Knowing the genre you write in and sticking to it, is part of the road to success, says fantasy and romantic historical fiction writer Fiona McIntosh.

Have you been following the success of Game of Thrones? It started out as volume one of a fantasy work first released in 1996 of the same name and spawned a series of books that ended up as #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. The TV series is arguably the hottest thing to watch on the planet just now. It’s become a phenomenal success with adults especially enjoying its often R-rated images and language.

This is genre fiction flexing its muscle. It is seductive, addictive escapism and genre these days no longer hides in cultish corners but resides squarely in mainstream, especially with women readers who comprise the most powerful and loyal audience.

So if you want to be successful in the world of fiction, you should be writing within a genre for ease of access. But it’s no good you writing what you want and believing with all of your heart that a global publisher should also love your work. I have to be tough here so forgive me. No one gives a flying fig what you like or want to write … indeed no one cares that I want to write a cookery book! My publishers only care that I continue to write best selling fantasy and best selling romantic historical fiction.

All you should care about if you want to survive and thrive in the hard commercial world of publishing is to write what the market is salivating for.

Everyone’s take on success differs. I applaud those who may describe it as a drawer of rejections and who take the ‘because what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’ kind of attitude. These are warriors. They don’t give up, they understand that persistence is the key to winning that elusive contract, and they have the almighty capacity to start again on a new manuscript and push through to its finish. Others may consider success as being self-published. I heard a lovely story recently that a writer was sharing her ‘amazing success’ with a book she’d recently released and was bubbling over with the news to her writing group that she’d sold 200 copies … and she was ecstatic. So success is a difficult word to pin down. My idea of success in the field of commercial fiction is hitting the Australian National Top 10, selling the novel overseas and into foreign language, having my publisher’s sales team gleeful over their units sold graph, my editor fizzing with delight at how well our baby is performing and having Acquisitions eagerly discussing my new project. For me, and my shallow take on my business life, success is (a) happy publisher and readers and (b) happy earnings.

However, I readily admit that I don’t care about awards, being asked to sit on panels, being wined/dined, being invited to events, etc. The way I choose to measure success in my field is by my publisher requesting more contracts, my audience telling me it can’t get enough of my books and knowing there are advances and royalties trickling in regularly.

So … if we’re all agreed that genre is ‘it’ for commercial success (read $$$), then please be sure you are writing in a clear genre. If you don’t know what you’re writing and where it fits then you’re going to struggle to sell it to a publisher.

It has never been more important to dovetail into a neat compartment so that websites can easily point to your novel with headlines like ‘If you love Fiona McIntosh, you’ll love so and so’. If you can’t fit into a genre, how does a huge beast like Amazon help readers to find you?

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Amazon should be your only focus but electronic marketing of novels is increasingly demanding more and more attention from publishers, booksellers and of course epublishers, ebooksellers.

We’re all online more hours of the day than perhaps most of us care to admit and marketers know that, so that’s where the mighty dollar is going to grab our attention. And, as much as I detest being pigeon-holed, I realise I have to make sure my novels fit neatly beneath an overarching genre where people new to my work can stumble across my titles, or where someone whose attention has been piqued by an ad or a review can easily hunt down my books.

Contrary to how it may feel to any of us waiting for a big break, I believe publishers are as active as ever in searching out new talent but they are having to be ruthless in looking for genre writers who can deliver a manuscript that has the potential to sell in the tens of thousands. In Australia we have publishers who are generous and above all, nurturing.

Our publishers know it’s rare to find a writer who can be an overnight success so they will help to build you but only if your stories have that wonderful commercial whiff about them … and only if they sense that both you as a writer and the range of your storytelling has the potential to keep developing, keep increasing sales by drawing more readers to your books.

Some of the cast of characters from the highly-successful genre program Game of Thrones.

Some of the cast of characters from the highly-successful fantasy genre progam Game of Thrones, based on the series of books which were #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Please get it straight in your mind that genre fiction is about commercial endeavor … everyone has to get their slice! The publisher has to make a profit out of you; it is not a charity and increasingly publishers should not and do not feel obliged to take on a writer just because their story is terrific or their writing is sublime. If it can’t sell and generate money out of it, it’s a lost cause. Sad but true.

What’s more, if traditional booksellers cannot shift plentiful copies of that book, there’s no point in ordering, stocking, finding space on their expensive retail shelves for them. And they are going to send them back to the expensive warehouses that publishers increasingly don’t want to pay for. The days of having wonderful books in stock just because have gone. Ebooksellers have more flexibility but even so they will not give you that prime position on their home page if your story can’t make money for them, while readers must have a fantastic experience in order to buy more, more, more of the same.

Finally, you have to make money out of this manuscript. You want to be paid an advance, and then you want that novel to earn out its advance and start earning you lovely royalties. And that will bring the publisher back to you with a request to sign a new contract. That’s the merry-go-round of commercial fiction. Final sad truth – there are loads of fabulous writers with genuinely fabulous stories that unfortunately don’t offer enough commercial potential … they don’t fit mainstream, they don’t suit a genre, their audience simply isn’t wide enough to generate enough dollars to make it worthwhile for a publisher to take it from raw first draft to finished, polished product on a store shelf.

