What We Didn’t Know

I’m always writing. I write 1000 words a day – but I aim for 3000 – and that’s spread across various articles, fiction, specific projects, etc. Some of these turn into posts or stories, some become larger projects and then others, they sit. I submit to different places, save things I’ll come back to later, but sometimes pieces come together and I don’t have a home for them. But I have to write them – really, I have such a compulsion to write that it eats at me if I don’t get them all out. With that, I thought I might start posting some of those pieces here. Short essays, fiction, things that I really like but that don’t necessarily fit anywhere specific. Today, I went to see Ben Watt speak at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and he was great. He was talking about his new book, a memoir of his family life, or more, his parents’ relationship, and when I got home, I was inspired. I thought maybe I’d have a go at it – I’m obviously not as high-profile as Ben Watt, and my life isn’t as interesting. But the way he wrote, the beautiful way he presented parts of his life, it fascinated me. So here’s a short, non-fiction piece about my Dad. Hope you like it. 

My Dad would change the channel when those road safety awareness ads came one. You know the ones, with the graphic depictions of car accidents, shoulder blades splashing into windscreens. There was this one where there was a kid on a road and a car sped through and trampled him, tumbling his body beneath. My Dad couldn’t watch that one, the images too painful in his head, memories he could smell, feel. We didn’t know, we were just kids. We didn’t understand. So what if some kid gets run over by a car on TV, it’s not real, right? But Dad had seen it for real, he’d been there when it happened. Held bloody hands as warmth faded from them. He knew those scenes more than anyone should.

He was an ambulance officer, my Dad, but before that, he’d served in Vietnam, a career history that my brother and I cherished as kids. He had models of army helicopters and remainders of ration packs in drawers and Dad had pictures of himself with machine guns and riding in helicopters, looking down onto the jungle. Dad was a hero, a real life army man who then went on to save lives in the ambulance. I remember times when our weekend trips would be halted, my brother and I strapped in our seats, waiting by the roadside because Dad had stopped to help at some accident. We played with GI Joes when we were kids, we idolised those characters. Those were my Dad. That’s what he did. That’s what we knew.

When he started to show the effects we didn’t understand. He’d be angry for no reason, upset and we didn’t know why. He started switching the channel away from those ads and we’d be like ‘what are you doing?’ and he never wanted to say and he’d clench his teeth then leave the room. Mum would tell us Dad doesn’t like those ads. Then things got really bad. I remember Dad sitting on the floor in the kitchen, his head low, back against the laundry door. He had a carving knife in his hand. We didn’t understand, but Dad had taken on one thing too many, seen more than anyone ever should. And he couldn’t take anymore.

Eventually he got help. He talked to people and he stopped work and he got a returned services pension. He’s still damaged, still broken, but he’s okay. And he’s still a hero to me, someone who’s done amazing things, things of great pride. But what we didn’t know is that heroes are human too. Everyone has a breaking point, you can only numb yourself to so much. Sometimes I see him, when he doesn’t know I’m watching, and he’s just looking at his hands.

And I remember that one time, when I came home from school after bragging to my friends about my Dad, how he was in the Army and a soldier and I came home to him, an eight year-old kid, and I stood in front of him and said: ‘Dad, have you ever killed anyone?’

Because we didn’t know.

 

Levelling Moments

Floored

There are certain moments in life that level you. Sometimes, something will happen that will just tune out everything else and make you see things for what they are. These are the moments that can define you, that stay with you long after, and that you go back to, hoping you’ve learned something from them. Here’s three such moments from my life:

