Interview: Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister is the perfect example of a writer who keeps her eyes open for new opportunities. She’s done so many different projects, it truly boggles the mind. As if 60-some children’s books weren’t enough, she writes how-to articles and courses, and has just been given one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever heard of! I’ll let her tell you all about it. Enjoy this interview.

You have such a varied background as a writer. You’re a living example of the different options available to writers. Which writing endeavor have you enjoyed the most?

I have to admit that I’m absolutely passionate about writing ‘how to’ material – of all kinds, but especially for writers. I guess I’ve always been so keen on writing that it seemed a natural step to move into teaching writing as well. I remember when the person who commissioned me to write some distance education courses for writers said to me “What do you really want to write?” and I answered “’How to’ material and books… of all kinds.” He looked at me as though I hadn’t understood and said “No, I mean what do you REALLY want to write? Like a novel..?”

I had to laugh. He was so surprised when he found that my passion was for ‘how to’; that what I was writing for him was what I most wanted to do!

Having said that, I also enjoy a lot of other kinds of writing. I love the freedom of being able to write on any topic I like for Suite101; I still write books for kids for educational publishers (fiction and non-fiction; various lengths) and I’m in the middle of editing/doing the layout of a book for a fitness challenge (diet and exercise) for the owner of a local gym. It’s all interesting!

You’ve published more than sixty books for children. What first drew you to this genre? What rewards have you seen from writing children’s books?

After leaving school I trained as a teacher, so I think it was natural to be drawn to writing for children. I’d always liked writing anyway, and in a job where I was regularly reading to children and teaching reading, it was a logical progression. Also, I had four children of my own over a seven-year stretch: with young children and a teaching career it was easier to write short books, short stories and magazine articles than to try to work on a longer project. I enjoy writing fiction for children, and whether the contract specifies royalties or offers a flat fee, I find that I end up with a healthy hourly rate for the time I put in writing the stories.

Authors of children’s books also have the opportunity to make author visits to schools, which is a handy extra source of income.

What are some of the challenges and rewards of ghostwriting?

Rewards: a variety of topics that keep a writer’s mind ticking over – and which often give me ideas for related articles that I can write for Suite101 or other clients. I’ve had some ghostwriting clients that keep giving me project after project, and it’s good when you can develop an ongoing relationship in this way. It’s possible to build a healthy and lucrative career as a ghostwriter, but I’d advise a mix of online and offline projects. You can get a foot in the door at places like guru.com, craigslist and elance.com, then build to more lucrative online projects or use the experience to gain work offline.

Challenges: difficult clients would probably head the list, but I’ve been lucky – I can think of only one difficult client in all the years I’ve been ghostwriting. She continually changed her mind about what she wanted in the book; didn’t deliver promised content on time; and took forever to pay the invoice – a really frustrating ‘the cheque will be in the mail this week’ person”! I managed to get rid of her after the first few projects, but it was difficult because her brother had been a client of mine for years, and he was an absolute gem. Apart from difficult clients and ensuring that you get paid on time for your efforts, I guess another challenge is being able to write in the client’s voice when you’re writing a book for him/her. The best way to accomplish this is to record interviews: you get a good sense of how the client would phrase things.

Tell us about the two e-courses you run from your website: Spotlight on Plotting and Spotlight on Characters.

These were logical e-courses for me to create, because the plot and the characters are the most important elements of any novel. After writing five courses for a distance education provider, and being one of the tutors for some of these courses, I found that I was constantly repeating the same advice when I responded to assignments based on the plot or the characters. (The courses I had written were broad-based courses on writing fiction for various genres, and although each course had a lesson on creating characters and one on plotting, these lessons just covered the basics.)

