3 Exercises for Finding the Perfect Novel Idea

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It’s almost that time of year again! If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, it’s a writing challenge where writers of all levels, from newbies to seasoned novelists, attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. At 1667 words per day, it’s definitely a challenge, but there’s no reason you can’t do it if you head in with a plan, a collection of writing buddies, and plenty of your caffeine (and/or alcohol) of choice.

So, first things first—you need to figure out what you’re going to write! Here are 3 exercises to get you started.

1. Identify what you know and what excites you

There’s no point in writing something you’re going to lose interest in, or that you don’t care enough about to research. This is a project you’re going to spend a lot of time on, so you need to find something you care about.

Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down all the things you know about—what topics do you read or watch? What have you studied or worked with? Where have you lived or travelled, what cultures have you experienced, what hobbies have you had, who are the people that interest you the most? Then, highlight 3-5 of your most exciting or interesting answers.

Set the timer again and write down all the things you wish you knew—what topics are you interested in, what do you wish you could do, who do you wish you could meet? What would be an amazing job that you don’t have the qualifications for? Is there a time in history, or a city, or an invention, or a religion, or a culture, or a person you wish you knew more about? Again, highlight 3-5 of your favourite answers.

Now put your highlighted answers next to each other, and see if you can find any links. What would happen if Option A and Option B happened in the same universe, and how would they affect each other? What kind of people would be involved? Where would or could this happen? Try to include at least one thing you do know about and one thing you don’t.

2. People watching—from the inside out

One of the things that humans find most interesting is other humans. Humanity is a theme that is recurrent in almost every single novel, and finding characters that we relate to, hate, disagree with, adore, or fall in love with is a huge part of the reading (and writing!) experience.

Write down the names of 5 people you know, including a close friend, someone you have argued with, someone you try to avoid, someone you wish you knew better, and your own. Then, underneath each one, write down five of their strengths and five of their flaws as you perceive them. Write why you think each one is applicable to them—what have they done to demonstrate this to you? Feel free to be critical as no one else is going to see this.

What would someone be like if they had a different combination of these traits? How would they demonstrate that? Why would they act in this way—what kind of culture or family would encourage that kind of behaviour? What kind of job would suit them? How would they treat people, and what kind of relationships would they have? Remember that everyone’s thoughts are as individual and conflicting and complicated as your own, and fill in the blanks if you’re not sure.

Go to a place where there are plenty of other people such as a shopping centre, a busy park or a cafe, and take a notebook with you. Watch the people around you, and notice the things they do. Imagine you’re going to tell your friend about the crazy person you saw at the end of the day, and closely watch for the way they walk, talk, funny things they say or strange things they do. People are never ordinary, and if you look for it, you can always find something to question. Writing is all about asking why—so once you’ve found this, make up an answer to it.

3. The prompt-dare-generator-dice-and-hat method

Sometimes, when you’re all out of ideas, it’s fun to let fate decide! This method involves collecting a bunch of different ideas from different sources and then randomly combining several to make an all-new, how-on-Earth-will-that-work, totally custom idea for your novel!

Spend a couple of hours collecting random story elements from different sources. There are lots of websites for finding prompts online, but in particular I’d recommend Seventh Sanctum for a huge collection of random prompt generators. Take a look at the Adopt-a-Plot thread on the NaNoWriMo forums (as well as the whole Adoption Society board), and the Dares thread.

Write each idea on a piece of paper (or print them out) and put them in a hat. Feel free to add any other ideas you’re excited about, or any of your answers from the first exercise in this article. Mix them all up, and pull out 5 of them. Now your challenge is to figure out how the hell all of these things fit together!

To add an extra element to this method, roll a dice for each one you pull out. The higher the number, the more important each element is to the story. If one of your prompts is to include an angry barbarian and it gets a 6, that angry barbarian must be your main character (or main villain).

This is the first in a series of posts about NaNoWriMo which will be posted from now until December.  To find all of the posts on NaNoWriMo, click here.

How (and Why) to Find a Literary Agent

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Why do I want an agent?

Literary agents are essentially somewhere between the guardian angels and the mercenaries of the publishing world. They guide you through your career, bring your work directly to the people who matter, fight the contractual battles so you can spend more time on writing and promotion, and make sure you end up with the best possible deals.

