Trudi Canavan

bestselling author of The Black Magician Trilogy

Writing Advice

How do I get started?

Write. It’s as simple as that. The only way you’ll be any good at it is to practice, practice, practice. Write as often as possible. Every day, if you can.

Read. Read the genre you write in, so you know what has been done before. Read outside of it as well, because it will give you a fresher, broader perspective.

Maintain a constant state of curiosity. Take every opportunity to learn about the world around you. Research other cultures, of now and in the past. Read about the sorts of skills your characters would have, but also try them out (so long as it’s legal!). If you can’t do them, or do them well enough, ask an expert. I’ve questioned a doctor, a forensic assistant, a literacy teacher and a martial arts enthusiast in order to make my writing more believable.

What should I do when stuck?

Try a writing warm-up. Write a conversation between two characters. Write about a character or event from an unexpected perspective, say, a history lesson told to a child, a character reminiscing many years later, etc.

Keep a writing diary. At the beginning of each writing session, write about what you intend to do, your doubts, what you’re excited about, etc. It’s a great place to work through gnarly plot problems.

Have you been sitting writing for hours already? Take a break. Leave the desk. Stretch. Go for a walk. Do the dishes. It’s amazing how a short rest can refresh the mind. But avoid activities that engage the mind with something else, like reading an unrelated book or website, or watching TV.

Do some research. This doesn’t work for some people, becoming a distraction or excuse for procrastination instead. But I find a little research produces a lot of ideas.

How do I maintain interest in my story idea?

These days I have no trouble sticking to a book I’ve decided to write, but in the past my interest in individual storylines would wax and wane. I would start writing one story, then lose interest or move on when inspiration led me in a different direction. When the Black Magician Trilogy story – or more precisely, the ending – came to me I knew (don’t ask me how) I had something complete enough, and good enough, to keep my attention to the last page.

Looking back, I know I didn’t finish anything before this because a) I hadn’t yet found a story good enough, and b) I didn’t have the time to finish something as demanding as a big fantasy story. I never considered the previous years of writing a waste, but valuable practice that had led me to a point where I could realise my Big Idea with at least some skill (though I did seek some extra training – see My Story.)

I had it easy. There are plenty of authors who have written big chunky fantasy while holding down a full-time job, plenty who have families to look after. It takes unswerving determination and dedication to write a book. When you find a story worth writing, you’ll find the time, dedication and interest to write it. In the meantime write as much as you can, and explore every idea you have, because when that Big Idea comes you’ll want to have the skills to do it justice.

How do I plan out my story?

Some writers like to plan, some like to leave themselves free to discover the story as they go along. I’m a planner. I like to write out a detailed outline, then I go through it and divide it into what I think will make good chapter, part and book divisions. Before writing a scene, I write a short description of it. I also like to put together a spreadsheet following the different main characters’ stories, so I can keep track of where the subplots diverge and meet. I take notes on the world I’m creating as I go, then stop now and then to expand on different subjects as I need to or inspiration comes. Everyone has different ways of working, and it can be as much fun discovering how you like to plan as it is writing the book.

Any tips on world building?

I have three rules (or maybe just guidelines) for fantasy world building:

(1) Wherever possible, follow the laws of nature, physics, space & time, etc.

(2) Whenever you deviate from the laws of nature, etc., make sure you have a fantasy explanation for it or it will just seem like you didn’t do your research.

(3) If you have a fantasy explanation for deviating from the laws of nature, physics, etc., don’t go and spoil it by trying too hard to explain it scientifically. (In other words, if you have winged horses most readers will accept that they can fly. You don’t need to invent a device to help them fly. Anti-gravity horseshoes are just going to give people visions of horses flying upside down, or spread-eagled.)

Pay particular attention to detail when it comes to horses and military subjects. A lot of people who read fantasy also know a lot about both or either subjects, and if you don’t get it right they will let you know. Constantly. On the other hand, if you do get it right, they’ll love you to bits.

