It’s amazing how much state of mind plays in success. I’ve been playing basketball since I was fifteen, still play a couple of times a week (I’m now 34) and I was talking with a team-mate recently, saying how we play so much better in training than we do in our actual games. Why would that be? The reason is because we approach them differently – in training, we’re playing with mates, guys we’ve played with and against for years and we’re comfortable around. If we win a training match, great, if not, no one cares, so we’re much more likely to take shots we’d think twice about in a real game, much more relaxed, and this, generally, means we play better. Because we’re not over-thinking the importance of making the play or how to beat this or that defender. In training, we’re relying more on instinct, and we’ve been doing it for such a long time that our instincts are pretty good.
The difference between practice and game is totally in our own heads. The opponents we play against aren’t better than the guys we train with, but in our heads, we put more emphasis on it, we get more caught up in doing the right things and not making mistakes. We stress, and that stress makes us tighter, makes us think that little bit too much about the process rather than just allowing ourselves to do it, and we make more mistakes because we get caught up in the detail. We make the situation more difficult for ourselves because of our own self-doubt and mentality. There’s no actual difference in the physical process.
I’ve heard sports stars say this over the years when talking about the difference between the highest levels and the lesser ranks. They always say the psychology is what you have to master, the approach. For a long time I didn’t understand it, but in recent years I’ve come to realise what they mean. There’s a famous quote from Henry Ford which goes: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. That pretty much sums it up – if you go out on the court and you think you’re going to get beat or you’re going to play bad, you’re probably going to. If you take to the floor and you’re getting caught up in who your opposition is and stressing over what might happen, you’re starting off on the back foot. You need to be able to change you’re thinking on it, relax yourself, even enjoy playing the game. You need to think ‘how would I play in practice?’, ‘How would I feel right now if the opposition were all guys I know?’ You need to think: ‘How would I play if the end result didn’t matter?’ If you can change your mindset, you can allow your instincts to take over – that’s what the big name sports stars are able to do. Despite the crowds and the money and the expectation lumped on their backs – the best players are able to block it all out and play just like they did on the schoolyard, just like they would any other time. In doing this, they allow themselves to maximise their natural instincts and abilities.
So why the long sports analogy on a writing blog? Well, the next tangent I thought of is how this also relates to my writing. As writers, we often put too much pressure on ourselves, always thinking this isn’t good enough, or we get caught thinking ourselves round in circles trying to work out the best way to explain certain elements or details. Just as in sports, we’d often do better to trust our instincts and rely on the skills and knowledge we’ve developed – you know you can write, you know you can do this, so why are you being held up? Why can’t you get it out the way you want? Just like Michael Jordan, with thousands of fans screaming on all sides, would rise up and take the shot, same as he’s done for years and years, you can write, free of what others might think, clear of expectation and self-doubt.
Some people talk about the benefits of free-writing, where you just get the story down as fast as you can – no editing, no re-reading, just go. I’ve heard several authors praise this process, saying it frees them up and allows them to get down sentences they’d never have come up with if they analysed and agonised. However you go about it, the important thing you need to focus on is writing what you want to write. You’ve read lots, you’ve written a heap, you know, instinctively, what it is you want to do. So just do it, trust in yourself and block out any other influences in your mind – write like you’re just doing a story for your friends, no one else. Write like no one will ever see it, if that helps.
Success or failure depends so much on our mental approach. The thing to remember is, everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone mis-steps – no one knows everything. You are just as good as anyone else, you can achieve whatever you want. Definitely, you need to work for it, you need to work at it and build your skills, but if you’ve done the preparation, if you’ve done the research and you know what it is you’re trying to achieve, then the only thing holding you back is you.
How would you write if the end result didn’t matter? If no one cared, if no one was going to judge you or your work? At some point, it will matter, you’ll need to edit and refine – but at the first stage, it can help to alleviate the self-doubt and blocks if you write as freely as possible. Don’t think about where it might go next, don’t think about publishing or competitions. Write instinctively, like you’d have done when you were a kid. Relieve the pressure and expectation and might just open yourself up enough to produce your best work.
