7 Weird Things About Writers We Need You To Know

I’ve decided to give the topic of motherhood a (brief) rest and blog about writing this week. But since my life at the moment is 10% writing, 90% wiping bottoms, I thought I’d start off gently by writing something simple and bullet-pointy (real word, back off) to get myself back into the mindset of being a writer. It’s a strange mindset, I’ll grant you that. We writers are an odd bunch, and people who don’t write – or spend their free hours occupied in some other solitary, deeply personal, wholly engrossing pastime – often don’t understand why we are the way we are.

If you are fortunate enough to share your life with a writer, and find yourself time and again asking yourself, ‘Why is this person so weird?’, then hopefully this post will help to shed some light on the mysterious goings-on in the mind of a writer. And if you are a writer yourself, you may relate to some of these items. Or not. I’d love to hear feedback from other writers, including anything you would add to this list.

  1. We are always writing in our heads.

Wondering why the blank stare? The confused look on our face? It’s because we weren’t really listening to you, we were listening to two of the characters in our latest work arguing with each other. We might even have been arguing with one of our characters. “‘For the love of God, Maurice! You have to enter the abandoned warehouse at midnight! It’s where the serial killer has his latest victim bound to a chair and he’s already sharpening his knives!’ ‘Bugger off, you useless writer! You will not make me cliché!'” Or, in a less heated moment, we might be going over in our mind the opening lines to the chapter we’ve been working on. Or simply playing with words in our heads, finding interesting rhyming pairs we’d never thought of before, seeing how many synonyms we can think up on the spot for “quickly”. Our brains never stop processing words – ours and other people’s – and we tend to overload on language.

  1. We may not be very good with words.

This probably doesn’t make sense, coming straight after point 1. Maybe I should specify that we may not be very good with words verbally. Give us a laptop or a paper and pencil and two hours of solitude, and we could probably come up with prose to match Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe (yeah right, in our dreams. But we won’t stop trying!) Engage us in conversation, however, and we may quickly become tongue-tied. I’m not sure if my tendency to mispronounce words, forget what I was saying halfway through a sentence, stammer, and go all shy and clam up, comes from my brain working too fast or too slowly to process what I want to say. It’s awkward, I’m awkward, but it’s the way I am, and I’ve learned to accept it.

  1. We are not social butterflies.

This may be something of an understatement. Clearly, anyone who enjoys spending hours on end locked in a room talking to their imaginary friends is generally not going to be the life and soul of the party when surrounded by, er, real people. Writers tend to be introverts. We find large doses of social interaction, particularly in big groups, overwhelming and exhausting. We much prefer one-on-one conversation, particularly on an interesting and controversial topic which we can debate to our heart’s content. We also require time by ourselves in which to recharge our mental batteries. This doesn’t mean we hate the company of others, just that we prefer to balance this with time spent alone (possibly having words with Maurice, our reluctant amateur detective).

  1. We believe our characters are real.

Of course, we know intellectually that they are not. But to us, well, they still are. We created them, after all, but then magic happened, and they took on a life of their own. When we are writing, it’s our characters who lead the action, behaving in exactly the way they need to behave. Usually the task of the writer is to run, gasping for air, behind their character, trying to jot down at lightning speed everything they are doing and saying. It’s why we feel guilty when unpleasant things happen to our characters. It’s because we know them, we care for them, we have a vested interest in their well-being, even love them. Do I sound crazy yet?

  1. We don’t know where we get our ideas from, or why our characters behave in a certain way.

See above. It’s our characters running the show, not us. We’re just voyeurs in their lives. And our ideas? Who knows. It’s probably got something to do with our brains being constantly played at 78 rpm, that we’re always taking chunks of the world around us and slicing and dicing them up and then remoulding them into different worlds, different stories. So please don’t make us feel awkward by asking us where we got our idea for the Sci-fi trilogy about the cross-dressing unicorn who discovers a portal to another galaxy where intelligent life is a race of cannibalistic beetles. Because we just don’t know, okay. All we know is hallucinogenic drugs may or may not have played a part.

Time to lay off the peyote, folks.

  1. We don’t know when we are going to get published.

If ever. Please don’t give us a hard time about the marketability of our writing. We are not doing this writing thing for financial gain, or fame. Well, most of us aren’t. It’s just what we do. The story (or poem, or essay) is the end result, and if nobody reads it, we are fine with that. We don’t write because we necessarily want to make a career out of it (although, deep down, each of us would love to see our name on the New York Times bestseller list). We write because it’s just who we are.