This is where self-publishing is pretty amazing but please tread with caution. Research, take advice and spend time finding the perfect fit software or better still, an experienced e-publisher for your precious manuscript, or risk condemning it to the wastelands. Coming out of epublishing are some heartening tales and it can be a clever pathway into print if you enjoy some less expensive electronic success first. If you can demonstrate an eager audience, I promise you that a top print publisher will be banging on your door. And you might also find that traditional publishers, while they may not want to take you into hard copy initially, may well road-test your potential by publishing you in ebooks first. So the potential for you out there is broadening, not contracting, despite the perceived doom and gloom of fewer opportunities in publishing.

So what constitutes commercial fiction with potential to earn?

Well, firstly knowing where you fit – who is your audience and who are their favourite authors? Do you fit neatly among them and does your storytelling play to the expectations of that audience?

Are you catching a wave? Not always essential but oh so very desirable if you’re early enough. Right now for instance rural romance or RuRo if you’re in the know, is smacking them out of the park. I swear if I see another cowboy-hatted girl, wearing gaucho boots and denims, leaning against a fence and sucking a straw I am going to suffer apoplexy in the middle of Adelaide airport. But right now women readers can’t quite get enough of RuRo. It is burning hot and there are some very good writers who’ve suddenly found themselves in the spotlight because they’re writing engaging romance set in country Australia. Catch it if you can.

Meanwhile, if you’re planning to write about vampires then you’ve arguably missed the wave. So for genre writers, my advice is that you craft a story clearly within the solid lines of genre fiction of the kind that never stops selling e.g. crime, romance, epic fantasy, family saga…and historical. That last one that potentially stomps across all genres should appeal unashamedly to women e.g. my recent pair of novels – The Lavender Keeper and The French Promise.
Is there conflict in you story? Are your characters being challenged?

Is your story confident? By that I mean does it stride straight into the action? Can you set the scene immediately in a single paragraph and then fling your reader straight into the story?

Are you a fabulous storyteller? Can you let your characters do the walking and talking? Is your story emotional? Sensory – full of imagery?

Is it written in an easy to read style? No room for pompous, flowery prose in commercial fiction.
Is the action zipping along? Are the characters in motion?

There’s a whole lot more to consider but then this would turn into a workshop and that’s not what I set out to do. I run five-day Masterclasses twice a year on just this subject, so it needs a lot more than this article to tease out the invisible elements that combine to make a potential best seller. However, getting all antsy and artistic is not the answer to solving the genre riddle – the solution is found by diving in, swimming with the mainstream shoal and sticking to the fastest current when writing. And, while the daily grind of being a commercial novelist is demanding, I am having fun at work and that’s one of those intangible elements that contribute strongly to a successfully earning novelist. Enjoying your writing – losing the anxiety in other words – is the oxygen that’s going to boost your stories.
Never feel anything but proud about writing genre fiction. Remind yourself that it’s where the dollars are spent by publishers and especially by the readers. And where the most love is given by your audience … and that there’s room enough for all of us.

So come on, swim in the mainstream that genre fiction has become!

Visit FionaThis article is reprinted with the kind permission of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.



There’s no escaping it – however much we hate it, the ‘synopsis’ is a must have if you want to get published. This article addresses how to cope with the vexed question of how to present a synopsis and is contributed by and reprinted with kind permission of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.

Ask most writers, including many published authors, about writing a synopsis for a novel and you’ll most likely hear a high, keening wail.

If you’re not self-publishing but seeking fame and fortune through one of the traditional publishing gateways, whether large or small, independent or transnational, then you will at some point – often quite early on in the process – be asked to provide a synopsis.

On approaching an agent, you’ll be asked for one. Even if you’re going down the self-publishing road you’ll need a cover blurb, which is in itself a truncated and stylized synopsis.

‘Is there no escape?’ I hear you ask. The short answer is no, not really, not if you want your manuscript to see the light of day.

Your synopsis will probably be the first thing an agent or publisher looks at.

One of the first questions you’ll need to ask is, ‘Which geographical market am I writing for?’ (publishers call them territories) Australia publishers and literary agents have different expectations from those in America, where they will look at synopses of varying lengths. There are different opnions as to length here in Australia, where for most the standard seems to be between about a page, certainly no more than two pages. The phrase ‘between 500-600 words’ is often bandied around.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 5.03.33 pmMake sure you do your research.

Don’t send an unsolicited cover letter, synopsis or the first three chapters to publishers who are cloed for submissions – it’s a waste of their time and yours.

Don’t send fantasy to those who clearly state they only take ‘quality narrative nonfiction and broad canvas, intelligent and ambitious fiction’.

If you’re setting your sights on the American market then be aware the vast majority of US publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts and you’ll need an agent to crack that particular nut. Of course, getting an agent can be equally difficult.

