Personal Details

One of the hardest things about writing, and creating an honest, true to life story, is that you have to include personal details. But how much personal info is too much – and what happens when people recognize themselves in your work?

Personally, I’ve never had anyone say they recognize themselves in my stories – or at least, not accurately. Some people have suggested that ‘character X is John’ and they’ve been wrong, but definitely there are some characters in my work who are based on real people that I had in mind when writing.

The tricky part is, how can you create an authentic character – who, ideally, lives and breathes beyond the page – without referencing your own experience? And really, you can’t. Your perspective is what makes your writing what it is, so you need to establish the balance of knowing what the character would do in a situation, and not what you, or someone you know, would do, or has done. And you can only do that through your understanding of people, which is informed by your experience.

This was more of a consideration with ‘One’, as it explores relationships, and how the character has responded to them. None of his responses were my own (I don’t think), but I can see how people might have got to certain points in their relationships, so it is, in part, built around the framework of my own history.

That’s concerning because people will read it, people will read into it, friends and ex-partners will see themselves, whether it’s there or not.

But the thing is, you have to be honest. You have to put your heart on the line, to a degree, and go with the pull of the story. At times, that’s going to be uncomfortable, but shared experience is what all good writing is. Even science fiction and fantasy stories work based on mutual understanding, on being able to capture a mood and re-create the emotion of the scene within the reader. They can only do that because you’ve shared something real through your words – and often, that ‘realness’ will be based in your own perspective.

It’s always a delicate balance, but you have to be honest, and put that out there, to create truly resonant work.

Music

Music has always been one of my keys to writing. Not in a ‘while writing’ sense, as it’s too distracting, but when coming up with scenes and ideas, I’ve often been inspired by a song, or had a track embed itself as the soundtrack for my imagined scene.

I think this partly comes back to when I was growing up. I lived in Kinglake, which is just over an hour outside of Melbourne, but it’s fairly isolated. Because of this, if you ever wanted to go anywhere to catch up with friends, or do pretty much anything, you had to drive.

The drive becomes automatic after a while, you just cruise through, and while I was on those daily two-hour return trips, that became my prime thinking time, piecing together stories. And because I’d be listening to music, that music would then sometimes inform a certain scene or sequence.

I still have several songs that, when I listen to them, I can see a scene playing out in my head, or imagine where they fit in a certain story. At times, it’s helped add pace or heighten tension in time with the rhythm.

And of course, I wouldn’t assume I’m unique at all in this regard – I’m sure plenty of writers use music and certain songs to inspire their work. But if you haven’t, it’s worth trying out. You don’t want to get totally tied to a track or driven by its progression, but maybe try to think about what visual sequence best goes with the song, what story comes through, without being necessarily guided by the lyrics.

One

one cover2

Okay.

As some of you may recall, back in 2007 I wrote a novel. And it did reasonably well, in relative terms – it sold okay, it won some awards. Some people liked it, some didn’t – but at the end of the day it was, in my opinion, the best it could be, in terms of story and structure. And it was a dream come true – I’d always wanted to write a book and be on the shelves with those other real authors on bookshelves. And I did it.

At that time, my publisher asked if I had anything else. And I did – I’d been working on an idea for my second novel for some time, and I put it all together, locked down a first draft and sent it through.

Except, it wasn’t very good.

There are several reasons for this – the biggest one, I think, is imposter syndrome, thinking I wasn’t good enough. The best explanation I can give is this – when my first novel came out, I was asked to speak on a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. The panel was on… actually I don’t remember what it was on, but it was an academic sounding subject to which my book was tangentially related. And I studied for it, I researched, I wrote an in-depth speech that I felt fit the theme.

I did all this because people were paying for tickets to this, people were paying to hear authors talk – real people paying real money to hear real authors. And I wasn’t so confident that I was the latter.

Everything I said, everything I did around that time was all prefaced with the thought that I had to sound smart. I had to sound like a real author, like someone who knows what he’s talking about.

But I was a real author. I had written a book. I knew exactly how to write, and exactly why I wrote it. Yet, for some reason, that didn’t feel like enough.

This feeling pervaded into my second novel – my first book was an experiment, a test of sorts, to see if I could actually do it. If I could put together a reasonably compelling story and a few of my friends liked it, that’d be great. Actually, before I signed a publishing contract, I was pretty much consigned to the fact that it would only ever be an experiment. I’d sent it to a couple of publishers, a couple of competitions, with no idea what else to do with it. It had been a couple of months, I’d not heard anything. I thought maybe that was it, onto the next.

