In Episode 100 of So you want to be a writer: To plot or not to plot, self-publishing and the difference between mentors and coaches. Advice for blogging authors including how to blog about your book without giving too much away and why blogging is important. Plus, the book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. We chat with Graeme Simsion on his success since writing The Rosie Project. Also: the Ulysses writing app for iPhone and more!
Writer in Residence
Graeme Simsion is best known for his highly successful novel, The Rosie Project.
He is also a writer of screenplays, short stories, and a couple of short plays. He is currently working on a new novel, The Best of Adam Sharp.
Formerly Graeme was an IT specialist (data modeling) and founder of a business and IT consultancy. He helped establish two other businesses: Roy’s Antiques and Pinot Now. He is husband of Professor Anne Buist, psychiatrist and novelist, and father of two. Resident of Fitzroy (Melbourne) Australia
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podcast at writerscentre.com.au
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Graeme, thanks so much for joining us today.
Good to talk to you, Valerie.
It’s great to have you back because this is our 100th episode, and you actually kicked off ‘So you want to be a writer,’ the podcast, by being our special guest on Episode 1.
We really appreciate you talking to us from Aberdeen, which I believe you’re in at the moment. What are you doing in Aberdeen?
I am actually staying with Georgina Penny, who’s an Australian writer who lives in Aberdeen. So, I’ve got a couple of days just hanging out with Georgina and swapping writers’ stories.
Oh yes, good fun. Are you seeing the sites while you’re there, or are you writing, or are you just having a holiday?
I’m a terrible tourist. I do very little about seeing sites. I spend a lot of my life writing. We travel by train, write on the trains. Yesterday afternoon we sat around, all of us, writing, because my wife, Anne Buist, is also a writer.
Then in the evening we read chapters to each other. So, we had a very writerly sort of day.
Wow. Since the Rosie Project was released in 2013 and then the Rosie Effect in 2014, a lot has happened in your life. I’m sure your life has changed a fair bit. What are you writing now that you’ve been writing on trains and sharing chapters with each other?
I’m in the final stages, just pre-copy edit, of a book called The Best of Adam Sharp, which is about the consequences of a relationship being rekindled after 22 years. So, I’m just winding that up now.
How did this idea come to you?
It came to me the way a lot of writing ideas come, something happened in real life. I asked, “What if?” So the situation here was that my wife and I were staying in a place in France. She heard from an ex-boyfriend from 20-odd years earlier that he and his wife had parted company. And she invited him to come and stay with us.
I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea at the time, but in fact he and I got along very well and all was fine. But, I asked myself, “What might have happened if it had been different? What if he had arrived and it turned out that there was still a flame there? What if my wife’s and my marriage had been in trouble at the time — what could have happened?” That gave me the idea, the impetus, the start of what became The Best of Adam Sharp.
When can fans expect this to be released do you think?
I don’t think I know. I hope it’s the 17th of September of 2016 in Australia, and then other countries will follow in due course.
Now is this the book that you are sharing chapters with Georgina and your wife and discussing at the moment, or are you working on the next thing?
Last night we were reading chapters, the chapter I read was from The Best of Adam Sharp, but I will very shortly be working on the next thing, which is a love story, a mature age love story, set on the Camino De Santiago, the famous pilgrim’s walk in France, Spain in this case. My wife and I are just about to head off in a week or so and start doing that walk for the second time for research purposes.
Of course. Of course for research purposes.
When you are sharing chapters like this, with other writerly friends, is that important to you? Do you do that with every book? And, what do you expect from them in return? In terms of their feedback on that chapter?
Actually, reading them aloud to other people isn’t something that I would do, certainly not for the whole book. So, it’s not a regular thing for me. But, sending it out to beta readers is a crucial part of my writing process. That number of readers has increased as I had some success with the first couple of books, so people are really keep to do that, and I’ve got writers’ group members, I’ve got a range of people who bring different perspectives. I’ve got one person who’s a film director and she brings a real visual perspective to it. I’ve got another guy who’s a psychotherapist and he tends to look at it from a human dynamics point of view. Another who’s a literary writer, another is a thriller writer. So, you’re getting all of these different perspectives.
I send the book out to — this time it was ten people, including my sister who says, “I’m just Ms. Average, why do you want my view?” And I said, “That’s exactly why I want your view.”
