Category: Uncategorized

Making a writing living (and other challenges)

Often when I tell people that I’m a writer, the perception they have is that I head down the local cafe at my leisure, then scribble a few notes, taking in the day with the ease as I ‘bang out a few words’.

That, of course, is not true – as any writer knows, actually making money doing what you do is not easy, it takes a heap of effort, and massive leaps of faith, labouring over tasks that may never ‘pay off’.

But that’s not why you do it – if making money was your aim, there are much easier ways to go about it. I write because it’s what I am, it’s what I’ve always been, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. Definitely, I wish it were all cafes and long lunches and staring at sunsets. But it’s not. Building a sustainable writing career is basically a series of trade-offs, taking the best bets in line with your passions to come up with a system that works for you.

For me, I wake up everyday at around 4am. Why? Because for my ‘day job’ (i.e. not writing fiction), I write for a website, covering digital marketing news and updates. That website is based in the US, so I need to wake up early to be up on the latest news coverage, while it also gives me some silence to concentrate before the kids wake up.

I research the majority my my work before the kids are up at 6am, then write and manage the website/social media stuff till normally around 12pm each day. The advantage of this is that this leaves me with three hours, every day, between 12pm and when the kids finish school at 3pm, to concentrate on my fiction work – I always have at least one novel or longer work in progress, and I spend a good 15 hours per week on that element.

This is a good set up for me, it enables me to maximize my productivity – but as noted, it comes with various trade-offs.

For one, you have to get up at 4am, a non-negotiable for most. But if I don’t, I don’t get my time later in the day, so that helps me will myself out of bad in the darkness.

Another trade-off is that I don’t make as much money as I probably could in a regular, every day job. I worked in corporate roles for years and have a fair measure of what I could potentially be earning. That impact is lessened, of course, by the additional earnings potential of my fiction work, but that, in itself, is another consideration.

As noted, fiction writing is a bit of a leap of faith. Most Australian authors don’t make a heap of money out of their work, but you do it because you love it, because you’re passionate about the process, and because, hopefully, you might connect with an audience.

But you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Part of the difficulty in investing so much time and effort into fiction work is it may all be for nought – I spend 15 hours a week, at least, on fiction writing, which is a total gamble. I have the backing of previous success to support my belief that it’s not time wasted, but still, it’s a big commitment for an uncertain return.

There are other trade offs too – staying home to write when the family goes away, isolating yourself and limiting social interactions. If you want to succeed, maybe you also need to take on projects you’re less passionate about in order to pay the bills. Anyone pursuing their passion in any field knows the same challenges, it’s not isolated to writing. But it’s a lot of uncertainty, there aren’t many sure bets.

You do it because you love it, because you want to make it work, but there are few writers living the high life, the cafe lifestyle, sitting at the beach all day just waiting for inspiration.

That’s not to denigrate the process – it is what it is, and you deal with the various obstacles as best you can. But writing, as with any art, is not an easy path, it takes dedication and commitment to make it happen.

And you’re never quite sure that things are going to go as you hope.

On the importance of reaching out

One of the key elements I’ve sought to explore with ‘One‘ is loneliness, and the impacts that being isolated can have on a person.

This is an important discussion to have, an element that’s often overlooked, so I wanted to just put a few notes down on why it’s so important – and what we can do to help.

When my mother was in her teens, her mother – my grandmother – remarried. My Grandma’s new husband was an abusive drunk, an alcoholic who regularly subjected her to anger and violence.

It’s something that’s always jarred in my mind – how, and why, would anyone do this? Why would my Grandma let this man in? I’ve asked my Mum about it and she’s always said the same thing – ‘loneliness is all it’s cracked up to be’.

As noted, the impacts of loneliness are often under-rated in considering negative societal influences. Sure, these days we have the internet, we have dating apps – we have more means than ever before to connect. But talking to someone online isn’t the same as in real life – and the awkwardness and self-consciousness that can come with it. If anything, such elements could be exacerbated by our reliance on online media, which could have wider ranging long-term impacts.

Every day in Australia, eight people take their own lives, the result of more than 65,000 suicide attempts each year. Of course, there are many complexities, many factors involved, not every case can be attributed to loneliness. But many do come down to simply having no one, nowhere else to turn. According to research, feeling a lack of connection to others is one of the three biggest risk factors involved in suicidal thoughts. In addition, recent studies have shown that loneliness can be a bigger risk factor than obesity, in terms of health impacts.

