“If it interests me it goes in and if it doesn’t interest me it stays out … that’s a rather rude criterion, but I don’t have any other.”
Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee began writing non-fiction for the New Yorker in 1963, and started teaching writing at Princeton in 1975, so it’s safe to say he’s speaking from experience.
McPhee, the author of a new memoir and writing guide titled Draft No. 4, has advice for everything from beating writer’s block to structuring your work.
First up, he suggests you start at the beginning and nail what journalists call the lede.
“Get out of your head and write a beginning that you like … write something that works for you,” he says.
Then it’s time to plan. McPhee is big on planning.
“Turn back and look at your vast matrix of material and start cutting it up and figuring out the structure and so forth,” he says.
His new book isn’t just filled with words of writerly wisdom. It also includes strange little diagrams that look like basic equations, which McPhee regularly uses to plan his work.
“When I go into my office and start tearing my hair [out] trying to advance a piece of writing I’m working on, I know precisely where I am and what I’m trying to do that day and there’s nothing between me and the screen, except air,” he says.
“It can make things sound mechanical… but it also frees the writer to write.”
Despite all that planning, McPhee sometimes gets stuck. He once lay on a picnic table for two weeks trying to figure out how to begin a piece for the New Yorker.
But he has his methods for overcoming writer’s block. His advice to one student struggling to begin was to pen a letter to your mother and write out your frustration.
“Dear mother, I am trying to write about Alaska and an encounter with a grizzly bear and I’m going nowhere, I’m not cut out for this, I’m not a writer, I hate this, and this bear is driving me nuts and has a 55-inch waist and he can outrun Secretariat and so on.”
Then simply “cut out the dear mother and cut off all that whining and howling and just keep the bear”.
McPhee’s tips prompted us to ask four Australian authors to share the best piece of writing advice they’ve ever received.
Maria Takolander: Just start
An author of fiction, poetry and scholarly works, in 2010 Takolander won the inaugural Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.
She says the best tip she ever got was to just start.
“Stop fretting and start writing. The poem or story is not sitting in your head ready made, just waiting to be written down in an un-mediated flow of genius,” she says.
“It has to be forged on the page or screen through the work of reading and interacting with the words that start appearing as you write or type.”
This approach “does away … with the fear of the blank page,” she says.
Chris Wolmersley: Don’t think about your career
The author of four novels, Wolmersley won the 2008 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction for his debut, The Low Road.
He was once warned by a successful novelist not to treat writing as a career.
“Each novel, short story or poem, should be treated as discrete entity, rather than part of overall process or trajectory whereby one might reasonably expect to sell more books, or gain more prizes, or more prestige, or any of those things that have very little to do with actual literature,” he says.
Rajith Savanadasa: Lose the ego
Rajith Savanadasa published his debut novel, Ruins, in 2016.
He says the best tip he ever got was to be humble.
“It was useful when I was writing Ruins because it reminded me to put my massive ego aside, to stop worrying about what people think of me as a writer, and try to be true to my characters,” he says.
Melanie Cheng: You need an editor
Writer and GP Melanie Cheng is a big fan of Stephen King’s book of writing advice, On Writing. One of King’s most famous dictums is “write with the door closed and rewrite with the door open”. Cheng agrees.
“Premature criticism can derail something with great potential, but there also comes a point when you’ve exhausted your potential as the writer and that’s when you need someone with a fresh set of eyes, ideally a really good editor,” she says.
King’s advice seems to have paid off; Dr Cheng’s debut collection of short stories, Australia Day, won the fiction prize at the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.