An aspect that you need to keep in mind when writing is what you want your readers to feel as they read each section. Fiction writing is, essentially, trying to re-create the emotion you feel for the scene within the body of the reader, and in that, you need to always be aware of how you’re communicating the details. Importantly, what you need to be careful of is what words you use. Sometimes an out of place word can ruin a perfectly good set up – you wouldn’t have the word ‘chook’ in the middle of a scene of romantic resonance, for example. Careful word placement, and even word themes, can help build scene depth, and characters individually.
Here’s something that’s worth trying – assign each character in your story with a colour, based on their personality and traits, what you know of them. Once you have the colours down, write down words you associate with those colours – make a word cloud of 10-20 words that you’d link to it. For example, red might be associated with fire, stop, heat, fast. Once you have your words down, as you write, try to use those words in your descriptions of those specific characters and their actions. What this does is it builds a theme around that specific person – you associate those words with that colour for a reason, and readers will to. With red, anytime those references come up, people will have an association with them, and thus, the character, which creates more of a theme or personality type for each. This can help develop a distinctive persona, making them identifiable in more than just physical attribution. Those words form part of who the person is, and this can help develop depth and definition in a character’s being.
This won’t work for all writers, some may even find it restrictive to their process, but it’s worth trying, even with just a short piece, just to help build more presence around each participant in the story. Even try it in real life – think of someone you know and what colour you would attribute to them. What words do you link to that colour? Do they relate to the person? Normally, you’ll find they do, and this adds to the emotional linkage between character and reader.
It’s worth trying out, just to see what comes of it – even if it’s not for you, it might help open your mind to another way of thinking and improving character depth.
It’s amazing how much your mental state can influence every element of your being. People can convince themselves of almost anything, can think themselves into having heart attacks – their thoughts manifesting themselves in physical form. I’ve seen people held totally captive by their own thoughts, crippled with fear and anxiety and absolutely unable to see things any other way. Their minds have been made up, and once that happens, it can be a very hard thing to change.
I read an article about something similar recently, about how our minds can be tricked into seeing one thing or another in an optical illusion – but once our mind is made up on what we see, it’s almost impossible to change it back and see it another way. It highlights how easy it is for our brains to get locked onto one path and how hard it can be for people to break from that and change their perspective. We always see the worst of ourselves, we always see weaknesses and flaws and imperfections that might be totally oblivious to anyone else. Skin care company Dove ran an advertising campaign based around this very notion, that what we see is not how we’re seen by others. This is never more clearly evident than seeing someone in the midst of depression. The way they see life, the hopelessness they feel, it’s an all encompassing thing. They can’t see out of that tunnel they’re in, can’t see anything there for them to cling to. No matter how you try to tell them otherwise, their minds are locked. It’s scary to see, a heartbreaking thing to witness, and I feel for anyone whose ever been afflicted by such all encompassing sadness.
This is something that affects many writers. We can easily get locked into the idea that we’re no good, that our writing will never be good enough. We’ll read work by other authors and just feel so small, so distant from that level of quality that it can seem like all hope is lost. But what you’re seeing in your work is not necessarily what everyone else reads. Just like an optical illusion, there’s another side that you’re tricking yourself out of, another way of seeing it that you just can’t get your head around. But if you try, if you push yourself, there might be a way. If your brain is strong enough to totally convince you of one thing, why can’t it be trained to also convince you of the opposite?
This is a great challenge for anyone, to convince your brain to look at things from another perspective. Very few people are able to see things from other vantage points, but that’s something we, as fiction writers, do all the time. We see stories from the perspective of other characters, you just need to do that in real life, with your own work, from time to time. Definitely, you need to be objective – writing is a solitary pursuit and most of the time you’re your number one critic, so you need to keep that edge, you can’t go too easy on yourself. But just ask yourself ‘why not?’ Why can’t you do this? Make your brain see it differently and think ‘why can’t I write great literature?’ If you can convince yourself that you can, it makes it easier to commit yourself to the necessary work you’ll need to do to make it happen.
