Kate Forsyth: The Best Writing Advice I've Ever Been Given

Thursday, June 24, 2010

I have always wanted to be a writer. As long as I can remember, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be. I wrote my first novel when I was 7 or 8, and there’s never been a time, in all the years since, when I haven’t been working on a novel. Along the way, I’ve been given various pieces of advice which have helped me enormously and I thought I’d share them with you.

1) Keep on writing
When I was sixteen years old I sent a manuscript of poems off to the publisher Angus & Robertson, all written out neatly in my childish handwriting on foolscap paper and bound together with ribbon. I remember I stood next to the post box, my heart thumping so hard it bruised my ribs, my palms sweating, my stomach churning with nerves, until I at last managed to find the courage to shove my package in through the slot. A few weeks later my poems were returned to me, with a formal typed letter that concluded with the line, ‘I hope you will keep on writing. You clearly have talent and we would be happy to see more of your work when you are older.' Although I was humiliated and completely devastated, I hung my hopes on that final line and I kept on writing. Twenty-eight years later I’ve had 23 books published in 13 different countries around the world, won or been nominated for lots of prizes, and have to spend several hours a day answering my fan mail. It took me a while – my first book was published when I was 30 – and there were many times when my faith failed me and I thought it would never happen. But it did, and all because I took that unknown editor’s advice and kept on writing.

2) The only way to learn to be a great writer is to read the work of great writers
Thank you, Mrs Fisher, my Year 12 English teacher. This was great advice (though I don’t think we agree on who are great writers or not). As a result of her advice, I went to university and did a BA in Literature, which meant I did nothing but read books, talk about books, and write about books for three years. It was fantastic! I learnt a lot, and I still think the best way to learn how to write is to read, read, read.

3) Stop worrying about what your mother will think
The poet Alex Craig, my creative writing teacher at university, said this to me and it was very insightful. I was paralysed by the fear of offending or upsetting my mother, or my grandmother, or my Year 12 English teacher, or anyone, in fact. It was very difficult for me to overcome this fear but, by overcoming it , I was set free to do whatever I wanted in my writing. I can now write a sex scene without imagining my grandmother reading it. I just lose myself in the story and write whatever needs to be written, trusting in my readers to understand that its make-believe. Or not.

4) Make every word tell
These words of eternal wisdom actually come from Strunk & White’s magisterial Elements of Style, which says: ‘Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or void all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.’ It is Rule 17 – Omit Needless Words. My literature lecturer, Mark Macleod, who went on to become a force to be reckoned with in Australian children’s literature, told all of us in his writing class that we should tattoo this line on to our foreheads so that we saw it and remembered it every day. I think it’s the best advice on craft I was ever taught, and I make sure I cut back everything I write by at least a third, omitting all unnecessary words.

5) Only connect
This is the epigraph to E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End which I read when I was at university. It simply means that our job as human beings is to connect with each other. This is what we should aim to do as writers – to connect with another human being.

6) Write What You Love To Read
This is something I say to my writing students all the time, and it’s something I learnt myself, the hard way. For quite a few years, in my 20s, I tried to write what I thought the market wanted but as well as hating every moment of what I was writing, I never won that longed-for publishing contract. In the end, I decided to write the sort of book that I liked to read, even though at that time no-one was publishing anything like it. So I wrote a book filled with magic and adventure and drama and mystery, drawing upon history and fairytale and the fantasy books I had loved as a teenager, and next thing I knew I was in the midst of an international bidding war.

Now I just have faith that other people in the world like the same sort of books as me, and write just the sort of book I’d like to read myself.

7) Who’s the Baddie?
One day I was struggling to write a book for young children and finding myself stuck in a way that was most unusual for me. I was talking about it at dinner, telling my children about the book and what had happened so far and explaining I’d got stuck and couldn’t write anymore. And my 10-year old son said, ‘so, who’s the baddie, Mum?’ Straightaway I realised that was what I had done wrong. There was no antagonist. No conflict. I jumped up from the table and ran to my study and wrote myself that question in big letters in my notebook. And almost at once, my brain began to work again and by the end of that evening, I had the whole plot fully worked out and I had no trouble finishing the book in time for my deadline. And now, when starting a novel, I always think to myself, ‘so who’s the baddie?’

Kate Forsyth is the internationally bestselling author of more than twenty books for children and adults, including The Puzzle Ring, The Gypsy Crown, The Starthorn Tree, and the bestselling fantasy series ‘The Witches of Eileanan’ and ‘Rhiannon’s Ride’. Her latest book is The Wildkin’s Curse, a tale of high adventure and true love for readers aged 12+. It is the sequel to her award-winning novel The Starthorn Tree.

Since her first novel was named a Best First Novel of 1998 by Locus Magazine, she has been shortlisted for numerous awards, including a CYBIL Award in the US and the Surrey Book of the Year award in Canada. In 2007, Kate became the first author to win five Aurealis awards in a single year when Books 2-6 in the Chain of Charms series were jointly awarded the 2007 Aurealis Award for Children’s Fiction. Book 5: The Lightning Bolt was also named a Notable Book for 2007 by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Her books have been published in 13 countries around the world.

You can read more about her at http://www.kateforsyth.com.au/

The book trailer for The Wildkin's Curse can be found here, and you can read a review here.

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