To Write or Not To Write?

How can I put into perspective how difficult I find the practice of writing a novel? Words with purpose. Sentences that express some truth. Scenes that join thwritinge dots.

I don’t know?

At times, I feel my attempts at writing a novel may be the hardest thing I’ll ever do. Harder than maintaining the two most important relationships of my life (my wife and my son)? Harder than continually challenging myself and developing my career in the hospitality industry? Harder than simply being a person on this planet at this moment in time?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I think, so hard, too hard, the skills required to write a novel that holds together from beginning, through the muddle to the end.

Other times, I’m harsh with myself – ‘First world problems, man.’ I have a good job. I have a loving family. I have a roof over my head and food in the pantry. I am living in the most abundant era ever. I lack for nothing.

And so, yeah, I could give up writing. Why should I struggle so much? I could choose not to face the keyboard and blank page-on-screen every morning. Who needs that 5.15am alarm?

Viggo-Mortensen-in-Good-007

Seriously, 5.15am. It’s dark when I get up and it’s still dark when I finish writing at 6.15am. There’s no audience. There’s no pat on the back. There’s no-one there to say, ‘Good job, dude. Love your work!’

There’s just me, my practice and this tornado inside of me that demands I continue to ‘Show Up’.

So, giving up, chnew-crescent-2.jpgoosing not to write is an option. Of course it is.

But that won’t stop the feeling inside that needs an outlet for the ideas that are always swirling around my head. They won’t go away. They’ve flowed through me like tributaries trickling from the
mountaintop down into the valley where the river masses and swells my whole life.

As a writer I’m trying to navigate these waterways. Trying to craft my voice, my style, my unique and sincere self through the stories I want to tell.

And this is hard for me. Almost every day, in some way, I struggle with how best to communicate my literary ideas through story. Often, I feel like I’m failing. Sometimes, I have some positive self-talk: ‘Keep turning up, Ken. Keeping working the problem through showing your dedication to your characters, your story and your practice.’

Other times, most times, I’m not so gentle and generous. One day I may finish a novel that ends up somewhere near where I want it to. I really hope for the day. And as best I can, I will fight my corner. I will continue to show up, because while my confidence waxes and wanes, the urge to tell stories and write never does.

The Dreaded Synopsis

This week I had a wobbly moment. Old fears resurfaced. Past anxieties tried to sink their claws in.

Efforts to prepare my work for submission saw me make blundering attempt after blundering attempt to write a synopsis. What is it with these short forms of message conveyance that terrify me so?

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500

Over the years I’ve had no shortage of conversations with fellow writers on this subject. We say their names with scorn and undisguised disrespect: Log lines. Blurbs. Outlines.

A common question is uttered with disdain: How am I expected to condense my entire novel into 25 words, 1 paragraph, two pages? (choose your poison)

We sigh. We cringe. We try not to show how daunted we are at the prospect of doing these very things.

And so, for my part, I remained dismissive of these stalwarts of the publishing world’s submission requirements. I put those unaddressed fears in an envelope, put the envelope in the post addressed to a day that’s always tomorrow.

Except, this week, I was forced to peek inside the envelope. And there it was – the fear that my inability to address flaws in my last project were back and a ticking time bomb at the core of this current project.

These flaws include:

  • An overreliance on back story
  • Key moments that occur outside of the scope of the novels’ time frame (that possibly should not)
  • And the worst one of all – that the character’s struggle does not make sense.

Questions (criticisms and self-chastising) ensued.

  • How could I end up here again?
  • Have I learned nothing?
  • Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

I wobbled. My stomach did a few flip-flops. I spent a testing 50 minutes on the train home from work wondering whether eight months of work was about to slip through my fingeman-writing-booksrs. It was all disappearing and the version of reality where I am not good enough was bearing down upon me.

