‘Ditch the hashtag’: A video interview with author Kim Wilkins

Kim Wilkins image MRP Blog 1

[Note: This blog first appeared on the Margaret River Press ‘Guest Blogger’ site.]

Kim Wilkins smiled when I asked her what the main stumbling blocks are for aspiring writers. ‘Some writers think that if they see a lot of Marvel movies, they can write a good book,’ she said. ‘ But you have to serve your apprenticeship.’

And Kim should know. She’s the author of more than 30 novels, the first one published over 20 years ago. As Kim Wilkins she writes fantasy – epic, paranormal and urban, and as Kimberley Freeman she’s the author of historical adventure stories for women. You’ll meet her in this video clip as she talks briefly about what she likes to write about.

For fantasy, try the first book in Kim Wilkins’ recent trilogy, Daughters of the storm , and if you want a taste of her historical fiction, Kimberley Freeman’s most popular book is Wildflower Hill.

When Margaret River Press invited me to be a guest blogger, I decided that the best thing I could do for a struggling publishing and bookselling industry was to talk to people in the frontline. I’m delighted that Kim, prolific author and Associate Professor in Writing, Publishing and 21st-Century Book Culture at the University of Queensland, agreed to be the first in the series. This is an edited version of a recent Zoom interview.

Darryl: Kim, you write popular fiction and you also need to publish in journals in your academic role. Are there challenges in writing concurrently across different genres like that?

Kim: What’s been really interesting to me is how many of the techniques of creative writing I’ve been able to transfer across to academic writing. The further I go in my career and the more certain I am of my ideas, the more I like to write academic work a bit creatively. I think that if you do want to convey your message, you do have to write it well.

I would like my ideas to get out there, especially the stuff I’ve done on genre communities. Because I’m sure the genre communities themselves would like to read some of that. So I try to use techniques of levity, metaphors, etc.

You prove your intelligence in your ability to communicate your message, not in your ability to befuddle your reader. Big words that are hard to read don’t belong on the first page of a novel and they don’t belong where you want to reach your audience either.

I asked Kim where she thought publishing was heading and what changes she’d seen in publishing since her first book was published in 1997. In this video clip, she provides a succinct summary of the key changes she’s seen over that period:

Darryl: So, against those developments that you’ve just so nicely charted in that video clip, what’s your best guess about the future of publishing?

Kim: Instead of thinking about it as books and publishing, I like to think about it as storytelling. We always have told stories.

There’s heaps more room for writers to be published. There’s just not more money. The very definition of publishing has changed. You’ve got to stop thinking about getting published by a Big Five publisher. Contraction of big publishing is a story in itself that does not bode well for writers who have aspirations for a best-seller like Harry Potter.

Everything’s changed since that first Harry Potter book came out about 20 years ago. But it does mean you’ll be able to get your story out more easily. It will just look a bit different. And some people will still be best sellers.

What the publishing industry itself needs to do is recognise what its unique value proposition is, what it does better than any other industry. I’m a big believer in small regional presses. I believe that’s going to save the publishing industry.

I first met Kim Wilkins 15 years ago when she was a tutor for a Queensland Writers Centre course, ‘The year of the novel’. As a neophyte writer for a commercial market, I was in awe of her achievements and impressed by her teaching ability. Kim helped me realise how little I knew about ‘constructing’ a story, as distinct from simply telling one. Her course was also my introduction to the mysteries of the publishing industry and its quirks and expectations.

Given Kim’s long experience as a writing teacher, mentor and well-published author, it seemed appropriate to ask her what advice she had for aspiring writers.

Kim started off by telling me that Nick Cave once said that ‘all artists, writers included, are egomaniacs, with low self-esteem.’ She told me with a self-deprecatory laugh that she thinks that is one of the best descriptions ever.

In this video clip, Kim talks frankly about the sorts of attitudes and practices she thinks aspiring writers need to overcome if they are to take their writing to the next level:

Darryl: Finally, Kim, do you have a favourite author or book?

