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.


Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 3.51.18 pm
While you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Writer Kickstarter Pack: How to Start a Blog and Get Published. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.

 


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


 

 

Creating a Writing Tribe

If you’re a writer, it’s likely that you spend a lot of time by yourself. While you can talk about your writing process, current WIP or latest bout of writers’ block with your friends and family, it is a vastly different experience to have those conversations with other writers because they actually understand what you’re saying!

A writing tribe has many benefits, both creatively and professionally. Depending on the level of experience held by each member of your group, a writing tribe can support you through the editing and revising of your novel, offer encouragement or suggestions when issues arise during the writing or publishing stages, and they can even introduce you to other writers or professionals in the publishing industry.

Typically, writers are a friendly bunch—despite our preference for isolation!

Most writers are happy to help others and to provide advice from their own lived experience. If you don’t have an existing writing club in your community, you can always make one. Most libraries are happy to provide a space for a writing club to host their meetings. You could post an ad on your local community Facebook page, gumtree or you could create a group page on the site ‘Meet Up’ to see if there are any other writers in your area interested in creating a club.

There is also a host of online communities you can join via Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube and Instagram.

However, building real-life relationships with writers in your own town and region is far more powerful and rewarding.

Attending workshops hosted by your state’s Writing Centre is another great way to meet people, same goes for attending writing festivals and conferences. Being on a budget is no excuse as most of these events are desperate for volunteers. Volunteering at a conference and festival is not only a great way to give back to your community and support the organisation running the event, but it is also a great way to meet other volunteers, committee members, staff and guests. The bonus here is that you all have something in common: a deep love for writing and reading.

As a writer and lover of books, you may consider yourself an introvert and therefore incapable of introducing yourself to a stranger.

Dear friend, if you are at a writing festival, workshop or conference, you are already among your people.

You are surrounded by introverts who are just as nervous, anxious, and worried about saying something weird/stupid/foolish as you are. Also, everyone attending such as event expects to be approached by strangers. That is the whole damn point! To make new friends and contacts. So, don’t be shy. If you need a few introductory phrases to break the ice, here are some conversation starters to get the ball rolling:

  • Are you a writer? What are you working on right now?

  • What are you reading at the moment?

  • Are there any speakers you’re looking forward to seeing?

  • Is this the first time you have volunteered? Are you enjoying it?

Part of being a writer is spending a lot of time alone.

The gift of creating a writing tribe is that you can meet other people who also express their inner thoughts, their observations about the world and the bizarreness of our human lives through the act of storytelling.

Writers need time alone, but we also need to be around other writers.

Home to Make Working from Home Work

IMG_0902

 

If you are self-employed and work from home, then you are largely in charge of your schedule. People around you (family and friends) may misinterpret this control as meaning that you work “whenever you feel like it.”


(Watch the video version here)

Creating an ideal writing routine takes time. We have to figure out whether we work best in the morning, afternoon or night. We trial different creative processes such as outlining, discovery writing or a combination of both. We test out different cafes and libraries to see which ones have the best lighting, non-invasive music and relaxed staff. We learn whether we are disciplined enough to check email and social media before we start writing, or whether our Wi-Fi has to stay off until the session is over.

The writing routine is often fetishized, but the reality is it takes a long time and a lot of experimentation to develop a routine that supports our creative practice and goals.

When we find something that works, we stick to it.

Unfortunately, these routines are also very fragile.

We need to set aside a reasonable chunk of time—preferably during our optimal working hours—in order to do the deep work our novels/short stories/articles/essays require. A knock on the door, a text message or email can be enough to throw us off our game. For every interruption that occurs, it takes fifteen minutes to get back into the ‘zone.’

A friend may call or text to invite you out for a morning coffee or to go see a midday movie. Because you work from home they just assume you’ll make up those lost hours later.

The problem is, you only have so many good hours in a day.

If you spend three of your optimal morning hours having coffee with a friend, you are not going to get those hours back. Of course, you can push yourself to make up those lost hours later, but the quality of that work will not be equal to what you could have produced during your optimal working hours.

There is only one way to negotiate your work schedules with loves one: communication.

That means you need to tell your family and friends what your non-negotiable work hours are. If you consider yourself a morning person, get yourself into your office as early as reasonably possible and firmly close the door. You can even put up a nifty sign if you like. Tell your family that you will be unavailable between 9am-12pm. You can then reserve less urgent tasks such as administration and email for the afternoon. Though it may still be undesirable to be interrupted during this time, you can let your family know that they can come to see you between 1-5pm.

If you have adult children, teenagers or friends that you connect with on a daily basis via text message, tell them not to text you during your dedicated writing time. You can also switch your phone to flight mode or leave it in another room, but some people prefer to keep their phones handy in case of emergency.

