The Five BIG Lessons I Wish I’d Known Before Writing My Novel

(Click here to watch the video version of this week’s blog).

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, it took seven years to write and then publish Every Time He Dies. 

That’s a long time to stick with one project, and the manuscript changed many times as a result.  

The great thing about sticking with a project for a long period of time is that you learn many, many, lessons. For today’s blog, I’m going to unpack the five big lessons I wish I’d known before writing my novel, Every Time He Dies. Hopefully, these lessons will be useful to you as you continue along your own path to publication. 

1 / Have Patience

Like I said at the top of this blog, it takes a long time to write a book. You have to be patient with yourself and the project. Of course, it doesn’t have to take a long time to write a book, like the Book Writing Police won’t be banging on your door, fine in hand, if you write and publish a book in three weeks. But this is my blog, so I’m talking about my experience, and ETHD took a long time. There were so many times when I thought I was pulling the train into the station only to discover that some nasty so-so had extended the tracks. 

If I knew on day one that it would be seven years until my novel was published … well … this book may not exist. Huh? Who am I kidding, I still would have written it. I’m a writer, after all, so what else could I do? Watch Netflix? Pft. 

You will hit blocks.

You will suddenly realise there is a massive plot hole and you don’t know how to fix it.

You will worry that maybe this manuscript is unsalvageable and maybe you should start working on something else, but please (!), do not be quick to throw away a manuscript! 

Let things simmer. Consider how the story could be saved, restructured or overhauled.

Chances are, if you roll up your sleeves and get to work on fixing your broken down bicycle of a book, you’ll wind up with a manuscript that becomes the envy of every kid in the neighbourhood. 

2 / Resistance is greatest at the end

I never got sick of my book. Okay, look, I never got sick of my story, but I definitely got sick of proofreading and checking meticulous details such as formatting. Weirdly enough, I often had to remind myself to pay attention to the language and grammar of each sentence while I was proofreading (alongside five other readers I had enlisted), because I kept getting caught up in the story — the story I had written!

Working on ETHD was mostly a joy. However, I technically could have published this novel two years ago. So, why didn’t I? 

Well, there’s a bunch of logistical and practical reasons, but basically, it boiled down to two factors:

  1. Money
  2. Time

I could have published the book two years ago, it was good enough, but I wanted the book to be great and I wanted to be fully prepared myself.

I needed to know more about the industry, more about self-publishing, I wanted to add a bit more description, to enlist another round of beta-readers, to save a bit more cash etc. etc. Basically, I wanted the book and the book launch to be as successful as possible. 

Perfectionism is a bitch. 

This resistance to publishing my novel really boiled down to one factor: fear. 

I wanted reassurance that I was making good decisions. Is now the best time to publish? Is the book ready? Am I ready? Do I know what I’m doing? (Pst! You never know what you are doing).

Now, to be honest, the book has benefited from this two-year delay. Those extra two years gave me the time I needed to polish the manuscript to the best of my abilities, to hire the professionals I wanted to work with and to have a solid understanding of how to publish, marketing and promoting the book. 

So, it was worth it. However, perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination. Don’t let your manuscript become mouldy in the bottom drawer. Fix it up, pay a bunch of professionals to help you, and get that baby out there!

3 / Don’t do it by yourself

Don’t do it by yourself because you can’t do it by yourself. It takes a village to raise a child, and it also takes a village to publish a book.

Personally, I love reading the acknowledgement page at the back of a book (this isn’t always featured in fiction books but it’s becoming more common). While the author’s name may appear on the cover, I love learning about the many hands that were involved in the writing, revising, publishing and distributing of that text. 

My novel was shaped indirectly by the advice and guidance of my creative writing lecturers as they taught me how to write, and it was also directly shaped by their feedback on early drafts. The critique I receive from classmates and later, beta-reader, provided much needed direction as they identified the weaknesses that I couldn’t.

The markups I got from friends and family (ie: non-writers) told me what the ‘average’ reader would think of my story. Mentorships with professional editors and later, hiring professional editors showed me how to add body to my skeletal draft and how the story could have a totally different — and better — shape. 

