Writing Advice from Author Graeme Simsion: Do the Hard Yards
It has to be every writer’s dream: Knock out your first novel, sit back, and let the accolades and money pour in.
That’s more or less what it looks like happened to author Graeme Simsion, whose first novel The Rosie Project that has taken up almost permanent residence on bestseller lists worldwide, has been optioned for a movie, and spawned a deal for a second novel called The Rosie Effect, due this fall.
He calls The Rosie Project a “romantic comedy”, offering a clue to his background as a screenwriter; he is also a former IT guy, where he found inspiration for his socially challenged lead character Don Tillman.
Simsion visited Kobo recently, and we took the opportunity to ask him how he did it – how he landed publishers in 21 countries, and what his writing process is. Turns out, it isn’t as easy as it looks to create a beloved bestseller.
Here is what he told us:
You’ve had so much success for a first-time novelist, do you have any tips for new writers?
First off, it takes a lot of work. To write something successfully, you need to put in the hard-yards that you would do with any other task in your life.
Another thing I tell people is, join a writer’s class or a writing group. These aren’t going to guarantee that you’ll become a writer, but if you go in with the right attitude you’ll get all kinds of things out of it: Discipline, writing theory, feedback, support. I found a writer’s group fantastic to work with, especially for The Rosie Project. Another tip I would give is, write for publication. So write short stories. Get some practice. If you do get published, it feels good! But more importantly, when you’re looking for an agent or a publisher and your opening letter starts off with ‘I have had the following short stories published, this one has won such-and-such prize, etc.’ it says this person is not mad, they are actually capable of writing and getting published, and that means heaps.
The third thing I would say is, you can always make it better. Put whatever you’re writing aside for a month or so, come back to it, and you’ll be able to lift it up a level. That attitude really helps with getting a fantastic final draft.
When I started out, I didn’t think I had it in me to write a novel. But once the screenplay The Rosie Project was finished I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got plot, I’ve got characters. I’ve got dialogue, I’m almost three-quarters of the way there… maybe it’s not such a big jump.’ I found writing it as a novel was much more satisfying because I was able to get into Don’s head. In a screenplay everything has to be externalized. But Don is so cerebral that I needed his voice to be expressed directly to the audience – and that was so much easier to do in a novel.
What did screenwriting teach you about writing novels?
Screenwriting teaches you story. Having also studied prose writing I’ve noticed there’s an emphasis on writing something beautiful and less on writing a good story. It’s almost a bit like the attitude about melody in music; people view a song that has a good melody being less of a fine piece of music. But in the end, melody is not a bad thing! And melody is equivalent to story. There’s no reason why the most beautiful piece of writing can’t hang on the structure of a great story.
You say writers come in two types – the planner, and the “pants-er” who flies by the seat of same. What kind of writer are you?
I am a planner — and so should you be. HA! What I say to people who write by the seat of their pants is, if it’s working for you, don’t let me tell you to write any other way, you just keep going, and win that Pulitzer Prize Donna, and I’m not going to argue with you. But most writers need to uncomplicate a story with a plan. If you get to 30,000 words and things fall apart and you don’t know where the story is going, that’s classic ‘seat of the pants’ writing problem. With a plan, you never get writer’s block.