Then I made the decision not to accept this – to fight back. I swallowed my pride. I reached out. Through social media and email I asked friends for help with writing a synopsis. Saviours came to my aid. Their kind words and offers of assistance gave me renewed hope.

The wobble passed and I was still standing, my latest project still intact. And the synopsis?

It’s three pages long with aspirations to be a slender two. I’m getting there…with a little help from my friends.

The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

Are you sick about hearing about feminism in fiction?

Women, right? They’re always prattling on about something. Wanting something. A Black Widow movie. Equal rights. The ability to express an opinion online without getting death threats. So needy, amiright? Everyone knows once you’ve declared something has happened (gender equality), you’ve done all the heavy lifting and everyone should just carry on the way they’re going, with no further inconvenience. So what’s with the constant barrage of people tweeting/blogging/otherwise ranting about female characters in fiction? THIS IS SETTLED ALREADY. EVERYTHING’S FINE NOW.

Buffy-Willow-season-4-buffy-the-vampire-slayer-1272084-1859-2560Sarcasm aside, I’m a feminist but even I sometimes feel tired when I see yet another blog dissecting female characters in a book or film and bemoaning the state of the industry. Sure, you’ve got female characters, but are they strong enough? How’s their agency? Are they TOO strong – caricatures, or just men with tits? Sufficiently and realistically flawed? How about Joss Whedon, is he an ally or part of the problem? I mean, I googled something about Frozen the other day* and ended up reading dozens of opposing articles about whether it’s a good feminist movie or a bad one, whether the characters are good for women or not, whether it subverts tropes or reinforces them. It’s exhausting.** As a writer, it seems terrifying – so many chances to get it wrong.

But never fear, dear readers. I have a solution to all this agonising.

Just put more women in.

Seriously. It’s not that hard. Forget about obsessing over your female characters, trying to work out if they meet all the criteria. Spoiler alert: there’s no settled criteria and you’ll never please everyone.

I mean yes, your women should have agency (by which I mean, they should not be passive little lilypads bobbing on the sea of your plot – they should make decisions and take actions which drive the plot), but that’s about your writing, not about your women – ALL interesting characters have agency. No, they shouldn’t be clichés; but again, that’s because clichés are boring writing. If you’re writing stories where your characters have no agency and/or they’re all clichés, you might just be a shit writer, not a bad feminist.

If you can look at your own work and see common traits in most of your female characters that isn’t just the shape of their genitals, you’ve probably got a problem, and that problem is you’re being thoughtless and lazy. This is true whether that trait is submissiveness, red hair, sarcasm, massive upper body strength or bad BO. If you only write ‘strong women’ and you think that means ‘women who aren’t like those other crappy women – hey, I hate sewing!’ you’re contributing to the problem as much as someone who only writes women as props for men. You don’t beat this problem by writing women who epitomise traditional femininity or tear it down – you beat it by writing BOTH. ALL.  Gender isn’t the most important or interesting thing about a character – it’s not even up there in the top 10.

Just put more women in.

Write women into a bunch of roles in your story – God, maybe lash out and make it something like half the roles, since, I dunno, that’s the reality of the world we live in?***

Cos here’s the magic of my solution – you don’t need to panic that your female characters don’t perfectly embody the right amount of strength and the right number of flaws and are likeable but not too likeable!! and are sex positive but not all about the boobies if you don’t make all of this crazy difficult juggling act rest on the shoulders of only a couple of ladies. Spread the load! Write women in powerful and powerless and power-indifferent positions. Make them nice and naughty and jerks and generous and spoilt and clever and clueless and every other character trait that people routinely, without thought, apply to male characters. Write them young and old and fat and hot and thuggish and graceful.  Write them all over the gender spectrum. Write them from different backgrounds and cultures and with different priorities. Because the thing is, women are just people, and people are not all interesting in the same ways. They don’t have to each of them be perfectly imperfect if there are only enough of them.

Just put more women in.

