Criticism is a big part of becoming a better writer (or a better anything, really). More specifically, how you deal with criticism plays a major role in your improvement and ultimately, the level of success you’ll achieve with your work. As noted in a recent post, a large part of this is your internal critic, your ability to distance yourself from your work and analyse your output, but external criticism, while sometimes difficult to take, is just as important, and how you interpret feedback, how you respond, is the actionable element of the process, the part you need to excel at.
I was playing basketball once and we were up against the best team in the competition. This was a group of guys who had played at a really high level, much higher than the competition we were in, and they were well better than the rest of our league, won the grand final season after season. I was talking to a teammate before we played them one time and he was like ‘I hate playing this team, coming out on a cold night just to get your ass kicked’. And he was right, it was annoying – it’s no fun going into a match knowing that you’re about to get destroyed – but my view on this was actually the opposite of his. I told him I like playing these guys – the problem is more that we only get to face them once every eight weeks. Playing them was an opportunity, a chance to see how you matched up and to try and work them out, maybe even get a few over on them. Yes, they were going to win, but maybe we could put some pressure on them, hit a few shots, remind them not to leave us open. Playing against them was an opportunity to improve – because if you didn’t, you were just gonna’ get trampled over and over again. You either worked harder or you gave up – it was that simple. I wasn’t prepared to give up and drop down to the next grade below, so the only other option was to take them on, keep trying. The only thing you could do was to keep working to improve.
This is how I view criticism. Critiques force you to improve. Just as an athlete trains and works out and builds herself into a better player, you need to read, you need to edit and you have to put in the work, every day. The more you do this, the more you’ll improve. Criticism is an important element of this, because while it’s not always right, it’s worth taking in, worth listening to, even just as motivation to prove them wrong. The more you face up to criticism and accept it as a challenge, something to improve and aspire to, the better off you’ll be. And here’s the thing – you will improve. You see it all the time in sports, players improve year-on-year, they get better because they have to. Because the only other option is to give up. The only way criticism will defeat you is if you give up. If you accept it, if you agree with it, and if you decide you don’t have the energy to put in the effort anymore, then you’ll have decided your own fate. But if you believe you can, that you want to succeed despite whatever odds you face, then you will. You just need to put in the work. You need to train, analyse, study successful people in your field and build an understanding of what it takes to get to that next level.
Writing is work, it’s consistent effort, consistent reading and practice to understand and improve. The only way you stop improving is when you stop. Period. If you’re happy with where you’re at, that’s fine, no need to put in any more work. If you think those professional writers and authors on bookstore shelves are well above your standard, that they’re too high to even consider comparing your work against, then you’re right. But if you really want to succeed, if you take criticism as a call to action, rather than a cue to shut down, then you will improve. And you’ll keep progressing towards that next level of success.
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.
In my time at writing and literary events, I’ve had opportunity to meet a lot of authors. Most of them are pretty quiet, all of them have been pretty nice, normal people, but a couple have become genuine close friends. It’s great to have a few writer friends, some people who know what it’s like to commit yourself to such a solitary act. It’s also great to have them to bounce ideas off, talk about your frustrations or concerns, just share with folk who’ve gone through a lot of the same things.
One of those people, for me, is James Phelan. I met James at the Newcastle Writers Fesitval in 2006 and we hit it off straight away. What’s always been really interesting for me is James writes in a completely different style to what I do. James’ novels are action/thrillers, and I’ve never been able to get into them. But hearing such a difference perspective on writing and the writing/publishing process has always fascinated me. James is the guy I go to when I need to ramble about writing and the challenges I’m having, the guy I seek out if I don’t know how this or that works in the industry. He’s also a close friend whose always been willing to listen to my ramblings.
I asked James to answer a few questions on writing and his writing process:
When did you decide to pursue a career as a writer?
I was 15 when I knew I wanted to be a novelist but I thought you had to be an old dude to do it. So, I figured I’d give it a try when I retired from a “real job”. I studied architecture and worked for a couple of firms, and by 20 I knew that I had to give writing a serious try. I wrote my first novel by 21, got a job at a newspaper, did an MA and PhD in Lit, and had my first novel published published at 25.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being a full-time writer?
