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.

Wild Gestures – Lucy Durneen

img_3576-1Wild Gestures was my first invocation of the “book launch exemption” for this year of no new books.  Book launches are far more than the celebration of a new book’s journey into the world. As an author, launches and signings are events where you have the opportunity to talk about the book to prospective readers and as a result they are often where you sell the most copies.

Despite the sales boost, book launches are usually catered events and unless you are a VERY important writer you can guarantee that the publishing house will not be paying for the wine and canapes. In the vast majority of cases, the writer will be footing the bill. So, if I go to a book launch and drink the wine, then I buy the book and say lovely, congratulatory things to the writer when they sign it for me, knowing that they may have spent more on the event than they will recoup in sales. Drink the wine = buy the book. Book launch etiquette 101.

I am so glad I drank that sauvignon blanc because Wild Gestures is a seriously good collection of short stories.

While each of the stories is a stand-alone piece and can be read independently, I think that the stories work brilliantly as a collection. All the pieces share a certain dark vision and psychological depth. They are slow burners; stories that you will be thinking over long after you’ve put them down.  These are tales peopled with characters whose yearning for love, meaning or control is deeply embedded and translated to the reader in a visceral way.

At the launch, Lucy spoke about hearing a master of the short story, Robert Olen Butler, speak at a conference in Vienna about how crucial “manifest yearning” is to the success of any piece of short fiction.  She has taken this to heart. Yearning in myriad guises permeates each of these stories.

These narratives are intense and captivating but so is the writing style. It’s easy to see that Durneen is also a poet; her imagery, concision and depth unmask her.  Despite the dark tones, Durneen is playful when it comes to using various points of view and tenses, but the most enthralling aspect for me was her mastery of suspense. As a reader, she grips you within the first few paragraphs then keeps you hanging, drip feeding until the final lines where there is always a resolution tainted with a lingering sense of mystery. These stories are far more than simple narratives; they are psychological encounters with exceptionally well-crafted characters.

Wild Gestures is a brilliantly written collection that taught me a great deal about both the art and the craft of the short story.

Jhumpa Lahiri – Unaccustomed Earth

img_3513-2This feels a little like cheating since I started this book in the death throes of 2016. In my defence, I’ve had this short story collection on my shelves for a while and finished it ten hours into 2017. So I’m making the call: it counts. In fact, I didn’t even buy it in the first place. It came to me in a box of short story collections that I won in a writing contest, which must count as the best prize ever (aside from a giant novelty cheque). So with that in mind, I definitely think it’s an appropriate start to the Year of No New Books.

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favourite writers and the reason this book languished unread for so long on my shelves is that I thought I’d already read it. I remember confidently exclaiming to a friend that I’d read everything Lahiri’s ever written after finishing the English translation of her book of essays In Other Words.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Lahiri’s first short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. I consider this book to be one of the best short story collections ever written. At this point I should mention that in addition to naming 2017 as the year I kick my book buying addiction, it is also meant to be the year I finish the first draft of my own short story collection. Clearly, I’m an idiot with pretensions to being an overachiever. Anyway, this explains my desire to reread The Interpreter of Maladies – I wanted to discover the secret to the perfect short story so I could steal it for my own work. But as so often happens when confronted with brilliant literature, I was swept away and completely forgot my analytical objectives. Before I knew it, I had finished the book and all I could recall was my pleasure in Lahiri’s insight and beautifully composed sentences and my awe at the way in which she constructs completely believable characters that so perfectly illustrate the difficulties and anxieties of the Indian immigrant experience in America. Damn it.

Which brings me to Unaccustomed Earth. This was meant to be Learning From Lahiri: Take 2. I realised only a few pages into the title story that I’d been deceiving myself. I was reading this collection for the first time.

These stories are all classic Lahiri in that they explore similar themes to her previous short stories and novels but the point of difference is that these build upon and extend her previous work. The Namesake, The Lowland and The Interpreter of Maladies focussed primarily on the experience of first generation immigrants of Bengali heritage as they adapt to the customs of their new home. Lahiri’s characters struggle with culture shock, trying to reconcile the cultural expectations and values of their Indian heritage with the reality of living in America.

The characters populating the eight stories of Unaccustomed Earth are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. Rather than struggling to reconcile Indian and Bengali culture with American values and lifestyles, these characters have been born in the US and are pretty much assimilated to Western life. These characters face different struggles, primarily the need break free from parental expectations that are still mired in what to them seem to be restrictive and conventional Indian custom.  American individualism clashes with Indian community values and responsibilities within the microcosm of the extended Indian-American family.

These stories are all long form and Lahiri uses this extended format to cover broader timeframes, exploring the above themes over decades in her characters’ lives. It’s addictive writing. We are drawn into these families, empathising with them as siblings, parents and grandparents move across the world, marry, have children, divorce, remarry, die. Lahiri writes beautifully, using language that is simple and direct yet carries a huge emotional load. While I loved the stories of the first section, the three linked stories of part two had me utterly at their mercy. Lahiri is not known for providing her readers with Hollywood-style resolutions, and I love her for that, but I was totally unprepared for the power with which she drew these stories to a close. The final two pages. I can’t say more than that without issuing a spoiler alert. All I can say is – read this book. Even if you think you don’t like short stories then read this book for the last two pages. They just might convert you.