Q – I’m rewriting my first novel and would like to know how to grab an agent’s attention when submitting.

Justin – There is no right or wrong way, just make sure you’ve done the obvious things right – spelling, grammar, etc. You know the drill. Just be polite. Be aware they read thousands of submissions and seem to enjoy the process about as much as filling in a tax form. Therefore make it easy for them. Good tone to the letter, sizzling teasers, and then be patient.

And start writing something new right away.

I currently have the beginning and end of my book and am having trouble stringing events and character motivations together to make the entire thing complete. Of course, this still means I’m in my outline phase. Do you think I should scrap my idea because I can’t put the beginning and end together, or any other advice?

All I can offer is my experience. I have one unpublished book for 8-12-year-olds. I’m on draft number 10. It has taken me that long to discover what the actual story is. There are two options – you can either struggle away or (gasp) put the book aside. That way you can start on something else, and often when you start on something else, ideas arrive for your first story. Re outlines, some people use them, some don’t. It’s whatever works for you. Joanna Rowling did alright by using one.

How do you get started, especially when it’s a passion and you have a career-oriented day job that pays the bills.

You write. Write when you’re tired, when you’re hungover, when you don’t want to write. If you love the craft enough you’d do it at 2 in the morning if someone asked you. I write when I cook, no jokes, I have the laptop open and add any lines that come to me. Which can be damn annoying. And dangerous.

Working and writing at the same time can be tough. Maybe try to write for an hour a night instead of watching TV. This can become two hours. Soon enough you’ll be more into your own story than any lame show on telly. 100 words becomes 1000, becomes a manuscript. The first draft will be shit, it always is, but keep going.

Do you have your characters fully planned out in your head before you start, or do you let them develop as you write the story?

This is rare – my latest manuscript arrived fully formed, names, setting, title. It was bizarre. Again, some writers like to see what happens, others plan meticulously. You’ve got to know how your main characters will react in any given situation. Once they start doing things by themselves, now that’s creepy.

How do you know a manuscript is ready and it’s time to stop editing/revising?

Make it as perfect as you can and as easy to read (and follow) as possible. Endings can change, so can character, but a lot of these issues and challenges might arise once you’ve actually scored a contract when you’ll have time to rewrite with an editor. That’s the best part. Make it sparkly, be proud of it before you hit send.

How do you introduce things like currency when there’s no direct way to correlate it to our universe. I’m writing a fantasy book in a different universe that while some things are the same, things like the currency are entirely different and I have no idea how to incorporate the value of this currency without stating it outright.

Make it up! It’s your story. 3 spigglets = 1 grosnipod. As long as you’re consistent, and more importantly that the reader understands, you’ll be okay. Please don’t complicate the reader. It’s a right ol turn off.

Does every idea, even the good ones, feel hopeless or not-worth-it at some point? I’ve never finished a single first draft. I wrote for years, recently switched over to comic scripts and screenplays and stuff because I was having ideas that fit that format and they’re so much easier to finish. Is every idea going to try to beat me up at some point?

Finish the damn book. Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel talks about The Shitty Committee who jump into your head and tell you how bad your piece of work is. Finish the damn book. Because if you do, you have a completed work, and if it’s not perfect, something similarly amazing could come out of the process: a character, a title, an idea. Go for it.

Having seen some scary stuff about fake publishers and stealing people’s writing, how do you find a real (and good) publisher and/or agent?

You gotta kiss a lot of frogs. Re fake publishers, ask around or google, you’ll know if it sounds too good to be true. ‘PAY US TO READ YOUR MANUSCRIPT!’ Really, now come on. This is, however, a long game so take your time finding the right team. It’s not easy, but what is? It’s the 10,000 hours thing. It’s no different. Good luck!

How many of your 31 published books do you hate?

Good question. No writer is ever 100% happy with their work, there’s always something that niggles years later. I don’t hate any of them, it’s a cliche but the whole thing has been a journey, so there are some works I like less than others.

