This isn’t going to be what you think.
Now, we’ve all seen ‘Up’, right? It’s the Disney/Pixar movie about the old man who loses his wife, then looks set to lose his house, till he launches a million balloons and floats of in that very house on a mission to go on the grand voyage that he and his beloved never got to go on. It’s a great film, everyone likes Up – it’s got an 8.2/10 score on IMDB, putting it at number 113 on the top films of all-time. Up is a story to which most viewers have some level of emotional attachment – that first fifteen minutes is possibly one of the best examples of effective, human, storytelling ever captured on film, and it’s all done with zero dialogue, you just see the events play out. It’s classic cinema, but it’s also the ultimate example of how when we have an emotional anchor tying us to the heart of a story, that all the other details start to matter a lot less.
So, (and stop reading if you’ve never seen Up and don’t want to me to ruin it for you) after that first 15-20 minutes, we’re emotionally tied to the outcome of Up. We want Mr Fredricksen to come out of this okay, because his life story is so relatable and true to life. He’s had to deal with losing the only person he ever loved, the one person he needed, and now he’s tied to the house they had together, the memories he keeps. We, as the audience, want more than anything for Mr. Fredricksen to win after that montage sequence, because that’s what we want for ourselves – it’d be terrible to think there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for him, for us. But then Up takes a turn for the less logical.
Mr. Fredricksen ties about a million balloons to his house and floats it. I can go with that, it links back to his former life selling balloons to kids and his only motivation now is to take his wife on one last adventure in the home they made. But then he finds Russell on his porch. How did Russell end up on his porch? For one, Russell was at his house the previous day, so he must’ve come back the next morning to continue his search for the Snipe – okay, I can go with that. But then he also must’ve seen the guys from the home come to the front door and that didn’t deter him at all. Okay, stretching. Russell then, when the house starts lifting off the ground, must have either jumped onto the porch, or not got off the porch, depending on where he was at, and held on for dear life as it took off. There’s no logical reason for this. But we forgive this element because, well, who cares? The dude’s flying a house levitated by balloons, logic’s already largely been thrown out the window.
But more than that, we don’t care because we’re already emotionally invested in the outcome. We’ve bought into Mr. Fredricksen’s story, and it’ll take a hell of a lot to get us to stop caring about him now – details be damned.
In this sense, Up gets away with a heap of stroyline quirks and plot holes that other films wouldn’t have a chance of overcoming. How is it possible that the adventurer, Charles Muntz, is still alive and still chasing that bird when he was already an old man when Mr. Fredricksen was a boy. This is somewhat explained at the beginning, when they say Paradise Falls is ‘a land lost in time’, but is it, in fact, lost in time? Have they somehow travelled back in time? How was Muntz able to develop technology to translate dogs in an isolated forest? Why isn’t Mr. Fredricksen more amazed about this? Why isn’t Muntz happy to see another human, why isn’t he asking how the hell he gets back – he must have family or something? Why isn’t Muntz more surprised that some old man has flown a house to the falls? Does anyone care about any of this?
No. And that’s the triumph of Up. Up highlights the absolute power of human connection, of finding the human heart of a story, as an effective storytelling practise. If you can find the human heart to a story, you can make it about anything – wars happening in a galaxy far, far away, love stories happening on a doomed cruise liner in the time before it crashes. Human connection, linking with your audience and making your story relatable to them, is more important than virtually any other element. Because we connect through stories, we relate. It’s stories that bind us together and make us feel less alone in the world.
Up is the ultimate example of this. Don’t believe me? Imagine Up without that opening montage, with no context for his relationship, other than him talking to his now absent partner every now and then. And while gaps in logic are always less of an issue in kids films, they’re almost totally irrelevant in Up. Because all we want is for Mr. Fredricksen to get that house onto that clifftop, just like his wife always wanted. That emotional drive is powerful, the heart of the story is what everything else refers back to. If you can find your story’s heart, you’re on the path to building an emotionally resonant, and connective, piece.
I read an interview with author Arnold Zable recently in which he discussed his work in championing causes through his writing, notably asylum seekers. Zable talked about the power of storytelling in such efforts, saying that ‘story is a very beautiful way to lead people somewhere else’. Zable noted that more than statistics and facts, telling the real story, revealing the true, human experience behind issues is the only real way to cut through and make people take notice.
