I recently read an interview with Jesse Ball, whose book ‘Census‘ I also recently finished.
In the interview, Ball noted that he generally takes between four and fourteen days to write a novel.
Fourteen days. That’s it.
Ball’s approach highlights, once again, that there is no prescriptive process to writing, that each creator is different, and will take a different approach. That’s why the viability of writing courses and the like is hard to quantify – because you can’t follow a prescriptive approach and hope to become a published author.
If there was a linear, simplified procedure that every aspiring writer could follow, they would do so, but as with all art, you need to find your way into it yourself, then build upon it with your own inspirations.
In some ways, it’s intimidating, thinking that some people are able to bash out great works of literature in such a short amount of time, but in others, it’s somewhat liberating. You don’t have to spend years putting together your work, you shouldn’t feel like there’s any obligation for you to write in isolation, or in public, or to have read certain books or know certain styles.
In certain respects, it may even be better not to know all the details. I would definitely advocate for learning as much as you can through reading, but there’s also something to be said for finding your style, then sticking to it. That could mean you don’t have to have read all of Hemingway’s great works, that you don’t need to understand the intricacies of ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’. I suspect they would help, but in some instances, that lack of structured, traditional process could lend itself better to creating the work you want.
Essentially, writing is personal. Its a part of you that you’re getting out and putting onto a page. For that, you need to find the best way within yourself, the process which truly reflects the work you want to create.
There’s no step-by-step process for this, it will be different for everyone. Maybe it takes you four weeks, maybe forty years – but the important thing is that when you read it back, that it reflects exactly your vision, and that you can’t think of anything more than should be added or removed to clarify it. Then you’ll be able to pass it onto readers and take in their feedback in a more constructive manner.
Definitely readers, and reading, will help refine and improve your work, but the answers to unlocking it lie in your own approach.
One of the most common questions writers get asked is whether they have a set word count they like to reach each day, or a target for the week to keep them on track. I don’t have a set target, but here’s how I measure my workload:
I write almost all of my fiction work by hand first. I don’t have a good reason as to why, but it feels more natural, more flowing. For some reason it generally works better for me. Some days, my fingers start to hurt from holding the pen for too long – it feels like a blister is forming on the edge of the tip of my finger.
It takes a lot of words to get to this point, so when it happens, I know I’ve had a productive writing day.
See, handwriting does still have benefits.
One thing I’ve noticed with my latest book, having had my previous novel come out some years back, is that the landscape for promotion has changed significantly.
The most obvious example is the declining number of bookshops – back in 2007, when ‘Rohypnol’ was published, Borders was still around, there were more independent bookstores, and local booksellers generally saw much more activity.
You can see this reflected in the below chart from Macquarie University’s “Disruption and Innovation in the Australian Book Industry”, published back in 2016.
The evolution of online booksellers changed the game significantly for local bookstores – and consequently for creators – which is arguably more acutely felt by writers of literary fiction. Underlining that point, Macquarie’s report also found that Big W has now become the single biggest book retailer in Australia, a chain which, in fiction terms, clearly focuses on more commercial works.
And that makes sense – publishing is a business like any other, and they go with what’s likely to bring in the most money – but the flow on effect for literature is that it makes it that little bit harder to find avenues for awareness, and for promoting your work.
The other element at play here is the squeezing of editorial departments at major publications – while I’ve been lucky to have had my book reviewed in major papers, the outlets through which you can actually boost awareness of your work is shrinking.
The solution, according to most, is social media – Facebook has more than 15 million users in Australia, or up to 70% of the internet active population, while rising platforms like Instagram (9m Australian users), Snapchat (4m) and even older players like Twitter (3m) offer significant reach.
Through specific audience targeting, you can definitely use social ads to help raise awareness, but the real key to social media lies in being ‘social’, in building an engaging presence through activity, which means remaining constantly active on each platform. And that’s not always viable when you have writing projects to work on.
But it is important – social media, particularly through relevant groups and discussions, plays a key role in raising awareness, and there are thousands of book-related groups on Facebook alone to tap into.
