Guest Post – Reciprocity by Lee Murray

Imagine a writer, hunched and shrunken at their desk, toiling alone in the semi-darkness, the ground around their feet littered with balled up yellow legal paper. It’s not so hard to conjure because, at its core, writing is a solitary business. Words on a page. Pages into chapters. Eventually, our industrious scribe has the first draft of a short story, or a series of poems, or even a full-length book. They emerge, sallow and blinking, into the light.

“I’ve finished my manuscript!!”
“Really? That’s so great. Go you!”
“I’m going to fire it off to Big-Five & Co Publishers, right now.”
We try not to cringe. “Um sorry, no, it’s not publishable yet.”
They frown. “Of course, it is. I spent all of November on it. I got an excellence in [insert high school writing course] and I’ve done all this hard work!”
“You’re absolutely sure there are no plot holes, character inconsistencies, and you haven’t tied everything up with an unsatisfying act of god ending?”
“Not that I can see. And anyway, it won’t matter if I decide to self-publish, will it?”

Since of late their only sustenance has been a diet of coffee and Tim Tams and the state of their fingernails suggests a severe lack of Vitamin D, we ignore the implication that self-published works don’t matter, and say gently, “Even if the traditional route isn’t for you, your name will be on the cover. Surely, you’ll want to be able to stand behind the work? You’ll want it to be the very best it can be?”
Their face falls, shoulders slump, and they nod. “Well, what am I supposed to do then? I spent all my holidays working on this. It’s not like I can afford thousands of dollars for editing.”
We try not to splutter, because commissioning editors have lives too, and slush piles that have been waiting so long they have melted into lakes. So when an editor comes across work with structural issues, a surfeit of exclamation marks, annoying TAB indents, space bar-spacebar-spacebar-spacebar, it’s hardly surprising that they might bypass those works in favour of titles with less onerous editing requirements.”

Of course, it’s possible our determined writer has a story which is destined to be bigger than Hobbits. Possible, but unlikely. These days, if writers want their work to stand out in the squizillions of titles out there, they can’t afford not to get it edited. Still, living in self-inflicted solitude for the last [month/year/decade], our writer is a fragile creature – in fact, they look set to burst into tears at any minute, so we must tread carefully.

“Maybe you could join a writing community?” we suggest.
Our would-be writer fiddles with a paperclip. “Ugh, people!” they wail.
“Do you want to improve your writing or not?”
Quiet mumbling.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be a major professional group, although there are some fantastic societies out there, all running amazing programmes for their members. Informative, educational, current. There’s the HWA, SpecFicNZ, AHWA…”
The writer rolls their eyes.
“Okay, so start small with a writing buddy, or a few local writers who meet over coffee, or sign up to an online writers’ network. People who are writing in your genre—”
“But I’m not ready for anyone to read my writing yet!”
We smile.
“Sure, you could decide to join to get your work critiqued or mentored. You might tap into the group’s knowledge of markets and publishers and what that weird ‘option’ clause is all about. You could also meet at the bar on a Friday evening and moan about the lack of funding opportunities for [insert your genre here]. All excellent reasons for joining a group, but there’s something else. Another reason for joining…”
Our imaginary writer taps their foot. They’ve been sequestered for some time, and their patience is wearing thin.
“Because you’ll be able to reciprocate,” we say.
“Look, lots of writers join groups in order to get their work critiqued, but they forget the other side of the equation. Reciprocating in kind. Because reading, and critiquing other work in your genre is one of the quickest ways to improve your skills.”
Our writer’s forehead wrinkles dubiously.
“Think about it,” we say, warming to our theme, “if you can recognise a gaping plot hole, a character inconsistency, a weird POV switch, tense and tension issues, adverbs ad nauseum, or a lame ending that wouldn’t convince a six-year-old in someone else’s writing, and if you can suggest fixes for those issues, then you’ll have gained valuable techniques for polishing your own work.”
Our writer’s eyes grow wide. “I get to read other people’s work before anyone else has seen it?”
“Yes, and you—”
“Point out all the flaws? Pick it to pieces?”
“Well, that’s not exactly—”
“And mark it up with red pen?”
:You’re missing the point: at the end of it, you’ll have a whole heap of skills you can apply to editing your own manuscript, and, if you’ve taken care not to stomp all over someone’s else’s baby – being sure to commend, recommend and trying not to offend ‒ then there’s a chance you’ll come out of it with a bunch of supportive like-minded writer colleagues, who’ll be just as invested in your book as you are, and can help you to promote it on release day.”
Our writer giggles. They haven’t slept in a while. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“So, you’ll join a writers’ group?”
“Yes, but later; I’m due for another Tim Tam.” Then they disappear in a puff of blue smoke.

