Sydney Smith is a published author with 25 years of experience in the publishing business! In my interview I give Sydney My Ten Questions and her insights are invaluable. Sydney’s wisdom is published weekly on her website Sydney Smith Writes.

Full Disclosure: Sydney Smith is my writing mentor and totally transformed and turned my life around.

Here’s Sydney’s Bio:
Sydney-Smith-Writing-Mentor-and-AuthorSydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. Sydney’s latest book The Architecture of Narrative about how to plot and structure fiction is out now.



Describe yourself in 3 words?

Writer, creator, passionate.

What is your life motto?

Change and grow.

Make the most of your talents. Be happy. (That’s three, I know, but one is not enough!)

How long did you pursue your career before you were successful?

I started writing when I was sixteen as a way of dealing with a difficult family situation. My mother controlled every aspect of my life, from what I did to where I went to what I wore. Writing was my bid for freedom. But I had to overcome a lot of inner demons before I was able to succeed as a writer (that is, get people to publish my work) and, even more importantly, feel comfortable with that. I often felt exposed when something of mine came out in print. When I won a major short story award, it was so traumatising that I stopped writing for two years. So that feeling of exposure prevented me from pursuing the publishing side of my writing life. I put more energy into teaching, which I love, and which didn’t feel as exposing. Now I get published and feel OK about it.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was walking along the street one day when I bumped into an old classmate. We were twenty-one. She was up from medical school for the summer holidays. She asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said, ‘I want to be a writer.’ It popped out of my mouth before I had even thought the words. It was a dazzling moment of realisation. Until then, my life had drifted. I was in a boring, dead-end job. That statement gave a focus to my life. It still does.

How did you start mentoring and coaching emerging and established writers?

I’d been working as a manuscript assessor since about 1997, reading up to fifty manuscripts a year. At first I enjoyed it. I felt myself learning and growing. The act of trying to teach something to another person is an effective way of understanding it yourself. You can’t explain something to another person clearly and concisely unless you understand it completely yourself. So as an assessor, I was learning what makes narrative tick and imparting my understanding to others.

Then I reached a point where I realised that an assessment is too superficial as a form of feedback. An assessor writes a report and that’s the end of it. The writer of the manuscript has a written record of those comments, which is useful, but they don’t have a way of asking questions, of explaining their intentions, of asking how to make those intentions clearer through the manuscript.

I was talking about all this to a friend of mine who was working at the Victorian Writers’ Centre (now called Writers Victoria). She suggested I advertise myself as a mentor in their weekly ebulletin. I did. That was in 2007. I’ve been going ever since.

What are the common mistakes you see people make with their writing?

I work mainly at the level of plotting and structure. That includes things like characterisation, scene development, what makes a chapter a chapter, how to keep the reader turning the page (which is partly narrative drive and partly how to start and end your chapters) and a whole lot more. It covers a lot, in fact. But it doesn’t cover things like prose, so I generally don’t bother with that unless it’s a major problem for the writer. At the level of plot and structure, the commonest problems are: lack of conflict, too many story-lines, passive protagonist, plot controlling character (that is, the plot has an agenda and forces characters to act on that agenda, even when it isn’t in their interests to do so). Lack of conflict, passive protagonist and plot controlling character are aspects of the same problem but I tend to deal with them separately.

You’re a published author of two books and assessed manuscripts for a living, what are publishers looking for in a nutshell?

Strong, involving characters. That means characters who go after what they want and who have recognisable, human flaws like people out in the real world.

Any productivity tips?

Boy, that’s a big question, Nicole. When people come to me, saying they have a problem sitting at the desk and writing, I tend to address each case as unique. I’ll talk to them about the problem and set them tasks and deadlines that look at possible solutions. I adjust these tasks and so on according to how they respond. For example, the writer might say they want to connect with me once a fortnight. I set them to write a thousand words. If they can’t write a thousand words in the time given, I talk to them about that, and might alter the deadline, depending on what they tell me. There are so many factors involved in problems with productivity (the writer might have too many things going on in their lives, or they might suffer from anxiety and fear of the blank page, or they might not know how to redraft their novel, or they might have unrealistic expectations of themselves, and more) that I think it’s better to look at each case individually than offer general advice.

What books would you recommend for people who want to learn the craft?

I know lots of writing teachers suggest useful how-to-write books. Usually, it’s because that’s how they learned to write themselves. But I didn’t learn that way. I learned by sitting in my bedroom and doing it, thinking about what I had written, comparing it to the work of the writers I admired, and when I found my writing fell way short of their high standards, trying again, trying harder. Then I got into manuscript assessing, which advanced my understanding by light years. And I found people to give me good feedback. So I have no books to recommend, not even my own, The Architecture of Narrative, which is more for intermediate writers. Also, as a mentor, I think people learn more quickly if they’re guided by me. New writers can ask me questions. They can’t ask questions of a how-to-write book. They can get feedback from me. They can’t get feedback from a how-to-write book. They get tasks that address the story they want to write. They get general advice from how-to-write books. They get deadlines from me. With a how-to-write book, they’re writing into the void, which is a huge problem for new writers.

You write, teach and mentor for a living, what would be your advice for somebody who wanted to create a similar freedom based business?

Know your product. That is, know thoroughly what you’re offering potential clients. Believe me, people pick up very quickly when someone is trying to wing it.

You can find Sydney on her website Sydney Smith Writes.

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