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:
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.
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.
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.
I watched a really bad movie last night. The characters were flat stereotypes, the plot went no-where, the progressions felt forced. There was basically nothing about it that was any good from a storytelling perspective. But it was kinda great. Not great in the sense that it was actually worth watching, nor that it was even entertaining, but from a writing perspective and seeing the flaws, there’s a heap you can learn from seeing what not to do. Let me explain what I mean.
When you watch a crappy film you know it. Everyone knows it. You’re not engaged by the characters, the scenes become laughable, there’s clichés aplenty. You know this, but maybe you don’t really analyse it and think about the flaws in specific detail. Most people dismiss a bad film as bad and recall a few horrible moments, but what I try to do is really understand those details, learn about the specific elements that made it so bad. Was it the acting? The story? Why did this scene or that stand out as being overly bad?
There’s a distinct value in experiencing bad storytelling, along with good. Viewing great films or reading great books is inspiring, it showcases those who are the best at the craft and awakens your imagination on what’s possible. Bad storytelling can actually have a similar effect, but in the opposite sense – you watch a bad movie and you can learn almost as much from the mistakes, from what the storytellers have done wrong, if you’re paying attention.
What I try to do is I try to imagine the original premise and how I would have done it differently, how I might have fixed it. Now, of course, my view may not be right either, but making myself think about the story, the plot, the characters, awakens my creative brain and gets me thinking more deeply about my own character development and can help me learn what mistakes to avoid, how to communicate with more subtlety. In fact, I’d say bad storytelling can provide the best education on the exact nature of the ‘show don’t tell’ principle, as this is where you tend to see the most blatant examples of the former, through overt exposition and forced story linkage. But you need to think about why it doesn’t work, what made that progression feel out of place or unnatural.
I watched Gone Girl a while back. From what I’ve been told, the book is very good, but the film, for me, left me feeling unsure about the character motivations and feasibility of the plot in the real world. As with writing, anytime your readers feel compelled to re-read a sentence or second guess a detail, that’s bad, as you’re forcing them to break out of the world you’ve created. Too many such moments, and they’ll detach from the story completely – you need to work to eliminate all moments of uncertainty or jarring, within the rules of the reality you’ve created, to build the most seamless and complete experience for your audience. Gone Girl was an example of this for me – as soon as I found myself questioning the reality of the scene, I was out, the story had lost me, and I didn’t enjoy it as a result.
At the same time, you can also learn from things you don’t necessarily like and try to understand why others might like them. I watched the Twilight saga – all of them – and yeah, I wasn’t a fan. But there was a level of compulsion to them. There were soap opera style elements which, I could see, might align people to the characters and story. Most of the time it bordered on ridiculous, a step away from all-out comedy, but there was a tension there. There was something, whether it worked for me or not.
These are just a couple of examples of how you can learn from storytelling that may not be to your taste. If you find yourself turning on a film or book, think back over why, what were the exact moments or elements that made you second-guess them? Through reflection on the details, you’ll start to see the importance of character consistency and story structure. If you couldn’t believe that a character would act the way they did, what would you have done to amplify the necessary elements to make it feel less jarring if you re-wrote it? If you think the storyline was no good, fix it in your mind, build it yourself, focus on the necessary elements to enhance and improve the believability and authenticity of the piece. How could you make it work?
Some bad films are just bad, I know, but it’s worth considering the elements, as it’s all education, all learning. A story you dislike the most might just hold a key lesson to improve the detail of your own work.
So, there’s still a few weeks left in 2014, but I’m pretty confident that nothing mind-blowing’s going to be released in that time (I think ‘Inherent Vice’ will be good, but that’s not out till February in Australia). Given that, I’ve put together a list of my top ten films of the year. I caught some really great movies, a couple that might make my top ten of all time – but no one really cares about the intro section of a list post like this. So, here they are – my top ten films of 2014.
Enemy is so good. It didn’t get a lot of hype, and it’s not widely known, but it’s my favourite film of the year, by far. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a guy who’s bored with his life – the same routine, everyday, the same stuff. Then, while watching a movie at home, he sees a man who looks like him in the background. He searches on the internet to find out who the actor is and finds that the guy looks exactly like him. So he locates his details, calls him up. A woman answers he phone and asks him what he’s doing – she thinks it’s the other guy calling – and the film just gets weirder and weirder from there. It’s almost impossible to decipher ‘Enemy’ once the credits roll, you need time to think about it, to consider it, then you’ll start to unravel just how brilliant it really is. I can’t recommend it highly enough – the director, Denis Villeneuve, is definitely one to watch.
