Mark Abernethy is a speechwriter, ghostwriter, journalist and author. Born in New Zealand, he has lived in Australia for most of his adult life.
A former editor at Australian Penthouse magazine, he has also written for the Australian Financial Review.
Abernethy is the author of four novels starring Alan Macqueen, the latest being Counter Attack. In August, his new book Arctic Floor will be published under the name of Mark Aitken by Allen & Unwin.
Describe yourself in 3 words: Early to rise.
What is your life motto? Have a go.
When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I wrote my first song when I was 14, my first piece of journalism when I was 20 and attempted my first novel when I was 26. My first published novel – Golden Serpent – hit shelves when I was 42.
How many hours did you dedicate to pursuing your dream? I’ve been writing professionally for more than 25 years, which I suppose is dedication. It’s pretty cool to be paid to write – writing novels is a particularly nice version of that. When I wrote Golden Serpent, I did nothing but write for just over seven weeks.
Describe how difficult the business really is? It’s this difficult: most people who talk about a novel never try to write it; of those who try, very few will finish; of those who finish, very few have something that can be published; of those who get published, very few do so through a large and respected publisher; and of those who have a novel published by a major publisher, very few make enough sales to do it as a living. It’s a very hard thing to sit in front of a blank screen and set about writing 140,000 words that others want to read.
What is the mistake that taught you an extremely valuable lesson? I once had a relationship in which I was obstructed in pursuing a mentoring program based on my first draft screenplay. It was a mistake to let that happen – it won’t happen again.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? A first draft is an important step but rewriting is even more important. The other one I like is, ‘don’t get it right – get it written!’ Or, Harold Robbins, who when asked the secret of his success, replied, ‘ass-glue’.
In your mind, is formal training essential? No. The writing world is divided into writing program devotees – who love the process – and the self-taught. Personally, I learn from editors and publishers and readers. I prefer a professional feedback process than sitting at the feet of a teacher.
Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? I don’t really gravitate towards mentors, although I like the idea of one. In the world of literary fiction, writers do seem to flourish under patronage but in the commercial thriller genre, I can’t see what role a mentor would play. I suppose the best way to get a mentor in my world is to get close to a publisher, agent or editor.
What are some steps emerging talent can take to start/further their career? It’s important to recognise that you’re entertaining people you don’t know – it’s not an ego fest, so when you start writing, don’t treat it as an exercise in self-regard but as something that is for the reader. Secondly, make a habit of finishing: all the professional writers I know make themselves finish what they’re doing, whether it’s a chapter or a scene or a short story. Don’t be one of these people who never gets to the end. If you’re stuck, do this: tell someone your story in one sentence. That’s your book, right there.
What kept you going when you felt like giving up? Money pressure, time pressure, deadline pressure, family pressure. I respond to pressure and fear… but it’s not for everyone.
Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? I’m not sure about that. It’s unlikely that someone writes a truly poor book and is an overnight sensation.