We wouldn’t need to scrutinise every word Black Widow says if there were dozens of female superheroes on screen. We wouldn’t have to worry about Bechdel and Mako Mori and teeth gnashing about writing strong women if women were just routinely given as much screen/page time as men. Every woman in Buffy didn’t need to be free of problematic traits from a feminist perspective, simply because there were plenty of them in there, and they were all different. If you’re sick of all the constant analysis, know this: we all have the power to actually make this issue retreat, not by getting every female character ‘right’ but by having enough of them that it’s absurd to even lump them together just because they’re women. The discussion would just go away.

Like magic.

Now go forth and populate your stories with so many ladies I never have to think seriously about whether Elsa is a triumph or a disaster.


 

  • Don’t ask me why. I have 2 small boys and Frozen is part of parenting now.

** Yes, I know, I could have NOT kept reading. Shut up, I have poor impulse control and the internet has a hold on me, all right?

*** I too am a fantasy writer so yes, you could make up a world that has a different gender balance – but you should probably only do that if it’s a genuine part of the ‘what if’ associated with your story. Don’t just do it because your default position is ‘white man’. There shouldn’t be a default position. (But that’s a rant for another time).

 

Sam Hawke

 

Sam Hawke is a Canberra-based author who has recently been signed with agent Julie Crisp, formerly of Tor UK.

This piece was originally published on her blog, samhawkewrites.com

A Day in the Life

alarmAlarm vibrates. Sensation before first thought. Cold. Am I coming down with the flu? No. Um, possibly. I need to be strong, fight through. Check phone. New emails. Refresh podcasts. Work emails? No. I’ll be there soon enough. Will I write today? Yes, when I get home. What will I have for dinner? How long will it take to prepare and cook? How much time will that suck out of my evening?

Wash. Get dressed. Pack my bag. Will I bring my book today? Yes. Don’t waste time sleeping on the train. Pack notebook. My battered and scribble-filled notebook. Damn, I forgot to read those research articles I printed out at work yesterday. I’ll get to them another time.

Driving to train station. I wonder about my main character. How will he react when demands are made of him? Where will the drama come from? What is his truth? Can I write it well? A reminder to write something down when I get on the train: Rylin Webster wants to tell his story, his way, on his terms. A scene forms fast in my head. I watch the odometer. I check the clock. Train leaves in five minutes. I’m two minutes away from station car park. Trying to hang onto a thread of thought. The scene gets vivid and intense. I speak a line of dialogue out loud.

“Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”

Who says this?

trainPark car. Hustle to platform. Train comes. Find seat. Flip open notebook. Scrawl and scribble. Thoughts come quicker than I can write. Words are illegible. Will I be able to read this later? Will it make sense or will I lose the gist? PA announcement. Thoughts exhausted. The distraction of landscape speeding by at 100kmph.

Read my book. Can’t focus for more than a page or two at a time. Thoughts beget thoughts. Ideas form but have no place. Context is elusive. Open notebook. Scribble. Empty my brain. Close notebook. Take a few deep breaths. Read some more but don’t absorb what I’m reading.

WTFTrain reaches its destination. Earphone in. Podcasts at the ready. Maybe NBA’s The Starters. Maybe Marc Maron’s WTF. Maybe TOFOP. Twenty minute walk. My mind remains active. Plot lines weave in and out of the audio flowing into my head. Traffic noise on Broadway coming from Harris St drowns out everything.

At work. Put all thoughts of writing and being a writer to one side. Really? Good luck with thtrafficat. Do my job. Earn my keep. Read occasional online articles of interest. Send quotes, links and ideas to myself via email throughout the day. Making a cup of tea, wonder about Rylin Webster’s marriage. Why did his supermodel wife fall in love with him in the first place? Make small talk with a colleague about the upcoming weekend. Day’s end is getting closer.

inceptionWalk back to train station. New thoughts emerge. Links connect. Links miss their mark. Kill the podcast feed. Need music instead. The National? The Shins? No. This story feeds off the energy from movie soundtracks. Hans Zimmer. Interstellar? I know, Inception. Traffic noise. The roar of a motorcycle. The pang of hunger and the yawn of mental, if not physical, tiredness.