But because that’s how I approached it, there was no pressure, there was no concern, I didn’t feel like it had to be anything it wasn’t. The second time around, this manuscript was going to real publishers, it was all set on a clear track to be published. It had to be good.

That self-made pressure made it almost impossible to write. I had a draft, I had an idea of what I was aiming for. But I was trying too hard to be something I wasn’t, to be a published, award-winning author, rather than just letting myself breathe and create.

And it became stifling.

There were other things along the way – my day job, getting married, having kids, all the regular challenges. But the real challenge was imposter syndrome, heaping pressure on myself. No one else did this. It was all in my head.

But I never gave up.

People would sometimes ask why I stopped. I didn’t. I never have, and never could. Writing is part of who I am, it’s something I can’t help doing. I’ve always been writing, I’ve always been thinking of stories, of characters and angles and plot points. I’ve written a heap of things in the last decade, various pieces of fiction that have been published in literary journals and such, and an inordinate amount of non-fiction that’s posted all over the web. Writing is what I do – it’s not even really a choice. And I continued to develop and evolve the story of my second novel, till I got it out.

And now it’s done.

My second novel, ‘One’ will be published in 2018. It took me stripping it back to its core principles and messages and re-starting the whole thing – I doubt a word of that initial draft I put together has made it through. I kept poking at it, kept thinking it through, kept writing till it all became clear. And I’m immensely proud of the result – not just for my sake, but for the sake of my editor and publisher, and anyone else who’s given their time to offer feedback who’ve helped me refine it into what it is.

It’s a lot different from my first novel, hopefully a lot better. It explores the challenges of all-consuming relationships and how they shape who we are.

If you’re looking for something to read, give it a shot and let me know what you think – more release info here.

Understanding

HandwritingFor those unaware, my first novel was published in 2007. It’s a long time ago, I understand if you forgot.

I’d launched my first novel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 2007, and after it came out, the natural query from a lot of people was ‘what’s your next one?’ But obviously, I haven’t published another book since. So what’s the deal?

Eventually, people stop asking if you’re writing anything else, then they forget you wrote anything at all – the momentary shine of being a published author dulls pretty quick (and reminding people of the fact just doesn’t cut it the same).

The next question people ask me is why I stopped – ‘why did you stop writing? Why’d you give it up?’

The truth is, I didn’t. I just stopped writing anything good enough.

The truth is, being a writer is part of who I am – I’m always writing, even at times I’ve got other things on. I’m always taking notes and putting down words, hoping they’ll all come together. Writing, for me, is not really a choice – I write because it’s part of who I am, and how I make sense of what’s happening.

That’s actually how I first learned that I was, or am, a writer, that this is what I wanted to do. After finishing high school, tertiary courses hadn’t grabbed me, and none of the subjects illuminated some clear career path in my head. I ended up working full-time, in a job that didn’t really have a future for me. And yet, every night, after I’d gone home, I was writing.

Now, what I was writing at the time ended up being junk – I wanted to write a novel but had no idea what I was doing. But it showed me that, despite everything, writing was what I wanted to do, what I did, almost in spite of myself.

I have countless notepads and loose pieces of paper floating around at all times, I’m always noting things down or imagining stories based on things I see and do. I’ve never stopped writing, and I can’t imagine I ever will, but I just, kind of, lost momentum for a moment, caught up in day-to-day stuff and not really able to give it the focus I wanted.

But I never stopped writing. I never stop.

And soon I’ll have something new to show for it.

The Best Films of 2015 So Far…

bestfilms

It’s been a bit of a lean year for quality cinema. Or at least, I haven’t seen a heap of great things. When I sat down to think about my top films, it was a bit of a struggle – the main couple stood out, but it was hard coming up with even five that I thought were memorable. There were a couple that were okay (‘Inherent Vice’, ‘Kingsmen’) and a few that were really bad (‘Focus’ – so bad), but I had to rack my brain to come up with a good, five deep, list of my top films. Maybe I missed something, maybe I’m not in the loop on some of the good stuff. I don’t know – what I do know is that, of what I’ve seen, these are my top films from the first half of 2015.

