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thirties, I spent five years writing and revising a creative non-fiction book that, despite being shortlisted for two unpublished manuscript awards, is still unpublished.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

*

Keen to learn with me? See my events page for upcoming workshops and other opportunities.

The secret to fighting project inertia

Recently I was invited to be a guest author at the Sutherland Shire Fellowship of Australian Writers, who are an absolutely lovely bunch of people.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Just look at the How to Be Australian themed afternoon tea they put on.

If you’re wondering, I didn’t have an iced vovo. I was busy digging into the salted caramel slices, which were perfectly chewy and had no dessicated coconut in the base! A++

And in honour of the event, I wore my caramel slice earrings. I’m very on brand.

As the guest author, I decided to share some of the advice I’ve learned over the ten years I’ve been steadily developing my writing process and industry expertise.

I talked about trusting the processing, about learning to be your own editor, and about the importance of regular feedback from informed readers (ie other writers).

I also talked about project inertia.

This is what I’ve come to call the feeling when a project stalls, when I’m not working on it (for whatever reason, some more excusable than others) and then feel a lot resistance when I try to get back into it.

authors-ashley-kalagian-blunt-and-dinuka-mckenzie
With author Dinuka McKenzie, winner of the 2020 Banjo Prize

I began my current manuscript in July 2019 and it’s been through a few serious bouts of project inertia. I had to spend several months editing How to Be Australian. Then I had a two-month stretch of terrible fatigue in early 2020. (That happened right before covid hit, so I spent two months cancelling plans and staying home, and then as soon as I started to feel better, we were suddenly in lockdown.) Then I spent a couple of months doing book publicity, and then I had another 10-week stretch of fatigue.

After each of these long breaks, I really struggled to get back into my new manuscript. I felt distant from the project, and a bit overwhelmed, and there was always something else to keep me busy.

A standard creative writing tip is to write every day. For a long time, I disagreed with this. In fact, I was asked in a Q&A from the Wheeler Centre, “What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?” I said:

One common piece of advice is to write every day. This is nonsense. I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years, and I’ve never managed to write every day. I have, however, interviewed more than 140 people, completed two Masters theses, written four manuscripts and published two of them. Most of that time I also had a day job, and for almost four years I’ve had a debilitating illness. Better advice: write when you can, write what excites you, keep going.

But.

In October last year, when I was really struggling to get into my manuscript draft for the fourth time, I was lucky enough to interview author Kate Mildenhall.

Kate talked about her writing process and the process journal she keeps, documenting all her thoughts around the project and its development as she goes. We also talked about writing practice, and writers who write every day.

So I decided to try it. Both the process journal and this crazy writing every day thing. I committed to working on the manuscript for at least 15 minutes every day for a month.

And seven months later, I’m still doing it, for one amazing reason: no more project inertia.

I still greatly prefer to sit down and work on my writing for at least an hour at a time, ideally two or three. I can’t get much done in 15 minutes.

But it is exceptionally helpful to create a habit of sitting down and the computer, opening the file, and getting my head into the manuscript. This means when I am able to sit down for a longer stretch, I can get straight into it.

I still miss one or two days a month, almost always because of the fatigue. But otherwise, I keep myself accountable in my process journal.

And I’ve made huge progress since that October commitment. Then I only had 45,000 words of a first draft. Now I’ve completed that draft, used it to develop a 15,000-word scene-by-scene outline, and am already 25,000 words into a new draft.

How to Be Australian Kalagian Blunt

So now I’ve started suggesting writing daily. Fifteen minutes a day can lead to a surprising amount of of progress, and spare a lot of the torture of project inertia.

I wish someone had told me that ten years ago!