So, it goes out to those ten people, or so. They send me back their feedback and I then consolidate it. It’s tremendously important to me. One of the things that I get them to do, is I get them to take two or three pens, in this case it was just two pens, a red pen and a blue pen. And, I want them to mark down the side of the printed manuscript, in blue, if they’re bored, if this is a passage that they might otherwise skip. I want them to mark in red if it’s a passage that has them gripped. I say, “If you could not put it down at this point, if you could not go to sleep, you were just gripped, I want it marked in red.”
Most of the time it’s just normal reading, neither color. When I was working on the Rosie books, where I was particularly concerned with the comedy aspect, I have people a third pen, I think it was a purple pen, and asked them to mark when they were laughing, if they thought it was really funny.
What I would do is I would then consolidate all of these so that on my master copy I’d have like five red lines at a point and I would say, “Boy, this passage is really working,” and then I’ll see these two blue lines, and that’s enough for me to think, “Two people were bored by this one and were prepared to tell me.” And, really, if you’re writing, if you’re writing popular fiction, if you don’t have the reader’s attention, then everything else is lost. There’s no point in it being beautiful proses or telling them something terribly important or setting a clue if they’re going to skip that passage.
I think your first task is to engage the reader.
When you’ve got all of these colored pens coming back in from ten different readers and you’re consolidating everything, do you use any particular tools, as in technological tools, whether that’s Word or Scrivener, or whatever, to help you with this process, in your writing process?
I use Word and I use paper. I don’t use Scrivener, and I’ve tried Scrivener, and in fact that’s a product that should align very well with the way I write, because I’ve come from a screenwriting background, I think in terms of scenes. I think in terms of moving cards and blocks, and so forth, around. But, frankly, I just found it too much work to learn and I come from an information technology background, so I’m not technology illiterate, but the issue here is I actually learnt this back in IT days. There’s research that if you have to think about the tool that you were using, you were actually diverting some of your cognitive effort onto that and away from the creative task of writing.
I don’t want anything to distract me from writing as well as I possibly can, and that means not having a tool that I don’t use absolutely intuitively and instinctively.
Now, if I felt that the extra benefit that I got from the tool was really valuable, then I would probably put more time into learning it, so that it was like riding a bike. But, frankly I feel that I’ve given it, for me anyway, a big enough shot, and I’m back to just using Word.
Speaking of your former career in IT, you were an IT consultant specializing in data modeling of all things. When you were doing that in that first career do you remember when you were first interested in writing and what you did to foster that interest at the time?
Yeah, I was first interested in writing when I was about, I guess, 17… 18 or so, like so many people are. But, I don’t think you can count yourself as interested until you actually do something about it. I didn’t do something about it until way, way later. I was 50 years old when I enrolled in a screenwriting course at RMIT. And that, for me, was the first serious thing I was doing about it.
The interest came, in fact, from reading a book by Joe Queenan about making a low-budget movie. I took up the challenge, with my partner, with my wife, we’ve made… over quite a long period of time, a 90-minute feature film shot on a home video camera, for which I wrote the script. That gave me the bug. I had no previous fiction writing experience, other than a school prior to that.
When you were 50 and you decided, “I’m going to enroll in a course,” was that an actual, “I’m just going to enroll and dip my toe in the water, see what happens,” or, “I’m making a career change.”?
“I’m making a career change.” I sold my business. I went back to doing freelance work, which certainly wasn’t as much a long-term career. It was just bringing in the money while I dedicated myself to the screenwriting course. So, it was a definite vocation change, if you like. ‘Career’ is a funny word because there’s an expectation you earn money, I didn’t expect to earn money. I assumed I would be supporting myself for the rest of my life doing my seminars, which I have been doing freelance seminars and so on. I was hoping to get that done as efficiently as possible, so I’d spend as much time writing, but I never expected to make a living out of writing.
But you certainly are now.
You started off being interested in screenplays, and of course the Rosie Project started off as a screenplay, after which you decided to write it as a novel. But, now it’s going to become a film. What has it been like dealing with Hollywood, in turning the Rosie Project into a film?
