Staying On Top Of Things

I woke up early this morning and sent off some writing emails. Discovered another couple of emails that really need to be dealt with, so they’ve been flagged for me to deal with tomorrow morning. I begin to see the benefits of the dedicated admin day, which Kathleen Jennings has mentioned on multiple Sunday Circles, but I’m still not entirely sure where it’s going to fit into my schedule.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, this week, about the new job and writing and how to establish new routines that support what I want to do. Because my old job was familiar; I knew its contours and its frustrations and its routines. I could work around it, after five years at QWC, because I knew how to predict the effect of things going on in the office. Not with 100% accuracy, but with enough certainty to plan with relative confidence.

The new job is wild and unfamiliar territory. It operates at a faster pace, uses up a different set of skills. It involves a lot more people, which is its own challenge after nearly fifteen years of being part of a small, discrete team in various jobs. It is harder, on the day to day level, to figure out how what I’m doing fits into the whole. It is three days in a block, rather than spaced out across the week, so there is very definitely a chunk of my week where I am at work, rather than bouncing back and forth between work-brain and writer-brain.

Hell, even dressing for work takes up more time than it used to, as I figure out this whole thing where you wear a collared shirt and dress shoes to the office. And realise I will probably need to shop sooner, rather than later, to adapt to that.

None of this is a bad thing, but it takes up brain-space outside of work hours. I haven’t figured out how to leave the office at the office yet.

I did not expect to get a lot of writing done, while figuring out the new job this week, but I’ve done even less than my relatively minor expectations. What I have done is think about the problem: why aren’t I writing in the evenings? What am I doing instead? What are the triggers that set me down that path?

Because your writing process will change, over time. The things that got you through one period of your life will stop working when circumstances shift. Staying on top of things is a process of adaptation, and given the current state of my year, I’d like to adapt as quickly as possible.

The Other Question Pro Wrestling Taught Me To Ask About Every Writing Preject

Death Before Death Before Reborn Survival WorldSo yesterday I talked about where is the money? – the big question I’ve learned to ask of every writing project, courtesy of a shoot interview with former WCW booker Kevin Sullivan. It’s a simple question, and it’s remarkably useful for cutting through to the heart of what needs to happen in your story, novel, or blog post.

Today I’m going to talk about the other big question I learned from paying attention to wrestling bookers, although this one comes from a bloke whose insights into wrestling have already taught me an awful lot about writing – the inimitable Al Snow.

The question he taught me to ask is this:


In wrestling, “making” a wrestler means figuring out what you want the audience to believe and convincing them to buy into it. You can’t just send two guys out there and have them fight if everyone knows the ending is pre-determined – there’s no drama in it. And wrestling leans heavily on drama to make money.

So what do you do when a fresh, unknown face debuts on your show? To borrow words from Al Snow:

If you’re a new talent, we’ve got to make you. Make the audience believe in you, that you are competitive, that you’re a heel for these reasons, that you’re a face for these reason. Acquaint the audience with who or what you are, before we do anything else.

At its core: what do we need to make the audience believe about this wrestler, before we can even think about making money from him?

The belief is important, because…well, lets get this out of the way: pro-wrestling isn’t real. Somehow, people who don’t watch pro-wrestling seem to think that this is an important point to hammer home, as if it’s going to come as some kind of goddamn surprise.

It doesn’t.

Of course pro-wrestling isn’t real. There are wrestlers who have won matches with invisible hand grenades and their mystic ability to put their opponents into slow-motion. There are wrestlers who have won matches by stuffing dirty socks into an opponents mouth. There are wrestlers whose most effective attack involves break-dancing before dropping a fist on an opponent, because break-dancing makes things hurt more.

The carny roots of pro-wrestling, where the goal was conning people out of their money through a facade of legitimacy, are now long gone. But then, the days when people will mistake film footage of a train arriving at the station for an actual train are gone, and we have some pretty clear ideas about the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing.

Really, these days, wrestling asks you to suspend your disbelief much like any other form of entertainment, and you’re either willing to go with that or your’e not.

Personally, I am, ’cause pro-wrestling is fricken’ awesome. 

