I watched a really bad movie last night. The characters were flat stereotypes, the plot went no-where, the progressions felt forced. There was basically nothing about it that was any good from a storytelling perspective. But it was kinda great. Not great in the sense that it was actually worth watching, nor that it was even entertaining, but from a writing perspective and seeing the flaws, there’s a heap you can learn from seeing what not to do. Let me explain what I mean.
When you watch a crappy film you know it. Everyone knows it. You’re not engaged by the characters, the scenes become laughable, there’s clichés aplenty. You know this, but maybe you don’t really analyse it and think about the flaws in specific detail. Most people dismiss a bad film as bad and recall a few horrible moments, but what I try to do is really understand those details, learn about the specific elements that made it so bad. Was it the acting? The story? Why did this scene or that stand out as being overly bad?
There’s a distinct value in experiencing bad storytelling, along with good. Viewing great films or reading great books is inspiring, it showcases those who are the best at the craft and awakens your imagination on what’s possible. Bad storytelling can actually have a similar effect, but in the opposite sense – you watch a bad movie and you can learn almost as much from the mistakes, from what the storytellers have done wrong, if you’re paying attention.
What I try to do is I try to imagine the original premise and how I would have done it differently, how I might have fixed it. Now, of course, my view may not be right either, but making myself think about the story, the plot, the characters, awakens my creative brain and gets me thinking more deeply about my own character development and can help me learn what mistakes to avoid, how to communicate with more subtlety. In fact, I’d say bad storytelling can provide the best education on the exact nature of the ‘show don’t tell’ principle, as this is where you tend to see the most blatant examples of the former, through overt exposition and forced story linkage. But you need to think about why it doesn’t work, what made that progression feel out of place or unnatural.
I watched Gone Girl a while back. From what I’ve been told, the book is very good, but the film, for me, left me feeling unsure about the character motivations and feasibility of the plot in the real world. As with writing, anytime your readers feel compelled to re-read a sentence or second guess a detail, that’s bad, as you’re forcing them to break out of the world you’ve created. Too many such moments, and they’ll detach from the story completely – you need to work to eliminate all moments of uncertainty or jarring, within the rules of the reality you’ve created, to build the most seamless and complete experience for your audience. Gone Girl was an example of this for me – as soon as I found myself questioning the reality of the scene, I was out, the story had lost me, and I didn’t enjoy it as a result.
At the same time, you can also learn from things you don’t necessarily like and try to understand why others might like them. I watched the Twilight saga – all of them – and yeah, I wasn’t a fan. But there was a level of compulsion to them. There were soap opera style elements which, I could see, might align people to the characters and story. Most of the time it bordered on ridiculous, a step away from all-out comedy, but there was a tension there. There was something, whether it worked for me or not.
These are just a couple of examples of how you can learn from storytelling that may not be to your taste. If you find yourself turning on a film or book, think back over why, what were the exact moments or elements that made you second-guess them? Through reflection on the details, you’ll start to see the importance of character consistency and story structure. If you couldn’t believe that a character would act the way they did, what would you have done to amplify the necessary elements to make it feel less jarring if you re-wrote it? If you think the storyline was no good, fix it in your mind, build it yourself, focus on the necessary elements to enhance and improve the believability and authenticity of the piece. How could you make it work?
Some bad films are just bad, I know, but it’s worth considering the elements, as it’s all education, all learning. A story you dislike the most might just hold a key lesson to improve the detail of your own work.
I’m not sure we take the right approach in how we teach kids poetry. From a young age we’re exposed to poems via nursery rhymes and what we’re taught is that poetry is rhyming couplets. Dr Suess tells us, then later pop music – the only real exposure we get to what poetry is rhyme, repeated patterns and verse. And that’s fine, in no way would I ever disparage the skill it takes to create great rhyming poetry, but it’s also a very narrow view of what poetry is and can be. The problem is, we’re given such limited exposure to other forms of poetry. What’s more, while there are many brilliant examples of rhyming poetry, it is a true skill to master, and there are even more examples of bad rhyming couplets – and let’s face it, even amidst the greatest rhyming poems there’s normally a couple of laboured lines and references that have been jammed in, in order to stay in theme.