Check to see if they accept online submissions or if they require material to be sent in hard copy; the mix of publishers and agents who will or won’t take online material is one of the great unfathomables.

Do your homework – get it right. Many agents have submission guidelines, including the synopsis, on their website. Many publishers, too. Some publishing houses expect you to know this, because from where they’re sitting they’ll be assessing your submission as if it came from a professional writer.

Your synopsis will probably be the first thing an agent or publisher looks at. I say probably because there’s no guarantee that they won’t look at your cover letter or the first paragraph of your manuscript, which means they also need to be polished and error free. But it’s most probable they will start with the synopsis.

They want to see if you can tell a story so what you put down on paper needs to be as good as it can be. However, like all ‘art’ it can be overwrought, stale and mechanical, so try for freshness and make sure you find your own ‘voice’ – it’s no use trying to emulate one of the thousands of online examples there are on the web. But before you tie yourself in knots, relax: just as there’s no perfect novel – perfection or imperfection lying subjectively with the reader – there’s no perfect synopsis.

So what does a synopsis consist of? At it’s most basic, it’s the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ that is taught in most Creative Writing 101 courses. But this is also the cause of the headache that arrives the instant you consider sitting down and actually writing a synopsis: how do you fit all that into a one or two page document and retain any coherence, let alone a nod in the direction of flowing prose or all the subtleties of your magnum opus?

The purpose of the synopsis is to get across just enough information to tantalize and provoke whoever is assessing your submission, to get them to take the next step which is to pick up your manuscript. This means you’ve got to tell the story succinctly and still make that next step irresistable.

As with all aspects of writing, there’s plenty of advice out there, particularly on the web, together with numerous ploys to short circuit the instinct to run screaming from the room at the first mention of the ‘s’ word.Some writers recommend starting your synopsis from the word go, then regularly updating it throughout the novel writing process. Others would argue that this only increases the pain. It can’t hurt and it does mean that if you’re diligent you’ll have something approximating a synopsis when you reach your final draft and you won’t be sitting down cold to start the process.

Others suggest calling it a regular summary or plot outline. If you’re completely undone by the notion, can’t even countenance sitting and composing that first sentence, you could try calling it a summary: ‘I’m just going to write a summary of my novel.’ a psychological ploy to shift the emphasis away from the dread word. Whatever works, I say; anything you can do to get those 500-600 words on paper.

Another tack could be if you’ve a favourite novel by a published author, something you know back to front, then you can try your hand at writing a page long synopsis on an already existing book. It’s not easy but it does give a certain emotional distance that isn’t there with your own work, while lending licence to play, something the serious writer is often loathe to contemplate within the confines of their own prose. Try it – you’ve got nothing to lose and it can be binned and forgotten once finished.

Back to your synopsis. The blank document is up on the screen and it’s typing time. As with your novel you need a beginning, middle and an ending. We often hear, ‘But can’t I just leave it hanging … as a teaser.’ The answer is no. Agents or editors need to know how your tale ends, so make sure you include your grand finale. The trick then is to collapse your 70,000 plus hard won words and still retain all the major elements, including the opening, the body, and the denouement. Try giving these segments a couple of short paragraphs each. Your final paragraph can round off by stating the novel’s word length, genre and market position, plus which target audience it’s aimed at. Say you’ve penned a young adult novel – in one of the sub-genres – you might state something like, ‘This is YA paranormal fiction that will appeal to readers of Stephenie Meyer or Cassandra Clare.’

Write in the present tense, third person and use the active rather than the passive voice. Keep the language vibrant, lively and the sentences shorter rather than longer. Open with a great ‘hook’ sentence. Don’t get bogged down in description. Cut adjectives, adverbs and flowery prose. Don’t confine yourself just to the action – what’s happening – make sure that your reader understands the characters and their relationships. You can’t cover all of the action, every subplot or all of the characters, so stick to the main flow and keep paring it back. Be consistent. Make sure that you’re telling the same story all the way through, don’t start with a police procedural and end up with a romantic comedy.

Make sure that your plotting progresses in a logical manner. We’re told never to use clichés but in a synopsis it’s okay. Use them as shorthand to signal certain types of events or interactions, but use them judiciously. Editors don’t just want a good narrative they want to know that you can write, so use this opportunity to convey tone and energy, not only through your story but through your prose.

Possibly not the best synopsis ever...

Possibly not the best synopsis ever…

Once you’ve done a couple of drafts – and expect to do quite a few – look at every phrase, sentence and paragraph and interrogate them: Does this really need to be included, is this a minor or a major character, do they need to know the dog dies? Perhaps what you’ve got is too comprehensive? Cut, chuck and condense.

So you’ve missed a couple of chapters but you’ve got the gist of the narrative, the essence and tone of your story. It’s reader interest that gets someone to pick up your manuscript – not information overload. It’s all about showing you can tell a compelling story.

