The More You Write, The Better You Get

Monday, December 17, 2018
Nicole Hayes Interviewed by Steph Downing

A portrait of Nicole Hayes, three-quarter length, leaning on a wall
Nicole Hayes

2019 Summer School: Show, Don't Tell

SD: What does your writing space look like?

NH: My writing space changes all the time! While I have a nondescript, plain room in the back of my house that I escape to when I’m on deadline or having to work long, unsociable hours, I generally write out of the house — in cafes, libraries, public spaces … Anywhere that forces me to work on my writing and doesn’t allow me to become distracted by stuff I “have to do”. All those family and/or other work obligations that tend to nag at me at home when I’m trying to create space to write. When I’m starting a new thing, my uncertainty is high and my confidence is low, so the things that pay the bills tend to impose themselves on me more strenuously. If I leave the house, I can ignore them. 

Short answer: It depends!

SD:  As an accomplished author with several awards and nominations, what advice would you give to authors who are struggling to have their work published?

NH: The publishing world is a tough one — and it’s never been tougher. There are far more people wanting to secure publication than there are slots in publishers' slates, and even established authors are struggling to sustain careers. Hardly anyone in this country makes a living from books alone, so the added pressure of juggling multiple other roles and sources of income works only to heighten tension, increase competition, and — potentially — compromise and dilute our creative work. Long gone are the days when a publishing track record meant you would continue to be published.

Now for the bad news! 

I spent more than fifteen years trying to break through with my first book. In that time I'd written four completed novel manuscripts and countless short stories. I spent two years in development as the screenwriter for a feature film script that was optioned and had a director attached but was never made, and I wrote several unproduced short scripts. I wrote, produced, and filmed a TV pilot for a series that was commissioned on spec by a network, but fell over at the last stage, and I have three other abandoned novels that are more than half written. The number of times “luck” seemed to be the determining factor in my lack of success was heartbreaking, and I’d begun to believe it wasn’t meant to happen.

But if you’re a writer, you know you don’t really have a choice. Sure, you can choose whether you pursue publication, but the writing side of things is a compulsion. Even when it’s painful and disappointing, we still do it. We need to.

My advice is obvious then. Don’t give up. Just keep writing. Whether you break through now or in a decade — or two! — the more you write, the better you get, and the more attempts the greater the odds. Also, what else are you going to do? 

SD:  Your workshop will cover how writers can show, and not tell – a common pitfall for writers of all experience levels. What advice would you suggest to writers who struggle with telling too much?

NH: Come to my workshop! Ha! But if you can’t do that, there are lots of things you can do to minimise the temptation to rely on “telling” and all the different kinds of narrative this refers to. But before you do that, it’s important to recognise that there are times when telling is the better option. For example, to catch us up between key moments, or to transition or cover extended stretches of time where nothing new is happening. That’s what it’s designed for. 

But it’s also why we can’t stay there for long — key words “nothing new is happening”. While you’re telling us what’s been going on, the story is effectively on hold. You’ve said to your reader, “Hang on a tic while I fill you in on some info you need before the important stuff kicks in.” Sometimes you need to do this, to slow things down and give readers breathing space and time to rest. But you don’t want them to fall asleep! Keep these passages brief, tight, and serving primarily to link big moments. Make sure you don’t bury important story points in narrative that isn’t alive, or unfolding for us in story time. 

A simple trick that’s useful in highlighting possible examples of too much telling is to run your eyes over the page — is there more black space (print) than white space (page)? Long blocks of text are a good sign that you might be in tell mode. Dialogue, important action, movement in plot… all of these things force new paragraphs and more white space on the page, and create a sense of a living, breathing story.

SD: Where do you find your inspiration?

NH: Things that make me cross! Usually, that’s where I start. With some form of injustice or frustration that won’t leave me alone. Something I want to change because it seems unfair or unequal. Turning anger into a story takes a few extra steps, steps that seem to change depending on the story. But typically, the character comes to me quickly as a consequence of this injustice — and then things go from there. I wish I could put my finger on it, beyond saying, “things that piss me off” but that’s what inspires and — more importantly — sustains me during those dark stretches of uncertainty that hit around the 30,000 word mark of every novel I’ve written. But by then, it’s changed form. Taking control of this anger is how I find the heart in my story, and it’s how I avoid any sense that I’m preaching or ranting. I don’t think I’d have any readers if all they felt was my rage! It’s the possibility of hope that allows anger to transition into a story. It’s the one promise I make all my readers — the possibility of hope.

SD:  As a host for the podcast The Outer Sanctum, how does this form differ from written storytelling?

NH: The obvious difference is that podcasting is faster — and requires far fewer words! It’s also more collaborative. 

There are six of us working together, trying to find the angle that each feels is the main slant for whatever story or conversation we’re planning to have. Sometimes — often — we’re in fervent agreement, which isn’t always the most compelling way to share airwaves. But a key tenet of the Outer Sanctum is to ensure thoughtful, considered, and meaningful conversation — not just between us, but with our listeners (“the Sanctumers”) and with those people at the coalface of the issue we’re addressing. Our mantra from day one has been “nothing about us without us”, so we constantly check in and involve the very people who are most challenged by the issue of the day, particularly those on the margins whose voices are too often ignored. That’s the point for us — to elevate those voices and to share our platform, to provide an alternative conversation to the often blokey, ex-footballer monotone that’s dominated football chat for as long as I can remember. 

Plus, I won’t lie. It’s way more fun. I love writing novels and will always do this — see above point about not having a choice — but the podcast involves hanging out with five of the funniest, smartest, kindest women I know, and talking about one of my favourite things in the world. What’s not to love?

About Nicole Hayes

Nicole Hayes is an award winning author of YA fiction, a freelance writer/editor, and podcaster. Her novels have been shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Award, WA Premier’s Award, and the YABBAs. 'A Shadow’s Breath' and 'One True Thing' are CBCA Notable books - the latter winning the Children’s Peace Literature Award. She’s a Stella Prize Ambassador who teaches writing to adults and young people, and is one-sixth of award winning ABC podcast/radio show, The Outer Sanctum.