imgresStepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone
(In order to learn a few lessons)

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”

— Oscar Wilde

After my agent lost interest in my crime novel City of Blades following a year of back and forth rewrites, it was time to try something else. Starting a new project can be daunting; my writing folder is overloaded with half-sketched ideas and uncooked outlines, just begging for my attention. And there’s no real order to it: I have crime novels, a detective series, a comedy script, novellas, horror stories, sweeping romance epics, and many more. I dabble in everything, and I’m a master of nothing. But amongst all the detritus, rather than going with my safe choice — another adult crime novel — I chose instead to step out of my comfort zone.

Earlier in our talks my agent had shown an interest in Young Adult novels (she had a number of ties to YA publishing houses) and felt I’d be good at writing one — possibly because my first crime novel was stocked with teenagers.

Anyway, once an idea began to blossom I decided to try it out, thinking it wouldn’t be too different than anything else I’d written. All I’d have to do was drop the word fuck and cut out all the violence, drug-taking and murder scenes and I’d be okay.

I figured I had nothing to lose — why not see how it went?


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” — Neale Donald Walsch


My first task was to instil routine and discipline to my writing. In my early years I used to finish a novel every twelve months or so, which is considered prolific in some quarters and lazy in others. Either way, if I intended to impress the agent who’d lost faith in me I needed to wow her, and the book had to be delivered within the year.

That was my thinking anyway. 

At no point did I worry about passion, or about whether the book or the plot needed time to breathe, I merely jumped in head first and hoped to swim. My plan was simple: I had to write every day, no matter what. It didn’t make a difference if I wrote a sentence or twenty pages. My only stipulation was that I couldn’t go to sleep unless I’d written something in the novel. And I didn’t once break that rule: I wrote every day.

In the end, I completed the novel (Crimson Sky) in the space of three months.

And it was a steaming pile of dog shit.


“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy


In all these years I’ve probably read about three Young Adult books.

To my small mind, a YA book was no different than an adult one, just slightly watered-down. I didn’t realise they had certain conventions and rules. Not once did I consider researching the field or reading the current top authors to understand the subject matter and how they put the message across. Instead I arrogantly blundered my way into their world, wearing a blindfold and hacking away at everything with a rusty machete — dogs, children, families. 

My story centred around schoolboy Oliver Crown, a nerdy Tin-Tin like wannabe journalist who vows to uncover the truth behind a murder committed on school grounds. The premise wasn’t groundbreaking but it had enough legs to stretch into a decent 70,000-word novel, as long as I properly cultivated the idea. Instead, desperate to produce a new novel and send it off to my agent, I rushed into it without thought, penning an essentially linear murder plot with not much in the way of depth or intelligence. In my ignorance I assumed Young Adult books didn’t require brains to their novels. I treated it like a conversation with a child: I spoke down to my audience. The main character was likeable, but everyone else was a cardboard cutout with no personality. The dialogue was okay but mawkish. The novel, in essence, lacked bite.

And I know why: I’d written the novel for the sake of it. Not because I connected with the plot or the characters; not because it was bursting inside of my head and I needed to let it free for fear it would eat my brain. I wrote it merely as a means to an end. And it reads that way — like a lifeless shitty project. I might as well have ghostwritten it.

Not only that, but I wrote the final showdown of the book when drunk, slamming away at the keys as fast as possible while downing shots with my friends. I couldn’t wait to finish it so we could go out and have fun and I could forget it ever existed. My mind wasn’t on the task at hand, but on the final line ahead. And in my drunkenness, I lost any kind of discipline with the story. The book ended with me killing the majority of the cast in a gruesome way, while at the same time uncovering a shocking paedophile subplot which for some reason I’d weaved into the narrative early on, once again forgetting it was a Young Adult novel.

Then, after finishing it, I sent it off to my agent without so much as a rewrite or a second draft. Predictably, she turned the book down and practically turned me away too.

But what did I expect? No one likes having flaming shit sent to their door.

Especially not literary agents. They read enough of it day-to-day.


“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” — Dan Stevens


However, the ordeal wasn’t a total loss. I look back on the whole fiasco as a learning process. Next time, if I try to step out of what I know I’ll be more aware of the pitfalls. For a start, I’ll read heavily within the genre I’m choosing — not to copy what’s already there, but to get an idea of the current conventions and trends, even if I plan to buck them. It’s important to know the rules, especially if you’re planning to break them.

Also, I learned a few tricks about disciplining myself with my writing schedule. Up until that point I’d been inconsistent for almost ten years. Some weeks I’d write thousands of words, other times I’d write ten words, or a page, or nothing. Some days I’d sit down at the computer, tell myself to write, and if I found enough excuses not to do it, then I wouldn’t. That was naïve. Anyone who’s ever had an office job knows that sitting in front of the screen isn’t enough to make you productive. You need to force yourself to work — whether it’s because your boss is breathing down your neck or because you have a deadline you need to fulfil. Either way, during the writing of this terrible YA novel I managed to sit down at my computer and write every day without fail.

And although my execution of the book was slipshod, I still wrote a novel in three months — which at the time was a record (I’ve since written an equally long novel in three weeks, and a much better one too). Regardless of anything else, I’d completed the project and was free to move on to something new. And in the future I’d know to plan ahead with my writing. Maybe jot down notes the day before, or outline the next chapter in advance, or just going into it with a clearer idea of what I’m doing. 

For so long I’d been convinced that I didn’t need a plot as long as I had the barebones outline. I figured in the end everything would fall into place, which sometimes it does; but sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t all be Stephen King, and it’s the reason why some of his books are amazing and some are just big colourful doorstoppers.

Anyway, my point is this: no finished project is a total failure.

It’s all a lesson for the future. And sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, even if it’s just so you know not to do that again.

So go back to your novel and finish it off. Even if you know it’s terrible.

I promise, if you keep hacking away at the weeds, eventually you’ll discover the house you’re looking for. The haunted one with all the dead bodies in the basement.

You just gotta keep working at it.


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


This week’s guest blog is a guide to useful tech tools for writers. It’s written by American blogger Caroline, whose work you can also find at Culture Coverage. I’ll put her details below the post if you want to check out any of her other articles or follow her on Twitter


[If you’d like to write a guest blog for this website about a subject of your choice, email here for more details.]

tech-tool
Useful Tech Tools For Budding Writers

It’s likely there’s someone you know who aspires to write that Great American Novel. Maybe you’re that person. Your mind swims with ideas for characters and plot, but the second you get in front of your computer to write, it all disappears. Maybe you get distracted by your social media accounts or simply watching videos on YouTube. Maybe you think you need a writing teacher to guide you through the process (George Kelly thinks otherwise). Whether you’re on your desktop or smartphone, there are several useful tools you can use to help increase your productivity.


