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More than anything, it took me back to when I was working on my first (unpublished) manuscript, toiling away with what felt like a dim hope that somehow, someday, it might end up as an actual book.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

Lessons in Villainy

Some guy doing some talking thing.

Some guy doing some talking thing.

The Somerset Celebration of Literature finished last Friday, though I didn’t get home until Sunday after staying on the Gold Coast to visit family…and if you ever get the chance to check out the Gold Coast Hinterland, I highly recommend it!

I’ve been to writers’ festivals as an author before…well, once before…but this was the first time I’d had multiple sessions over multiple days. And the experienced was incredible. I learnt so much in so short a period of time, and I can’t wait to take all the knowledge I’ve gained and start applying it to my future events.

Something that I found especially interesting was how engaged and switched on all the kids were, with many of them showing a confidence I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was their age. When I asked if there were any writers in the audience, one girl raised her hand and said she was writing a verse novel. A verse novel! I wouldn’t have the guts to try that now, let alone when I was a teenager!

Spurred on by her calm self-assurance, I decided to take a chance and read out a poem I wrote a year or so ago and recently rediscovered in my notebook. Admittedly, I did it mostly to fill time, but the kids in the audience responded really well to it, so I may end up posting it here…in fact, I might even add it to the end of this blog post. Let’s see how I feel by the end…

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One question I was asked during my sessions was  “What makes a good villain?”. I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the guy who asked me that particular question, which is awful of me given that he came to my signing line after the talk and was very sweet. I felt at the time that I gave him a bit of wishy-washy answer, so I thought I’d take a moment to address that critical error.

What makes a good villain?

It’s something I ask myself a lot because, in writing adventure fiction, you want to create an antagonist that is memorable, that is intimidating, that is worthy of your hero, and who maybe even has some shades of sympathy to him/her. I think the best villains are the ones who are a little morally ambiguous – perhaps they have a tragic back story, or a legitimate reason for doing what they do, even if they’ve taken it too far.

But more than that, the best villains are the characters that shed light on your protagonist. In dealing with the quandary of this opponent, facets of your main character’s personality and history are revealed. Villains are dark mirror images of heroes, serving as a warning of what we can all become if we give into the weaker elements of ourselves.

I could write up a whole essay on this subject, but I think I’ll leave it at that for the time being. Don’t be surprised, however, if there ends up being a future blog post that digs down deep on this topic to an almost tedious level!

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In addition to Somerset, I’ve also made a trip in the past week to Channel 9 studios, where I filmed my second appearance for Kids’ WB. I’ll blog more about that in the future, but in the meantime enjoy this behind-the-scenes snapshot;

I'm the one in the middle. Thankfully not in costume.

I’m the one in the middle. Thankfully not in costume.

The segment should be airing at the end of March, though that’s yet to be confirmed. Watch this space for updates!

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Okay, so we’re at the end of the post. Will I put up that poem? Hmmm.

You know what? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So here’s the poem, but before you read it there’s a few things you should know;

1) I have no idea if it’s crap or not.

2) I’m not a poet. See point # 1.

3) It got a good response at the festival, but I think that had mostly to do with how I read it…and the demand I made for applause at the end.

4) It’s about writing and being a writer.

5) I studied poetry at uni but the best I got was a ‘C’.

6) I don’t have a title for it.

7) I’m stalling now.

8) Here’s the poem…

We are dream merchants. And magicians.

We are astronomers, charting the stars,

and astronauts, reaching up to touch them.

We work instruments made of mirrors,

weaving invisible threads.

We stitch together scraps of cloth collected across a lifetime,

to make flying carpets and coats of many colours.

We are explorers. And hermits.

We study the soul and bring it names.

We take names and make them ideas.

We sell inspiration. We sow fancy and bottle stray thoughts.

We do this with ink in our veins and with our hearts beating to the rhythm of a keyboard.

We do this because we have to.

We do this because we can’t imagine anything else.

And that’s it. Hate mail can be sent here.

‘Til next time.

The Ideas Shoppe: Genealogy of a Book

For ages now, I’ve been meaning to do two things. 1) Write up a list of books that were influential on Vanguard Prime: Goldrush (out now, of course!). 2) Write the first in a regular series of posts entitled ‘The Ideas Shoppe’, in which I discuss the process of writing, focusing primarily on where inspiration comes from.

And then I thought – why not make them the same post?

Before I plunge into it, I think I should take a moment to explain the title. Even before I got published, I was aware that one of the questions that anyone in the creative field gets asked the most is “Where do you get your ideas from?”. It’s a question that can be phrased in many different ways, and it’s a question that can be easily dismissed with the knee jerk response “Oh, I go down and buy them at the Ideas Shop”.

Of course, it’s a sarcastic answer, but I have to admit that I find the idea of the Ideas Shop an enticing one. I love the image of a glowing, golden boutique at the end of a cobblestone lane where you can buy inspiration by the jar. But in lieu of that, I’ll offer what insight into the creative process that I can – but only after adding a ‘ppe’ to ‘shop’ to give it the proper old world aesthetic!

