So you want to be a writer Ep 1

Share on Pinterest
Share with your friends










Submit

podcast-artwork
Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here.

So you want to be a writer is a weekly podcast from Valerie Khoo and Allison Tait. Valerie is an author, journalist and national director of the Australian Writers’ Centre. Allison Tait is an Australian freelance writer, blogger and author, with more than 20 years’ professional writing experience. She is also a presenter at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Each week, they explore the world of writing, publishing and blogging to bring you news and opportunities, advice on how to succeed in the world of writing, interviews with top writers, and much more.

Show notes

Amtrak Writers in Residence
http://www.onthemedia.org/story/amtrak-offering-free-tickets-writers/

Twitter fiction
http://www.twitterfictionfestival.com/

Write. Publish. Repeat. by Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant.
http://www.amazon.com/Publish-Repeat-No-Luck-Required-Self-Publishing-Success-ebook/dp/B00H26IFJS

Problogger tickets went on sale this week
http://problogger.net/

Stephen King’s reading list for writers
http://aerogrammestudio.com/2014/03/04/stephen-kings-reading-list-for-writers/

podcast-GraemeSimsionThis week’s Writer in Residence – Graeme Simsion (pictured)
http://graemesimsion.com/
A transcript of our interview with Graeme is below.

What you said this week: One word to describe Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Join the conversations at:
Pink Fibro Book Club
https://www.facebook.com/groups/274090672737464/

Australian Writers’ Centre on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/WritersCentre

You’ll find your hosts at:
Allison Tait
http://www.allisontait.com/

Valerie Khoo
http://valeriekhoo.com/

Transcript

 

Allison:
Graeme Simsion is a writer of screenplays, short stories, novels and a couple of short plays. Last year his novel, The Rosie Project, became one of those novels, the kind that writers dream about, that came from nowhere and became one of the most talked about books of the year. It was the winner of the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and was published by Text publishing in 2013. Since then it has taken off.

Hi, Graeme, welcome to the show.

Graeme:
Thanks, Allison. Great talking to you.

Allison:
All right, so let’s talk about The Rosie Project. It began life as a screenplay, what made you decide it needed to be a novel?

Graeme:
Well, I guess there were three things that drove that. The first was it’s much easier to get a novel published than a screenplay actually made into a film. So, I was sitting on a screenplay and I thought, “If I get the novel out there maybe that will attract some interest in the screenplay,” so a means to an end.

I think much more fundamental in that though, because really that wasn’t enough motivation to write a book.

Allison:
No.

Graeme:
I had always wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t actually think I could do it. I didn’t think I had what it took to be a novelist. When I was about 21 I had a go at it, I wasn’t any good. Yes, yes, I know. And, if I had a go at brain surgery I wouldn’t have been any good at that either.

But, I think a lot of people discouraged. They sit down, they think that you either have it or you don’t have it as a writer, rather than thinking, “Well, I guess I’m terrible now, but if it’s what my goal is I’m going to have to work at it.

At 21 I gave up on it, but I always had this sort of thing in the back of my mind that I would like to be a writer. I would be driving along and I would think of a first sentence for a story or a book, I wouldn’t take it any further. Then through all sorts of circumstances, which I can elaborate on, if you like, I decide that I had some ability to do screen writing, and to be honest it was sort of a second best for me. But, it was a pretty good second best.

Here I was with a completed screen play, I had story, I well-developed characters, I even had dialogue. I thought to myself, “I’m a lot further advanced than I was when I was 21 years old,” even though I hadn’t written any prose fiction of any significant amount.

I had also written a couple of non-fiction books and text type books, and a PhD, but of which had given me something which I learned to value later, which was the ability to tackle a large project, a large writing project.

Allison:
Right.

Graeme:
I think a lot of budding novelists actually trip up on that.

So I thought, “All of these things,” and I thought, “You know, I might actually be able to write a book now.”

And the third thing, because I said there was three things, the third thing was something that I realized really as I started writing, that I might be able to tell the story better as a novel than as a screenplay.

Allison:
Because you could give the insight of people’s heads? So to speak?

