write tips

Why I write (and why I'll never stop)

Recently someone asked me how I find the motivation to keep writing. The answer is simple; I write because I must.

Writing is a compulsion. An addiction. A thirst. Without doubt it is the only thing stopping me going crazy.

The compulsion to write is like a knot in my chest. 

I’m at the store, at the movies, in the shower - and it hits me. Usually sparked by an idea; a premise, a line of dialogue, an opening sentence.

Once the knot arrives it gets tighter and tighter until I sit down and let the words out. 

Without that outlet, it’s impossible to function. Without that outlet I’m liable to become even more irritable, cranky and unproductive. Without it, I can’t process thoughts and emotions. I can’t stop the rage.

Without writing I would destroy myself.

In the words of Mark Ruffalo’s Dr Bruce Banner; “You wanna know the secret?" 

I’m always writing.

More than 90% of my writing process happens internally. I never stop. When the knot arrives I start writing externally.

My most recent project was a short novel. I wrote it down in 19 days, all 50,000 words of it. I spat it out. I flooded the page with words.

I may have written the first draft proper in those three weeks, but I had been writing that manuscript for over 2 years. I just hadn’t been writing it down.

Sure I kept the odd note, for clarity. I filled a large whiteboard in my study with single word pointers. But for the most part I had been ruminating, digesting, editing, correcting and developing the story in my head before I even contemplated putting it on paper.

Here’s another secret; there is no such thing as a bad idea. There is only bad execution of that idea. Take my first manuscript for example; great concept, lousy story. 

The battle is finding the right frame for the story. The right tone. The right characters. The battle is sticking with it. Adapting, changing, evolving. Some ideas arrive with the perfect story attached. Some ideas take a lot more work. 

Some ideas will just never find the right execution.

No writer quits an idea. You never stop. You may not be writing it down, but you’re always writing it. Letting it gestate, waiting for the knot to arrive.

Most of the time you can tell a story isn’t working because the tap isn’t flowing properly. Sometimes you can’t tell a story isn’t working until you read it back.

Sometimes it takes other people reading it for you to realise you got it wrong.

But the doubts and the insecurities and the lack of belief and all those other symptoms of the creative mind - I usually fight those battles off the page. 

If I don’t believe in an idea I don’t write it. If I lose faith in an idea it’s just because it hasn’t been developed enough yet. Back in the head it goes. 

When it’s truly ready to be written, the compulsion will arrive and the story will write itself.

There is a wonderful Indian proverb that any of you who have seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel will recoginise warmly; ‘Everything will be alright in the end, if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’

In my writing experience there is a similar notion;

"Every idea will make a great story when it’s ready. If it’s not a great story, then the idea is not ready.”

I started writing because I needed to. I’ll continue writing as long as I have that need. I can’t live without breathing, and I can’t live without writing. They are the same. As long as I’m still breathing, living, experiencing, loving, hating, fearing; I’ll be writing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said; 'You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’

I write because I must. I write because I have something to say.

5 Fiction Lessons From The Screen Trade

I know, I know. What the fuck has screenwriting got to do with fiction?

Any asshole who has a poor taste in cinema and a napkin to scribble on can be a screenwriter, right?

Not exactly. 

Sure, it’s probably true that every bartender within a hundred miles of Hollywood has a script in his back pocket.

And no, you’re right, you can’t get a seat a coffee shop in California due to the number of ‘screenwriters’ with $2000 Macbooks and serious misjudgement of their abilities hogging tables.

But don’t let a few bad eggs spoil the picnic; screenwriting is an artform, and yes there are people who fucking suck at it - but when done well it’s poetry. 

In the remarkable rant, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, published on the Village Voice website earlier this week, screenwriter Josh Olson (A History Of Violence) made some great points about the perception of screenwriting.

(Aspiring screenwriters) think that screenwriting doesn’t actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie.

Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn’t require any kind of training, skill or equipment.

Everybody can write, right?

You may remember me saying similar things about fiction writing. For their sins, screenwriters are perhaps more maligned than their fiction-bothering brethren. And unfairly so.

If you’re working on a story of any kind, you’d do well to study up on screenwriting, because those crafty, malnourished bottom-feeders have some tips and tricks that, simply put; will make your manuscript better.

1) Show Don’t Tell

In screenwriting this is both lesson number one, and crime number one. People have a tendency to write page after page of exposition-heavy dialogue rather that wrting one sentence of direction.

In fiction, there is no excuse for this. I read books that have shocking amounts of poor, exposition-leaden dialogue. Say more by having your characters say less. Much less.

Instead, use your silky prose skills to find ways of revealing information that is lyrical, original and compelling.

