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More than anything, it took me back to when I was working on my first (unpublished) manuscript, toiling away with what felt like a dim hope that somehow, someday, it might end up as an actual book.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

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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.

3 Tips for a Successful Author Signing

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!

The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 3)

The wait is over! Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released tomorrow, 27th February, and to celebrate I thought I’d return to a series of posts that haven’t been featured here in a while; the Making of a Superhero. And given that Vanguard Prime: Wild Card heavily features the Knight of Wands, what better time than now to take a look at the team’s resident man of mystery?

So mysterious you may not know that's him on the left...

So mysterious you may not know that’s him on the left…

Previously, I’ve discussed the process behind creating the two junior members of the team – Goldrush and Machina – but I knew that the senior members would be a challenge unto themselves.

I wanted to create characters that felt interesting and dynamic enough that they could very easily be the protagonist of their own book. The examples I had in mind of these stemmed from comic books, of course, where the Justice League and the Avengers were traditionally populated by characters that were already established in their own series.

This was in opposition to teams like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, where the characters were created to be part of a team, and as interesting as they may be in their own right, they still work better as part of that team structure.

I wanted the “Big Three” of Vanguard Prime to be much like the Big Three of the Avengers and the Justice League. Just as Captain America, Thor & Iron Man and Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman all have their own supporting characters, antagonists and personal lives, I wanted to come up with characters that felt as established as that…without the benefit of 70 or so years of continuous publishing behind it.

I started in the place I was most comfortable with, drawing on the ‘Self-Made Man’/’Mortal Amongst Gods’ elements that Iron Man and Batman share, while also focusing on the ‘Dark Avenger’ archetype originated by characters like Zorro and the Shadow, their legacies continued to this day by the aforementioned Dark Knight Detective.

It wasn’t the first time I’d used the ‘Dark Avenger’ template to create a character; when I was 10, I came up with a spoof superhero called Penguin Man, who eventually mutated into “Nighthawk” when I was 12.

But with my new story, I didn’t want a Batman rip-off. I didn’t want to just transplant Nighthawk from my childhood into the present day (not least because there’s already more than one comic book character that’s taken that name).

So I looked back at the characters that intrigued me when I was younger; not the characters I loved, like Batman or Spider-Man, but the characters that seemed slightly goofy or “off”, but still stuck in the brain. Characters like Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle and the Question, or Jack Kirby’s Mr Miracle. Strange, colourful characters that immediately capture your interest with how quirky they are.

I’ve spoken before of the need for a memorable superhero to have a strong thematic element; something that elevates them from the mundane to the iconographic. As an example; Batman and Spider-Man draw on the animal kingdom, with those two animals informing many of the elements that make those characters unique, such as Spider-Man’s web-slinging or Batman’s Batcave.

It’s hard these days, after so many thousands of superheroes have been introduced to the world, to come up with a unique theme for a new character. What I ended up drawing from was the memories I had of my mother practicing divination with her tarot card deck. I never put much stock in the fortune-telling side of it, but I always found the names and the illustrations of the cards themselves fascinating.

So bearing in mind the off-beat features of the Ditko and Kirby characters, I was immediately drawn to the “Knight of Wands” card, combining as it did aspects of the warrior and the magician under one, evocative name.

Storytelling is the art of posing questions and then answering them. The first question I posed to myself about a character called “the Knight of Wands” is why would he take that name? Especially when you consider that there are two decks in the tarot; the major arcana and the minor arcana, with the Knight of Wands belonging to the minor arcana. Out of all the cards in the deck, why would someone pick that one?

And that’s when it occurred to me; he’s named himself after a character from the minor arcana because there’s a villainous organisation called the Major Arcana that he’s working to bring down.

That’s where the next question comes into play; why? Why is he fighting this organisation? And it’s from there that I developed the Knight of Wands’ back story, fleshing out the Major Arcana as an organisation of superhumans that the Knight’s father founded but that has been overtaken and corrupted by his older brother.

This idea had a certain Shakespearean flavour to it that really appealed to me at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I also see the influences of films like Infernal Affairs and anime series like Cowboy Bebop as also having a fair amount of influence.

Using the tarot deck also provided me with ideas for the Knight of Wands’ paraphernalia, including his method of transport; his “Batmobile” wouldn’t be a car, it’d be a supersonic scramjet stolen from the Major Arcana, named after “the Chariot” card.

