Six Things I Wish I’d Known as an Aspiring Teenage Writer

Last Friday I went out to do a presentation at a local school, talking to kids aged ten to seventeen about becoming a science-fiction and fantasy writer. I’m not usually the guy who gets asked to talk to school-age writers, as evidenced by the notes at the top of my presentation – don’t swear, and don’t mention Horn – and I was actually pretty impressed  when I succeeded in obeying one of those edicts.

Talking to kids about writing is kinda weird. See,on the surface, almost all writing advice boils down to three basic tenets: read a lot, write a lot, submit your work. The rest is really a matter of nuance and how to apply that knowledge, neither of which was a strength of mine way back when I was eleven or twelve. Mostly what I ended up thinking about, in terms of the presentation, was the difference between the advice I heard that was actually useful, and the stuff that did actually help me figure out how writing worked.

ONE: LEARN TO TOUCH-TYPE WHILE YOU’RE YOUNG

When I was thirteen and first faced with the possibility of selecting my own study topics at high school, my mother sat me down and suggested, rather strongly, that I was going to be taking typing as one of my electives. In fact, it may not have been a suggestion. It’s hard to tell with parents, sometimes, especially when you’re thirteen.

Now this was back in the early nineties. Not the early nineties you’re thinking, where people knew who Nirvana were and it became a fashion statement to have holes in your jeans. No, I’m talking about the early, early nineties that were still suffering from a kind of terrifying 80′s hangover. That period between 1990 and 1992 that we just don’t talk about, ’cause no-one really wants to remember the horror of hypercolour underwear and the first few seasons of Blossom.

Dudes didn’t learn to type in that evil, unpleasant faux-nineties period. We didn’t yet realise that computers were about to take over the world. Hell, I spent the first three years learning to type on electronic typerwriters, and I got my fair share of shit from other chaps who didn’t understand why I was doing a “girls subject.”

But I did learn to type, and it’s proven to be a goddamn valuable skill. And while recent research has shown that the old pen and paper is a superior method of note-taking, there’s may actually be a number of creative benefits to being able to type fast and record as quickly as you can think.Touch typing is the foundation for pretty much everything else I do as a writer, since I’d struggle with it if I had to handwrite things (which is both slow, and hurts after several hours of work, since I never really learned to hold a pen correctly)

TWO: GENRE DEFINITIONS ARE PERSONAL AND FLUID

Writing advice often includes some variation of read a whole bunch of different books, but there’s rarely any explanation as to why this is important. And truthfully, there’s probably a couple of reasons, but the most important is this:  it’s helpful to have a really deep, intuitive understanding of your genre.

There are no set rules for Genres, just a series of mutually agreed guidelines and expectations that shift from time to time. Consider that Gravity is up for a Hugo Award this year, which means we’re up for another round of debates over what should be included in the science fiction genre. For some, Gravity is a natural choice. For others, it’s not doing anything particularly SF. We had the same kind of debate when The City & The City was nominated a few years back.

What we call genre is really just a receding horizon of expectations, built up over time and exposure from a multitude of different works. You job, as a writer, is to find ways to both fulfill and subvert those expectations in the same story, neither of which is possible if you’re not aware of what those expectations are.

So you read. You read because it instills those instincts in you, letting you know how stories work and where you can take them. It lets you know how far a genre can bend before it breaks (hint: pretty far), and where your work fits in a marketplace. You read because we build stories on the backs of other stories, just as readers learn to comprehend stories by associating them with stories they’ve read before.

So read a lot. A hell of a lot. It’ll help down the line.

THREE: YOU’RE GOING TO SUCK, AND YOU KNOW IT

Also known as the Ira Glass rule: when you start out, there is always a gulf between what you create and what you want to be creating, and you’re always conscious of the gap. And, honestly, Glass says it better, so I’ll leave it to him:

FOUR: IDEAS DON’T MATTER AS MUCH AS YOU THINK

Don’t waste time thinking of the perfect idea. The more you write, the more you realise that the idea doesn’t really matter that much. Publishers don’t deal with ideas – they’re more interested in the way you’ve implemented your story or novel, in the characters and the way you’ve told the story. For a publisher, the idea is nothing without great follow-through.

If you focus on the other elements of writing – learning the structure of a story, learning how to make great characters, learning how to convey voice and setting and tension within your work – you can make almost any idea work. Even the ones people tell you are impossible to pull off.

FIVE: YOU CAN MAKE MONEY OUT OF WRITING

When you start telling people that you want to be a writer, you’re going to hear all sorts of discouraging advice. Most of it will revolve around money and how little writers make.

And they’re right: it’s not easy to make money out of writing, but you can do it. If you spend enough time looking at the business models of successful, full-time writers there are usually some commonalities in their approach. They’re the kinds of people who produce a lot of books; they kinds of people who are good at diversifying their income between multiple genres or types of work (IE, they write and they teach); they’ve often been writing for a long, long time and built up a body of work that can sustain them.

It takes time to figure out how writers make a living, and you’ll probably spend the early stages of your career being “a writer and something else”, but don’t buy into the idea that its impossible. It’ll only help you establish bad habits early on.

SIX: JUST KEEP GOING

You’re going to write a story and get stuck, convinced that what you’re writing is terrible and unworthy of the effort you’re putting in. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. Get to the end, even if the end is terrible. Having finished work will benefit you more in the long-term, ’cause you’ll learn things from writing bad endings than you will writing another beginning.

You will hit points where writing seems like a really bad career choice. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. Odds are, if you were passionate about writing at some point, it will come back.

Occasionally you will make mistakes. Big mistakes. Terrifying mistakes. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going. There have been plenty of times in my career where I got stuck and stopped writing in one form or another, letting myself get distracted by other things. I always regretted it when I went back to writing afterwards.

Just keep going. It really is the best thing you can do.

 

#FollowFriday: Go Start Reading the Too Many DVDs Blog

I used to be the vocal part of the #TrashyTuesdayMovie experiment over on twitter, but a lot of the logistical and planning behind the series of films we watched was done by my former flatmate, Adam. He took a kind of evil joy in finding terrible-but-interesting films and grouping them into themes, then sat there and took pleasure in the nervous breakdowns I suffered via twitter as we sat through shit like Zombie Lake and House of the Dead. He’s also the guy who started putting together the wiki recording each week’s set of tweets, which is half the reason I can remember some of the stuff we watched and how I felt about it at the time.

Sometimes, after a while, the trauma just makes you numb.

The thing to keep in mind about Adam is this: he already owned a large number of these films. Not because they were bad – despite what people thought, we weren’t interested in films without redeeming qualities – but because he’s interested in film as a medium and willing to engage with flawed-but-interesting works.