Writing takes self-motivation, you need a level of positivity and belief to push yourself. But you also need to get your work out there, you need to take the feedback you get – some of it won’t be good, but you need to push through and take in the benefits of negative feedback also. It’s not to say you should convince yourself that you’re always right, it’s that you need to take it easy on yourself, don’t see things from the negative point of view all the time, take on any notes and feedback and keep pushing on. Because why can’t you do it? Why not you?
The human brain is a powerful thing, if you can keep it from getting locked into any one way of thinking, you can remain open to all possibilities. And in that state, anything can happen, even things you’ve convinced yourself will only ever be in dream.
One of the main reasons I write is because I’m fascinated by people. The things people do, decisions people make every day – I love to look into them and try to understand, try to see why this or that person would do things they way they did. People you pass in the street, people on the train, they’ve lived an entire life with a completely different perspective to yours. I’m always intrigued by what shapes a person’s life, what things they’ve lived.
This is what drove me to write my first novel – I’d heard stories about the increasing amount of people drugging and raping girls in nightclubs and I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t imagine why someone would ever do that. From that, I tried to imagine a scenario where such horrific crimes could come about and how a person could get involved. To me, everything in life can be explained. Everything that happens, everything a person does is the result of the path their life’s taken. You might read a story about some guy who killed three people and that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to know about the case – the murder and maybe the basic motivations and lead-up events. But if you could know more, if you could see his entire personal history, you’d see things that happened, things that lead to this person making a decision to do something unfathomable to you. It doesn’t mean such acts can be justified, but knowing the full story helps understand why things happen the way they do. That’s what I love, trying to understand, trying to see things through another person’s eyes and rationalise their decisions. It’s fascinating to find those connections, the bread crumbs that lead to a person doing what they do.
This, I think, is a crucial element in developing character depth. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to steal a car or pick a fight with a neighbour or tell somebody they love them out of the blue. The things that have happened in their lives have formed them – their actions, good or bad, are a result of their experiences. I read a quote once that was something like ‘the human brain is perfect when we’re born – it’s what we put in that changes it’. On top of that, of course, there are natural tendencies and abilities that will also play a part in the process, but I do believe that is correct – who you are is a result of your inputs. In terms of character development, it’s important that you know these motivations and know how and why your characters would respond to each situation. It’s also where, I believe, the idea that characters sometimes write themselves stems from. They don’t, and they never will, but the more you know them, the better you understand each character’s history – what’s been put into their brain – the more you’ll know how they’d respond to each twist and situation. You need to have an understanding of where each character comes from, what’s happened to them in their lives, and what’s lead them to where they are. From there, you’ll better understand what they’d do next.
It’s actually an interesting exercise – next time you read a newspaper story, try to think of what each person’s motivations were that lead to them making the decisions they have. What might have happened, why might a person do what they’ve done in this instance? This type of thinking helps open your mind to possibilities and will better enable you to creatively elaborate on character motivations and choices. Don’t just read the headline, try to think of the why, what could have made this person see things the way they have, make them decide to take this course of action.
Everyone has a book in them, so the saying goes, but we’ll only ever hear a fraction of a percentage of those stories, because not everyone will have the opportunity to communicate them. With that in mind, isn’t it fascinating to think of all the stories that haven’t been told? Doesn’t it make you think there’s so much opportunity in the world, so much we don’t know? Trying to understand these questions is part of being a writer – an inquisitive mind, and need to know more than what you can see on the surface. You need to do all you can to embrace and build on this, let you mind ask questions, go with them, try to understand all you can. Not only is this the critical to being a better writer, more understanding is key to being a better person in general. If we could all take the time to see things from each other’s perspective, the world would be a much more understanding place.
Have you heard of Iggy Azalea? She’s a statuesque rapper who’s album recently debuted at number three on the US Billboard charts. She’s also Australian, though she’s not as well known here as she is in the US. Azalea (who’s real name is Amethyst Kelly) made her name in America after moving there to pursue her rap dreams at age 16. Azalea grew up in Mullumbimby in New South Wales but saw that her opportunities were limited in her home town, and home country as a whole. She decided that if she was ever going to make it, she’d need to head overseas – and the story of her success flows from there.
