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More than anything, it took me back to when I was working on my first (unpublished) manuscript, toiling away with what felt like a dim hope that somehow, someday, it might end up as an actual book.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.
In a couple of days I’ll be flying out to the Somerset Writers Festival to kick off the promotional tour for Vanguard Prime: Wild Card. There’s a variety of events you’re asked to do as a writer, and I have to admit that I find the Q&A-style events the easiest; after all, it’s pretty straightforward answering questions about yourself.
In promoting a book, however, you’ll sooner or later be asked to do one of the trickier style of events; the in-store appearance. Of course, if you’re a famous author you’ll more than likely find a clamouring crowd of fans waiting with bated breath on your arrival, and you can just sit down and start signing.
But when you’re starting out, the situation’s very different. You’ll arrive at the store to find a table set up with a chair and a pile of books, and you’ll take a seat and wait…and wait…and wait.
If you’re a new author heading out for their first in-store appearance, allow me to offer three pieces of advice that may make the experience a more successful one for you.
1 Everyone loves a freebie
It can be hard getting people’s attention, and even harder finding a way to strike up a conversation. There’s a very simple solution to this; sugar.
If you take a big bowl of lollies with you, you’ll have something to offer people as they pass by/enter the store/do their best to avoid making eye contact with you. I recommend a variety pack of individually wrapped lollies; that way people can pick a flavour that appeals to them, and they know they haven’t been breathed all over.
I know one author who makes up goodie bags whenever they’re doing an in-store appearance, with a couple of lollies included in a netted bag with a postcard flier for their book.
If you feel guilty about the prospect of widening the spread of diabetes, however, you could look into getting promotional bookmarks made up with your book cover printed on it…but people will be less likely to take something like that than they are a free sugar hit.
2 Don’t be afraid to come out from behind the table
One problem that keeps authors from having a successful in-store appearance is that they feel they should be anchored to the one spot, sitting in their chair behind their signing table waiting for people to come up to them.
You may feel shy, you may feel like you’re owed the public’s attention, but the simple fact is that no one’s going to come to you; you have to go to them.
So stand up, make eye contact, stand in front of the desk, or even on top of the desk if you have to. Smile, say hello…and then ask them if they want a lolly. You’ll have much more success with the public if you engage with them instead of sitting there thumbing your iPhone.
3 Don’t go for the hard sell
People don’t like being aggressively marketed to; they prefer to make a connection with someone. You’d be surprised the kind of reaction you’ll get if you ask people what kind of books they read or what they’re looking for, rather than jumping straight to who you are and why you’re here today.
In fact, I had that very experience myself – people were much more likely to pick up my book and consider buying it if I’d chatted with them first, rather than falling all over myself to try and put the book in their hands. Be confident enough to take the slower path. Make a connection. In short, have fun.
At this stage, I don’t have any in-stores lined up for this tour, but should one arise I’ll be doing my best to keep my own advice in mind. After all, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re in a situation like that…but if I were to add one more piece of advice, it would be to relax, breathe and remember; this is life as an author. Enjoy it!
Even though I’ve worked in the publishing industry for over five years now, there were still a few things that took me by surprise when my book was picked up. In the interest of helping out other aspiring writers, here’s five things I learned when I went from working with books to writing them;
1. You have to provide your own author photo.
My contract is a pretty standard one, and it details that providing an author photo is my responsibility and is to be done at my expense. I don’t know if there are any authors to whom this stipulation doesn’t apply.
Being a cheap cuss, I solved that issue by getting my photo taken by my fiance in our living room. We had to do this across two nights because the first evening was spent working out the best way of taking the photo. It seems like an easy thing to do until you’re faced with the prospect of it being disseminated across the Internet and printed in the paper.
We used two different cameras, both of which we had a lot of trouble getting focused correctly. When the image wasn’t blurry, I would generally have a weird expression on my face. When I didn’t have a weird expression on my face, the light wasn’t right (or it was reflecting in my glasses). I’m not that comfortable about getting my photo taken in the first place, so the entire process was a special kind of torture, and that showed in my face for most of the pictures.
