One of the biggest factors contributing to the success of your writing is how good of an internal critic you are. How objectively can you view your own work? How much are you able to put yourself into the mind of your readers when you edit and re-write? This is crucial and probably the most significant difference between a good writer and a great one – it’s one thing to be able to write a story, it’s another to view that story as someone else would, and to be able to cut and edit your sentences from that point of view. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help improve your own editing process.
1. Let everything you write rest before editing
Nothing increases objectivity like distance – it’s like when you end a relationship and it’s devastating and you’re a wreck, but then over time you start to see things more clearly, see the issues and problems that existed beneath your rose-coloured memories. Writing is the same – you’ve spent a long time thinking about the piece, you’ve worked on it in your head, it’s kept you up at night going over it and some of those sentences have arrived to you in such pristine fashion, there’s no way they won’t make the final cut. Once you’ve let something sit, you’re able to review it without that level of emotional attachment. The longer you can leave it, the less likely you’re going to be blinded by personal connection and the more likely you’ll be able to view it as just another piece of writing – and that’s the best way to edit. If you can read your own work as if it’s someone else’s, like you would any other piece, then you can truly unlock your objectivity and see flaws for what they are. And then you can correct them.
2. If your mind’s drifting as you re-read, there’s a problem
I’ve spoken to writers who’ve justified this, to some degree, by saying they might have trouble focussing on the piece because they wrote it, they’re intimately familiar with the story. If you created it, it’s going to be harder for you to be excited or engaged, right? In the vast majority of cases, I don’t believe that way of thinking is correct. If your thoughts are wandering as you read, it’s likely your readers are going to drift too, and if they drift, then your work hasn’t connected and you’ll lose them very quick. Don’t dismiss flow issues or engagement lapses, they’re all indicative of problems you need to, at the least, re-assess. If a section loses you, you need to review the structure and understand why the sequence seems off. You can go crazy on this, I know, you can get hung up on small issues that’ll never feels quite right, but it’s important that you do investigate and understand any areas where things don’t sit as they should. It’s like when you get feedback – you take in all feedback, listen to what the person has to say, then you re-read the section. If it communicates what you intended, that’s fine, but even if you don’t agree with their criticism, it’s worth re-assessing, ensuring the message is delivered as you want.
3. Editing is going to take you way more time than writing
If it doesn’t, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re not maximising the potential of your work. I was reading an interview with a musician once who talked about how he’ll do more than 50 vocal takes for every track he creates to ensure that he gets the best version for his final piece. This is ‘the work’, as he explained it, and he’d seen many musicians who weren’t willing to do ‘the work’ fall by the wayside because they would do three takes, feel one of them was perfect, then want to move on. Attention to detail is the difference between good and great. This is true in everything, but very much so in writing. How many times has a small error in a piece stood out to you? How many times have you seen an error in a piece by an accomplished writer? Attention to detail is a sign of professionalism, and while people can get over a minor mistake here or there (everyone makes them, I probably have in this post), you don’t want to give your readers anything that could divert their attention from the piece. A small mistake is like a bump in the road, it can distract you from the main narrative momentarily. Too many bumps, and they become the narrative themselves. You should always edit, then edit, then edit again before you even think about releasing your work, because you’ll always, always, always find issues, no matter how naturally gifted you think you are. Always.
Accepting that editing is just as significant a part of the writing process is important, but ideally, you also need to make yourself just as excited about the editing process as the writing itself. How? By thinking of your readers, by keeping in mind why you’re doing ‘the work’. Because the better it is, the better it’ll be received and the more likely you’ll reach a wider audience. And it can be an engaging process – you’ve written your first draft, but now you get to go back and find ways to improve it, to make it even better. That’s genuinely exciting, it’s great to read through and find ways you can make sentences better, to think over progressions and words and improve the final product. You are not only the writer of each piece you create, you’re the first reader, and you have the chance to shape that story into what you want. How many times have you watched a movie and thought ‘it would’ve been better if…’ The more objective you can be, the more you can actually do this with your own drafts.
