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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.

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.

5 Film Clips That Highlight the Power of Simplicity in Storytelling

film clips

I’ve always been a massive fan of video clips. From waking up early on a Sunday to catch the latest on ‘Video Hits’ to staying up late on a weekend to watch the full, uninterrupted clips on ‘Rage’, there’s a complexity to short form, visual storytelling that I really love and appreciate. Many prominent film directors got their start in film clips, and it’s a great testing ground for their talent, as the required audio of the song forces the director to use only visuals – and a principle of screenwriting, being a primarily visual medium, is that the viewer should be able to have a pretty good understanding of the story without having to hear any dialogue.

I’ve also found film clips to be inspiring, as a storyteller, because they condense the critical elements into a short space of time and effectively highlight the ‘show don’t tell’ principle. Stories, and engaging elements of film clips, can show you how to better communicate through your own work, how to keep it simple and to the point.

While there are many well-known examples of great clips, I thought I’d share a couple of my personal favourites that are probably not as well-known, but which use one key element really well: simplicity.

1. ‘Star Guitar’ – The Chemical Brothers (Directed by Michel Gondry)

Michel Gondry is one of the most amazingly creative film-makers in the world. His work is always something new, something you haven’t seen before, and even in his less successful films, there are still elements that remain with you, new ways of looking at things.

It’s hard to pick one of his film clips as a favourite – they’re all pretty great, but the subtle complexity of Star Guitar often goes under-appreciated. Gondry uses the rhythm of a train ride as the backbone of the video, and co-ordinates the passing objects in time with each element of the song. At first, you don’t know what you’re looking at, you’re waiting for something crazy to happen, but it’s the simplicity that gets you, the motion and repetition. It brings back the nostalgia of riding the train whilst also giving you a new way of looking at it – the creative in the ordinary – all in perfect time to the beat

2.  ‘Sheena is a Parasite’ – The Horrors (Directed by Chris Cunningham)

Another legendary film-clip director – Chris Cunningham is known for his shocking, uncomfortable videos, particularly his work with Aphex Twin (‘Come to Daddy‘ and ‘Windowlicker‘). I’m a big fan of Cunningham’s work, because he pushes the boundaries and confronts his audience – his videos are shocking, but shocking in that he’s showing you something that feels wrong, but you can’t quite tell what you’re looking at. He presents a distorted view of the world, a sort of freak show that plays with your inherent responses, and stays with you as a result.

This is my favourite Cunningham video – the image of Samantha Morton dancing like she’s possessed, then transforming into something else entirely, is both shocking and compelling, in a ‘horrified but can’t look away’ sense. This is typical of Cunningham’s work and fits the mood of the song perfectly.

3. ‘Sunny Road’ – Emiliana Torrini (Directed by Ali Taylor)

A fairly simple animated video – and I’m willing to concede Torrini’s song adds a lot to it – but something about this just works for me. Visually, the animation is great (I couldn’t find a HD version) but the simple story is both sad and hopeful at the same time. It highlights the power of subtlety – like, we don’t need a thorough explanation of what the character is experiencing, but we get a sense of her loneliness and hope through the way she interacts with the world and characters around her. And that hope is sometimes enough.

4. ‘No Surprises’ – Radiohead (Directed by Grant Gee)

Radiohead have made a heap of amazing videos – the visual element has formed a big part of their identity as a band. While the clips for ‘Paranoid Anroid‘, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)‘ and ‘Just‘ are all excellent, ‘No Surprises’ is the most compelling for me. It’s a great example of the power of simplicity – the clip is just one shot, Thom Yorke singing the song, but then the water rises, bringing with it the tension, then it submerges him completely (for a good minute). There’s solid tension there – and that works in-line with the lyrics, which are a commentary on the sometimes overwhelming nature of modern life. Again, few things I’ve seen illustrate the power of simplicity better than this clip, and how compelling such elements can be.

5. ‘My People’ – The Presets (Directed by Kris Moyes)

Admittedly, there’s a massive personal affiliation here, outside of the video itself. So, in 2008, I was watching the ARIA Awards when the winner for music video was announced – which was this one above. Being a fan of film clips, I loved the tone of it, the way the scene gets more and more chaotic as the song goes on. While the effect is relatively simple, the use of repetition is actually kind of amazing, and works with the lyrical content. At the time, I was working with Seed Productions on the film adaptation of my novel ‘Rohypnol’ and they’d asked me if I had any thoughts on possible directors. On seeing this, I thought it’s director, Kris Moyes, would be an excellent fit – an Australian, up-and-coming director with a great visual sense.

Through whatever serendipity, Kris Moyes actually was signed up to be the director of the film – I’d never said anything to the Seed guys about this, it’s pure coincidence that I thought he’d be a good fit and they connected with him. Kris is an amazing director (I highly recommend checking out his work here) and his ideas for the film were great, though it didn’t come to be. But still, a really interesting film clip that again uses simplicity to communicate a more complex sense of place.

These are just a couple of film clips that I really like, and that I think do well at using show don’t tell principles to create a mood or feel in simple but effective ways. These clips highlight that you don’t need complex over-explanation or metaphor to share a powerful story. As the old sayings go, sometimes keeping it simple works best, and sometimes by keeping it simple we’re actually allowing our audiences to live within the story, to interpret and translate the elements for themselves, rather than dictating how they should feel. Showing the story in real terms, presenting the images for your audience, allows them a way in, a way to feel the tension and emotion all for themselves. Sometimes, keeping it simple is just best.