7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

“Talking about writing is not writing, tweeting about writing is not writing, reading about writing is not writing, going to writing conferences is not writing, blogging about your work in progress is not writing… if you want to be a writer, at some point you’ve got to sit down and do some writing. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.” – Chris Morphew

Wow, total face-slapping reality, first thing on a Saturday morning.

Another interesting tip from Scottish writer, Alan Bissett: a good writer has to be “the guy in the toilet, dealing drugs.” More on that later.

The Emerging Writers’ Festival Town Hall Writers’ Conference this weekend was two full days of similarly real and  thought-provoking insight, discussion and face-to-face connection with ‘established’ and ‘emerging’ writers. (Quotes because there was some debate about the relevance of the descriptors.)

I’ll post as much of it as I can, as soon as I can. But I have the words “blogging about writing is not writing” ringing in my ears so just this for today.

In Saturday’s opening session, ‘Seven Enviable Lines’,  conference ambassadors Carmel Bird, Alan Bissett, Keri Glastonbury, Tony Moore and Chris Morphew shared seven secrets they wished they had been told at the start of their careers.

Their insights were a mix of the fresh and familiar for those on constant look-out for writing guidance. But all, I think, are useful to contemplate. Here’s a summary (it looks long but is a fast read – promise):

Carmel Bird – published her first collection of short stories in 1983 and has since published many novels, essays, anthologies and books on how to write. 

1)      Write every day.

“Set yourself a realistic goal, such as writing one page every day. One page a day. Of course, if you write more than the page, that’s fine. So long as you do the one page…If you are working on such things you need to pay attention to them every day and that is, you need to write them, every day. And that includes Christmas Day, your birthday and today.”

2)      Read a lot.

“Reading nourishes writing. I mean long, concentrated reading. Thoughtful reading. Critical reading…If you’re writing a novel, for instance, you are working in a form that has developed over centuries and I think there is a point to your reading some of what has gone before, putting yourself into context. You may be going to break out and reinvent the form. But you would find it useful to know what you are reinventing.”

3)      Listen to your own heart. Your own imagination. Your own editor, learn to be your own editor and develop a sense of humour.

4)      Mostly do not listen to your lover, your friend, your mum, if they discuss your work.

“Take even the comments of fellow student writers with a grain of salt. They possibly don’t know what they are talking about. There’s quite a lot to be learnt about knowing what is the pure comment and what is somehow confused by other elements of your relationship to the other person who is making the comment. That’s sometimes really tricky to sort out.”

5)      Learn to deal with rejection of your manuscript.

“You might hear people say ‘oh it’s your story or poem being rejected, not you’. Well they’re wrong. Your poem’s being rejected, your story is being rejected and you are being rejected.”

6)      Stay focused and optimistic.

“Pay attention to the world, not so much in a second hand way through other writing, but at first hand. Smell the flowers. Notice what you are interested in and develop your interests. Find the drama and the conflict that are the lifeblood of stories.”

7)      Pray.

Keri Glastonbury – is a poet and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Newcastle.

1)      Poetry can be a cash cow.

“I definitely didn’t believe poetry would be a career choice and I’ve always had day jobs. But despite itself, it’s always been poetry that has saved the day for me financially. I got my first grant when I was 27 and it was a $5000 emerging writers scholarship. Since then I’ve had the Australia Council Rome studio (and other grants)…”

2)      Don’t do it for the money.

“Even though I’ve benefited from some government grants, I see it more as part of a gift economy, that I put in as much as I take out. I have few fiscal expectations and it’s also why I find it hard to join the ASA (Australian Society of Authors) sometimes because I’m also interested in how writing is being de-professionalised and I’m interested in that in this context as well.”

3)      We are all emerging writers.

This is actually quite literal because I went to apply for an Australia Council grant this year and I’m in the emerging writers category again because my poetry books are so small they didn’t make the page limit test.”

4)      Don’t worry if you never emerge.

“While, for some of you, being emerging is no doubt seen as an initial stage on the spectrum towards being established – I guess that means book contracts, agents, publishing -it’s more likely that mainstream literary publishing won’t be the shore on which you do eventually emerge or, more likely, beach.”

5)      Consider ‘emerging writers’ as a kind of peer-to-peer network or wiki rather than a place on the continuum to ‘developed’ and ‘established’.

“We seem to be producing more and more writers and that is almost creating a kind of cultural anxiety…but perhaps these old categories of national authorship have now proliferated beyond the Australia Council’s attempts to have ‘emerging’, ‘developing’ and ‘established’ writers on this kind of individual model…I’m interested in how community and coterie interact in the literary world rather than that individual model.”

6)      Write for yourself.

7)      Go to university.

“While I don’t think you need to do a degree to be a writer…I just want to put a plug in for universities being a space where you can reflect on some of the critical ideas around your practice in a kind of communal way and you can do practice-led research at university to realise your research artfully”.

