An Interview with Marg McAlister

With Vicki Stanton, Editor, Buzz Words.
Marg McAlister

Marg McAlister is a woman of many talents. She is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction for adults and children, a ghostwriter, and a tutor among other roles. Her website Writing4Success ( is an amazing treasure trove of articles, tips and advice for all writers.

Buzz Words chats with Marg about life as a writer.

You have had a rich and varied career as a writer. How did you get started?

writing as a childLike many other writers, I always loved reading and this naturally morphed into a love of writing. As a kid (from about the age of 9) I used to like nothing better in the school holidays than to sit down with a pen and a notebook and write stories.

I bought books and magazines on the craft of writing for years; went to workshops and joined groups… always with the idea of writing a novel for adults. Then eventually, when I had small children, I found it was easier to write shorter things (like magazine articles and short stories for school magazines) in the time I had available (Which was not much! I had 4 children in 7 years and taught full-time or part-time in schools and TAFE until they were all over 10.)

From writing articles I moved into ghostwriting, then wrote writing courses for the Australian College of Journalism, and after that set up my website,, and started marketing my own courses.

Meanwhile I kept writing: books for kids (the count now is somewhere over 70); website content, ebooks, and then finally moved into creating online courses for BlueScope Steel, GEMCO and other clients of the company I worked for. All writing - and all fun!

Who or what have been the big influences on your career as a writer and tutor?

The first would probably have been Di Bates, whom I met at a local writer's meeting. We left the scene when they started showing travel slides! She looked over a short story I had with me and said "Put in more dialogue then send it to the School Magazine" and that was my first published story. Di is also one of the most entrepreneurial writers I know: she was always doing something different and making a success of it.

After that it would be Gary Provost (a respected author and writing tutor in the USA, who had many articles in Writer's Digest) - I went to his Writer's Retreat Workshop, then, years later, ended up going back several times as one of the teaching staff.

As far as influence goes, Di and Gary are the main 'who', although I could probably name plenty of others who have written great books on writing, plus some other talented people who taught me a lot about internet marketing and online learning. Some of them had nothing to do with writers or writing.

As for the 'what' when it comes to influencing my writing, I'd have to say the fact that I discovered I REALLY loved writing 'how to' or 'self-help' material. Who would have thought! I also love messing about with graphics and design, so it was fun to create and maintain a website for writers, and also to plan, write and produce e-books.

What genre do you enjoy writing the most? Have you a favourite book?

I've probably already answered that: I love writing 'how to' ebooks and ecourses.

Apart from that, I like writing crime/thrillers/mysteries (this seems to feature in my books for primary children!) - and this is also what I like to read.

I don't have a favourite book. I have a lot of favourite authors. I love Lee Child's Jack Reacher series (Jack is an ex-military cop), and I've just discovered Stephen Hunter's books starring Bob Lee Swagger, an ex-marine sniper. (Hmmm. Is there a theme here?) These strong silent types who are unassuming, who believe in justice, and can beat 6 bad guys with one hand behind their backs… who can resist?

But I also get a kick out of Jennifer Crusie's humour, and Carl Hiaasen's books. I read every day, and usually go through a couple of books a week, so it's not surprising that I can't name one favourite. 

How did Writing4Success begin?

writing4successWhen I started ghostwriting, it was for a local businessman who had lots of other contacts who also wanted a ghostwriter, so I needed to quickly put together business cards, brochures and other promotional material. I called the business Word Dynamics, and this is still our business name today (now incorporated for tax purposes). Then, when I created a website for writers, I wanted something with the word 'Writing' in it, so Writing4Success was born. This is also a registered business name.

The website's been around for ten years now (I think… it might even be longer) which is quite a long lifespan for a website! I started sending out the Writing4Success Tipsheet as a means of staying in touch with writers, and then went on to create e-books and e-courses. I've written two Writing4Success e-courses, each 5 modules long, that have been steadily selling for years.