There is no end to the subjects you can research. Geology, archaeology, psychology, animal husbandry, military arts, herbs and medicines, history, astrology, oceanography, and so on and so forth. There is a danger you’ll spend too much time researching, but how much is too much? Only you can judge. If it takes you ten years to write a 100,000 word book because you’re spending all your time researching … maybe you’re overdoing it.

I’ve just finished the last chapter, so can I send it to a publisher now?

No. A first draft is only 50% of the work. Your manuscript is going to need a lot of polishing, rewriting, polishing, rewriting and more polishing.

It’s important to make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be before you give it to a manuscript assessment service, agent or publisher. You don’t want to waste your money on an assessment for a first draft, and you only get so many chances to resubmit to agents and publishers, no matter how much you insist you’ve improved it.

How do I improve my writing?

Do a writing course. Do a grammar course. No, it’s not the editor’s job to fix your work. Given a choice between a good manuscript with bad grammar and one that’s near-perfect, they’ll take the one that’s near-perfect every time.

Get people to read your work. Start with people you know: friends, family. Accept that most of the people you approach won’t have the time or inclination, and some of those who agree to read it won’t be any good at giving constructive criticism. Keep in the back of your mind the idea that this is as much a test of your feedback readers as it is of your writing. When you find good readers, treasure them.

You could join a writers group in which members read and critique each other’s work. There are ones that have face to face meetings, and ones that operate over the internet. The internet does eliminate the problems of distance and finding a time convenient to everyone, and also increases your chances that you will find a group dedicated to the genre you’re interested in.

Have your manuscript assessed professionally. Your local writers centre may have a manuscript assessment service, but if it doesn’t it should be able to refer you to an editor who does them. Publishers sometimes have preferred or recommended assessment services. Check their websites or call to find out.

How do I get the most from criticism?

Resist the urge to explain anything. If the reader misunderstands any aspect of your masterpiece, it’s because you didn’t explain that aspect well enough in your writing. Instead, write down what you felt the urge to explain, so that you remember to go back and rewrite so the misunderstanding does not happen again. (Unless, of course, the misunderstanding is deliberate.)

Don’t be reassured by a reader saying “I didn’t understand it, but then I don’t read this sort of thing anyway”. Good, clear writing will make any genre or style accessible.

I have a ‘90% is right: 10% can be dismissed” rule. Sometimes readers do make comments that are just plain wrong. For me, it was the reader who complained that the magicians were too powerful in the first chapter of The Magicians’ Guild when, in the context of the story, they were doing something relatively minor. Often in these situations it’s a matter of taste. Most of the time readers are right when they say something is wrong, but sometimes they’re wrong about why it’s wrong. The more people you get feedback from, the easier it is to work out if something is a problem. If most of them don’t like the same thing, it’s a problem. If they are roughly evenly divided between completely opposing views, it may be a matter of taste.

Will you read my manuscript/work?

No. I just don’t have the time. I don’t even have time to answer fanmails any more, though I do read them. I used to read a book a week; now I’m lucky to read ten a year. In a life driven by deadlines, I’ve learned that spare time for relaxation, exercise and exploring other creative interests (that often end up in my books anyway) is essential to my sanity and health.

Should I use an agent?

Are you the sort of person who knows the publishing industry intimately, understands contracts, can drive a hard bargain, has the time and money to spend wooing publishers here and overseas , and can cope with weird overseas tax rules? Unless you can say yes to most of the above, an agent might be a good idea.

How do I submit my ms to a publisher or agent?

Find out which publishers/agents are looking for the sort of book you’ve written , and check their website for submission instructions and who to address your ms to. If there are no submission instructions, call or email to ask for instructions.

Don’t send your ms to more than one publisher/agent at a time. This is known as the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ rule and, of course, you’ll always end up hearing of writers who got away with breaking it. That doesn’t mean you will, however.