So without further ado, please find ten books that helped me in the creation of Vanguard Prime: Goldrush

(Please note: Not every book in this list is appropriate for young readers. In fact, there are quite a few that are very specifically meant for adults. I like to think that people find books as they’re ready for them, so if something feels like it may not be right for you, give it some time and try it again in a few years. Also, if the formatting is a little off in this post, please bear with it!)

  1. Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

My dad bought this book for me when I was 11, and I was totally hooked. The best thing about John Marsden’s writing  is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He deals with themes of race, sexuality and violence in a mature, level-headed manner, never talking down to his readership. It gave me a lot of confidence to not shy away from some of the darker places I wanted to go to in Vanguard Prime – though not necessarily as dark as the places Marsden goes in this series.

 

2. JLA by Grant Morrison, et al.

This was my first exposure to the genius that is Grant Morrison, the Scottish writer that many a fanboy refers to as ‘the God of Comics’. His work has gotten increasingly polarizing over the years, with quite a few readers as ready to dismiss it as praise it – but I am firmly in the ‘fan’ camp. And though his modern work can be arguably esoteric and cerebral, his run on JLA (short for Justice League of America) is as accessible as it is epic.

Published in the ‘90s, it can appear a little dated now (especially when the blue-skinned electric Superman suddenly pops up) but it remains a high-point in the history of comics publishing.

 3. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

This was the book I bought when I decided I was going to write a YA book and I wanted to get a sense of what else was out there. I’d been meaning to read it for years and finally got the chance as part of my research. What’s bold about this book is the anti-hero that Colfer presents us with as his protagonist.

Moral complexity is something that’s not always afforded in books for younger readers. Eoin Colfer is fearless in showcasing a character that many adults may not necessarily approve of, but that kids will no doubt relate to when they read his troubled backstory.

 

4. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I had never experimented with voice very much in my writing, sticking almost entirely to Third Person Past Tense. This was the book that convinced me to attempt First Person Present Tense, something that I’d been a bit snobby about in the past.

It helps that Niffenegger’s story is as complex as it is emotionally engaging, with a pair of characters that have a great sense of reality to them, despite the outlandish premise.

 

5. On Writing by Stephen King

I’d always been a bit dismissive of Stephen King’s work. I remembered reading It when I was too young to be reading it, and even then being underwhelmed by the decision to include a drawing of the moment someone writes “It” in blood on a bathroom wall, which amounted on the page to someone scribbling in felt pen on a piece of grid paper. As I got older, I smirked at the way almost all his main characters were middle-class white men who were either from Maine, or writers, or both.

But somewhere along the line that started to change. It had a lot to do with the number of writers who would cite his On Writing as having had a great impact on their work (including Neil Gaiman, a personal hero). Curiosity getting the better of me, I borrowed On Writing from the local library and found myself pleasantly surprised by it.

Part autobiography, part mission statement, On Writing is a book I would heartily recommend to anyone who has ambitions of becoming a writer. Even those who have previously failed to connect with King’s work will find something to relate to and learn from in these pages.

 6. Third Transmission by Jack Heath

Another book that showed me the places you can take the YA genre, with Jack Heath demonstrating a canny knack at action-based storytelling, incorporating cool sci-fi ideas and a teenage protagonist.

 

 

 

7. Neuromancer by William Gibson

I’m so envious of Gibson’s prose. He describes everything with crystal clear clarity that still manages to be poetic, and he makes it look so easy. This is such an influential book (this is where the term “cyberspace” was first coined) and yet people generally remain somewhat oblivious to it. The movie that’s meant to be in the works may change that, but only if the filmmakers manage to nail the complex plot that’s coupled with an incredible sense of atmosphere.

 

 

8. Shade’s Children by Garth Nix

Like Artemis Fowl, I read this shortly before starting work on Vanguard Prime in order to get a handle on the YA genre, and what I found was an uncompromising, dystopian tale of kids doing whatever they need to in order to survive. In that sense, it has a lot in common with Tomorrow, When the War Began, but with much more of a sci-fi bent.

 

 

9. Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, et al.

I first read this about ten years ago, before the movie came out but long after it had left an indelible mark on the comics industry. Despite being a product of Cold War paranoia, it remains a fantastic example of world-building, taking standard superhero archetypes and fleshing them out so that they read like real people, thwarted dreams and all.

 

 

10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

There are many things to marvel at in this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, not the least of which is the thoroughly authentic comic book character that Chabon has his two main characters create. The Escapist is such an interesting character and so perfectly captures the excitement of the Golden Age of comics that it’s actually disappointing that he wasn’t a genuine product of the era and that there aren’t more adventures of his to thrill to. I wanted the characters in Vanguard Prime to feel as well-realised and genuine as the Escapist is in this book. I can only hope that I managed that.

 So that’s it!

Of course, this list doesn’t count the film and TV works that also bore some influence (including The West Wing, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Justice League Unlimited, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Doctor Who, and everything Joss Whedon’s ever done) and the music I’d play to fuel my imagination.

I guess we’ll just have to save all that for the next visit to the Ideas Shoppe.