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How to Write Your Block-buster - Fiona McIntosh

How to Write Your Block-buster

Paperback Published: 27th May 2015
ISBN: 9780143572381
Number Of Pages: 272

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To write is a verb. That's an action word. No more procrastination.

Almost everybody thinks they have a book in them or dreams of seeing their name on a front cover, but not everyone knows how to go about it. Sharing all she's learned so far, Fiona McIntosh, one of Australia's most successful commercial authors, shows you how to get started and, even more importantly, how to finish.

In this practical and lively handbook McIntosh guides you through the stages of writing a novel, from establishing good working habits all the way through to submitting your draft to a suitable publisher.

Chock-full of insider's advice on what makes a bestselling general fiction author, this invaluable resource will equip the newcomer to novel writing with the tools to finish your first draft within a year. If you have a tough hide and a philosophical attitude – as well as a damn strong work ethic – you can make writing fiction your career.

About the Author

Fiona McIntosh is an internationally bestselling author of novels for adults and children. She is a travel columnist and co-founded an award-winning travel magazine with her husband, which they ran for fifteen years before Fiona became a full-time author. Fiona roams the world researching and drawing inspiration for her novels. Although South Australia is now home, she admits her best writing is done from the peace of Tasmania.

Industry Reviews

'This rare good book on how to set about writing a popular novel is compulsory reading. Fiona McIntosh is top of the pops.' Bryce Courtenay, at his final Masterclass

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Introduction

To write is a verb. At school I was taught that a verb is 'an action word'.

So, no more procrastination. Today's the day you get active and begin the journey of writing your novel.

People find their way to writing for all manner of rea- sons. Some of us are scribblers from a young age; others take to it in later years. Because it sounds sort of cool, I wish I could say that I had to write or I couldn't breathe. But that would be a whopping lie. Writing was an option for me. I could have taken up other pursuits but I chose to create stories. My writing career was spawned by nothing more banal than the midlife crisis of turning forty. At this oddly emotional milestone some people buy a fast car, some people go trekking in the Himalayas, and a few have extreme makeovers, get divorced or have affairs. My response to the fear of becoming lost to middle age was to attempt to write a novel.

Sad, isn't it?

It doesn't even sound remotely exciting. And yet if you were standing in my shoes at the time, you'd know that nothing could have been more daring, more dangerous, more thrilling than to be balanced on the precipice of life, staring into the abyss of my fifth decade, and actually doing something to shut up those whispering demons that were telling me I was too old, that I would fail. It would have been so easy to let the yearning go and allow the demons to win. After all, they were simply cautioning me that I was chasing an empty dream: reminding me that I was a mother, a wife, a business owner with responsibilities and that pursuing this notion was not only hollow but also downright selfish.

Plus, everyone wants to write a book, don't they? There are so many aspiring writers out there. Most believe they have a book in them. What made me think I could craft a story? I'd never played with poetry or short stories. I hadn't written anything creative since my school days, and I'm not especially cerebral or inquisitive. I don't gossip, I pay little attention to topical events and I don't read celebrity magazines. Worse, I'm not even that interested in people so I'm not a natural people watcher, and the human condition doesn't intrigue me nearly as much as animals do. I believed I had few of the traditional traits that show themselves in novelists. What was I thinking? Did I really imagine I could stand alongside all those top sellers?

Bizarrely, I did.

Yes, it was selfish but still I chose to chase that dream. I want to reassure you, dear aspiring writer, that it did not cost me my family, my friends or my sanity. And I am now living the dream as a full-time writer who earns her living from novels. I'm still married to the same fellow, still cooking and cleaning up after our sons, still running a demanding, albeit different, business but feeling a hell of a lot more in control of my own destiny. And, above all, I am happy. I love my life, I love what I do, and I love to write.

Let me emphasise that writing wasn't a long-held dream. I didn't grow up with any burning desire to craft a novel. I did possess a voracious appetite for reading though and if experience tells me anything, it's that from the great horde of readers – the ones who dare not leave the house without a book kept close – come so many of the writers of the world.