  1. We love it when you read our work.

Argh, stop contradicting yourself! Okay. Sorry. We writers may not write for any other reason than we simply adore the act of putting words together in sentences and weaving something we hope will be pretty special out of them. But, still, come on. We’ve put all that effort in, could you not at least take a glance at what we’ve written? Of course we want you to enjoy our writing. Our goal is to entertain, to make you laugh, or cry, or feel icy tentacles of terror creeping up your spine. That’s what fiction is for, after all. Just don’t tell us it was the best thing you’ve ever read, like, ever, because we’ll know you’re lying to make us feel better, and it won’t. We are delicate wee petals, we writers. And ever so slightly bonkers.

Time To Write? I’ll Just Check My Schedule

Since I started blogging again, my thoughts have turned to how to find the time in my busy life in which to write. You know, in between all those other things that stay-at-home parents do, like watching Dr Phil (*see my previous blog post) and painting miniature daffodils onto our fingernails. As luck would have it, I was hard at work scrolling through my Twitter feed recently (follow me at _nataliaclara) when I came across a tweet with a link to a fantastic article on how to schedule writing time into your busy modern lifestyle. The premise of the article was that you divide up your waking hours into half hour-long blocks, fill in the “non-negotiable” activities – such as showering and eating, presumably – and then use all the blank spaces to schedule in your “desirable” activities. You know, learning Japanese, kayaking, rescuing abandoned puppies, that sort of thing.

Game to give anything a go as long as it involves spreadsheets and NOT ACTUALLY WRITING, I drew up my own weekly schedule. My day starts at 5am, when my littlest angel, Squeaky, wakes for a feed before resettling for another hour or two of sleep. 5.30am to 6am is reserved for knocking back as many coffees as I can before his elder sister, Bubba, wakes up. My personal best currently stands at seventeen. 6am to 8.30am is largely taken up with the usual morning tasks, including (but not limited to) making, serving, and tidying up after breakfast, packing a bag for the day if we plan to go out, discovering and removing a piece of toast from between the couch cushions, and chasing Bubba around the house in an attempt to get her dressed. Which, most mornings, is like trying to put a straightjacket on an octopus. So far, so ordinary.

I'll get around to writing just as soon as I've tidied up.

I’ll get around to writing just as soon as I’ve tidied up.

But as I progressed through my day, the waters became muddied. I mean, was I supposed to include everything I do as a parent of two littlies? Every bottle feed, every nappy change, every time I spend twenty minutes sponging projectile vomit out of the rug? The problem with parenting babies and young children is that so much of what we do is so mundane and repetitive (sorry) that it barely deserves a mention – that is, until we actually sit down and analyse our day, wondering where all the time goes. “What do you do all day?” is a phrase stay-at-home parents hear far too often. Well, gee, when you put it like that, not much, I guess. I picked peanut butter out of my kid’s ear and put all the crayons back in the box for the umpteenth time. Oh and, you know, I ate a sandwich while wandering about the house looking for the remote control (if you’re wondering, it was in the pot plant. For some reason, the remote control is always in the pot plant). I didn’t find the time to rebalance my share portfolio, or train for that fun run I stupidly signed up to three months ago, or write. So, yeah, not much.

But back to those blank spaces in my schedule. Um, what blank spaces? For, while my day begins at the bum crack of dawn when Squeaky’s sweet, melodic chirrup gently awakens me from my slumber, it also ends at around 8pm when I fall asleep in front of My Kitchen Rules. Yes, you read right. My day ends an hour after the cherubs have been put to bed. Not are asleep, mind you. Which is why 7pm to 7.30pm on my schedule is reserved for Sitting Out The Back With My Husband, Inhaling Wine And Pretending We Can’t Hear Our Children Screaming. I mean Self-Settling.

This guy. Partly to blame for my embarrassingly early bedtime.

This guy. Partly to blame for my embarrassingly early bedtime.

