Giant Lizard Theory: Things I have learned about writing and not playing golf.
There are spots all over my face; the doctor confirms what my mum fears, chicken pox. It means that I get two weeks off school, which is a huge relief for me. It is my first year of high school, and I am not doing so well. My mum doesn’t know what to do with me, but we have just bought a VCR, years after everyone else has got one — mostly cause my dad wants to tape the horse racing — so my mum takes me down to the local tiny video store.
New releases cost three and four dollars, but for five dollars you can get ten weeklies. My mum tells me to get ten weeklies. I like films, but I am now past kid’s films, and the only adult films I know are the wars and westerns my dad and nan show me.
This is the first time in my life I get to choose the films that I want to see. I get Trading Places, Another 48 hours and one of the Beverly Hills Cop films. It was 92; Eddie Murphy was king. I get a few other action films with Arnie and JCVD. And then I stumble into the smallest section of the store, horror.
But most of the horror isn’t horror; it is Monsters. And there is an entire row of films, sat perfectly at the eye level of a 12-year-old boy, maybe 15 or 20, and all of which have Godzilla on them. I grab three of them. Godzilla (1985), Godzilla (1954), and Godzilla Vs Mothra.
The first film I watch is Godzilla, 85. It starts with Godzilla vs. Bambi, where Godzilla stands on Bambi and finishes the short film. Then the real movie starts. It captivates me. It isn’t just that it’s a great big arse lizard fucking up a city and perplexing Perry Mason, although that part almost explodes my head. It is mostly that I realise that this is just a bloke in a rubber suit walking slowly. I could write this.
The last few years have been pretty good to this sweary bogan Aussie who didn’t finish high school. At 27 I was second in charge of a parking garage (that had two employees) and at 36 I have four books, a radio show, a film and I work for ESPNcricinfo.
I did most of this with my gift for bullshit. I was very lucky, and instead of trying to learn things I watched a fucktonne of films, had a librarian mother, a cricket coach dad, and some great old story tellers who took a liking to me. From all that, I became a writer, broadcaster and filmmaker.
And over the years people have asked me how to be a writer, how to be a better writer, and how to make it, as well as a bunch of other things. So this is answering all that.
There is a mixture of advice in writing because I am a mixture of a writer. I started as a screenwriter, went into blogging, became a journalist, then wrote non-fiction books, then wrote a lot of narrative non-fiction, documentary scripts, a sitcom script, and currently writing a novel. I often write non-fiction events in a fiction way.
So that is what this is. It might help your writing. It might get you a PA who wears muscle tops and plans your green tea colonics. It might not help you at all. But if you want to be a writer, and you have nothing to do between now and the next series of Bojack Horseman, this could help.
The Magic of Writing and Golf
Writing is not magic.
The words don’t appear from mystical elf farts who have been drinking Jaeger bombs at a troll hipster bar. Even heroin, codeine and bourbon related hijinks won’t write. Writing is hard work.
And it isn’t ideas. You may have come up with a sparky idea where the entire world is made up of serial killers, and your lead is a character who profiles non-serial killers before they don’t kill again, or how LeBron James is proof of shape-shifting reptilian point forward overlords, or rats on a plane. That is the idea; that is not writing. You are not a writer because you have 100 great ideas, you are a writer for writing one of them
Writing isn’t even plot, characters, tone, subtext, or structure. They are just part of the idea.
Writing is hard work. In movies they show it in a montage, but that’s also what they did for all the years and years of training Rocky did. If they didn’t show it as a montage it would a fat person sitting there punching the desk, looking bored and occasional fast finger movement. For some, the finger moving bit comes naturally. They sit, and the words flow out of them like blood from a gaping knife wound, and they haven’t even knifed themselves for it. For most, it is about sitting in from of your writing device, stabbing yourself repeatedly, and then poking about in there trying to find the lucky writing artery. But mostly it is you sitting at a desk looking at a screen for a long time.
Maybe for hours. Maybe days. Maybe for years. It isn’t magic; it is writing. Actually, it kind of is magic, because you are trying to build an illusion, and really, behind it all you are working as hard as you can. And you can do both wearing a cape.
For the next little bit of my illusion, I am going to substitute the word ‘writing’ for another word.
If you want to become a big dick at golf, be it as a professional, or as a decent amateur, I would suggest the best way to do that is to get a golf set, and several times a week hit a golf ball. You may even want to get tips from other good golfers. You may want to think of ways you can improve on your own. You may watch quality golfers to learn, but mostly, it will be you, hitting a ball at a practice range or on a golf course. Over time you will become a better golfer.