And because, every time a new wrestler debuts in a promotion and they start figuring out how to make him or her, you’re simultaneously watching a process of character building and world building at the same time. You watch who they are and how they fight, get a taste for the things that are meant to lead to victory (or defeat).

Wrestling is a narrative form that come down to manipulating the beliefs of an audience, which is pretty much the same goal as writing fiction. Wrestlers user a different toolkit to generate the suspension of disbelief, but they are just as reliant on it, and when you hit the point invisible hand-grenades are a viable finishing move, it’s obvious that realism is no longer part of the toolkit.

For a person who writes decidedly non-realist stories, paying attention to how wrestling makes stories out of some patently absurd things is enormously valuable. And even in the promotions that rely heavily on the feeling that things are a legitimate athletic contest, it’s worth paying attention to see how they make each new competitor.

What do you need to make a reader believe about your character? How do you make them believe that?

Combine these two questions with WHERE IS THE MONEY? and I think everything in writing gets just a little bit easier.



The Question Pro Wrestling Taught Me to Ask About Every Writing Project

I watch a fair bit of pro-wrestling. I mean, I subscribe to the WWE network and mainline NXT like a junkie. I have, in the past, collected an obscene number of shoot interviews and Guest Booker DVDs. I have watched an awful lot of indie stuff, from time to time. I get irritated, occasionally, that you can no longer buy the DVD’s of Paul Heyman’s run booking Ohio Valley Wrestling in 2004, ’cause I couldn’t afford to ship them to Australia then, but could probably afford to do so now.

I like wrestling. And, because I like wrestling and it’s a form of storytelling, it is something I spend an awful lot of time trying to understand better and draw lessons from. Thinking about storytelling in wrestling is often a good way of learning something important about storytelling in prose, largely because it such a different form.

A few weeks ago I watched a shoot interview with veteran pro-wrestling booker Kevin Sullivan where he related a lesson he learned from one of his mentors. Basically, he’d write a television segment for someone that would be all about referencing Othello or The Book of Revelations, and it would be a good segment, but his mentor would take one look at it and ask this:


Pro-wrestling narrative is one of those things that is weirdly simple, yet complicated to execute. It’s predicated on a protagonist being denied by an antagonist, over and over. It’s predicated on making the audience want a certain thing, deny them that wanting, and keep that story going over and over until they’re willing to pay big money to see it finally happen.

The money is knowing the match you’re selling. It’s all about looking a month, or six months, or a year down the line and knowing that if you make the audience believe that Hulk Hogan is an iconic hero, and Andre the Giant is an undefeated giant who has never been defeated and is jealous of Hulk’s success, a lot of people will pay a lot of money to see whether the hero can actually pick up the undefeated Giant and slam him into the canvas.

The money is finally seeing Hulk do that, and in seeing him finally get his revenge of the jealous friend who betrayed him. Everything these two characters do for months ahead of that match is all about making that question important – making the audience simultaneously believe that Andre the Giant is unbeatable, but perhaps Hulk Hogan can actually do it.

This is true of every story. We read for the moment of epiphany at the end, when we see characters overcome the internal and external obstacles that have been built up over the course of the narrative. I know enough about structure that this is a thing I can ramble on about for hours, when teaching classes.

And yet, every time I sit down to write or a revise a story lately, the most useful thing I can do is picture Kevin Sullivan’s croaky voice rasping where is the money? What is it you’re going to do at the end of this that makes it worth the readers investment? What is the payoff that will make people think the whole thing was worthwhile?

Everything in the story should be secondary to that, but it’s easy to get distracted by the thing you’re doing in the moment rather than the thing you’re doing at the ending.

These days, a lot more of my editing and planning notes are predicated on answering questions about the story I plan on writing. Where is the money is now the first cab off the rank, before anything else gets answered.

In Which I Go See Suicide Squad…

I went to see Suicide Squad last night. Not because I had any real hopes of it being a good movie, but because it’s a comic book film and I will end up seeing all comic book films eventually. Even the Zack Snyder one’s, which ’cause me actual pain to watch. I will watch them, when it costs me nothing, and then I will hate myself.

