What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

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Hi, all. This is another chapter for my writing book for children. Any feedback is much appreciated.

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Saying you want to be a writer is a bit like saying you want to be an athlete. There are lots of different kinds of sports. And there are lots of different kinds of writing. Most kids start out by writing fiction (such as stories about aliens or adventures or animals) and non-fiction (such as essays about what you did over the summer). But by the time you’re all grown up, you’ll realise that there are a lot more – sometimes very specific – options for the kind of writer you might want to be.

Here are a few that you will have heard of and maybe a few that you’ve never even thought about. Continue reading

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Does Your Book Pass the Bechdel Test? Does It Need To?

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The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 in – perhaps unusually – the comic strip of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist and 2014 recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant”. In it, two women discuss going to the movies and one of them outlines her requirements for seeing any of the films being shown. They have to meet three criteria:

*The movie has at least two female characters.
*The two female characters talk to each other.
*The conversation is about anything other than a man.

Bechdel credits the idea to her friend Liz Wallace, who was in turn apparently inspired by some of Virginia Woolf’s writing. Twenty-five years later, the Bechdel test gained mainstream recognition (maybe a sign of the times). Continue reading

Spelling

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Hi, all. I’m hoping you can help me with something. A couple of months ago, I posted about wanting to write a book about writing for child writers. This is the first chapter I’ve written and I’d love some feedback on whether it’s appropriate for the target audience. (I like to think there’s something in it for us grown-ups too.) Thanks.

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Why Is Spelling Important for Writers?
Wen a werd iz speld rite, it’s eze-er 2 reed. Wen a sintins iz speld rite, the meenin iz eze-er 2 unerstan. wen a howl artycall, storie or bok iz speld rite, ur reedr well no wat u wer tring 2 til thum.

What? Let me make it clear by fixing up the spelling.

When a word is spelled right, it’s easier to read. When a sentence is spelled right, the meaning is easier to understand. When a whole article, story or book is spelled right, your reader will know what you were trying to tell them. Continue reading

How to Write Your Author Biography

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Harry: “Why don’t you tell me the story of your life.”
Sally: “The story of my life?”
Harry: “We’ve got eighteen hours to kill before we hit New York.”
Sally: “The story of my life isn’t even going to get us out of Chicago. I mean nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York.”
Harry: “So something can happen to you?”
Sally: “Yes.”
Harry: “Like what?”
Sally: “Like I’m going to journalism school to become a reporter.”
Harry: “So you can write about things that happen to other people.”
Sally: “That’s one way to look at it.”
When Harry Met Sally

It’s strange but the one thing writers seem to struggle with the most is the subject they know better than anyone else: themselves. Perhaps that’s because writing an author biography is about finding the balance between arrogance and unworthiness (something everybody struggles with, of course, but only writers have to put the results down on paper). Toot your own horn without at least a smidge of self-deprecation and potential readers may write you off as a narcissist. Fail to toot your own horn enough and potential readers may write you off as a nobody who doesn’t have the right to ask them for an hours’ long commitment.

Perhaps it’s also because an author biography tends to be something we dash off at the last minute instead of giving it the thought and attention it really deserves. You’ve spent months, possibly years, polishing a piece of writing and now that it’s being published, you need a few paragraphs that will be appended to the end of it to enlighten readers about the person it came from. But if you feel like “nothing’s happened” to you, then it can be tough no matter how long you spend on it.

There is no foolproof template for writing an author biography but here are a few things that might help get your creative juices flowing about your least favourite topic. Continue reading

Getting Around the Censors: Making Up Your Own Swear Words

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Let’s face it, unless you’re a saint, the occasional swear word (also known as curse words in certain parts of the world) will slip out every now and then. Whether you’re stuck behind the world’s worst driver or you’ve dropped something on your foot, sometimes it just happens.

But having characters in fiction drop the “s”, “f” and “c” words – amongst an array of offensive others – can have some readers, publishers and moral guardians shaking their heads in disapproval. To get around this, certain writers have simply made up their own swear words. Continue reading

The Question Every Writer Is Asked: What’s Your Real Job?

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At Christmas last year, I was talking to my eleven-year-old niece about what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“An author,” she said. I threw my arms around her, mostly in solidarity but a little in sympathy since I knew what she was in for. A bit of success but more often than not a lot of struggle.

In January, just over a month later, at my sister’s birthday party, my niece and I were having the same conversation with my twelve-year-old nephew. “You can get paid to play Fortnite, you know,” he told me. There was a tournament being held at the Australian Open that weekend with half a million dollars in prizemoney available.

“But what will your other job be?” I asked. He looked at me blankly. “Getting paid to play Fortnite is a pretty sweet gig so there will be lots of people who want that job. But not everyone can get paid to play Fortnite so you’ll probably need another job,” I explained. He couldn’t come up with anything else and that’s okay because he’s twelve. Continue reading

The Rules of Reading

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Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with reading. I love to read. I hate finishing a book and wishing it had been better. One-third of the way through reading a non-fiction book that has been well-reviewed, that has set the author up to write a series of similar books and has established her as a figurehead of the “fuck up the patriarchy” movement (I’m paraphrasing but that’s definitely the kind of language she would use), I was finding it a bit… tedious. So much so that the idea of picking it up again made me not want to read at all.

I looked longingly instead at my TBR pile. And then had guilt. The most ridiculous kind of guilt. As if I was considering cheating. On a book. Because of some arbitrary rules that I must have set for myself somewhere along the way without realising it.

