how to

Some General Advice on Writing

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:

  • admire;
  • know something (preferably a great deal of something) about;
  • feel a real enthusiasm for.

In the early 1990s 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 accept that most of what you first write won’t be any good (this is the hardest thing to accept). 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 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.

Establishing a Discipline of Writing

Writing must be one of the most disciplined professions on earth: it has to be, because without discipline nothing will ever get done. As I explain on my page on discipline in the bath (you have to read that page to understand the title!), I find writing very hard, and literally have to force myself to do it. Getting that first draft down is very, very difficult. Personally I find that the only way I can write is to discipline myself into a routine, and I think most writers have their own discipline and routine. You have to find your own routine, but once you find one that works for you, then you have to discipline yourself to keep to it, and not to waver and wander. If you set aside Saturday to write, then write on Saturday, don’t keep running out to do the shopping, or going off for a few hours to watch the kids’ football. If you set aside one day a week to write, then be totally selfish – that is your day to write, and nothing comes between you and your writing.

You not only have to be disciplined in setting aside time (and then being selfish enough to insist on keeping that time to yourself and your writing), but you must be disciplined in ensuring you are constantly moving forward in your writing. Don’t waste yourself in constant revising and rewriting until you have a first draft done. As I mention elsewhere, I’ve watched friends constantly revise the first half of a novel for year after year, and they won’t accept that they will never finish that novel. I’ve been in the same position. You write a bit, then you succumb to the temptation to go back and revise it. Just a bit. It won’t take long.

A decade later (I jest not) you realise you’ve squandered every chance you may ever have had to actually write a book. All you have is ten years’ worth of revisions to the first three chapters (or whatever).

MOVE FORWARD. PUT THOSE DAMN WORDS DOWN ON PAPER. Write, and keep writing until an entire draft is done. Then you can (and, indeed, you must) revise it. Steeling yourself to constantly move forward is something you must do.

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. I have a friend who has been reworking her first novel for the past 7 years … she won’t let go, she won’t accept that she must move on, and she can’t see that she has virtually ruined any chance she has of ever succeeding in actually completing a publishable work. No-one amateur painter expects his or her first work to be a masterpiece (and keep reworking the same canvas for year after year) … so why do amateur writers?

Some 98% of manuscripts are rejected by publishers. My guess is that the majority of those are first-time novels whose authors have no idea, or who can’t accept, how bad they are.

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.

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

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, or mystery and crime). 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 … my practice runs gave me the experience I needed to 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. What to do with it now?

First, take a deep breath, put it in a drawer, and forget about it for about two, or even six, 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.

If you want some more hints of constructing prose, then you have a look at How to Write the Perfect History Essay, something I wrote for my university students way back when. Although it concentrates on academic writing, what it says about organisation and clarity of prose goes for whatever kind of writing you are engaged in.

You can also have a look at the many books available on the market on how to write.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

How to Approach a Publisher

Now that you’ve got a manuscript that, with all your writing experience, you think may have a halfway decent chance of being accepted, how is the best way to approach an agent or publisher? (You might like to read my page on To Agent or Not? and More about Agents as well.)

There is one major rule in approaching publishers: BE PROFESSIONAL. If you think that’s a pretty obvious statement, then you’d be appalled at the number of aspiring authors who are totally unprofessional, or who even approach publishers as if they are doing the publisher a great favour. I have seen some horrifying examples of complete unprofessionalism: death threats sent to editors, agents and even me (how dare I be successful when X out there knows his rejected manuscript is much better than mine?), bizarre threats of retribution from God sent to agents or editors on the receipt of a rejection letter … if you want to be a professional author, then you’ve simply got to leave the hysteria behind you if for no other reason than the recipients of these threatening letters and emails generally share them around colleagues in the publishing industry. Threaten one individual, and word gets out. Don’t do it. Everyone is rejected (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told my work would never sell), and you must learn to deal with it and move forward. So…

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 September to be accepted by an agent, until November to be accepted by a publisher, and contracts were not signed until December, no cash until January of the following year … and I was fairly zoomed through the system. Often it takes years to get a sale on a book.

Be patient.

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 beyond useless to send a letter, or the manuscript, off blind to a publisher only because you vaguely know their name.

Also take the time to find out the publisher’s submission guidelines. Now that most of the major publishers have a presence on the web they often put their submission guidelines on their websites, so read them before you send anything in.

Once 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, and whatever else you do, don’t try to be cute in an effort to catch their attention — people who try to make themselves out to be the most witty or mysterious people on earth (hoping thereby the publisher will take up their manuscript) only succeed in making themselves look silly.