My issue with this is that we might be restricting people’s view of what poetry is by teaching them only one narrow view of the form. When people hear poetry, they think ‘Roses are red…’, that sort of light, generic, often tacky, form of expression. They think of jokes, of rhythmic language that’s used in movie clichés. They think of kids books, that poetry is something for kids, when really, the means of expression via poetic form are so wide, so unrestricted, and rhyming verse is only one small part of the equation. Poetry is the closest thing to connecting thoughts through language. It’s translating emotion, creating connections in the readers’ brains that connect on a higher level than the language alone. Poetry can be transformative and transcendent and more than most people might think it to be.
I know how many people view poetry. I know, because I once viewed it that way too – I’m a story writer, and have always been focussed on story. Poetry was like a joke to me – you put a few words together that may or may not mean something and if you can find the right balance between being vague enough that people can find their own meaning, and so vague that the words don’t even connect, then you’ve got yourself a poem. I even tested this in high school – we were doing poetry in English and one of my classmates asked how you do it. I wrote a poem about crying in the rain, with deliberately vague lines like: ‘My optimistic pessimism’. It got published in the school paper, then it got published in a state-wide street press publication:
This reinforced my view, poetry was easy and not to be taken seriously.
My view changed on this after reading Fight Club. This wasn’t because the language of Fight Club was so poetic, but from Fight Club I researched all I could about the author, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk listed one of his favourite authors as Amy Hempel, so I went on to read all her stuff. Hempel is phenomenal – if you haven’t read any of Amy Hempel’s work, you’re missing out, and you need to get over to Amazon now and order a couple of her books. Her short story collection ‘Reasons to Live’ changed the way I think about writing – Hempel’s style is something that can’t be replicated, so intricate and subtle that, as Palahniuk says: ‘all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it.’
Fran Lebowitz still writes about the moment she first looked at a clock and grasped the concept of telling time. Hempel’s work is nothing but these flashes, and every flash makes you ache with recognition. –Chuck Palahniuk on Amy Hempel
Hempel is both a short fiction writer and a poet, with several volumes of both in circulation. The combination of the two is what makes her so brilliant – Hempel can extract the emotion from the most mundane moment and translate it into a thing of beauty. This is not ‘Hempel the Writer’, at work, it’s ‘Hempel the Poet’, but the two have become so intertwined that her prose transcends the parameters of either form. For example, here is one of my favourite Amy Hempel stories – the first story of hers I read, and the one that made me want to buy everything she’d ever written:
My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had. It was early afternoon, the middle of the week. I chose a pew in the center of the rows. Episcopal or Methodist, it didn’t make any difference. It was as quiet as a church. I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat, and the tumble of the next ones as they rushed to fill the space. I sat there — in the high brace of quiet and stained glass — and I listened.
At the back of my house I can stand in the light from the sliding glass door and look out onto the deck. The deck is planted with marguerites and succulents in red clay pots. One of the pots is empty. It is shallow and broad, and filled with water like a birdbath.
My cat takes naps in the windowbox. Her gray chin is powdered with the iridescent dust from butterfly wings. If I tap on the glass, the cat will not look up. The sound that I make is not food.
When I was a girl I sneaked out at night. I pressed myself to hedges and fitted the shadows of trees. I went to a construction site near the lake. I took a concrete-mixing tub, slid it to the shore, and sat down inside it like a saucer. I would push off from the sand with one stolen oar and float, hearing nothing, for hours.
The birdbath is shaped like that tub.
I look at my nails in the harsh bathroom light. The scare will appear as a ripple at the base. It will take a couple of weeks to see.
I lock the door and run a tub of water.