No one thinks “I played a bit of golf at school, and I have always considered myself a good golfer, but I just don’t have time to go off and be a golfer. In fact, I don’t play at all, but I know I can play golf” because that would be idiotic. But that is what people think of writing.
You might be a natural writing athlete, but that is not enough. The 10,000-hour rule might not mean that you can play a Stradivarius, or I can be the Denver Nugget’s power forward, but if I spent 10,000 hours playing basketball, I’d be a shitload better than before.
By the time I was 24 I’d written one play, three films and two books. I’d done with 3 or 4 blogs. I even wrote long winded emails to people. In the 2 and a half years between me turning 27 and 30, I wrote at least 3 million words. 97% of that was unpaid, around other jobs, instead of sleep, or life. That is when I became a decent writer. This is a craft.
You should read a lot. If you want to be an Ice Hockey correspondent, you should read a lot about Ice Hockey. Not just the well-known stuff. But a book by some guy who got his head smashed in too many times. You should listen to as many people talking about Ice Hockey as you can. You should watch all the Ice Hockey you can. You should then read stuff not by Ice Hockey people. You should read poems and speeches. You should listen to rap music and folk songs. You should watch horror films and read, watch, listen, to every single thing you can.
The Ice Hockey part is research. You should research the hell out of things. Research is not Wikipedia. The second part is learning how to tell stories, construct sentences, make an impact: you are learning how to hit the fucken puck.
A piece on neurolinguistics might inspire the best Ice Hockey piece you will ever write. You don’t know. Ice Hockey isn’t just Ice Hockey anyway, it’s a battle, a journey, it’s gladiators, it’s glam rock, it’s science, it’s dance, it’s brutal, it’s tender. The more you understand that Ice Hockey isn’t just Ice Hockey, the more you understand the world around you. The more you understand that there is no right way to write about Ice Hockey, or anything really, the more you can do. The more you can say. More. Read more. Learn more.
The best comedians in the world aren’t the funniest people in the world; they are the smartest people in the world. The same applies for your make-up blog or your New Yorker piece. Read.
So you’ve probably heard about writer’s block, and you’ve probably claimed to have it. But, let’s be honest, it’s up there with believing crystals can heal you as a bullshit concept. If you want to write, you can write. You might have to trick yourself, or literally (I mean that literally and figuratively) tie yourself to a desk. But there ain’t no goblin that stops you writing; there is you.
I work in sports writing where eople write each day because they have too.
So learn to manage it. Take a walk, a nap, a shit, a shower, or have a wank. All of these things will clear your mind. That is all you need, a couple of minutes of a clear mind and something will happen. And then you can further trick yourself into writing.
Grainne Maguire, the comedian and comedy writing teacher, is one of many who talk about listing 40 things down about your topic of choice, ten scary, ten hard, ten weird, and ten stupid, things about that topic. You will name obvious ones to start with, you will run out of steam by the end, but when you go back, you will have five ways to tackle your topic that excite you.
If it gets grim, interview your characters in your head, or just write their biography. You may not use it, but thinking about them that way might work. Write the stupidest paragraph you can, just for fun. Or list down every single story beat you want to cover, and just write to link up the beats.
Work out where you write best, to what music, at what time of the day. I used to like listening to Red Medicine by Fugazi late at night and writing. Now it is the Distillers, Run the Jewels or anything Alt-country between 10 am and 5 PM. If I am writing well, I won’t notice if the music stops, or sometimes, if my station is coming up, or the kids need picking up.
And if you find a day where you can’t write, and you just know it is going to go that way, do all your research that day and mind map out your story. I sometimes interview myself, years into the future, when someone is asking me about the project. It sounds crazy (it is crazy) but for someone reason, it allows me to hover outside the project for a moment and with what alcoholics call a moment of clarity (don’t overuse Tarantino quotes).
If you say you have writer’s block, what you are saying is that idea is not coming to me, or you are tired or overworked. So write about something else. If you have more than one project in your mind, you can always just write the one that is flowing.
Usually, I have ten projects on the go at once. And for years it was the reason I never finished anything, but now it is the reason I almost never have a wasted day as a writer.
I also have something like 40 full note books, and probably another 40 or so half filled. I use Evernote (Evernote is great) for all my notes as well. And If I have a good idea as I am about to sleep, I write it down. It might be a line of dialogue, a movie idea, or just a random thought. But if I write it in a notebook or Evernote, I always have it.
There are entire notebooks dedicated to one idea, notebooks dedicated to nothing in particular. My Evernote has 100 different notebooks within it. And I have tens of thousands of entries altogether. Thanks to Evernote they are kinda organised and easily searchable.