Azalea caught my attention recently when I read her story about leaving Australia. I could see what she was saying, could sympathise with the situation she faced. Here she was, obsessed with Tupac and desperate to be a female rap superstar, but living in a country town where others didn’t take her seriously and her opportunities for exposure were limited. While Azalea was referring to the music industry, the same can be said about writing to some degree, in that our creative culture, particularly our creative diversity, is not overly strong. In my conversations with international writers, and in the brief times I’ve spent in foreign cities, I’ve definitely felt that there’s a much bigger emphasis on creative arts and culture in other nations. Not everywhere, but in some places there is a distinct artistic undercurrent, a feel to it, and those creative communities are strong, visible and well supported. The sad reality of not having such a strong culture is that many writers end up in isolation, unsure if there’s an audience for their work or how to find it. What’s more, writers’ groups are often hard to locate and some writers are hesitant to join if they feel they’ve done nothing, like they won’t fit in.
This is not the fault of any person or group, I realise many arts organisations work very hard (and have done so for a long time) to create communities and provide writers with opportunities to join like-minded folk, but definitely my experience of larger cultural centres like London, New York, Seattle, even Vancouver, is that there’s a much bigger creative pulse, or at least, a more present one. Things like spoken word poetry have a real sense of purpose in these cities, a real pride of place, and while we do have similar communities in Melbourne, they’re much smaller, more underground – you have to be more active in seeking them out.
So what do we do about it? What can we do to foster a better literary culture and highlight opportunities for writers of all genres and styles? The answer is we all have to get involved. Joining a writers’ group is not just for your own benefit, it’s for the benefit of the wider writing community. Attending book launches, readings, spoken word events, joining discussions at your local writers’ centre – just being present and supporting these projects helps build that literary community and enhances recognition, making them easier to find. By taking part, you’re not only participating in something you’re interested in, you’re also endorsing that community, building it, helping create a wider network. This promotes more opportunities for writers to connect, which then leads to more niche writers finding others who feel the same. The rise of social media helps in this respect, as it enables people to find communities outside their geographic limitations, but it’s also important that we establish these groups locally, that we build support and acceptance for the various forms of written expression in order to create our own networks and our own localised culture.
We also need to recognise the passion and dedication that goes into all forms of writing. I’ve got little interest in the work of Matthew Reilly, but I respect the man greatly. I could go and hear him speak and get a heap out of it, regardless of whether I’ve read a line of his work. All writers have made a commitment, an effort that’s above and beyond what they have to do. We’re all in it together – we need to support each other in order to create a stronger literary eco-system, a stronger community that gives voice to more writers who might not have the confidence to ever release their efforts from their notebooks. Maybe we have writers who, like Iggy Azalea, are very talented at what they do, but they feel like there’s no chance for them – there’s no chance a female rapper could achieve significant success in Australia. That was a really sad sentiment for me to hear, and most teenagers in the same boat won’t have the tenacity to move to another nation to chase it. They’ll just give up. We have to do whatever we can to stop that, to embolden more voices and give them the confidence to chase their creative dreams, whatever they may be.
Writing events are about more than people trying to sell their books and in-crowd meet-ups. It’s about community, being part of something bigger. You have to go along to events and get involved wherever you can. Talk to people, tweet about it, tell others where you are and what you’re doing, introduce yourself – and I know it can be hard sometimes to go and get involved (my default position in such situations is ‘wall flower’) but it’s what you need to do, not only so we get to hear your voice as a writer, but so other writers, young writers especially, see what you’re doing and know they can get involved too. Writers are welcoming types, we all want to know more about the world and the people in it. We need to ensure that that openness remains part of our culture so we can encourage a stronger literary bonds and continue to see great writing emerge. So our stories remain as diverse as our society and an accurate reflection of our full creative capacity.
At one stage, I was a really big fan of The Streets. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Streets’ was the stage name of British cockney rapper Mike Skinner. Skinner became known on the back of his excellent debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and the single ‘Weak Become Heroes’.
