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 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.
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.
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.
I caught up with an old friend yesterday, someone I’d not seen in thirteen years. And it was fine, normal, we just caught up like nothing much had changed, despite us both having had kids, got married, acquired mortgages, etc. It made me reflect on something I’d thought about on and off, and that’s the huge role our teenage years have on our sense of self and self-worth. We actually talked about this, how it didn’t feel like we were in high school so long ago, the experience felt much closer. What is it that binds us to those formative years, that still lingers decades after? More importantly, when do we grow up and become adults?
This was interesting to consider from a writing perspective, the fact that many people never truly feel like grown-ups. We resist growing up, we idealise our time as care-free children and fun motivated teens. Because who wants to think about work and responsibility? Life was more fun when we didn’t have such obligations and as your existence becomes evermore complex, your memories of those years become more rosy. Sure, there were bad times too, but sitting around talking with friend till dawn, finding new music that changed your perspective, hanging out and doing absolutely nothing. Those memories are hard to shake.
As a writer, you’re seeking to capture the emotion of the moment, to tell stories that fully transport the reader to a different world. That immersion, that perfect progression that allows you to capture attention and hold it, is why people read. Like the idyllic world of our youth, people want to escape, they want to be taken away from their day-to-day repetition. A powerful tool which can help you capture such emotion is to consider those resonant moments from your youth. What were the incidents that really stayed with you, the things that really hit you? Those emotions, while immature, are still very relevant, and normally very raw, as many of them would’ve been your first experiences with such feelings. How you felt at those times is important and has played an important part in shaping your adult self. Recalling those times and translating them to scenes and characters in your work is a great way to capture real emotion and add honest depth to your work.
Thinking of this also reminded me of the importance of writing. There’s a lot to take in in our adult lives, a lot to deal with. It’s important we write because people need an escape. People need to be able to step outside of themselves and experience something different, something new. You can never transfer your consciousness into another body – the closest you can get to viewing the world from someone else’s perspective is to read. And it’s important people read, it’s important that people have the opportunity to experience more than their own life. Your writing enables that, your honesty, your experiences, your real worlds created on paper are important. We need to write not just to get our own story out, but to allow others to experience it.
Author Erica Baurmeister had interesting quote on this:
“Adults need to have fun so children will want to grow up”
We hold on so tight to our childhood memories, to those perfect times when nothing mattered. Sometimes we can hold on too tight. It’s important we allow ourselves times to have fun, to live and experience life as adults too. Reading is a good way to do this, sharing stories is good, but also, don’t take yourself too seriously. Do what you need to do to enjoy life (so long as that doesn’t involve harming anyone or anything else). It’s important that we lead the way for kids, that we show them that being an adult is also fun. Part of doing that is chasing your dreams and doing what you love. Like writing. So write.
Criticism is a big part of becoming a better writer (or a better anything, really). More specifically, how you deal with criticism plays a major role in your improvement and ultimately, the level of success you’ll achieve with your work. As noted in a recent post, a large part of this is your internal critic, your ability to distance yourself from your work and analyse your output, but external criticism, while sometimes difficult to take, is just as important, and how you interpret feedback, how you respond, is the actionable element of the process, the part you need to excel at.
I was playing basketball once and we were up against the best team in the competition. This was a group of guys who had played at a really high level, much higher than the competition we were in, and they were well better than the rest of our league, won the grand final season after season. I was talking to a teammate before we played them one time and he was like ‘I hate playing this team, coming out on a cold night just to get your ass kicked’. And he was right, it was annoying – it’s no fun going into a match knowing that you’re about to get destroyed – but my view on this was actually the opposite of his. I told him I like playing these guys – the problem is more that we only get to face them once every eight weeks. Playing them was an opportunity, a chance to see how you matched up and to try and work them out, maybe even get a few over on them. Yes, they were going to win, but maybe we could put some pressure on them, hit a few shots, remind them not to leave us open. Playing against them was an opportunity to improve – because if you didn’t, you were just gonna’ get trampled over and over again. You either worked harder or you gave up – it was that simple. I wasn’t prepared to give up and drop down to the next grade below, so the only other option was to take them on, keep trying. The only thing you could do was to keep working to improve.