Evernote

Available for both your PC and smartphone, Evernote is an excellent tool for jotting down random thoughts, storing photos or making note of other interesting tidbits you come across during your day. You never know when inspiration will strike. Whether you upload the images from your smartphone or desktop, you can access whatever you add from any device.

If that’s not enough, your notes are also searchable, encoded with GPS, and easy to organize via tags and folders. You can even share your notes publicly to get feedback or simply share the research that went into your piece.

[Editor’s Note: I personally prefer SimpleNote. Check it out here.


Virtual Private Network (VPN)

If you’re like many writers, you do your best work outside of the home. This can be a library or a coffee shop, but your location will likely have free WiFi. Even with a WiFi password in place, connecting to a public hotspot can still open your computer up to hackers. In order to protect your information, you should use a VPN service. When you go through this service, you encrypt any information sent over the web, making it nearly impossible for hackers to get access to it. You can check out some of these VPN reviews by Secure Thoughts to find one that suits your needs, as there are quite a few on the market.


Dragon

There’s something intimidating about a blank Word document. The cursor blinks at you waiting for words to pour forth from the keyboard, but it’s too much pressure. If you often feel this way, it might make more sense to talk through your story rather than write it down. Dictation tools such as Dragon have come a long way in terms of accuracy. All you need is a mic and the software and you’re ready to get started. It might be a bit strange at first talking through a novel, but it might clear up your writer’s block.

Even if you don’t use it for actually writing your book, it’s still a good option for outlining the story and making notes on plot lines or character background. You can also use it for other tasks. Writing emails or making a post to social media might get a whole lot quicker with dictation.


Place to Write

If you’re a Mac user, you’re in luck. Place to Write offers some excellent creative writing aids like a character builder, plot generator and more to help jumpstart your imagination. You can customize the appearance by choosing a theme if you so choose. For those who work best on a deadline, you can also set writing goals and timers. You can even share what you’ve written easily via email or social media.


Hemingway App

Looking to improve your writing? There’s no better way to learn than from the best. Of course, it’s a bit hard to do if the writer is dead, but you get the next best thing – an app named after a famous writer. All joking aside, the Hemingway app is a great tool for those who want to improve their writing. It immediately identifies potential problems with your text, such as complex words, long sentences or overuse of adverbs, and highlights them with different colors. You can then change it yourself or view the suggestions to get a better understanding of how to fix the issue.


Wappwolf

There’s nothing worse than losing all of your writing because you need to wipe your hard drive. If you’re not doing it already, you should really have multiple backups of your project in various locations such as your hard drive, an external hard drive and a cloud server. The problem with having so many backups is the time it takes to update all of these locations (and then there’s the organizational nightmare). That’s where Wappwolf comes in. Rather than uploading to four different locations, it allows you to save a file to a single folder. The software then automatically uploads the document to your preferred locations. It’s a huge time saver and ensures that all of your backups have the most updated version of your novel.


There are dozens of other useful tools you can add to your arsenal. It’s up to you to choose which one fits your needs the best. Of course, none of these tools will help if you don’t actually start writing(!)

Do you have a handy writing tool that you always use?

Tell us in the comments.


HeadshotCaroline is a freelance tech and entertainment writer. As a freelance writer she often suffers from writer’s block and uses multiple apps on her smartphone and computer for motivation and inspiration. She hopes you’ll be able to use some of these tools to help your own writing.

You can find other articles by Caroline here, or follow her on Twitter here


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


hate-everythingThe Bad Is Sometimes Good
(The Reason I Hate Everything) 

“Life is too short to read books that I’m not enjoying.”

Melissa Marr

If I were to give you a rundown of every novel I’ve disliked, hated or tossed aside you’d think I just hated books in general. It doesn’t take much for me to put a book down. It can be a jarring paragraph, a disjointed narrative, an overly linear plot, a convoluted mess of a story, an over-sentimental group of characters, an under-sentimental crew of people, a clanging back and forth of dialogue, an errant phrase, an imbecilic metaphor or simile, or it could be a constant annoying overuse of dialogue add-ons such as: He nodded, he shook his head, he smiled. Sometimes my reasons are less obvious: I’ll be gripped by the writing style but the story will lack drive or character motivation or the whole thing will be thematically bereft. I guess I’m hard to please.

I’m critical of almost everything and anything. And in my barely humble opinion this is how every writer should read.

With an eye to hate everything — and work out how to fix it.


“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”Henri Bergson


Reading critically is essential for every aspiring writer (read more about that here). But there’s no point simply quitting books and moving on to the next one without any introspection. You won’t learn anything that way. You need to not only quit but analyse why you came to that decision. What turned you off about the book?

The plot? The wooden dialogue? Did the characters ring false?

Even when I pick a book with all the ingredients I’m searching for — crime, violence, murder, sex, bad language — I still throw eight out of ten to the side out of boredom or frustration. They don’t engage me on a full spectrum. They may pique my interest in small ways, but unless I feel like the novel is something spectacular, I give up. In order to not miss out on a potential classic I’ll give it a few chapters first, especially if I’m impressed by the prose, but after that I throw it to the side with the rest of the trash.

But the more I analyse what makes my engine click and my heart tick, the more I spot patterns — both positive and negative. I’ve noticed, for instance, Michael Connelly overuses tags such as He shook his head. I once read a page of his with five or six head shakes. That’s a lot of head shaking. And if they weren’t shaking their heads, they were nodding. It became a game to me: I’d look out for the next nod or head shake, which was usually only a page or so away. Pick up one of his books now, flip to any page and you’re almost certain to find a nod or a head shake. Most people won’t notice, or care, but the constant repetition didn’t fade into the background like He said. Instead it reminded me that I was reading and pulled me from my connection with the book. Which is a shame, because I enjoy his writing other than that.

And that’s just one example of many. Stephen King always seems to have a character that laughs at something innocuous or unfunny until he cries, tears streaming from his face. Elmore Leonard, in many of his novels, has dialogue that’s too cute and so cool it’s actually distracting — every clipped word and dropped syllable comes across as stylised rather than natural. What started out as a great ear turned almost into a parody. Robert Crais has characters call each other by their surnames all the time, even if they’ve just met. “Hi, I’m Dave Seltzer,” one will say. “Nice to meet you, Seltzer,” the other guy will respond. He does it in almost all of his books and it detracts from my reading experience. 

And the list goes on and on and on.

Because the more I’m aware of the things that bug me in other writers, the more I can excise it from my own work. And it goes deeper than that: on top of pattern searching I analyse other aspects too. Why did the book turn me off? At what point did I stop reading? What did I hate about it? What did I like about it? Again, with each question I learn something.

