Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So, you want to be a writer...

So, you want to be a writer… some tips to get you started

I am often asked, "What's the one tip you can give me because I want to be a writer?" I wish there was just one magic tip or phrase or clue I could give, but there's not. There are many ideas that work for me, and others that work for other poets, and playwrights and literary writers. But generally, there are a couple of basic steps I can suggest to help you on your way…

My brother sent me a text message late one night saying he'd just written the first chapter of his first book. I was so excited for him.
"Can I read it?" I asked.
"I wrote it in the shower." He responded.
"How did you get the computer in the shower?"
"I wrote it in my head."
"No one can read a book that's in your head!"
The messaging ended.

The point is, if you want to be a writer, you must start writing, on paper, or on the computer or into a Dictaphone. But not in your head. You can't publish the book in your head.

Many of my students don't start writing because they are worried about grammar and spelling. But I'll tell you what I tell them. Don't worry in the first instance because in reality it doesn't matter if you are the best writer in the world, if you haven't got a STORY your grammar and spelling is irrelevant. So, 'just start writing the story' is the best tip I can give you. (Actually, HAVING a story is probably the first tip!)

You MUST read books if you ever intend writing one. You should read across genre, geography, gender, culture and age. Reading widely will expose you to different voices and styles and will help you develop your own style.

I hear so many writers talk about how they suffer the isolation of a writer's life. I find that weird. I don't 'suffer' anything of the kind. Perhaps that's because I like my own company. Seriously, if you want to be connected to other writers then you should join a writer's centre. In Australia there is at least one in every major city and in NSW we also have them in regional centres on the South Coast, Hunter Region and western NSW. Becoming a member of a writers centre will open up opportunities to attend workshops, become aware of awards, competitions and writers grants, and also join writers groups across genres and abilities. For a list of writers centres in Australia go to: Australian Society of Authors

If there isn't a writers' centre located in your area, why not create a writers' group yourself. I created one in Sydney and once a month for 12 months we met at the local library once a month. We did some creative writing exercises, shared some of our writing with each other, and on occasion we had well-known Australian authors come and share their writing experiences with us. They included Rosie Scott (novelist), Jeff McMullen (non-fiction writer and journalist), Pearlie McNeill (autobioprapher), Romaine Moreton (performance poet) and Janet Hutchinson (editor). The group doesn't exist now but we are all still writing.

Established writers and those serious about writing, should join the Australian Society of Authors, which is the peak professional association for Australia's literary creators. ASA members are biographers, illustrators, academics, cartoonists, scientists, food and wine writers, children's writers, ghost writers, librettists, travel writers, romance writers, translators, computer programmers, journalists, poets and novelists.

The ASA sets basic rates and conditions for writers, offers a contract advisory service, runs mentorship programs, publishes resources on writing and publishing, and lobbies the government to protect the rights of Australian writers. The ASA set up the Copyright Agency Ltd which distributes monies to writers who's works are photocopied. The ASA also lobbied the government for Educational Lending Rights and Public Lending Rights, which are schemes designed to compensate authors for books borrowed from libraries as opposed to being bought.

For more information go to: Australian Society of Authors

I have a writing buddy. We meet at the food court of the local Westfield Shopping Centre, or down the beach, or at the library. We order a coffee have a quick yarn and then write. We used to do it fortnightly for just an hour. It's about routine, like going for a walk every morning with a friend. How committed are you to getting fit, or in this case, to practicing your craft?

I'm constantly making lists of what I want to write about and everything related to the topic. I write questions to myself that I think someone might ask me about a character or setting. And of course I don't need to tell you to have a pen and notepad with you at all times for those inane observations you will make on the bus, in the doctor's waiting room, in line at the bank and so on. Because writers are born and obsessive observers.

If you're working within the genre of Indigenous literature I recommend reading the Australia Council protocols - Writing Cultures: producing Indigenous literature- which is downloadable from the Australia Council for the Arts

There are also guides for song, visual arts, performance and new media.

Do you have proper shoes for running, or for playing sports? Do you have goggles for swimming and so on? Well, books on writing are like the shoes for running. You need to invest in some support for your craft. What will make you run / write better?

I recommend:
The Writing Book by Kate Grenville (Allen & Unwin, 1998)
"This is a how to write book without a single "rule" about writing. Rather than giving abstract advice about how to write, the book takes you step-by-step through the actual process. It begins with many ideas for getting started, works through how these starts can be structured towards a story, and then shows how character, point of view, dialogue etc can build a sketchy early draft into a rich piece of fiction.
Each chapter covers an aspect of fiction - character, point of view, etc - and has three parts:
1. An overview of the aspect being explored
2. Short excerpts from published fiction to show the wide range of approaches open to a writer
3. Exercises that build progressively on each other. The task of each exercise is quite specific and designed to let the writer always work from the basis of what they already know.
The Writing Book starts with the belief that each of us has a unique and valuable voice that can be heard - but only if we can find ways to allow it to speak." (From Kate Grenville's website

* Another book I use a lot is Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way: a course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self. This is a book I can pick and do an exercise in just to get the creative juices flowing.