Well, of course they did: they were imaginary.

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her recent works include the Taine McKenna military thriller series, and Hounds of the Underworld (Raw Dog Screaming Press) a supernatural crime-noir co-written with Dan Rabarts. She lives with her family in New Zealand, where she conjures up stories from an office overlooking a cow paddock.

Hounds of the Underworld:


Wednesday Writing Guest Post – Dan Rabarts

Dan of freshly ground and the podagogue started out as a friend of a friend, but I became immediate friends with him during the shoot for The Winding City. His recent fiction output and dedication to seeking out new fiction online has made me feel very lazy indeed.

His guest post is a stirring, inspirational piece about the end.

The End.

These might be the last words we write, but it’s not where it finishes.

The End is only the beginning.

As any writer who has made it to the last words of a novel-length manuscript knows, that milestone is just the starting point for a whole new world of work. In the first place, unless you’re Jack Nicholson, nothing is perfect first time. There must be hours and hours of redrafting done. You must print and bind the manuscript and share it around with people who you can trust to critique the work well, and then you must edit and redraft and edit again. After the bright flush of sustained creativity has passed, the writer must truly assume the role of craftsperson.

And when the drafting is complete, and you can’t do anything more to polish your masterpiece to shiny brightness, is that the end?


If you’re then going to walk the traditional path to publishing, you must get onto the query wagon. (You might try the slush route, but surely your work deserves better. Surely.) But be aware of this: For the number of queries received by agents and submissions to slushpiles in any given year, and the number of books that are picked up and published, your chances of seeing your name in print are one in twenty thousand.

If you’re a gambler, those aren’t good odds.

But you’re not a gambler. You’re a writer. You’re a craftsperson.

Which means that there are all sorts of things you can do to better those odds. For starters, research the field. Know which agents represent books like yours, and tailor your query to suit them. Understand what a query letter is meant to do, and what is should not; Of the former, a query should tell the agent what the book is about, and it should do so in your own voice; of the latter, it should not tell the agent what the agent doesn’t need to hear, such as how your relationship with your dog inspired this story, or how you typed the whole thing with your toes. They want to know if your book will interest them, and if you can write. So show them.

And for crying out loud, follow the guidelines. Agents know what works for them. Do as they tell you, not as you think best.

Just by doing this, you have virtually doubled your chances of success.

Still not great odds, however. So you must build some recognition. In today’s world of online resources, the means are many, but it is still a challenge to stand out. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest can all help, but remember that you must still be as brilliant in these domains as you are as a writer in general, because this is a face you are presenting to the world. What you say out there matters, however insignificant you may feel sometimes. And nothing that you say on the Internet ever goes away. You have been warned. But if you do well in this arena too, then you might have yet again doubled your chances of success.

What next? Podcast your novel, or something you’ve written that can help build a profile for your novel? Release a PDF of the first chapters into the wild? Make your book available as a print-on-demand release? All worthy options, with plus sides and negatives. For some, these choices have made them successful overnight, while others have found that al their hard work has been dashed as a result. Weigh the options long and well. You cannot undo these things once they have been done.

Then you are faced with the things that you can’t control: that the agent has another book just like yours on their desk at the moment; that it doesn’t quite sound like their thing; that they don’t think the market is right for that sort of book just now; or they accept a partial from you and then don’t come back to you for months on end, only to then turn around and reject it. No, this hasn’t happened to me, but I have heard that it can. In the end, writers put themselves at the mercy of the agents. We put our work in their hands and trust them to do all they can for us.

Here is where we, as writers, risk stagnation. Here is where we pin our hopes on the book we spent the last six months or three years or more writing, and can’t understand why the agents aren’t seeing our genius from the outset. Presses should be grinding to a halt to make way for our sure-to-be-bestseller.


Publishing is a strange and cruel industry.

What we writers, at this point in time, must come to terms with is why exactly we are writing. If we are writing because we hope it will make us rich and famous, then we are doing it for the wrong reason. If we think it will even earn us a living and enable us to leave our day jobs behind, then we need to get down off the cloud and smell the coffee. We can hope for these things, and we can dream about them.

