Please give a cold dead welcome to this weeks guest…. Tony Shilitoe!
What were you like at school?
For much of my school life, I was the bright nerd who could do every subject and topped every class from Grade 3 to being Dux of the school in my final year. So I had very few friends and quite a few unpleasant experiences. My first ever publication was a poem in the school’s Year Book magazine when I was in Grade 3, and I made sure I had something published in the magazine every year thereafter because it was such a buzz to see my name in print. The only popularity redemption I had at school was a physical spurt of growth and a sudden magical improvement in coordination that saw me become a sports jock in my final two years with football, athletics and basketball – so I became everyone’s worst nightmare: an athletic nerd. No one likes the kid who’s good at almost everything.
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
I’d like to say “…to be able to write a novel that touches the minds and hearts of millions of people” – and at the deepest level that is my ambition, but my genuinely practical one is simply to generate enough income from writing to be able to live a good life as a fulltime writer. I’d like writing to be my work.
So, what have you written?
In 1992, Pan Macmillan Australia released Guardians, Book One of Andrakis, giving me the honour of becoming the second Australian, after Martin Middleton, to be legitimately published in the adult Fantasy series genre. Since then, I have published in Fantasy, Young Adult/Teen and SciFi genres.
The Andrakis Trilogy: Pan Macmillan 1992-3 – Guardians – Kingmaker – Dragonlords This series was republished in 2006 by Altair Australia, and are now remastered and available from 2015 as The Waking Dragon, Maker of Kings and The Dragonlord War through Amazon, as ebooks and hard copies.
The Last Wizard: Pan Macmillan 1995 This work was shortlisted for Best Fantasy Novel 1995 in the inaugural Aurealis Awards. It’s currently being remastered for an Amazon release.
The Ashuak Chronicles: HarperCollins Voyager 2002-3 – Blood – Passion – Freedom Blood was shortlisted for Best Fantasy Novel 2002 in the Aurealis Awards.
Dreaming in Amber: HarperCollins Voyager 2006-8 – The Amber Legacy – A Solitary Journey – Prisoner of Fate – The Demon Horsemen The series is currently available in ebook format through Kobo
Tales of the Dragon – an anthology of stories: Altair Australia 2006 and re-published on Amazon in 2015 as ebook and hard copy versions
Other stories have been published in various anthologies as follows:
‘The Mother Anger’, ‘Honour’, ‘Virtual God’ and ‘The Sculptor’ were published in issues of Altair magazine between 1999-2001.
‘Assassin’ was published in Harbinger magazine in 1999.
‘The Book of Lore’ appeared in Fantastic Worlds HarperCollins anthology ed Paul Collins in 1998.
‘The Lure’, a script monologue based on a character from the Andrakis series was included in the Solo Spots anthology ed Tugwell and Starke published by Oxford Uni Press in 1998.
‘The Innkeeper’ was published in Dream Weavers, ed Paul Collins, and released by Penguin in 1996.
Young Adult/Teen Novels
Joy Ride: Wakefield Press 1999
Caught in the Headlights: HarperCollins/Angus and Robertson 2003 The novel was listed in the 2003 Children’s Book Council awards as a Notable Book for Older Readers and subsequently appeared on several Premiers’ Reading Award lists.
In My Father’s Shadow: Amazon 2015
The Need: Amazon 2015
‘Jammin’ – teenage short story: published in the AATE anthology The Girl Who Married a Fly in 1997
‘Hope’ – SciFi short story: published in the anthology Out of the Dark ed Robert N Stephenson in 2015, available via Smashwords in eformat or hard copy.
I’ve tried blogging and I suck at blogs. I’ll try again sometime.
4. What are you working on at the minute? I have several projects on the go, in no particular order:
An apocalyptic Sci Fi for young adults: completed and in final editing, to be published this year by Satalyte
A new Fantasy trilogy – book one completed in draft and a third of the way into book two, but I haven’t approached a publisher yet
A Sci Fi exploring cyborgs, implants, genetic engineering, enhancement drugs – my current main focus as a new piece of writing
A literary project, focussing on men coming back together on an Easter Long Weekend houseboat trip to plan playing in a Masters Games event, but exploring all of the issues and challenges and problems they each face
And I’m working on resurrecting my writing reputation and ability to work as a writing professional to a point where either I can self-publish, or a publisher is willing to invest significant money in my work, and fulfil my writing ambition.
How much research do you do?
