This doctor’s 3 writing tips (which may include visiting a sex museum)

Dr Anita Heiss is a busy woman. As the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles, she’s never far from a well-shaped word or two. Her books include Am I black enough for you? and Tiddas, and she is on the list of Booktopia’s favourite Australian novelists.

In 2001, Anita was the first Aboriginal student in the history of the University of Western Sydney to graduate with a PhD in communications and media. And despite being so busy, she’s always willing to connect with her loyal readers to help grow the voice of Aboriginal writers. “I like meeting my readers,” she says. “I think festivals are a great way to do that. It’s a great way for readers to engage with you and learn about why you do what you do.”

She also kindly sat down with Allison Tait in episode three of our top-rated podcast So You Want to Be a Writer. And we asked her for her three writing tips for aspiring writers. The doctor will see you now…

Tip 1: Know why you want to write

“I think it’s really important for writers to know why they’re writing,” she says. “To sit down and go, ‘Why do I want to write this book? What’s its purpose? What’s the goal?’ And I think that will help to determine and harness their motivation and their determination to finish their project.”

For Anita, it was vital that Aboriginal women had a voice. While at University, she recalls that every book about Aboriginal society and culture was written by a non-Aboriginal person. It seemed absurd. “I read a book by somebody who had never been to Australia and then wrote a book about Aboriginal people being cannibals, based on a letter that he read by somebody in New South Wales. And, I thought, ‘history and perceptions create books and literatures every day and we need to be writing our own stories’. We need to be giving our own versions of history as well.”

Tip 2: Read widely

According to Anita, reading is one of the best forms of research, helping you find your own voice, what you like to see on the page, what you react to as a reader, and understand what’s in the marketplace. “If you want to be published and read by the broader community, you need to understand what’s in the marketplace and what the competition is there.”

Anita’s own research for every book is very hands on – bordering on ‘method’ writing. For example, for her book set in Paris, she will go there and experience the things her character would. Same with New York:

“With my character in Manhattan Dreaming … I mean I did things that 30-year-old Lauren did that Anita Heiss wouldn’t do today. I have no desire to go the Sex Museum in New York, but my character had never been to New York before, goes on a date within somebody who’s in this PhD about sex and the arts. So, I do these things. I think, ‘What would my character think the first time walking down 5th Avenue?’ And she’s from Goulburn, so she’d be in awe…”

Tip 3: Find your own corner of the literary world

“If you want to be published you need to find ‘the niche’ – where is the gap that needs to be filled? How will you fill the void, because that’s what I learnt most about why my work was so successful, because the market is flooded with ‘chick-lit’, but what’s missing? So, find the niche.”

Anita believes it’s about finding what story hasn’t been told. “There’s only ‘x’ amount of stories, what’s the new twist that you can bring to the literary community?”

To hear the whole interview, check out episode three of the podcast here.

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