As I’ve raved about many times, I love the work of Amy Hempel. I came to Amy Hempel via Chuck Palahniuk, which seems an odd connection, but a direct one, Palahniuk also cites Hempel as one of his major influences. If you’re a writer or aspiring writer and you’ve never read any of Hempel’s work, I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I think it’s worth seeking her out – the paperback of her collected stories is less than $13 on Amazon, which is criminally cheap.
Hempel is both entertainer and educator in her writing. You wanna’ learn what show don’t tell means, she’ll teach you. Her stories are stripped down, her sentences constructed carefully, every single word is another brick added to the whole. Even describing her work doesn’t do it justice, so here’s an example of Amy Hempel – this is a complete story, six paragraphs in total. I challenge you not to read it and feel caught up by the strength of it.
The Man in Bogota
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.
More information on Amy Hempel.
(This is a short fiction piece I wrote a while back, part of a series of shorts I worked on – hope you like it. And warning, some bad language)
Of all of it, the months I spent in the beach town, right out at the edge of the Earth, those are the ones I remember. The memories I see when I close my eyes. The sun warming across the backs of the white sand grains. The desert weeds flickering in the gusts. Of all the times, those were the days I felt happiest about. The times that would return in dream.
I’d got in with this group of people who’d come to the beach and decided they never wanted to leave. Minds flooded with childhood memories and adulthood hurts. They’d created this community of deserters all living in this two storey house, growing their own vegetables, generating their own electricity. Re-using their waste. Jobs were hard to come by, so only a few of them worked and then I came in and I got a job at the service station just off the freeway. Every week we’d pool the money earned by the ones who worked and we’d buy essentials which were listed in order on a piece of paper in the kitchen. They sang songs, which I didn’t like, but I could sit and smile and pretend I didn’t know the words, my face burning from the camp fire blaze. It was simple, living with them. No one wanted to know who you were, what you’d done. Everyone just was. Everyone just wanted to enjoy life.
There were at least twenty people in that house. Drifters would come through town and sleep on floors – they always had odd names like Rex or Pardy or Jai. They were just wandering through life, these guys, hitch-hiking one town to the next. No pressure, no concerns. They just lived a day at a time. I thought, for a while, that this was how I should be. This was what I should be. I asked lots of questions about how they did it, how they went about life, but a lot of the time it sounded difficult and unpleasant and they never really wanted to say too much and I figured it was best to stay where I was. In the beach sun it was idealistic, but when the rain set in. Sickness is difficult with nowhere to rest.
They had an outdoor shower. What it was was a bucket that they’d fill with warm water, then, once it was full, they’d drag it up by rope over a tree branch and it had these tiny holes in the bottom that would leak the water out and you’d stand beneath it and wash yourself, right out in the open. Sometimes, I’d watch the women do it, I’d stand at a distance and watch the soap bubbles sliding over their nipples and their curves, gathering at the edges of their hair. It was amazing.
We were working on building another room, gathering wood and nails from building sites in the night and buying other parts as we could afford them, bit by bit. One of the men used to be a builder and he told us how to connect this to that and I listened to everything and tried to make sure I didn’t saw anything uneven or bend any nails. He said I was a good worker, put his arm around me at the end of the day. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.
At nights we’d play board games and read stories from the newspaper and they’d talk about the latest news and politics and I had no idea what they were saying most of the time. Other nights we’d go to those big metal Salvation Army donation bins and we’d jump inside, sift through what was there. We’d push out bags of jumpers and pants and t-shirts and bring back what we needed. Sometimes, someone would sleep right up beside you, hug onto you, and you’d just go with it. That’s just how it was, it didn’t mean anything.
One time some drifter fucking yelled at me. He was tanned with this curly, long blonde hair and he was yelling about me working for a big oil company, saying they were responsible for some shit and I was responsible too because I took their money and I clenched my fist, ready to punch the fucking teeth out of his head and then the others yelled back at the blonde guy. They put their hands onto my shoulders and they pointed and yelled and then they kicked him out, that guy, pushed him out into the night. They patted me on the back and on the head and the girls kissed me on the cheek and I watched that guy leave from the window, dragging his backpack beneath the blue of the full moon. He kept stopping and turning round and yelling some more, then he was gone, drifted out into the darkness.
Lost beneath the sounds of the waves washing in.
There was one night when I was working and it was real quiet, no one was around – there never was late at night. Then these two guys came rushing through the electronic doors, both in balaclavas and singlets and shorts and the two men rushed to the counter and one of them pointed a hand gun right at my face and I stood up, put my hands in the air.
‘Don’t worry.’ The man with the gun said. His eyes poked through the woollen holes. ‘Just give us the money, it’s all good.’ And I knew the man’s voice. I stayed still.