I realise now that my self-revelation to write a book came when I was thirty-six years old but at that time it was a quiet notion; it took three years to fester and take shape before I found the courage to say aloud to my family and friends, 'I'm serious about writing a book'. That decision happened at thirty-nine when I was feeling anxious about that forty milestone. Rather than seek enlightenment in the Himalayas or have my face filled with botox, writing a book was the pathway that beckoned, then demanded I walk down it. Before I knew it I was booking a flight to Hobart to take a fiction-writing course with the amazing motivator, and one of Australia's most beloved novelists, Bryce Courtenay.

That's when my whole focus changed.

I'd spent years playing a support role to my children and to my husband in his work, and now, at last, I was going to be entirely selfish for a week. What I didn't take into consideration was that I would experience the epiphany that Bryce warned might happen. Over the course of the week, as the concept of being a writer slotted firmly into place, I knew that I was going home to discuss selling our business and that I was going to shape the rest of my working life around creating commercial fiction. It seemed that I needed that week away from all things familiar – away from the confines of home and work rigours, from the routine and structure of my life – to accept what had obviously been nagging away at the depths of my subconscious for years.

I wanted to be a writer.

I went home from my week in Hobart, I sat down at our kitchen table each night and I wrote like fury. I had a finished manuscript in twelve weeks because I was disciplined.

The discipline trait came naturally. I'd always had a strong work ethic and I'm inherently ambitious. Plus I'd been running a small, flourishing travel magazine business with my husband for the previous dozen years so I knew about seeing a job to its close, no matter what the obstacles were. At the time we also had twin nine-year-olds to care for, along with dogs to walk, family to visit and a whole other life that took precedence over my late-night story- telling. I used to sit down at my computer at 10 p.m. once the children were asleep, Ian and I had shared a cuppa and he was reading in bed, and the household was silent. I'd usually write for three hours. It wasn't hard, especially since I'd given up television (there was no social media then but there were plenty of distractions that I shut out). I learned to live on a few hours' sleep plus I scaled back our social life: not that we were party animals, but if an invitation got in the way of my precious writing and it wasn't essential, I would say no.

I still do, by the way. I don't do breakfasts and you will rarely see me out and about lunching – both cut badly into the day. I avoid any non-essential functions that impede on my writing hours, or indeed my precious family time. I don't believe I am missing anything. Nowadays, if I want to meet someone I will make an appointment from 2 p.m. onwards when the creative part of my writing day is usually done. I'll discuss this in depth in the coming chapters.

So! When I was gearing up to submit my first manuscript fifteen years ago the publishing industry looked a whole lot different from how it does today. Publishers were a mysterious breed who lived high on mountains among the clouds: in fact they were so mythical that a new writer rarely met one and almost never spoke to one. I certainly didn't know what one looked like. I thought they wore flowing scarves and gargled with gin and gravel. Neverthless my goal was to publish my first book with one of the major publishing houses – the 'big five' as they are sometimes called. I had to climb the mountain but how would I know which door to bang on to find the right publisher?

Simple! In 1999 I looked to my bookcase, pulled out books by my three massively favoured writers in the fantasy genre – the very genre I was attempting to enter – and noticed that each spine held the same imprint. In my mind I settled for nothing less than the publisher that appeared to be the chosen stable for that gang of writers, Robin Hobb, George R R Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay. They were with HarperCollins. That's where I needed to be. The thought of being published alongside these three luminaries of the genre in 1999 felt so exciting it inspired and fuelled me. (It didn't occur to me that HarperCollins wouldn't want to read my story.)

But there were gatekeepers, weren't there? Huge, club-wielding trolls who would never let me get through to the person who was responsible for these writers, the person who I wanted to edit my book. So I rang HarperCollins, pretended to be a journalist writing a story about publishing and simply asked the receptionist who was in charge of those particular writers. She kindly gave me the name of the editor.

