The leap of faith from a shorter work to a full-length book comes with many potential pitfalls including procrastination and self doubt. A new book has tips on how to make that jump with confidence.
The short answer to this is: you will not know until you try. We assume that writers are the ones who have a drive to write and will turn up at the desk no matter what.
This doesn’t mean that turning up is always easy. Procrastination can be self-doubt in sheep’s clothing. So can the sense that one does not yet have enough material to begin. But ultimately, the only way to know whether you do or don’t have enough material is to start writing.
The fascination with ideas and inspiration is understandable given that without these all-important seeds, a story cannot begin to grow and thrive on the page. Remember, though, the seeds themselves are not the full-grown tree or even the sapling; once you have an idea, you still have plenty of work to do.
Fiction, poetry and life writer, Brigid Lowry observes:
‘I find that I can trust life to provide ideas. Getting them is not the problem. Remembering them and turning them into something worthwhile is another matter. One can help ideas germinate by minimising distraction and by showing up at the desk every day.’
Nonetheless, at some stage, you may be required to assess the worth of material collected and what is required of you to move into the process of writing. Let us consider how a writer can ascertain whether the material they have collected is worth investing precious time in.
As a journalist, Anne-Louise Willoughby was trained in assessing the weight and merit of her material. It is a practice she has carried into her own writing:
‘I think I am always unconsciously switched onto high alert for a story. Inspiration comes in the moment that I engage with an interesting person – something resonates and begs to be explored.
‘But what can be just as challenging as trying to find an idea is actually being able to determine if the idea has legs. Can it carry the weight expected of an extended work, as opposed to an article? Getting closer to discovering if the idea is worth pursuing is all in how you talk to people you want to get to know. Don’t scare them off by getting excited and making big statements about the book you’re going to write. Building trust is paramount. To start with, it might be slow going, and you might just find it was not a great idea after all! But don’t give up straightaway; listen to your instinct. If the hairs on the back of your neck won’t lie down when you think about your idea, you can be pretty sure there is something to tackle.’
Dedication to the craft of writing
At some point, the writer must roll up their sleeves and commit. Author and illustrator Ambelin Kwaymullina says:
‘Ideas are easy: they are everywhere. Many, many people have good ideas for books. Far fewer ever actually write one.
‘One of the important aspects of being a professional writer is understanding that inspiration is usually the smallest and easiest part of the writing – that it’s not about the pursuit of some amazing idea, but about the work required to take an idea and shape it into a book. Inspiration is art but writing an actual book requires dedication to craft. I suggest to aspiring writers that they spend less time focusing on ideas and start considering how to turn ideas into story; when they are reading books they love, start paying attention to all the tools the author uses to shape their ideas and convey them to the reader.’
What Kwaymullina refers to as dedication to craft involves both familiarising yourself with a range of writing techniques that will prove essential in your writer’s toolbox and judging which techniques will prove most useful for your particular purposes.
When you are setting out on a new work, you could find yourself asking some of the following questions:
- Do I use first-person point of view, third-person limited, omniscient, or multiple points of view?
- How will I handle narrative time? Is my work to be linear or circular in structure?
- Will I incorporate flashbacks?
- What genre will best convey my themes and plot?
- Should my research become fiction or non-fiction?
- Do I incorporate research as direct quotations or will I paraphrase, fragment or absorb the material in some other way?
- How do I translate my ideas into compelling characters?
- How long do I envisage the work to be? How many chapters and/or sections? Do I need to mock up a plan so I can visualise what goes where?
- Do the poems I have been writing have something in common and therefore belong in a collection? What gaps do I see if I bring them together?
Writing occurs by trial and error. It can be a series of false starts and abandoned enterprises. Some hours, and some days, will definitely be worse than others. Your progress may stutter or leap.
Sometimes thinking about what you are doing is important, but most times, turning up at the page is the only way to work it out.
One of the most useful mind states might be: progress is not linear and you are not what you write. Just because what you are doing doesn’t seem to be working, it doesn’t follow that you are worthless as a human being or as a writer. You are finding your way towards a thing, and the only way to get there is through. Every writer must have a process, and that process is rarely easy.
Dedication to craft means discipline and persistence, and can be most productively achieved by establishing a routine that ensures you write regularly and maintain focus.
This is an edited extract from How to be an Author: The Business of Being a Writer in Australia, by Georgia Richter and Deborah Hunn, published by Fremantle Press.