How can being a better reader help improve your writing skills? Find out from emerging YA author and the blogger behind Alpha Reader, Danielle Binks. Danielle will be leading a Reading for Writers workshop to help you get in touch with your inner bookworm. Writers Victoria intern, Michelle McLaren spoke with Danielle about the benefits of living a bookish life.
You started blogging in 2009. What drew you towards writing about books?
Let’s see - 2009 happened to be my graduating year of a three year journalism degree that I’d despised. I really should have thrown in the towel in year one, but I was stubborn and didn’t want to admit what a mistake it had been. I was left with two choices as graduation approached - I’d been invited to continue into an honours degree, or I could apply to enter into a prestigious RMIT Professional Writing and Editing (PWE) program that would take me closer to the book publishing industry I knew I craved.
I basically did a coin-toss - I pitched my honours study idea, and I applied to RMIT-PWE. But I was so sure I wouldn’t get into RMIT and would be doing another two unhappy years of honours, so to compensate I started a book review blog, thinking that if I couldn’t steer towards a career in books, I could still by-golly celebrate my love of reading through book reviewing as a hobby!
I’d started attending bookish functions that year - author talks and festivals - coming out of my shell more, and becoming a lurking commenter on many book review blogs. I really just wanted to get closer to this community I longed to be a part of. I wanted to keep my passion for books and reading alive, for fear that I would only ever be able to celebrate that community in the virtual, and rarely in the real world.
How has your approach to reading changed since you started blogging?
My blog grew out of a promise to start reading what makes me happy, and I stay true to that.
In the period after high school finished, and my spending three years in a journalism degree I hated, I kind of kept my sanity by throwing myself into reading everything I loved, but had been too embarrassed or too busy to gorge on before.
Gone were those weighty classics I’d studied for VCE English and English Lit, and those dry academic texts I had to slog through for Uni. Prior to creating my own blog, I discovered the beautiful and vast community of romance bloggers - including Smexy Books and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books - and I got all my reading recommendations from them, and entered into lively comment-discussions within their reader communities, who really gave me an education on this genre I’d only just discovered for myself.
And so when I got around to creating my own blog, I decided that I’d just keep on reading what makes me happy. Hence, it’s my “solo book club”, which was a nod to me taking hold of my own fandom and personal interests and kind of saying; “if you don’t like it, click away - I’m reading for me and me alone!” So I kept on reading young adult literature (because I’d always read and loved it, and that will never stop just because I’ve technically aged-out of the intended readership. I may have changed, but the books remain spectacular) and I immersed myself in the romance genre, and kind of discovered genre altogether - when before I’d never read anything sci-fi or paranormal (mostly because none of that tends to make school reading lists, more's the pity!). Even my blog name ‘Alpha Reader’ was a reference to the paranormal romance books I’d just discovered, and in particular my love for werewolf stories. I owe Patricia Briggs a real reader-debt for enriching my imagination with her Mercy Thompson series!
Writers are often very time-poor, balancing writing with jobs, families and other responsibilities. How can busy writers find the time to read?
Long train rides and morning commutes make for good reading time. And I’ve only just discovered the joy of audiobooks, and they’re now a necessity for me on my car-ride into work, and while walking the dog!
But I do understand that reading isn’t always relaxing, especially if you’re not in the right mind-frame for a particular book - to which I say; make sure you’re reading what you really, really want to read.
When reading feels like an obligation, of course you won’t find time for it or joy in it. But when you find a book that hooks your heart? That’s when the kids get off to school late and with ponytails left-of-centre, there’s another pizza-for-dinner night and you need an extra cup of coffee at work because you had one of those "just-one-more-page-okay-one-more-chapter" nights. If a book can’t make you forget the world in 14 pages, forget the book. Move on. Life is short. Your time cannot be wasted on so-so books that don’t capture your imagination. Find one you can’t put down and if you’re a writer, start asking yourself how it was that the author kept you reading when you really had no time?
As an advocate for young adult literature, what would you most like to change about the way YA fiction is portrayed by the media?
Well, if I could grumble for a second - we have a show dedicated to books on the ABC that rarely features Australian books, let alone Australian YA books. I’d like to see that change (and if none of the regular panellists are keen on the idea, then I’d say it’s time to get some new panellists!).
I’d love to see a Teen Book Club show on ABC3 … I’ve always envisioned someone like Natalie Tran (from the hilarious communitychannel on YouTube) making a fabulous teen book club host! I just think that there’s so much excitement in youth literature at the moment, and you see teenagers getting so invested in discussions on social media - on Tumblr and Twitter, and Goodreads, at the Centre for Youth Literature’s Inky Awards and places like Sydney Writers Festival’s TeenCon - everywhere! Why not harness that and really celebrate it? Teenagers are excited about books - why not give them more platforms to share their enthusiasm, and actually give teens a way to voice their opinions instead of having middle-aged book reviewers occasionally deign to devote a sliver of space to a dismissive and ignorant review of a readership they have no desire to respect or understand?
Okay. Grumble over.
Which books have most influenced you as a fiction writer?
Y’know I was thinking about this today, because I’ve just been to see the movie adaptation of Rosalie Ham’s “The Dressmaker” (it’s beyond fabulous, FYI!) and I was remembering that a decade ago I studied and loved that book in high school, and Rosalie Ham herself came and spoke to us at our school library. I still have my copy of the book she signed for me, and I still remember her talking about being in the midst of writing a screenplay adaptation for the book. And I also remember her talking about the writing course she did, that got the first draft of The Dressmaker out of her - RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing. Yep. As a teenager, hearing Rosalie Ham talk about how her love of reading led her to write the kind of book she wanted to read clearly left an impression on me, and a decade later I’m also a proud graduate of the same writing program, doing the same thing - writing the type of book I like to read!
There’s real power in proximity, particularly for budding young writers - to meet your author idols means something. I’ve been lucky enough to have met most of the authors I grew up reading and admiring, those same authors who got me hooked on reading - I’ve shaken their hands and thanked them. I’ve blubbered in front of John Marsden and Melina Marchetta, Margo Lanagan and Isobelle Carmody - I’ve had the pleasure of telling them how much ‘Checkers’ or ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ meant to me growing up (and still mean to me as an adult) and I’ve been floored to learn that they’re just as influenced as I am by the likes of late-great Ruth Park (‘Playing Beatie Bow’ is everything).
So, yes. I’ve read a lot of great books in my life but it’s the ones I encountered as a teenager that left the biggest impression.
About Danielle Binks
Danielle Binks began her book review blog, Alpha Reader, in 2009 and now has a career as a youth literature advocate, freelance writer and arts media commentator. She is also an emerging writer of Young Adult fiction, and currently editing an anthology of new Australian YA writing for HarperCollins.
About Michelle McLaren
Michelle McLaren is a Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She works as a freelance copywriter and blogs about all things literary at Book to the Future.