Under the Skin
This is one of those films that reminds me of what cinema is all about. Under the Skin starts with a man on a motorbike picking up the dead body of a woman from the roadside. He takes the body to another woman, who removes the dead woman’s clothes and puts them on, then she drives out in a large van, pulling up to ask random people on the street for directions to a freeway, then to something else, then you realise she’s not actually seeking directions at all. Under the Skin is compelling, fascinating, and visually amazing. There were scenes that hit me so hard, just based on their visual impact, scenes like nothing I’ve seen before. Jonathan Glazer, renowned for his music video work with bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack, does an amazing job with this film, and it’ll stay with you for some time after the credits.
Guardians of the Galaxy
My son is four years-old. I envy the calibre of superhero films he’s going to grow up with. Granted, I had Star Wars, which was pretty great, but it’s possible he could have that too. Comic book films have evolved so much. It started with Nolan’s Batman films, which proved that comic stories could be done in a legitimate way, that you could treat the fantasy worlds of comic books seriously and not have to make up hokey plotlines or unusual character twists. Because Nolan’s films succeeded, it paved the way for things like Iron Man and Whedon’s Avengers, which, itself, took superhero films to the next level. Along with that, studios are now looking to make big, high-impact movies that need to be experienced in a cinema to maximise return on investment – people don’t have to go watch arthouse films at the movies, they can get the same experience at home. But you can’t replicate that big screen experience for big films – and thus, we have films like ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ and now ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. There’s so much to like about this film – everything works, all the details are correct. Even the little things – in one scene, Gamora is running at a prison guard and she jumps, and when she does, she goes just a little bit higher than what’s humanly possible. Because she’s not human – it’s those subtle details that make it Guardians so great. They don’t overdo the retro references, Chris Pratt is excellent in the lead role and nothing ever gets loose or out of synch with the internal logic of the story. And also, Groot.
I’d almost forgotten that Her was a 2014 film – I caught early on in the year. Director Spike Jonze is a true master of his craft, and Her is no exception. There’s so much depth to the film, so many layers and so much genuine feeling. It’s a film you just can’t ignore – you think a movie about a man falling in love with his computer can’t make you feel deeply? Think again. Jonze covers the subject with such passion and such delicacy that it’s a powerful love story, albeit a very unconventional one. Jonze made a short film just before working on Her which captures the same sort of feel (you can check it out here), and that too is totally worth your time. The dude is just tuned into the emotional core of his work, a central heartbeat that he’s able to communicate and share with his audience. Few directors can do so at the same level.
Another one not many would’ve heard of – it got limited coverage and was met with mixed reactions. But it’s a pretty interesting piece of cinema, and worth seeking out. Two young guys and a girl are driving across the US – the girl is moving to another state. Along the way, the guys get an e-mail from a hacker whose been harassing them for some months. They manage to track down his location, based on his IP, and it happens to be on the way, so they decide to take a detour and confront him. Then things get weird. I loved how this film switched up, almost out of no where. It’s moving along as a normal road movie, with relationship dramas and a real simple sort of feel in the cinematography, all as you’d expect, but then the special effects shots come in at random. And they’re amazing. The storyline, in the end, didn’t feel full, like it could have had more to it, but it’s definitely worth checking out, there’s some excellent twists and changes that go against what you might think.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
After the disaster that was ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, it was great to see the franchise come back with Matthew Vaughn’s ‘X-Men: First Class’. Days of Future Past takes that to the next level by integrating the old and new casts and building one of the best comic book films I’ve ever seen. There was a heap going on in this film, and none of it felt clumsy – there was no machine to turn everyone into a mutant or a key plot point dropped in some random conversation. Basically, Days of Future Past felt like a comic book film without compromise. As noted above, I think Guardians of the Galaxy was able to pull this off slightly better, but along the same lines, in that the detail was not compromised, the creators were given freedom to make the story and worlds they needed. The Sentinels are bad-ass (like they are in the comics), the characters did cool stuff, while the bad guys remained bad, driven by their personal agendas – there was no softening or out of character turns. It’s films like these that have me excited for the possibilities of things like the new Star Wars films and the long slate of Marvel features coming out in the next few years. These films are making big money, and while that’s happening, the creative teams will get more leeway to create what they envision.
