie, mostly just to let readers know how I pictured each of the characters. Well! Since then, a couple of choices have occurred to me that I knew I had to address.

Specifically, Lena Headey IS Major Blackthorne. Simple as that.

Terminator-Lena-Headey_l

 

And, after watching both the trailer for The Guest and the 2008 adaptation of Sense & Sensibility, I should have trusted my original instincts and listed Dan Stevens as being a spot-on choice for the Knight of Wands.

With all the gun-pointing going on, you can tell that they’re both miffed with having been left off the original list. My apologies.

So with that incredibly important information now covered, I’m going to go limber up for Saturday’s event. The last thing you want is a hand cramp when you’re meant to be writing a novel in a shop window.

….Life is weird sometimes.

The Misadventures of an Author on the Road

Long before I was a published author, I tried my hand at filmmaking. And being a playwright. And learning the guitar. That last one might not be relevant. At all.

But the first two are. And when I say “filmmaking” and “playwright”, I mean in the broadest, most amateurish way possible, like making dumb little movies with friends and writing a particularly tragic high school play that shared its title with the one and only movie that Britney Spears ever starred in.

So I know what it’s like to have people read out dialogue you’ve written. Sometimes it’s embarrassing, or frustrating, but every so often you hear your own words read aloud to you and they sing (the words, that is. Not the person reading them).

It’s been a long time since I last experienced that, but this past week I once again had that opportunity.

I was thrilled to be invited to the Carey Celebration of Literature, a writers’ festival held by Carey Baptist Grammar. The day started off with a workshop where the students and I went through the fundamentals of storytelling, with a lot of activities peppered throughout, before I set them the task of creating their own superheroes. I was really impressed with the imagination and storytelling instincts on display.

But as impressive as that was, I was even more blown away when I showed up for the talk I was to present in the afternoon to find that a few of the kids had put together a dramatic presentation of a scene from Vanguard Prime: Goldrush (specifically, the scene where Major Blackthorne introduces Sam to Agent Alpha, and they discuss the history of the team).

As with all adaptations some changes were made, the major one being (no pun intended…well, maybe slightly intended) that Major Blackthorne had been split into two characters, one named Blackthorne and the other called Silverleaf. This is, of course, so utterly brilliant that I’m now sorely tempted to introduce a clone of Blackthorne called Silverleaf…and given that Blackthorne’s hair is silver, Silverleaf’s hair would of course be black.

I think I just came up with a fanfic idea for my own book series.

In addition to the Celebration of Literature, I also got the chance to call on Ivanhoe Grammar again, where this year’s bunch of students were just as bright and inquisitive as last year’s. I’m often asked what my favourite part of writing is, and I have to admit that getting to meet the readers would be right at the top of the list.

So thanks to both Carey Baptist Grammar and Ivanhoe Grammar. I had a great time and was honoured to have been invited along, making it well worthwhile that I never learned how to play the guitar. And if Major Silverleaf should end up in a story, please don’t sue.

Vanguard Prime: The Movie

One of the questions I get asked the most is whether Vanguard Prime will ever be made into a movie. And from what I’ve experienced, I’m not the only author to be asked this. I know Stephen King was particularly puzzled when he was asked what the film prospects of Vanguard Prime are, given that he’d never heard of it before.

I may have made up that last part.

In any case, book-to-film translations are always a hot topic of conversation. People don’t seem to feel a work has been truly successful until it’s been rendered cinematically with a running time of 2+ hours, and they get the chance to complain about the filmmakers completely missing the point.

But to answer the original question; the chances of Vanguard Prime ever being adapted to the screen are, safe to say, slim to none. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t be excited to have it happen, but I’m not exactly pinning any particular hopes on it. After all, it took about 30 years for Ender’s Game to be made into a film, and though I’m quite proud of Vanguard Prime, it’s not exactly recognised as a classic of its genre the way Orson Scott Card’s book is.

So now that I’ve couched all of this in a thick blanket of self-awareness, let’s pretend that a Vanguard Prime movie is something legitimately possible. Who would I cast in it, you might ask. And even if you wouldn’t ask that, I’m going to tell you anyway. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

Goldrush

This would be the trickiest part to cast, given that there’s not really much physical description of Goldrush/Sam in the books. I wanted every reader to formulate their own picture of him…which was kind of defeated when it came time to design the cover, but that’s beside the point. The other issue with casting Sam is that it’s a very time sensitive role; anyone I nominate now would probably be too old in just a couple of years. But if we were going with who I had pictured in my head, it’d have to be Jordan Dang, probably best known for his role as Tim Okazaki in Chris Lilley’s TV series Angry Boys.

Jordan Dang Picture

Machina

I think I’ve discussed this before, but one of the visual inspirations for Machina was Brie Larson, of Scott Pilgrim vs the World and 21 Jump Street fame. She’s not English, and at 25 she may now be a little too old for the part, but between her roles in Scott Pilgrim and The United States of Tara, she’s what I imagined Machina to be.

Brie Larson Picture

Major Blackthorne

There were a few different actresses who informed my image of the Major, with chief amongst them being Charlize Theron (particularly because of her role in the music video for Brandon Flowers’ song Crossfire).

Charlize Theron Picture

But there were a couple of other faces floating around in my head when creating her, which included Stephanie March of Law & Order fame, Australian actress Emma Lung and, most recently, Haywire star and MMA fighter Gina Carano.

Agent Alpha

Everyone wants Idris Elba cast in everything. Who am I to deny them? And why would I want to?

Idris Elba Picture

The Knight of Wands

David Bowie’s appearance in the video for China Girl was very inspirational for the Knight’s appearance, as was Guy Pearce in Memento, but it comes down to two actors for this role. Either I stick with the Prometheus theme that’s developing and say Michael Fassbender, or I go the Jedi route and nominate Ewan McGregor. Either way, everybody wins.

Michael Fassbender Picture Ewan McGregor Picture

(I can not get these two pictures side-by-side for some reason. Clearly they’ve had a disagreement.)

Gaia

Outside of a cameo on 30 Rock I have no idea about Padma Lakshi’s acting ability, but she was highly influential when it came to envisioning what Gaia looked like. But I think Freida Pinto could just as easily make the role hers (and once again, their photos are fighting with each other).

Padma Lakshmi Picture Freida Pinto Picture

So that’s the team, but what are heroes without some villains to fight? Here’s a small selection of who I’d pick to be the Big Bad.

The Overman

Alexander Skarsgard. Because obviously.

Alexander Skarsgård Picture

Big Brother

The lead antagonist in War Zone was inspired by singer/actor/general awesome guy Henry Rollins, who may now be a little too old and grey for the role but…well, who cares?

Henry Rollins Picture

I always pictured Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the Emperor, the Knight of Wands’ brother and chief adversary. Obviously, and very sadly, that’s no longer a possibility, and given that I can’t wrap my head around it I figured I’d nominate the next member down the food chain in the Major Arcana. Namely…

The Magician

And this is a bit of a weird one, because I imagine it to be Doc Hammer, the co-creator and one of the lead voice actors from The Venture Bros animated series. He plays a variety of characters on the series, and I’m sure his skills would translate easily to live action. Plus it would amuse me immensely.

And that’s my list. Hopefully this doesn’t contradict too much with what the readers of the series have pictured, and if it has then just bear in mind that this is only my opinion. If you have a completely different vision, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise I’ll be over here. By the phone. Waiting for that call from Hollywood to come. Which I’m sure will be any minute now. Especially given that international superstar Doc Hammer is attached to star. Box office gold. License to print money. Third salient point.

Fin.

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