Suicide Squad did not cause pain. Mostly because it’s an incredibly tedious couple of hours, by virtue of someone taking all the core beats of six different stories and throwing them in the air, then figuring “eh, good enough,” when the pages are re-assembled.

Suicide Squad is what happens if you try to make the Magnificent Seven and do the assembling the team sequence, then throw out oh, by the way, these guys are meant to be saving a Mexican village. It’s the film that happens when you kick of Die Hard with Hans Gruber taking over Nakatomi Towers, then go oh, yeah, there’s a cop trying to reconnect with his wife or something before launching into the second act.

Suicide Squad is a self-contained story, in that the conflict that drives the story is largely happening ’cause the protagonist is an idiot with insufficient reason to be one (and, despite the film’s attempts to re-frame Will Smith’s Deadshot as the protagonist, there is no way in hell that it’s anyone but Amanda Waller).

Weirdly, it would be a very easy story to fix. I’m almost certain there’s a director’s cut of this film somewhere that has things in the correct order, before the studio laid down the mandate for funnier and make sure there’s a pop song playing every six fucking seconds.

You start with the scene in the briefing room, where Waller demonstrates the need for a black-ops superhuman team. You do the scene where people express their concerns, and Waller talks about who she wants. You introduce the team, one by one, and show us their issues. How they’ll fail to work together, because they’re bad guys, and how they’ll eventually bond and do the family-dynamic thing that is currently missing (and, yet, remains central to the finale).

Basically, you cut the film like someone whose actually seen The Dirty Dozen and paid attention to what made it worked. I am 100% sure the scriptwriter and director have, because there are the bones of that movie submerged beneath the mess, but they weren’t able to enact it.

And the result is a mess. A *tedious* mess, punctuated with moments of greatness from the actors. Will Smith is a surprisingly good Deadshot and makes a lot of out very little. Margot Robbie is a solid Harley Quinn. I can totally get behind Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. Viola Davis does okay as Amanda Waller, but she suffers from the same problem all Batman actors suffer from: just as no-one is going to compare with Kevin Conroy’s portrayal of Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League cartoons, no-one is going to be Amanda Waller like CCH Pounder was Amanda Waller.

Honestly, the best reason to see this film is in an object lesson in writing: spending the two hours trying to figure out how things went wrong, and what you’d need to do to fix it, is probably the most educational thing I’ve done in years.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

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The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).


What am I working on this week?

My plans went somewhat awry over the last week, largely because I kicked off a new approach to planning novels after reading Alexandra Sokoloff’s Stealing Hollywood and started to figure out a way of fusing my love of literary analysis with some of the techniques in Accidental Creative to get around my usual problems with plotting. The result was a lot of work done, but none of it what I’d intended.

This week, with the new job kicking off in two days, I’m sticking with simple goals: move through the next page of my eleven-page planning document (mostly questions to answer) and revising a short story about flying crocodiles I’ve got kicking around on my hard drive.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Catherynne Valente’s The Bread They Eat in Dreams, which is currently proving to be a short story collection that just nails it story after story. Different voices and approaches every time, but unified by the sense of experimentation, self-awareness about the rules of story and how they shape our identities, and the utterly gorgeous language being used.

What part of my project an I avoiding?

Scheduling is my weakness at the moment. I do less than I’d like in the mornings, but pack social stuff into the evenings which means that I don’t ever get more than the morning shift as a writer. It’s not quite enough to be satisfying, but I haven’t yet hit the point where I’ve put together an actual plan for getting more done.

I also need to figure out where the money is in the flying crocodile story. It’s got an ending, but not the ending.

At 5:00 PM today, I stop answering questions about writing for a paycheque…

Today is my last day at Queensland Writers Centre. As of 5:00 PM this afternoon, I no longer have a job where people get to ask me questions about writing or publishing.

Figure I may as well celebrating that by doing my favourite thing to do here on the blog: answering questions about writing and publishing.

If you’ve got ’em, let me know. Putting together answers will help me ride out the withdrawal as I face the existential horror of being technically unemployed for until the  new job starts on Tuesday…