There was nothing technically amazing about The Streets’ music – the beats are somewhat generic, the almost spoken word vocal delivery is not immediately stand-out. What Skinner was able to do better than most was capture a moment in time. Every song on Original Pirate Material had a feel to it, a vivid sense of time and place. You could smell the rain soaked concrete, feel the breeze pushing past along the London streets. Skinner was more storyteller than rapper, and no one could tell a story in quite the same way.
He reinforced this with his second, and by far most popular, album, ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’. If you’ve not heard this album, I highly recommend you go check it out, particularly if you’re a writer. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – Skinner documents his entire relationship with his ex-girlfriend from start to finish, stretching from track to track. We share the elation and excitement of the beginning, the complacent beauty of normality, then the sadness of the eventual end. Every element is so familiar, so real, and each track carries an emotional depth and resonance, made all the better by Skinner’s knack for capturing the moment. There’s a section in one track, when his girlfriend is breaking up with him, that just hurts so much:
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet
There’s the desperation – we can have an open relationship if that will keep you with me – then the realisation that it’s all over, told in Skinner’s unique, simple style. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is more akin to reading a novel than listening to an album, it needs to be experienced from beginning to end to fully appreciate it’s excellence.
Things changed by the third album. While his clear strength was in telling stories to which we could all relate, the success of A Grand Don’t Come for Free meant his life totally changed. He’d become a full fledged celebrity, regularly appearing in tabloids and gossip mags, holding hands with this or that pop starlet, hanging out at VIP events. His success ultimately turned his strength into weakness – he was still writing about his life like always, we could just no longer relate. The album ‘The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living’ had some classic Streets moments, but it wasn’t the same. The title track had Skinner lamenting the many downsides of fame, like the costs of making music videos and complications of putting on stage shows. These were real things, real issues that he was experiencing, but it was pretty hard for listeners to align with the view that his career, which had granted him massive amounts of cash and seen him invited to perform all over the world – all while doing what he loved – that the downsides to that lifestyle could be all that bad. Another track looks at the difficulties of picking up famous women – again, something he’d experienced, but the difference between his reality and the listener’s created a gap, a distance from the material. It once again highlighted that The Streets’s appeal was more in story than in music, and Skinner experienced a significant drop-off in fan support as a result.
He was never able to fully recover after that – Skinner released two more albums under The Streets’ moniker, ‘Everything is Borrowed’ (on which, Skinner pledged not to reference modern life on any of the tracks, a response to criticism of the previous album) and ‘Computers and Blues’. As with The Hardest Way to Make and Easy Living, there are some great moments on both of these albums (and Skinner’s musical ability increases markedly through each), but he’d lost that edge, that storytelling dynamic that made his work so great. A mixture of life changes and criticism seemed to pretty much kill off The Streets as a project, which Skinner acknowledged by retiring the name after his fifth full-length release.
The story of The Streets highlights one of the inherent dangers of fame – the more successful you are, the higher the risk you can lose touch with your audience. But above that, Skinner’s story highlights one very important element for writers that can often be overlooked. The strength of The Streets was that it told Skinner’s story, from his perspective. And that was perfect, it was real, something with which we could all relate. The rise of Mike Skinner highlights the fact that you don’t need explosions or car chases to gain an audience. Your experience, your viewpoint on life, no one has that but you – that unique insight is interesting. A story doesn’t have to be exciting or amazing to be resonant. A key strength of storytelling is honesty, capturing the feeling of the moment in an honest and real way. In Skinner’s case, those common life experiences were far more resonant than the fast-paced world of being a rock star – that’s not to say his experiences with fame were any less honest, but his story was so much stronger when we could be part of it, when we could all relate and share in the familiarity of those moments.
