Monday, August 18, 2014

Learning from Other Authors

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles/

It’s common for us to grab snippets of inspiration from other authors, especially those who have enjoyed some measure of success. Last week I came across an article in the latest edition of Newswrite1, the member’s magazine for the NSW Writers Centre, where Hannah Kent shared her five bits of advice she wish she’d been given when starting out on her writing journey.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hannah Kent, she’s an Aussie who has received critical acclaim for her debut novel, Burial Rites. Funny, I was just looking at my previous post for ICFW and I mentioned that Burial Rites was the next novel in my TBR pile. Unfortunately, I’ve got sidetracked on others in my pile so have still to tackle it.

I’ve watched and read a few interviews with Hannah and it’s quite apparent she is a very accomplished author and has a natural talent for writing. So I was intrigued to read her five bits of advice. What struck me was that the five were nothing I hadn’t read before but Hannah had her own particular insight into each that I thought I’d share with you all.

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1. Read

One of the old maxims: “Read a lot, write a lot,” which I’m sure we’re all familiar. Hannah expressed a view that we should read widely. “How else will you work out what is good and what is bad?”

Historically, I’ve tended to read mostly in my own genre, but have started to read more outside of it. And I am enjoying the freshness that comes from reading other genres but it’s also great to then switch back to something fast and edgy.

2. Cultivate Empathy

As Hannah states, this is an important life skill. For a writer, “empathy will enable you not only to write about characters very different from yourself, but to understand them too. It will help you create character motivation, backgrounds, voice.”

“Empathy, put simply, will give you a keener insight into the human heart.”

Hannah mentions that reading literary fiction was recently proven to increase a reader’s ability to empathise. She encourages authors when they’re people watching (as well do) to try to put yourself in others shoes (or minds) and ask what they may be feeling or wanting out of a particular situation. I must try it this week when I’m standing in a queue at the grocery store.

3. Work hard, be disciplined

Even though she was intuitively good at language it surprised her how essential diligence was to completing her novel. Hannah stresses the importance of adopting a “professional attitude.” This is consistent with what so many others have said and was an important takeaway that I gleaned a number of years ago, especially after reading Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.” A professional turns up every day; they honour deadlines (even their own) and don’t shirk the responsibility of getting the work done.
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4. Expect it to be difficult and don’t expect to feel ready

All of us would wholeheartedly agree with this one. Mastering anything requires hard work. Certainly, writing comes more intuitively to some authors (I’m not one of them) just like with any skill.

Hannah acknowledges the anxieties we all experience as we sit down at the computer:

“Writing is difficult, and your doubt won’t dissipate overnight. Be patient with yourself. What will happen is that you’ll become accustomed to the doubt and difficulty. You’ll accept it as an intrinsic part of the writing process, and this preparedness will help you eventually ignore it.”

One of the struggles I think many of us experience is getting into the groove. When you’re only able to grab “moments of a day” to write, establishing one’s flow can take a while and I find the longer it takes the more the anxieties badger me and distractions become more attractive.

It’s where having a collaborator in the Holy Spirit is such a blessing. He knows our anxieties and it’s in surrendering them to Him and soldiering on that we can experience release allowing us to get into a good writing groove.

5. Write from the Soul

Hannah differentiates writing from the heart to writing from the soul. It was her thoughts on what this means that most captured my attention and has given me added encouragement in my writing these past few days.

“Writing from the soul means to write about that which moves you at a profound level or in order to discover meaning, and to have purity of intention. You’ll know when you’re writing from the soul because the writing becomes the reward.”

My characters have appreciated this in recent days by being able to express themselves where prior to that they felt constrained by my inhibitions.

Write because you love it, “because there is no other way for you to breathe.”

Love that.

What of Hannah’s five grabbed your attention the most and/or what piece of advice do you wish you had known before you started out on your writing journey?

Note:1. Newswrite, The NSW Writers Centre bi-monthly magazine, Issue 216 August – September 2014. ISSN 1039-7531, pp20-21.

Ian Acheson is an author and strategy consultant based in Northern Sydney. Ian's first novel of speculative fiction, Angelguard, is now available in the US, UK, Canada and Australia. You can find more about Angelguard at Ian's website, on his author Facebook page and Twitter


  1. Thanks Ian. I believe for me 'cultivating empathy' is extremely important. Unless you learn how you will never be able to capture those genuine emotions for your characters. I guess that's why some stories never grab and hold us until we've turned that last page.

    As for what I wish I'd known when I began, I'd have to say...EVERYTHING. I have learned so much from J.S.Bell's Plot & Structure, and as you say, wonderful hints and guidelines from a host of other authors. And the best part is I'm still learning!

    1. Yes, isn't learning wonderful, Rita! Now that's one book of Bell's I've been meaning to read for a long long time. Thanks for the nudge.

  2. Ian, great post! I think reading widely across a ranges of genres is a really helpful tip. I always cringe when I hear fiction authors admit that they don't read fiction. As Hannah has said, how will they know if their writing is good or bad if they aren't reading books written by other authors?

    1. Thanks for sharing, Narelle. I'm enjoying spreading my reading choices.

  3. Thanks for sharing these, Ian. To turn your question upside down, the one I knew from the beginning and that served me well was #4.

    1. Sandra, I think I intuitively appreciated elements of it, but creating a strong writing groove (or "in the zone") has taken me longer to learn than I anticipated.

      Thanks for popping by, Sandra. I always appreciate your input.