I write because it is impossible not to. At some points in my life I have painted instead of writing but if I don’t have an outlet for creativity I go a bit crazy. I know writing also drives me nuts but not writing makes it worse.
How did you come to writing?
I used to write picture books when I was a little kid but I didn’t decide to write seriously till grade 6. That was when I developed a writing practice. I spent every recess and lunch time writing a novel that took the whole year to write and to be honest it didn’t have a good ending and kind of drifted off into nowhere, but my writing practice was set. In high school I wrote a short story every weekend and at 15 I was shortlisted in the L. Ron Hubbard’s Writer’s of the Future competition which was open to adults and I felt chuffed to be shortlisted. I suppose it was a turning point. I could have become a scientologist or a writer. Thankfully it was the latter. I started getting published in the Australian Horror and Fantasy Magazine regularly. I wrote a novel in grade 12 but stopped writing in that genre when I went to university, focussing on writing plays and then short films. I returned to fiction writing seriously at 24 but it took another 16 years to get a book published.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
The biggest obstacle was not knowing how to find a path to publication. There was no creative writing degree when I started out. These days there are lots of ways to find a way in to publication but back then I was isolated with no peers to talk to and no mentors. I applied for and got an Arts Queensland grant and that was my first real encouragement. Then I joined the writers centre and started getting support through that which was a real relief.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
I don’t really have trouble with motivation and discipline. I get terribly depressed if I am not writing so it is like a life preserver to do the work. It helps to have a strong network of peers to talk to when things get hard. It also helps to have a partner who is also a creator (film and TV). Sometimes it is tempting to just take time off and go to a gallery or a movie but I often find that that is where my best thinking work happens so it just inspires me. I think it helps that I am completely uninterested in sports and most things outside the arts and sciences. It means that everything I love filters into my work.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
This is the trickiest bit. I have to have a day job to afford to live but I sometimes resent this when I am deep in a project. The focus needed to write a novel is quite huge and breaking it to go to work can be very hard. I used to work full time and I would get up at 5am every day to write before work and then write for an hour before going home after work. This gave me a good 2.5 hours a day of writing but it was quite broken and focus was hard. I have now managed to organise my life so that I work 3 days a week at the coalface and 3 days a week at my writing and have a full day off each week. This is a great balance but there are still times in a project when you need total focus so I save my holidays for writing retreats. It helps that I don’t have kids.
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I often write at cafes. I like Strauss in the city but I can also work in the State library and at home. I like to vary it to keep it fresh although working from home sometimes stops me from writing for some odd reason so I usually only work from home when I am editing a book or doing admin work for my writing.
What are your essential writing tools?
I have a macbook air which has word and scrivener on it and I kind of toggle between those two programmes when I work, moving things from scrivener to word. I also often write in a Moleskine notebook. Some projects seem to want to be hand written which is extra work but must active a different part of your brain because it seems like it is different to working on the computer. The last book I just finished needed several drafts in several scrivener documents and I also have at least a dozen different word drafts of it too. It was very complicated and I had to go back through abandoned chapters and move them in and out of new drafts. I also find index cards essential. Usually in the final draft I write each scene on index cards, colour coded by character or time zone or theme. I often end up with three or four collections of index cards that represent the novel. I lay these out blue tacked to a wall during the final draft or put them into a folder with plastic sleeves so I can move them around or add cards and subtract cards and make notes on them. It is quite a crazy process and it is sometimes hard to remember where you are in a draft. One essential writing tool is a co-writer to mind your computer while you go to the toilet. Because I write at cafe’s this can sometimes be the hardest thing!
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
Publishers and general readers do not always agree with you as to what is a ‘good’ book. Good books don’t always get all the way to publication and even if they are published they don’t always find their readers. I have seen some of my favourite contemporary books struggle to find a handful of readers and then other books that I find clunky, awkward writing, lacklustre plotting, those ones rocket to success and best-seller status. Writing is an art and a craft. Publishing is a lottery. The best books sometimes sink like a stone. It does not mean that you are a bad writer if a book doesn’t make it. It just means the roulette wheel landed on black instead of red, or however a roulette wheel works…
What do you read and how do you read as a writer?
I read in clumps. These clumps are books that relate to the work I am currently working on. I have a clump of books in my bookshelf all about wolves and rabies and thylacines and they were all for a particular book. I have a (growing) clump of books about physics that are my latest obsession and relate to my last two projects. I have a wall of sex books for those projects. I have a shelf of books about madness and asylums and that is also from a previous project. It is like an archeological dig in my bookshop. My reading advice is don’t read a book if it is badly written because those bad habits rub off on you and your practice. Abandon it. Read things that make you a better writer.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
I work through it, pushing myself even if the writing seems bad. I also resort to art works, looking at images that relate to my project to inspire me and push me to create. I also whinge on Facebook and to my friends. They get it and they let me go blah blah blah knowing that is part of the process to getting on track again. For every hard patch there is a better patch coming up so I try to relax into it and push on.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Find your tribe. Find writers you relate to and meet with them. The loneliness of the job can be debilitating. Commune! Commune with people who help you keep going. This is the only way to survive. If it wasn’t for my writer friends I swear the job would have killed me. They help me survive a job which is mostly lonely, has no guidebook, is self-motivated and makes you feel insecure and useless most of the time. My writer friends are my safety net and here I am still alive. They must be doing something right.
Krissy Kneen is the award winning author of the memoir Affection, the novels Steeplechase, Triptych, The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine, An Uncertain Grace, and the Thomas Shapcott Award-winning poetry collection Eating My Grandmother. She has written and directed broadcast documentaries for SBS and ABC television.