I could go on and on about Dom Hemingway – and I kind of did already, writing this post about it after watching it earlier in the year. Dom is a charming but frightening character, which, in my experience, is what many of those types of people are. I loved the first sequence in the film, where Dom gets released from prison after 12 years and immediately rushes directly into town to beat up the man who’s since married his ex-wife. Dom Hemingway does a great job at showing the balance of the fun of the character’s total disregard for… everything, whilst also reflecting the impact that sort of recklessness has on his life. Things don’t go well for Dom – while it may look like fun to be smashed at 11am and out every night with random women, there are consequences, and the ramifications of his behaviour are never too far from the surface. Dom Hemingway is reminiscent of Trainspotting, with it’s likeable no-hopers trying to get by – they’re fun to be around, but things aren’t always so free and easy. Dom Hemingway reflected this, and moved in line with what you’d imagine the actual character’s reactions would be – the emotion would be there, and you’d feel it for a moment, then he’d be off onto something else, taking the viewers along for the ride.
All is Lost
There’s, maybe, ten lines of dialogue in All is Lost. The original shooting script was, reportedly, 31 pages long. Yet, it’s a fascinating and enthralling film – it holds you in till the last. All is Lost is about a man setting out on what appears to be an around the world sailing mission, or something of that magnitude. The guy is old, and through voiceover at the start, it sounds like not everyone agreed that he should attempt it. But he sets out anyway, only to run into an jettisoned shipping container which rips a hole in the side of his boat. It floods the radio and the electrical system. He’s stuck. The film documents his ongoing struggles to stay alive in the middle of the ocean. It’s an amazing film – I always have a predisposition for films where the characters are out on their own in the middle of no-where, so it was always likely I’d enjoy this. There’s just something haunting, yet peaceful, about the whole thing. Redford, while he looks a lot different, is still a great actor.
I came across Blue Ruin almost by accident. It’s the story of a guy who, broken by the murders of his parents when he was a kid, comes back to his home town to seek revenge against the man who did it, whose just been released from prison. But there’s no Hollywood gloss to this film, no normal, ‘revenge flick’ vibe. It’s uncomfortable and difficult and highly compelling, in that you just need to see what he does next. It’s well acted and shot and takes turns you’d not expect. The ending I was not fully sold on, but it’s a great film, worth a watch, particularly as an antidote to overdone Hollywood revenge cinema. Reminded me a bit of ‘Winter’s Bone’ in it’s ‘small town cliques’ feel.
Edge of Tomorrow
I’d pretty much written Tom Cruise off. I think a lot of people have – all the weirdness and the couch jumping and the religious talk, he just got a bit too much, and I figured he was out of the game. This was reinforced with that Jack Reacher film – I saw enough of that to know I didn’t want to see any more. With that perspective, I wasn’t really interested in Edge of Tomorrow. I left it a long time before bothering to check it out on DVD, so I was pretty surprised to see how good it actually is. Directed by Doug Liman – who normally makes very good stuff – the film moves away from what you might expect and actually takes a pretty unique, original angle. Emily Blunt was excellent – though I was disappointed at the implied romance between the her and Cruise’s characters – like, why couldn’t she just be a cool female character? Why did there have to be a romantic element? The very end felt slightly off, and I’ve heard the original source material is much better overall, but this was still a great popcorn flick, and different to most others in the same vein.
And that’s my ten. I’m sure there are others I didn’t catch that are standouts. Which ones did I miss? Which were your favourites of 2014? Leave a note in the comments if you wanna criticize/contribute/question my taste and sensibilities.
When I signed my first book contract, I figured things would play out like this:
- Book released – tours, interviews talks
- Writing opportunities come my way, doors open
- Sign next book contract, quit job to write
- Be full time author
Because that’s what authors do, right? That’s what all those other authors with books in stores are doing – they’re writing, that’s their job. Right?
Unfortunately, the reality of being a writer is somewhat different. The book was released and I did a few appearances and talks and interviews, which was all great, but it wasn’t an all-encompassing job that took up every moment of my life. I remember I bought a new diary to book in all my upcoming interviews and such, and in the first week there were a few entries. Then there weren’t many the next week, none the next month. Basically, there’s about a six week window of notoriety and coverage, then the world moves on.
Now, there are exceptions, of course, some books go massive, but for the vast majority of writers, your shelf life is pretty finite. It’s many, many months of work – years of work in most cases – then a blip of attention and celebration, then many, many more years of work again. The reality is, most writers don’t make enough money to be writers all the time. I eventually made a reasonable amount from my first book, but it wasn’t enough to justify quitting my job. In fact, in total, it wasn’t even half of my annual income from my regular employment. Even the most successful writers in Australia don’t make a heap of money – Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize this year, he was considering going to work in the mines because times were getting tight. Making money from writing is tough, it’s constant work, and it’s something I didn’t really consider or know anything about going in.
How much is not enough?