Now, because of the rapid advance of technology, I'm in the middle of writing an e-course showing writers how to create, market and get paid for their own e-course! It's all great fun.

What do you think success as a writer means?

Good question. This is something that I encourage people to think about very carefully when they start writing. Success means different things to different writers, and it's important that any writer is clear about his/her definition of success.

successFor some writers, success means ONLY commercial publication. They want the validation of holding a book in their hands that a publisher has accepted; that will appear in a book store; and which will earn them royalties.

Others want to be able to hold their own book, but they don't care if they self-publish. It's seeing all their effort resulting in a published book that counts.

For others, the definition of success as a writer is: "Is it paying the bills?" They couldn't care less whether their writing is in a clothing catalogue, in a ghostwritten book that has someone else's name on the cover, or an instructional manual for an appliance. If they are earning money, they count it as success.

There are many more definitions of success, of course.

  • Actually finishing a novel, whether it's published or not.
  • Getting a poem published in a collection or on a website.
  • An unpaid article for the local paper.

I think writers should celebrate the small successes along the way, too - attending a conference to build a writer's network and make contact with editors; finishing a chapter; writing a short story; running a successful workshop in a school or for beginning writers… there are lots of things to rejoice about!

Do you think writers are born or created?

This is the 'nature versus nurture' debate, isn't it?

Some are born.

Some are created.

I have had students in writing courses who started off with all kinds of beginners' mistakes in style, plotting, structure and so on. You wouldn't think they had a hope. But some of them kept plugging away for years (some enrolled in later courses I offered) and I was stunned at the progress they'd made. Just goes to show that if someone has a good sense of story, and keeps hammering away at it, learning their craft, they can do it. In fact, some of them end up with a string of published books and a contented life doing what they always wanted, whereas other writers who had far more natural talent just couldn't stick it out and went on to do something else.

What tips do you have for people wanting a career in writing for children and young adults?

Three things:

(a) become familiar with what is already on offer for the age group you're targeting, and make sure you understand what interests kids of that age generally. You should be reading, reading, reading. Ask children's librarians what kids borrow all the time. Analyse those books to see what it is that would attract kids. Don't try to write pale imitations of the books (e.g. witches and muggles in the Harry Potter style) but dig deeper: what's underneath? Fascinating characters? Tension and suspense? Mystery? Fast-moving events? A tight plot? All of the above? 

(b) At the same time, hone your writing skills, so when you're ready to create a gripping, fast-moving story with fascinating characters of your own, you can do it justice. Be the best writer you can be.

(b) Network, network, network. Meet other people writing for children. Go to seminars and workshops. Meet editors and publishers. Listen to speakers on the panel at writers' festivals. Join SCWBI and get their publications; go to their conference. Get a sense of what's happening in the publishing industry.

Are there extra considerations writers should keep in mind now the digital age is upon us?

Yes. Bookstores are closing; magazines are closing; publishers are doing it tough.

digital booksFor today's kids, it's natural to send abbreviated text messages; to access information from iPhones, iPads and laptops. It's a digital world, so come to terms with it - people still need stories; they're just delivered in different ways.

Look for opportunities that go hand-in-hand with this technological age. Here's an example, using a different art form: music. Things changed with the advent of the iPod and iTunes; everyone started wanting downloadable songs and music. It was easier to carry a tiny iPod than a case full of CDs. But then what happened? Musicians began to upload songs to YouTube and to sell their creations from their own websites - they started taking more control.

Authors are doing the same. If you haven't already got one, investigate having your own blog and/or your own website. Look into the value of social networking and how you can get 'followers' (Twitter) or 'friends' (Facebook) who are interested in what you write.

If you publish through a conventional publisher, look at the advantages to you of publicity through giving away a free chapter of your book, or a free report on whatever you specialise in (if you write non-fiction.) Find out how to put a book trailer on YouTube, or get someone to make one for you. Create your own e-course, and market it online. The Internet is wide open and waiting for you! 