Which is why, now that we’ve stopped doing Trashy movies on Tuesday nights, he started the Too Many DVDs blog where he makes his way through all the unwatched DVDs in his house and reviews them

The definition of “Unwatched DVD” is pretty flexible: if he bought the DVD and he’s only ever watched the movie in the cinema, he’ll rematch it and review as part of the backlog of films. Given Adam’s exclectic – but often trashy – taste, this means he rewatches Oscar winners like American Beauty, then the next day he’ll follow up with a review of Cherry 2000, then launches into something he’s never seen before that no-one else has ever heard of; films he backed on Kickstarter ’cause they sounded kinda interesting, or the kind of stuff you find in boxed sets with titles like “50 Drive-In Classics” that you can buy for eight bucks a box’cause the owners of the original films in the set are busy trying to forget those films were ever made.

There results are often off-kilter, occasionally surprising, and comes with the added bonus, for me, of having Adam watching something extraordinarily awful while I’m not there be sucked in by the gravity of the couch and TV.

Now when I recommended following Grant Watson’s film review blog as part of Follow Friday a few weeks back, it was based on the depth of his engagement. It’s as much a learning experience as it is an evaluation of the film in question. Adam’s Too Many DVDs blog comes at thing from the opposite end. There’s a brevity to his reviews, ’cause he focuses on a few key issues: is this a film he’d recommend to people, and if so, why? What were the aspects of the film he found interesting.

This can be dangerous – and, in truth, I have watched some truly bad films based on Adam’s recommendations (“you should watch Ice Planet, it’s horrible”), but most of the time he’s sane enough to know that while he may have geeked out like no-ones business when watching Prisoners of a Lost Universe (aka Hawk the Slayer 2), it’s not sufficient to recommend the experience to someone who didn’t grow up with the first Hawk film.

Usually, though, his hit rate is pretty good. When he says a film has interesting qualities, it almost always has something going for it that makes me capable of understanding the appeal. And, truthfully, Adam is far, far snarkier with bad films than I am, so it’s worth sticking around just for the reviews where he really, really disliked something.

He’s currently heading towards 300 reivews, and at his current pace Adam probably has enough unwatched DVDs to keep hi blogging for another couple of years.This, of course, assumes he can avoid walking past a $5 and less DVD sale without making new purchases…and somehow I kinda doubt it.

I’m wearing my bias on my sleeve, but I’d urge you to go follow his work at blogger or keep an eye out for the twitter notifications that he’s posted @CrowroadAW. Make the pain of all those bad movies he’s suffered through worthwhile.

sworthwhile.

Tell Me About the Cool Shit You’ve Got Going On Right Now

Exile_ThumbnailWriters with new books out should not be trusted with blogs and social media. Every impulse you have is basically starts screaming talk about the book…talk about the book…Book! Book! Book! BOOOOOOOOOK! and you lose any real sense of scale you have about the line between promotion and…well, being a little sad.

So I am going to mention Exile is out and available from many fine perveyors of electronic reading material. And I am going to mention the interview I did with the Apocalypse Ink folks about adapting Flotsam to a novella series and why I chose the Gold Coast as the setting.

But I’m just going to do it all subtle-like, you know? ‘Cause this post ain’t about me. It’s about you guys.I’ve got a humble request:

TELL ME ABOUT THE COOL SHIT YOU’VE GOT GOING ON RIGHT NOW.

What have you been up to that you’re really excited about? What have you got coming up in the near future that you’re all, like, OMG THIS IS GOING TO BE ALL THE AWESOMES! Tell me about the books you’ve got coming out, the fitness goals you’ve just started hitting, or the thing in your life that’s bringing you joy at the moment. Pimp the shit out of your projects in the comments, if that’s your thing, ’cause right now I want to hear about other’s people’s projects and stop the obessessive mental EXILE loop that’s going through my head.

Big or small, let me know. What cool shit are you up too?

It’s time to give up “Writer, Or…” and Embrace “Writer, And…”

10:49 on a Saturday Night

Engaging artistic angst…now

Last year I picked up a copy of Nick Cave: Sinner Saint: The True Confessions, Thirty Years of Essential Interviews. Partially this is ‘cause I’m a fan of Cave’s work, from the freewheeling chaos of the Birthday Party through to his more recent albums with both The Bad Seeds and Grinderman. Partially it was ’cause I was replacing my copy of The Bad Seed biography, and the book of interviews could be picked up cheap as a two-for-one deal.

Of the two, Nick Cave: Sinner Saint has been the more thought provoking book. It’s interesting to compare the way the creative process is presented in the earlier interviews compared to the process of Nick Cave today. One upon a time he was the very epitome of an artist bent on self-destruction, antagonistic and drug-fueled and generally hostile to press and fans alike.

The Nick Cave of today has matured into an comparatively sober elder statesmen, content to disappear into an office and work on his art day in, day out. There are still hints of the tortured soul there – part of the reason he chooses the office is so his family doesn’t see the less pleasant elements of the creative process - but there is a sense that Cave has moved away from art as self-destruction and towards art as a job. it’s but one facet of his life.You can literally see his approach to his work evolving from interview to interview. Rather than let his art consume him,

It got me thinking about the nature of art and writing and music, and the way we are so often told our choices are Art Or…

You can be an artist…or you can have a family.

You can be a poor, broke writer…or you can get a real job.

You can be a musician, or…you can have money.

You can be a painter, or…

You can be a poet, or…

If you’re an aspiring artist of any kind – or hell, even an established one, you can probably fill in the blanks. The moment you first uttered your ambition towards any kind of creative career, the world turned around and started framing things in terms of what you’ll need to sacrifice.

ART IS THE STUFF OF MYTHS AND LEGENDS

There’s a reason the self-destructive Nick Cave of the Birthday Party era appeals to us, just as a litany of self-destructive rock-stars have had a particular allure. We’re told, culturally, that our art is supposed to destroy us.

Writing and art are a highly mythologised gig. Even if we don’t believe in the Muses as literal entities like the ancient Greeks did, the legacy of those beliefs have permeated our culture. There is the notion that creativity exists outside the artist, inspiration just waiting to be tapped, and there is some kind exalted state that overcomes us when we write or paint or play music.

Maybe we don’t use the word Muse anymore. Words like creativity or talent or genius can serve the same function, without having the sting of the divine associated with them. But the implication is still there: we have touched greatness, and we have to pay the price.

Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemmingway give us the myth of the writer as drunk, using alcohol to salve the pain that comes with being the vessel of such creativity energy. Cave used speed and heroin to the same effect, as a musician. There are any number of literary suicides - Plath and Virginia Woolf come to mind – and even great genre writers like Stephen King and Philip K. Dick have a history of substance abuse. I won’t eve start on the links that are forged between art and depression.

It’s okay to be great, so long as you pay the toll. You have to sacrifice something to the muse.