Kim: My favourite book of all time is Lord of the Rings . I love Marian Keyes – her Walsh sisters books are great. I read a lot of non-fiction – very interested in books about ideas and how people think, politics. I read omnivorously and I like to be surprised by books.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Kim Wilkin’s perspective on writing and publishing. If you’re a writer seeking publication, she has suggested that there are more opportunities than ever for writers to publish their work, but that they need to be looking outside traditional pathways. And she champions regional presses (as well as regional writers’ groups).

After many years of teaching and mentoring, Kim has also shown us a hard-nosed approach to the craft of writing – don’t expect instant success in your writing, she says. Do the hard yards, and don’t let social media distract you.

And in discussing her own writing, whether in fantasy, historical fiction or academia, Kim Wilkins makes it clear we can’t go past the old adage: good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

Coming up on this blog: Watch for interviews with an award-winning bookseller and a key figure in Australian editing.

Wild Readings!

I’m a great believer in the notion that opportunities spring from taking advantage of other opportunities – say ‘Yes’ to one and see what might happen!

Last year at the last minute I registered for a Queensland Writers Centre workshop, ‘The Spaces Between: An Introduction to Poetic Writing’, with Simon Kindt. Apart from the coincidence that ‘The space between’ is the title of my short fiction that won the Roly Sussex Short Story Award three years earlier, I was interested in the possibility of introducing more poetic language into my prose writing.

Simon turned out to be a multi-talented performer who said he’d gone from being a poet to a performance poet (and MC of slam poetry events) and was now experimenting with self-accompanied music, developed on an impressive array of mind-boggling technology. He challenged us through a series of creative exercises, one of which was to let our minds float free and come up with some lines around a particular theme.

All good and all fun for the ten or so of us at the workshop, and Simon was very supportive. Then, suddenly, towards the end: ‘Now I want you to work with the person sitting alongside you to develop a creative piece from the lines you developed earlier to20190917_193115 (2) present to the rest of the group’. I think we had 10 minutes, always a challenge for a brain like mine.

The person sitting alongside me happened to be Maree Reedman, whom I hadn’t met before but who told me she was a poet and songwriter. I was already impressed. Maree and I talked through what might work and discovered (i.e. Maree suggested) that we could put the lines of our two pieces together alternately and that the piece overall would make sense as a poem. Great! I thought to myself. ‘And,’ said Maree, reaching under her chair, ‘I also have my ukulele.’ I tried not to look too surprised. ‘How about I accompany us on the uke?’ she said. Hey, this was a workshop for opening the mind, especially mine, so of course I agreed.

Wild Readings

Long story short: all the workshop participants excelled themselves with creativity, and Maree and I received an especially long burst of applause and a thumbs up from Simon for our uke-accompanied alternating poem.

As we packed up to leave, Maree casually turned to me and said, ‘There’s a café at West End (Brisbane) that does public readings once a month. It’s called Wild Readings. How about we do this again over there?’ I’d never done anything like that before but, after the slightest hesitation, I said, ‘Why not? I’m up for it.’

The Wild Readings organisers were gracious enough to give us a spot, as you can see from the pics on this page, and we not only did our joint presentation, but Maree and I each did a little piece of our own. Good fun! As I said at the beginning of this article, say ‘Yes’ to one opportunity and see what might happen!

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

I knew that the world around you is only uninteresting if you can’t see what is really going on. The place you come from is always the most exotic place you’ll ever encounter because it is the only place where you recognise how many secrets and mysteries there are in people’s lives. ~ David Malouf

 

Dying to be well-read

Did you know that the more you read the less likely you are to die? That’s the claim made by a writer in a recent issue of Wellbeing magazine.

heart-monitor-blips

An item headed ‘Better read than dead’ reported a study of the reading habits of 3635 men and women aged 50 and older over a 12-year period. With such a large sample and a longitudinal study, the results promised to be interesting for both readers and writers.

According to the Wellbeing writer, the results showed that ‘adults who read books for up to 3.5 hours a week were 17 per cent less likely to die than those who did not read books…’.

Wow! That’s awesome. Reading books means you’re less likely to die?

Let me work out the implications of such a finding: If reading books for 3.5 hours a week, gives you a 17% chance of not dying, then reading books for around 18 hours a week should guarantee you immortality!

