A bestselling author answers your questions
You can do anything you want when you leave school.
Graeme Simsion decided to become an author. He has sold 6 million books worldwide.
Here, Graeme answers questions from an NCEA student who wants to be an author one day.
A transcript of the video:
Q. First of all, who are you and what's your story?
A. It’s a really interesting question to ask a writer, because we’re all used to answering that question when we’re introduced to people and so forth, you know, “What’s your story?”, and we manage to answer the story of our lives basically, in one, two, three, maybe ten minutes at worst. And yet what we’re doing is an absolute masterpiece of selection and compression because of the number of things that have actually happened in our lives. And that’s one of the key skills of the writer, of the novelist, to say “what are the specific scenes, the specific moments, that I’m choosing from a much much much greater story?” And our novels end up varying from a whole page describing a tree - stopping time for that instant as we describe a tree, right to perhaps twenty years of someone’s life being compressed into a couple of sentences: “Over the next twenty years he worked at Information Technology.”
So, here’s my quick attempt, in the context of being a writer: I spent most of my early career working at Information Technology, at the age of fifty I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I went back to university and started studying screenwriting (for reasons which I’ll explain later) and, after several years, I had a - well I was very proud of the screenplay I had - it won a couple of awards, but nobody wanted to make it; and at that point, I realised as I should’ve before, that there wasn’t much of a market for original screenplays by unknown screenwriters. And in fact, most studios would much rather adapt a best-selling novel.
So, I took my story, I rewrote it as a novel, and that, The Rosie Project, was the novel, has been pretty successful. Sony Pictures bought the rights (they haven’t yet made it into a movie) and in the meantime I’ve written four and a half more novels.
So that’s my story in a nutshell. Obviously it leaves out enormous aspects of my life: my romantic life, my family life, my health - all those sorts of things - that’s what we do, we select.
Q. What advice would you give to an aspiring fiction writer?
A. I’m asked this question pretty often. And the answer that I would give is imagine you want to be a neurologist. You probably have some concept of how much work a neurologist has to do - studying medicine first, specialising, getting an enormous amount of experience and so forth before finally qualifying as a neurologist.
Well, let me say, there are more jobs out in the world for neurologists, than there are for people making a living out of writing fiction. So, the advice I would give is imagine you are an aspiring neurologist and imagine or expect to do the same amount of work to achieve your goal.
It’s not just about having talents, the sort of myth that some people write, some people can’t, and those who can write will be immediate successes - there’s an enormous amount of work. In my experiences, the people that do put in that order of work, have a very high rate of success in becoming a novelist. And those who don’t - well, there’s going to be exceptions but in general, they don’t.
Q. How have you made a living out of writing?
A. Well I am one of those very fortunate people who manages to survive quite well on royalties, but I’ve sold five or six million copies of my novels around the world in forty odd languages - most writers are not so fortunate, and you would be foolish to go into writing in the expectation that you will make a living directly out of writing.
Many, many writers supplement their royalties with teaching, with editing, reviewing others’ work, coaching, writing non fiction, journalism and so forth, so they still manage to make a living out of writing in a broader sense. And then there are others who survive thanks to a day job, thanks to money earned in a previous life, thanks perhaps to inheritance, to a partner or whatever. I would just say it would be foolish to assume that you are going to make a living out of writing.
Q. What have you done in the past or would consider doing other than being a fiction novelist?
A. Well, in the past I worked in Information Technology. It was a job that I really enjoyed, but frequently there are surveys about what people would consider their ideal job, and the winner so often is being a writer. I can only endorse that, except to say that applies to being a full time writer who is able to live either off their writing royalties or some other means as we talked about before. It’s a much much tougher life when you are pulling coffees everyday trying to get your writing done in the evening.
In the future, and I’m thinking about this now, (perhaps I don’t have any more novels left in me after the one I’m writing at the moment) already I’m coaching, mentoring other people, getting involved in their projects, reading their work, providing commentary and so forth. One of the great things about studying screenwriting is that in the film industry there’s a real consciousness of people contributing, a lot of people contributing to the end result, which is the movie. And you sit there, and you look at all those credits coming down, and all of those people, trust me, who are on those credits are thinking “I had a part in Star Wars” or whatever it might be. And I feel the same way, call it ego, whatever you like, but when someone gets a book or a short story out and I have in some way contributed to that I can say “well it is what it is in part at least because of the contribution I made.” And that is a very satisfying way to live.
Q. What made you want to pursue a career in writing and what helped you stay motivated through it all?
A. Well, there’s two questions there. I was stimulated originally by a book called The Unkindest Cut, by the American film critic Joe Queenan, who wrote about making a very low budget movie. And I had no experience whatsoever but I was really captivated by the idea that these days, unlike in the days where a thirty-five millimetre film is just prohibitively expensive, that today you can actually make a movie limited only by your talent.
As it turned out, that lack of talent was a limitation but we produced - my wife and I - a ninety-minute movie based on a screenplay which I adapted from one of her then unpublished novels, and I got the screenwriting bug - I had to do a lot more, I knew I had to flesh out my knowledge and that’s why I went back to study, but that gave me the bug, and that is what stimulated me.
Now what has kept me going through screenwriting and through prose novels and short-story writing I guess are probably three things: the first is having small successes.
At one stage I had sort of announced when I was studying that my goal was to have a Hollywood movie produced, and the head of school took me aside and said, because I was very obviously ambitious and driven about this, “Graeme, are you going to be okay if this doesn’t happen?” And I was sort of surprised about the question, but understood where it was coming from and said, “Look, I’ve had so many small successes, you know, a short story published, a short film at a festival or on television or even just screened locally or even just the sheer satisfaction of writing something, that feels good to come out of me.” So those small successes were a big help.
The second is the satisfaction I was referring to, of creating something that you didn’t know you had in you. To write a story, or a screenplay after multiple attempts or iterations or editing or refinements you say, “Wow, I just didn’t know that I could do that.” I think that’s hugely satisfying.
And I guess a third one is more irons in the fire, that when you inevitably get rejections, if you can say “Ah yes, but I’ve still got the short film that I haven’t got an answer on yet” or “I’ve got that short story in progress” or “I’ve got that other publisher that I might be able to send my novel to,” that really helps avoid you losing hope.
Q. What are the most valuable things you have learnt as a writer?
A. Well let me go back to my original statement that you’ve got to put in a lot of work. One of the things I’ve learned watching people around me is the people who do put in that work have, as I said, a pretty high success rate. But, there are specific skills that you need to be a writer, and very few people have all of those skills. You have to, for example, be able to manage a big project. A novel is a lot more than two thousand words- it’s typically eight thousand or so words. Many writers I find can write fine prose, but can’t put it together in a structured story. So, being able to manage a big project, being able to structure a big project, being able to tell a complex story over that period, over that length, is something.
Then you want to be able to write individually good sentences. You want to be able to handle dialogue, you want to understand how people interact. You need to understand the domain in which you are writing. If you are writing about the police, then you need to understand police procedures, if you’re writing a complex family story, you need to understand a psychology or human interaction - how it manifests itself. So there’s an enormous amount to learn, and you can just keep on learning.
If you ask me the most important thing I have learnt, I will go back to the idea that writing is a discipline, a profession, a craft, and if you take to it that way rather than as some sort of magical skill arising from talent then I think you have a very, very good chance of success and certainly, if you’re listening to this, I wish you well.