Most of my life has been spent losing ideas or only half-remembering them. I don’t like forgetting things, losing things, or not using things. It might be from years of not writing things down or because I have lost three novels in my life, but no more. Autosave. Two cloud backups. Back blaze for my computer.
My ideas might be shit, my pieces might be half finished and not working, but I will be damned if I will ever lose them again.
At the age of five, I watched all the Shirley Temple films. Melbourne had maybe four channels back then, and every weekend there would be a Shirley Temple film showing. I watched them every week. I now couldn’t tell you the plot of any, although there was always dancing, and I remember her as being full of spirit and very polite. She said Mister a lot.
I loved them.
I don’t know why. Maybe because she was a kid in a lot of adult situations, and I was an only child who was often the only kid of my age (or only kid at all) at the parties I went to. But it could have just been the curly hair and aw-shucks attitude.
At the age of five, I wrote a script for a Shirley Temple film. It was the first thing I ever wrote.
Think about the fact you are writing about people on one of the most important days of their life; that applies to fiction or non-fiction. This is a big moment for them. Who are they, what is their background, how did they get here, and my current favourite of what gets them out of bed in the morning.
If I can work out why I think a person gets out of bed and does the hard things each day, I can then work out their entire life from that moment onwards. I might be wrong — this is only my view, and even when you interview people they can’t always tell you. But if you get to the core of who they are, each moment you write about them, no matter how small, will be centred on something.
There is no problem with writing your view on someone. The internet and newspaper industries would die without that. But don’t always think about your subject from your viewpoint. Old men write about sportsmen so often in a way that shows they are old men who are writing about spoilt handsome young creatures. But there is more to the story. That is a son, father, brother, former McDonald’s manager, Sage Francis fan. There is so much to them. The same with fictional characters: if you want me to believe, you must believe this person exists yourself.
If they are a real character, and very famous, the key thing is still to write about them as a real human being. Even the politicians are really human (insert David Icke joke here). If you struggle to understand them, think about them as if you only just heard of them, or you are a cleaner from Iowa, or the president of Paraguay, or a Martian. Not as a writing experiment, but what it would be like to see this person for the first time, having never heard of them before, having heard of them, but never seen them, having not seen them in five years. What if you watched George Clooney in a film with the sound off, what would you see then? What if you only go by a celebrities public statements? It doesn’t matter if you know the person or not: learn, empathise and then write.
Someone might have seen Barack Obama speak 43876 times before, but you have now seen it, and you might have seen things others haven’t. You might have seen a pause that made you think of something. You may have seen a speech tick that others haven’t seen. A mannerism. His nose. Anything. So show the people. Don’t tell them. Show them through your words. Make them feel like they are watching it through your eyes. Like you are slowing down a video they have seen before, and pointing out the bits that matter, and why they matter. You can say Angela Merkel is not sure about this statement, or you can show me through a study of her face, voice and body language.
At this point, if you do it right, they are not reading, they are feeling.
Search for the truth. Fiction, non-fiction, doesn’t matter. Emotional truth, intellectual truth, science truth, all the truths. One of the reasons George Constanza is a great character is because it is Larry David. It didn’t matter beforehand that we didn’t know Larry David was like that. It only mattered a real human being inspired it. That is truth.
If you are writing about anti-vaxxers or whether Greedo or Han shot first, some people will already have their mind made up. Your job is not to appease some and displease others; it is to get to the truth of what you think. That is all you can do. That works in comedy, drama and straight reporting.
You can try to be a contrarian or a populist; it seems to pay well for some, but if you believe something and have tried to get to the truth of it, that is probably the best way forward. Or fantastical lies. I once made up a lie so great a woman’s breast exploded and put out a bush fire.
Blog vs. MSM
Years ago I followed two point guards in Australian basketball. One had this smooth shot, worked the offence perfectly, and was a reliable player in every facet of the game. The other could dribble, and had this vision that was extraordinary but didn’t shoot much, and defended like his life depended on it. You could see that one had been properly coached through high school and college before the pros and that the other had learnt his game on the street.
Because I was a blogger who went into the MSM, people ask me which is better. It doesn’t matter, but I see a difference between the two styles which is pretty much the same as those two point guards.
My writing is vastly different compared with other writers who grew up writing at high school, then university and then at a paper, or even those who just had a cadetship at a paper. These writers learned so much more than I ever did in a proper environment, They can do it all, they are polished, and they know what to do. They had editors guiding them, or at least demanding that they learn through intimidation and deadlines.
The learning environment I had was crazy. Racists, scientists from countries I had never been too, fascists, communists, trolls, fans and haters all bombarded me with praise, hate, encouragement, and bile. They fixed my errors, even the ones that weren’t errors. They had their take on what I had written. And there was no referee, no moderator, no strict guidelines to adhere to, just me writing, and then commenting. It was chaos, but I did learn. My mistakes were public and bruising, not just seen by a professor or teacher. And they were often spectacular mistakes.