Originally, I had the Knight carrying a flaming sword, but that felt off given that he was meant to be a knight of wands. An off-hand comment someone made about Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver being the Doctor’s “magic wand” gave me the idea of giving the Knight a similar high-tech wand, albeit as a collapsible quarterstaff, which is where his “laser-lance” comes from (though I called it a “photon rod” at first).

His real name – Ethan Knightley – came from two separate sources; Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible franchise (not that I’m a major fan, but it was always a name I thought was cool) and Mr Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. I imagined the Knight to have been a Scottish aristocrat, born and bred to continue on his family’s legacy, only to end up a beggar knight errant.

This would be a Batman with no fortune, forced to do things on a budget, and just as the Knight of Wands card represents improvisation, he’d work from his gut and off-the-cuff rather from than any grand plan or comprehensive system of preparation.

Unlike the other characters I created for Vanguard Prime, the Knight’s creation came quickly. By the time I was done, I had a character that I was very fond of and just as interested in exploring, which is why I decided to make Book 2 his spotlight story after keeping him in the background of Book 1.

That affection has also led this post to being much longer than I intended it to be, but I wanted to give you a sense of everything that goes into creating a superhero character…especially as it seems to be one of the things that people Google that brings them to my website!

And if all this rambling has somehow intrigued you about the Knight of Wands, this is where I remind you that you can read all about him and the Major Arcana in Wild Card, Book 2 in the Vanguard Prime series. You’ll recognise it on the shelf; it’ll be the only one where a hooded figure is wielding a flaming laser-lance…

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

‘Til next time.

An Ode to Handwriting

Ever since I was a kid, the simple practice of handwriting has proven a real challenge for me. I distinctly remember being seven years old and completely confounded by what the teacher was saying about how to hold your pencil “properly”. You were supposed to grip your pencil just so, because if you didn’t then terrible things would happen.

It turned out that the terrible thing was that you’d develop a nub, which is what happened to me in high school after years of holding my pens and pencils incorrectly. Worse, the nub would get red and sore when I spent too long writing. Give that this was before kids were working off laptops in the classroom, I was writing by hand a lot, and my nub would often be aching by the end of the day.

My handwriting was always messy and it never got better. My cursive consisted of scrambled letters joined together like sloppy spaghetti, and it was with great frustration that I struggled to write as fast as my brain was working – mentally, I’d be a sentence or three ahead of what my hand was up to writing.

When I started uni, I switched back to writing in all caps, much as I did in primary school before we were indoctrinated into exclusively using “running writing”. This meant my penmanship was clearer to read and looked less like mad scribbles, but it also looked less adult.

I envied the mature, artful, confident handwriting of my parents, who had undergone penmanship lessons in their formative years on par with military drills. The method used to teach them cursive seems awfully draconian in this day and age…but it got results; their handwriting had a mechanical reliability to its form. They could write for hours and it would still look as precise and beautiful as it did when they started.

My handwriting has stayed much the same in the years since graduating from uni, and I still feel self-conscious about it. Now, you might argue I’m worrying over nothing. After all, we’re living in the 21st century and everyone speaks of handwriting as a dying art form. But then there’s this;

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I received my advanced copies of Vanguard Prime: Wild Card today (!). It’s the second time I’ve been sent copies of a book with my name on it, and it was just as thrilling as the first. I’m also happy to say that it looks great. But the reason I bring up the issue of handwriting is because I’ll be heading out soon to promote the book’s release, and with that comes the fact that I’ll be inscribing and signing many, many copies (well…hopefully that’s what I’ll be doing).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; if you want to be a writer some day, practice your penmanship! (Well, penpersonship). Not only is it handy for signing books, it also means you’re not beholden to a keyboard when it comes time to write. I remember taking a trip a couple of years ago and during the long flights I discovered…or rediscovered…the simple joy and satisfaction in writing by hand.

In fact, writing my first draft by hand proved a distinct advantage. When it comes time to transcribe the handwritten notes, it gives you the opportunity to do some simultaneous rewriting. You get a second draft just by doing something as simply as typing out your story.

And in case you were wondering, Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released on 27th February. In the meantime, I’ll be in my office practicing my handwriting. I hope I don’t hurt my nub too bad.