One of my most horrifying encounters with a creative writing teacher happened while we were engaged in a one-on-one workshop class in his office, in which we were working on my first big novel, Touch. James was one of those quiet, badly dressed, golden-hearted teachers who I’ve often thought about years after our classes. His softly spoken doctrine on how to write still flutters through my thoughts today as words appear behind the cursor and creep across the page. He’s here, in my writing, keeping my excessive description down with a heavy but caring hand and lifting my vocabulary up ever so often, pointing a stern finger in my face whenever I’m tempted to cliche.
A menacing ghost I keep alive.
I sat down with James one morning and he had my manuscript spread out before him, and he gestured to the pages with a sort of disappointed shrug.
‘This storm here, at the beginning of chapter two,’ he said. ‘You describe it for a page and a half.’
‘Yeah?’ I said.
‘I know what a goddamn storm looks like.’
‘Not this one,’ I countered, trying to save my dignity. ‘It’s… uh. It’s pretty fucking epic.’
We used to swear at each other a lot, James and I. He started it. It’s just something we did.
‘Is this fucking epic storm critical to advancing the plot in any way?’ he asked. I scratched the back of my neck.
‘Well cut that shit out,’ he said.
He put his big black marker onto the paper and slashed the pages out like he was cutting open a box. It was tough. But it was the first of many times he would do it. I know what a messy apartment looks like, he’d say. I know what a bus station looks like. I know what a park full of kids looks like, too. Words tumbled and fell. My words. And when they were gone there was only plot, and character, and every now and then a piece of setting only where it was crucial and only where it was beautifully and uniquely described. I was sad for all those gone places, weather events, distant mountain ranges peeking between suburban rooftops. They had been fun to write. But remember what I was telling you last time you were here about things that are fun to write: They’re not always fun to read.
When you’re trying to decide if something has to go; and I’m not only talking about setting here, but dialogue and characters too; ask yourself whether you could have done what you were trying to do in less words, less instances. Think about songs, and how little space and time songwriters have to describe a character or a place or an emotion and how they do it, and whether or not your novel can be one great long beautiful song of few words but many ideas.
Look at this, from Kris Kristofferson‘s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’:
Take the ribbon from your hair,
Shake it loose and let it fall,
Lay it soft against my skin,
Like the shadows on the wall.
So much here isn’t written. Rather than telling us that we’re in a dark room lit by soft light, we know that there are walls and shadows and that’s all that’s necessary for us to feel the warm glow. Rather than telling us that tender loving sex is about to happen, or that she’s beautiful, or that he’s naked, his desire is merely for her to let her hair down and to touch him with her ribbon, so all of those things come in the same bag. In twenty four words, we have a shadowy room, gentle love, the caressing touch of hair, ribbon, skin. We fill in the intimacy and romance and tension and longing and all that other gooey lovey disgusting stuff ourselves. To write it would just be patronising, wouldn’t it? You patronise someone whenever you tell them something they’re quite capable of working out for themselves.
The same goes for dialogue. Real people don’t talk that much. I mean we talk, sure, but we don’t talk about things like love, desire, hurt, fear. Particularly men. It’s an awful lot more powerful to suggest that one character loves another than going and spoiling it all by having them say something stupid like ‘I love you’.
There are two asian guys sitting in the alfresco area of the cafe in which I’m writing this (the same cafe where I wrote Over The Wall). They’re smiley characters in skinny jeans and suit jackets, bathed in sunlight, doing everything they can to avoid sitting in their chairs the mainstream way; putting their feet on the other chairs, hanging their legs over the arm rests, tucking a foot under themselves. They’re bejewelled and drinking from tiny cups. One’s texting and listening. The other’s explaining something embarrassing; he won’t look at his friend. At the end of the story the friend lets his head hang back a little until it catches all the yellow light from above and smiles in a sad kind of way. Says nothing. And that’s critical. He says nothing. It’s the look that says ‘I feel ya, bro’ or ‘Man, that sucks’ or ‘Jeez, I’m glad it wasn’t me’, or all those things at once.
We say ‘I love you’ by brushing the back of someone’s neck with our fingers as we pass behind them sitting at a desk. We say ‘I hate you’ by breaking something that we know they cherish, not picking up the phone, turning our chair away from theirs. You can say ‘I want you’ by taking a ribbon from your hair. I remember a friend telling me once that she was in that shadowy, soft, tender place with a man between the shut door and the surface of the bed and the guy she was with said ‘Let’s do this.’ It turned her off so fast and so bad she had to leave. You can ruin everything with just a few words.