People relate to what they know and understand, they need a way into the narrative. Even if your story is sci-fi or fantasy, we still need to be able to connect with the stakes, understand the emotion of each scene. The development of flesh and bone characters is critical, and those characters are borne from your knowledge of real people, real situations. Writing is about exposing yourself, sharing what you’ve felt in similar circumstance, creating the experience of being there, in the moment. You need real relationships with your characters, real emotions, those are the details that fuel the connections in the reader’s mind – the more readers can relate, the more they’ll be drawn in. Keeping it real, keeping it familiar, capturing experiences based on your unique perspective, this is how you develop fully rounded characters. This is how you share not just words with your readers, but experiences and create real life within the confines of the fictional page.
There are three things in life that always seem to be the source of conflict and misery, three things that I see happening on a daily basis that irk me and cause much shaking of the head. These are things that I can’t sympathise with or reconcile, and, coincidentally, these three can also be the killers of great writing.
The three things that always carry with them the potential for issue and angst are laziness, ignorance and selfishness. Here’s how they relate in a writing context:
Laziness is pretty self-explanatory, you have to get yourself moving, you have to do the work to see the results. You can’t expect to sit down at your PC, write a few thousand words, then send it off and let the publisher bidding war to begin – this happens to no one. As noted in a previous post, writing is work, and you have to do it everyday. You have to read, you have to learn how to communicate your story, it takes time to get it right. If you’re truly committed and the story is something you have to get out, you’ll always find the time. You’ll make the time. That’s not to say the cause of incomplete work is always laziness, I realise people have a lot going on in their lives, but laziness is indeed a killer for writers. If you’re lazy, you won’t start the work. If you’re lazy, you won’t finish. If you’re lazy, you won’t do the required research and editing and re-writing. Laziness is not an option for writers, you just have to get it done. No one’s going to make you sit down and write, you’re the one who has to push yourself. Without the effort, you can’t achieve the result.
Ignorance is something we all see everyday, people ignorant of their impact on others, ignorant of how their actions affect other people. Ignorance is a killer in writing because you have to be aware. You have to understand what works and doesn’t work in your writing, you have to take on board feedback and asses your work to ensure it aligns with your goals. I’ve seen a heap of writers who’ll get feedback, totally ignore it, then hand their work to someone else, hoping they’ll get a result more to their liking from them. You can’t flat out ignore feedback. Maybe someone tells you something you don’t agree with, maybe someone criticises you unfairly – my general rule is that anytime something is raised I’ll re-read it. If it communicates what I wanted it to, then it’s fine. But if more than one person highlights the same issue, then it needs to be re-worked. If you want to improve as a writer, you have to listen to the feedback, you have to hear what people are saying. Your aim is to create something undeniable, something so great that even your biggest critics will have to concede that it’s well done. To do that, you have to listen, you have to read, and you have to know what works.
Selfishness in a writing context is getting too caught up in your own world. Writing is solitary, self-involved for the most part, and sometimes we can get so tied up in it that it’s all we want to talk about and all we want others to talk about in our presence. Sometimes it leads to you dominating conversation in order to keep it tied to what you need, pushing people for feedback on your work. The risk of being selfish is you can get stuck on other people’s opinions, you can procrastinate, waiting for feedback, and you can turn helpful readers away by pushing too hard for commentary. And the essential point here is, you need to know your work. You definitely need readers, you need that feedback from as many sources as you can get, but you need to know what you’re trying to achieve first. Once you’ve written, re-read, edited, re-written – once you’ve done all you can to ensure your story is as close as you’re able to achieve by yourself to what you want to communicate, then you can seek readers – but always understand, having anyone read your work is something you should be grateful for. They are taking time out of their day for you, for your story. Even the worst feedback is worth hearing, worth taking in – maybe it gives you nothing, but maybe it makes you re-read a section and you find a way to improve the way it’s written. All your readers are valuable, and you need to be careful not to push them away or argue with their perspective. Let them read it in their own time, let them say what they want to say – some will have alot of comments, some nothing at all, and that’s fine, so long as you know what it is you’re trying to achieve. Their opinions serve as a guide, a reminder, a new perspective on your work. You need to let them read and think it over, then come back to you when they’re ready – hopefully, your story is so compelling that they can’t help but respond, but not everyone will see it that way. Don’t be selfish, don’t get caught up in the need for response. You are your chief motivator.