‘C’mon man, it’s cool, it’s all under insurance, we worked it all out.’ He was one of the drifters, this guy, I couldn’t remember which one. ‘You just give us the money and we walk out, simple. We’ll give you a cut after.’
I shook my head slow.
‘C’mon man, you can talk. The cameras don’t record sound, it’s just video. You just have to make it look like you’re scared and take out the money.’
‘No, they do record sound.’ I told the drifter. ‘They showed me when they went through the training.’ The man looked to the other guy, then up at the camera.
‘You’ve fucked me.’ I told him. ‘I’ll have to leave now, because they’re gonna’ think I was in on it.’
The man lowered the gun, kept looking at the other guy.
‘Fuck.’ The man said, then he raised the gun again, poked it towards me. ‘Okay, well if we’re fucked anyway, we should just take the money, right? Just take it all out and we’ll just go.’
‘You fucking idiot.’ I said. I was furious, my fists shaking up by my head. ‘You’ve fucked everything up.’
‘Hey, don’t fucken yell at me, I’ve got a gun.’
‘You fucken idiot.’ I yelled. I could feel the warmth of tears bubbling round my eyes. ‘I’m gonna’ get you.’
‘Hey.’ The man yelled. ‘You ain’t gonna’ do shit. Now we are where we are, that’s how it is. Now, you need to get me the fucking money and hand it over, right?’
I stared him down. Those stupid eyes, poking out that black beanie. The man looked out to the road, like maybe someone was coming.
‘C’mon, c’mon, get the money.’ He roared, poked the gun towards me again, the barrel right up at my face now.
‘You pull the fucking trigger.’ I told him. The man hissed, looked away, then back at me.
‘C’mon man. Just give me the fucking money.’
‘You pull the trigger.’ Tears were sliding out now, dragging down my skin. ‘You’ve ruined me.’ I stared straight into the barrel, straight into the darkness of it.
‘Get the fucking money.’ He yelled, pushed the barrel into my cheek and I closed my eyes, held my breath.
Here are three of the questions the police asked me, in no particular order:
‘Did you know the men who robbed the service station?’
‘Did you assist the men in the planning and execution of the robbery?’
‘Did you know you’re wanted on burglary charges back in Melbourne?’
Here are my answers to those questions, also in no order:
Either way you look at it, I was fucked.
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.
Been a good week for getting my fiction out there – Tincture Journal have published one my short fiction pieces in their latest edition. The piece is called ‘Memory’ and is one I’m particularly proud of. You can get a copy for $8 here – get one and you’ll not only get some cool, new fiction to read, but you’ll also be supporting the Australian literary community.
There’s nothing better than having something you’ve written published. There’s no better feeling than to walk into a bookshop and see your words printed on the pages of a book or magazine. It’s surreal, you remember where you wrote them, how you started with that blank computer screen. And now your words are here, for everyone to see. It’s extremely gratifying to have your work out there – whatever comes next, be it criticism or praise, you’ve already reached a level of personal success.
On that note, I thought it would be worth noting a few places fiction writers can get their work published in Australia. I’ve had the opportunity to work with most of these publications at some stage, and have enjoyed being involved, and I highly encourage all writers to have a look at what they publish and submit your own work.
Voiceworks is produced by Victorian not-for-profit group Express Media and only publishes work by writers under the age of 25. It’s aim is to encourage new voices and provide publishing opportunities – not just for contributors, but for magazine staff also. Express Media has played a part in the development of many published authors and Voiceworks is a respected, quality publication. Writers under 25 should check out their submissions page and send something through – it could be a stepping stone to the next big break (I did a mentorship with Christos Tsiolkas via Express Media, which directly lead to the publication of my novel).
Tincture is a quarterly literary journal which is always on the lookout for new poetry and fiction. I’ve worked with the guys a couple of times and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience – they are knowledgeable, approachable and intelligent. They’ve also published some really great stuff and deserve more exposure – if you haven’t checked them out, go to their website and buy a copy – they’re priced between $5 and $8 and you can download and read them straight away (their Winter 2014 issue is also coming out very soon and features a new piece by me).
The Suburban Review
While still establishing itself somewhat, The Suburban Review is a quality publication. The artwork alone is worth checking out, but the content they’ve published so far has been high quality. Each publication is based on a theme, so you need to check out the submissions page to know what they’re after, but the guys are doing some great work and are gaining recognition for their quality and presentation. A group you want to be involved with.
And speaking of groups you want to get involved with, Stilts are a literary collective based in Melbourne. They produce an amazing looking themed journal, but they also have regular events, columns and themed writing opportunities to get involved with. I’ve had two pieces published as part of the Stilts Monthlies series, which is a micro-fiction series based around a theme, and my experience working with the guys has been excellent, I highly recommend you check out their website and subscribe to their social media channels to stay up to date with what’s happening. Amongst these guys and The Suburban Review team are the literary leaders of tomorrow, worth getting to know them, and getting them to know you.
