Ask the writer: Your questions answered

Posted on February 3, 2016

ASK THE WRITERAs I was scrabbling around for a blog post idea, not loving anything I was coming up with, I decided that I’d do what I always do in these circumstances – ask you. So I posted the following question on Twitter and Facebook.

“I need to write a blog post. Anyone got a question they’d like answered?‪#‎helpawriterout‬

To my great joy, you responded. I’ve chosen five questions to answer here and I’ll add more in a subsequent post or in my newsletter in coming weeks.

Here are your first three questions.

Once the first draft is complete (in my case it’s a children’s novel 8+ years) you’ve allowed it to marinade for a while, and done some re-writing, should you send it off (and pay) for it to be edited before sending it out to agents or publishers? – Susie

A: There is only one answer to this question and that is… it depends. Sorry, but it really does. I think that this is a very good point to get some feedback, but whether that is a professional structural edit, which will cost you upwards of $500 for a reputable editor, or a paid manuscript assessment (which will give you feedback on where your manuscript is at), or whether it is the input of a mentor, or a writers’ group, or even trusted beta readers will depend very much on where you are in your career.

If this is your first ever attempt at a manuscript, I’d suggest that ‘some rewriting’ is probably not going to hit the mark. My first ever manuscript was edited five times, including input from a structural editor, and it still ended up in a drawer, never to be seen again.

I have published author friends who have paid for a structural edit on every manuscript they’ve ever submitted to a publisher. I have published author friends who would never do that, saying that the structural edit is the publisher’s job. If you do decide to go with a structural edit, the Freelance Editors Network is a good place to start looking for an editor.

I’m wondering if there is a place left for good, solid adventure/mystery series/books for children. It’s seems these days that books need to be about death, disability, alcoholism or some other deep issue to be found ‘worthy’.Do books for middle grade now need to be set around a context of diverse (and depressing) issues to be published? Is the adventure/mystery really, gulp, mid list and therefore dead? – Renee

A: Gosh, I hope not because The Mapmaker Chronicles is very much an adventure series and there’s no sign of alcoholism or other ‘worthy’ issues.

There’s is always a lot of discussion about what’s in and what’s out in publishing. There are trends, of course, but following trends is a very difficult thing because by the time you write your book, the trend is over and you’re back where you started. It’s important to know what’s being published, who’s writing what, what’s selling, and it’s important to read widely so that you understand who’s publishing what and can get an idea of why.

But, mostly, it’s important to write a great book. In a podcast episode recently, I asked Suzanne O’Sullivan from Hachette Australia (disclosure: my publisher) about what she’s really looking for in middle-grade fiction. This was her answer:

“I would say what I’m looking for primarily is really good writing with a really strong voice, something that just speaks to me very directly and feels new in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a completely brand new genre that the author’s invented, but the voice is a voice that feels fresh to me, you know? I get a bit tired of reading things and going, “Oh, yes, I recognise exactly who your influences are.””

So whatever you write, be it worthy or ‘mid list’, make it your own.

How does it work for you for new book projects. Do you have clauses in your contracts for first right of refusal, and do you have an agent to navigate this. Does rejection still happen once your foot is in the door or have you found it easier to garner attention now you have a series? – Julie

A: I would love to be able to tell you that my life is all rainbows and unicorns now that The Mapmaker Chronicles series is out in the world and thriving. But any published author will tell you that the only thing harder than getting published is staying published.

Contracts are different, depending on the author in question, how many books were originally contracted, whether the moon is in the seventh house and other deciding factors. Rejection is always a possibility, at every and any stage of your career, which is why I’ve always recommended that writers get comfortable with it very early on.

One thing I’ve learnt in 20 years as a freelance writer is that rejection is the spectre at every publishing feast and that you are only ever as good as your last job. My last job was good, and I’m working very, very hard right now to make my next one even better. It’s all about writing the book and making it great.

Wish me luck!


  1. Barb

    When you were writing your first book, how did you manage the balance between freelancing and novel writing? I’m finding that after writing for clients for several hours during the day, it’s a real challenge to find the brain power to switch gears and focus on plot development plus manage the “business” of creating an author platform.

    • Allison Tait

      Great question Barb! I’m doing an interview soon on the podcast in which I’ll address this in depth, so listen out for it.

  2. Cath Ferla

    thanks for this allison,

    i read this with interest. q 1) there’s no one way is there? everybody does it differently. it’s what works for you as a writer. i personally submitted my first finished MS knowing there were some structural areas that needed tweaking but feeling the MS was in good enough shape for the publisher to see that only tweaks were necessary. i think a writer generally has a sense when their work is at this stage.

    q 3) i’ve also worked as a writer in various forms for many years and i agree, it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it’s still a challenge and a fight (on different levels depending on where you are at: for me it’s often a fight to get work, although i do usually get it. for you, al, it might be the fight for a better project than the last) but yes, the fight is always on as a free agent. but this is also the beauty and the discipline of the craft of writing.

    thanks, cath.

    • Allison Tait

      Good points Cath. With regard to question 1, it very much depends on the author. New authors aren’t always aware of JUST how much work their manuscript requires – they might think a tweak or two, when in fact there’s a lot more to do. I think that when you’re paying for a professional editor, you want to make sure you’ve done as much of the work yourself as you can.

      I’m also finding (anecdotally) that publishers are wanting manuscripts that are more and more polished – and then they’ll take them apart in the structural edit for you to put back together. And yes, the process changes but the challenges are always there!

  3. colleen goth

    Thanks for this post! I found it refreshingly honest. Your own experiences suggest hope for us all and I valued your insights on the editing process. I think this will be a reference point for me.


    • Allison Tait

      Thanks Colleen!

  4. Cassie Hamer

    Hey Alison,
    Great info as always! Question – why do you think that first manuscript didn’t get published? Was it timing? Cassie

    • Allison Tait

      Hi Cassie, a combination of timing and being new to the editing process. In hindsight, I think it’s a good thing it didn’t make it to print. I got a lot better with subsequent manuscripts! A

  5. Dale Whybrow

    Good advice … and best of luck with your current WIP!

  6. JF Gibson

    Fantastic insights and advice Allison. Look forward to reading more in your newsletter and future posts. 🙂

  7. Renee Mihulka

    Thanks Alison, you always put out an honest, positive answer. I’m also impressed with the turnaround. I want to write as fast as you when I grow up! Lol

  8. Cheryl

    Thanks Al, some great answers to questions I’ve been thinking about recently. Looking forward to the next blog.

  9. Emily

    Fantastic post, Al – thanks! And I’m impressed at your turnaround.

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