How to write


I’m not a big fan of self-help books. My in-laws used to sell Amway and had a shelf groaning under the weight of books touting every conceivable method self-improvement, from how to make people like you to the swiftest ways to make millions. (Unsurprisingly, they still seem like the same very likeable people they were prior to reading and not noticeably any wealthier.)  IMG_3640

This is where I out myself as a hypocrite since I have a similar shelf in my writing studio packed with books on how to write. How to write fiction, how to write poetry, guides to narrative style and how to read like a writer. There’s even the quite hilariously titled How to make a living as a poet.

If I’ve learned anything from this shelf of literature on how to write, it’s that if you want to learn the craft there are various ways you can approach it.  These methods are not mutually exclusive, in fact I would recommend all of them both individually and in concert. Lucky for you, lovely reader, my recent reading has included examples of all these various approaches. (Whether or not I successfully apply what I’ve learned from these books to my work is another question.)IMG_3647

Dear Writer… revisited by Carmel Bird

This is a brilliant example of a nuts and bolts “how to write” guide by one of Australia’s most gifted and experienced writers. Structured as a series of letters from a mentor to an inexperienced writer, this book is packed with sage and shrewd advice on both the art and craft of literary fiction.

Bird takes on the fictional persona of writing mentor Virginia O’Day and each chapter is a letter to her student, offering advice on the writing and rewriting of a short story.  In each letter a new aspect of craft is addressed, such as point of view, narration, beginnings and endings, use of adverbs and adjectives, the role of imagination and attuning your ear to the rhythm of prose.  As the relationship between the mentor and student progresses and the student’s writing improves, the advice expands to encompass the writing life –  how to deal with writer’s block, keeping notebooks, dedication and time management and, finally, how to seek publication.

This book is a beautiful distillation of all Bird has learned from a life dedicated to writing.  It is a beginner’s guide but has much to offer those already well down the path. It is affirming and encouraging while simultaneously insisting on excellence.

This is a brilliant example of the most recognisable variety of “how to write” literature. The next kind is a little less obvious.IMG_3646

The Writer’s Room by Charlotte Wood

I’m a huge fan of The Paris Review, which is a literary journal published in New York. One of the things I love most about this publication is the series of interviews with writers. Each issue has an extended interview with a writer (poet, novelist, playwright, essayist, you name it) and they talk at length and great depth about art, craft and the writing life.

The Writer’s Room is everything I love about The Paris Review interview series but instead of interviewing internationally recognisable literary names, this book focusses on the big names of Australia’s literary scene.  Charlotte Wood, who is a brilliant novelist (please, please read The Natural Way of Things) has interviewed Tegan Bennet Daylight, Joan London, Malcom Knox, Christos Tsiolkas, Kim Scott and Margo Lanagan – just to name a few – and the result is completely addictive. I got to the end of this book and it left me ravenous for more and seriously wanting to plead with Charlotte to launch a serial Paris Review (Australian edition).

If you are a reader, these conversations are fascinating, insightful and engaging. If you are a writer, they are gold.  Everything you’ve ever wanted to ask a writer is here and the answers are both generous and frank.  Wood is an exceptional interviewer. It’s clear that she puts the writers completely at ease and the fact that she is one of them means that these are conversations between equals. To read this book is to eavesdrop on professionals talking about everything from putting words into sentences to navigating publishing and the literary life. It’s like a private literary festival happening in your lounge room while you sit on your couch with a dog and a gin and tonic.  Bliss.IMG_3645

Barking Dogs by Rebekah Clarkson

We’ve covered orthodox guides on “how to write” and books that give insight into the lives and processes of successful writers but the third kind of book that I would recommend if you want to learn how to write is the kind that contains superb content and technique.

It’s no secret that I am one of those opinionated folks who thinks it’s impossible to become a writer if you don’t read. I just don’t understand it. Flat out do not get it. If you don’t read books then why on earth would you want to write one?  And how would you know the first thing about how to do it successfully? Readers know.

Readers are intimately acquainted with what makes a good book, what makes a sentence sing and keeps people turning pages, still awake at three in the morning because sleep is impossible without knowing what happens next. They might not be able to replicate it at first if they sat down and tried to write a vampire romance or a police procedural – every skill takes practice – but they do know good writing when they encounter it.

