Last Friday, making our way to Chilli India in Melbourne’s CBD for dosas, my friend Art asks me about my book idea. We had just seen Toni Jordan interview Liane Moriarty for The Wheeler Centre in a jam-packed Athenaeum Theatre.
Liane, Toni tells us as she introduces the no.1 New York Times bestselling author, is one of Australia’s most famous novelists, having sold over 14 million books worldwide. Her breakthrough book was The Husband’s Secret, and the book that first lifted Liane from the page onto TV was Big Little Lies, with actresses Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles. All seven of the author’s books have now been optioned for the screen.
Humbled by Liane’s gift of storytelling and ability to craft 3D characters with words, I struggle to answer Art. I mumble something about wanting to write a memoir. In reality, my book idea has no backbone. No scaffolding from which I could comfortable perch myself and shape a piece of art. But, at the same time, if I hadn’t just heard Liane speak, I might’ve quashed the idea altogether.
Toni gets into the nitty-gritty almost immediately and asks Liane about her writing process. The author tells us a story: If you had asked my husband this question a few years ago, he’d have told you that I research and plan my book chapter by chapter. This is what he had told other guests at a dinner party that I had not attended. But when he returned home and reported back on his discussion, I quickly corrected him.
But that’s not what I do at all; I’m not a planner.
Maybe you should be, so you’ll become famous – and I can get my Maserati?
For each new book Liane’s begins, she buys a notebook. It must be pretty. Hardcover. Beautifully bound. Then she heads to a café to make some notes. But in reality, she acknowledges she needs to head home and just bang the words out on her computer. (I liken this – the notebook, the café – to a ritual. The oiling to get one going.)
While Liane isn’t a planner, it doesn’t mean, she tells us, that she is a ‘vessel through which words flow through her fingertips and onto the computer’. It’s still a struggle. When she gets stuck she goes for a walk – walking helps to unblock the writer’s block. And when she’s not writing, Liane is always thinking about her characters and how their stories will unfold. Usually, two-thirds of the book gets written before she knows how the story will end. (Hearing all this is a relief!)
Now that she’s a full-time author, Liane likes to write in three-hour blocks. Her one rule is to write at least 500 fresh words in that time – otherwise she finds herself chiselling away at what’s already written, and the story doesn’t move forward. (This hits home. Lately, I’ve taken to writing my first draft by hand in a bid to override the editor that takes over when I’m tapping away on laptop.)
Earlier in her writing career, Liane looked towards other authors’ methods for ideas. Her favourite novelist is Anne Tyler. And when she discovered that Anne uses index cards to write her books, Liane bought a pack too. But then she didn’t know what to do with them. When her one of her novelist sisters – Liane comes from a family of writers – told her she uses highlighters, Liane added those to her writing kit too. Again, she didn’t know how to use them.
Before Liane had the luxury of writing in three-hour blocks she had a full-time job in marketing and advertising with ‘a corner office’. It was here, all those years ago, that she recalls receiving a phone call from her sister Jaclyn, informing Liane that her first manuscript was just accepted for publication.
Of course, I was happy for my sister, but I was also filled with envy.
It was the proverbial kick that she needed to get started – otherwise, Liane informs us, that she might still be in advertising with no books to her name. To get a jumpstart, Liane enrolled herself into a Masters course, which required a 30,000-word thesis.
But I was a show off and wrote 100,000.
That thesis became her first book, Three Wishes, and she hasn’t looked back.
In any case – no matter how famous you are – the message is universal: just write. It is only through writing you discover your process; that you get anything written; that you improve your craft. Do whatever it takes to get you going.
Sure, come and listen to me talk, but instead of attending writers’ festivals, you should be writing.
The aspiring authors in the audience laugh sheepishly in recognition of this truth. I think I’m laughing the loudest.