- How do I get started?
- How do I improve my writing?
- How do I maintain my interest in my story idea?
- What should I do when stuck?
- How do I plan out my story?
- Any tips on world building?
- I've just finished the last chapter, so can I send it to a publisher now?
- How do I improve my manuscript?
- How do I get the most from feedback?
- Will you read my manuscript?
- Should I use an agent?
- How do I submit my manuscript to a publisher or agent?
- How do I know a publisher or agent won't steal my idea?
- I've submitted my book everywhere but all I have is a pile of rejection slips. What should I do?
- I've got a publisher! What's next?
- How does editing work?
- Who gets to choose the cover?
- What else will the publisher need from me?
- Will I get a book launch?
- Should I create a website?
- Should I answer fan emails?
- Should I promote myself on social media?
- Should I pay attention to reviews?
- What are conventions and should I go to them?
- I'm gonna be rich... aren't I?
- I'm gonna be famous... aren't I?
How do I get started?
Write. It’s as simple as that. Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and write.
Read. Read the genre you write in, so you know what has been done before. Read outside of it as well, because that will give you a fresher, broader perspective.
Learn. 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!).
Ask. If you can’t do it, or do it well, ask an expert. If your character is of another gender, sexuality, class, race, whatever, to you, talk to someone who is. I’ve questioned a doctor, a forensic assistant, a literacy teacher, a martial arts enthusiast, and people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds in order to make my writing more believable.
How do I maintain my 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 I had a story idea complete enough, and good enough, to keep my attention to the last page.
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 - I was working as a freelancer and could write around money-earning jobs. There are plenty of authors who have written big chunky fantasy while holding down a full-time job, raising children, looking after ageing parents, etc.. It takes unswerving determination and dedication to write a book. When you find a story worth writing, you’ll keep coming back to 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.
What should I do when stuck?
Even when you have a great idea, you can reach points where you flounder. 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.. It doesn't need to be something that you plan to put in the book, but if it does end up in there, that's a bonus!
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. A writing diary is 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 plan out my story?
Some writers like to plan (known as 'plotters'), some like to leave themselves free to discover the story as they go along (known as 'pantsers' as they write 'by the seat of their pants'). I’m a planner. I like to write out a detailed outline, then divide it into 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 do about it 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, handcrafts, 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 since the last time.
How do I improve my manuscript?
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 a good manuscript 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 that this is as much a test of your feedback readers as it is of your writing.
When you find good feedack readers, treasure them. Give them a signed copy of the book if it's published. And a box of chocolates. And a bottle of good wine.
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.
You could 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, email or call to find out.
How do I get the most from feedback?
Resist the urge to explain anything. If the reader misunderstands any aspect of your masterpiece, most likely it’s because it's not clear 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?
No. I have a chronic back injury which means I can't spend more than an hour on the computer, or in a similar postion, a day. That includes writing, answering email, updating this website, social media, researching and reading.
Should I use an agent?
That depends on whether you're hoping to attract a publisher, or are intending to self-publish. If the former... 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? If the answer is 'no' to any of the above, an agent will be able to help you.
How do I submit my manuscript 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 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?
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. Nobody is going to think your idea is worth stealing unless your book has already been published and proven to be a success. Then they will pirate it.
Remember that there are no original ideas. Everything has been thought of before. That doesn’t mean there is no value to an idea, if you bring a fresh approach to it and write brilliantly. Publishers and agents have told me they get waves of manuscripts dealing with similar ideas. Something has sparked the same idea in many writers' minds. Keep this in mind if it seems a lot of books dealing with your idea are suddenly being released. Chances are, if some current trend or event inspired you, it has inspired other writers too.
I’ve submitted my book everywhere but all I have is a pile of rejection slips. What should I do?
Writer another. Nobody gets published by giving up. Remember, you do this because you love it. Never stop to wait for an answer from an agent or publisher. Work on something else. While one manuscript is out there, write another, and another, and another.
I’ve got a publisher! What’s next?
Congratulations! Celebrate! You've worked hard. You deserve to spend at least a week feeling really good. 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, is going to come in handy.
How does editing work?
