HOW TO KEEP GOING IN SPITE OF NOT BECOMING THE NEXT J.K. ROWLING
Here is some advice for emerging authors gained from 30 years as a professional author
Ask yourself… are you really determined to keep going? I have met and mentored too many authors with enormous talent but who find the going too hard and give up. Other authors are best described as ‘middle-range’. They are known within their genre but rarely recognised outside it. Personally, I prefer not to be introduced as an author because I often perceive a puzzled expression on the recipient’s face. It’s then I say, ‘I’m the least known if most published author in Australia.’ This may not be quite true, but it’s a helluva-good-line.
At first let me admit that for someone in my ‘senior years’ I hate all the stuff my generation uses to stay busy. Mention Bridge, golf, meals on wheels, caravanning, general good works, museum guiding, minding grandchildren(mine are now all grown up) I feel a yawn coming on. I have been writing and publishing for 30 years. That has given me a wealth of experience, ranging from the simple instruction of “don’t repeat a telling word in the same page if you can avoid it”, to always try to ‘Show don’t tell.’ There’s lots of basic advice on ‘how to write for kids’ in ‘The Business of Writing for Young People’ that Hazel Edwards and I co-wrote some years ago. I also published a memoir-cum-how-to-write called ‘Mentoring Your Memoir’ which contains the same advice, but with the occasional twist that focuses on ‘life history’. In it I give lots of examples, mostly from stories I wrote for kids.
I had to quickly learn that writer’s block doesn’t exist. What does is procrastination. Even if it takes me months to work out what happens next in a story, eventually it can be found. What matters is hanging in there. I often find that it’s when I log off in despair that the next idea comes to me.
Who! What! Where! and how! Never forget those 3 words.
Pitching your story. Tremendously important. In recall my first attempt to sell a story t a publisher and when asked, ‘What is this about?’ I really didn’t know. An important exercise for every creative idea is to reduce your story to one or two lines.
One of the great things about being a writer is that you can diversity into so many different areas. If you are a skilled wordsmith, you can write fiction and non-fiction; short pieces, novels and scripts. I think I have tried everything apart from ghosting and scripts for film. Be aware of your own limitations. I’m hopeless at design and even worse with technology. I work on my strengths and recommend so do you.
Novel writing is like attempting a long distance swim over a cold dark choppy sea. If I hadn’t had strict guidelines for my first four novels I would never have known how to do it. It also forced me to remember the power of plot. Without narrative drive, you end up with beautiful but meaningless words.
In a way the ebook has become both a life saver and a curse.. We are now able to take books that have been long out of print and upload them as ebooks. I have done this to the first YA novel published under my own name. ‘Mavis Road Medley’ was originally put out by Margaret Hamilton in 1991 with a grant from the Australia Council. The first print run sold out, but then this small company was taken over by a larger company and the book sank into oblivion. Unfortunately, that’s what happens to lots of books. So the blessing of ebooks is the ability to revitalize some of our hardcopy as ebooks. The curse is the flood of ebooks now appearing on line.
This leads me to marketing. Not my favourite activity but totally essential. So we blog, facebook, twitter, join other writers’ blogs and letters, linked in, etc. I openly curse the time this takes. Some of you might really enjoy these activities. I prefer to use my time to write, nevertheless I do what seems to be required of me, not always with grace. I’m sure you will do far better as you are younger and more in tune with current trends.
My motto is, never discard anything even if you can’t find a publisher first off. A colleague had a great success with a story picture book after it was rejected 93 times then sold overseas. Nothing is ever wasted. Projects can be cannibalized and used in other ways. Recycling is useful. I have several out of print novels I compressed into short stories and a long short story that became a novel for middle grade readers: “eSide: A Journey Through Cyberspace”.
Keep records of your own ideas and agreements, as often others forget who contributed what. You may know it is legally and morally yours, but finding the right files to prove it can be time consuming. One of my novels was begun with another author who, when it became too difficult to sell, decided she wasn’t interested and I took over the project. But I made sure there was careful documentation to support my ownership.
We are always told to update ourselves with new technology, and to know the technical jargon. Though I find this hard, I recommend that others go to digital classes and become familiar with the potential of digital gadgets so you can write better for new mediums. I wish I knew how to create apps and youtube videos but I plead ‘old age’ as an excuse. The truth is that I am hopeless when it comes to technology. Nevertheless I can’t recommend strongly enough that new writers learn these as much as possible.
When an ms doesn’t get picked up, change titles. For example an early novel that began as “Best Friends” became ‘Schoolies Week” before reaching the final “Dessi’s Romance”. That was because my “Body and Soul: Lilbet’s Romance” published as hardcopy in 2003, was being republished as an ebook titled “Lilbet’s Romance’ and we wanted to show the connection.
Learn from your mistakes. I tend to get seduced by an imaginative idea and then land myself in a heap. Don’t rush into it too quickly. Let it linger about somewhere in your subconscious. Recognize your obvious weaknesses (mine is marketing, though I am sure there are lots more) and collaborate and discuss with others who are expert in that area. Buy or swap skills if necessary.
Decide on a general direction, genre or format, and keep moving that way, even if detours occur. Learning about e-books is on-going. In the end I collaborated with a publisher who knew a lot about technology, and together we put up on Amazon my adult “Grevillea Murder Mystery Trilogy” and adult three short stories. Your ‘bottom drawer’ is likely to be your hard drive, but some of those projects, which didn’t get up in their original formats are not a total loss. Try and recycle them into new mediums.
Edit, edit, edit. I rarely send out an ms again without going through it first. And read, read, read. I belong to two book clubs, one aimed at reading adult books, the other at reading and discussing books for kids. I call them my unofficial university course as they force me to read books I might otherwise miss. Remember that ideas can be translated from one audience to another. It’s just a matter of how you do it.
Teaching and mentoring. Because I had taught English and History in secondary schools for some 28 years, it seemed natural to move into teaching creative writing and mentoring emerging writers. They taught me more than I taught them. There’s an old saying that those who can’t succeed become teachers. But I see these two aspects as hand in hand. eg When a class critiques an individual’s work, your own mind takes on that same critique and uses it to think about your latest ms. Nurturing new talent has been and still is, enormously rewarding and I watch with pleasure many of my ex students win awards and write wonderful novels. It’s interesting to note that it’s not always the most talented who do well, rather it’s those that have the necessary passion that makes them want to continue to write in spite of often difficult odds. I have had students who can assimilate with a few well chosen words how a piece of fiction could be improved. Often that same critical voice would stay in my mind when I went back to my own work.
You may occasionally have to alter your audience. When I had a long lull with my kids books I went onto writing memoir and I have now found a huge audience. In this way I also introduce an older generation to my kids’ books so they will buy for their grandchildren. But when it comes to them buying ebooks, it’s still an uphill battle. Ultimately what keeps me going is the passion, something I can’t pass on because if you don’t have it, I suggest you try something else. A new idea will always present itself, such as my latest YA SHAKESPEARE NOW! trilogy, a contemporary retelling of three well known plays using young protagonists.
Finally, never give up. If one project is hard to sell, leave it for a while and return and re-edit. In the end writing brings its own rewards, even if one doesn’t become the next JK Rowling.