  • When I was 13 I was caught trying to steal a G.I. Joe action figure from Kmart. It was the worst, the most shameful, embarrassing incident. I also had my younger brother with me, he would have been seven at the time, walking around, holding my hand as we went. But the moment that levelled me was when they called my Mum up on the loud speaker, when she came in and saw me. At first, she was concerned, she thought there must have been an accident or something, but then they told her why they’d called her. Her face. I felt worthless, stupid. Nothing I’d ever done had levelled me as much. I can see how, in a moment like that, how it could go either way for some people – you could either ensure it never happens again, or you could accept that look of disappointment and just become that, just be ‘that’ kid who’s no good. I chose the former, I would never even dream of stealing anything again, and from there I really started concentrating on doing better at school and working on my writing. But it was just, everything, that day, it took me down to nothing, no better than anyone or anything. I felt like I’d destroyed any trust, faith or hope my Mum had in me.
  • Also when I was younger, probably about 11 or 12, I once went to pat my younger brother on the back and he flinched and ducked a little bit, like I was going to hit him. It was terrible, a sick, dark feeling in my gut. Was that what I was like to him? Was I a bully who scared my younger brother so much that he expected, when I raised my hand, that I’d hit him? We mucked around a lot, we were boys, but I never intentionally hurt him, and I definitely didn’t want him to think I’d smack him one out of no where, for no good reason. It was only a moment, and my brother probably forgot about it within that same split-second, but it stayed with me. It reminded me that I needed to be more wary of my actions. I can’t have people I love flinching at my touch. Why would he do that? Violence is as much perceptual as physical – what you think is nothing could be terrible to someone else. I needed to ensure the people closest to me always felt safe and knew I’d never do anything to hurt them. It changed my perspective, made me want to be a better person.
  • When I was 16 or so, I was going out with this girl. We hung out all the time, we’d always be doing stupid stuff together. But one thing that annoyed me was that she was always non-committal. ‘We’re not going out’ she’d tell me. ‘I’m not your girlfriend’. Every time she said this, it hurt. Why would she be so against being linked to me like this? And what did that mean, that she could go out some time and be with someone else and I’d have no right to be upset about it? After about 6 months, I accepted that she’d never be my ‘girlfriend’, that she was really saying I didn’t mean much to her, and one night, at a friend’s party, I kissed another girl. When I spoke to her next, I told her and she was upset and she hung up. She called back about a week later and asked me why I did it. I told her that she wasn’t my girlfriend. She was crying, I could hear it through the receiver. I told her I was sorry she was upset. ‘You broke my heart’, she told me and she hung up. It was a terrible feeling, one I’ll never forget. I never wanted to be that person, be responsible for someone being so upset like that, again. It reminded me that all actions have consequences, that all relationships are emotional, no matter what’s been communicated. That you have to be aware of how your actions can hurt others.

These random moments are some among many points in time that have helped shape who I am, and importantly, they’ve shaped how I write. These incidents, the things that have levelled me, also remind me of the basic elements of humanity, of the things we all face. Everyone would have similar stories, moments where they’ve been reduced to nothing, left stripped, their ears ringing, feeling like a ghost. These moments make us, and reflecting on them now, they’ve formed big parts of the issues I’ve tried to explore in my writing. What I’ve found is, re-examining these moments can be powerful, can awaken those raw emotions, and when you’re writing, that’s what you need.  You need to be open, you need to be able to feel what’s happening in your scenes. By remembering these moments, I’ve found that it’s helped capture the emotion of other, completely different scenes, more accurately. It’s an interesting excercise, remembering those moments, and might be worth you trying out, just to feel them again, awaken yourself to what you might have learned or taken from them.

Do you have any levelling moments like this?

 

Dreams and Realities

Alone in the dark

It’s always so hard to understand when a person takes their own life. It’s more so when that person seems to have everything going for them, success, popularity, wealth. What reason would that person have to feel so low? It’s a reminder that success is not the cure for all that ails a person. Achievement is in the eye of the beholder, you can never know the workings of another person’s mind. Sometimes, no matter how great your status, you can still feel alone, hopeless. You still struggle to understand where you fit in the world.

Events like this are also a reminder that reaching your dreams won’t necessarily ‘fix’ your life. To me, this was the underlying message of Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘Requiem for a Dream’. In the film (and Hubert Selby’s book), we start out with the main characters, Harry and Marion, breaking into a building to get up onto the rooftop and look out over the city, flying paper planes along the wind. It’s a beautiful scene, simple, there’s a perfection to that moment they share, their life together. From there, Harry seeks to make something of himself, to build a better future for them, and he starts dealing drugs and getting more involved in the drug trade. His mother, too, dreams of being on a game show, her one driving passion in life. She starts taking pills to help her lose weight so she can fit into her dream dress for her pending TV appearance.

As both storylines move on, their situations sink further and further down. Drugs get harder to come by in the city, making it more expensive to buy product and stay in business. Harry eventually convinces Marion to sleep with her psychiatrist for money, which she does, but after another deal goes bad, Harry has to head interstate to buy more drugs, leaving Marion adrift. This leads to one of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film – Harry, his arm now amputated due to an infection stemming from drug use, and in jail after being reported by the hospital who admitted him, he calls Marion, who’s turned to prostitution to feed her own habit:

It hurts to watch, I still get emotional seeing it, but this scene, to me, is the film. All she wants is for Harry to be there, nothing else matters, not money, not where they live. All either of these people want is to just be together again, to go back to that one moment, on top of the building, throwing paper planes across the blue sky. And they both know it’ll never happen. His mother, too, descends into amphetamine-induced madness from which there’s no escape. In the end, they all dream of returning to their lives at the beginning.