4. Is that how you would say it?
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to ‘write like you talk’. And like most tips (e.g. ‘write what you know’) there’s really more of a middle ground truth to this. Definitely, you should review your writing and ensure it flows naturally. The reader will have a voice in their head as they read, and if that voice sounds inauthentic or starts saying things that stumble in the flow, it’s another bump in the road that could, potentially, turn them off. I highly recommend reading your work out loud to ensure the flow is right – it’ll highlight things no other method can, and the more you do it, the more your internal monologue gets attuned to sentence flow, and you’ll make fewer mistakes in your initial drafts. But you need to also ensure that you’re communicating effectively for each piece, which is not always exactly like you talk. For example, if you’re writing fiction, it’s crucial that you write how the characters would talk, not you. For non-fiction, you can’t use slang as you might in regular conversation for every piece. There’s a level of self-awareness required to accompany this advice – it’s not necessarily how you would talk, it’s how you would talk to the intended audience of the piece.
The most common errors I see on this front are things like ‘you are’ when it would read better as ‘you’re’, ‘it is’ instead of ‘it’s’. These types of common contractions are very much in tune with how we communicate – a simple sentence like ‘it is crucial that you are aware of this’ is grammatically correct, but no one would say it like that in real life. Your words are translated into a voice in the reader’s mind, and it’s important you communicate like a real person to avoid any chance of losing their attention.
Being able to distance yourself and view your own work with a critical eye is integral to your success as a writer. If you write one draft, don’t re-read, and send it out, I guarantee you will fail. No one, no writer in the world gets it perfect in one try. You need to embrace editing and improve your self-awareness by benchmarking your work against the best (as a comparison, not in admiration) and come to it as the first reader of your content. The better you can do this, the more likely you’ll make your work the best it can possibly be.
In 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.
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.
At one stage, I was a really big fan of The Streets. For those unfamiliar, ‘The Streets’ was the stage name of British cockney rapper Mike Skinner. Skinner became known on the back of his excellent debut album ‘Original Pirate Material’ and the single ‘Weak Become Heroes’.
There was nothing technically amazing about The Streets’ music – the beats are somewhat generic, the almost spoken word vocal delivery is not immediately stand-out. What Skinner was able to do better than most was capture a moment in time. Every song on Original Pirate Material had a feel to it, a vivid sense of time and place. You could smell the rain soaked concrete, feel the breeze pushing past along the London streets. Skinner was more storyteller than rapper, and no one could tell a story in quite the same way.
He reinforced this with his second, and by far most popular, album, ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’. If you’ve not heard this album, I highly recommend you go check it out, particularly if you’re a writer. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is a concept album – Skinner documents his entire relationship with his ex-girlfriend from start to finish, stretching from track to track. We share the elation and excitement of the beginning, the complacent beauty of normality, then the sadness of the eventual end. Every element is so familiar, so real, and each track carries an emotional depth and resonance, made all the better by Skinner’s knack for capturing the moment. There’s a section in one track, when his girlfriend is breaking up with him, that just hurts so much:
I can change and I can grow or we could adjust
The wicked thing about us is we always have trust
We can even have an open relationship, if you must
I look at her she stares almost straight back at me
But her eyes glaze over like she’s lookin’ straight through me
Then her eyes must have closed for what seems an eternity
When they open up she’s lookin’ down at her feet
There’s the desperation – we can have an open relationship if that will keep you with me – then the realisation that it’s all over, told in Skinner’s unique, simple style. A Grand Don’t Come for Free is more akin to reading a novel than listening to an album, it needs to be experienced from beginning to end to fully appreciate it’s excellence.
Things changed by the third album. While his clear strength was in telling stories to which we could all relate, the success of A Grand Don’t Come for Free meant his life totally changed. He’d become a full fledged celebrity, regularly appearing in tabloids and gossip mags, holding hands with this or that pop starlet, hanging out at VIP events. His success ultimately turned his strength into weakness – he was still writing about his life like always, we could just no longer relate. The album ‘The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living’ had some classic Streets moments, but it wasn’t the same. The title track had Skinner lamenting the many downsides of fame, like the costs of making music videos and complications of putting on stage shows. These were real things, real issues that he was experiencing, but it was pretty hard for listeners to align with the view that his career, which had granted him massive amounts of cash and seen him invited to perform all over the world – all while doing what he loved – that the downsides to that lifestyle could be all that bad. Another track looks at the difficulties of picking up famous women – again, something he’d experienced, but the difference between his reality and the listener’s created a gap, a distance from the material. It once again highlighted that The Streets’s appeal was more in story than in music, and Skinner experienced a significant drop-off in fan support as a result.
