Ep 280 Write your query letter first! And meet AWC alumna Astrid Scholte, author of ‘Four Dead Queens’.

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In Episode 280 of So you want to be a writer: Meet AWC alumna Astrid Scholte, author of Four Dead Queens. Discover why you should write your query letter first! We have 3 copies of A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell up for grabs. Plus, don’t miss your chance to see So You Want To Be A Writer live.

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Show Notes

Links

See you at “So you want to be a writer LIVE” on 8 June 2019

Dymocks kids top 51 voting

Thinking Outside the Books: Write Your Query Letter First

5 Great Kidlit Podcasts

Writer in Residence

Astrid Scholte

Raised on a diet of Spielberg, Lucas and Disney, Astrid knew she wanted to be surrounded by all things fantastical from a young age. She’s spent the last 10 years working in film, animation and television as both an artist and manager. Career highlights include working on James Cameron’s Avatar, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tin Tin and Happy Feet 2 by George Miller. She’s a visual writer and aims to capture the vivid stories that play like movies in her head. When she’s not writing, she’s painting her favourite fictional characters and obliging her furry overlords, Lilo and Mickey.

Four Dead Queens is a Indie Bestseller and is available through Penguin Random House (USA & CA) and Allen & Unwin (ANZ). Numerous foreign territories have been sold.

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(If you click through the links above and then purchase from Booktopia, we get a small commission from this purchase. This amount is donated to Doggie Rescue to support their valuable work with unwanted and abandoned dogs.)

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WIN ‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sonia Purnell

This podcast is brought to you by the Australian Writers’ Centre

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Valerie Khoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Astrid.

Astrid

Thank you so much for having me, Valerie. It’s great to be here.

Valerie

So excited for you. Congratulations on your debut novel, Four Dead Queens. And I’m just so excited for you!

Astrid

Thank you.

Valerie

For some readers who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell them what it’s about?

Astrid

Absolutely. So it’s a young adult novel. But I would like to say that many people of all ages can enjoy and read it. It’s essentially a murder mystery that’s set in a fantasy world. It’s a nation that’s divided into four, ruled by four very different queens. And these queens start getting killed off in brutal ways. And it’s up to the main character, who is a teenage thief, to find out why the queens were murdered, and also not be the next on the murderer’s list.

Valerie

And so it takes a special kind of person to have an imagination who thinks, oh, I’m getting to set this book in a fantasy world where there are four queens who are brutally murdered, and so on. How in the world did you come up with this idea? What was the seed of it?

Astrid

There were a few different seeds. One thing is, I’ve always loved murder mysteries. I’ve always been a big Agatha Christie fan. I’ve loved hosting how to host a murder mystery party and try to figure out who did it before everyone else does.

So it’s something that’s always appealed to me. The fun murder mystery. Not so much a deep dark crime book. And it’s certainly what I’ve tried to achieve with Four Dead Queens, is a fun murder mystery and a fast paced murder mystery.

And I had this dream where I was sitting in a horse drawn cart, and this very sleek silver car flew by. And I woke up and I thought, well, how would this world exist? And why would this world exist with contrasting technologies? And that was kind of the start of the world being divided into four very different cultures with four very different queens ruling each part of the same nation.

And then of course, you know, it only made sense that it was the queens who got killed off one by one.

Valerie

Right. So are you an avid fantasy reader yourself?

Astrid

Absolutely. That’s probably 99% of what I read, is young adult fantasy.

Valerie

Really?

Astrid

I read some adult books as well. But mostly fantasy. It’s always been my love ever since I was a little kid.

Valerie

And what is it that appeals to you so much about that genre as a reader?

Astrid

I think just the escapism. I love to journey other worlds. I love immersive storytelling. That was really something that I wanted to achieve with Four Dead Queens, is I want people to finish the book and want to go back and re-read it. Or want to be able to visit it or know more about the world and the characters.

For me, as a kid, and as a reader even now, I just love leaving everything behind, leaving your troubles behind and escaping to a fantasy world. Usually they’re not better than our world. Sometimes fantasy worlds are a lot darker. Game of Thrones, for example. But it’s still a wonderful escape. And it’s a great way to pose questions that relate to our own world, but in a fictional setting, in a fantasy setting, to kind of explore how things could be different. For example, if there were concurrent rules instead of just one ruler, and how that would work.

Valerie

Now, I know this is your debut novel. But I can tell that this is just the start of the beginning. This is the start of something big.