Chris Morphew – wrote the Zac Power and The Phoenix Files series.

1)      Just write.

“The hidden danger is that we can spend all of this time doing these peripheral things and feel like we’ve made some real progress on our novel or our whatever it is when, really, we haven’t. So here’s the thing, if you want to be a writer, at some point you’ve got to sit down and do some writing. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.”

2)      Don’t stress about what the market wants.

“We talk about the market as though it’s some kind of capricious deity that we have to sort of sacrifice goats to and dance naked in front of in order to get it to do our will…Keep an eye on the market, understand the market, figure out how the story you want to write fits into the market but please, please, please don’t let the market tell you what to write. ..What the market wants is great stories. The market wants great writing. So just make some of that and you’ll be fine.”

3)      Be honest. Be yourself.

“There is nothing new under the sun, except you. You are an original creation and that gives you the capacity to create original creations so just don’t try to be someone else. Be you. Write about your life, your world view, your personality, your experiences and, in the process, become more original than you ever would have just by working really, really hard and trying to sum it up self-consciously, originally.”

4)      Know where you’re going.

“I need to have some idea of where I’m going before I start or I’ll just end up wandering in the wilderness. So if you’re the kind of person who regularly finds themselves getting stuck, I would suggest coming up with kind of plan. Some sort of outline of where you’re going might be a helpful exercise.”

5)      Find a small number of honest critics

“I have half a dozen people that I’ll give the manuscript to when I’ve finished: a couple of fellow writers, a couple of people who fit more or less into the demographic of what I’m working on, a close friend or two and my editors. These people have three things in common – they are insightful, they don’t just say ‘yeah, that’s pretty good’. They are honest. They don’t say ‘that’s pretty good’ when clearly it wasn’t. And they want to see this story become the best thing it can be.”

6)      Find the third way.

“You are bound to have some things in your work in progress that you feel really, really passionately needs to be there and others feel just as passionately you need to get rid of it. When I find myself in this situation, which I quite often do, I know the best option is not just to cave in and do whatever my editors want but also not to be a diva and demand that I have everything my own way…I look for the story-telling fix that is neither their initial solution or my initial solution but a third solution that we can all be happy with because, inevitably, that third way is going to be better both for the manuscript but also for your relationship with your editor or your friend or whoever is giving you this feedback.”

7)      Don’t let writing define you

“We live in a culture that wants to define us by what we produce, by what we output, by our material success but it’s an easy trap to fall into, essentially in an industry like this one that is essentially pouring ourselves out for other people to interpret and react to and criticise…Write, create, tell stories, send your ideas into the world but remember that you are not what you write, you are more than that, regardless of your circumstances. If you are writing then you are already a writer, now, today. But that’s not all you are.”

Tony Moore – former documentary-maker, book publisher, writer and now academic at Monash University.

1)      Read, read, read.

“Know what others have written. Be educated. Understand the literary greats and the not-so-greats so you can expand on what’s gone before and have a literacy in our cultural traditions…To be innovative, to break new ground, it helps to know the ground that’s gone before.”

2)      Don’t just write about yourself and your mates.

“Cross borders, show empathy. There’s a romantic notion… about the flaneur which is a bit like the voyeur in one sense. The early writers in the 19th century who strolled out, walked around the modern city, absorbing the sights, sensations, characters, then writing about it in serialised fiction and non-fiction. Balzac, Baudelaire for example. I think that’s what good writers do, you go out and you suck up life, find interesting stories, people that you don’t know about.”

3)      Practice the craft of writing and various styles in order to find your own style and voice.

“You only get good at it by doing it.”

 4)      Know your readers.

“Know the readership, know their expectations and try to stretch them a little, play with that.”

 5)      For non-fiction, hone your research and interview skills.

“You can get these skills not just from journalism but university work, policy work, I did a lot of survey work when I was young, that helps.”

6)      Develop a public persona that will help you promote the work with editors, publishers, festival organisations, the media, especially the readers.

“I’ve looked at those authors that have done certain little tricks or played a game that creates their persona. These things are important and there are many elements to them. One is learning and knowing how to pitch professionally and that includes writing a proposal to a publisher…Learn to cut through in the media about your work, to talk about it. Learn to cut it in the festival circuit or talking in school. All of those opportunities to talk are really useful…For young and emerging authors, being part of a movement or milieu, whether its angry young men, dirty realist, grunge lit, chick lit, can help you position yourself both with publishers and the readership… In terms of your persona, don’t be afraid to take risks and don’t shy away from controversy. As a publisher, someone who has published a children’s book by Chopper Reed for example, that kind of controversy helps move a book.”

7)      Try to earn a living that enables your writing.