Make train ten minutes early. Open notebook. Scribble quickly, furiously, illegibly. Smile to myself that the adverbs I’m using in my notes will not make my manuscript. Why do I care what Stephen King thinks? Bret Easton Ellis, a writer I love, embraces adverbs. Look at Glamorama?Glamorama

As the train pulls out of the station, close notebook. Take out earphones. No music. No novel. No writing. Sydney’s inner-west suburbs slip by. Macdonaldtown. Newtown. Stanmore. Petersham. Lewisham. My eyes start to get heavy. I sit up, get out my book. Red or Dead by David Peace. Read a page. Battle tiredness. Read half-a-page more before my head drops. Strathfield, Epping, Hornsby don’t register.  I wake up with my finger between pages like a bookmark. Read another page. Then jack into another podcast. Pete Holmes laughs then gets deep, questions our understanding of the universe, then asks his guest whether success can come too soon?You-Made-It-Weird

Its six’o’clock. Hunger has full sway over me. That means I won’t be writing until at least seven, maybe eight. I already know what scene I want to write, need to write, if I’m to drive the story forward.

Walk in the front door. Hello to my wife, bear-tackle my son. Get changed and play dinosaurs for half-an-hour. Hunger lingers, distracts me. The desire to write lingers, distracts me. Cook dinner alone. Use the process of flouring a chicken breast, dipping it in egg and covering it in breadcrumbs, to untether my mind from now, from the day that’s been, from myself.

Too full afterdeadmau5-Superliminal-300x300 dinner, I shower and shave. Wash the day away. Start preparing for the day to come. Clothes laid out. Shoes polished. Top up Opal Card. Check work emails. Flick a few away. Exclaim in frustration over a client who is beyond demanding. Turn off phone’s WiFi. Mac on. iTunes is a ‘Go!’ Deadmau5 – Superliminal. Google Docs open. Here it comes. The manuscript loads up. I scroll down to the last page and read the notes I left from the previous day.Timmy-Mallet-with-Malletts-Mallet

I’m writing. Dialogue flows. Too much dialogue. Go back. Insert thoughts, description. Maintain tone. Not enough tension. Too much conflict? Where’s this scene going? Oh, wow. Yes, that works. I could never have planned that. There’s a knock on the door. My son comes in, jumps on my bed. ‘Let’s play Mallet’s Mallett?’

‘Ten minutes, Buddy.’

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Lots of dialogue to finish. Lots of red squiggly lines under misspelt words. Rylin Webster is angry but doesn’t know it. He’s pushing everyone around him away. He thinks this is normal. A lightbulb moment. A new scene. Not the next scene. File it away. The door opens. My wife brings a glass of wine. ‘House of Cards is starting.’

The manuscript automatically savhouse-of-cardses. I shut down the computer. Frank Underwood, my wife and a glass of wine awaits.

Later, sleep beckons. I hold on through a nothing episode of Game of Thrones. I wonder about tomorrow? What will happen? What will I achieve? How long will it be until I get to write again? In bed, before sleep fully takes over, I imagine Rylin Webster on the basketball court. He’s hurting his defender. He’s hurting his team. He’s hurting himself. An idea teases, never fully settles and then, nothing.

The Structure Spectrum

As a writer, I’m curious about other writers. Talking process is something I love to get into with a fellow author. In the way an engineer might admire a building or bridge, I look upon the novel as a technical structure. One that’s supported, reinforced, made possible by many, many intricate working pieces that bring the whole together into one glorious final edifice.

Struct1

I’m forever in awe of someone who has the compositional skills to create an opus that delivers on its early promise.

