Graeme Simsion is not only the author of The Novel Project, a new writing craft book, and a bunch of international bestselling books, he’s also a very generous soul.
When Valerie Khoo and I began our So You Want To Be A Writer podcast all those years ago, Graeme was my very first interview in episode #1, revealing many tips along with discussions about a duck suit.
When we celebrated 100 episodes (still many years ago, as we had recorded well over 460 episodes when I said farewell last year, as well as clocking up over two million downloads), Graeme, by that stage, a multi-international bestselling author, graciously popped back for an update on his stellar career, talking about the joys (and jitters) of following up his incredibly popular debut novel, The Rosie Project.
And now that I’m starting Write With Allison Tait, Graeme has kindly agreed to be my very first guest expert, a session that will feature in the group in May (I have such an exciting schedule of guests I can hardly contain myself!).
It’s almost like he’s put me on his To Do list as The Allison Project and I am so grateful for his support.
As a taster, Graeme has compiled his top 10 writing tips, shared below.
Ten Writing Tips from Graeme Simsion
1. Know why you’re writing. And what you want.
Some writers want a bestseller, some critical acclaim, some to change the world. Some write for the pure joy of writing, and some write for therapy. Accept that if you’re aiming to do one, it’s likely you won’t achieve the others. Don’t complain when you don’t. (Whenever someone tells me their novel is semi-autobiographical, I push them to explain whether they’re writing for therapy or publication. ‘Both’ is seldom a realistic answer.)
2. Writing can be taught and learnt.
I shouldn’t need to say this: to me it’s obvious that you can improve your writing by learning theory, practising and getting feedback. Yes, there are people who can write a book without any study, and people who will never write a good book no matter how much they study, but study will make both of them better writers than they would have been.
Practically, join a course and / or a writing group. Read about writing, do lots of it, read others’ work critically, get your own work critiqued.
3. Learn the language of storytelling.
Which is, to a large extent, the language of story structure. You need words to be able to critique and accept criticism, and, more importantly, to articulate what you’re doing or trying to do.
Writers in my experience are far more literate about sentence structure than story structure. (Screenwriters are the opposite). You need both.
Did I mention that story is important, at least if you want your book to sell?
4. You need a process.
It can be as simple as ‘sit down and wait for the words to come’ or as complex as you need to make it. I use the nine-stage process described in The Novel Project.
The important things are that (a) each day when you start work, you know what you’re going to be doing and (b) that you revise your process after each project to reflect what you’ve learned.
5. If your process isn’t working, change it.
In particular, writing by the seat of your pants (‘pantsing’) is a choice, not an identity. I see so many writers getting stuck, typically at around 30,000 words, abandoning their work, starting again…almost inevitably they’re working without a plan.
Maybe time to think about modifying your process to include a planning stage.
6. You don’t have to write every day.
Many of the (possible) stages in writing a novel are not about getting words on the page.
Before the drafting you may be devoting time to concept, title, character, plot points and an overall plan. Afterwards, there’s editing.
Throughout, there’s problem solving.
Sure, write something else to stay in shape if you want, but a day in which you do nothing but come up with a brilliant title or decide it’d be better if two characters were combined is a good day.
7. Creativity can be managed.
There are many practical techniques to improve your creativity. Start with noting when you have your good ideas, including solutions to problems. (Often it’s while doing some routine, non-intellectual activity such as walking or driving).
Start thinking about such times as your creative times, and specifically devote them to your biggest creative challenges.
8. Interrogate your characters’ decisions—especially the big ones that drive the story or reveal important information about your character.
Dig deep; why did they do this? Think like a shrink. The answers will give you insight, inform other more minor behaviour by your characters, and often suggest set-ups to make the decisions more convincing and powerful.
9. Show don’t tell is good advice—and amongst the most commonly given.
Failure to follow it is one of the most common problems that writing teachers see. It’s sometimes their own fault for failing to explain exactly what it means—I’m amazed how many writers find it hard to explain or are not sure if they’re doing it.
I see it as writing in scenes: if you can imagine your prose as playing out in a movie, in real time, you’re showing. If not, it’s telling.
10. Believe your editors and early readers when they tell you there’s a problem—no matter how bad the solution they’re proposing.
So when they say, ‘I suggest you change A to B, the message is that A is not working. B may be worse, but that’s not the issue. Your job is to find C.
Photo by Darren James
Graeme Simsion is the internationally bestselling author of The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, The Rosie Result and The Best of Adam Sharp, as well as Don Tillman’s Standardized Meal System, Data Modeling Essentials and, co-authored with Anne Buist, Two Steps Forward and Two Steps Onward.
