The Writing Book: A Practical Guide for Fiction Writers

The Writing Book: A Practical Guide for Fiction Writers

by Kate Grenville

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From the acclaimed author of The Secret River, a completely practical workbook that offers down-to-earth ideas and suggestions for writers or aspiring writers to get started and keep going Full of ideas and examples to get pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard, this guide doesn't just talk about how to write fiction; it takes the reader, step-by-step, through the


From the acclaimed author of The Secret River, a completely practical workbook that offers down-to-earth ideas and suggestions for writers or aspiring writers to get started and keep going Full of ideas and examples to get pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard, this guide doesn't just talk about how to write fiction; it takes the reader, step-by-step, through the process of doing it. Each chapter concentrates on one aspect of writing: getting started, bringing characters to life, writing convincing dialogue, revising and writer's block, and more. Exercises in each chapter are carefully structured so that each one builds on the previous. Examples from contemporary writing demonstrate how different writers tackle the technical aspects of their art. By working through this book, a reader will gradually craft a piece of fiction, and develop confidence in their own fictional voice. Those who would like to write but are not sure how to start will find that this book gets them started, while those who are already writing will find plenty of practical ideas for new energy and direction.

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"Takes the novice writer through the complete process of writing fiction."  —Library Journal

"Can help you knock out writers block."  —Boston Herald on Writing from Start to Finish

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The Writing Book

A Practical Guide for Fiction Writers

By Kate Grenville

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 1990 Kate Grenville
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-126-8


Getting started

It doesn't matter where you start: the only thing that matters is where you finish. As Ezra Pound said, it doesn't matter which leg of your table you make first, as long as it stands up in the end.

Once you've got something on the page, you have something to work on. Anything that prevents you getting those first words on the page has to be avoided. High expectations and thinking about the finished product rather than the task at hand can have a paralysing effect on those first words.

There's a time to think about the story as a whole. There's a time to ask yourself what your story is about, or what it means. There's a time to demand the best of yourself. But the time to do those things is not at the beginning. At the beginning, the only thing that matters is to get some words, any words, on the paper.

Why is that so hard? Sometimes it's because our minds are blank but sometimes it's because our minds aren't blank enough. Sometimes our minds are full of voices, whispering advice to us about how to write. They drown out the voice of our own mind which, at this stage, needs all the encouragement it can get.


The whispering voices might say things like these:

'Just begin at the beginning.'

This sounds easy. The problem is that starting at the beginning is just about the hardest place to start. The beginning of a piece of writing, as we all know, has to be irresistible. It has to grab the readers' attention and then glue them to the page. Great beginnings look easy but they don't come out of thin air; they come out of the whole story. Until the story is written, it's often hard to write a great beginning for it.

'First work out what you want to say.'

Many writers work this way. They work out their ideas, write down a plan and then just flesh it all out on the paper. However, many writers can't work this way because they don't quite know what they want to say until they've said it. Both ways of writing work, so if you can't work out what you want to say, don't let that hold you back. Once you've written something — and the exercises at the end of this chapter will take care of that — you'll have a better idea of what you want to say.

'First know your characters.'

Some writers do, but other writers get to know them as they go along. If you can't even think of any characters, let alone know them, you can still start to write.

'Writing should be grammatically correct.'

Most writing ends up being grammatically correct because it's easier for other people to read that way, but not all writing's like that. Look at the example on p. 82. In any case, when you first put pen to paper you're the only one reading it, so feel free to do what you like. You can fix up the grammar later.

'Writing has to have an interesting style.'

Some writing does, some writing doesn't. Look at the examples from Shirley Hazzard on pp. 6–7 and Gerald Murnane on pp. 7–8. They both make you want to find out what happened next, although only the Hazzard piece has a highly 'literary' style. You might decide that your finished story should be written in an elaborate style using similes and metaphors and so on, but, unless that style comes naturally, don't worry about it for your first draft. It can all be added later.

'Writing has to have a strong story.'

How interesting is it to have someone tell you the plot of a book they've just read? Not very. This means that plot alone isn't what makes a book interesting. What makes it interesting isn't what's told but the way it's told. In some of the best stories, almost nothing happens. See the example from Olga Masters on pp. 8–9.

'Write about what you know.'

This is good advice because writing seems to have more energy when it comes out of something the writer has experienced. However, it's not very helpful advice if you don't feel you know anything worth writing about. Some of the exercises at the end of the chapter invite you to write about what you know, but others invite you to write in another way. When you do these exercises, you might find that you know something you didn't know you knew.

'If you can't write great literature it's not worth doing.'

'Literature' is a finished product. Once it's finished, it is hard to imagine it wasn't always as perfect as it is now. The literature we study by the great writers of the past is usually not their early work. Like the rest of us, they had to practise before they got it right, and when you look at their first drafts you realise that even they didn't always know what they were doing.