I flung shit at a wall, and some of it stuck. There is freedom and madness in what I did. It took me seven years to even work out what I was doing. And right now if I was asked to write agency copy, the most basic writing there is, I would sweat. But ask a formally trained MSM writer to pen a 4000 fully jizzed up love poem to a sportsman and their face would melt.
The whole blogger vs. MSM writer thing means less now than ever before. Proper writers now write blogs, and bloggers often end up as standard writers. They have crossed so much now that many famous columnists are just souped up bloggers, and many bloggers are feature writers. With Twitter, even newspaper writers get constant feedback, and most newspaper columns have comments as well. So the next generation will probably be more of a mixture of the two kinds of writing.
But it is important to do both, because I know it was important for me to learn how to be good in a system that was not like my head. And I know for other writers they need to let their freak flag fly from time to time.
I learnt about editors, and editing, which means I am a better self-editor now. Deadlines made me focus my thoughts. Different publications have different outlooks which made me think about things from other angles. You cannot write the same for a Pakistani newspaper as you can for an American sports magazine. These are all good things.
There was a time when I started, and certainly before, when blog was a dirty word. Being a blogger meant you weren’t quite a writer. That time has mostly passed now. Write for your site, write for their site, just write.
Who do you write for?
A friend once asked me who I wrote for, I said myself. And he called me a liar because he was also a writer, and in his mind, he wrote for people. I think that’s great, but I write for me, to make me laugh, cry, and everything in-between. It is only through writing I have started to understand other people, and even after all that, I still know me best. I am my audience.
But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people have a very particular one person in mind; some have a group of people. I don’t think it matters.
You probably shouldn’t write to please other writers. A writer is no more important than a non-writer. Sure we are smarter and better looking, but you want to build an audience to read your piece, it would make you feel better if Noam Chomsky and Salman Rushdie liked it, but really, you just want readers. And the only one you can please at the start is you.
One of the main reasons I got into cricket writing was because there wasn’t a writer doing what I wanted to read. So I wrote it. I don’t know if that is rare or not, but I know this: you are the only person guaranteed to read what you write.
Whether you write for you or your Uncle Leo, it’s you who will read it first before you press send, and so you’d want to be happy with it. If I get to the end of a piece, and I have strong emotions about it, I have done my job. I can’t make sure my dad, Barack Obama, or popular music star Akon will feel the same.
Not every single piece you write has to be a 10453-word piece. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Especially when you write spec or for blogs, you just go big. You think bigger is better, smarter, sophisticated; like it is looking down on all the puny 600-word pieces like they are simple minded peasants.
But mostly long pieces are too long. And I say this as a man who writes long pieces that are sometimes too long. You shouldn’t focus on length when you are writing something unless you have a word count given to you. But not every piece has to be the definitive piece you are writing.
A 1000 word piece can sometimes be the hardest to write, because you have to strip back your effortlessly cool prose, take out all the intellectual wanders, and focus on what is truly important while working out the best to way to convey the information and emotion. That isn’t easy. And when you are writing for yourself, you probably won’t do that. Even as you get well known, chances are you will think you deserve more words than you were given.
When you write that great piece on the food of the Hindu Kush that runs 9000 words, you will soon realise that there aren’t many places who can run it, or would want too. Medium is a great platform, but mostly it is filled with poorly subbed (um) overlong (um) pieces that no publications wanted (I didn’t offer it to anyone to be fair, so you shut up).
Don’t look down on small word counts, if you can’t give emotion and information in 300 words, you probably aren’t going to be better when you write 3000.
My writing is well known for the structure I use. It usually involves non linear storytelling and going between past and present, often in mini chapter form. It sticks out because it isn’t how most cricket writers write. And people have started to think that it is the structure of the piece that is what works. That is massively wrong.
Quentin Tarantino didn’t make it because he fucked with linear storytelling, any more than Jean-Luc Godard did. They made it because they understood storytelling, visual language, narrative, characters and dialogue. If you see a writer who uses the same way of writing a few times, that is because they feel comfortable in it, but the structure is not the thing you should be focusing on. It can be a cool addition or calling card, but it’s a small part of what you do.
Everything has a beginning, middle and end. Everything has someone/something starting in their normal life, going somewhere that isn’t normal, and then finishing up changed. One way or another. Flashbacks, flash forwards, dream sequences, quotes from an academic, historical perspective, all of it, no matter where it comes in the piece it has to be telling the right part of the story at the right time.