The quickest way to improve is through reading someone else’s mistakes.


“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed,

it was the ability to think with critical objectivity.”Josh Lanyon


You’ve got to know what’s bad, to write what’s good. Or at least you should know what you consider to be bad. Others may disagree with your likes and dislikes, but that’s okay. You want to write a novel that you would be proud of; something that you’d place on your shelf with pride, and you do that by picking apart your competitors. If you don’t know why you like some books but hate others, how can you weave the right elements into your manuscript? If you put down a novel because the villain has a weak motive, remember that. In your next draft, go over your own villain’s motives (if you have a villain) and analyse them again. Are the motives strong enough? If you were reading your own work objectively, as a new reader, would you connect with the characters?

I embrace books with strong plots, narrative drive, realistic dialogue, depth of character, and a subtext of deep emotion. I want the full package. Having said that, even the fantasy books with these elements still tend to bore me. I shy away from them. But that’s okay: fantasy just isn’t my thing. Even still, I don’t discard them entirely — it’s always good to read work out of your comfort zone — and yet I have a clear idea of what turns me on. And as a writer you need to know that. If you love everything, your standards probably aren’t that high. And it’s high standards that leads to good writing.

If you enjoy a particular genre, get the top ten writers and read their work one after the other. Note down the aspects you liked and the parts you didn’t. Pay attention to the way each of them constructed their plot, or their subplots, or built characters, etc. Keep focused on what they’re doing in every scene, even the stuff that’s under the surface.

The more you’re aware of these things, the more picky you’ll become. You’ll judge books like a literary agent: you’ll hate almost everything you set eyes on.

And that’s good. It means you’re cultivating a preference and standards. 

Which you will eventually transfer to your own work.


“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


As you begin to hate the books you read, you’ll also find that you love the ones that work. The fact they pass your test and hit every (or at least nine out of ten) of your requirements will excite you. You may even feel pangs of jealousy, wishing you could write something so great, and telling yourself (wrongly) that you’ll never be able to.

That’s okay. It can work as your motivation. Just never stop evolving. Don’t turn that critical eye off. Keep reading and judging and nitpicking and chopping books up.

And in the end you’ll either be a bestselling author with strong work —
or a bitter book critic who lives in your mother’s basement.

It’s a thin line: so walk over it very carefully . . .  


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


imagesYou Don't Need A Writing Teacher
(But They CAN Help)

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

~ Flannery O’Connor

For many aspiring writers, the allure of a writing course can be hard to resist. It seems perfect: they not only have someone to constantly validate their work, but they also get a certificate at the end which they can wave around, proclaiming they’re writers now because their teacher told them so. But do these courses actually help?

It depends what your intentions are, and what you hope to gain from the course. If you sign up to a creative writing class or seminar in order to be handed a secret get-rich-quick formula, you’ll be wasting your time. They don’t exist. And if someone tells you they do, they’re lying. There are certainly tricks and tips that you can implement to improve your work and make it more saleable, but that doesn’t mean you can write a bestseller based on a four-point process. That might work with a screenplay, but novels are a different animal. There’s no universally accepted blueprint to writing a bestselling book.

I once read a story about an agent who rejected an author’s work and received a letter back telling the agent he was wrong to disregard it. The writer argued that he’d read and broken down every bestseller on the market and pinpointed the formula — the highs and lows, the fight scenes, the love story, etc. — and constructed his novel to match those moments. His book was practically a carbon copy of those thrillers, so how could his novel possibly fail? But it’s not that simple.

Novels are vast landscapes, and there’s so much that goes on below the surface. Characterisation, theme, prose, subplots, emotion, dialogue, interaction, scene pacing. This can’t be torn down and turned into bullet points. You may build something resembling a bestseller on the surface level, but everything else will be wrong under the hood. That’s where your talent and hard work comes into play.

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

~ William Arthur Ward


There are plenty of amazing writing teachers in the world. But for every great teacher, there are thirteen terrible ones whose advice could derail your ambitions and interrupt your learning process. Not purposely: the majority of people who enter the teaching profession have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always correct. Depending on who you get as a teacher, he or she may pass their bad habits on to you. They may stamp out your flourishes of talent (marking those sections of prose as excessive or needless) and gear you toward something more mundane.

Each teacher approaches his job with in-built biases: he or she will have certain likes and dislikes that might go against your own preferences. You may love genre fiction, but your teacher thinks genre writing is trash. Or vice versa. She might be a genre fan and find all classics turgid and boring — which is fine, unless you happen to love them and be planning to write a book in a similar vein. In this instance, the teacher will inhibit you by pushing you away from the style you’re naturally inclined to write in.

Having said that, there are teachers out there who are able to shove their likes to the side and not encroach on a writer’s unique style — these are the great teachers, the ones who nurture and suggest but never enforce their opinion on an author. They steer and guide, but also acknowledge they don’t know everything.

A bad teacher, however, will try to mould your work in their own vision and insist on changes they believe will improve your story. But what’s good and interesting to your teacher might not be so interesting to you. Teachers are fallible; they’re human; they’re learning, just like us. Soak in their advice, but don’t take it as gospel. If it feels right, and sounds right, and you can realise or understand its benefit, then take it on board.

But if you’re skeptical, hold back for a while. Remember it, write it down, then check with other authors. Look online. Read some books. If you keep seeing the same advice crop up, it’s probably useful. If not, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but it could simply be an idiosyncrasy of the teacher: an odd like or dislike he’s picked up over the years.

Open your ears and pay attention, but don’t conform for the sake of it. 


“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

~ Aristotle


Do your research before joining a class. If possible, find out who the teacher is and ask a few questions. Does he or she have anything published? If the answer’s yes, ask if you can read it. Then you can make a judgement on their writing. Is it any good? Or do you think the teacher writes with the skill of a fish? Pass it to a few friends to make sure. If everyone thinks he can’t write, maybe he isn’t the best person to teach you. Look beyond the words: does the teacher understand structure? Characterisation? Dialogue? Again, if you’re not sure, ask around and see what the general consensus is.

What if he doesn’t have anything published? That doesn’t automatically make him a hack. Ask him about his favourite books and authors. If they’re writers you hate, you might not get along together. Ask him or her what type of prose they’re inclined to read: lyrical or pared down or fancy or whatever. Again, if their likes don’t jibe with yours, maybe this is the wrong class for you. Express those concerns and see what the teacher says; maybe she’ll allay your fears and explain a little about how she likes to teach. If she’s laid back and prefers to guide you on your own path, to let you make your own mistakes and learn through experience, that’s good. If she’s able to critique your work from a structural point of view without allowing her biases to affect her judgement, that’s good too.