Zable’s words definitely rang true to me – we’re constantly berated by numbers and figures behind issues like asylum seekers or climate change, to the point where their effectiveness is diminished. But a real story, of how a mother fled a war-torn land to save her children, that brings the issue home in a far more visceral and powerful way. You feel it, you respond to it. While data and figures are important, logical cues, the power of storytelling should not – and cannot – be underestimated.
The Rise of the Brand Journalist
This got me to thinking about how we’re discussing storytelling in content marketing. There’s a big focus on story at the moment, because emotional triggers are what drive social sharing. The ever increasing amount of people using social media leads to an equally increasing amount of brands looking to utilise social channels to reach their audience, and the best way to do that, to compel people to like and share your brand message, is through content. Storytelling has always been the strongest way to deliver a resonant message, but now, with the audience having more control than ever over their media inputs, compelling content is crucial. Shareable content. You need to give people a reason to like your brand, a reason to want to talk about your business or business message. People aren’t on social to be advertised to, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, they want to join in on the wider conversation. The more your content can form a part of that discussion, the more successful your brand will be at maximising social channels.
One thing I have noted, in seeing the growing emphasis on content and storytelling in marketing, is that the term ‘brand journalism’ has also grown in step. The pervading view is that all brands are now publishers in the modern digital landscape – the audience needs a reason to align with you, so you need to tell stories, and online platforms provide you with the means to do just that. This has seen an increasing number of businesses look to producing their own stories, their own angles on relevant discussions, and that, effectively, is brand journalism. But every time I see this term I question whether a brand journalist is what you really want.
The Power of Story
Definitely, journalists are accomplished writers who are able to communicate the facts of the story, and many of them are, at heart, storytellers who are passionate about finding the core of a piece and building an experience for the reader. But a lot of journalism, too, is facts and figures.
For instance, this was a piece in an Australian newspaper recently, looking at the tragic disappearance of Dane Kowalski:
This is solid news journalism, all the facts are there, all the detail. But compare that to this single post from a friend of Dane’s, who’d been doing all he could to locate him:
In two sentences, this post has captured far more emotion, delivered far more resonance, because this is something this person is living. The pain is raw, real – the story is more than a piece in the news section. Every story is – there’s more to a news item than the who, what, when and where – the why is the real story. The people living it are the real connectors. You can read over a set of facts like:
Yet none of those figures are as compelling as an actual story:
Nothing comes from no where. In every story, in everyone’s life, in every event, there’s a passion, a human heart at it’s core. That story is what people relate to, what people identify with, and ultimately, what people respond to. Given that, in many cases it may not be ‘brand journalists’ that you need, but ‘brand storytellers’, people who can uncover the true purpose and passion behind what you do.
A Human Story
Of course, many, if not most, journalists are driven by a passion to tell human stories, to share that core truth of a story in order to let the audience develop an informed opinion on the subject. But it always stands out to me when I see the term used. And a lot of the content that does get shared via social networks is facts and figures based, so it’s not to say that a news-style approach doesn’t work either, but I guess the point here is in understanding what gets shared, why people share content – it’s in understanding what stories resonate with audiences. Those are the real stories, the human side. A news story might be about a man’s company going bust, but that didn’t just happen. There’s a long trail of events that lead to that business collapsing, a story behind those details that would allow the reader to build a better understanding and emotional connection with the material – and this type of investigative journalism, based in true storytelling, is what’s most beneficial to building better discussion and understanding. Because people make judgements based on what they read. If they only have the basic details, their opinions will be established on those. But if they have all the information, then they can absorb it and make a judgement based on the whole picture.
The TV show Catfish is a great example – someone will be scamming someone else online by pretending to be someone they’re not – and it’s easy for us, as the viewers, to side with the victim, because they are the ones being lied to. But more often than not, the perpetrators themselves are just sad, or lonely, or lost and when you hear their side of the story, the right and wrong of the situation isn’t so clear. They’re all people, they all do things for their own reasons. Those reasons are powerful and add real insight. Those are the stories we need to share.
Not everyone wants to read the detail, not everyone will appreciate the story, but it’s important to understand what resonates, what style of storytelling works to reach people’s emotional triggers and subsequently generates discussion and community. Facts and figures and important, but why are they important? What do those numbers actually mean for the real people involved? Great storytelling reveals this, great journalism reveals this, but you need to recognise what you’re actually aiming for when establishing a content plan and working with writers and writing staff.
Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.
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.
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.
When I signed my first book contract, I figured things would play out like this:
- Book released – tours, interviews talks
- Writing opportunities come my way, doors open
- Sign next book contract, quit job to write
- Be full time author
Because that’s what authors do, right? That’s what all those other authors with books in stores are doing – they’re writing, that’s their job. Right?
Unfortunately, the reality of being a writer is somewhat different. The book was released and I did a few appearances and talks and interviews, which was all great, but it wasn’t an all-encompassing job that took up every moment of my life. I remember I bought a new diary to book in all my upcoming interviews and such, and in the first week there were a few entries. Then there weren’t many the next week, none the next month. Basically, there’s about a six week window of notoriety and coverage, then the world moves on.
Now, there are exceptions, of course, some books go massive, but for the vast majority of writers, your shelf life is pretty finite. It’s many, many months of work – years of work in most cases – then a blip of attention and celebration, then many, many more years of work again. The reality is, most writers don’t make enough money to be writers all the time. I eventually made a reasonable amount from my first book, but it wasn’t enough to justify quitting my job. In fact, in total, it wasn’t even half of my annual income from my regular employment. Even the most successful writers in Australia don’t make a heap of money – Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize this year, he was considering going to work in the mines because times were getting tight. Making money from writing is tough, it’s constant work, and it’s something I didn’t really consider or know anything about going in.
How much is not enough?
A survey conducted earlier this year in the US found that 54% of ‘traditionally published’ authors make, on average, less than $1000 per annum from their writing. The same study found that only 1.3% of traditionally published authors make more than $100,000 a year. In the Australia, according to Payscale.com, the average wage for a writer/author is $32, 803 p.a. That’s actually considerably higher than I’d expect, and what I know from my own experience and authors I speak to. Annabel Smith wrote a good piece on the struggles of Australian authors in a piece for The Wheeler Centre earlier this year, outlining the challenges faced by authors, and the realities we have to confront, including, for most, (as noted by author Ryan O’Neill) that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. It’s the commercial reality of doing any art, really – few people ever get the opportunity to have their work published, and even fewer again have any chance of making it big and building a career around that success.
It’s more obvious in the world of music – there are thousands of bands who work tirelessly and do everything they possibly can to get their music released, only to see it burn out quick and they’re back to where they started. The memory of the public is very short, for example, take a look at this chart of Google searches for Radiohead since 2004:
Those two big jumps (M and H) are the releases of their albums ‘In Rainbows’ and ‘King of Limbs’. Those lower scribbles in between, that’s everything else, when no one’s searching for Radiohead and no one really cares what they’re doing. And that’s Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. Your work is only likely to be of significant interest in that short period after release, but you, of course, have to live through the rest of the time, and you need funding to do so – few artists can reach high enough peaks to no longer be concerned by money. Very few. Hardly any. Making money from art means constant work – if you can release work consistently, you increase the chances of being able to create a sustainable career. If you can release high quality work quickly, even better, but for most authors, it takes years to write a book. If it doesn’t sell a heap, not a heap changes, lifestyle-wise, although doors do open and opportunities increase as a result.
Geez, this is all a bit gloomy, isn’t it…
It’s definitely true that being a writer is tough, it’s not likely to be a path be paved with gold. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. Having a book published was my one driving ambition, it was a life dream realised, and I would never play down the significance of it, the achievement I felt, that I still feel as a result. But what I would suggest is that you temper your lifestyle expectations if you want to pursue your art.
And that’s probably not such a bad thing either way – who really cares if you drive a Hyundai or a BMW anyway? If it gets you there, does it really matter? How comfortable do you need to be in a car, how fast do you have to go? As a society, we too often emphasize the importance of material wealth. But rich people get depressed too. They still have problems, different problems to me or you, but issues none the less. I can’t tell you how many highly paid executives I’ve heard talk about how they want to write a book – because money can’t buy them that kind of achievement, can’t give them the status or respect they desire. And if they’re actually able to do it, to become published authors, you know what’ll happen? They’ll find something else they need, some other hole in their life that’s not yet full. Ambition is important, a crucial part of advancing and being more than you are. But you also need to take account of what you do have, what’s available to you right now. Things probably aren’t so bad.
