The One Writing Hack That Can Change Everything

We’ve all heard the writing advice to read as much and as widely as possible.

The reason for this advice is fairly simple. If you are a fantasy writer and you only read fantasy novels, you run the risk of producing a novel that lacks originality.

You may be very well informed about what stories, premises and concepts have already been done, but how will you be able to offer anything different if your reading preferences are so narrow?

Writers should aim to read as widely as possible. You may love fantasy novels, but it’s important that you also read outside of this genre.

Read crime, romance, science fiction, speculative and horror books. Read literary books, classics, short stories, flash fiction, micro fiction and non-fiction.

Read cookbooks, memoirs, essay collections and poetry. Read books about travel, history, theory, politics, productivity, money and health.

Read books about how to declutter and organise your house.

Read medical books.

Read coffee table books like Bibliophile by Jane Mount (one of my current favs and a fantastic starting point for reading widely!).

Not only will reading widely make you a better person in general (hello, healthy eating habits, responsible saving and organised wardrobes!), it will make you a more interesting person to talk to and it will definitely make you a better writer.

When you know more, it’s possible to write more because you’re no longer drawing from your limited experiences or ideas. Challenge yourself to read works that open your eyes to bigger concepts and problems.

Read books about feminist theory, climate change, philosophy, human/animal relations, economics and conspiracy theories (this one is especially great for dystopian writers!).

Reading widely enable you to take snippets of information from a variety of sources and embed that knowledge within your current WIP.

The work will benefit from your careful inclusion of this information as the story itself will become more interesting. Obviously.

Also, if you read more widely and challenge yourself to read texts you wouldn’t ordinarily read (especially non-fiction and scholarly works including literary analysis, theory, philosophy), you will innately produce work that has more substance. Your work will have something to say.

Remember: the message behind the story needn’t be prescriptive or a slap in the face; there is such a thing as sub-text.

Remember: Your readers aren’t stupid. If you do a good job, they’ll find the message beneath the mayhem. 

Even if a reader picks up your work and enjoys it solely for the story, they will still feel that the book is about something bigger.

You don’t have to read widely. You don’t have to write stories that are more than just the story. But the writing process itself and your growth as a human being will be better if you do. Just saying.

If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve included a list of random books you may enjoy perusing.


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Books that Will Make You a Better Writer

Romance

Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Walters
Atonement – Ian McEwan
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier

Fantasy

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff
The Savior’s Champion – Jenna Morecci
Rupetta – Nike Sulway (?)

Crime

Call my Evie – J.P. Pomare
Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

Dysfunctional Families

Flowers in the Attic – V.C. Andrews
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
The Liar’s Club – Mary Karr

Cli-fi

Clade – James Bradley
Stations Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Gold Fame Citrus – Clair Vaye Watkins

Speculative

A Superior Spectre – Angela Myer
The Book of Dream – Nina George
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Sauders

Dystopia

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Stand – Stephen King

Literary

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
We are all Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Historical Fiction

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson
The Signature of Everything – Elizabeth Gilbert
Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Classics

Villette – Charlotte Brontë
Emma – Jane Austen
Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Essay Collections

What are People For? – Wendell Berry
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
I was Told There’d be Cake – Sloane Crosley

Short Stories

Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

Non-fiction Environmental Writing

The Reinvention of Eden – Carolyn Merchant
The Soul of an Octopus – Sy Montgomery
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
The End of Nature – Bill McKibben

Get your life together

You are a Badass at Making Money – Jen Sincero
Do the Work – Steven Pressfield
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
Deep Work – Cal Newport

Poetry

Ariel – Sylvia Plath
Life on Mars – Tracy K. Smith
Howl – Allen Ginsburg


 

 

Self-care For Writers

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(Watch the vlog version of this post here)

We’re all familiar with the image of the brooding writer with unkempt hair leaning crocked back over their desk with a bottle of whisky carefully concealed beneath a mountain of notes and crumpled cardigans as they pen the next international bestseller.

Many famous writers contributed to this cliché through their substance abuse, intense isolation and generally manic behaviour. Little wonder writers aren’t known for having good self-care.

We all experience burnout and writer’s block at one time or another, and no author wants to hate the practice that used to bring them joy/satisfaction/meaning.

If you are a writer then finding the time to write is good self-care.

After all, a writer who doesn’t write may very well go insane, what with all those unexpressed voices, stories and characters bumping around in their head!

But you don’t have to go insane in order to be an “artist”. In fact, it is preferable that you don’t.

Self-care and productivity are not polar opposites. When you tend to your stress levels and take care of your mind and body then you’re in a much better position to write something that someone else will actually want to read. And that is the whole damn point of all this, right?

