Author of 31 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.
A while back Ian was asked to write a light-hearted ‘Guide to Success’ for the HarperCollins Voyager website. It started out a few paragraphs and just grew. While not meant to be taken too seriously, it is distilled from his experience with a number of books and publishers.
THE WRITING STUFF
Here’s my cheeky Twelve Point Plan on how to succeed in the popular fiction-writing game. Best of all, only two of the ten points require you to have any TALENT whatsoever! For the rest, initiative and hard work will do. You may, of course, be an undiscovered GENIUS, in which case you can skip to the end. On the other hand, if you lack talent and the inclination to work, but have wheelbarrow loads of LOW CUNNING.
- Be original but not TOO original. To succeed as a popular writer you need to be a little bit original, but not so original that your book is difficult to read. Nobody HAS to finish it, after all, and what ordinary readers want is more of the same, only a little bit different. Remember, you have to impress your readers, not the critics. Critics are jaded creatures who’ve seen too much of ‘more of the same’, so what excites them is NOVELTY. Fortunately the great book buying public don’t read reviews, therefore what the critics think isn’t relevant to your success (and furthermore, see point 9). If you’re not planning to be the least bit original, that’s not a big hurdle either. The bookshops are full of epic fantasy quests recycling the endless struggle between GOOD VERSUS EVIL, clones of Harry Potter and ‘BODICE RIPPERS’ where even the bodices on the covers are indistinguishable. But in that case, see point 2.
- Learn your trade BEFORE you send off your manuscript. Why would the public want to read badly-written versions of The Lord of the Rings, Grisham, Pratchett etc, when there is oodles of the real thing available? Writing is a skill that many people can learn, but to write well, you have to REWRITE. I meet a lot of hopeful writers who say they only do a couple of drafts, and unfortunately that’s the way their work reads – LIKE A DRAFT! Most professional writers spend a lot more time on redrafting than they did on the first draft, and it really shows. For myself, I do 6-10 drafts of my work before the editor gets hold of it, and another couple afterwards, the first draft being about 10% of my work on a novel. (Some have accused me of being ANALLY retentive, a description I strenuously reject!).
- Take ADVICE from professionals, not your mum. Do a writing course, or get an agent if you can, or if not, SEDUCE a writer, editor or reviewer to look at your work. Then, LISTEN to what they say. Professionals aren’t always right, but they’re more likely to be right about your work than your mother, no matter how sparkly clean she gets your underwear. If the advice of professionals offends you (or is too hurtful to contemplate), you’ll probably never get published, unless you’re that DARNED GENIUS again (point 11)! Don’t listen to what your friends and relatives say about your book unless they’re all saying the same thing, and even then, if they say it’s wonderful, take that with a pillar of salt. PS, don’t send your manuscript to me; I’m acerbic, irascible and downright CURMUDGEONLY.
- Make sure you’ve got a PLOT if you’re writing for the public, because ordinary readers want a good story for their $18.13 plus GST. (Can be ignored if you’re writing in the genre called ‘literary fiction’). Interesting, believable CHARACTERS help too, but don’t base them on people you know, or Stephen King writes about, or you’ve come to love in your favourite TV show. And get the details right! That means do your research, and then make sure you UNDERSTAND it (there’s nothingmore laughable than a beautifully researched idea that the author hasn’t understood). Then, REVISE, REVISE, REVISE to ensure everything is consistent throughout, because if you make a mistake the reader will notice, and if it jars them out of the world you’ve so carefully created, they’ll NEVER read another of your books. Hemingway rewrote the ending of For Whom the Bell Tolls 43 times, ‘just getting the words right.’ Now that’s anal!
- Go easy on GRAPHIC violence and foul language except where they’re essential to the story (and that’s less often than you might suppose). A small amount has impact but books full of the stuff are a big turnoff to many readers, including me, and there are plenty of people even sicker than you writing it. Too much of anything is BORING. Be subtle (excepting where you need to be gloriously, deliciously, extravagantly over the top!). And leave out the hundred pages of lovely dialect you worked so hard on. You’re sure to get it wrong, which makes you look a bigger FOOL than your character. Even if you’re an absolute master it’s darn hard reading and dialect is like garlic – a little bit is terrific, a lot, offensive. ‘But I LIKE garlic.’ ‘Well, so do I, but not still festering on your BREATH the day after tomorrow.’