Editing usually happens in three phases: the structural edit, the copy edit and the first pages proofs. The first is feedback on the general story and characters, the second corrects grammer and spelling errors as well as pointing out other inconsistencies, and the third is printed as it will look in the book so you can have one last look and (hopefully) spot anything missed (but you can't change line length or they have to reformat the text).
When the edited manuscript of The Magicians’ Guild turned up the cover letter began with “… this is the most polished ms I’ve ever worked on”. With considerably swelled head, I flicked through the manuscript and it was literally covered in corrections. You could almost hear the whistle of escaping air as my ego deflated.
As it turned out, the corrections were easy. It was some of the ‘Author Queries’ that had me mystified and frustrated in turns. I’d never worked with an editor before – well, not as a writer. They have a way of phrasing questions that new writers may not be 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 to mark up the text).
You don't have to do everything an editor says, but you should try. Sometimes they don't know what's coming up in future books, and very occasionally they are wrong. I use the same 10%/90% rule with editing that I use for feedback reader comments - I'm only allowed to reject 10% of the corrections, and aim to reject even less.
Who gets to choose the cover?
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.
What else will the publisher need from me?
A 100 word bio and an author photo. It's important to update your bio regularly, but not so essential to redo your author photo that often. If you're lucky, your publisher will arrange the photo. The down side to this is you may wind up with one you hate (been there). You don’t want to be freezing in horror whenever it’s enlarged to the size of a bed sheet and posted everywhere for some public event, so it's worth getting a professional photographer to take yours.
They will also ask for content like dedications, acknowledgements, end matter (if you have any) like maps and glosseries, and back cover blurbs, and will love you if you have prepared them in anticipation.
Will I get a book launch?
If this is your first book, chances are a launch won’t happen unless you arrange it yourself. Ask your publisher if they plan to do one. If not, it's well worth organising one. Even if the only people who come are all your friends, family and acquaintences, it's a great opportunity for photos to put on your website and social media, and to thank everyone who has helped you, and celebrate a milestone many writers never get to. Tell your publisher you're organising one and they may come on board with invitations, posters and maybe even some money for nibbles and drinks - and they may send invites to magazine editors, reviewers and such too.
Should I create a website?
Definitely! It is the one place you can control information about you and your books and, unlike in social media, not have that information disappear when an algorithm decides something else is more important. You can write longer pieces, if that suits you, or keep it simple. Blog software is free and hosting is cheap. Have one ready by the release date. They’re a great place to send those people who ask for the same writing tips. : )
Should I answer fan emails?
That depends on the email. Answer the people who enjoyed your writing so much they actually wrote to tell you. However, 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. In that case, it's okay to stop answering. Fans want books more than they want answers to emails.
Ignore the few mean or rude emails that come your way. 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 your time.
Thank the people who tell you about typos. Store their emails in the same place, because each time your book is reprinted you can make corrections. I have a Report a Typo page that I try to keep up to date.
Social media can be fun. Try out the different formats and see what suits you. Followers like to see a read person, not endless self-promotion, but take care to ensure social media doesn't become a big distraction and time-eater. If it stops you writing, remember that what fans most from you is more books, not knowing what you had for lunch or the latest thing you're outraged about.
Should I pay attention to reviews?
Here’s another situation where you’ll need that thick skin. 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 fussy about 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!
What are conventions and should I go to them?
The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of fan: fans of you and your work, and fans of books/tv/film/comics/etc.. Of the latter, the collective noun is ‘fandom’. There are even people who are fans of fandom.
There are two kinds of conventions: the fan run kind and the commercial kind like Comic Con and Supanova. The fan run kind are smaller, more expensive to get to but are more social. You're more like to learn something useful at one of the many panels and hang out with writers at them, but it's unlikely you'll sell a pile of books. You'll also find the people who run awards and publish fiction magazines at them. Treating fan run 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.
Commercial conventions are cheaper to enter (free if you're a guest) and have the dollars to bring in big name stars so you're at the low end of the fame heirachy, but even so, you have looooong signing sessions and will interact with more readers (including attracting new ones) and sign more books. To be on the guest author signing table may take a request from your publisher, but I've signed next to self-published authors before. You could also hire a stall.
I’m gonna be rich… aren’t I?
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, but the up side is 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.