FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, and grew up in the Hills District area of north-west Sydney. I went to university at what was then known as the University of Western Sydney, Nepean (now known as Western Sydney University) and earned my design degree in 1994. I moved to Victoria in 1999 and have lived in Melbourne now for almost as long as I lived in Sydney, so I consider them both to be my home towns. I live not too far from the beach with my husband and our two teenage sons.
2. Do you have any pets?
Yes, we have dog called Luna; she’s an American Staffy mix. We found her through Forever Friends Animal Rescue, who saved her from the dog pound when she was three years old (she was scheduled to be put down). I’d encourage anyone thinking about getting a dog to look into rescuing one in need of a home instead of buying a puppy from a breeder.
3. Do you have any hobbies?
I love to illustrate, craft, paint, home decorate – anything creative really. You can see some of my artwork on my other website sarahepsteincreative.com. And it goes without saying that I love to read. I keep promising myself I am going to learn how to crochet, so maybe this will be the year! (I say that every year.)
4. Why did you decide to become a writer? What has your journey been like?
I was always a very creative kid and spent a lot of my childhood drawing, crafting and creating my own picture books. In high school I started writing short stories, poetry and the beginnings of novels that never seemed to get very far. I really wanted to write a series like The Babysitters Club, or YA thrillers like the ones I enjoyed reading by Christopher Pike, but I had no idea how I could make that my career. There were no creative writing courses offered at university at the time, only journalism, and I didn’t want to be a journalist. So I decided to concentrate on my art skills. When I finished high school I studied a design degree so I could work as a graphic designer. I then worked as a designer and illustrator for about twelve years before I decided to try writing something again.
This happened around the time my first child was born. We were buying and receiving lots of picture books at the time, and it reignited my passion for the books I’d grown up with and the many home-made picture books I’d crafted at the kitchen table as a kid. I was running my own graphic design business from home, and I worked when my baby was asleep. But during his daytime naps, there was never quite enough time to get stuck into my design work, so I began playing around with writing picture book stories. I soon realised I wanted to explore much longer-length stories, so I started writing long-hand in notebooks and eventually typed all of these scenes into a Word document. That was how I started writing novels. I continued working as a graphic designer while I was raising small children, so writing was done in whatever spare time I had left over. It took me about five years to finally finish a complete novel of 85,000 words. This is what my first full manuscript looked like when I printed it out:
5. Did you ever want to give up?
Before I was offered a contract, I had two other manuscripts rejected over and over again. Trying to pick myself up and write something new after my previous work (and my ego) was battered with rejections was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. I almost gave up several times. We’re not supposed to take those rejections personally, but it’s not easy to separate yourself from your work. It definitely takes a certain kind of tenacity and stubbornness to dig deep and keep going.
6. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Rejection is by far the biggest challenge on a daily basis, whether it’s during the submission process, or unfavourable critiques and reviews of my work. It affects my motivation and my mental health, and takes a lot of energy to overcome.
7. What is your favourite thing about being a writer?
I get to be creative every single day and invent characters and plots from my imagination. For a lifelong creative person, it’s so rewarding to see the final package and have it enjoyed by so many people. Meeting readers and hearing how much they enjoyed reading my books is really exciting, and I still get a thrill seeing my books on library shelves and in bookstores.
8. What is your least favourite thing about being a writer?
My least favourite thing is how much the creative process is tied into my energy levels and self-confidence. Some days I can feel low, flat and uninspired, and it makes it difficult to be productive. Most writers deal with impostor syndrome, where they doubt their own skills and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a fraud. It can be really hard to break through that mindset and keep writing anyway.
9. Do you have a writing routine or a favourite place to write?
I wrote the bulk of my first few manuscripts between the hours of 9pm to 2am every night after my kids had gone to bed because I worked on my design business during school hours. Some nights I was very productive, and others I’d throw in the towel early and watch Netflix instead. But there was enough of a consistent routine to keep the story moving forward. These days I no longer have my design business so I write and illustrate full-time with two work sessions per day – one block of time during school hours, and a few hours after dinner if I’m not too tired. I’m lucky enough to have my own studio at the back of my house, so I always write in there. The routine of coming into my studio helps me separate my writing time from family time, which is always a juggle when you have kids and work from home.