This is why I’m including Barking Dogs on this list of “how to write” books – because I passionately believe reading excellent books to be an essential part of being a writer. If you read books with a writer’s eye you learn just as much, if not more, than you would reading a straight up and down “how to write” text-book.

Barking Dogs is a novel in stories by one of Australia’s most gifted and accomplished short story writers. Each of the stories in this book stands alone as a short story and works as a chapter in a compelling novel about a regional town being slowly and painfully transformed into suburbia.  The novel is set in the town of Mount Barker in South Australia and the stories are slow burners – you’ll be turning them over and over in your mind for days afterward.

The stories are captivating but how they are written – the language, the rhythm and the space and weight given to each sentence – is just as significant. Read “Here we lie” for the dark, slow burn, “The five truths of manhood” for breath-taking use of language and ingenious structure and “Something special, something rare” for a textbook-worthy example of how a great writer uses insight and empathy to create totally convincing characters.DSC_2757

This is the kind of book that is much, much more than just a pleasure to read. In the right hands, Barking Dogs is also a primer on writing technique and the art of the short story.

So there you have it – my two cent’s worth on how to learn to be a better writer. Try some “how to write” books.  Find inspiration by reading about the lives and processes of other writers. And finally, read great books and while you are doing this, try to keep an eye on technique. It’s hard. Good books sweep you away. But if you try to read with the secondary objective of analysing the writer’s method you’ll hopefully glean some ideas on how to apply their techniques to your own practice.

Rereading Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting, Porno & their film and stage adaptations

t2-1One of the objectives behind the Year of No New Books was to encourage me to reread books that I’ve loved (or at least highly respected) in the past. I’d recently become quite an advocate for the rereading of books after discovering that a second reading, particularly if it happened soon after the initial one, deeply enhanced my appreciation and understanding of the text.

Back when I worked as a bookseller, I’d been one of the organisers of my local bookshop’s bookclub. Customers would pay a small fee and come along to the monthly gathering where we would nestle in comfy armchairs in front of the open fire at our local pub and, with a glass of wine in hand, we’d discuss the book. To ensure a lively debate, I’d always make sure I was well prepared and would thoroughly research the book in question – reading reviews and author interviews, taking extensive notes on themes, character development, historical context – you know the drill.

A significant part of my process was reading the book twice. Until I made this an intrinsic part of my preparation I had no idea how plot-focused I was as a reader.  On my first reading I’d usually be so obsessed with what was happening and trying to second-guess what was about to happen that appreciation of all the other aspects of the book would fade into the background. It wasn’t until I reread a book that I’d be freed from my preoccupation with plot and could really concentrate on all the other aspects of the author’s skill. Although I’d appreciate these underlying features on some level during the initial reading, I’d not be analysing them with the attention or depth I’d give them on my second pass at the book.

Anyway, that was a long-winded way of explaining my consideration of rereading as an act of profound engagement with a book.

t1-1My first reread of a much-loved novel for the year was Trainspotting. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but I was asked to review Trainspotting Live, a stage production showing at the Adelaide Fringe, so I thought I’d better reread the novel then re-watch the film in preparation for reviewing the performance. I’d forgotten how much I loved the language. Reading phonetic Scots is like a reading foreign language in which I’m only semi-literate. It’s such slow going! It truly feels like an act of translation. But I loved what it did to my reading. I lingered over sentences until I heard the flow of their speech in my mind. This is the way I should read all the time – giving every line close attention, treating the sentences like valued individuals. It was a revelation.

I’d also forgotten how much the novel differed from the film in structure and point of view. The novel comprises short powerful stories all told from the perspective of various characters. The main four (Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie) all have multiple stories but minor characters are also given a voice. The stores told by the female and HIV positive characters I found to be especially powerful.

