On writing

More on writer’s egos

I said in a recent post that ego is important in writing. It is, and if you believe your story is good, then don’t believe others who say it isn’t.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to their feedback. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can improve. For example, it came across fairly clearly that Potion starts slowly. If we can fix this, we will.

Just because you think your story is good also does not mean that you should expect personal feedback from every agent and/or publisher you submit it to.

I really enjoy Read ’em and weep, over at the Rejection Collection.

There are some interesting rejections in there. Some, such as this one, are fairly obviously from scam agents. As a writer you need to be aware of these, and ensure that you don’t fall into their clutches. Writer Beware is an excellent place to start to weed these out. In a few, the agent or editor is genuinely insulting.

In many of the replies, however, the agent or editor simply submitted a form rejection, and the author felt insulted. Take this standard form rejection to a query that didn’t click with the agent, for example. The author feels the agent couldn’t tell what the book was like from the query letter, and should not therefore have rejected it for not being his type of book. (I am simply choosing examples here, not picking on anyone in particular, and the ‘submitted by’ indicates that it’s not as black and white as I make it appear. Many of these posts are also tongue in cheek, and not as serious as I make them sound.)

Or what about this rejection, where the author got handwritten notes on the form rejection letter. This agent had taken the time to explain why they had rejected his novel, and the reasons were not because of the writing, but because they did not believe there was a market for his novel. I would be so happy if we got form rejection letters like this. All he needs to do is find another agent with a different view.

The number of people who got upset by scribbled comments on the form letter surprised me. In an ideal world we would all have personalised replies to every query we send out, but we all know how the slush pile works. Agents and editors are busy people, a form letter is what we expect (we don’t want it, but most of us can build a nice fire out of our pile of form rejection slips). Here’s another encouraging reply.

At first, seriously scared. Was I writing historical novels that were so badly plotted they couldn’t keep the reader’s attention? Was I so bad at research there were anachronisms in a book I was sure (through hundreds of hours of research) was historically correct?

Later, I became indignant. Chiefly because a) the book came fourth in a national award. Did this mean the six readers who had read it for the award were wrong? No, I don’t think so.

And I was fortunate enough to bump into a Doctor of historical studies, specializing in the era my novel was set in. She read it, and said the only anachronism she could find was the hero’s name, but most non-historians wouldn’t know that anyway!

Read ’em and weep Rejection Collection: submitted by Writer Wrong

Again, I’d be pretty happy with a reply like this. Well, not happy, exactly, but this is good feedback I can use. Feedback from someone who gave an honest assessment of what they thought was wrong with the book. Not only that, what they thought was right with it (great series idea). In this case I found the author’s initial reaction reasonable, but then they seemed to lose sight of the main response (plot was weak and no major line of suspense) and concentrate on what I felt were the two lesser issues, to the author’s detriment. (It won a prize, so what does this agent know, and there’s only one anachronism.)

There’s a very fine line between where the writer’s ego stops (my book is great, and the agent/editor therefore has no idea), and accepting real feedback to fix your story (maybe I do have to fix this). Nothing is black and white and everything is subjective. What one person likes another may hate.

It’s also easier to view other people’s reactions and see whether they are being reasonable or not. We still don’t really know if Potion is a saleable novel. We will never know unless we sell it.

Meantime, if an agent takes the time to write something personal on a form rejection letter, we’re going to be pretty happy about that.

On writing

Ego is important in writing

Got comprehensively trounced in Miss Snark’s Crapometer #3 when we put a Potion query and first page into the list.

The query was re-written specifically for the Crapometer. Apart from the fact it is appallingly written, and that there are typos (it was late, and I was in a hurry—always a bad move) it is funny that the one line that came from the original query was the only one Miss Snark really approved of.

The general consensus on the actual story, though, was that the manuscript should stay under the bed. That we should put it aside and concentrate on writing the next book.

Ego is an important thing in writing. You have to believe in yourself, you have to believe in your product.

We believe in Potion.

It has a slow start. Story beginnings are not a strong point. We continually rewrite them, even as we ship them out in the mail.

It’s a first novel, and suffers from that. (I have always said that if our first novel is as good as Anne McCaffrey’s Restoree we should always be proud of it. Restoree has aged, and it is obviously a first novel, but it’s still good for what it was.)

