Hello and welcome to KSP's Top Tip Tuesday blog series, designed to inspire your writing habits - or just distract you for a few moments! - during the coronavirus pandemic.
These top tips have been retrieved from the KSP archives. They will be published fortnightly on Tuesdays and come to you courtesy of past Writers and Fellows in Residence.
Top Ten Tips
By Gina Mercer, KSP's 2005 Established Writer-in-Residence:
'Every day for a whole month (well, nearly every day, a woman does need a day off occasionally to swim at Cottesloe or to eat lunch beside the Swan River) I sit at this desk and peck the words from the air. By the time I leave, forty thousand new ones have come to roost in the cool recesses of my much-loved laptop. This harvest pleases me. Without the peace and open lawns of Katharine’s Place, those forty-thousand words may still be swirling in some dark place of disorder and disharmony. I hope they don’t feel pecked into place by a furious magpie. Perhaps, more sung out of the air by a magpie carolling the pleasures of a sun-filled autumn afternoon in Perth as she meanders on a lawn with her favoured companions.'
Write – no excuses. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, any more than there is bricklayer’s block. You just construct walls with words, one word at a time like a bricky. Some days you might build flimsy walls which don’t last but you still keep building because that’s how you develop your craft and your strength.
Write as often as possible in as many situations as possible. For example, if you’re waiting at the doctor’s, instead of seeing that as a frustration, view it as a writing opportunity. Look at the other people waiting, make up stories about them in your head, observe what’s going on around you and try to find the precise words to describe the sensory data being given to you. Ask yourself, what is the best word to describe the colour of that oozy rash on that woman’s face?
Think of yourself as a writer at all times. For example, when you’re watching TV look at the writer’s craft which has gone into creating what you are watching. Have they created engaging and surprising characters? If not, can you see why the characters are not working? What calibre is the dialogue in this show? If it’s making you laugh, how did the writer(s) generate that humour? If you’re at the crash repair shop, observe the language/idioms used there, could these unfamiliar word usages generate an amusing poem?
Practice free writing exercises whenever you can. Put pen to paper non-stop for 10 minutes (another useful way to preoccupy your time in the doctor’s waiting room). Then just write whatever comes up without censoring. You’ll be amazed at what emerges. This is the equivalent of Cathy Freeman exercising regularly in all sorts of ways for years in order to make sure that when she wants to perform in a focused way at the Olympics her muscles are strong, flexible and limber. Writers need to keep their minds agile and limber by daily, frequent word practice, so that when they sit down to write the Great Australian novel they are fit and ready to do so.
Read lots of writing, especially in your chosen genre. For example, many emerging poets reveal in workshops that they don’t read poetry! It is essential to read others to learn more about your craft. This constitutes the all-important apprenticeship of observation. It is also vital to support other poets and publishers of poetry by buying poetry books – otherwise how can you expect there to be a viable publisher out there when you have a manuscript ready to launch on the world?
Never listen to the wily voices of the demons of negativity who will tell you that all writing is pointless and your writing in particular is hopeless. Flush those demons down the toilet before you start any writing.
Find out what time of the day you are at your best for writing. Set aside hours to write at that peak time. Book these times in your diary. Keep that appointment with your writing self as strictly as you would an appointment with your lawyer!
Set up a small writing group with others who have a similar interest in their writing. Make this a focused group whose sole aim is to improve your writing and develop your writing career. Avoid the “writing-as-therapy-and-self-aggrandizement” groups.
Immerse yourself in the material of your craft as fully as possible at every opportunity. Words are free and all around us, so make the most of that: eavesdrop on conversations; read dictionaries; play word games; be alert to shifts in language register in different social settings – for example observe language patterns at the football field vs the bureaucrat’s office; read lots of other writers of all kinds and cultures, you never know what might teach you a crucial lesson or spark something in your own writing.
Write – no excuses. You’ll never know what kind of a writer you are unless you actually do the writing.
Want to carve out your own time to write in a dedicated writing cabin? KSP Writers' Centre has one place left in Laurie Steed's Spring Story Retreat in September 2020. You can also apply for a 2021 KSP residency or fellowship. Details here.
Gina Mercer enjoys a three-stranded career as writer, teacher, and editor. She has taught creative writing and literature in universities and communities for thirty years. She was Managing Editor of Island magazine, 2006–10. She has published a novel, Parachute Silk (Spinifex Press, 2001) and two academic books (UQP, 1994; Peter Lang, New York, 2001).
Gina has published five collections of poetry: The Ocean in the Kitchen (Five Islands Press, 1999), Night Breathing (Picaro Press, 2006), Handfeeding the Crocodile (Pardalote Press, 2007), and Seasoned with Honey (with three other women poets, Walleah Press, 2008). Her most recent collection, Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone (Walleah Press, 2015), is all about birds.