Most of the time you don’t really hear it. A pulse is a thing that you feel. Even if you are somewhat quiet. Sometimes you hear it through the pillow at night. But I know that there is a place where you can hear it even better than that. Here is what you do. You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down. You lie back and wait for the ripples to smooth away. Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under, and listen for the playfulness of your heart.
It’s a perfect example of Hempel’s work – simple but complex, mundane but poetic. It isn’t straight-forward storytelling, but there is such a resonant story there, even this very short piece. It’s a connective work, the way Hempel has used language to build layer upon layer. It’s more than just prose writing, it’s another level of literary expression. And I wanted to read more.
Hempel’s work lead me onto Sharon Olds, who’s an amazing poet, one of the best I’ve ever read. Like Hempel, Olds’ work transcends the confines of what you may think poetry can be. While Olds doesn’t have the prose leanings of Hempel, her poems tell a story nonetheless, and she’s often able to tell a more powerful story than many can in novel-form. One of my favourite Olds poems is this:
Summer Solstice, New York City
By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children’s father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive at a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted nest to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when it’s found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.
This is a story, right? This is more prose-like than you’d expect a poem to be, but it’s also definitely a poem. The words carry such weight, each line is crafted and precise. Olds’ poetry taught me the importance of ‘language economics’, of the need to be concise and ensure each sentence reaches it’s full potential – there’s so much more to this poem that the words on the page. Great poetry uses the experiences and associations of the reader to build the greater context, rather than explaining it to them – which is true also of great prose writing – but nothing illustrates this point better than a great poem. One line can change everything, can hit you so hard. Poetry taught me the importance of rhythm and timing, and word placement in general. These are the tools you need to be able to communicate well. Poetry showcases those skills better than any other form.
Knowledge of poetry better informs you as a writer and helps you find better ways to communicate your story. Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ is one of the best examples of poetic description in prose form, and it’s so much more resonant because of it. A sequence like this:
By then it was already evening. Just the slow periodic rack and shuffle of the oarlocks. The lake dark glass and windowlights coming on along the shore. A radio somewhere. Neither of them had spoken a word. This was the perfect day of his childhood. This the day to shape the days upon – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This is poetry, this is connecting emotion via language – sentence construction aligned with thought. It’s more than just the sum of its parts, than just the words alone, there’s a beauty to it’s simplicity. If I’d presented this as a poem, you’d not have thought twice about it. But it’s used in prose, in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, no less. This is the potential of poetic expression. It’s far more than just rhyme.
With a newfound respect for poetry, I started to investigate and appreciate other forms of the medium. And while it’s often lambasted as the height of pretentiousness, spoken word poetry, when done well, can be extremely powerful. The thing that many miss is that the performance is a major part – it’s ‘performance poetry’ not a poetry reading. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival a few years back, I remember Canadian performance poet Shane Koyczan had done a session. Koyczan had his mostly female audience swooning, all because of his delivery of lines like:
looking at you it occurred to me
I could sit around all day
wearing nothing but your kiss
– Shane Koyczan, Skin 2
And one of my favourite performances was by ‘Coded Language’ by Saul Williams.
It’s passionate, resonant and again, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts, more than the words alone.
So this is why I don’t think we take the right approach to how we teach poetry, because I would have never thought to look at these things, I’d have never come across the greater opportunities of creative expression through poetry without finding it in my own way. I realise one of the main challenges of education is engagement, finding ways to get kids interested in what’s being taught, and no doubt that’s a barrier, but I feel like we need to reinforce that real poetry is so much more than rhyming couplets. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe educators are doing all they can, but there’s so much opportunity for expression through poetry, so much more than what people might interpret ‘poetry’ to be. While it’ll never be mainstream, by highlighting all these other avenues, maybe we can encourage more participation in poetic expression, and get in touch with more amazing writing as a result. At the least, knowledge of poetic expression will improve your written communication, in all forms.