How many years can you polish and repolish the same story before you move on to other writing? We’ve done Potion. We’ve moved on, but we still believe in it enough to think it saleable.

Is it really good enough?

We don’t know.

When talking about our own fiction we say that Rainbow is probably the first novel we will get published. Why? It has a great premise, tied to a unique world, with interesting, likeable characters who have a lot at stake. By the time we re-write Rainbow we’ll also have a lot of novel writing experience under our belt. Assuming we have learned from what we have written prior, that is.

So should we give up on Potion and wait until Rainbow is done before we start sending out more query letters?


It is almost impossible for a writer to look dispassionately at their work. They always want it to be better than it is, or think it will never be as good as other people’s. Their first attempts at writing are pretty awful, particularly the first drafts. Not only that, they can’t see the flaws in the work (it’s still hard for us, sometimes impossible), even when they are pointed out.

But there comes a time when a writer has to be able to stand back and look at their work, and say, “You know, this isn’t too bad. This is better than some of the books I’ve read lately.”

It’s then that you have to believe in your book. Have faith in it, no matter how bad a hammering it gets. Whether you are right or wrong is irrelevant.

Will Potion ever get published? I don’t know. But meantime we’ll keep polishing it, and sending it out, until there is no-one left to send it to. When Shared Memories is complete (it has at least two major drafts to go), we’ll do the same for that one as well.

p.s. Sherylyn never liked the start. She has now convinced me to ditch the first four pages. All we have to do now is negotiate on the next four, which she doesn’t like either.

On writing

Other writers influencing your work

Deadlines, extra work. I am so tired I feel sick. Haven’t touched Barrain, or any other writing (outside of work), for days now.

It’s my own fault. On the one free day I had, when I could have been writing, what did I do? I picked up Lynn Flewelling‘s Luck in the Shadows, and then, of course, I had to read the second book, Stalking Darkness.

These two books stand alone, but there is a third with the same characters. The question now is do I find the third book, or do I wait until we have finished writing this draft of Barrain?

I try to not read books while we are writing the first major drafts. I find that no matter how hard we try, the book influences me.

For example, I remember re-reading Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy while writing an earlier version of Shared Memories.

Weeks later, going back to do the edits, we find that Roland grins wolfishly and does other wolfish things. If you’ve read the Farseer trilogy you’ll know where the wolfishness comes in.

The thing is, Roland is about as unlike a wolf as you can get. He’s not a grinner either.

There were two chapters of totally out of character behaviour. It took a while to clean it out.

It’s great when a book has so much impact on you, that you can’t help but carry it over into your story. However, it’s not a desirable thing to do.

After that we decided not to read and write at the same time. Not for any of the major drafts, anyway.

Talking about things

On-line writing forums

On-line writing forums are great, but if you don’t manage them carefully they can become a black hole that absorbs all your writing energy, leaving you no time for writing.

I know from personal experience.

Some danger signs, and how to avoid them.

Logging on to the forum before you do any writing

I used to do this to get into the mood for writing, and for a while it worked. But then I found I was spending so much time on the forums I had no time left to write.

Nowadays, I do my writing first and visit the forums later—if I’m not too busy writing to bother.

If I ever do pop into a forum before I start, I watch the clock, and try to get out within the hour.

The dead end relationship

Any forum loses members through natural attrition. People drop out, or get other interests.

In my experience a forum that has shrunk to a dozen or less active members, all of whom know each other intimately (on the web, at least), and whose posts can really only be understood by the other regular posters, is not worth it.

If you find that you are one of those last half-dozen posters on a site, and that it has become a general purpose chat session rather than specifically about writing, maybe it is time to jump ship.

Most forums have a finite life. Sometimes it’s kinder to let a dead forum go than to hang on to the bitter end. (The bitter end being when the person hosting the forum pulls the plug.)

If you really like the people in the forum, then by all means keep in touch, but if you’re in it for the writing don’t hang around simply out of loyalty.

The too scared to post forum

Everyone should lurk a little in a forum before they post.

Like any other social setting you need to know the do’s and don’ts before you start blasting away with your own opinion.

Once you know the etiquette, however, you shouldn’t be afraid to contribute.

If everything you post gets savaged, find another forum. You are not doing yourself or your writing any favours by sticking around.