A word for those of you who write nonfiction: a publishers’ and agents’ requirements are rather different from those of fiction. Nonfiction covers an array of subject matter from academic writing through to self-help books and children’s interests – and let’s not forget biography. Many nonfiction books are commissioned directly; for those that aren’t the writer will need to research the publisher’s or agent’s guidelines, where their proposal fits in the market and what the current competition looks like.

Some may still want a synopsis but it will need to be different from a fiction submission. They will probably want to know what the book is about and its relevance in the contemporary market, your credentials for writing the book (usually in the third person), where the book would sit on the shelves, recently published works of the same ilk, a sample chapter but not the introduction, plus a chapter breakdown with each chapter outline roughly a page and written in prose (not dot points). They may ask for a table of contents. If you can’t find any guidelines on the websites you’ve targeted then keep looking for similar publishers who do set out their nonfiction requirements, then follow those and send off your work.

Whether you’ve got a great manuscript or one that still needs work won’t matter if nobody in publishing gets to read it. This means paying attention to detail. Everything that lands in an agent’s or publisher’s inbox should be the best it can be – spelling errors, grammar, presentation all count.

Published authors will tell you it’s mostly about persistence. This is true but you still need to pay attention to detail. Yes, you need to have a good product, whether it’s the next literary sensation or a genre novel; yes, you need to be professional and present your work in the required format; but if you give up after two rejection emails then nobody’s going to get the chance to publish your current project. Staying power is everything in the publishing world.

Traditional publishing is a competitive, commercial arena with its own agendas. Whatever genre you write in there are rules to be followed and tactics to be applied, your synopsis and any approach you make to publishers and agents needs to take this fact into account.





By Jill Dawson

In the early ’90s, writing my first novel, Trick of the Light, I longed to have some feedback from another novelist.  And not a beginner either, but one who knew what she was doing and would somehow know what I was trying to do and help me to better express it. (My fantasy was Margaret Atwood, but how on earth to get hold of Margaret Atwood? Or ask her to read my novel?)

Popular wisdom is that writing workshops, or writers groups, are the way new writers learn. And at the same time we suspect this wasn’t the route for the writers we admire. Didn’t they simply find the right reader: often a contemporary or a writer trying to do similar things (think Plath and Hughes discussing their poetry, or Virginia Woolf and Katharine Mansfield)?

And after all, what if you are shy (not that unusual a trait in a writer), overly sensitive, or like me – hate groups?
What if you find it bewildering to try to make sense of a cacophony of critical voices and the jostling of egos that inevitably accompany a bunch of people who want to be writers and haven’t yet proved themselves by publishing anything much?

I suspected that my writing desire was to connect in private with the mind of a stranger that I never had to meet; was vaguely conscious that writing fiction was somehow a curious negotiation between the joys of being hidden and the potential disaster of never being found.

At that point in my life I’d never met any published writers. I was on the dole, a single parent of a toddler and living in a council flat: why would I have? What I longed for, was not a group critiquing experience, nor an MA (or MFA) qualification, it was an opportunity to meet and learn from those I thought of as ‘real’ writers: published authors with a body of work, and discover if I really could count myself among them.

There seemed no way to find that, so I signed up for an MA in writing anyway, aware that a novelist I admired (Jane Rogers) ran it, and hoping for her input.  That was many years and eight novels ago but it is still quite difficult for unpublished writers to gain access to published ones.

So, in 2007, I set up a mentoring program, Gold Dust, to provide an alternative to the group workshop model. This is a scheme that offers sixteen hours of input from a mentor selected for his or her experience and exceptional gifts as writers.


Romesh Gunesekera.

We have 14 in total, including me. Some of the others are Louise Doughty, ex-Booker judge and author of seven novels; Australian author Kathryn Heyman; Romesh Gunesekera, whose novel Reef was shortlisted for the Booker; Andrew Miller, winner of the IMPAC for his first novel and the Costa Prize for his novel Pure; and Kate Pullinger, author of eight novels and winner of the Governor General Award, Canada’s most prestigious prize.

‘Gold Dust is for people who take their writing seriously,’ wrote Cherise Saywell, one of the writers mentored under the program. She went on to publish two novels. For her, the program was worth the investment.

Alexandra Cameron, whom I mentored, is about to publish her first novel in Australia, Rachael’s Gift.  Jane Rusbridge, whom I taught on one of the well-respected, long-established Arvon courses in the UK and who was mentored by Kathryn Heyman has become a well established author, published by Bloomsbury. Ruth Dugdall, mentored by Michelle Spring, has become an established author of crime novels. Rosie Rowell, mentored by Sally Cline has published two young adult novels since joining the scheme. Sally has an extraordinary success rate in getting her ‘mentees’ onto the Tony Lothian prize shortlist for first-time biographers and memoirists. Gold Dust’s website shows other authors we have helped to publish.

It’s satisfying to have dreamed up and created the scheme I wanted to find, years ago.  I also love the process of match-making: putting applicants together with potential mentors, which I do with the help of others in the scheme, based on the sample of work sent in. Not everyone is accepted; it is competitive, but then not everyone can write a novel or memoir and we are trying to discover and help those who can.