You want a teacher who will say, This scene didn’t have enough tension. Or This scene had no relevance to your plot or This character’s actions contradict his earlier statements. What you don’t want is a teacher who writes This character is unlikable just because he or she doesn’t like the character. Or This dialogue is terrible without explaining why, because he or she isn’t a fan of that type of dialogue. That will only inhibit you.

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

~ Phil Collins


In my early twenties I joined an amateur writing class. The teacher, an unpublished pensioner, thought he knew everything about writing — he didn’t acknowledge that he was still learning, or that, ultimately, no one can fully know the ins and outs because there are infinite variables. In his world, everything he said or did was right. Admittedly, at the time, I was less likely to listen to advice anyway. I was arrogant and young; a self-proclaimed prodigy who came for the validation, not to be told I was doing it wrong.

Even still, this teacher tried to stamp his own way of doing things onto the students. He tried to shoehorn us all into the same box, so that we’d end up as clones of himself. I suppose that was down to his insecurities: if we wrote like him, and he enjoyed the writing, that would validate his own craft. I don’t know. Either way, I saw a lot of the class taking his ideas to heart — shredding work that I thought was great, just because he’d said otherwise. He clearly had certain preferences. And although he liked my work, I didn’t feel comfortable in his class. I felt like I was being forced to write in a particular style, and I didn’t want to conform to his expectations just to please him.

The one positive aspect, above all else, was that I wrote a lot.

A writing class gives you assignments, and that forces you to get off your lazy rump, stop making excuses, sit down at your computer and actually write some stuff.

And that can only be a good thing. No matter what you’re writing.


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


In short, it’s a bit of a crapshoot: you may get a great teacher who transforms your writing from gold to diamond; a lifelong mentor who will steer you down the path of success. Either that, or you’ll be stuck with a bitter, unpublished old hack who hates everything and everyone and just wants to mould an army of clones. It’s a hard choice.

If it gets you writing, though, maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you find it hard to be disciplined without a deadline hanging over your head. In that case, go for it, sign up. Just be aware of what they’re telling you: listen, learn, and adapt — only when necessary. Don’t get defensive or argue, just take it all in. You can always ignore it later.

And most likely, at the beginning, you won’t ignore much.

But as the weeks tick on and your confidence grows, you’ll start to realise what you like and dislike, and what you disagree with. And later still, you’ll begin to master your craft. And that’s great.

But whatever you do: never stop learning. It’s essential.

P.S. If you enjoy these posts, make sure to subscribe below. You’ll get all new posts straight to your inbox (no more than once a week).   


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


imgresYou’re Allowed To Be Selfish 
(In fact, it’s necessary.)

“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects.”

Stephen King

The above quote by Stephen King is one I abide by, and one I constantly mention to people if they accuse me of being rude or disrespectful (for instance, when I’m disappearing on Christmas day to do some writing).

If one of the bestselling authors of all time tells me it’s okay to be rude in aid of my craft, then goddammit, it’s okay. Get off my back. Uncle Stevie understands my plight. And I advise you to go along with it too. Writing is a discipline that takes years to build up. Don’t let pressure from your loved ones get in the way of your career. 

Friends can be the worst. You tell them you’re working on a novel and they think you’re doing nothing: sitting at a computer and tapping away, as if you’re just on Facebook. They’ll pressure you to come out to parties, get drunk (even though alcohol will kill your next few days of productivity — more about that another time), or ask to come around, or take up time on the phone talking about their issues. If you don’t answer your calls they may bitch that you’re always busy, or you don’t make time for them, or any number of things. Friends, for the most part, are selfish: they don’t want you to be busy working. They want you to be available 24/7. If you’re not, they’ll feel neglected. And because of that, they may invalidate your work or not take it seriously. That’s normal.

But you shouldn’t give in. Be clear that this is something you take seriously and make them understand that it’s no different than if you’re at a job — you won’t accept calls or visits during that time. You wouldn’t go and get drunk if you had a big meeting the next morning, so that means you won’t do it when you have a self-imposed deadline either. The more seriously you take it, the more seriously they will take it too. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a friend who understands straight off the bat: they’ll be supportive, caring, and even offer to read your work. Appreciate these people. They’re a rare breed of friend and should be acknowledged as such. Thank them for their patience and understanding. However, you should always find time for friends in your busy schedule or you won’t have any left. They’ll finally leave you alone — for good.

And a life without friends or family is like a book with no characters.

Boring.


“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” — Ernest Hemingway


One time, when out with an ex-girlfriend, she told me off for writing in a notebook too much. Apparently I’d “ruined” our night out. She’d dressed up specially and spritzed herself with perfume, just to be “ignored” by me. Well, that was an exaggeration. I did, from time to time, flip open my notebook and scrawl down an idea (during our journeys to and from our destinations, never at the table or during dinner), but I didn’t spend the majority of the night inside the book, unlike many couples nowadays who go out with their other half just to waste most of the night on Twitter or Instagram.

Either way, the amount of time I dedicated to my ideas was irrelevant. She’d decided I was being neglectful. She felt unloved or unwanted or whatever. And maybe she had a point, but she approached it from a negative viewpoint. She saw my notebook writing as a waste of time, as if I was merely playing a Game Boy on our date, just toying around with a hobby. That’s not the kind of person you want in your world.

Firstly, you should always make time for the people you love. That’s a given. But that doesn’t mean they can monopolise your life. If, for instance, you’re at dinner and suddenly a great idea clicks in your mind and you feel you must write it down, she (or he) should be understanding. However, if your head is in the notebook all night, your partner will naturally feel aggrieved. It’s about finding the right balance between rudeness and romance. You should be able to gauge when an idea can wait, or is okay to simmer in the back of your mind, or isn’t worth capturing at that moment. Only the thunderbolts direct from a higher-being need to be documented right away for fear you’ll lose their powerful edge later on as your memory of the inspiration-flash diminishes.

If you’re unsure about how much is too much, talk to your partner.


“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius


Communication is key in any relationship, so confer with your partner in advance to clear up any possible future issues. Agree on something you can both accept. Maybe your partner would prefer if you go to the bathroom to write down your ideas, or wait until he or she goes. Or maybe they want you to go outside, as if taking a cigarette break. Just like with smokers who date non-smokers, you’ll need to find a common ground and a compromise. But that doesn’t mean they can bully you into dropping your lifestyle.

Don’t ever let a partner stifle your creativity or your work ethic. If you’re an inattentive workaholic who never takes time to spend with your significant other, they have a legitimate reason to be angry; in any other case, however, they’ll need to understand you won’t be available to their every whim all the time. They may be pissed off occasionally, but what are you meant to do — let all your ideas escape into the ether?