I know, I know, but it was harder then! You lot have it easy now. Publishing houses have flung open their doors to you. Back then it was a closed shop and editors were ghosts who moved in their own slipstream, so a little fib was required to get me the right name.

Anyway, now I not only knew the publishing house, I knew the individual editor who I wanted to be responsible for my story.

As you can likely already tell I envisaged that my manuscript would be accepted. I think that this is something I do in life as naturally as I breathe: I picture what I want and then I go after it. I imagine myself achieving what I'm setting out to do and suddenly the journey seems logical and not nearly so daunting. Now, I'll readily admit that life doesn't always track according to plan but having a plan is a positive approach to so many of life's challenges. The act of picturing my goal seems to map out the route to success for me. It's no different for writing novels. No one else can organise your mindset, so get it sorted from the moment you make the decision that you want to write novels. Visualise yourself finishing the book, submitting it, seeing your book published. Be an optimist!

It may not go according to the daydream – but who's to say it won't? A strong and positive mindset is the foundation for setting out on this journey. There are going to be obstacles that come along but if you remain confident and trust your instincts, then you won't fall by the wayside or have any excuse to give up.

No one can give you this positive frame of mind – it's up to you. How you achieve it is going to differ for each of you. I did not join a writers' group or have lots of readers – personally I find it distracting and I don't need others chattering over my story and giving me lots of advice.

Let me qualify, however, that being in the company of other writers never fails to nourish me. If you can belong to a group of like-minded people, pursuing a similar dream, then I would encourage you to spend time in their midst now and then. They will recharge your optimism and buoy you if you are hitting a flat spot. I know from my commercial fiction masterclass that I host twice a year that the cohorts who remain close become a magnificent support group and cheer squad for each other. They celebrate rather than denigrate each others' successes. This sort of oxygen around your dream cannot be underestimated. However, the masterclassers are people who come together, bond fast, and desperately want to see goals being kicked from within the group. Just beware of other writing groups where members are overly competitive and nitpicking, where work tends to be torn apart and fragile confidences can be damaged as a result. If you ever find yourself attached to a know-all gang like that, leave it and run away as fast as you can.

Where was I? Ah, that's right, I knew the publishing house and the editor who I was hunting. May I remind you that this was pre-email and pre-website days? I barely knew the prerequisites of the publisher – I didn't even know that sending the first three consecutive chapters of my manuscript was desirable.

Poor Stephanie Smith – she received chapters four, seven and seventeen! What an amateur. I think I even sent a block of chocolate with my submission – not a bribe, just me being considerate because I figured everyone should have chocolate when they sit down to read a story. I think I even tied the whole thing up in a big ribbon so it looked nice. Oh dear. I was so naïve.

I can still remember the day I sent away Betrayal, my first manuscript. I stood in the post office for a long time wondering if I was prepared to show my work to a stranger. I found the courage to hand it over the counter but even as I did so, I recall hesitating as the man at the post office pulled it towards him with my arms still attached to the box. He laughed at me.

'What's in here, then? Gold?'

'I hope so,' was all I could mutter before we both stared at it for a horribly tense ten seconds. And then I finally let go and allowed my little bird to fly from the nest.

Here's what I learned from that time: good storytelling rarely goes unnoticed.