It’s difficult to imagine for most of us, it’s hard to think of there being absolutely no hope, no one else there – that non-existence could seem like a more acceptable outcome. It’s painful, it’s sad. But this is the reality, and these situations are happening, all too often.

But what can you do? As noted, there are obviously a lot of complications, each situation is weighted with complexities that are almost impossible to understand. But you can reach out.

You can ask.

That guy you went to school with who you’ve been meaning to get in touch with again. That girl you used to hang out with, but have since gone your separate ways. Not all of these people will be in danger, but some might, and your effort to re-connect and say hi could be a big step, a big help in reminding them that someone, somewhere, cares.

You can’t take it all on yourself – there are psychological complications that may be beyond your influence. But getting in touch is easy, easier than ever in our always connected age.

And that simple gesture just might be key in providing help.

If you know anyone who you think may be at risk, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or go to the website for resources and info.

Interpretation and Ownership

One of the most intimidating prospects about publishing your work is that once it’s out there, it’s out there, and readers will interpret your words in varying ways – sometimes not in the way you might have intended. Ideally, that doesn’t happen – the surrounding context should provide enough guidance and meaning in a story sense. But beyond the story alone, people will look deeper into your words and meanings, and make assessments of both you and your intentions.

In many ways, this is the point of writing – you’re trying to get people thinking, to see things from another perspective, so you want your readers to look deeper into the underlying logic. When people understand what you were communicating, that’s the ultimate for a writer, but when they misinterpret your meaning, or specific segments, it can be tough to deal with.

I had this with my first novel – of all the sections that got brought up, this one seemed to come up most often.

In a chapter where a group of young people are at a party, one young girl, Aleesa, speaks to the main character:

Aleesa smiles.  ‘Who’s your pick tonight?’ she says, turns to face the girls dancing on the carpet.

                ‘You’re looking pretty good,’ I tell her. She shifts her eyes slowly back to me, the straw from her drink gently held between her teeth. She holds her glass up to my face.

                ‘You gonna’ drug me?’

                ‘I don’t do that.’

‘Ha. Bullshit. All you guys do it.’

‘So why are you here then? Aren’t you worried?’

‘I can take care of myself.’

A young guy joins the dancers, rubbing his hands across the clothes of the girls. Aleesa catches my eyes watching them.

‘Some girls don’t really care,’ she says, and walks off into the crowd, looking back over her shoulder.

This, in some reviews or comments, was interpreted as the character implying that some young girls simply don’t care about the prospect of being drugged and raped. Which, in literal translation, I can see – that is what Aleesa says – but the point of this scene was more to show that Aleesa was strong, that she wasn’t scared of them. At this point in the story, the group is gaining confidence, they feel like they’re dominant, that they run things. In this context, the line was more about Aleesa taking the power from them, saying that people know what they do, but that doesn’t scare anyone. The implied ‘liking’ of it was more the gossip aspect, as opposed to being targeted.

But I understand why this was misinterpreted, and why it stood out as such – but even so, it can be difficult to read such interpretations and not comment back to clarify. But you can’t.

A very high profile author once told me that you can never, ever, respond to criticisms or reviews. It’s tempting, obviously, but no good can come of it. And he’s right – though there is some argument that a level of controversy could, maybe, help in a promotional sense (maybe, if you were high profile enough, responding to a critique could help you get more coverage, similar to how some celebrities hit back via tweet every now and then) – it’s very risky, and you’ll most likely just come out looking worse.

But really, the work needs to stand on its own. Once you’ve published it, released it – once it’s out there, it’s its own thing, and open to criticism on its own merits. Your ownership of it decreases somewhat – if the work can’t stand on its own, then you haven’t done your job, and no amount of supplemental information will cater for that.

So while you might be misinterpreted, you have to accept that, and learn to give your work its own life. The story is what it is, it’s its own thing. You have to let it be.

The key is that you have to be happy with what you’ve created. If you’ve done all you can, you can’t think of any other improvements and you’re satisfied that the final result best captures your vision for the work, then that’s it. Sure, there might be things you want to do better next time around, but that’s always going to be the case. Nothing is ever perfect.

It’s the push to do better next time that’s exciting, and ideally drives us towards creating better and better 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.

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.