Be careful not to go from one extreme to another: if you constantly ignore your partner in search of your muse, he or she may end up sleeping with the gardener. But for the most part, keep those ideas. Let them simmer. Jot down notes for future reference. Meanwhile, tell your spouse how much they keep inspiring you, so they don’t feel left out of your process.

My fiancée gives me plenty of ideas merely by asking questions. Find something your partner does to help, and praise them for it.

Make them feel wanted, loved, and most importantly: involved in your work.


“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t sleep with people who don’t read.” John Waters


If you were a bestselling multimillionaire novelist, do you think your friends or family would complain? No. They’d encourage, support, ask about your work, and show nothing but enthusiasm and positivity. Most family and friends complain because they don’t share your confidence. While you know this latest idea you’re jotting down could be the kingfish that sparks your career, they only see you as a time-waster, someone just doodling and messing about with a hobby. Before long, these people will discount, discredit and silently invalidate almost everything you do.

Eminem reportedly used to zone out when people were talking to him (for all I know, he still does that) because they’d say a word he hadn’t heard before and he’d be rhyming it with other stuff in his head, adding it to his repertoire of rhyming syllables. He worked as a short order cook and used to rap orders and scrawl down rhymes on the kitchen slips, or on receipts, or on any scrap of paper he could find. During my time as a retail assistant, I found myself doing the same: scrawling down ideas on the backs of unclaimed receipts. People probably thought I was neurotic, but do you think anyone questions Eminem about his idiosyncrasies anymore? If he zones out during a conversation, they’ll understand — he’s a world-renowned artist, he needs his headspace.

Your most powerful tool is shaping the psychology of your friends and family. Once they view you as a superstar, you’ll be given a lot more leeway to pursue your art.

But it takes time, effort, and determination.


“I cannot live without books.” — Thomas Jefferson


The most efficient and beneficial way to bring your friends and family on board with your writing lifestyle is to show them how seriously you take it. That doesn’t simply mean sitting down at the table to write every day, although that should be number one on your list as a writer. It also means adjusting your attitude. If every time your friends pressure you into going out for a few drinks, you let them persuade you, they have no reason not to keep calling and applying pressure. Be stern and explain to them you’re on a deadline. Let them know you take this seriously and they should as well.

You need to act as if you’re a professional full-time author (or journalist or screenwriter) already. By doing that, people will soon fall in line. Firstly, picture what your life would be like if that were the case. How would you change? Would you write more? Waste less time on games and TV shows? Eat healthier? Go to the gym? Whatever you think you’d do in that position, start doing it now. Create your website, build a blog, interact with fans, grow a following on social networks, print business cards, call yourself a writer. Show the world you’re a somebody and they’ll believe you.

But acting like you’re in a position of power and have authority in your field means nothing if you don’t back it up with real work. When they see proof of how hard you’re working, their belief will grow. Your own belief will fortify, too. The more you believe in yourself and keep affirming this through positive actions, the more your brain will feed you. Eventually it’ll become a cyclical self-sustaining process, which not only boosts your self-esteem but helps your productivity levels, too. You are the master of your destiny.

As corny and clichéd as it sounds, it’s true — you control your reality.

So make it one you want to live in: you, as a writer, against the world.

From there, you just gotta keep climbing higher and higher until you reach the top. Then you plant a flag in that motherfucker and declare to the world you made it.

You’re finally a professional.


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


print__don__t_take_offence_by_game_over_custom-d489vfsWhat If I Offend Someone? 
(Good. Fuck ‘Em Anyway.)

“I say what I want to say and do what I want to do. There’s no in between.

People will either love you for it or hate you for it.”

~ Eminem

Recently I went to visit my mum in France. I told her about a show I’d been watching and she said, “Really? Zey put zis kind of sing on TV? How do zey manage to write so it doesn’t offend anyone?” which is the type of comment she always makes. We’ll be watching something and she’ll say: This is offensive. This is obscene. This is too graphic. Why do they swear so much? Why is there so much sex? What sick person wrote this? and it goes on like that. If she had her own way, all the shows she enjoys would be watered down and stripped of the swearing, sex and depravity.

And yet she still continues to watch them week after week.

Just like everyone else.


“I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended.” ~ Taslima Nasrin


There are people who’ve suffered through terrible incidents in their life: rape, back-alley abortions, drug and alcohol addiction, murder, amputation, war, etc., and if a show or film portrays those hard times they’ve been through, whether done mockingly or with compassion, some of those people can’t watch those scenes (or read them in a book). It brings back horrible memories they’ve been trying to suppress or deal with. Some of these victims get angry at the show for approaching the subject. They write diatribes on social networks and the IMDb forums to express their outrage at such explicitness. They get angry that the writers have deviated from the course they’d chosen for the character in their own mind. They’ll micro-analyse every character, and claim sexism or racism or homophobia by the show’s writers or directors. They’ll write ten-page negative reviews after every episode they dislike. The amount of people on the internet who find offence in something is endless; they’re everywhere. They write letters, post YouTube videos, they tweet, they type out Facebook statuses. They’re offended by so many things. For a show to please them, or for a book to be up to their high moral standards, the creators would need to tiptoe through a minefield.

And they’d still get blown up. 

To an extent, I understand the backlash occasionally. Sometimes a show I enjoy will piss me off with their decision-making — a character I like will die or act like a massive prick. In Scrubs I hated that JD kissed his best friend’s wife, even when drunk. I didn’t like Jesse Pinkman’s heroin addiction storyline in Breaking Bad, or the out-of-nowhere tone-shift in season 7 of Entourage which I felt ruined the mood of the show. In House, the main character frustrated me with his inability to get his shit together — eventually his self-destruction lost its appeal and just became repetitive and predictable. The ending of Lost felt cheap and didn’t answer any of the five millions questions I had. But so what? I kept watching.

Because no matter what I hated, a thousand other people probably loved it.


“Offendedness is just about the last shared moral currency in our country. And, I’m sorry, but it’s really annoying. We don’t discuss ideas or debate arguments, we try to figure out who is most offended.”

~ Kevin DeYoung


If you stick to your own personal vision, without allowing everyone’s perceptions and prejudices to veer you off course, eventually you’ll piss some people off. Along the way you’ll lose some audience members, but you’ll gain others to fill in their spots. For every 100 people who hate seeing or hearing the word Fuck, there are another 1000 like me who hate not seeing it. Some will say “Swearing is unnecessary” or “Swearing is proof of a stunted vocabulary” and then others will say “I can’t believe it without the swearing — it’s watered down.” Some will tell you there’s not enough Christian characters, or there isn’t enough diversity in your cast, or your female protagonist isn’t slutty enough, or she’s too slutty, or your script will offend feminists or humanists or activists with your depiction of women or men or animals or whatever.