When people hear about this, there’ll be a rush for books. What a boost that’ll be for booksellers and libraries.

Later in the article, we discover what the Wellbeing writer meant to say: ‘In all, book readers survived almost two years longer than non-book readers [i.e within the 12-year period].’

In other words, this particular bit of research indicates that if you’re over 50, reading books is one way that may help you live a couple of years longer. But no amount of reading is going to make you ‘less likely to die’.

Of course, there may factors other than reading at play in promoting longevity. For example, book-reading and lifestyle might be linked.

bearded-old-man-book

By the way, the researchers also concluded that reading newspapers and magazines is also linked to longer life, but not nearly as much as book reading. Perhaps reading magazines and newspapers is linked to increased coffee intake …?

The ultimate message from the research is: if you want to live a bit longer, reading might help you do so. See you at the library.

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

 

What writers say:

In the best stories, the odyssey from complication to resolution changes the character profoundly. In fact, the resolution often results not directly from the action but from a growing enlightenment – often a sudden flash of inspiration – as the character finally realizes what he [or she] has to do to solve his [or her] problem. ~ Jon Franklin, Writing for story.

China’s one-child policy and why older people can’t find work

Regular readers of this column will know that I recently wrote a book about working into later life, Extending your use-by date. Strange as it may seem, the theme of the book is linked to a recent change of policy in China. That country’s government has recently announced the end of its controversial one-child policy. Couples will now be allowed to have two children.

The reason for the Chinese Government’s reversal of policy is not a sudden concern to meet parents’ wishes, but because it has finally realised it needs to do something drastic to address the ageing of the population and the lack of young people coming through to replace them in the workforce.

One child policy

This is not a problem only for China.  According to the United Nations, the proportion of the world’s population aged 60 years or over was 12 per cent in 2013, and is expected to reach 21 per cent in 2050. The spread is uneven, however, with the least developed nations less affected.

Examples from developing economies include: Singapore: by 2030, one in five citizens is likely to be 65 and above as compared to one in nine in 2015; UK: in the next five years, the total population is forecast to rise by 3%, but the numbers aged over 65 are expected to increase by 12%; USA: by 2060, the numbers of older people is forecast to reach about 98 million older persons, more than twice their number in 2013.

Adult students in a computer lab

In Australia, the proportion of Australians over the age of 65 is around 13%. In the next 40 years or so that figure is expected to almost double to about a quarter of the population – around eight million people. At the same time, the birth rate is declining.

For China and Australia and other developed countries, one issue is that there will be fewer people in the workforce, which has implications for both maintaining productivity and for the amount of revenue raised through taxation.

An ageing population will also potentially place heavier demands on health services and, in countries that provide government pensions for their citizens, on the welfare budget.

That is why some countries, including Australia, the UK, and France, have announced an increase in the retirement age, i.e. the age at which such a pension becomes payable.

Keeping older people in the workforce is therefore arguably something to aim for, especially as people are now living longer, and hence potentially capable of continuing to work.

The potential benefits are that the level of productivity is maintained, taxes are still being collected, and older workers have more money in their pockets, and are arguably more content with their lot. I say ‘arguably’ because some people hate their jobs or have health issues and just can’t wait to retire.

OW job ads

Here there comes the hitch, the fly in the ointment, the snag, the unexpected obstacle: age discrimination.

In the same week that China announced the repeal of its one-child policy, an Australian report revealed that a Government scheme to encourage employers to take on older workers had been a flop.

Introduced in 2014, the Restart scheme offered employers $10,000 over two years to employ people over 50, who had been unemployed and on income support for at least six months. The intention was to jack up the Australian mature-age workforce by 32,000 every year but, according to the New Daily, the actual number was 2318, around 7% of the target.

The $ amount was never enough to entice employers over a two-year period, and from November 1 the Government has reduced the period to 12 months, but not increased the figure to employers.

The real stumbling block, however, is not the money, it’s employer (and social) attitudes. Older people consistently find it difficult if not impossible, to be re-employed after leaving work voluntarily or through a redundancy.

This is despite the mounting evidence that people are capable of learning and training into older age, and that they have built up skills and knowledge that can contribute significantly to an organisation’s well-being.