Astrid

Thank you.

Valerie

Because I think this book is going to go off. But before you become a household name, can you just give us a brief potted history of your career so far, just so that listeners can get a little bit of an idea of what you’ve been doing as an adult kind of thing.

Astrid

Sure. I mean, it’s certainly not the first book that I’ve written. It’s the first book that I got published. So it’s been a long journey to get here. I think that’s a common story that you hear with debut authors. That it’s not common that it’s the first thing they’ve written and they’ve managed to get picked up within a year or so.

So for me, I’ve been writing… Well, I’ve always been. Ever since I learned how to write, I’ve always written stories, and always wanted to be a published author. Back in high school I thought I would be published by the time I was 18! Which was a very lofty goal and came and went and many, many years later, I didn’t get published.

But it was always something I had in my mind to do. Because I just love books so much, especially fantasy and young adult fiction.

But I got a little side-tracked with my day job which is working in the film, TV and animation industry. So I focused on that for quite a few years. And it wasn’t until 2009/2010 that I said, okay, I really need to invest time and effort into this thing of writing if I want to make it happen, if I want to finish a book. Because I had failed to actually ever finish a novel up until that point.

So I actually enrolled in some courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre, which back then was the Sydney Writers’ Centre. And I did a few courses, Creative Writing I and II, and Intro to Novel Writing. And that really helped me actually finish a story.

So in 2011, I had my first completed manuscript, and I tried to get it published, first locally with publishers in Australia. And then tried to get an agent in the US. And I found how difficult it was and how much competition there is to try and get an agent, especially in the US, through querying. It’s very, very hard to even get a full manuscript looked at. I only got one full manuscript request with my first manuscript.

And so I started again. I wrote another YA fantasy. The first one was also YA, but more paranormal. And I did Nanowrimo, and I wrote it in a very short amount of time, and then polished it for about a year, doing more writing courses to make sure that it was the best that it could be.

And I then got more requests from agents. And I got about 12 full manuscript requests. And quite a lot of positive feedback. So I felt like I was getting closer. But I was also told that what I was writing wasn’t standing out from the market. So that there was a lot of similar books. I had written like an elemental magic fantasy.

So then it was my goal to write something very different. Write something that I hadn’t seen before, and something that combined all the things that I loved in fiction, in film and TV. Different kinds of storytelling. And of course in young adult. And that became Four Dead Queens.

Valerie

Wow. Fantastic. So when did you start writing that? For Four Dead Queens, just give us a brief idea of the timeline, of when you started writing it, how long it took you, and then the steps after that until basically publication. Just a timeline of its journey. If you can remember.

Astrid

Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of burned into my brain.

So essentially I started writing in March of 2016. And I wrote, because I work fulltime, so I wrote for about four months. On weekends, and at night-time. And then I found out about Pitch Wars. And I’d heard about it a few years earlier, but I’d never been in a place to actually submit anything. And I thought, well that’s a great deadline to have. It was August that you had to submit something. So I thought I’ll try and get a first draft done.

For some reason, I didn’t think you had to have the whole manuscript complete, which is my fault for not reading the full terms and conditions. So I submitted it on the deadline of August, which was about 57,000 words, not even a full manuscript, really. Especially for fantasy which tends a lot longer. And half an hour I got a full request for my pitch and first chapter. And I was like, oh, okay, I better finish this book.

So I spent the next week – I took some time off work – and just really knuckled down and tried to get it done. And from that, I actually got into Pitch Wars, which was fantastic. So that was August 2016.

Valerie

And for people who aren’t familiar with Pitch Wars, perhaps you could just explain it.

Astrid

Sure. So Pitch Wars is a pitching competition. It’s mostly on Twitter. They also have a website. And essentially, if you get in, you get placed, with a mentor or two mentors who will help polish your manuscript for agents. And then at the end of a certain time – when I did it it was two months, but I believe it’s longer now – it goes up online as a sample and a pitch for a certain amount of agents to read and then they can request the full manuscripts.

So that’s what I ended up doing. I revised for two months with my mentors. It went up on the Pitch Wars website. And I got lots of requests for agents. Much more than I ever had on any of my other manuscripts, which was very encouraging to me. Because I just kind of thought of it as, oh, it’s a great way to have a deadline and make my manuscript better. And then I can query it. I never really thought I’d get an agent through Pitch Wars.

Valerie

So good.