10. What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
You don’t need to draft your scenes in order, or write your way neatly from point A to point B. If you’re feeling stuck, just jump ahead and pick up a random scene midway through, then figure out how to write your way into it later. I often jump forward to an action scene or snippet of dialogue, something I know is definitely going to be important to the story, and bang out the words as they’re coming to me. Then I figure out where I want to slot it into the story later and how I’m going to get my characters there. It really helps you get over the mental block of the dreaded white page.
11. What’s the worst writing advice you’ve received?
‘Real’ writers must write every day, which is simply not true. I agree that having a regular writing routine is essential if you ever want to finish a manuscript, but writing every day is just not feasible for a lot of people due to their families, lifestyles, work situations and energy levels. It’s too easy to feel down on yourself about your output levels if you measure it by how many words you write every day. As long as you keep turning up at the keyboard to add words to your manuscript when you can, you’re a ‘real’ writer.
12. Where do you get your inspiration and ideas for your novels?
I’m inspired by everything around me, from TV shows and movies, to news articles and podcasts, to conversations with friends and other books I’ve read. Anytime I hear about something that interests me and captures my imagination, I write it down (or make a note on my phone) so I can think about it more later. I’ll often start brainstorming one of these random ideas, expanding on the who, what, where, when, how and why of it all, which can then springboard into new ideas and directions. I have Word documents full of random notes about plots and characters, which are the seeds of new stories. Ideas never come to me as a clear lightning-bolt moment – they always grow from something very small that I keep returning to and asking myself more questions. The key is to always write things down when they come to you, because you think you’ll remember later but you won’t!
13. What do you do when you are stuck for ideas?
I’ll go straight into my Word docs that I mentioned above, and see if there is a seed of something interesting to start exploring. But sometimes I will binge-watch a TV series instead, or read a stack of books, or just watch movies. I find watching, listening to or reading someone else’s stories always makes me feel inspired and helps me start brainstorming new ideas for myself.
14. The plots of your thriller novels are very layered and intricate, with many twists and turns. How do you approach crafting a plot like this – is it carefully planned?
Yes, I am definitely a planner rather than a discovery writer, and I always have to figure out what the ending is going to be before I start or else I stall very early on in the drafting process. I work really hard in the planning stages with pacing and structure, and the revealing of clues and twists. Once I know what my key scenes are going to be and where I need my reveals to happen, it gives me the space to concentrate on getting the characters, descriptions and setting right. I have a background in visual arts, so I find it helpful to use charts and colour coding for scenes and characters so I can have a visual snapshot of what my chapters look like and where my characters appear.
15. Why do you set your books in small towns?
I love small-town settings in books, TV shows and movies, and I particularly enjoy Australian small-town stories with secrets and complicated family dynamics at the core. Most Australians have been on some kind of a road trip at some point, and country towns with their close-knit communities are places we recognise and are fascinated by. As a writer, my imagination plays with the undercurrents in small towns, the way their inhabitants all know each other, or at least think they do.
16. What are your best tips on creating good characters?
Once I have an idea for a plot or situation a character finds themselves in, I start asking myself questions about who they are and how they came to be in this situation. What do they want? What are their fears? What kind of family situation do they have, or what might have happened in their past that influences how they react to their current predicament? Once you start brainstorming these things about your character, you can create someone realistic and well-rounded who reacts and speaks in ways that are unique to them. You might also base some of their characteristics on people you know in real life, but I find the best way to do this is to take one or two qualities from different people and merge them into somebody brand new who has their own thoughts, feelings and mannerisms.
With a large cast of characters, my challenge as an author is to make sure they are so cohesively involved with one another that if you removed a character and what they contribute, the plot would no longer function properly. Every single character needs authentic emotions and motivations or else their actions come across as nonsensical or empty. And if their relationships with other characters shift and change throughout the story, it needs to be logical or else it just seems forced.
17. What advice would you give students about including better vocabulary in their writing?
Read widely. Read the genres you love, but also try reading in different genres you wouldn’t usually pick up. Also read some non-fiction for something different. There really is no better advice than reading to expand your vocabulary, and it really helps your writing too because you start to understand sentence structure, cadence (the rhythm and flow of sentences), and using words creatively to make your writing more entertaining to read.