I was always pretty lucky in that I kind of got story-telling naturally. Like a baseballer with a great swing, it worked well for me (except on the days my swing fell apart, and I didn’t know how to put it back together). It was when I was working on my documentary that I had to understand it all finally, otherwise the 400 hours of the film would never become a film. At the same time I was working on another script for another documentary and a book about the history of Test Cricket. Suddenly my life became about figuring out story and structure, and I understood it.
Like a lot of people before that I thought the structure, and even linear timeline, was the most important part. Now I realise that this is just a bit you have to fit to your story, not the other way around. Things go places for a reason.
But to put things in the right place, you need to understand the basic ideas of story telling, and the one that is the simplest way of learning that is studying Dan Harmon’s story wheel. It states the story idea for you from beginning to end, and you can take almost any film, book, or anything with a story in it, and follow this.
I use the wheel idea a fair bit. It’s hardwired into all our brains, as we kinda already know story, but sometimes it is important to get out of the words and see it laid out on a graph or diagram. Because while it is great to just write when you are inspired, sometimes you get lost in that. So before you start, while you are half way through, or at the end, it is important to make sure you know where everything goes. Many pieces won’t need it, many will already be structured well, but sometimes it will help you hit all the beats you want to hit, and sometimes it will simply help you write.
If I have to write a 1000 word piece, I might just write the balls off it in one go. But I might also start with seven dot points I want to write. I will often put them in some order. It doesn’t matter if they end in that order — just having them means I won’t forget to write them, and it allows me to write each one giving me about 1000 (1500) words at the end. Some will be one line; some will be three paragraphs. Some will merge, some will be replaced. That doesn’t matter; this is just an outline.
In larger pieces, I might write entire sections or chapters on their own, but I usually know where the whole piece will go before I write, or at least have a rough idea. This one on Greg Norman came to me almost as a whole idea, so to remember it I made this mind map (Scapple is great).
But when I started writing all the pieces I got a bit lost in my head and the original mind map didn’t work. I wanted to make more sense of my connections, so I made this one.
And then when I had written a complete draft of the piece, I made another mind map that this time followed Dan Harmon’s story wheel.
For my Aubrey Faulkner piece I did a story structure graph. I can’t remember why, but it worked quite well.
When I did my book, I wrote it in the beta version of Novlr (Novlr is great), and I did a story beat graph. As much as anything to remember the emotional journey of the book, but also so I could see the bits that just didn’t need to be there.
If a project is massive and has lots of sections, mini chapters or even chapters themselves, I use Scrivener (Scrivener is great) to write it in. This is a project I have been working on for a while.
Because word processing programs are too hard to keep a handle on why each section is in each section, Scrivener allows me to keep notes, write synopsis of each section, have note cards, put in photos for research, and colour code different story beats or characters. With this I know why each section of the story exists, and what its role is. And if I want to move a mini-chapter or chapter, I can do so on a whim. And that is important because structure is just really where shit goes to tell your story.
And really, that is all these tools and structures are: making sure you put the right bit of the story in the right bit of your piece.
It was like all the American family sitcoms I grew up watching, but fucked up. There was a laugh track as well. It was brutal, and yet hilarious. Then the incredible violence, dangerous dialogue, and the haunting music.
I was 18, and it was my first time watching Natural Born Killers. I turned to my girlfriend as RDJ hosted American Maniacs and said, “This is the kinda things that go on in my head”. She thought I was a natural born killer at that point, and am not sure she ever quite knew what I meant.
But to me, that film allowed me to think I could be a writer. I loved Seinfeld, Mash, standard films, popular things, but it wasn’t what I saw in my head. Or it was but I always thought the stuff in my head was just a bit weirder, more full on, and it was that moment in my girlfriend’s suburban bedroom that I realised there might be a place for the stuff in my head.
I started on my first screenplay a few weeks later.
Drafts, editing and bad friends
You don’t need to write a draft for everything you do. Somethings work as a beautiful mind dump. But, as much as you can, write drafts. Lots of drafts. Do an extra draft than you need. It doesn’t matter how tight your deadline is; you have time for a draft. Your first selection of words is the first collection of words. You need to go back through it. There is something in there not right. If you don’t have a deadline, you need to do that about another ten times. Well, at least once.
Don’t just finish writing and correct spelling or grammar. That isn’t editing, editing is more than just obvious mistakes, it is tone, intent, and pruning down to the very core of what you are trying to say. If you see something that you know is just there to show you are smart, or funny, or to prove you have seen every episode of Duckman, take it out unless it helps you say what you want to say. Don’t pretend you don’t know what that is, you know. If you get that feeling in your stomach that it isn’t quite right, take it out, make it smaller, use less ebonics. Write in one program, then copy and paste it to another, then find another, then print it out, then say it out loud, then get someone else to read it. Then do another draft. Or at least one draft.