Graeme:
Exactly that.

Allison:
OK, right. Given that, what’s different about the process of the novel versus the screenplay? Like, you basically had an outline with your screenplay didn’t you? So what did you do? Fill it in? Or did you start from scratch, or how did you go about doing that?

Graeme:
Well, what I did was I took the screenplay, I then reverse engineered it, as it were, I produced a scene breakdown for the screen play, which I had a rough one I worked from in the first place, but I now went back and updated that to reflect exactly what I had written. So, I had a list of scenes and what happened in those scenes. Then because I made a decision I was going to write in first person I had to get rid of all of the scenes where my protagonist wasn’t present, because he obviously couldn’t describe those. That affected the logic.

For example, there’s a bit where — if you know the book — we’ve got Don and Rosie, just before they meet, we see Rosie being told to go and see Don, by Don’s buddy Gene. So, we see what Rosie’s expectations are, prior to that we’ve seen Gene talking to Don. So, Gene has spoken to Don, Gene has spoken to Rosie, and now they come together and we get to watch the comedy as we know that they have different expectations.

Allison:
Right.

Graeme:
Now all I’m going to be able to do is tell it from Don’s point of view, so we won’t be able to see that thing, so the comedy is going to have to work in a different way. So that took some work to tidy up. But, once I had a new scene breakdown I then sat at the keyboard and started typing.

Allison:
OK, so how long did it take you to actually write the novel at that point?

Graeme:
Three weeks to do a first draft.

Allison:
Wow.

Graeme:
And I had a day job. So, three weeks, it was pretty intense because I was on a roll and I knew exactly what I wanted to write, but I still needed to add my characters in the world, but I had worked for five years on that screenplay and I was very comfortable. I could always answer the question, “What’s his motivation?” So, it was just motivation specifically going on the page.

I was writing in his voice, because I’m in first person, which means that I wasn’t particularly concentrating on being literary, I was concentrating on being authentic with the voice and it was easier for me than it was to try to describe it pretty in a new way or anything like that. So, I wasn’t forcing it.

I just banged it out in three weeks — in four weeks, I’m sorry. It was four weeks all together. Sorry, I did one week first and took it to class. I was enrolled in a class at that point, and that gave it a momentum, then I did three weeks more. And, then I spent three weeks tidying it up. So, I added — I only had 50,000 words at the end of my first four weeks, so I added another plot strand to the who done it story.

Allison:
Right.

Graeme:
To the subplot. And just expanding a few things, and that gave me 80,000 that I was aiming for, although I felt the last 5,000 were a little padded. I had been told that 80,000 was about the right length. So, I hit 75,000, I went to 85,000 words, and interesting enough when I got a contract with Text publishing they came back to me and said, “Great, we need to cut it back 5,000 words now.”

Allison:
That’s hilarious.

Graeme:
So, I was fooling no one.

Allison:
So you’re just back from a worldwide tour for the book I saw on your website. Did you ever imagine that The Rosie Project would take off like it has?

Graeme:
Well, it depends on where you put the ‘ever’. My goal was to get a Hollywood screenplay up. So, my ambitions right from the start were very, very big. I mean to get a film made in Hollywood is actually a bigger ask, in many ways, than getting a best selling book out there.

Right from the start of my screenwriting course that was the stretch goal. If you asked me realistically if I was going to achieve that my answer would have been, “Absolutely not.” But, it was where I set the stretch limit. So, I wasn’t going to back off on that, as soon as I could see the door open I wasn’t going to say, “Oh no, I can’t do this.”

I think the turning point for me was being short-listed for the Victorian Premiers Literary Award, which was prior to publication, it was only a few months after I had written the book. And, because I hadn’t regarded the novel as being of ‘literary’ merit the fact that I got short-listed for a literary award just gave me so much confidence I actually had something that was well-written. I was confident in the story, I was confident in the humor, the question was, you know, was this something that people would actually say reads like a well-crafted book. And at that point I just thought, “I’m going to give this everything I can.”

