Perhaps I’m subconsciously creating an ad hoc series, as I was lucky enough to takeover another episode to chat to the very funny Kerri Sackville about Creativity and Parenting (which we could probably sub-title Creativity and Chaos).
We talk a lot about writing in the midst of chaos, squeezing the words in even as family life roils around us.
Things have changed for me as my kids have grown and my fiction writing has been able to move more into the centre of my working days. One thing that doesn’t change, however, is how much space children take up in your brain.
When they’re little, you spend a lot of time worrying about the eating, sleeping, breathing, whinging end of things. They’re constantly underfoot, demanding attention.
Then they get bigger.
Now they’re not underfoot all the time but that space in the brain that worries about eating and sleeping and breathing, well, it doesn’t switch off. And because they’re more absent there’s a whole lot more ‘what if?’ taking up residence.
And still I write.
One might think that having larger swathes of time would mean hours and hours spent at my computer, but, in truth, my days are not that different.
I still have a million non-writing-related things to do.
I still write fiction, on average, for about an hour a day. It seems to be my natural limit, or perhaps it’s simply been honed into a habit from years and years of fitting my writing in around other people’s lives.
One thing I know about creativity and parenting
The one thing I know for sure is that I’m glad I started when I did. When it was really tough to make it work and it seemed impossible.
If you’ve got little kids and a big dream to write a novel, I see you.
If you’ve only got time to write a paragraph a day, I see you.
If you’ve got one eye on soccer practice, and your mind is far way in a completely different world, I see you.
If it feels like you will never get to The End, I see you.
I talked endlessly on the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast for 462 episodes across seven years and two million downloads, and co-wrote a book of the same name with my co-host Valerie Khoo.
I’ve taught classes and workshops for writers of all ages, spoken at conferences and festivals, mentored and coached, coaxed and cheerled.
I bring a background in journalism, writing non-fiction books, writing fiction for adults, writing fiction for children, content writing, blogging, podcasting, speaking, social media, editing… you name it, when it comes to writing and publishing, chances are I’ve done it.
Now, I’m bringing all of my knowledge, experience and expertise into one spot.
Or check out So You Want To Be A Writer (the book), where my co-author Valerie Khoo and I have distilled the best tips from hundreds of author and industry expert interviews. Find out more and buy it here.
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.
Photo by Darren James
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.
In case you missed it, the latest round of #writeabookwithal is over and I have finished the first draft of my latest manuscript. It is, brace yourselves, the 15th first draft fiction manuscript that I have written.
Four were written before my first children’s novel (The Mapmaker Chronicles: Race To The End Of The World) was published and I doubt that we will ever see that fab four again.
Since TMC #1 came out, I have written five manuscripts that are now published novels, plus five more, including this new one. News on all of those various projects will be with you once I have it to hand.
Anyhoo, my point is that I’ve written a few now and it got me to thinking about the various ingredients that are common to all of them. So I’ve packaged them up neatly as Cs because a) it’s been a while between blog posts, b) it amused me to use a maths concept in my creative writing post and c) that’s how I roll.
I’ve put this one first because it’s hard to write a novel without an idea. Sometimes, though, I think the bigger challenge is working out which idea will sustain a novel and which is the starting point for a character (which will then be subsumed into a larger idea), which is the basis of a scene (which will then be subsumed into a larger story), and which is a short story all by itself.
The reality is that some of my many ideas are just half-formed fragments that end up in notebooks and stay there, taunting me forever.
The most difficult ideas, for me, are those that present themselves as ‘I’d like to write a book about X’, or ‘I’m going to write a mystery story’. For me, that’s not an idea, it’s a theme, or a genre.
The best and most creative ideas are specific. Often weirdly specific. And, for me, they usually present themselves as a question and a feeling.
The Ateban Cipher novels came from the feeling I got when I looked at The Book Of Kells (I wanted to take it home) and a specific question: Why would you write a book that no-one can read? (You can read about it here)
If you have always been someone who can write – that is, sit down at school, or university, or wherever, and have words pour out onto the page when required – craft is often something that you come to later. It’s often about the time that you write the first draft of your first novel, all 70,000 words of it, and think that your work is done.
In fact, it’s the time that you submit that first draft to an agent who comes back to you with these words: “What would you like me to do with this? There’s some nice writing in here but it is in no way ready to send out.”
Or maybe that’s just me.
Valerie Khoo and I have often discussed on our podcast that you don’t know what you don’t know. I discovered this lesson the hard way when I had the above exchange with an agent. I knew I could write a sentence – hadn’t I been doing that for years as a features writer? What I didn’t know was how to write fiction. Not really.