It’s fine to send letters and synopses to several publishers at once, but if more than one writes back and to say 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 misjudgments, and if one rejects it, it doesn’t mean that the next won’t welcome you with open arms, an unstopped 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 you will wait 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 manuscript somewhere else. A publisher should be professional as well, and if they’ve said they want to read a manuscript, then they should manage to do so within a month or so at the outside.

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 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. Remember, every one of the famous literary names alive has been told at one time or the other by a publishing house that they might as well give up the writing game and go earn a living waiting tables. But these famous literary names hung in there, learned, and … well … are now famous literary names.

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. (Also read my pages To Agent or Not? and More about Agents)

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). In whatever country you live in there is usually an association of writers or authors who can help you with a list of agents (or, do as I did, and check the Yellow Pages! However, before you grab the phone book, be warned that some agencies don’t list in phone books and you’ll get a more comprehensive listing from writers’ organizations). In Australia you can write to the Australian Society of Authors who should be able to give you some idea of what agents there are, who has their books closed, and who takes what for a minimal price. The address is:
98 Pitt Street,
Redfern, NSW, 2016.
Phone (02) 318 0877

When approaching an agent, 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.

Presentation

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 manuscript should have a minimum of handwritten corrections (if there’s a large number of them, then print it again, but you can get away with a few). 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 (don’t get cute and use a ‘cute’ font; be professional!). 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 (or on several disks, all stored in different places!).

Well, I’ve run out of helpful hints. I wish you luck. But remember, practice, patience and professionalism will always give your work the best possible chance.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

A Business-Like Approach to Baths

feature-businesslike-baths-sxu-vintage-bathroom-Bubbels-©2004This page is an effort to answer the two questions I am most often asked about my own writing habits. One of the major misconceptions about writing is that writing is a ‘talent’. I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone say to me, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write, but I don’t have THE TALENT. Not like you.” This kind of comment always makes me irate, firstly because in one fell swoop (“You find it easy to write, because you have THE TALENT”) all the years of labour and work and sweat I’ve put into developing the skill of writing have been brushed aside, and secondly because that kind of remark is such a cop out … the person twittering on and on about how they’ve always wanted to write but they don’t have THE TALENT is merely announcing to the world that they don’t have the energy and the courage to actually do so. Writing is not a talent, no-one is born with WRITER stamped across their forehead. Individuals who write successfully have managed the feat because they have spent years developing the skill associated with the craft of writing.

There, I’ve got that off my chest! Read my pages on the craft of writing if you want to learn more about developing the skills that go some way towards making the writer.

The two things I want to discuss on this page is:

1) how do I actually write (the mechanics of sitting down each day and putting words on a page), and …

2) where do I get my ideas and inspiration from?

How do I write?

Writing for me is a job, a business, so I treat it as such. I start work at 9 a.m. and don’t stop until I have completed my appointed task (which may be a set number of pages, or a set number of chapters). I don’t allow myself days off, or ‘bad’ days. I just sit down and do it. Depending on how well I’m doing, it may take me 2 hours to complete the day’s task, or it may take me 8 (that would be a very bad day!). I generally write between 20 to 30 pages a day. I write a set number of days a week – I try to keep that down to four, but depending on deadlines it may stretch to five or even six days a week.

Having said that, my writing schedule depends on what stage I am at of the book I am working on.

First come the planning stage of a book. This is when I sit down and work out characters and plot lines (and if it is the first book of a new series, then the landscape of the world as well … see my page on creating the fantasy world). I use large file cards to write out each scene: what must be accomplished in the scene; where it is to take place; what characters are to be involved. Depending on the complexity of the overall plot, I may also use large wall charts to plot where each character (or sets of characters) are at any given point in time and space – I had to do this for The Axis Trilogy, as well for The Nameless Day. By the end of this stage, which takes a couple of weeks at the most, I have a pile of some 60-odd file cards which plot out the entire book for me.

Then I sit down and write. This is the hardest and sweatiest part of the process. I sit down by 9 a.m. each day and mutter, murmur and groan until I have done that day’s appointed task. At this stage of the production of the book I never go back over previous days’ work. I keep moving forward, forward, forward, painfully, grimly, forward, forward, forward. As you can see, I don’t find writing easy! It is hard, often depressing, and the one thing I say to myself over and over is, “Don’t look back, don’t revise, just move forward, forward, forward.” Why the emphasis on moving forward? Because the person who is constantly going back to revise their work before the first draft is complete has a 90% chance of never finishing the book – they’ll be too busy re-revising the first half over and over.

