One of the things that I’m constantly asked, whether individually or in interviews, is what advice I can give to aspiring authors. So I decided to put the sum of my disappointments and triumphs here on the web. Below I outline a number of mistakes … and believe me, I’ve made most of them (qualifier: most, but not all. I’ve never, never rung up an author or agent or reviewer and abused them or sent vicious death threats via snail or voice mail … and unfortunately both those are mistakes and abuses suffered on a daily basis by Australian editors and agents).
First rule – don’t give up. It generally takes time and disappointment to get published. But if you keep at it, and are prepared to learn … then the chances that you will succeed are good.
Second rule – be prepared to wait. Publication, fame and fortune almost never happen overnight, and some of us are still waiting. Well, one out of three ain’t bad.
Okay, down to the tips.
So, what do you do first? Well, if you want to write, then, dammit, write! Start with something achievable, perhaps a short story, and start with a genre and a subject that you’re familiar with. Don’t write science fiction if you’ve only ever read one science fiction story in your life. Don’t write romance because you somewhat depreciatingly think it’s easy. Pick a genre and a subject you:
- know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
- feel a real enthusiasm for.
Perhaps five or six years ago I stupidly thought I’d make a killing writing light romance. Easy, I thought. No matter that I thought light romance was stuff for fools. No matter that I hadn’t read a light romance since I was fourteen. What happened? I failed miserably. It was bloody hard. I wrote some three novels in the light romance vein, and they are all laughable. That’s not the genre’s fault, it’s mine. Light romance is as difficult or as easy to write as adventure or science fiction; what makes the difference is the author’s attitude and experience, and I failed on both counts.
So don’t pick something because you think it will be easy. Pick something because you like it and are familiar with it.
You must realise that most of what you first write won’t be any good. Perhaps most of what you write for months or even years won’t be much good. That’s okay. The important thing is that you are writing, and you are learning as you go. You will become more familiar and more comfortable with the pacing of plots, with the intricacies of dialogue and with the development of characters the more you do it. I wrote close to six or seven novels, all of which are unpublishable, before I had learned enough to write something that was publishable (although I also completely changed the genre I was writing in as well, and that helped). Maybe I’m a slow learner, but I needed the experience of those failures … no, not failures at all, because I learned from them … I needed the experience of those novels behind me to eventually write something that worked … and that I could sell.
Short stories I can give no advice on at all, because I’ve only just begun to write short stories. I cut my teeth on novel writing, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on here.
The First Novel
The hardest lesson to learn is that your first novel will undoubtedly be dreadful. You must be prepared to let your first novel go. Face the fact that one day you’re going to have to turn off the life support systems.
This is hard. Planning, writing and completing a novel is an achievement in itself, and the first-time novelist is generally so emotionally attached to his or her creation they are incapable of seeing it with objective eyes. It took me some five years to realise that my first novel was so bad it would never be published. Its worth lay not in whether it would or would not be published, but in what it taught me. Once I accepted the fact that it would be easier (and better) to start a new project than continue to try to resuscitate the First Novel, I took the first great big step towards success.
(Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by Australian publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea how bad they are. Hey, I know, I’ve been there.)
The second attempt at a novel was easier to let go – and that made it easier for me to view it objectively and learn from its mistakes.
By the third novel I knew what I was doing, and I think by that stage I’d accepted that I was in a learning mode rather than in a ‘get-rich-and-famous-quick’ mode. I think I typed in the final fullstop, then closed the file without a single emotional twinge, and instantly began work on the fourth novel.
I was on a roll. I’d managed to remove myself enough from my writing to be able to view it objectively, to recognise instantly when something wasn’t working, and by this stage I had enough experience to know what to do to correct it.
I was still writing romance, but I knew that this genre was not for me. The excitement was building, because I knew I was close to a breakthrough.
The breakthrough for me was finding the perfect genre for my style of writing and for the peculiar and often dark shape of my mind. Fantasy. I’ve read a fair bit of it over the years, but it’s certainly not my favourite genre (what is my favourite? Military adventure fantasy – Tom Clancy, for example. Man, I can read about dogfights and sub hunts for hours on end). The day I thought, “Why not try fantasy?” it felt so right that I instinctively knew this was going to be my best chance at success.
From the moment I wrote the first chapter of BattleAxe I thought it had a really good chance … I had so many failures behind me and so much experience I could recognise saleable worth when I wrote it.