This is not an issue only in Australia. The Huffington Post reported that a Georgia Institute of Technology review of the U.S. government’s 2014 Displaced Worker Survey found that someone 50 years or older is likely to be unemployed for almost six weeks longer than someone between the ages of 30 and 49, and close to eleven weeks longer than people between the ages of 20 and 29.

The study also discovered that the odds of being re-employed decrease by 2.6 percent for each one-year increase in age.

In Australia, the Human Rights Commission found that more than a quarter of 2000 workers surveyed said they had been discriminated against because of their age.

So, although the workforce is ageing, older people are living longer (and staying heathier too), and the proportion of younger people is declining, it’s still tough for older people to get back into work once they’ve left it, because of employer and societal attitudes.

The big question is: will those attitudes change in the face of a changing population age profile, and of the potential for productivity and hence the standard of living to drop because those older workers who want to work are being denied the opportunity?

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

What writers say:

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

Until you know what it is to be a pea …

peas

And the winners are…

The Queensland Writers Centre and the publisher, Hachette Australia, recently announced the successful applicants for their 2015 joint Manuscript Development Program, now in its ninth year. They are:

Patricia Holland’s literary fiction manuscript ‘Lochwall’ (QLD)
Victoria Carless’ literary fiction manuscript, ‘The Dream Walker’ (QLD)
Wendy Davies’ romance manuscript, ‘The Drover’s Rest’ (VIC)
Susan Pearson’s historical crime thriller manuscript, ‘River is a Strong Brown God’ (QLD)
Mary-Ellen Stringer’s contemporary literary fiction manuscript, ‘A Beggar’s Garden’ (QLD)
Angella Whitton’s contemporary fiction manuscript, ‘The Night River’ (NSW)
Kali Napier’s historical fiction manuscript, ‘The Songs of All Poets’ (QLD)
Susan Fox’s commercial women’s fiction manuscript, ‘Mine’ (VIC)
Imbi Neeme’s divorce lit manuscript, ‘The Hidden Drawer’ (VIC).

I remember the excitement I felt when my name appeared on that list in 2010 for my non-fiction manuscript of the story of the Australian trail-blazing aviator, Bert Hinkler, which was published by Hachette Australia three years later as Hustling Hinkler. I also remember the anxiety I felt as I realised I had to polish my work to the highest standard for publication, and then submit it to public scrutiny.

Dawn Barker's book, 'Fractured', was chosen for the Manuscript Development Workshop in 2010, and later published by Hachette

Dawn Barker’s book, ‘Fractured’, was chosen for the Manuscript Development Program in 2010, and later published by Hachette.

From the experience of writers selected for the Manuscript Development Program in the past, not all the authors on the list above will see their books published by Hachette. Some will go on to other publishers; some may not make it to the point of publication, for various reasons.

Whatever the final outcome, selection in itself is an acknowledgment that the writer stands out from the crowd, and has something special to offer. So that alone is an encouragement in an industry where ‘getting a start’ is tough.

I know a writer whose application was unsuccessful this year, and I know how much work she put into the manuscript and how she drew on professional advice to help her shape her story. Even though she missed out on selection, this author is not giving up – she has a back-up plan to seek publication in other ways.

Some of the readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite quotes about writing is from the late science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov:

‘You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.’ Isaac_Asimov

Read, and think, and listen to silence

I’ve been reading a biography of an author who won four Miles Franklin Awards*: Thea Astley: Inventing her own weather by Karen Lamb (University of Queensland Press, 2015), and came across this advice from the distinguished Australian author, Patrick White (1912 -1990), to Astley in 1961:

‘I think you should write nothing for a bit. Read. … Read, and think, and listen to silence, shell the peas, not racing to begin the next chapter, but concentrating on the work in had until you know what it is to be a pea … Then, when you have become solid, you will write the kind of book you ought to write.’ (p. 137)

Fire on the horizon

I was recently in Adelaide, South Australia, taking to ex-Chalkies about Army Education in Papua New Guinea (see previous blogs) and couldn’t resist taking this pic of the jetty at Glenelg around 8 o’clock on a Saturday night.