The legacy of this thinking is everywhere. It’s there in the people who say, yeah, it must be great to be creative, as though creativity is some exalted state that belongs to artists and no-one else. It’s there in the way people try to correct your career path early on – oh, you want to be a writer? Maybe you should do a journalism degree - and in the way people talk wistfully about writing their book when they’re retired and “have the time.”

You can be a creative, or…

We hear this so often that it’s seductive and easy to buy in. It’s there in the highly viral Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk about the elusive nature of genius that writers sent to one-another a few years ago. It’s there in the rhetoric any  number of creatives will fall into, without even thinking about it. Hell, I’ve done it. For years I believed I could be a writer I could have a real job (it’s one of the reasons I spent the first ten years of my career working as a sessions academic and studying for a PhD). The thought of going to an office, day after day, was a complete anathema to me.

I could be a writer…or I could build a career. I couldn’t do both.

Yeah, I know. I’m a fucking idiot.

Let me make my feelings on this matter, this whole conflation off art and muse, and art, or, thinking, very clear.

FUCK. THAT. SHIT.

It’s time to embrace a far healthier form of thinking.

ART, AND…

For all that I love The Birthday Party fiercely – and honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve been in a goth club when Release the Bats comes on – I find myself a lot more interested in the calmer, older Nick Cave who is interested in being a musician and a father/husband/etc. It’s time to discard the myth of “art or” and embrace the fact that artists, writers, and musicians are multifaceted human beings.

It isn’t easy. Cave found it, and he still finds himself coming up against the myth of who he used to be, the Nick Cave of art, or thinking, in interviews:

The thing that I value most about my life in regard to my work is that I’m able to just get on with it in the way that I want to. I find it slightly irritating that I have to justify the fact that I have a family or work office hours as if it’s bizarre or eccentric.”

Nick Cave in Nick Cave: Sinner, Saint, pg 160

But the thing to keep in mind is this: all those people I mentioned earlier, the ones who embodied this myth that we cart around culturally, they always were art, and people. It’s just the things that came after the and were words like booze or drugs or mental illness (and even then, lets be honest, this is not the totality of who they are).

We do ourselves a disservice when we perpetuate art, or thinking. The muses were a myth. Genius isn’t required to be an artist of any stripe. Art doesn’t require a great sacrifice in order to be worthwhile. Whenever you find yourself thinking in terms of either/or binaries, I think it’s time we tackle-them head on and promote the awesomeness of being an “artist and..”.

Lets start embracing the fact that there is space in the world for artists to be more than one thing.

So lets embrace that. I’m a writer and…a blogger, a gamer, an arts-worker, a home-owner, an older brother, an unfinished academic, and many more things beside. I can honestly say that my life has never quite been as good as it is today, even if I started my career purposefully excluding many of the options that now make y life meaningful.Some of those things give me as much, if not more, satisfaction as writing.

So how about you? What sits on the far side of your “art,&” ampersand that you should be embracing with a little more glee than you have? What multiplicities should the world be aware of, lest they make the mistake of thinking that art is the sole purpose you have in life?

What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Three

Die HardSo I’ve been meaning to write the last three Die Hard posts for a couple of months now, transforming my raw notes into something readable, but my life was basically mugged by putting together the GenreCon program, then chairing panels at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, then coping with the fact that GenreCon’s attendance kinda exploded, then actually running the con, then going to the UK, then watching my deadlines go boom, then moving then, then…

Well, shit, I guess I’m out of excuses, and it’s time to finish this series off, albeit nearly three quarters of a year after it started.

WHAT WRITERS OUGHT TO KNOW ABOUT DIE HARD, PART THREE

Since it’s been a while, it might be worth going back to taking a refresher look at the posts regarding Die Hard’s Ongoing Metaphors and my notes breaking down The First Act. In fact, even if you remember the second post, go back anyway. I adore first acts. They’re some of the busiest places in any story, driven by a ruthless efficiency ’cause they have to set everything up in a very short space of time.

Today we start looking at the Second Act, whereupon we need to tackle one of the fundamental lies of the Three Act Structure – IT HAS FOUR FUCKING PARTS. The first act is all set-up, the last act is all climax and dénouement, and the middle-act is this two-step journey that is all about building up to a critical mid-point then moving away from it. Any book on structure worth it’s salt will break it down like that too – journey to the midpoint, journey away from the midpoint, third act. Yet we stick with the Three Act Structure ’cause writers are stubborn and in love with the number three. Fuckers.

Rather than confuse everyone and fucking with the numerology of the three-act structure, I’m just going to talk about the way Die Hard handles Act Two, Part One. Bear with me.

ACT TWO, PART ONE – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So, to recap: narrative is a structural system, and one that’s pretty damn easy to hack once you have an understanding of how it works. The First Act is full of complexities that need exploring, but the second act is much less complex. It’s where all the stuff we traditionally think of as “the story” starts happening, ’cause we get to stop paying setting the internal conflict of our protagonist and start distracting the audience with, well, “terrorists” with machineguns.

Act Two, Part One generally has much fewer beats you need to hit than the opening act, since your main job at this point is basically throwing a series of try->fail cycles at your protagonist. It’s also harder to write, ’cause it’s the point where the lack of structure is replaced by a need to keep escalating the narrative tension while simultaneously distracting the audience with subplots.

Or, in the hands of scriptwriters of lesser skill than the team behind Die Hard, the point where you distract the audience with a series of pointless shit they need to wade through until the story gets interesting again.

To recap, let me list the absolute key scenes/movements that mark the major story beats in your first act:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

In contrast, here’s the list of key scenes/movements that mark the major beats in the first half of your second act:

  • The Mid-Point of the Story

Seriously, that’s it. After hitting five separate narrative movements in the first act, you’re basically filling in time before you reach the mid-point of the story, where you take the protagonist to a very dark place (or, if you’re feeling nicer than the universe is to John McClane, a very happy place) and teach them an important lesson that will change everything forever.

And this is the real key of the mid-point – it’s a narrative pivot. It gives the protagonist all the information and tools they need to know in order to resolve their primary internal conflict, then makes it impossible to immediately utilize those tools. It spins the action off in a new direction. It changes things in an interesting way and gives the story a whole new dynamic.

Everything else that happens in this act leading up to that midpoint is just setting up the sub-stories – there’s usually more than one – and giving the viewer enough signifiers to suggest that there’s a whole bunch of secondary characters/antagonists/problems that have their own narrative arcs under way.

The trick with these sub-plots is that they’re all going to tie into your primary plot in some way,, and flesh out the kinds of conflicts you’re exploring there. Scriptwriting guru Blake Snyder sums the first act up as the presentation of the thesis, and the second act (both parts of it) as a chance to explore the anti-thesis.

The way Die Hard does this is by laying in subplot after subplot, which create the complications that keeps thing from being resolved too easily. With that in mind, I’m going to start looking at the subplots that are kicked off and developed in this part of the film, leading up to the major mid-point action where John McClane’s life is changed forever.Once again, the structure tends to happen in narrative movements – sequences of scenes that built to a specific point and either set-up or advance a subplot in a major way.