  1. Ex Machina

Really, Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is so far out in front, it’s not even close. The story of a guy winning a competition to spend time at a brilliant, but eccentric, billionaire’s secluded mansion – which turns into something totally different – is an brilliantly executed story, and one which forces the viewer into the very moral quandaries being faced by the narrator. It reminded me of Denis Villenueve’s ‘Prisoners’ and Gregor Jordan’s ‘Unthinkable’, films that force you to question what you would do in the same situation, how you would respond. It’s smooth, methodical and compelling, keeping you held there till the last. Definitely worth checking out.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

I really don’t understand the fuss about the early Mad Max films. I’d watched them many years ago and not fully understood them, being too young to get the complexities, but they were recently re-run in a late night slot on Australian TV. And I still didn’t get them. They’re overly stylistic, there’s not a heap of story or character development. Yet, people are drawn to George Miller’s post-apocalyptic world. With all that in mind, I wasn’t expecting a heap from Fury Road – and really, there’s not a heap to it, in terms of storytelling complexity. But it’s just so good, it’s so enthralling and crazy and it just keeps coming at you. As a friend noted, it’s basically a two-hour car chase, but the fact that your heart’s still beating fast right through to the end is a pretty big endorsement for how well it’s put together. Just, madness, some of the best examples of modern special effects, tied together with a story that’s basically “we need to get from here to here”. That’s it.

  1. Interstellar

I think Interstellar may have come out last year, but I definitely only caught it in 2015, so I’m counting it. I’d heard and read a bit about the film before I saw it, I’d seen debates about its scientific accuracy and such. I don’t know much about all that, but I do think that the ‘science’, within the world of the story, works well enough to pull it together. Mostly. Either way, it’s a compelling story that really draws you in as it gains momentum – and some of the emotional peaks are very well done. Similar to Nolan’s other big, non-Batman film, Inception, there are things that don’t quite fit, particularly in retrospect, but he certainly knows how to put together an entertaining film.

  1. The Drop

This is a lesser known one, I think, or at least, I haven’t seen many people discussing it. The Drop is about a bar tender who’s involved in organized crime money drops, one of which has gone wrong. Fingers are being pointed, threats are being communicated in non-verbal cues, while the guy at the middle of it all is just a normal guy, trying to get out without any trouble. Kind of. Tom Hardy’s better in this than he is in Mad Max, though similar role, in that he doesn’t say much, plays the quiet type (in fact, that’s him in every movie). Written by Dennis Lehane, the story rolls along at a good pace and develops the main character well. It’s a well done crime drama, above the normal, popcorn cinema type fare.

  1. The Jinx

Due to the aforementioned drought of good films, I’ve actually gone with a TV series in slot five. But in TV terms, The Jinx is certainly one of the most cinematic experiences you’re going to get. The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, a billionaire who may or may not have killed his ex-wife. And his housemate. And some other woman, and a former friend and… the list goes on. But he’s not in jail. The documentary series, which runs over six episodes, highlights the power of money over all else, how a rich man can, apparently, get away with pretty much anything. In case after head-shaking case, Durst subverts the law and goes on his way, left to his own, questionable devices, when it’s pretty clear that something’s not right. If it weren’t true, no one would believe it – it’s just too much. But it is, and it’s amazing.

Hopefully the second half of 2015 brings some better stuff our way, but these ones were good, they’ve definitely stuck with me after seeing them. And there is, of course, Star Wars on the horizon, a film which has millions of hardcore fans both stupidly excited and supremely nervous at the same time. I’m pretty sure that, at least, will be great. Probably. Hopefully.

Exploding Books, Technology and the Future of Literature

Exploding book

Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?

A Changing Conversation

We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.

This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.

The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.

The Diversification of Creation

What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).

Opportunities in Innovation

So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.

Is Handwriting Still Important?

Handwriting

I was talking to a young writer a while back and he asked about how to get a better flow in his writing, how to get a feel for writing in a more literary style. I told him to try writing out Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story 30 times. That story is six words long:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn

The story highlights some of the key elements of great writing – it’s concise, it’s powerful and it awakens the reader’s imagination, makes them think about the subtext that exists between the words. The idea of repetition came from a story about Hunter S. Thompson re-writing ‘The Great Gatsby’ word-for-word to get a better feel for how F. Scott Fitzgerald constructed his work. Asking someone to transcribe a novel is probably a bit of an ask, but if you write down this short story over and over again, you’re inevitably going to absorb some of the method, the detail of how Hemingway constructed it, get a feel for the impact of the words.