But I think it was John Scalzi who said that goals are things we can achieve under our own power if we work hard enough, but dreams require other people to come to the party. And for all our powers of writerly persuasion, we swim in an ocean full of other fish with equally potent if not greater powers.

In other words, striving to succeed as a writer is about more than just hard work and a deft hand with words. It is as much about luck and networking as it is about being a writer.

So what does it all mean? It means that if we are writing, we must be writing because we love it, and because we want to write. It must be because we find true pleasure in the rush of words that fly from our fingers, and in the sense of completion when our characters have brought us to those two small, final words. We need to fully appreciate that those two words, for all their weight and meaning, mean nothing, and must not weigh on us. They must signal new beginnings.

So when you reach the end, turn over a new page and start again somewhere new. Because you are a writer, and while the publishing world will make you bend over and twist your form into things that you never thought you were as you seek to become an AUTHOR, they can never take away from you the fact that you are a writer.

The End (or is it?).

Wednesday Writing Guest Post – Debbie Cowens

The lovely Debbie is somewhat intimidating when it comes to her recent fiction output. Not to mention her passion for organising things like The Event and being a full time Mum as well.

Debbie sent through this rumination on how she maintains focus and tries to answer the infamous question ‘where do you get your ideas?’

I have a slight addiction to reading blogs, articles and books by writers about writing. I suppose it’s true of any hobby or activity that you’re into that you may also have a fascination with stories of how the people at the top made it there and what their experiences have taught them.

The advice famous authors tend to give is simple and down-to-earth. To the best of my knowledge not even Neil Gaiman has revealed the exact incantation required to summon and enslave a muse, and few claim that you need to quit your day job and adopt a drug-taking Bohemian lifestyle to become ‘inspired’.

Generally, the wisdom of most successful authors boils down to one simple question and answer: How do you become a writer? You write.

However, one frequently asked question that most writers are bombarded with in interviews, emails and Q & A at book signings has struck me as interesting recently.

How you do get your ideas?

Author responses to this questions tend to range from the sarcastic to a vague ‘all sorts of places…’ type answer, and that’s fair enough in my opinion. It seems like a horribly barbed question and one that could never be answered with both straightforward simplicity and accuracy.

For me, random ideas occur at all sorts of times and places. Sometimes it’s a crazy dream I had, other times something someone says or does strikes me as interesting. Sometimes it’s something that happens in my life or something I remember from my childhood. Maybe something happens in a book I’m reading, or a newspaper article, or a movie, or I overhear part of a conversation and it triggers another idea. Sometimes a photo or a piece of art I see or music I hear stirs up something in my subconscious and it manifests as an idea for a story. Ideas can spring out from any corner of my experiences at any time. It’s unpredictable and not something I can turn on or turn off.

Of course an idea is no more a story than a sense of being hungry is a perfectly cooked three course meal. Sometimes an idea might give me the beginnings of a character or part of the plot but then I have to tease the story out that fits around it. Sometimes a new idea will happily collide with some others that have been floating around in the idea cesspool in the back of my mind and the story comes together like clicking pieces of a jigsaw in place. Other times I to have to play with the ideas; warping and moulding them to fit together in any kind of useful way. This process can be quick or it can takes days, weeks, even longer. Continue reading

Wednesday Writing – Guest Post – Steve Hickey

This week’s guest post is by Steve/Hix, screenplay and roleplaying game writing extraordinaire.

Steve’s voice is one of the voices in my head when I’m writing. He’s always asking me ‘where’s the conflict?’ and also ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen in this scene, what would really screw up your characters?’ It’s a good thing. Steve is great to talk to about writing because he has massive amounts of insight into his own behaviour and is very good at calling me on my bad habits too.

… the thing is, if there’s a problem in my life it’s up to me to fix it. And I’m talking about writing here: if I’m not happy with what I’m writing, or with the amount of writing I’m getting done, I’ll have to change my life in order to get happy.

I realised this somewhere around Day 2000 of writing The Limit. I was 5 and a 1/2 years into writing my script (it turns out that criticism of my previous film + perfectionism + no job = a pathological number of rewrites), when I had to acknowledge to myself that I was stuck, I was bored, and my brain wasn’t fresh.

That’s important: my brain wasn’t fresh. While my writing was varying in its usual way (*), my mind had been focused on writing the same intense dark thriller material for way too long.

