On Launching John Birmingham’s How to Be a Writer (Avid Reader, 9 June 2016)

Why, when things have changed so much in the publishing industries, listen to someone who started writing 30 years ago whose book is being launched by someone else who started writing 30 years ago? Because JB has lived, like any thinking writer, with the fear of obsolescence, marginalisation, bypass and oblivion for all that time, developed far more smart ideas than most about how to turn words into dollars, and no one’s stopped him yet.

Some ideas from 30 years ago are still great, and they’re in here. Some great ideas only came into existence while John was going through the page proofs, and they’re in here too. He’s a lot more agile than he might appear at the moment, sitting comfortably on his chair down the front her. This is a writer who has found ways to thrive in two centuries, very ready to tell you how to survive in this one.

There are plenty of books giving advice about how to write well. This isn’t really one of those. They’re about art and art is great, but this is about money. About having a job. This is about how to pitch, what to pitch, who to pitch to, and what to do if they say yes. It’s about puling your head out of the clouds and making that novel/article/column happen.

My first proper conversation with John came after he’d had big success with He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco. He told me he had publishers lining up offering good money for him to write another four or five of those, and that he wasn’t going to take it. It takes a smart writer, and an uncommon writer, to decline to sign up for diminishing returns for decent upfront money.

He wrote Leviathan instead, that is, he shut himself away in a library for years and wrote a big fat multi-award winning history book. A writer is almost never able to pull off that kind of gear change, but he did. For that move alone, he’s worth listening to. And then he did it again. While deep in the trenches working on Leviathan, he occasionally allowed his mind to wander, and in one of those wanderings he read Matthew Reilly’s first novel and happened to come up with a blockbuster idea about a future aircraft carrier dropped back in time into World War Two. As the master of the pitch, he couldn’t help getting pitchy. He ran his pitch by a friend who happened to be an agent, who said, ‘I reckon I can sell that in New York’. The agent took it on as a dare, and soon JB had to learn how to write genre fiction, and about half a million words of it, for Americans who were paying good money and required him to mean business.

He took it on, he plastered aircraft carrier floorplans all over his office and he made it work. And even now, he’s continuing to develop new ideas to keep getting material out to the readers he lassoed with those books. Amazon may have done well enough to fund Jeff Bezos’s space program, but on the side it’s funding John Birmingham’s solid-gold hovercraft program and they don’t even know it.

He’s also motivational in this book. It’s likely a lot of people here want to make at least some part of their living out of writing. For you, John will be your Michelle Bridges or Commando from The Biggest Loser, as the sweat beads on your forehead and your stocky legs get no traction in the sand through which you’re trying to pull some stupidly large object that makes for great and also mortifying television.

That thing where you’ve got the greatest novel idea ever, but don’t know how to get started? Where you’re facing the tyranny of the blinking cursor on the blank screen and all that’s in your head is the best first lines of the best novels you’ve ever read? Time to take some medicine from Doctor John. Reading his chapter on self-doubt will kick start some stalled first sentences, and that alone justifies the existence and purchase of this book.

Whether your plans are fiction or non-fiction, this book will get you focused and increase your chances. If you’re wanting to make a living as a poet … Well, if you’re a real poet you weren’t going to shell out hard-earned cash on a successful author’s book anyway, because you hate him too much already. You already only pretend to buy your friends’ chap books, and they pretend to buy yours and you all know. And you get together and lament the miserable state of the poetry market in Australia, each one of you thinking, ‘If only every one of you miserable bastards would buy my chap book that would at least be a start.’ But the experienced poet needs no advice from me on how to handle a book launch. For the emerging poet, it goes like this: don’t buy the book, stand around looking supportive, make dinner out of the nibblies and take a quick glance at page 59 – for there is actually a chapter entitled ‘Be a Poet’ – before sidling off into the night.

Novels, columns, articles? This is a manual for embracing that writing life in the 21st century. It is a privileged glance at the algorithms driving one of the most varied and successful writing careers in the country and, chapter after chapter, it will deliver both a kick in the glutes and a whispered insider’s secret or two and, even as you feel John’s steel-capped toe in your buttock flesh or whiskey-flavoured breath on your neck you will know you have some new tools to work with and your chances of earning some kind of living as a writer are better than they once were.

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4 Responses to On Launching John Birmingham’s How to Be a Writer (Avid Reader, 9 June 2016)

  1. Great introduction. You made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the weight was on my toes for that quick dart to the signing table… Shame I couldn’t have been there to use my elbows on the crowd. Amazon will have to suffice.

  2. Ditto what Jacque said! Love John’s work – I have to have this new one too. Just what we writers need, by the sound of it. Thanks for the blog post, Nick. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Perth Words… exploring possibilities. and commented:
    Great sales job, Nick!

  4. Norah says:

    Fabulous review, Nick. Thanks. Can’t wait to read it! 🙂

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