Writing tips

Note: This is a living document. I add, tweak and rearrange things as they occur to me.

First of all, you won’t get published.

Or, if you do, people won’t buy your book.

Even if they do, they won’t read it.

If they read it, they won’t like it.

This job will not make you rich, or famous, or respected.

Do you still want to be a writer?

Great. Because I lied – you might get published, you might appeal to readers, you might even make some money (I have). But there are other, easier ways to earn money and fame. The only good reason to write is because you love writing.

Are you in? Great. Let’s get started.

How to get the most out of this document

First, grab a pen and paper. I’ll wait.

OK, now draw a box, big enough to write five words in all caps.

Have you done that? Great. Now, take a deep breath, and write this message: I WILL DO THE EXERCISES.

Have you done that?

Have you really?

Because if you didn’t, you’re unlikely to get much out of this document. The secrets to good writing are not actually secret. They are wellknown and widely available. The reason most people can’t write well is not because they don’t have the information, but because they don’t apply that information.

And look, I get it. It’s much, much easier to read about doing something than to actually do it. That’s half the reason I like reading, which is what turned me into a writer. If I were you, I too would want to skip ahead and read the rest of this page, rather than pausing to implement the techniques I describe, and see how well they work for me or don’t.

But I’m asking you to be brave, be tough, be whatever the opposite of lazy is. It’s not too late – grab that piece of paper right now, and write the words: I WILL DO THE EXERCISES.

Managing reader expectations

Knowing what the reader expects is key to telling a great story. Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first—if the reader expects something to happen, and the opposite happens, that’s a twist. Readers like twists…

…except when they don’t.

First, lets separate twists from reveals. A twist is when the story takes an unexpected turn. A reveal is when something mysterious is explained. When outgunned, outnumbered and out-shoed NYPD cop John McLane finally captures terrorist mastermind Hans Gruber, and then Gruber simply fakes an American accent to fool McLane into thinking he’s just a hostage, that’s a twist. When it turns out McLane has been dead the whole time, that’s a reveal. (I might be mixing up my movies here.) Great stories usually have a mixture of both.

Authors often get hung up on making sure their reveals are unexpected. But if your reveal is unexpected, you should check that it isn’t senseless. The author should be a tour guide who leads the reader to the most interesting parts of this imagined world—not a prankster who pushes the reader into potholes and yells, ‘Gotcha!’

As a reader, I love those moments when a reveal leaves me thinking not ‘I didn’t see that coming’ but rather ‘that makes so much sense’.

This is most important for reveals, but it matters for twists, too. I had a writer friend who was extremely well read in his genre, and would know exactly what the reader expected—then would take great pride in doing the opposite in his own work. The reader would expect the reluctant hero to triumph over evil, but… psych! The villain kills him. Ooh, look at this heroine, who will no doubt have to choose between those two brooding men with the amazing abs… but actually, none of the three is remotely interested in any of the others! Looks like aliens are about to invade… but nope, they fly straight past Earth!

And so on. I found my friend’s books a bit unsatisfying (and they were not commercially successful). The twists (not the reveals) were senseless. Readers more often want their expectations fulfilled than subverted (which is why some read their favourite books over and over). If you’ve promised a musical, the audience will expect songs. If you write a romance novel, the readers will expect the lovers to end up together. If you write a book called Kill Your Brother, the reader will expect the heroine to kill her brother. You defy these expectations at your peril.

Exercise: write a paragraph in which the main character walks into a restaurant. Then write a paragraph containing a twist. Then write a third paragraph containing a reveal.

Structuring a mystery

I’ve heard Chris Hammer say that he doesn’t decide who the killer is going to be until he’s more than halfway through the first draft. “If I don’t know, how is the reader going to know?” he said.

That’s typically witty and clever, and the strategy clearly works for him. It doesn’t work for me. When I’m writing dialogue, I need to know the agenda of every character in the conversation. Otherwise, I’m not sure what they would even say. Remarks about the weather?

Hammer has a point, though. If the reader identifies the villain long before the detective, the detective may seem incompetent. And there are few things readers find more annoying in a hero than incompetence.

So, how do we stop them from guessing the twist too early? By turning the twist into several twists. The reader may guess one, but they won’t guess them all.

While writing Hunter, I worried it would be too obvious who the killer was, so I sent Timothy Blake to the victim’s university. While there, he meets a man who ultimately turns out to have nothing to do with the murder, but is guilty of several other crimes. This ensured that even very observant readers were likely to be surprised along the way.