Read the comment section of any YouTube video and the hundreds and thousands of bored people shouting into the ether trying to feel like their opinion means something. Sometimes I’ll read a comment that has 2000 likes on it and think “You’re all idiots. I enjoyed that scene” — which just means I might be the idiot, or blind, or it could mean the 50,000 others who liked it couldn’t be bothered to write a comment about it. Other times I’ll agree with their opinion. The fact is, it’s impossible to please everyone at once, and you shouldn’t try to. That’s an error of judgement and ego. You’re not being true to your vision or your art if you’re watering down for someone else. Or if, on the flip-side, you’re making something shocking or offensive for the sake of it.

Above everything, write for yourself.

Because ultimately, your own opinion is the only one that truly matters. 


“Every day we have plenty of opportunities to get angry, stressed or offended. But what you’re doing when you indulge these negative emotions is giving something outside yourself power over your happiness. You can choose to not let little things upset you.”

~ Joel Osteen 


Truth is what you should aim for when you write. Forget everything else, just have that in mind. I must tell the truth. If you’re personally offended by the F word, but your story is set in an inner city neighbourhood and your characters are a gang of drug dealers, you’re going to have to follow the truth of your story and step out of your comfort zone. You’re not just writing for yourself — although that’s important — but you also need to connect with your audience. Which means they need to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in your world. If they don’t believe in your story, they won’t believe in your characters and they’ll stop reading. You’re more likely to grip your reader with reality, no matter how gruesome.

And the opposite is true: if your book is from the perspective of a prim and proper lady with an aristocratic background, having her walk around saying Motherfucker and Cocksucker might not go down well. Unless, of course, that’s a point of her character: that she breaks rules and contradicts the nature of her heritage. In any case, the truth is the important thing: follow it, chase it, grab it, and then write it.

If you do that, you’ll be okay. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself.

And you’re offending not just me, but your entire audience too.


“We should be too big to take offence and too noble to give it.”

~ Abraham Lincoln


That’s it for this week. If you liked this post, you can subscribe below and get my newest blogs straight to your inbox. And if you want to share this, or any other blog from my site, that’s great. If not, I’ll, like, totally be offended . . . 


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


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.


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


Everything You Write Is Terrible
(But It Gets Better)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.

You need to start somewhere.”

— Anne Lamott

At the hormonal and complicated age of 14, I held no desire, secret or otherwise, to be a writer. My dream was to be a professional footballer. Schoolwork bored me. I found writing essays and book reports tedious, although I had an aptitude for English. Then one day my teacher assigned the class coursework: we had to write a short story based off the title A Moment Of Crisis. He didn’t specify what we had to write about, just as long as it was inspired by the title. 

In those days, before the writing bug bit me, I hated writing of all kinds, but especially creative writing. For whatever reason I’d convinced myself I didn’t have an imagination, and wouldn’t be able to pen anything interesting anyway. Poems, stories, novels, they all seemed like hard work with no possible upside. Hard work for the sake of it, which is the worst kind. My poems were always acrostic because I was too lazy to construct something original from scratch, and my stories, up until that point, were always written by my mum — along with the rest of my English coursework.

But something compelled me to give this one a shot.


kk ,


Mr. Judelson gave us a deadline and the class hunkered down to work. The person next to me began writing a drama about her father — I’m assuming she had skeletons in her closet she needed to dig through. Behind me, a girl chose an even deeper subject: her story revolved around a teenager sitting outside a waiting room, deciding whether to abort a baby or not. I still remember those two stories, because at the time they seemed too bleak to me. Boring and lifeless. Who gives a shit about abortions or absent fathers? I wondered. 

My attention span has always been on the small side. If I’m not entertained fairly quickly, I switch my brain off and move on to a different task. I’ve long suspected I have some type of ADHD. Fortunately I’ve been able to focus that extra energy into my work, which not only keeps my mind occupied but gives me an outlet. If I don’t have a book in my hand, or some work to edit or write, or a TV programme to watch, I feel lost. I hate not doing anything. Maybe I’m just a workaholic or unsatisfied with life. I’ll ask a shrink one day. Either way, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to write a boring incest abortion drama. I wanted to write something that would get the heart pumping: meaning action, blood, gore, and a couple lipstick lesbians to decorate the cake. So instead of taking the route of my nearest classmates — plumbing the depths of their emotions for something deep and literary — I chose to write something closer to a film scene: a bank heist.

Probably in an attempt to rebel against my teacher, or the school system, or whatever constricted me at the time, I filled my story with swear words, sex scenes, and gratuitous violence. I didn’t think it was allowed, but I stuck it all in there anyway. I figured if I was being forced to write, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it.

Which I did. Although the story was terrible in almost every way.


Untitledagagag


Zero thought went into the construction of my story. On top of that, many of the scenes made little to no sense. It was like a Michael Bay movie: I was blowing shit up for the sake of it. Everything lacked context or motive. One scene in the early version was so horrific my mother forced me to cut it out. At the time she’d been typing the story up on her computer at work — we either didn’t have a computer at home yet, or it was broken. I can’t remember. In any case, she stopped typing and refused to add the scene into the final version. (She also changed I’m scared shitless to I’m scared enough to shit myself because she hadn’t heard of the word shitless before. But that’s irrelevant.)

The scene she cut involved one of the main criminals in the bank heist penetrating one of the hostages with his pump-action single-barrel shotgun, using the weapon as some kind of metal dildo, fucking this girl on the bank floor until she orgasmed. Her screams of delight coincided with the criminal pulling the trigger — a double explosion, so to speak. I still remember the scene vividly. I thought it was hilarious, smart, groundbreaking, edgy and it probably derived from too much Eminem and maybe a sublayer of teenage misogyny. Who knows? Thankfully, though, my mother forced me to cut it out.

My point is: I wrote it in the first place. I then read it back and thought it was good. And it wasn’t. It was a ridiculous, utterly unrealistic, and quite possibly offensive and needless scene. At fourteen I had no idea what I was doing.

When I finally handed it in to be graded, I expected the work to be torn up, and I thought I’d be sent to the Head Teacher’s office to be told off. Instead, Mr. Judelson loved it and gave me a B-plus. He called it “terrifying” and “inventive” and praised it to the roof. I recall him reading some of it to the class.

Looking back, however, the story was horrible.

Badly written and amateurishly executed.

But I wrote it. 