Glenelg Jetty Adelaide 8pm in mid-October

Until next time

Darryl Dymock

*The Miles Franklin Award award, now worth AU$50,000, was bequeathed by the will of Australian novelist, Miles Franklin, for a ‘published novel or play portraying Australian life in any of its phases’.  All entries for the award must have been published in the previous calendar year.

Making a difference

I’ve never been one for making New Year resolutions, or rather, specific New Year resolutions, but at the beginning of each year I always feel an urge to do better in some way. (Mind you, the fact that I ‘m writing this on the first day of February might indicate that overcoming procrastination could be a specific goal worth aiming for.)

While I was doing a clean-up of my study over the past few weeks (which in itself might be seen as appropriately New Yearish), I came across two clippings, that, on re-reading, seem particularly appropriate for beginning a new year.

One of them is an extract from Ray Bradbury’s classic story, Fahrenheit 451:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.” (HarperCollins, London, 2004, p.164) In everything that I do, I’d rather be the gardener than the guy who just cuts the lawn.  I think of my late sister-in-law, Monica, who was about the same age as me when she died 18 months ago, and how her memory still lives on in the lives of people she knew and loved, because she touched them in some way. Through her acts and words, and through her husband, children and grandchildren, she’s still there.

The other quote I came across is from Neil Finn, former member of the band ‘Crowded House’, who continues to perform. Talking about his song-writing in an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Finn said:

“When something looks effortless, like it always existed, like it rolled out of you like a river, then you have done a good job. But what makes that up is painful, small steps, craft, skulduggery, anything that gets you over the line.”

Neil Finn

Neil Finn

I have a number of writing projects on the go this year, and my aim is to make all of my writing look ‘effortless’. But I know that will require ‘painful, small steps and craft’ and that magic ingredient Finn calls ‘skulduggery’. There is also another element, which he doesn’t mention: just getting on with it. Sit down and write.

For 2015, may your gardens be well tended and your creativity roll out of you like a river. “It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it, into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”

How would you like to be remembered?

Darryl Dymock

Books from our backyard 2014

Both my books that were published in 2013 are in the Books from our backyard 2014 catalogue, developed and recently published by the Queensland Writers Centre. Books from our Backyard is a catalogue of books written by Queenslanders or Queensland residents and published in 2013. My two are:

Hustling Hinkler: The short tumultuous life of a trailblazing Australian aviator (Hachette Australia 2013). Available at good bookshops and online through Amazon, Dymocks etc.

Extending your Use-by Date: Why retirement age is only a number (Xoum 2013). Available in print and e-book from the publisher http://www.xoum.co.au and online though Amazon, iTunes etc.

My latest published piece is ‘Working late: Encore careers’, an essay published in Griffith Review literary magazine, No. 45. As a result of that article, I was interviewed on Tony Delroy’s Nightlife program on ABC Radio on 30 July, along with another contributor to that issue of Griffith Review, Gideon Haigh.

 

 

How much culture is enough?

I went to GOMA today – the Gallery of Modern Art, in Brisbane. It didn’t have one of its blockbuster displays, but every so often I find I need an input of Culture, perhaps to offset the outputting I do when I’m writing. And for the past few weeks I’ve been trying to finish the first draft of my next narrative non-fiction manuscript. Working title? Still a secret. No, that’s not the working title; what I mean is that I haven’t made up my mind and/or I want the title to be a surprise when (if) it hits the bookshops. Besides the (potential) publisher might want to change it. Watch this space.

20140706_145438 (2)

Anyhow, here are a couple of pics of me at GOMA, one with a moover and shaker (sorry, couldn’t resist that), made from empty beef tins, and one in front of a clever bit of work by Robert MacPherson that he dedicates to a group of fisherman known as the ‘Swamp Rats’. Note how some of the words on the signs slide down to the next line, as if he ran out of room.

Earlier in the week I attended the launch of Books From Our Backyard, an initiative of the Queensland Writers Centre, with state government funding, to try to list all the books published the previous year that were written by Queenslanders or by authors resident in  that State. Commercial, self-published, e-books, all get a go. I’m fortunate to have two listings in the glossy catalogue: Hustling Hinkler, and Extending Your Use-By Date. More movers and shakers there, including author Nick Earls, but no cows.

