Valerie Khoo is managing director of the Sydney Writers’ Centre. Since founding the centre in 2005, she has grown it from a one-person operation to a thriving centre featuring more than 30 of Australia’s top writing trainers/journalists/authors. It is now Australia’s leading centre for writing courses, offering both “classroom” and “online” courses to students around the world. By early 2012, she expects to welcome the Centre’s 10,000th student.
The centre has helped thousands of students get published, score book deals, change careers and improve their job prospects. In 2010, the Sydney Writers’ Centre was a winner in the NSW Telstra Business Awards. In 2009, it was named by Dell as one of the 10 most innovative small businesses in Australia.
With a passion for building online communities, Valerie has transformed the concept of the traditional cottage writers’ centre into a dynamic community of aspiring writers from all over the world. In addition to its flagship habourside premises, thousands of students participate in courses which include creative writing, magazine writing, business writing, travel writing, novel writing, grammar and punctuation, media releases and much more.
Valerie is also an experienced journalist and small business commentator. With a Bachelor of Economics (majoring in accounting) and a Graduate Diploma in Communication (journalism, public relations), Valerie began her career at PricewaterhouseCoopers before joining a national public relations firm. She has worked at three major publishing houses – ACP Magazines, EMAP and Pacific Magazines – including three years in Singapore.
Describe yourself in 3 words: Determined, Fun and Happy.
What is your life motto? Do what you love and what you are passionate about.
When did you start pursuing your career and how long did it take to become successful? I always had an interest in writing but never thought of it as a career and even though I was always interested in it, my first career was in accounting and then PR. Finally I realised it could be a real career and went into writing. I got into the writing full-time when I was 26.
How much time and effort did you dedicate? I was in PR at the time and woke up one day (it was September) and decided I need to make writing full-time; writing was freelancing on the side. Literally that day I woke up and I wrote 40 letters to editors and wrote to everyone in the industry to see if there was an opening – these were the days before email and months later I was offered a job in writing.
What are the challenges in your line of work? It’s hard if you want to make it hard, and it’s not hard if you have the right attitude. If you have the attitude that you are going to be a struggling writer and no-one is going to be interested in your work and it’s really hard to get a break, well guess what, that’s what you’re going to experience. If you have a really proactive attitude and you are prepared to make things happen for yourself, you’re going to have a happy experience. So it’s not whether the industry is hard, it’s whether you make it hard for yourself. A lot of writers think they can just write and their work will get discovered that way – it doesn’t work like that. You actually have to tell people that you are writing. You have to let them read it so they can appreciate it and really promote yourself. The more you do it, it becomes easier and easier.
What feedback taught you an extremely valuable lesson? One of my very, very, very first, gigs – it was for a magazine, I spelt somebody’s name wrong and from that point on I check and double check. I’m glad I learnt that earlier on.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given to date? Do what you love and the money will follow.
In your mind, is formal training essential? Not essential, but any kind of training, whether it is in writing or not, any kind of learning will keep you well-rounded and put you ahead of the class.
Do you think having a mentor is important? How would you go about getting one for this industry? If you find the right mentor it’s fantastic. Connect with people and get to know them a little bit before you actually have a mentoring relationship. You need to get out there. You need to meet people and not sit behind an email. Networking is essential in any industry in life. It’s not what you know; it’s whom you know. Your network will make or break you.
What are some steps those starting out can take to start/further their career? Do a course, for example any of the courses at The Writers’ Centre, or if you are not sure, do a bunch of short course that will help you narrow down your areas of interest that will help you with your passion. Once you have a clear definition of what you want, then write, write, write. If it’s fiction, enter competitions. If you want to be in screen writing enter script and short film courses and as I said before network. Another is internships. So many successful people in the industry started with an internship.
What kept you going when you weren’t at your best? I didn’t ever feel like giving up.
Do you believe that ‘making it’ is about luck and being in the right place at the right time? No I believe that making it is fully within your control. You can create your opportunities, you can create the role you want or sometimes you might be in the right place at the right time and that’s great, but you don’t have to rely on that at all. Through connections you’ve made or skills you’ve developed, you can actually create a situation.
A BIG Thank You to Andrew Gillman.
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