His latest book is The Novel Project: A Step-by-Step Guide To Your Novel, Memoir or Biography.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.
For full details about Write With Allison Tait, my new online writing community offering Inspiration, Motivation, Information and Connection, go here.
About 200 episodes of So You Want To Be A Writer podcast ago, I created this lovely little round-up of insightful interviews with Australian children’s and YA authors.
I have decided that it’s high time for an update*.
If you’re hoping to be a published children’s or YA author one day, or if you’d just like to learn more about the processes behind some of your kids (okay, yours) favourite books, click the episode number to listen to the interview or read the transcript. Click the author’s name or book title to read more about them and their work.
10 Australian children’s/YA authors talk about writing
Rachel Spratt, also known as R A Spratt, is a bestselling Australian author and television writer. She is known for the Nanny Piggins and Friday Barnes series of books, which are both available in many territories worldwide, and a new middle grade series The Peski Kids. She also continues to write for television, specialising most recently in children’s animation.
I thoroughly enjoyed this frank and engaging discussion about the reality of being a children’s author, how to manage being published in different territories, and why a bugle is always a good idea for school visits. Episode 268.
Bren MacDibble is an Australian author of children’s fiction. She also writes YA fiction under the name Cally Black. In 2005, her first-ever YA novel, In the Dark Spaces, won the Ampersand Prize and publication with Hardie Grant Egmont, and went on to win the New Zealand Prize for CYA, a Queensland literary award, an Aurealis award, and a host of other awards, including being a CBCA honour book for 2018.
That same year, her middle grade novel, How to Bee, published by Allen and Unwin, won the CBCA Book of the Year for younger readers, and a string of other awards.
Bren and I discussed her latest middle grade novel, The Dog Runner, writing in a bus and managing two publishers and a hectic schedule! Episode 272.
Jenna Guillaume has been working and writing in team spaces for more than a decade, first in the features department at Girlfriend magazine, and more recently as editor-at-large at Buzzfeed Australia, specialising in pop culture, identity, feminism and social media.
We spoke about Jenna’s debut YA novel, What I Like About Me, and the role that social media played in landing her literary agent and promoting her book. Episode 274.
Amie Kaufman is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy for young and not so young adults. Her multi-award winning work is either published, or slated for publication, in more than 30 countries, and is in development for film and television. Her series, for YA and middle-grade, include The Illuminae Files, The Starbound Trilogy, Unearthed and Elementals.
Amie is, in short, a rock star and this lengthy interview is engaging and generous – one of my favourites. Episode 276.
Astrid Scholte writes YA fantasy and science fiction novels. Her debut novel, Four Dead Queens, was an international bestseller, selling into 12 territories, and she has a new novel on the way.
In this interview, Astrid takes my co-host Valerie Khoo all the way through the publishing process from germ of idea to finished book. Episode 280
Melina Marchetta is the author of ten novels, including the multi-award winning YA novels Looking for Alibrandi, Saving Francesca, and the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award winner On the Jellicoe Road. In 2011 her novel The Piper’s Son was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her work has been made into feature films, translated into 18 languages, and published in 20 countries.
In this wide-ranging interview, we looked at the process behind Melina’s latest novel, The Place on Dalhousie, but also went all the way back to the beginning with Looking For Alibrandi – and everything in between. Episode 282.
James O’Loghlin is one of Australia’s most respected, entertaining and experienced corporate speakers, corporate comedians and media personalities, best known as the host of over 300 episodes of the much loved The New Inventors on ABC TV, and for his witty and entertaining programs on ABC Local Radio. He is also the author of ten books, including six for children.
James and I talked about ‘how to write funny’, and how he draws on his own experiences for his popular series The New Kid. Episode 287
In seven years, children’s author and illustrator Matt Stanton has created 23 original titles, four bestselling series, and sold more than 800,000 books. In 2017, his premiere middle grade series Funny Kid, which he writes and illustrates, debuted as the number one Australian kids’ book, and is now finding fans all over the world.
In this interview, Matt and I talked about everything from his background in graphic design and how that helps him through the process of writing and illustrating his books, to working closely with his wife, bestselling picture book creator Beck Stanton. Episode 290.
Mick Elliott is the author of the popular middle-grade trilogy The Turners, and a former producer at Nickelodeon Australia, working on programs such as Slime Fest, Camp Orange, The Kids Choice Awards, and squillions of commercials.
For his latest series Squidge Dibley, Mick added ‘illustrator’ to his CV, and was happy to discuss the challenges and triumphs he faced. Episode 294.