The biggest benefit to having an agent is that they can get your manuscript out of the slush pile. An experienced agent has contacts in the publishing industry, and knows who publishes what, and what they’re interested in. While to us mere mortals, the publishing industry behind a wall, an agent knows that Paul from Penguin Random House loves literary writing with a distinct voice, and that Bob from Pan Macmillan is a sucker for manuscripts set in the 1920s with snarky male characters.

The reason that the publishing industry is hard to break into is that it is surprisingly small; everyone knows everyone. Agents have already done the tricky part of breaking in, and can help mould your proposal to suit the current state of play.

The other huge benefit of having a literary agent is that they live and breathe contracts. They understand what the publishers will and won’t budge on, they know which clauses need careful scrutiny, and they can negotiate the things that truly matter to you and your career. Agents don’t just interpret legalspeak—their livelihood (as they work on commission) depends on securing a contract while defending your rights and your interests.

Different writers need different things, and it is not always the amount of money offered that is the most important factor on the table. For example, to a regular travel writer, a non-compete clause may be detrimental to their career, while to a writer who just wants to publish that one book, the size of the advance or the royalty terms might be more important. A good agent will understand your individual needs, and will preserve them without giving away unnecessary rights.

How can I get one?

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Finding an agent isn’t necessarily an easy feat—some say it is easier to find a publisher than an agent. But it’s definitely not impossible if you are clever with your submissions.

First thing’s first: figuring out who to submit to. The Australian Literary Agents’ Association is a great place to start, and it has a useful guide on submitting to an agent. The benefit of the Association’s member agencies is that they all follow the Code of Practice, meaning that the Association vouches for them on an ethical basis. Take a look through the member agencies and their websites, and see which of them represent what your area of writing.

Another great source is the Australian Writers Marketplace. This is Australia’s version of The Market—it is a fairly comprehensive list of Australian publishers, agencies, magazines, journals, writing organisations, and courses, and it includes submission guidelines where relevant. If you purchase a digital membership, it also has articles with lots of helpful advice to get you going.

If you find an agent and you’re not sure if what they are doing is reputable or the norm, go to the Australian Society of Authors or your state writers centre and voice your concerns. Take a look at their list and who they represent, and see whether those people are successful. Don’t sign anything you’re not comfortable with or you don’t understand.

Before going any further, make sure you are ready to submit. Look up the norms for your genre; remember fiction writers generally need to have a completed manuscript before submitting (even if the agent only wants to see a few sample chapters!), while nonfiction writers often only need to have completed a book proposal, including sample chapters. Read the submission guidelines on the agency’s website, and make sure that you are meeting them. Respect the agent’s time; if you can’t bother to meet their requirements, why should they bother investing time in your work?

Next, you need to write an excellent query letter. A query letter is basically your opportunity to sell your manuscript, as well as yourself, in approximately one page. If you’re not sure how to get started, A Decent Proposal is an excellent book to help you construct a query letter and proposal. You can also find examples of query letters that worked here and here, though take them with a grain of salt.

If you’re struggling to find someone to represent you, remember that a huge part of gaining traction in the writing industry, especially in Australia, is building connections. As mentioned above, the industry is very small, and everyone knows someone who knows everyone. Be kind and professional at all times (or news will spread), but don’t be afraid to go to industry events or reach out to your local writing organisations. All industry professionals, including agents, are just people—and people are surprisingly generous with their time.

10 Organisations That Support Australian Writers

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Many writers have no connection to the industry. Often, they feel unsure of how to break in to the community. But there are many organisations that support writers and their work, and provide professional development, alternate publishing pathways, connection to the community and advocacy. These organisations can truly help you get to the next level in your career.

Even if it seems as though these organisations have a different target market to what you’re doing, it is worth sending them an enquiry. Often arts organisations will be able to mould their services around what you need, or provide you with advice on where to find the help you’re after.

Australian Society of Authors
The Australian Society of Authors is the biggest national advocacy organisation for writers. They set the minimum industry rates of pay for professional writers, provide a contract assessment service, run programs and events nation-wide, and provide mentorships, amongst many other services. They’re a great place to go if you have basic legal questions, or need career or industry advice. Whether you are an emerging or an established writer, their website is essential reading (and membership well worth the cost).

State and Territory Writers Centres
ACT | NSW | NT | QLD | SA | TAS | VIC | WA
These should be your first place for any queries. The services vary from state to state, but they offer quality professional development programs, advice and referrals, offer income streams for developing and established writers, and will attempt to assist every enquiry. Give your local writers centre a call and tell them where you’re at with your writing and career; generally speaking, their services adapt to what you need.