Once again, I’ll throw in the time-codes for those who are playing along at home.

Strap yourselves in, ’cause this is going to be a long one.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: INTRODUCING THE SUBPLOTS

SUBPLOT ONE: WHY ARE THERE TERRORISTS IN NAKATOMI TOWERS? (23:00 – 32:45)

So we left the end of Act One with Hans and his “terrorist” pals invading the office Christmas party, while a barefoot John McClane disappears up a stairwell. We get a few scenes of John walking through the partially constructed upper levels of the tower after making his escape, trying to make phone calls and generally discovering how screwed he is. Basically, reinforcing that shit has gotten real.

Then we get to the real meat of the films major subplot: Hans and crew are here, doing evil, and they need to be stopped. And because the film has concerned itself with setting up the plot about John and Holly’s marriage for the first twenty minutes, it puts some real effort into this.

Our focus is shifted away from John for a prolonged period for the first time since the film started, and we are given a whole bunch of info about Hans and crew: that they’re educated (pay attention to early dialogue); that they’ve planned well (look at how well Hans has researched his first victim, Mr Takagi); that they’re politely evil (Hans takes great care to be polite to his victim and compliment him about clothing/work/etc).

And while this film is all about introducing Hans, there are little flashes of camera work where we’re given an insight into some of the other characters:

  • We got a two-second shot of Karl, the second-in-command among the terrorists, who will later get his own subplot with John and stands out because he’s the only terrorist who moves in this scene apart from Hans. Everyone else just stands there, looking armed and European.
  • We get a moment where Ellis backs away from Hans as the terrorist leader walks past, reaffirming the hints we had that Ellis is a chickenshit asshole back in act one and letting us know that he’s not going to be one of the faceless crowd of victims.
  • We get the momentary stare between Holly and Hans when Takagi identifies himself, a precursor to the fact that she will be the adversary who stands up to Hans on the hostage side of things.

All of this takes, like, six seconds, but it’s genius. This film, I swear to god, it does the little things so fucking well. There are flashes back to John every now and then, reminding us that he’s there, but this are on par with the little flashes to the terrorist truck that occurred through the first act. A reminder that John is there, doing stuff, now that the film is rolling out the welcome mat for Hans.

These flashes to John aren’t really about advancing the story. What these flashes do really well, though, is add to the mystery – right after we get another showcase of Hans as an educated, well-off chap when he comments on the quality of Takagi’s suit, we cut to a shot of John spotting the terrorists moving around some heavy-duty military hardware. It up the mystery and the stakes. What the fuck is this well-dressed, educated, English mother-fucker doing here? When Takagi asks what kind of terrorist he is, Hans laughs the idea off without providing an answer.

Hans is all about the contrasts and the mystery. He makes Alexander the Great references and talks about reading Forbes, then shoots Takagi in cold blood. He’s also the perfect foil for John – while McClane struggles to talk to the people in his life, from his fellow travelers to his limo driver to his wife – Hans is perfectly capable of holding a conversation about all the minutia of Holly’s big-business world.

We get a little over seven minutes of Hans at the start of the second act, right up until he kills Takagi and goes about getting his money “the hard way.” This affirms him as a big deal – spending this long away from the protagonist is rare outside of an ensemble film – and it makes it clear that the tenor of the film has changed. We’re no longer in feel-good reconciliation land where John and Holly work out (or fail to work out) their differences; we have a new player on the board and he’s a bad, bad man.

One of the things that makes a great antagonist is their thorough belief that they are the good buy in their own story. I don’t know that you can argue this is true of Hans – he’s too self-aware – but that seven minute period we’ve just spent getting to know him basically serves as the act one for his story. He gets a hint of what’s coming to fuck-up his carefully laid plans when John makes a noise, but dismisses it when a quick search reveals nothing.While John’s internal journey is all about learning not to be a macho jerk so he can get back together with his wife, Hans has his own internal journey – and it largely revolves around being so convinced of his own genius that he doesn’t take threats seriously until they’re too late.

But that’s for future scenes. We get a little more information about Hans long-term goal and the vault – nearly impregnable, with a seventh lock the terrorists tech-guy can’t break – effectively presenting Hans with the impossible goal right as his own little “act one” wraps up. We have the basics of Han’s plot in a nutshell: the terrorists want to get into the high-tech, impregnable vault. We also have a mystery to keep us interested: who the hell are these guys and why do they want the vault so badly?

SUBPLOT TWO: THE FLY IN THE OINTMENT (32:34 – 40:00)

We move into the second major sub-plot that’ll be driving the second act – John fucking with the terrorists plans and generally serving as the fly in the ointment.

This is really the meat of the story – the point where we get introduced to the Try-Fail cycle. In essence, stories just repeat the same pattern over and over again – the character tries something to resolve their problem, but it doesn’t work. The next thing they try escalates things, but it too fails. This continues on for a while, until something finally succeeds.

John’s already started this when he tried to phone, but he sticks with the simple solutions as we move into the meaty part of this subplot – he get a lighter to the sprinkler system, hoping to get the fire department out. A solid plan, but the terrorists are ahead of him there. They cut things off and send out a guy with a machine-gun to take care of the problem.

John tried something. It failed. He’ll need to up his game next time he tries to get some attention.

Incidentally, the guy Hans’ sends out? A blond, glasses-wearing German named Tony, who happens to be the younger brother of the long-haired blonde, Karl, who got some focus in the previous movement. He goes searching for John, but John ambushes him, leading to one of the films exchanges that are pitch-perfect.

“You wont hurt me,” Tony says. “There are rules for policemen.”

“Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me,” John replies, ever the rebel cop who struggling with the constraints of the world around him. It’s a nice call-back to act one, reminding us that despite all the minutes we’ve spent on Hans and his crew, this film is still about John McClane figuring out who he is and how he can get back together with his wife. It’s also a important thing to keep in mind as we go into the mid-point, ’cause being the rebel cop is a big part of what makes John and insufferable ass to his wife.

He tries to knock Tony out – an important thing to note, since John doesn’t start out trying to kill people – but they get into a fight, which ends when they tumble down the stairs. John’s killed his first bad guy and acquired the gun.This is good guy 101; John can talk the talk of being a maverick cop and we need a dead bad guy for the story to advance, but the audience likes him more when he doesn’t kill someone in cold blood.

If only future Die Hard films remembered this lesson. Or, you know, any of the lessons that can come from pulling apart Die Hard’s subplots.

*Sighs* *Glares at Die Hard 4 and 5*

Anyway, at 36:28 the film cuts back to Theo, the terrorist’s tech guy, hacking into the vault with Takagi’s details and cutting into the vault with a drill. It’s less than ten seconds long, but it serves an important purpose – refreshing our memory of that first sub-plot beat right before John unpacks Tony’s bag trying to answer the central question of the first subplot – who are these guys?