This is how I view criticism. Critiques force you to improve. Just as an athlete trains and works out and builds herself into a better player, you need to read, you need to edit and you have to put in the work, every day. The more you do this, the more you’ll improve. Criticism is an important element of this, because while it’s not always right, it’s worth taking in, worth listening to, even just as motivation to prove them wrong. The more you face up to criticism and accept it as a challenge, something to improve and aspire to, the better off you’ll be. And here’s the thing – you will improve. You see it all the time in sports, players improve year-on-year, they get better because they have to. Because the only other option is to give up. The only way criticism will defeat you is if you give up. If you accept it, if you agree with it, and if you decide you don’t have the energy to put in the effort anymore, then you’ll have decided your own fate. But if you believe you can, that you want to succeed despite whatever odds you face, then you will. You just need to put in the work. You need to train, analyse, study successful people in your field and build an understanding of what it takes to get to that next level.
Writing is work, it’s consistent effort, consistent reading and practice to understand and improve. The only way you stop improving is when you stop. Period. If you’re happy with where you’re at, that’s fine, no need to put in any more work. If you think those professional writers and authors on bookstore shelves are well above your standard, that they’re too high to even consider comparing your work against, then you’re right. But if you really want to succeed, if you take criticism as a call to action, rather than a cue to shut down, then you will improve. And you’ll keep progressing towards that next level of success.
I’m not sure we take the right approach in how we teach kids poetry. From a young age we’re exposed to poems via nursery rhymes and what we’re taught is that poetry is rhyming couplets. Dr Suess tells us, then later pop music – the only real exposure we get to what poetry is rhyme, repeated patterns and verse. And that’s fine, in no way would I ever disparage the skill it takes to create great rhyming poetry, but it’s also a very narrow view of what poetry is and can be. The problem is, we’re given such limited exposure to other forms of poetry. What’s more, while there are many brilliant examples of rhyming poetry, it is a true skill to master, and there are even more examples of bad rhyming couplets – and let’s face it, even amidst the greatest rhyming poems there’s normally a couple of laboured lines and references that have been jammed in, in order to stay in theme.
My issue with this is that we might be restricting people’s view of what poetry is by teaching them only one narrow view of the form. When people hear poetry, they think ‘Roses are red…’, that sort of light, generic, often tacky, form of expression. They think of jokes, of rhythmic language that’s used in movie clichés. They think of kids books, that poetry is something for kids, when really, the means of expression via poetic form are so wide, so unrestricted, and rhyming verse is only one small part of the equation. Poetry is the closest thing to connecting thoughts through language. It’s translating emotion, creating connections in the readers’ brains that connect on a higher level than the language alone. Poetry can be transformative and transcendent and more than most people might think it to be.
I know how many people view poetry. I know, because I once viewed it that way too – I’m a story writer, and have always been focussed on story. Poetry was like a joke to me – you put a few words together that may or may not mean something and if you can find the right balance between being vague enough that people can find their own meaning, and so vague that the words don’t even connect, then you’ve got yourself a poem. I even tested this in high school – we were doing poetry in English and one of my classmates asked how you do it. I wrote a poem about crying in the rain, with deliberately vague lines like: ‘My optimistic pessimism’. It got published in the school paper, then it got published in a state-wide street press publication:
This reinforced my view, poetry was easy and not to be taken seriously.
My view changed on this after reading Fight Club. This wasn’t because the language of Fight Club was so poetic, but from Fight Club I researched all I could about the author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk listed one of his favourite authors as Amy Hempel, so I went on to read all her stuff. Hempel is phenomenal – if you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, you’re missing out, and you need to get over to Amazon now and order a couple of her books. Her short story collection ‘Reasons to Live’ changed the way I think about writing – Hempel’s style is something that can’t be replicated, so intricate and subtle that, as Palahniuk says: ‘all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’
Fran Lebowitz still writes about the moment she first looked at a clock and grasped the concept of telling time. Hempel’s work is nothing but these flashes, and every flash makes you ache with recognition. –Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel
Hempel is both a short fiction writer and a poet, with several volumes of both in circulation. The combination of the two is what makes her so brilliant – Hempel can extract the emotion from the most mundane moment and translate it into a thing of beauty. This is not ‘Hempel the Writer’, at work, it’s ‘Hempel the Poet’, but the two have become so intertwined that her prose transcends the parameters of either form. For example, here is one of my favourite Amy Hempel stories – the first story of hers I read, and the one that made me want to buy everything she’d ever written:
My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.