He was never able to fully recover after that – Skinner released two more albums under The Streets’ moniker, ‘Everything is Borrowed’ (on which, Skinner pledged not to reference modern life on any of the tracks, a response to criticism of the previous album) and ‘Computers and Blues’. As with The Hardest Way to Make and Easy Living, there are some great moments on both of these albums (and Skinner’s musical ability increases markedly through each), but he’d lost that edge, that storytelling dynamic that made his work so great. A mixture of life changes and criticism seemed to pretty much kill off The Streets as a project, which Skinner acknowledged by retiring the name after his fifth full-length release.
The story of The Streets highlights one of the inherent dangers of fame – the more successful you are, the higher the risk you can lose touch with your audience. But above that, Skinner’s story highlights one very important element for writers that can often be overlooked. The strength of The Streets was that it told Skinner’s story, from his perspective. And that was perfect, it was real, something with which we could all relate. The rise of Mike Skinner highlights the fact that you don’t need explosions or car chases to gain an audience. Your experience, your viewpoint on life, no one has that but you – that unique insight is interesting. A story doesn’t have to be exciting or amazing to be resonant. A key strength of storytelling is honesty, capturing the feeling of the moment in an honest and real way. In Skinner’s case, those common life experiences were far more resonant than the fast-paced world of being a rock star – that’s not to say his experiences with fame were any less honest, but his story was so much stronger when we could be part of it, when we could all relate and share in the familiarity of those moments.
People relate to what they know and understand, they need a way into the narrative. Even if your story is sci-fi or fantasy, we still need to be able to connect with the stakes, understand the emotion of each scene. The development of flesh and bone characters is critical, and those characters are borne from your knowledge of real people, real situations. Writing is about exposing yourself, sharing what you’ve felt in similar circumstance, creating the experience of being there, in the moment. You need real relationships with your characters, real emotions, those are the details that fuel the connections in the reader’s mind – the more readers can relate, the more they’ll be drawn in. Keeping it real, keeping it familiar, capturing experiences based on your unique perspective, this is how you develop fully rounded characters. This is how you share not just words with your readers, but experiences and create real life within the confines of the fictional page.
There are three things in life that always seem to be the source of conflict and misery, three things that I see happening on a daily basis that irk me and cause much shaking of the head. These are things that I can’t sympathise with or reconcile, and, coincidentally, these three can also be the killers of great writing.
The three things that always carry with them the potential for issue and angst are laziness, ignorance and selfishness. Here’s how they relate in a writing context:
Laziness is pretty self-explanatory, you have to get yourself moving, you have to do the work to see the results. You can’t expect to sit down at your PC, write a few thousand words, then send it off and let the publisher bidding war to begin – this happens to no one. As noted in a previous post, writing is work, and you have to do it everyday. You have to read, you have to learn how to communicate your story, it takes time to get it right. If you’re truly committed and the story is something you have to get out, you’ll always find the time. You’ll make the time. That’s not to say the cause of incomplete work is always laziness, I realise people have a lot going on in their lives, but laziness is indeed a killer for writers. If you’re lazy, you won’t start the work. If you’re lazy, you won’t finish. If you’re lazy, you won’t do the required research and editing and re-writing. Laziness is not an option for writers, you just have to get it done. No one’s going to make you sit down and write, you’re the one who has to push yourself. Without the effort, you can’t achieve the result.
Ignorance is something we all see everyday, people ignorant of their impact on others, ignorant of how their actions affect other people. Ignorance is a killer in writing because you have to be aware. You have to understand what works and doesn’t work in your writing, you have to take on board feedback and asses your work to ensure it aligns with your goals. I’ve seen a heap of writers who’ll get feedback, totally ignore it, then hand their work to someone else, hoping they’ll get a result more to their liking from them. You can’t flat out ignore feedback. Maybe someone tells you something you don’t agree with, maybe someone criticises you unfairly – my general rule is that anytime something is raised I’ll re-read it. If it communicates what I wanted it to, then it’s fine. But if more than one person highlights the same issue, then it needs to be re-worked. If you want to improve as a writer, you have to listen to the feedback, you have to hear what people are saying. Your aim is to create something undeniable, something so great that even your biggest critics will have to concede that it’s well done. To do that, you have to listen, you have to read, and you have to know what works.
