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.
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.
We all like to think that our likes are interests are totally unique, right? We’re into this new show that you may not have heard about, we’ve read this new book that’s just come out – we all like to believe that our likes and interests are very different from anyone else. But they’re not. Stereotypes exist for a reason – the things you like the most probably have a large following that you may or may not be aware of. Things like Game of Thrones, for example – when that first came out, I remember thinking it was amazing, but no one was really watching it, like I’d found something that I had to share with everyone else. But actually, I was put onto it by a friend who’d read the books, and it’s now one of the most popular TV shows in the world, even though it’s full of violence and bad language and things that you’d expect might confine its audience size to some degree. Because the things people like tend to be things others will like also – your interests and cultural leanings are just not that unique.
But here’s the thing – that also means that you should trust yourself more. Remember how you were drawn to the character of Boba Fett in Star Wars even though he wasn’t one of the main players? You thought no one else paid that much attention to him, but Boba Fett was actually everyone’s favourite character. When they were doing that interview on TV the other day, you couldn’t take your eyes off the chumps in the background, smiling and waving at the camera and calling their friends at home, asking them to switch over and check them out, right? The things you notice, the details that stand out to you that you think might have been missed by the rest of the world – nope, we all noticed the same thing. What stands out to you most probably stands out to everyone else, and what this should highlight to you is that your responses are more common than you think. So trust them.
This is something that you need to understand as a writer or blogger or creator of any kind, really – the details that stand out to you will stand out to other people. This is not a bad thing, it’s actually reassuring, knowing that the world you see is shared by many other people – we’re more connected than you think. Maybe we can’t all communicate it, maybe we’re restrained in our connection with other people, but that guy on the train reading the paper, you’d probably be able to talk to him for hours about 90’s movies. That woman over ordering a juice, she’d totally relate to your anecdotes about living in a shared house. Our experiences are not as dissimilar as we train ourselves to believe, strangers are not as strange, and what this really means is that you can put more trust in yourself, more trust in your audience, and share things the way you see them. More often than not, you don’t need to over-explain, you don’t need to second-guess the way you’re communicating, people will get it. Put yourself in the position of the audience, think of how you’d respond to your work, what reaction would you have to reading this? Your viewpoint will likely be shared, and while it’s never easy to analyse your work from an impartial perspective, you need to trust yourself and rely on your instincts – if this were written by someone else, would it work for you?
Everyone else lives in the same world you do, we all experience similar things, similar problems and troubles. Everyone’s overcome difficulties, everyone feels down sometime – the things that make others happy are most likely the things that make you happy. Definitely, our overall perspectives are different, our viewpoint is ours alone, and that’s what provides opportunities for new stories, new and interesting ways of connecting, but we’re not as dissimilar as we tend to believe. So don’t stress about communicating with people, about saying the wrong things, being the right person. Remain true to yourself and trust that what you have to say is important. While you can always improve on how to do this effectively, you should also realise that you are not alone and create with that in mind.
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.
(This is a short fiction piece I wrote a while back, part of a series of shorts I worked on – hope you like it. And warning, some bad language)
Of all of it, the months I spent in the beach town, right out at the edge of the Earth, those are the ones I remember. The memories I see when I close my eyes. The sun warming across the backs of the white sand grains. The desert weeds flickering in the gusts. Of all the times, those were the days I felt happiest about. The times that would return in dream.
I’d got in with this group of people who’d come to the beach and decided they never wanted to leave. Minds flooded with childhood memories and adulthood hurts. They’d created this community of deserters all living in this two storey house, growing their own vegetables, generating their own electricity. Re-using their waste. Jobs were hard to come by, so only a few of them worked and then I came in and I got a job at the service station just off the freeway. Every week we’d pool the money earned by the ones who worked and we’d buy essentials which were listed in order on a piece of paper in the kitchen. They sang songs, which I didn’t like, but I could sit and smile and pretend I didn’t know the words, my face burning from the camp fire blaze. It was simple, living with them. No one wanted to know who you were, what you’d done. Everyone just was. Everyone just wanted to enjoy life.
There were at least twenty people in that house. Drifters would come through town and sleep on floors – they always had odd names like Rex or Pardy or Jai. They were just wandering through life, these guys, hitch-hiking one town to the next. No pressure, no concerns. They just lived a day at a time. I thought, for a while, that this was how I should be. This was what I should be. I asked lots of questions about how they did it, how they went about life, but a lot of the time it sounded difficult and unpleasant and they never really wanted to say too much and I figured it was best to stay where I was. In the beach sun it was idealistic, but when the rain set in. Sickness is difficult with nowhere to rest.