The cost of a mentorship with Gold Dust is £3,000 (around US$4,880). It is only for writers who are serious and able to afford to work with the mentors, all of whom are serious authors paid for their time and input.

Jill DawsonJill Dawson is the author of eight novels, including Fred and Edie (shortlisted for the Orange and Costa Prize), The Great Lover (a Richard and Judy choice and best-seller) Watch Me Disappear (long-listed for the Orange Prize) and her most recent The Tell-Tale Heart. In addition, she has edited six collections of short stories and poetry and won prizes for poetry and short stories. Jill was an early supporter of the APWT and hopes to join more of the APWT’s annual conferences.




‘If one day you find you have nothing you want to write about, how would you feel?’ Poet Agnes S. L. Lam posed the question to poets in Macao, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Mumbai and Delhi.

Some believed they would write ‘till death’, a few implying that writing poetry was a way to make sense of their lives. Others attributed less weight to their poetry. One or two claimed, perhaps in jest, that not writing would actually be a relief.

Indian novelist, poet and librettist Jeet Thayil says he never waits for inspiration. He sits at his table “every day, first thing in the morning” and works. Indian poet Rachna Joshi says it is common for poets to have “fallow’ phases”. But she trusts her inspiration to return. Singaporean poet Felix Cheong, on the other hand, isn’t afraid his creative well will run dry and he is happy to move on to other genres. Likewise, Macao’s Amy Wong doesn’t anticipate regretting a day when she has nothing to write about because she writes for her own pleasure, not necessarily for publication.

“The moment I tell myself I am only happy when my writing and music are going well, I am creating a trap for myself,” says Mumbai poet and musician Anand Thakore.

“Have the attitude that you’ve always already begun … because you’ve got a past …you’re not a blank slate and your writing is never from scratch,” advises Australian Kit Kelen, who has taught creative writing in Macao.

Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, editor of several anthologies, says he has learnt to “just sit and wait”. He finds pleasure meanwhile in other activities, like photography and cooking. Hong Kong poet and musician Arthur Leung is also happy to enjoy other things until inspiration returns. David McKirdy, a former director of the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, stresses the need to recharge and “to read as well as write’.

Madeleine Lee, another poet from Singapore, expects she will always write poetry, but if she stops she is grateful for the poetry she has produced. “Maybe I only have this period when I have lots to say,” she says.

Death of the poet

‘Why am I wasting so much time (writing poetry)? I could earn something by writing some articles … I can teach English … I can do something sensible.’ Indian poet Anna Sujatha Mathai once tried to argue herself out of writing with this logic. But she concluded: “If I couldn’t write anything any more, I would just die inwardly because writing connects me to life…It’s why my heart is beating.”

Her strong sentiment was echoed by Filipina poet Conchitina R. Cruz who has taught creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. She says that were she not able to write “that would be the end”. But Tammy Ho Lai-Ming, co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, was more optimistic. While she found the idea of not being able to write upsetting, she didn’t expect it would ever happen to her.

The gift of words

When Heng Siok Tian began writing and publishing poetry, she looked upon it as “a gift or a blessing, probably from God”. All she had wanted to do was teach and she believes it’s not up to her to choose whether she retains “this specificity with words”.

A few poets, some perhaps with tongues firmly in their cheeks, said they’d find it a relief if one day they had nothing they wanted to write about.

To Elbert Siu Ping Lee from Hong Kong, poetry is sometimes “fun” but sometimes involves “a way of looking at life which,” she says, “is painful.”

Award-winning Filipino poet Marjorie Evasco, who writes in both English and Cebuano-Visayan, said it would be “such a relief” not to write, because then she could finally “just live”. Another Filipino poet, Paolo Manalo, thought the relief might not be so much for him as for those around him who worry that he will write about them!

Not having anything to write is for Delhi-based poet and scholar Rukmini Bhaya Nair ‘possibly the state of Nirvana’, although she finds it difficult to imagine.

Life actualised in poetry

Even if poets experience fallow periods before rejuvenation, most continue to write. To many poets, poetry is a way to connect with life. Poetic death is a myth. As long as there is life, inspiration may return.

Even if the poet does not actively produce poems, he or she can still read poetry and be part of the poetic community. Without readers, a poetic community does not exist; writing becomes meaningless.

Once a poem is created, it comes alive whenever a reader relates to it, even beyond a poet’s physical death. Ultimately, it is not poets as people but the life actualized in poetry, not necessarily the poets’ own, that gives poetry the power to touch other lives.

Agnes S. L. Lam is a poet, an Honorary Fellow in Writing by the University of Iowa and a former professor at the University of Hong Kong.  These interviews are adapted from her most recent book, Becoming Poets: The Asian English Experience (Bern: Peter Lang 2014).




Freelance editor, writer and trainer Shelley Kenigsberg suggests writers could take more responsibility for shaping their manuscripts.

