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

~storytelling nomad~

A Storytelling Utopia: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011

So I mentioned a few posts ago that I had a number of reasons for my recent absence, and today I’m going to share with you one of them.

In Australia there is an ongoing rivalry between the city of Sydney and the city of Melbourne.  Those who live in Sydney claim that they live in the superior city, and those who live in Melbourne claim much the same.  The general consensus, however,  is that Sydney is a financial city, and Melbourne a cultural city.  The Melbourne Writers Festival plays a significant role in this widespread understanding and the number of highly acclaimed national and international guests that attend from year to year, is testament to the festival’s success and the city’s appeal.

This year, I was lucky enough to be selected as a volunteer for the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Woo!  The festival is an annual event that has been running since 1986, and this year joined forces with four other international festivals to form the Word Alliance, now made up of:

  • The Melbourne Writers Festival
  • The Edinburgh International Book Festival
  • The Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing
  • The International Literature Festival in Berlin
  • International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

Totally rad.

So what kind of guests are we talking? Pretentious editors? High literature writers? Celebrity journalists?  Well yes, I suspect there are some of those, but the Melbourne Writers Festival is far more than that, and unique in that it observes all kinds of storytelling, not just the award winning, ostentatious kind.  The website elaborates:

Each year, MWF invites novelists, playwrights, poets, screenwriters, journalists, songwriters, bloggers – anyone who’s part of the world of words. We host politicians and artists, policy wonks and pop culture icons, crime writers and high culture theorists. The festival program features an enormous range of literary activity including entertaining discussions, debates, readings, film screenings, interviews, literary banquets, performances, workshops and book launches, as well as a lively schools’ program for primary and secondary students.

Festival Background

Last year they hosted Joss Whedon.  Enough said.

The Golden Ticket

So, as a volunteer I get to make sure people are being orderly, scan their tickets, give directions, have a chat, make sure the guests are comfortable and answer any questions that patrons might have.  My fellow volunteers have so far been awesome, the shifts fun and the patrons very well behaved.  I also get to wear a groovy volunteer shirt.  Win.

The major perk to this gig, however, is my volunteer pass, which gets me into any event over the entire festival.

When I attended my orientation day a few weeks ago, I was astounded at the wide array of events, panels and workshops that were taking place and began to get quite excited at the prospect of attending these events in between my shifts.

One event, the Martin Martini In(k) Concert, merges sounds and image with musician Martin Martini playing in concert whilst four artists illustrate to the tune and inspiration of the music, their images projected onto the walls of the venue.  A totally unique experience, demonstrating that the art of storytelling is far from limited to just words on paper and can be inspired and influenced by anything around you, even sound.

Author Kate Grenville

Today, I attended a session called Why I Read, featuring prominent authors Kate Grenville (pictured left), Tess Gerritsen and Chris Womersley, all discussing the books that they read growing up and the impact it had on their calling as writers.  They also discussed how reading has changed, an echoing theme throughout the festival, and how we can encourage children and teenagers to read more.

Another highlight of the festival is the collection of city walks.  From specialist bookshops to the city’s origins, the guided walks highlight the Melbourne that is inspiration for writers, readers and storytellers.  My favourite of the walks is called Melbourne’s Hidden Dragons, and it takes you on a tour of the stone guardians and silken mascots that are scattered around the city and explores the mythology of the beasts and their presence in storytelling.  Seriously cool right?

One of Melbourne's hidden dragons

And, on Tuesday evening I hope to attend Edinburgh Unbound, described as “Part reading, part gig, part party”.  Basically it is a fusion of Scottish and Australian musicians and storytellers coming together to present an evening of performance, music, film and stories in celebration of the partnership between the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival in our sister UNESCO City of Literature.

It is heartening to note that the attendants of the festival have so far ranged from toddlers to grannies, with no gaps in between.  I like to think this is a positive indication in light of recent discussions regarding ‘the death of the book’ and even ‘the death of the reader’, which today I was assured were both myths.  Yes, fellow writers, you can rest easy.

Young and old, we are still fascinated by the art of storytelling, whether it be through the traditional or graphic novel, music or art, the written or the spoken word.  How we tell the stories may be changing, evolving even, but the fact that we are still telling them and interested in how others tell them is what’s important and is what will keep the art of storytelling alive for a long time to come.

The festival runs from Thursday 25th August to Sunday 4th September and all the information can be found on the Melbourne Writers Festival website at

~storytelling nomad~