Somewhere along the way, an early reader said, “You’re a great writer, but your ideas need a bit of work.” Now, I would have been offended had it not been the truth.

I am a good writer, but sometimes I need the input of others to lift my work to the next level. 

The thing is, our life experiences and perspectives are limited. When we share our art with (trusted) others and invite their feedback, we get the rare opportunity to see our work through another person’s eyes. Then, we can see where the story is weak and we can get to the business of fixing it. 

4 / It’s okay for the story to change

The version of Every Time He Dies that I am publishing is TOTALLY different from the book I set out to write seven years ago. 

The thing is, I am a fast writer and a slow reviser. I wrote the first draft of this book in a matter of months. I then spent years considering how the story could be different. What could I do to make it stronger, better?

It took a while to figure out whose story it really was, what voice I wanted to use, the perspective it should be told in, the mood and so much more. 

The novel’s premise changed dramatically twice.

First, it changed from a novel about two teenage boys to a novel about an adult woman and a ghost. Then it changed again from a novel about a group of strangers coming together to create a community to a novel about distigrated families, told through a dual perspective of a father and his daughter — don’t worry, I kept the ghost. 🙂

The first time the premise changed, I was excited. The second time, I was exhausted. Probably because I knew how much work would go into changing the story. However, the story is so much better now.

Hard work is hard, but the results are so much more pleasing. So, don’t be afraid to make big, dramatic changes!

5 / Seeing your book for the first time

Okay. So, I totally squealed the first time I saw the digital file that showed the front, spine and back cover. Finally, I got to see what my book was actually going to look like!

Maybe it’s because we live in such a visually orientated world, but for so long I’d been living with the vision of Daff, Lawrence and Liam’s story inside my head in the same way that we can recall memories or scenes from a movie.

For the first time, I was now seeing an exterior, visual symbol of the book I had spent so long writing. Hell, even viewing the files for the interior format design was exciting! Now, I could see the layout my pages were going to have, how the chapter titles were going to be presented, what the book itself was going to look like. 

Now, this euphoria was doubled the first time I held a physical copy.

So much of our life occurs in the digital space, so sometimes we forget how amazing tactical products or experiences can be. I could see how big my book was, and rather than looking at my words on the screen, I could now touch them with my fingers. I could sign the flyleaf and easily pop the book in my bag. My story was now mobile! Hmmm I mean, digital versions are mobile too, but you’d be WAY more upset if you left your i-reader or kindle at the bus stop!

It’s taken a lot of time, money and energy to get to this point, but I have to say that it was totally worth it.

I had to write Every Time He Dies, but I’m also ready to release it.

It’s time for the novel to go off and have its own experience in the world away from my meddling grasp! While my work on the novel is completed, your experience of this story is just beginning, and I can’t wait to hear all about it. 


EVERY TIME HE DIES

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

Amazon Australia

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Barns & Noble

Bookdepository

Booktopia

Kobo

Glose


PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

IMG_1576

If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inboxNot only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

Knowing Your Why: The Story Behind Every Time He Dies

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, it took me seven years to write Every Time He Dies. Seven years is a long time. Now, I wasn’t working on the novel that entire time, but still, it takes a certain level of discipline to stick with an unpaid, time-consuming project for that long — even when you love it.

In short, if you want to write a novel then you have to know why you want to write it.

A why that is bigger than: 

  • it’s fun
  • it’s something to do
  • well, it’s better than cleaning the house!

There has to be a story behind your story. It doesn’t have to be a personal story (in fact, this can sometimes become problematic), it can a topic or issue that you want to explore more deeply. 

Why do you want to dedicate your precious time to writing, revising, publishing and promoting a novel? What are you trying to say with this novel? What are you trying to figure out by writing this book?

For me, I started writing Every Time He Dies after a close friend of mine passed away after a very long, and painful illness. This friend was only a few years older than me. They were young, fit, had a good diet, a great family and a sunny disposition. 