The one other thing that always stands out in day to day life is people being unkind. This doesn’t have a writing application, as such, but something worth noting in your regular interactions. Don’t be unkind, don’t be mean for the sake of it. Every evil action in the world is caused by some level of unkindness, moments in people’s lives that could have been avoided. There’s no need to be unkind, everyone’s got their reasons for doing what they do. There’s no reason to contribute to negativity any further.
One thing that all writers need to be aware of is that writing is work. No one has ever sat down, typed up their piece, sent it off, then rode the serpent of success all the way to the bank. You get better at writing by writing, everyday. You achieve success by reading as much as you can, researching, taking on criticism – always learning and improving. Every rejection is part of the work. Every failure is part of the work. All of these things are part of the journey towards improvement and success – you can’t achieve what you want from your writing without failing every now and then. Your best work is driven by emotion, so you’re going to make mistakes as you rush to get your ideas out – and it’s often when you’re riding the edge of your comfort zone that you really hit the right notes, so you need to push yourself, you need to make mistakes and get criticised for it, you need to cop a rejection letter every now and then. It should drive you on, not knock you down.
Don’t ever be afraid to send your stuff out or refrain because of what someone else might think – everyone mis-steps, everyone makes a fool of themselves every now and then – this is part of the work also. Whenever I get rejected, my internal response is to make them regret it. I’ll succeed and show them that they were wrong. And it’s often not your writing that has been rejected anyway, it just didn’t fit what that editor wanted for that publication at that time. So take it in – no problem, wasn’t for them – show them what they missed out on by succeeding elsewhere.
The one thing you need to dedicate yourself to is becoming the best writer you can be. I’m always committed to being better, to reading more, to finding out what works and what doesn’t, and improving myself. I don’t want to be another good writer, I want to be the best writer there is. I want people to know my work, relate to it, to feel what I felt when I wrote it. To do that, I need to keep improving, keep working. The more you write, the easier the sentences flow.
Now I’m never going to be the best writer there is, but that’s not the point. If you don’t aim to be the best, what are you aiming for? If you aren’t aiming to maximise your abilities to their best potential, then what’s the plan? Just try your best and see what happens? Having a high expectation of your work is what will push you on and drive you to improve – I may not be the best, but the more I work towards that goal, the closer I can get to it, and the closer I get to it, the better I become. Maybe I’m not the best, but I’ll be better than I was yesterday, and I’ll be better again tomorrow, and the next day, and every day for as long as I can put words to paper. And that’s the goal, to always be improving. The goal needs to be unattainable, it needs to be too high to ever meet, like a rabbit skimming out ahead of the greyhounds. I aim to be the best, I intend to be the best writer you’ll ever meet. Maybe I won’t be, but I’ll keep working anyway.
Writing is work, it’s constant – like anything, it’s about practice, passion and persistence. Ultimate success won’t come easy, but it shouldn’t. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an achievement, right?
Sometimes I worry that I’ll never complete my second novel. Sometimes I think I peaked with my first book and I’ll never achieve success of that level again. Sometimes I dread checking my e-mails in case there’s one from my publisher, asking how it’s going. Sometimes I think I’ll run out of ideas, that my sentences and structures are not good enough and never will be. Sometimes I hate the day. Sometimes I just want to close the door and go to bed and sleep it off, start again tomorrow. Sometimes I get angry when I look at myself in the mirror. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a good enough Dad, not helping my kids develop and grow, not doing enough for them. Sometimes I wish I could take them away from society and raise them without the influence of other people. Sometimes I feel hopeless and useless and like I’ll never be truly successful. Sometimes I worry about what sort of life I’ll give my family. Sometimes I avoid looking at my bank balance. Sometimes I wonder what people will say about me when I die. Sometimes I wish I was a better person.
