Writer list

Things that it is useful for a writer to do at some point in their life:

  • Travel Call me old-fashioned, but it is way easier to describe a place if you’ve actually been there. Plus travelling really can broaden the mind.
  • Own a sommelier’s kit So you can learn to identify smells and thus how to describe them. Or—cheaper option—walk around smelling stuff and figure out how you’d write it.
  • Juggle, play a sport, or learn to dance, or a martial art So you can describe limbs in motion. Much easier when your limbs have been there. You can also just watch lots of juggling, sports being played, kung fu fighting, and dancing. Extreme slow motion is particularly excellent. But feeling it from the inside can you give that extra insight in the describing. And details: if I hadn’t fenced I wouldn’t know that it leaves you with tiny point-of-the-foil-sized bruises, and some bigger ones too—direct hit to the hipbone? Ow!
  • Learn another language Cause aside from everything else it makes you think about your native language in all sorts of new ways. Deeply cool for a writer.
  • Work in a book shop Good to understand as many bits of the book industry as you can. This would be supply.
  • Work as an editor Another bit of the book industry. The bit that wants to change your words. Best to understand why, right?
  • Work as a publicist So that you’ll understand that there are many of us and few of them.

Disclaimer: I have never worked in a book shop, or as a publicist, or editor. Nor do I juggle. I speak a little Spanish, but not enough to qualify as even semi-fluent. I did read a novel in Spanish once, but. I’ve travelled a fair amount and I do own a sommelier’s kit.

Over to you lot. Any other useful suggestions?


  1. jenny d on #

    it is also useful for a writer to have friends of all ages, so that if s/he is writing a very elderly character for instance it will be possible to think about things like, oh, you know, what a very long time it takes to do a minor errand if you are in any way physically incapacitated.

    it is a huge problem with a certain kind of fantasy novel that you feel the author never has (to take an example) trekked through the forest on horses with packs and fought with swords! i was laughing to myself often last fall as i worked out dementedly with a trainer b/c i felt that it would aside from its other benefits let me write a really good “where the young hero gets stringent training” sequence b/c of having now a feel for the dynamic between the learner and the trainer, the progression of exercises, etc. (there’s a good version of this sequence in robin mckinley’s “the blue sword”).

    you could add “play a musical instrument” to “play a sport”–think of the smell, for instance, of oboe reeds and reservoirs of spit…

  2. marrije on #

    touch things – jeff vandermeer has talked on a number of occasions about how he touches all sorts of surfaces and things. it took me a couple of months of thinking about this (my first reaction was a puzzled and not very intelligent ‘huh???’), but I think it’s really good advice, brilliant ‘grounding’ habit to get into. though he can probably explain it much better himself, as i know he hangs out here sometimes.

    knit – yeah, i know, knitting isn’t very cool. and it can get quite boring, and take a long time before you get anywhere, and sometimes the results are real ugly and you have to start over again and learn from your mistakes. just like with writing. ha!

  3. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Well, it’s just the flip side of the sommelier’s kit idea (which I hadn’t thought of, Justine! excellent–will be purchasing one!). It’s two-fold, though. (1) It’s about identifying the difference in tactile feel between things so you can write about that effective (and also to enhance your ability to use metaphor because of the way some things feel the same even though they’re really different) and (2) It’s about really understanding the texture of whatever setting you’re in. I touched a lot of stuff in Europe this summer. I’m sure a couple of times people thought I was blind or something. But, honestly, it’s also pleasurable. Like, a smooth river stone. A grainy stone wall. Soft moss. Etc. Kinda rejuvenating at time. Truth is, too, there’s only so much you can take in visually in a foreign locale before your brain explodes.


  4. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Oh–by which I mean, it speaks to authenticity of setting. Another way to “crib” a few extra years of experience about a place quickly and then be able to get in that perfect detail that makes it sound, for example, like you’ve actually lived in the south of France.


  5. Jeff VanderMeer on #

    Sorry to post again, but…this is also why I enjoy bird watching. I’m only an amateur, but learning to distinguish between types of bird calls is useful in describing voices and sounds in fiction.


  6. holly on #

    I’ve found that my couple years of being a children’s counselor and the accompanying schooling helped me understand what people do and why they do those things. (It also made me very bitter, though, so i am not longer a counselor. So, perhaps, some armchair pyschology would be the better route to pursue.)

  7. Justine on #

    Jenny d: that is a most excellent point. And it’s also why being old yourself is such an advantage! Cause you can describe all the periods of life on account of been there, done that.

    Marrije: Look, you invoked Mr Vandermeer!

    You didn’t explain the usefulness of knitting to writing. Do so!

    Jeff Vandermeer: Well, those are the two sense most neglected in writing—smelling and touching. So many books it’s all about the seeing. It’s like the characters have had their noses, tongues and hands removed.

    I can’t tell you how much pleasure I got out of my hummingbird obsession in Mexico. I could watch them for hours and hours and hours. And yeah it did train me to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    One of the lovely things about being home is how many birds there are: sulpher crest cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, native ibises, magpies etc etc.

    Holly: You’re kidding, right? Bitterness is essential to being a good writer 🙂

  8. Penni on #

    Having children definitely made me a better writer, but it’s not necessarily a great reason to have kids, because it makes all those other things hard and writing itself becomes an exercise in logistics. But you learn a lot more about people, character, psychology and personality when you see a person grow from nothing and it also helps you identify more with your characters’ parents if you write YA. Seeing language develop at that level too makes you really think about the way language works and how the world is made up. Babies also make you see how everyone is connected to everyone and it makes writing feel important again, because it’s an act of humanness and vulnerability. You notice dust in the air again, you watch insects and birds with new eyes, in some ways you experience the fantasy of being able to be a kid again knowing everything you know as an adult. Nothing is ordinary or taken for granted. Plus you get to fingerpaint.