Then make someone you know read it, and then disregard most of what they say, because just by giving it to someone else, you will already start to feel what is and isn’t working. But if you do have a smart friend you trust, give it to them, if they send it back and say, this is good, they are useless as editing friends. I sent this to a couple I trust. One told me it was good and gave no notes (Kathleen, you were useless, although thanks for the subbing. If it’s bad, you are back to being useless). The other person said it was good, and also gave plenty of notes (Subash, I love you).
You need feedback, and even though their feedback won’t always be of any use, it will help you make the piece you are writing better.
Editing is less sexy than writing; they don’t make films about editors sitting there reading other people’s work. But editors are, if they have time, pretty handy people. They are the first audience. And they probably got there because they have read a lot of stuff so that they should know things. Probably. And sub-editors are important as well because they know the difference between they’re and affect. And will spot it when cucumber computer autocorrects words. Thank them often.
If you have spent the time writing something, then you should spend the time rewriting it, reviewing it, reshaping it. Writing isn’t magic, and it isn’t even just writing.
On occasion someone will link to an old piece I wrote, I will click on it and it will be shit. Really shit. An open sewerage pipe running down a backpackers in Hikkaduwa type shit. And it is normal for me to think that. I have moved on since I wrote it. Changed my style, changed my opinions, read more, travelled more, learnt more, become a father, have a mortgage. Ofcourse, Sometimes I think that about the piece I have just written as well. Like this paragraph — Hikkaduwa reference aside — is a bit shit.
It is also a good thing to look back and think your work is crap. Because it means you want to get better. Other people might like every piece you write, but I think writing is like golf (fuck you, I can do this), one good shot a round is enough to keep you hooked. That one piece I get right, that comes out exactly as I want it too, that makes me feel wonderful. It doesn’t matter if the rest aren’t off the middle, end in a bunker, or kill a magpie, because that one good one in every 95 is enough.
And sometimes you will really write shit. I don’t cook perfect eggs everyday, I don’t drive my car well every day, I don’t look after my kids perfectly every day. Sometimes I am shit. Not every painting Van Gogh did was a masterpiece; sometimes he couldn’t get it right. Sometimes it was because he was searching for perfection and didn’t get it, and sometimes it just didn’t happen. He was staring at the canvas, feeling fine, he lifted his brush, shooed away a fly from where his ear used to be, and what he painted was a bit shit. Michael Jordan didn’t hit every fadeaway. Johnny Cash did some terrible songs. Not everything Confucius said ended up as a wise old saying.
A wise old Yorkshire man once told me something very helpful: sometimes you just have to get the thing done, have a beer, and forget about it. Before I was trying to write the great piece, every day, and it was killing me. After that, I learned that you couldn’t write at your best every day. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try for the best you can do that day, it just means you you can’t be your very best every day.
That doesn’t mean the failures don’t haunt you. I stuffed up a piece that should have been great from the last World T20 on Afghanistan cricket. I knew it at the time. I knew it later on. I know it now. All the alcohol in the world doesn’t wash some things away.
But, shit happens. Get up, write again.
All the tips are helpful, but you probably want to get paid. And what if you even want to make a living off this. You poor sad bastard.
Well, you can, but here is the thing, if something is your dream job, it is probably a lot of people’s dream job. Those people will probably work for free to make it happen. I did, I have worked for some of the world’s most well-known publications for free because I was willing to do anything. Some writers will tell you not to work for free, as it undermines the industry. And it does, but when you are looking to get your break, you won’t — and shouldn’t — care. You need to be prepared to work harder than the other hundreds of thousands of people who want what you want. If you are good enough, it will lead to pay.
That might then lead to a career. And once you are in a career you can be the person who says new people shouldn’t work for free.
The best people I have worked with are the people who work the hardest. Working hard is also doing a lot of different things. My working hard was the 3 million words, and then when I got a foot in the door taking every single job that was offered to me. But there are other ways. As a journalist, you will need to meet people, chase stories, look into every rumour that comes by you, find the means to sniff out new stuff, break stories while keeping your sources happy and find people who will want your stories.
Others will make it by simply by networking, which is incredibly hard work in the first place, as talking to people is the worst. So is finding editors, who don’t want to be found in real life, and trapping them is hard work. Proving to someone that you are worthy of their money is hard work. Even finding jobs for free can be hard work. If you want to be rewarded for your hours, being in any creative field is a fucken stupid idea.