The Canary Press
Canary Press is probably the best looking literary journal going around. The guys have a distinct flavour, their own way of seeing things, and that’s also reflected in their content selection, but they’ve definitely made a splash on the local literary scene, and it’s worth checking out their submission guidelines and getting involved if you can. They accept pieces through Submittable, which means it can all be done online – easy, no fuss, why wouldn’t you give them a read and see if your work fits?
The Lifted Brow
The guys from The Lifted Brow have established a pretty good profile in the local literary scene, underlined by them creating a whole issue, from scratch, during the ten days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last year. Like Canary Press, they go for a definitive style of work, so you need to grab a previous copy to know how, or if, your work fits, but worth checking out, and a great opportunity if you can get a piece accepted.
The annual ‘Sleepers Almanac’ is one of the most prestigious publications for new writers in Australia. I love what Louise and Zoe do, and I’d get involved with anything of theirs I could – they are both strong supporters of new writers and genuinely love to find new, great stuff. Given the Almanac’s status, it is hard to get in, but their distribution is great and it’ll put your work in front of some of the most influential literary identities in Australia, so worth the effort. I strongly encourage everyone to support Sleepers, not only for your own publishing opportunity, but to help them continue their work in finding and nurturing great local talent.
This is by no means a complete list of the literary opportunities available – there’s also Meanjin, Overland, Best Australian Short Stories – there’s a heap of places you can submit to. It always worth checking out what they publish – if it’s a guest editor, look them up and see what they write or what they’ve edited before to get an understanding of which of your pieces will be a good fit – and always follow the submission guidelines and ensure your work is error-free. It’s important that all writers get involved in their local literary communities and groups – obviously the main aim is to get your work out there, but above and beyond that, you’re contributing to your local literary scene and helping build that local culture. The more we can build it, the more writers will be willing to get involved and the more young writers will want to take up pens and put down their own stories. As a writer, you can play a significant part in the growth of your own local community by getting involved. And the connections you can make, the readers you can reach, these can all have long term benefits for your own writing career.
In what’s always exciting news, one of my short fiction pieces has been published. Melbourne literary journal The Suburban Review has published my story Last Night on their website, with excellent accompanying artwork from Ruby Knight. The guys are going to post it in two parts, so this is part 1 of the story – check it out if you get a chance.
The guys at Stilts have chosen one of my short fiction pieces for the April ‘Monthlies’ – check it out if you get a chance.
How Beautiful by Andrew Hutchinson
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?
One thing that a lot of writers have trouble with is perspective and tense. In itself, people can switch tense mid-sentence and some have trouble staying consistent, but a bigger and more challenging question is what perspective/tense should you use? There’s no definitive guide as to which works best for each story type – any can work if done well – but there are some basics that are worth considering:
First Person – Present Tense: ‘I wake up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. This is the logging things as they happen. I’ve found this best used in action novels and faster paced books, as it’s more immediate, things are coming at you quickly. It lends itself to sharper, quicker prose, as it’s the language is progressive.
First Person – Past Tense: ‘I woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. This is also effective in faster paced novels, but the ‘looking back’ style lends itself to more introspection by the narrator – if you’re writing a book where the main character is doing a lot of internal monologue, thinking over how he/she feels or sees things, I think this is a more effective voice to go with than First Person – Present Tense.
Second Person – Present Tense: ‘You wake up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. This is also another good one for faster passed pieces, though rarely is it used for an entire novel length. The best uses I’ve seen have come in the form of chapters within a larger work, break-out switch-ups that work to amplify a segment, give the reader a sense of being drawn in.
Second Person – Past Tense: ‘You woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. I actually don’t find much difference in effectiveness between Second Person – Past and Second Person – Present, the reader effect is similar. I would think the use of this would depend on the style of the rest of the book – unless you were using Second Person exclusively, which most authors are not.
Third Person – Present Tense: ‘He wakes up in a strange room, looking up at the ceiling’. Third person is a great way to explore more of the world your characters are in. Third Person – Present – as with all ‘present’ tenses – is good for faster moving narratives, as it keeps things immediate. Third person allows you to explore more perspectives within the story, whilst also only revealing the motivations of characters when you need, as opposed to First Person, which generally forces you to reveal the inner thoughts of your narrator all through.
Third Person – Past Tense: ‘He woke up in a strange room, looked up at the ceiling’. Similar in effect to present tense. I find most fantasy novels are written in Third Person – Past, as it allows for the writer to reveal more about the world he/she has created through historical or atmospheric exposition, which is required when you need to reveal the rules of a new world. Third Person enables you to reveal what you want when you want the reader to know it, as opposed to First Person, which is more confined to what the narrator knows.