They had an outdoor shower. What it was was a bucket that they’d fill with warm water, then, once it was full, they’d drag it up by rope over a tree branch and it had these tiny holes in the bottom that would leak the water out and you’d stand beneath it and wash yourself, right out in the open. Sometimes, I’d watch the women do it, I’d stand at a distance and watch the soap bubbles sliding over their nipples and their curves, gathering at the edges of their hair. It was amazing.
We were working on building another room, gathering wood and nails from building sites in the night and buying other parts as we could afford them, bit by bit. One of the men used to be a builder and he told us how to connect this to that and I listened to everything and tried to make sure I didn’t saw anything uneven or bend any nails. He said I was a good worker, put his arm around me at the end of the day. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.
At nights we’d play board games and read stories from the newspaper and they’d talk about the latest news and politics and I had no idea what they were saying most of the time. Other nights we’d go to those big metal Salvation Army donation bins and we’d jump inside, sift through what was there. We’d push out bags of jumpers and pants and t-shirts and bring back what we needed. Sometimes, someone would sleep right up beside you, hug onto you, and you’d just go with it. That’s just how it was, it didn’t mean anything.
One time some drifter fucking yelled at me. He was tanned with this curly, long blonde hair and he was yelling about me working for a big oil company, saying they were responsible for some shit and I was responsible too because I took their money and I clenched my fist, ready to punch the fucking teeth out of his head and then the others yelled back at the blonde guy. They put their hands onto my shoulders and they pointed and yelled and then they kicked him out, that guy, pushed him out into the night. They patted me on the back and on the head and the girls kissed me on the cheek and I watched that guy leave from the window, dragging his backpack beneath the blue of the full moon. He kept stopping and turning round and yelling some more, then he was gone, drifted out into the darkness.
Lost beneath the sounds of the waves washing in.
There was one night when I was working and it was real quiet, no one was around – there never was late at night. Then these two guys came rushing through the electronic doors, both in balaclavas and singlets and shorts and the two men rushed to the counter and one of them pointed a hand gun right at my face and I stood up, put my hands in the air.
‘Don’t worry.’ The man with the gun said. His eyes poked through the woollen holes. ‘Just give us the money, it’s all good.’ And I knew the man’s voice. I stayed still.
‘C’mon man, it’s cool, it’s all under insurance, we worked it all out.’ He was one of the drifters, this guy, I couldn’t remember which one. ‘You just give us the money and we walk out, simple. We’ll give you a cut after.’
I shook my head slow.
‘C’mon man, you can talk. The cameras don’t record sound, it’s just video. You just have to make it look like you’re scared and take out the money.’
‘No, they do record sound.’ I told the drifter. ‘They showed me when they went through the training.’ The man looked to the other guy, then up at the camera.
‘You’ve fucked me.’ I told him. ‘I’ll have to leave now, because they’re gonna’ think I was in on it.’
The man lowered the gun, kept looking at the other guy.
‘Fuck.’ The man said, then he raised the gun again, poked it towards me. ‘Okay, well if we’re fucked anyway, we should just take the money, right? Just take it all out and we’ll just go.’
‘You fucking idiot.’ I said. I was furious, my fists shaking up by my head. ‘You’ve fucked everything up.’
‘Hey, don’t fucken yell at me, I’ve got a gun.’
‘You fucken idiot.’ I yelled. I could feel the warmth of tears bubbling round my eyes. ‘I’m gonna’ get you.’
‘Hey.’ The man yelled. ‘You ain’t gonna’ do shit. Now we are where we are, that’s how it is. Now, you need to get me the fucking money and hand it over, right?’
I stared him down. Those stupid eyes, poking out that black beanie. The man looked out to the road, like maybe someone was coming.
‘C’mon, c’mon, get the money.’ He roared, poked the gun towards me again, the barrel right up at my face now.
‘You pull the fucking trigger.’ I told him. The man hissed, looked away, then back at me.
‘C’mon man. Just give me the fucking money.’
‘You pull the trigger.’ Tears were sliding out now, dragging down my skin. ‘You’ve ruined me.’ I stared straight into the barrel, straight into the darkness of it.