Requiem for a Dream, in my view, is a story about the pitfalls of ambition, of ‘the grass is always greener’ mentality. These people were not rich, they didn’t have everything in life. But they were okay. Things were good, there was a beauty to what they had. But none of them could see it, all they could see was that they didn’t have all they wanted, so much so that it consumed them and they lost everything in their attempts to achieve their notions of a better life. But they failed to recognise the good things that they already had. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but they had all they needed. They could’ve been happy, had they been able to take into account the good aspects, rather than just seeing the disappointments.

This, of course, is not to say ambition is bad – everyone needs to have dreams, things they aspire to beyond their day-to-day, they’re the things that drive us on. But at the same time, people need to take stock of what they  do have, right now. Family, friends, a comfortable place to live. We all want to be financially secure and have the best of things, but it’s worth noting that even if you did have all these things, if you’d achieved everything you ever wanted, it still might not be enough. You’ll still see and feel things the same. Your problems might be different, but nothing’s ever perfect. Achieving your goals might not deliver you ultimate happiness.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s worth taking note of the things you have in your life, rather than obsessing about what you don’t. Think of things you love and appreciate, things that make you happy that you’ve achieved or gained. Take note of where you are, of what you like and what you can do, right now. Because life ain’t so bad. And no matter what, every day you get a chance to try something new.

Photo credit: Jonas Ahrentorp, flickr

 

The Intriguing, Frustrating Career of Todd Carney

Carney

 

 

 

 

 

I lived in Canberra from 2006 to 2011 and while I was there I came across a story that absolutely intrigued me. I’m always fascinated by how people end up where they are, why they do what they do. When you read a story in the newspaper of how some guy, for example, murdered his wife, you’re only ever skimming the surface of the real details behind the story. But what motivates people to do such things? What could’ve happened in this person’s life to make him decide that this is the course of action he’s going to take? These questions are key to your character development efforts in your own writing – it can’t be that a person just does something, there has to be a reason why, an authenticity in their thought process.

This is how I approached the story of this NRL player that I heard about in Canberra. Being from Melbourne, I know hardly anything about NRL and have very little interest in it. I tried to go to a few games in Canberra, to experience the local culture, as it were, but it never caught on for me – I imagine people from northern states have a similar reaction to AFL. But while I was there, there was this one player who just kept doing really amazingly stupid things. This player was on $400k per season with the Canberra Raiders, had everything going for him, yet he just couldn’t stop himself from getting drunk on the weekend and punching people in the face or breaking things. I read each headline with amazement – Why was he doing this? What renders a person unable to follow basic societal norms for the sake of their livelihood, what they’d worked all their life to achieve?

The player I’m talking about is Todd Carney. You may or may not have heard of him, but he recently got sacked, again, from another NRL club. It makes no sense – he’s a great player, no one debates that, but he just can’t seem to stop himself from making dumb decisions.

For example, here’s a rundown of Carney’s career history:

2004 – Carney makes NRL debut at age 17, wins Raiders ‘Rookie of the Year’, plays for Australian junior side

2006 – Canberra Raiders leading try scorer, team finishes in top 8, selected as captain of Australian junior side. Charged with drink-driving and reckless driving, license suspended 5 years

2007 – Loses chance to play for State of Origin side due to another driving offence – refuses to stop for police, leads them on a chase through Canberra, hits a dead-end street, then flees the scene, leaving team-mate in car. Banned from driving till 2012, told he’ll go to jail if he offends again

2008 – Allegedly urinates on man at a Canberra nightclub. Gets suspended by club, whilst another investigation takes place into driving incident where he left his team-mate, with team-mate saying he was told to keep quiet about the incident. Carney suspended for season, told to accept strict management plan from Raiders – eventually sacked by club and de-listed from NRL for failing to agree to terms. Seeks contract from overseas club but can’t get a visa due to criminal history