Knowing the struggles of getting from initial idea to finalising a draft, what fuels me is connecting with other writers. Learning how other writers tackle challenges that arise in the writing process helps me understand their mind and also my mind. It often gives me a third perspective on situations I’ve found myself in and only too late realise my approach has been too black and white, too all or nothing.

There’ve been times over the past few years where I thought I understood the type of writer I am. What I never saw at the time and that I see now, is that the blinkers are on. The times when I’ve felt most certain, have too often turned out to be the times when I’ve been very naïve, cocky and even ignorant. Getting caught up in the prestige of being a ‘writer’ I’d forgotten why I write and the type of writing that really jazzes me.

During a moment of reflection a couple of weeks ago I had an epiphany. Such a simple and clear insight, it brought me to a halt and gave me immeasurable peace. This realisation comes at a time when I’m progressing steadily through the first draft of my next novel. For weeks I’d had been having a conversation in the background of my mind, never fully conscious, never fully addressed, all relating to novel structure and planning.

How much time and effort should I put into planning and plotting?
How detailed should my first draft structure be?

2000px-heroesjourney-svg

Then it came to me:

As a writer I like to know where I’m going. I just don’t want to know how I’m going to get there.
Destination is important. Landmarks and signposts along the way for me are crucial. But as a writer, I’m happy in my ignorance of how I’ll get from plot-point to plot-point.

I need there to be an element of surprise in the actual writing of each scene. An unexpected discovery.

A character coming a little more to life. Links in the chain of the story connecting, sometimes by design, sometimes by chance.

That’s where the excitement is. That’s where exploration and discovery occur. Struggle and realisation. The magic of writing.

In years gone by my attempts to plan a story down to its final detail prior to starting my first draft have always ended the same way. I’ve half a dozen manuscripts in various states of incompleteness to prove it.

On the flipside of this spectrum, my last novel was written largely as a free-writing exercise.

Signposts to aim for – yes.

An overarching structure with plans as to how to develop both the characters and story – no.

At this stage in my development as a writer, that’s where the project crumbled in my hands. There were so many holes I encountered in the re-writing phases – 5 drafts at last count – that I hadn’t the skills to overcome and fix. Instead, I dug myself deeper and deeper into a formless, shapeless abyss where everything ceased to exist.

This simple realisation about how I approach structuring and planning was both timely and reassuring. And like any spectrum I’m trying to find where my sweet spot is so I can become the best writer I can be.

Where are you on the structure spectrum?

 

Ken Ward

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/

Sam Simon: A Writer’s Life (Taxi, The Simpsons and so much more)

Up until last week, thesimpsons credits reference Sam Simon was nothing more to me than a name on the credits rolls of The Simpsons. I knew nothing of the man, his life, his achievements, and his role as co-creator on one of the greatest animated series ever. Without The Simpsons, I never would have met my wife and my life would be unimaginably different (not for the better).

sam simon

Sam Simon died on 8th March after a battle with cancer, aged 49. It was only seeing his name alongside The Simpsons in online headlines made me stop and take notice. And having taken notice, his story, his life as a writer and producer offers a lot to inspire.

 

Simon wamighty mouses always a skilled and inventive when it came to drawing. Aged 24, after years of sketching comic strips for the San Francisco Chronicle, he got his first writing credit on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse soon followed by Heckle & Jeckle and Fat Albert. ‘What I learned, honestly, that was so valuable was…they made me a writer. They said we want you to write scripts.’

Over the next couple of years he worked on a number of shows that were either going nowhere or seemed to be leading him nowhere. The measure of the man came in 1982 when he submitted a script on spec to the TV show Taxi (starring Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufmann).

taxi

‘I wrote a script and I mailed it in…I decided as long as I’m writing TV I should write something I’m not embarrassed about.’

How Simon forged a path for himself based on talent, desire and integrity, reminded me of @elise_janes recent post on The Cringe where she got real about shoulda, coulda, woulda and how bullshit that all is – we need to go after what we want.