I was pleased to see that my Perth-based friend Dawn Barker’s book, Let Her Go, has hit the bookshops, and no doubt will sell as well as her debut book last year, Fractured.  I picked up my copy of Let Her Go at Dymocks Bookshop Indooroopilly, a couple of suburbs away. Another writer friend, Charlotte Nash, will be at the Indooroopilly Library on 15 July to talk about her recently released book, Iron Junction.

My next piece of non-fiction (apart from my academic publications, which are constantly on the agenda) is an essay in the forthcoming issue of the literary magazine,Griffith Review, whose theme is ‘The way we work’. My article is called, ‘Working Late: creating encore careers’, which is a bit more laid back than the title of another article in the same issue, by Elizabeth Woods, ‘Fit in or f**k off’. Needless to say, there’s a range of fascinating and sometimes provocative articles. In my paper, I argue that as so-called Baby Boomers come to recognise their increasing longevity, and that that cognitive and physical decline for many is generally not as rapid as they feared, this large cohort of older people are increasingly looking for meaningful activities in the third age of life that will make use of their years of life and work experience. Which includes me.

That’s probably enough culture for now. Back to the manuscript.

Darryl Dymock

Hustling Hinkler (Hachette Australia) is available at or through good bookshops and online; Extending Your Use-by Date is available as an e-book or in a print edition from Xoum Publishing, Sydney.

 

 

 

Why are you writing?

I recently ran a workshop, ‘Harnessing your research for writing’, for the Queensland Writers Centre, and one of the most valuable sessions was when the 12 participants were asked to write a synopsis of the non-fiction book they were writing or planning to write. In 100-200 words, they tried to put down what the book is about, in words that would make a reader want to rush to open it, or a publisher offer a contract.

This turned out to be a challenging session for all of them. I watched them sweating over their keyboards and notebooks, grimacing, sitting back, crossing out, plunging on. At the end of the allotted time, I asked each of them to read out the first few sentences, and for the other to give feedback. It was a very constructive session, I thought, and its major value was in forcing all of them to consider what the purpose of the book was, what their intention was in writing it. Some of them were quite clear about where the book was heading, others were not so sure, and one or two decided they needed a major rethink.

It was a very interesting range of themes too, from memoir to self-help, and we plan to get together again in a couple of months to see how we’re all going.

If you’re writing a book, or planning to, you might consider the same exercise, writing a synopsis, as a way of focussing on its purpose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. It could be a helpful way of keeping your writing on track.

One person who’s been on track with her writing is Charlotte Nash. I recently went to the launch of Charlotte’s second rural romance novel, Iron Junction. Set in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, the book tells the story of Dr Beth Harding, who leaves Sydney to take a locum job in the mining town of Iron Junction, and Will Walker, who’s foregone following his father into the cattle business to work in the mines.

Hi-vis vests & hardhats at the Iron Junction launch

Hi-vis vests & hardhats at the Iron Junction launch

Once again the book draws on Charlotte’s experience in the bush as a medical trainee and engineer. At the launch, a bunch of creative friends came in high-vis vests and hard hats, complete with Iron Junction logo. Charlotte added to the creativity by giving away chocolate bars and bottles of waterWith Charlotte Nash Iron Junction launch adorned with a label from the book’s cover. Sustenance for the mind and body. Water and reading are non-fattening, but I have my doubts about the chocolate …

Writing with passion and purpose

When people learn that I’m a (mainly) non-fiction writer, they sometimes say, ‘I don’t know how you write a book. I wouldn’t know where to start.’

When it comes to non-fiction, you should start with the primary purpose of the book. Why are you writing it?

If it’s a memoir, are you writing it for yourself or for others to read? If it’s a history, what are the main themes you want to stress, i.e. what are the points you want to get across through the story you are telling? If it’s a self-help book, what messages do you want the reader to go away with, or what actions do you want them to take? And so on.

