Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Will you read my manuscript and give me some advice?
A: No, I’m afraid not. Not because I wouldn’t like to -- I enjoy working with writers -- but because a) I’m flat out with my own books and b) there are potential legal complications. It’s why tv shows won’t even open unsolicited scripts. They don’t want to get sued by someone claiming ‘you stole my idea’. From time to time I hold writing workshops, and in that arena I’ll do whatever I can to help you see your writing dreams come true.
Q: Can you help me get an agent?
A: I'm afraid I can't help with that, either. If you look at the On Writing pages, you'll find some advice about getting a literary agent.
Q: Are you only published in Australia?
A: No, I'm also published in the USA and the UK, by Orbit, as both Karen Miller and K E Mills, who writes the Rogue Agent series.
The Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology is now releasing in some foreign language markets -- please check your local Amazon.com, if you have one, as well as the foreign language pages on this website. If you click on the flag on the site's homepage, you'll be guided to your vicinity. Sometimes information from the foreign language publishers is a little hard to track down ... but I do my best to keep current. Your patience is appreciated.
My Stargate SG1 novels, Alliances and Do No Harm, are now available in the US, the UK and Australia. My Star Wars novels, Wild Space, Clone Wars Gambit Stealth and Clone Wars Gambit Siege are also now available.
Check with your local bookshop, or order these books from the publishers at www.stargatenovels.com, (for the Stargate novels only) or Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. You can also order online from Galaxy Bookshop, and Infinitas Bookshop, both in Sydney.
Q: How many 'Mage' books are there?
A: Four. In Australia, the titles are The Innocent Mage, Innocence Lost, The Prodigal Mage, and The Reluctant Mage. Through Orbit, in the US and UK, the titles are The Innocent Mage, The Awakened Mage, The Prodigal Mage, and The Reluctant Mage. I'm working on the standalone prequel now, A Blight of Mages, and it will be released in 2011.
Q: Are you also K.E. Mills?
A: Sprung! Yes, I am. As K.E. Mills, I'm writing a fantasy series called Rogue Agent. The first three books are available now, and there will be at least two more. They are: The Accidental Sorcerer, Witches Incorporated and Wizard Squared.
Q: How do I get published?
A: The short answer is: with a lot of luck and a damned good story. The long answer is ... longer.
Writing professionally isn’t for the faint-hearted. Publishing, while part of the entertainment industry, is a business. The purpose of business is to make money, not make your dreams of being a published author come true. If an editor doesn’t believe your work is capable of generating sufficient income they won’t buy it. Brutal, but true.
Basically, it’s a crap shoot. Every year, editors gamble that their latest discovery is going to hit the bestseller lists and shoot the author into the stratosphere. Sometimes these gambles pay off, but mostly they don’t. At the end of the day, all opinions about writing are subjective. Don’t forget that several agents passed on JK Rowling before she was accepted and went on to make publishing history. Every agent that turned her down was a competent professional who didn’t, for whatever reason, connect with her work. Are they kicking themselves now? You bet. Were they wrong to turn her down? In hindsight, oh yeah. But at the end of the day, they could only be guided by what worked for them. The same is true throughout the publishing industry. To get your story into print, all you need is one agent and/or editor who connects with your work and is willing to take that gamble. But that, I’m sorry to say, is completely out of your control. You can’t make somebody like your work. They either will, or they won’t.
What’s in your control is that story. Getting published is hard enough without shooting yourself in the foot before you start with writing that’s not polished to perfection. If you’re serious about getting published, you need to think and act like a professional. You need to set aside all questions of ego and focus wholly and solely on crafting the best writing of which you’re capable. Never think ‘near enough is good enough’. Always, always, always strive to do better. Rewrite as many times as it takes, to get each sentence as close to perfect as you can. Never be satisfied. And always get a second, third and fourth opinion before showing it to the people who can get you published. Second chances are rare in this game.
Do your homework. When you think your manuscript is ready for presentation, make it look beautiful. Strong dark ink. Clear double spacing. Numbered pages, top right hand side. Wide margins. No fancy fonts: standard 12 point Courier is fine. Agents and editors plough through thousands and thousands of pages every year. Don’t make yours hard to read. That’s like hobbling Makybe Diva at the start of the Melbourne Cup.