Research is a crucial part of writing, especially if you are using ‘real’ or ‘realistic’ elements in the story. For example, to include a sea voyage and sailing ships in fantasy novels I’ve had to do a combination of reading about old time ships and the equipment, construction and terminology, and then actually clambering aboard a sailing ship to get a feel of what happens – everything from how ropes are tied to the sensation of constant motion beneath a sailor’s feet. I’ve worn armour and wielded swords to supplement what I’ve read. For world-building I’ve studied geography, economics, and politics, as well as observed the world around me, and added that to the process. I’ve fired guns, and researched their capacities to inflict damage. I made an appointment with my doctor to ask him what would be the actual effects of a character having an armed lopped off in battle – physical, psychological, infection risks, rate of recovery etc.
When I began writing, I remember hearing an absolutely crucial piece of advice: ‘Never write about something you don’t actually know about, either through first-hand experience or through researching first-hand experiences. Readers who have those experiences will call you out.’ Because I create female characters, my wife, daughters and close female friends pre-read my drafts to ensure the characters have credibility and are not simply male interpretations of feminine characters.
Research is everything.
Why do you write?
I write because:
(a) I love to entertain people
(b) I love to share my ideas
(c) I love to guide and teach
(d) I love to give voices to people who might not otherwise have that opportunity
It may sound cliché, but I have to write – it’s a drive at the core of my being, and has been from as long as I can remember. I wrote poetry and song lyrics, and created comics throughout primary and high school, and into university. I drafted my first novel in my twenties, but only broke into professional writing in my late thirties with the Andrakis fantasy trilogy.
My family knows that if I’m away from writing longer than a couple of days I become morose, depressed. I’ve tried to abandon writing twice because of the frustration in not having enough time to work the business or being able to engage with the writing networks that I need to a part of, but both times I couldn’t do it. I substituted creative writing with workplace writing – which quickly lost my interest.
I have to write. It’s who I am.
Do you write full-time or part-time?
I write part-time, sporadically, because so far writing doesn’t pay, and I have too many middle-class and family financial responsibilities, meaning I need to work full time. When it looked like I was going to be relatively successful, several years ago, even then as an Australian writer, with sales and promotion confined to the Australian market, I was only able to generate around $10,000 a year from writing. To write fulltime I’d have to have one of these things happen:
(a) receive an amazing first advance and a publisher willing to heavily invest in my work to ensure I generate a credible income from writing
(b) be published internationally so that my market is infinitely larger than in Australia, meaning enough sales might generate enough income to sustain you
(c) have a sponsor/spouse/partner who can support me while I pursue my art
In 1993, I took six months leave from work and wrote two novels (The Last Wizard and Joy Ride). In 2015, I took four months leave and wrote three novels (All We have, The Need, In My Father’s Shadow). Both experiences showed me that, given the chance to be a full time writer, I’d revel in it.
Do you write on a typewriter, computer, dictate or longhand?
I write on a computer, and I couldn’t achieve what I do any other way. I drafted my first novel in pencil – 40,000 words – but when I realised what it would entail to edit and redraft it I gave up on the project. I bought a typewriter and drafted the first ten chapters of what would eventually become the first book in the Andrakis trilogy, but also realised that a typewriter didn’t simplify the editing and drafting process, and as a person working fulltime in teaching I simply did not have the time to work that way. So I invested in a computer in 1988 – $4000 second-hand back then; a massive amount of money – but it enabled me to write, draft and edit the Andrakis trilogy, the sale of the first book to Pan Macmillan effectively defraying the investment in the computer.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I really like this question because I’ve never considered it. So…
The art of story-telling fascinated me from early childhood because I grew up in a rural community where oral stories were part of the cultural milieu and entertainment. I read voraciously, anything and everything, and loved the ability of writers to engage my imagination and teach me of worlds far beyond my farming district. I never realised how much scifi and fantasy I’d read until I started adding my reading experiences to Goodreads in recent times. I also realised how much influence on my concept of stories, characters and adventure that works like The Three Musketeers, Fahrenheit 451, Macbeth, The Day of the Triffids and The Catcher in the Rye actually had.
I loved comics. My family had a strong sense of humour. So I created mini comics for my friends at school, based on the Mad magazine and Archie comics style of humour, publishing them by hand and handing them around.
I have no idea why I gravitated to poetry as young as eight, but I think it was the attraction of word and sound patterns, and the need to say something significant with a brevity of carefully crafted words. I had a poem published almost every year in our school magazine. So, by the beginning of university, I’d already envisioned I would write one amazing anthology of poems and then, like Keats, die tragically, my ideas and passion left to the ages. Gratefully, for readers and myself, that didn’t eventuate. Instead, my creativity was consumed by interminable essays, and then by the first years of English teaching that sucked the creative soul out of me.
Pragmatically, poetry as an art form had no future for me because it was a narrow, competitive field and poets made little or no income from their art in Australia. I had a single poem published in a BHP/FAW anthology in 1977. That was it. I plastered the back of a door with rejections.
