How A Mars Bar Gave Me Discipline
(Kind Of)

“We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

— Aristotle

At one point during my teen years, I became obsessed with self-discipline. I’d stand in a line for hours, with my legs aching, when I could easily sit down. I’d hang around in the freezing rain in spite of nearby shelter. I’d walk home for miles when I could just get on a bus and be back in minutes. I kept testing the limits of what I could withstand, both mentally and physically. I was training myself to be a strong-minded person. Up until then, I’d always been riddled with anxiety.

At the time, Mars was my favourite chocolate. I was addicted to it. Almost every day I’d buy a Mars and devour it in two or three bites. Sometimes I’d melt it in milk or mash it up into some ice cream. I couldn’t get enough of them. Then one day my mum mentioned diabetes, which shook me — at such a young age, diabetes seemed just as horrifying to me as cancer or AIDS or a broken spine. I realised I had to do something about it. So I bought a king-sized Mars, nibbled at the corner, and left it on the side.

The next day I nibbled the corner again, just the tiniest bite, and put it back in its spot. Day after day I repeated this action. This went on for weeks and eventually I nibbled the Mars down to a nub, then to nothing. I can’t remember the exact period, but it was at least a month, no more than two. For a teenager addicted to chocolate, it took a lot of self-discipline to withhold my urges. 

But I was determined to not let that fucking Mars get the best of me.

And weirdly enough, I don’t even like or buy them anymore.

You might be wondering how this is relevant to writing. 

I’ll tell you.


“If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment,

and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha


Self-discipline is one of the key components of a professional writer, and a lot of the time it’s the sole difference between the pro and the amateur — not talent (although that’s important too, if somewhat hard to measure), but discipline. Being a genius or naturally gifted with words means little if you rarely hone those skills. Travelling the world and being infused with life experience and different cultures is equally meaningless if you never empty your mind to the page.

Self-discipline is what sits you down and makes you type, even when you feel like shit. Even when the words are coming thick and slow and it seems like everything you write is trash. You need to treat writing like a full-time job. Dedicating only half an hour a week to your future is like building your dream house by laying one brick a year.

Plus writing requires so much more than completing just a single project (although, having said that, any completion of a project is to be celebrated). The true requirement is consistency. You must be consistently learning, growing, and experimenting with words. But most importantly, you must be writing. It doesn’t matter what: novels, blogs, stories, poems, whatever. That creative muscle in your brain should be worked — it should be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing brains; if your mind is turned into a human body, people should accuse you of taking steroids because it’s so fucking pumped up.

And all of that requires self-discipline . . . which can be taught.

You just need a little discipline to learn how to adapt to it. 

So you need discipline to learn discipline.

Some Catch 22 paradox type shit.

I’ll explain how. 


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu


Take it one day at a time like a recovering drug addict. Every morning sit down at your desk (or stand at it, or lean on it — what do I care?) and load up your computer. That’s the first part. Even before you’ve told yourself you can’t write, or you won’t write, or you don’t want to write, you need to perch up in front of your laptop and flip it open.

Now load up a blank writing document. At first, if you don’t feel like doing anything else, that’s okay. Just sit there in front of it and stare at the blinking cursor. You can take the time to think of ideas, or meditate, or cry, or whistle, but make sure you don’t answer your phone or talk to people during this time. And keep doing that for a while. A week, a month, however long until you’re in the habit of going to your computer first thing, flipping it open and sitting down for a period of time in front of a blank writing document. 

What you’ll be doing is forming a mini-habit. Your brain will train itself to a mode of working. It’ll know that every morning (or every evening, if that’s easier — but try to make the time specific so it can anchor in your brain), you’ll sit down in front of your computer and open a writing document. Your next step after that will be to write something, but at first it doesn’t need to be anything important. 

If it’ll free up your mind, you can write any nonsense on the screen. For instance, if you’re planning to go shopping later that day, talk about it. Today I’m going shopping, after that I’m going home, then I’m going to have a bath, then I’ll eat, I don’t know, I’m just writing words blah blah oranges. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. All you’re doing for now is creating a habit.

Before long, your brain will be used to you sitting and writing, which is usually the hardest part for most people: actually parking in front of the screen and typing. To anchor that habit even deeper, whenever you sit at the computer and type, put on the same playlist of music. Overtime these songs will become writing triggers. Your brain will know you’re ready to work as soon as it hears the playlist begin its cycle. But don’t listen to the same songs when you’re NOT writing or you’ll corrupt the habit-forming process. 

If you set aside an hour a day to do all of this, you’ll soon cement a writing habit into your daily routine. And the greatest part is that it won’t cause you any strain — you’re under no pressure to produce anything of value.

But now comes the hard part . . .