Harry Potter

Philosopher’s Stone – 77,325
Chamber of Secrets – 84,799
Prisoner of Azkaban – 106,821
Goblet of Fire – 190,858
Order of the Phoenix – 257,154
Half Blood Prince – 169,441
Deathly Hallows – 198,227

Lord of the Rings

The Hobbit – 95,022
The Lord of the Rings – 455,125
The Two Towers – 143,436
The Return of the King – 134,462

Other Famous Books

22,416 – The Mouse and the Motorcycle – Beverly Cleary
30,644 – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
36,363 – Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
46,118 – Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
47,094 – The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
49,459 – Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
59,900 – Lord of the Flies – William Golding
63,766 – Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
64,768 – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
66,950 – Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
67,203 – The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
67,707 – The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
73,404 – The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
78,462 – The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
80,398 – The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
84,845 – Gilead – Robinson, Marilynne
85,199 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
87,846 – Pere Goriot – Honore de Balzac
87,978 – Persuasion – Jane Austen
88,942 – Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
91,419 – Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan
97,364 – Anne of Green Gables – Lucy Maud Montgomery
99,121 – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
100,388 – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
112,815 – The Golden Compass – Philip Pullman
123,378 – Atonement – Ian McEwan
127,776 – Life on the Mississippi – Mark Twain
134,710 – Schindler’s List – Thomas Keneally
135,420 – A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
138,087 – Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
138,098 – Snow Falling on Cedars – Guterson, David
138,138 – 20000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
144,523 – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
145,092 – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith
145,265 – Cold Sassy Tree – Olive Ann Burns
145,469 – Last of the Mohicans – James Fenimore Cooper
155,887 – Emma – Jane Austen
155,960 – Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
156,154 – Watership Down – Richard Adams
157,665 – Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
159,276 – The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan
161,511 – Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
166,622 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe
169,389 – White Teeth – Zadie Smith
169,481 – The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
174,269 – Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
183,349 – Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
183,833 – Little Women (Books 1&2) – Louisa May Alcott
186,418 – Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
198,901 – A House for Mr. Biswas – V.S. Naipaul
206,052 – Moby Dick – Herman Melville
211,591 – Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
316,059 – Middlemarch – George Eliot
418,053 – Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
591,554 – A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

As a writer, I keep all sorts of notes in all sorts of little black books. Thinking being, these notes might come in handy for a book one day. Months later when I find these notes I have to wonder what we were thinking. Here’s a select few:


‘Should the hippo fart or burp?’
‘No, I think it’s too silly.’
‘But the bubbles are coming from its butt!’


‘Can we swap feelings?’
‘What have you got?’
‘Oh no, I don’t want that.’


‘I was useless at maths, ask me anything.’
‘Whats 2 times 2?’


‘Mum, is Sophie in charge of the bread?’


‘Hey let’s name our ears. I’ve got Lilly and Ryan.’


‘Dad, I just need some penguin time!’


Have a great weekend,

writers festival pic

For a word lover the Auckland Writers Festival is about as close to christmas as you can get. One brilliant mind after another, speaking to hoards of wide-eyed readers, flat-white in one hand, moleskin notebook in the other.

For me it began on Friday as I watched Noelle McCarthy, John Boyne, and Irish poet Paul Muldoon describe Ireland’s uprising in ‘From 1916 to Here.’ The mature lady next to me, shoes already off and pen at the ready, asked if I might be able to ‘give her a nudge if she nodded off.’ She did nod off, but I felt mean robbing her of sleep.

Later that day Elanor Catton spoke with Edward Carey, author of the Iremonger Trilogy, where its inhabitants live in Heaps, a vast sea of lost and discarded items collected from all over London. Edward’s illustrations are dark, gloomy, cold, depressing and brilliant. Cha-ching went the till.

There was a Michael Grant talk, Tom Gates author Liz Pichon, a tribute to Vincent O’Sullivan and a lively Bill Oddie telling a packed house why he threw Jesus out and kept Elvis. Long story.

In the VIP lounge I met Petina Gappah, the charming and hilarious Zimbabwean-Genevan lawyer turned novelist. What a mind! I was introduced to Michel Faber and we talked music. He likes to be challenged when he’s writing, nothing nostalgic, something gripping, like Coil or Current 93. Then I discovered his latest work ‘The Book of Strange New Things.’ Cha-ching went the till.

The Herald Theatre is a beautiful space in which to talk. I spoke on Sunday afternoon, but why was I so nervous? Didn’t I do school talks often? Yes, but this was a theatre. 30 minutes flew by, thanks to a hilarious crowd of kids, happy to turn bananas into penguins, tea towels into chickens, each clutching a copy of ‘Shot, Boom, Score!’ which I was more than happy to sign.

Festival staff: 10/10. Keeping 65,000 people happy can’t be easy.

