Book Review: How To Be A Writer by John Birmingham

Book Cover - Shows the words 'How To Be A Writer'How To Be A Writer by John Birmingham
NewSouth Books RRP:$24.99AUD

I’ve never been one for bootcamp-style fitness regimes. When some burly six pack on legs shouts at me to feel the burn it makes me want to raise an impolite finger and jog on to the nearest bakery. But, let’s face it, that’s why I’m not very fit. If I REALLY wanted to be fit, I’d need to suck up my bad attitude and take the Commando’s advice. He’s been there. He knows how it’s done.

And so…do you REALLY wanna be a writer? Then listen to John Birmingham. He’s been in the biz a long time and he doesn’t want to hear your bullshit excuses!

If you’re reading this right now while you sit in a café making whimsical plans for the Great Australian Novel, brace yourself. Making a living as a writer is not something that’s handed to you as a little treat beside your macchiato.

‘In many ways, this is a book about productivity. The catch is you are producing words. Maybe they pay your bills. Maybe they just feed your soul. For whatever reason you do it, if you want to be a writer, you have to write, not just tell people you’re going to be a writer then spend all of your time dicking around in a café thinking about it.’

Time to do some sit ups!

A real writer makes writing their business

John Birmingham is familiar to many as the author of He Died With a Felafel In His Hand. But if that’s the only reason his name is familiar to you, you haven’t been doing nearly enough reading. He’s written about 20 other books (fiction and nonfiction) alongside his extensive career as a journalist, columnist and commentator. He writes the terrific blog Cheeseburger Gothic. He’s more than qualified to tell it like it is (was and will be).

How To Be A Writer is a reality check for aspiring creatives, packed with tips and tricks on the practicalities of the writer’s life. It’s not about ‘how to WRITE’ – that’s a whole other overpriced online course. Rather, this book covers the much harder aspects of professional writing, like time management, finding an agent, pitching to editors and managing your money. Whether you’re a novelist, a journalist, a blogger, a copywriter or some combination of the lot, you’ll get nowhere without discipline and a professional attitude to your work.

JB weaves his personal stories into industry data and quotes from other successful wordsmiths to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly of the contemporary publishing scene, which is changing rapidly. New technologies are killing off some forms of public writing but spawning myriad new ones; so paid work is out there, but you need to accept the new normal and adapt to the environment.

‘Yes, a wave of destruction is sweeping across the media ecosphere, but that shouldn’t bother you, because you are the small and nimble mammals in this tale, not the lumbering old dinosaurs.’

It’s a competitive business – and the ‘business’ factor here is important to remember. Waiting around for the muse to strike is all very well, but editors and publishers don’t care about your writers’ block, personal issues or flamboyant anti-establishment lifestyle.

‘A baby writer asked me once about my writing routine. Wondering how I get myself ‘in the mood’ for long stretches of word-smashing. Well, I’m gonna piss in your hot tub, champ. Mood’s got nothing to do with it.’

Want to get paid to write? Do good work and meet your deadlines.

A real writer embraces apps, life hacks and bangsplosions

If you’re already a fan of JB’s writing you’ll know he doesn’t tend to pull his punches. Expect hilarious OTT scenarios and expletive-laden rants. Expect poignant moments of creative insight followed by bangsplosion crescendos of action movie metaphor. How To Be A Writer is subtitled ‘…who smashes deadlines, crushes editors and lives in a solid gold hovercraft’. You get the idea.

I want to say this is a ‘no nonsense’ guide, except that there is, in fact, plenty of nonsense. It’s underpinned with some salient messages though. Here are a few of my favourite takeaways…

  • Want to be a writer? Write. Write every day – even if you don’t feel like it.
  • Read widely, research carefully and be interested in the world – that’s where the stories are.
  • Do NONE of the above WHILE you’re writing. Writing time is sacred. Make notes in your work if research is required and set aside some Google time for another day. Distraction is the enemy of productivity!
  • Managing distraction is paramount. Stay away from ‘slack chat’ and ‘the book of face’ during writing time. In fact, stay away from your loved ones too.
  • Technology is your friend. JB shares his experiences with dictation software, time management apps and word processing options. Valuable stuff!
  • The Pomodoro Method! Brilliant! Divide your time up into bite sized chunks. Allow yourself short breaks, of course, but even these should be project managed. As you set yourself up for a work day pop a tea bag in your favourite mug. Sit your favourite magazine beside your comfy chair so there is no time wasted, even during your breaks.

‘These might seem like small life hacks, but it is the relentless accumulation of tiny changes over long arcs of time that will steer the giant ocean-going supertanker of your life away from the giant sucking whirlpools that are always hungry for fresh writer meat.’

In short, you are not entitled to anything just because you like to be creative. How to be a writer? Get out of the café and into your office NOW. Limber up, get serious and FEEL THE BURN! The rewards, when they come, will be worth it.


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