Try to be tender with your description. Light, and soft, and subtle.
When you say ‘storm’, your reader knows what you’re talking about, so as soon as you’ve used the word your reader has clouds and rain and lightning and thunder in their head. Add a couple of things your reader might have forgotten about this experience if you like: the heaviness, the earth taste to the air, the way a sound can, if it’s loud and sudden enough, move in your belly like an unborn child. Then leave it. Refuse to ruin it with more. Cut that shit out. You’ll be left with the intricate bones of an idea, and your reader will add the flesh and make it move.
So before I talk about that stomach-twisting, soul-crushing, esteem-dissolving phenomenon that is a part of every writer’s life; rejection, I want to take a few quick lines to say hello to all my new followers and to welcome you to my blog. When I started this thing, a slow line of followers developed as I tagged the right way and promoted myself on Twitter, but the bulk of you, I imagine, came along when ‘Over the Wall’ was selected to be Freshly Pressed. I invite you to make me a part of your writerly experience – comment, argue with and query me – because if there’s one thing I know about writers is that you’re all a rare breed of spotted cat when it’s cool to wear stripes, and the more you learn and share with each other the better your writing will be. So high-five to my writerly friends in Pakistan, Qatar, Jamaica, Costa Rica, London, The Isle of Mann, Iceland, and everybloodywhere else. I’m glad to have you here.
I’ve been writing since I was twelve, although back then it was all imitations of Martin Scorsese films with shadowy-eyed wiseguys and slinky prostitutes, and my complete teenage ignorance about New York and drug importation crippled my work. I moved from gangsters to vampires when Anne Rice rocked my world at age sixteen, so for three straight novels my protagonists were French-lace-wearing undead and I fumbled with romance, which I wasn’t very successful at, as I was no one’s idea of desire with my waist-length black hair and my Blundstone boots and my rainbow braces. The first time I submitted a manuscript it was one of these preternatural angsty adventures to HarperCollins, and I got a rejection letter (in the mail!) a few months later. It was automated, but I didn’t know that, so I was thrilled by the ‘careful consideration’ they’d put into rejecting my work and the luck they wished me in my writing future. I ran back to the computer and thundered out another book, and this time I sent it to twenty publishers. The letters came back one at a time over nine months. Wow, I thought. This is tough business.
When I hit university at twenty I decided to take my writing ‘seriously’, so I sat down over a year and a half and squeezed every conceivable idea I had in my head into a 270,000 word crime epic monstrocity. Touch was a world unto itself, a heady clash of supernatural and detective novel spanning thirty years with a cast of dozens, multiple sub-plots and a desk full of research embedded in its pages. It was going to be the crime novel to end all crime novels. I sent it to fifty publishers and got cracking on the sequel straight away (because there was no way this wasn’t going to be the next Da Vinci Code) and was twenty thousand words into book two when the rejections started rolling in. It’s too big. It’s too descriptive. One of the main characters is an insufferable melodramatic sot who can’t seem to drag himself out of his self-loathing and thinks way too much about everything. It’s too dark. It loses it’s way. I watched the emails come in with ever-increasing existential panic. With ten publishers left to reject, a year or so after I’d sent the book out, a big Australian publisher called (I nearly died) to reject me verbally. The problem was, the caller got my book and someone else’s book muddled up in her head and half the rejection didn’t apply. ‘I really think that Mike is just an inconsistent character overall. The orphanage scene demonstrates this, you know?’
There was no Mike in the book. No orphanage scene. But I didn’t argue. I just cried. For three days.
So I scrapped Touch, and it’s sequel, Breathe. I wrote another book, The Retriever, inspired by Liam Neeson‘s character in Taken. I sent it to sixty publishers or so, but this time I made sure I included some overseas options. I caught the attention of a renowned London literary agent, who went nuts over the book initially before fizzling out about two seconds after I’d told everyone I’d ever met about her interest. ‘You have a great book in you,’ she said. ‘It’s just not this one. I’ll be here when you write it. Send me everything you do from now on.’ The sentiment she expressed was something I’d heard before. I was getting to know publishers by name and they were getting to know me in their oh-god-not-you-again kind of way. Keep writing, they told me. You’re good at this. The book is coming. This just isn’t it.
No, this isn’t it either.
Sorry, no, not this one, either.
Um, this is getting awkward, but… No. Maybe the next one?