But there was something else about BattleAxe that made it different. This one I wrote almost exclusively for myself, whereas all the other novels I did with an ‘audience’ in mind. BattleAxe I LOVED writing. I lived that book, and it lived for me. Consequently it lives for most (not all, she grins, remembering the odd review) of my readers. So if it works for you, then it may well work for others … but again, you’ve got to balance involvement with objectivity.
What To Do With It Now?
So you’ve finished the piece that you think may see you through into book signings and pleasant conversations with your bank manager. (Oh yeah, dream on. I am here to tell you that the more you earn, the more you fall into debt.) What to do with it now?
First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two months. Then take it out, view it with a fresh eye, and revise it ferociously. Make yourself see all the bits that don’t work, and force yourself to change them. Authors always find it hard to change a single word of their masterpiece, but, believe me, masterpieces can always be improved (if you can’t find much wrong with your manuscript, then it’s probably so awful it should be burnt). The more improved your manuscript is, and the more professional (and professionally presented) it is, the greater chance you will have of being published. It’s a hectic world out there, peopled by agents and editors who are overworked and underpaid, and the first thing that catches their eyes is professionalism. They don’t have time for anything but.
How to Give a Decent Impression of Professionalism
Whatever you do, do not send your entire manuscript off to a publisher (or, shudder, five or six of them at once) without first sending a letter of inquiry. Getting accepted takes time, and you’re not going to do it in one month, or even three. Think six to eight months … if you’re lucky. I’d finished BattleAxe in April of one year at the latest … and it took until Octoberish to be accepted, contracts not signed until December, no cash until January of the following year … and I was fairly zoomed through the system.
There are two ways to approach a publisher. By yourself, or through an agent.
Approaching Publishers Personally
I’ll talk you through the personal approach first.
Do some research. Find out which publishers are publishing in your field. It’s bloody useless to send a letter or the ms off blind to a publisher only because you vaguely know their name.
So you’ve found a publisher, or two or three, who are currently publishing in your genre (if you can find a publisher who is actively searching for manuscripts, i.e., they’ve just started a line up, then you’ll have a better chance). Send in a letter of inquiry to the editor (please, please type it … see below re presentation). Briefly tell them something about yourself (editors are going to be as interested in you as your manuscript; if they accept your manuscript they are, after all, going to have to work with you), what experience you have in writing and publishing (if you’ve not had anything published yet, that’s okay), and give them a brief synopsis of your book. A page, maybe two. No more. No one has time to read a twenty-page synopsis. Your letter and synopsis has got to catch an editor’s eye in under two minutes, so don’t waste this chance in waffle.
It’s fine to send letters and synopses to several publishers at once, but if more than one writes back and says they’d like to see several chapters, then send the chapters to one publisher only (again, see below for presentation). These people share gossip, phone calls, lunches … they’re going to find out if you send it to two or more … and you will be dropped so fast by all of them it will take you ten years to recover the lost ground. So if more than one wants to see a sample of the book, then send it to whoever you think will be your best bet, and send the others letters telling them what’s going on. It won’t damage your chances at all; in fact, it will increase your aura of professionalism. If the first doesn’t want it, then you’re still going to have a good chance with the others. (The first Australian publisher to read BattleAxe rejected it as unpublishable …. so editors do make misjudgements, and if one rejects it, it doesn’t mean that the next won’t welcome you with open arms, an unstoppered bottle of sherry, and a fat cheque.)
Okay, several chapters have gone off to an editor, it looks promising. Now you wait. And wait. Sometimes several months. Give the publisher two months … then write a friendly letter asking what’s happening (don’t think to be clever and say there’s someone else who wants it … the editor is just as likely to respond with, “Oh? Well, let them have it, then”). After three months you’re perfectly within your rights to send the ms somewhere else.
Above all, and I’ll keep saying this until I’m blue in the face … be patient. I have a theory that editors sometimes linger over reading not only because they’re busy (which they are), but because they’re also testing you. If you bother them with constant calls and letters asking when they’re going to make up their mind, then chances are you won’t be accepted. Editors like to know that the authors they’ll be working closely with are sane. Believe me here. If you irritate them, or insult them, you’ve blown your chance. Not only with the one publisher, but if you’ve acted badly enough, with the entire national industry. Be patient. Take to drink, eat chocolate bars until you’re twice the size you used to be, but leave the editors alone for a decent period.
And don’t get despondent at the first rejection. In fact, get used to them. Everyone gets rejected more often than they get accepted. Deal with it. Learn from it. Listen to any constructive criticism that comes your way. If you’re really serious about writing, then rejection is going to become a way of life for you.