Well, people ask me what’s going on in Hollywood. There was Jennifer Lawrence attached to the film for a little while and then that contract didn’t go through. Richard Linklater was going to direct and then he pulled out because Jennifer Lawrence pulled out. I just say to people, “It’s a rollercoaster. Hollywood is an absolute rollercoaster,” and I think the choice that a smart author makes is to watch the rollercoaster, “Look at that, someone fell off. Oh, someone threw up…” whatever, rather than to ride it.
When you are writing it’s obviously a very different process to write a screenplay than it is to write a novel. When you’re doing one or the other is there anything you do to get into the zone of writing a screenplay? Or the zone of writing a novel? Because your brain kind of works — you have to think through it differently.
No, I’m going to say no, it isn’t, of course, a totally different thing. Right up to the point that you put words on the page it’s very similar, which means if you’re a planner, as I am, a plotter, the plotting process is very similar, I think, for both books and novels, at least if you’re writing the sort of book that one might envision as being a film, which certainly the Rosie Project fits, the Rosie Effect, The Best of Adam Sharp, which I’m writing now. My process, whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel is very similar in the plotting stage and it’s a substantial part of the work.
Then I sit down to put it on the page and, yes, you’re using different craft to write the screenplay from what you would do writing a novel, but they’re not a million miles apart. I don’t feel that I have to adopt a new mindset, I’m just applying a different craft. I’m making a cup of tea rather than making a cup of coffee. I’m making a margarita rather than an old-fashioned, but the broad techniques are the same.
With The Best of Adam Sharp you had that incident where your wife’s ex-boyfriend contacted her and this sparked the idea in you. You say you’re a plotter, how long did you have a gestation period of plotting that story before you decided to put pen to paper, or do you plot as you go?
No, I don’t plot as I go. I plot first, and I have a complete laid out plot on cards, on physical cards, index cards, as screenwriters are fond to do, before I put anything much on paper. I might write a chapter, just to get a sense of the voice and whether it’s going to work and so forth. In the case of Adam Sharp I wrote a short story, as a precursor. I think it’s a great way of working up a character. So, I had a bit of a sense of what I wanted to do there. But, then I went back, I got the entire plot sorted out and then started again.
When I write then it doesn’t mean those cards, the plot is set in concrete. I will go back and modify as I go, sometimes a story will take me in a different direction, you’re never purely a plotter or a pantser. But, I will then go out, take my cards and so on.
But, I’ve done The Best of Adam Sharp over a period of four years now, because I actually plotted it between the two Rosie books. It was actually going to be the second book for me, and then I just went back and decided to write a sequel to The Rosie Project and put it on hold.
So I then came back to it. I had done many redrafts of it. I put lots and lots of work into it, but surprisingly the basic bits of the plot had stayed very steady — a new scene here and something deleted there, but the basic shape has been really solid, even around some quite significant character and tone changes.
You say that you are going to walk the Camino for research, so when does research come into the writing process? Do you have to do your research before, like, while you’re plotting so that it’s all done by the time you start writing, or do you research as you go as well?
That’s an interesting question. I think, being an old guy, I’ve made a pretty conscious decision that I will write as much as I can from experience, rather than from research. So, I’m not going to be the guy to write a Regency novel or something like that where I’m going to have to go back and do a ridiculous amount of reading.
My research tends to be very much — mine are fill in the gaps types of things. “Did New York have a cold winter that year?” Because I’m setting it in a year that I wasn’t in New York, but I would have been to New York. “Was the 15th of February 2012 a Wednesday or a Thursday?” Those sorts of little things that I have to get right. But, we’re talking about real detailed stuff. The guts, the personal dynamics, the characters, the situations come a great deal, for me, from real life, and so therefore I’m drawing on things that have happened already.
Now with the Camino is an unusual situation, but we already have, Anne and I, this is a joint book with my wife, Anne, that we already have the beats of the plot laid out quite clearly. We know how the story goes. It may change, but since we know how the story goes we’re walking the Camino to get the detail. To say, “When you’re coming out of this village on a cold winter’s day you’re going to see the ice cracking in the trees,” picking up those little details, or the anecdotes that you’re going to get on the road. But, it’s flesh on the bones, rather than the bones themselves.