When he doesn’t get any reasonable answers, he decides to send a message via the building’s elevator: a dead Tony seated on a stool, with a sign on his chest that says: Now I have a Machinegun. Ho. ho. Ho.

It arrives just as Hans is threatening his hostages, making it very clear that nothing is going to go well for Hans tonight.And so our second sub-plot is introduced and ends up mirroring the first – with Hans and his crew trying to figure out is killing their guys, just like John is trying to figure out who the terrorists are.

Now that we’ve got the big main plot established (John learning to be a better human being and reconciling with his wife) and the major subplots are set up with long movements, we get to some of the lesser sub-plots that thread through the movie.

THE MINOR SUBPLOTS

Not all subplots are created equal. Once you’ve got your main plot and the one-or-two major subplots, there’s usually a series of minor subplots that get introduced. They get less time, ’cause they focus on the minor characters, and basically, at this point, you start to see the subplots stacking up one-another. Established with quick ten or twenty-second grabs that get their just by playing off the major subplots that have taken up the bulk of the second act thus far.

The neat thing about Die Hard is the way all its subplots are basically natural progressions of one another. Just as the first subplot is complication for John’s main storyline, and the second subplot is a complication for the first, subplots three, four and five are now complicating elements getting in the way of otherwise “easy” solutions to the major sub-plot arcs

SUBPLOT THREE: THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME (Starts: 39:00 – 40:50)

We hit subplot three, where John is listening in on the terrorists from his hiding place on top of the elevator, only to have it start moving on him. It’s a little thing, less than a minute over, but the film calls back to it again and again – the building itself is against John, and not just because the terrorists control it.

Basically, the unfinished terrain of the building is going to inconvenience the hell out of John in the second act, but he’s going to learn things from it that will help him out in the second half of the film.

SUBPLOT FOUR: TELL KARL HIS BROTHER IS DEAD (Starts: 40:50 – 41:10)

At the 41 minute mark we learn why Karl has been given the little visual queues that make him stand out in the early parts of the second act – John has just killed his younger brother, and Karl is dead-set on getting revenge. Hans is trying to control him – he just wants the situation taken care of without affecting the plan – but Karl is an angry, angry German chap who really wants John’s blood now.

SUBPLOT FIVE: HOLLY ISN’T “BUSINESS” (41:11 – 41:40)

SUBPLOT SIX: ELLIS IS A DICKHEAD (41:11 – 41.40)

We then get a double-whammy – Holly and Ellis are watching the argument between Hans and Karl take place, and they figure out that John is the likely ’cause. Both these characters are on their own personal arc, just as John is, and we get an insight into those subplots as well.

Holly sees that John is alive and is immediately relieved; Ellis immediately thinks that John is going to get all of them killed.

“John’s doing his job,” Holly argues, the first time we’ve seen her show that aspect of his life some respect since the film began. This arc is as much about teaching Holly that she still loves her husband as the rest of the film is focused on breaking John of his macho bullshit.

Technically both these subplots started in act one, which is why they’re able to be dealt with so quickly here.

SECOND ACT MOVEMENTS: ADVANCING SUBPLOTS

Having introduced a whole bunch of major and minor subplots in their own movements, the film now start moving things forward in a series of narrative movements that will advance one or ore of the subplots while introducing one final major subplot to the mix.It mixes this up by throwing out a few extra  subplots, just to keep things spicy (generally speaking, a film will run about 6 or 7 subplots; Die Hard goes a little overboard, but it’s very confident in its presentation)

MOVEMENT: MAYDAY! MAYDAY (41:40- 43:40)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Four

The film sees John make his way to the roof, trying to raise contacts on the radio he stole from poor dead Tony. Once again we see the Try-Fail cycle in action, only this time the fail advances a couple of our subplots – alerting Hans and Karl to John’s presence, and letting them know where he is.

Once again we’re reminded of John’s inability to get along with people in authority, as the local dispatch more or less dismisses his reports of terrorist activity. We get to see multiple subplots advance, as it touches on both John disrupting the terrorist plans and Hans really wanting to get revenge for his brother’s death.

SUBPLOT SEVEN: HELLO SERGEANT AL (43:30 – 44:28)

The film’s seventh subplot revolves around Al, the local cop whose sent out to investigate what’s going on at Nakatomi. Like Hans, he’s introduced to the film as a contrasting character to John McClane, only in Al’s case he’s an overweight desk cop with a pregnant wife at home. You know, unlike McClane, who has a list of scumbags to catch as long as his arm and a wife who went to the far side of the country without him.

Anyway, we meet him in Seven-Eleven, buying a terrifying amount of junk food, before he’s sent out to the Tower to investigate what’s going on. What’s important about this scene is what occurs in the final seconds – every other member of the LA police force John deals with is basically presented as incompetent and a fuck-up. It’s highlighted in the scenes just prior to this, when the dispatch ignores John’s warning. Al isn’t like that. He will have his moments of getting things wrong, but ultimately he’s the LA analogue of John McClane, an everyman who can be trusted to do the right thing when guided by his street-smarts and instinct.

Thus, it’s telling that before he heads to Nakatomi he takes a look at the building from a distance, and he sees the flash of gunfire on the roof. He’s the first local to realise there’s something bad going on…and if only he listened to his instincts (which is the fatal flaw Al’s grappling with, just as John is grappling with his own internal struggle), he could do a lot more to help John out.

Again, this isn’t a major subplot, so it’s given a short, sharp scene to kick things off.

MOVEMENT: GUNFIGHT ON THE ROOF/INTO THE DUCTS (43:40 – 50:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Four

And so we get into the section of the film that people are probably remembering when they write Die Hard off as a dumb action movie. The running gunfight takes place on the roof – John versus a bunch of Hans’ thugs, including Karl who methodically stalks John while everyone else is running around with their machine guns on full auto. John takes cover, fires back. Karl looks dangerous ’cause he’s being methodical, and eventually John gets cornered and has to escape into the air vents.

First thing he encounters – a big fucking fan, ’cause THE BUILDING IS AGAINST ME – but he sneaks his way through and gets away just as Karl and co start opening fire.

It’s a temporary respite – Karl and co quickly figure out he’s found his way into the elevator shafts – and we get some conflict between Karl and Hans when it’s revealed that they can lock down the elevator and trap John there. Karl turns off the radio – he isn’t going to be content with “trapping” John after the death of his brother.

Meanwhile, John escapes into the air ducts, in what’s one of the movies most iconic images, and we get the scene that’s been riffed on so many times that it’s become a cliche – Karl shooting up the ducts, then testing them to find John – only this time Hans manages to assert control over the situation moments before Karl would have found John.