2009 – Tries to get back in the NRL, but application denied – respond by smashing a shop window and jumping on cars in Goulburn. Receives 12-month suspended jail term.  Released by Raiders to play in lower-level league in Cairns – gets in fights, sets some guy’s pants on fire, eventually signed by Sydney Roosters to new contract

2010 – Joins Sydney Roosters, has great season, wins game’s highest individual honour, the Dally M Medal – so he’s undeniably a great player, despite the off-field issues

2011 – After three separate alcohol-related incidents, Carney sacked from Sydney Roosters. After again trying to play overseas, and again being denied on visa grounds, Carney signs contract with Cronulla Sharks – estimated to be $350k per season for two years

2012 – Plays in State of Origin, has solid overall season, but sits out final games with injury

2013 – Signs on with Sharks for another five years

2014 – Sacked from Cronulla after pictures emerge of Carney seemingly urinating into his own mouth

It’s a pretty amazing record, not only for the indiscretions, but for the amount of opportunities he’s had to straighten up.

Of course, he’s not the first pro athlete to do things like this, things that frustrate us normal folk as we do whatever we can, day0-to-day, to keep our incomings higher than our outgoings. Did you know that 78% of NFL players go broke within five years of finishing their careers? The average NFL salary is $1.9 million p.a. Amazing, right? How do they do it, how can they throw such opportunity away?

Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to see things from their perspective to understand. Carney’s naturally gifted, a top-level athlete. He’s always been better than most at what he does. So while we can’t understand why he doesn’t seem to appreciate his unique position in life, he probably doesn’t understand why we can’t do what he does. Its stories like this that are the reason I write. Not Carney himself, but people, what makes people do the things they do. People will often say that there are really only a certain number of basic plots, and that all literature is just a variation on these outlines. I disagree. There’s so much complexity in people’s actions, so much opportunity, as a writer, to explore new things. Not every human has been born yet, so, to me, not every story has been told. Everyone has a totally unique perspective, different motivations for how they conduct themselves. Writing, for me, is about trying to understand those reasons, the things that cause people to respond the way they do. How people come to be who and where they are.

Cases like Todd Carney’s highlight that we don’t have – that we can’t ever know – all the answers. This is why, as writers, need to keep working to better interpret and understand the complexities of the world. Because things happen everyday that are fascinating, intriguing, amazing. By taking to time to understand them, to view things from a perspective other than your own, you’re stepping beyond the realms of what you, yourself, understand to be true and opening yourself to a wider experience of the human condition. That excites me about literature, that fires the synapses of my brain and gets me thinking, and after I get thinking, I get writing. And I love that plain, that hum you get into when your ideas expand and burst.

Whatever your opinion, whatever the real reason may be, stories like Todd Carney’s remind me of why I love to write.

On Finding Your Literary Voice…

speaker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In reading literary reviews, or writing reviews in general, one note that commonly comes up how the author has found his or her voice. ‘This writer has found his voice…’ ‘She’s established her own voice…’ ‘His unique voice comes through loud and clear in his writing’. The problem with this note, for prospective writers in particular, is that it can be a bit vague – what does that mean? How can someone find their literary ‘voice’? Your ‘voice’ is your distinctive presence, your way of communicating a story, and in that sense, there’s not really any way a person can say ‘here’s how you find your voice’, because it’s unique, it’s who you are – and not only that, it’s who your characters are, the authentic voices of your story. It’s the voice of the piece needs to be reflective of the story and true to the reality of the world that you’ve created.

While I can’t tell you how you can find your voice as a writer, what I can tell you are some of the things writers’ often do that are counter to finding their voice. We’re all trying to ‘be writers’, all trying to do what writers do, as opposed to what we, normal-folk, do, and inevitably, that leads to us adopting some practices which go totally against the mission of finding one’s own unique voice. Here’s a few things to avoid, or think about, as you go about your writing work.

Not every detail has to be painstakingly poetic

This is probably the most common mistake people make, they’ll try to create epic, poetic descriptions of even the most mundane and irrelevant details of the scene in order to conform to what they believe is a literary approach. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into – you get self-conscious about your writing, you think you need to make everything more stylised, more beautiful, and you end up wasting paragraphs on details that serve no purpose to the wider piece. The greatest stories have a flow to them, an effortless beauty, a sense that every word, every description, is rested right there, in it’s correct place. That sense comes from knowing the story, from having every detail relate back to the core of the piece. Everything you describe, every element, should all be adding to the wider themes and ideas of the world of the story.