All right, I tell a lie. I found one blank space on my schedule. One break in my week when I am not getting the kids fed/dressed/undressed/bathed/into or out of bed, doing household chores, ferrying the kids to swimming or dance class, or checking my Facebook feed. Which is a legitimate thing if you’re a writer, so don’t start on me. That hour (or two, if I’m experiencing a lucky break) rolls around every Wednesday afternoon, when Bubba is at daycare and Squeaky is (hopefully) having his afternoon nap. I’ve motored through the day’s chores during his morning nap, you see, and now find myself with the delicious prospect of nothing to do except make myself a cup of tea, power up my laptop, and write. Bliss. Er, yeah, except not. Because last week Squeaky decided not to nap at all in the afternoon. And the week before that, I spent this precious hour not writing, not thinking about writing, not even Tweeting about how much writing I wasn’t doing. Instead, I wasted the only hour to myself I get every week updating the kids’ baby books. For those of you without kids, baby books are those delightful albums in which parents lovingly inscribe every momentous occasion in their offspring’s early years, accompanied by meaningful and not at all out of focus photographs. Which was all very well with my first child. Bubba’s book is nearly complete. Every time she burped, or did some other very clever thing no other baby in the history of humanity had ever done, I would whip out the baby book and fill in the relevant section. With the date and time and everything. Unfortunately, once your second kid comes along, your priorities change. Now, when Squeaky burps, I’m more worried about removing half-digested mango from the couch, the floor, our clothes, and the dog. So, when I pulled out his baby book the other day, I was dismayed to find that it was nearly bare, hence the hour spent gluing in out of focus photos and making up the dates of when he first did stuff, because frankly I couldn’t remember.

Anyway, my point is, I had an hour to myself, and I didn’t spend it doing what I felt I should have been doing. I didn’t spend it doing anything remotely writerly at all. Because, if I’m honest, it was nice to switch off and do something absorbing, but that didn’t require me to think a great deal. Which, if you’re a parent, you’ll agree can be quite nice.

Since then, I have ditched my weekly schedule and instead found the perfect solution to my lack of writing time woes. This blog post was composed nearly word for word in my head over the space of two days while I did other tasks that didn’t require a great deal of brainpower. Such as chopping fruit for the kids’ breakfast, shopping, having a conversation with the hubby (only joking, dear). Then it was a simple matter of typing it all up as quickly as possible in one of those rare, sacred moments when Both Kids Were Napping At The Same Time. For the foreseeable future, I think that’s how all my writing will have to occur. So, if you bump into me at the shops and I’m wandering around with a vacant look on my face, or you’re telling me about your day and I’m nodding vaguely and saying “I totally agree” at the wrong moment, you’ll know that I haven’t lost the plot, I’m just hard at work creating literary magic. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Back On The Blog

Hi everyone! Yoohoo! *Waves madly with both arms while onlookers surreptitiously bow their heads or pretend to focus their attention on something desperately interesting on the horizon. I’m back! You can all breathe a collective sigh of relief in the knowledge that, nine months after signing off from this blog to succumb to another bout of babyitis, I have returned to the land of the mentally capable and am ready to focus (some of) my attention back on my writing blog. With a freshly minted two-year-old in the house, not to mention a nine-month-old who only wakes once, or three times, during the night, what better time is there to limber up my neglected writing muscles by diving back into the bog? I mean log. I mean, er… did someone say Giggle and Hoot?

I have come to realise over the past nine months that there is no, and never will be a, perfect time in which to start writing again. Newborn feeding every two hours? I’d be lucky to put on clean clothes in the morning and avoid getting the coffee beans and dog food pellets mixed up. Hubby was not impressed by his freshly ground cup of dog food in the morning, but it turns out that the dog is quite partial to Arabica. Chubby bubby starting to crawl? I’m far too busy installing baby gates and a laser tripwire alarm system to even think about writing. Toddler making constant, conflicting demands, then having a meltdown when these are not met and doing something akin to breakdancing on the kitchen floor? Excuse me while I slip away into the garage and bang my head against the beer fridge. And it won’t get any easier as the little tikes grow older. Kids at school all day, every day? I do believe there is an unfinished bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in my fridge. Relax, relax. I’m joking. There is never an unfinished bottle of Sauvignon Blanc anywhere in my house.

Look what I made! (Photo courtesy of Annelie Hansen Photography)

So, having come to the realisation that not only is there never a perfect time to embark on any venture, and, therefore, that this is as good a time as any to do so, I am also acutely aware that there are many, many writers out there blogging about writing and motherhood. And the vast majority of them are far more talented (and probably a bit less lazy) than I am. But you know what? There are also plenty of sensitively made, finely acted television shows being produced, but that hasn’t stopped them from commissioning another series of “I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here!”, has it?

