The 13 top writing tips I wish I’d had before I started

I’ve wanted to be an author since 1989, when I was six years old.

My Name Is Revenge cover with author Ashley Kalagian Blunt
At my first book launch, April 2019

I took creative writing workshops in university and college. I churned out novels and stories and possibly the worst poetry in history of English.

In my early thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.

A stack of journals, a writing project
A selection of my journals, circa 2012 to 2020

Finally, in 2019, my first book came out. It only took me 30 years.

Over that time, I collected a lot of writing advice, and thought a lot about the process of going from aspiring writer to published author. If I’d had even half of this advice when I started, I think the process would have been easier and more enjoyable, if not faster.

So here it is, my gift to you.

Author speaks to crowd at My Name Is Revenge book launch
My Name Is Revenge book launch, April 2019

13 tips on building a writing practice

1. Don’t wait for inspiration or the ‘right’ mood
Learn to unleash your creativity through generative exercises and build a consistent practice. More advice on accessing your creativity >>

2. Start by building a creative practice
When you’re starting out, engage with your creativity for its own sake, rather than with any specific end goal (like publication) in mind. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop your skills if you want to be an author. Enjoy the process. Plus, engaging with our creativity can be therapeutic – hear art therapist Karin Foxwell discuss the healing power of creativity in this interview >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt author

3. Remember that your creativity is important
Creativity isn’t frivolous, or selfish, or peripheral – it’s a radically powerful act. Author Sarah Sentilles teaches that when we turn toward our creativity, we turn toward the world. Hear more from Sarah in this interview >>

4. Understand that creative work can spark anxiety
What if we don’t know what we’re doing? What if the work we’re producing is rubbish? This is absolutely normal, and something many published authors still struggle with. Listen to author Kate Mildenhall share her advice >>

5. Tune out your inner critic
Most of us judge ourselves and our ideas harshly, but the truth is you often need to go through a lot of mediocre ideas and drafts before arriving at an exciting one. You can learn to tune out the inner critic that tries to shut you down. Here’s a tip: when I’m find myself second-guessing every word of a new draft, I change my font to trees >>

Ashley Kalagian Blunt 'How to Be Australian' in NYC Trees font
Writing in trees

6. Overcome project inertia
Often during a project we can lose momentum, and day by day it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to the work – resistance builds up. I call this ‘project inertia’ and there are strategies to overcome and avoid it. Read more about project inertia here >>

7. Trust the process
As you progress in your practice, you’ll develop a process that works for you. But then you’ll get derailed and feel lost. Go back to your process, and learn to trust it >>

Three people in front of shrubs
One of my writers’ groups

8. Get a writers group (or two)
Once you’ve started producing work you think might be headed for publication, it’s time to get feedback. One of the best ways to do that is a writers’ group. I credit mine with helping me sharpen the skills needed to get published. Read more about how to get the most from writers’ groups here >>

9. Learn your craft
Like any craft, writing has technical elements. If you want to produce publishable writing, you need to learn these skills. In this interview, I talk about applying scene structure to my memoir and other craft aspects >>

On stage at Sydney Writers’ Festival, 2019

10. Build your confidence
Submitting your work means getting rejected. Don’t let that dissuade you, or take up too much of your emotional energy. You can learn to handle rejection! Here’s my advice on building up your confidence >>

11. Accept the ups and downs
If you want to become published and get paid for your work, the process will have many ups and downs. This is true for practically all writers. Here’s the messy process I went through, summarised into 10 easy steps >>

Writers group with six people holding books
My other writers’ group

12. Find your joy, even through rejection
For a lot of years, I received a lot of rejections. But I found myself having a wonderful time, because I loved my creative work, and I loved all the fabulous readers and writers I was meeting through the community. During that, I got involved in supporting the writing community as a way to connect with others, and wrote about how much I learned through this process >>

13. Get ready to be surprised
You never know what will happen. I wrote four full-length books – two novels and two memoirs – and couldn’t get any of them published. Then my publishing career began with a 25,000-word novella and essay collection, which also became my first audiobook >>

*

I’m teaching an in-person memoir workshop in Sydney, and I’d love to see you there.

Crafting Memoir: An Introduction
Saturday 7 May 2022, 10am-4pm
In person at Writing NSW, Callan Park, Sydney
$135-$210 (see website)

Your lived experience provides the raw material for a memoir – but how do you shape that material into something greater than a series of recollections? How do you craft a cohesive, compelling narrative arc from the quiet moments our lives often turn on?

Join me for a practical workshop filled with writing exercises, analysis of memoir extracts, and discussion. You’ll learn strategies for getting your first draft down and approaches for tackling the serious task of revision, including what narrative structure is and how it works when writing from real life. For more info and enrolments, visit Writing NSW >>

Ep 50 How to remake the world with author Sarah Sentilles

“We have these narrow stories about what it means to be a human being,” author Sarah Sentilles says. But we have the power to expand them, just as we have the power to remake the world.