Deciding what to do next. I’ve written series for adults, young adults, and kids, and each has its pros and cons. The adult stuff has complete freedom, YA slightly less so, and the kids stuff has a whole bunch of things that the publishers tell me I can’t do or say on the page. The YA and kids stuff involves way more PR, on average a day per week, and while that’s great in terms of meeting enthusiastic readers, it sucks time away from writing. Publishing books for adults is more about Crystal, Maybachs, diamonds on your timepiece, jet planes… you know the rest. Publishing books for kids sells about 10x more.
What’s the key to ongoing success?
Working hard. It’s easy for a writer to procrastinate, and there’s creative merit in that, sure. I write every day, starting early in the cafe nearby. Depending on which stage of writing I’m at, I’ll be sitting with my notebook or laptop or print out. Every day. That’s the writing side. The business side – you need good agents (and an accountant) who you trust will give you good advice when you need it, look over your contracts, and support you through the process.
Best tip for keeping ideas flowing and avoiding/beating writers’ block?
It’s my belief that if you write every day you’ll keep things moving along. That, and knowing your ending. Whether I’m writing a short story or a 40,000 word novel for kids or 90,000 for adults, I always know how I want my ending to play out. Not so much beat for beat, but in my ending I need to know the feeling that I want to create in the reader, be it comedic, dramatic, tragic etc. Usually by the time I write the ending, it will play out different to how I envisaged, but that value will stay always the same, and by knowing where I was going I managed to get there. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 2007, and it’s all about working hard.
Best tip for writers starting out?
Don’t ever sign a 13 book deal. Only recently have I finished all my contracts, and the freedom is incredible. So, enjoy your freedom, while it lasts. Write what you want to write. Make it shine through revisions, then decide what you’re going to do with it. I still think that agents are worth their commission, so get one of those. How? By getting published. How do you get published? By having an agent, or already being published. I know, right? Oh, and don’t forget to read as much as you can and as broadly as you can. Good luck.
[Note: Not everyone’s as luck to be offered a 13 book deal, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance, but as noted by James, it can be double-edged]
Also, this punch really hurt him.
There’s nothing better than having something you’ve written published. There’s no better feeling than to walk into a bookshop and see your words printed on the pages of a book or magazine. It’s surreal, you remember where you wrote them, how you started with that blank computer screen. And now your words are here, for everyone to see. It’s extremely gratifying to have your work out there – whatever comes next, be it criticism or praise, you’ve already reached a level of personal success.
On that note, I thought it would be worth noting a few places fiction writers can get their work published in Australia. I’ve had the opportunity to work with most of these publications at some stage, and have enjoyed being involved, and I highly encourage all writers to have a look at what they publish and submit your own work.
Voiceworks is produced by Victorian not-for-profit group Express Media and only publishes work by writers under the age of 25. It’s aim is to encourage new voices and provide publishing opportunities – not just for contributors, but for magazine staff also. Express Media has played a part in the development of many published authors and Voiceworks is a respected, quality publication. Writers under 25 should check out their submissions page and send something through – it could be a stepping stone to the next big break (I did a mentorship with Christos Tsiolkas via Express Media, which directly lead to the publication of my novel).
Tincture is a quarterly literary journal which is always on the lookout for new poetry and fiction. I’ve worked with the guys a couple of times and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience – they are knowledgeable, approachable and intelligent. They’ve also published some really great stuff and deserve more exposure – if you haven’t checked them out, go to their website and buy a copy – they’re priced between $5 and $8 and you can download and read them straight away (their Winter 2014 issue is also coming out very soon and features a new piece by me).
The Suburban Review
While still establishing itself somewhat, The Suburban Review is a quality publication. The artwork alone is worth checking out, but the content they’ve published so far has been high quality. Each publication is based on a theme, so you need to check out the submissions page to know what they’re after, but the guys are doing some great work and are gaining recognition for their quality and presentation. A group you want to be involved with.
