Writers On Writing / The writerly equivalent of chilli beans with Tom Doig

Ahead of his intensive one-day course at Writing NSW, From Crazy Idea to Polished Product, we had a quick chat with Tom Doig about starting small and aiming big.

As a writer and oral historian, what kinds of stories most pique your interest?

I’m particularly obsessed with people and place. If I meet someone with a fascinating perspective or set of life experiences—which happens all the time—I immediately want to write about them. And certain places—the Mongolian steppes; the Hazelwood coal mine—are just so striking, they’ve got to be written about!

What are some of the biggest hurdles for writers attempting to complete a complex project or book?

One of the hardest things about non-fiction books about current events (like the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire) is that new events keep happening, and the story keeps changing. It’s impossible to ‘finish’ your research, because life keeps happening—you have to cut it off, and deal with your work’s incompleteness.

Another hard thing is writing about the intimate, upsetting details of other people’s lives. To really ‘get’ to the heart of the story, you often have to persuade people to open up old (or fresh) trauma, which can be disturbing for interviewee and interviewer alike. These intense stories are also impossible to write about ‘objectively’—so, after building up an intense empathetic connection with your subjects, you then have to distance yourself, to construct a balanced narrative for a general audience.

The alternative title for your upcoming course at Writing NSW was ‘From Brain Farts to Book Deals’—any words of wisdom for writers who might be at the ‘brain fart’ stage?

If you’re feeling ‘brain-fart deficient’ (i.e. lacking in ideas), you need to ingest the writerly equivalent of chilli beans and lentils: other people’s great books, other people’s amazing life stories. Load up on amazing stories, and the brain farts will come!

Next, start small. DON’T try to jump straight from brain fart to 500-page book! Explore your idea as a short article, blog, chapter or feature, to ‘road test’ your work, and get a sense of what readers think … and then build, iteratively, towards longer projects.

Dr Tom Doig is a journalist, oral historian, travel writer and academic. He is the author of Mörön to Mörön: two men, two bikes, one Mongolian misadventure (Allen & Unwin, 2013) and The Coal Face (Penguin, 2015), about the catastrophic 2014 Hazelwood mine fire. The Coal Face was joint winner of the 2015 Oral History Victoria Education Innovation Award. Tom has recently completed a journalism PhD at Monash University, and is currently writing a longer book about the Hazelwood mine fire—Hazelwood—to be published by Penguin in February 2019.

From Crazy Idea to Polished Product will take place at Writing NSW on Saturday 17 November, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here >

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