For instance, I read a piece recently where a writer had spent sentences describing the details of the way a room was set out. The story had nothing to do with room detail, and the characters didn’t have any psychological predispositions to noting down such elements. The description was purely there because the writer felt like they needed to include complex description. Now, if the character did have a leaning towards being caught up in intimate details – if, for instance, the character was having a life moment and such details reflected a wider sense of his/her own position at that time, those details would be relevant, but painting literary embellishments without direct story purpose is often jarring and representative of your own lack of confidence in your writing. Every detail you note should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, cut it out, it’s just weighing down your prose.

Trust what you know

A big part of establishing your own literary identity is trusting what you know. Your voice is exactly that – your voice. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work. You know how people talk, you know what interactions feel genuine. You also know, in your own experience, what makes people do the things they do, what life events lead to people being how they are. Your experiences on this front are totally unique – you’ll have seen and heard of people doing things for different reasons, and you know those sequences as truths, as things that have happened. Those understandings are what you need to reflect in your work – if something happens, if someone does something, it’s not just a random event. What made that person do that thing? What compelled them to act in the way they did? You know what would most likely lead to a person being in the state of mind they’re in, and that is the truth that you need to reflect and tap into in your descriptions. That’s not to say you need to go into every detail of their life, but you need to know your characters, who they are, what they do, what their motivations are. If you know that detail, you can ensure their perspective is reflected in every action – how they react is how they would respond in real life. And that’s based on what you know – that’s where your own authenticity comes from, not from movies or books or what you think other people might think. You have to trust your own knowledge and understanding and ensure that that honesty is reflected in your work. If something happens that doesn’t feel true to you, it’ll likely feel totally fake to another reader.

Your only obligation is to the honesty of the story

This particularly relates to the voice of your work – the way the characters speak, the way the story is presented, these details need to reflect what’s best for your story. You know the characters, how they talk, how they act. The way it’s communicated, in your words, should reflect the voice of the piece. If you want it to be slow and dreamy, read other writers’ who’ve written in that way and study what they’ve done that works. Use thematic images in your writing area and music to inspire your thoughts and get the words flowing through your head. But above all, ensure that the voice you use for your work is true to the story you want to present. If it’s first person, get in the head of your character and describe the world as he/she would see it. If it’s third person, understand the flow you’re going for, how distant or intimate you need to be, and ensure that perspective is maintained – but always be true to the feel of the story, the characters, the drive. How do you want the reader to feel when reading it? What elements will keep them glued to your words as they flow through the piece? Don’t write in the voice that you think a ‘real writer’ might go for, write in the voice of the story, of the characters. Write as if they’re telling the story themselves, how they would describe it. You have to inhabit the story, be part of it, see things from the interior of the book. Once you get in there, in between the words, you’ll start to see your own voice shine through and move from being influenced by other works to being contained within your own piece.

As I’ve discussed before, there’s no sure fire way to be a successful writer – if there was, everyone would do it. It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of observation and a lot of daydreaming, allowing yourself to get caught up in your imagination. Finding your voice is difficult – it’s something that gets thrown about like it’s a goal to aspire to. But more often than not, you find your voice by not specifically looking for it. Be honest to your work, to the world’s you’re creating, to the characters you’re building, and through that honesty and focus, your voice and style will develop all on it’s own.

 

Music That Fuels Imagination…

DJ Shadow 1

Music has always played a big part in my writing. Not so much as I’m writing, as I like to be fully enclosed within the words (sometimes strangled by them), but when I’m thinking, when the story is percolating inside my head, it’s good to have a background theme. I used to live in Kinglake, which is about 40 minutes drive away from anything – a rural town stranded on top of a mountain. The distance meant you had a lot of time alone with your thoughts, travelling from one place to the next. I worked in the city, which is about a 3 hour round trip, and the best thing about it was having that time and space to open your mind, to allow your creative thoughts to drift and evolve. I found music often played a big part in this, certain songs or albums would wriggle into my consciousness and form a soundtrack for my expanding imagination.

While it’s different for everyone, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite idea accompaniments. If you’ve not heard these or haven’t given them a re-listen in a while, maybe this will motivate you to load them up and let your mind wander through the tracks.

Pieces in a Modern Style

 

‘Pieces in a Modern Style’ – William Orbit

It takes some people a moment to get their head around this one – William Orbit is an electronic music producer, and he took some of his favourite classical pieces and re-worked them using digital sounds. And some of them, I can get totally lost in – most notably ‘Ogive Number 1’, (track 3). Each track inspires it’s own visual idea in my mind, and it’s a great album to just press play on and go about your thoughts. Try listening to it as you drive through the city at night, or along the freeway at dusk.