Sometimes I realise the worst could happen, but it hasn’t. Sometimes I think that everything could fall apart, or, it could get better. Sometimes I realise how bright the sun is, how the wind pushes through the heads of the tall trees. Sometimes I sit and watch my son playing, when he doesn’t know I’m looking, and I marvel at how perfect he is and wonder about the things he’ll do in his life. How I’ll always be there for him no matter what. Sometimes I hold my daughter’s hand and it feels like I’m the most important person in the world. Sometimes my wife will touch me on the back and I feel so lucky to have someone believe in me. Sometimes I experience something that’s so resonant, so in tune with who I am, that it feels like the pieces of the world have fallen into place. Sometimes I connect with people that make me realise everything is possible. Sometimes, most times, I believe in myself and know, not think, that everything will be fine.
Because life isn’t just what happens, it’s what you bring to it. Everyone has doubts and insecurities, it’s how you absorb them that defines who you are. How you see yourself influences how others see you, so if you can’t be confident in who you are, that’s what you’ll project. Sure, you’re not perfect, but neither is anyone else. Yeah, maybe you don’t feel confident today, but why not? Why not choose how you approach the world. Other people will respond how they decide, but they don’t define you. You do. You decide how you live your life.
Look at what you have, not what you don’t have. See what’s possible, not what’s in the way. Know the people that are important to you. Know who you are to them. They’re the ones. They are the ones you need to show the way. Show them that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. Show them you can choose how you approach the world. And go do it.
There’s nothing else you need.
A great place to write is the airport. It sounds weird at first, but it actually makes perfect sense. Chuck Palahniuk noted this in an interview at some stage (I can’t find the link), that he likes to write in airport lounges, in amongst the travellers and tourists. You get to eavesdrop on conversations and hear how people actually talk – which, of course, you can do in most public places – but the thing that makes airports different is the feel, that sense of adventure that hangs in the air.
People at airports are excited. They’re headed off on an adventure or returning from one. They’re saying goodbye to loved ones or anticipating being reunited. The atmosphere in an airport is like no other, that tangible sense of everything being alive, on the edge of a greater emotional high any moment. There’s no place where there’s more raw feeling in a room – tension, excitement, nervousness. People returning to cold grey days in shorts and beach tans. Businessmen embracing their young kids, the little ones in pyjamas and slippers.
What you do is you find a place in an airport lounge – you can’t go through to the international terminal without a ticket, but you can sit outside the arrivals amongst the families (some of them, you can tell, haven’t seen each other for a long time). If you check the arrivals, you can find the gates where people are arriving from holiday destinations – those are more alive than business travellers. You can move around from area to area, get a feel for the different aspects. Then later, you can go out to where the planes come into land – in Melbourne there’s a car park for the plane spotters to stand and feel the rush of the 747s as they descend to the runway. It’s pretty amazing, seeing a flying plane up that close. There’s even a food van permanently stationed there, it’s that popular a location.
As writers, you need to feel the emotion of others, to empathise and see things from the perspective of other people. Airports are great for getting a sense of this. People at the edge of their emotions are more open, unable to contain themselves within normal social restrictions. Think about when someone cries – you can feel their pain, as if they’d just given you a direct line into them. It’s not what they want you to see, not the persona they want to project. This is who they really are. And for that moment, you can connect, be on the same emotional plane. You’ve been there before, you know what it’s like to be at that overwhelming stage where you can no longer contain yourself. Those times, where emotions are pushed to the surface, are where you really understand our connection, what makes us all human. How we’re all fundamentally alike, we’re all doing what we can. Those moments are crucial for writers, being in those moments, feeling them fully. This is how you get to the heart of your writing. This is how you understand what resonates, how your readers feel. How your characters will respond to this or that situation. You need to know people, what motivates them, what makes them tick. And to do that, you need to understand yourself, how you would feel if you were this person and this was happening to you.
Shared experiences of strong emotions allow you to get a feel for that moment, to connect with the people around you.
Airports always awaken memories in me. Places I’ve been, moments with friends. People are experiencing that same excitement in every moment, and being around it, there’s a real buzz, and real sense of shared existence. That’s what makes writing in airports so interesting. Being there with them, seeing the peaks of emotion, touching at the surface. It’s exciting and awakening and equalising, all at the same time. And it can open your mind to all kinds of creative streams.