“A disciplined mind leads to happiness; 

an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” — Dalai Lama


You’re at the screen and expected to write something valid; not just stream-of-conscious bullshit, but a story or blog post. If that fills you with fear and dread, that’s okay. For some people, even the thought of attempting to write can cripple them. Partly it’s anxiety (fear of failure or low self-esteem), but the other reason is a lack of discipline. You’re not used to sitting down and writing a masterpiece. You haven’t done it before. What makes you think you can do it now?

Fuck that. Throw that all away. Take all that negative thinking, fold it into a box, and set it on fire. 

Then take a moment to think about what you intend to write. Some writers can go in cold and produce blockbusters; others need to have an outline or a plan. It’s up to you which process works better, but for now, take a second to think about what you want to write. Do you already know? Have you already got the idea for your novel? Then break it down. You don’t have to start writing before it’s ready. Break it down until you know what your first chapter is going to be. Now give yourself a small target: write one scene.

What can debilitate a lot of writers is the sheer size and breadth of a novel. Thinking about writing so many pages and keeping it all coherent and interesting is like asking someone to imagine themselves building a pyramid with a spoon. It can seem impossible. But by breaking it into smaller, more digestible pieces, you only have to concentrate on the one scene ahead — just a few pages, no more than ten. You can do that, right? Or not?

Then break it down even further. Set yourself the task of one page.

If that’s still terrifying, tell yourself you just want to write a paragraph today. Anyone can write four or five lines. They don’t need to be good lines — they just need to be.

Then the next day you can write another paragraph, and keep going like that.

Eventually, with the building of your habit, and with some extra self-discipline, you should get into a routine. That paragraph will grow into two, then four, then six, then five pages. Before long, you’ll be tapping away at the keys for hours a day.

And if you’re not, and you’re still slacking and finding ways not to write?

Then pull your head out of the mud and slap yourself awake. 

Writers write — wannabes talk. Are you a writer or a wannabe?

Make that decision now, and then proceed to your corner.


“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn


Writing is hard for everyone. It’s no easier for the professionals than it is for the amateurs. The only difference is the comfort of a cheque at the end of their work. But they’re crying and sweating and swearing at their keyboards just like the rest of us.

They’re also working hard, day after day, to continue their success.

So take note: get your self into gear and work that brain muscle.

You can do it. You just gotta trick your brain into believing it.


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Be Your Own Worst Enemy
(Reading With A Critical Eye)

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees.

When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”

— Stephen King

In my article Everything You Write Is Terrible I told you about my horribly-conceived short story A Moment of Crisis, one of my first pieces of work.

I thought it was the best thing in the history of the world. My English teacher Mr Judelson (a nervous, soft-hearted man on the cusp of retirement) gave my story a B and praised it to the class, calling it “terrifying” and “inventive”. I practically did a backflip.

Later that day, everyone wanted to read it; a copy found its way around school through word of mouth. In my mind, I was officially the world’s greatest writer: I’d written a smash-hit.

Thankfully, I was soon brought back down to earth.

With a giant skull-crushing thud.


“To avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” ― Aristotle 


The next year, following Mr. Judelson’s retirement, we were assigned a new teacher. A young, shapely blonde, who half the class wanted to be punished by (although, in spite of her good looks, I always found her nails to be long, unkempt and dirty — but that’s another story). In any case, in reviewing our GCSE coursework, she read my story and slaughtered it. I’d expected her to return it to me with equal praise, so I could brag about how the hot English teacher loved my work.

Instead she picked apart every inconsistency, every awkward sentence, and tore me open for my needless use of the word “pusillanimous” — which I’d clearly learned from an episode of Dawson’s Creek, or stumbled across when reading a WORD OF THE DAY calendar and thought it would make me seem smart.

At first I was disappointed by her negative feedback, and a little resentful. My story had been praised by the previous teacher and disseminated around school, receiving almost universal praise (one kid said it was boring, but I discounted his opinion because I didn’t like him). So why was this hateful bitch calling my work bad? Maybe she didn’t like me, I thought.

Then, the more I read over her comments, the more I agreed with everything she pointed out. Not only did she mention my poor use of English, she also highlighted plot implausibilities and gave practical advice about my setting and characters. Finally, with my self-esteem bruised, I decided she’d been right and thanked her for the valuable input.

That was my first lesson in both rejection (which hurt) and objectivity (which opened up my naïve eyes to the truth: I’m not a writing king).

From that moment on I began trying to develop a more critical eye*.

(*Which sounds like I wanted an eye that’s been stabbed and taken to Intensive Care, but that’s not what I mean).


