Dan’s top tip for aspiring authors: Develop a tough skin and don’t take the rejections personally.
Dan Kaufman spent most of his career at The Sydney Morning Herald, where he edited almost every section at one time or another, from Travel to MyCareer. He also wrote for almost every section, including essays and literary articles for Spectrum, and had the unofficial title of being the humiliation correspondent by writing about such topics as spending 24 hours in Star City and going to a bondage club. Since leaving the SMH he has continued to write the occasional opinion column for it. He also teaches writing workshops through his business Media Survival.
Why do you write? It’s a compulsion. Once a story or an idea comes to mind and takes over, I become obsessed with it until I’ve finished.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I have no idea. I spent most of my adult life as a journalist – and I now teach writing workshops – so it’s hard to imagine life without writing. I often think writing saved me.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Stamina and finding the right person to believe in the book. It’s not enough to get an agent – or even an editor who likes it. Often, you then need to get other people in the publishing company to get on board. However, if – like me – you write novels that don’t fit neatly into a specific genre, or that take risks (or both) then getting a publisher is almost as hard as winning the lottery. I wrote a previous book that I spent over 10 years writing and was obsessed with it. I still am, actually. I got an agent, I had interest from several publishers, I even had a judge from a literary competition email me and say that the novel deserved to get published and that he loved it – but no publisher could get the group approval amongst their editors to go ahead with it.
So with my new novel I took a different approach and sent it to a small publisher who didn’t need to get the approval of other editors – and it worked. However, it took thousands upon thousands of rejections over many, many, many years before I got a book deal.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? Because I spent so long working as a magazine and newspaper sections editor – and I have worked on the production of countless covers in the past – I was hands on with my book. Luckily, my publisher (the fantastic David Tenenbaum from Melbourne Books) was great about this.
The cover idea was mine, and I suggested a great illustrator I know (Michael McGurk, who I have worked with in the past on magazines and at The Sydney Morning Herald) – and Michael absolutely knocked it out of the park. I couldn’t be happier with the cover design.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Simple: it allows me to disappear into an imaginary world and make things happen – all while playing with words, which I love doing more than anything else.
—the worst? It’s unlikely that I’ll become a millionaire from it. Or even afford toilet paper on the black market.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would spend a lot more time working on plots before just diving in. I’ve written countless unpublished books, and in retrospect they all had a common flaw: the plots were too thin. It took me a LONG time to learn how to put a plot together.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? To create better plots!
What’s the best advice you were ever given? Show, don’t tell. Rather than saying that something is happening, show it. Paint a picture in the reader’s mind with details. For example, don’t just say that John was happy. Show him thumping his steering wheel with joy while screaming out a victorious “yes!”
However, it’s a fine line – too many details can detract from the story.
How important is social media to you as an author? Social media is important – maybe even crucial now in the age of the corona virus. Having said that, I’m still working on improving my own social media presence in an authentic way. I want to make sure that whatever I do online remains true to who I am as a person.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? No – but that doesn’t mean the ideas are always flowing. I think of writers block as when someone sits in front of a keyboard and doesn’t know what to write and gets frustrated.
That’s never happened to me, because my approach is not to force things. When the ideas come, get them out of you. When they don’t, then let it go. After a while, they’ll come back.
Thinking that you have to write is, in my mind, a bad attitude. The writing should come out of you because you have something to say. You shouldn’t even have a choice: you have to write. When you don’t have anything to say, that’s a sign you shouldn’t be writing at all. Only bad writing can come when people think they have to write and so they just force it.
How do you deal with rejection? Sometimes, quite frankly, it can be soul crushing. Having said that, I try to find any constructive criticism and make the most of it – and if it’s just a blanket rejection, then I try to use it as an excuse to think about how I can make my writing even better.
Rejection is an integral part of writing. Criticism is the best thing that can happen to us, and being forced to improve our novels and not become complacent can be a positive, not a negative, force.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Comic, bittersweet, satirical.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? There are many writers who I absolutely idolise – but I have learnt from my journalism days that it’s never good to meet your idols. However, if I had to pick one then I’d go with DBC Pierre (the author of Vernon God Little) – I’m sure he could give me some great tips on both writing and being a writer. Vernon was such a brilliant novel that it would be great just to talk to DBC about how he developed it.
by Dan Kaufman
David’s journalism students petrify him. Then again, so does his cat.
His girlfriend broke up with him, he writes about bars for a shrinking newspaper that’s abandoned news reporting for lifestyle articles, and he’s desperately searching for meaning amongst the backdrop of Sydney’s shallow social scene.
Then he meets a young woman who just might be the answer. The only problem is, she’s a friend of one of his students.
Drowning in the Shallows is a comedy about heartache, a satire of Sydney society, a coming-of-age tale about a man in his 30s who is only now growing up, and a love story about a man and his beloved evil cat.
Buy the book here.