Making the detective

The detective in your story does not need to be a police officer or a private investigator, and in fact some of the most successful ones are not. Miss Marple was just a nosy old lady. 200 Minutes of Mystery and 300 Minutes of Mystery each contain ten mystery stories, and because all the heroes are under 18, none of them are police officers.

By the same token, just because your character is a police officer or a private detective, that doesn’t mean you’re writing a mystery. There are plenty of stories about cops which fall into the category of romance, thriller or comedy – Jake Peralta is a cop, but Brooklyn 99 is not a mystery show.

So what does define a detective? As usual, there are exceptions to every rule, but here are some common themes:

  • Observation: the detective doesn’t have to be a genius, but they do need to notice the clues.
  • Boldness: the best detectives don’t sit around and wait for clues to come to them. They go to places where they are not wanted, and ask questions of people who don’t want to talk to them. In Hangman, Timothy Blake breaks into the bedroom of a sleeping teenage boy, then wakes him up and poisons him in the hope of getting a straight answer. This is a fairly monstrous thing to do, but it makes Blake a more interesting character, and it’s far better for the story than having the kid seek Blake out and volunteer the information.
  • Determination: readers like a detective who is driven, who overcomes setbacks, who follows the trail even when a sane person would give up. This is one of the reasons that the best detectives often are not police officers – for a civilian, even the act of getting involved is going above and beyond.
  • Desire for justice: occasionally you find a detective who just likes solving puzzles, but my favorites are the ones who like to see wrongs righted. They’re not just in it for a paycheck – they want to see the victims saved and the villains punished.
  • A flaw: perfect people don’t exist, so perfect characters don’t feel realistic. The flaw can be minor (Detective Kiara Lui often misreads her partner’s emotions) or major (Timothy Blake is a cannibal).

Step 1: Come up with five detectives. Give each one a name, an occupation, a flaw and a rare skill. Remember to create variety in age, gender, and cultural background.
Step 2: Pick a favourite.
Step 3: Write a scene about your favourite which tells the reader none of the information you’ve come up with, but shows them all of it. (See the first three pages of Hangman for an example.)

There are many kinds of suspense.

The first and most obvious one is this: what happens next? Will Princess Leia tell Tarkin where the rebel hideout is in order to save her home planet of Alderaan? Will Sherlock Holmes survive after tumbling over the edge of Reichenbach Falls?

I like to set up a false binary. On page seven of 300 Minutes of Danger, the pilot bails out of George’s plane. George appears to have a choice between trying to land the plane, or using a damaged parachute to escape. The reader is kept in suspense for two pages, wondering which way George will go – then he finds a third option, using his snowboard to save his life.

This form of suspense is only effective when the outcome has consequences. If the audience doesn’t know whether Moana will choose bananas or fish for her breakfast, that’s not suspense, because we assume it won’t affect the content of her adventure (though, in a good story, we’d probably be wrong.)

A related form of suspense is this: what happened before? The best stories start in the middle rather than at the beginning, and build suspense in both directions. In the first scene of Mission Impossible 3, Michelle Monoghan and Tom Cruise are both tied to chairs. Monoghan is gagged. Philip Seymour Hoffman points a gun at Monoghan’s head, and asks Cruise, ‘Where is the rabbit’s foot?’ A scene like this raises a hundred questions, and only one of them is about what happens next. The rest are all about the past.

My books almost always start with a character already doing something intriguing. Some books then flash back to reveal how the character got there. Liars: The Truth App has a car crash on the first page, and then rewinds to the parent-teacher interview immediately prior to it. More often, though, the flashback isn’t necessary. Hangman begins with Timothy Blake standing on the doorstep of a house in a bad neighborhood, arguing with an FBI agent through a mouthful of blood. It’s more interesting if the reader doesn’t find out how he got there.

Warning: if you decide to flash back, you may lose the first kind of suspense. The reader won’t be wondering what happens next if they’ve already seen it. Everyone knew Natasha Romanoff wouldn’t die in Black Widow, because it was set before the events of Avengers: Endgame. (Some people decided not to watch the movie for that very reason.) However, this opens the door for a third kind of suspense: the reader knows something the character doesn’t.

When I wrote Kill Your Husbands, I knew that the first murder couldn’t take place until halfway through the book. So I opened with a flash forward – a woman in a dressing gown, fleeing from a remote house at night, running through the bush in the pouring rain. The next scene skips back a month or so, to Detective Kiara Lui arriving on the scene of a hit and run. The scene after that skips forward again, to when the dressing-gown woman is in hospital and Kiara is visiting the house, where she finds two dead men and a second woman holding a man at knife point. Soon we flash back again to when the two men were still alive.