A question beginner writers often ask me is: ‘Can’t I hire a professional editor and hand over my manuscript so I don’t have to do the messy bits myself? I think it’s ready and, anyway, it’ll be exhausting having to look at those pages one more time…’

Answer: Yes. Of course. (I would say that.)


What if you could learn to edit yourself? Not redraft; that’s probably something you’ve already done a lot. You are likely to complete at least a few drafts before you’re happy to hand over the manuscript. But the editing process is different from the redrafting.

Stephen King goes for a 10-draft minimum before he hands his manuscripts to his publisher. Kings extols the value of doing drafts with the door closed (utterly involved in the world of the work) and one with the door open (with a bit more distance) before letting the manuscript go.

Even seasoned, often-published writers understand to keep choosing the right parts of their story to show—and take time to mull over, sift and confirm those choices in the next draft—till the story is ready to soar.

Lots of writers have rules for writing. Henry James’ directive is particularly apt also for editing. He asks writers to: contemplate, select, render. What does that mean to you as a writer? My interpretation of James’ elegant rule is: think, pick, paint.

Observe, think and notice the small and large gestures by and between people to bring characters alive and get a sense of where your story (fiction or non-fiction) wants to go.

Then, choose the right details (what your characters notice/what your topic demands to illustrate, background, gestures, dialogue…) that not only says something about the character or expands the idea but also moves the story foreword, as opposed to bogging it down with details irrelevant to unfolding the story the way you’d like to. (Perhaps the ideal way you’d imagined you’d write before you began!) The act of painting in acutely observed details enables writers to bring new imagined stories and theories into being.

Editing is a rigorous process. And you need space between finishing a draft and beginning the edit. And there may be more than one edit… some writers do the big picture or structural edit first, then fine tune with the copy edit.

The edit, if you’re doing it right, is where you remove those phrases that make you (or early readers) cringe, where you remove clichés and replace them with fresh images, and where you check the work for consistency.

It’s where you apply the best tools in your armory of ‘dos and don’ts’ to deliver a bloody good tale—bloody because, more often than not, editing means murdering some of your darlings; your most beloved scenes and phrases, your oh-so-wise reflections and expositions on the state of world. Those are ripe for the cut. Savagery in the edit means you cut the worst and save the best.

And for each iteration, you’re not ‘merely tinkering’. You are painting in final brushstrokes before handing over the work. It could well be the masterpiece your publisher’s been waiting for.

Shelley Kenigsberg runs S K Publishing and edits for publishing houses and private clients, in fiction and non-fiction. She has conducted editing workshops at an APWT conference and runs writing and editing programs called Editing in Paradise .



Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency has some tough truths for writers who want to impress – and what it takes to find a good literary agent.

Apart from creating a spectacularly engaging story – be it fiction or non-fiction – writers nowadays must be aware of their responsibility to market and promote themselves even before approaching a literary agent.

With so much competition now – with the increase in creative-writing course graduates, the self-publishing phenomenon, the digital-publishing age – that to stand out from the crowd it is no longer enough to write a good book.

Writers must now also show what they’ve been doing in the meantime – be it blogging regularly, tapping strategically into social media to generate followers, aiming to get published elsewhere by submitting to newspapers, magazines, journals (online or off).

You’ll need to show what awards you have submitted to and/or won, what kind of grants and fellowships you might have applied to and received; in short, writers must show what they have been doing to earn their stripes.

There is no such thing in this world as an overnight success – it is a myth – and it applies to the profession of writing fiction and non-fiction as much as it applies to becoming a professional athlete or a doctor or lawyer, subject to regular training and certification.

Even so-called debut novelists often spend years and years refining their scripts, evolving as artists through practice and perseverance and by learning from other writers.

Of course there are some authors who have an inherent gift for story-telling, and who can tell a good story well, with characters, setting, plot all fully developed, and dialogue that rings true. But rest assured they, too, will have practised before reaching perfect.

Like many other agencies, the Asia Literary Agency asks for the synopsis plus the first three sample chapters of any novel, and for the first one or two chapters of any non-fiction proposal along with a rationale and proposed chapter outlines for the rest of the book.

Perhaps unusually, I also ask for a CV, so that I can see what the writer has done so far on their own, and of their own volition, to further their careers. This background information helps – if I decide to take on a script – when I pitch any writer and their work to editors and publishers.

Regardless, whether or not an editor likes a book is, and will forever be, a matter of subjectivity, dependent on personal taste primarily but also on whatever else may be happening at the office at the time the script lands in an editor’s email already overflowing with other submissions from other agents, and from authors delivering scripts that have already been commissioned.

In addition, these editors may also be distracted by the job of editing, working on any sales and marketing material needed for their books: writing cover copy – a skill in itself; creating advance information sheets for booksellers and the rights, marketing and publicity and sales departments; briefing the art department on the book so that the designers can then go off and create the covers; attend in-house meetings, including sales meetings, marketing meetings, acquisition meetings…

You may begin to see why a writer who’s already done so much groundwork will have better potential of catching the attention of any agent and, therefore, of any editor.