And it’s important to realise what makes you you – what are the things that make you happy or excited? What holds your attention so totally that you don’t even notice the hours slipping by? Those are the things. Those are your things. And if you can find your one thing that you really want to do, that’s what will fulfill you more than anything else. Away from expectations or judgements, you know, in yourself, where you love to be, what you love to do. So do it.
Don’t write expecting to be paid. Don’t create expecting to be praised. Do things because they excite you, because you just have to do it. Get lost in your own world and see what you find every now and then. Allow yourself to be in your stories and creations. Because that will make you happy, which, by extension, will make the people around you, the people who care about you, happy too. Imagine what could be if we could replicate that kind of ripple effect across every person in the world. Creating art is never about making money, it’s something that resides inside you that you need to get out. Getting out is one of the best things you can do, and you should never hold back from doing so. Yeah, making money is hard, but the further you put that out of your mind, the better your work will be. Don’t think about who’ll read your work, who’ll buy it, where it’s going next. Wrap yourself up in the world of your imagination and explore the depth of what you’re capable of. That’s far more valuable, far more likely to be resonant, real, more likely to generate real connection with your audience.
I write because I love writing. If I don’t write, it eats at me and keeps me up at night and annoys my wife (through my grumblings). I end up criticising films for poor transitions and character motivations, like I know better. But you know the best way to show you do know better? Do it yourself.
Like every other writer in the history of time, I’ve copped my fair share of rejection letters. It’s tough to take, every one hurts, but you know what? It’s also inevitable. It happens to everyone. Don’t believe me?
- Stephen King was told that his debut novel ‘Carrie’ would not sell as it’s ‘science fiction which deals with negative utopias’. King had so many rejection letters that he kept them spiked on a nail – till the nail got too full and he needed to buy a spike. He seems to have done alright for himself in the end.
- Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel was not the hugely successful ‘Fight Club’, it was actually his third published novel, called ‘Invisible Monsters’. Invisible Monsters was initially rejected for being ‘too dark and too risky’. Palahniuk wrote ‘Fight Club’ as a response, setting out to make it darker, riskier and more offensive. The book was a best seller, and Invisible Monsters was published on the back of his rise to literary fame.
- Many people have heard JK Rowling’s tale, how it took her seven-years to write her masterpiece ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, which was subsequently rejected by no fewer than 12 individual publishers. Rowling was broke, a single-mother, a divorcee. She was bordering on poverty, and it was only the fact that the eight year-old daughter of the chairman of Bloomsbury read the first chapter of the book and liked it that it ever reached publication. Now, she’s one of the richest authors in the world.
- “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish” – A rejection note sent to J.G. Ballard for his book ‘Crash’. Crash is disturbing, but it sold well and has never been out of print. The book went on to be translated to film by David Cronenberg and was one of the author’s greatest hits.
- Jack Kerouac was told ‘On the Road’ wouldn’t sell and would be savaged by critics in one of the various rejection notes it received. You’ve heard of that book, right? More than 3 million copies have been sold around the world, and it still sells tens of thousands of copies, every year.
There’s a heap of examples of rejection letters online if you need re-assurance, but the fact is publishers don’t always get it right. No one does, art is always subjective, to at least some degree, so it’s virtually impossible for any one person to say, outright, that a piece of writing is no good. It depends on circumstance, on audience, on a bunch of other factors that come into play when assessing, and while there are many people who have an attuned sense of what makes great writing, there will always be some they’ll miss, that just don’t work for them.
So how do you deal with it? How do you take heart and retain the confidence to pick yourself up and try again after literary rejection? Here’s a couple of tips for coping with the dreaded ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter and getting on with what you do.
Don’t take it personal. More often than not, the editor/s will have a specific thing in mind, something that they’re looking for. In this case, you weren’t it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad. This is particularly true in the case of competitions or journals – sometimes, your work just won’t fit what they’re after. Make sure you read about the judges of competitions, what they like, get an idea of the things they’re interested in. Read about the competition hosts, the competition itself – what are they likely to want to publish as a winner. While objectivity, you’d hope, would be the main driver of any such decision, a local library group whose members are mostly elderly residents is probably not gonna’ select your extreme, cyberpunk masterpiece, no matter how great it is. Make sure you read the journals you submit to, understand what they publish, what they’re looking for. And at the end of the day, don’t take rejection personally. It’s not personal – that piece just didn’t work for what they were after this time. Don’t let it eat away at you and drag you down.