This is a lot of jumping around, but it was worth the effort. It meant that for the first half of the book, the two men are perfectly happy, but the reader knows that they are doomed.

Some writers are able to create this effect with much less stuffing around. Here’s the prologue of Romeo and Juliet:

…A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove…

Shakespeare didn’t spoil the ending of his own play by accident. He wanted the audience to know that the lovers were doomed. He wanted to create suspense even in the scenes where it seemed like everything would be fine.

The last (and perhaps most difficult) form of suspense is a mirror image of that: the character knows something the reader doesn’t. Picture this – a woman in a business suit is standing on the edge of a dark forest, alternately glancing over her shoulder, checking her watch and quietly cursing. She clearly knows what she’s waiting for, but you don’t.

This doesn’t just create suspense – it also makes the character feel more real. In an interview (which I now can’t find) Watchman showrunner Damon Lindeloff said that he starts out by giving every character a secret. The audience may never find out what it is, but its gravity infuses that character’s dialogue and actions with meaning, which the viewer can feel.

That’s also the reason this form of suspense is difficult; characters aren’t real, so they can’t actually know anything the reader doesn’t know. It’s an illusion, and one that’s easy to mess up. If the character “knows” something, but the reader doesn’t know that they know it, the scene falls flat. Or, if the character does things which too obviously signpost that they are hiding something, the reader can tell they are being manipulated, which makes the character feel less real, not more.

Find a box and kick a hole in it

When you tell people you’re a writer, the first thing people ask (after “Really?”) is this: “What genre do you write in?”

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that a hard question to answer. Because you might be writing romance, but your story might also be funny. So, it’s a rom-com . . . except for that scary chunk in the middle. OK, so it’s a rom-com with a bit of horror . . . but it’s set in space, which I guess makes it a sci-fi? And the main character is investigating a murder, so . . . et cetera.

Don’t worry. This is actually a good sign. The best stories are hard to categorise.

Here’s a challenge. Pick a genre – let’s say, fantasy. Try to come up with an idea for a fantasy story. I’ll try, too. Close your eyes, and take a minute to think about it. Don’t read on until you’ve done that. Go.

OK, are you back? You have your fantasy story? Let’s see if it sounds anything like mine:

An small elf goes on a long journey through dangerous lands, evading and sometimes befriending dangerous creatures, in order to find a magic gemstone which can save her village from the wrath of a giant.

Meh. It’s not bad, per se, but I’m not exactly excited about it. It feels derivative. Did it sound anything like yours? Let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, let’s try something different. Pick three genres – let’s say, military, romance, western. Now try to smoosh those together into a single story. Close your eyes. Go.

Are you back? Have you done it? Here’s mine.

A soldier is transferred to a peacekeeping mission at a village in Afghanistan, where she finds that a corrupt general has both his troops and the locals living in fear. Unable to report him without retribution, she decides to request a transfer out – but then she falls in love with an Afghani farmer, and suddenly leaving doesn’t seem like an option…

Wow. I like it. I might seriously write that.

When you’re telling a story, you don’t actually need to know what kind of story it is. Later, you will need to decide what category it best fits into (especially if you want to sell it to somebody). But when you’re writing, you shouldn’t worry about that. The best stories, regardless of genre, have the same ingredients: they have suspense, surprises, excitement but also lulls, memorable characters, vivid settings. And an ending which ties everything together.

One warning, though. Readers may me comfortable mashing up elements from different genres, but there’s one area in which they’re surprisingly rigid: how far they’re willing to suspend they’re disbelief. Some people like impossible stories, others will only accept unlikely ones. Still others prefer probable stories, and some refuse to read anything which isn’t utterly true.

When writing your story, you may not need to worry much about this. But when editing it, it’s important to decide what level of reality you’re operating on.

On games

I just realised I still haven’t  introduced myself! Forgive me. My name’s Victoria, and I’m a halfling sorcerer who traverses the realm on a flying pirate ship and enjoys turning her enemies to dust.

Yes, I do play Dungeons & Dragons – what tipped you off?

For the uninitiated, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game many writers play. Here’s a hugely oversimplified explanation: you create a character (“I’m a knight named Gregor the Brave!”) and the person running the game (the Dungeon Master) describes a scenario you’ve found yourself in (“Gregor, you approach an enormous castle. The tremendous wooden doors are locked”). You describe your response to the challenge (“I kick down the doors!”) and then roll a twenty-sided dice to see if your solution works. The DM tells you what happens.