I’ve (weirdly/unfortunately) been to a lot of funerals. In fact, I’ve been to more funerals than weddings (the current ratio is 3:1). I’ve lost friends and family to illness, suicide and tragic accidents. In short, I’ve had my fair share of grief and I’ve lived in close proximity with others as they’ve gone through their own grieving process. 

In the West, we have a tendency to bury our grief and we avoid all conversations about death because we see it as morbid, but Death is a part of Life. As the now famous graph from TheOnion.com shows, Earth’s Death Holding stead At 100 Percent. 

So, I wanted to write a book that expressed my own feelings about death and grief. 

Please note, Every Time He Dies is a work of fiction; it’s not a fictionalised version of my life. The plot is entirely fabricated and yet, as the great adage goes: most memoirs are a work of fiction and most fiction is memoir.

You won’t discover anything about my personal life by reading ETHD, but you will come to know what I think about big topics like time, death, identity and memory. 

I wrote this book because I need to figure out my own feelings about death and I needed to do something with my grief. Some people drink, play sports or speak meanly to their kids. I write books. 

Every Time He Dies is a book about grief, but it’s also a book about life. It’s a story about bravery, female friendships, trusting your gut, forgiveness and the malleability of time.

Plus, it has a talking ghost … so it’s actually pretty funny … 

Writing is how I figure out what I think about certain subjects and topics.

Writing is slow. You have to really think about what it is you are trying to say and Every Time He Dies is the product of that exploration and I think it says it very well. 


EVERY TIME HE DIES

AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER + GIVEAWAY

‘Who knew that a book about murder, grief and disintegrated families could be so funny?’ – Paul WilliamsEverytimeHeDies_3D

‘A unique modern mystery that is one part psychic practices and one part police procedural. The fast pace, dynamic characters and intricate plot will keep readers hooked until the end.’ – Gregory James

‘It’s rare to find an Australian-set book of this scope and genre that could stand among its international peers and hold its own, but I won’t be surprised to see this book find its success in all corners of the crime genre reading world.’ – Shayla Morgansen

‘Can someone please make this into a TV series? This is a fabulous read and I want to see Liam and Daff on the small screen.’ – Carol Seeley


CLICK BELOW TO PREORDER NOW

Amazon Australia

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Barns & Noble

Bookdepository

Booktopia

Kobo

Glose


PREORDER GIVEAWAY!

Everyone who preorders a copy of Every Time He Dies (paperback or ebook) will go into the draw to win one of THREE MAJOR GRAND PRIZES.

To celebrate the release of Every Time He Dies, I’m running an EPIC book giveaway. The three grand prize packs include signed copies of:

🎉Dying in the First Person by Nike Sulway
🎉Bordertown by Gregory James
🎉Haunted by Shayla Morgansen
🎉The Spark Ignites by Kathleen Kelly
🎉Every Time He Dies by Tara Louise East

IMG_1576

If you preorder a copy, simply take a snapshot of your proof of purchase and fill out the entry form here. 

WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Everyone who preorders a copy will ALSO receive the first five chapters straight to their inbox. Not only will this tide you over until the book arrives, but it’s also my way of saying thanks!

The two things you need to know about writing a novel

Writing a novel is a big deal. There are so many components that you need to consider and educate yourself on: writing craft, publishing, business. And there are so many habits that you need to develop: discipline, a writing routine, time management skills.

I learned so much writing Every Time He Dies, but there are two massive lessons that I want to cover in this week’s blog, and they are:

  •  Writing a novel takes as long as it takes 
  • The story will change. A lot.

It takes as long as it takes

If you’ve been following this blog or my Instagram posts for a while, then you’ve already heard that it took me seven years to write and publish, Every Time He Dies.

Of course, I wasn’t consistently working on the novel that entire time (that would be embarrassing!). There were HUGE caps of time when I wasn’t working on the novel because of various factors (study, work, relocating, travel). By the end of 2017, I realised I had taken the novel as far as I could and that it was time to get an editor. The only problem was a) I had no money and b) I was about to start Honours.

I tucked the manuscript away for an entire year while I saved money and concentrated on my studies. I didn’t touch the book for all of 2018.