But you probably do want to do this. It might just be that one post you have had in your head for ages about homeopathy causes idiocy or a story about your gran, but you want it out there, in a well-read place, to be read, maybe even get some cash for it. Just to do that will require hard work. The idea, the writing, the finding of the platform to accept it. Surprisingly, no one will pay for the exquisite idea that is in your head that you haven’t yet told anyone about.
You can make it as a writer. Freelance journalists who know what they are doing make nice money, TV and film writers too. Some old fashioned cigar-chomping sports and political writers cash in. But mostly writers don’t make much money. Think about how much money you need to be comfortable, and then forget that number if you want to be a writer. You might eventually make that number, but only by the time a can of Mountain Dew costs 237 dollars.
But that’s ok because I can write in my underwear, sleep in on Tuesdays and put in multiple references to Duckman, so it all evens out.
Fuck, dude, shit, um, you know, I can’t really say. There isn’t a secret nod to give editors that make you legit. I have been rejected like a gawky teen since I began. Even now, almost more so now.
The best advice I’ve ever heard given to people who want to be in the creative field came from Chris Hardwick who runs the Nerdist. He said something along the lines of, if you are meant to make to make it, you will find a way. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s because it’s easier to understand once you’ve made it, which is of no real help. That said, I assume unless you get to Tom Cruise level, you also never really feel like you’ve made it.
But really you have to find your own way. It is getting even more so as every two years the media just turns on its head and things are different again. The best way is to find a bunch of various professionals that you want a similar career to, cherry pick the paths that might work now by looking at the industry as close as you can, and see what you can do that might work.
The other way is to find a bunch of people who are roughly at the same stage who are all trying to make it. If one of them makes it first, you will have a direct guide. But also one of you will probably get more work than one person can handle. Plus once they are in they will be asked who else out there who is worth hiring. If you look at the group of people who have been hired after bing involved in Test Match Sofa you’ll see how these things work.
I did none of this by deisgn. I just started a blog when people liked blogs and wrote four times a day on it. I started a podcast on my own because I didn’t realise it was good to have a cohost. I started an online video show because I thought I better use my film making skills for something. I popped along to Test Match Sofa because it seemed like fun. I published my book because I didn’t know how to contact publishers. I made an independent documentary because no one else was interested in making it. And then after all that, a short five years later, I was fully employed in the media.
It’s really that easy.
You are not Zadie Smith, Gideon Haigh, or Bill Simmons. You’re not like them, you don’t have similar life experiences. You are you. It probably seems like a weakness, because no one knows you. But it is actually a positive, because famous writers from newspapers up to Nobel Laureates have been heard. You haven’t. You’re fresh, new, different, unusual. It is totally normal to be inspired, even to copy a style, (your version of the Beatles won’t be the Beatles, it will be you being the Beatles). But your best bet is to be you. That is a unique thing you can offer.
And you want to stand out, be seen as different, because you want someone to notice you, hire you, groom you in a non-pedophilia way.
So use what you have to your advantage. What you have learnt. What you know. What you’re life experiences are. People don’t do that enough. If you can draw, use that. If you’re an engineer, use that. Use every single life experience and piece of knowledge you have come across. That doesn’t mean every story has to be about you. They don’t. That doesn’t mean what you’re writing has to be quintessentially you. It doesn’t.
What it means is you have an entire lifetime of living and dreaming behind you, and that is something you can use. You might be writing about the reproductive habits of the Red Mangrove Flatworm (isn’t being specific more fun), but it is you. When you are explaining the daddy flatworm moving into place to mount the mummy flatworm, it isn’t someone else, it isn’t a computer, it isn’t Monica Ali or Halldor Laxness, it is you, and that is important. You might be a 14-year-old from the suburbs of Christchurch who has never met a lesbian or drunk a Belgian beer, but you have 14 years of stuff behind you. Of worry, of bad judgements, of life, trying to beat you, of life inspiring you, of being given a free candy.
It doesn’t matter if you are writing your 14-part young adult science fiction fantasy cross over series or a 200-word Twitter round up of what people said about a community footy game. It is you, and you are like no other person in the world. So write that way.
People talk about voice all the time. I feel like I have three or four voices. I am not sure how I got them. One is just me shouting, one is me listening, one is me talking shit and one is me thinking. Sometimes I use two or three of them together. If you write enough, it will just come out. I am not sure you can go looking for it. Some people never find it.
The truth is if you write like you, all the yous, that is your voice.
In 2007 I went to see my Collingwood play my friend’s Brisbane in a game of footy. My team got completely and utterly defecated on. And the game got so bad that I ended up giving my friend advice on his basketball blog (that friend, Todd Spehr, has written a basketball book, go buy it) After a while he looked at me and said, “why don’t you write a cricket blog?”
