1. Graeme, before becoming a writer, you were a freelance database designer and at one time owned a successful consultancy business. I suspect that will be extremely uninteresting and possibly repellent to our readers, but go ahead anyway.
Thanks, Graeme (I’m writing the questions too). You’re right about uninteresting, at least to others. Nobody at dinner parties ever followed up my answer to the question about what I did with “what database design are you working on at the moment?” And the writing community is broadly progressive-left, which sometimes translates into a reflexive (which is my polite way of saying ‘ignorant’) reaction to business and ‘the boss’.
2. How did you manage to move from a non-creative, mechanistic drone job in technology to the creative world that readers of this blog inhabit?
Good (if profoundly insulting) question, and one which I’m asked quite often. Many, if not most, technologists regard their work as highly creative, though it’s hard to explain that to others: “The breakthrough came when I realised that denormalisation had increased the buffer requirement...” In my work as a writer, I need to be creative more often, but the toughest creative challenges are no tougher than those I faced as a database designer – or as a business strategist.
I also found that a surprising amount of what I learned in my old job translated into screenwriting and then into writing a novel.
3. You mean the business stuff, I presume. Giving you an unfair advantage in the crass commercial aspect of writing.
Yep. The stuff I knew about business practice and working collaboratively was useful in dealing with publishers and in screenwriting. But the big deal was what I learned about design. I did a PhD on how database designers work and discovered a lot about the creative process – principles that I could use directly in screenwriting and plotting.
4. Like what?
I did a TedX talk on this, which you can find at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dSA06HBdb8w. My background in design theory has made me a planner rather than a (seat of the) pantser. If you’re a pantser and it’s working for you, far be it from me to suggest you fix something that’s not broken. But if it’s not working, maybe you should try planning before drugs, meditation or writing the morning pages. That’s the way just about every other profession works.
5. Did you have a special place to work when you did database design? Rituals? Special clothes?
Nobody ever asked me that. You went to work, you did your job, you solved whatever problems came up. Creativity was part of it, but absence of the muse was not an acceptable excuse for missing a deadline.
6. At least you were working in a field that paid well. Database designers don’t need to support themselves making burgers.
Tell that to the kids who came out of their uni courses to find the internet bubble had burst. Or those who studied game design and found there was one job for 300 graduates. Some professions just have way fewer jobs than aspirants. You hope people go into them with their eyes open.
7. You sound like a miserable old neo-conservative who can’t see beyond the market. There are artists reading this blog.
I think it’s important, if you’re going to invest a good part of your life in something, to know what your goals are (even if they may change over time), to have a realistic idea of what your chances of achieving them are, and to have a Plan B, C, D etc. And not to be jealous of people who have achieved goals (like shitloads of money) that you have renounced as less important.
8. You’re ranting. Returning to the assigned topic, what’s the most important lesson you learned from your old job?
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about a neurosurgeon telling Margaret Atwood that he was thinking about a career in writing after he retired, and asking for advice. “What a coincidence,” she replied. The biggest lesson I brought to my writing was the 10,000 hour rule – you’re not going to become “expert” in something without that amount of study and practice. It took me that long to become expert in database design – it took me that long before I wrote a publishable novel. It’s tough advice to take on if you’re trying to share your writing studies with a day job. But the alternative is a very large amount of luck – which is not the way to bet.
9. That’s fantastic, Graeme. Brilliant advice for us all. Good luck with the sequel to The Rosie Project which I understand will be published in September.
Image credit: James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion is a former IT and business consultant who sold his business to study screenwriting and professional writing and editing at RMIT. His first novel, The Rosie Project, has been an international bestseller, with rights sold in over 40 countries, and film rights optioned to Sony Pictures. Graeme’s second novel is due to be published in September.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.