* You might also want to check out Aboriginal Studies Press' Information Kit for Indigenous Authors which is downloadable from: Aboriginal Studies Press

Considering why you want to write and for whom you are writing should inspire you to write more consistently and passionately. For me I look at the benefits to telling the stories I do, whether they are about the Stolen Generations or life as an urban Koori woman living in Sydney. Either way, if I consider the four key benefits of writing for me, then I am motivated to create.
1. Reaching audiences around the world and educating them on Aboriginal issues / rights
2. Giving Aboriginal kids books to read
3. Providing curriculum materials for all ages – primary to tertiary
4. Breaking down stereotypes about Aboriginal Australians in the 21st century

Of course, at the end of the day I LOVE writing, so it is also about doing something that brings me joy. I thrive on writing creatively, I work well to deadlines, and I function quite capably alone for hours and hours and hours on end – which is what the writing life is like. The more you love what you do, the better you will be at it – well that's my story and I'm sticking to it!

PS A copy editor is also a good thing to have around. I don't so I apologise for any typos…

PPS Today's pic by Wayne Quilliam taken at the MWF, 2008


Black Mermaid Productions said...

You are exceedingly generous with your time, Anita. This is an EXCELLENT article and as one of your readers (and a writer too) I appreciate it and have learned something new today.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anita for this post. I am going to forward it to a friend. Because we both live in rural Italy, we have decided to create a writer's group with just the two of us to begin with. We both want to write and think that this will be a good idea to create a support network, although small for ourselves.

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Hi Julie - thanks for your comment. I had to dig this piece out. I wrote it some time ago and I received some emails from people wanting some advice. Basic tips, but a start nonetheless. So many people like Rosie Scott, Libby Gleeson and Linda Jaivin really gave of their time to me when I was starting out. So I guess we pay it forward.

It's still nothing compared to what you do with the ASA Comics / Graphic Novels portfolio and the time you put into that.

Cathy - I think starting with two is fine. Small and supportive is brilliant, and really all you need. Good luck!

Peace, Anita

JoGillespie said...

Thanks for this article, Anita. I'm the other half of Cathy's writing group :-) This article, which she kindly forwarded, just makes me want to start meeting immediately. Thanks for the book reccs, too. I am slowly building up a collection - they certainly help, and also give me a push when I get stuck. Thanks again for your time in writing this!

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Jo - thanks for yours! Glad to be of some minor assistance. And wish you every success with your writing... and the group!

Tez said...

I saw this on your myspace blog one time and was very impressed. Your kind comments on my poetry blog over there inspired me to do more. Recently I've started a wordpress blog, (thanks for subscribing :) ) where I'm trying to put a satire/opinion sorta/kinda/thing-a-me together,don't know what will come of it but if I need advice/guidance etc. I know where to go.....right here !

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Hey Tez - the inspiration was mutual so thank you also. And you're blog is a hoot. Will shoot over there shortly! Much peace from the east!

Shuhwa Wu Snai said...

very useful information, and practical. have shared with FB friends. Thank you.

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Dear Shuhwa! Am so glad you found it useful.
Happy writing!

Johanna Baker-Dowdell said...

Anita thank you for this post. As you know I'm working to turn my journalism and blogging writer skills into the longer book version.

These points are just what I needed and I'm going to find a writing group in Launceston now.


Dr Anita Heiss said...

Hi Johanna - I'm glad you found this blog useful and good luck finding a writers group in Launceston. Am sure it will also help the process.
Peace, Anita

Ray said...

Good advice sis! As well as writer's centres, in the early stages of your writing I would also suggest finding critique groups (some writer's groups provide these). Critique groups are usually made up of writers of different skill/experience levels, who come together to examine and critique each other's work. The advantage is that people will often pick out things that you're missing because you're "too close" to the work. This is especially helpful if you're just starting out, or starting to submit and getting a lot of rejections without really knowing why. Be wary of groups that are just praising one another's works though - the best advice comes from people who can pick your piece apart!

The other thing I would suggest is: submit, and resubmit, and resubmit again. Just because one editor didn't accept it doesn't mean another won't. Facing rejection is part of being a writer - you have to hang in there!

Cheers, Ray (@raymondgates on Twitter)

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Hey Ray! You are so right to recommend the critiquing group and to NOT give up. So true. Publishing is like any other industry in terms of subjectivity. My first adult novel went to four publishers, ONE loved it, one thought it was okay, two said 'thank but not thanks'. It could easily have been all negative.
Thanks for adding to the discussion and more power to your own pen!

Uth Video said...

Thanks for the reminder! It gets tough down in the trenches when you’re in the “one foot in front of the other” and “don’t look up” (rejections galore) phase. Must. Not. Stop.

Dr. Rajnish MIshra said...

hi anita

i'm an academician and a poet. i was working on a research paper that correlates australian aboriginal poetry with indian dalit one when i saw your name appearing several times at several places. i went first to your website and then to your blog. inspiring, it is. thanks.

Dr Anita Heiss said...

Dear Dr Mishra - so glad the post and site were useful. Peace, Anita

The Kettle said...

Great suggestions, Anita. No 4 is my favourite, something I did for a number of years with five other friends. It's lapsed as lives get busy, some move away, two passed away, but I did my best and most successful writing at that time. Must 'reboot' the idea. And I recommend it to all other writers, because our profession is a very isolating one. Creativity often springs just from being in like-minded company and there's nothing like the discipline.
Loving Tiddas, btw.