As an English teacher, I was introducing and reading novels to my students, and while the classics are amazing there seemed to be a dearth of contemporary teenage novels in the schools, so I started tinkering with writing a teenage novel, and wrote some 40,000 words in pencil. I still have that first effort in a drawer – it’s really quite terrible, but it serves as a reminder that professional writing is not a magical talent but an artisan’s skill, something that must be honed with practice and experience. Iwas writing very brief prose and poetry pieces as comprehension and story-starter activities for kids in my classes, and I’m sure that was helping me develop a craft. I also struck up friendships with practising writers at English conferences and workshops – Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Robert Cormier, Colin Thiele, Peter McFarlane and Rory Harris for example – and glimpsed what was possible in the world of writing. I liked what I saw.
Like poetry, writing for teenagers was diverted, before it took hold on my creative interest, by another influence in my creative development – the game Dungeons and Dragons, to which I was introduced in 1979 by teaching colleagues. The game ultimately consumed endless hours, not just in the playing, but I took on the role of creating games – a vast world with cities, towns, dungeons, denizens and citizens through which the different playing groups I coordinated could roam and grow as characters. All up, over a period of almost ten years, I created well over a hundred original game scenarios. What I didn’t know was that I was also creating the setting and key characters for my first fantasy series. Several gamers
asked if I’d consider writing stories based on their adventures in my dungeon scenarios, but in the end I created a fictional character, Andra, and pitted him against a key NPC from the scenarios, A Ahmud Ki. The Andrakis fantasy trilogy took shape.
Role-playing in D&D, and acting for eight years in local amateur theatre, enabled me to develop sensitivity toward characterisation and dialogue, plot shaping and timing. Marking student work as an English teacher sharpened my editing skills. Wide reading, especially reading outside my personal areas of interest, expanded my comprehension of what attracts readers, and I watched many, many movies that improved my creative concepts of visualisation, scene change and timing.
By the time I submitted my first novel for publication, aged 35, I think I’d been lucky enough to have had a range of creative experiences that significantly enhanced my ability to write and tell a story.
Creative development doesn’t stop with the first publication, of course. Every new project begins from a base of learning from the previous project: Were the characters believable? Did readers relate to the characters? What was the critical reception like? What could have worked better? Did I take too long to get the readers in? What is too long or too short? The questions are as many as the words printed. I’ve been lucky enough to remaster my first set of novels for re-publishing on Amazon, thirteen years after their first release, and it was both humbling and scary to see how far my writing skills have come since 1992. Yes, I made changes – none to destroy the original story, only ones to slightly improve the writing. The other evolution for me is more about not being locked into a genre, but in being able to create the story I want to tell. The easiest path would be for me to focus on fantasy, since that’s where I’ve had the most success, but I have so many other stories I want to tell in other genres I can’t just be locked into one. I’ve grown beyond one form of writing.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Any tips on how to get through the dreaded writer’s block? I hate the term ‘writer’s block’. It’s a term bandied about to explain away reasons why a writer isn’t able to write. I’ve never had writer’s block. Either I have a really good idea, and I can write about it, or I don’t have a good idea and therefore nothing to write. Writer’s block is really someone simply saying, ‘I don’t have a good idea to write about’.
I suspect people who often claim writer’s block are also the free form writers, people who start a book without a clear concept of where it’s going to go. I can’t start any project without it having a purpose and a potential destination. To me, that’s equivalent to closing your eyes and getting on a plane at an airport without knowing where it’s going to land – or even if it is going to take off, let alone land.
Do you want to avoid writer’s block? Simple. Plan your writing. (a) Start with concept notes – the key idea for even writing the story, the characters who’ll play central roles, the causes of conflict for and between them, the possible resolutions or outcomes, the consequences.
(b) Talk about these concepts with other people you can trust to engage. Listen to their comments and reactions, and make adjustments to your concepts if you deem them necessary. (c) Then think about how the story will end. What is the credible or possibly inevitable destination point of the tale you are going to weave? Can you make it a twist, something logical but not predictable by readers? Make notes on how the story will end, but remember that when you’re actually writing it might alter or become necessarily different to the original plan. (d) Sketch the plot, the key events, the points of conflict, the moments you really want to include. How much detail you put into these plot moments is entirely up to you. The point is you are planning a structure to the storyline and therefore reducing the likelihood of reaching a writing moment where you go ‘I have no idea where to go now’ – cue ‘writer’s block’. (e) Consider your plot sequence and rearrange it until you’re convinced you know what to include in the story. This is not an essential part to starting, but I’ve found it useful. (f) Write. Make changes as you go. Worst case scenario – stick to the total plan. Yu know you have a destination to reach, and you have waypoints in the plot sketch. Use them to keep you going. Tick them off as you reach them to keep you inspired.