One of the biggest factors contributing to the success of your writing is how good of an internal critic you are. How objectively can you view your own work? How much are you able to put yourself into the mind of your readers when you edit and re-write? This is crucial and probably the most significant difference between a good writer and a great one – it’s one thing to be able to write a story, it’s another to view that story as someone else would, and to be able to cut and edit your sentences from that point of view. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help improve your own editing process.
1. Let everything you write rest before editing
Nothing increases objectivity like distance – it’s like when you end a relationship and it’s devastating and you’re a wreck, but then over time you start to see things more clearly, see the issues and problems that existed beneath your rose-coloured memories. Writing is the same – you’ve spent a long time thinking about the piece, you’ve worked on it in your head, it’s kept you up at night going over it and some of those sentences have arrived to you in such pristine fashion, there’s no way they won’t make the final cut. Once you’ve let something sit, you’re able to review it without that level of emotional attachment. The longer you can leave it, the less likely you’re going to be blinded by personal connection and the more likely you’ll be able to view it as just another piece of writing – and that’s the best way to edit. If you can read your own work as if it’s someone else’s, like you would any other piece, then you can truly unlock your objectivity and see flaws for what they are. And then you can correct them.
2. If your mind’s drifting as you re-read, there’s a problem
I’ve spoken to writers who’ve justified this, to some degree, by saying they might have trouble focussing on the piece because they wrote it, they’re intimately familiar with the story. If you created it, it’s going to be harder for you to be excited or engaged, right? In the vast majority of cases, I don’t believe that way of thinking is correct. If your thoughts are wandering as you read, it’s likely your readers are going to drift too, and if they drift, then your work hasn’t connected and you’ll lose them very quick. Don’t dismiss flow issues or engagement lapses, they’re all indicative of problems you need to, at the least, re-assess. If a section loses you, you need to review the structure and understand why the sequence seems off. You can go crazy on this, I know, you can get hung up on small issues that’ll never feels quite right, but it’s important that you do investigate and understand any areas where things don’t sit as they should. It’s like when you get feedback – you take in all feedback, listen to what the person has to say, then you re-read the section. If it communicates what you intended, that’s fine, but even if you don’t agree with their criticism, it’s worth re-assessing, ensuring the message is delivered as you want.
3. Editing is going to take you way more time than writing
If it doesn’t, you’re either extremely lucky or you’re not maximising the potential of your work. I was reading an interview with a musician once who talked about how he’ll do more than 50 vocal takes for every track he creates to ensure that he gets the best version for his final piece. This is ‘the work’, as he explained it, and he’d seen many musicians who weren’t willing to do ‘the work’ fall by the wayside because they would do three takes, feel one of them was perfect, then want to move on. Attention to detail is the difference between good and great. This is true in everything, but very much so in writing. How many times has a small error in a piece stood out to you? How many times have you seen an error in a piece by an accomplished writer? Attention to detail is a sign of professionalism, and while people can get over a minor mistake here or there (everyone makes them, I probably have in this post), you don’t want to give your readers anything that could divert their attention from the piece. A small mistake is like a bump in the road, it can distract you from the main narrative momentarily. Too many bumps, and they become the narrative themselves. You should always edit, then edit, then edit again before you even think about releasing your work, because you’ll always, always, always find issues, no matter how naturally gifted you think you are. Always.
Accepting that editing is just as significant a part of the writing process is important, but ideally, you also need to make yourself just as excited about the editing process as the writing itself. How? By thinking of your readers, by keeping in mind why you’re doing ‘the work’. Because the better it is, the better it’ll be received and the more likely you’ll reach a wider audience. And it can be an engaging process – you’ve written your first draft, but now you get to go back and find ways to improve it, to make it even better. That’s genuinely exciting, it’s great to read through and find ways you can make sentences better, to think over progressions and words and improve the final product. You are not only the writer of each piece you create, you’re the first reader, and you have the chance to shape that story into what you want. How many times have you watched a movie and thought ‘it would’ve been better if…’ The more objective you can be, the more you can actually do this with your own drafts.