It’s important to note that Karl was on the verge of succeeding here; Hans calls him off. That’s ’cause Han’s internal flaw, as a character, is his faith in his own intelligence and planning. He can’t conceive of someone disrupting things to the point that John does, therefore he isn’t willing to risk things yet.

Man, he’s going to pay for that. If only he listened to Karl more…

MOVEMENT: THE DRIVE BY (50:30 – 55:30)
ADVANCES: Subplot Two, Subplot Three, Subplot Seven

Al shows up at Nakatomi in his patrol car – something that’s perceived as being a far greater threat than John. He phones through to dispatch, tells them nothing seems to be up, and both John and Hans focus their attention on what happens next.

Al goes in to talk to the terrorist playing security guard in the lobby, Karl and his team join the snipers watching over things from the windows, John finds his way to a window upstairs and starts trying to smash a window so he can get a warning to Al and call in the cavalry.

Naturally, ’cause this is Die Hard, it leads to a desperate fire-fight between John and two of Hans’ flunkies while Al is deciding there’s nothing worth seeing. When it looks like Al is leaving, John gets his attention by dropping a body through the window.

The terrorists open fire and Al backs away like he’s driving through a warzone, all-to-aware that there’s something going on. We get a brief glimpse of Argyle, the limo driver from act one, oblivious to what’s going on as he grooves to hip-hop. Technically you could argue this is a subplot unto itself, but it’s really more of a running joke that pays off near the climax, so I’ve not really recorded it as such.

Al crashes his car and calls in assistance; the cavalry is finally on its way.

SUBPLOT EIGHT: NEVER TRUST THE PRESS (55:30 – 55:50)

We’re running towards the mid-point of the film, so we get another subplot started when the film cuts to Richard Thornburg, asshole journalist and all-round despicable prick. He’s in the process of lying to some woman about being able to get reservations when he overhears Al’s call, and he’s immediately on the case.

HEADING INTO THE MIDPOINT

MOVEMENT: THE COPS ARRIVE (55:50 – 58:20)
ADVANCES: SUBPLOT ONE, SUBPLOT TWO, SUBPLOT SIX

Suddenly the world around Nakatomi towers is filed with cop cars and sirens. We get a quick reminder that Ellis is a prick (“Never thought I’d be pleased to hear that sound”) before Hans Gruber asserts his control over the situation. In fact, he suggest that this is all part of the plan, which once again reminds us we have no idea who he really is and what he wants with the vault.

Then, mid-speech, he’s interrupted by his radio and we get one of those moments that can make or break a film – the first actual confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, and the mid-point of the story where the narrative circumstances change.

The cop cars are the first clue that we’re playing by a new set of rules in the second half of the film; suddenly McClane has back-up out there, which gives him renewed confidence. He responds by calling Hans on the radio and getting in his face, a moment of triumph. John, you see, think’s he’s won. The cops are here. The cavalry. It’s like he’s forgotten his relationship with authority figures.

Playing this scene out by radio is genius, ’cause you get to have your cake and eat it two. The first meeting between protagonist and antagonist is always rich with drama, but keeping the two apart and unable to see each other means they get to replay this beat later in the film when they meet in the flesh.

We also get our first major advancement of the first subplot when John finds the C4 and the detonators among the bags of the terrorists he killed in the first scene. More questions we don’t know the answer to, but also a major advancement on John’s status as Fly in the Ointment to Hans’ plan – without the detonators and C4, he can’t get into the vault. Suddenly John is no longer an irritation, he’s an active problem that needs to be solved.

There is an exchange about cowboys – a neat nod to the fact that this is, essentially, a Western narrative in terms of its major beats, it just stripped away all of the things that would ordinarily make us think “Western.” John is a stranger who rides into town and disrupts the plans of the local banditos, trusting in his own sense of justice and ability with a gun.

MOVEMENT: THORNBURG IS AN ASSHOLE (58:20 – 59:09)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight.

We get a quick twenty-second grab of Richard Thornburg, asshole reporter, arguing with his producer. He thinks there’s a big story at Nakatomi and he can get the jump on things. His producer disagrees. Mostly, this scene is all about letting us know that everyone Thornburg works with thinks he’s an asshole. He’s going to serve some major plot purpose later, but for the moment the film is just making sure that we really, really hate him.

MOVEMENT: “CALL ME ROY” (59:09 – 61:40)
Advances: Subplot One, Subplot Two, Subplot Seven

Karl and his boys rush back to the offices to report to Hans about how badly John having the detonators will screw them. Hans checks in with his guy on the vault, checking on the time. Realises that there is now a major problem, which changes the tenor of subplot two in a big way; John is fucking with The Plan.

Al tries to radio John, but the terrorists here. John and Al start a conversation about what’s going on; Hans is still clinging to the idea that this isn’t a big deal – John isn’t yet a threat, ’cause he’s not FBI – but we come back to the detonators being a big deal yet again, pushing the mystery of exactly who Hans is and what his crew is doing here.

John finishes reporting in, settles in with a cigarette to relax for the first time since the second act started.  He seriously thinks everything is going to be okay now. ‘Cause he can’t see the middle of the film coming up on him, turning everything on its head.

MOVEMENT: NOTHING GOOD COMES FROM AUTHORITY FIGURES (61:40 – 62:50)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

The cops mobilize in force and the chief of police shows up, thus ensuring that everything is going to go wrong because they’ve put an authority figure in charge of the operation instead of leaving things to Al.

What’s important here is Al trusting his hunch for the first time – an important step in his own personal growth through the movie

MOVEMENT: Gennaro, Holly Gennaro (62:50 – 64:20)
ADVANCES: Main Plot, Subplot Five

We’re in another run of short, sharp scenes that advance the subplots of major characters who aren’t John or Hans. In this case, the scene belongs to Holly, who stands up to Hans and demands toilet breaks for the hostages and a sofa for her pregnant colleague.

We get the reminder here, right on the threshold of the mid-point, because we need to touch on the main plot for a second. We see Holly being good at her job – she’s in charge, now that Takagi has been killed – but also the fear that Hans is going to discover her relationship with John through the family photograph she lay face-down on shelf during the first act.

Hans senses something’s wrong and fishes, but Holly tells him her name is Gennaro rather than McClane.

MOVEMENT: LOCKED IN (64:20 – 65:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Eight, Argyle

Another short scene that’s all about checking in with the folks we know from the first act. In this case, Richard Thornburg’s report shows up o Argyle’s television in the limo, and the poor kid drops his glass of scotch and panics, searching for a way out of the car park.

MOVEMENT: WE’RE GOING IN (65:00 – 66:00)
ADVANCES: Subplot Seven

We get a short scene Al, the LA Chief of Police, and the rest of the force. They’re preparing for an assault on the building, having chosen to believe that John’s report to Al isn’t credible, and Al isn’t happy about that.

We’ve now had five short, sharp scenes in a row, which serves to build tension after seeing John settle down to relax a just a few minutes earlier. Instinctively, we’re responding to the quick pace of the cuts; we know something bad is coming, even if John does not.