    Learn a new skill every year (knitting, diving, yoga, ear candling) because it gives you access to new terminology and metaphoric language as well as giving you something to write about and expanding the circle of people you know who are different from you. Also I think it’s good for writers to do things they’re not very good at and enjoy it anyway so they can think more about process than product.

  9. lili on #

    i can think of something a writer should do every single day of their lives:

    -ingest stories.

    whether by reading, listening to people, watching tv or whatever. just squeeze as many stories – true or fiction – into yourself as possible.

  10. chris barnes on #

    good advice. i love the sommelier kit tip. a wine tasting course is similarly a good thing to do.

    and martial arts are definitely good for writers, since everyone writes a fight scene at some point, don’t they? plus it gets you out of the house once in a while. (I recommend doing some historical fencing, i.e. sword fighting, since it’s really cool to know how swords actually work as opposed to hollywood style nonsense.)

    but, in short, its all about doing lots of stuff and paying attention.

  11. Maureen johnson on #

    Hang out with other super-cool writers. That’s what I suggest. You do it EVERY DAY! I occasionally get to do it. (Sadly, you are not in town. Our loss.)

    Also, the physical exercise you mentioned earlier is a great way to counteract the many, many, many hours you spend sitting around in a chair, typing at keys.

    Another tip: get a monkey that can type. I am looking into this now.

  12. marrije on #

    I invoked mr vandermeer! squee!!

    I think the main uses of knitting for writing are:
    – (for beginning writers) learning about stamina, sticking-to-it, getting better by training. when you start knitting you’ll probably be not very good at it, but if you keep at it you will rapidly become better. but not as good as you want to be and as quickly as you want, though you see others who are much much better and you don’t know how they do it. in this respect it is similar to the uses of, for instance, training for a marathon. many many beginning writers are so disappointed that they aren’t very good when they begin – and it somehow helps to do other activities that prove you need to do the activity consistently to get any better
    – that tactile thing again. so many different textures and surfaces to play with and discover. and colour! having silk or wool or mohair running through your fingers for hours on end gives you a very intimate relationship with fibers. they all have their own smells as well.
    – room to think. unless you are doing very complicated patterns, knitting gives you oodles of time in which you can let your mind run free and let it churn on those knotty plot points in the background.
    – new eye for garment construction. you will see more in people’s clothes, and not necessarily just in their knitted clothes. there are so many ways to construct a collar, a sleeve, hems, closings, etc., and you see more of them when you’ve been trying to do that %^*& neckline of that sweater.
    – realisation that things are made. dunno about you, but for me it’s something i have to remind myself of: everything is made by someone, even the landscape. a shirt isn’t just something you buy in a shop, milk doesn’t just come from the factory, a street was made by someone. all things are people + time + materials. hence they are also stories. um, not sure what my point is here, but there probably is one i should think about a little more. i’ll see if someone like teresa nielsen hayden has written smart words on the subject yet.

    – and a bonus: you can take your knitting with you to the cricket! 🙂

  13. marrije on #

    sorry for not using paragraphs. i have now made knitting look dense and frightening…

  14. Penni on #

    Marrije – I concur on the whole knitting bizzo.
    I taught myself to knit last year. It was a worthy thing, and yes, I would say it made me a better writer. Partly because it connected me to the past (there is something very rustic about making things with sticks and sheepy hair), and more specifically to my mother and Grandmother. Partly because it is a visual art which is a nice change from writing and made me visualise things differently and it ended up in my novel. And partly because it is quite zen, especially the unravelling. And it’s a nice antidote to the crisis surely all writers must have that writing is wanky and self-indulgent and there are already so many books in the world yada yada yada, because you are making one specific and probably useful thing for a specific person for a specific purpose. And that’s kind of nice for a change. And then you get over it and you be a writer again. But having children is also quite good for knitting because they are mini so the things you make are mini too.

  15. marrije on #

    penni – excellent points! except that the kids get larger and get (shudder) opinions and don’t want knitted stuff any more. little buggers 🙂

  16. Penni on #

    Oh I am in complete denial about that. See my pretty sequinned blinkers? They make everything look shiny.

  17. sean williams on #

    what about doing nothing at all? determinedly nothing, I mean, not just sitting around watching the tv or cricket.

    meditation (or, yes, knitting) is a great way to let the unconscious work its magic. it’s like our brains are computer processors: the more we waste resources on things like word et al, the less google desktop can weave its magic. i used to find that ten minutes thinking about nothing but breathing was enough to have tons of ideas bubbling up unbidden.

    the other thing that writers should do (which covers lots of things mentioned already) is: stuff that has nothing at all to do with writing. i’m guilty of forgetting that one ALL the time…

  18. kelljones on #

    I spend a lot of time listening to people talk, and guessing what they’ll say next. Usually, they surprise me.

    I thought at one point that being a librarian would be helpful. Well, it is, and it isn’t. You get to know books, and why people read (there are whole books written about types of readers and what they might like), and you spend a whole lot of time describing books in enticing ways–and then it’s all surprisingly useless when you try to describe your own. You know how you ought to do it, but it isn’t that easy… I wonder if editing is similar?

    I also read a lot of food writing, to see how people describe tastes, since I seem to have weak or frightened taste buds. Ruth Reichl, M. F. K. Fisher (particularly the Gastronomical Me), etc.

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