4. Is that how you would say it?
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to ‘write like you talk’. And like most tips (e.g. ‘write what you know’) there’s really more of a middle ground truth to this. Definitely, you should review your writing and ensure it flows naturally. The reader will have a voice in their head as they read, and if that voice sounds inauthentic or starts saying things that stumble in the flow, it’s another bump in the road that could, potentially, turn them off. I highly recommend reading your work out loud to ensure the flow is right – it’ll highlight things no other method can, and the more you do it, the more your internal monologue gets attuned to sentence flow, and you’ll make fewer mistakes in your initial drafts. But you need to also ensure that you’re communicating effectively for each piece, which is not always exactly like you talk. For example, if you’re writing fiction, it’s crucial that you write how the characters would talk, not you. For non-fiction, you can’t use slang as you might in regular conversation for every piece. There’s a level of self-awareness required to accompany this advice – it’s not necessarily how you would talk, it’s how you would talk to the intended audience of the piece.
The most common errors I see on this front are things like ‘you are’ when it would read better as ‘you’re’, ‘it is’ instead of ‘it’s’. These types of common contractions are very much in tune with how we communicate – a simple sentence like ‘it is crucial that you are aware of this’ is grammatically correct, but no one would say it like that in real life. Your words are translated into a voice in the reader’s mind, and it’s important you communicate like a real person to avoid any chance of losing their attention.
Being able to distance yourself and view your own work with a critical eye is integral to your success as a writer. If you write one draft, don’t re-read, and send it out, I guarantee you will fail. No one, no writer in the world gets it perfect in one try. You need to embrace editing and improve your self-awareness by benchmarking your work against the best (as a comparison, not in admiration) and come to it as the first reader of your content. The better you can do this, the more likely you’ll make your work the best it can possibly be.
I lived in Canberra from 2006 to 2011 and while I was there I came across a story that absolutely intrigued me. I’m always fascinated by how people end up where they are, why they do what they do. When you read a story in the newspaper of how some guy, for example, murdered his wife, you’re only ever skimming the surface of the real details behind the story. But what motivates people to do such things? What could’ve happened in this person’s life to make him decide that this is the course of action he’s going to take? These questions are key to your character development efforts in your own writing – it can’t be that a person just does something, there has to be a reason why, an authenticity in their thought process.
This is how I approached the story of this NRL player that I heard about in Canberra. Being from Melbourne, I know hardly anything about NRL and have very little interest in it. I tried to go to a few games in Canberra, to experience the local culture, as it were, but it never caught on for me – I imagine people from northern states have a similar reaction to AFL. But while I was there, there was this one player who just kept doing really amazingly stupid things. This player was on $400k per season with the Canberra Raiders, had everything going for him, yet he just couldn’t stop himself from getting drunk on the weekend and punching people in the face or breaking things. I read each headline with amazement – Why was he doing this? What renders a person unable to follow basic societal norms for the sake of their livelihood, what they’d worked all their life to achieve?
The player I’m talking about is Todd Carney. You may or may not have heard of him, but he recently got sacked, again, from another NRL club. It makes no sense – he’s a great player, no one debates that, but he just can’t seem to stop himself from making dumb decisions.