‘Get the fucking money.’ He yelled, pushed the barrel into my cheek and I closed my eyes, held my breath.
Here are three of the questions the police asked me, in no particular order:
‘Did you know the men who robbed the service station?’
‘Did you assist the men in the planning and execution of the robbery?’
‘Did you know you’re wanted on burglary charges back in Melbourne?’
Here are my answers to those questions, also in no order:
Either way you look at it, I was fucked.
There are certain moments in life that level you. Sometimes, something will happen that will just tune out everything else and make you see things for what they are. These are the moments that can define you, that stay with you long after, and that you go back to, hoping you’ve learned something from them. Here’s three such moments from my life:
- When I was 13 I was caught trying to steal a G.I. Joe action figure from Kmart. It was the worst, the most shameful, embarrassing incident. I also had my younger brother with me, he would have been seven at the time, walking around, holding my hand as we went. But the moment that levelled me was when they called my Mum up on the loud speaker, when she came in and saw me. At first, she was concerned, she thought there must have been an accident or something, but then they told her why they’d called her. Her face. I felt worthless, stupid. Nothing I’d ever done had levelled me as much. I can see how, in a moment like that, how it could go either way for some people – you could either ensure it never happens again, or you could accept that look of disappointment and just become that, just be ‘that’ kid who’s no good. I chose the former, I would never even dream of stealing anything again, and from there I really started concentrating on doing better at school and working on my writing. But it was just, everything, that day, it took me down to nothing, no better than anyone or anything. I felt like I’d destroyed any trust, faith or hope my Mum had in me.
- Also when I was younger, probably about 11 or 12, I once went to pat my younger brother on the back and he flinched and ducked a little bit, like I was going to hit him. It was terrible, a sick, dark feeling in my gut. Was that what I was like to him? Was I a bully who scared my younger brother so much that he expected, when I raised my hand, that I’d hit him? We mucked around a lot, we were boys, but I never intentionally hurt him, and I definitely didn’t want him to think I’d smack him one out of no where, for no good reason. It was only a moment, and my brother probably forgot about it within that same split-second, but it stayed with me. It reminded me that I needed to be more wary of my actions. I can’t have people I love flinching at my touch. Why would he do that? Violence is as much perceptual as physical – what you think is nothing could be terrible to someone else. I needed to ensure the people closest to me always felt safe and knew I’d never do anything to hurt them. It changed my perspective, made me want to be a better person.
- When I was 16 or so, I was going out with this girl. We hung out all the time, we’d always be doing stupid stuff together. But one thing that annoyed me was that she was always non-committal. ‘We’re not going out’ she’d tell me. ‘I’m not your girlfriend’. Every time she said this, it hurt. Why would she be so against being linked to me like this? And what did that mean, that she could go out some time and be with someone else and I’d have no right to be upset about it? After about 6 months, I accepted that she’d never be my ‘girlfriend’, that she was really saying I didn’t mean much to her, and one night, at a friend’s party, I kissed another girl. When I spoke to her next, I told her and she was upset and she hung up. She called back about a week later and asked me why I did it. I told her that she wasn’t my girlfriend. She was crying, I could hear it through the receiver. I told her I was sorry she was upset. ‘You broke my heart’, she told me and she hung up. It was a terrible feeling, one I’ll never forget. I never wanted to be that person, be responsible for someone being so upset like that, again. It reminded me that all actions have consequences, that all relationships are emotional, no matter what’s been communicated. That you have to be aware of how your actions can hurt others.
These random moments are some among many points in time that have helped shape who I am, and importantly, they’ve shaped how I write. These incidents, the things that have levelled me, also remind me of the basic elements of humanity, of the things we all face. Everyone would have similar stories, moments where they’ve been reduced to nothing, left stripped, their ears ringing, feeling like a ghost. These moments make us, and reflecting on them now, they’ve formed big parts of the issues I’ve tried to explore in my writing. What I’ve found is, re-examining these moments can be powerful, can awaken those raw emotions, and when you’re writing, that’s what you need. You need to be open, you need to be able to feel what’s happening in your scenes. By remembering these moments, I’ve found that it’s helped capture the emotion of other, completely different scenes, more accurately. It’s an interesting excercise, remembering those moments, and might be worth you trying out, just to feel them again, awaken yourself to what you might have learned or taken from them.
Do you have any levelling moments like this?