“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” ― Benjamin Franklin


In order to develop your critical faculties, you need to read a lot of books over a wide spectrum of genres and pick them apart. Analyse their structure, the use of dialogue to convey action, the way they introduce and build characters. Look at both the good and the bad. If the book isn’t enjoyable, why not? What don’t you like about it? If you do like it, note the sections when you stop reading or put it aside. Why did you stop reading? Did the story slow down? Did the tension slack? Or was there a break in the narrative? If something bugs you — whether it’s plot or character based, or concerning dialogue or scene construction — mark it down. If a character scratches your nerves with jagged fingernails, try to work out what made you disengage with that character? Or why didn’t you feel an affinity with that character in the first place? A lack of sympathetic traits? Too arrogant? Too meek? All of these questions are important, but there’s no wrong answer.

Some writers/readers love certain types of characters, dialogue, settings, etc. What one person thinks is insightful, another person finds trite. That’s okay. What you’re trying to find out is what you like in a book. Then you can infuse your own novels with more of what you enjoy reading. Because first and foremost, your writing should impress yourself — you should be able to read your work and feel proud of it. 

Once you realise what works in the writing of others and what doesn’t, you’ll be able to stamp out those bad habits from your own novels. Your book may be pitted with potholes that your brain has been navigating past all this time, but the moment you put them to the forefront of your mind, they’ll all begin to spring up; these horrible dark holes that need to be paved over. You might read a book and hate how the author repeated a scene in multiple ways. You’re frustrated by this, thinking He’s a bad guy, we get it! and then refer to your own work-in-progress and realise you’ve made a similar error. The more you see their flaws, the more you can pick at your own. Just peel those layers off until you find the darkness within.

In the end, once you can look at your work and know when it’s worthy or unworthy, you’re on the right track. If you’ve never written anything bad, you’re blind.

Or an unimaginable genius.

Because we all write something shit from time to time.

Even the greats occasionally churn out fat lumps of nothing.

But how do we analyse our own work if we think it’s great? 


“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s

own reason and critical analysis.” — Dalai Lama


It’s easy to think our shit smells of roses. But when someone goes into the bathroom after you and comes out crying, maybe it’s not true. Sometimes we’re too close to our children to see their flaws. 

Have you ever been in the house of someone who has a pack of dogs? Not all, but some dog owners’ houses stink of dog. All you can smell is piss and fur and dead rats hidden in the corners. This is doubly true for those with cats — their litters stink the house to high-heaven. But if you ask the owners about it, most times they’ll say they don’t notice it. Well that’s like your story sometimes: it’s a house full of stinking wet dog fur and you can’t see it or smell it. You’re too close to the material.

The only time these owners recognise how bad their house smells is usually after they go on a prolonged vacation for a month or so, then return from fresh air to a stinking cesspit of dead dogs and piles of festering shit. So in regards to your novel, leave it for a while. Go on holiday, breathe in that fresh air. Then come back to it with critical eyes. You’re no longer the writer — you’re a reader now. And you want to be entertained, goddammit.

Why is your main character doing this? Why is the plot turning this way?

Question it in the same way you would with someone you hate. When we like someone, we tend to justify their idiotic decisions. If our friend wears a green porkpie hat with a purple jacket and pink socks, we say: Oh, that’s just Rob. He’s like that. Kooky guy. But when someone you hate makes a similar fashion faux pas, the context changes. Now it’s merely a guy in a stupid purple jacket. Oh God, look at Rob. He’s so pretentious. I hate him even more now. 

Look at your story with the eye of someone who wants to hate it. Search for faults that don’t exist. You don’t necessarily need to act on them (not right away; not while you’re in hate mode anyway), but it’s useful for you to know where the problem areas are. That way, later on, you can fix them. Objectivity is one of your most powerful tools.

In fact, later on I’ll objectively analyse everything I’ve written above and think: What a pile of rubbish. Overlong, overwritten with no real helpful tips for anyone.

Unfortunately for you, I’ve already decided to post it.

Too late to change it now . . .


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My advice for those considering writing as a career option:

Don’t do it. Pick teaching or be a lawyer or something.

Get out while you still can. It’s cold and dark in here.

And no one knows where to find the light switch.


“Don’t be ‘a writer’. Be writing.” ― William Faulkner


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Kill Their Family
(But Only If You Have To)

“On the night of the murder I was at home, asleep.

The characters in my dream can vouch for me.” 

Jarod Kintz 

In my early days as a writer I couldn’t work out how to give my characters depth. On the surface they’d seem funny or interesting, but they generally lacked anything intriguing other than their witty dialogue. At the time I was so influenced by Elmore Leonard’s writing style that I tried to mimic him with these ultra-cool criminal types. What I ended up with was cardboard characters spouting one-liners with nothing else under the hood — just a row of unrealistic too-cool generic cutouts. 