For example, here’s a rundown of Carney’s career history:
2004 – Carney makes NRL debut at age 17, wins Raiders ‘Rookie of the Year’, plays for Australian junior side
2006 – Canberra Raiders leading try scorer, team finishes in top 8, selected as captain of Australian junior side. Charged with drink-driving and reckless driving, license suspended 5 years
2007 – Loses chance to play for State of Origin side due to another driving offence – refuses to stop for police, leads them on a chase through Canberra, hits a dead-end street, then flees the scene, leaving team-mate in car. Banned from driving till 2012, told he’ll go to jail if he offends again
2008 – Allegedly urinates on man at a Canberra nightclub. Gets suspended by club, whilst another investigation takes place into driving incident where he left his team-mate, with team-mate saying he was told to keep quiet about the incident. Carney suspended for season, told to accept strict management plan from Raiders – eventually sacked by club and de-listed from NRL for failing to agree to terms. Seeks contract from overseas club but can’t get a visa due to criminal history
2009 – Tries to get back in the NRL, but application denied – respond by smashing a shop window and jumping on cars in Goulburn. Receives 12-month suspended jail term. Released by Raiders to play in lower-level league in Cairns – gets in fights, sets some guy’s pants on fire, eventually signed by Sydney Roosters to new contract
2010 – Joins Sydney Roosters, has great season, wins game’s highest individual honour, the Dally M Medal – so he’s undeniably a great player, despite the off-field issues
2011 – After three separate alcohol-related incidents, Carney sacked from Sydney Roosters. After again trying to play overseas, and again being denied on visa grounds, Carney signs contract with Cronulla Sharks – estimated to be $350k per season for two years
2012 – Plays in State of Origin, has solid overall season, but sits out final games with injury
2013 – Signs on with Sharks for another five years
2014 – Sacked from Cronulla after pictures emerge of Carney seemingly urinating into his own mouth
It’s a pretty amazing record, not only for the indiscretions, but for the amount of opportunities he’s had to straighten up.
Of course, he’s not the first pro athlete to do things like this, things that frustrate us normal folk as we do whatever we can, day0-to-day, to keep our incomings higher than our outgoings. Did you know that 78% of NFL players go broke within five years of finishing their careers? The average NFL salary is $1.9 million p.a. Amazing, right? How do they do it, how can they throw such opportunity away?
Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to see things from their perspective to understand. Carney’s naturally gifted, a top-level athlete. He’s always been better than most at what he does. So while we can’t understand why he doesn’t seem to appreciate his unique position in life, he probably doesn’t understand why we can’t do what he does. Its stories like this that are the reason I write. Not Carney himself, but people, what makes people do the things they do. People will often say that there are really only a certain number of basic plots, and that all literature is just a variation on these outlines. I disagree. There’s so much complexity in people’s actions, so much opportunity, as a writer, to explore new things. Not every human has been born yet, so, to me, not every story has been told. Everyone has a totally unique perspective, different motivations for how they conduct themselves. Writing, for me, is about trying to understand those reasons, the things that cause people to respond the way they do. How people come to be who and where they are.
Cases like Todd Carney’s highlight that we don’t have – that we can’t ever know – all the answers. This is why, as writers, need to keep working to better interpret and understand the complexities of the world. Because things happen everyday that are fascinating, intriguing, amazing. By taking to time to understand them, to view things from a perspective other than your own, you’re stepping beyond the realms of what you, yourself, understand to be true and opening yourself to a wider experience of the human condition. That excites me about literature, that fires the synapses of my brain and gets me thinking, and after I get thinking, I get writing. And I love that plain, that hum you get into when your ideas expand and burst.
Whatever your opinion, whatever the real reason may be, stories like Todd Carney’s remind me of why I love to write.
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.
It’s amazing how much state of mind plays in success. I’ve been playing basketball since I was fifteen, still play a couple of times a week (I’m now 34) and I was talking with a team-mate recently, saying how we play so much better in training than we do in our actual games. Why would that be? The reason is because we approach them differently – in training, we’re playing with mates, guys we’ve played with and against for years and we’re comfortable around. If we win a training match, great, if not, no one cares, so we’re much more likely to take shots we’d think twice about in a real game, much more relaxed, and this, generally, means we play better. Because we’re not over-thinking the importance of making the play or how to beat this or that defender. In training, we’re relying more on instinct, and we’ve been doing it for such a long time that our instincts are pretty good.
The difference between practice and game is totally in our own heads. The opponents we play against aren’t better than the guys we train with, but in our heads, we put more emphasis on it, we get more caught up in doing the right things and not making mistakes. We stress, and that stress makes us tighter, makes us think that little bit too much about the process rather than just allowing ourselves to do it, and we make more mistakes because we get caught up in the detail. We make the situation more difficult for ourselves because of our own self-doubt and mentality. There’s no actual difference in the physical process.