Natural light ran out before we got the photo on the first night, so we gave up and tried again the next evening. Thankfully, we eventually got a photo that was decent. It was a little blurry but I didn’t mind that as it gave the whole thing a vaseline lens feel. Of course, that was a rookie move on my part, as this image needed to accompany print interviews and it’s not a great look for your photo to be out of focus.
When that became an issue, I had to quickly get another photo taken with help from a friend at work. The second time was almost as difficult as the first! One of these days I’ll have to get a professional shot taken, but in the meantime you can learn from my mistakes and get one done by a photographer in advance, because you never know when you’ll be asked for it!
2. You’ll need to practice your signature (as well as have some witty things to inscribe!).
My penmanship is terrible, so it was strange to think that people may want me to write something in their books. Also, my signature is little more than a few slanted pen strokes, which worried me that people would feel cheated if all I gave them was an illegible scribble in their book, so I sat down and practiced a clearer signature.
Not only did I come up with a legible John Hancock, I also worked out a few phrases to offer people. But one thing I didn’t count on was inscribing books for people I knew! Many friends and family at the Vanguard Prime: Goldrush launch were left with bizarre things written in their books as I desperately tried to figure out something witty to scrawl out. Trust me, it’s hard to do when you’re trying to maintain a conversation at the same time! Do your best to work it out in advance!
But I think the most important thing in all this is to practice your pen(person)ship. You may feel like it’s redundant given how much work is done on computers these days, but there may come a day when you need to write things down in longhand. You don’t want people thinking a kindergartener has gotten hold of the Mont Blanc!
3. You’ll need to get good at talking to people and crowds, and you’ll need to do it fast.
You may have grown up wanting to be a writer after finding it difficult to connect with people. You may have done it as a way to escape the hardship you faced in the everyday world, to assuage the anxiety that socializing caused you. I know that’s what I did.
But the fact is, there’s no greater advocate for your book than you. And if you want it to be a success, and if you want to get the chance to write more books, you’re going to have to go out there and talk to people. And you’re going to have to be good at it.
If this is a weak spot for you, your publisher may provide media training for you. With budgets being what they are these days, however, the chances of that aren’t great. I’ve never been what you’d call a social butterfly, but one way I found of overcoming my stage fright was through drama classes.
I took drama in high school and the lessons I learned there have carried through to this day. Whenever I’m in a situation where I have to speak in front of a large crowd and I’m feeling nervous about it, I do two things. The first thing I try to do is harness that nervous energy. Use it as a fuel to overcome your obstacle.
The second is to imagine that this isn’t you. That this is a performance you’re putting on, a character you’re enacting, and that even if you “fail”, it’s not really you who’s failing. It may sound slightly mad, but it works.
I thought I’d have to prove my abilities to speak in front of crowds to my publisher. And that’s kind of what happens, but only by having your publisher throw you in the deep end and seeing if you swim. And you owe it to yourself to swim.
So whenever you’re asked if you want to appear somewhere or participate in some event, no matter what it is and no matter how nervous you may be about it, you have to say ‘yes’.
(And as a final note on this topic; make sure to work out a way to encapsulate your book that sounds interesting, and that can be expanded upon if necessary. You need to convince whoever’s listening that your book is worth picking up, especially when they’ve never heard of it before. I’m still working on this one!).
4. Even when you’ve “made it”, you still haven’t made it.
When I was toiling away on my manuscript, I imagined what it would be like to see my book on store shelves and the feeling of perfect contentment that would wash over me as a result. That was the dream that kept me going. It’s no doubt the dream that keeps a lot of people going.
But here’s the thing; even when you achieve that, you still haven’t “made it”. You may have achieved the status of “author”, but now you need to retain the status of author. The goal posts never stop shifting. The first goal is to get published. The next goal is to keep getting published. You need to make sure you’re in this for the long haul, because if you aren’t it’s easy to become one of those many anonymous authors whose books line the walls of second-hand shops, never to be heard from again.
5. What a dinkus is.
You know that little emblem that will sometimes be used in books to break up the text? In the Vanguard Prime series, it’s the team’s insignia. That’s a dinkus. The publishing team works together with the author to work out what that little symbol will be. It’s also my new favourite word. Dinkus, dinkus, dinkus.