Pip Harry is an award-winning writer and editor. Her YA novels include I’ll Tell You Mine, winner of the Australian Family Therapists Children’s Literature Award (2013), Head of the River, longlisted for the Gold Inky award (2015) and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Literary awards (2016,) and Because of You, shortlisted for the CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Awards, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and Queensland Literary Awards (2018).
Pip’s latest (middle-grade) novel, The Little Wave, is written in verse, and we had a terrific chat about the process. Episode 301.
And then there’s…
Of course, we don’t just speak to children’s and YA authors on the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, oh no sirreeee! With 300+ episodes to choose from, we have something for everyone, so check out our full list of episodes here.
(If I were you, I’d listen to ALL of them. I can honestly say that I have learnt something different from every single one of the amazing authors who have given up their time to share their thoughts and expertise.)
And if you’d like the inside track, get yourself a copy of So You Want To Be A Writer, the book! With hundreds and hundreds of hand-picked tips on everything from the writing process to pitching a publisher, it’s the companion guide to the writing life that you need. More info and buy it here.
*Having done ten, I’ve now realised there AT LEAST another ten brilliant children’s author interviews I’ve left off, so stand by for an update on the update very soon!
In case you missed it, the latest round of #writeabookwithal is over and I have finished the first draft of my latest manuscript. It is, brace yourselves, the 15th first draft fiction manuscript that I have written.
Four were written before my first children’s novel (The Mapmaker Chronicles: Race To The End Of The World) was published and I doubt that we will ever see that fab four again.
Since TMC #1 came out, I have written five manuscripts that are now published novels, plus five more, including this new one. News on all of those various projects will be with you once I have it to hand.
Anyhoo, my point is that I’ve written a few now and it got me to thinking about the various ingredients that are common to all of them. So I’ve packaged them up neatly as Cs because a) it’s been a while between blog posts, b) it amused me to use a maths concept in my creative writing post and c) that’s how I roll.
I’ve put this one first because it’s hard to write a novel without an idea. Sometimes, though, I think the bigger challenge is working out which idea will sustain a novel and which is the starting point for a character (which will then be subsumed into a larger idea), which is the basis of a scene (which will then be subsumed into a larger story), and which is a short story all by itself.
The reality is that some of my many ideas are just half-formed fragments that end up in notebooks and stay there, taunting me forever.
The most difficult ideas, for me, are those that present themselves as ‘I’d like to write a book about X’, or ‘I’m going to write a mystery story’. For me, that’s not an idea, it’s a theme, or a genre.
The best and most creative ideas are specific. Often weirdly specific. And, for me, they usually present themselves as a question and a feeling.
The Mapmaker Chronicles came from that feeling you get when you look out into a clear night sky (where are the edges? what’s at the edges?) and a specific question: How did they map the world? (You can read about it here)
The Ateban Cipher novels came from the feeling I got when I looked at The Book Of Kells (I wanted to take it home) and a specific question: Why would you write a book that no-one can read? (You can read about it here)
If you have always been someone who can write – that is, sit down at school, or university, or wherever, and have words pour out onto the page when required – craft is often something that you come to later. It’s often about the time that you write the first draft of your first novel, all 70,000 words of it, and think that your work is done.
In fact, it’s the time that you submit that first draft to an agent who comes back to you with these words: “What would you like me to do with this? There’s some nice writing in here but it is in no way ready to send out.”
Or maybe that’s just me.
Valerie Khoo and I have often discussed on our podcast that you don’t know what you don’t know. I discovered this lesson the hard way when I had the above exchange with an agent. I knew I could write a sentence – hadn’t I been doing that for years as a features writer? What I didn’t know was how to write fiction. Not really.
I was lucky enough to have had a good head start, thanks to all of my years of reading and working with words. But I had a lot to learn, and that’s where craft comes in.
Structure, character development, logical plotting, pacing… Take the courses, do the reading, go to the workshops at festivals, join writers’ groups. Whatever works for you.
I’m still learning a lot the hard way, because I still write without a detailed plan. I have to write it to see what it is, which is not the most efficient way of managing a publishing career.
But at least I now know what I don’t know.
If you had told Teenage Me that I’d one day be a published author and that I’d spend half my time walking around the block trying to work through logical solutions to problems that I had created myself, Teenage Me would have laughed.
Teenage Me thought that creative writing was all about… creativity. Little did Teenage Me know (about this and so many things, right Mum?)