Publishers like manuscripts presented in a specific way. Follow their guidelines for font size, double spacing, page numbering, etc. Include a stamped self-addressed envelope with sufficient postage to return the manuscript. Or you can instruct them to recycle the ms, and include a letter-sized stamped self-addressed envelope for their reply. (Hint: include a stamped-self addressed postcard with your manuscript and ask that they drop it in the post as soon as the manuscript arrives. Then you’ll be reassured that it didn’t get lost in the mail.)

Include a cover letter. Keep it brief. Include a synopsis. Keep it to a page, double-spaced. If the book is part of a series, provide a synopsis of the entire series.

Find out what their response time is. When that time is up, ring or email them. Be polite. If they have not read your ms yet, ask when you should enquire again. After six months, I’d advise you consider withdrawing it and sending it to someone else. If you do, let them know.

How do I know a publisher or agent won’t steal my idea if I send it to them?

The embarrassing truth is, most authors have worried about this at some point.

Whatever you write is protected by copyright the moment you write it. I doubt any respectable publishing company or agent would ever copy an author’s ‘idea’ (so don’t send your ms to disreputable publishing companies or agents – do your research). Remember that crooks want to make a buck quickly and easily, and writing a book is not quick or easy. Of course, they may publish the book as it is, word for word, but that’s kind of obvious and easy to prove. Ideas are a dime to dozen and nobody is going to believe yours is worth stealing unless your book has already been published and proven to be a success. This makes worrying about it being stolen a little pointless.

Remember that there are no original ideas. The saying goes: everything has been thought of before. That doesn’t mean there is no value to an idea. If you bring a fresh approach to an idea, and write brilliantly, your book still could be a roaring success.

Some ideas or concepts appear to cycle through the system. Publishers and agents have told me they get waves of manuscripts dealing with similar themes as if something – an event or other creative work – has spurred a shift of attention and interest in the wider community, which is then reflected in the sorts of stories writers are producing. Keep this in mind if it seems a lot of books dealing with your ‘idea’ are suddenly being released. It may just be that something that spurred you into finding your idea spurred a whole lot of other writers to think of it too.

I’ve submitted my masterpiece to every agent and publisher under the sun, and all I have is a pile of rejection slips. What should I do?

Keep writing. Nobody gets published by giving up. Remember, you do this because you love it. Never stop to wait for an answer. Work on something else. While one masterpiece is out there, write another, and another, and another.

I’ve got a publisher! What’s next?

Drink copious amounts of champagne. Gloat. You’ve worked hard. You deserve to spend at least a week being smug and self-satisfied. Then put your feet back on the ground, because the work isn’t over and that thick skin you developed when your friends critiqued your manuscript, and publisher after publisher rejected early versions of your manuscript, will come in handy.

The cover and blurb

No matter how talented you, your partner/relative/friend or favourite artist is, they won’t get to do the cover. This is another one of those rules which other writers somehow get away with breaking.

That said, you may get some input on the cover. The publisher does prefer it if you like the cover. Having an author cringe every time they see their book at a signing or other public event isn’t going to do much for sales.

Editing

When the edited ms of The Magicians’ Guild turned up the editors comments began with “… this is the most polished ms I’ve ever worked on”. With considerably swelled head, I flicked through the ms and it was literally covered in corrections. You could almost hear the whistle of escaping air as my ego deflated.

But the corrections were easy. It was the ‘Author Queries’ that had me mystified and frustrated in turns. I’d never worked with an editor before – well, not as a writer. Editors have a way of working that it’s likely you aren’t familiar with, and they tend to forget that. Don’t hesitate to ask questions (and ask for a translation of those little signs they use).

Bio and photo

These are the sorts of things people forget to ask for until the last moment. Write your bio and have a photo chosen or taken as soon as you have a contract. Keep your bio updated, and make sure you like the photo enough that you don’t freeze in horror whenever it’s enlarged to the size of a bed sheet and posted everywhere for some public event.

