Where do you get your ideas from?

Scott Westerfeld, the speculative fiction writer, says on his website that he gets his from Schenectady, which I have always suspected of being a fictional place anyway. But like most writers, my ideas are a combination of bits – bits of things that have happened to me, bits of things that have happened to someone else, bits of things that have never happened but wouldn’t it be interesting if they did?

For example, for my adult novel Blood Ties, the mixture started with me obsessing over whether my apartment would sell at auction the next day. ‘The desire to know the future gnaws at our bones,’ I thought as I paced my living room, and then I stopped and thought, ‘That’s a great line. I’d better write that down before I forget it.’ I sat at the keyboard and typed it in and then kept typing until I had the first draft of The stonecaster’s story, which begins the book. Who knows where the stones came from? The next element was attending a lecture with Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, but I can’t tell you what interested me in that lecture or it would be a spoiler for the second and third books (Deep Water and Full Circle). And the third element was being tired of the standard fantasy format of a king and a kingdom being helped by a group of ‘special’ people, and wondering if it were possible to keep the sense of wonder in fantasy without buying into that essentially undemocratic structure.

So, where do I get my ideas from? Here and there and everywhere…

How many books have you written?

I have published seventeen books for children and young adults. I have also contributed to a couple of anthologies. Blood Ties is my first book written specifically for adults, although a fictional biography of the Australian pioneer Mary MacKillop has sold well to adults as well as young people. (Psst! Got a Catholic mother or grandmother or teenager? It’s a great present for older women and adolescent girls: the biggest fan of the book is 84 – but the next biggest is 12!)

Why do you write?

Because I get cranky if I don’t and my husband doesn’t like it. Seriously.

I think that people who are prone to creativity, whether that’s writing or painting or composing or singing or cooking or potting or fixing up cars or knitting finger puppets, tend to get a little addicted to the pursuit and have withdrawal symptoms if they don’t do it for a while. The question, I suppose, is why you get addicted to that particular form of creativity. For me it was a case of fanatical reader meets inadequate libraries: there are stories I want to read which no-one had written and the only way I get to read those stories is to write them myself. The alternative explanation is that all writers are megalomaniacs who want to control events, and that fantasy writers are extreme megalomaniacs who go so far as to invent an entire world which they can control. Some truth in both of those, I suspect. Certainly the reason I prefer writing prose to writing scripts is that in a story I am in charge and that no producer is going to tell me that I have to cut all the important scenes because we can’t get the outside broadcast van, which happened to me once at the ABC (see Bio).

What’s your favourite book that you have written?

For children, Victor’s Quest, because Victor is a sweetie. For adults – my latest venture is into historical fiction, writing under the name Pamela Hart, and my first attempt is The Soldier’s Wife. I’m rather fond of it.

Where can I buy your books?

Support your local bookshop! If they don’t have the book you can get them to order it in for you. If you don’t have a local bookshop, my books are available pretty much everywhere online, including Booktopia, Amazon, etc.

Books unfortunately go out of print, so some of them may only be available second hand. Through the wonders of modern technology, I have managed to make some of these available by eBook. Click on the eBook link on the menu above.

What’s your favourite book that someone else has written?

I have two: Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Also anything by Shakespeare, but preferably on stage, not on the page.

Have you always been a writer?

No. I have worked in the public service, as a waitress, in public relations, as a sub-editor, a scriptwriter for the PowerHouse Museum and for ABC Kids TV, a university lecturer, a business consultant, a technical writer and editor, a consultant in preventing corruption in law enforcement agencies, and an educational designer and trainer for adults. I started writing for kids when I was a scriptwriter at the ABC and ran two careers, as writer and consultant, for around twelve years until my son was born, when I dropped the consultancy work.

I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was around twelve, but I knew that it is hard to make a living as a writer and so I made sure I had other qualifications to make a living.

What inspires you as a writer?

That’s another one of those questions where I have to say, ‘I don’t really know’. See question 1. I suppose what inspires me as a writer is the same as what inspires me as a person – stories of courage, generosity, hope, laughter… that sounds so naff. Actually, it’s just as likely to be something totally disgusting and gory, or something clinical and scientific. I am at the moment, for example, very interested in the recent idea that the basic shape of the universe may be a fractal. How could you represent that in a story? It’s a structural issue, and I am interested in structure in narrative. It may not ever make it into a story, but maybe in ten years a light bulb will go on and I’ll see how to do it.