With that in mind, you could say that it took six years to write and revise the novel. To be clear, I didn’t work on the novel every day for six years. Sometimes I didn’t work on the novel for three-six months because other things had to become the priority. 

Sometimes these stretches of inactivity were intentional; sometimes I needed to put distance between me and the work so that I could gain a better perspective. Sometimes I needed to detach from the work so that I could be more ruthless when it came time to begin the next round of revisions.

The story will change

Every Time He Dies changed many times. Some elements stayed the same, but the plot and characters were overhauled more than once. 

Every Time He Dies is about a woman, Daff, who finds a watch buried in the sand at Gold Beach, only the watch is haunted by a ghost with no memory of who he is or who he died. While trying to uncover his identity, Daff becomes entangled in her estranged father’s homicide investigation.     

This is not the novel I set out to write seven years ago. Initially, I wanted to write a murder mystery involving two teenage boys: boy number one dies under suspicious circumstances and boy number two tries to find out what happened. The plot thickens when boy number one returns as a ghost and together they try to solve his murder. Pretty different, no?

I drafted a couple of chapters, but the story lacked life.

One day, I was driving back home after running errands when a scene bloomed before my eyes. It was a conversation between a woman and a man, only the man was dead. The scene was electric. I pulled up at the front of my house (I wasn’t going to waste time hauling open the roller door or locking the car behind me, I had a scene to write!), raced in the front door and madly wrote out the scene. Seven years later, those three pages have remained virtually untouched.

You may have noticed that this scene was not about two teenage boys … Fortunately, I was in the early days of writing, so I had no qualms about scrapping those early chapters and starting again. 

I was teaching myself how to write a novel while writing a novel.

Writing regularly was helpful, but I supported my learning by reading writing advice books and by watching YouTube videos (regardless of genre, Brandon Sanderson’s lecturer series is a fantastic entry point!). 

Basically, I knew that I was green and that there was nothing valuable in those early chapters I was throwing out.

The scene that occurred to me was a gift from the muse (please note: this moment of inspired writing only happened twice in seven years). The scene was dramatic and climactic, and it gave me a point to work towards. All I had to do was figure out who the heck these characters were and what lead them to this moment. Easy, right? Um, no. 

It took seven years, countless re-writes, a ton of research, one mentorship, a Master Program (thanks USC), five beta-readers, a great structural editor, a great copy editor, three wonderful proofreaders and seven tons of coffee to write and publish, Every Time He Dies. 

In that time, the novel changed from a story about a group of strangers coming together to create a community, to a family drama about grief, identity, and secrets.

Characters’ changed names, gender, and occupations. Some characters were blended together, some removed and new ones added. A chapter from the middle of the book was moved to the start. The novel changed from a first-person perspective to a rotating third-person limited perspective (god, did that hurt!). 

The novel was initially set in Chicago, then Sydney, until finally, I settled on Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. 

The title changed from Ghost Story (hey, I had to call it something) to Haunted to Concealed Constellations (don’t laugh) to Death Walkers and then finally Every Time He Dies.  

The tag line shifted from A Forensic Fairy Tale to A Ghost, A Cop and An embalmer Walk into a bar … to Even the Dead Can Lie.

I wrote 80, 000 words and then delete 20, 000 from the beginning because it wasn’t very interesting. Then I wrote another 40, 000. Then I deleted another 10, 000 of fluff. This expansion and contraction continued until the story settled at a comfortable 85, 000 words.

The point is, if you’re starting your first novel, don’t get too attached to the premise, setting, characters, voice or perspective. Cos, girlfriend, that shits gonna change. And usually for the better. 

Now that Every Time He Dies is on the cusp of release, I’ve finally started working on a new project. Perhaps this journey will be smoother, maybe it will be even more turbulent, either way, I’m in for the ride.

I hope you are too.

Every Time He Dies will be available for preorder September 16.

To keep up to date on all this ETHD and to gain early access and exclusive information about competitions and giveaway, please join my email newsletter here.

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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.

 


 

How Do You Know When A Project Is Finished?