AND FINALLY, ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

I mentioned up the front that the first half of the second act only has one major story beat it needs to hit, in contrast to the five or six involved in the first act. That major beat is the mid-point – traditionally the point where something major happens that alters the terrain of the story in permanent and unavoidable ways. It’s also the point where the character’s internal arc usually does a 180 – the thing they think they want falls away, and they learn something about what they’re really after.

Die Hard has one of the smartest mid-points I know, because it’s so incredibly fucking subtle in the way it executes the personal change in its protagonist, John McClane.

MIDPOINT: THE ASSAULT (66:00 – 74:00)

And so we hit the halfway point of the film. It kicks off dead in the centre of the movie’s running time, and it’s the big, set-piece scene where a whole bunch of things come together. John sees the floodlights, asks Al what’s going on. Al gives him a warning and John knows, without a doubt, that it’s a bad idea.

We get a few shots of Argyle trying to find a way out of the building; we see John trying to get a vantage point. Mostly we see Hans and his crew preparing for the assault, utterly unconcerned by the cops presence.

The cops go in. It’s going to be a massacre.

And John sits in his vantage point, helpless to do anything. “You macho assholes,” he shouts. “No. No. No.”

Macho assholes? Wait, isn’t half the problem between John and his wife based on the fact he’s a macho asshole? Die Hard is distracting you with guns and explosions, but we’ve just seen a moment of personal growth in John’s character arc.

The raid goes from bad to worse, with the only person of any common sense among the LA cops proving to be Al, the desk cop. The cops send in an armoured car. The terrorists blow it up with a really, really heavy-duty missile launcher. If you were kidding yourself that these guys were really terrorists, it’s pretty much gone by this point.

John just looks on, unable to do anything but beg Hans for mercy. He comes up with a plan a few minutes too late, dropping the C4 down an elevator shaft to stop the missile launcher from doing any more damage, but the damage is done (and the elevator shaft direct the fire back at John, ’cause the building hates him).

So we’ve got massive property damage, some dead cops, and the situation in Nakatomi towers has radically changed. Things could have gone so different.

If only the cops had listened to John, the authority on the situation, they could have handled things differently and not made such a mess. If only they hadn’t been macho, pig-headed cops who disregarded the rules, then…

Oh, wait, we’re using action as a metaphor for John’s personal growth again, aren’t we? He prides himself on being a rogue cop, trusting his instincts and refusing to listen to anyone else, but he’s just been given a first-hand example of what happens when you ignore people, and he doesn’t like the helpless feeling it gave him.

END OF ACT TWO, PART ONE

So at 5,000 words this clocks in a little longer than my usual Tuesday blog post, which is one of the reasons why there’s been a long gulf between part two and part three. I’ll try to get Part Four, dealing with the second half of the second act, up towards the end of August.

The Nine Business Mantras of A Cranky Writer

So, here’s the thing: I spend the vast majority of my daylight hours talking to aspiring writers about what they’d like to achieve and how they can get there. This is one of the things that comes with the territory when you work at a place like Queensland Writers Centre, and it’s pretty sweet gig. You get to meet up-and-coming writers as they’re getting their shit together and help them along the way; you get to meet older, established writers and glean what you can from their experience. You get to talk to the absolutely raw rookies, the people who have just decided I want to be a writer and want to know what they should do next.

When I answer questions at work, I’m polite and enthusiastic and eager to give you the best answer I can. I do that ’cause that’s what work-Peter does.

This post isn’t written by the guy that’s politely answers your queries if you call us at the centre. No, this post is written by the guy who actually does the hard yards of sitting down and writing stuff; the grumpy-as-shit professional who spends the other half of the day trying to earn some extra cash out of his writing.

“Look,” the cranky writer snarls, “this writing shit isn’t that difficult. I can tell you everything you need to know with nine fucking rules. Just read those and go away; I’ve got a deadline looming.”

If you ask me about writing outside of work, and I’m inclined to help you, odds are the cranky writer is whose advice you’re going to get. They’re a list of mantras I find myself muttering during the particularly bad days at work, or when people who are close friends ask about writing.

Consider them rules to live by, if you’re planning on being writer who wants to earn money from their work.

MANTRA ONE: I WILL TREAT MY FUCKING BUSINESS LIKE A BUSINESS

Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that publishing was a business and writing was a calling, which excused aspiring writers from ever having to put a moment’s thought into how they should handle their careers. It’s like we bought into the idea that publishers and agents handled all the business shit, while writers traipsed along sunlit meadows waiting for the muse to bequeath genius upon them.

Fuck that shit.

Writing is a business. The number of people I’ve seen make expensive fucking mistakes because they don’t realise that is staggering. It never occurs to them that they should read their contracts, let alone negotiate the terms on a short story or article; or they mistake getting published for the goal, instead of building a sustainable career.

The truth is this: if you’re trying to be a writer and you’re trying to get paid for your work, you are running a fucking business. Treat that with the respect it deserves.

MANTRA TWO: I WILL HAVE A FUCKING PLAN

Most people, when they start a small business, put together a business plan that outlines useful stuff like why they’re starting this business, how they’re going to make money with the business, and what they expect to happen in the future. It helps them make decisions and allocated limited resources, can provide day-to-day guidance about what’s important, and generally helps keep things focused.

I can’t blame people for shying away from planning. I mean, how many of us have heard the following when we say “I’m a writer?”

  • “There’s no money in writing.”
  • “But what’s your real job?”
  • “Have you published anything I might have heard of?”
  • “You should go write something like Harry Potter and make millions!”
  • “There are only three people making their living from writing in Australia.”

The rhetoric around writing seems to suggest that your business plan for becoming a full-time writer is rather like winning the lottery – it’s so rare that it just doesn’t happen. This applies even among published writers – when I was doing a creative writing degree at university, the business plan I inherited from the other professionals in my faculty was write a novel, win the Vogel prize, get a teaching gig once your PhD is finished.

Here’s the thing: if there are only three people making a full-time living out of their writing in Australia, I know them all. Plus the handful of extras. And that’s just among the writers who work in SF.

People do make a living out of this writing thing, which means you can go out and figure out HOW they’re making a living and put together a plan that suits your goals and temperament. It may be more work than you want. It may involve taking a close look at your dream and figuring out how realistic it is. It may even teach you that you don’t fucking want to write full-time (trust me, you don’t; I’ve done it before, and I much prefer the part-time writer life).

Writers tend to dream big and think small. We plan through to the end of our current project, figure we’ll work out everything after that. Very rarely do I talk to people who are thinking five, ten years ahead. Fewer still have long-term dreams like I’d like to quit my job and write with a feasible plan behind them.

Don’t be that writer. Have a fucking plan. If you’re among the handful of writers who have never read Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife, go track down a copy. It will lead you through the planning side of things far better than I can in a blog post, and give your writing career energy you never knew you had.