And speaking of groups you want to get involved with, Stilts are a literary collective based in Melbourne. They produce an amazing looking themed journal, but they also have regular events, columns and themed writing opportunities to get involved with. I’ve had two pieces published as part of the Stilts Monthlies series, which is a micro-fiction series based around a theme, and my experience working with the guys has been excellent, I highly recommend you check out their website and subscribe to their social media channels to stay up to date with what’s happening. Amongst these guys and The Suburban Review team are the literary leaders of tomorrow, worth getting to know them, and getting them to know you.
The Canary Press
Canary Press is probably the best looking literary journal going around. The guys have a distinct flavour, their own way of seeing things, and that’s also reflected in their content selection, but they’ve definitely made a splash on the local literary scene, and it’s worth checking out their submission guidelines and getting involved if you can. They accept pieces through Submittable, which means it can all be done online – easy, no fuss, why wouldn’t you give them a read and see if your work fits?
The Lifted Brow
The guys from The Lifted Brow have established a pretty good profile in the local literary scene, underlined by them creating a whole issue, from scratch, during the ten days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last year. Like Canary Press, they go for a definitive style of work, so you need to grab a previous copy to know how, or if, your work fits, but worth checking out, and a great opportunity if you can get a piece accepted.
The annual ‘Sleepers Almanac’ is one of the most prestigious publications for new writers in Australia. I love what Louise and Zoe do, and I’d get involved with anything of theirs I could – they are both strong supporters of new writers and genuinely love to find new, great stuff. Given the Almanac’s status, it is hard to get in, but their distribution is great and it’ll put your work in front of some of the most influential literary identities in Australia, so worth the effort. I strongly encourage everyone to support Sleepers, not only for your own publishing opportunity, but to help them continue their work in finding and nurturing great local talent.
This is by no means a complete list of the literary opportunities available – there’s also Meanjin, Overland, Best Australian Short Stories – there’s a heap of places you can submit to. It always worth checking out what they publish – if it’s a guest editor, look them up and see what they write or what they’ve edited before to get an understanding of which of your pieces will be a good fit – and always follow the submission guidelines and ensure your work is error-free. It’s important that all writers get involved in their local literary communities and groups – obviously the main aim is to get your work out there, but above and beyond that, you’re contributing to your local literary scene and helping build that local culture. The more we can build it, the more writers will be willing to get involved and the more young writers will want to take up pens and put down their own stories. As a writer, you can play a significant part in the growth of your own local community by getting involved. And the connections you can make, the readers you can reach, these can all have long term benefits for your own writing career.
Here’s a important fact: The publishing industry is changing. What started with Amazon selling books at increasingly lower prices has now extended with e-books – Kindle sales in 2013 were up 26% on the previous year, eBook sales, which accounted for 0.1% of total book sales in 2006, now make up more than 20%. The change in consumer behaviour has lead to the demise of many booksellers, and I’m sure everyone’s felt that glint of sadness at seeing your local bookshop gutted , the words ‘Closing Down’ plastered across the front window. The industry’s making less money than it once was, and the difficult thing for writers is, less money in the industry means less money to put into projects, making it even harder to get your book published by any of the major players.
You can see a similar impact in the film industry – the squeeze on revenue leads to more producers looking to safer bets. In the 90s, there were more arthouse films, more opportunities for up-and-coming film makers. But as tickets sales have declined – whether due to advances in home theatre or the rise in movie piracy – those investing in films have become cautious. That’s why you see so many sequels and big budget remakes being made – they’re safe bets, they know there’s an audience for them. It doesn’t matter if you think Transformers is total crap, it makes the studios alot of money. We’re seeing this happening in publishing also – while there are still great, exciting and fresh new works being produced, the reduction in retail outlets has seen more emphasis on commercial thrillers and romance books, safe bets that make the publishers money. This atmosphere makes it increasingly difficult for unknown writers to cut through and get the majors to take a risk on your work. On one hand, it’s a sad thought, it was hard enough to get attention before, but there is another aspect in the shift in media consumption that can help, a way authors can help themselves, make themselves more enticing and even build an audience all on their own. Social media has changed the way people communicate, changed the approach to marketing and publication. While opportunities in traditional publishing are getting tougher to come by, the opportunity to build your own brand is greater than ever.