2) Structure

While it might be the most analytical approach to writing I’ve ever seen - discuss structure with a screenwriter and you’ll get a thoroughly mathematical breakdown of the three act story in a 90-page frame, including the precise page number that plot points should happen on - screenwriting is hard to beat for learning how to plot a compelling narrative.

Sure, this meticulous approach leads to asshole hacks selling their 'proven formula’ in books and at seminars for hundreds of dollars a pop, but these pasty-skinned basement dwellers make some good points.

Good screenwriters are masters of advanced planning and plot mechanics - the basic motivation of which is that there is a limited time with which to tell the story, leaving no time for waffle.

In fiction, all too often writers chew on the fucking potatoes way too long before getting to the meat. Decide how long your story needs to be, plan a plot structure within that word count, and stick to it. No-one needs to read 20 pages on grass. Fuck the grass.

3) Enter late, leave early

Which moves neatly into the next lesson; your characters should always be doing something. Motion, motion, motion.

Seen the West Wing? Famous for the walk and talk. You know why? Because your characters should always be doing something. Two people standing in a room talking is a fucking stage play. Nothing wrong with plays, but we’re writing novels.

In a good screenplay, if the main characters have to go somewhere for some reason, you don’t see them stand around and talk about it. They don’t chit chat about what they had for dinner or what they’re doing later. They go and fucking do it.

To enter late is to arrive in the scene as late as possible for it still to be compelling. i.e. instead of showing two detectives receive a dispatch call, then drive to respond only to find a body, you start with them finding the body.

Same way, have them leave the scene early to follow a lead rather than hang around talking.

In your novel, if you’ve got a chapter where a character thinks about doing something for a few pages, then spends a few more pages on their way to do something, and then finally does that thing, cut the first two and start with her doing that thing.

Everything else is static.

Exception to the rule; Tarantino. It is highly unlikely you are Quentin Tarantino, and if you’re that good, then fuck you.

4) Keep It Simple, Stupid

You are not David Foster Wallace. If it doesn’t work without footnotes; simplify.

5) Whammy!

Joel Silver is the venomous asshole responsible for producing some of the finest action films of the past 30 years. Die Hard? Joel Silver. Predator? Joel Silver. Lethal Weapon. Beverly Hills Cop. The Matrix. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The list goes on.

Sure sure he’s a fucking vulture, but he understands what audiences respond to. And the key ingredient? Whammy.

A whammy is something exciting. Explosions, death, sex, a kiss, a car chase, a scare, a revelation. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be exciting.

'Fuck art, give me whammy.’ - Joel Silver.

Silver’s basic rule is you need a whammy every 10-12 pages to keep the pace up, to keep your audience on side.

I’m not telling you to go out and write a commercial thriller, but you need whammy. And you need it regularly.

Write a thinker. Write a cerebral book about a guy dying of motor neurone disease. Write a novel from the point of view of a fucking chair but in the name of all that is holy give it some whammy. Your readers will thank you.

Literature doesn’t have to be slow. Don’t make your readers work for you, make your story work for them.

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So there, off you go. Pick up a copy of Story by Robert McKee, or Screenplay by Syd Field, or Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, or take a seminar. Go to a coffee shop and meet some screenwriters and learn from them.

Just, whatever you do, don’t fucking become one. You’re a fiction writer. You’re too drunk to be a good bartender.

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Why your hero must suffer

In order for you to write a story worth a damn you’re going to have hurt your main character in horrific, cruel and frankly unsporting ways.

In order for your story to be good, you need a believable hero. And in order for your hero to be believable, you’re going to have to beat the living fuck out of him.

Why? Because pain is credibility. You need the reader to sympathise with your character, or at least empathise. And your character will have to suffer for that sympathy.

A good hero has to make sacrifices. A good writer has to inflict unusual punishment on a character in order to communicate that sacrifice.

And a great writer makes flagellation an art. 

The reason this works is simple manipulation. You see, you’re not just hurting your main character, you’re punishing the reader. You’re hooking them in to your story by toying with their emotions.

And once that happends, the bastards will just keep coming back for more.

Once the reader is hooked, they will follow the hero anywhere. Once the reader is hooked, they will feel every goddamn blow, every bit of pain, every word of it.

A sympathetic main character is almost more important than any other factor of your story. If people don’t want to read about your character, then your story is dead.

Formerly-alive screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder wrote a book about this very thing called Save The Cat. It’s well worth a read if you are the kind of writer who reads (AKA a good writer).

Snyder’s tenet is that the reader will follow your character - no matter how much of an complete and unrepentant bastard they are - as long as you feature a compelling ‘Save the Cat’ moment in your opening pages.

A 'Save the Cat’ moment could mean literally having your abominable asshole of a lead character actually saving a cat.

Sometimes it’s a significant event - perhaps the character jumps in front of a truck to save the life of a child.

