National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo – begins this weekend, spurring all those would-be authors willing to put themselves on the line to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s an excellent initiative, and has now become grown into a global event. For those of you who are considering joining in, or have heard about NaNoWriMo and thought ‘that sounds kinda’ cool, I really should look into that’, here’s the what and the why of how it works.
NaNoWriMo started in 1999 in San Francisco with 21 participants. It was originally held in July, but moved to November because the weather in the US is worse then, inspiring more people to stay indoors and write. The event was started (‘accidentally’) by freelance writer Chris Baty, who organised the event up till 2011, when he quit to write full-time, largely based on the works and contacts he’d made through his work with NaNoWriMo (Baty now teaches at Stanford University, amongst his various creative pursuits). The ethos of the event was not only to inspire those who’d always wanted to write a novel, but to also build communities of like-minded folk, to get writers to connect with one another.
The event has grown year-on-year and is now a truly international event. In 2013, 400, 000 people participated in NaNoWriMo – including 4, 400 from Australia. The collective word count from those 400k writers was close to 3 billion, a massive achievement. Many of these stories would’ve never seen the light of day, but they’re now out there, being worked on, being discussed and connecting people in a discussion about the written word.
The rules of NaNoWriMo are as follows:
- Starting at 12:00 am on November 1st, novels must reach a minimum of 50,000 words before 11:59:59 pm on November 30th, local time.
- Planning and extensive notes are permitted, but no earlier written material can go into the body of the novel, nor is one allowed to start early and then finish 30 days from that start point.
- Participants write either a complete novel of 50,000 words, or simply the first 50,000 words of a novel to be completed later.
To ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, participants need to write an average of approximately 1,667 words per day. Organizers say the aim of the event is simply to get people writing, using the deadline as an incentive to get the story going and to put words to paper. There is no fee to participate in NaNoWriMo, registration is only required for novel verification.
No official prizes are awarded – anyone who reaches the 50,000 word mark is declared a winner.
Do any of these books get published?
Yeah, they do. More than 100 NaNoWriMo novels have been published since 2006, including the New York Times Best Seller ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sara Gruen, which was later adapted into a Hollywood film. Many established novelists have used NaNoWriMo as an impetus to get their novels done, along with the thousands of first timers – just having it set aside as a time to write has kept many writers going.
How do you get involved?
You can visit the official NaNoWriMo website to register and put down details of your project and aim for the month. There are a heap of resources on the site, worth checking them out and reading through the various notes on inspirations and ideas. From the site, you can connect to the home for your region, where you can find info on events happening in your city and ways to connect with other NaNoWriMo folk – the Melbourne community page is here.
There are a heap of resources and posts online documenting people’s experiences and inspirations for NaNoWriMo, if you’re not sure about participating, have a look and you’ll be able to get a better idea of whether it’s for you.
Almost everyone has thought about writing a novel at some stage. Everyone has an idea in mind, a story they’d love to get down but they never have the time to actually do it. NaNoWriMo is a great initiative to help give people that push, that impetus they need to get it down – and it’s only for a month, you only have to make the commitment to write for 30 days. The bottom line is that a writer writes. That’s what you do – if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer. NaNoWriMo could be the first step towards getting your story together, to making something from nothing, creating a whole world of characters and happenings, right there on your screen. It all starts with you and the blank page.
If you’ve ever thought about it, maybe this year’s the one that you actually sign up.
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.
It’s amazing how much your mental state can influence every element of your being. People can convince themselves of almost anything, can think themselves into having heart attacks – their thoughts manifesting themselves in physical form. I’ve seen people held totally captive by their own thoughts, crippled with fear and anxiety and absolutely unable to see things any other way. Their minds have been made up, and once that happens, it can be a very hard thing to change.
I read an article about something similar recently, about how our minds can be tricked into seeing one thing or another in an optical illusion – but once our mind is made up on what we see, it’s almost impossible to change it back and see it another way. It highlights how easy it is for our brains to get locked onto one path and how hard it can be for people to break from that and change their perspective. We always see the worst of ourselves, we always see weaknesses and flaws and imperfections that might be totally oblivious to anyone else. Skin care company Dove ran an advertising campaign based around this very notion, that what we see is not how we’re seen by others. This is never more clearly evident than seeing someone in the midst of depression. The way they see life, the hopelessness they feel, it’s an all encompassing thing. They can’t see out of that tunnel they’re in, can’t see anything there for them to cling to. No matter how you try to tell them otherwise, their minds are locked. It’s scary to see, a heartbreaking thing to witness, and I feel for anyone whose ever been afflicted by such all encompassing sadness.
This is something that affects many writers. We can easily get locked into the idea that we’re no good, that our writing will never be good enough. We’ll read work by other authors and just feel so small, so distant from that level of quality that it can seem like all hope is lost. But what you’re seeing in your work is not necessarily what everyone else reads. Just like an optical illusion, there’s another side that you’re tricking yourself out of, another way of seeing it that you just can’t get your head around. But if you try, if you push yourself, there might be a way. If your brain is strong enough to totally convince you of one thing, why can’t it be trained to also convince you of the opposite?
This is a great challenge for anyone, to convince your brain to look at things from another perspective. Very few people are able to see things from other vantage points, but that’s something we, as fiction writers, do all the time. We see stories from the perspective of other characters, you just need to do that in real life, with your own work, from time to time. Definitely, you need to be objective – writing is a solitary pursuit and most of the time you’re your number one critic, so you need to keep that edge, you can’t go too easy on yourself. But just ask yourself ‘why not?’ Why can’t you do this? Make your brain see it differently and think ‘why can’t I write great literature?’ If you can convince yourself that you can, it makes it easier to commit yourself to the necessary work you’ll need to do to make it happen.
Writing takes self-motivation, you need a level of positivity and belief to push yourself. But you also need to get your work out there, you need to take the feedback you get – some of it won’t be good, but you need to push through and take in the benefits of negative feedback also. It’s not to say you should convince yourself that you’re always right, it’s that you need to take it easy on yourself, don’t see things from the negative point of view all the time, take on any notes and feedback and keep pushing on. Because why can’t you do it? Why not you?
The human brain is a powerful thing, if you can keep it from getting locked into any one way of thinking, you can remain open to all possibilities. And in that state, anything can happen, even things you’ve convinced yourself will only ever be in dream.
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?
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?