Astrid

Which I ended up getting, signing with Hillary Jacobson of ICM Partners. She’s my amazing agent in the States. And we revised for two more weeks and then she submitted to publishers. She submitted to about 30 publishers in January of 2017. So not a long time after I actually signed with her, which was end of November. And then less than two weeks later, I actually got my first offer which was with Penguin Random House. Who I signed with.

So that part of the process was very quick, I would say. Certainly not the years that I had spent on that first manuscript, revising, and not getting anywhere. But that was all the way back in February of 2017, so it’s taken this long then to actually have the book published. So due to publishing schedules and revisions and marketing timelines, it takes a lot longer for the book itself to come out.

Valerie

Yeah, for sure. Now did they ask you whether you had a second book that you were already writing? And are you writing your next book?

Astrid

Yes, they did ask. So they asked if I had some ideas, and I had three different pitches, which I pitched at the time of Four Dead Queens. And they picked their favourite one. And that’s the book that will be coming out early next year with Putnam, which is the imprint of Penguin Random House that I’m with.

So I’m actually currently just editing that book. And I’ve got to submit it in the next two weeks. So I’m on a deadline at the moment, which is very exciting. And that will be the next thing that will come.

Valerie

Is it a sequel? Or is it a different book?

Astrid

It’s another standalone. So both Four Dead Queens and this book are YA sci-fi fantasy mash-up standalones.

Valerie

Right. So now let’s talk about Four Dead Queens and when you were actually writing it. So you start thinking of this idea, this premise. Tell us then a bit about your writing process. Are you one of those people who already know what’s happening at the end? Or you plot it out? Or are you a pantser, where you just see how it unfolds and discover the plot as you go along? How do you actually get the words on to the paper? On to the Word document?

Astrid

I mean, I wish I was a plotter. I’m definitely a pantser. I actually didn’t even know who the killer was until a third of the way through the first draft of Four Dead Queens. So I was just writing, seeing what would happen, exploring the characters. I find that I don’t know who my characters are until I start writing, and sometimes it will take me through to the completion of the first draft to be like, oh, that’s what the character wants! That’s what they’re all about.

So it’s a bit of an interesting process, because I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen and where I’m going to go. And I just hope that I’ll find my way there. But so far, that process seems to work the best for me.

Valerie

Yeah, right. And so when you were writing it, because you kind of had a deadline, you manufactured a deadline for yourself.

Astrid

Right.

Valerie

Did you then aim to have a word count completed each day? Or how did you actually get the words down, especially when you had to juggle it with a job? Did you have a system or an incentive scheme for yourself? Or what?

Astrid

I do have a bit of a system. I try to write at least 1000 words a day. When I’m writing something new, something fresh, I try and write 1000 words a day. And that’s usually between the hours of six and nine. So if work’s running a little late…

Valerie

At night?

Astrid

Yes, sorry. At night. I am not a morning person at all. So I am definitely a night writer.

Valerie

Okay.

Astrid

So I sometimes have to work a little bit later, so it might be a later window. But usually it takes me around half an hour to get 1000 words out in that first kind of almost like a brain dump part of the process, where I’m just getting ideas out and getting characters out.

And for revisions, I tend to look more at chapters and pages. And try and work out how many… Like right now I’m going through my revision and I’m working out how many days I have left and trying to divvy that up to make sure that I can meet my deadlines.

Valerie

But hang on. You said that you work from usually six til nine, which is obviously after your day job. But you said it takes you half an hour to get out 1000 words. Is that what you said?

Astrid

Yes, that’s right.

Valerie

How does that work?

Astrid

I’m not so good at maths. But it depends on, like if it takes me longer than half an hour, it’s just that window is my writing time.

Valerie

Oh, I see.

Astrid

And sometimes if I’m really on a roll, I’ll just keep going and I’ll write much more than 1000. But it at least has to be 1000 words a night. Just to keep that momentum going.

Valerie

But still, 1000 words in half an hour is pretty amazing.

Astrid

They’re bad words though, Valerie. They’re just whatever kind of comes into my head. I’m very much a… I don’t edit as I write. I just get it all down there. And then I’ll come back with revisions. And it tends to be a lot more work in revisions than perhaps a plotter would have with a cleaner first draft.

They often call it draft zero, which is kind of what I do. It’s a very rough draft with characters changing names, personalities, all that sort of stuff. So it’s just a very fluid style of writing. So I don’t get locked in my own brain trying to work out how certain things will work. I’ll worry about that later in revisions.