These lessons and examples are all around us: people who achieve through a willingness to work hard with no guarantee of a return, no guarantee of acknowledgement or success. Those who commit themselves to following through on their creative endeavour, because it matters. Maybe you know someone like this. Maybe this is who are working hard to become. I know I am.

Sam Simon left us writers and creators with three tips. In his own words, this is ‘the best advice ever’:

  1. Story above all
  2. Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments
  3. Love your characters

I’ll give the last word to The Simpsons themselves. On the most recent show, which aired in the US on Sunday 15th March, they ended the episode with a simple and touching tribute:

thank you

 

Ken Ward

 

(Quotes sourced from Marc Maron’s podcast, WTF, ‘Episode 389 – Sam Simon’, May 16, 2013)

What’s at stake?

lord_of_the_rings_book_cover_by_mrstingyjr-d5vwgctFrodo has to destroy the one ring. The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road lives on only to keep his son alive. For Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, it’s the importance of solving the series of murders that have engulfed the monastery.

Struggle is the core of every story. Struggle and conflict. Conflict with the way the world is and the way we want to world to be.

In an oft repeated quote from Gandhi, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’

the-name-of-the-roseWelcome to the world of our protagonist. Whether they want to or not, our main character is thrust into a situation that demands their every effort to resolve.

Our protagonists are often unwilling, unwitting and unprepared. They make mistakes. They are flawed people after all, mirroring a flaw or two that maybe we recognise in ourselves or others we know. They will frustrate us, even disappoint at times but as long as they stay the course they will never let us down.

How well defined is your protagonist’s struggle? Are the stakes high enough to fuel your story through to the end?

9780307387899_p0_v3_s260x420Whether it be life or death, end-of-the-world or just two people repairing a damaged relationship, have you taken the time to really understand what’s at stake for your characters?

Each character will have their own agenda and here begins the possibilities for conflict and struggle. The writing journey will be about how you sometimes guide, sometimes drag kicking and screaming, and sometimes just stand back and let your characters work it out for themselves, so that resolution, be it good, bad or otherwise, is found.

Our characters must be agents for change because whatever is at stake it matters enough to them (and to you as the writer) to tell this story.

 

Ken Ward

Bubbles From the Bottom of the Seabed

At times last year I felt myself in the clouds.

As a writer I was soaring. I was above the world I inhabited looking down upon everything and everybody.
The air was thin and clean, rushing hard in my face and yet pliable, responsive to every thought, movement and action I perceived.
My novel Born Under Punches was becoming.
It was emerging from the malaise of unformed ideas into a burgeoning behemoth – the development of the novel paralleling the realisations of the story’s main character Roy Carle.
Myself as a writer becoming increasingly adept in the learning of my craft.

77795_solnce_voda_podvodnyj-mir_puzyrki_1920x1200_(www.GdeFon.ru)And then…
And then awareness.
Awareness that I wasn’t flying up on high, soaring above the world, looking down.
That I was in fact underneath it and what I had perceived was inverted, refracted at an odd angle.
I found myself lying on the seabed looking up, with it all above me.

Next to me, in a shattered heap, the wreckage of my novel, a rotting and crumbling hulk, its ability to be salvaged unknown.

Ahead of me, the challenge was clear: do I rise or do I tie myself to this deteriorating carcass in the grave?

And so I began the slow, slow ascent back to the surface, the middle; the place where ability, desire, expectation and hope all mesh together.

Each metre I climb from off the seabed is done so by application to a basic concept…

…That I want to write and that I will write.

Even if it’s only for my own benefit and enjoyment.

And that means a new slate, a new idea, a new opportunity to create a world and characters that will live their lives upon the stage I offer up for them.

Some days I even forget to look up to see the great distance between me and the surface; I get so lost in creation, the intricacies and complexities of fictional lives.

Some days I remember what it is to fly, and realise swimming is much the same.

Ken Ward