Then one day I sketched out a protagonist with a dead dad and this piece of information seemed to give him a real emotional weight. It changed my dialogue, too. Not every line was a witty trying-too-hard punchline. My hero interacted like a human. I thought I’d finally unlocked the secret to writing believable characters. 

So I did the same thing with my next character: I gave him a dead mother. And I gave the next one after that a dead sister, and it got to a point where every character I created had a dead family member, or two dead family members, or a dead wife. In many instances their death was incidental to the plot; it had no relevance to anything. I just automatically killed fictional parents for the sake of giving my characters emotional depth.

And it was stupid. Not only did my protagonists soon become stale and repetitive, but it rarely added anything fresh to the story.


“I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.”

― Jo Walton


What gave them depth wasn’t the death of their loved ones — it was the fact I’d given them a back story. I knew where they’d come from; I could talk about their childhood, why they’d become the person they’d grown into. By killing someone close to them and delving into their emotions, I was able to paint a broader picture about their needs and likes; their desires and motivations. I accidentally filled in their history when I should have been doing it anyway. And underneath all of this was something my previous characters lacked: truth.

I’m not saying you need a five-page dossier on your protagonist. But you should know them like you’d know a friend. They should seem real to you. They should be more than just The-Girl-With-The-Dead-Fish

Or else why bother writing about them in the first place?


“The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”

― Lauren DeStefano 


If you must kill someone’s family member — if it has some relevance to the story and isn’t merely a fix-on — then do it. In those days my killings were senseless. At least give the death a motive. If it’s to infuse your main character with a deadly desire to hunt down the killers, that’s okay. If it’s to portray the character’s torturous background and showcase his brutal upbringing, or even the sadness at the loss of his parents, then sure, go with it.

But don’t think a death in the family automatically makes someone interesting. And that goes for other things, too: giving him or her tattoos, or a drug problem, or a fetish for shark porn, or a nervous tic, or anything else you tack on for the sake of it. Gimmicks and tics and verbal repetitions don’t make a character. Telling your audience that Bob only ever drinks chocolate milk is not a way to portray a fully formed human being — it’s just showcasing a personality trait. Go below the surface.

People aren’t interesting simply because they have tortured pasts, or because they know a few party tricks, or because they walk with a limp due to a bullet fragment caught in their knee. All of that is dressing. Many character add-ons are dragged straight from the cliché factory. Sometimes they work (clichés exist for a reason), but look around you: there are millions of fascinating people on this planet. Learn about them.

Talk to people in bars, in queues at the supermarket. Do you find them funny? Arrogant? Smart? What do you like about them? What do you dislike about them? If you look hard enough, you’ll see that the most interesting people aren’t just those who’ve suffered personal loss or pain. 

Ultimately we’re drawn to those who reflect our own beliefs and morals. Which can be dangerous for your creativity. 


“I’d like my readers to feel they want to follow my characters off the page at the end of the book.” ― Vanessa Couchman


In order to grow as writers we must seek out those whose principles clash with our own. Those who believe in the opposite to us ― politically, emotionally, mentally. Seek them out and study them. Why do they think so differently? What makes them stand out? Why would other people find them interesting? The more answers you have for these questions the more you’ll be able to write likeable three-dimensional characters, and they won’t all be manifestations of yourself. They may, to an extent, have a piece of you in them — but they’ll also have a piece of Fred, Sally, Dave, and anyone else you’ve been in contact with. 

And that’s important if you want to build a diverse range of characters.

Even if you hate people, make it your goal to engage with them. Don’t talk about yourself. Your story isn’t important. You’re not trying to impress anyone. Talk about them. Ask about who they are, what job they have; find out what their passion is, what drives them in life. You might meet a raging racist or homophobe who’s also an animal activist/charity worker and a loving father. Those kinds of dichotomies are compelling to learn about, and they’ll give your work an extra layer if you portray them in a relatable way. Good and bad is never black and white. It’s important to seek out the grey area in people’s twisted thought processes and transfer that to your work. 

If you’re shy, join up to classes, get into a book club or a dance class or something similar. Make sure the next time you’re invited to a barbecue, you say yes. Get out of your comfort zone. This will not only help with your character writing, but your writing in general.

A good writer lives a varied and plentiful life. Soak in experience.

Then drain all of that into your ink and write your masterpiece.


“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” William Faulkner 


A word of warning: don’t get too caught up on the same people, the same areas, the same places. The moment you begin to gravitate to a certain section of people, or of character design, you’ll be destined to repeat patterns. Always make sure you’re challenging what you know and who you know. Let your characters change and grow. And the way to do that is to actively change and grow yourself. 

Even if it means confronting your greatest fears head-on.

Why be a timid sheep when you can be ferocious wolf?


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