Write a million words.
How do we know when our writing has reached publication standard? It’s a question that many writers ask themselves early on in their careers. Whether you take the traditional path or the Indie road, the question is equally valid.
As aspiring authors, we can be so invested in our writing, we are blind to major plot holes, poor grammar, and that elusive quality of “voice” that makes readers want to turn the page.
My debut novel, The Alice Equation ran into exactly this problem. It took ego-deflating feedback from competition judges and beta readers/editors to even see there was a problem, let alone figure out how to put it right. I very nearly gave up. Then I stumbled on the words of David Eddings.
“My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls… Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.”
So I went back to the beginning and started again…
This month in Davina’s Diary I chat with Lisa Ireland, author of The Secret Life of Shirley Sullivan, and a multi-published author of women’s contemporary fiction, about her own journey to publication and the mentoring she undertakes with writers.
Lisa, can you tell us about your own path to becoming a published author?
I grew up in Melbourne’s outer western suburbs in the 1970s. I dreamed of becoming a writer, but I didn’t really think it was possible. When I finished high school in 1983, young women who didn’t want to become secretaries were channelled into teaching or nursing. After a short stint studying journalism at university (where I was told I couldn’t write) I gave up the idea and studied teaching. Still, I couldn’t stay away from the page and was always scribbling away at something.
It was in 2005, while I was on maternity leave after the birth of my third child, that I decided to have a serious go at making writing my career. I enrolled in a Professional Writing and Editing course at a nearby TAFE college and joined Romance Writers Australia that same year. I had some early success with competitions and some nibbles from publishers, but it wasn’t until 2013 – after a successful pitch to Kate Cuthbert from Harlequin Australia’s Escape imprint – that I signed my first contact.
What would you tell your early writing self from where you stand now?
- Be patient, good things are coming! Learning the craft takes time. Enjoy this pre-published period because never again will you have the luxury of so much time to get a draft right. No time spent writing is wasted and the lessons you learn now will be valuable down the track.
- No one owes you anything in this industry and it’s not always ‘fair’. Comparing yourself to other writers is a sure way to make yourself unhappy. Measure your success against your own goals.
- Choose your friends and confidantes wisely. You will make some mistakes, and occasionally put your trust in the wrong people, but finding your true writing tribe will be the best part of your writing journey.
What are three common mistakes you see novice writers making?
- Not having a strong enough premise. If you can’t nail down what your story is about in a few sentences your story idea might need strengthening.
- Not writing regularly. I’m not going to say that you need to write every day, but some regular commitment is necessary. Many writers make excuses for why they don’t have time and I can sympathise. Everyone’s life is too busy these days. Sadly, though, excuses don’t get your book written! When I’m mentoring writers, I train them to write ‘in the cracks’; to write in small chunks and to be ready to write any time – waiting at school pick up or in the doctor’s surgery for example. This is how I completed my first novel. Writers write!
- Taking advice from the wrong people. Many people claim expertise in the writing arena, but before you take anyone’s advice on board, check out their credentials. If the expert is a writer, how many books have they published and who are they published by? Read something the writer has written to see what you think of it. Avoid listening to experts who insist there is one ‘right’ way to write. Every writer has a unique process, and a good mentor or expert understands and respects this.
What advice can you give new writers about uncovering the blind spots in their writing?
I think it’s important for beginning writers to get a range of feedback, but it’s important to view the feedback objectively and consider the expertise of the person providing the critique before deciding to take the feedback on board. Entering competitions can help with this. You don’t need to take on all the feedback, but if several judges (or beta readers) give similar feedback then you know you have an issue to work on.
I also think it’s important not to rush a draft. Leave time for your draft to “settle” between rewrites. It’s amazing how much you can pick up in a draft once you look at it with fresh eyes.
Finally, be open-minded to trying new things. Take risks! For example, if you always write in third person, give first person a go (or vice versa). Try working in a different tense, or with an unusual structure. Experiment with a different genre or try writing a short story. You might be surprised at what you learn.
You have a wonderful Instagram video, Mentor Monday, Writing tips. What made you decide to start this?
Mentor Monday videos are short (15 min max) IGTV videos where I share my experience and knowledge of writing craft and the publishing industry. I started by posting the videos to my YouTube channel but quickly moved the segment to Instagram, because I find that’s where many emerging authors tend to hang out. I started it for several reasons, but mainly because I’m passionate about writing and just love to talk about it!
When I was starting out in this industry, I benefited from the wisdom of more experienced writers and I’d always hoped that one day I’d be able to pay that generosity forward, so my mentoring videos help me achieve this. Also, I get a lot of messages and emails from aspiring and emerging authors and the questions are often very similar. It’s not always possible for me to provide detailed personal answers to individual queries, so the videos are a way of addressing writers’ questions without being a slave to my inbox!
Lisa’s Mentor Monday Tips for Writers videos can be found on Instagram @lisairelandbooks.
Lastly, what would you say to a writer, who has had one too many rejection slips and is thinking of giving it all away?
For most writers, giving up is not an option. If you are a true writer you can try to stop, but it usually doesn’t work! I think that these days people seem to expect results very quickly, which wasn’t the case when I first started submitting my work to publishers. I submitted my first manuscript in 2006 and I signed my first contract in 2013. That was considered quite a normal rate of progression to publication back then! I spent those seven years honing my craft and with each manuscript, and each rejection, I got a little closer to publication. I don’t regret that time. I learned a lot about writing and about resilience from that period of rejection. I believe it ultimately made me a better writer. Waiting to be published has also made me value the opportunities that have come to me since I signed that first contract.
In short, just keep going!
Lisa’s bio and books.
Lisa Ireland is a full-time writer of contemporary women’s fiction.
In 2014 Lisa was a finalist in the Australian Romance Readers Awards in the category of Best New Author, and the following year was among the top ten debut fiction authors in Australia. Lisa’s sixth book, THE SECRET LIFE OF SHIRLEY SULLIVAN was published by Penguin Random House in April 2020.
Lisa lives on Victoria’s beautiful Bellarine Peninsula with her family. She loves eating but not cooking, is an Olympic class coffee drinker, and (most importantly) minion to a rather large dog.
Find out more about Lisa’s books here:
THE SECRET LIFE OF SHIRLEY SULLIVAN is available in all formats including audio: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-secret-life-of-shirley-sullivan-9781760895594
A SMALL TOWN HEART (3 book anthology from Harlequin Australia) will be out in April. Pre order here: https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9781867221708
Lisa’s first book, BREAKING THE DROUGHT is an Amazon special at $1.99 until the end of March https://www.amazon.com.au/Breaking-Drought-Lisa-Ireland-ebook/dp/B00KQ64YIC
That’s all for this month, see you in April for another gripping installment of Davina’s Diary!