I’m not getting ahead of myself, though. Oh, no. For however long I will continue to wake up in the middle of the night with the Wiggles’ classic “Fruit Salad (Yummy Yummy)” playing on a loop in my head, I will NOT be attempting to write a best-selling novel. Or prize-winning short story. Or semi-comprehensible snippet of flash fiction. Nep. But I do figure that by getting back into a regular* blogging routine (*and by regular, I mean sporadic) I may at least sharpen the writing side of my brain and just get a general sense of being back in the game. Because you have to be in it to win it. Or even to get a tick on your attendance record. Which is what life’s all about, really. Here lies Joe Author. His writing wasn’t much cop, but at least he showed up. After all, nothing comes to those who sit on the couch all day eating Cheezels and watching Dr Phil. Except perhaps Centrelink benefits. And heart disease.

So, while I’m still knee deep in nappies and Peppa Pig branded products (seriously, is there any item in this world you can’t buy with Peppa’s snout emblazoned across it?), I’m also powering up my laptop and giving it a fair go. I don’t promise that my blog posts will be informative or entertaining, or that I won’t forget to post my next blog entry because I’ve been too busy picking play dough crumbs out of the carpet, but anyway, here I am, back on the blog. Run good people, run while you still can!

Taking a Baby Break – Back Soon!

This will be my last blog post for a while, as very soon I will be going on maternity leave to welcome my second child, Squeaky, into the world. It is only ten months since I came back to work following the birth of my daughter Bubba, ten short months in which I have put a lifelong ambition into practice and become a writer, and yet what a lot has happened in those ten short months!

In ten months I have published a collection of six of my short stories, Mothering and Other Stories, which quickly became an Amazon #10 bestseller* and is available now to download from the Amazon online store. The collection’s title story, Mothering, won first prize in the Darker Times Short Story Competition in October of last year, which was not only an unexpected thrill, but gave a fledgling author such as myself a much-needed boost of confidence.

I attended my first Perth Writers’ Festival in February, and fell in love all over again with writing and reading. I was also delighted to discover that, for a “big country town”, Perth has a vibrant writing scene and some incredibly talented authors. Following on from the festival, I signed up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 and have to date read five and reviewed three of the six books by Australian female authors I pledged to read and review upon joining the challenge. I look forward to (hopefully) reading more than the six books over the rest of the year, baby- and toddler-permitting, of course.

Leaping headfirst onto the social media bandwagon, I started a blog about writing, which has enabled me to practise writing non-fiction in the form of the commentaries, musings, and book reviews you will find on this site. I also created a website, joined Twitter, and yes, I got myself the ubiquitous Facebook page.

I hope to be back behind my desk before the year is out, however for the next six months or so I will be concentrating all my time and energy into just being Mum. I look forward to catching up with you all soon. Signing off for now,

Natalia Clara14.05.01 On Mat Leave

 

 

* #6 in Amazon Bestsellers Rank in Category: Short Stories on 21 April 2014

Building Castles: My 3 Rules For Writing

I recently came across the following quote from W. Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” I find it reassuring that such a prolific writer, with twenty novels and hundreds of essays, short stories, travel books and other works to his name, should have confessed to struggling to define the magical formula for writerly success, despite his achievements in this field.

When I write, I try not to think of the rules. All writers know the basic ones. Plot. Character. Convincing dialogue. Yes, yes, yes. But, once we feel confident of having mastered these basics, what do we do with them? How do we transform the enormous, perfectly formed but almost indefinable idea for a book which is in our head into a coherent narrative, and maintain it over tens of thousands of words? In his excellent book On Writing, Stephen King likens the unwritten story to a fossil which the author must slowly and gently tease from the soil’s grasp, brushstroke by agonising brushstroke. But even King admits to not fully understanding what makes good fiction work, including his own.

If I were to pick my own three rules for writing, based upon personal experience – and assuming that the usual rules involving plot, character and other technical matters have been taken as understood – they would be the following:

1. Just Get On With It
14.04.08 Ray BradburyDay-dreaming about writing, and talking about writing, are not writing. Yes, getting those initial words on paper can be excruciating. You may struggle to form basic sentences, or you may go off on a 5000-word tangent which, while great jinks at the time, does not advance the narrative of your novel one iota. And yes, some of the stuff you read back to yourself will be cringeworthily bad. But that doesn’t matter. Truly. As American author Shannon Hale puts it in one of my all-time favourite writing quotes, “I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.”