- Be PROFESSIONAL. It’s incredibly hard to get published; don’t make it harder by producing a SLOPPY manuscript because if you do, no one will even look at the first page. It’s easy to present your work well and publishers expect a manuscript to be done on a word processor, double spaced, wide margins, nicely printed and not in some WHACKO font that’s impossible to read, with no spelling mistakes or weird grammar, and including the modern innovation of page numbers and your name on the top of each page. If you do all that, the publisher will PROBABLY look at the first page. Unfortunately, if they don’t find anything interesting there they won’t look at any other pages, so reach in and GRAB your reader by the small intestine from the first paragraph, AND DON’T LET GO.
- The big publishers get thousands of unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year and the number they publish is between one and ten. In other words, sending your ms to a publisher has a ONE IN A THOUSAND CHANCE of getting a result. (Or less! Many publishers return unsolicited mss unread). So you’ve got to get your opus out of the pile with 5,000 in it, and into the pile with 50 or (hopefully) 5. How? USE YOUR CONTACTS -the sleazy writer your sister-in-law once slept with in her slumming-it phase, your laughably ill-named ‘writing teacher’, the publisher at a sci-fi convention who gave you his card, mistakenly thinking you were someone important. If you don’t have any contacts, get out and make some. Join a writer’s group, take a course, go to literary festivals and lunches. MEET people in the industry and SUCK up to them (in the most modest, sincere and charming way, it need not be said!).
- Once your book is ACCEPTED, be even more professional. Look (reasonably) respectable when you meet the publisher or go for interviews (well, you are a writer after all, so they won’t expect miracles, but a loincloth is too basic unless it’s an Ice Age saga). Getting drunk and PUKING in the publisher’s briefcase at your launch creates a really bad impression, and he’ll remember it when you’re begging for an advance on your next advance. Be on time for meetings. Meet your deadlines! Don’t whine or slag your editor/publisher/agent/publicist off (or, if it’s a WHINING competition with other writers and you’re feeling left out, be discreet. Try NOT to win). Offer timely, constructive comments during editing, cover design, on the blurb, and during planning of the promotional campaign (if any). Prepare for talks, panels and interviews so you have something interesting to say. If nothing interesting has ever happened in your life, MAKE SOMETHING UP! You’re supposed to be a writer, after all. When you do interviews, tailor them to the audience. A group of working class mums in the western suburbs would be bemused if you spoke about PLANETARY ENGINEERING; the fans at an SF conference may not care to hear how yet another pimply, working class lad made good in the big smoke.
- You’ve signed the CONTRACT. Congratulations! I suppose you think they’ll want talk about your book. Ha! That’s ancient history. The first question your publisher will ask is, ‘What are you working on now?’ or, to put it another way, why do you think Heinz has 57 varieties? SHELF CREDIBILITY! If you’ve got one book out, no one could give a damn. If you’ve got ten titles on the shelf, you must be good even if you aren’t, and they’re sure to sell. Most writers only ever publish one book, so get the second one written quick, before you’re forgotten. Even better, end the first one on a CLIFFHANGER. Best of all, write a series of three; or six; or twelve, end them all on cliff-hangers (first, see points 1 to 5). Then, whenever a new book comes out, with a bit of luck it’ll bump up the sales of the previous ones.
- Get involved in promoting your work, AT ONCE. Half the books in your average bookshop won’t sell a SINGLE COPY there. Plenty of good books die because nobody gets to hear about them, and you’ve only got a few months to do it. You can’t promote your book a year after it comes out – the unsold ones have already been pulped and turned into bog rolls.
There are at least 600 books published a week in Australia, plus all the imports. Publishers can’t afford to promote most of them, and the media wouldn’t be interested if they did (after all, 80% of people NEVER read books). Most reviews in the mainstream media deal with writers who are already famous, or books about famous people, so your book will probably never be reviewed. Ah, but I can offer you a CUNNING PLAN.
- You can’t promote something that no one is interested in (which, unfortunately, applies to most authors, new or old.
