Top 10 Most Useful Writing Tips #2- Pull Back the Skin

I think the most important quality a writer has, more than a high threshold for coffee and at least one cat is a keen sense of being completely involved and completely separate from the world going on around them. It’s like a really useless superpower, like X-ray vision or an ability to fold napkins using only your thumbs, it serves no one really but once you have the power, it’s really hard to turn off. I no longer see people anymore, I see characters. 

I see the girl with headphones on and a small hint of a tattoo on her neck. She’s from Dubbo, originally, and likes the smell of butter when it melts on her lip. Her father died when she was two and her mother, whilst trying to keep it on track, instilled in her a sense that life will inevitably bite you in the arse and leave you miserable. She is skimming her Facebook feed, envious of a post from Carly, a girl who used to be called ‘Flubber’ at Dubbo College because of the rubbery loose quality of her cheeks when she ran laps in PE, because Carly just changed her status to ‘engaged’. 

Or there’s the guy behind me on the phone right now. He’s on the train to Epping to visit his sister’s new house, a duplex but it’s a nice one. He is talking fast and quick, like he’s nervous and seems to be leaving the other partner with no air to interject. He’s selling himself, a skill he was taught in his Catholic private school in Mumbai, a lesson that he learnt alongside his rapid rise as the top Hockey player for his senior year. Until the ankle injury. Until his father made the decision to take the job with Optus in Sydney. Until he was forced to come to the two bedroom townhouse in North Rocks with the rooster he had to throw a rock at every morning at 4.39am.

I could go on, but you get the picture. And it happens all the time. 

There’s a wealth of hints and suggestions about people’s real and completely imagined back stories that have nothing to do at all with the character and or even what the hell you might get them for to do in a narrative – that’s plot and quite frankly my kryptonite. 

But it’s the best part of being a writer because it means I’m never bored. Even on the train back to my own suburban nest. 

Borrowed from:

So my advice is to get good at back stories because as Vicky Madden, the screen writing teacher from the AFTRS intensive I attended once said ‘if you find the wound of a character, then you can put them in any situation and know, actually know how and why they will respond’ – or she said something like that. And in order to understand characters, you need to be curious about people. You have to want to know what motivates them, what upsets them. You need to peel back the skin and see the sinew. You need to dissect the heart and dig your fingers into the jelly bits of brain matter until you look like an extra on ‘The Walking Dead’. 

But like Alice, the problem with this rabbit hole is that it has no end, only a mirror. And that is why I can tell you about my shortcomings and what the lady reading ‘The Barefoot Investor’ was listening to on the radio the first night she was felt up by Stanley, the pudgy neighbour with two Mexican walking fish floating like loose astronauts in the fish tank above her head, but I can’t write a whole story to save my life.

Better Advice from 3 People who are not me:

Fellow Blogger with Way More To Say

Propp’s Character Tropes

Characters are nothing like People


Top 10 Most Useful Writing Tips # 1: ‘leave me the f*kc alone!’

Illustrated by Brusty

Guess who’s back? Like a John Farnham for the last time or Crowded House on the steps of the Opera House or like a rash in a moist unnamed location on my body, whichever speaks to you most really. I’m bringing my amazing writing commentary out of retirement, blowing away the cobwebs of my metaphorical muse and pumping some good fresh blood straight into the weeping heart of the her decrepit blog. And I know you’ve heard these promises before, but this time I mean it… really… 

But like all newly renovated things, this fixer-uperer needs a new coat of paint and some snazzy new peach-coloured vertical blinds. It needs a makeover and what better thing to add to a blog than some facts and stuff from other peoples blogs and facts and stuff? Right? So starting from this one, I’m going to make an effort to include at least one fact or semi-useful thing for my good readers to enjoy. Will it still be generally waffle and self-indulgent slop? Will you actually learn things now instead of hearing about my butt or my cat? Of course! And absolutely not! But let’s get to it.

Oh and in case you didn’t notice…this is also a sparkly new space. If you miss the way we were though, the golden oldies are still here: Unreliable Writing Advice- the early years.

Writing Stuff- Lesson 1: Space

It may surprise you to know that the real challenge in writing each day is not writing, despite what everyone else’s blogs may tell you. They are wrong. The real hurdle is something I like to call “leave me the hell alone”. 
A writer needs space. Emotional space from all the people who crave and beg for her attention. Physical space, one that needs lots of cleaning and tending as a convenient procrastination technique, and mental space. The holy trinity of space or the Quan as Cube Gooding Junior once described the magic of life, is virtually impossible to obtain. So most days two out of three will have to do. 

Being removed from your real world is vital in order for you to live in another, or at least hover above it making hilarious pertinent narrative observations, hence I’ve found that the most difficult of the three to obtain is the mental space. Due in part to my personality, this type of space, free from thought and reason and worry and Facebook is tough to find. When I was still teaching it was near impossible. I will resist the urge to segue here into all the work and mental fatigue associated with communicating with over 200 cranky teenagers, 60 exhausted temperamental teachers, 2 hyped parents and 1 charming canteen lady each day, enough to say that mental real estate, the kind of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise racing across the open plains of Oklahoma, is rare. This has changed somewhat since taking the plunge into officeland, however, and so fills me with hope for all you other writerly people out there. 

My biggest challenge now is not calming my mind but revving it up. The space is tricky you see. It’s like a wet bar of soap, or scraping spaghetti strands out of a bowl with only a spoon, it moves and changes and evades capture. I spoke to another writer recently who echoed this challenge. She had used the word ‘zone’ and I knew exactly what she meant. Any time I’ve tried to teach advanced creative writing, past the simple grammar, spelling and tense basics and into world and person creation, I’ve come to point where I advise the same useless thing: 

“the story sort of flows through you, like one of those psychic free writing old ladies in horror movies”. 

“Oh so I need to be possessed like by a demon or something?”

 “Exactly! Now let’s talk about tense again.” 

You see the problem with space is that it’s not real. It refuses to be easily replicated too. Many writers talk about rituals and habits to form as a way of creating the space needed to write. But in the case where a writer is too haphazard to even eat dinner or take a wiz at the same time each day, this method is problematic at best. And much to my dismay there is this horrible correlation between being a routine, disciplined kind of fellow and writing lots of words. 

What a cruel ironic joke that the only real way to be creative in any sustainable sense, is to be routine enough to train the space within you and around around you. 

My unreliable advice on this one then is to offer the same repeated advice that everyone else gives: make a physical space, groom it and fit it out so it works for you, then make the mental space to operate within it. Clear your mind, do some free writing garble at the start of each session if writing. Sometimes I throw up word vomit and sometimes I just write names of places I know. It’s a purging thing that works for me. Then, once you have the dust off the keyboard, the papers all perpendicular to the table edge, the cat firmly planted on the desk next to the keyboard, paw slapping at the esc key every few second and a whole bunch of towns in Australia typed into a solid slab on your otherwise blank word document, it will be three hours later and suddenly time to make dinner or walk something or sleep. Oh well, theres always tomorrow… 

And that is Lesson 1 done. Questions?

3 Links to people with way better advice than me:

1. Feng Sui and Writer Space

2. Real writers who actually made it

3. That crazy Atwood lady #hero