Don’t respond. At least, don’t respond straight away. Your initial reaction will probably be anger and frustration and no matter how you try to hide it, that’ll come across. I was told once that you should ensure you’re 100% confident with the work you submit to journals because if it’s no good and you keep submitting, you can get a reputation, the editors will get to know you and have a negative association before they even begin reading. I don’t necessarily think that’s true -most editors are pretty objective and they read through so much that it’d be hard for them to remember specific names (unless you submitted, like, ten times for every call-out). But one way you can highlight yourself is by responding in anger. Then you’ll be that guy/girl who fired back that one time.
This is true of anything – you should never respond when your emotions are at their highest. When you first receive a rejection letter, and you’re all full-up on frustration and hate, you’re probably gonna’ say something you’ll regret. If you think they’re wrong, you should go prove it – go get published somewhere else and be a success, there’s more than one avenue to take for the literary win.
If you really do have to respond, wait a day, at least, get some perspective, then thank them for their time in assessing your work (it’s always a privilege to have any readers, you need to keep that in mind), and tell them you’ll try again some time. A day later and you’ll feel much more logical, trust me.
Use it as motivation. As noted in the previous point, this is a chance to prove them wrong. Responding and telling them why they’re wrong proves nothing, but showing them why does. Now, I’m not saying you should go and get published then write them a note saying how they were wrong, along with the physical evidence, but shift your mindset from the darkness of rejection and turn that into motivation of future success. If you believe in what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about your work, then you should keep doing it, keep working at it, keep improving and seeking your personal goals. If someone says they’re not interested, fine, seek out someone else who will be and prove to the doubters why they had it wrong. Above all else, you’re writing because it’s who you are, it’s what you do, don’t ever lose sight of that. What other people think can’t change how you feel when doing the work. But rejection is a great source of motivation, to improve, to succeed. Go back and re-assess who you submitted to, see what they’re publishing, learn how to improve your work in-line with where you’d like it to be. Then try again.
Rejection is always hard, in any context. We’ve all suffered through break-ups which leave you devastated and confused. Literary rejection can have the same effect, though (hopefully) on a smaller scale, but the best way to get over it is to look inside yourself, at who you are and what you want to do. What makes you happy? What makes you feel strong, confident, content? That thing that you’re thinking of, that’s what you should be doing, that’s what you need to get back to in order to find happiness within yourself, not someone else. If you’re a writer, you love the work, the research, the plotting, even the editing, because it’s all moving towards making it the best it can be. And that’s incredibly exciting. And yes, you are going to get rejected. But so what? Everyone does. Take it in, action what you can, then go back to doing what you want. Because you never know what’s coming next, what big break could be around the bend. If someone could tell you how to be a success 100% of the time, they would and they’d be a billionaire – because no one can tell you this. There is no definitive path to take. The path to literary success, to any success, is unpredictable. The only guaranteed way to lose is to give up.
A while back, a contact on LinkedIn asked me about how I deal with negative comments on blog posts. I post regularly on LinkedIn, looking at social media marketing and big data, so this was not on the writing posts on this page, but even so, I think it’s a relevant discussion, and one which everyone who posts online is going to deal with at some stage. The fact is not everyone is going to like what you write. This is the same as in regular life – not everyone’s going to like you, no matter how you try. You’ll never please everyone, and while you definitely should read and assess anything and everything that people have taken the time to post in response to your work, you need to also know, within yourself, what the likely outcomes are of your reactions.