In the introduction to Speechless (Melbourne University Press, 2012) James Button writes:

I wrote this book because I feel an important issue is at stake. Our politics seem thin and barren. Ordinary people are increasingly uncomprehending and disengaged. … But this view, however understandable and widely felt, does not do justice to the many people I met in Canberra who are trying to do good things … On the inside, the stories of politics and government are as fascinating and vital as ever.

Whether or not you agree with his viewpoint, Button’s words go to the heart of any writing: the author’s passion for the subject, passion for the story, passion for the message. What is it that you are passionate about that you want to convey in your book?

Once you have decided on the main purpose of your writing, you need to deal with how best to sequence the material you want to present. If you’re writing a history or biography, it might seem a no-brainer that the events will be in chronological order, but that isn’t always so. You still need to engage the reader, and some information may better serve as background to the main events.

For example, in Jon Krakauer’s book about a disastrous series of accidents and misjudgements on Mount Everest in 1996, Into thin air (Pan Books, 2011), he lets us know in the Preface that twelve people died – we don’t need to wait for the final chapter for that piece of tragic news. He is counting on the reader wanting to know how such appalling loss of life came about. In addition, the first three chapters leap back and forth in time: May 10, 1996; 1852; and March 29, 1996, respectively. In Chapters 2 and 3, Krakauer explains how past events had an impact on the happenings he describes in Chapter 1.

You will also need to decide how to structure your information, e.g. in chapters around key events, by theme, or by topic. If you compare cook books, you will see that culinary authors use a variety of criteria to decide what they will include and how they will group and sequence it. Stephanie Alexander’s classic, The cook’s companion (Penguin, 1997), features recipes based around foods in alphabetical order, beginning with ‘Anchovies’, and ending with ‘Zucchini and squash’, but the opening sections are about ‘Equipment’ and ‘Basics’. The sections in Annabel Langbein’s The free range cook (ABC Books, 2012) on the other hand, start with ‘From the oven’ and conclude with ‘From the orchard’. The authors and publishers not only have a particular purpose in mind for each of those books, but also a particular audience, which is the third issue you need to consider: for whom are you writing?

The answer to that question will help you decide on both the content and sequence for your book.

If you’re writing a self-help book about computers, for instance, what level of expertise do you expect the readers to have to be able to make use of what you tell them? In the early days of home computers, an American professor of adult education, Malcolm Knowles, complained that manufacturers’ manuals were geared towards teaching buyers how a computer works rather than about using it to perform the real-life tasks people bought them for. The point he made is still an important one for non-fiction authors: consider what the end-user is likely to want the information for.

Even in memoir writing, you need to consider what your intended readers might be most interested in. Putting in everything you consider important may be boring to those not so intimately connected with your life events and activities.

Nevertheless, as Simon Nasht says in The last explorer, a biography of Hubert Wilkins, the sum of a person’s life is not measured just by its accomplishments, but by how it is spent. The challenge for an author is to present that life, whether it is their own or someone else’s, with a sense of purpose in the writing, and with the information ordered in a way that makes sense to the reader, while at the same time not overburdening the book with trivia.

Finally, you may want to supplement your text with images, and once again you need to consider what will be helpful to the reader. Can you imagine a cookbook without photographs to help you see what you are aiming for? A map will make clear an explorer’s path, drawings can transform a how-to book, a graph can provide an instant comparison of a bunch of statistics, and carefully selected images can illuminate a biography or memoir.

I’ll be leading a one-day workshop at the Queensland Writers Centre in Brisbane on Saturday May 3 on the topic of ‘Harnessing your research for writing’, and we’ll be working our way through all those elements of a non-fiction book.

It doesn’t matter where the participants are up to in the writing process – whether it’s still an idea in their heads, or whether they’ve assembled some research and have begun writing. At the end of the day, they should go away with a plan of how to put it all together in a way that will be attractive to readers.

This should be the perfect opportunity to kick off the project they’ve always been intending to do. 

If you can’t make it to the workshop, I hope the ideas above might stimulate you to begin or continue your own non-fiction writing journey.

What’s your passion and how do you or will you write about it? Whatever sort of writer you are, I’d love to hear from you via the Comments button on this page.

PS My ‘self help’ book, Extending your use-by date, is now also available in print format, from the publisher: Xoum Publications.