On Writing

Writers, editors, agents, publishers and more share their thoughts, experiences and stories.

‘I start at the first sentence of the novel and finish at the end . . . There is only one draft and when it’s done it’s done.’ You could not ask for a more concise description of the ‘pantsing’ method, though in the lecture from which this quote is taken, Zadie Smith uses the term micro manager. And she makes it clear that there is no preliminary planning stage for her – start means start. 

They say to write what you know. It sounds so easy. Know something? Great. Use it in your writing. But what if what you know about is the astonishing variety of resonant structures that cicadas use to be so ear-splittingly annoying every summer, and you dream of writing a chew-your-nailsto- the-quick thriller with murder and mayhem? Death by noisy insect is hardly a compelling plot device. 

For me, books often arise from images and an image is responsible for the origin of my latest one, ‘Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy’. On Boxing Day 1974, which was my eleventh birthday, I walked down the driveway of my suburban Melbourne home to pick up the paper. Moments later, I stood trying to make sense of the photo before me: an image of flattened piles of rubble and twisted pieces of corrugated iron – what was left of Darwin after the city was hit by a cyclone late on Christmas Eve and into Christmas morning.

When I go for a check-up at the Aboriginal medical service, my doctor asks if she can record my details for her research. I say sure, no worries and continue with my appointment. I pay scant attention to what the research is and what policy my statistics will be influencing this time. You see, they say that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most researched demographic in Australia. As an Aboriginal, Chinese and Muslim woman I can attest to this a thousand times over. 

Research is essential for writers. Set as a debate topic, I couldn’t speak on the negative team. Research takes so many different forms with all sorts of motivations. It might be validating an idea or fact-finding so that your writing is more convincing. My notebooks are full of observations and eavesdropping, so just going out for a coffee is technically research. And, of course, often it’s simply a tool to justify plain old procrastination.

There are so many times I find myself thinking that writing historical fiction is a far more difficult challenge than to simply write fiction inspired by our everyday experience of life. Not that writing fiction is ever a simple feat to achieve. Writers write fiction because they have a story to tell. To tell a story filtered through history challenges writers not only to construct their story through a context not their own, but also often by using the real stories of real people from history. 

Hugh stood in front of the bright departures screen. Bergen to Sydney, Australia 6:25am. He glanced at the time: 3:15am. That would do perfectly. There was no-one in the ticket queue and outside of the strange look he received when he had no luggage to check in, all went smoothly. Ticket in hand, he strode to the gate and waited. He needed a fresh start somewhere new. Hopefully, Australia was it. 

WV Member Allan Lake shares his moving poem, which won the Elwood Poetry Prize 2014.

Photo of Lee Kofman in bushland

One of the best pieces of advice a writer can get is – read, read, READ. Read as widely and as voraciously as you can. Make reading a priority even over writing, at least for some years.

Be adventurous in your reading choices. Read until a cacophony of different writing voices sounds in your head, until your mind becomes a kaleidoscope of images and your sense of syntax possibilities has greatly expanded.

Photo of Kate Forsyth with the sea in the background

Kate Forsyth, otherwise known affectionately as the ‘Australian Queen of Fairy Tales’ chats to Ally Scale about her life-long fascination with literature.

Kate is the bestselling author of books for both adults and children. Kate’s books have sold more than a million copies internationally and have been published in 17 countries. She is an accredited master storyteller and was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite 20 Novelists.