All of the crucial artisan elements – tense, point of view, dialogue, description – can be edited and altered at any point in the process, and may even be changed again when your manuscript is with a publisher.
Do I have times when I need to wander off, pat the cat, have coffee, sleep on it? All the time. Writing is a creative process and creativity requires reflection, thinking, postulating, discussion, scribbling, distractions – time for ideas to take form and gel. This isn’t writer’s block. This is the creative process.
Do you proofread/edit all your own books or do you get someone to do that for you?
Editing is a complex and self-deluding process. I’m an English teacher of many, many years, I’ve professionally published in excess of two million words, I’ve proofed and ghost-written books for other writers: I think I’m allowed to say that editing is one of my core skills. However, I’ve also learned that editors, even the best ones, are not fool-proof. One of my novels was meticulously edited, by seven professional people, across twelve drafts, and still three errors remained in the final copy. They were very minor, in a work of 150,000 words, but there is always a reader who will spot them.
As an English teacher, I teach all students to employ at least two additional editors before submitting final essays or pieces. As the writer of the work, we can sometimes read over errors because we know what should be there, but we don’t see what actually is there. It’s important to have at least two competent and critical editors who have no creative attachment to the work read it carefully.
I like to think that an editor who edits my work can concentrate on structure and characterisation issues, and spend very little time pondering grammatical and spelling accuracies because I do try to meticulously edit my work before it goes from my desk. But I’m not perfect. No one is.
As an interesting minor observation, I remember arguing with one editor over a single word in an entire manuscript. The word was “sussuration” to describe the distant sound of ocean waves on a beach. The editor was opting for a more common term – I can’t remember what it was. “Sussuration” remained. Editors are not always right, but they are great friends to writers.
Where do you see publishing going in the future?
This is the biggest question for writers in this century, and I won’t pretend to answer it here because that’s a dissertation waiting to be written.
The digital publishing revolution, initiated by Apple iBooks, Amazon and associated online self-publishing opportunities for writers in the past decade, have broken the publishing market open, and publisher reaction to it has ranged from ‘It won’t change what we do,’ through to ‘We need to get control of it.’ Big publishing companies, with enormous vested asset interest in cornering markets and maximising investor profits, are the places the few lucky writers who make it with them can earn big money. As long as people buy marketed books, and pay to see and hear big name authors made popular, the big publishers will survive. This was part of the corporate strategy for the last part of the C20th and was at its height when Borders and similar big chain stores flourished this century. Physical chain stores have collapsed because of the online publishing revolution, but that just means the big companies will re-adjust and sell product online. There’s no coincidence that big publishers are always keen to franchise books by their stable of big name authors into blockbuster movies and tv series.
As the gatekeepers to published work, the big publishers had very little legitimate competition, except at the local level where some indie publishers, like Wakefield Press in Adelaide, might publish niche books of little market interest to the big publishers. For writers who could not break into the big publisher field, the only viable outlet was to pay a printing house to self-publish their books: vanity press as it was derogatorily and deliberately labeled. The presiding view perpetuated by the successful writing community was that if you couldn’t luck into the 0.02% of writers who presented manuscripts to the big publishers and were accepted, and chose to self-publish, you were vain (and your work unworthy by association). Basically the status quo was: established publisher = legitimate publishing, self-publishing = illegitimate publishing.
The potential winners in the current digital revolution are twofold: independent publishers and unknown authors. Independent publishers can now spend minimal set up to actively publish and market their wares: digital publishing software and a web site, some social media involvement, and physical attendance at events, and they are underway for a fraction of the cost that old-school printing houses had to outlay. Indie publishers can offer publishing services to more writers than ever before, and give them greater exposure on an international level than ever previously possible. The proliferation of indie publishers is significant for at least two reasons: (a) they open opportunities to a great many more writers to publish (b) they provide a richer feeding ground and sorting house for the big companies to identify and employ
potential big name writers from the field of unknown writers. Unknown authors can now publish their work through Amazon and a host of Indie publishers with less of the stigma generated in the vanity press days, and they have a very tiny chance that their work might be spotted by a big publishing house and picked up.
I doubt the bigger publishing houses will suffer much, although they are likely to close ranks and invest in the blockbuster writers and take far less interest in start-up and lesser writers because they can leave that part of the industry to the new Indie houses. There will be changes that affect aspects of the industry – but I suspect the big houses will simply shed what they consider extraneous in the digital environment.
Some of the great writers in literature literally self-published their work before the bigger publishing houses created their monopoly on the industry and determined who would be published and who not. The change I’m hoping for in this digital revolution is that maybe some great writers will be discovered because now they can self-publish again without the fake stigma applied to the old vanity press system and the restriction to becoming published based purely on profitable sales figures.
Thanks a whole lot to Tony for sharing with us on the blog this week! Be sure to follow him and check out his works!