It is reassuring to remember that while you are in the process of getting the tumult of ideas down onto paper or screen during the first draft process, it is okay to write bad prose, as long as you are writing something. It is far easier to edit a whole lot of mangled writing than it is to edit nothing at all, because you spent three hours trying to find the perfect word for ‘nice’. Just put down nice and move on. There will be plenty of time for theasaurus-browsing later on, but with nice down on paper you will be halfway towards success. And success, as we all know, means Getting The Job Done. Because while there are plenty of fairly average books out there in print, no publisher is going to be interested in a half-finished novel, no matter how felicitous, copacetic, or pulchritudinous it may be.

2. Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Don’t promise yourself that you will finish your novel in a month, or six months, or even a year. When the deadline rolls around and you’re nowhere near completion, you will feel disheartened. Similarily, don’t go all gung-ho on yourself and commit to putting down14.04.08 Word Count 5000 words a day – not at first, anyway. 5000 words is a lot. Heck, it’s longer than most of the short stories I have written. 1000 words is a perfectly decent amount to get you started, and if you can write 1000 words – be they good, bad or plain ugly – every day, five days a week, in a year you will have 260,000 words. Of course, you probably won’t, because 260,000 words would give you a novel over 800 pages long to edit, and therein madness lies (besides, novels of this length are generally considered by publishers as being comercially unviable). However, it does mean you will have a 65,000 word first draft completed in three months, leaving you the rest of the year to try and shape that sand mound into a castle through subsequent drafting.

14.04.08 ElephantMy own, personal novel writing goal for when I get back to writing following maternity leave will be to write 500 words per day, five days per week. 500 words is nothing, less than half the length of this blog post. It took me half an hour to thump out the first 500 words of the first draft of this post (please bear in mind that polishing that lumpen prose took a lot, lot longer, but worry about the editing later, once the sand has been piled up). And yet, if I write 500 words per day, five days per week, I will have the second draft of my poor, neglected opus completed within six months. Peasy!

Furthermore, since my overall weekly goal is only 2500 words per week, I can easily miss a day and catch up later, without falling short of my overall target and becoming disheartened. Small, realistic goals are much more likely to be achieved consistently, which will give you the confidence to return to the keyboard (or the notepad or the papyrus, or whatever) tomorrow. All music to the ears of this soon-to-be mother of two-under-two.

3. Enter the Zen zone
The Zen zone is where the magic happens – 14.04.08 Zen Frog_cropwhere your characters comes alive and begin to lead you on a journey of their own choosing, rather than you doggedly trying to force them to follow a strict plotline mapped out in your head. The Zen zone is a beautiful, liberating place to write from, and it took me years before I learned to let go of my right-brained, ‘on-the-surface’ writing and allow myself to enter that mysterious place where time appears to stop and I am no longer at my desk, but instead running breathlessly alongside my characters as they take me on unexpected pathways through the stormy narrative of their lives. It is a feeling mildly akin to becoming lost in the reading of a fantastic story, but oh, so much better.

This may seem paradoxical coming after what I wrote above about how torturous spitting those initial words out of your brain onto paper or screen can be. But writing is only hard work when you try to force it (or when you are editing, but that’s a whole other matter). And if everything I’ve written still makes no sense to you, well, never mind. As W. Somerset Maugham said, nobody knows the rules. If they did, then we’d have computers writing novels by now. It really is just a matter of planting yourself behind your desk and having the determination to stay there until you have produced a work you are proud of. Which is, ultimately, what the whole gig’s all about.

Full Steam Ahead: Why Having Kids Can Actually Make You A More Productive Writer

I almost didn’t get around to uploading a blog post this week, as I have been busy editing the final short story I intend to add to my self-published collection, due out in the next few weeks. This story has been sitting, in first draft mode, on my USB stick for several months. I didn’t quite know how to get the story to where it needed to be, and if truth be told, I also knew that I wouldn’t be self-publishing my story collection until around Easter this year, and without a deadline, I am hopeless. No, let me correct that. Without an urgent, imminent, there’s-a-steam-train-hurtling-towards-me deadline, I have no drive whatsoever. I don’t know if other writers feel the same. I am sure there are many who are awfully diligent and self-directing, and who can work at an even pace across their writing calendar. I would like to be more like those writers. But, no. I can quite happily wile away days and weeks unproductively, only to glance at the date somewhere and, with a jolt, realise that I have virtually no time left at all to do what I set out to do, oh, ages ago. And from then on it’s all pistons firing and all guns blazing and a race to the finish and… I’ve run out of clichés, but you get the drift. Ooh, there’s another one.