Untitled


My second story wasn’t much better. It might even have been worse. HiJack was written without any assignments set by my teacher. It was about — nothing, essentially. It followed a character called Jim Sullivan as he gets a flat tire and pulls to the side of the road. Out of nowhere (and for no discernible reason) some people try to shoot him. He deals with them, and then a drunken tramp wanders along the motorway and attacks him. He deals with him too, but then runs across the road to escape the police and gets hit by a truck, which somehow snags his top and drags him five miles before stopping. The hero then unhooks himself and claws his way toward a nearby gas station, which, inconveniently (and randomly) is being held-up. He crawls across the floor in time for the masked robber to blow the store to pieces. That’s basically the gist of it. I don’t need to tell you how bad it is — you can see just from the outline.

And it didn’t get much better.

My third story was also a letdown. And my fourth and fifth. I have a folder full of my early failed attempts. Half-finished novels, half-finished stories, completed stories which would have been better off half-finished, poems, raps, children’s books — I wrote everything; and in those early exciting days I thought they were all amazing. Every single thing I wrote seemed to be a gift from above wrapped in gold. My ego was moon-sized and even when I detected flaws in my writing, I still believed it was greater than most.

In hindsight, they were so bad it’s almost unbelievable. I look back on that work and try to decipher the mindset that created them, but I don’t remember him.

I don’t remember me — not that version anyway. I was a terrible writer.

You’ve probably heard the phrase It’s darkest before the light.

Well, my writing world was pitch — fucking — black.


Untitledj


Now, over fifteen years later, I’d like to think I’ve improved somewhat. It took a while: partly my youth was a reason. I had a lot of dumb kid shit to get out of my writing system — immature ideas, juvenile humour, etc. I didn’t particularly care about school either, which meant by the time I grew serious about my craft I had to relearn grammar  and spruce up on my skills. On top of that, I read a lot of books on story construction, character creation, plot formation, etc. — soaking in a library’s worth of writing advice and learning through trial and error. For a long time my stories, in spite of my newly found wealth of knowledge, were still of low quality. It took months (maybe even years) of honing until I at least hit a level of competency. And I’m still in the apprenticeship stage: learning, growing, building toward a bigger future.

So if you’re doubting yourself right now, stop it. Everything you write might well be absolute trash. You can see it, your friends can see it, probably even your family — everyone knows you’re writing piles of dragon shit. But unlike singing, where perhaps you need an in-built aptitude and the right type of lungs or natural ability to hit the high notes, writing can be learned. Maybe not direct from teachers and manuals, but through constant repetition and revision, and also by approaching your work (and that of others) with a critical mind, you’ll naturally improve.

And even though some of your bad traits may linger on regardless, a lot of the time those traits are what define us — it’s the idiosyncrasies of our craft that make us stand out and gives us a unique voice.

Just don’t give up because you’ve written a few bullshit stories. That doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you’re learning. Babies don’t come out of the womb knowing how to walk and skate and play football. They pick it up as they go along. They practice. You’re doing the same. The only difference between someone who’s good and someone who’s terrible is that one of them kept on going. It’s imperative you practice, and lots.

It’s not acceptable to write a novel for three months, then take a year break and start again. How does that work? Every time you begin learning the process, you go away and the memories fade and your writing muscle weakens. You’ll take one step forward, two steps back and always fight an uphill battle. A week off here and there is fine, but never longer than a month. Train your writing the same way you would your body. If you do that, I guarantee you’ll stop producing subpar work or awkward prose.

One day, years later, you’ll look back on your early efforts and cringe. But you’ll also look at your current writing and realise how much you’ve progressed. And that’s when you’ll know all the hard work and tears has been worth it.

Just don’t ever give up. Keep fighting, keep writing, and you’ll make it.

Put your heart into your work and don’t stop until it stops.

That’s the only thing that really matters in this game.


Untitledljn.


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers


 

7 Tools To Ease The Writing Process
(And To Stop You Banging Your Head Against A Wall)

1.) SimpleNote 

This is one of my favourite writing tools — if it can even be called that. It’s basically a notebook for your iPhone. I know plenty of people use EverNote (which is similar), but I prefer SimpleNote. The minimalist layout is clearer, and it’s easy to sort your ideas into groups so you don’t end up with hundreds of different notes. Also, it syncs across multiple platforms, including Scrivener, which is a massive bonus for me. I’ll talk about Scrivener in a minute, but being able to sync my ideas directly into a novel document saves time on copying and pasting. Plus it’s free. So what are you waiting for? Download it and get to work. 

2.) Scrivener

One of Scrivener’s best features is the ability to keep all of your work in one place. With Word, you tend to end up with about fifty different saved files during a project. One marked RESEARCH, another saying SECOND DRAFT, a third called CHARACTERS, and the list goes on. When writing, you might have ten different tabs open at once and be constantly flipping between pages (usually copy and pasting), which can be exhausting.

In Scrivener, you open a single document and all of your drafts, ideas, character studies — everything you could possibly want — is all in that single document along the side tab. You can click and choose whichever you want to work on. You can also split the screen to work on both, or drag and drop items from one document into another, all without leaving the original screen. Not only that, but the file auto-saves every two seconds to help prevent any lost work, and is generally more stable than Word documents. In the time I’ve used it, it’s yet to crash once. 

It’s especially helpful during the editing stage. Having all of your pieces organised into segments along the side makes it so simple to chop and change. Shifting one scene before or after another to see how it works is no longer a chore. You don’t have to save two separate files and copy and compare. You simply drag and drop, compile the file into a PDF to see how the changes look, and then you can switch it all back if it’s wrong.

For the most part, Scrivener is easy to use, although it does take a small period of adjustment. If you’ve been using Word your whole life, Scrivener will seem like a foreign language at first. Your initial reaction may even be to ditch it and go back to Word. But once you get past the first hurdle, you’ll realise it’s actually a complex system that’s been written for simpletons. Even a brain-dead mouse could understand the functions if he spent five minutes trying.

In essence, Scrivener takes the often time-consuming side of background research, idea compilation, and rewrites, etc., out of your current creation, and helps you to concentrate on your most important task: writing a bestselling novel that will make you a millionaire.

And that’s just the tip of the nib.

If you want to see more, check out the videos on their website.

If you’re serious about writing, this is a purchase you’ll never regret.

3.) Word

Even though I just spent the last five hundred words or so bashing this and praising its predecessor, Word is still necessary for every writer to own, and deserves some recognition. Although Scrivener is more intuitive, Word continues to serve its purpose. 

For a start, most agents, magazines and publishers require work (when sent electronically) to be in Word format. Almost everyone has Word installed on their computer: when you send your stories to friends, families, and editors, they’ll want to read it in Word. If you don’t send them your work in that format, you may find some problems.