Utilising social media is a must for would be authors – here’s a few notes on the why and how of social for writers.
* You need to get yourself a blog. Obviously I’ve got an inclination towards WordPress, but there are a heap of options out there, and a heap of ways to leverage a blog to build your own audience. Writing is what you do, so you should be sharing it, and a blog is a quick, simple way to build awareness of your work and establish a digital showcase for all your projects.
* Join online writers’ communities. As social media facilitates greater connection throughout the world, it also allows every individual to have a voice. As a writer, this means you have more opportunity than ever to get involved in writers’ groups and communities and build a following that’s interested in what you have to say and what you produce. At the very least, being involved in the various social media communities will give you free education on writing and what’s happening in the industry. The amount of insight and info available is staggering, if you know the right places to look.
* All writers should sign up to Google+. Google+ has a heap of highly active communities, particularly for writers. The learning curve can be steep – G+ is different to other social networks – but the platform’s biggest strength is it’s communities. That’s where you can make connections and find like-minded people to learn from and share ideas with. Being on Google+ also allows you to sign up for Google Authorship, which has it’s own benefits for writers of all types.
* Twitter is an amazingly powerful tool. I know a lot of people are not sold on Twitter, not convinced that you can make much of an impact with 140 characters, but Twitter is the best tool for making connections and sharing your content. Use Twitter’s search function to find other authors and writer-types and follow them, as well as literary publications and organisations that hold writing competitions. Use applications like Hashtagify to locate relevant hashtags which you can use to find active literary conversations, as well as using them to gain exposure for your posts (the tags #writing and #amwriting are very popular and will help others locate your content). Find out what sources publishing industry folk are reading and see if you can get content published on the blogs they’re looking at to raise your profile (there’s an application called Twiangulate which can help you locate the main sources that specific users are looking at). Find Twitter chats on writing and take part if you can (great list of Twitter chats here). Twitter is also great for sharing your content – every time you publish a new blog post or announce that you’ve had something published, post it to Twitter, use relevant hashtags, and track any shares of your content with a management tool like HootSuite. From here, you can thank people for sharing your stuff, start conversations, and make connections that will help build your profile and establish your position. Writing the content is only one part of the equation – you need to actively promote and engage with your audience to build your presence.
* Share content on Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook. Some people have a heavy reliance on Facebook, but I generally only use it for personal purposes these days, so my view on it may differ from yours, but you should always share your blog posts and updates on all these channels. Tumblr provides an opportunity to reach a new audience, with effective and engaging presentation options to use. Pinterest, while it is a visual-based platform, also gives you a way to reach a whole new group of people. Post interesting images and link them back to your blog, pin new blog posts with relevant hashtags (most of the major networks facilitate hashtag use, except LinkedIn). There are unique audiences on each platform, it’s in your interests to maximise opportunities by sharing to more networks, but research what’s working and where to find your target audience on each. All social platforms have different best preactises, best to learn and utilise these as you go.
* Investigate other platforms. Medium is a publishing platform which is focussed on writing over all else – the design is simple, the process is easy, the visual focus is the words. The groups for fiction work are very specific and there’s a lot of writing discussion being had, so long as you can find the right categories for your work. Definitely worth checking out.
These are just a few notes on the possible options for authors, and the ways in which writers can build their brand through social media. Taking these steps can open doors you never thought possible, and at worst, it can’t hurt to build a following. If you can establish a group of engaged followers who’ll share and amplify your message, it can only assist in building your status as a writer. Some people don’t think they have the time, some feel the learning curve is too steep, but as more people conduct an increasing amount of their daily interactions online, having a presence on social media is only going to become more important. Social gives everyone the opportunity to establish their skills and expertise, ways for writers, in particular, to showcase their talents and marketability. It’s worth investing the time to raise your profile and build connections – those actions could help you find new avenues to publishing success – and as the publishing industry evolves, you might just find yourself at the forefront of the next literary frontier.