Unfortunately many would-be authors are unable to accept criticism or rejection. Please do not become one of those who resort to abuse, or even death threats, to overcome their disappointment. Accept it. Shrug your shoulders. Learn from it. Try again.
Using an Agent
According to the Australian Society of Authors, more and more Australian publishers (as publishers around the world) are refusing to accept manuscripts, or even consider them, unless they come via an agent. This is almost entirely due to the fact that editors are increasingly unable to deal with the thousands of manuscripts that are sent to them each year. Literary agents act as a buffer for the publishing industry. If something is submitted via an agent then the editor can be reasonably sure that both it and the author been vetted and are not completely unworkable. Publishers trust agents in a manner they will never trust the general public.
I tried for years to have a novel accepted by a publisher. Granted, most of them were appalling (the novels, not the publishers!). But with BattleAxe I was so determined to give it every possible chance I thought I’d try a literary agent. Bingo.
I love agents. Agents are good. Agents are the buffer between you and the publisher. Agents are someone you can ring up and cry on their shoulder about the sick cat, the comma that won’t go where it should, and the boyfriend who won’t stay where he should. Agents know what’s going on and will do their very best for you because, in the end, they don’t earn until you do. But agents are almost as impossible to obtain as publishers.
Part of the reason is because, as stated above, in the past two to three years more and more publishers around the world are refusing to read unagented manuscripts … and that means literary agents are now being inundated with the manuscripts that once ended up in the publishers’ slush piles. (What’s a slush pile? The massive pile of unsolicited manuscripts that end up on tables and in cabinets and on the floors of publishing firms. Never read. Sent back at the end of each month.) So now agents are feeling the pressure that until recently publishers had to deal with.
Add to this the fact that an agent or an agency can only handle so many clients (authors). More and more agencies simply don’t want any more clients. Their books are full …
But don’t be despondent. Try them. If you can find an agent then you’ve got a really good chance. My most exciting moment over the past few years was when an agent rang me up and said, “Darling … welcome aboard.” I knew then I was going to make it … no agent will take you on unless they think they have a damn good chance of selling your work.
My advice on approaching an agent runs along much the same lines as approaching a publisher. First of all, find out what literary agents there are, and what type of genres they prefer to handle (it’s no use sending a popular fiction ms to an agent who deals only in literary works). Writers’ organizations in each state are a good place to start for information on literary agents/agencies, or write to the Australian Society of Authors who should be able, for a minimal price, give you some idea of what agents there are, who has their books closed, and who takes what. The address is:
98 Pitt Street,
Redfern, NSW, 2016.
Phone (02) 318 0877
Send a letter of inquiry and synopsis first, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope. If the agent wants to read your work then they’ll discuss prices etc. at that point. But an agent shouldn’t charge the earth to read your work unless they’re going to offer a written criticism of it. Agents will take some time to read your manuscript. They’ll read it first, then they may well send it out to someone else to read and comment on. This may take months. So, be patient. Remember what I said above about not annoying or abusing editors … the same applies to agents. Agents will be as interested in you (and your reactions) as your manuscripts. They will never take on someone they don’t like or don’t trust. Remember, they’ve got prospective authors (almost literally) camping on their doorsteps. They can pick and choose.
If an agent does take you on, then you’ve got a real chance, and your agent is going to be in a good position to get you the best possible terms on your contract. I don’t begrudge the slice of my income that goes to my agent. Without her, there would be no income at all.
The best way to create an instantly favourable impression with either publisher or agent is with a professionally presented manuscript. Typed, or preferably word processed. Never handwritten. The minimum of hand-written corrections (if there’s a large number of them, then print it again). The manuscript should be presented on A4 paper, one side only, with 4 cm margins (at least). The text should be double-spaced, and the font and ink should be sharp and clear. Each page should be numbered, and it’s a good idea to put your name at the top right-hand corner of each page. Pages should be loose, not bound. Keep a copy yourself, or at least make sure that you have it on disk (on several disks, all stored in different places!).
Well, I’ve run out of helpful hints. I wish you luck. But remember, patience and professionalism will always give your work the best possible chance.
Oh, one last thing … I’m not the best person to read your work. If you need someone to read your work and comment professionally on it, then approach a literary agency. But if you want hints on writing, then (she grins) read my alter ego’s hints on how to write the perfect History Essay … what’s there goes as much for fiction as it does for history.
©1998 Sara Douglass
Editors note: this article was written in 1998 by Sara and information stated may not be current.