I’ve never taken rejection well. For each of the two hundred or so rejection letters for the four serious novels I wrote before Hades, I got drunk. I hated the game. I hated the publishers. I hated Stephanie Meyer, and J. K. Rowlings, and that eighteen-year-old who wrote The Lovely Bones for their Cinderella publishing stories. I called my mother and ranted and raved until I knocked my wine glass over. How could no one want me, when there was such trash out there being printed and sold from Bangladesh to Boston? How could no one want me, when some of the people rejecting me were two-man garage publishing houses printing erotic poetry from elderly school teachers? It was rigged, I decided, the whole thing. J.K. was probably some big-wig publisher’s girlfriend in high school. I didn’t need to be published to write. And write I did. Every day. The same way I had been since I was a kid, chewing bits of plastic and hammering the keys and pulling my legs up and crossing them in the desk chair, Jerry Springer on the TV in the background, Facebook open on the tool bar. I wasn’t going to be less dark. I wasn’t going to write on trend. I wasn’t going to pick themes from the bestseller list or try to sound like James Patterson. I sat down and wrote Hades, and it was glorious fun. It’s going to final print in November.
I used to be ashamed of my colossal pile of rejection material, so much so that most of the time when I received a damning letter I kept it to myself, or deleted it immediately. My pile of rejections used to make me feel like a bad writer, and sometimes, when I was really low, a bad person: a loser, someone still harbouring the juvenile fantasy of an unobtainable rockstar dream, someone who should really just face reality and get a proper job. I’ve changed, and it wasn’t the publishing deal that changed me. Not long before the deal, I’d started joking to my family and friends that I was going for the title of Australia’s Most Rejected Writer. Before that, I’d been shocked by the respect, love, admiration and humour I’d inspired in others by being the blind, idiot wife of a cheating, gambling husband. When my marriage failed (and it was a monumental failure: I mean, I failed at that like it was my job) my shame was cancelled out by how wonderful everyone was about it. I was suddenly fallible. Brave, even. I’d proven myself.
Failure, I realised, and your determination to pick yourself up and brush yourself off afterward, can be an honour code.
It’s something that happens to everyone. It’s something essential to life. So the fifty, sixty, eighty, two hundred rejections you get will be the two hundred scars you got fighting your way to the frontline. Rejection should harden you without making you bitter, it should change the way you feel about yourself and your work, and when you gain success, as you will, it should stand as an indicator of your growth. For now, promise yourself that you will print your next rejection letter and keep it, the way I didn’t keep so many of mine, because it will be a part of your history. It will be a moment, one of hundreds, when you were told you couldn’t do what you were trying to do.
And you didn’t listen.
I’ve heard writers say they don’t believe in writer’s block. Either these people are extraordinary ideas-machines who twist and wriggle and slither out of every conceivable plot trap with ease or they are lying (or bad writers). I’ve heard writers say writer’s block is a symptom of an unhappy muse, that the elusive and spiritual side-kick who blesses you with his or her wisdom through whispers that appear on the page is somehow longing for lovin’, and you need to pay up, baby. I don’t believe this, either. Unless you’re suffering some compelling neurological disorder causing you to experience auditory or visual hallucinations, most writers know deep down that any phantom they have leaning over their shoulder facilitating their work is entirely self-generated. No, writer’s block exists alright, and it’s no one’s fault but your own. Let’s see if I can give you some strategies to break through it.
Any sort of biological blockage, whether it’s mental or physical, does well with a good dose of stimulant. When you’re plumbing isn’t working; you reach for the Metamucil. It’s the same with writer’s block: if you’re stuck for ideas, it’s because you’re not getting enough creative nutrition. Watch films in your genre. Read books. Talk to people about your story, and see what kind of questions they ask. Eavesdrop on people on the bus to hear their fears, desires, what makes them laugh. Plug people for their experiences. I talk to cops whenever I can, and because they usually don’t talk much I always make sure I’m straight up before they dry up. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen? The best case you’ve ever worked on? Have you ever been injured? What happened to the last dead person you saw?
Can I play with your gun?
They never let me play with their gun. But maybe one day I’ll get lucky. I got a ride-around once just for asking for it. We made two arrests. It was great.
The best tales are out there, written in lives too mundane to make the page – instances that have no heroic journey or moral but that might, gathered together and strung along by you, make a good story. Collect people, places, things. Journal them or simply store them in tiny drawers with labels in your mind. Be a watcher. A listener. A student of everything. As I sit writing this in a cafe in Maroubra, an old couple sit near me, waiting for their tea, silently watching the sun dance between the moving cars outside, the lanky Indian waiter strolling around, filling little canisters on the tables with sugar packets. They’re not suited to what I’m writing now, these two, but they might be one time when I’m struggling to fill a cafe with people: I’ll remember her jutting sheep teeth and maud sunglasses hung with string, his pancake ears and cheap loafers. I’ll remember the things they say to each other, her fear of burning herself on the teapot as she pours, shaking, his grumbling one-sentence answers.