That being said, there is no reason to keep your inbox or social media pages open during your writing time. You need to make it MORE difficult for people to interrupt you, not easier!

And no-one is going to contact you about an emergency situation via email or social. If the house is on fire—metaphorically speaking—people will call you.

Being self-employed and working from home is a dream scenario for many people. The downside is some people see home-based businesses as less serious then brick and mortar businesses. As though the money earned through writing articles is less real than that earned through an employer.

Being a full-time writer who works from home is a privilege, but it is also a job. A job that you need to dedicate time to. A job that requires a schedule and that requires you to stick to that schedule. Family and friends may never see your work in this way, or they may forget when your non-negotiable work hours are, but there are so many distractions you do have control over. You have the power to say no to invitations and requests. To switch off your devices. To close your web browser.

You can’t stop life from happening, but you can minimise its ability to distract you. And don’t worry, all those requests, invitations and interruptions will still be there when you open the door and emerge from your writing cave. At least you will be more generous in dealing with them because you’ve already tended to one of your highest priorities: writing.

 

 

Desires vs Goals

(Note: The video version of this blog can be found here)

As writers, we all want to write amazing novels. We want to write the kind of novels that readers can’t put down. Novels that take readers on epic journeys far away from their everyday life and that allow them to experience the world through another’s eyes. Novels that challenge readers, that teach them something, that inform them about important issues or that move them in some profound way.

As writers, we want to get agents, sign deals and see our books in stores. We want to go on a book tour and do interviews with smart journalists. We want our online platforms to explode along with our sales. We want readers to send us fan art or emails detailing what our book meant to them.

These secret desires can be rocket fuel on days when inspiration is running thin. Be warned though, these same desires can quickly lead to disappointment and apathy. When these thrilling futures fail to materialise, we may wind up asking, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s the point in trying anymore?’ or worse, ‘Maybe I’m no good at this.’

Dreaming about hitting the New York Times Best Seller List or winning a prestigious award can be a fun way to occupy your time while waiting in a doctor’s office or lazily drinking tea on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a big difference between desires and goals.

Getting an agent, a book deal, winning a literary award or experiencing skyrocketing sales are desires. You have absolutely no control (or very little) over any of these events becoming a reality. However, you are fully in charge when it comes to goals.

Goals are specific, measurable and they have deadlines.

Getting an agent is a desire. Querying five agents in the first quarter of the year is a goal. The former is ambiguous and disempowering, the latter is exact and empowering. Goals are specific and measurable. In the case of the above example, you have set the goal to email five agents, and the self-imposed deadline will help keep you on track and focused.

Of course, some goals will involve others, but it’s important that you continue to recognise the difference between a goal and a desire.

Desire: The proofreader will find all the typos in my manuscript.

Goal: The proofreader and I will complete the final round of edits by October.

While it’s fun to imagine the future our current WIP may one day experience, it’s important that we keep our feet firmly on the ground. After all, that shiny ‘one-day’ future will never happen if you don’t do the work.

When working on a project, there is tremendous value in setting goals. However, setting vague goals like “Write a Book” can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. It’s just too damn BIG! Plus, it will be a long time before you experience the satisfaction of crossing that item off your goal list. Instead, it’s much more productive to break that one massive goal into much smaller goals.

Remember: A goal is something you are in charge of.

Instead of setting “Write a Book” as a goal, consider the steps involved in that process. This one goal could easily be broken down into something like this:

  1. Read a craft book such as Save the Cat by Jessica Brody
  2. Spend one week creating character profiles
  3. Spend one week outline the novel using the Save the Cat principles
  4. Write 500-1000 words a day, five days a week. Hit 80,000 words by July 12.
  5. Re-read manuscript in one/two sittings while making note of any large structural issues or plot holes
  6. Spend one week creating a plan on how to revise initial draft
  7. Spend one-two hours, five days a week, revising
  8. Spend 2-3 weeks re-read the revised draft and make any final adjustments
  9. Ask five friends to become beta-readers
  10. Drink copious amounts of whiskey while waiting for beta-reader feedback.

Of course, some of these goals could be broken down further, but you get the idea. For instance, I prefer to complete step ten while clutching my battered copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and crying.

Desires can be inspiring, motivating and energising, but they can lead to dissatisfaction. Goals may be less thrilling, but what they lack in shimmer they make up for in pragmatism. Please, do not underestimate the energy and motivation that comes from real progress. It may not be the Ra-Ra excitement you experience when imagining hitting the New York Times Best Seller List, but those big exciting moment won’t ever happen if you don’t first build the habit of setting realistic and achievable goals.

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!