Advice to young writers

Writing is a craft, but it is also a business, because everybody has to eat. That means a writer has to be practical at my stage in life I could be impractical, but old habits die hard.

The first thing to say is that good writing isn't easy. On a good day, if I am working on a topic I know a lot about, I might get 6000 words of reasonable text assembled, but if it is for a book, by the time it has been revised, pruned, trimmed, extended, edited and trimmed again, I will be lucky to get 2000 words a day of finished text. From March 2007 to February 2008, I completed just on 300,000 well-polished words, which is an average of 800 a day, about two A4 pages.

And when I am finished with it, my editor will get onto it and howl in horror, and I will need to do it all again. Be nice to editors, for they are your conscience.

The next thing to say is that unless you are incredibly brilliant, you need to write what people want. Very few writers can ever hope to set a special standard. That, of course, is why I get on well with my editors, because they know what the public needs and wants, and they can see where I become hard to understand. Trust your editors, for they are your meal ticket.

But can you make a living?

Very few people can hope to make a living from writing. I was lucky enough to have been employed for some years as a 'house writer' for a publisher, but that was more journalism than writing. My task was to report and explain the facts, not to entertain or amuse, but it combined rather well with the sort of writing work I did out of hours. Stuff I tracked down for the books often seeped into the stories I wrote at work, and occasionally I would find a story that was immediately relevant to the book I am working on. When that job folded, I decided I was secure enough to just keep writing, but by then I was able to draw on a nice drop of superannuation which provides a handy buffer, and I get money from ELR and PLR.

These days, much of my work comes from people asking me to write a piece about this or that, but I have had to work to get known, and that means spending time chasing the editors of periodicals with proposals, making myself known, and stuff like that. I have had some lucky breaks, but they really only became lucky because I saw the break and jumped on it.

Writers I know manage to boost their income in a number of ways. I do a bit of magazine and radio work, but a lot of writers do the lecture circuit, especially with school visits.

Catching a publisher

Editors and publishers are busy people: they want everything in a few words, and it has to be precise and concise. You need to outline what you are writing, who will read it, why it is special, how big it will be, and when it will be ready. As a rule, if it is less than 5000 words, it would be a good idea to attach the whole work, if it is going to be longer, attach a sample of about 5000 words, so people can judge your style. And make it interesting, even if what you are proposing is a book on juggling mummified cats as a solution the public transport problems in Peak Hill on a Sunday afternoon.

If you are trying to sell to periodicals, you may need to approach the editor to say "I have an idea to write about 3000 words on the sandstone of Sydney. I have a portfolio of thirty pictures you can choose from: would you like to see thumbnails of the pics and/or the article and/or a three-paragraph synopsis?" That is brief and to the point, but as soon as you can, you need to be able to remind people that you are an experienced professional with lots of credits to your name.

Finding ideas

That is not the problem: the main thing is to never waste an idea. Write it down in a notebook, or add it to a computer file, and keep backups. When you read an interesting fact, turn it over and examine it. When you wonder how people got the idea for an atomic bomb (it was first published in 1913), read about it, and then investigate who had to do what for the idea to push through. Note down possible treatments, and play with them, go to sleep churning through them you might just have a lucky dream!

If you want to be a fiction writer (I do a bit of fictional stuff for fun, but that's as far as it goes), play the "what if?" game, or find a curious character like Bernadotte, a common soldier of France who became a fierce revolutionary, rose to be a Marshal of France, was elected Crown Prince of Sweden, and took a troop of British rocket artillery to the Battle of Leipzig, where the rockets tore apart a French Division, and played a decisive part in defeating Napoleon. There is a beautiful tale there, that goes further, but that will be in my book after next, which I should be working on now, but because I am a bit inclined to jump around, I am doing this instead. You learn by fossicking for facts, and so the idea comes.

Oh yes, and sharpen up your research skills, because even if you are writing fiction, you need to get the facts just right. I used to think a clever SF writer was the one who made up an entire ecosystem like Frank Herbert's Dune, but then I realised that even that would require digging for facts that would control a system like that.

Lucky breaks

My first lucky break happened when somebody was unable to get time off to do a job involved with marking the Higher School Certificate in New South Wales in 1971. I got slotted in because I had been on a quiz show, and some idiot who shall remain nameless thought being good at recalling useless facts was the same as being intelligent. It isn't the same thing at all, but because of his erroneous belief, the goose put me into a position where I met some intelligent and clever people. My education began.

As a result, I was invited to join a small group working on designing overhead transparencies, and I learned huge amounts from Ken Jones, Peter Robinson and Rex Meyer. Then Rex roped me into doing a book with him and several other people, and it built up bit by bit over ten years, but the real break came when Tom Bray and I were persuaded by Kit Wernham at Heinemann to design some activity cards to help students with almost no reading ability in English to learn some English while they were doing science.

No publisher would touch it until Ian Bowring at Longmans heard that we were offering to give the work away luckily for us, somebody in the Education Department was still muddling around about our offer not really a lucky break, officials always look a gift horse in the mouth. Anyhow, we then sold the cards as three books to Longmans, and things sort of grew from there.

About 1985, I was thinking about a book on science that would make people get inside the heads of the scientists as they did their famous experiments, and this led me to the original of Dulong and Petit's Law, which I had learned about from an overseas student I was teaching about twelve years earlier. He had learned about this "law" in his home country, and mentioned it while we were inspecting a mass spectrograph

Getting into radio

The story of what happened next is told in Fraudo the Frog, but basically, I found evidence of wholesale fraud in the work of Dulong and Petit, analysed it and worked out what must have happened, and rang Robyn Williams, expecting him to interview me for ABC radio. Instead, he asked me to write it as a script, and so began my occasional career as a maker of radio talks.

By now, thanks to the radio work and other things, I had a bit of a name, and people approached me from time to time with ideas, and when I approached them, I got a hearing, and so it went. Basically, I get work because I know a good story when I see one, I don't mind the hard work of getting it together, and I am supremely lazy in an intelligent way, so I think methodically and get things done efficiently. There is nothing wrong with being lazy, so long as you are smart lazy!

His mind is always in the clouds . . .

Added to that, I would probably be described today as ADHD I am not ADHD, and never was, but neither are most of today's kids who get that label. I like to switch from one task to another, and sometimes I prefer to watch the grass growing, but instead of getting dosed on Ritalin, I was encouraged by a couple of intelligent teachers to switch when I felt like it.

Note carefully: there is a condition that can be helped with Ritalin, but like most of the kids put on that treatment today, I never really had attention deficit, I just had a low boredom threshold, and contact with too many boring people. I did not need chemicals.

I never got entirely over my restlessness and chopping around, but I learned (and was shown) how to work around it: if somebody says you are ADHD, remember that it can be worked around! Choose three to five things, work on them all, but try always to make one thing your main task that way, something gets finished. And don't let them call it anything like ADHD: just tell them you are multi-tasking!

There is no such thing as an attention-deficit student, but there are many interest-deficit teachers. Learn in spite of them, it will really annoy them :-)


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