A survey conducted earlier this year in the US found that 54% of ‘traditionally published’ authors make, on average, less than $1000 per annum from their writing. The same study found that only 1.3% of traditionally published authors make more than $100,000 a year. In the Australia, according to Payscale.com, the average wage for a writer/author is $32, 803 p.a. That’s actually considerably higher than I’d expect, and what I know from my own experience and authors I speak to. Annabel Smith wrote a good piece on the struggles of Australian authors in a piece for The Wheeler Centre earlier this year, outlining the challenges faced by authors, and the realities we have to confront, including, for most, (as noted by author Ryan O’Neill) that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. It’s the commercial reality of doing any art, really – few people ever get the opportunity to have their work published, and even fewer again have any chance of making it big and building a career around that success.
It’s more obvious in the world of music – there are thousands of bands who work tirelessly and do everything they possibly can to get their music released, only to see it burn out quick and they’re back to where they started. The memory of the public is very short, for example, take a look at this chart of Google searches for Radiohead since 2004:
Those two big jumps (M and H) are the releases of their albums ‘In Rainbows’ and ‘King of Limbs’. Those lower scribbles in between, that’s everything else, when no one’s searching for Radiohead and no one really cares what they’re doing. And that’s Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. Your work is only likely to be of significant interest in that short period after release, but you, of course, have to live through the rest of the time, and you need funding to do so – few artists can reach high enough peaks to no longer be concerned by money. Very few. Hardly any. Making money from art means constant work – if you can release work consistently, you increase the chances of being able to create a sustainable career. If you can release high quality work quickly, even better, but for most authors, it takes years to write a book. If it doesn’t sell a heap, not a heap changes, lifestyle-wise, although doors do open and opportunities increase as a result.
Geez, this is all a bit gloomy, isn’t it…
It’s definitely true that being a writer is tough, it’s not likely to be a path be paved with gold. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. Having a book published was my one driving ambition, it was a life dream realised, and I would never play down the significance of it, the achievement I felt, that I still feel as a result. But what I would suggest is that you temper your lifestyle expectations if you want to pursue your art.
And that’s probably not such a bad thing either way – who really cares if you drive a Hyundai or a BMW anyway? If it gets you there, does it really matter? How comfortable do you need to be in a car, how fast do you have to go? As a society, we too often emphasize the importance of material wealth. But rich people get depressed too. They still have problems, different problems to me or you, but issues none the less. I can’t tell you how many highly paid executives I’ve heard talk about how they want to write a book – because money can’t buy them that kind of achievement, can’t give them the status or respect they desire. And if they’re actually able to do it, to become published authors, you know what’ll happen? They’ll find something else they need, some other hole in their life that’s not yet full. Ambition is important, a crucial part of advancing and being more than you are. But you also need to take account of what you do have, what’s available to you right now. Things probably aren’t so bad.
And it’s important to realise what makes you you – what are the things that make you happy or excited? What holds your attention so totally that you don’t even notice the hours slipping by? Those are the things. Those are your things. And if you can find your one thing that you really want to do, that’s what will fulfill you more than anything else. Away from expectations or judgements, you know, in yourself, where you love to be, what you love to do. So do it.
Don’t write expecting to be paid. Don’t create expecting to be praised. Do things because they excite you, because you just have to do it. Get lost in your own world and see what you find every now and then. Allow yourself to be in your stories and creations. Because that will make you happy, which, by extension, will make the people around you, the people who care about you, happy too. Imagine what could be if we could replicate that kind of ripple effect across every person in the world. Creating art is never about making money, it’s something that resides inside you that you need to get out. Getting out is one of the best things you can do, and you should never hold back from doing so. Yeah, making money is hard, but the further you put that out of your mind, the better your work will be. Don’t think about who’ll read your work, who’ll buy it, where it’s going next. Wrap yourself up in the world of your imagination and explore the depth of what you’re capable of. That’s far more valuable, far more likely to be resonant, real, more likely to generate real connection with your audience.
I write because I love writing. If I don’t write, it eats at me and keeps me up at night and annoys my wife (through my grumblings). I end up criticising films for poor transitions and character motivations, like I know better. But you know the best way to show you do know better? Do it yourself.
Like every other writer in the history of time, I’ve copped my fair share of rejection letters. It’s tough to take, every one hurts, but you know what? It’s also inevitable. It happens to everyone. Don’t believe me?
- Stephen King was told that his debut novel ‘Carrie’ would not sell as it’s ‘science fiction which deals with negative utopias’. King had so many rejection letters that he kept them spiked on a nail – till the nail got too full and he needed to buy a spike. He seems to have done alright for himself in the end.
- Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel was not the hugely successful ‘Fight Club’, it was actually his third published novel, called ‘Invisible Monsters’. Invisible Monsters was initially rejected for being ‘too dark and too risky’. Palahniuk wrote ‘Fight Club’ as a response, setting out to make it darker, riskier and more offensive. The book was a best seller, and Invisible Monsters was published on the back of his rise to literary fame.
- Many people have heard JK Rowling’s tale, how it took her seven-years to write her masterpiece ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, which was subsequently rejected by no fewer than 12 individual publishers. Rowling was broke, a single-mother, a divorcee. She was bordering on poverty, and it was only the fact that the eight year-old daughter of the chairman of Bloomsbury read the first chapter of the book and liked it that it ever reached publication. Now, she’s one of the richest authors in the world.
- “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish” – A rejection note sent to J.G. Ballard for his book ‘Crash’. Crash is disturbing, but it sold well and has never been out of print. The book went on to be translated to film by David Cronenberg and was one of the author’s greatest hits.
- Jack Kerouac was told ‘On the Road’ wouldn’t sell and would be savaged by critics in one of the various rejection notes it received. You’ve heard of that book, right? More than 3 million copies have been sold around the world, and it still sells tens of thousands of copies, every year.
There’s a heap of examples of rejection letters online if you need re-assurance, but the fact is publishers don’t always get it right. No one does, art is always subjective, to at least some degree, so it’s virtually impossible for any one person to say, outright, that a piece of writing is no good. It depends on circumstance, on audience, on a bunch of other factors that come into play when assessing, and while there are many people who have an attuned sense of what makes great writing, there will always be some they’ll miss, that just don’t work for them.
So how do you deal with it? How do you take heart and retain the confidence to pick yourself up and try again after literary rejection? Here’s a couple of tips for coping with the dreaded ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter and getting on with what you do.
Don’t take it personal. More often than not, the editor/s will have a specific thing in mind, something that they’re looking for. In this case, you weren’t it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad. This is particularly true in the case of competitions or journals – sometimes, your work just won’t fit what they’re after. Make sure you read about the judges of competitions, what they like, get an idea of the things they’re interested in. Read about the competition hosts, the competition itself – what are they likely to want to publish as a winner. While objectivity, you’d hope, would be the main driver of any such decision, a local library group whose members are mostly elderly residents is probably not gonna’ select your extreme, cyberpunk masterpiece, no matter how great it is. Make sure you read the journals you submit to, understand what they publish, what they’re looking for. And at the end of the day, don’t take rejection personally. It’s not personal – that piece just didn’t work for what they were after this time. Don’t let it eat away at you and drag you down.
Don’t respond. At least, don’t respond straight away. Your initial reaction will probably be anger and frustration and no matter how you try to hide it, that’ll come across. I was told once that you should ensure you’re 100% confident with the work you submit to journals because if it’s no good and you keep submitting, you can get a reputation, the editors will get to know you and have a negative association before they even begin reading. I don’t necessarily think that’s true -most editors are pretty objective and they read through so much that it’d be hard for them to remember specific names (unless you submitted, like, ten times for every call-out). But one way you can highlight yourself is by responding in anger. Then you’ll be that guy/girl who fired back that one time.
This is true of anything – you should never respond when your emotions are at their highest. When you first receive a rejection letter, and you’re all full-up on frustration and hate, you’re probably gonna’ say something you’ll regret. If you think they’re wrong, you should go prove it – go get published somewhere else and be a success, there’s more than one avenue to take for the literary win.
If you really do have to respond, wait a day, at least, get some perspective, then thank them for their time in assessing your work (it’s always a privilege to have any readers, you need to keep that in mind), and tell them you’ll try again some time. A day later and you’ll feel much more logical, trust me.
Use it as motivation. As noted in the previous point, this is a chance to prove them wrong. Responding and telling them why they’re wrong proves nothing, but showing them why does. Now, I’m not saying you should go and get published then write them a note saying how they were wrong, along with the physical evidence, but shift your mindset from the darkness of rejection and turn that into motivation of future success. If you believe in what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about your work, then you should keep doing it, keep working at it, keep improving and seeking your personal goals. If someone says they’re not interested, fine, seek out someone else who will be and prove to the doubters why they had it wrong. Above all else, you’re writing because it’s who you are, it’s what you do, don’t ever lose sight of that. What other people think can’t change how you feel when doing the work. But rejection is a great source of motivation, to improve, to succeed. Go back and re-assess who you submitted to, see what they’re publishing, learn how to improve your work in-line with where you’d like it to be. Then try again.
