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How to Be a Writer: Who Smashes Deadlines, Crushes Editors and Lives in a Solid Gold Hovercraft - book review

The scribbler’s life is not a matter of communing with the muse – it all comes down to discipline.

John Birmingham: a no-nonsense, useful and often profane guide to writing for a living.
John Birmingham: a no-nonsense, useful and often profane guide to writing for a living.

Why should we listen to the writing advice of John Birmingham? After all, he’s only had a hit memoir, He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, which has since been made into a play and a film, spent four years on Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won a major Australian non-fiction prize, worked for numerous publications and written a heap of speculative fiction novels. Oh, and been a freelance writer for 25 years, riding out the waves of media turmoil and shrinkage.

Now he’s written a funny, no-nonsense, extremely useful and often profane guide to the writing life. It’s got everything a budding writer-for-hire might want to know: how to do interviews, write a feature, column or book, juggle deadlines, and even pitch a story to editors (tips: read back issues, seek out the deputy editor).

I could quote bits endlessly, but you only need a few gems. Birmingham is very focused on routine and discipline, which is dead right. Treat your writing like a business. Be willing to write about anything, but you must also be able to do something 99% of other writers can’t. Be ethical (“Cherry-picking some colourful line because it would make a good pull quote is a douche move”), but don’t be dull. Columns should involve actual reportage as much as opinion, he says hopefully; “If you can do humour, good. If you can’t, don’t even try.” How to be a poet? In full: “Embrace your suffering. And do your grocery shopping late on Sunday when many supermarkets are tossing their slightly rotten, out-of-date produce.” Read more than you write.

LS2616_b&c_WriterPlanning to write a book? Are you an architect or a gardener? Better to lean towards the former, he says, meaning devoting plenty of time to planning rather than extemporising all the time. He also has great tips for hitting word targets and avoiding distraction, wrangling agents, publishers, editors and writing buddies, marketing oneself and negotiating social media.

I doubt, of course, that if I’d have had this book 25 years ago I’d have taken Birmingham’s hard-won lessons to heart. If you want to make writing a career, you should.


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