Choose carefully where it’s going. Most publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but some will. Check their websites, or give them a call. If you require an agent, contact the Australian Society of Authors or your country’s equivalent. They’ll provide an up-to-date list. But again, check first before sending your story to them. A lot of agents won’t deal with genre (sf, fantasy, horror). And not all those who will are in the market for new clients.
When you find someone who’s prepared to read your work, send them what they ask for (a synopsis and sample chapters, or the whole work) and then leave them alone. Nagging creates a bad impression. Agents will usually get back to you much faster than a publisher. They can take months. Deal with it. The name of the game is patience.
The other quality you need in truckloads is perseverance. Very few authors get the nod with their first book. Most endure rejection over and over again. I did ... and I’m in really good company. It’s the norm, not the exception. The sooner you learn to detach yourself from the work, the easier that rejection will be. It always stings and disappoints, but more often than not your work is rejected because it’s still not good enough. Don’t sulk and call the rejecting agent or editor names. Become a better writer, and try again.
Q: Do I have to have an agent?
A: An agent isn’t always needed to sell your story. I sold Kingmaker, Kingbreaker without one. But the minute I was offered a contract I got representation. An agent’s job is to foster your career, run interference with the publisher if there’s ever a problem and get you the best deal going. A publishing contract is a legal document with all kinds of ramifications. You need someone in your corner who’s made it their business to understand them. A good agent is worth every penny they earn. A bad agent, though, can be lethal. Again, do your homework. Find out how many sales they’ve made, who they represent, and if those people are happy. Contact your nearest professional writers’ organisation and see if they know something you don’t. Don’t let desperation lead you astray. Sadly, there are sharks out there waiting to prey on the vulnerable and inexperienced. And when you find an agent you think you’d like to work with, interview them. Make sure they’re someone you can work with long term.
Getting an agent, like getting published, is hard. Again, remember the Three Ps: professionalism, patience and perseverance.
Q: Are writing groups and/or courses worth my time?
A: They can be. Like most things in life, it depends. A meal is only as good as the chef who prepares it. A writing course is only as useful as the person teaching it. And a writing group can kill your career stone dead, if it’s the wrong one.
Writing courses are popping up all over the place these days. The trouble is, anybody can call themselves a ‘writing teacher’. There’s no industry standard, no training, no officially recognized qualifications, as such. Some people who’ve completed writing courses then turn around and start teaching, but if they weren’t taught properly themselves ... well. Good luck. Like everything else in life, research is the key. If there’s a course you’re interested in doing, talk to the people who’ve already completed it. If most of them derived a benefit, you can be reasonably sure you probably will, too.
One excellent course is Clarion South. Modeled on the long running and highly successful American Clarion East and Clarion West speculative fiction workshops, Clarion South is the brainchild of Fantastic Queensland, a group of proactive and energetic folks up north (from me!) who decided we needed a Clarion of our own Downunder, and made it happen. More power to their elbows, I say.
Clarion South is a 6 week residential writing boot camp, with a changing roster of lecturers successful in the speculative fiction arena as writers and editors. Some are locals, some are imports. During your time there you’ll read, critique and write tens of thousands of words of short stories in a pressure-cooker environment like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Many graduates describe Clarion as a life-defining and/or changing event. You’ll realize that writing is the only thing for you, or the worst mistake of your life, or something you want to dabble in but don’t need to do professionally. Clarion is brutal. It will make you or break you; either way, you won’t escape unscathed.
As a previous participant I endorse the process wholeheartedly ... but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
You can also consider the Odyssey Workshop, which is for spec fic novelists and held in the US. It’s run in a similar fashion to Clarion, but the focus is on novel-writing, not short stories.
As for writing groups, well, you’re in a similar boat. Sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re destructive beyond belief. Writing is a fragile game, involving the laying bare of heart and soul. It saddens me to say it, but not everyone you meet in a writers’ group is going to have your best interests at heart. People who feel threatened or hurt by the most reasonable criticism of their work will often attack what they perceive to be the cause of their pain: and that could be you. If you don’t have a leader who can guide the group with sensitivity and tact, or if a leaderless group falls prey to one or two dominant personalities, you’re looking at a lot of heartache without much return.
