Nick Earls on how to start writing

So, I’ve been lucky enough to attend a few sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival in the last few days.  I’ve heard authors, editors, publishers, mentors and aspiring writers alike talk about their creative processes, their shared love of reading and the tough journey towards being published.

In every session that I’ve attended, it has closed with a Q & A, where the audience has been given the opportunity to participate in the discussion and ask their idols any questions they like.  In every session the same question has arisen; “How do you start writing?”.

Up until today, I’ve noticed a stealthy evasion of actually answering this question.  The writers on stage have quite eloquently clarified that writing a novel doesn’t necessarily begin with the first sentence.  That they don’t have to have an idea fully formed to begin.  That each time they write they might begin in a different place.  That they have no particular method to collating their ideas.

And so on and so on.  Essentially, they have quashed all the myths about how one might assume you’d start writing a novel, without ever clarifying or giving an example of how they have gone about it.

Now, I realise that everybody writes differently, and that writers often don’t have a plan or method by which their novel comes to be.  I also realise that the same author might write by a different process for every novel they publish.  But is it too much to ask that they give just a small indication as to where they began and how their ideas progressed?  Us aspiring writers, we’re not stupid.  We know that it’s not a case of ‘my way or the highway’, that your method might not work for me, or that where you started is not where all writers should assume to begin.  But it would be nice to know at what point they felt ready to write and how their ideas progressed, so that we might better recognise that time too.

It would also be great to hear some first-hand proof that one sunny day they didn’t just give birth to a perfectly formed novel.

Nick Earls

Today I had the pleasure of sitting in on a session called “Meet Nick Earls”.  An Australian author of young adult fiction, Nick has written twelve books, all highly acclaimed and one, 48 Shades of Brown, which was awarded the Book of the Year by the Children’s Book Council in 2000.

The audience was made up of primarily High School students, which I can safely say is customarily a good indication that there will be a lot of fidgeting, yawning and whispering in the back rows.  Remarkably, Nick had their undivided attention from start to finish as he discussed the characters and ideas within his novels and how they came to fruition.

He caused a great deal of laughter amongst the audience when he recounted a memory from his childhood where he used to shut himself in his bedroom to study chemistry.  His mother, to his misfortune, had been informed that when teenagers shut themselves in their rooms, they were most likely masturbating.

The ‘m’ word caused great amusement amongst the crowd.

He went on to tell us how his mother had gone on to reveal this discovery to him, resulting in him studying with his door open from that point forward, so that his mother would not think her son was in his room doing otherwise.  This was to his disadvantage, of course, when she kept interrupting him whilst he was hard at work, but at the time saw no other solution to save his reputation.

It was all highly entertaining, and so of course by the end of the session the kids were keen to ask some questions.

And then it came.

“So, how do you start writing?”

I momentarily zoned out.  Here we go again, I thought, another lecture on how you need to find what works for you.

But hark! What’s this?

Nick began detailing the time he was given a three week deadline to submit a specifically themed story for an anthology.  He spent the first week panicking and researching the other writers who were contributing so that he might follow their style and understand better what was expected of him and his story.  He spent the second week trying to come up with an idea, and at last decided he wanted a boy to meet a girl, and that the boy would be wearing a dress and the girl a beard when they met (there is no rhyme of reason to the things us writers come up with!).

He then explained how he started asking questions of himself.  Why were they dressed so?  He got stuck on this point for some days until he happened across a street which was adorned with Christmas lights, festive decorations and nativity scenes in every window.  Light bulb moment, he decided they would be dressed like that because they were in a Christmas play.  He then asked himself why they were in the play.  Why the boy wanted to meet the girl.  Why they hadn’t met before.  And so on and so on.  He broke down his creative process for the students and they responded exceptionally well to it.  And so did I.

Without having to say so, he explained that ideas can manifest by chance, from your environment and through experiences, but also by actively working at and seizing those ideas, which I’m sure is what the other writers were getting at anyway, but in (what I believe was) a less helpful manner.  Kids, in particular, want to know how things work and Nick described what he did, with no suggestion that that was how everyone worked, but with plenty of enthusiasm and encouragement to inspire the audience through the tiny steps that led him from a small idea to a completed novel.

I found myself totally inspired by his honest approach to answering this sought after question.  Writers are often buried under a mountain of self doubt, never knowing if they’re good enough, if they will succeed or if they have anything worth saying.  For someone as successful and talented as Nick Earls to offer his step by step process to aspiring writers, I thought it was an excellent way to show kids that writing is about being creative, being curious and asking questions.

He also demonstrated that writing was hard work, but radiated nothing but the fun of discovering your characters and fleshing out a plot.  This, I believe, is how you get people motivated.  Show them what is involved, but communicate the enjoyment that can be had from that process.  Get people excited about writing!

Afterwards I was asked to escort Nick to his book signing, and took the opportunity to tell him what a great job I thought he’d done in the session.  He was just as personable and interesting one to one, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to hear him speak today.

Follow @nickearls on Twitter or check out his website http://www.nickearls.com/.

~storytelling nomad~

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17 comments on “Nick Earls on how to start writing

  1. The first question was beautiful, “how do you develop your characters.” I was surprised it came from a high school student. It showed some kind of intellectual process has been carried out and he thought seriously about writing!

  2. I just read your post. It was very informative and interesting. I agree so much about the questions…you know the “how do you questions?” I just wanted to thank you for sharing.

  3. Pingback: How I Wrote My First Book in a Rage and Survived « The (Writer's) Waiting Room

  4. I really want to write a story, But I’ve been stuck on the main idea for a while now. Think I’m going to break through soon though.

    Thank you world ^^

  5. Pingback: The Versatile Blogger Award « storytelling nomad

  6. Pingback: Linky Friday « creative barbwire (or the many lives of a creator)

  7. Hi there! Admittedly, I haven’t been around much lately, but… I nominated you for the Versatile Blogger award. If you have already gotten it, just know that your writing is still appreciated. If you haven’t ever received it, you can visit my blog today for instructions.

    Have a great day, Katy!! :)

    • Joanna that’s wonderful, thank you! I was nominated recently and sent out my nominations not too long ago, but it certainly is nice to know that my writing is still appreciated. Congratulations on receiving the award yourself and have a spectacular day :)

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