The trick then is to raise awareness of your work amongst these people who are actively discussing books, and seeking book recommendations. But you can’t target groups, specifically, with Facebook ads – you can target people based on interests and behaviours, but focusing ads on groups is not possible. Yet.
Even so, utilizing social media to boost awareness is a key element, but social is an entertainment platform in itself, not a purely promotional vehicle. Which means more work for you.
There’s also the opportunity to boost your exposure through eBooks, enabling you to reach new markets, but figures show that eBook sales have slowed in recent years, with most people preferring physical books.
There are various considerations in this shift, it’s not as straight-forward as saying physical books are winning out, but it does show that eBooks will likely not contribute a significant amount of any book’s overall sales. eBook sales currently account for around 20% of the Australian market.
Basically, raising awareness of literary work in the Australian market is difficult, which is another challenge to consider with your work. And that’s fine – even having the opportunity to have your work published is a privilege, but it is another element to keep in mind, which points to the value of building an audience, through your own blog or other means, even before you reach publication.
That means attending literary events, meeting people in your local scene, getting involved where you can. Writing is obviously a solitary pursuit the majority of the time, and putting yourself out there can be intimidating. But in order to maximize interest in your work, it’s an essential, especially as your outlets for exposure become more limited.
While the initial path to publication is very tough, making an income as an author is, in itself, a significant challenge. According to a report published in 2015, the average Australian author only earns around $12,900 per annum from their writing, nowhere near enough to live on.
In many respects, that’s disheartening, but there are opportunities outside of your work itself to generate income (doing talks, hosting classes, etc.), while it also means authors need to question what it is they’re writing for.
It’s not easy, and the likelihood of you become a full-time fiction author are not high – if you choose to stick with it, you need to love it. And you need to find ways to make it work.
Should art necessarily be challenging?
I mean, it doesn’t have to be – plenty of creative works are reflections of normal life, or fantastical stories created simply for entertainment. But to me, great art – truly transcendent work that moves beyond simply storytelling – should also raise questions, and aim to provide something of an education to its audience, in addition to interest.
I was reminded of this when I saw the latest film clip from Childish Gambino, which, apart from being a good song, also raises questions, and confronts viewers and listeners with something more to consider.
However you view the gun debate and racism in America, there are important questions that need to be addressed – and while the clip doesn’t provide answers, it pushes both issues forward, making you think about the broader debate, rather than simply being entertaining.
I also think this is important from a moral standpoint, that great art has the capacity to change patterns of thinking, not by being overt and saying ‘this is good’ and ‘this is bad’, but by providing scenarios where the audience is forced to question their value system.
Do you really fall on this or that side of the debate?
A good example of this is Gregor Jordan’s film ‘Unthinkable’, which came on the back of the stories of torture at the hands of US soldiers at Guantanamo Bay. The broader discussion around Guantanamo Bay is ‘how could they do this?’ How could US soldiers torture people, using such barbaric tactics, which challenged people’s moral codes and lead to a major backlash.
Unthinkable, while not necessarily trying to sympathize with those events, does raise the question of what you really think is acceptable. In the film (and spoilers for those who haven’t seen it), US authorities arrest a former soldier who’s been radicalized and claims to have planted nuclear bombs throughout the city. He refuses to give them any information until his demands are met.
At this stage, they’re not convinced this man is even telling the truth, but if he is, the consequences could obviously be major. So while an interrogator is working to get information out of him, another special operative comes in. This man is a torturer, and he quickly goes to work.
Now, at this stage, we, as the audience, sympathize with the first interrogator, because we don’t think this man should be tortured – he may just be making it up. In fact, as it goes on, it seems likely that he is, making the torture even more intolerable. Then one of his bombs does go off, killing 53 people. Given this, and that you now know he’s for real, your view such torture might shift – putting this man through pain could save thousands, even millions.