I was familiar with Toni Jordan’s story with her book Addition. She had spoken to us as students, and that was quite inspiring for me because she talked about how she had gone on to be on the Richard and Judy Selection in the UK, how her first foreign sale had been in Germany. Suddenly you’re out in the world market.

I could see all of that opening up. It didn’t mean I was going to achieve it, but I was certainly going to give it my best shot.

Allison:
So why do you think it resonated so much? Why do you think this particular story has just been, you know, of so much interest to people?

Graeme:
I think there’s a few things. One is it’s a story. At the end of the day stories sell perhaps more than wonderful writing, and it’s a strong story. It may not be put in line for the Booker, but it puts it in front of people would like to buy books and would like to read stories. And I think we know that. And, I think screenwriting gives you story — it’s a background current for story writing. So, I think it’s a strong structured story.

I think it’s got the advantage of being in the zeitgeist at the moment, in terms of having Asperger’s theme. Having said that it’s six or seven years since Big Bang Theory came out, and probably 15, I would guess, since The Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Nighttime. So, it’s a pretty long standing zeitgeist.

Allison:
Not going anywhere.

Graeme:
Well, people say to me — I was asked recently in an interview, “Oh, there’s this big thing about Asperger’s story, about The Curious Incidence of the Dog in the Nighttime, we’ve got Big Bang Theory, we’ve got The Bridge, and we’ve got yours.” And I said, “Name one more.” I said, “That’s four over 15 years or so.” It’s not really such a huge trend, compared with crime stories or serial killers, or whatever. So, it actually makes it quite different.

And the third reason is that it’s funny.

Allison:
It is.

Graeme:
And there isn’t a lot of genuine laugh out loud humour, as distinct from wry, witty writing, which is a different thing, but laugh out loud, spit out your coffee sort of humor in fiction. If you look for that you’re probably going to be into the memoirs, David Sedaris, those sorts of things, rather than fiction. So, it puts it in a fairly small category.

Allison:
OK, so did you set out to write a romantic comedy? Did you set out to write a funny book? Or a funny screenplay?

Graeme:
No.

Allison:
What came first? Characters? Plot? How did it start?

Graeme:
Characters and plot, or the lead character Don Tillman, and a broad plot came first, as my concept, but that plot has disappeared entirely, or almost entirely. The Don Tillman character has remained, but I first envisioned it as a drama. And it was when I took some early work along to school, featuring the Don Tillman character, and the light relief moments that I had in there, to sort of set off the drama, just had everybody in stitches. And, as my comedy teacher Tim Ferguson used to say to me a couple of years later, “If you are gifted a comedic character who creates laughter wherever he goes don’t waste them on drama.”

Allison:
Yes, so true.

Graeme:
And I made the decision myself, without the input, but I made essentially the same decision, again, if you’ve got people rolling around laughing, without even trying very hard, if I tried hard for comedy, this could be a lot of fun, there was an ethical question because my character does has Asperger’s syndrome, there was a very important ethical question which I had to work through, which I’m happy with the result of, but I certainly didn’t decide to write a comedy until I was very confident that I was doing something that was the right thing.

Allison:
Fair enough. One of the things that I noticed in the book, and I would say this clearly comes from your screenwriting/playwright background is that the dialogue is really good, it’s really spot-on — and it’s not easy to do that. So, I’m wondering what the secret is to writing good dialogue.

Graeme:
Conciseness. Listen, I don’t think — look, whatever way I’ve got of turning a phrase in dialogue I have not worked on or studied, it’s just come to me fairly naturally. I try to write as people would speak, taking out the ums and ahs and so on. But, one of the rules of screenwriting, one of the guidelines is never more than one page on the screenwriting page, and we’re talking about 90-page screenplay or a 100-page screenplay, never more than one page of dialogue or people will get tired of it. Many times in my early short films I exceeded that and every time I did chunks of it would end up on the cutting room floor.

Allison:
Right.

Graeme:
And you would realise how little dialogue it takes to do the job if you are efficient about it. If you just cut down it down to its essence. And for me I think the reason dialogue works in The Rosie Project is it doesn’t go on forever. It’s sharp, there’s not much superfluous stuff in there. I mean we know in real life, of course, we go on and on and on, but this is about, as I’m doing now, but this is about saying, “What’s the essence? What needs to be said, and what can we take out?”