When I do my school visits these days, I like to talk about writing superpowers. And when I tell the ‘maths kids’ and the ‘science kids’ that they have one of the greatest writing superpowers ever, I can see their confusion.
But so much of what we do as writers is problem solving.
If this happens, what happens next?
If that happens, what happens next?
And every decision has to come back to your character, and what your character would do in that situation.
Not what you would do. What your character would do.
Not what you, as the writer, needs your character to do to fix this festering plot hole you have created. What your character would logically do.
No wonder Procrastipup and I do so much walking (which is a great way to work through logical solutions, if you’re looking for one).
Look, I wish that talking about writing got the writing done. I wish that I could tell you that your novel will write itself.
But it doesn’t, and it won’t.
If you want to write a novel, you have to commit to the process. You have to make the time. You have to write the words.
It’s not easy. You’ll have to make sacrifices. You need to show up.
But that’s what it takes.
If you need some help to get the words written, you can read my blog post here, or you can take my 30-Day Creative Writing Bootcamp (10,000 words in 30 days. Yes, you).
I well remember the first time I received a structural edit (you can read about it here). I have still been known to cry. But editing – fixing (correcting) what is wrong with your manuscript – is an essential part of the process.
The trouble with a big edit is that it feels like an insurmountable problem. How can you possibly make all of these changes when every single change you make affects the entire story?
The answer, of course, is that you climb that insurmountable mountain one step at a time.
I’ve got some tips on how to edit your own writing here, and some tips from a professional editor here.
I call it courage. Others, as one person on Twitter told me in no uncertain terms [insert eyeroll emoji], call it confidence. Perhaps it’s a blend of the two.
It’s the blind faith that will carry you through the process of sitting alone in a room for the countless hours it takes to write your novel, then the countless hours of hard graft it takes to edit your novel and then, right at the very end, the sheer will it takes to press ‘send’ to either submit your work to a traditional publisher or publish your work yourself – and it is not for the faint-hearted.
Putting your thoughts on the page and then handing them over to someone else to read isn’t easy.
Dealing with rejection isn’t easy.
There are a lot of people out there who say they’re going to ‘write a novel one day’.
To me, it takes courage to try.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait, aka A.L. Tait, and I’m the author of two epic middle-grade adventure series, The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher.
You can find out more about me here, and more about my books here.
And check out So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.
On Monday, I shared my five top tips for editing your own writing, from a writer’s perspective.
Today, as promised, I’m following up with five top tips from an editor, thanks to the willingness of professional (and respected) freelance editor Nicola O’Shea.
“Nothing beats feedback from an objective reader (that is, not a family member or friend),” says Nicola. “But I hope these tips help you get your manuscript in the best shape possible before you hand it over to other readers.”
An editor’s 5 top tips for editing your first draft
Get some distance.
Put your manuscript completely away for a month, then read it through in one go – preferably on hard copy and resisting the temptation to tweak. You’re looking for places where the story feels flat, where the pace drags, where your characters are passive rather than active, where plot lines fall away without being resolved, for long blocks of narrative text without any dialogue. Mark these spots and come back to fix them only once you’ve completed your full read.
Examine your point-of-view (POV) choices.
Are you telling this story through a first-person narrator (‘I’ voice); or one or more third-person (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’) narrators? Does your choice of POV limit the story in any way? (E.g. a first-person narrator must be present for all plot events, unless you can find another way to present that information.)
If you have a lot of POV characters, ask yourself what each POV is adding to the story. Usually you can remove secondary POVs and limit yourself to main characters’ POVs.
Are you in control of the POV within each scene, or does it jump around between characters (‘head-hopping’)? Ideally you’d stay with one POV per scene or chapter.
Create a scene breakdown.
This is a summary of the plot events in each scene, the characters involved in them, and choice of POV. Use this skeleton structure to track your main characters’ story arcs and motivations, and to look for missing scenes or unresolved plot lines. Examine each scene individually to make sure it has a clear purpose and structure, and contains some kind of conflict.
Read your dialogue aloud, or ask someone to read it to you.
If you can hear your dialogue as it would be spoken, you’ll be more likely to notice whether you’ve let a character speak for too long, or whether their vocabulary and sentence structure are too elaborate. Most people use contractions in dialogue (we’ll, I’ve, wouldn’t, let’s) and often speak in fragments rather than complete sentences.Look out for characters over-using each other’s names in conversation; filler text (e.g. hellos and goodbyes); or characters telling each other information they already know for the benefit of readers.
Tighten your language.