Not only that, but Word has track changes which works great for editing. You can highlight lines, add in side notes and comments (it points out all the changes with marks and colours), and it’s easy to function. Editing your own work on Scrivener is simple — editing other people’s work, however, is better suited to Word. Track changes allows your clients/friends to see what you’ve tinkered with and quickly decide whether or not to integrate your suggestions.

So for these two reasons — editing and convenience — keep Word installed. In short: Scrivener makes your work easier to write, Word makes it easier to disseminate.

4.) StayFocusd (Internet Blocking App) 

If you’re anything like most writers, both the professional and the moonlighters, the internet will be a major source of procrastination. It’s only a click away, and when you’re feeling the crush of a deadline, or the pain of a scene that just won’t come out the way it sounds in your head, it can be an easy distraction. You tell yourself you’ll just check your notifications on Facebook, or your emails, or read a couple tweets — within minutes you’re sucked in and then it’s three hours later and you haven’t done any work. Somehow you’re on a webpage about the mating rituals of baboons and hamsters. You’ve wasted half of your writing day already.

StayFocusd is in place to stop that from happening. Or at least try to.

The way it works is by blocking websites of your choosing between certain hours. For instance, if you plan to work between 9 and 5 every day, you can set it up to automatically block Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and any other websites that hog your life when you should be working. Once you’ve inputted a time for it to click in, you can’t undo or change the time until it’s up for that day — that way you can’t cheat the system every five minutes when you feel like searching the web. You are able to pre-schedule breaks, though — say between 1 and 2 for your lunch hour. And you’re able to change your daily and weekly times (and websites) every evening.

Also, you have the choice of a nuclear option which blocks all websites, or you can pick certain websites (ones you may use for research purposes) to remain available to you. When you try to access the wrong sites, the screen flashes up with the message SHOULDN’T YOU BE WORKING? and a link to donate $10 to their PayPal account to unlock the page. This isn’t the only way to view what you want, though. If you’re really desperate to check a webpage that’s been blocked, you can view it by using Incognito Mode on Google Chrome. The app doesn’t block it through that. But that doesn’t make it any less useful: when you go through Incognito, you’ll have to type in your email address and password. That might not sound like a lot, but psychologically it makes a difference. It’s no longer just clicking on your Facebook account. You’re now actively cutting corners to find a loophole into your social networks. For most people, the shame alone will send them back to their work. For others, the extra hassle isn’t worth it. That urge to check their notifications soon fades.

The only drawback is that StayFocusd is a Google Chrome add-on. I’m sure there are plenty of similar apps or sites you can use for Safari and Internet Explorer, but I don’t know about them. If you don’t use Chrome, now might be the time to switch over.

Failing that, just do a little research on internet-blocking productivity sites.

You’re bound to find something that will suit your writing needs.

5.) The Tomato Timer 

If you’re a Mac owner, you can find this on the app store. It works on the infamous pomodoro technique. If you’ve never heard of it before, it basically runs on the principles of work and reward. You’re given a set amount of time to do some work (on the app you can adjust this time to whatever you like: ten minutes, thirty minutes, etc.) and once your time is up, you’re given a set break (again, this can be manually adjusted). During the break you can do whatever you want, but the moment it’s up, you need to get straight back to work.

The clock substitutes as a boss in a sense. But it also allows you to feel like your writing time is more structured and less hectic. You see half an hour on the clock, you know that’s all you need to do before you can take a break, which means the writing doesn’t seem so daunting. Anyone can hack half an hour (or twenty minutes, or whatever you’ve picked). Then you have your short break, relax, and go straight back to the assignment.

This is a great tool for those who talk themselves out of writing because they DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME or because they’re worried they’ll spend hours at the keyboard.

Set your time, do the work, then get back on with your life.

Simple as that. Simple as a ticking tomato.

6.) Focus Music

Focus Music is a website that offers up a selection of music that has been “proven” to enhance productivity and levels of focus. You can choose between multiple options — from cinematic to operatic to classical — and within each genre, there are a variety of different pieces of music. All are specially picked to be non-intrusive. That way, while you’re at the computer typing away, the music gently soothes and coaxes you in the background without you being aware of it. It’s both relaxing and invigorating.

There’s a paid version in which you can choose a playlist of songs and repeat or change their order and record how long each music session lasts. But if you don’t have money for that, the free version has more than enough options to satisfy the casual user. Some songs may not be to your liking, or may feel obtrusive, but you’ll find a decent balance after a while of testing. I tend to switch between cinematic (for my action-based scenes) and classical (for my emotional scenes). You’ll soon find out what works for you.

For the skeptical among you, numerous studies have shown there’s a direct correlation between music and work when attempting to form a long-lasting habit. If every time you sit at your laptop and begin typing, you’re playing Mozart, your brain will associate that music with writing. It will merge as part of a work pattern. Then, next time you play similar music, you will be psychologically primed to engage in that work.

If you find it hard to connect with any of the music on this site, you can always make your own playlist on iTunes. Just make sure you keep the music low and don’t let it distract you. The more you play it while working, the more you’ll solidify the habit-forming neural pathways you’ve created — thus turning writing into a habit not a chore.

Try it out and see what works for you.

7.) Wunderlist 

Finally, Wunderlist is another Mac/iPhone app, but again, if you don’t own any Apple products, I assume there are equivalent apps that you can find for your operating system. In any case, Wunderlist (which my computer just tried to change to Wanderlust) is a simple way to keep on top of your hectic schedule. For all the writers who can’t find enough time in their day to write, read, edit, clean the dog, or wash the dishes, this simplistic productivity app can help you to organise your time better by listing your activities for the day and shifting them around on the basis of their importance.

Structure is a key component of many professional writers’ success. They’re disciplined and they know when to work, when to take a break, and when to take a shower (in rivers of whiskey and vodka, usually), and this app helps to regulate that schedule for the lazy.

Which is most of us. We’re lazy, sluggish procrastinators.

And if you don’t like Wunderlist, try writing out a list every morning in a notepad and grouping them in three different columns: MOST IMPORTANT, KIND OF IMPORTANT, LEAST IMPORTANT, and work your way through it, scratching out something every time you’ve completed it.

You’ll be surprised how much a list can make a difference to your discipline.

* * * * * * * * * * 

Anyway, that’s it for now, but if you know of any other useful writing tools, please leave a link to them below. I’m always searching for new techniques and tricks to enhance my productivity. These are just some of the things that work for me. Your list might be very different, and that’s cool. We all have our own way of suppressing the angry, procrastinating monkey on our backs.

So let me know some of yours. I’d love to hear about them.


Subscribe To Receive New Posts Straight To Your Inbox

Join 360 other subscribers