What a bugger. Having to wait another year and all…

Reading a recently completed novel to your children can be a terrifying experience. Of course they’ll like it, mainly because there’s ice cream in the freezer if they laugh in the right places. But really, there’s no better way to find out if you have a story or not. As we all know, reading aloud is the best way to find flaws in our work. Reading to your kids raises the stakes. Thankfully, it’s all stuff you need to hear, including plot loopholes you may have missed. ‘Dad, where did she get the hair brush if they’re all stranded on an island?’ Good point, have a double scoop.

It’s invaluable discovering where the humor lies and where boredom creeps in. It’s not always easy, but tough. The novel will be all the better for it. And trust me, there is no better feeling than hearing, ‘I love this, I want to read it all night’ (translation: cool I get to stay up) and ‘Can I please take this to school?’ Below are some images drawn by my daughter Sophie (10) when I was struggling for ideas.


Writing a novel is akin to solving a Rubik’s Cube. With vaseline on your hands. Underwater. Blindfolded. But it’s also FUN. Sometimes you just need a final push to get you over the line. Perhaps visualization could work. When my daughter struggled with high jump at school she imagined a knife-welding pirate was chasing her. (Violent class).

Here are some tips I often use to get the job done:

Ask yourself – what is the worst thing I can do to this character, then do it.

Download the Freedom app. Sure, you’ll miss out on baby photos and recipes on Facebook, but you’ll get a whole lot more done.

Find the weakest scene in your novel and DELETE IT. Don’t hold back. You’re not a scene collector, you’re an author. Find the next weakest scene. Are you brave enough to REPEAT? Ultimately you are trying to fit a lake into a cup without spilling a drop. Only you will know what was (and wasn’t) left out.

Introduce a new character halfway through who makes things worse.

Short paragraphs are easier for the reader.

Switching between Word and Scrivener helps with perspective.

Enjoy yourself.

If you’re lacking spark or confidence, listen to what Ricky Gervais told Time magazine.

None of that helps? Perhaps imagine a knife-welding pirate is chasing you. Or do what the masters do: drink.

Huge congratulations to Kiwi Eleanor Catton for becoming the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize.  Holy hell. What an achievement. And what a humble speech. You’ll be surfing on a rainbow right about now.

Recently, when I was struggling to string a sentence together in my new children’s novel I found a great quote from Eleanor which stuck. ‘If a book starts off funny,’ a thesis supervisor once told her, ‘It has to get funnier; if it starts off weird, it has to get weirder, if it starts off sad, it has to get sadder. Like all good advice it seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but I came to realise that having to trump oneself means having to outwit oneself, and that’s actually really difficult.’


Some authors say writer’s block is just flat batteries. I agree, but sometimes, no matter how hard you try, those damn words glue themselves to the inside of your head and refuse to play ball. When this happens thank your lucky stars you’re a writer, not a glassblower. The latter is chained to their shed or studio.

All you need is a laptop and $5 for coffee.

Move your office. Choose a cafe with a brilliant view. Write in the park. I’ve even taken a notebook out to the trampoline and jumped about like a doofus while the kids are at school. I tell you, five minutes of that and thoughts start to  zing around your head like sherbet on the tongue. And it’s cheaper than cigarettes.

If you’re in a rut, shift your headspace. Literally. Do whatever works. You’ll be surprised what lurks beneath.

I spoke to a great group at Stanley Bay Primary yesterday. As usual, kids this age (years 4,5 and 6) are full of life, energy and awkward questions. I told them about Malcolm McGarvy (the bully in my novel ‘Shot, Boom, Score!) who has a few tricks up his sleeve. One of which is the chicken made from a tea towel; the other is a penguin made from a banana.

The speech went well and Fiona and the team thanked me. When I jumped in the car to drive home I was sure I smelt something. Something sweet. Yet slightly rotten. Something…like the banana I used for my talk a month ago at Birkenhead Primary. (You’re just lucky this isn’t Smelevision.)


Hugh MacLeod is a cartoonist whom I admire greatly.

He doesn’t suffer fools, though suffers for his art.

Today in his blog he paraphrased Linds Redding, an Auckland creative who recently died of cancer. Linds’ blog was enlightening, funny and honest. Although he admitted he enjoyed parts of his advertising career – and the people – ultimately Linds felt he worked in an industry which took his best years, not to mention ideas. And in the end he had nothing to show for it.

I hope Linds’ family are doing as well as can be expected. I never met him but he seemed a good, decent guy.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I took from his take on life:

If you’re a creative – be it art, music, writing, whatever – choose where to throw your energy. You only have a certain amount of it – and we ain’t here forever.

What is it you want to say?