(Inappropriate posting is a totally different matter —worthy of a whole subject to itself. I am amazed at the number of writers who ask people to review their work, for example, on forums that clearly state they do not do this.)

Used properly, online writing forums can be a great tool for a writer, but choose your forum carefully and beware of the traps mentioned above.

Writing process

The mid-novel writer’s block

It’s the perennial question asked of writers … “Where do you get your ideas?” and most writers I know go totally blank on that question. I know I find it hard to answer. Ideas are everywhere. A news item can give you an idea, a dream, an overheard conversation. Ideas come from anywhere and everywhere.

It’s not the initial story idea that causes problems, however. It’s the ideas you need three-quarters of the way through a story, where the white hot excitement of telling the tale has abated, when you’re so deep into the story you think it, dream it, eat it, day and night.

Then suddenly you get stuck. You know, roughly at least, where the story is going, but you haven’t the foggiest idea how to get to the end from where you are. Your writing stops. Your mind goes around in circles, day after day. I know what I want my character to do, but how does he do it? How can I get him from here to there and remain faithful to the story?

You write pages. Dozens and dozens of pages. Hundreds, even thousands of words, and erase them all.

The writing stops. You sit at the keyboard and nothing comes.

You try to force yourself to write. You can’t. Type and delete, again and again.

You find yourself writing the same thing over and over. Mostly it’s notes about what has to happen, rather than the writing itself.

You try to skip the section for the moment and go on to write a later part of the story. You can’t, because what happens in this section is pivotal to how the rest of the story works out. Every time you change your mind about what happens in this ‘blocked’ section you have to rewrite the following sections.

Finally, you get some tortured words down on paper. It’s messy, it’s rough, and it’s a relief.

Sometimes the whole process takes as long as it took to write the first three-quarters of the story, but it’s done, and you can finally carry on with the story.

Later, when the story is completed, and polished for the umpteenth time, you re-read the novel again. That section you agonised over, that section you stumbled on and couldn’t get the ideas for, often turns out to be insignificant in the story (relatively speaking).

Writing process

Writing for the US market

In the first instance, we try to sell our novels to the American market.

Why would we do this when the Australian market for fantasy is so good at the moment?

The Australian market is extremely difficult to break into. I’m not saying it’s impossible—we’re still trying—but it’s a very small market. Once you have pitched to the small number of agents who accept submissions, and to the even smaller number of editors who do, you have nothing left.

The US and UK markets are bigger. We chose the US market.

As Australian writers though, just how much should we change our work to suit the American market?

I’m not talking tone here, but the little things that are different between countries that may make an American reader go, ‘Huh?’. Or the spelling, or even the size of the paper we submit on.

In BARRAIN, Melissa goes around to the boot of the car to get the backpack Scott takes on the hike with him.

If we pitch this story to US agents and publishers, should we make the boot a trunk?

What about spelling. Australian spelling favours English spelling rather than American. Colour rather than color, grey rather than gray, cheque rather than check, and so on. Or as one poster on the google answers site puts it, “gray is a color, grey is a colour”.

I also tend to favour ‘ise’ endings, rather than ‘ize’.

Even paper size is a question. If I am trying to sell to a US market, how much do I damage my chances by submitting on A4 paper?

I don’t know.

I don’t know how much difference any of these things make to trying to make a sale.

We don’t bother worrying about these things when we write. Before we submit something to the US market we run it through a US spell checker, but that’s about all we do.

If I found out that the paper size really harmed our chances, I might order in some letter size paper, but haven’t done so to date.

As for words like ‘trunk’. I’d probably leave them for the agent or editor to tell us to change before we touched them.

On writing

My personal top 5 writing sites of 2006

Almost everyone who uses the web has favourite sites. I’m like most people. Here are my personal top five writing sites for 2006. The sites I visited time and again.


This is probably my favourite writing site. Terry Rossio, one half of the Ted Elliot/Terry Rossio writing partnership, has written a great series of practical articles on writing and selling scripts. Sometimes Ted chips in too. There’s also a forum discussing movies, and one dispensing advice on scriptwriting. I often re-read the articles on this site.

Ted and Terry are the writers behind Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mask of Zorro.