How much money do you make?

This changes from year to year, so it’s easier to explain how the royalty system works. When one of my books is sold, the publisher must pay me a royalty. Usually, in Australia, that is 10% of the purchase price (it’s less in the US and UK). So if the book costs $10.00, I get $1.00. If it costs $20.00, I get $2.00, and so on. However, for a picture book, that 10% is split between the author and the illustrator, so for a $10.00 book, we would each get 50 cents.

You can see that you have to sell a LOT of books to make any money.

Have any of your books ever been rejected by a publisher?

Of course. My first children’s book, The Willow Tree’s Daughter, was rejected twice before it was taken on by Allen & Unwin. Since then, a couple of my books have been rejected before finding a publisher. If you receive a personal rejection letter from a publisher (rather than a form letter) which says they liked your work but it didn’t fit their list and that they would like to see other work from you, that is actually an excellent sign, because the form letter just says, ‘thank you but no thank you’. If a publisher invites you to submit other work, they mean it.

The phrase ‘doesn’t fit our list at the moment’ or something similar, has real meaning. Publishers have quotas of the number of books in each category which they can publish in any particular year or years. So many historical romances, so much SF. If those slots are already filled by established authors, who can be guaranteed to sell, there is no way a publisher will bump one from the list to make room for a new writer. They will also try to avoid setting up competing authors for the same market. For example, my book, Victor’s Quest, was rejected by my publisher, Allen & Unwin, because it was too similar in style and market niche to a very successful series of books they already had going. It didn’t mean that the book was bad – and in fact, Victor’s Quest went on to be shortlisted for a couple of awards and has been my biggest-selling and most popular work. But it didn’t fit their list at the time.

I want to be a writer. What should I do?

As Ursula Le Guin once said: Learn to type. This is good advice.

After that, write the book. I’m not being funny. Lots of people say to me that they want to be writers, but they’ve never actually tried to write. ‘When I have time,’ they say. Sorry, writers don’t wait until they have time. They just write, even if (as in one case I know) it’s only twenty words a day. Speed doesn’t matter, but commitment to the process does.

Try to find a workshop group. Look in the paper, look on-line, find your local community college or writers’ centre. There will be something nearby. If there’s not, there are on-line courses. I teach one myself at the Australian Writers’Centre, where I also teach face to face. But what is important is not the course, but the group. The best thing you can have as a writer is a group of people whom you trust to read and critique your work. Honestly, ruthlessly and constructively. One of the reasons I did a Master of Arts in writing was because I wanted to get to know people who took writing seriously and who had the vocabulary to talk about it in a way that was useful to writers. I was lucky. I got to workshop with some fabulous people, including Rose Moxham (check out her new book, Teethmarks) and Jeremy Fisher (A Visible Man). Their input has saved me from many a bad draft. What I most love about teaching at the AWC is that all our courses, even the basic ones, include workshopping.

If you can’t afford or can’t get to a workshop, try to set one up among people you know.

After you have a draft with which you are reasonably satisfied, you need to find a publisher. I would strongly recommend that at this point, if not before, you join your national authors’ organisation. In Australia, that is the Australian Society of Authors (www.asa.org.au).

If you are going to submit your work, please check out the agent’s or publisher’s website for their preferences. It’s no good sending the whole ms if they only want 50 pages and a synopsis. The submission guidelines are a test!

Pamela’s top tip

Put enormous effort into the first ten pages of your novel. If it doesn’t grab the reader, the rest won’t be read. If you feel your book ‘doesn’t get going’ until the third chapter, then cut out the first two. I know it’s hard, but it must be done (incidentally, it’s something I have had to do several times). Agents and publishers just won’t read past the first few pages if they’re bored (nor do most readers). They have twenty other manuscripts waiting to be read and they’re not going to waste their time. So imagine that you are writing for a reader browsing in your favourite bookshop. They pick up your book, read the first page – and are hooked! ‘I must buy this,’ they think. That’s the reaction you will need from an agent or publisher.

And then – put just as much effort into the rest of the book! If you can substantially improve the first ten pages, chances are you can improve the rest too. One of my editors says, ‘The opening sells your first book, but your ending sells your second.’