Below are the six ways you can start taking better care of yourself, and your creative practice, right now.

# 1 / Give yourself a break

The expectations we put on ourselves are immense:

  • We have to write every day
  • We have to hit our word count every day
  • We need to write more guests posts
  • We need to start a blog
  • We need to research editors/agent/publishing houses
  • We need to research police procedure/how boat motors work/astronomy
  • We need to find and enlist beta readers and create a street team.

How often have you written a sentence, feel smugly satisfied for a moment, and then quickly nit-pick it to death because it failed to re-invented the wheel of this vast and complicated craft known as WRITING?

We need to give ourselves a break.

There are many steps on the road to publication, and while it may feel as though we are behind in the publishing rat-race, the truth is we are not. Books aren’t going anywhere; neither are readers. Writers should do their best to make time for their practice, to educate themselves on the industry and to put their best work out there. Books and words are powerful, but they are still only books. Don’t let your own sense of perfectionism or the societal belief that productivity correlates to self-worth lead you down the destructive path known as burnout.

Take the pressure off.

Writing can be really fucking complicated or really fucking easy. Open a Word document, type some stuff, hit save, close the Word document and then get on with your life.

# 2 / Take an actual break

Re-framing the way you perceive writing, your current work in progress and the industry, in general, is vital if you want to avoid crumpling beneath the pressure of your own expectations.

Sometimes, this re-framing is not enough. Sometimes you need to take an actual break. As in, go outside and lay on the grass with your dog and watch the clouds go by. It’s amazing. The world does not in fact implode.

How long your break goes for depends entirely upon you. Do you need to take an hour off after lunch or the whole afternoon? Maybe you need to take a whole day off or even a week? You may want to create mini-breaks throughout your entire day, set specific “office” hours or organise your schedule so that you can take 1 or 2 days off every single week. Do you.

Burnout and writer’s block suck, but the good news is that avoiding and mending these nasty buggers is both easy and free: take a break.

#3 / Read for the pleasure of reading

 Writers are told to read widely and to read as writers. The intention here is that you are reading in order to improve your own writing. By seeing the patterns and traits of other genres and other authors, you can adopt the best and avoid the worst. The only apprentice available to writers comes in the form of reading.

Reading a novel with a critical mind, dissecting its plot, characters and structure and analysing the technical use of language is the best way to figure out how that author wrote that novel and how you might be able to do something similar.

Reading as a writer is exhilarating and exhausting. It can also kind of ruin reading.

Turning off this analytical lens can be difficult, especially if you’ve trained yourself to read in this style. No reader appreciates poetic pose the same way that a writer does and it’s likely that you became a writer because you read a book that made you feel something. Setting aside a little time to read something beautiful each day will help remind you of that fact.

# 4 / Work on something fun

If your writing is starting to feel a little rigid or if you regularly find yourself cleaning the refrigerated during your writing time, maybe it’s time to work on something different?

You could grab a notepad and pen spend an hour practising writing exercise and responding to prompts. Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and Writing Down the Bones are full of inspiring writing exercises, but you can also find a million helpful websites by googling “Creative Writing Prompts”.

If a particular chapter is feeling stuck, try working on a short story instead, or maybe spend some time writing a blog post or article. You do not have to publish what you write, in fact, it may be better if you don’t. The purpose of this exercise is to make writing fun again, whether you tap into that energy by writing a few pieces of flash fiction, an article about your dog or completing a series of exercises is completely up to you!

#5 / Routine vs spontaneity

Sometimes burnout may be the result of a stifling routine or a lack of it. If you write at the same location, at the same time, on the same project, hitting the same word count, it’s likely that you are VERY productive and VERY bored.

Are you an artist or a drill sergeant?

Yes, we’re all professionals here and part of being a professional means doing the work whether you feel like it or not. But Jesus, do you have to be so miserable while doing it?

Write somewhere different, at a different time of day, wearing different clothes, using a different device (pen and pad?) and drinking a different beverage. Organise your writer friends to come over for a “writing sprint” or organise one online. Write for ten minutes, then go stare at the clouds for ten minutes, and then come back and write for an hour. Shake our those stiff writerly muscles.

Alternatively, you may be suffering from a lack of routine. If you are super busy because you work full-time and are taking care of your family, it’s likely that you are constantly on the lookout for writing windows.

Writing windows are fragments of time when you write in between completing other tasks. Maybe you scribble out scenes during your lunch break or between loads of laundry?

The problem is, if you don’t know when your next writing session is, what you are going to work on or how long you are going to write for, that’s a whole lot of unknowns and unknowns lead to anxiety and stress.