Time to make a start on that book?

Time to make a start on that book?

This might also explain why it has taken me thirty-odd years to get around to publishing these stories in the first place. All right, so it probably wasn’t going to happen during the first ten or so years of my life, but what have I been doing in the two decades since? Looking back, I had oodles of time in which to focus my energies on getting my writing into print, but instead, I waited until I was a mother of one, and about to drop another, before getting around to it. Talk about thriving under pressure.

James Joyce was quite possibly one of the slowest writers of all time. It took him on average seven years to complete each of his three published novels, and he famously could spend a day’s writing perfecting just three sentences. That’s a luxury I can’t possibly afford, but I bet Joyce wasn’t ferrying the kids to Gymbaroo in between penning his masterpieces. Time to yourself is a precious commodity when you have children.

It’s why I believe that having kids is the best possible motivator to Get Things Done. After Bubba was born, I realised how precious and short life is, and that I couldn’t put off those big ticket dreams on my bucket list any longer. And now, as a full time mum working from home, my writing is pocketed away into the short breaks when the hubby’s at work, Bubba is sleeping, the housework is done, and the dog has been fed. This doesn’t leave much time, trust me. Bubba is – thankfully – pretty regular with her nap times. And it’s amazing what you can get down on paper in the forty-five minutes it takes to run a wash cycle. Especially when you know that you only have forty-five minutes. My writing may not be better than it was pre-motherhood, but I’ve become a darn sight more productive since.

So now, with a month to go until Easter, I’ve finally decided to knuckle down, redraft that final short story, add it to the master copy of my short story collection, whip the whole lot up into a .PUB file, and launch it upon the eBook world. With the book’s launch date imminent, I am growing ever more excited about its release, but I’m trying to be patient until the book is truly, finally ready for publication. I have promised myself not even to disclose the cover art until the publication day, even though I designed this myself months ago. Ah yes, did I mention that, if there is any actual writing to be done, you’ll find me playing around with JPEGs and a publishing software tool, trying to find exactly the right font for my book cover? Because even though I may try to convince myself that I’ve got this time management thing down pat, there will always be room in this writer’s life for some good, old-fashioned procrastination.

The Van Gogh Effect

I was cleaning the shower screen the other day, and got to thinking about Vincent Van Gogh, and in particular the lack of critical and financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime. And yes, I am aware of how much of a tool that makes me sound. (“But, Henry, doesn’t everybody contemplate the life and times of post-Impressionist Dutch painters while doing the housework?” “Well, quite, Cyril, but what’s got me stumped is why the Dickens you were doing the housework in the first place, when you should have got one of the little people to do it?”)

A bit of back story might help here. The week before, I’d been conned into purchasing a bottle of quite expensive, high performance, racing-car-quality waterless car cleaner. I say “conned”, because I was leaving the local shopping centre when a friendly young man wielding a clipboard and a microfibre cloth leapt across my path from beneath a foldaway gazebo and proceeded to accompany me back to my car to give me a demonstration of this fabulous product which all the Formula 1 pit crews are using, wouldn’t you know. In a previous life, I would have smiled vaguely at the air just above his head and announced that I wasn’t interested, before dropping to all fours and zigzagging wildly between parked and moving vehicles in order to lose him. But, heavily pregnant and pushing a toddler in a stroller, I have become an easy target for the hard seller. And perhaps our young friend could read it across my face, but the truth is I now find it easier and less exhausting to throw money at the problem and hope it goes away, so I bought a bottle just to get rid of him. It cost me $40, and as I was beating a dismal retreat he threw in a free pack of microfibre cloths. I think he felt sorry for me.