Equally dangerous is the group that gets so friendly the element of constructive criticism disappears. Suddenly everyone’s a genius and nobody wants to say ‘sorry, that’s crap’, because it might endanger a friendship. The name of the game is objective evaluation ... and when a writers’ group becomes an excuse for a social gathering, it’s often the first casualty.
To be honest, I think one of the best benefits of a writing group isn’t in the analysis you receive. It’s from the process of reading, analyzing and suggesting revisions to the work of other people. I say this because we’re almost always too close to our own work for objective evaluation. We know it intimately, we love the characters, we’re enchanted by the journey we’ve sent them on ... and as a result we can’t see the flaws. And even if somebody does make a valid point, we can close our eyes and ears to it.
But when it’s somebody else’s work, suddenly we have all the perspective in the world. Training yourself to deconstruct a work in progress then reconstruct it again with useful advice on how to improve it is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. The better you get at doing it to a story you didn’t write, the easier it gets with your own work. Because the only way you ever improve as a writer is to be conscious of the craft and how you can apply it when both writing and editing your stories.
For this reason, I recommend aspiring writers join one of the excellent online writing groups now available. There you’ll find a community of folk who love the kind of stories you love, read them and write them and understand what it is you’re trying to do. You’ll get good feedback, and you’ll hone your own critical skills faster than you’d believe is possible. And you’ll make friends, too. Which is important, because writing can be a lonely occupation.
Check out the Links page for more information on courses/writers’ groups.
Q: Can books on writing help me improve?
A: I’d give that a qualified ‘yes’. Qualified because, like most things, it’s not what you know, it’s how you use what you know. Handing me a hammer isn’t going to help me build a house if all I do is stand around looking at it. I actually have to use the damn thing. Likewise, I can collect every great book about writing ever published, but unless I take the knowledge they contain and apply it to my own work, it’s all just a waste of trees.
I have an extensive library of books about writing, and I re-read them regularly. As I read them, I run a mental checklist against whatever story it is I’m writing at the time. It helps to keep me on my toes, and focused on the craft of writing.
Particularly helpful to me have been: Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card; How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey; Writing the Breakthrough Novel by Donald Maas; Get that Novel Started and Get that Novel Written, by Donna Levin; How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card.
Equally helpful has been developing the habit of reading other novels and watching film/tv analytically. Deconstructively. Instead of passively taking in the story, start asking yourself questions as you read or watch. What’s happening here? How has the writer revealed character, or advanced the plot, or added thematic content? How do you feel at any given moment in the story, and why? What did the writer do to invoke that emotional response? How were you shocked? Saddened? Surprised? Amused? Tricked? And if the story doesn’t work for you, discover why. Peel back the layers of its construction and see for yourself where it went wrong, and then work out ways you could improve it.
A great idea is only the beginning. Most of the rest is craft, and craft can be learned.
Q: Who are your favourite authors?
A: I have many, many, many favourite authors not just in the speculative fiction genre, but in crime, historical fiction and romance as well. Plus some non-fiction areas. Keep an eye on my LJ blog. That’s where I’ll be talking about the writers I love to read.
Q: Where do you get your ideas?
A: The seething swampland of my subconscious. No, really. I do. Honest.
Seriously, I think writers are people who have a penchant for seeing a story in every stray event they encounter. Something attracts our attention and we wonder, why? How? What if? And before we know it, we’ve got ourselves a book. Or novella, or short story, as the case may be. We’re bees, collecting factoids like pollen and turning them into prose. Sometimes there’s a cause or a principle or a philosophical consideration about which we care deeply, and the only way we can articulate our feelings is to put them in a story. Sometimes we love other stories, like fairy tales, so much we want to retell them in our own voices. Research gives us ideas. Study gives us ideas. Hell, grocery shopping gives us ideas. Better ask: where don’t you get your ideas? The answer to that is, Nowhere.
Got a question you’d like answered? Feel free to email me, and I’ll do my best to satisfy your curiosity.