You: “I rolled a 1.”
DM: “You break your foot. Now what do you do?”
You: “Uh, I make a splint.”
DM: “OK, roll the dice…”

And so on.

It’s hard to describe how much fun this can be. Unlike a video game, the bad guys don’t have artificial intelligence. They have actual intelligence (assuming the DM does). And unlike a regular board game, you’re not limited by just the board, pieces and cards created by the game designer – only by your own imagination. Yes, there are rules (the Player’s Handbook is 311 A4 pages, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide is even longer) but they serve to expand the possibilities rather than limiting them. You can see why the game appeals to writers.

I didn’t come here to turn you all into D&D players (that would be irresponsible, given how addictive the game is). But I do want to talk about the value of unpublished writing.

This morning I wrote a D&D adventure for some friends, and ran it with them. The story was a pretty blatant rip-off of What The Hell Did I Just Read, a horror-comedy novel by David Wong. But my friends hadn’t read the book, so they didn’t see the twists coming. Now, if I published a novel based on WTHDIJR, then Wong would sue the heck out of me, and rightly so. But because I was doing it in the privacy of my own home, and no-one other than my five friends would ever hear it, there was no problem.

When you know your story will never be published, you take more risks – and not just the risk of getting sued. You write things that might turn out incoherent, ugly, even offensive. You create bizarre, experimental, wild, adventurous stories. And this makes you a better writer. It’s only by taking risks and attempting challenges – by rolling the dice and risking failure – that you can improve your skills. Skills you can then take back to your published work.

A recent article in The Monthly had a great quote about 1991: “Today many people seem unsure how to act without a camera in front of them; back then, most would be reduced to awkward reticence in the presence of one.” At the risk of sounding like a very old man, I think we document too much these days. There’s a desire to make sure everything is recorded, uploaded and searchable. But knowing that your work is self-erasing – that it will evaporate as soon as the performance is over – gives you a totally different mindset, and helps you make a completely different kind of art.

Give yourself that freedom. Write something you know you’ll delete. Think something you know you’ll never tell anyone. Play D&D and don’t turn it into a podcast. Let your mind off the leash – you’ll be amazed what it comes back with.

Getting published

Let me start by saying that the publishing landscape is very different now than in was in 2004, so a lot of what I know about how to break into the industry is 20 years out of date. But I do have some advice you may wish to consider.

  1. No first draft is ever ready for submission. I always re-read my work, making changes as I go. The more times you go through it, the better it will be.
  2. Don’t underestimate the importance of feedback, even if it comes from people outside the industry. I’ve rarely received useful suggestions on my manuscripts from fellow writers, but I’ve had heaps of helpful advice from lawyers, doctors, police officers, dive instructors, systems administrators and more. The most important thing is to find someone who a) loves reading, b) loves giving opinions and c) isn’t afraid of offending you.
  3. After you’ve exhausted all the free sources of feedback, getting a professional editor is a good idea. I’ve hired editors via Reedsy before, which is probably the simplest way (but it can be expensive). Be sure to switch on track-changes so you can see what your editor has done. I’ve greatly improved my writing by observing what other people do to it.
  4. Once your manuscript is in the best possible shape, I’d suggest entering it in some competitions. If you’re in Australia, here’s a great list: writerscentre.com.au/blog/manuscript-awards-to-enter-in-2022
    If you get shortlisted for any of these contests (or better yet, win!) then that’ll make it much easier to get an agent and/or a publisher. Beware of scams – if there’s a high entry fee and the prize is a contract with a company you’ve never heard of, that’s probably a bad sign. Before you enter anything, try to get in touch with a previous winner to ask what their experience was like. If you can’t contact them because they’re too busy and successful, that probably means the contest is legit.
  5. If you don’t have any luck with the competitions, self-publishing is a viable option, and there are plenty of resources about how to do it well, but bear in mind that it’s extremely time-consuming (and often expensive). When I self-published Ink, Inc., I was startled to discover that “self-publishing” meant doing all the work of the author plus all the work of a publisher – hiring editors and cover designers and a lawyer and liasing with distributors and booksellers… I wasn’t cut out for it. I suspect most writers are not. And again, watch out for scammers. Always Google whoever you’re thinking about working with.
  6. Whatever you decide to do, make sure you start writing a second book, not connected to the first. That way, if an agent or publisher says, “I like your style, but this book isn’t right for our list – what else do you have?” you’ll have something to show them.