Ep 21 Ghostwriting, Crime writing, tips from HarperCollins editors and should you ditch your agent? And we chat to best-selling author Kate Forsyth.

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In Episode 21 of So you want to be a writer, we chat about ghostwriting: what it’s like to be a writer for hire, crime writing, 10 writing tips from HarperCollins editors, Stephen King’s tips for all writers, should you break up with your agent? 10 tips on blogging from Darren Rowse, bestselling author Kate Forsyth, why you should write 750 words per day, why you need to shift your thinking on pitching and more!

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here.

Show Notes

Ghostwriter Libby Harkness on being a ‘writer for hire’

Michael Robotham: Australian crime fiction writer

10 Writing Tips for Aspiring Authors from HarperCollins Canada Editors!

Stephen King’s On Writing tips for all writers

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

10 Pieces of Advice for Successful Blogging

The Elements of Style (book)

Australian Government Style Manual (book)

Macquarie Dictionary (book)

Fairfax Media Style Guide (book)

You Already Know How to Be Great (book)

Writer in Residence

Kate H-S smlKate Forsyth wrote her first novel at the age of seven, and is now the internationally bestselling & award-winning author of thirty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both adults and children. She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 20 Novelists, and has been called ‘one of the finest writers of this generation’. She is also an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers, and has told stories to both children and adults all over the world.

Her most recent book for adults is a historical novel called ‘The Wild Girl’, which tells the true, untold love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, ‘The Wild Girl’ is a story of love, war, heartbreak, and the redemptive power of storytelling, and was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013.

Kate’s official website
Kate on Twitter
Random House on Twitter

Web Pick

750 Words

Working Writer’s Tip

Why you need to think in terms story angle and not subject areas.

Get paid to write
Find the right angle for your story with our online course

Your hosts

Allison Tait
Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait
@valeriekhoo

Transcript

Allison

Kate Forsyth wrote her first novel at the age of seven and is now the internationally best-selling, award-winning author of 30 books, actually probably slightly more than that 30 now, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both adults and children. She has been voted in the top 20 of Australia’s favorite novelists, is an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers and is a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre. Her new novel, Dancing on Knives was published in June with Random House. Welcome, Kate.

Kate
Thank you for having me.

Allison
Lovely to chat with you. It’s always good to talk writing with you, as I know that many of the people who have been in your course will know.

Let’s firstly talk about your new novel, Dancing on Knives. Can you tell us a little bit about that? I’m assuming it references fairytales, which I know you love.

Kate
It does indeed. Dancing on Knives is actually a really interesting project because I first began writing it when I was only 16. I worked on it pretty much all through my 20s and it was almost published a couple of times, it was long-listed for the Vogel Award, but didn’t make the short list. It was pretty much my obsession all through my late teens and early 20s. Then when I was 25 years old I wasn’t getting any closer to my dream of being a published author so I quit my job as a journalist and I went back to university and I did a master of arts in creative writing. I used this novel that I had been working for about 10 years, I used it as my major thesis. It was consequently — I had my first novel published when I was still doing my masters and so after I finished my major thesis I just put it in my bottom drawer because I was pretty busy, I had an international publishing contract for six books and that kept me pretty busy during my early 30s.

I dug out this book out of my bottom drawer and I sent it off and it was consequently published ten years ago.

Allison
Oh, it was published?

Kate
Yeah, it was published under the title Full Fathom Five, and it was published under my maiden name, which is Kate Humphrey. It’s my only book set in contemporary times and my only book set in Australia. It was only book not to sell internationally.

Allison
Right.

Kate
Yeah, I know.

Allison
What a story.

Kate
Most people don’t realise this.

Allison
No, I didn’t know that. That’s really interesting.

Kate
Basically Dancing on Knives it’s a reissue of this book that I wrote all through my teens and twenties, which was published in my early 30s and now has got a new title, a new cover, and it’s published under Kate Forsyth and not under my maiden name, Kate Humphrey.

Allison
Did you do any rewriting on it, like now that you’ve written so many more books since then and you’ve learned so many different things about your craft? Like, is it a book that you were still happy with or did you want to rework it? How did you feel about it?

Kate
I mean you put your finger on exactly what my problem was. When I heard that Random House wanted to republish I was actually terrified. I thought, “Oh my god, this is my juvenilia,” this is the book that I wrote when I was still only a child. I knew nothing.