One part of the salesman’s spiel I did recall was him saying that this product made an excellent shower screen cleaner. And so the next time I cleaned the bathroom at home, I put it to the test (because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to be cleaning the car any time soon, was I?) Well, the stuff works. Really really well. For the first time in years, our shower screen is not covered in those little grey water dots and we no longer have the hazy scum at the bottom of the glass where all the water dots get together and have a party. And that got me wondering why this product – clearly a good thing – wasn’t being stocked in all motoring shops. Not to mention the bathroom cleaning product section of supermarkets. Why did it take a bunch of Uni students working on a commission-only basis to push this stuff onto stressed-out housewives, when it is actually very good? Why are some products destined to spend their lives being flogged to death on the shopping channels and in those catalogues that feature tartan, velcro-fastening slippers, while others have people queuing for days outside an Apple store to buy one? Because, in all seriousness, if you were stuck on a desert island, would you rather have a pair of fully lined, rubber-soled slippers that hark back to the clan days of Scotland, or a smartphone with 4G capability and an in-built GPS? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example.

And that is how I got to our mate Vincent. You see, Van Gogh (as you are probably already aware) was not highly successful in his lifetime. In fact, he spent most of his life living in poverty, and then went mad, sliced his ear off, and quite possibly shot himself. These days, of course, his works sell for hundreds of millions of dollars and he is recognised as a bit of a genius. But back in 1885, he’d be the guy following you to your car with a clipboard and an over-earnest smile, spewing his memorised patter and blinking into the exhaust fumes as you hit the accelerator and sped away.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Much the same can be said for a lot of writers. There are (often very prolific) writers who produce works which are – let’s face it – rubbish, and yet enjoy global book sales in the millions and seven figure film rights sales. I’m sure we’ve all read a crap book that was a mega-super-bestseller. There are plenty about. Some even weren’t written by E. L. James. And then there are those writers who spend their lives perfecting their craft, creating perfectly decent novels, but who – even if they do get published – enjoy only mediocre success before sinking without a trace. Why are some very average writers so successful, when others – who write just as good, if not better books – can’t seem to get a look-in? Why do we keep buying and reading books that are the literary equivalent of a painting of kittens in a basket?

Artwork of unknown origin

Artwork of unknown origin.

I think I have the answer, and it is this. The problem, in my mind, is that most people have no taste in books. Now, please hear me out. I don’t mean that most people have poor taste, and that they willingly choose to read bad books (Twilight fans might be the exception to the rule here). I mean that most readers – those who read maybe a handful of books a year, either received as gifts or purchased in a mad dash through the airport duty free shop – don’t actually have a taste in literature. They don’t know what distinguishes a good book from an average one, a beautifully constructed sentence or a piercing characterisation over a hackneyed phrase or a stereotype. They just know that such-and-such a book has been read by lots of other people, so it must be good. And hey, the cover’s got big shiny embossed print all over it, so that’s a good sign, too, right? Right?

So, how do we redress the balance and start reading better books? Well, expanding the range of books that we select to read in the first place is a place to start. Most of us stick to one or two genres of fiction, rarely if ever stepping out of our literary comfort zones. You don’t have to pick something wildly different. If you usually read thrillers, why not pick up a horror novel instead, or if you lean towards romance fiction, try a Young Adult novel. And once you have found a cracking read, use word of mouth – or word of mouse – to pass on the message. If you bought a book from an online retailer, why not spend thirty seconds submitting a short review? Or tweet about it with the hashtag #amreading. There are lots of undervalued authors out there whose books deserve to be read.

This is another reason I’m so glad I signed on to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’m not aware of the exact number of books by Australian female authors I have read in my lifetime, but I bet it’s not nearly enough, and I look forward to reading at least the half dozen I have pledged to over the coming year. And for “Australian female authors” I could quite easily substitute “Romanian deaf-mute authors” or “Cuban closet transvestite authors”. The point is not that I want to read more books by secret fetishists or the aurally impaired, specifically, but that I – and most readers out there – should read books by a greater variety of authors. Even (especially) authors we might not have heard of before. Because, let’s face it, once you’ve read one Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins novel, you’ve pretty much covered the bases of all of them.

Although he produced well over 2,000 artworks in his lifetime, Van Gogh is rumoured to have only ever sold one painting, a fact which I’m sure didn’t help with his manic depression. I don’t know how many bottles of waterless car cleaner my friend with the clipboard managed to offload during his stint in my local shopping centre car park, but I hope it was enough for him to achieve his commission. And as for me, well, I am still far too busy to get around to washing the car, but on the plus side my bathroom now smells like a Ferrari’s glovebox, so that’s something.