Collect enough people, and someone will always rescue your work.
If a new scene or a new character or the setting generation caused by colourful bystanders isn’t going to solve your problem, it might be a directional thing. You might simply have lost your way. Good writers will tell you with sorrow-heavy hearts about characters they had to kill and scenes they had to scrap and research they collated that led to nothing because no matter the love and joy and thrill you get from writing these things, sometimes they are simply too self-indulgent to be of interest to the reader. Whenever I find myself coming up against a wall, I delete the last three pages, no matter who came into the book at that time or what new roads my characters had trodden or what twists and turns the plot revealed. Because no matter how enjoyable these pages had been to write, they led me to a wall. Have faith that your new direction will be better than the glorious dead end you left behind you: It was a majestic sandpit ready to swallow your work. Those people you created and loved will come again when it’s their time, when they belong.
My final strategy for easing writer’s block, one that’s particularly helpful for timid writers, is to banish the depressing wasteland that lies beneath the blinking cursor physically and metaphorically, because the moment you begin to think about how much you haven’t written, the journey toward the end of the book, essay, article, whatever, is too far for most people, and that’s why most people aren’t writers. Scroll the page up so that you’re not looking at all that blankess, and train yourself to take small, delicious bites when you can’t write for long. A word a day, a sentence, a string of dialogue: even if you delete it tomorrow it will be something. I’ve had some sensationally bad ideas in my time. Some naive, angry, grotesque, contrived, narratively ridiculous creative wankfests. But one thing I never did was let the fear of going the wrong way, putting down an embarrassing piece, ‘wasting my time’, delay or cancel my start.
You must start. Make yourself start.
Put your fingers to the keys and type, and force yourself to stay away from the delete key. Tape a thumbtack to it, upside down, if you have to. You may begin badly. You may fire out of the gates, through the air, and into dumpster full of food scraps. You might spend a year on a thing, two years, ten, only to find out it’s literary spew. But no writing is ever wasted, no matter how bad it is. You purge the bad stuff to make way for the good. Decide to be unafraid. Nobody ever wrote anything good without taking to it with a blade a few times, and no one ever wrote anything that everybody loved. There are people out there who hate Shakespeare.
No, serious. There are.
(This article appears on GenY news website 5why . For more Kat James articles visit 5why.com.au).
You know him. Gazza. Dave-o. Johnno. Fitzy. Barrel-chested, hairy-pitted, big-pored, beer swilling ‘ultra-man’: oozing masculinity from the soles of his clay-caked Steelblue boots to the crown of his thick, plaster-dusted head. He loves the NRL, knows how to gut a fish, cracks a stubby in the crook of his elbow and cracks a fat over that chick from The Fast and the Furious; you know, the one with the big tits. He doesn’t go to the doctor unless his arm’s falling off. He thinks white wine tastes like cat’s piss. He can get you a free scratch tattoo, set up a backyard slip and slide for the sprogs, change your oil and drive you to Cairns with only one pit stop.
Indulging in your masculinity, making a lifestyle of it, has been a national Australian pastime since long before Federation.
Australian men surf, fight, drink, spit, rev their engines, light things on fire, abuse the police, throw their votes and char lamb on Sundays.
I’m sure you’ve heard, however, that the Sensitive New-Age Guy has driven out the Aussie yobbo. The Australian man is sporting a quiff and a waist-trimming parka vest, sitting down to The Only Way is Essex with a glass of Pinot Noir and his three gay besties, filling in online personality tests and comparing compatibility data online to find his lady love rather than ‘getting his end in’ with Shazza up against the car port at a house party.
From my experience of men lately, I tend to agree that the Australian man has had a reality check, and he’s softened up his touch a little. But the power, brutality, cockiness and cleverness required to play that old game of asserting your masculinity has changed only so subtly. Dave-o, or David, still wants you to know he’s a man, but he’s showing you in new and arguably more powerful ways. He’s not so overt now, because you know that game and you won’t stand for it, and neither will your legion of meddling girlfriends. He’s changed the rules. In this way the unhealthy side of his masculinity has never been so dangerous.