Selfishness in a writing context is getting too caught up in your own world. Writing is solitary, self-involved for the most part, and sometimes we can get so tied up in it that it’s all we want to talk about and all we want others to talk about in our presence. Sometimes it leads to you dominating conversation in order to keep it tied to what you need, pushing people for feedback on your work. The risk of being selfish is you can get stuck on other people’s opinions, you can procrastinate, waiting for feedback, and you can turn helpful readers away by pushing too hard for commentary. And the essential point here is, you need to know your work. You definitely need readers, you need that feedback from as many sources as you can get, but you need to know what you’re trying to achieve first. Once you’ve written, re-read, edited, re-written – once you’ve done all you can to ensure your story is as close as you’re able to achieve by yourself to what you want to communicate, then you can seek readers – but always understand, having anyone read your work is something you should be grateful for. They are taking time out of their day for you, for your story. Even the worst feedback is worth hearing, worth taking in – maybe it gives you nothing, but maybe it makes you re-read a section and you find a way to improve the way it’s written. All your readers are valuable, and you need to be careful not to push them away or argue with their perspective. Let them read it in their own time, let them say what they want to say – some will have alot of comments, some nothing at all, and that’s fine, so long as you know what it is you’re trying to achieve. Their opinions serve as a guide, a reminder, a new perspective on your work. You need to let them read and think it over, then come back to you when they’re ready – hopefully, your story is so compelling that they can’t help but respond, but not everyone will see it that way. Don’t be selfish, don’t get caught up in the need for response. You are your chief motivator.
The one other thing that always stands out in day to day life is people being unkind. This doesn’t have a writing application, as such, but something worth noting in your regular interactions. Don’t be unkind, don’t be mean for the sake of it. Every evil action in the world is caused by some level of unkindness, moments in people’s lives that could have been avoided. There’s no need to be unkind, everyone’s got their reasons for doing what they do. There’s no reason to contribute to negativity any further.
I was once asked for my thoughts on writing controversial content, where you balance between ‘confronting’ and ‘gratuitous’. My novel ‘Rohypnol’ has a lot of graphic scenes, and it’s something I was criticised for in a few reviews, that it was gratuitous, violent for the sake of it. Some felt there was no need to go into that level of detail, that much of the horror could’ve been implied and left to the imagination. But I disagree. There was a definitive purpose to what I wrote, and there is, I believe, a reason why people need to include such detail, where warranted, within the context of their work.
One of the inspirations behind ‘Rohypnol’ was a French film called ‘Irreversible’, directed by Gaspar Noe. Noe is well-known for his controversial films and has received much the same criticism, that he glorifies violence, rather than exposes us to it. This is most evident in the extreme violence of ‘Irreversible’. In the opening scenes, there are two guys looking for another man, called La Tenia. They’re in a nightclub, looking for Le Tenia and (if you ever want to watch the film, stop reading now) when they do locate him, they get into a fight and kill him. More specifically, they kill him by beating his head in with a fire extinguisher. And you see every single hit, every detail. You feel everything in this scene. There is no escaping the violence – it’s sickening, it’s so bad you have to look away. It’s horrific and it just gets worse and worse. The viewer has no context for this scene, it’s two guys getting in a fight with another. There’s no lead-up or backstory, you’re just thrown in. The violence is the most extreme you’ll ever see on film, everything about the scene is horrific – the camera moves and swirls round amidst strobing nightclub lights and grinding bass music. The whole sequence is designed to make you sick. Not a great way to start a film, right? Why would a director want to make the audience ill, especially so early in the film?