Another example is Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Prisoners’ – in this film, a man’s young daughter is kidnapped, and they’re at a loss to find any clues. A mentally impaired man indicates to the father that he may know where she is. So he takes him, holds him prisoner, and tortures him to try and get the information.
The man is he’s torturing may not be capable of understanding what he’s said, but the father’s desperate. Few people would go to such extreme measures, but again, it raises moral questions – what would, or could, you do in such a situation.
These types of works are important, because they inspire thinking beyond the scope of the story itself, and have the capacity to change minds, to re-direct people’s approaches to certain situations. That’s not to say that people should be more sympathetic to something so horrendous as torture, but they do make you consider other angles, what you believe, and the filter through which you view news and events.
This is the great power of art – it’s not merely entertainment, it’s a medium for change, for altering minds and expanding perspectives.
The great promise of the next generation of technology is virtual reality, which would give people the capacity to see things from a totally different perspective – which, ideally, will lead to a more empathetic and understanding world.
Art already has this capacity – reading a book is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing things from someone else’s viewpoint, and that has the power to re-shape your understanding.
That’s why literature – and all art – is important, and why I believe we should utilize creative mediums to raise questions, while also building compelling, entertaining narratives.
You won’t always like what you see, but that’s important. You won’t always agree, but that’s crucial.
It’s about showing you a world beyond what’s in your sphere of understanding – and ideally, building beyond that, opening up more than just a basic news headline.
One of the most interesting things, when hearing from other writers, is how they go about story creation and putting together their work. Some say they take it as it comes, they invent characters then start writing and see where it takes them. Others say they need to plan out every detail, scene-by-scene, or they just can’t operate.
It’s interesting to hear, because as with everything in writing – and indeed, any creative pursuit – there’s no ‘right way’. No one can tell you how to become a published author or how to write a great, resonant story, because there simply isn’t a prescriptive process. If there was, everyone would be doing it. Sure, you can follow certain examples, you can learn from what’s worked (which is, essentially, what you do when you read published books), but no one can say ‘this will work’ and ‘this won’t’. Because the truth is, it might. And it might not.
For me, as I continue to write, I can feel myself planning out my stories more, I have a more intuitive understanding of what it takes to write a novel, having been through previously. Ideally, that helps inform my writing process, and make my stories stronger – I’d like to think that I’m advancing, and that the concepts and themes I’m touching on are becoming more refined, more intellectual, even, yet without necessarily changing how they’re communicated.
In a recent interview, I heard an author talking about how political his work was, how his politics inform his writing and his sense of meaning in his work. But I think that’s true of all writers, even those who don’t mean it. Politics is part of who we are, part of our everyday existence, and the perspective you take, through your characters, will intrinsically communicate a form of political stance. The important part, for me, is less about the overt politics of this process, and more about the understanding, communicating the story you want to tell, and letting that tale inform the political aspect.
For example, when I’m writing, I use it as much as a means of understanding an issue or topic, as I do of telling a story. I have a theme I want to examine, but not definitive answers, and my aim, other than entertaining, is to try and get the reader to consider something from another perspective, outside of his or herself. That, in essence, is what all successful politics is about, being able to explain concepts in a way which enables constituents to better understand the varying perspectives – and in this way, I’d, ideally, like to think that my work contributes to opening new tracks of thought, as opposed to communicating a specific message.
I think that’s the same with all writers, yet it’s interesting to hear how they come to this, how some take a very deliberate approach to their subject, and others let it flow, and the themes and ideas reveal themselves.
As noted, there’s no right or wrong way to do this, but simply by exploring an idea, you’re likely going to touch upon those thematic points anyway. And once you realize the core messages of the story you want to tell, that’s when you can strengthen the narrative to reinforce that line of consideration.
One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.
In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.
I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.
In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:
Aleesa smiles. ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.
‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.
‘You gonna’ drug me?’
‘I don’t do that.’
‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’
‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’
‘I can take care of myself.’
A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.
‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.
This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.
But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.
A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.
But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.
So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.
The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.
It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better work.