MANTRA THREE: I WILL KNOW WHAT I AM FUCKING SELLING

If you go into writing novels and short-stories without a basic understanding of copyright, how it works, and how writers make their income from carving up the permissions associated with their works, then you’re in trouble.

If you’re looking at the rise of ebooks and thinking “yeah, I’d like to experiment with that” rather than looking at the freely available data about how people are making substantial incomes with ebooks, then you’re in trouble.

If you’re a writer of any type, and you’ve never looked into some of the ways of making money out of being a writer rather than your work itself, then you’re missing out on a slice of income.

Once you start treating your business like a fucking business and focus on the plan, then next thing to look at is how you make money. The traditional ways, the new ways, and the ways you’ve never even thought about ’cause the opportunities weren’t there.

I’ve worked for business that didn’t know what they were selling before. They knew what they were doing, but not where the income came from. And they muddled along for a while, then…well, some died, some are still muddling along – but the lack of focus hurts them ’cause their attention is never focused where it needs to be.

You need to know what you’re selling because sooner or later you’re going to need to make hard decisions. Do I write a short story or work on a novel? Do I work on my novel, or prepare this course that will earn me a couple of hundred bucks? Having a real sense of where your money is coming from helps you decide how to allocate your time.

MANTRA FOUR: I WILL TRACK MY FUCKING RIGHTS

This is related to point three, but deserves its own data-point simply because of how ridiculously fucking useful it is, yet no-one really does it. Track your damn rights.

Writers talk a lot about tracking submissions, knowing where you’ve submitted something and what the response was, but our attention tends to die off once the acceptance has come. The story or novel has done it’s job by then; we’ve been published, we’ve been paid.

Don’t be that kind of writer. Fire up excel, start a document where you track the rights of every story or novel or article you’ve sold. Have you sold first world English language rights? Write it down, along with the date when things revert. Did they take the audio rights? The ebook rights? Make a note of those too.

If you can’t figure out what rights a being taken from the contract, don’t sign the contract. Go back. Negotiate. It’s a business transaction, after all, and this is worth getting right.

It’s going to feel stupid when you’ve only got one short story published. It gets a lot less stupid when you’re thirty stories in, with a handful of novellas, and you’ve got emails asking if you’d be willing to sell the translation rights to one story to a small press in Serbia while an anthology editor is looking to reprint that story you wrote four years ago.

Sure, you could dig out your contracts, but having the one document makes life easier, and if you’re smart it can serve as a tool that lets you know when to reactivate a story (hey, look; audio rights to that one reverted last week. I should go send it to an audio market…).

MANTRA FIVE: I WILL RESPECT MY FUCKING AUDIENCE

You are not smarter than your audience. Your time is no more valuable. Your readers owe you nothing. If you don’t deliver, they are well within their rights to fuck off and let you bleat into the darkness.

When you write something, give it the attention and seriousness it deserves. When you are asked to write something, even if you find the topic faintly absurd, give it your best attention. If there are constraints based on time or topic or word-length, over-deliver as best you can based on the limitations.

The moment you take your audience for granted, you’ve lost them. At best, they’ll disappear. At worst, they’ll sit in the audience of your reading and daydream about carving up your face with the sharp end of a beer bottle.

Yes, that example is enormously specific. This is what happens when you trap the cranky writer in a room and subject him to people half-assing it as a reading.

MANTRA SIX: I WILL BACK UP MY FUCKING WORK

You do not back up your work enough. I don’t care who you are, it’s the truth. Every time you think your back-up system is impregnable, something will happen to remind you that there is still a hole there, somewhere, and you’ll find yourself losing data.

You don’t want to lose data. That data is stories and novels and articles. That data is the stuff you make your income from.

I’ve got a pretty good back-up system. It’s not perfect, ’cause no system is ever perfect; there are always holes, no matter how automated the process. I’ve learned that twice this year. First, back in March, when the combination of being on holidays one week and being on deadline the next let to my computer being disconnected from its usual back-up systems.

I plugged that hole. Made sure it’d never happen again.

Then I lost my USB on the way home from Write Club one week. Four hours of work gone, but they were four really productive hours. Several thousand words down the drain.

You do not back up your work enough. No-one ever does. But you want to minimize the losses when things do go wrong, so institute the most stringent back-ups you can and then do a little more.

MANTRA SEVEN: I WILL HONE MY FUCKING CRAFT AND BUSINESS SKILLS

I know fuck-all about writing, really. I’ve done okay with what little I know – a couple of novella, a shit-load of stories and poems, the bulk of my life spent working as a freelancer and contactor instead of going to an office (and when I broke that streak, it was to work on a games convention and the writer’s centre; not a bad deal).

But I still maintain that I know fuck-all about writing, ’cause I’m realistic enough to know that there’s always something new to learn.

I am always looking to improve my craft. I owe it to my readers to be a better writer than I was on my last project; I owe it to myself to run my business better than I did last year. My guiding principle is always I want to be better.

Always be learning, whether its through courses or books or just putting together a plan for figuring shit out. Get better at what you do. Admit that the skills that got you to this point aren’t always the same skills that will get you to the next level.

MANTRA EIGHT: I WILL GET MY SHIT DONE

I write my blog posts on the weekend. This seems ideal, but some weekends I’m sick and burnt out, which makes writing a week’s worth of blog posts much less fun than you’d think. It doesn’t matter. I’m the cranky writer. I will get my shit done.

Getting shit done is the basis of being a writer. I can’t post blog entries that aren’t written. I can’t sell stories that aren’t finished. I can’t make money on a book that isn’t finished and out there in the world.

It’s easy to get distracted from this. The business of writing will distract you with emails and opportunities and planning, all of which feels like work. The internet will be there, asking you to spend time. You will have a bad day. Your job will eat time like no-ones business.

It doesn’t matter. Get your shit done.

MANTRA NINE: I WILL GET MY FUCKING HUSTLE ON

When I’m in Cranky Writer mode, there is a line between “a writer” and “someone who writes.”

The writer hustles. They keep moving forward, like a shark. They line up projects. They think ahead. They’re in it for the long haul, aware that writing is a long-term game. They know how the things they’re doing now will connect to the things they want to do in five or ten years time.

They focus on the hustle, ’cause that’s what being a writer is all about. They may not be making a living from their writing, but they have a strategy that’s informed and workable. They look for ways to do new things with the work they’ve already done. They look for opportunities in things that have nothing to do with writing. They have a faintly manic gleam in their eye.

There are some damned fine writers who don’t hustle. It’s not a mandatory skill for writing well, but you learn to recognise it in the way a lot of full-time writers talk about building their careers.

If you want to be a Writer – a capital-W writer who actually makes income from their work – get your fucking hustle on. Give a damn about what you’re doing.