So I started a cricket blog. I wanted to write films and books. Instead, I wrote a weird anarchic blog about cricket. The easy thing would have been to just not do it. But by making that one choice, I have changed my entire life.
And now I write books and films.
Use the right words, not the ones you think will impress. Use the right amount of words. Find your voice. Don’t try to say or know everything. Find a niche. Always question assumed wisdom. Try to be original. Be honest. Always try your best. Tell a good story. Find the characters. Find the motivation. Always talk to people. Always write. Always write as you. Show instead of tell. Lie in a fun way. Build illusions. Build payoffs. Build worlds. Learn grammar. Abuse a grammar. Don’t try to be contrarian, search for truth. Read as much as you can about writing. Disregard every piece written on writing. Start every scene late, leave every scene early. Never write to impress people. Find real stories and write them like fiction. Write fiction like it is a real story. Fuck with narrative. Fuck with everything. Disregard all writing rules.
When you have a laptop (other devices are available) you are a god. Misuse that power majestically.
Giant Fucken Lizard
And here we are, at the single most important thing I have ever learnt. The giant lizard theory.
What is Godzilla about?
Let’s ignore Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla/Mothra/King Kong or even the 1985 version. Let us go back to the original Japanese version of the film.
The obvious answer is a giant lizard crushing buildings, but it’s wrong. Although that is one of the highlights. The giant lizard is a plot device to tell the story of a nation coming to grips with the horror of the Atomic Bomb and Japan’s part in what happened to it.
Every film, book, book, essay, is not about the things that happened, but about what is behind the plot, that one thing. All those zombies you see out there are just plot devices to tell a human story. That is why they move so slow.
When you sit down to write a 400-word hot take, or a 7 part series novel series, think about what you are trying to say. It should be about something. Not what happens in the plot or the text, but what you are ultimately trying to say. It is the hardest thing to see. You might start with a fresh plot, idea for a personal sketch, or a great real life narrative, but just telling the story will only get you so far. If you want what you write to connect with people you need to stand back and see what is really going on.
There might be two things or three things. But none of those things is ‘he’s a wise-cracking lawman who won’t take no shit from no one’, mostly it is that he is in love, but won’t admit it, or has fucked up his life, and has one last chance. What if the best day of your life is because of the worst day of your life. What if you gave up your dream for freedom? Should we fight for human error in the era of technology?
Think of the first and last scene of most films ever. They are what the film is actually about. Books do a similar thing.
What if a sharknado is coming to your town and is the event that tells you what is important in life. Maybe it isn’t flirting with a young woman at a poorly lit bar; maybe it is your ex-wife, Tara Reid. Because the little things in life don’t mean a damn — fights over the mortgage, your kids, your life ambitions — they all just fade away once you have had to fight a goddam flock of flying sharks. I mean, hell, once you’ve been eaten by a shark and cut your self out using a chain saw, you know that only love matters, and you love TARA REID goddamit, and those fucken sharks and their nado, they just reminded you of that. And if you and Tara Reid can survive a sharknado, you can survive anything. Even the next few Sharknados.
You might be writing about an Olympic Fencer’s footwork, but your giant lizard theory is really about what her footwork says about her as an athlete or person. Suddenly then what you write isn’t about the thing you are writing, it can be read by people with no real interest in your topic because you are connecting with people on a personal level.
And once you know what your story is about, and it doesn’t matter if you have written five drafts or you know at the idea stage, the whole thing opens up for you. Suddenly you can cut the bits that don’t tell your story, you can delve deep into the bits that do, and after that, your piece on the knitting society of Wagga Wagga will be awesomer.
This is my giant lizard theory. And it will chase off unnecessary plots, lines and paragraphs like it is Godzilla.
So do all this, or none of it, write a shit load, read a bunch, research, doodle, tell tall tales, stun with the truth, whatever, but don’t think people have to read your shit. Your mum might read it; your friends will dip in and out. Our audience is not the people we know, it’s not high profile writers or celebrities, it’s whoever finds it. The important things is to get it out there and make it as spectacular as you can make it. You might end up doing well; you might end up with a blog post with seven hits. Your take down of Bernard Bosanquet’s ‘the ideality of the finite’ might be the best piece ever written, but it may not get more hits than comparing Kim Kardashian to a monster truck. But if you did your best, you will at least feel that way. People will hate your work, people will love it — that is subjective. The important thing is you tried.
At the end of the day, or any time of the day, learning how to be a success is magic. And not the illusion made by a person to trick you, but the magic with spells and things that turn princes into toads.
All you can do is listen, learn, work and write, and hope that after all that someone reads you. Right now, no one cares about you. No one gives even one tiny little shit about what you think or say, so make them.
You are a giant lizard of words, stomp on the world.