Valerie

So a lot of people listen to this and they have day jobs and they think that they don’t have the time to write a novel. So tell us your own self-management. Because obviously you’ve just done a full day’s work.

Astrid

Right.

Valerie

How do you get into the zone? How do you convince yourself you’re not too tired, that your brain is not too full, that sort of thing?

Astrid

It’s tricky. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with. Because I do work from home, remotely, it’s a very similar scenario of me sitting in front of the computer in the same room. So it’s kind of like just extending my work day. Even though the work itself is very different.

So having that goal of 1000 words a night certainly keeps me motivated and keeps my progress moving along. But I think also changing rooms, sometimes, because I have a laptop I’ll just move to another room if I don’t want to sit in here any longer. And that will just click my brain into a different gear.

But it’s more that the feeling of having written that I love so much, like after the 1000 words or however much I’ve written, I feel such a great sense of relief and gratification and accomplishment. Just holding on to that is what kind of gets me going. So even if I’m tired, I’m like, you know you’ll feel better after you’ve done this. And you’ll feel guilty if you haven’t done this, because I have a very guilty conscience. So that kind of keeps me going even after a long day.

I mean, I certainly do recommend taking time off. I would not recommend working every evening and every Saturday and Sunday, because that can burn you out.

Valerie

Yes. And I guess approaching it like going to the gym, right? You kind of don’t want to go, but you know you’ll feel great afterwards.

Astrid

Absolutely. And it is like a muscle. The more you do it, the more you’re constantly thinking about the story and the world and the characters throughout the day, then the easier it is to write at night and to get 1000 words out feels like nothing.

So if you break that pattern – and I know people have lots of different processes, and sometimes writing every day isn’t possible – but for me it’s the best way to keep going. Because it does keep me thinking in that world and living in that world.

Valerie

So while you’re writing a book, like Four Dead Queens, or whatever you’re writing at that time, presumably you have these other ideas that are kind of calling to you, saying ‘write me! write me!’ What do you do with them?

Astrid

I will admit I am not one of those people who has a list of 100 things that I want to write about. I’m very focused on one project or two projects, one I’m either revising and what I’ve just starting, or what I’ve finished and what I’m revising. So I tend to live in those worlds quite completely and don’t have a lot of competing ideas.

That said, I did come up with an idea the other night and I already have a book three in mind. So I was like, okay, maybe book four and I’ll just put you to the side for now. And I’ll focus on you later.

Valerie

Now you’ve done many, many courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre. What did you find most beneficial about doing those courses that actually helped you in your writing?

Astrid

Oh, so much. I mean, I think just making it a priority, for one, was something that… Often people think, oh, writing is a hobby or I can’t make that a priority in my life. And I was saying, no, this is a priority for me. I’m going to do this. And I’m going to invest time by doing a course. And just to make that step, I think, also changed gears in my brain that this was something that I could achieve and that I could do.

But just the tips from the presenters. I learned so much about crafting a story. I mean, the only training that I have, and I do consider reading training, is reading lots of books. Because you get the idea of how to tell a story. But that said, you also don’t want to mimic just what you’ve read.

So I think learning the different story structures. Certainly, Kate Forsyth had some amazing notes on story structures that I still use today. I think it was the History, Mystery and Magic course that I did. That was fantastic. And Pamela Freeman was amazing as well. She really helped me. I was working on my first manuscript, and she really helped me push it in a direction that wasn’t too expected and too easy to resolve, which was something I tended to do in my writing, rather than pushing the boundaries and making it harder to resolve issues for characters and plot and that sort of thing.

And just meeting likeminded people. Realising that there are other people out there that feel the same way about writing and books and creating writing groups. I had a critique group out of I think it was the third course that I did, with Pamela, Intro to Novel Writing. And we would meet up every month and share works. So this was back when I was living in Sydney. So unfortunately I don’t have that group anymore.

But there’s just so much to learn. Being part of the community, just knowing how to write a story, and learning how to do that. And workshopping in the classroom was really an important step to finishing that first manuscript.

Valerie

And what situation do you think you’d be in if you hadn’t done the courses?

Astrid

Um, that’s a good question. I think I probably would have really struggled to finish a book. I certainly needed that motivation and that encouragement. Those courses that I did with Pamela were really encouraging, because I had never had outside critique of my work. I loved English in high school and I did lots of creative writing there. But it had been a long time since I had feedback. And just to hear people say, you know, you’re good with words, or you can tell a good story. That was really encouraging. So maybe without that encouragement I would still be floundering with that first manuscript.