The film was a jolt of nostalgia. It’s a classic and I’ll never forget the shock of seeing it on the big screen back in the mid-nineties. The music! For me, it was one of the defining pieces of cinema of my youth.

trainspotting-live-adelaide-fringe-1200x675So, I saw the stage production and submitted my review (if you want to read my piece, here it is). Then, because I was clearly all over Irvine Welsh’s early work, my editor offered me the chance to review the film sequel T2 – Trainspotting. The problem was I’d lost my copy of Porno (the book on which the sequel is based) and of course, being the Year of No New Books, I couldn’t just pop out and buy a new copy.

I tried the local library. Their copy was lost in transit somewhere between Quorn and Stirling. I put out a call on facebook. No joy. I tried the University Library, the State Library – my friend even put a hold on a copy down in Port Adelaide. It seemed every publically available copy was currently being read by a member of said public. In desperation I tried second-hand bookshops whose profits go to charity. Oxfam, Lions Club, The Hutt. No dice. Eventually, with two days left before the film opened I sent my poor husband into Dymock’s to buy a copy so I could claim that I didn’t purchase it. It would be “a gift”. Despite my ridiculous and dodgy navigation of my self-imposed rule there was no other way to look at it. I had failed. Andrew claimed that I could lodge an appeal on the grounds of employment – as part of my work I needed to read a copy and thus could justify it since all other efforts to acquire a copy had proved unsuccessful.

All I can say in my defense is that my review (click here) was more thorough for the indirect breaking of my vow.  And while neither Porno (now republished as T2 Trainspotting) nor its film adaptation are the equal of their brilliant originals, the sequels are both worth your time (once, but perhaps not a rereading).


Jonathan Galassi – Muse

muse-1-1This book has been sitting unappreciated on my shelves since 2015 and I’m sorry to say that now I’ve read it, Muse remains largely unappreciated. I had high hopes. The plot sounded as if it would push my buttons: poetry, publishing and the literary history of the twentieth century. It wasn’t awful; it just failed to live up to my possibly/probably inflated expectations.

A brief plot synopsis without spoilers – Paul Dukach, a bookseller turned editor for a small but prestigious New York publishing house, is obsessed with the writing and life of poet Ida Perkins. Although Dukach works for the arch-rival of Perkins’ publisher, he dreams of luring his favourite writer onto his list. With patience, the story eventually gathers some momentum. Dukach stumbles over a literary mystery in the form of coded notebooks written by Perkins’ former husband. A mystery of sorts ensues. Who was the muse of Perkins’ last manuscript?

It’s at this point that I should mention that the author, Paul Galassi, is the president of the esteemed publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. This goes some way to explain why this novel reads like a gossipy history of the golden era of New York publishing. Galassi has invented the poet at the heart of the story, Ida Perkins, but woven her into 20th century literary history.

The story, particularly the first half, is overflowing with insider references. Fictional literary figures (who are barely disguised real authors) and a roll call of legendary writers  rub shoulders with flimsily fictionalised publishers to create a shadow history of the publishing world of the last century. It is amusing at first, although I was aware that many allusions were flying over my head, but I felt that the story was given secondary priority to the literary puzzle. Who is who? Who is invented? If you are not a player in literary New York, I fear the cleverness may be as lost on you as it was on me. I had to do a quite a bit of research before uncovering that the novel’s two feuding publishers, Homer Stern of Purcell & Stern and Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, were fictionalised versions of Roger Straus of FSG and James Laughlin of New Directions.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s clear that literature is Galassi’s life-blood. I did enjoy his insider perspective and vivid recreation of this idiosyncratic world. But what I relished most was his creation of the poet Ida Perkins and her insertion into the Galassi’s fictionalised Western literary canon. I absolutely loved the idea that a female poet could become the most esteemed literary figure of the 20th and early 21st century, her poetry collections outselling all other genres and garnering a royal flush of major literary prizes and honours. May life imitate art!

In other news, while dropping off some dry-cleaning in Stirling today (oh, the unrelenting glamour) I managed to resist popping into the Book Shed. The Book Shed is a hidden treasure, a beautifully curated charity bookshop tucked at the back of the car park behind the main stretch of shopping precinct in Stirling. Usually I can’t go in without leaving with an armload of ludicrously cheap classics, literary fiction and poetry. Avoiding it took quite an expenditure of inner mettle. *Sigh* It’s only Day 5.