Nick Earls’ pearls of wisdom

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Nick Earls is author of 13 novels, across the past two decades – known primarily for their quirky humour. In a recent episode of our top-rating podcast, So you want to be a writer, Allison Tait had a long chat with Nick about his writing process and his views on various aspects of the industry.

We strongly recommend that you listen to the whole thing (or read the transcript), found here. But in the meantime, here are some highlights…

Nick’s novel approach to novel writing:
“I have worked out along the way is that really each novel starts out as a new puzzle I don’t quite know how to solve yet. I’ve got to learn something to solve it. I think each time I write a novel I learn a bit more about being a writer, and it still feels like an adventure each time I set out to create something.”

On turning ideas into novels:
“When ideas come along I write them on the backs of envelopes, old envelopes, or boarding passes from planes or whatever. Then they just kind of go into a file of random ideas. Then a new idea comes along and I think, ‘Haven’t I got something that might fit with that in an interesting way?’ And I go and find that idea and maybe some others. Then they start to — when there’s enough of them they get a manila folder of their own. My technology goes back to 1896, I think, in that case. Manila folder invented immediately following the invention of the filing cabinet.

“I sort of think divergently at first, I toss ideas into the folder, if they might fit, and then when the folder gets really fat and I’m starting to get a sense of the character and the story I actually start to think, ‘Who is this and what is their journey? And, how do I tell it using the best of what I’ve got here?’ Then I start to think convergently and work out which of those ideas I’m going to use.

“It’s the ideas that I can’t talk myself out of that end up becoming novels.”

On choosing which novel to write next:
“To be the next novel that I write…usually it’s the one that’s bugging me the most and just demanding to be written of all the piles of ideas. When I think, ‘I can’t resist writing this one anymore, I really want to write it.’ I think that’s a really good way to feel as you’re about to embark on outlining and then writing a novel, because it’s a lot of words, it’s a lot of tough days of writing. If you’re feeling at the start that you’re desperate to get into it, then that’s so much better than just sort of thinking, ‘Oh, yeah, this looks like the next one, so I guess I should give it a go’.”

On writing comedy:
“I think you just need to be vigilant for ideas with potential and lines that might work, and also create the environment that allows the comedy to come to you. Once you start to get to know the characters and what you’re going to put them through and start to imagine them talking to each other, if you’ve got it right you’ll start to come with great dialogue for them anyway. And it’s much better to kind of find that way in, I think, rather than to try to manufacture this and then bolt them together.

“For me, if I’m writing a comic novel there are different sorts of comedy I get to use. I get to use the wry observations made as the narrator. I have conversations between characters in which they can say things that crack me up and therefore will hopefully crack other people up. I get to actually try slapstick on the page, and you can make slapstick work on the page.”

The more extreme the better:
“The key, I think, is to do it unashamedly and not back off and make sure the stakes are high… If it’s mildly embarrassing now I can make it massively embarrassing by having more people there to see it or there are various things you can do — or by having the character investing far more in that moment and really needing it to go well. Then if it goes badly it’s much funnier.”

On social media:
“I’m glad that I’m there now, and I have a lot of interactions that are really pretty rewarding. It is really useful to be in contact with people who might read the books to get a sense of how they think and how they operate. It’s also a good chance to discover new things. It’s got a lot to offer, but at the same time we’ve got to, as writers, I think, bear in mind… that it can be a big time-suck and we’ve got to manage that, because if we’re going to actually put time into the writing as well we can’t spend all of our time playing on social media.

“I think it has sometimes become more important than the writing that apparently people went into it for in the first place…I think, while it’s important to do that, and while it’s personally valuable to be there, and it’s a nice place to be, if what you want to do is make a living as a writer you’ve got to also make sure that you prioritise the writing that might earn you the money.”

On the importance of reading:
“If everyone who set out to write a novel just went out today and bought a novel, there would be lots more writers earning a living.

“Sometimes I think there’s more writers out there than readers. I’m a writer because I started out loving reading and I loved what a book could do to my head and that hasn’t changed. I continue to want to create that effect in the heads of other people. I think reading is a very important thing to do.”

On the value of thinking:
“Value small ideas when you have them and do not lose them. In my case that means writing them down on scraps of paper, or if I don’t have a scrap of paper I will put them on my phone. I think what we kind of need to do is recalibrate the way we value things. For me, a big part of writing is the thinking. The thinking is the writing as much as the typing part is.

“If you’re on a bus or on a train and heading somewhere and you’ve got 10 minutes to think about the thing that you want to write, you’re not going to get to write it, but you might have some great ideas. So, think and record those thoughts and build the momentum for the story, build the ideas that might be part of your story so that when you can book time in your diary to write you’ve got lots of stuff there to write and you won’t just be staring at a blank magnolia colored wall thinking, ‘I want to be a writer now, but I have no idea what to say.’

“Value that thinking even as you are feeling frustrated that you aren’t getting blocks of writing time. Value the thinking, keep track of what you think, plan your story, book in the writing time eventually and make sure that when you get there you’ve got something to write. That’s what I think.”

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To hear more of Nick, and to find out about his new book, Analogue Men, jump onto Episode 28 of our podcast, So you want to be a writer


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