Australia produces some fantastic, bestselling authors; and they’re a supportive bunch, always keen to lend a helping hand. We’ve collected 20 top writing tips from Australian authors to help you with your own creative goals.
1. Never give up
“‘Oh, Susan’s sitting in her dressing gown writing a book’. Nobody really ever believed it was going to happen other than my best friend, and me. I just said to myself, I’m just going to keep working at this book and making it the best it can possibly be. And if I keep working at it and making it better and better and better, some day, somebody is going to want it.
“So I went, joined a writing group, and took courses. And just kept working, working at it. And that is my advice. You’ve just got to keep working at it.”
2. Always be on the lookout for ideas
“Story ideas are everywhere. and I’m a firm believer in the bit in Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, that the stories are out there waiting for you to hear them,” she says. “You might be on the train and you overhear a conversation, it piques your interest; write it down.
“Because I think once you’ve got it out, you allow more ideas to come in. And story ideas just pop up from everywhere now that it’s like I’ve opened the faucet. And they’re just everywhere. So keep your ears open, because they’re out there.”
3. Keep writing, even in small amounts
Internationally successful Australian author Lian Hearn, whose books include Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for His Pillow and The Tengu's Game of Go, says writers shouldn’t feel disheartened if they can’t write full time.
“Don’t worry if you can’t get a long period of time, because you can write a novel at 500 words a day,” she says. “And anyone can manage that. If you do 500 words a day over a year, you know, you have quite a sizeable piece of work.”
4. Give yourself time and deadlines
“With work and kids, it’s hard to prioritise your writing,” she says. “I’d say give yourself permission to write and give yourself time to write away from work and kids and other family responsibilities.
“I think it’s really helpful to get external deadlines. Even though I’m a freelance writer and I have deadlines, with my novel I would make a deadline and it would just whizz by because no one else was waiting for that deadline. So I think join competitions – short story or novel competitions so you have a deadline to finish a work. Or join a course, where you have deadlines and the homework. I think that’s really helpful so you can actually finish a project and not just keep rewriting and rewriting.”
5. Find your tribe
Pamela Hart, also known as Pamela Freeman, is an Australian Writers’ Centre presenter as well as a successful author. Her books include The Desert Nurse, A Letter from Italy, The War Bride and The Soldier’s Wife. Pamela says finding fellow writers is vital for feedback and support.
“Obviously one of the things I love about the Writers’ Centre is that we offer that option for people,” she says. “We are a tribe and we are a community and we’re a very welcoming one. And beyond that, there’s also possibilities of finding other tribes. It could be fiction or children’s fiction or romance, there are other people out there doing the same stuff that you’re doing. And you need to find them. It’s only an internet search away.”
6. Don’t stress about perfection
“If you’re thinking about sending it off to an agent or a publisher, just do it. Because your work is never going to be perfect. And I wasted years and years and years before I showed anyone anything. The Nowhere Child was actually the fifth manuscript I attempted and the second one I finished. And only the first I ever showed anyone. So I think that’s a really good thing to remember.
“What I’ve learned is that editors and publishers and agents … no one is looking for the perfect story. They’re all looking for a good story that they can help make better.”
7. Just finish something
“Even if it’s not the great work you hoped, just finish something,” he said. “You’ll never find out your voice and your technique and your style if you betray yourself by bailing, you know? Sure, if you’re producing a dud, you probably need to bail out. But we live in a golden age of mentors and writing programs and what have you.”
8. Branch out from your usual style
Freelance writer Megan Blandford, who is also the author of I’m Fine (and other lies): Postnatal depression, motherhood and trying to actually be fine, says writing across forms has been helpful practice for her.
“It’s great to open yourself up to writing different things and in different ways to get that practice and get that idea of how you want to write, what stories you want to tell, how to find the right angle in it,” she says.
“Freelancing has given me all the skills to do this in a lot of ways. So it’s not necessarily just ‘write books and write manuscripts in order to write books’. Open yourself up to different forms and give yourself that practice.”
9. Don’t get intimidated
Creative writing teacher and bestselling memoirist Patti Miller says people should be careful not to treat writing as a big, scary thing.
“Most people do. They think of it as a big thing that’s going off in all directions,” she says. “I always say to people, I do an exercise, I give them a 10 minute exercise, and most people write about half to three-quarters of a page in that time. And I say to them, ‘look, you’ve written that much in 10 minutes. So just think of it as something that you can do. You can sit down and write for 10 minutes’.
“Don’t worry about the wholeness of it. Just work in small chewable bite sized pieces for quite a while until you get your confidence. Because I’ve noticed that most people are daunted by the hugeness of writing 50,000 or 60,000 or whatever, when really they could just sit down in 10 minutes and have fun.”
10. Join a book club
“It keeps me quite grounded in realising that what I’m writing isn’t for everyone,” she says. “Not everyone is going to love it and that’s okay. Because within my book club, we all have very different opinions and tastes.
“I think putting your book out into the world is quite difficult, because you’re putting it out there for opinions and judgement. My book club has really helped me try and step back and look at it all a bit objectively.”