So I’m creating a new set of reading rules (as much for myself as for anyone else).

You don’t have to buy a book.
If you want to own a book, then you have to buy it. But if you just want to read it, then you can borrow it from a library or someone you know who has a copy of it. But whatever you do, you must never steal a book. Never download a pirated copy of a book. It is stealing from the author. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, become a member of a library and borrow it. Some authors will even give you a free copy of their book if you ask nicely. It doesn’t cost anything except a little bit of your time.

You don’t have to read all genres.
Reading widely is a great way of expanding your knowledge of the world. But most of us read simply for pleasure and the expansion of our knowledge is just a by-product. If we are reading for pleasure, then it’s unlikely we are going to enjoy all genres of writing. If you don’t enjoy a particular genre, then you don’t have to read it. It’s completely counterintuitive. If you only enjoy one genre and you only want to read that one genre, then you are perfectly within your rights.

You don’t have to stick to one genre.
There is also nothing that says you can’t read more than one genre. Read them all if you like. Read any combination of genres that satisfies your reading appetite. Read the popular and the obscure, read the bestsellers and the flops, read the critically acclaimed and the universally panned, read fiction and non-fiction, read romance and horror, read thrillers and dramas, read sci-fi and historical, read steampunk and erotica, read fantasy and urban realism, read crime and westerns, and when you’re done reading all the genres that exist now, look for new ones because they are being invented every day.

You don’t have to read age-appropriate or demographic-appropriate books.
Most fiction seems to get divided up into categories based on which age group it is meant for: pre-school, new readers, middle grade, young adult, new adult and adult. And then there are the categories we’re told we should like based on who we are: women’s fiction for women, adventure for men, sci-fi for nerds and so on. But you can read books from any or all of these classifications. Most publishers stumble into books that go on to be bestsellers and that’s if they aren’t too busy falling all over themselves to reject them completely. The idea that they know who should be reading what, better than the readers themselves, is laughable.

You don’t have to read a book just because everybody else is.
FOMO (fear of missing out) is real, even when it comes to reading. But just because everybody else is reading a book because it was Oprah’s pick or it had a billion dollar marketing budget or it’s currently being made into a movie that may or may not suck doesn’t mean you should feel obligated. Getting sucked into reading a book that everybody else seems to be talking about often means it will fail to meet expectations because they’re almost never as good as the hype suggests. It’s perfectly reasonable to instead spend that time reading something you actually want to read rather than something you have just been tricked into reading.

You can read the last page of the book before reading the first.
Oh, how it pains me to write that! You will never catch me reading the last page of a book before reading all the other pages before it linearly. Mostly because the words have no real meaning to me if I haven’t read all the words before them. But if reading the last page of a book before diving in at the start is what floats your boat, then go for it. If it’s a crime, then it’s certainly a victimless one.

You don’t have to finish reading a book just because you started it.
On several occasions, I’ve read books – struggled through them actually – only to find that getting to the end made all of that struggle worth it. And with just as many (probably more), I’ve struggled through only to find that it wasn’t worth it at all. And then there are the books that I never finished. The one I always cite is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It just didn’t speak to me. But there have been a few others. The Haldeman Diaries, a memoir kept by HR Haldeman for the four years he was Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff. It’s still in my library with a bookmark marking the place where I gave up over a decade ago. I might go back to it one day. But I might not. And that’s perfectly okay.

You don’t have to finish reading a book before starting to read another.
Ah, the dilemma that propelled me into writing these rules. I’m not very good at remembering what happened in a book if I don’t read it all in one go, so I try to stick to one book at a time. But whether it’s circumstances or the book itself, sometimes you feel like reading but don’t feel like reading that particular book. So it’s completely acceptable to read something else instead. You might go back to the other book. You might not. It’s entirely up to you.

You don’t have to like a book just because everybody else does.
I won’t name the two books that I dislike the most but one of them is considered a classic (my review: “this is the story of – to be frank – nothing very interesting and nothing much happening… the kind of bad novel a teenage boy might write before compiling a manifesto and then going on a killing spree”) and the other was made into a TV show (my review: “the only redeeming thing about this book is that it serves as an important lesson for everyone out there writing: if something as bad as this book can be published, then there’s still hope for the rest of us”). Different books speak to different people for different reasons and just as often they don’t speak to us at all. There’s no right and there’s no wrong when it comes to opinions, just lots and lots of them.

You don’t have to like everything one author writes.
Some writers write to the same formula in book after book. If you like the formula, then you’ll probably consider that a good thing. But it’s possible that you might get tired of the formula after a while. Similarly, some writers bore themselves sticking to the same writing formula, so decide to try something different. They might like the results. You might not. It is not compulsory to like everything that comes from one writer. And if the day comes that it is compulsory, then they’re no longer an author, they’re a cult leader.

You don’t have to review a book once you’ve finished reading it (but the author would probably appreciate it if you do).
If it isn’t clear by now, let me spell it out for you one last time: when it comes to reading, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And that includes posting reviews. Yes, writers like reviews (particularly positive reviews) and if you can manage it, they’ll be eternally grateful. But if you can’t, then don’t worry. You don’t owe them anything. In fact, if you’ve read their book, then you’ve already done more for them than most people have.

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So that’s it. And the rules of reading all really come down to one thing: do whatever the hell you want. As long as you keep reading. After all, as Mark Twain so eloquently put it, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t read.