All that we now call 'literature' was once just writing, and all those writers we now call 'great' were once just people trying to write. If you want to learn to write well, you should read the work of those writers but it's discouraging to compare your own work with theirs too soon. One day, you too may write 'great literature' but if you try to write it from day one, you're more likely not to write at all.

'You have to be inspired.'

Few serious writers wait for inspiration to strike; they find it better to make regular work habits and stick to them, even if they're not in the mood. Some writers can work for eight or twelve hours at a stretch, others find that an hour or two is all they can usefully do. Some writers have unlimited time, some have the restrictions of other jobs, households to run, children to look after. Some writers use computers, some use typewriters, some use pens or pencils. Every writer works out a personal routine for working. Writing is one of the most individual things you'll ever do, so you'll gradually develop your own individual way of doing it. It doesn't matter how or when you write, as long as you keep doing it.

'You must write without distractions.'

If you live without distractions, this is good advice, but most of us are constantly distracted by other thoughts, worries, noises and sights. It may be impossible to eliminate distractions, but it's often possible to use them. Find a way to put the distraction, whatever it is, into your fiction, and write about it.

My only advice to writers is this: don't listen to the voices.

Writers have to unlearn a lot before we are free to write. We have to unlearn a lot of the things we've learned, such as all the pieces of advice above. We have to unlearn, for a while, the desire to have a finished product. Getting a piece of writing to work usually means many failed attempts.

Hardest of all, we have to unlearn a lifetime's training in being orderly and making sense. Writers have to end up making sense but they don't have to start off making sense. In fact, a certain amount of apparent disorder is healthy in the early stages of writing. Why? Because being orderly is a process of eliminating things, and when you first start a piece of writing, it's better to have far more material than you need and more ideas than can possibly fit into the piece. You need to have a great untidy overflow of characters, events, images and moods so that you can pick and choose, rather than having a poor thin little heap.

This takes practice. At first, it may feel self-indulgent, pointless and messy. This is alarming. Remind yourself of two things: first, that this is only an early draft, not the finished product; and second, that you are the only person reading this.

And try not to ask the most paralysing question of all: 'but what is this all about?'


Here are some examples of openings to fiction that reach out and grab you and don't let you put the book down.

When we were thirteen, the coolest things to do were the things your parents wouldn't let you do. Things like have sex, smoke cigarettes, nick off from school, go to the drive-in, take drugs, and go to the beach.

From Puberty Blues, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, p. 1.

Harry Joy was to die three times, but it was his first death which was to have the greatest effect on him, and it is this first death which we shall now witness.

From Bliss, Peter Carey, p. 7.

Notice something about them, though. As well as being openings, they are also summaries, which means they might have been written last, not first.

The next two examples aren't so much summaries as statements of the theme: moods and images that set the context for the rest of the book.

By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation.

It was simply that the sky, on a shadeless day, suddenly lowered itself like an awning. Purple silence petrified the limbs of trees and stood crops upright in the fields like hair on end. Whatever there was of fresh white paint sprang out from downs or dunes, or lacerated a roadside with a streak of fencing. This occurred shortly after midday on a summer Monday in the south of England.

As late as the following morning, small paragraphs would even appear in newspapers having space to fill due to a hiatus in elections, fiendish crimes, and the Korean War — unroofed houses and stripped orchards being given in numbers and acreage; with only lastly, briefly, the mention of a body where a bridge was swept away.

That noon a man was walking slowly into a landscape under a branch of lightning. A frame of almost human expectancy defined this scene, which he entered from the left-hand corner. Every nerve — for even barns and wheelbarrows and things without tissue developed nerve in those moments — waited, fatalistic. Only he, kinetic, advanced against circumstances to a single destination.

From Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard, p. 3.

It was the afternoon of the thunderstorm when A. finally decided to fall in love with Nola Pomeroy or try to shag her or do something special with her in some out-of-the-way place.

The clouds began piling up late in the morning. Storms in summer usually came from the south west, where the ocean lay. But this one appeared from an unlikely quarter. A. watched it almost from its beginnings through the north windows of the school. Its black bulk was bearing down on Sedgewick North from the plains far inland.

After lunch the sky over the school showed nothing but bulging clouds that tore away continually and drifted like smoke on turbulent currents. A. had just seen the first of the lightning when Mr Farrant told the seventh grade that their film strip on Major Mitchell was ready in the cloakroom and asked them what they were waiting for. They filed out through the door. Mr Farrant called after them: 'You, A., turn the projector and read the text and send the wrigglers and gigglers back to me.'