These are obviously very quick overviews, and are in no way encompassing of the intricacies of each style, but hopefully they give you an idea of the purpose and strengths of each. Choosing the style of your piece is a big factor in determining how it will resonate with readers – each story has it’s own unique voice, and it’s important to understand the emotional arc of your tale – what you want to reveal and when – to help you determine which voice is best. Some authors will go their entire careers only writing in one style, but the best can switch between them, utilising the strengths of each to create the most compelling literature – even including sections of different styles in one work.
It’s about looking at your story plan, as a whole, and understanding what you want your reader to feel as they move through. You’ll generally be influenced by writers you admire, but always worth considering how to best use perspective and tense before you write, thinking about what’s the best fit. If your story is fast paced, then present tense is probably better. If your piece takes into account the perspectives of various characters, third person might work best. There are no definitive rules, but playing over the sentences in your mind in the different styles will eventually reveal which one is the most natural fit for your story’s voice.
One thing I’ve found to be almost universally true of writers is that we all have terrible handwriting. My theory is that because our heads get rushed with creative ideas, our minds flashing by creating whole worlds from the seed of a single thought, our hands struggle to keep up the pace. As a result, we form a sort of scribble that we can get down fast enough to capture our ideas which is also legible enough to enable us to translate what we’ve put down. I honestly have no concerns about people reading my notes, no self-consciousness about what they might find, because there’s almost no chance they’ll be able to read them. It’s like a cross between cursive and hieroglyphics, the only things missing are a few illustrations of the Eye of Ra and a cat or two (if I were to add these pictures in, it would, if anything, make more sense). It’s even worse when I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that I just have to get down – I don’t want to wake the kids, so I scribble notes in the dark. In the morning I see these sloping sentences, wilting down the page. It’s generally enough for me to remember what I was on about, but that’s about all it’s good for.
But despite this, despite the fact that my handwriting resembles that of a cliche movie psychopath, I write almost everything by hand as a first draft. My approach is that I write first on inspiration – I play an idea over and over in my head till I start to imagine it in full sentences and it’s almost too much for me to not write it out. Then I get a pen and start putting it down – I find the connection between thought and handwriting more natural than typing it out straight away. This is mostly for fiction work and longer form non-fiction, for many shorter pieces (like this one) I can put down a few notes when they come to me then just type it when I get the chance. But for more involved stuff, it will almost all be done by hand first. I would say 85% of my first novel is scrawled across three or four Spirax notebooks that are now somewhere in my study. Every element of the book started in handwritten form.
The next phase of writing is the logical, where I make sense of the writing, clarify the paragraphs and structures, etc. I find that having a hand written version to start with is conducive to this practice, as you have to re-write every single letter. You can’t pick and choose, you have to go over each part as least once, giving you a more analytical overview of the work. As I go, I’ll add in bits where they fit, I’ll read sentences out loud if they don’t feel right. I’ll re-construct parts entirely if I ever feel myself drifting from the story – that’s the best indicator that what you’ve done isn’t working. The story should hold your attention, even if you’re the one who wrote it. While you’re very familiar with the content, if you feel yourself drifting at all, thinking about the shopping, a TV show, anything other than the piece as you read, it’s worth going back and re-working the section you faded from to ensure it keeps the reader hooked. If you’re drifting, most likely your readers are gonna’ drift too. And again, having a handwritten start point helps highlight things like this because you have to read it all in order to enter it in. It effectively forces you into doing a full second draft before you can do anything else.
I then try to leave my work for as long as possible to get objective distance from it, clear my head of it so I can re-read it more as a reader than a writer. Even when I read novels I always think of ways I would change sentence structures and paragraphs, so editing comes pretty natural for me, particularly with the perspective of leave from the work. And by that stage it’s moved into a full-typed form – I might write hand-written notes down as I think of them, but my reliance on the pen is gone by that third draft stage – and definitely, no one would have read anything I’ve written till after that third draft stage. Even if I think I’ve put down something great, I always resist sending anything out till I’ve had that distance from it – I ALWAYS find things I want to change once I have some perspective.
Over the years I’ve seen experts lament the erosion of handwriting. There’s an idea that handwriting will one day cease to exist, that kids these days barely have any use for it now – just as younger generations are baffled by old school telephones, one day they’ll be scratching their heads as they look at pens end pencils. To some degree I think it’s a valid concern, but more likely, reliance on hand writing will reduce, not cease. I still love the flow of writing from my head and through the pen, I still enjoy the feel of paper, of seeing words indented into the page. Obviously I don’t know, but I don’t get the feeling that hand writing is totally falling away. I sincerely hope it isn’t, as, for me, it’s crucial to the writing process. I can only imagine it will be of benefit to many other writers in future, and if they’re not learning it, maybe they’ll never discover it, and we’ll miss out on great works as a result.