I actually got myself into a little bit of a panic when I had to look at it. I couldn’t sleep, I was sweating, I was trembling, and then I just said, “Kate, you’ve just got to do it.” I’m a big believe in keeping your backlist alive. I’m a big believer in making sure books don’t die.

I got it out; I reread it for the first time in ten years. Yes, it’s true that I could see some major flaws in it straightaway, it’s true that I could see that there was a lot I wanted to do, I mainly cut, because my style is much more spare now than it was when I was writing in my 20s. I cut it back very strongly and I simplified it and I think I strengthened it. But, I didn’t want to rewrite it completely, which was my first idea, primarily because in a way it is a little bit of a snapshot of me as a young writer, and I didn’t want to kind of destroy its freshness. I knew that Random House loved it and that they wanted to publish it — they didn’t really want me completely — I would have had to completely rewrite the book.

Allison
And they loved it as it was?

Kate
Yeah, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised when I read it after my panic attack, “Oh my god, it’s going to be terrible!” It wasn’t terrible at all. I just tried to be really sensitive to not losing the style of me as a younger writer, but bringing all that I had learnt into the past, it’s been 17 years since my first book was published.

Allison
Wow, that’s amazing. Given you had some amazing success recently with your bestsellers The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens, which also reference fairytales, I mean in many ways the reissue of this book, which also has the fairytale connection at its heart makes perfect sense.

Kate
That’s exactly right. I can certainly understand why Random House wanted to do it. It’s a little bit different, both The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens are historical novels. Bitter Greens is a retelling of a Rapunzel, while The Wild Girl is more of a straight historical novel that has a very, very strong fairytale and storytelling angle to it. Dancing on Knives is very, very different, but it does — Dancing on Knives comes from Hans Christian Anderson and The Little Mermaid. In the original story the little mermaid had to have this spell to remove her tail and allow her to have two legs, like a human. The sea witch said to her, “Every step you take will be like stepping on knives.” At the end of the story when the prince has fallen in love and is marrying someone else the little mermaid dances at his wedding and it is as if she is dancing on knives. The use of the fairytales in that novel is very, very different. It’s all about a metaphor, symbol and illusion. It isn’t a retelling of that tale at all. There’s no mermaids.

Allison
No mermaids?

Kate
No mermaids.

Allison
Disappointing.

You began your publishing career, as you mentioned, with a six book series, as an author of fantasy novels, what do you think are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt from creating your own worlds?

Kate
That’s an interesting question. The fact is that it doesn’t matter whether your novel is fantasy or not, the author is always creating a fictional construct, an imaginary world. The trick is to try to make that imaginary world feel absolutely real and absolutely true, it has to have that ring of truth. And in actual fact what you want is for the reader to be, when they’re within that fictional world that you have created they long for it to be real and to wish they never had to leave that world. It doesn’t really matter if you are writing a contemporary suspense novel or historical fiction or fantasy, all of which I have written, the craft is all in that sense of making the world feel absolutely real to the reader, and that’s part of the magic of storytelling.

Allison
Speaking of the magic of storytelling, I know that you keep a writer’s notebook for each of your books, because I went to one of your talks once, and they’re quite comprehensive. Do you plot the entire novel out in advance or are your notebooks more for details and imagery and that sort of thing?

Kate
Both. The problem with saying, “Do you plot your novels out in advance?” is that people tend to think of plotting and not plotting as being binary oppositions, they stand in opposition to each other. Well, in actual fact all creative artists use some method of planning and plotting, and some method of allowing space for new inspirations and creativity. It’s a spectrum of behaviors.

I do not start writing my novel until I have it fully visualized in my mind’s eye, in my imagination. I do not start writing my novel until I can hear the voice of my primary characters and the voice of the story and it’s clamoring in my ear, demanding to be told. I do not start my novel until I feel utterly in control of my material and the fictional world feels real to me. That can take an awfully long time. My notebook is a way of chronicling my creative journey towards the novel, showing the way that I discover the story and allowing me to keep all of my research, all my ideas, all of my inspirations in the one spot so that wherever I go I can carry it with me and I look back on it and I can be reinspired and I can remember what it is that I’m trying to do.