I did a lot of things incorrectly: my writing was far from sparkling, I didn't do enough research and I didn't look into agency representation. Fifteen years ago, if I'd not been quite so creative in how I submitted, Betrayal would have hit the slush pile with hundreds of other manuscripts and then be expected to shoulder its way through all the gatekeepers. From what I've gathered it did get straight to Stephanie's desk on arrival – cheeky me – and she rightly presumed the manuscript had passed through the traditional process, which back in those days went a bit like this . . . The slush pile consisted of dozens of manuscripts that arrived each week. Each would have to patiently wait its turn to be read by one of the minions who had the power to cast it aside and stamp it for rejection. Sometimes this decision could be made in an instant – in other words in a single glance at a load of spelling errors or a too ordinary be- ginning, it was placed without further consideration into the pile to receive a standard rejection letter. Ploughing through the towers of submissions – remember it was all paper then – by a few assistants could take weeks. And that's why rejections often took six months or more to be returned to the hopeful creator. Stephanie assumed that someone in the reading crew had enjoyed my rollicking fantasy, despite all and any obvious flaws, had given it a big tick and passed it up the chain. In a normal situation, after being read by one of the assistants, it would have then moved to the next level of reader, who might also have seen something glinting in its depths and she might then have passed it up the line until it found its way onto the right editor's desk. Me and my little fib got the whole package unopened onto the desk of the editor I was after without any gates needing to open. Stephanie admitted to me years later that she hadn't meant to read it at the moment she did but the opening paragraphs of chapter four caught her interest as she was tidying her desk. Suddenly she was turning pages, then getting up and closing the door to her office and asking the receptionist to hold calls. She was impressed enough, despite such odd chapters, to request the whole manuscript. Despite all of its amateurishness, she believed in the work and she believed, especially, that she had a new talent on her hands, one who could spin an adventuresome, exciting tale with characters to invest in. She took it to acquisitions – without me knowing – and within a month of sending off my submission I was being offered a three-book deal.

I know I cried. If I'm truthful I never doubted myself but even so, and in spite of the fib, it was a fairytale start to a new career.

I've told you all this, not to teach you that lying gets you somewhere – although let me say that confidence is a serious boon if you possess it – no, dear reader, I share this only to lift your spirits. If your storytelling is sound and you're cluey enough to be writing what the wider audience is hungry for, be assured that an editor has every reason to look hard at you. Natural-born storytellers can always acquire the writing skills; I have been nurtured by caring editorial teams who understood that, because I was doing my apprenticeship so publicly, I needed some years and books under my belt to strengthen my writing skills.

Nevertheless – and this is the very soul of being a storyteller – the inherent skill for any new writer of popular fiction is being able to weave an emotional tale that makes addictive reading because of characters the reader can care about. I do believe storytelling is a gift, and that's something new writers may have to wrestle with. It does come easier for a few – they have the flair for it as others may have that special something that allows them to run fast, draw beautifully, capture the photo that others never saw, hear the music in their heart or the poetry that skips through their mind.

It's a whole lot easier now, of course, for new writers. Publishers are easy to meet and get to know, and are openly on the hunt for emerging talent. And writers can self-publish with relative ease these days. Vanity publishing, as it was known when I was setting out, usually occurred because a writer simply couldn't get a contract with a traditional publisher. It may have been that the writer's subject matter was a family memoir and targeted at such a small audience that it didn't warrant a big print run or offer general interest to the wider reading audience. Now there is no stigma attached to self-publishing and many writers following this path are enjoying success. It used to be expensive and while a writer would have to financially invest in themselves to go down this path, it's never been easier or cheaper to get one's own book out there.

Plus, the ebook revolution has come along in my lifetime as a writer. Who'd have thought? Even as I write this I must admit that my ebook audience is substantial. Sales are always marching higher as more readers like to take their books travelling with them on e-readers. Some read an ebook for convenience, others for eco reasons, still others because they aren't sentimental about paper books, they don't have space to store them, or because they have arthritis and holding a book upright is painful.

Many people are going to buy a digital version of this book on writing and have no reason to have a physical copy of it around.

But remember, if you love the smell of a new book and you love the tactile experience of holding a book – of turning its page or getting it signed by the author – then you must keep buying printed books as much as you do ebooks. It would be a sad day if we all looked up to find that there were no more bookstores and that the printed book had gone the way of music CDs.

That said, I'm watching several of my masterclassers win themselves wonderful opportunities with big publishers, and these big publishers are taking them into ebook format first. In today's publishing climate, it's a savvy way to get your work in front of an audience, build a profile, assemble a fan base and then, when the time is right, that same publisher can discuss taking the e-novelist into print. If you are offered this option, give it serious consideration. Don't be so narrow-minded that only traditional print will give you the publishing 'rush' you need or the stamp of approval you crave. And certainly don't listen to the internet trolls out there who claim that ebooks don't count; I curl my lip whenever I read such rubbish. Clearly they are not earning a living as novelists!