I’ve heard sports stars say this over the years when talking about the difference between the highest levels and the lesser ranks. They always say the psychology is what you have to master, the approach. For a long time I didn’t understand it, but in recent years I’ve come to realise what they mean. There’s a famous quote from Henry Ford which goes: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. That pretty much sums it up – if you go out on the court and you think you’re going to get beat or you’re going to play bad, you’re probably going to. If you take to the floor and you’re getting caught up in who your opposition is and stressing over what might happen, you’re starting off on the back foot. You need to be able to change you’re thinking on it, relax yourself, even enjoy playing the game. You need to think ‘how would I play in practice?’, ‘How would I feel right now if the opposition were all guys I know?’ You need to think: ‘How would I play if the end result didn’t matter?’ If you can change your mindset, you can allow your instincts to take over – that’s what the big name sports stars are able to do. Despite the crowds and the money and the expectation lumped on their backs – the best players are able to block it all out and play just like they did on the schoolyard, just like they would any other time. In doing this, they allow themselves to maximise their natural instincts and abilities.
So why the long sports analogy on a writing blog? Well, the next tangent I thought of is how this also relates to my writing. As writers, we often put too much pressure on ourselves, always thinking this isn’t good enough, or we get caught thinking ourselves round in circles trying to work out the best way to explain certain elements or details. Just as in sports, we’d often do better to trust our instincts and rely on the skills and knowledge we’ve developed – you know you can write, you know you can do this, so why are you being held up? Why can’t you get it out the way you want? Just like Michael Jordan, with thousands of fans screaming on all sides, would rise up and take the shot, same as he’s done for years and years, you can write, free of what others might think, clear of expectation and self-doubt.
Some people talk about the benefits of free-writing, where you just get the story down as fast as you can – no editing, no re-reading, just go. I’ve heard several authors praise this process, saying it frees them up and allows them to get down sentences they’d never have come up with if they analysed and agonised. However you go about it, the important thing you need to focus on is writing what you want to write. You’ve read lots, you’ve written a heap, you know, instinctively, what it is you want to do. So just do it, trust in yourself and block out any other influences in your mind – write like you’re just doing a story for your friends, no one else. Write like no one will ever see it, if that helps.
Success or failure depends so much on our mental approach. The thing to remember is, everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone mis-steps – no one knows everything. You are just as good as anyone else, you can achieve whatever you want. Definitely, you need to work for it, you need to work at it and build your skills, but if you’ve done the preparation, if you’ve done the research and you know what it is you’re trying to achieve, then the only thing holding you back is you.
How would you write if the end result didn’t matter? If no one cared, if no one was going to judge you or your work? At some point, it will matter, you’ll need to edit and refine – but at the first stage, it can help to alleviate the self-doubt and blocks if you write as freely as possible. Don’t think about where it might go next, don’t think about publishing or competitions. Write instinctively, like you’d have done when you were a kid. Relieve the pressure and expectation and might just open yourself up enough to produce your best work.
An aspect that you need to keep in mind when writing is what you want your readers to feel as they read each section. Fiction writing is, essentially, trying to re-create the emotion you feel for the scene within the body of the reader, and in that, you need to always be aware of how you’re communicating the details. Importantly, what you need to be careful of is what words you use. Sometimes an out of place word can ruin a perfectly good set up – you wouldn’t have the word ‘chook’ in the middle of a scene of romantic resonance, for example. Careful word placement, and even word themes, can help build scene depth, and characters individually.
Here’s something that’s worth trying – assign each character in your story with a colour, based on their personality and traits, what you know of them. Once you have the colours down, write down words you associate with those colours – make a word cloud of 10-20 words that you’d link to it. For example, red might be associated with fire, stop, heat, fast. Once you have your words down, as you write, try to use those words in your descriptions of those specific characters and their actions. What this does is it builds a theme around that specific person – you associate those words with that colour for a reason, and readers will to. With red, anytime those references come up, people will have an association with them, and thus, the character, which creates more of a theme or personality type for each. This can help develop a distinctive persona, making them identifiable in more than just physical attribution. Those words form part of who the person is, and this can help develop depth and definition in a character’s being.