This is not a beginners site. If you go onto the forums and say, “I’ve decided to become a screenwriter, because I’ve heard you can make lots of money from it,” you’re liable to be told —politely of course —by other members of the forum to go away and write something, and learn some more. Many of the people on this site are already in the business. It’s the place to go if your agent sets up an appointment for you to pitch your screenplay, if you have a technical question about your script, and so on.

You might think that as a novelist, a screenwriting site has nothing to teach you, but if you can’t get something to improve your writing career out of the articles here then you are truly remarkable, or you are kidding yourself.

Miss Snark blog

I’ve been blogging about Miss Snark for a couple of months now. This woman is a practising literary agent and gives good general advice about submitting to agents, writing query letters, mistakes to avoid and so on. But her piece de resistance is the Crapometer, which really goes into what she, as an agent, looks for in the query letter or hook, and dissects those sent in by readers of the blog.

She has run four of these to date, and if you don’t write a better query letter after reading these I’d be really surprised.

A fantastic service to writers.

Creating Passionate Users

Another site I re-read, particularly the Kathy Sierra articles.

I’m a technical writer. I love it when I come across other technical writers who write strongly, and with passion about technical writing.

Some personal favourites:

The posts are worth looking at for the graphics alone. They’re mostly 50’s style photographs with talking bubbles and they go so cleverly with the associated articles.

Publishers Marketplace

This is the first place I look for agent information, or even if I’m just browsing about writing in general.

I waste a lot of time just browsing, but also pop in for the occasional serious research —like finding out whether an agent is appropriate to query, and the agent’s website and/or address. I also find a lot of new writers/agents blogs this way.

Progress report

Writing progress

Finally made a start on rewriting the first chapter (formerly known as the prologue). It’s patchy, but I think it’s better. It’s been bugging me ever since I wrote it as a prologue.

Writing process

Using the web to maintain writing enthusiasm

It takes a lot of work and a long time to finish a novel. I have heard it gets faster (months rather than years), but it’s still a lot of work. Some days you are overcome with enthusiasm and can write forever. Other days all you want to do is throw the whole thing in. How do you maintain the enthusiasm over the months —years —that it takes?

There are lots of techniques people use to keep writing.

Writing with a partner has to rank as one of the best techniques I know.

Other people join writers’ circles or critiquing groups. The continued stimulation of having to produce for the group keeps them on track, and being around other people who are doing the same things you are (writing a novel) adds extra encouragement.

Deadlines help. If you are lucky enough to have a contract to fulfil and a date to deliver to you might have other stress-related problems, but you definitely have a reason to write. As the famous quote goes, “Nothing concentrates the mind quite so well as a deadline.”

But what if you are a solitary writer, trying to hold down a full-time job, balancing life and family, trying to find time to write. How do you keep writing? How do you maintain the enthusiasm.

Nowadays, many people turn to the internet.

The web is a great tool. It allows you to reach out and talk to other people like yourself. You may be the only person you know writing a novel, but you can find dozens of them online.

How do you find these sites? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use a search engine like Google to start with. Search on every logical word you can think of.
  • Read blogs like this and follow the links. The links in the blog posts themselves, and the links on the sidebar. That’s how I get many of my favourite sites.
  • Look up your favourite authors, see if they have sites, and check out any links they include
  • Look up the big book publishing sites. They often have links and forums.

That’s just a start.

This allows you to join the web writing community. The important thing is to not let it take over your life, so that you spend so much time with the community your writing loses out.

Writing process

Other people’s second drafts

We have talked a bit about how we edit our manuscripts, but it’s always fascinating to find out how other people do it.

Most people do similar things, but not necessarily in the same order.

Blair, in reply to a question on the Scripts message board on the Wordplayer site, tells how he checks for spelling, plot and characterisation, first. He fixes these and then sends his script off to industry people he respects. Very similar, by the sound of it, to the way we do it.

Barbara W. Klaser completely re-wrote her second draft, even changing point-of-view characters. We’ve done that before. Quite dramatic changes can happen.

Although it’s more about fixing your story than about rewriting, in More Better Writing, Part 2, Christopher Meeks gives some good advice about fixing your writing in general. I particularly like the way he says

“There is no bad first draft… First drafts are for you alone, a place where you allow yourself to make mistakes while you let your creativity flow.”

Christopher Meeks, More Better Writing, Part 2.