Lessons from a master storyteller

Australian author Catherine Jinks has written over 40 books, many for that most difficult of audiences: the young adult reader. She has won the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award four times, the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, the Aurealis Award for Science Fiction, the IBBY Australia Ena Noel Encouragement Award, the Adelaide Festival Award, and the Davitt Award for Crime Fiction*. But this critically acclaimed author, whose books are published the US, UK, Germany, Poland, Spain and Portugal started her early writing life as a business writer, making her one of a rare breed: a writer who successfully transcended the divide between business writing and fiction.

What lessons did you learn as a business writer that you were able to transfer to fiction writing?

As a business writer, I learned several things that influenced my fiction writing. I was writing for a widely scattered audience, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty. I wasn’t aiming at any specific demographic; nor did I have the luxury of a captive audience. No one had to read what I wrote. What’s more, I was often tackling the kind of subject that makes most people’s eyes glaze over. Credit risk analysis, for example. Orientation training. Financial instruments. So I learned pretty quickly to keep it simple, interesting, pacy and human. These, of course, are the keys to good fiction writing as well. And once you’ve been a business writer, fiction writing is a walk in the park. You have so much more freedom! But you have to work out how to control the car before you can become a formula-one racing driver. I definitely honed my writing skills as a business writer before I started writing novels. It was damn good training.

The business world is being urged to tell their story through their brands, content marketing, advertising – even in their reporting. Reviewers have seen the storytelling aspect of your books as one of their great strengths. Can you share some secrets?

Good storytelling is essentially a matter of expert pacing, no matter what the medium is. And pace is something you can probably learn best from studying the masters. Knowing where to put a climax, where to build tension, where to pull back and relax – that’s something you pick up when you read a lot, or watch a lot of cinema, or listen to a really top-class raconteur. One thing I can say here is that for writers, pace is not only about content, but about the way you put together sentences. A series of short film shots – the sort of thing film directors do when they’re covering a gun battle. Long and complex sentences give a slower, more relaxed feel. You have to keep all this in mind, when you’re telling a story.

What books do you return to when you want to be inspired by great writing?

I can’t say I’m the sort of person who’s really inspired by other people’s writing. I’m more likely to be inspired by a place, or a film, or a story, or a face, or a piece of music – those are the things that trigger inspiration, for me. Moreover, I like and admire a vast number of books, not all of them because the writing is spectacular. You can enjoy a book, and return to it repeatedly, without necessarily wanting to emulate the author. Sometimes you enjoy and revere it because you could never hope it imitate it; it’s quite beyond you. That said, I have to acknowledge that there are a number of writers whose expertise fills me with a deep and abiding sense of the most profound satisfaction. They never lag, they never put a foot wrong, they are absolute masters of the written word. Evelyn Waugh is (or was) one of them; his dialogue beggars belief. Jane Austen was another. Somerset Maugham’s style was practically flawless. The work of these authors has a clarity, a precision, an elegance that makes it deceptively simple, with a simplicity that almost no one else can ever hope to attain. Whenever I read it, I come away knowing that I have to work harder. Which is inspiration of a sort, I suppose.

You’ve won countless awards as a fiction writer, but you also won numerous awards as a business writer. How in those days did you make what you were writing interesting? How did you paint pictures in your readers’ minds?

One way of keeping an audience interested was to quote direct speech. (As Alice in Wonderland said, what’s the use of a book with no pictures or conversations?) Kicking off with a quote is particularly helpful, providing the quote’s got a bit of punch to it. And you can usually find a quote like that, because most people will loosen up enough to give you something genuine, if you work on them a little. (The problem then is to get it past the censors.)

Another tip is to keep things concrete. Rather than using electronics to communicate, visit workplaces. Conduct face-to-face interviews. Do that, and you not only get a better sense of what you’re writing about; you also pick up concrete details – about process, about environments, about customers – that you can use to pep up the blandest theory.

Ask direct questions. I often start chapters with questions: “Ladies, I appeal to you – what makes a man?” This was a trick I learned from my years as a business writer. If you ask a question, the reader will at least hang around long enough to find out the answer.

My next piece of advice is this: always collect stories. I don’t care what you’re writing about – there are always stories associated with it. I used to pounce on people’s little accounts of “a customer I once dealt with…” or “the first time I ever did so-and-so” the way a miner might pounce on a tiny, shining gem. If you have to wander off on a tangent during the interview to score this stuff, then do it.

Finally, try to keep your focus on people. It doesn’t matter what theoretical realm you stray into, there’s always a person at the bottom of it all. That person is your hook and your anchor. People relate to people. If there’s a name, a face, an individual somewhere in the piece, you’re way ahead already.

Can you think of an example or two of what not to do as a business writer?

Never, never use buzzwords. Or jargon. Start doing that, and true comprehension just flies out the door. Bureaucratic language is designed to blur the edges. There’s always a lot of furry terminology flying around in corporations, especially when it comes to things like “vision statements.” You don’t often see anything as vague as a vision statement. Probably because the language is being used to disguise the fact that a) there hasn’t been a lot of thought put into what’s really wanted; b) there are two (or more) different schools of thought on the subject, so ecumenical umbrella terms are needed to cover every alternative; or c) someone wants to sound impressive by using a lot of five syllable words.

This last tendency is more widespread than you think. It’s also associated with the fact that setting things down in concrete terms doesn’t allow you much wriggle-room, if you want to start passing the buck later. If your job as a business communicator is to provide such escape routes, by all means start mastering the buzz words. However, if you’re trying to explain something to people who aren’t in the know, it’s best to call a spade a spade.

You’re a prolific writer – have you ever suffered writer’s block. If so, how would you recommend overcoming it?

There are two ways of making sure writers’ block never even enters the picture – at least in my case. One way might be helpful to business communicators; the other probably doesn’t have much relevance. To make sure I don’t suddenly find myself adrift in the middle of writing a book, I always start the whole process with a synopsis – the more detailed, the better. I’ve had synopses forty pages long (single spaced). My advice is that, no matter how much you want to leap in and start something, you shouldn’t do it until you’ve drawn a plan. It’s like building the frame of a house before you start laying the bricks, or drawing a map before you set out on a journey. The important thing is to ensure that you don’t find yourself wandering down the wrong road, or standing at the edge of a cliff. Planning, planning, planning – that’s my motto. Thanks to my synopses, I don’t get writer’s block. I thrash all that stuff out in my head before I set finger to keyboard, while I’m still in the plotting, note-taking stage.

My other way of combating writers’ block is to use theme music. This is a technique that probably wouldn’t be too useful to your average business communicator, but it goes like this: whenever I’m plotting a story, I find one or two pieces of music that sum it up for me – that give me a creative rush. Then, whenever I’m starting to flag, I listen to the music and it’s like a strong cup of coffee. It gets me interested again. It renews my emotional engagement, while the synopsis does the technical job of pushing me along the right path.



*A Very Unusual Pursuit – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Younger Readers, Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature

Pagan’s Vows– Victorian Premier’s Award, Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Older Readers

Eye to Eye – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Older Readers, Aurealis Award for Science Fiction

You’ll wake the baby – Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year Award: Early Childhood

Evil Genius, Genius Squad – Davitt Award for Crime Fiction