Rejection is always hard, in any context. We’ve all suffered through break-ups which leave you devastated and confused. Literary rejection can have the same effect, though (hopefully) on a smaller scale, but the best way to get over it is to look inside yourself, at who you are and what you want to do. What makes you happy? What makes you feel strong, confident, content? That thing that you’re thinking of, that’s what you should be doing, that’s what you need to get back to in order to find happiness within yourself, not someone else. If you’re a writer, you love the work, the research, the plotting, even the editing, because it’s all moving towards making it the best it can be. And that’s incredibly exciting. And yes, you are going to get rejected. But so what? Everyone does. Take it in, action what you can, then go back to doing what you want. Because you never know what’s coming next, what big break could be around the bend. If someone could tell you how to be a success 100% of the time, they would and they’d be a billionaire – because no one can tell you this. There is no definitive path to take. The path to literary success, to any success, is unpredictable. The only guaranteed way to lose is to give up.
A while back, a contact on LinkedIn asked me about how I deal with negative comments on blog posts. I post regularly on LinkedIn, looking at social media marketing and big data, so this was not on the writing posts on this page, but even so, I think it’s a relevant discussion, and one which everyone who posts online is going to deal with at some stage. The fact is not everyone is going to like what you write. This is the same as in regular life – not everyone’s going to like you, no matter how you try. You’ll never please everyone, and while you definitely should read and assess anything and everything that people have taken the time to post in response to your work, you need to also know, within yourself, what the likely outcomes are of your reactions.
‘Never respond to critics’
At one stage in my mentorship which Christos Tsiolkas, Christos advised me to never respond to critical reviews of my work. There’s just no positive outcome, there’s nothing you can say or do that’s going to end up reflecting well on you – if a person says your book is bad and you respond with ‘well you don’t know what you’re talking about’, what then? How will that response reflect on you? Sure, responding might get you some more coverage, maybe it sparks some discussion, some writer taking on his critics, but in the majority of cases in fiction writing you’re debating a difference of opinion. Even if they’ve mis-interpreted your meaning, that’s what they got from your work, that’s the response they had, you can’t really debate that. The unavoidable fact is that the more you put your work out there, the more likely it is that people are going to talk about you – the more people talk, the higher the probability that some of those comments are going to be negative. There’ll always be one. There’ll probably be more than one. The key element to consider is how happy you are with your work – are you, personally, satisfied that you’ve done all you can to make your work the best it can be, the best representation of what you wanted to communicate? From that perspective, you’re better placed to assess whether the critic is raising a valid point worth consideration – you need to be able to assess this for yourself, and think ahead to the most likely outcome of your response or silence. You can’t be sitting over every readers’ shoulder explaining what you meant – people will take what they want from your writing. You have to let them.
‘Always respond to every comment’
Here’s where the non-fiction world differs somewhat – whilst responding to a critic of your fiction work is based purely on a subjective viewpoint, responses and comments on non-fiction work are often based on points of fact, in which case you may need to respond to ensure it’s clear to all that you’ve done the work, that you do know what you’re talking about. The general advice in social media circles is to respond to all comments, positive or negative. But even then, there are some which you just can’t – spammers send through weird things like this:
The article this was posted on was about how social media is ever-evolving. How could I respond to that? What would be the outcome of my response? My judgement in this case was that this wasn’t worth replying to, as there’s nothing to be gained from this – the only possible outcome could be further interactions with what I suspect to be a spammer. So no response.
My basic approach to dealing with negative comments on non-fiction work is stick to logic and avoid emotional response. Emotional response is reactive, so you’re best advised to take a moment to think. You need to appreciate that this person has taken the time to read your piece, that you don’t know what sort of mindset they’re in. From there, you should re-read the comment then only respond if you feel there is likely to be benefit in you doing so. You shouldn’t back away from a challenge – if the commentor is welcoming some sort of debate based on your work, then that’s a great opportunity to generate discussion and make connections with interested parties, but often times that’s not what negative commentors are seeking. Often, they’re just saying things. Understanding which is which is important in your assessment process.
The Comments I’ve Seen
So here’s a few examples of comments on my posts, and how I’ve handled them. This first comment was on a piece about partnerships between social media platforms and tech companies.
The post had more than 3k views and 100 likes, so obviously not everyone shared this commentor’s opinion that it was loaded with jargon. There’s not really anyway I could respond to this, if I say ‘good’ that provides no benefit. I could say it’s not filled with jargon, but I’m not sure it would’ve served much purpose, and the wording of the comment suggest to me that this is not really an opinion based on logic. I chose to ignore in this case.