As far as plotting goes I would normally always have a strong sense of my narrative arch, I would always know my key emotional peaks, my key psychological turning points, I imagine it like a bracelet with bright glittering beads on it. But, I don’t always know how I’m going to get from one scene to another, and I don’t always know how I’m going to solve a particular problem in that scene. I might know that my character, my heroine will be in a terrible situation, but I may not know how she’s going to get out of that terrible situation. I always leave lots of room in the book for the answers to come to me as I need them.

Allison
Are you working on one project at a time or do you have a few on the go at once? I mean you write for both children and adults and you seem to have books coming left right and center, you’re very busy. Are you planning a book each year across each market? How do you manage the schedule and how do you manage those notebooks? Is it one at a time, the others go in a drawer? How does it work?

Kate
OK, there’s a couple of questions in there.

Allison
It’s all in there, isn’t it? Like I was giving world to answer.

Kate
I will try to work my way through each of those points.

I very much prefer to only work on one project at a time. When I’m working on a book I become totally obsessed by that book. I find it very difficult to do anything else at all, even answering emails or cooking meals, I find it very difficult because I have this incredible hyper focus where all of my attention, all of my energy is poured into the book that I’m working on now, however, I do not live in an ideal world.

I’m constantly being hit with different jobs and tasks that need to be done. This is complicated for me by the fact that my books are published internationally. For example, Bitter Greens was published in Australia two years ago, and published in the UK last year, now it’s coming out in the US in September. My US publishers are constantly asking me to do work for them, write essays and articles and blogs, and bits and pieces like that. Even though Bitter Greens in Australia is at the end of its work a whole new reign of work is beginning for overseas.

Similarly the children’s books, I have two children’s books coming out later this year. It was actually meant to come out in September and the next one in November, but they’ve had so many early orders for it, it actually brought the publication date forward. I had thought I could finish my novel that I’m writing now before I had to do all the work that is necessary with the publication of a book, for example touring and writing and public appearances, and now it looks as if that has been brought forward. That’s encroaching upon my writing time as well.

In an ideal world I would only write one book at a time, but they always overlap. How I manage this is I tend to — whatever I’m working on at that time I pour all my energies into it and all my focus into it and then I try to have one or two days a week where I don’t write and where I look after administration, answering emails, social media, and catching up on all the little jobs like writing essays, writing blogs, so that I have at least — it used to be one day a week, but I’m pretty much now finding it two days a week, often my weekends.

Allison
But the other five days you’re making time for the writing?

Kate
Yes, absolutely. I would normally start writing as soon as I get to my computer, which is normally around 10:00 in the morning, and I’d work through, with a couple of breaks, pretty through until it’s time to cook dinner.

Allison
Right, OK. You also have a family and I know that you seem to read enormously because you run a lot of reviews on your blog. I find that one of the most interesting things about your blog is the number of books that you read and the reviews and things that you do there. When I see all of that activity, you just seem to have the world’s busiest schedule. I do wonder how you make time for that, for the writing.

Kate
I do have the world’s busiest schedule. Even though I am constantly trying to rein it back in again, I can’t help myself, I’m always adding new projects. I have so many ideas, so many things I want to do. I generally try and focus — family, I do, I have three children and I’m married, I have a husband who requires a little bit of attention every now and again.

Allison
He has to drag you away from the computer.

Kate
Pretty much the whole household is built around — I always put my writing routine around my children, but they’re all at school now. Both of my boys are teenagers, so they’re fairly independent. My husband also works from home, so we share the work of the house and the cooking and the cleaning and the shopping. He does most of the shopping and most of the cooking.

Allison
Best.

Kate
I know! I’m incredibly lucky. His study is actually right upstairs. He makes me lunch everyday. I’ll be working away and around 12:30 I hear his chair roll back and I hear him come down and I go, “Oh good, lunch will be ready soon,” and I keep on writing and then he makes me lunch and we have lunch together and talk over what we’re doing. Then we each go back to our separate studies.

We share the work of driving the children around. I travel a lot, the touring is what’s hardest on the family. When I’m away he looks after keeping the machinery of the family flowing smoothly. Then pretty much as soon as I come home he goes, “Great, I’m going to the pub.”

Allison
“It’s all yours.”

Kate
Or, “I’m going to the football… and it’s all yours.” And then I take over most of the work, because we’re at home. It isn’t that hard to —

Allison
The flexibility of that is a huge bonus.