Research aside then, if you’re writing from your own experience, as a writer when you’re writing you kind of, I think, develop some skills and habits like observation, observing people and noticing things, understanding little nuances so that you can include those little things in your writing. Did you have those skills and habits as an IT professional? Or was it something that you took note of and developed later?
Certainly done as an IT professional, I’ll step back a little bit from that. For the last few years of my work in the IT area, I wasn’t really teaching IT. I was actually teaching consulting skills. I was teaching technical people how to handle the human side of their work. And, because of that I was forced a little bit to codify, to make it explicit, some of the things that we tend to do intuitively, because you’re talking to people who are some of the most very technical, sometimes on the autism spectrum I would suggest, who are not good at picking up cues and knowing what’s going on. So, I became a little bit more of an observer, I guess, a conscious observer of people’s dynamics and the clues that you pick up.
I guess it helped me a little bit.
But, I guess just as a human being I’ve always been interested in what’s going on and working from there.
Your last two books have been so successful, and the next book is coming out in September, I’m sure it’s natural to feel pressure that the next book is such a success. Do you use that pressure, do you ignore it, do you hate it? Just accept it?
When I was talking about taking an advance for the second book, in particular, and third at the time, my Australian publisher actually said to me, “Graeme, I’d suggest you don’t take these advances because it’s going to put a lot of pressure on you.” I’d run an IT consultancy for 25 years, and if you fail to meet a deadline there you can get sued. I mean you certainly won’t get paid until you’ve met your deadlines and you’re there, working for nothing. You can lose your house. I had real things at stake when I was running that business. The worst that’s going to happen if I don’t deliver the book is I have to give back the advance, and chances are they’ll give me a few years before I have to do that.
Relative to what I was used to working on the pressure is almost nil. I don’t feel any real pressure at all beyond the obvious pressure to meet a deadline. I always make my deadlines. If I say I’m going to have this draft to you by first of March, well, let me tell you by end of February I’m starting to feel the pressure, just like anybody else does with a deadline looming. But, that’s it.
Nor do I feel I have to write a better book. Just because every time, I think that way lies madness, it’s not going to happen that way. What I do is I think the books are better in different dimensions. One might be a bigger seller, another might be more critically well-received, another one might be one that I personally feel better about, craft-wise. And you just have to accept that there are peaks and troughs in all of those dimensions of your career.
What’s the best thing about being able to write full time these days, compared to being in a corporate job?
The corporate job… I mean really.
I enjoy the job. I’m living the dream. I really love the job I’m doing. It’s tough sometimes, and you’re going to get some negative feedback and things are going to go wrong and all of that, but that’s part of the deal. When you’re getting up at a quarter to four in the morning in the US to catch a plane, be patted down at the airport and all of that sort of stuff, you have to look at yourself pretty squarely in the mirror and say, “Nobody is going to feel sorry for you, Graeme, if you’re getting up in the plane to sell your best-seller.” And that’s part of it.
I mean the best thing is not having to do the other job. It’s not even the extra time available, it’s not having to worry about, in my old, previous job, managing people, keeping to a budget, selling the next job, all of those sorts of things. Just having that monkey off my back is fantastic.
Finally, then what’s your advice to people — I mean you made your career change at 50 and there are some people listening who think, “Look, it’s too late, I’ve got my career now.” What’s your advice to people who are thinking that way who want to write?
I may have said this on the first podcast, I always give the same advice, it’s absolutely fundamental, you want to be a writer? A successful writer? Then imagine you want to be a neurosurgeon. Think of how much work you would have to put in. Think about the fact you will not be able to make any excuses for that, you can’t say, “Well, I was busy with the kids…” you’ve actually got to do all of those yards before they let you put your scalpel into someone’s brain. I say, “Think about having to do the same amount of work to becoming a writer, because there are less jobs around for people making a living out of writing fiction than there are for people making a living out of being neurosurgeons.”
In my experience the people who have put in those hard yards have got somewhere. They’ve got to publication, at least. And the people who don’t get to publication almost invariably haven’t put in anything like that amount of work.
That’s the most fundamental thing, it’s a profession. It can be a hobby, anything can be a hobby, just don’t expect to be out there competing with Hilary Mantel and Tim Winton and whatever, if you’re only putting a few hours a week into it.
Great advice, on that note thank you so much for your time today, Graeme.