Why do you write?
I write because I have something to say and for the sense of self-fulfillment that publication offers.
How did you come to writing?
As a boy I read very little and mostly for information. My masculine identity was bound up in what I could do physically, on the sporting field mostly until my late teens when my mind demanded I feed it ideas. I found some of the most powerful ideas in novels, beginning with the set texts for Year 12. I became a devoted reader and quickly saw that novels weren’t just a source of ideas, but a way of expressing my own. All my sporting ambitions had died by then and writing seemed a way of making a mark in the world. In my early twenties I started a couple of highly derivative novels, none of which got past the second chapter. This changed when I became a teacher librarian and decided to focus on writing for the young.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
To begin with, I just wanted the ‘rush’ of getting words on the page, to play around with language, and challenge myself to write like my heroes. Since I would set out with only the vaguest idea of where my novel was going and no thought of how it would end, nothing was ever finished. Eventually, this became a frustration, so I applied a bit of self-discipline and would not allow myself to start until I’d mapped out a story line complete with climax and resolution. This made an enormous difference. Yes, my plot structure would collapse half way through (and still does), but having established an initial plan, rebuilding out of the wreckage was much easier and I always had that end point to keep me on track.
I was also working entirely in isolation, so I enrolled in an introductory writing course (3 hours, one night a week for ten weeks). Being with other people who shared the same passion and dreams proved a motivating buzz and the tutor provided detail of how to prepare a manuscript and approach publishers.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
My initial motivation was to see my name on the front of a book. That achieved, I wanted to write better books – something unique and challenging. I wanted to be seen as one of Australia’s best writers for the young. When I was granted recognition through awards and reviews, my motivation became a ‘career’ i.e. to give up the day job and become a full time writer. That’s takes discipline, and mine was stiffened by knowing my wife was working full time and it didn’t seem right that I was able to pursue what some saw as a personal indulgence while she paid the bills. Consequently, I committed myself to office hours at my desk, following Hemingway’s dictum that books are written by applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
When I was still teaching full time, it was very hard, especially with three young kids. I found the best writing time for me was from 4.00 am until the first child woke up. Not only was the house quiet and my mind fresh, but I wasn’t ducking out on responsibilities as husband, father and employee since, at this time of the day, the rest of the world is asleep. Teachers are also blessed with long holidays. Sometimes you have to be selfish to get the time you need. This changed dramatically when I went full time. Now it was more a question us applying discipline to get the best out of this wonderful privilege I’d been given – to spend all day writing. I’ve had to supplement my income with school visits, up to 50 days a year, and inevitably, school visits occur just when you don’t want to lose focus, but my earlier experiences taught me how to ‘switch on – switch off’ the creative flow.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
When I went full time, we built a little studio in the backyard. When I walk across the yard, I am going to work and my mind focuses accordingly. I work on an old desktop which is not connected to the Net (so I don’t waste time Googling or answering emails.) My desk looks pretty much like all writers’ desks I’ve ever seen – a mess of papers and coffee cups. On one wall are the cork boards I use for planning. There’s a dictionary and thesaurus above my computer and a sign saying, ‘Be Patient, be Disciplined and Read every day.’
What are your essential writing tools?
An air conditioner, quiet surroundings and freedom from the anxieties of daily life. If I have these, a computer is all I really need. I use handwriting only for notes and annotations. My cork boards, in conjunction with small cards and a million push pins, are useful to ‘see’ the story line of more complicated novels, but not essential these days. I used to keep a notebook but not so much any more.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
That the world needs fewer writers and more readers.
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I read mostly fiction, although I’m becoming more attracted to history and biography. I read detective fiction and thrillers when recommended to me by my wife and friends. What I enjoy reading most are novels by the best writers of my time – McEwan, Carey, Anne Tyler, Hilary Mantel, Annie Proulx – because I learn so much from them. I cannot help reading people like these with two eyes – one for the pleasure they bring and the other for how the writers have crafted a sentence or a scene or the entire plot structure. I sometimes scan and print out a page or chapter and place it in a file for later reference, annotated with the particular quality the passage displays. The first chapter of McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love,’ for example, is a master class in language and drama.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
What a lot of people call ‘writer’s block’ is simply a failure to plan their story adequately. If you don’t have a storyline worked out, then of course you will reach a point where you don’t know what happens next. Having said that, I still find my carefully planned story structures collapsing at times. The key is to have a firm idea of how your story is going to end. You can change that ending if it no longer seems adequate, but you’ll avoid a lot of problems if you always have an ending to aim for. Then, if you get ‘blocked’, you take a calming breath, tell yourself to be patient and use your writer’s imagination to find a new way to reach that end point (the way a GPS does when you take a seriously wrong turn). Reading other authors helps because you are suddenly more aware of how they drove their character arcs and plot lines to a satisfying conclusion. I’ve taken weeks to work my way through such situations and had to jettison some fine earlier chapters to do so. C’est la vie.
True writer’s block is when you lose confidence in your writing ability or put too much pressure on yourself to inject sparkle and brilliance into every line. Poor Hemingway shot himself because he expected even his shopping lists to read like literary genius. There have been times when I’ve felt down in the dumps about my ability. It helps to tell my reflection that I’m not really all that talented, especially when it comes to the quality of my prose. My success as a writer has come from getting the story on the page, even on days when I feel devoid of inspiration. I’m often surprised at how much better a passage seems a few days later. The words haven’t changed, just my mood.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write because you love it and because it allows you to express who you are.
James Moloney has published more than fifty books, mostly novels for Young Adults and children. Children Book Council winner, A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove is a perennial favourite in high schools while The Book of Lies series continues to garner fantasy fans of all ages. James lives in Coorparoo.