Kate
Absolutely. I’m just really helped by the fact that I have a very loving and supportive family. My children are all very happy, well-balanced and we don’t really ever have major problems with them. They’ve never known anything different, I’ve always written. I have an open door policy, which means that they can come and interrupt me anytime they like. I normally like to say that I want to see either blood, visible bones, or real tears is what I need to be interrupted. They know not to come to me about an argument over who’s turn it is to feed the dog, for example.

We manage pretty well really. Like all families sometimes we have times when it doesn’t work so well, but most of the time it works really, really well. That gives me a lot more time.

As far as the reading goes, I love to read. It’s one of the great joys of my life. If I get so busy that I can’t read then I know that I’m damaging what I love in life, so I pull back on the work. I only read for pleasure, so people are constantly asking me to read this or read that or review this or review that, and I have an absolutely strict policy that I will only review what I want to, when I want to. People can send me a book, but I won’t promise that I’ll read it and I certainly won’t promise to read it by a certain date.

Allison
No, no. I don’t think you need to add that pressure to your life at all.

Kate
No, that’s exactly right. I find that most people are understanding of that and are just happy that I do and I do review as much as I do.

Allison
Definitely, and just on that too, just in the last couple of years I’ve noticed that your social media presence and your online presence has definitely grown, you’ve built your Twitter accounts and your Facebook accounts and your blog and you’re all over Goodreads, which I think is fantastic. What are your thoughts on author platform? Do you think it’s important for writers today to have that presence? What are the building blocks of your platform?

Kate
I think it’s actually essentially, for a number of different reasons. I think a lot of people — I don’t actually like the term ‘author platform’ or ‘branding’ or any of these marketing speak. For me, social media is all about reaching out and connecting with like-minded people. It’s all about finding kindred spirits, it’s all about sharing my passion and love for reading and writing, assuming that the people who want to connect with me share the same passion. It is true that I use social media as a way of people keeping informed about if I’m teaching a workshop or running a writers’ retreat or if I have a new book coming out, but that’s primarily because it saves people from constantly emailing me and asking these questions. I say, “Just follow me on Twitter, then you don’t need to email me every couple of weeks.”

I find for myself that when I read a book and love that book the first thing I do is I go and look for the writer online, I go and check out their website, I see if they’re on Facebook, see if they’re on Twitter, I see if they would be interested in doing an interview with me. I see what I can do to help them reach an audience, and some the most wonderful friendships of my life have been built through this reaching out to other people and through them reaching out to me. I think it’s all about connection and communication. I think that’s why we write in the first place.

I really don’t like it if I can’t find a writer, or if they have put up barbed wire around themselves to keep people away. If it’s too hard for me to contact them I don’t do it.

Allison
I agree, I’m all over that.

Kate
Yeah.

Allison
The number of people that I’ve thought, “Oh, they’d be interesting to interview,” and then I can’t find a contact for them. It’s very off-putting and I feel like those authors are doing themselves a disservice.

Kate
Can I tell you I was asked last year to launch a book by an author that I had never heard of and didn’t know, and I was a bit taken aback, because normally you ask your friends to launch your books. I thought, “How have I never heard of this?” I googled him and there was no mention of him anywhere on the internet at all. He didn’t have a website, wasn’t on Twitter, wasn’t on Facebook.

Allison
Wow.

Kate
He had no internet presence at all. I went, “Oh, a bit weird.”

Allison
Yeah.

Kate
“Not going there.” So, I didn’t, because I had no way of judging who he was and what his works were like and where he came from. There was no way I was going to go and travel and stand there and introduce someone I didn’t know.

Allison
Which is fair enough, because you didn’t know him.

Kate
No. This is a very long answer to a short question, but basically I feel that, yes, it’s very important for writers to have a presence on the internet, particularly to have a website that is informative and dynamic. I think that it’s a mistake to think that social media is about self-marketing. I think it’s about disseminating information and making friends and making yourself accessible and, I guess, a real person instead of an artificial construct.

How does one do it? I think the only way to do it is to be active and be aware and find out what suits you. I’m not on everything, because I blog I don’t use Tumblr or any of the other micro-blogging, and I don’t tend to use Instagram, because I’m not very good at taking photographs.

Allison
No, me either. And I don’t like photos of myself, so that’s no good.

Kate
Me either.

Words are my passion, so I love Twitter because I love the constraint of the form and I love the fact that so many writers are on Twitter. I actually get most of my information about the industry and about what people are doing off Twitter. I find Facebook, I love Facebook as well, but I find it a different type of an energy, it’s more about my friends and people that I know sharing what we’re doing in our everyday life. I like both of those things.