This next one was on a piece entitled: “What Does a Lack of Social Media Presence Say About Your Brand?”
Obviously this guy felt pretty strongly about it not being relevant – though it is interesting that he read and commented on this piece on a social media network. Again, no response on this one – I doubt that my reasoning would be changing his mind at this stage.
I quite liked this one, and did respond, as per the screenshot. The piece was about how change is constant in the social media space.
Now, admittedly, I’m not sure what the commentor meant about ‘US competitive standing’ – I’m Australian so this wasn’t really in my sphere of thinking when approaching the topic – but my initial response was ‘why comment?’ The post did pretty well, it had been viewed more than 8k times and received a lot of likes, so this was obviously a common thought. To me, this person was just looking to argue, but I felt compelled to respond in this case because I didn’t want to back away from a challenge. In the end, my response is logical, stating my point, avoiding any personal or emotional conflict in my language. Whilst I do think the original comment was baited and attacking in tone, responding in kind is just not going to be beneficial. There was no further correspondence but I was happy with my response.
And then, of course, there are the people who just want to say things. Whether they’re having a bad day or they dislike the topic or they hate the look of your profile photo, some people just want to say things. Take this one for example from a recent piece (not mine) titled ‘Three Unusual Reasons Why Every Professional Should be on Twitter’:
Now, there’s obviously significant evidence to counter this, but even if this was your belief, why comment on a piece about Twitter marketing? Why are you even reading it? Sometimes, people are compelled to say things, no matter what those things are or who they might be broadcast to. If you think it’s worth responding, you should, but there are times when it’s best to just leave them be.
It basically comes down to your own commonsense. You should always read every comment and take in all the info – these people have taken the time to read your work so you owe them the same respect. But you have to consider how your responses are going to be received, remain mindful of the potential outcomes. For fiction, take on board the points raised, consider them, then action them if you feel like there’s something worth investigating to improve your work. If one person comments on a certain aspect that no one else has mentioned, and you don’t necessarily agree with their opinion, then you can leave it. But if two or more people mention the same thing, in isolation from one another, then you need to re-visit and ensure your work best represents what you intended. For non-fiction, respond wherever you can, but only if you think it’s worth doing so.
The worst thing anyone can do is take the comments to heart and give up. Don’t give up. You’re always going to face some level of negativity, it’s important to take it for what it is. It’s one person’s opinion. Don’t take it personal, view it as that, as one person’s thoughts on the work presented, not you personally. Having an idea challenged is actually a great way to solidify and improve your thoughts and processes, we need diverse views to advance our understanding. But also know that sometimes there’s nothing you can say. Either way, every comment is an opportunity to learn.
Here’s a question – let’s say someone came up to you while you were in the audience of a major event. This person comes up, holding a microphone, and the person says: ‘Our singer has called in sick and we have no one to sing the national anthem, would you do it?’ No way, right. No freakin’ way – there is no chance you’re going to get up there and embarrass yourself in front of all these people, right?
I thought of this recently when I saw this clip of Daniel Radcliffe rapping on Jimmy Fallon:
Now, obviously, this was planned – all the set-ups on these shows are, but it got me thinking about our reluctance to do things like this, our hesitation to put ourselves out there. And the lack of that same hesitation in people who’ve achieved significant success.
On one hand, this could be confined to performers – people who love being up on stage are always more likely to take the mic and belt out a song, some would even love the thought of being asked to do the national anthem. But it’s interesting to consider why we’re so hesitant, why we’re so petrified of embarrassment. Because generally, there’s not a lot of fallout for people who fail in such circumstances. I mean, if you were to butcher the national anthem you’d become an internet sensation, blasted across every news site beneath headlines celebrating your failure in pithy wordplay. That would be bad, but if you’re not a singer and you had a shot at it and failed, does it matter if you get criticised for failing as a singer? Is it something that’ll be held against you forever? Think of this case, where a taxi driver was mistaken for an IT expert:
Of course, there is an inherent risk in putting forth your opinions on a topic in which you want to be seen as a leader – you don’t want to be presenting to a room of business executives on a topic you have absolutely no idea about, but I guess the point I’m making is that we often over-emphasize the potential harm of failure. Even perceived failure, failure in disciplines where we have no expertise. But those who are more willing to put themselves out there, more likely to take what’s presented to them and just go with it, those people are also more likely to achieve success. Because they’re more likely to say what they think, more likely to stand up and be counted, to present their work, come what may. Because really, it doesn’t matter what most people think. If you’re willing to take a risk and put yourself out there, you’re increasing your chances of success, purely through exposure alone. People shouldn’t be afraid to try things, to present their ideas and thoughts, to reach out. Because why not?