11. Take all the editing time available
“What I used to do is I’d see a competition and I’d send it off, and then I’d reread the story and I’d notice all these mistakes,” he says. “Because it’s funny, your brain changes as soon as you’ve sent it. You can read it with a bit of objectivity in the same way other readers will.
“I would implore anyone who is entering anything like this or submitting for magazines or anything, just to reread it and work on it. You never know. You might be able to squeeze in one more reread or line edit before the deadline. So don’t send it in until as late as possible to make sure you’ve given yourself every opportunity to read it as many times as possible.”
12. Take yourself seriously
“Whether that is just time or into courses… allow yourself to treat it as something that could lead to something, more than something that you just write every now and then,” she says. “The more seriously you take it, the more seriously other people take it.”
“Whether that is just writing on your own, or getting a critique group or enrolling in some courses, everything helps. That’s spending your time wisely. There’s so much out on the internet for writers and aspiring authors, which is fantastic. I’ve used many resources to try and get to this point.”
13. Remember what your audience wants
“If you want to write for yourself, write a diary,” she says. “You are not writing to show how intellectual you are, how clever you are, how much you’ve actually managed to transcend your disease or the horror of your childhood.
“You are writing for the reader. You are writing for the reader in terms of the theme, plot and the way you put the words on the page. And what you want is completely and utterly irrelevant. You are writing what they need.”
14. Keep your reader guessing
Jackie also says it’s vital to surprise your reader.
“Always break narrative expectations,” she says. “That is important in novels, you need to break reader expectations with every plot device and every character, and it’s especially necessary in picture books.
“Every time you turn a page in a picture book, the reader cannot know what is going to happen next. You must have that tension as they turn the page. No one has ever turned pages to say, ‘Oh isn’t that lovely description, I’m going to turn the page to get more description’. They turn the page sometimes because you have created a world they don’t want to leave, sometimes they turn it to find out what happens next. But it has to be what happens next.
“If they can predict what is happening, then you’ve failed as a writer.”
15. Set a rejection goal
Kirli Saunders, whose debut children’s picture book The Incredible Freedom Machines was published in 2019, says you should set a goal – both for how much you want to get published, and how many rejections you want.
“This one comes from a dear friend of mine, Kristie Wan… she said, you need to set a goal with a number of rejections you want to achieve in a year. ‘Kristie, that sounds hellish. Why would we do that?’ She’s like, because then we can go out for a wine, and celebrate that you’ve been submitting to things.”
“I set my goal for 10 rejections within a year. And I had to submit to 10 competitions or 10 writing awards or 10 manuscripts to publishers. Whatever it was, set yourself a rejections goal. And I found that a really good drive for writing. Because so often our work doesn’t get picked up as writers, and it can feel very much like there’s no worth in the work at times. That’s definitely not the case, you just haven’t found the right fit for your work. Or maybe it needs to be massaged or have some editing processes done.”
16. Be reader-friendly
“That doesn’t mean that you have 100,000 followers on Instagram or that sort of thing,” she says. “But it does mean that you have the street smarts of how to draw people to yourself. And that they can put you into any situation, they can put you on television, they can put you on radio. They can put you on podcasts.
“You’ve got something to say, you can present yourself very well, and you’re not going to black out because a camera has been turned on you.
There is nothing easy about it.”
17. Don’t be scared of tropes
“When you’re a bit stuck and you’re not quite sure what would happen next, close your eyes and think, okay, if this was a movie, what would happen next? And you’ll almost always know the answer.”
“You’ll almost always know that, oh, there would be a heist now, or there would be a fight, or they would sneak away or whatever. Think about how similar things you love have handled it, and make a list of as many things as you can think of that would happen if you were using all the tropes that go with this thing.
“From those you can take one and just bend it a little to the left or combine it with something else. And that can often be a way to break a deadlock.”
18. Keep it simple
“Try and keep it simple. And don’t get bogged down in unnecessary subplots or side stories”
19. Get away from it all
Veteran broadcaster Tony Jones, author of The Twentieth Man and In Darkness Visible, recommends changing locations, if possible, to really focus on writing.
“Much of my writing, actually, I’ve done at a house down the south coast of NSW because I find it’s really a good idea to get out of the city and get away from the normal distractions of city life,” he says.
“We bought a house some time ago way down on the south coast of NSW and we try to spend as much time of the week there, even in a normal week now, as humanly possible. Because it’s a) it’s breathtakingly beautiful being down there. And b) it’s a wonderful place to write.
“There are very few distractions apart from the ocean and the bush. Which of course is one way to distract yourself when you need a break from writing.”
20. Don’t worry you’re not ‘right’ to be an author
Kirsten Alexander says writers shouldn’t worry they’re too old, too young, or let anything else stop them from writing.
“I’ve got two grown kids so I thought for a while, I’m too old to do this,” she says. “Like ‘I should have done this when I was in my 20s, but my 20s didn’t allow that.
“You’re not too young and you’re not too old. If you’ve got a story you want to tell, then please tell it. Because I’m a reader and I’d like to hear it.”