The cloakroom was so dark that A. could not see who had gone into the lovers' corner. But the darkness made the pictures more sharp and clear than any he had seen before. He showed the map of south-eastern Australia with a wide blankness over nearly all of Victoria. He went on turning the knob. Mitchell's dotted line left the Murray River and thrust southwards. A.'s audience was unusually quiet and solemn. He supposed they were waiting for the first heavy drops of rain on the iron roof.

From 'The Only Adam', Gerald Murnane, in Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories, p. 259.

Each of these examples starts with an attention-grabbing sentence, then moves away to focus on the weather before homing in on an individual character. In this way, a link can be established right in the beginning between large impersonal movements — represented by the weather — and individual lives. Notice how we're told some basic facts about where and when the story is set, but this rather dull though necessary information is embedded in much more dramatic material.

* * *

'It's today,' the fat child said and rolled over in bed landed on her feet on the floor and held the window sill, looking back at her sister, the thin one who had been jerked awake.

'Today!' the fat one said.

The thin one half raised herself on her elbows in bed. Her straight hair fell over her face. The fat one had curly hair in corkscrews over her head.

'Should be the other way round,' a visitor said once, looking at them with a stretched mouth and blank eyes.

The visitor meant that straight hair would have taken away from the fat one's rounded look and curls might have made the thin one look rounder.

The foster mother looked at them not bothering to stretch her mouth.

The fat one and the thin one looked away not knowing how to apologize for being the way they were.

'Go and play,' the foster mother said, but they were already going.

The fat one picked up a brush now and pressed it down her curls which sprang back in the wake of the bristles.

When she put the brush down she saw in the mirror her hair was the same as before.

The thin one screwed her body so that she could see the fat one's reflection. 'Are you?' she said.

Am I what?' the fat one answered.

'You know.' The thin one moved a foot which need not have 'belonged to her body so flat were the bedclothes. 'Excited about it,' the thin one said.

'Yes!' said the fat one, too loud and too sudden.

Tears came into the thin one's eyes. 'Don't shout!' she said.

The fat one picked up the brush and began to drag at her curls again. The thin one's watery eyes met her sister's in the mirror. They looked like portraits on a mantlepiece, the subjects photographed while the tension was still in their expression.

The foster mother came into the room then. She made the third portrait on the mantlepiece.

The thin one started to get out of bed rather quickly. Her ears were ready for the orders so she began to pull blankets off for the bedmaking.

But the foster mother said, 'Leave that.'

The thin one didn't know what to do then. She thrust a finger up her nose and screwed it round.

The foster mother covered her face with both hands. After a while she took them away showing a stretched mouth.

'Now!' she said quite brightly looking between them.

Now what? thought the fat one and the thin one.

Their mouths hung a little open.

The foster mother squeezed her eyes shut.

From 'The Home Girls', Olga Masters, in The Home Girls, pp. 1–2.

In the above story by Olga Masters, it's fairly obvious from the start that nothing earth-shattering is going to take place. But the way the humble domestic details are set in a context of irony makes you want to read on.

* * *

This is the legend of Wendy Trull who was the prettiest girl in Tasmania between 1955 and, say, 1959. A long time to hold any title, particularly that of beauty queen.

When you see a beginning like that, you know that Wendy must either triumph over terrible odds and end up as the wife of a diplomat, or she must be doomed. Will Wendy be found at the bottom of the cliff, broken like a wax doll, with strange juices oozing out, and her ears in a paper bag, you wonder; or will she have a wedding in the Cathedral, and an ironing lady, and a second house at the beach, perhaps even a third in the mountains and a flat in London? And for the children a nanny who is more like a second mother to them than a servant. What is going to happen to Wendy?

Wendy lived with her mother and father and brother and sisters in a reasonably nice house with wide verandahs on Windmill Hill. The needles from the pine trees collected on the verandahs, and one of Wendy's jobs was to sweep them up and put them in the incinerator. Wendy's granny lived in a grim old terrace house in a poorer part of the town. She kept the brass doorknob on the front door gleaming, and in the passage, just inside the door, she kept a cow. You opened the door, and there, standing sadly on the pink and green lino, was a brown and white cow. Cows' eyes look very big indeed when you see them up close in the narrow dimness of an entrance hall.

If there are motifs and links in the lives of people, then the presence of the cow in her granny's passage can be related to the presence of a secret lover in Wendy's attic. There were many years between the cow and the lover, but Buttercup, certainly an unusual pet, is somehow linked in Wendy's life to the man in the attic.


Excerpted from The Writing Book by Kate Grenville. Copyright © 1990 Kate Grenville. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kate Grenville is the author of eight books of fiction and four books about the writing process, including Writing from Start to Finish. Her novels include The Idea of Perfection, The Lieutenant, Lilian's Story, and the Orange Prize-winning The Secret River.

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