Sarah Sentilles is the author of Draw Your Weapons, Breaking Up with God, A Church of Her Own and Taught by America. A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Divinity School, she lives in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Her latest book is Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours

Stranger Care is a memoir of Sarah and her husband’s experience with the foster system in Idaho and the ten months they parented an infant named Coco, only to return her to her loving but vulnerable mother. She describes the book as “a keening, a song of grief, a love letter”.  

In episode 50, Sarah joins us to discuss coping with unexpected loss, who counts as family, and how at heart, all of us are baby monkeys.

She also shares how each of us can use our creativity to remake the world around us. She believes being an artist is urgent and reparative work. When we turn towards our creative work, Sarah teaches, we turns toward the world.

Books and authors discussed in this episode
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles
This Accident of Being Lost by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World by Elaine Scarry
The Rabbits by Sophie Overett
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
– ‘The abortion I didn’t have‘ by Merrit Tierce
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

Listen to episode 50 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or on Apple podcasts, SpotifyStitcher, or your favourite podcast app, and find out about past episodes here.

Unleash your creative genius

Humans are creative creatures. Look at everything we’ve created, from the Eiffel Tower to competitive hot dog eating to this amphibious bicycle.

Ready to bike across the Atlantic!

I’m always bursting with ideas (though none as great as that Floaty the Bubble Bike). And I’m sure you are too – even if you don’t know it.

This has been one of the delights of becoming an author. When I was writing my first book, one of my 8000 worries was that I only had this one idea. What if I wrote the book, and it got published, but then I couldn’t think of anything else to write about?

But learning to write meant, in part, learning to pay attention to my creativity. And the more I paid attention to it, the more I realised the problem wasn’t too few ideas.

It was too many.

Now I have a list of about a dozen ideas for books, some more far-fetched than others. I have ideas for essays scrawled all over the place, and no time to even start them.

More and more research is showing how creativity is a muscle, and that even if our adult selves have been conditioned to tune out our creative impulses, they’re still there. We just need to rebuild them, which basically means to start listening again.

Elizabeth Gilbert has lots of wonderful things to say about this in Big Magic. Do yourself a favour, listen to her narrate the audiobook. She advises having an affair with your creativity – sneak it into your life however you can manage, get excited, let it be joyful.

Elizabeth Gilbert on Big Magic - Vogue
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

And creativity is worth pursuing, not just for the joy, but also because it can be healing! As art therapist Karin Foxwell explained in an interview, creativity can help people discover why they feel the way they do and how they express meaning in their lives.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that creativity is a practice – that means just sitting down and doing it. There’s incredible freedom in that. There’s no right or wrong way to be creative, whether you’re writing or dancing or gardening.

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss all of this with author, Story Room Aus host and positive ageing activist Karen Sander for her podcast, Ageing Fearlessly.

Ageing Fearlessly Podcast

In my work at Writing NSW, I’ve met a lot of people who started writing later in life, often in retirement. They usually say that they always wanted to write, but that they never had the time. I always admire them for finally making time to reconnect with their creative selves.

In my interview with Karen, I talk about the process of developing my writing practice and prioritising creativity, and share tips and resources for doing the same.

Wishing you creative joy,
Ashley
xo

Ep 13: Navigating creative anxiety with Kate Mildenhall

In episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, we interview the legend herself, Kate Mildenhall.

Kate’s debut novel Skylarking was longlisted for the Voss Literary Prize 2017 and the Indie Book Awards 2017. Kate co-hosts The First Time podcast with author Katherine Collette. Her latest novel, The Mother Fault, is out now in Australia and will be published in the UK in 2021.

In 2019, I appeared as part of a First Time podcast panel discussion hosted by Kate, along with authors Cassie Hamer and John Purcell. Now in 2020, we’ve come full circle, and James and I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate.

We were keen to talk about her new book, but in particular I wanted to speak to Kate about creative anxiety (meaning the anxiety inherent to most creative pursuits, not being anxious in creative ways … although that would also make an interesting discussion).

As you can tell from her bio, Kate’s a very successful author. The Mother Fault went into reprint after only eight days, despite the fact that she was launching it during Melbourne’s stage four lockdown.

But here’s why I really wanted to speak to Kate: “I know I come across as a really confident person,” she says. “I am absolutely not, and have many times in my life been absolutely crippled with anxiety.”

On her own podcast, Kate is very open about the challenges around being a writer and a creative. She’s also very aware of her own processes. As we discuss in this episode, she journals her projects, which not only gives her great insight into the project itself, but works to validate the work that she does in terms of reading and thinking and sketching – in other words, all that time when she’s not explicitly writing.

Along with creative anxiety, we discuss procrastination – “It’s getting words on the page that we find a bazillion reasons not to do” – and the unexpected experience of being overwhelmed by niceness: “You get all the nice feedback anyone deserves in their entire life, and you get it in, like, 14 days, and your brain breaks a little bit. You’re just not designed for that.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, Kate is exactly what you need! You can listen to episode 13 of James and Ashley Stay at Home here, or your favourite podcast app.