There is method to Noe’s madness. The film is called ‘Irreversible’ because the storyline moves in reverse – we start with the horrific ending to tragic story. The point Noe’s making is that violence cannot be justified. Responding to violence with violence is not an answer, in any context – but that is exactly what Hollywood films glorify. We’ve grown up seeing revenge films, feeling for the wronged man, siding with him and hoping he’ll make the bad guys pay in the end. That’s justice, that’s what we want to see – that’s what we want to do when we’re wronged. And that’s wrong. That shouldn’t be the way violence is presented. It’s not an answer, it doesn’t solve problems. Noe’s mission with ‘Irreversible’ was to display, in graphic form, what’s wrong with Hollywood action films. Had the movie played in chronological order, you’d have seen that La Tenia had brutally raped and murdered the wife of one of the men. You’d see this, and you’d side with the man, then when they did finally catch up with La Tenia in the nightclub, you’d want him to get killed. You’d want to see him pay. But there’s no right in responding with further violence.
Noe set out to make the film as uncomfortable and violent as he could to show what violence is really like – in that scene, where you want to look away, where many people walked out of the cinema – that’s how you would feel if that situation where to happen in real life. Violence is not ‘cool’, there’s no shotgun-like sound when someone punches someone in the face. There’s no good guys and bad guys in real life. Violence is horrific and frightening – it’s something everyone wants to avoid at all costs. That’s the point of the scene. You don’t want to see this. You don’t want to condone this. We should do all we can to avoid this sort of thing happening. Seeing someone get their head beat in would affect you in ways you can’t even imagine, it would traumatise you for life – yet in most films, people get revenge, blow people up, shoot them in the head and we get nothing. It’s left to our imaginations, and we don’t picture the extreme violence that actually occurred. We just note that the bad guy got killed. Case closed. Hollywood films should not portray violence as a light, humourous, nothing event that just happens. Because that, by extension, is what we’re teaching kids. If more films portrayed violence as Noe does in ‘Irreversible’, I’ll bet you see such acts of violence reduce. Everytime I see another report of violence in nightclubs, of stabbings and glassings and beating. When I read reports of attacks getting more brutal, kids more devoid of consequence, I always think of ‘Irreversible’. Honestly, it should be on the high school curriculum.
‘Irreversible’ played a big part in the way I portrayed violence in my book. My intent was not to be gratuitous – and I absolutely don’t believe it ever crosses over that line – my goal was to be honest to the story and scenes within it. If you would feel horror, dread, happiness, joy – your responsibility as the author is to communicate that, translate those emotions into the body of the reader. Definitely, I could have left the action out, left the violence implied, but that’s not the point. If monsters like the characters I’d created actually did exist, if they committed horrendous acts like the ones presented, then feeling the detail is important. Yes, it’s confronting, yes it’s shocking, but we need to be confronted and shocked sometimes, we need to face the reality of violence as it is. This is the only way people will ever understand the impacts, the horrific nature of such crimes. And by making people aware, hopefully that inspires more people to avoid it in real life. We shouldn’t, as writers, play down violence, leave it as something that just happens, then move on with the rest of the story. If something terrible occurs, it’s important to be honest, show the necessary detail in order to make the reader feel what you felt when you wrote it. This remains true in all writing – be honest to the story you’ve created, express the reality of your world. What’s happening needs to be real – so be real, be honest with the detail, and never shy away from saying what needs to be said. Don’t be constrained by how people might respond, how people might feel, just get it down, write fuelled by your emotion, and let the story dictate the detail necessary to communicate each scene.
One thing that all writers need to be aware of is that writing is work. No one has ever sat down, typed up their piece, sent it off, then rode the serpent of success all the way to the bank. You get better at writing by writing, everyday. You achieve success by reading as much as you can, researching, taking on criticism – always learning and improving. Every rejection is part of the work. Every failure is part of the work. All of these things are part of the journey towards improvement and success – you can’t achieve what you want from your writing without failing every now and then. Your best work is driven by emotion, so you’re going to make mistakes as you rush to get your ideas out – and it’s often when you’re riding the edge of your comfort zone that you really hit the right notes, so you need to push yourself, you need to make mistakes and get criticised for it, you need to cop a rejection letter every now and then. It should drive you on, not knock you down.