“My tactic has always been to try to find a job that involves me in writing and can embellish my research, whether it’s journalism, being a Phd or Masters by research student, getting a scholarship and writing a thesis, being an academic or teacher, being a project consultant and writing briefs for a project or working in the media as a researcher or producer – all of these things enable you to practice your writing.”

Alan Bissett – award-winning novelist, playwright and performer from Scotland. His books include Boyracers, The Incredible Adam Spark and Death of a Ladies’ Man.

I can’t possibly do justice to Bissett’s description of an accidental encounter with a drug dealer in a nightclub toilet a few years ago. Just know that most of the following advice was linked back to  aspects of this character, that it was truly funny and that you should go see/listen to Alan Bissett if you ever get the chance.

1)      Learn how to perform.

“At some point, when your book’s published, you’re going to be forced in front of an audience and you need to make a decent transaction in order to be involved…or you’re not going to sell any books, they’re certainly not going to come and see you again and it’s unavoidable, that’s part of being a writer now. Staying home and writing the book obviously is a huge part of it but at some point  you’ll be wheeled out so learn to enjoy it, rehearse the shit out of it, and that’s definitely, definitely one of the ways in which your career can advance immeasurably.”

2)      Style.

“I think the writers that stay with us are ones that have their own style that is almost uniquely theirs so that when you read other writers you compare it with them because of the way they write. If you expect people to connect with your work, they need to read sentences that nobody else can write, that they’ve never read before, that they didn’t write.”

3)      Write what wants to be written.

“I think there’s something about writing that should feel like truancy, that’s actually kind of like skiving off school, otherwise, why would you do it?… There’s a wee secret thing in there that you really want to be doing and, for you, that’s writing. So you scurry away and you tap it out and it feels kind of furtive and when it stops being like that, then probably the life has gone right out of it. So write the thing that wants to be written and that’s usually, there’ll be a heat coming off it that you can’t fail to recognise, so go where the heat is and it’s often the source of pain. You know. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s happened to us in our lives that we don’t really want to talk to people about and that will come out…because it’s ferocious.”

4)      Editing.

“The real writing is in the editing I think. And I realised a while ago that it’s not that I enjoy writing, I enjoy having written. It’s like going to the gym. It’s painful and it’s sore and you’re like ‘why am I doing this?’ and then, a couple of days later, you kind of feel better for it…once it’s there on the page and you go back to it and stare at those sentences and polish them up, that’s where the real fun is actually, shaping it and making it into something…take a long time over that.”

5)      Politics are unavoidable so stand for something.

“All of us have nation and culture and a political point of view that will inevitably come out somehow in the writing because, if you’re writing about people, then you’re writing about politics. And you can turn the politics up or you can turn it down, but it’s there. And be aware of it and don’t be afraid of it because it’s the thing that will give you truth and integrity.”

6)      Go funny, and then go dark.

“Make the reader laugh and then punch them. Punch them and then give them a cuddle and tell them it’s going to be alright so they trust you again. And then kick them in the shins…Keep the reader there and they don’t know what you’re going to do next…The darker it is, the funnier it has to be…I don’t know if anybody’s read American Psycho here but it doesn’t get any darker than that. It’s disgusting, but hilarious.”

Bissett ran out of time for a seventh point but did speak on other conference panels. Stand by for more from the Town Hall Writers’ Conference.


This entry was posted in Blogwax, Emerging Writers Festival 2011, The Buzz and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me

  1. Vanessa Monaghan says:

    I’m marking this on my calendar for next year. Sounds like it was great and the author of Zack Power was there! Riley is obsessed with those books.

  2. Robyne Young says:

    Thanks for this great post and it was so lovely to meet you in person. I missed the first session because I was catching up with my younger son after not seeing him for 11 months. Love the suggestion by Tony Moore to ‘just write’. It’s so easy to read a little more, go to one more workshop, read another blog post on writing (present company excepted!) but getting to the business of it with everything else going on in our lives can be tricky. But I do know that going to the Emerging Writers’ Festival and in particular the two day writers’ conference is a great affirmation of being a writer at whatever stage & refuelling to get on with the job.
    Cheers for now, Robyne

  3. jgavinallan says:

    This was a GREAT! excuse the scream, post. I read each bit of advice from the helpful authors…though Alan’s on “performing” scares me.
    I think I write…I hope…well…due to my inability to express so much in words. The pen or computer does it so much better(and safer)
    But, I will try.


  4. waxings says:

    Postcript: Alan Bissett has now advised that tip seven was to be “most writers have no idea what they are talking about. I blame the drugs.”

  5. Steve Smith says:

    All good advice!
    (Now go write something!)

  6. Ara Jansen says:

    This is fabulous. These writers pull no punches and are straight-talking. It’s so refreshing. Anyone who writes regularly for love or money (or both) knows that it’s putting your bum in the seat which gets the pages done. “Do not mistake activity for achievement.”

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