Allison:
Like, do you read it aloud to yourself and then cut what sounds wrong? Is that how you do it?

Graeme:
No.

Allison:
Or do you just hear it in your head now?

Graeme:
It’s not about sound, it’s about information. Sound is about the way I write a phrase, but the information is about what is said, how much is there.

Allison:
OK.

Graeme:
And, yes, I do some tuning on the information, on the way that the characters would speak and so on, but far more important in terms of I think of making it work is cutting out superfluous stuff.

Allison:
OK. Next question, and this is quite an interesting one I suppose at the moment, given your world tours and how busy you are with The Rosie Project, do you have a writing routine?

Graeme:
No, I don’t. And this comes out — look, I’m not saying that other people shouldn’t have a writing routine, but I had a very erratic sort of day job. I used to teach seminars, sometimes four-day seminars, and I might do two back to back, and quite often overseas. There was absolutely no time for writing when I was doing those seminars. You’ll come to the end of the day and you’ve been up on your feet all day, you’re completely played out, all you want to do is grab a drink and fall asleep and you do that eight days or something on end, and even on the weekends you were just too played out from traveling to do anything. Then you might have several days off.

So, my thing was I wrote when I had time. It was more about cutting things out of my life that got in the way of my time. So, for practical purposes I don’t watch television. I didn’t do a lot of reading while I was writing. But, then I just grabbed the time when I can, and sometimes I’d work eight or nine hours a day writing, if I’m on a roll, and other days, many days, I do nothing at all. It’s really important, I think, people are told write everyday. I think there are a lot of activities around producing a novel which are not writing prose, they’re planning, they’re problem-solving. I spent a full day just walking around trying to come up with the first sentence for The Rosie Project. I wanted a strong sentence. Now, I didn’t do any writing that day, but it was a very important day in the production of that book.

Allison:
And you got very fit while you were doing it.

Graeme:
I do a lot of walking around. As Toro said, “Trust no thought arrived at sitting down.”

Allison:
Yes, I tend to agree with that. I’m a walker and a weeder. I like to weed while I think.

Graeme:
There’s actually good evidence out there that says that doing routine activities is a good way of getting the creative juices flowing.

Allison:
Are you working on something new at the moment?

Graeme:
I’ve just handed in the sequel to The Rosie Project. I took me almost exactly a year to do that, it took me just a couple of weeks under a  year. On that to give a little talk on the weekend called — in part of a program called, “A novel in a year.” So, I feel evidently qualified to speak to that matter.

Allison:
I was going to say, look at you! You’re the master.

Is there more performance pressure on you with the sequel? Now that you’ve had a hit, do you feel pressure?

Graeme:
Look, I’ll tell you what I felt. I felt that my first book I had all of the time in the world to do it, it was a labor of love, who knew where it was going to go, and then at the point where I sold the foreign rights for it and realized that I can now make a living being a writing, and it was a conscious decision to give up the day job. I said, “Right, my day job is now that I’m writer, I now need to be professional about it.” And writing a second book in a year was — that felt like doing a profession. I’ve worked as a professional in other areas before, I said, “OK, I’ve got a deadline to meet, this has got to be a high quality…” Frankly I was enormously proud, I handed it in two months early. When I was a consultant I would hand in a consulting report early so that you get feedback rather than shock anybody on the day with the wrong thing.

Allison:
Yep.

Graeme:
As I did though I was very proud of myself, to be honest, because I thought, “OK, I actually behaved as a professional writer rather than a hobbyist.”

Allison:
Well done. Let’s just talk about this conference presentation seminar business that you used to have. We need to talk about the duck suit —

Graeme:
We need to talk about the duck suit?!

Allison:
We need to talk about the duck suit because you say it’s the most often quoted interesting fact about you, which I had to laugh at because is this a case of journalists looking anywhere and everywhere for an angle? I mean the fact that you did turn up dressed in duck suit I could see why they would have thought that was worth discussing, but is it one of those things where it’s a small fact and it’s become one of these widely quoted things about you. Is that strange thing?