Once you’ve completed your structural revisions, turn your attention to your language. Run a spell-check and decide on each change individually; then search for misused homophones that the spell-check won’t pick up (they’re, their, there). Remove adverbs that repeat the sense of the verb they’re attached to (the TV blared loudly; she shrieked piercingly); cut filler words like totally, very, actually, completely, probably, and started to or began to before a main verb (e.g. she started to walk downstairs becomes she walked downstairs). Look for passive constructions (he was asked to leave) and consider making them active (they asked him to leave).
Nicola O’Shea has been a book editor since the mid-1990s, and a freelance editor since 2004. She helps authors prepare their manuscripts for submission to publishers or for self-publishing; and regularly freelances for Australian publishers.
Nicola offers Skype feedback sessions, in which she’ll read the first 5000 words of your novel or memoir and then offer feedback in a 45-minute session on Skype. $195. For details and to book, click here.
Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m Allison Tait and you can find out more about me here and more about my online writing courses here.
Subscribe to So You Want To Be A Writer podcast for more amazing writing advice.
Or check out So You Want To Be A Writer (the book), where my co-author Valerie Khoo and I have distilled the best tips from hundreds of author and industry expert interviews. Find out more and buy it here.
“How do I edit my own writing?”
“Where do I start editing my own manuscript?”
“How do I edit my first draft?
When I put out my survey recently, I asked you to let me known the one thing I can help you with this year. The questions above are just a smattering of the many I received asking how exactly to edit a manuscript, particularly a first draft.
I’ve got some things to say on this subject, and I’ve had a lot of editing experience, but I’m not a professional editor of fiction. So I thought the best possible way to help all of the people who are stuck when it comes to the editing process is to invite some help along.
To whit, below you will find my top 5 tips for editing your own writing – from a writer’s perspective.
But on Wednesday, pop back and you will find five invaluable tips from Nicola O’Shea, renowned and trusted editor of fiction and non-fiction. [edited: You’ll find it here.]
Two stones, one bird.
A writer’s top 5 tips for editing your first draft
1. Don’t panic.
I remember the first time I had to edit a first draft from start to finish. I felt as though I was wading through words, rolling in words, drowning in words. Seriously, you can read about it here.
The secret is not to panic. Yes, every time you make a change at the start, it has ripples throughout the story, but that’s editing. That’s rewriting. Nobody said it would be easy.
2. Take it one word at a time.
Some of the best advice I ever got about editing came from my writer friend Allison Rushby. When faced with editing your first draft, go through it and make the small changes first.
Do the do-able stuff. Fill in missed words, look for inconsistencies, fix the typos.
This will make you feel as though you’re making progress.
BUT (oh yeah, there’s a big but), as you’re doing that, make notes about the obvious, glaring plot holes, the bits where you need less detail (or more detail), the paragraphs that have you scratching your head and, perhaps most importantly, all the questions that arise as you’re reading.
I usually end up with at least a page of these, usually ending with ‘What was I thinking?’.
3. Now that you know the ending…
The real Big Picture work begins with the ending. Now that you have a first draft, you have a clear picture of where your novel is heading – and it’s time to look at where you began. Did you start your story in the right place?
Invariably, for me, the answer is no. When you’re writing adventure-driven middle-grade fiction, you need to start in the action.
I have a tendency to meander in, with the backstory strapped to my character’s back, and it often takes me a full chapter to get that out of my system.
I swear that two out of the four books in The Mapmaker Chronicles series to date have had their beginnings lopped by 2000 or more words.
Take a long hard look at your beginning.
4. Map your structure.
When I do school talks, the kids and I often have a little chat about the story mountain. If you haven’t seen one of these, it looks like this. If you are a plotter, chances are you’ve already done this.
As someone who takes a less-planned approach to writing, my story mountain tends to be a small and barren affair, but I do like to know three things before I really start shifting things around in a manuscript:
a) the end of act one (everything changes for my hero)
b) the middle scene of the book
c) the climax (most intense scene in the book)
Usually these points are clear once the first draft is written, but if they’re not, there’s a lot of work to do.
5. Don’t touch the keyboard until you’ve thought about it.
I cannot emphasise this point enough. Even if you think you know exactly what you need to do to make this manuscript a world-beating best-selling prize-winning novel, don’t do it. Let it mellow. Think it through. Allow your sub-conscious to draw surprising threads together, to make connections, to really unearth your character.
Publishing is a waiting game and it starts right here.
Would you love more writing tips and advice? Check out my book So You Want To Be A Writer: How To Get Started (While You Still Have A Day Job), co-authored with Valerie Khoo and based on our top-rating podcast.
Buy it here!