There was a real need for two in-depth courses on (a) plotting and (b) creating characters. The dilemma for me was which one to write first, because they are, of course, interwoven. In the end I wrote Spotlight on Characters because most plots are character-driven, but I usually find that writers who take on one of the courses sign up for the other anyway – sometimes at the same time.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

Actually, my answer to this question has changed in the few weeks since I first received this questionnaire. A month ago I would have said that my immediate goal was to look at all the writing that I was doing, and the writing that I was thinking about doing, and deciding on a focus: maybe concentrating on just two or three outlets for my writing. I guess that’s still true, but thanks to an amazing opportunity that has come up, I am finding this decision much easier to make!

My husband and I are setting off in late March or early April on a fully sponsored road trip around Australia. (The initial contract is for 12 months but it could continue beyond this). Caravan and Motorhome on Tour magazine are providing us with a fully-equipped caravan (trailer to those who live in the USA) and a 4WD tow vehicle, and will give us an itinerary shortly. Our job is to write one feature article per month for the magazine, plus do regular blog posts and forum posts. We also get a camcorder and a camera to keep a record of our adventures. In addition, a film crew will fly out to meet us about once every three weeks to film our location and talk with us about our experiences. A DVD featuring this will be on the cover of the magazine each month.

I guess that’s going to keep me pretty busy, but I will also be doing other writing tasks on the road: probably the occasional children’s book and writing projects for one other major client.

Luckily Australia’s NextG wireless broadband service is one of the most advanced in the world: it’s pretty fast and covers a huge area. I’ll be working with a laptop computer and a wireless modem. Writing truly is a portable profession!

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Sorry, this has to come under the heading of ‘impossible to answer’. I’ve read thousands of interesting books. I couldn’t pick one stand-out.

Favorite authors?

Hmmm. Lee Child; Janet Evanovich; John Sandford; Harlen Coben, Nora Roberts, Jeff Lindsay, Jonathon Kellerman, Robert Parker… these are just a few off the top of my head. You’ll notice a pattern: I’m addicted to crime/mystery thrillers – definitely my favourite genre – and I like well-crafted humour.

Book you’re currently reading?

Stuart McBride’s Dying Light. The characters are well-drawn but I’m finding it hard to like most of them. Which is a problem: the hero’s fine, but pretty well everyone else is someone I wouldn’t ever want to spend time with, and that makes a novel hard going (for me).

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

This made me think a bit, but I think it has to be ‘Satisfaction with what and how you are writing, and with the rewards for your efforts’. Every writer you ask will probably give a different response to this question. For some writers, writing has nothing to do with money; it’s all about the enjoyment of the craft. They wouldn’t care if a finished book sold only 100 copies, if they were happy with the result – their reward is having a completed manuscript that they can be proud of. Others may define success by the number of copies sold; by income, or by fame.

Some people don’t care if their writing never sees an audience; they may keep a daily journal and get enormous satisfaction from that, and still consider themselves to be successful writers.

Advice for other writers?

It sounds corny, but “do what makes your heart sing”. If you have a day job you don’t like, but which you need for survival, then make sure that the writing you do in your spare time is something you love doing so much that you can’t wait to get to it. If you can earn an income from your writing, but it’s not where your heart lies, think of it like this: “Would I rather earn an income from writing, no matter what kind of writing it is, than working at any other job?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then do the income-earning writing part of the time, and work on what you really like the rest of the time. If the answer is ‘no, I can think of plenty of other jobs I’d like better’ then go after one of those other jobs and write what you enjoy outside of work hours.

Apart from that, my advice is to keep working on your craft, even when your work is being published regularly. Always aim to be better. Nobody ever knows it all. And network – you never know when you’ll meet a fellow writer, editor or agent who can change the whole direction of your career.

Where can we learn more about you?

You’ll find a summary of what I’ve done/am doing in my Suite101 profile.

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you spend all or part of your time writing to generate an income, try to write about topics you enjoy. If you produce a newsletter for someone else, take care with your work and make it something you are proud to have associated with your name. Everything you write can become part of your CV, and may lead to the perfect job years down the track. If you really hate the thought of a certain project or a certain client, be prepared to say ‘no’, even if it means a cut in income. Keep your focus on what you enjoy doing and what you want to do, and the rewards will come.

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