18. Do you have any editing tips?
I always edit my writing as I go, which means I start every new writing session by re-reading what I wrote in the previous session and tweaking it so the sentences are smoother. I also cut any unnecessary words and fix typos. Doing this helps me get back into the right mood and headspace for the story. When I’ve written a number of scenes or a large part of the story (and especially when I’ve finished the whole book), I find it best to put my work aside for a couple of weeks and come back to it with fresh eyes to edit, because it’s much easier to see where you need to fix things or cut words out when you’ve had a bit of time away from it. Once you’ve done this, it’s good to then pass it on to a trusted friend, another writer or keen reader, who can read your story and give their feedback about the plot and characters, any parts that don’t make sense, and any grammar errors you may have missed. You can then polish the story again based on their feedback. There are plenty of books and websites available about improving your grammar and sentence structure, and things to avoid like passive writing. And if you join online writing groups and forums, you can ask other writers for advice.
During the editing process, I also like to plot my chapters and characters out on colour-coded charts so I can get an idea about the shape of my story and where and when all of the characters appear. The pictures below are examples of two of my books in chart form alongside some notes about what happens in each chapter. I find it very helpful to plot out where my story is going beforehand and also during the drafting, so my editing is a lot less painful later on.
19. If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you started pursuing publication, what would it be?
Listen to your gut, because it’s usually right. Whether it’s a story that’s not quite working, feedback that doesn’t sit right, or industry people you’re dealing with, let your instincts guide you about what’s right for you and your writing. It will hopefully get you where you need to be a lot faster, and you’ll avoid a tonne of stress.
20. In your opinion, what support is needed to become a professional writer?
Realistically, becoming a professional writer will likely take years of practise and improvement, so you have to be prepared for this. In my case, it took ten years from when I started my first manuscript to actually having a book published, and it was the third manuscript I wrote that got me a book deal. It can be a very long road, so you will need to support yourself financially while you are working on your writing craft, which means you’ll probably need a day job to pay your bills. Many writers continue their day jobs even after they are published because they may not earn enough income from their writing and book royalties to live comfortably.
You will also need the support of other writers who understand the ups and downs of being a writer, so I recommend becoming involved with the writing community online and also attend writing courses, events and conferences (online or in person) to learn how the industry works. In terms of how to become a writer, you do not need a university degree in creative writing or any special writing courses if you can’t afford them. You just need to start writing, and to keep learning as you go. The internet is full of useful information on how to improve your writing, and there are plenty of books available in libraries about the writing craft.
21. How do I take my writing from being good to great? And how can I make writing a profession?
The thing about writing is, the only way to get better is to just keep at it. And you must be prepared to revise your work and look for ways to polish and improve it each time you re-read it. You can’t revise a blank page, so the most important thing is to get the first draft written. And it might feel like it’s not very good when you’re writing that first draft, but giving yourself a little time and space away from it before coming back with fresh eyes will really help you see where it can be improved.
Reading widely will also help you go from good to great because it shows you what great writing looks like. The more you read, the more you will learn from successful published authors. You can also watch YouTube videos about screenwriting to see how movie plots are created, because these stories often use the classic three-act structure that is taught in creative writing courses.
When you have some writing finished and you’re feeling brave enough to show someone for feedback, try swapping work with another writer, or ask a trusted friend who reads the genre you are writing. Getting feedback on your work and making improvements is key for making a good story even better.
If you want to make writing a profession, you can look into short courses at places like the Australian Writers Centre to see if you enjoy it, or start researching all of the free information online about how to get into the writing industry. Universities also offer creative writing and journalism courses. If you want to submit your stories to print publications and publishing houses, you need to research how the industry works and make sure you follow submission guidelines. Most publishing houses have information on their websites about how to submit your manuscript.
If you want to self-publish your manuscript, there is a wealth of information on the internet on how to do this. Take some time to watch YouTube videos, listen to self-publishing podcasts, and sign up to newsletters of successful self-published authors to hear about their tips and techniques. Self-published authors are some of the most generous people in the book industry with sharing information and supporting other authors.
22. Are you writing sequels to Small Spaces and Deep Water?
I have no plans to write sequels for those books. I will leave it up to readers’ imaginations about what happens next for those characters.
23. Do you only write YA books?
I have only published YA books so far, but I enjoy writing for older and younger ages too. Watch this space!
I hope this information has been helpful. Best of luck to anyone who is thinking about pursuing their dream of becoming a writer.