If that is the case, you may benefit from creating a specific, non-negotiable time each week when you get some writing done. If you live with other people, tell them that you will be unavailable between 2-4pm every Saturday (or whenever you choose!). Better yet, leave the house and switch all your devices on to silent.

# 6 / Eat well, drink water, and exercise

Writing is an intellectual exercise, but we still have bodies. Sometimes when the muse has found us—or a deadline is looming—taking the time to refill our water bottles, make a healthy meal and exercise slip right off our radar.

And yet, eating well, staying hydrated and moving our bodies are basic self-care principles that support our writing practices. If you eat badly, drink nothing but coffee and spend twelve hours a day looking at your screen, you will start feeling very crap, very quickly and your work will suffer.

Eat well, drinking water and exercising isn’t rocket science, so don’t act like it is.

Writers need to learn to take better care of themselves. As communicators and story-tellers, writers have skills that others do not and the world needs those skills now more than ever.

Take care of yourself while you are writing and publishing your brilliant prose; that way, you can write and publish more of it.

The Rise of the Hybrid Novel

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that listed my favourite reads of 2018. Of the six novels that I listed, five could easily be described as literary hybrids.

A hybrid is a novel that can be identified as literary but that also contains the tropes typically associated with genre fiction. For those of you who may be a bit lost, literary fiction can be described as intellectual narratives that explore ideas and themes through the vessel of story. For example, the rape trial depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not about Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson, it is about racial injustice and the loss of innocence.

Literary fictions tell the reader a story, but the story is not the point. You can enjoy a literary book for its ‘plot’, but the purpose of literature is to communicate a bigger idea or to contribute to a cultural/political/social discussion. Imagine the story as a monster costume and it is your job as the reader to find the zipper and to peak underneath.

Genre fictions are stories that use similar elements, tropes or structures. Horror, science fiction, romance and crime are considered the largest genre categories, but beneath these umbrella terms lies a multitude of subgenres. Readers of genre fiction have set expectations of how a novel from a certain genre will handle elements such as plot, character and setting. If you select a novel from the crime section of your local bookstore, before you even crack the spine, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what that story is about. Obviously, not all crime books are the same, but readers of crime fiction would expect the novel to be about a crime told through the perspective of the person whose ‘job’ it is to solve it. Note: The character may not get paid for solving this crime (detective, lawyer), but instead have a personal motivation (victim).

At their best, literary fiction is seen as sophisticated and highbrow; they are the types of novels that get nominated for awards. At their worst, they’re considered elitist. Genre fiction can be described as entertaining, exciting and engaging, but their (supposed) lack of originality can mean they are perceived as ‘childish’ or ‘books for dumb people.’

And yet, five of my favourite novels from last year are literary hybrids: smart novels that use genre tropes.

Australian authors Angela Myer, Jane Rawson and Emily Maguire have all chosen to include genre tropes as part of their literary explorations of feminism, technology, ecology, sex and violence. American author Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties combines horror and science fiction tropes as she explores the themes of women’s bodies, sex writing and queer writing. George Saunders identified himself as a science fiction writer, yet critics consider him a hybrid author due to his literary voice and his 2016 win of the Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo only further solidified this title.

So, why are literary authors suddenly using genre tropes?

Literary fiction is often described as realist fiction, by which I mean, no aliens or monsters. Of course, there are examples of literary novels that are told via otherworldly perspectives. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is narrated by Death and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is narrated by a deceased teenage girl following a brutal rape and murder. Though these novels are told through the perspective of mystic beings, they are not considered hybrid novels as they do not use genre tropes.

Perhaps literary novelists are including elements from genre fiction as a way to test their skills as a writer and to stretch the boundaries of their own genre. It takes a high level of skill to use supernatural creature or futuristic technology within a text that can also be described as intellectual. Realism, as a mode, is somewhat limiting. Perhaps literary novelists are enjoying the innovation and possibilities that can occur when realism is blended with elements of the fantastical.

Interestingly, this trend also goes the other way as authors like Stephen King, who is typically described as a horror author, won the medal for American Letters in 2003 and the National Medal for Arts in 2015; an award previously won by Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou.

Considering that genre fiction is sometimes described as Popular Fiction, i.e., fiction for general audiences, the sceptic in me wonders if literary authors are simply trying to get in on the market. In general, genre books outsell literary fiction. With publishing houses merging (Penguin/Random House) and book deals becoming harder to secure, perhaps literary novels are doing what they can to appeal to both genre and literary readers.

Regardless of the motivation (author or publisher), hybrid novels are successfully bridging the divide between these two camps. And more importantly, they make for a ripper read.

A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.