Your web site

Have one ready by the release date. They’re a great place to send those people who ask for the same old writing tips. : )

Your blog/Twitter/Facebook/whatever

Maintain a blog, tweet and/or sign up to whatever social networking site is the latest thing if you enjoy it. But be aware that they can all be a big distraction and time-eater. If it stops you writing, remember that the fans want books more than knowing what you had for breakfast.

Fan emails

Answer them for as long as you can. These are people who enjoyed your writing so much they actually wrote to you. But if you’re lucky and your work becomes really popular, you may find answering fanmail is taking so much time it’s preventing you from writing. Again, fans want books more than they want answers to emails.

Be prepared for a few mean or rude emails. People are vastly different and varied in taste and tact. You can’t expect to please everyone, and occasionally you’ll encounter some complete loony who does not like your book and decides you wrote it that way deliberately in order to ruin their day. Do not respond to loonies, no matter how much you want the satisfaction of biting back, or delude yourself you can change their mind. It’s not worth it.

Also, file the emails from people who find mistakes in the same place, because each time your book is reprinted you can make corrections. I now have a Report a Typo page.

The launch

If this is your first book, chances are a launch won’t happen unless you arrange it yourself. But if you do, the publisher should come on board with invitations, posters and maybe even some money for nibbles and drinks.

Reviews and interviews

Here’s another situation where you’ll need that thick skin. Firstly, you’ll realize that, despite the high sales figures, fantasy literature is mostly ignored by the mainstream media (at least it is in Australia). There are specialist interest magazines, websites and such, but as a newbie on the scene you have a lot of other newbies, not to mention established authors, competing to get their attention. You may not see a review of your work for months, even years.

When you do see reviews, chances are there will be unflattering ones. Get used to this, and whatever you do, don’t publically rant about them. Reviewers’ tastes are as varied as readers’, and their job requires them to examine books more closely than a reader might normally do. Also bear in mind that the people who are most passionate and well-read in a genre are the ones most critical of it. I don’t pay a lot of attention to reviews these days – especially not Amazon reviews – and when I do I’m mainly scanning them for a good quote. Even bad reviews can contain good quotes!

The best review is a good one, by someone whose opinion is respected and sought by readers, and contains a sentence or phrase that can be quoted on publicity material.

Interviews are even slower to happen than reviews. I found that radio interviews were the most common type in Australia a few years back. Now most are done via email.

Conventions

If you’re not familiar with the inner workings of fandom, conventions can be mystifying. But discovering what they’re all about can be a lot of fun.

The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of fan. There are the fans of you and your work. And there are fans in general, who form ‘fandom’, that have interests that are quite varied, but similar enough that events can be run that draw them all together.

For me, conventions are a chance to hang out with people who have similar interests to me. I’m there to contribute as well as benefit. I contribute by making myself available for signings, to give advice or to entertain on panels, or just have a good natter. In return I get feedback from readers, information and advice from panels and author talks, and a good time hanging out with friends or making new ones.

Treating conventions solely as a publicity tool is a mistake. Fandom-type fans can spot it a mile off, and generally find it annoying and shallow. The authors that thrive at conventions are those that are fandom-type fans themselves.

I’m gonna be rich… aren’t I?

You might want to reassess your definition of ‘rich’. Rich in boosted self-confidence. Rich in creative validation. But definitely not a Bill Gates sort of rich.

I’m gonna be famous… aren’t I?

C’mon. You’re a fantasy writer. Nobody’s ever going to recognise you on the street. You’ll always be able to shop in the supermarket without being hassled. If you’re expecting to be interviewed on prime time tv, or be invited to drive in the Grand Prix celebrity race, you’re going to be very disappointed. Personally, I reckon being an author is the best kind of fame – your name is known by the coolest people (readers) but no celebrity hunter is ever going to follow you into the toilets with a camera.