by Kim Kelly

New Microsoft Publisher Document


I’ve spent far too much time online lately – out of necessity, though. The way books are sold and marketed is rapidly changing, and most authors are having to educate themselves quicksticks as to how these changes are affecting the way their stories are reaching readers.

This means I’ve been looking at a lot of blogs – on writing, reading writers and writing readers. My word indeedy there’s a lot going on in that world, and much of it hugely exciting. It’s wonderful to find so many people – thousands and thousands – engaged in talking about writing and reading at any one time across the globe. Nonstop festival for narrative junkies.

But with all this fabulousness, there’s also the attendant truckload of how-to spruikers: how to write a bestseller, how to get published, how to write the perfect pitch, how to create your author brand. This sort of thing has always been with us, of course, but it’s been as magnified as everything else has with the internet.

That’s not to say some of these how-tos aren’t helpful, especially for authors just starting out. It’s useful to know how to present your manuscript professionally and what the current trends in publishing are, as well as publisher and reader expectations within various genres. It’s always useful, too, to discuss what makes stories tick, to examine their parts and interrogate what works.

It’s struck me this week, though, how limiting so much of this clangouring advice can be, especially to women writers. The soup reduced, it says: write in the third person, write heroines that are both indomitable and likeable, and don’t buggerise around with fancy language. Whatever you do: make sure your story is easy to read.

Where are the perky posts on how to be original in this sea of sameness, how to break the rules without breaking your career, or how to find your narrative purpose beyond your desire to call yourself a writer? Or, perhaps most importantly, how to respect readers’ intelligence by daring to offer them something a little different.

Being the odd one out. The quester. The dreamer. These can’t be taught by how-to cheat sheets. You either are these things, or you’re not.

The past few days I’ve found a startling contrast to all this easy-reading blather in editing the new work of an old pillar of Australian literature, someone esteemed for their colourful eccentricities, their mellifluous prose and the playful smile beneath every word. I can’t tell you who it is – that would be breaking the Secret Editors’ Business code of conduct – but I can say what a delight it’s been to be reminded of what writing can do inside the pages of this manuscript.

It opens with a passage written in first person reflective present tense, inside the head of a woman so infuriatingly passive you immediately want to shake her (except she’s so frail she’d disintegrate if you did), even as each sentence races one over the other like an untamed river now and again dashed across jagged rocks.

It’s not easy to read. It’s a joyful challenge. It’s full of heart and wonder and danger. It’s elastic, plastic – constantly surprising.

Oh, but the how-toers will tell you that only the very clever can do these tricky sorts of things. Ordinary writers shouldn’t step outside the lines if they want to succeed. Ordinary writers must aspire to seeing their work displayed between men’s underwear and stationery in discount department stores.

I know what kind of writer I want to be. Clever or not, I want to make some attempt at the extraordinary. I want to do things others say I can’t. I want to take readers to places only we can visit together.

And that’s not easy, nor should it ever be.