How would someone interested in ghostwriting get started?

First, you have to have a track record - you have to demonstrate to people that you can write entertainingly on a variety of subjects. You could do this via a portfolio that you send out to prospective clients, but it's much more convincing if you can point to articles or books that you've written and published.

The quickest way to do this is to write articles for well-known online sites, like Suite101 or - or else you can volunteer to write a few articles for a website in your area of interest, OR for a newsletter.

ghostwritingPick topics on which you can write convincingly, and write at least a dozen different articles. (When I started ghostwriting, I'd had more than a dozen articles published in magazines like New Idea, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle and Modern Boating, as well as articles on writing. I kept copies of these and sent them to clients.)

Once you get your first client it gets easier. Then you can start adding clients to your portfolio, and if you do a good job they'll write testimonials for you. Note, though, that some clients don't want anyone to know they use a ghostwriter, so you'll have to maintain confidentiality.

Here's a tip: If you have friends who work in the 9-5 business world, ask if you can ghost-write a (non-confidential) report for them, or a brochure for their company, or an article (e.g. time management) for their company newsletter. Do it free of charge in exchange for being able to use it as a sample of your work, and for a testimonial from the company about how great you are to work with.

You can find clients at Chamber of Commerce meetings, clubs like Rotary, or meetings of the National Speakers Organisation. You may have to do a lot of networking to start with. You can also advertise in the local paper - and DO have a website where people can read more about you, contact you via email, and see samples of your work.

You've recently returned from twelve month touring holiday around Australia in a caravan. During that time you wrote for Caravan &Motorhome on Tour. Can you tell us a little about this?

Marg and Rob driving along the Great Ocean RoadThis just goes to show that you never know where writing is going to lead you.

My husband and I were planning a trip around Australia in 2011, and were getting a caravan custom-built so we'd be nice and comfortable! I requested that a computer workstation be built in, which led to my explaining that I was a writer and didn't want to set up the computer at the small fold-down dining table every time I wanted to write. The caravan dealer happened to know someone at Caravan and Motorhome on Tour, who happened to be looking for a couple to follow around Australia for a year. (Networking! Can't beat it.) He told them about us.

Lots of other things had to be right. As well as having worn many writing hats, I had actually written a couple of articles about caravanning for Suite101. They wanted someone who could write a feature article for a magazine each month, as well as keep a weekly blog on the magazine's website. They also wanted to use both of us as presenters on the accompanying DVD, so we had to get the camcorder rolling and do a quick piece to send to them about why we liked our caravan. This was followed by a screen test at their headquarters in Sydney. (As it happened I had a background in debating and public speaking, and Rob was used to addressing large groups and meetings both from his business background and from being president of a local volunteer organisation.)

All things came together, and we travelled for a year, from May 2010 to April 2011. A film crew flew out to join us wherever we were in Australia for around 10 days in each month, and we recorded footage and the voiceover. Our tasks also involved editing the voiceover script; writing a feature article and some other articles from time to time; the weekly blog; taking photos; getting camcorder footage; liaising with other caravanners and generally flying the flag for the magazine.

It was a lot busier than we expected (it ended up being pretty much the equivalent of a full-time job) so I had to put the Writing4Success Tipsheet and website on hold for a year, but it was a great experience. And who knows where it might lead?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes. It sounds corny, but believe in yourself and write what you believe in. Don't get too hung up on things like "If I'm not published by the time I'm 30 I'm giving it up!" (Yep, that was me. Then I published my first story at 31 and it's been a roller-coaster ride ever since. I'm SO glad I didn't give up.)

You're never too old, and you're never too young.

Finally, keep an open mind. You'll be surprised at the writing opportunities that appear, and the strange ways they can manifest!   
This interview is © to Marg McAlister and Writing4Success, and was conducted for Buzz Words in 2011.

Interview commissioned by
Vicki Stanton
Editor/Publisher Buzz Words
Buzz Words Books: reviews of children's and young adult books 


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