‘Never respond to critics’
At one stage in my mentorship which Christos Tsiolkas, Christos advised me to never respond to critical reviews of my work. There’s just no positive outcome, there’s nothing you can say or do that’s going to end up reflecting well on you – if a person says your book is bad and you respond with ‘well you don’t know what you’re talking about’, what then? How will that response reflect on you? Sure, responding might get you some more coverage, maybe it sparks some discussion, some writer taking on his critics, but in the majority of cases in fiction writing you’re debating a difference of opinion. Even if they’ve mis-interpreted your meaning, that’s what they got from your work, that’s the response they had, you can’t really debate that. The unavoidable fact is that the more you put your work out there, the more likely it is that people are going to talk about you – the more people talk, the higher the probability that some of those comments are going to be negative. There’ll always be one. There’ll probably be more than one. The key element to consider is how happy you are with your work – are you, personally, satisfied that you’ve done all you can to make your work the best it can be, the best representation of what you wanted to communicate? From that perspective, you’re better placed to assess whether the critic is raising a valid point worth consideration – you need to be able to assess this for yourself, and think ahead to the most likely outcome of your response or silence. You can’t be sitting over every readers’ shoulder explaining what you meant – people will take what they want from your writing. You have to let them.
‘Always respond to every comment’
Here’s where the non-fiction world differs somewhat – whilst responding to a critic of your fiction work is based purely on a subjective viewpoint, responses and comments on non-fiction work are often based on points of fact, in which case you may need to respond to ensure it’s clear to all that you’ve done the work, that you do know what you’re talking about. The general advice in social media circles is to respond to all comments, positive or negative. But even then, there are some which you just can’t – spammers send through weird things like this:
The article this was posted on was about how social media is ever-evolving. How could I respond to that? What would be the outcome of my response? My judgement in this case was that this wasn’t worth replying to, as there’s nothing to be gained from this – the only possible outcome could be further interactions with what I suspect to be a spammer. So no response.
My basic approach to dealing with negative comments on non-fiction work is stick to logic and avoid emotional response. Emotional response is reactive, so you’re best advised to take a moment to think. You need to appreciate that this person has taken the time to read your piece, that you don’t know what sort of mindset they’re in. From there, you should re-read the comment then only respond if you feel there is likely to be benefit in you doing so. You shouldn’t back away from a challenge – if the commentor is welcoming some sort of debate based on your work, then that’s a great opportunity to generate discussion and make connections with interested parties, but often times that’s not what negative commentors are seeking. Often, they’re just saying things. Understanding which is which is important in your assessment process.
The Comments I’ve Seen
So here’s a few examples of comments on my posts, and how I’ve handled them. This first comment was on a piece about partnerships between social media platforms and tech companies.
The post had more than 3k views and 100 likes, so obviously not everyone shared this commentor’s opinion that it was loaded with jargon. There’s not really anyway I could respond to this, if I say ‘good’ that provides no benefit. I could say it’s not filled with jargon, but I’m not sure it would’ve served much purpose, and the wording of the comment suggest to me that this is not really an opinion based on logic. I chose to ignore in this case.
This next one was on a piece entitled: “What Does a Lack of Social Media Presence Say About Your Brand?”
Obviously this guy felt pretty strongly about it not being relevant – though it is interesting that he read and commented on this piece on a social media network. Again, no response on this one – I doubt that my reasoning would be changing his mind at this stage.
I quite liked this one, and did respond, as per the screenshot. The piece was about how change is constant in the social media space.
Now, admittedly, I’m not sure what the commentor meant about ‘US competitive standing’ – I’m Australian so this wasn’t really in my sphere of thinking when approaching the topic – but my initial response was ‘why comment?’ The post did pretty well, it had been viewed more than 8k times and received a lot of likes, so this was obviously a common thought. To me, this person was just looking to argue, but I felt compelled to respond in this case because I didn’t want to back away from a challenge. In the end, my response is logical, stating my point, avoiding any personal or emotional conflict in my language. Whilst I do think the original comment was baited and attacking in tone, responding in kind is just not going to be beneficial. There was no further correspondence but I was happy with my response.
And then, of course, there are the people who just want to say things. Whether they’re having a bad day or they dislike the topic or they hate the look of your profile photo, some people just want to say things. Take this one for example from a recent piece (not mine) titled ‘Three Unusual Reasons Why Every Professional Should be on Twitter’:
Now, there’s obviously significant evidence to counter this, but even if this was your belief, why comment on a piece about Twitter marketing? Why are you even reading it? Sometimes, people are compelled to say things, no matter what those things are or who they might be broadcast to. If you think it’s worth responding, you should, but there are times when it’s best to just leave them be.