I would just advise anyone to just take it slowly and do what you feel comfortable with and think of it as being a pleasure, not a chore.

Allison
Yeah, I totally agree.

Speaking of being accessible, you do run a lot of writing workshops. You share what you know a lot. I’m just wondering what are the sort of three biggest mistakes that you see over and over from new or aspiring authors? Like where are people who are starting out — where are they going wrong?

Kate
Well, the biggest problem that I see again and again and again is poor structure. I mean I find that a lot of people who have written a novel and they’ve shown to this alpha reader and that beta reader and they’ve done this course and that course, and everyone agrees that they know how to construct a sentence, there’s nothing wrong with their writing, but their book continues to not be picked up, continues not to find a publisher and continues to be rejected. They think, “What am I doing wrong?” Well, 99 percent of the time it’s poor structure.

They don’t understand the key turning points, they don’t understand the importance of crisis and resolution, they don’t understand how each chapter needs to be interlinked and yet separate, have its own internal structure. I see this problem again and again and again. I think it’s one of the reasons I do a course a course with the Australian Writers’ Centre called Plotting and Planning, I find it’s very, very popular. Basically, I could just do it and never write again, I could just teach that one workshop and never have time to write, because people find that so bewildering and so overwhelming.

Structure is the first one.

The second major problem that I see is having too many characters and basically too much happening in their book, too many scenes that don’t need to be there, too much kind of vagueness and wooliness. I always try to make people deconstruct their own work and make sure that everything that happens in the book is entirely essentially and is not simply repeating or reiterating a point that they’ve made earlier. I know that I write big books, but I do still feel that every scene in the book needs to have a purpose, it must have some kind of function.

The third major problem that I see is that people aren’t taking the time to edit and rewrite. They finish a first draft and they think that is all that needs to be done. You have all kinds of little problems, things like overuse of favorite phrases, weak chapter beginnings, chapters that are too long, weak metaphors, things that a good cut and polish and that a good rewrite, a deconstruction rewrite would fix, but because they’ve spent so long writing their first draft, and they’re all in that kind of giddy joy of first finishing it, they don’t take the time to do the rewrite, which should actually really be as much work as the actual first draft was.

Allison
That’s a lesson that you mostly learn by doing though, isn’t it?

Kate
Yes.

Allison
I remember finishing my first manuscript and just thinking, “Well, that’s done. There I am, I’ve written a book. I’m so excited about myself,” whereas now when I approach a manuscript, that’s like the first draft, I approach it thinking about all the things that I need to remove, fix, change. It is a lot of work. I do think that people possibly underestimate that. Do you do a lot of rewriting?

Kate
I do. I do a lot of editing. For me, it’s a lot of cutting — a lot of cutting and I really, really look at my weakness, so my dialogue and things like that I spent a lot of attention on in the final editing process.

It isn’t so much rewriting for me because I rewrite a lot during the actual writing process. It’s more about looking at it structurally and making sure that it’s as strong as it can be. I am constantly rewriting what I’ve written before, before I move forward in the story. I edit as I go.

Allison
Right.

Kate
I agree with you, this is something that comes with experience. The more books you’ve written the more you understand the importance of the editorial process. That is one of the reasons why I’m always trying to encourage people to put their first draft away for a month and then get it out and then absolutely deconstruct it and look at it with a very cool and clinical eye before they start sending it off to agents and publishers.

Allison
My last question for today would then be what are you working on at the moment? Given that you’re always working on something.

Kate
I am always — I’m like a chain smoker, I’m not happy unless I’ve got a project underway.

I’m working on a new historical novel for adults. It’s the retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in Nazi Germany. It takes place between 1938-1945, over the course of the World War II. It deals with the Germany underground and the German resistance.

Allison
Fantastic. We’ll look forward to seeing that on the shelves in — when are we looking forward to seeing that? Next year, perhaps?

Kate
Hopefully April-May of next year.

Allison
Fantastic. In the meantime I will put your website and your Twitter handle and your Facebook page in our show notes so that people can visit you, but you are www.KateForsyth.com.au I believe?

Kate
That is right.

Allison
Terrific. Thank you so much, Kate, for talking to us today. I really appreciate your time.

Kate
It’s such a pleasure. Thank you, Allison.

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