But then the guy asked me something that made me think the problem may be something else entirely, something which may or may not be a larger issue in finding your literary voice in the modern world. The guy turned to me, obviously not impressed by my idea and he said:

‘By hand?’

Yes, by hand. Why would you write it any other way? Anyone can put a sentence onto a computer screen and cut-and-paste that shit on repeat – the experience is wholly different if you write each letter, scrawl it down, sentence by sentence. While handwriting may be out-dated to some degree, there’s something to be said for feeling the words as you write, something that can’t be replicated with the touch of a keyboard. Part of that literary flow is reflected in the shaping of words on paper, getting a sense of structure and form – I write almost everything by hand, at least in some capacity, but then I thought I’m definitely writing a lot less by hand than I used to. Is handwriting becoming obsolete?

There’s been a heap of studies and reports on the decline in handwriting, with different regions of the world taking varying approaches in their school curriculum – some are seeking to address the decline, while others are moving away from handwriting altogether. And obviously, we’re at a point in time where almost nothing needs to be written by hand – we’re connected to the internet at all times, students have access to iPads and laptops and any other array of mobile devices that enable them to communicate effectively without ever lifting a pen. The thing is, none of those studies can conclusively say that we’re better or worse off without handwriting. The findings usually come down to a matter of personal preference, people think kids should learn to write, because everyone still writes, whilst also conceding that it’s less and less of a necessity in the digital age. The closest thing I could find to a compelling reason for handwriting was that people who aren’t taught how to write by hand also have more trouble reading handwritten notes – this could be problematic when people conduct research or go to museums. As noted in this piece, the inability to decipher what’s come before may, in essence, sever a connection to our collective past.

It does seem that just as we hold dear to physical books – to the smell of the pages of a new text – their time of relevance and purpose is passing. Really, people don’t even need to sign their signature these days.

So what does this mean for the written word? I guess, the way I see it is that I, personally, have an affiliation with the physicality of writing. With waking up in the middle of the night and feeling an absolute compulsion to get words down, to become conscious of the sound of pen scratching against paper. I love writing, and I still feel it’s the easiest and most natural way for me to get the ideas out of my head. But really, that’s just my view. Younger generations of writers are no doubt just as aligned to the clicking of their keyboard, the pitch of the touch screen letters on their iPad or their phone. Maybe they wake up and feel compelled to open a new note on their iPhone and get their ideas down there – and that’s definitely something I’ve done a lot more in recent years too – but it feels like we’re losing something if we let handwriting fade out. But by pushing it, by forcing young kids to write, are we just wasting our time?

To me, your handwriting is a form of art within itself, a mark of individuality that’s connected to your thoughts and feelings. But then again, what you communicate is undoubtedly more important than how you do it. So in as much as I see it as a decline, a loss of something dear, really, how people communicate their ideas is down to what they’re linked to. Should schools stop teaching handwriting? Right now, I’d say no. But maybe, one day – as much as it saddens me to say it.

Everything progresses. Everything advances and changes and grows into things you never even knew could be. While handwriting may be in decline, I’d prefer to focus on the fact that my kids will find creativity in their own way, will communicate in ways they find natural. The fundamental goal is for people feel free to explore their ideas and express their views. Whether they do that with pens is largely irrelevant, it’s what feels most natural that will work best.

Amy Hempel and ‘The Man in Bogota’

Hempel_stories

As I’ve raved about many times, I love the work of Amy Hempel. I came to Amy Hempel via Chuck Palahniuk, which seems an odd connection, but a direct one, Palahniuk also cites Hempel as one of his major influences. If you’re a writer or aspiring writer and you’ve never read any of Hempel’s work, I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I think it’s worth seeking her out – the paperback of her collected stories is less than $13 on Amazon, which is criminally cheap.

Hempel is both entertainer and educator in her writing. You wanna’ learn what show don’t tell means, she’ll teach you. Her stories are stripped down, her sentences constructed carefully, every single word is another brick added to the whole. Even describing her work doesn’t do it justice, so here’s an example of Amy Hempel – this is a complete story, six paragraphs in total. I challenge you not to read it and feel caught up by the strength of it.

The Man in Bogota

The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.

I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.

I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.

Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.

When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.

Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.

More information on Amy Hempel.