(*) My writing schedule varies between procrastination, not flowing, insights, and enjoyment, and then back to procrastination again once I feel I’ve done enough to rest on my laurels, or that I’ve hit a benchmark where I can tell myself I’ll stop writing for a while so I can come back and look at the script with ‘fresh eyes’.

So, that was the problem: non-fresh brain. It was up to me to find a solution and fix it.

Thinking about it, I realised that all my writing was being done under pressure. Pressure I was putting on myself. I certainly wasn’t being playful. I wasn’t writing just for the sake of it. I wasn’t taking a look at any of the many, many ideas that were building up in my filing cabinet as I struggled to finish The Limit.

So, I created something I call “PLAY”.(*) I decided that every two months, after working on a single project, I would take two weeks off. During those two weeks, I could PLAY with any project I wanted. Anything that inspired me or that took my fancy. I’d pull out my folders of TV ideas, skills I wanted to learn, blog posts I wanted to write. … And then I’d just do it.

(*) Yes, for some reason the all-caps are important to me.

I’m in the middle of PLAY right now, and I’m working on “a game to change the world”, and a pitch for a TV show (that I’m also going to use to learn a layout programme with). I’ve also varied when I PLAY a little: it turns out that 2 months was just a little bit too long. I’m now on a six-weeks of focused writing followed by 2 weeks of PLAY, which seems to be a better ratio for me.

PLAY has changed my approach to writing. It’s a reward for hard, focused work. It’s an opportunity to get inspired about stuff I might do next. It takes the pressure off me to create ‘good’ stuff, and instead lets me explore.

So there you go. Identify a problem in your life. Try a solution. Don’t be afraid to make radical changes. This why I admire Matt trying out different schedules; and Jenni for taking Wednesdays off to write. It’s the sort of stuff we need to do; as writers, we need to create a life that works for us (and the people around us).

Wednesday Writing – Guest Post – Matt Cowens

This week I’m trying something a little different. Since I’m just editing at the moment and there isn’t so much to report, I thought I’d ask a few of my blogging inclined friends to write me a little something about writing.

First up is Matt: Dad, film maker, teacher, roleplayer and all round funny guy. He has been making impressive word counts by finding time to write an hour a day. I am jealous. Here he discusses writing time, making it versus finding it.

I’m a high school teacher and therefore I have a lot of holidays. This is a fact that I adore. There are many aspects of being a high school teacher that are difficult and taxing. Lots of holidays is not one of them.

When I’m on holiday I tend to revive my long term interest in two things – reading and writing. I read very little during term time, maybe a few novels a year that my classes are studying, a few short stories, lots of blogs and internet junk, but not a lot. The summer holidays are a strong contrast, with reading for pleasure becoming once again a daily activity.

Writing for pleasure usually surfaces as well, though not necessarily as a daily thing.

A couple of years ago I participated in Kiwinowrimo, attempting to write 50,000 words in a month. It was fun, I’m someone who responds well to deadlines, and I got it done. Some days I had to get up at 6am and do a chunk of writing before going to work, but it was worth it. I was excited to get up and get back to writing as the project (a teen novel) built momentum.

I get up at 5am most days now, but my morning is less literary and more block-stacking, dancing around to Yo Gabba Gabba, and child-ticklingerary. It’s incredibly rewarding and awesome but isn’t, as far as I can see, furthering my writing.

This school holidays I’ve had the good fortune to find a lot of free time for writing. My son Dominic has a nap every morning for about two hours, and both my wife and I use this time to write (as well as drink tea, do occasional chores, and make lunch). It’s been a real pleasure to be writing every day again. This found time stuff is great.

It’s going to stop on Monday. When I’m back at school teaching there’ll be no handy down-time to write in. I’m going to have to make time, which is a harder proposition. I’m going to have to sacrifice lying down watching TV in bed time in order to sustain momentum. That doesn’t sound like a big deal but at the end of a hard day’s playing with Dom, teaching, playing with Dom, eating delicious dinner and getting ready for bed it’s tempting to give in to my lazy impulses.

I can’t get up early to write. 5am is early enough for me. If I’m going to make time to write it’s evening time I need. I probably don’t need much to feel like I’m keeping the current project simmering away – maybe half an hour a day? That sounds easy. Easy peasy.

Ask me how it’s going when the essay marking starts rolling in again.

(Look forward to more writing related blog posts by guests in the future!)