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.
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.
In news that came as a huge surprise, twenty six has been listed as a finalist in the Australian Writers’s Centre ‘Best Australian Blogs 2014‘ competition. This is a massive honour – I entered my blog with the faintest hope that it might be good enough. To make the final list is huge, and I give my many thanks to the judges.
Good luck to all the finalists in the ‘Words and Writing’ category, honoured to be named amongst you.
I recently watched the film ‘One Chance’, a film based on the life of British mobile phone salesman turned opera star Paul Potts. If you’re not aware of who Potts is, he won the 2007 iteration of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ after he blew everyone away with his pitch perfect performances on the show, the first one, in particular, gathering him worldwide attention.
Like Susan Boyle, Potts is a poster-child for the talent show format – an unknown, unrecognised talent plucked from obscurity and given a chance to shine on TV’s biggest stage. There seems to be one of these stories in every season of these shows, and they are great – I challenge anyone to remain unmoved by Potts’ initial performance (above), where the judges had clearly expected way less from this unconfident, overweight and plain-looking gent standing before them. Potts’ rise to fame is probably the most successful transition of it’s kind, given Boyle’s challenges with fame ever since. It’s a great story that deserves to be told, and ‘One Chance’ is a solid film, though not quite as good as it had the potential to be.
The main issue I had with the film was the portrayal was a little too light. That was intended, they wanted to hit as wide a demographic as possible, so it needed to be a feelgood film, but the greatest aspect of Potts’ rise was encapsulated in that first performance – you could see in his body language and the expression on his face, this was a man who’d been kicked one too many times. He’d lost faith in himself, in everything, you could see that he was bracing himself for more anguish. I didn’t feel the film truly captured this, the defeated nature that Potts exhibited – James Corden, who plays Potts, was very good, but he couldn’t quite capture that uncomfortable nature exhibited by Potts in real life. This was the key reason why Potts’ story was so great, because you could see that he’d almost given up – but then he won. It’s a great example of persistence in doing what you love in the face of constant opposition.
But the key message I took from the film was the importance of having support from your loved ones in what you do. All through the film, Potts’ dad is telling him to give up on his dreams of being a singer, to face reality and get on with life like everyone else. There’s a scene where he’s really down, where nothing’s going his way and his wife realises that if he can no longer hold onto the dream of being a performer, that he really sees no point to his life. It’s part of who he is, he needs to do it, needs to hold onto it in some way or he just falls flat, lays on the couch, gives up. I think that’s true in everything – if you’re not true to yourself and not pursuing what you’re passionate about, at least in some form, your life purpose can be eclipsed, and you face a dreary reality of just being, just doing what you have to do. A life of obligation more than exploration of being alive. That’s no way to be, you always need to keep searching for what makes you happy, what drives you as a person, and you need to keep chasing it – sure, there’s certain things you have to accept, and yes, you’ll probably have to work a job that’s not exactly aligned with your dream path, but as long as you continue to pursue your passions in some form, as long as you have the support of people close to you to do that, that’s a big key to maintaining balance. And the moments of clarity you can get from pursuing your dreams make all the effort worthwhile. People should never give up on chasing what it is they’re most passionate about. Everyone has something.
And as a parent, it also underlined to me the need to support your kids in everything they do. If they feel strongly about something, parents need to be supportive, foster it as much as they can. Your mother and father have a profound influence on your psychological make-up, just having them back you, being aware that they’ll be behind you no matter what, it’s such a huge pillar of strength. It can change your life. My parents have always been supportive of me, and while there are certain realities we have to face, I’ve always known they’re behind me and they’ll be there for me, no matter how unrealistic my goals. Knowing that I’ve made them proud at certain times has been one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life.
Stick with what you love, find that thing that makes you happy, and surround yourself with people who won’t ask ‘why?’, but ‘why not?’. It’s one of the keys to maintaining happiness in life and feeling complete in everything you do.
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?