Don’t ever be afraid to send your stuff out or refrain because of what someone else might think – everyone mis-steps, everyone makes a fool of themselves every now and then – this is part of the work also. Whenever I get rejected, my internal response is to make them regret it. I’ll succeed and show them that they were wrong. And it’s often not your writing that has been rejected anyway, it just didn’t fit what that editor wanted for that publication at that time. So take it in – no problem, wasn’t for them – show them what they missed out on by succeeding elsewhere.
The one thing you need to dedicate yourself to is becoming the best writer you can be. I’m always committed to being better, to reading more, to finding out what works and what doesn’t, and improving myself. I don’t want to be another good writer, I want to be the best writer there is. I want people to know my work, relate to it, to feel what I felt when I wrote it. To do that, I need to keep improving, keep working. The more you write, the easier the sentences flow.
Now I’m never going to be the best writer there is, but that’s not the point. If you don’t aim to be the best, what are you aiming for? If you aren’t aiming to maximise your abilities to their best potential, then what’s the plan? Just try your best and see what happens? Having a high expectation of your work is what will push you on and drive you to improve – I may not be the best, but the more I work towards that goal, the closer I can get to it, and the closer I get to it, the better I become. Maybe I’m not the best, but I’ll be better than I was yesterday, and I’ll be better again tomorrow, and the next day, and every day for as long as I can put words to paper. And that’s the goal, to always be improving. The goal needs to be unattainable, it needs to be too high to ever meet, like a rabbit skimming out ahead of the greyhounds. I aim to be the best, I intend to be the best writer you’ll ever meet. Maybe I won’t be, but I’ll keep working anyway.
Writing is work, it’s constant – like anything, it’s about practice, passion and persistence. Ultimate success won’t come easy, but it shouldn’t. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an achievement, right?
Sometimes I worry that I’ll never complete my second novel. Sometimes I think I peaked with my first book and I’ll never achieve success of that level again. Sometimes I dread checking my e-mails in case there’s one from my publisher, asking how it’s going. Sometimes I think I’ll run out of ideas, that my sentences and structures are not good enough and never will be. Sometimes I hate the day. Sometimes I just want to close the door and go to bed and sleep it off, start again tomorrow. Sometimes I get angry when I look at myself in the mirror. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a good enough Dad, not helping my kids develop and grow, not doing enough for them. Sometimes I wish I could take them away from society and raise them without the influence of other people. Sometimes I feel hopeless and useless and like I’ll never be truly successful. Sometimes I worry about what sort of life I’ll give my family. Sometimes I avoid looking at my bank balance. Sometimes I wonder what people will say about me when I die. Sometimes I wish I was a better person.
Sometimes I realise the worst could happen, but it hasn’t. Sometimes I think that everything could fall apart, or, it could get better. Sometimes I realise how bright the sun is, how the wind pushes through the heads of the tall trees. Sometimes I sit and watch my son playing, when he doesn’t know I’m looking, and I marvel at how perfect he is and wonder about the things he’ll do in his life. How I’ll always be there for him no matter what. Sometimes I hold my daughter’s hand and it feels like I’m the most important person in the world. Sometimes my wife will touch me on the back and I feel so lucky to have someone believe in me. Sometimes I experience something that’s so resonant, so in tune with who I am, that it feels like the pieces of the world have fallen into place. Sometimes I connect with people that make me realise everything is possible. Sometimes, most times, I believe in myself and know, not think, that everything will be fine.
Because life isn’t just what happens, it’s what you bring to it. Everyone has doubts and insecurities, it’s how you absorb them that defines who you are. How you see yourself influences how others see you, so if you can’t be confident in who you are, that’s what you’ll project. Sure, you’re not perfect, but neither is anyone else. Yeah, maybe you don’t feel confident today, but why not? Why not choose how you approach the world. Other people will respond how they decide, but they don’t define you. You do. You decide how you live your life.
Look at what you have, not what you don’t have. See what’s possible, not what’s in the way. Know the people that are important to you. Know who you are to them. They’re the ones. They are the ones you need to show the way. Show them that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. Show them you can choose how you approach the world. And go do it.
There’s nothing else you need.
A great place to write is the airport. It sounds weird at first, but it actually makes perfect sense. Chuck Palahniuk noted this in an interview at some stage (I can’t find the link), that he likes to write in airport lounges, in amongst the travellers and tourists. You get to eavesdrop on conversations and hear how people actually talk – which, of course, you can do in most public places – but the thing that makes airports different is the feel, that sense of adventure that hangs in the air.