Australian Writers Marketplace
The Australian Writers Marketplace is Australia’s version of The Market. It contains a list of almost all publishers, agents, magazines, newspapers and journals in Australia as well as many helpful organisations, opportunities and competitions, and articles to help you understand the industry. You can get a digital membership or a physical copy of the Marketplace, and they also run online courses, including a $25 two week taster course. I’d also recommend taking a look at A Decent Proposal if you’re wondering how the hell you’re supposed to write a publisher query (for both fiction and non-fiction).

Australian Writers Guild
This is the professional association for Australian performance writers including film, television, theatre, radio and digital media. They set the standard industry rates, provide professional developments and awards, and assist performance writers to connect with the industry. They also run the biennial National Screenwriters’ Conference. If you are a performance writer, this organisation will be able to provide you with all the support you need.

Express Media
This is an organisation for young writers—writers under 25. They run Voiceworks, which is a really awesome magazine run by people under 25. They offer editorial feedback for every submission they receive, including rejected submissions. They also run events, prizes (including the Scribe Nonfiction Prize and the John Marsden/Hachette Prize), have an awesome online Writers’ Toolkit

if:book Australia
This organisation explores the changing relationship between readers and writers, as well as the way digital publishing is changing the industry, and how authors can be effective in the modern marketplace. Whether you’re looking for alternate publishing pathways, or you just like weird artsy social experiments (like the time they wrote, edited and published a book in both digital and print editions in 24 hours, and then created a beautiful 28-volume set of hardbound books of the database containing every keystroke that was made), this organisation is definitely inspiring.

The Australia Council for the Arts
This is the core national funding body for arts individuals (including writers) and organisations. They offer grants for individual, group and organisational projects, and they fund lots of national arts programs (including professional development, touring and festivals). They also have separate board to assess applications for people with disabilities and Indigenous people. Even if you may not directly apply for a grant with the Australia Council, its likely that you will attend something that they have supported.

State and Territory Government (Arts Branch)
ACT | NSW | NT | QLD | SA | TAS | VIC | WA
Each state and territory’s arts department offer grants to both inviduals and organisations to further the culture and artistic scene in the state. This can include project development, events, out-of-round funding to assist you in getting to last-minute opportunities, and programs to benefit the community. Even if you are not eligible for funding, take a look at the projects they do fund to find some awesome opportunities.

ArtsLaw is a not-for-profit organisation which provides legal advice for artists and arts organisations. This can come at no or low cost, depending on an income means test. Their website is an invaluable resource for any questions you have on copyright, contracts, publishing rights, and they also provide a low cost document assessment service. This a great organisation to bookmark just in case you might need them.

The Copyright Agency
The Copyright Agency collects fees and distributes royalties to creator members for the reuse of their copyrighted materials. They also have lots of useful information on their website, and occasionally have grants to support artists through their Cultural Fund. You can also check out the Australian Copyright Council if you have other questions regarding copyright, or need legal advice on copyright.

5 Apps for a Productive Writing Life

I’m not even going to lie; it has taken me forever to figure out a way to keep my whole life on track, let alone the writing parts. Creating a system for planning my life has given me the freedom to spend time actually writing—not to mention that now I can track writing opportunities, competitions, submission deadlines and goals, and all the books and articles I can’t wait to read!

Here are the 5 ‘regular’ apps that I use all the time, that work together to make my productivity system and keep my professional, personal AND writing lives under control.

1. Todoist
Cost: Free. Premium package is $34 per year.

The first step to creating a productivity system is figuring out all the stuff you want and have to get done, and the dates you need to get it done by. It is important to have all of this stuff in one place for every area of your life, so that you don’t end up focussing on one and totally ignoring the others. Your writing life will only be productive if the rest of your life is on track. Todoist is perfect for managing every area of your life without it getting too messy.

Like lots of creative people, I’m naturally incredibly disorganised. Figuring out what I want to do and how to get it done is 2/3rds of the battle for me. Finding a system that I could put everything that I needed to get done into was a struggle, but I’ve found my sweet spot with Todoist.

I use similar principles to David Allen’s Getting Thing Done method. Each item is in ‘project’ folders for its category or topic, and I use the extremely powerful (and highly recommended!) premium features to help me identify when I can do each task. I use the labels to designate where I need to be to do the task (phone, laptop, desk), the amount of energy I will need (high, medium, low), each item’s priority using the Eisenhouwer Method (urgent, important, not urgent, not important) and the amount of time it will take (5 min, 10 min, 25 min, 1 hour, 2 hours). Only the essential stuff gets due dates. This makes it easy for me to search my tasks and identify which is the best thing for me to be working on right now. Todoist also has in-email apps for Outlook and Gmail, which mean I can conquer the tasks in my inbox in the same place as my other tasks.

