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More than anything, it took me back to when I was working on my first (unpublished) manuscript, toiling away with what felt like a dim hope that somehow, someday, it might end up as an actual book.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

Hello.

You may have noticed an awful lot of tumbleweeds rolling through this place lately. That is, if you’ve been back to check in at all, given how long it’s been between updates. The reason for that is that I’ve been away. Really away. In fact, for all of May my wife and I were overseas on our belated honeymoon.

Though our wedding was in December, we decided to delay our honeymoon until midway through the year. Partly it was because the weather would be better in the northern hemisphere. Mostly it was because organising a wedding, a house move and a honeymoon all at the same time seemed like a form of torture, exquisite though it may have been.

I had intended to blog while we were on the road and…well…didn’t. But now that I’m back I fully intend on getting back in the swing of things. I thought I’d start by offering you a little insight into our time on the road, which included a few days in Venice.

At events I’ve done, I’ve recommended to any aspiring writers in the audience to keep a journal handy, especially when travelling. That way, you can note down the things you see and use them for future reference. More than that, it’s simply a good writing exercise, forcing yourself to become more observant of the little details and find a creative way to encapsulate them.

My wife and I made a game of writing down what we’d seen each day, eventually ending up with three pages worth. I won’t bore you with all of the notes, but here are a few so you can get an idea of what I mean;

The smell of leather wafting from shopfronts. Masks in windows. Lime-green moss. Pinks, putties, pastels and creams. Green window shutters. Computer print-out tributes to the recently deceased. Ironwork bars spotted with rust. Waterbuses that slam against every stop. Squiggles of light in the black evening waters. The rattle of suitcases over stoney streets.

And so and so on. Some are more original than others, I’ll grant you. The thing to keep in mind is there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. Just write down what you see. Worry about the poetry of it later. The side benefit is that you end up with a record of your trip, even if you’ve never been one to keep a diary.

From Venice we went to London, driving up through the UK to Scotland, before heading over to New York. With every country we went to, I meant to write down notes of what I saw each day and unfortunately never got around to it. Just goes to show that sometimes the hardest advice to follow is your own.

In fact, I got a lot less writing on the trip done than I’d hoped to, but now that I’m back I’m looking forward to getting back into it.

Of course, it doesn’t help when there are distractions available, such as the art exhibition we went to on the first Saturday we were home. I’ve been a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion since I was a teenager and the original series was aired on SBS. Since then, I’ve collected the Platinum Box Set and, from there, eagerly awaited the release of each new movie in the “Rebuild” series, where writer/director Hideaki Anno revists the series and reinterpets the story with updated animation and a divergent plotline.

Anime fans who also happen to be Vanguard Prime readers will no doubt see the influence that Evangelion had on VP, given that both series revolve around a teenage protagonist who’s reluctantly drafted into saving the world by an international military operation and the female Major who acts as his handler. In fact, the red jacket that Major Blackthorne dons in Goldrush was intended as a joint shout-out to both Akira and to Major Misato Katsuragi from Evangelion.

Yes, I know she's a Lt. Colonel in 'Rebuild'. But she'll always be a Major to me.

Yes, I know she’s a Lt. Colonel in ‘Rebuild’. But she’ll always be a Major to me.

With the upcoming release of the third film in the Rebuild series, an art exhibition has been touring the eastern states of Australia, showcasing the film’s production art. Thankfully, we got the chance to see it before it finished up its run in Melbourne.

And if the art were for sale, I'd buy the heck out of it.

And if the art were for sale, I’d buy the heck out of it.

I’d hoped that there’d be some merchandise for sale to add to my nerd hoard, but unfortunately the pickings were slim. I’ll just have to content myself with the bits-and-bobs I picked up during our trip (photos of which I fully intend to show off…at some stage).

In the meantime, the edit for Vanguard Prime: War Zone is keeping me pretty busy, as is the edit for Red Alert, the e-book novella that will be getting released before War Zone to help promote the series. New readers and old should both be interested in Red Alert for a variety of reasons. Namely;

1) It’s an all-new adventure that follows the whole team and is over a quarter of the length of one of the full-sized novels

2) It features a whole host of new villains

3) It’s 100% free!

Pretty cool, huh? I’ll make sure to post more details about Red Alert as they come through, as well as whatever info I can share about War Zone ahead of its September release (like, for instance, the brand new cover that Chad McCown has illustrated and that I can wholeheartedly say looks fantastic).

‘Til next time.

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 Pitfalls of Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

repetition 1

If you write for long enough, you’ll find that certain turns of phrase show up in your work with disturbing regularity. You might not notice it yourself. Not at first. It’ll sneak up on you like the Predator, all clicks and grrrs and shimmering photosensitive camouflage, with the neon green blood and the shoulder-mounted laser and…

I’m getting a little off-topic here.

In any case, it may take someone else pointing it out for you to become aware of it, or you’ll go over an old piece of work and find certain phrasings cropping up over and over again.

There was one book I read where the writer was constantly comparing things to bullets. It happened almost every other chapter (at least, I remember it happening every other chapter. It was probably more like four or five references across an entire book).

One or two bullet comparisons would have been fine but when it kept cropping up it became distracting, and you started to wonder how closely the editor had been paying attention (which is itself an unfair sentiment; the editor may well have pointed it out and the writer may have rejected any suggested changes).

When I wrote my first manuscript, I noticed certain words repeating themselves enough times that I cobbled together a phrase that used them all; “slowly spiralling towards an ocean of stars”. I used this phrase as a reminder that I shouldn’t lean on these words and pieces of imagery too much. And this breaking of bad habits continues to this day; my editor and I are currently going through Vanguard Prime: Wild Card, and it was pointed out to me that I had to watch my use of the word “however”.

But in addition to that, I also noticed my overuse of the word “cannon” – not just in this book, but across all the Vanguard Prime books I’ve written so far. And that’s where the real challenge lies. Avoiding repetition in a single book is relatively easy, if you pay close enough attention. Avoiding repetition across a series of books? Across an entire body of work? It’s a daunting prospect that can almost paralyse you. You become so anxious about avoiding not only established cliches but your own cliches, while also not straying into purple prose, that you risk your writing becoming little more than the records of a court stenographer.

These are the things that are on my mind as I put the edit for Wild Card to bed and start to focus again on writing Book 4. It’s the kind of neurotic writer nonsense that’s generally better off left to midnight fever dreams and stress binging…but what’s a blog for but to provide cheap therapy?