 

 

 

Burial Untrue

‘Untrue’ – Burial

I find all of Burial’s music to be incredibly vibrant, in a visual sense. The titles of his tracks alone inspire certain narrative ideas (‘In McDonald’s’, ‘Homeless’, ‘Night Bus’). There’s a sorrow and detachment in Burial’s music, which is reflected in the man himself (in the few interviews he’s done). But in that too, there’s beauty, something that entices you to take a better look at the world around you, to take in the various elements. It’s the detail that he seems to bring out, the heart of a moment, encapsulated in musical form. Again, best for listening to at night – though I do most of my writing at night, so there may be a reason for that motif.

 

 

 

DJ Shadow 2

‘Endtroducing…..’ – DJ Shadow

That’s not a spelling error, the album is called ‘Endtroducing…..’, the diamond in the catalogue of sample genius DJ Shadow. Very few artists come as close to creating a perfect album as Shadow did with this one, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse for his career – he obviously garnered huge amounts of fame and acclaim for it, but everything he’s done since has inevitably been compared to it, and also, inevitably, fallen short. For his part, Shadow has always said he’s produced music he loves, and he’s stood behind every album, regardless of critical sentiment – and some of them do have moments of greatness (his follow-up, ‘The Private Press’, is amazing). But ‘Endtroducing…..’ is such a high benchmark, it’d be near impossible for anyone to live up to. There’re so many great moments on this album, songs that inspire such amazing feeling and nostalgia. It really is on another level, something everyone should experience in a dark room with no other stimuli to distract them. Just listen and feel the emotional depth of the work (Shadow has said he was in despair while making the record, and you can feel those edges of emotion breaching through the beats).

 

Godspeed

‘Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!’ – Godspeed You Black Emperor

Really, you can listen to any GYBE album and be transported to another time and place, but there’s something about this album which transcended their other work. It’s by far their best known album, and it definitely does have an extra element that stands out, something that elevates it. Essentially, GYBE create soundtracks – they’ve contributed to several actual movie soundtracks, but even without the movie backing, their music is narrative driven, just, most of the time, without the actual narrative. Some people find it hard to get into, I find it best to just play on low volume to start with and just let it build with your thoughts.

 

There’s a heap of other albums, tracks and sections that have inspired my work, but these are the ones that stood out the most, and ones I think others might also get something out of. If you’re ever struggling with a section or idea, maybe sit down with one of these and see if they take you out of your day-to-day for a moment, expand your imagination and sense of place.

Do you have any albums or tracks that inspire you? I’d love to know, always keen to try out new music and ideas as I write.

Author Interview: James Phelan

P-Han

In my time at writing and literary events, I’ve had opportunity to meet a lot of authors. Most of them are pretty quiet, all of them have been pretty nice, normal people, but a couple have become genuine close friends. It’s great to have a few writer friends, some people who know what it’s like to commit yourself to such a solitary act. It’s also great to have them to bounce ideas off, talk about your frustrations or concerns, just share with folk who’ve gone through a lot of the same things.

One of those people, for me, is James Phelan. I met James at the Newcastle Writers Fesitval in 2006 and we hit it off straight away. What’s always been really interesting for me is James writes in a completely different style to what I do. James’ novels are action/thrillers, and I’ve never been able to get into them. But hearing such a difference perspective on writing and the writing/publishing process has always fascinated me. James is the guy I go to when I need to ramble about writing and the challenges I’m having, the guy I seek out if I don’t know how this or that works in the industry. He’s also a close friend whose always been willing to listen to my ramblings.

I asked James to answer a few questions on writing and his writing process:

When did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?

I was 15 when I knew I wanted to be a novelist but I thought you had to be an old dude to do it. So, I figured I’d give it a try when I retired from a “real job”. I studied architecture and worked for a couple of firms, and by 20 I knew that I had to give writing a serious try. I wrote my first novel by 21, got a job at a newspaper, did an MA and PhD in Lit, and had my first novel published published at 25.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being a full-time writer?

