Though I am about to see my first novel published by Fremantle Press, I am far from an expert on how to get published. The following list is my probably more accurately described as my list of possible explanations for how it happened, detailed in chronological order (in terms of when each epiphany occurred over the course of my adult life).
Write and keep writing
I learned early that if you want to write something good, you have to write something. Even if only ten percent of what you write isn't rubbish, that will still be a lot more good writing than you would have produced if you didn't write at all. I don't wait for brilliant ideas to strike before I sit down to write. I generally sit down with no ideas at all or just a single one that has potential. But once I start, my brain starts to focus on what could maybe happen next, and as I'm writing I will be starting to think either 'this is working' or 'this is not working'. If the latter, it might be possible to tweak it to make it work. Or it might be beyond redemption. A bit like painting a picture.
Hone your craft
Get your best work edited by professionals to the extent you can afford to pay them, and use the editors' feedback to learn how to edit your own work. If you can't afford an editor (they're not cheap, as there is a lot of work in editing anything), you can still order a few excellent books on how to write such as Fiona McIntosh's How to Write Your Blockbuster, Carmel Bird's Dear Writer and Stephen King's On Writing, all of which I recommend (actually, do this anyway, even if you have an editor). No one is born knowing how to write well. You must listen, learn and practise, and that process can take years. Overwriting is the biggest problem. You might assume that editing is a process of improving your writing, like trimming a bonsai with a pair of nail scissors. In fact, it has more in common with pruning a lemon tree the way your granddad does it. Chop, chop, chop; cut anything that isn't doing something. Repetition is my worst sin, of points within a paragraph, words and phrases across paragraphs. One of the best bits of advice I've ever received was from an editor who observed that with every point I make I'm tending to first make it, then drive it home. I only need to make it. Readers don't need it explained to them. They understand it the first time. (You can review my past four sentences for an illustration). Sentences need to be shorter, fewer adjectives, fewer words ending with 'ly'. No 'purple prose' including bad metaphors and similes (we were taught these were indicative of literary genius in primary school. Turns out that advice could be a tad dodgy). It can be quite an interesting (read: distressing) exercise to look up what 'purple prose' is and compare how many features the given examples share with your writing (I originally wrote this as 'how much common ground they share'. But common means shared, so it's a repetition. See … tricky!) There is so much to learn once you start reading about writing. For example, Carmel Bird's book taught me that attributing human feelings and responses to things in nature is quite the no-no. e.g. 'the storm raged'. Who knew? That sounds alright to me. But Carmel is right – it isn't long before pathetic fallacy can veer into not okay territory. Such as: 'The flowers drooped in sadness'.
I always wrote exactly what I wanted to, privately. Fantasy, romance, whatever I felt like. My stories were gritty with characters I loved, magic and thrills. But none of that seemed like it was 'literary' enough to be suitable for other people. I remember deciding to write something for a Women's Weekly short story competition once years ago, abandoning my usual style (plot- and character-driven drama) in favour of what I thought they wanted – some boring middle-aged lady learning about the meaning of life by studying ducks or something (not that but you know what I mean). Needless to say, I didn't get a call. Look, I have a lot of respect for people who can write something that winds up being described as 'lyrical', 'beautiful' or 'poetic'. I'm just not one of those people. I've learnt that trying to be something you're not will get you nowhere because you just won't be very good at it. Well, not good enough to get published anyway. I feel like this is why I didn't get published until I was in my forties. To be published one first needs to develop a healthy level of not caring what other people think.
Write what you know
You hear this a lot and with good reason. I always had fun creating excellent characters and lots of action, but nothing I wrote ever really distinguished itself until I took the most minute (or at least it felt that way to me) sidestep out of gritty romance and into writing crime. The characters were happy to accompany me on this journey, and exciting plots with death and betrayal and romance were all easily transferable, but the new ingredient was the fact that I could weave a bit of my legal knowledge into a crime story. I'd been a lawyer for nearly 20 years by the time I started Private Prosecution. Writing that stuff was so easy. It was the easiest part, but it was what elevated my writing to the next level (the level where a publisher is interested).
You might not be lucky enough to have a 20-year legal career you forgot to write about, but what you know really doesn't have to be that unique. At the moment I'm reading Zoe Deleuil's The Night Village and she's writing about being a new mother with such incredible detail and insight that you know she knows exactly what she's talking about. The result is spectacular.
Base it in WA. (Or somewhere)
I don't think I'm alone in this: For many years, my stories were not based anywhere. They were either in some fantasy world, or a place or town that is not identified. Anyone who has ever asked me to read their writing has done the same thing. A fantasy world. An unspecified battle in an unidentified war. A cold, lonely city that is only described as 'the city'. When I started writing Private Prosecution, I did the same as what I'd always done: started writing about some people in a city but not committing to which one. After a few 'this is not working' sessions, I realised that if I was going to write crime, I had to commit to a location where this story would be set. There had to be some laws that applied to the people in this story. Trying to vague out on the law and court procedure and so on was just making everything too hard as well as beige-ing out my whole story.Committing to a place and a jurisdiction was the absolute turning point for this book. As soon as I decided it was in Perth (where I lived during my university years) in Western Australia (a jurisdiction I've worked in for my whole legal career), the story started to really take shape. It allowed me to really go nuts on what I know (point 4).
Furthermore, setting my story in Perth piqued the interest of Fremantle Press. I doubt they'd be the only Australian publisher that wants to see that your story belongs somewhere.
Well, putting all that down in writing was quite enlightening – I'm off now to enjoy a re-read of Dear Writer.
Lisa Ellery's book Private Prosecution is out now.