It basically comes down to your own commonsense. You should always read every comment and take in all the info – these people have taken the time to read your work so you owe them the same respect. But you have to consider how your responses are going to be received, remain mindful of the potential outcomes. For fiction, take on board the points raised, consider them, then action them if you feel like there’s something worth investigating to improve your work. If one person comments on a certain aspect that no one else has mentioned, and you don’t necessarily agree with their opinion, then you can leave it. But if two or more people mention the same thing, in isolation from one another, then you need to re-visit and ensure your work best represents what you intended. For non-fiction, respond wherever you can, but only if you think it’s worth doing so.
The worst thing anyone can do is take the comments to heart and give up. Don’t give up. You’re always going to face some level of negativity, it’s important to take it for what it is. It’s one person’s opinion. Don’t take it personal, view it as that, as one person’s thoughts on the work presented, not you personally. Having an idea challenged is actually a great way to solidify and improve your thoughts and processes, we need diverse views to advance our understanding. But also know that sometimes there’s nothing you can say. Either way, every comment is an opportunity to learn.
Here’s a question – let’s say someone came up to you while you were in the audience of a major event. This person comes up, holding a microphone, and the person says: ‘Our singer has called in sick and we have no one to sing the national anthem, would you do it?’ No way, right. No freakin’ way – there is no chance you’re going to get up there and embarrass yourself in front of all these people, right?
I thought of this recently when I saw this clip of Daniel Radcliffe rapping on Jimmy Fallon:
Now, obviously, this was planned – all the set-ups on these shows are, but it got me thinking about our reluctance to do things like this, our hesitation to put ourselves out there. And the lack of that same hesitation in people who’ve achieved significant success.
On one hand, this could be confined to performers – people who love being up on stage are always more likely to take the mic and belt out a song, some would even love the thought of being asked to do the national anthem. But it’s interesting to consider why we’re so hesitant, why we’re so petrified of embarrassment. Because generally, there’s not a lot of fallout for people who fail in such circumstances. I mean, if you were to butcher the national anthem you’d become an internet sensation, blasted across every news site beneath headlines celebrating your failure in pithy wordplay. That would be bad, but if you’re not a singer and you had a shot at it and failed, does it matter if you get criticised for failing as a singer? Is it something that’ll be held against you forever? Think of this case, where a taxi driver was mistaken for an IT expert:
Of course, there is an inherent risk in putting forth your opinions on a topic in which you want to be seen as a leader – you don’t want to be presenting to a room of business executives on a topic you have absolutely no idea about, but I guess the point I’m making is that we often over-emphasize the potential harm of failure. Even perceived failure, failure in disciplines where we have no expertise. But those who are more willing to put themselves out there, more likely to take what’s presented to them and just go with it, those people are also more likely to achieve success. Because they’re more likely to say what they think, more likely to stand up and be counted, to present their work, come what may. Because really, it doesn’t matter what most people think. If you’re willing to take a risk and put yourself out there, you’re increasing your chances of success, purely through exposure alone. People shouldn’t be afraid to try things, to present their ideas and thoughts, to reach out. Because why not?
There’s always a level of commonsense in anything, this is not to say you should do whatever you want, whenever you want, screw the consequences, but who cares if you stand up and embarrass yourself at a karaoke bar? Who cares what strangers who you’ll never meet think? So long as you’re having fun and the people who do mean something to you are too. Why not try it out?
The same principle applies to writing, or art of any kind, really. How many people do you know who say they want to write a book or want to have a go at something but they never do? Why not have a try it out? Why not get it down and work on it and submit to a competition or journal? If you hear nothing, so what? You tried. If they didn’t like it, no problem, you can try again – if it makes you happy and it’s something you really want to do (and it doesn’t harm anyone in the process) you should do it. Because you don’t want to be one of those people looking back, talking about how you always wanted to be a [insert title here].
Every now and then, try to take a risk and do something you’d normally avoid, rather than hiding inside your own shell. Through small steps, pushing yourself that little bit, you build up your resilience to outside opinions and increase your chances of achieving your dreams. The more you do it, the more you build trust in yourself. The sky didn’t fall in. Your world didn’t collapse. And in putting yourself out there, you also allow others into your world, helping you connect with likeminded people and build interest-based communities, communities that can help you further your dreams through mutual support. Communities that help you fill that need you’ve always wanted, that thing you’ve always wanted to be. Trying is the key. Sharing what you’re passionate about.
Why not try?
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.