It can also be something small, such as having them lie to cover for someone and getting themselves in trouble, even when it would have been easier to tell the truth.

'But my character is an anti-hero,’ you’re screaming, even though I can’t hear you. 'The reader doesn’t need to sympathise with them,’

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. With a side of fuck you. 

The reader needs a reason to follow your character. Give them one. No matter how small.

If you can’t find an ounce of vulnerability in your character then either you can’t write for fucking toffee, or you’re enough of an asshole to think you don’t have any vulnerabilities, at which point you have no business basing a character on yourself.

Let’s not beat around the proverbial privet here; your lead character is you. Yes it fucking is. The least you can do is give him your childhood abuse, your erectile dysfunction, something to make him slightly more sympathetic.

Stop crying and pay attention.

Once you’ve got the reader hooked, keeping them hooked is the easy part. All you’ve got to do is keep hurting your hero. Make them suffer.

Take something from them. Take everything from them. Better yet; give them something for a few chapters, then take it away. Let them climb two rungs up the ladder and knock them back one. Make it embarrassing. Humiliating. 

And laugh while you do it. Laugh at the poor bastard, laugh at the fate you are dishing out for him. 

The reader won’t be laughing. They’ll be right there, as your hero gets up, dusts himself off and presses forward.

Importantly, no matter how fucked up they are, no matter how hurt, no matter how impossible, keep your hero crawling towards the end.

Once they reach their goal, the reader will have been through hell and highwater with them, and their victory will be the reader’s victory. 

They’ll have come through the pain together. And you’ll have created a character the reader will never forget.

If you want to write a good story, hurt your hero. If you want to write a great story, make them suffer.

Got a favourite save the cat moment? A favourite way of making the reader sympathise? Let me know in the comments!

Cut The Bullshit & Promote Yourself

Let’s be honest. Chances are you’re never going to make it.

And by ‘make it’, I mean, 'hit that level of literary fame where your name alone will shift 100,000 copies of whatever guff you vomited up this month’.

Some writers are middle of the road enough to reach this level in their lifetimes, but this probably won’t be you. Chin up.

The only guarantee in this poorly-timed punchline of a profession is that if you want anything out of it you’ll have to work hard.

And you’ll have to keep working hard.

There are no passes, no exceptions. Finished writing your book? Woopy-doo. Got a book deal? Fuck you.

You have to keep working hard. 

It isn’t enough to be a writer alone. Everyone is a writer, and most of them are better than you. And at least as misguided. 

It’s not enough because this is a vague new world, with more content, more noise, more static than ever before.

You need to make yourself visible, you need to cut through. Relying on a publisher or an agent or the barely legible prose of your latest abomination to do the work for you is setting yourself up to be wholly ignored. 

You have to cut the bullshit and promote yourself.

You’re a publisher. You’re a PR. You’re a marketing department. You’re customer services. You are the street team, the evangelist and the fangirl. 

Whether you’re self-published or you have a team of reasonably trained, mostly alcoholic professionals in your corner, this still applies. Why? Because you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You’re just a name on a mediocre manuscript in a slushpile full of mediocre manuscripts. If you do get published, chances are the’re not going to make any money off you, so you’ve got to show them that you’re a good investment.

You’ve got to add value to your brand. Yes, you’re a brand. No, that doesn’t mean you get to talk about yourself in the third person.

Actually, while we’re here - you should log into Twitter, Goodreads, and especially fucking LinkedIn and re-write that bio in the first person. Right now. Third person is not for talking about yourself. Ever. Stop that shit, you look ridiculous.

Back to my point - the assholes don’t care about you. They buy whatever the supermarkets buy in bulk and discount at a loss. The way to make people care is to build an audience on your own.

Talk to your readers. Talk about your process, share tips, ask for advice. Start the conversation. Get yourself on Facebook and Twitter. And in the name of all that is sensible get yourself a Tumblr. 

Build your audience, and suddenly you have value beyond your words alone. You know you’re a good writer, you’ve put your words on paper - this is half the battle. The other half is making yourself a viable publishing option.

Of course, there are no guarantees. But keep working hard and promoting yourself and you’re only going to help your cause.

Even if you do get published, even if you write a bestseller and you sell the film rights and someone throws a meaningless award at you, you still need to talk to your readers, to manage your brand, to build your audience.

Look at writers like Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis. Acclaimed, bestselling authors both, and still both leverage social media to help promote themselves and engage with their readers.

They don’t have to, but they understand the importance of not resting on their laurels and continuing to work hard. And both are enjoying far wider recognition as a result.

As a writer, you wouldn’t trust anyone to write your words for you. In the same way, you should be the one promoting your words. The words you worked for so long to craft. The words you bled for.

There are no valid arguments. Just cut the bullshit and promote yourself.

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