Kelly Falconer is the founder of the Asia Literary Agency, which represents Asian writers, experts on Asia and writers living in the region. She has worked as an editor in London for a variety of publishers including Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Granta magazine. In 2012, she was the literary editor of the Hong Kong-based Asia Literary Review.



Writer Kathryn Heyman, who is also the fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia, writes of the pleasure involved in mentoring a writer on to his or her own excellence.

She’s waiting in the corner of the cafe, head down, scribbling notes in the corner of the page, the picture of creative industry as the traffic hums past. We order coffee, pull out pens, and dive into her writing. We meet each month, and each month I’m more excited by what I read.

I’m not her editor, and I am not her teacher. She is a blossoming writer, and I am her mentor. Each month, she sends me several chapters of her novel-in-progress. Several days later, we meet and – amidst much laughter – we talk through what she’s written.

Sometimes, she is stuck for what to do next. On those days, we pull out index cards, write down chapter titles, shuffle them around, discuss and debate. We talk about her fictional characters intently, moving them from place to place. In that hour or so in the cafe, they are real people. When she leaves, she will be alone with them again.

Some months, I take the role of an editor – other months, I am a cheerleader, calling her on to the glorious end that I can see. I can see it and believe it because I have been in her chair. I’ve been the one struggling to believe that I can complete that first book, or that anyone will care if I do.

My role is to pass on my experience and hope that she can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes.
Although I am often speaking to writers around the world via the wonders of modern technology, mentoring is an ancient practice, dating back to the early Greeks and to the very first mentor.

Calling you on to your own excellence

In Homer’s tale The Odyssey, King Odysseus has left his son, Telemachus, in Ithaca while Odysseus spent years fighting the Trojan War and more years trying to return. So who will young Telemachus find as his role model? Who will help him navigate the treacherous path to manhood? Telemachus needs someone wise to guide him. An elder, a trusted friend, Mentor, takes up the role of guide for Telemachus. At a crucial moment in the narrative, the goddess Athene disguises herself as Mentor and steps in to give crucial advice to the young prince. Go and ask King Nestor for some information, she says. What will I say? Telemachus asks. According to Homer, ‘the goddess, grey-eyed Athene, encouraged him; the right words, she said, would come.’

Athene, in disguise as Mentor, does not instruct Telemachus. She doesn’t give him her own words. She doesn’t hand him a script. She simply points him to his own wisdom and reminds him of the skills which he has been taught by Mentor. The moment Athene disguises herself in this way, Mentor is no longer a person, but a role.

In working with Athene as his mentor, Telemachus doesn’t want to become like Athene. Instead he understands that he needs help to become a better version of himself.

That’s the role of the mentor, the calling you on to your own excellence. As a writing mentor, I’ve worked with writers across a range of genres, each with their own voice and a vision that I help them coax to life.

Bestselling writer and founder of London publishing house, The Women’s Press, Stephanie Dowrick is someone who knows a thing or two about excellence. On her role as a Writers’ Mentor, she says:

I am inviting the new writer to be the best they can be, to be rigorous and truthful and I bring everything to that partnership that I took to all my roles as editor and publisher. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed three forms of knowledge: techne, practical skill; episteme, intellectual knowledge; and phronesis, perhaps most closely described as practical wisdom. It is a balance of craft or technical skills with deep knowledge that leads to this deepest form of wisdom. That’s what mentoring aims for.

Let’s say you’re trying to write your first novel, or a memoir. You tap away at the keyboard, with only the sound of your own breath to keep you company, and every so often you read the words out to your writing group over cups of tea. They adore it. You’re brilliant, they glow. Yet, you know the book isn’t ready, that something is missing.

You can almost imagine it, can almost see yourself standing with the published book in your hands. If only you could get from here to there. But how? A mentor takes on the role of practised guide, passing on the practical wisdom that he or she has acquired through thousands of hours of flying time.

Mentors don’t necessarily offer intellectual knowledge of critical work, though they may. Nor do they instruct in the detailed technical capabilities of craftwork, though they may. What mentorship offers, above all, is this practical wisdom, this phronesis, which may well be unavailable by other means.

Mentoring assumes that there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. In that way, it’s similar to therapy, or teaching. Unlike therapy, though, in mentoring there is an assumption that the mentee can see what’s on the other side of the gap. I want to be a successful screenwriter. I want to publish a novel. I want to run my own company. Mentoring is aspirational, in that it acknowledges a desire to move forward. It’s a model of learning which works for teenagers and octogenarians, for creatives and corporates alike.

Last year I attended launch parties for three writers I’d mentored, and applauded wildly as another was shortlisted for a national award. I held each of those books in my hands and understood, for a moment, how Athene must have felt cheering Telemachus on to his best, true self. A pleasure and a privilege indeed.

Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published in September 2013. Her first novel, The Breaking, was shortlisted for the Stakis Award for the Scottish Writer of the Year and longlisted for the Orange Prize. She has judged several literary awards, including serving as the senior judge for all panels of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. She is now fiction program director for the Faber Academy in Australia and is the director of the Australian Writers Mentoring Program.




We could all do with a little help sometimes, and these tips from several top writers and creative writing teachers are just the thing to get you going if you’re struggling with procrastination. Be warned: they just might work! No excuses…

Hot Tips for Short Stories by Jessica Adams

• The first draft is The Swill Draft- it’s going to be pure pig swill so you might as well just get it all out!
• The writing is in the rewriting.
• How do you write a 5000 word short story in 10 days? Write 500 words a day. Break the 5000 words into five chunks. The set-up. The first turning-point. The second-turning point. The climax. The resolution. This is a tip adapted from a Hollywood script doctor.
• Write a back-cover blurb of 100 words to condense your book. It helps a lot.
• Remember the future is digital. How will your short story look on a smart phone screen? A Kindle? An iPad Mini? An iPad? Short story formats are changing to suit the size of the screens.
• Read the short story out loud. You’ll be amazed at how many continuity errors you spot, or how many false notes.

Jessica Adams is a team editor on the bestselling Girls’ Night In (Penguin) and Kids’ Night In (Puffin) series. In 2012 she joined Maggie Alderson, Imogen Edwards-Jones and Kathy Lette in editing the erotica short story anthology, In Bed With (Penguin).

Six Permission Slips for Short Story Writers by Jen Mills

1. You have permission to write. If you talk yourself out of the story or the time it takes you will never get it done. You’ll write better if you let yourself make it a priority.

2. More importantly, you have permission to write badly. Writing badly is the only way to get to writing well.

3. You’re allowed to take risks, even if they seem silly. Don’t worry too much about how you’re supposed to be writing and focus on the story you happen to be writing. Give yourself and your metaphors room to play. Idle in the margins. Let what comes of your head surprise you.

4. Go ahead and take your time thinking about the right word. You have permission to stop worrying about word counts. There are 500 word short stories that say and do more than a novel. Similarly, I’ve had terrible days where I wrote thousands of words I would later delete, and great days where I’ve written half a dozen that make perfect sense.

5. You have permission to love the sound of your own voice. I like to read my later drafts aloud, and often make final edits this way. (Reading to animals is also fine, so long as you give them permission to fall asleep).

6. You are allowed to stop writing. Often, putting a story to bed and ignoring it for a few weeks or months is the best thing you can do for it. Go for a walk. Look at people and things. Be lazy. Enjoy your life.

Jennifer Mills was named Best Young Australian Novelist 2012 by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Top Ten Tips for a Great Writing Process by Carol Lefevre

• Strive for clarity and precision, and style will follow.
• Write before dealing with email, housework, and shopping.
• The best fiction has truth at its heart. Write from what you know is true.
• Never use two or three words where one would do.
• Never underestimate punctuation.
• Read The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White at least twice a year.
• Read poetry and essays, one of each a day, for sustenance.
• Take gingko biloba daily to support your memory and improve circulation to the brain.
• At the end of a writing session, relax by finding and deleting adverbs.

And finally – write.

Carol Lefevre is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide.

Top Five Tweeting Tips for Writers by Michelle Prak.

• Follow and interact with other writers. Twitter works best as a place to have real conversations and to build support networks.
• Use your Twitter bio wisely. Make sure to tell the world you’re a writer, mention titles of your work or where to access it, and include your website address if you have one.
• Find and participate in relevant hashtags such as #writers #writing #poetry – and look out for relevant conference or event hashtags that emerge occasionally.
• Follow other writers’ Twitter accounts for encouragement and insights. You may find yourself chatting with Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan or Bret Easton Ellis…
• Consider Twitter as another space for story-sharing. While each tweet must be confined to 140 characters, don’t let this stop you from sharing multiple consecutive tweets to get your point across or to share a piece of work. You can include links to longer pieces of writing on your own website. Or you might enjoy the discipline of the character limit, finding it inspires creative approaches to communicating.

Michelle Prak is one of South Australia’s leading social media consultants and is a board member of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.

Top Tips for Successful Writing by Sue Fleming.

• Give yourself time in your life for your writing and do justice to your muse!
• Preserve the ideas as they come to you – scribble them down, cut them out or scratch them on the wall!
• Read, read and read.
• Always draft and re-draft your work until it shines like summer.
• Proof reading is vital!
• If you find yourself cleaning the bathroom instead of writing you know you’re in trouble!
• Talk to other writers and learn from them.
• Take a course- it may well include material you might have discovered on your own but you’ll discover it more quickly!
• Keep to deadlines.
10.If you feel out of your comfort zone when writing, be comforted that this is a good thing

Sue Fleming has coordinated the Professional writing program at the Adelaide College of the Arts (TafeSA) for more than four years and has taught more than 200 new writers the basics of creative writing. 

Article contributed by and reprinted with permission of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.