I was aware of my exhusband’s masculinity from the moment we met, and it was intoxicating in a primal sort of way. It was the classic young woman’s bad boy complex. Big arms, rough hands and broad shoulders, a tough-guy swagger, skill with saws and ropes and knives, the ability to drink his friends under the table and still come off best in a street brawl. He once came home from a pub scuffle with a three-inch long gash in his forearm from a flick knife, and despite my best efforts to convince him to go to the hospital, he poured house-hold disinfectant into the wound to cleanse it and bound it with electrical tape. He was the only man I’ve ever known who could get straight out of the shower and still stink. He conquered a room and made sure everyone knew it with his hacking, ear-splitting laugh. He simply wouldn’t be told what to do. Particularly by women. His disdain for authority leaked into managers, security guards, life guards, traffic wardens. Female police officers didn’t so much as warrant his glance.
Needless to say I’ve avoided the classic ultra-masculine archetype like the plague on the dating scene in Sydney, but I’ve noticed a curious similarity between how Captain Bonehead made me feel and how the sensitive new agers I’ve been dating do.
Cameron, style guru and office jock, theatre buff and wine enthusiast, had a particular habit that used to make my skin crawl, and I’ve since realised it was his very own adaptation on the doctrine of the Aussie bloke. He didn’t have a car, so I always provided mine. Everywhere we went, he would pick on my driving. You’re going too slow. You’re braking too much. You’re going the long way. You’ve got your blinker on too early. I asked Cameron how many car accidents he’d ever been in. He told me three. I asked him if he wanted to know how many I’d ever been in. That shut him up. I’ve never been in a car accident. Not so much as a scrape.
But it wasn’t about my driving; it was about my car.
If I was going to be the one in the relationship who owned a car, who drove us around, who would force him to sit idly by in the passenger seat like Miss Daisy, I was going to have my confidence in my abilities shot down at every available opportunity. It was about dominating the experience, being King of the Car even without being behind the wheel. I dumped him for it.
I earned more than Mitchell, and I worked far less. Hey, if you’re going to be at university full time for seven years with a 6.5 GPA average and four university degrees, that’s kinda the goal. Because I moved home after my separation and had no debt and plenty of cash to splash, I was happy to chip in for a coffee date here and a dinner there. My usual arrangement is to take turns. As a new-ager, Mitchell of course allowed this. It was very 21st Century, he said. Impressive. But underneath that flashy smile Mitchell didn’t like what my job, my money and my free time said about his achievements as a self-sufficient male. So he trampled all over my confidence about it. Get a real job, he would joke. Having an afternoon snooze, are you? When you grow up and work nine-to-five, you’ll understand why I get so cranky on a Monday morning. Wow. He was actually shocked when I canned his ass.
The danger I mentioned earlier, I think, is when masculinity in your relationship becomes so potent that it cages you within your traditional feminine role and excludes you from the respect generations of women have earned in their hard work toward equality. I’m not saying a man can’t joke about my driving. Maybe I drive slow. But one harmless elbow-nudge about my driving ability when we get into and when we get out of the car every day for a week begins to edge into discomfort. Everybody knows I’m addicted to nanna naps. I’m not ashamed of it. But I’ve worked hard for what I have and I don’t deserve less respect because I don’t work conventional hours. Especially when I’m earning more money than you. Jerk.
I think the most hurtful thing about this new, covert style of machismo is when it’s used to bolster that feeling of power and strength by breaking hearts. After two weeks of bright, sunny, lovely dating, Mick, who’d assured me he was serious about finding someone to have a relationship with and dating one girl at a time, dumped me because another chick was coming back into town from Johannesburg and he wanted to be free to spread his seed around. When I called bullshit on his ‘It’s not you, it’s me / I don’t really know what I want right now / I need space to construct my identity’ new age babble, he admitted that this was the case. Mick’s major appeal for me had been his hearty humour at other men’s obsession with masculinity. In the end, Mick was just playing the same game with a lot more smoke and mirrors.
It was a real shame, because I liked that guy.
If I have a moral about this, I suppose it’s that I’d like you to be more aware of the effects of your partners’ huff and puff and what causes it, what it does to you, whether something about you has to suffer in silence so that his masculinity can thrive. It might be simple as having control over your finances. A special chair that’s only his that no one else can sit in. That silly manly rivalry that gets him into brawls with his friends. It might be as simple as a harmless joke that takes the piss out of you in front of your friends at a party, a tiny chip off your self-esteem that reminds you that you’re the lady, that he’s stronger and smarter than you, that it’s his job to lead you and yours to follow. Keep an eye on it, that’s all. It’s not always as obvious as Gazza would like you to think.