2. A Combination of Sunrise and Google Calendar
Cost: Free.

Once you’ve figured out all the stuff you need to do, you need to be able to put all your commitments in one place. After all of your commitments have been laid out, you can easily carve out time for all the writing you should be doing.

I thought I was a lost cause when it comes to planning my time, but these two apps have been a lifesaver for me! Google Calendar is probably nothing new to you, but I use it because it has a simple interface, I can colour code everything, and I can have separate calendars for my personal life, writing opportunities, my blog schedule and for what books and CDs (and other fun things) are coming out.On

Sunrise was a gamechanger for me. This is an all-in-one calendar—you can sync Google Calendar, Office 365, Facebook, Todoist, Evernote, Songkick, and pretty much every other app you can think of. I hated it the first time I used it because I made the mistake of letting it add everything in, but now I’ve refined the settings and it is perfect for me. Basically, every different calendar is on a separate layer, and its super easy to see my work calendar, my to-do list, each of my google calendars, and if I tell Facebook or Songkick that I’ll go to an event, that’ll pop up as well. It has become virtually impossible for me to double-book myself, and I can easily see all the things that I might want to do with my time.

3. Forest
Cost: $1.29 on iOS, Free on Android with in-app purchases.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got the best of intentions, you plan time to write, and then… you procrastinate. “Writing research” is a great way to justify wasting hours on the internet. The Pomodoro Method is an extremely popular productivity tool for curbing that habit, and for improving focus. The basic idea is that you set a timer for a certain amount of time (usually 25 minutes – the same amount of time it takes to cook a tomato) and until the alarm goes off, you keep working on the task at hand. It also incorporates regular short breaks in between each session of focus.

Forest is the best timer for this I have seen. You select the amount of time you want to focus for (from 30-120 minutes) and it starts to grow a cute little tree and you earn coins. If you leave the app or do something else with your phone, the tree dies. At the end of each day, you can reflect on how well you did by the size of your forest, and if you do it for long enough, you can use your coins to buy different kinds of adorable trees!

4. Pocket
Cost: Free. Premium package is $44.99 per year.

Obviously, a huge part of being a writer is being a reader. John Green says, ‘Reading is the only apprenticeship we have.’ Pocket is a great way to save all the articles you want to keep for your writing research in one place. You can tag and favourite your articles, and search through them to revisit the articles that inspired you most.

Starting to use Pocket was the best thing I have ever done to keep my distraction levels at bay. Essentially, if there is an article or page you want to read, you click the browser extension or shortcut on mobile, and Pocket saves the article for you to read later. It is so simple, but it has made such a huge difference—every time I see a shiny, new link, I just click on Pocket and knowing it will keep it for me, I can continue with the task at hand. I also have an IFTTT recipe set up so that every time I save something to Pocket, it automatically gets saved as a task in Todoist.

5. Evernote
Cost: Free. Premium package is $56.99 per year.

I know, I know—everyone says you should be using Evernote. It’s the go-to productivity app that EVERYONE raves about. But the hype is there for a reason—Evernote has the power to change your whole writing life. It basically works as a taggable, searchable, categorise-able reference folder. You can put virtually anything in it, including emails, PDFs, photos, documents, and it will all be in one place where you can find it every time.

It’s a huge deal for someone who is as naturally disorganised as I am; it has basically made losing things next to impossible. I use for keeping track of magazines I want to submit to, pieces of writing I’m working on, ideas for blog posts, random ideas for writing including plot and character ideas, writing research, favourite quotes, keeping personal documents, and for keeping photos of business cards of people I might want to reach out to. I also have an IFTTT recipe set up so that if I favourite an article in Pocket or like a post on Tumblr, it gets saved to Evernote.

This is one of those apps where even though I’ve been using it for a year, I keep finding new ways to use it that revolutionise my writing life. I’ve recently started using Evernote to keep track of my writing and personal goals, and have notes set up for the year, each month and each week to keep myself on-track and accountable.

So what’s your productivity system? How do you keep track of all of your writing goals, opportunities and submissions, as well as your personal and professional life? I’d love to hear from you!