- There’s no quicker way to clear a shopping centre than to have a book signing there). You’ve got to do something to attract people’s interest. Any publicity is good publicity, of course, but two days after the trial and sentencing the FICKLE public will have forgotten all about you, so legal (if not necessarily dignified) is best. Book launches (for popular fiction) are generally a waste of money unless you’re well known. It’s probably better for the publisher to spend the $200 promotional budget on handouts. If your publisher doesn’t want to do that, DO IT YOURSELF! You can get thousands of full colour postcard-size leaflets printed for a few hundred bucks.
- So if you want to sell books, GET OUT AND PUBLICISE THEM YOURSELF! Use the local factor. Contact ALL the media: radio, local newspapers, country TV etc, at every place you’ve ever lived. Give talks to Rotary, old folks, schools or any other organisation that’s prepared to listen (it takes quite a while to scare them all off!). Use the Net – hundreds of groups in cyberspace may be interested in your work. Give away copies of your books to influential people. HASSLE your friends, relatives and associates. Hand your leaflets out around the office and give one to everybody who tries to sell something to you, including the taxi driver on your way to the airport. If, after all that, you still have the damn things left over, wallpaper your bedroom with them. That’ll help with your NARCISSISTIC STREAK, and who knows, if you do succeed in getting anyone to come back to your place, they may even buy a copy before they run SCREAMING into the night.
- In our desperation to get publicity we tend to forget that the best place to sell books is IN BOOKSHOPS! So do book signings, even if no one comes (usually the case unless you invite everyone you’ve ever met). You get useful publicity, they can’t send the books back once you’ve signed them and therefore the shop will make a big effort to sell the lot over the next month or two. Write to a few hundred bookshops with a handful of your leaflets. Actually there’s only 1500 bookshops in Australia that sell fiction so if you’re really ENERGETIC you could write to the lot! They’re in the phone book, between ‘Bolts and Nuts’ and ‘Boring Contractors’.
- Since I travel a lot, I go into bookshops all over the country, say hello, talk about sales etc, tell them what I have coming up (once you’ve got a few books in print, customers are always asking the bookshops when the next one is coming out. Bookshops love to be able to say, “Well, the author was here last week, seemed like a NICE BLOKE [hopefully, see point 10], and he said …”). Leave them a handful of your ENTICING coloured leaflets – they look great sitting next to the cash register and really help sales, and are so cheap. I don’t see many other authors doing it so chances are you’ll have that marketing niche to yourself. Well, just you and me, and I promise I won’t slide yours into the BIN. I believe in friendly competition – really I do!
- Direct mail. Whatever you’re writing, there’ll be a group of people interested in it. If your heroine does cross-stitch, for example, market to all the shops and clubs that are into that kind of thing. If the book is about DOLPHINS, promote to fishing, environmental and conservation groups. Whatever the organisation or business, you can search out and download all the addresses in Australia in about 10 seconds.
- And above all, be a MODEL author with your publisher, because that really helps when they’re deciding where to spend their promotional dollars. The reliable, on-time author who really gets stuck into promoting books gets the money, not the one who is a pain, constantly misses deadlines, WHINES all the time and expects people to do everything for him (or her). That’s the sad truth, unless your books sell by the trainload. If they do, you can positively REVEL in your nastiness and they’ll still want to buy you lunch. (At least, so I’m told!!).
- Alternatively, you can sit back and hope your books are so wonderful that they’ll sell themselves. That happens too, but you’d get RICH quicker by inventing a better rat trap (see 12).
- Appear LIKEABLE, especially if you’re not. It really helps if you’re pleasant, helpful and polite. Rude, aggressive whingers don’t get far (unless they’re good at putting on an act), so PRETEND to be nice. If you do it long enough you may even end up becoming nice, a sad end for a human being, but look on the bright side – it gives you a brand new character to use in your next book, one you’d never have thought of on your own. If you’re charming, charismatic, tall, slim, rich and BEAUTIFUL it’s an added bonus. But if you’ve got all that, why would you want to be a sad, lonely writer, forever closeted in a freezing, WOODWORM-riddled garret writing books that no one is ever going to read?
- Ignore all the rules if you are that genius, but only after you’ve mastered them. You might get away with it, but don’t expect anyone to like you. Everybody LOATHES a genius!