In reading literary reviews, or writing reviews in general, one note that commonly comes up how the author has found his or her voice. ‘This writer has found his voice…’ ‘She’s established her own voice…’ ‘His unique voice comes through loud and clear in his writing’. The problem with this note, for prospective writers in particular, is that it can be a bit vague – what does that mean? How can someone find their literary ‘voice’? Your ‘voice’ is your distinctive presence, your way of communicating a story, and in that sense, there’s not really any way a person can say ‘here’s how you find your voice’, because it’s unique, it’s who you are – and not only that, it’s who your characters are, the authentic voices of your story. It’s the voice of the piece needs to be reflective of the story and true to the reality of the world that you’ve created.
While I can’t tell you how you can find your voice as a writer, what I can tell you are some of the things writers’ often do that are counter to finding their voice. We’re all trying to ‘be writers’, all trying to do what writers do, as opposed to what we, normal-folk, do, and inevitably, that leads to us adopting some practices which go totally against the mission of finding one’s own unique voice. Here’s a few things to avoid, or think about, as you go about your writing work.
Not every detail has to be painstakingly poetic
This is probably the most common mistake people make, they’ll try to create epic, poetic descriptions of even the most mundane and irrelevant details of the scene in order to conform to what they believe is a literary approach. It’s one of the easiest traps to fall into – you get self-conscious about your writing, you think you need to make everything more stylised, more beautiful, and you end up wasting paragraphs on details that serve no purpose to the wider piece. The greatest stories have a flow to them, an effortless beauty, a sense that every word, every description, is rested right there, in it’s correct place. That sense comes from knowing the story, from having every detail relate back to the core of the piece. Everything you describe, every element, should all be adding to the wider themes and ideas of the world of the story.
For instance, I read a piece recently where a writer had spent sentences describing the details of the way a room was set out. The story had nothing to do with room detail, and the characters didn’t have any psychological predispositions to noting down such elements. The description was purely there because the writer felt like they needed to include complex description. Now, if the character did have a leaning towards being caught up in intimate details – if, for instance, the character was having a life moment and such details reflected a wider sense of his/her own position at that time, those details would be relevant, but painting literary embellishments without direct story purpose is often jarring and representative of your own lack of confidence in your writing. Every detail you note should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, cut it out, it’s just weighing down your prose.
Trust what you know
A big part of establishing your own literary identity is trusting what you know. Your voice is exactly that – your voice. You have to know what you’re trying to achieve with your work. You know how people talk, you know what interactions feel genuine. You also know, in your own experience, what makes people do the things they do, what life events lead to people being how they are. Your experiences on this front are totally unique – you’ll have seen and heard of people doing things for different reasons, and you know those sequences as truths, as things that have happened. Those understandings are what you need to reflect in your work – if something happens, if someone does something, it’s not just a random event. What made that person do that thing? What compelled them to act in the way they did? You know what would most likely lead to a person being in the state of mind they’re in, and that is the truth that you need to reflect and tap into in your descriptions. That’s not to say you need to go into every detail of their life, but you need to know your characters, who they are, what they do, what their motivations are. If you know that detail, you can ensure their perspective is reflected in every action – how they react is how they would respond in real life. And that’s based on what you know – that’s where your own authenticity comes from, not from movies or books or what you think other people might think. You have to trust your own knowledge and understanding and ensure that that honesty is reflected in your work. If something happens that doesn’t feel true to you, it’ll likely feel totally fake to another reader.
Your only obligation is to the honesty of the story
This particularly relates to the voice of your work – the way the characters speak, the way the story is presented, these details need to reflect what’s best for your story. You know the characters, how they talk, how they act. The way it’s communicated, in your words, should reflect the voice of the piece. If you want it to be slow and dreamy, read other writers’ who’ve written in that way and study what they’ve done that works. Use thematic images in your writing area and music to inspire your thoughts and get the words flowing through your head. But above all, ensure that the voice you use for your work is true to the story you want to present. If it’s first person, get in the head of your character and describe the world as he/she would see it. If it’s third person, understand the flow you’re going for, how distant or intimate you need to be, and ensure that perspective is maintained – but always be true to the feel of the story, the characters, the drive. How do you want the reader to feel when reading it? What elements will keep them glued to your words as they flow through the piece? Don’t write in the voice that you think a ‘real writer’ might go for, write in the voice of the story, of the characters. Write as if they’re telling the story themselves, how they would describe it. You have to inhabit the story, be part of it, see things from the interior of the book. Once you get in there, in between the words, you’ll start to see your own voice shine through and move from being influenced by other works to being contained within your own piece.