Graeme:
Yeah, and the funny thing is I put up on my website that — here’s a bunch of other potentially interesting facts about me —

Allison:
Yes, I saw those.

Graeme:
The UK journalist decided to write an article just beating me up for being a narcissist

Allison:
Oh, you’re kidding? I think that’s hilarious.

Graeme:
And probably having Asperger’s myself. Yeah.

Allison:
See I found that really interesting. I actually think that listeners should pop over to your website and look at those interesting facts, because there’s a lot of life experience there, and I’m thinking to myself, “Has that all come together?” You look like you’re an overnight success with The Rosie Project in some ways because it’s sort of come from nowhere, but there’s a lot of stuff going on there that’s kind of brought you to this point. Do you agree with that? Is it all of the stuff that you’ve learned along the way?

Graeme:
Look, I think there’s two ways of looking at it. One is the sort of romantic way, if you like, and that’s the Bridges of Madison County quote where he says… it’s along the lines of, “I feel everything I’ve ever done in my life has been bringing me here to you.” And it was so like that when I sat down at the keyboard, I had done so many things that were going to inform what I actually wrote. I finally acquired most of the skills that I needed to write a novel from when I had been 21.

The other way to look at it though is you use what you’ve got.

Allison:
That’s so true!

Graeme:
Whatever, we’ve all got experience, we’ve all got things that we can use, we adapt and we use that. If you had been an Olympic athlete then you’ve got some level of discipline and training. You’re going to use that, and I don’t have that.

So, I think there were a number of things that I learnt over the years that I learned without any intention of writing a novel, but just which proved tremendously valuable to me. I mean obviously all of your life experiences are potentially useful, but just to go back, that ability to handle a large writing project was really important, and I learnt — I actually did my PhD in design theory, and I learnt a lot about how you create something I applied originally to screenplay, but given my book came out of a screenplay it’s effectively applied to the book, and includes things like whether you work top down, or bottom, all of those sorts of things, and just handling big projects, that was very useful to me.

Allison:
Let’s talk about your three top tips for aspiring writers. Would that be one of them? Like, learn — as you say a novel is a massive project, and I think you can often be at the start of it and be looking at this huge mountain of words that need to appear and be completely freaked out by it. Is there a certain method to learning how you work and managing a large project? Is that something that aspiring writers need to learn?

Graeme:
Yes, they do. Frankly the simplest thing I would say, and this will go against the advice given by others, there’s this thing that writers write, planners or pantser, you know? People who write by the seat of their pants. I would say be a planner.

Allison:
OK.

Graeme:
If you are new to this game, because I see constantly people who managed to write about half a novel and give up. I know exactly what’s happening, they can write the first act, the first quarter, because it’s the premise. And then they get to the middle part and what they lack is escalation, they can’t write the thing as an escalating story, it just falls away, and it’s because they don’t have a plan, they lose confidence.

I would say if you can write by the seat of your pants and you are Tess Gerritsen or someone like that and you’re turning it out that way I’m not going to stop you — fine, terrific. But, you’re struggling then don’t say, “Oh, but I’m a pantser,” say, “Pantsing isn’t working for me, I’m going to try the other way, because it’s the way almost every other discipline works.”

Allison:
OK, and are there any others? Are there any other tips you would add to that?

Graeme:
Yeah, get help. Well, one thing I learnt in screen writing is it’s trends of collaborative activity, particularly plotting. Most writers work alone, most prose writers work alone, most screenwriters, particularly in television, and in film they end up having it forced on them, they’ll be collaborators, work in a collaborative way on story. And, I think there’s room for that.

But, more broadly I would say join a writing group, join a class, you need the feedback, you need the encouragement around you, you need the theory, all of those things. So, I think it’s really well-worth doing.

Allison:
OK, great. All right, Graeme, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. And good luck with Rosie Project part two.

Graeme:
Thanks very much, Allison.

 


Comments