This won’t work for all writers, some may even find it restrictive to their process, but it’s worth trying, even with just a short piece, just to help build more presence around each participant in the story. Even try it in real life – think of someone you know and what colour you would attribute to them. What words do you link to that colour? Do they relate to the person? Normally, you’ll find they do, and this adds to the emotional linkage between character and reader.
It’s worth trying out, just to see what comes of it – even if it’s not for you, it might help open your mind to another way of thinking and improving character depth.
One of the main reasons I write is because I’m fascinated by people. The things people do, decisions people make every day – I love to look into them and try to understand, try to see why this or that person would do things they way they did. People you pass in the street, people on the train, they’ve lived an entire life with a completely different perspective to yours. I’m always intrigued by what shapes a person’s life, what things they’ve lived.
This is what drove me to write my first novel – I’d heard stories about the increasing amount of people drugging and raping girls in nightclubs and I couldn’t understand it, couldn’t imagine why someone would ever do that. From that, I tried to imagine a scenario where such horrific crimes could come about and how a person could get involved. To me, everything in life can be explained. Everything that happens, everything a person does is the result of the path their life’s taken. You might read a story about some guy who killed three people and that’s pretty much all you’re ever going to know about the case – the murder and maybe the basic motivations and lead-up events. But if you could know more, if you could see his entire personal history, you’d see things that happened, things that lead to this person making a decision to do something unfathomable to you. It doesn’t mean such acts can be justified, but knowing the full story helps understand why things happen the way they do. That’s what I love, trying to understand, trying to see things through another person’s eyes and rationalise their decisions. It’s fascinating to find those connections, the bread crumbs that lead to a person doing what they do.
This, I think, is a crucial element in developing character depth. People don’t just wake up one day and decide to steal a car or pick a fight with a neighbour or tell somebody they love them out of the blue. The things that have happened in their lives have formed them – their actions, good or bad, are a result of their experiences. I read a quote once that was something like ‘the human brain is perfect when we’re born – it’s what we put in that changes it’. On top of that, of course, there are natural tendencies and abilities that will also play a part in the process, but I do believe that is correct – who you are is a result of your inputs. In terms of character development, it’s important that you know these motivations and know how and why your characters would respond to each situation. It’s also where, I believe, the idea that characters sometimes write themselves stems from. They don’t, and they never will, but the more you know them, the better you understand each character’s history – what’s been put into their brain – the more you’ll know how they’d respond to each twist and situation. You need to have an understanding of where each character comes from, what’s happened to them in their lives, and what’s lead them to where they are. From there, you’ll better understand what they’d do next.
It’s actually an interesting exercise – next time you read a newspaper story, try to think of what each person’s motivations were that lead to them making the decisions they have. What might have happened, why might a person do what they’ve done in this instance? This type of thinking helps open your mind to possibilities and will better enable you to creatively elaborate on character motivations and choices. Don’t just read the headline, try to think of the why, what could have made this person see things the way they have, make them decide to take this course of action.
Everyone has a book in them, so the saying goes, but we’ll only ever hear a fraction of a percentage of those stories, because not everyone will have the opportunity to communicate them. With that in mind, isn’t it fascinating to think of all the stories that haven’t been told? Doesn’t it make you think there’s so much opportunity in the world, so much we don’t know? Trying to understand these questions is part of being a writer – an inquisitive mind, and need to know more than what you can see on the surface. You need to do all you can to embrace and build on this, let you mind ask questions, go with them, try to understand all you can. Not only is this the critical to being a better writer, more understanding is key to being a better person in general. If we could all take the time to see things from each other’s perspective, the world would be a much more understanding place.
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.