Graeme Simsion is not only the author of The Novel Project, a new writing craft book, and a bunch of international bestselling books, he’s also a very generous soul.
When Valerie Khoo and I began our So You Want To Be A Writer podcast all those years ago, Graeme was my very first interview in episode #1, revealing many tips along with discussions about a duck suit.
When we celebrated 100 episodes (still many years ago, as we had recorded well over 460 episodes when I said farewell last year, as well as clocking up over two million downloads), Graeme, by that stage, a multi-international bestselling author, graciously popped back for an update on his stellar career, talking about the joys (and jitters) of following up his incredibly popular debut novel, The Rosie Project.
And now that I’m starting Write With Allison Tait, Graeme has kindly agreed to be my very first guest expert, a session that will feature in the group in May (I have such an exciting schedule of guests I can hardly contain myself!).
It’s almost like he’s put me on his To Do list as The Allison Project and I am so grateful for his support.
As a taster, Graeme has compiled his top 10 writing tips, shared below.
Ten Writing Tips from Graeme Simsion
1. Know why you’re writing. And what you want.
Some writers want a bestseller, some critical acclaim, some to change the world. Some write for the pure joy of writing, and some write for therapy. Accept that if you’re aiming to do one, it’s likely you won’t achieve the others. Don’t complain when you don’t. (Whenever someone tells me their novel is semi-autobiographical, I push them to explain whether they’re writing for therapy or publication. ‘Both’ is seldom a realistic answer.)
2. Writing can be taught and learnt.
I shouldn’t need to say this: to me it’s obvious that you can improve your writing by learning theory, practising and getting feedback. Yes, there are people who can write a book without any study, and people who will never write a good book no matter how much they study, but study will make both of them better writers than they would have been.
Practically, join a course and / or a writing group. Read about writing, do lots of it, read others’ work critically, get your own work critiqued.
3. Learn the language of storytelling.
Which is, to a large extent, the language of story structure. You need words to be able to critique and accept criticism, and, more importantly, to articulate what you’re doing or trying to do.
Writers in my experience are far more literate about sentence structure than story structure. (Screenwriters are the opposite). You need both.
Did I mention that story is important, at least if you want your book to sell?
4. You need a process.
It can be as simple as ‘sit down and wait for the words to come’ or as complex as you need to make it. I use the nine-stage process described in The Novel Project.
The important things are that (a) each day when you start work, you know what you’re going to be doing and (b) that you revise your process after each project to reflect what you’ve learned.
5. If your process isn’t working, change it.
In particular, writing by the seat of your pants (‘pantsing’) is a choice, not an identity. I see so many writers getting stuck, typically at around 30,000 words, abandoning their work, starting again…almost inevitably they’re working without a plan.
Maybe time to think about modifying your process to include a planning stage.
6. You don’t have to write every day.
Many of the (possible) stages in writing a novel are not about getting words on the page.
Before the drafting you may be devoting time to concept, title, character, plot points and an overall plan. Afterwards, there’s editing.
Throughout, there’s problem solving.
Sure, write something else to stay in shape if you want, but a day in which you do nothing but come up with a brilliant title or decide it’d be better if two characters were combined is a good day.
7. Creativity can be managed.
There are many practical techniques to improve your creativity. Start with noting when you have your good ideas, including solutions to problems. (Often it’s while doing some routine, non-intellectual activity such as walking or driving).
Start thinking about such times as your creative times, and specifically devote them to your biggest creative challenges.
8. Interrogate your characters’ decisions—especially the big ones that drive the story or reveal important information about your character.
Dig deep; why did they do this? Think like a shrink. The answers will give you insight, inform other more minor behaviour by your characters, and often suggest set-ups to make the decisions more convincing and powerful.
9. Show don’t tell is good advice—and amongst the most commonly given.
Failure to follow it is one of the most common problems that writing teachers see. It’s sometimes their own fault for failing to explain exactly what it means—I’m amazed how many writers find it hard to explain or are not sure if they’re doing it.
I see it as writing in scenes: if you can imagine your prose as playing out in a movie, in real time, you’re showing. If not, it’s telling.
10. Believe your editors and early readers when they tell you there’s a problem—no matter how bad the solution they’re proposing.
So when they say, ‘I suggest you change A to B, the message is that A is not working. B may be worse, but that’s not the issue. Your job is to find C.
Graeme Simsion is the internationally bestselling author of The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, The Rosie Result and The Best of Adam Sharp, as well as Don Tillman’s Standardized Meal System, Data Modeling Essentials and, co-authored with Anne Buist, Two Steps Forward and Two Steps Onward.
His latest book is The Novel Project: A Step-by-Step Guide To Your Novel, Memoir or Biography.