It’s a perfect example of Hempel’s work – simple but complex, mundane but poetic. It isn’t straight-forward storytelling, but there is such a resonant story there, even this very short piece. It’s a connective work, the way Hempel has used language to build layer upon layer. It’s more than just prose writing, it’s another level of literary expression. And I wanted to read more.
Hempel’s work lead me onto Sharon Olds, who’s an amazing poet, one of the best I’ve ever read. Like Hempel, Olds’ work transcends the confines of what you may think poetry can be. While Olds doesn’t have the prose leanings of Hempel, her poems tell a story nonetheless, and she’s often able to tell a more powerful story than many can in novel-form. One of my favourite Olds poems is this:
Summer Solstice, New York City
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children’s father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.
This is a story, right? This is more prose-like than you’d expect a poem to be, but it’s also definitely a poem. The words carry such weight, each line is crafted and precise. Olds’ poetry taught me the importance of ‘language economics’, of the need to be concise and ensure each sentence reaches it’s full potential – there’s so much more to this poem that the words on the page. Great poetry uses the experiences and associations of the reader to build the greater context, rather than explaining it to them – which is true also of great prose writing – but nothing illustrates this point better than a great poem. One line can change everything, can hit you so hard. Poetry taught me the importance of rhythm and timing, and word placement in general. These are the tools you need to be able to communicate well. Poetry showcases those skills better than any other form.
Knowledge of poetry better informs you as a writer and helps you find better ways to communicate your story. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is one of the best examples of poetic description in prose form, and it’s so much more resonant because of it. A sequence like this:
By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This is poetry, this is connecting emotion via language – sentence construction aligned with thought. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, than just the words alone, there’s a beauty to it’s simplicity. If I’d presented this as a poem, you’d not have thought twice about it. But it’s used in prose, in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, no less. This is the potential of poetic expression. It’s far more than just rhyme.
With a newfound respect for poetry, I started to investigate and appreciate other forms of the medium. And while it’s often lambasted as the height of pretentiousness, spoken word poetry, when done well, can be extremely powerful. The thing that many miss is that the performance is a major part – it’s ‘performance poetry’ not a poetry reading. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years back, I remember Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan had done a session. Koyczan had his mostly female audience swooning, all because of his delivery of lines like:
looking at you it occurred to me
I could sit around all day
wearing nothing but your kiss
– Shane Koyczan, Skin 2
And one of my favourite performances was by ‘Coded Language’ by Saul Williams.
It’s passionate, resonant and again, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts, more than the words alone.
So this is why I don’t think we take the right approach to how we teach poetry, because I would have never thought to look at these things, I’d have never come across the greater opportunities of creative expression through poetry without finding it in my own way. I realise one of the main challenges of education is engagement, finding ways to get kids interested in what’s being taught, and no doubt that’s a barrier, but I feel like we need to reinforce that real poetry is so much more than rhyming couplets. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe educators are doing all they can, but there’s so much opportunity for expression through poetry, so much more than what people might interpret ‘poetry’ to be. While it’ll never be mainstream, by highlighting all these other avenues, maybe we can encourage more participation in poetic expression, and get in touch with more amazing writing as a result. At the least, knowledge of poetic expression will improve your written communication, in all forms.
One of the biggest factors contributing to the success of your writing is how good of an internal critic you are. How objectively can you view your own work? How much are you able to put yourself into the mind of your readers when you edit and re-write? This is crucial and probably the most significant difference between a good writer and a great one – it’s one thing to be able to write a story, it’s another to view that story as someone else would, and to be able to cut and edit your sentences from that point of view. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help improve your own editing process.