There’s always a level of commonsense in anything, this is not to say you should do whatever you want, whenever you want, screw the consequences, but who cares if you stand up and embarrass yourself at a karaoke bar? Who cares what strangers who you’ll never meet think? So long as you’re having fun and the people who do mean something to you are too. Why not try it out?
The same principle applies to writing, or art of any kind, really. How many people do you know who say they want to write a book or want to have a go at something but they never do? Why not have a try it out? Why not get it down and work on it and submit to a competition or journal? If you hear nothing, so what? You tried. If they didn’t like it, no problem, you can try again – if it makes you happy and it’s something you really want to do (and it doesn’t harm anyone in the process) you should do it. Because you don’t want to be one of those people looking back, talking about how you always wanted to be a [insert title here].
Every now and then, try to take a risk and do something you’d normally avoid, rather than hiding inside your own shell. Through small steps, pushing yourself that little bit, you build up your resilience to outside opinions and increase your chances of achieving your dreams. The more you do it, the more you build trust in yourself. The sky didn’t fall in. Your world didn’t collapse. And in putting yourself out there, you also allow others into your world, helping you connect with likeminded people and build interest-based communities, communities that can help you further your dreams through mutual support. Communities that help you fill that need you’ve always wanted, that thing you’ve always wanted to be. Trying is the key. Sharing what you’re passionate about.
Why not try?
National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – begins this weekend, spurring all those would-be authors willing to put themselves on the line to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s an excellent initiative, and has now become grown into a global event. For those of you who are considering joining in, or have heard about NaNoWriMo and thought ‘that sounds kinda’ cool, I really should look into that’, here’s the what and the why of how it works.
NaNoWriMo started in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. It was originally held in July, but moved to November because the weather in the US is worse then, inspiring more people to stay indoors and write. The event was started (‘accidentally’) by freelance writer Chris Baty, who organised the event up till 2011, when he quit to write full-time, largely based on the works and contacts he’d made through his work with NaNoWriMo (Baty now teaches at Stanford University, amongst his various creative pursuits). The ethos of the event was not only to inspire those who’d always wanted to write a novel, but to also build communities of like-minded folk, to get writers to connect with one another.
The event has grown year-on-year and is now a truly international event. In 2013, 400, 000 people participated in NaNoWriMo – including 4, 400 from Australia. The collective word count from those 400k writers was close to 3 billion, a massive achievement. Many of these stories would’ve never seen the light of day, but they’re now out there, being worked on, being discussed and connecting people in a discussion about the written word.
The rules of NaNoWriMo are as follows:
- Starting at 12:00 am on November 1st, novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before 11:59:59 pm on November 30th, local time.
- Planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no earlier written material can go into the body of the novel, nor is one allowed to start early and then finish 30 days from that start point.
- Participants write either a complete novel of 50,000 words, or simply the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later.
To ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, participants need to write an average of approximately 1,667 words per day. Organizers say the aim of the event is simply to get people writing, using the deadline as an incentive to get the story going and to put words to paper. There is no fee to participate in NaNoWriMo, registration is only required for novel verification.
No official prizes are awarded – anyone who reaches the 50,000 word mark is declared a winner.
Do any of these books get published?
Yeah, they do. More than 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been published since 2006, including the New York Times Best Seller ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen, which was later adapted into a Hollywood film. Many established novelists have used NaNoWriMo as an impetus to get their novels done, along with the thousands of first timers – just having it set aside as a time to write has kept many writers going.
How do you get involved?
You can visit the official NaNoWriMo website to register and put down details of your project and aim for the month. There are a heap of resources on the site, worth checking them out and reading through the various notes on inspirations and ideas. From the site, you can connect to the home for your region, where you can find info on events happening in your city and ways to connect with other NaNoWriMo folk – the Melbourne community page is here.
There are a heap of resources and posts online documenting people’s experiences and inspirations for NaNoWriMo, if you’re not sure about participating, have a look and you’ll be able to get a better idea of whether it’s for you.
Almost everyone has thought about writing a novel at some stage. Everyone has an idea in mind, a story they’d love to get down but they never have the time to actually do it. NaNoWriMo is a great initiative to help give people that push, that impetus they need to get it down – and it’s only for a month, you only have to make the commitment to write for 30 days. The bottom line is that a writer writes. That’s what you do – if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. NaNoWriMo could be the first step towards getting your story together, to making something from nothing, creating a whole world of characters and happenings, right there on your screen. It all starts with you and the blank page.
If you’ve ever thought about it, maybe this year’s the one that you actually sign up.