One could argue that creative projects are never really done. Like any skill, our creative processes and practices improve over time. You are a better writer today than you were yesterday, and you’re definitely a better writer now than you were three years ago. Because our skills are constantly improving, it can be difficult to recognise when a creative project is finished.

You may finish revising chapter twenty-six and decided on a whim to look back at chapter three. Then your heart sinks. The chapter is crap. Well, maybe not crap, but you know that you can do better. You know that you can lift chapter three to the level of chapter twenty-six. One of the trickiest things about writing a novel is learning how to maintain a consistent voice across three-hundred-plus pages while your technical abilities as a writer constantly improve.

The desire to constantly tweak, lift and better your work never goes away.

If you love words, if you believe in the power of storytelling, and if you respect the craft of writing, then chances are you will have very high expectations when drafting your own novel.

Dani Shapiro once said that it would be an insightful experiment to have an author re-write the same book every ten years because it wouldn’t be the same book. An additional decade of life experience and craft development would ultimately result in a book that may have a similar premise to the earlier edition, but the quality and content of the updated copy would be entirely different.

So, how do you know when a novel or project is finished? Below are a few signposts that may indicate when a creative work has resolved itself.

You’re Kind of Over It

Resentment and boredom are good indicators that the cake is baked. If your eyes glaze over while revising chapter three—again—or if you feel irritated, frustrated or angry every time you sit down for another writing session … perhaps it’s time to hit the pause button and do some evaluating.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I having a bad week or am I truly done with this project?
  • What would it feel like to ‘hit publish’?
    (This could mean publishing a blog, sending a manuscript to an agent or publishing house or submitting a pitch or article to a magazine)
  • Am I done or am I quitting?
    (Remember: quitting feels great in the short terms, but lousy in the long term)
  • Can someone (other than Mum) read my work and provide some feedback?
  • Have I given this project all that I have?
  • Am I still in love with this project?
  • Does working on this project make me feel excited or drained?
  • If I were still working on this project in a month’s time, would I be okay with that?

The answer to these questions may help you decide whether this project requires more time or if it’s actually “complete.”

Pushing vs Perfectionism

Pushing yourself and perfectionism are similar, yet there is a subtle difference.

When we challenge ourselves, we are extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone. We are awake and alert. We feel focussed and excited. The obstacle course we find ourselves on may be tough, but we know that we are capable of finishing it. Even if we’ve never done anything like this before, we know that it’s possible to leap over hurdles, weave between obstructions and cross the finish line!

Here’s the difference: pushing has an endpoint; perfectionism doesn’t.

An obstacle course of this vain doesn’t have a finish line. Instead, the course is a loop that you climb, jump and run through, over and over again until your feet give out and you vomit from dizziness.

Are you challenging yourself to make your novel (or any work of art) the best that it can be or are you reaching for an ideal? Because, dear friend, there is no there, there.

There is no such thing as a perfect novel.

Don’t believe me, let’s consult some experts.

“Near enough is good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert.

“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Randall Jarrell.

Deviation from Original Concept

Another indicated that it may be time to wrap things up is if the project is starting to deviate from the original concept. If you continue to work on, develop and revise your novel for too long, there is a very good chance that it will move away from your initial intentions. It’s good to push yourself and to allow projects to develop and change over time, but you also need to recognise when your constant need to tinker with the work has morphed into unproductive meddling.

There is a difference between tweaking a story in order to strengthen/improve it and changing a story so much that it is unrecognisable. Embedding new ideas, cutting out and adding characters, deleting scenes and writing new ones are part of the creative process but are you doing these things in order to excavate the story buried deep inside your soul, or are you simply fucking around?

Do not ignore the voice of your subconscious in favour of what you think the story should be about.

Finish the story you set out to write and reserve any sparkly new ideas for future projects.

Books are never really done. A writer could spend their entire life trying to making a manuscript match the ideal version they envisage in their mind. At the end of the day, you have two options. You can spend years/decades/a lifetime tweaking and ‘perfecting’ a single manuscript or you can do the work, make it presentable, hit publish and move on to the next project.

The choice is yours, so choose wisely.


Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 3.51.18 pmWhile 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.

 


 

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


 

 

Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

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.