I was lucky enough to have had a good head start, thanks to all of my years of reading and working with words. But I had a lot to learn, and that’s where craft comes in.
Structure, character development, logical plotting, pacing… Take the courses, do the reading, go to the workshops at festivals, join writers’ groups. Whatever works for you.
I’m still learning a lot the hard way, because I still write without a detailed plan. I have to write it to see what it is, which is not the most efficient way of managing a publishing career.
But at least I now know what I don’t know.
If you had told Teenage Me that I’d one day be a published author and that I’d spend half my time walking around the block trying to work through logical solutions to problems that I had created myself, Teenage Me would have laughed.
Teenage Me thought that creative writing was all about… creativity. Little did Teenage Me know (about this and so many things, right Mum?)
When I do my school visits these days, I like to talk about writing superpowers. And when I tell the ‘maths kids’ and the ‘science kids’ that they have one of the greatest writing superpowers ever, I can see their confusion.
But so much of what we do as writers is problem solving.
If this happens, what happens next?
If that happens, what happens next?
And every decision has to come back to your character, and what your character would do in that situation.
Not what you would do. What your character would do.
Not what you, as the writer, needs your character to do to fix this festering plot hole you have created. What your character would logically do.
No wonder Procrastipup and I do so much walking (which is a great way to work through logical solutions, if you’re looking for one).
Look, I wish that talking about writing got the writing done. I wish that I could tell you that your novel will write itself.
But it doesn’t, and it won’t.
If you want to write a novel, you have to commit to the process. You have to make the time. You have to write the words.
It’s not easy. You’ll have to make sacrifices. You need to show up.
I well remember the first time I received a structural edit (you can read about it here). I have still been known to cry. But editing – fixing (correcting) what is wrong with your manuscript – is an essential part of the process.
The trouble with a big edit is that it feels like an insurmountable problem. How can you possibly make all of these changes when every single change you make affects the entire story?
The answer, of course, is that you climb that insurmountable mountain one step at a time.
I call it courage. Others, as one person on Twitter told me in no uncertain terms [insert eyeroll emoji], call it confidence. Perhaps it’s a blend of the two.
It’s the blind faith that will carry you through the process of sitting alone in a room for the countless hours it takes to write your novel, then the countless hours of hard graft it takes to edit your novel and then, right at the very end, the sheer will it takes to press ‘send’ to either submit your work to a traditional publisher or publish your work yourself – and it is not for the faint-hearted.
Putting your thoughts on the page and then handing them over to someone else to read isn’t easy.
Dealing with rejection isn’t easy.
There are a lot of people out there who say they’re going to ‘write a novel one day’.
The ultimate guide to making your writing dreams come true!
Want to write a novel or earn an income as a freelance writer, but not sure how to go about it? Authors Allison Tait and Valerie Khoo – co-hosts of the popular So You Want To Be A Writer podcast – will give you the steps you need to make your dream a reality.
In this book, you’ll discover everything you need to be a successful writer, including how to connect with people who will help your career grow and productivity tips for fitting everything into your already busy life. You’ll also explore how to keep your creative juices flowing and where to find other writers just like you.
This book lays out a blueprint to help you get started and thrive in the world of words. With advice from over 120 writers, you’ll tap into proven wisdom and find the path that will lead YOU to success!
Here’s what five of Australia’s favourite authors have said about the book
‘Practical, grounded and inspiring. When a thousand voices tell you that you can’t, you need a voice to make you believe you can. This book is that voice.’ Candice Fox, #1 New York Times bestselling author
‘So many pro tips in here from working writers. This is like Tim Ferriss’s Tools of Titans but exclusively for writers. I loved it.’ Tristan Bancks, award-winning children’s author
‘Perfect for the person who wants to write but doesn’t have the confidence or the know-how to start.’ Pamela Hart, award-winning historical fiction author
‘Essential reading for any aspiring writer.’ Graeme Simsion, international bestselling author
‘Val and Al were a godsend to me before I was published, offering a guided tour to the world of publishing that was otherwise closed to me. Their advice is highly, highly recommended.’ Dervla McTiernan, international bestselling author
And here’s a picture of the co-authors on the day (nearly a year ago) we decided to write a book
We are thrilled to bring this book to our podcast audience, our writing community and to new and aspiring writers everywhere. It will be available through a range of online booksellers, here and overseas, so stay tuned for more details.
If you’d like to read more about So You Want To Be A Writer the book, or register your details to receive notice as soon as the book is on sale, you’ll find all the details here.