Deciding what to do next. I’ve written series for adults, young adults, and kids, and each has its pros and cons. The adult stuff has complete freedom, YA slightly less so, and the kids stuff has a whole bunch of things that the publishers tell me I can’t do or say on the page. The YA and kids stuff involves way more PR, on average a day per week, and while that’s great in terms of meeting enthusiastic readers, it sucks time away from writing. Publishing books for adults is more about Crystal, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes… you know the rest. Publishing books for kids sells about 10x more.

What’s the key to ongoing success?

Working hard. It’s easy for a writer to procrastinate, and there’s creative merit in that, sure. I write every day, starting early in the cafe nearby. Depending on which stage of writing I’m at, I’ll be sitting with my notebook or laptop or print out. Every day. That’s the writing side. The business side – you need good agents (and an accountant) who you trust will give you good advice when you need it, look over your contracts, and support you through the process.

Best tip for keeping ideas flowing and avoiding/beating writers’ block?

It’s my belief that if you write every day you’ll keep things moving along. That, and knowing your ending. Whether I’m writing a short story or a 40,000 word novel for kids or 90,000 for adults, I always know how I want my ending to play out. Not so much beat for beat, but in my ending I need to know the feeling that I want to create in the reader, be it comedic, dramatic, tragic etc. Usually by the time I write the ending, it will play out different to how I envisaged, but that value will stay always the same, and by knowing where I was going I managed to get there. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2007, and it’s all about working hard.

Best tip for writers starting out?

Don’t ever sign a 13 book deal. Only recently have I finished all my contracts, and the freedom is incredible. So, enjoy your freedom, while it lasts. Write what you want to write. Make it shine through revisions, then decide what you’re going to do with it. I still think that agents are worth their commission, so get one of those. How? By getting published. How do you get published? By having an agent, or already being published. I know, right? Oh, and don’t forget to read as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Good luck.

[Note: Not everyone's as luck to be offered a 13 book deal, and I'm sure most would jump at the chance, but as noted by James, it can be double-edged]

James Phelan’s latest adult thriller is ‘The Spy‘, and the first books of his YA series ‘The Last Thirteen‘ are also available now. He’s also on Twitter.

Also, this punch really hurt him.

Moments before tears were shed

My First Boy

TJ and me

I used to have a dog named TJ. I named him after a basketball player who I liked – small, but full of attitude. But TJ wasn’t really full of attitude. On the day we picked him up, he was the quiet one, the runt, sitting at the back while the other pups clamoured for our attention. Then, after the others had calmed down and got distracted by other things, TJ made his way over and pushed his nose under my wife’s hand. He was a gentle pup, was attached to us from day one.

It broke my heart when we went to work and left him. He’d be sitting in the yard staring out through the wooden gate, watching me leave, then when I got home, he’d be in the exact same spot, staring out. I don’t know if he ever moved while I was gone. We had to get him a friend, another dog to keep him company. We got Chester about four months in.

He always pulled too hard on the lead, was too enthusiastic when we went on walks. He loved going in the car too, even the long trips from Canberra to Melbourne. But really, he just loved being with us. Always. He’d sleep in our bed whenever we’d let him.

He got sick. He developed a big belly which we put down to him just getting fat, then his fur dried out. There was something wrong. He was diagnosed with a condition that couldn’t be cured when was seven human years old. He didn’t want to walk anymore. Then he didn’t want to eat.

I used to have a dog named TJ. He died early this morning.

He was a good dog. I’ll miss him a lot.

 

Rest in peace, my boy.

The Best Films of 2014 (So Far…)

I’ve been catching up on some films recently, and got into a stretch of great ones that I wanted to share. So rather than write individual posts for each, with us now at the midway point of the year, it’s a good time to go over the best films I’ve seen, thus far, in 2014. Some of them I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but here’s my top five from the last 6 months:

Enemy

There’s so much I could say about this film, so much I’d love to go on about, but it’s one of those ones you’re best not knowing anything about going in. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film ‘Prisoners’ was on my ‘Best of 2013’ list), Enemy is a lesson in film-making. Everything about it is precisely placed and planned, everything is deliberate. All I can say about Enemy is the film you’re watching is not the film you think it is. It’ll make sense in the end. Probably.

