The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls (Best Of)

Nick Earls

Download The Creative Conversation #5 - Nick Earls

On the challenges provided by writing

One of the things I really like about being a writer is that I’m 18 books into my career now and I know that I haven’t learnt everything, there’s more for me to learn. Any time I sit down to write a new book, it’s a new puzzle I haven’t learnt how to solve yet. I’ve got to come up with new stuff for it. And I like the way it stretches me in that way. All I’ve got to keep worrying about is for people to keep buying the books so that I get to keep doing more of them.

On his writing process

For me, that’s one of the advantages of having planned to write something. Most years I’ll think, there’s the novel I’m going to write that year and then something else comes along, and much as I’d love to rush at it right now, it’s actually better if I don’t, better if I give it time, better if I allow other ideas to come along and add themselves to that. So for me the process begins small, and I don’t lose the small ideas now and I think that’s crucial. So I’ll write it down on a scrap of paper, the back of an envelope, a boarding pass. It feels better to write it on a scrap of paper rather than something I paid money for, because if it’s a terrible idea, nothing’s wasted. Okay, so I do occasionally now type it quickly into my phone. So I do do that. But the problem is that the phone doesn’t follow with my age old system that follows this: so then, new ideas come along and I think, hey that’d be an interesting fit with that idea I had whenever, and I go to my random ideas file and I’ll find it. And often it’s not a perfect fit, which means I’ll have to build a third idea to fit them together.

So then I have three ideas to fit in together, so that is when I pull in the technology in a big way. I use a paperclip. So, a paperclip, patented in 1867 and still does the job binding ideas together. And so the paperclip starts to get a bit stretched, and then I gotta go for some updated technology: the manila folder. 1898. And the manila folder was invented after the invention of the filing cabinet. So that means someone invented the filing cabinet and then someone thought ‘oh! We’ve got to put something in there! Can anyone invent a manila folder? It actually came just after the invention of the filing cabinet, so yeah, someone decided instead of shoving just random bits of paper in there, why don’t we invent something that fits. That’s clever! So I go for that next.

So then I have my pile of notes in a manila folder, with all kinds of junk tossed in there that might end up in my story, and it gets fatter and fatter and then some point I think, you’ve got enough junk now, so look at this and I think divergently at first, I’m adding anything that might be possibly right for the story. Then I have to think convergently. I go back to my pile and I go, ‘Who is this about? And what is my story?’ And I try to draw my story out of my pile, my massive pile of notes. I work out what my main story line is, I think about what my subplots are, and how they push the main storyline along. And I start writing kind of scene notes there. And in the case of something like a novel like The Fix, I think I nded up with something like 65 scene notes, with many of them for the main storyline but also three subplots. And I knew the order, and then I experimented with the order of each of those scene sets of scene notes for each of the plot lines and then I put them out on the floor and then I merge the plot lines together. I pick them up, and that’s my outline. And then I can write my novel.

On his gathering process versus his writing process

The gathering process can be several years and the making-sense-of-the-folder-contents process is typically a month or two. And I’ve got those – and they’re those kind of different tools I use, with the scene notes on the floor being one, because everything’s still up for grabs then. I can walk around it and go actually, that incident there, will be better if it pushed the story rather than came in after it, so I can move that there, what consequences does that have. It’s all very fluid then. I also draw up a time line, things like that, fiddle around, they’re all just tools. Not one of them is binding.

So that process takes a couple of months, then I flesh out an outline, so typically, for an 80,000 word novel, I’ll have a 20,000 word outline that includes all the scenes I need and chunks of dialogue. So then the thing to do is sit down and write the novel, and because I put so much into the process before then, the writing of the novel, the first draft will typically several months rather than taking several years, cos I’m not having to find things as I go. If I do – if I find new stuff that’s great, if it’s working for me, I don’t block it out, but I don’t need it to get up in the morning and write the novel. So it means I don’t get blocked very often, because things that might have been blocked for me have come up two years before and I’ve found something that will get me through. And I prefer to go through that process in the planning stage rather than in the writing stage because I know too many people who have got to like the 45,000 word mark of their first draft and then worked out the unsalvageable plot flaw and then had to walk away. I like to walk away much earlier before I put all that effort in. 

On his daily routine and on the publicity side of writing

Because I’d had years to work out my process, and because a novel can’t be written from beginning to end just fueled by pure inspiration and excitement alone, I can work with that. There have been times when I’ve written a short story where I got excited about the idea and that excitement has carried me through the whole day, and by the end of the day I’ve got a draft of a short story. Can’t do that with a novel. So that’s why it helps for me to have a lot that I can turn to, because I’m going to be waking up on plenty of days not feeling inspired and picking up the clothes I dropped on the floor next to the bed the night before and putting them on and then going to work.

So I do have a process that I get to work in the morning – if I’m actually writing a novel, I get back work in the morning, and I get back to the document where I left it the night before, probably go back a few pages, read through, and then push on into the outline, incorporating whatever’s there that needs to be incporated and fleshing it out and writing the story. Then after that’s done I’ll put that away for a month or so and go back to it with a slightly clear head, work out what my agenda needs to be for my next draft, try and do that, and then go through that process another time, maybe, send that to the publisher, then get editorial feedback and take it from there. So that’s kind of a big part of the job. But the other part of the job is the opposite part of that, the opposite of being shut up in a room at home alone in bad clothes shaving every fifth day and talking only to yourself. The other side of it requires a different personality where you go to writers festivals, you go on book tours and you have to find an engaging way of letting people in to the story behind the story. And you become this kind of touring anecdotalist, which is not what you were to write the novel, but I like the mixture. I think if I stayed at home and my every working day was me sitting there writing more fiction I think I would be sad. You need something. You need to see other things and you need to get away from your story sometimes in order for your story to be better. But if I did nothing but tour the world talking about myself, I would also go crazy that way. So what I’ve got to try to do is balance it all over the course of a year so that I’ve got my writing time, and that works one way, I’ve got my event and media and touring time and that works another way.

On the changing face of the Australian publishing industry

Australian publishing opened up to writers outside of Sydney and Melbourne twenty years ago and found me. Then along comes email and the Internet and it’s much easier to manage a writing career wherever you want to live, and to be in contact with people wherever you need to be in contact with them. So the world has changed since then. But back when I started, it was practically impossible to know how to get started, and impossible to know who to talk to. And you did end up doing what Jonathan Swift did with Gulliver’s Travels 300 years ago, you kind of tie it up with brown string and mail it off to someone and hope for the best! And you don’t know who to pick and you don’t have anyone to give you advice, but things changed a bit for me at the end of that decade. But I think now it’s a bigger industry, there are more people in it, there are more ways to connect with it, but at the same time I’m not saying it’s easy, cos there are lots of people wanting to do it. There will always be more people wanting to do it than there are spots available, but I think it works better as an industry now, so people can find ways in. 

On his advice to writers

There’s two things to look at [when becoming a writer]. One is: connect with the industry. Work out who’s who and what’s what, join writers centres and things like that, get a sense of how the industry works. The other is do the writing. A lot of that starts with reading. Working out what kind of writer you’re going to be and working out how to do things. So I think: do the industry part, do the writing part, and if you’re doing the writing part right, the industry part will give you a sense of where the opportunities might be.