We truly have lived through a revolution in publishing. The route to getting your name in print and the options on how you can be published are wide and varied. If you are being read by a paying audience and gathering fans along the way, then you can feel enormously chuffed.

There is no rulebook. Although it's true that adversity is a great source of inspiration for writers, you don't have to bleed for your writing. There is no formal requirement to struggle to be published, nor is it an important qualification – a badge of honour, so to speak – to have two dozen rejected manuscripts gathering dust somewhere. I refuse to feel guilty for my fairytale introduction into traditional publishing but at the same time I want to reassure emerging writers that if I can . . . then so can you!

But you do have to be prepared to work hard. You will have to develop a tough hide and a philosophical attitude, because rejection is more common than acceptance. It will be especially helpful if you come to your writing with solid business acumen and if you don't have it, then start developing your business skills. While you're at it, think about your self-promotional skills too. On top of that you do have to cultivate immense patience.

Let me assure you that Patience is not my middle name, it's not even something that shows up in my DNA. I am, in fact, a walking advertisement for impatience and all of its unpleasantness. Yet I have learned that writing is a slow-burn sort of business, and that it takes time to get established as an author. Even if you, like me, can sell your first attempt at a manuscript, it's still going to take years to start earning enough from your books to survive on and a few more beyond that to feel sufficiently secure to let go of all other income – unless it's one of those wretched 'overnight successes' that sells $50 billion's worth of copies.

So, the understanding that you're going to be happy but poor for a while should be factored into the equation of your dream, your new life, your family's best interests.

I am living testimony – and there are many like me – that you can not only earn from writing, you can earn a decent living from it, particularly if you're smart, disciplined and passionate about it. And it helps to be writing popular fiction too, so well done you on choosing to write a popular novel. Literary writers may win the tower of awards and critical acclaim yet few can sell the tower of books that some of the world's commercial fiction writers do. There's room enough for all of us. For a number of reasons I don't read a lot of literary fiction. When I do, and I choose it carefully, I love it. I hope literary writers are not dismissive of us commercial writers either, especially as I firmly believe that it's the popular fiction selling in the tens and sometimes the hundreds of thousands that permits publishers to take a risk on the beautiful prose and exquisitely crafted work of the literary authors and sell a few thousand – or a few hundred – of their works.

A lot of what I'm going to share with you is common sense. Still, sometimes it's helpful to be reminded, isn't it? I am going to work hard to keep my advice simple to follow, full of energy and down to earth . . . just like my stories.

How To Write Your Blockbuster aims to be an entirely practical guide, one that will get you started writing your popular fiction novel and setting yourself up for success.

It is all about commercial goals rather than purely personal or emotional ones. If you write just because you love it, then wonderful: keep writing, but you don't need this book. However, if you want to write to earn a crust and aren't sure how or where to begin, or you need something or someone to give you a push, then somewhere between these pages perhaps you'll find some thoughts, ideas and inspiration to get you started.

Please keep in mind that this is one person's perspective. There are no hard and fast rules to writing and I am no oracle. I've been writing popular genre fiction for fifteen years now, currently working on my thirtieth novel and I earn a comfortable living from it, so perhaps what I've learned will help you. Other writers will have different experiences and more pearls of wisdom.

This is what I have for you . . .

ISBN: 9780143572381
ISBN-10: 0143572385
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Published: 27th May 2015
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 19.9 x 13.0  x 1.8
Weight (kg): 0.22

Fiona McIntosh

About the Author


Fiona McIntosh was born and raised in Sussex in the UK, but also spent early childhood years in West Africa. She left a PR career in London to travel and settled in Australia in 1980. She has since roamed the world working for her own travel publishing company, which she runs with her husband. She lives in Adelaide with her husband and twin sons

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