1. Let everything you write rest before editing
Nothing increases objectivity like distance – it’s like when you end a relationship and it’s devastating and you’re a wreck, but then over time you start to see things more clearly, see the issues and problems that existed beneath your rose-coloured memories. Writing is the same – you’ve spent a long time thinking about the piece, you’ve worked on it in your head, it’s kept you up at night going over it and some of those sentences have arrived to you in such pristine fashion, there’s no way they won’t make the final cut. Once you’ve let something sit, you’re able to review it without that level of emotional attachment. The longer you can leave it, the less likely you’re going to be blinded by personal connection and the more likely you’ll be able to view it as just another piece of writing – and that’s the best way to edit. If you can read your own work as if it’s someone else’s, like you would any other piece, then you can truly unlock your objectivity and see flaws for what they are. And then you can correct them.
2. If your mind’s drifting as you re-read, there’s a problem
I’ve spoken to writers who’ve justified this, to some degree, by saying they might have trouble focussing on the piece because they wrote it, they’re intimately familiar with the story. If you created it, it’s going to be harder for you to be excited or engaged, right? In the vast majority of cases, I don’t believe that way of thinking is correct. If your thoughts are wandering as you read, it’s likely your readers are going to drift too, and if they drift, then your work hasn’t connected and you’ll lose them very quick. Don’t dismiss flow issues or engagement lapses, they’re all indicative of problems you need to, at the least, re-assess. If a section loses you, you need to review the structure and understand why the sequence seems off. You can go crazy on this, I know, you can get hung up on small issues that’ll never feels quite right, but it’s important that you do investigate and understand any areas where things don’t sit as they should. It’s like when you get feedback – you take in all feedback, listen to what the person has to say, then you re-read the section. If it communicates what you intended, that’s fine, but even if you don’t agree with their criticism, it’s worth re-assessing, ensuring the message is delivered as you want.
3. Editing is going to take you way more time than writing
If it doesn’t, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re not maximising the potential of your work. I was reading an interview with a musician once who talked about how he’ll do more than 50 vocal takes for every track he creates to ensure that he gets the best version for his final piece. This is ‘the work’, as he explained it, and he’d seen many musicians who weren’t willing to do ‘the work’ fall by the wayside because they would do three takes, feel one of them was perfect, then want to move on. Attention to detail is the difference between good and great. This is true in everything, but very much so in writing. How many times has a small error in a piece stood out to you? How many times have you seen an error in a piece by an accomplished writer? Attention to detail is a sign of professionalism, and while people can get over a minor mistake here or there (everyone makes them, I probably have in this post), you don’t want to give your readers anything that could divert their attention from the piece. A small mistake is like a bump in the road, it can distract you from the main narrative momentarily. Too many bumps, and they become the narrative themselves. You should always edit, then edit, then edit again before you even think about releasing your work, because you’ll always, always, always find issues, no matter how naturally gifted you think you are. Always.
Accepting that editing is just as significant a part of the writing process is important, but ideally, you also need to make yourself just as excited about the editing process as the writing itself. How? By thinking of your readers, by keeping in mind why you’re doing ‘the work’. Because the better it is, the better it’ll be received and the more likely you’ll reach a wider audience. And it can be an engaging process – you’ve written your first draft, but now you get to go back and find ways to improve it, to make it even better. That’s genuinely exciting, it’s great to read through and find ways you can make sentences better, to think over progressions and words and improve the final product. You are not only the writer of each piece you create, you’re the first reader, and you have the chance to shape that story into what you want. How many times have you watched a movie and thought ‘it would’ve been better if…’ The more objective you can be, the more you can actually do this with your own drafts.
4. Is that how you would say it?
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to ‘write like you talk’. And like most tips (e.g. ‘write what you know’) there’s really more of a middle ground truth to this. Definitely, you should review your writing and ensure it flows naturally. The reader will have a voice in their head as they read, and if that voice sounds inauthentic or starts saying things that stumble in the flow, it’s another bump in the road that could, potentially, turn them off. I highly recommend reading your work out loud to ensure the flow is right – it’ll highlight things no other method can, and the more you do it, the more your internal monologue gets attuned to sentence flow, and you’ll make fewer mistakes in your initial drafts. But you need to also ensure that you’re communicating effectively for each piece, which is not always exactly like you talk. For example, if you’re writing fiction, it’s crucial that you write how the characters would talk, not you. For non-fiction, you can’t use slang as you might in regular conversation for every piece. There’s a level of self-awareness required to accompany this advice – it’s not necessarily how you would talk, it’s how you would talk to the intended audience of the piece.