As I’ve discussed before, there’s no sure fire way to be a successful writer – if there was, everyone would do it. It’s a lot of introspection, a lot of observation and a lot of daydreaming, allowing yourself to get caught up in your imagination. Finding your voice is difficult – it’s something that gets thrown about like it’s a goal to aspire to. But more often than not, you find your voice by not specifically looking for it. Be honest to your work, to the world’s you’re creating, to the characters you’re building, and through that honesty and focus, your voice and style will develop all on it’s own.
Music has always played a big part in my writing. Not so much as I’m writing, as I like to be fully enclosed within the words (sometimes strangled by them), but when I’m thinking, when the story is percolating inside my head, it’s good to have a background theme. I used to live in Kinglake, which is about 40 minutes drive away from anything – a rural town stranded on top of a mountain. The distance meant you had a lot of time alone with your thoughts, travelling from one place to the next. I worked in the city, which is about a 3 hour round trip, and the best thing about it was having that time and space to open your mind, to allow your creative thoughts to drift and evolve. I found music often played a big part in this, certain songs or albums would wriggle into my consciousness and form a soundtrack for my expanding imagination.
While it’s different for everyone, I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite idea accompaniments. If you’ve not heard these or haven’t given them a re-listen in a while, maybe this will motivate you to load them up and let your mind wander through the tracks.
‘Pieces in a Modern Style’ – William Orbit
It takes some people a moment to get their head around this one – William Orbit is an electronic music producer, and he took some of his favourite classical pieces and re-worked them using digital sounds. And some of them, I can get totally lost in – most notably ‘Ogive Number 1’, (track 3). Each track inspires it’s own visual idea in my mind, and it’s a great album to just press play on and go about your thoughts. Try listening to it as you drive through the city at night, or along the freeway at dusk.
‘Untrue’ – Burial
I find all of Burial’s music to be incredibly vibrant, in a visual sense. The titles of his tracks alone inspire certain narrative ideas (‘In McDonald’s’, ‘Homeless’, ‘Night Bus’). There’s a sorrow and detachment in Burial’s music, which is reflected in the man himself (in the few interviews he’s done). But in that too, there’s beauty, something that entices you to take a better look at the world around you, to take in the various elements. It’s the detail that he seems to bring out, the heart of a moment, encapsulated in musical form. Again, best for listening to at night – though I do most of my writing at night, so there may be a reason for that motif.
‘Endtroducing…..’ – DJ Shadow
That’s not a spelling error, the album is called ‘Endtroducing…..’, the diamond in the catalogue of sample genius DJ Shadow. Very few artists come as close to creating a perfect album as Shadow did with this one, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse for his career – he obviously garnered huge amounts of fame and acclaim for it, but everything he’s done since has inevitably been compared to it, and also, inevitably, fallen short. For his part, Shadow has always said he’s produced music he loves, and he’s stood behind every album, regardless of critical sentiment – and some of them do have moments of greatness (his follow-up, ‘The Private Press’, is amazing). But ‘Endtroducing…..’ is such a high benchmark, it’d be near impossible for anyone to live up to. There’re so many great moments on this album, songs that inspire such amazing feeling and nostalgia. It really is on another level, something everyone should experience in a dark room with no other stimuli to distract them. Just listen and feel the emotional depth of the work (Shadow has said he was in despair while making the record, and you can feel those edges of emotion breaching through the beats).
‘Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven!’ – Godspeed You Black Emperor
Really, you can listen to any GYBE album and be transported to another time and place, but there’s something about this album which transcended their other work. It’s by far their best known album, and it definitely does have an extra element that stands out, something that elevates it. Essentially, GYBE create soundtracks – they’ve contributed to several actual movie soundtracks, but even without the movie backing, their music is narrative driven, just, most of the time, without the actual narrative. Some people find it hard to get into, I find it best to just play on low volume to start with and just let it build with your thoughts.
There’s a heap of other albums, tracks and sections that have inspired my work, but these are the ones that stood out the most, and ones I think others might also get something out of. If you’re ever struggling with a section or idea, maybe sit down with one of these and see if they take you out of your day-to-day for a moment, expand your imagination and sense of place.
Do you have any albums or tracks that inspire you? I’d love to know, always keen to try out new music and ideas as I write.