It’s hard to say. I would hope that I would make it eventually. But it certainly kicked me into the right direction.

Valerie

Yeah. Because just to give people some context, you went on to university to study something completely different. You studied 3D animation, is that right?

Astrid

That’s right, yeah.

Valerie

So you weren’t doing it in your working day at all. It was something that you were doing after hours, right?

Astrid

That’s right, yeah. I mean, I like to think that… Sorry, go ahead.

Valerie

No, you go ahead.

Astrid

I was just going to say, I like to think that there is a common thread of storytelling in animation.

Valerie

Yes.

Astrid

And I think I’ve always had that passion for storytelling. But certainly not writing in any respect on a day to day basis.

Valerie

Let’s just circle back to Four Dead Queens. Because these are four… There are so many interesting characters in the novel. Have you based some of them on… How have you developed their characters? Have you based some of them on certain people? That seems to be my feeling, that that might happen. But you tell me.

Astrid

Not really. The characters, some were very clear from the outset. Like Iris, Queen Iris. She came across, her voice was very strong. As I mentioned, I just kind of put fingers to keyboard and see what happens and her voice kind of came out pretty much the way that she is now in the finished book.

And other characters were more of a push and pull between the culture and the background which they came from and what they believed in. Because each quadrant has very firm beliefs in certain parts of society. For example, Marguerite believes, their society believes in curiosity and discovery and they’re explorers and trade with the other quadrants and business people. So that kind of enterprising part of who they are would then affect her personality.

So it was a bit of a push and pull between the queen’s personality affecting the quadrants, and the quadrants affecting the queens.

But I wouldn’t say anyone is particularly based on anyone actually. They’re just… There’s probably a bit of me in all of them, I’m sure.

Valerie

Yes. Now, not only are you creating another world, you’re actually creating four worlds in another world. Right?

Astrid

Right.

Valerie

So you need to make sure that you are consistent across, not just one world, but your four worlds. So what did you do on a practical level to manage that? Did you have any kind of world building bible? Or anything like that?

Astrid

Not really. I tend to keep it all in my head.

Valerie

Really?

Astrid

Although I did draw a map. Yeah. Which is probably why I don’t have space for other ideas to come in. It’s just so full of what I’m working on at that time.

The other thing that I really wanted was each quadrant to be in contrast to the other. So the way that I developed them, Ludia for example is about entertainment and passion and the fun things in life, and literature and music. So I then wanted something directly opposed to that. So I kind of developed them altogether in contrast of each other so that it could create good conflict and drama in the book.

So nothing, apart from a few sketches of a map, it was all just kind of up in my head.

Valerie

Right. So if you had to share your top three tips, or you can actually share as many as you want, for aspiring writers who hope to be where you are one day with their book published, what would they be?

Astrid

Definitely read. Keep reading your preferred genre and character as well as read wider. So I also read crime, a little bit of contemporary. Mostly YA and YA fantasy. But reading a lot, it really does teach you how to structure narrative and plot and story and characters. Just basically knowing the structure of a book and how things work. So read a lot, would be my number one tip.

Two would be to invest into your writing. So whether that is just time or into courses. But take it seriously and allow yourself to treat it as – it can still be a hobby – but treat it as something that could lead to something more than something that you just write every now and then. And the more seriously you take it, the more seriously I think other people take it.

I remember I announced, I think it was back in 2011, that I was going to write a novel. I told all my friends. Perhaps that was a little bit early, because then people keep asking you what’s happening with that novel. Is it getting published? Which took many years later to actually have that happen.

But being able to take that seriously in your own life, however you can do that. Whether that is just writing on your own, or getting a critique group or enrolling in some courses, everything helps. Or just listening to podcasts like this. 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.

And for the third one would be is to just finish the novel.

Valerie

Yes!

Astrid

It’s really hard to get something published that’s not finished. So push on and turn off your inner critic. Just keep writing. Write what you love. I guess that’s another thing. If you love it and you enjoy it, someone else will. I really believe that.

So keep writing. Finish that book. And worry about all the other stuff later. Like, how to query, how to find a publisher. Don’t get bogged down in that yet, because it can be a little bit overwhelming. Just get the book done.

Valerie

Yes. Great advice. And on that note, thank you so much for joining us today and congratulations on your book. So excited for you. Thank you so much, Astrid.

Astrid

Thank you.


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