The most common errors I see on this front are things like ‘you are’ when it would read better as ‘you’re’, ‘it is’ instead of ‘it’s’. These types of common contractions are very much in tune with how we communicate – a simple sentence like ‘it is crucial that you are aware of this’ is grammatically correct, but no one would say it like that in real life. Your words are translated into a voice in the reader’s mind, and it’s important you communicate like a real person to avoid any chance of losing their attention.
Being able to distance yourself and view your own work with a critical eye is integral to your success as a writer. If you write one draft, don’t re-read, and send it out, I guarantee you will fail. No one, no writer in the world gets it perfect in one try. You need to embrace editing and improve your self-awareness by benchmarking your work against the best (as a comparison, not in admiration) and come to it as the first reader of your content. The better you can do this, the more likely you’ll make your work the best it can possibly be.
In my time at writing and literary events, I’ve had opportunity to meet a lot of authors. Most of them are pretty quiet, all of them have been pretty nice, normal people, but a couple have become genuine close friends. It’s great to have a few writer friends, some people who know what it’s like to commit yourself to such a solitary act. It’s also great to have them to bounce ideas off, talk about your frustrations or concerns, just share with folk who’ve gone through a lot of the same things.
One of those people, for me, is James Phelan. I met James at the Newcastle Writers Fesitval in 2006 and we hit it off straight away. What’s always been really interesting for me is James writes in a completely different style to what I do. James’ novels are action/thrillers, and I’ve never been able to get into them. But hearing such a difference perspective on writing and the writing/publishing process has always fascinated me. James is the guy I go to when I need to ramble about writing and the challenges I’m having, the guy I seek out if I don’t know how this or that works in the industry. He’s also a close friend whose always been willing to listen to my ramblings.
I asked James to answer a few questions on writing and his writing process:
When did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?
I was 15 when I knew I wanted to be a novelist but I thought you had to be an old dude to do it. So, I figured I’d give it a try when I retired from a “real job”. I studied architecture and worked for a couple of firms, and by 20 I knew that I had to give writing a serious try. I wrote my first novel by 21, got a job at a newspaper, did an MA and PhD in Lit, and had my first novel published published at 25.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a full-time writer?
Deciding what to do next. I’ve written series for adults, young adults, and kids, and each has its pros and cons. The adult stuff has complete freedom, YA slightly less so, and the kids stuff has a whole bunch of things that the publishers tell me I can’t do or say on the page. The YA and kids stuff involves way more PR, on average a day per week, and while that’s great in terms of meeting enthusiastic readers, it sucks time away from writing. Publishing books for adults is more about Crystal, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes… you know the rest. Publishing books for kids sells about 10x more.
What’s the key to ongoing success?
Working hard. It’s easy for a writer to procrastinate, and there’s creative merit in that, sure. I write every day, starting early in the cafe nearby. Depending on which stage of writing I’m at, I’ll be sitting with my notebook or laptop or print out. Every day. That’s the writing side. The business side – you need good agents (and an accountant) who you trust will give you good advice when you need it, look over your contracts, and support you through the process.
Best tip for keeping ideas flowing and avoiding/beating writers’ block?
It’s my belief that if you write every day you’ll keep things moving along. That, and knowing your ending. Whether I’m writing a short story or a 40,000 word novel for kids or 90,000 for adults, I always know how I want my ending to play out. Not so much beat for beat, but in my ending I need to know the feeling that I want to create in the reader, be it comedic, dramatic, tragic etc. Usually by the time I write the ending, it will play out different to how I envisaged, but that value will stay always the same, and by knowing where I was going I managed to get there. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2007, and it’s all about working hard.
Best tip for writers starting out?
Don’t ever sign a 13 book deal. Only recently have I finished all my contracts, and the freedom is incredible. So, enjoy your freedom, while it lasts. Write what you want to write. Make it shine through revisions, then decide what you’re going to do with it. I still think that agents are worth their commission, so get one of those. How? By getting published. How do you get published? By having an agent, or already being published. I know, right? Oh, and don’t forget to read as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Good luck.
[Note: Not everyone’s as luck to be offered a 13 book deal, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance, but as noted by James, it can be double-edged]
Also, this punch really hurt him.