People at airports are excited. They’re headed off on an adventure or returning from one. They’re saying goodbye to loved ones or anticipating being reunited. The atmosphere in an airport is like no other, that tangible sense of everything being alive, on the edge of a greater emotional high any moment. There’s no place where there’s more raw feeling in a room – tension, excitement, nervousness. People returning to cold grey days in shorts and beach tans. Businessmen embracing their young kids, the little ones in pyjamas and slippers.
What you do is you find a place in an airport lounge – you can’t go through to the international terminal without a ticket, but you can sit outside the arrivals amongst the families (some of them, you can tell, haven’t seen each other for a long time). If you check the arrivals, you can find the gates where people are arriving from holiday destinations – those are more alive than business travellers. You can move around from area to area, get a feel for the different aspects. Then later, you can go out to where the planes come into land – in Melbourne there’s a car park for the plane spotters to stand and feel the rush of the 747s as they descend to the runway. It’s pretty amazing, seeing a flying plane up that close. There’s even a food van permanently stationed there, it’s that popular a location.
As writers, you need to feel the emotion of others, to empathise and see things from the perspective of other people. Airports are great for getting a sense of this. People at the edge of their emotions are more open, unable to contain themselves within normal social restrictions. Think about when someone cries – you can feel their pain, as if they’d just given you a direct line into them. It’s not what they want you to see, not the persona they want to project. This is who they really are. And for that moment, you can connect, be on the same emotional plane. You’ve been there before, you know what it’s like to be at that overwhelming stage where you can no longer contain yourself. Those times, where emotions are pushed to the surface, are where you really understand our connection, what makes us all human. How we’re all fundamentally alike, we’re all doing what we can. Those moments are crucial for writers, being in those moments, feeling them fully. This is how you get to the heart of your writing. This is how you understand what resonates, how your readers feel. How your characters will respond to this or that situation. You need to know people, what motivates them, what makes them tick. And to do that, you need to understand yourself, how you would feel if you were this person and this was happening to you.
Shared experiences of strong emotions allow you to get a feel for that moment, to connect with the people around you.
Airports always awaken memories in me. Places I’ve been, moments with friends. People are experiencing that same excitement in every moment, and being around it, there’s a real buzz, and real sense of shared existence. That’s what makes writing in airports so interesting. Being there with them, seeing the peaks of emotion, touching at the surface. It’s exciting and awakening and equalising, all at the same time. And it can open your mind to all kinds of creative streams.
Mostly I write best at night, when the house is silent. I’ve always done this – for a while, my girlfriend (now wife) worked nights, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to stay up in the study, all the lights switched off, just the monitor screen to light the way.
When I needed a break, I’d take walks. I liked doing this in summer, when people’s windows were all open to the night and you could catch little pieces of intimate conversations drifting on the wind. You’d hear TV voices whispering, the sound of a baby crying through the streets. I liked to just walk along beneath the street lights and feel the rush of the breeze.
There’s something about the night. The stillness, maybe, the isolation from the waking world. Maybe an escape, of sorts, being free to wander around the world without complication. It was like whole sections of the city were abandoned, waiting for you to find them. The streetlights curving round corners in continuous streams.
I’d always found it easier to block everything out at night, to connect with the words on deeper level than just grammar or logic. When you can see that next level, what’s happening between the words, and you can start to understand the depth of each sentence, the perfect flow and placement of each word. How the detail connect in the readers mind. It’s that hum you can get into, that place where the neurons of the story start to connect and fire, and the piece just comes to life. I’ve got better at being able to tune into it anytime now – mostly through writing everyday – but there’s something about the night that’s always alluring, that appeals to those of us engaged in more solitary pursuits. Some find it in music, some in meditation – I guess it’s in a similar vein to those things. It’s that state you can withdraw into and encase yourself inside an idea – a story, an artwork. Where everything else gets quiet and you can see the full picture developing with each sentence, till it’s clear as any memory. You can smell it, feel it. And then the writing just flows out.
Night time has always provided me the most freedom to find it.
What about you, when do you find is the best time to write?