Under the Skin

Another one I’d love to go on about for pages and pages. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Under the Skin starts off with a woman (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Scotland in a large, white van, looking for directions. But then she’s looking for something else, a phone, a different road. Then you realise, she’s not looking for directions at all, she’s trying to lure each man she speaks to into the van. From there, she seduces them, then takes them to abandoned buildings. What happens next, in terms of the way it’s shot, the set design, the music, is mesmerising, and so great, and the story leads on from there. Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber – though it’s a loose adaptation, major sequences and plotlines are altered from the book. It’s a great example of restraint, of allowing the plot to develop on its own, combined with some amazing visual elements. A great, great film, one I’ll no doubt be watching over and over.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I already geeked out over X-Men: Days of Future Past in a previous post, so I won’t go on about it again. For me, this is the ultimate superhero film – of all the ones that have come before it, X-Men: Days of Future Past has the strongest combination of amazing visual effects, solid story and deep characters (in superhero film terms, at least). People will praise Chris Nolan’s Batman films or Joss Whedon’s Avengers as the best superhero films, and to some degree, it depends on which comics you grew up with. For me, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best – it sticks to the real roots of the comics, it brings characters to life you never thought possible and it all just looks so great, no expense is spared on the detail.

Blue Ruin

I came across this film recently, one I hadn’t heard a heap about. Blue Ruin is the story of a broken man who returns to his home town to enact revenge, and the consequences of his actions then spiral further and further out of control. Blue Ruin pulled me in pretty quick and I had to know how it all ended. It’s well acted (by relative unknowns) and plotted and, most importantly, it moves. The story pushes ahead at such a pace, remaining compelling and engaging throughout – it’s a good lesson in plot development and raising the stakes to sustain engagement. It’s an intriguing, violent film, but one that’s well worth seeing.

About Time

This one sort of crept up on me. We watched About Time, essentially, because I thought my wife would like it – she’s into romantic films, The Notebook being her favourite, and this has McAdams in it and it’s by the guy who made Love Actually – it has all the makings of a film she’d love. But I actually really liked it. It’s got depth and heart, a reflective element to it, which is normally non-existent in romantic dramas which play out the obvious notes. About Time is about a guy who can travel back in time. Not anywhere he wants though, only back to places he’s been and experiences he’s lived – like, if he embarrassed himself the first time he spoke to a girl, he can go back and change it. That sounds really amazing, right, and slightly difficult for a film (how do you create tension in a scene when the audience knows he can just re-do it?), but it actually moves in a direction I didn’t expect and ends up being an interesting reflection on life and how we approach it. About Time isn’t going to go down as an artistic masterpiece, but it raises really interesting questions, and it’s definitely worth checking out.

So there they are, my top films of 2014 (so far). In terms of writing, all of these films have great written elements, great plot development points that are worth taking note of. I really loved that most of them went places I didn’t expect, opening my thinking to other angles in my own plot development efforts. It’s like when you read a great book and it opens up all these possibilities in your mind and then you get that electricity, that momentum that compels you to just get writing. All these films had elements of that for me, all triggered ideas and tangents, new perspectives and elements I could consider. Each one got me thinking – especially the first two on this list – and anything that gives your creative mind a kick is worth taking a couple hours out of your day for. If you’re looking for inspiration, seeking out a great film is always a worthy avenue to try.

 

 

Film Review: Enemy

Enemy_Poster.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

I have to restrain myself in talking about Dennis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ because… it’s quite possibly my favourite film of all time. That’s a big call to make, and as soon as you do make it, people will scrutinize the film in a different way and instinctively try to tear it down, moreso than they would if you’d just said ‘yeah. It’s good’. Not that I don’t think the film holds up, but I hesitate only because I want everyone to see this film and experience it for all it is. Enemy is so well made, so well done and so amazing – it’s something that you need to let yourself be absorbed into.

Every element of Enemy has been planned to the nth degree. Every scene, background to foreground, is deliberate, all the pieces fit perfectly into where they should be. What might seem like nothing is actually carefully positioned to achieve best effect and the cinematography perfectly captures the feel of the film. The performances are great, and the way the story builds and shifts drags you further and further into the rabbit-hole-type story. Some have criticised the film’s heavy handed use of metaphor, but I think it’s exactly what it needs, at exactly the right times, in order to let you know there’s more happening than what you see. I can’t talk about the story, but I will say that it expands a whole different way of viewing it, outside of the film itself.

Enemy is exactly what I look for in a film. It’s storyline is intriguing, the film construction is thorough and it has an extra layer to it that forces the viewer to think about its meaning and subtext. It’s more than the sum of its parts, and while it won’t work for everyone, it was definitely one of my favourite viewing experiences of all time. Writers, in particular, can learn a lot from the story’s clever construction.

See it.