Finally comes the day when the last full stop is typed in. This is such a relief! The hardest bit is behind me, although there is still months of work ahead (it takes me about 2 months to get the first draft done). Now I can begin to really enjoy myself. What I have before me on the screen of my trusty Mac is the first draft. It is full of errors, mistakes, and bizarre plot twists and dead ends that occurred as I kept on changing my mind about plot and characters as I wrote my way through. So, before I print out a draft, I go back through, make all the corrections in plot and character, and tidy up as much as I can. This is a major revision and takes several weeks. Finally, I am ready to print out a draft.

Once I have a reasonable draft of the book in print I spend about 2 weeks going through that printed draft as minutely as I can, then spend another week typing up the corros, then going through the draft on screen again, make more corros, then decide I’ve had enough and it is time to send the ms off to my editor so that she can get her hands dirty.

Now my editor (Stephanie Smith at HarperCollins) works on the draft. If she feels there are some major revisions to be done she will send the entire thing back so I can do them. Otherwise she moves straight into her copyediting of the ms. Rewriting, making prose smoother, checking for inconsistencies in plots and character etc.

Then it comes back to me with pages and pages of Author Queries, and I have to go back to work on the mss for, oh, perhaps another 3 – 4 weeks.
Then it goes back to Stephanie and she types in all the corros. At this point, unless there is a major disaster, we are ready for …

PAGE PROOFING! Although this is exciting – to finally see the book in its final page format – it is also a blessed relief because I know the months and months of work are finally coming to a close! Page proofs come to me, to Stephanie and to an anonymous proof reader.

Once everyone has read through the ms, Stephanie and I then spend a LONG phone call going through the entire mss page by page discussing corrections – these phone calls can be between 5-6 hours long (the longest was 8 hours with a different editor). Usually at this point my task is finally completed and I can leave the final frenzy of activity to Stephanie as I take to my bed, throw the pillow over my head, and mutter over and over for hours, “Thank God … Thank God … Thank God …”

The entire process, from start to finish, takes some 8 or 9 months … about the same time as it takes to gestate a baby!

Where do I get my ideas and inspiration from?

The reason this question makes my, and other writers’, teeth grate is that it presupposes writers have access to a magical store of ‘ideas’ that ordinary mortals don’t. Bull. I get my ideas from the same place that every other human being on earth does – from the world around me, the world I encounter every day. The difference between myself (or any other writer) and the non-writer who thinks that she or he has no ideas is that I am prepared to develop the ideas that occur naturally to everyone. Inspiration and ideas never spring fully fledged; like the physical book, they are the result of months of thought and work and sweat and pain and development. Ideas are bloody hard work, like a book is.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I (and again, as many other writers) have made the process easier for myself by learning to use my subconscious. Most people never use their subconscious (at least not consciously!) in their daily lives and work. Yet people should, because the subconscious is one of the greatest tools you can ever make use of in order to move forward through life.

Specifically, I use my subconscious to solve problems that occur during the planning and writing process. And how to I do that? Easy! I take a bath!

Let me explain. Suppose I have a problem in the plot of a book that, no matter how much I think about it, I just can’t solve. At this point I decide that I’ll hand the problem over to my subconscious. For some 5 or 6 days, once or twice a day, I will clearly state the problem out loud and I will also say that I need the problem solved by a specific evening (I generally give my subconscious 4 – 6 days to work it out). Then I don’t think or worry about it any more. At the appointed time when my subconscious knows it must have the answer ready, I take a bath.

What? I take a bath. To access your subconscious you need to be warm, relaxed and generally utterly mindless. I find taking a bath works nicely for me. Other authors who use this process shower, go for long swims (lap after lap after lap), or go for a very long walk (I think Stephen King uses this … much good that has done him!). Whatever you do, you need to find a process that will totally relax you, and let your mind float free (and, no, alcohol and drugs generally won’t do the trick!). Very often water is involved. Once I am nicely relaxed in the bath, I murmur something about the problem I’ve been having, and, EUREKA! The answer is there in my head, so clear I wonder why I never thought of it earlier! Not only the answer to that particular problem, but a myriad of other plot deviations and possibilities as well. My subconscious has come through yet again …

This process takes a while to learn (or to train both your conscious and subconscious minds to do what is required), but once it is learned, then there is never a problem that can’t be solved.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises