the harsh truth about first drafts

Your first draft is going to suck.

A lot.

Shut up and listen.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a novel, a screenplay, a theatre script, a short story, a poem, a recipe, a shopping list, a to-do list or the passive-aggressive note about the dirty dishes you leave on the fridge for your housemate, the first version of it will be utterly irredeemable rubbish. I would use it as kindling in winter when the icicles make the windows go foggy, but I’m worried the smoke will be purple and I’ll wake up two days later in a bathtub with a dry mouth and a missing kidney.

You can’t prevent it. You can’t make it slightly less true by writing a first draft so uncharacteristically stellar that the second draft will essentially write itself. Neil Gaiman said the truth is a cave in the black mountains, and I say it is a freight train winding through them (it could also be a cave. I will not argue with Mr. Gaiman). You can’t stop it. You can’t.

Oh, but try. Please, go right ahead. Do all the things you know you have to, from reading unqualified advice in blog posts just like this one.

Read books, both fiction and non-fiction. Learn the craft. Practice makes perfect. Buy Stephen King’s On Writing and read it twice, armed with a highlighter and Post-Its. Read all the books you hate because you hate them, armed with the same, because you learn as much from what you don’t like as you do from what you do, and all the books you hate because you’re jealous, armed with starry eyes and if-wishing-made-it-so and what could become bitterness, one day, if you aren’t very careful. Go to workshops. Act like you are the only person in those workshops. Sign up to online courses. Get top marks.

But you’ll fail. You can’t do it. You just can’t. That’s the bad news.

The good news is, nobody else can either. Because writing is not writing. Writing is – you know this one, or you bloody should, if you’ve read all those books on the craft in your efforts to write the Holy Grail of first drafts – rewriting.

So, you have heard that, right? Right. But you’d also heard that no first draft is perfect before now, because I am not a genius and I did not come up with it, and you’ve made it into this paragraph, and you’re still foolishly railing against that basketball-sized nugget of wisdom like you’re a two-year-old on a sugar high in the lolly aisle. I know because I was once you. I still am, by and large, because change takes time and people are stubborn, no more so than writers and artists, who can feel inextricably linked to the work they create.

Sit down.

Look at these words very carefully:

Writing is rewriting.




God, I love it. Look at the way the R and the E and the W and the R and the I and the T and the other I and the N and the G all line up like that:



oprah rewriting

rewriting depp

rewriting toy story

(it works on every. single. meme.)

This is the singularly most important, horrible, unavoidable, fucked-up, tawdry, bitch-slapping, unfair, gleefully underrated, wonderfully godawful piece of writing advice you’ll ever ignore.

Yes, ignore.

Because you’re a two-year-old in a lolly aisle, remember?

You think you get it now – OKAY, LIZ, YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MAKE A HILARIOUS OPRAH MEME TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS – but er, yeah, I did, because you still don’t understand. Not because you’re thick, can’t read, television’s distracting you, etc. etc. It’s because you’re a human, and the truth is harsh. The idea that you can spend weeks, months, years on something – anything, but in this case, a first draft of a creative pursuit that has until this point lived only in your mind – and have someone tell you it’s anything less than mind-blowingly orgasmic is a massive kick in the teeth.

Here’s the thing, though. The sooner you understand it, embrace it, give it big ol’ kiss and a cuddle on the couch while you watch your programs, the sooner you can move the hell on and do better, be better. Because here’s the thing I’ve learned about the writing process, something that’s really hit home for me in recent months, something that sounds really bloody obvious, when you say it out loud, but something I wish I’d had drilled into my skull years ago:

Your first draft? Tip of the iceberg.

I’m not saying this because I don’t want you to write a phenomenal first draft, or at least try very hard to. Some people actually can. A select few very, very rare rainbow-coloured unicorns with blue pelts and horns made of platinum. This is not for them. This is for the yous and mes of the world. The people who don’t know what they don’t know with such unknowingness that it’s almost evangelical. The rainbow unicorns only have knowingness because they’ve gone through the drafting process a billion times and cottoned on to the tricks and shortcuts and avoid potholes wherever possible, in the same way a clever 17-year-old can ace a History exam with only a night’s study and a working knowledge of the curriculum.

Don’t worry, though. Rainbow unicorns aren’t born. They’re made.

You will write your first draft and you will put it away and forget it exists for at least a week or two, because all the good books tell you to do that, too, and they’re right. After your trial separation is over, you’ve caught up on House Of Cards and you can spot the difference between forest and trees, your work as a writer begins.

You’ll start off by un-splitting your infinitives and killing your adverbs. You’ll replace commas with semicolons and delete a few superfluous lines of dialogue. That sentence on page 47 now makes sense. You’ve thought of a title for Chapter Ten.

And then you’ll read it again, with the feedback your Inner Circle – the lucky friends who get to read your work long before anybody else will, who get the first chance to provide high praise and thoughtful analyses and warm dotings – have finally given you you. This is the best part. This is the worst part. This is the fun part.

Characters you spent months breathing life into, pages and pages of unused dialogue and writing exercises just so you could get to really know them and their voice, will be deleted, leaving not even a blank space in their absence, as if they were never there at all. Only the people who read your first draft will get to meet them, or the people you tell, sobbing over your dinner at a family gathering weeks later, still knee-deep in the mourning period for a fictional entity you fucking loved but had to erase. Because ultimately – in your heartest of hearts – you know that deleting them makes your work better. Your story stronger. Your still-existing character arcs can arc their guts out because of it. So, yes, you deleted a character. You’ll do this more than once. It won’t hurt less the tenth time.

Story arcs you fleshed out within an inch of their lives are replaced by that throwaway line in scene three that some keen-eyed fucker has picked up on, and they’ve planted the seed and you can’t get the thought out of your head now. Hey, I know that was just a joke and all, but what if his sister really did know something about his girlfriend’s death? they say. Maybe that’s why she’s so keen for him to move on, you know? Because she’s worried about getting found out?

These people are the devil. They will ask you questions and make you think. You will delete pages and pages and pages and write so many more because of these people, and they’ll turn your story into something it wasn’t when you originally started stumbling around in First Draft Land: good. Surround yourself with these people and know they want your work to be as amazing as you do and be grateful.

Do not develop thick skin; develop low-grade adhesive skin.

Let some things stick and others clatter to the floor where you can jump up and down on them with reckless abandon.

Some won’t like your Working Title and some will and some won’t understand it and some will have suggestions. You will write a list. You will narrow that list down, then think of enough alternatives to populate a new list. You will pick one, and repeat it to yourself in the quiet emptiness of your home, when nobody else is around, and it will be yours and yours only. You will watch TV to celebrate and forget about it. It will crawl back into your mind to be hated and discarded the next day. Rinse and repeat, you poor bastard. You’ll settle on something eventually.

Because like your first draft, your first title will probably suck, too. Nobody will hardly ever know or care what it once was. You can’t go to Dymocks and buy the first draft of Animal Farm and you don’t want to. You want it to be done. You want it to be the best possible version of itself before it ends up in the hands of a reader, reviewer, publisher, ex-lover, whoever. You owe your work that. You owe yourself that. And you will not get that without writing the shittiest first draft you possibly can, and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until you’re so close to the horizon you can’t see the shore anymore.

I haven’t even told you the best bit. The best bit is, if your first draft is set to be inescapably awful, then guess what? The pressure’s off. The world knows it’ll suck. Let it. Just get it all out. Write and write and write and don’t think, not too much, not yet. The thinking comes later, in draft five or ten. The first draft is for you, and your Inner Circle. Let them hate it. Let them see its promise. Let them tell you to get rid of everything between pages five and fifty and delight in highlighting the whole goddamn section and slamming your finger into the delete key like an unmerciful God. You’re on the path to making it better. To make it great. To make it loved. There is nothing more exciting than that.

It takes courage to create something and more courage to share that something. But to willingly invite criticism of that something, for the sake of its betterment, takes a certain amount of insanity, it’s true.

Welcome to the asylum. It’s a lot more fun that it sounds.


theft, sincerity and pink hair: a day-late christmas carol

Somebody stole my phone today. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

The details don’t matter. I joined the masses trawling the ailses for Boxing Day savings, I made sure my handbag was zipped, I avoided flashing around the envelope with my Christmas cash inside, and then I was texting my mother, and then it was gone.

I think I put it down on the counter when I got served, but only in front of me, just below my hands, which held my wallet. Somewhere between my friend, who was right next to me the whole time, remembering to give me a voucher I was yet to use, and then me confusing the poor lady serving me because I presented it too late and changing my mind to avoid complicating things further, someone who is not me or my friend picked it up and walked away with it. And that was that.

I think. The truth is, I don’t know.

I am not a careless person. I keep my phone in my back pocket (because women don’t get to wear jeans with front pockets big enough to fit anything more than lint and fury, AMIRIGHT LADIES) at all times. I’m in the habit of sliding it straight back into that pocket the moment I’m done with it, so I don’t lose it, misplace it or, you know, get it stolen. Perhaps I did it then, before I took my wallet out of my bag, and fell prey to a skilful as hell pickpocket. It was, after all, a JB Hi-Fi on Boxing Day. Everybody there was a sweaty, budget-breaking sardine, and every time you moved in any given direction, you walked into someone or something and found yourself apologising to them or it.

I realised all of three seconds after being handed my receipt that something was amok. I didn’t recall putting it in my handbag as opposed to my pocket, but then I rarely do, such is the nature of a deeply-ingrained habit. My handbag is deep and pocket-y and finding anything inside quickly is impossible, so I shouldn’t have been concerned at that moment, but there it was: the voice of cynicism, rearing its head in the darkest corners of my brain, like a red flag billowing in an unlucky breeze. I’d been had, and I knew it. I just had to wait for the rest of me to catch up.

I bolted back to the counter, knowing I would find it next to the Eftpos machine, knowing if it wasn’t there, the girl serving me would’ve seen it and put it aside, knowing if she hadn’t, the kindly fellow shopper who came after me would have handed it to the security guards at the front of the shop, who would take it to the centre’s concierge desk, who would do an announcement over the PA, and it would be like in a Nora Ephron movie except I’d be running towards the iPhone 6 I’ve only had for two months and not Tom Hanks.

None of that happened, of course. The realisation that somebody had done something so undeniably shitty as this the day after Christmas made me cry, just for a bit, when I rang my mother, who was fresh off the plane on a much-needed holiday and suddenly faced with spending part of it liaising with our insurers. The Christmas correlation is a whole other blog post (I subscribe to the “I don’t know why we only put aside one day of the 365 in a year to give thanks, remind our family we love them and get all misty-eyed at our shared humanity, but one day is way better than none, and also stop buying so many damn presents” school of thought on that), but I think we can all agree: you don’t fuck with the festive season. Twelve hours ago, my cousin had announced to my entire family she’s pregnant with her first kid, and nobody stopped smiling until they went to sleep. Now, I’m in a parking lot with the smokers and skateboarders, tearfully telling my mother I want whoever did this to die and almost half meaning it.

Be a shitty human in your own time. At Christmas you’re on Baby Jesus’ time.  

I’m undoubtedly and without shame one of Those People who consider a piece of technology to be their fifth limb. I use it always and for everything. Texting, tweeting, emailing, reading, browsing. Checking the time. I say “without shame” because my kind get chided for being “glued to our phones”, I don’t think, within the boundaries of politeness, that there’s anything shameful in actively keeping in touch with both loved ones and current events. My phone is the medium through which I do both, because I’m not made of time and also I actually like technology. So, it goes without saying I felt headless when I realised not only was it Gone, it wasn’t Left-It-In-My-Car-Again Gone, Fallen-Between-The-Couch-Cushions Gone or Folded-Between-The-Pages-Of-The-Last-Book-I-Was-Reading Gone. It was Not-Coming-Back Gone. For reasons completely outside my control, for motivations totally beyond my comprehension.

And comprehension is a big part of what threw me in all this. Beyond being just plain rattled, I was shocked. Astounded. Downright befuddled and only capable of talking in questions consisting of just one word: “What? How? Why?”, like some primary school teacher deconstructing Diary Of A Wombat with her class. The feeling wasn’t unfamiliar. A few years ago, somebody reversed into the side of my car while I was at a show, and when I came out I had to crawl over the gearstick because the driver’s side door wouldn’t open. They hadn’t left a note, but I worked for the local newspaper at the time and needed no excuse to do a Lois Lane, writing an inside cover piece on the whole debacle. The day after we printed, a woman rang my editor to say she’d seen it happen on the night and written down the guy’s license plate, simultaneously ensuring I’d get his money for the extensive repairs and restoring my shaky faith in humanity. In spite of my inability to do a full Lois Lane this time around, it turned out there’s a Nice Lady Reading The Paper Who Did The Right Thing in this story, too.

She has pink hair.

She’s about my age. She wears outrageously cute floral dresses and a smile that strikes me as vaguely cheeky, as if grinning to herself almost constantly at something funny in her head. She’s skinny and she has a lanyard on with a name tag I can’t read. I ask her if she’s already serving someone because she’s walked towards me with a lot of purpose for somebody doing nothing, and she says she isn’t, with an expectant lilt about her, which makes me realise I might look as lost as I feel. I ask her for the cheapest, nastiest phone she has on offer, and she considers this a fun challenge immediately.

She takes one from the cupboard she’s unlocked, thinks it over a moment and decides she can “do better than that”, and by “better” she means “worse” and we both know it so I chuckle and just like that she has made me do what I have so far failed to: laugh. In the face of the person who took something that didn’t belong to them. At the idea of somebody who barely remembers what VHS means using a phone invented before Bluetooth. For not realising it could have been much worse, and it wasn’t, and it will at least make a good story one day. With the knowledge whoever did it is already far worse off than me for having done it, because some people are their own punishment, or maybe they simply needed it more than I do, in which case, I really hope it suits their purposes.

When the cheapest, nastiest phone has emerged from its hiding place, the girl with pink hair tells me she’s going to discount it to the point where I can almost pay with the coins I’ve accumulated in the cup holders of my car. She also says she can restore the phone number I suspended sometime between calling my mother again and filing a police report to the new SIM card, and I sincerely tell her she has made my day. At some point, she hands me an invoice with a flourish, and tells me, “We’ll split and meet back here”, like she’s Nancy Drew and I’m whoever Nancy Drew regularly had adventures with. I sincerely thank her, and sincerely smile, because sometimes I worry there’s not enough sincerity in the world and if there was maybe people wouldn’t steal phones off retail countertops while the owner’s handing over the voucher their Nan tucked into a Christmas card. When all is said and done, I ask her what her name is with my hand extended to shake hers in thanks, because I’ve read her name tag by now and I’m not sure how to pronounce the three letters written on it.

The thing is, there’s only one reason a writer will ask someone they’ll never see again for their name: they want to name a character after you. You’ve earned it. This is trade-secret stuff and I might get kicked out of the club for saying so, but you’ve inspired them, as weird as it sounds, for reasons good or bad. Maybe that character will die a thousand deaths and maybe they’ll meet a kind face in a bookstore on a rainy afternoon. Her name is pronounced unlike how I would’ve predicted and I file it away, and her handshake is strong and friendly and pointed. Handshakes of that kind might be rarer and more important than sincerity.

I left wondering if I might not replace my iPhone at all. The thought lingers. Now I have a Nokia in my life, and we all know how bloody brilliant they are. It doesn’t have email or a camera and it needed me to change settings before it could automatically update the time, but it has actual buttons, and it hasn’t been charged since I took it out of the box and couldn’t care less. I’d compare it to the phone I got when I was ten, but it doesn’t have Snake. You can’t have everything.

A Call To Arms: I Deleted My Facebook Account. Do it.

I used to joke that being on Facebook is like being in the mob: you can only leave in a body bag.

Signing up about four years ago – long after most of my friends, I have to add – was a rare instance of me bowing to immense peer pressure. A colleague on a slow news day cracked it and made me an account with my “reluctant” help. My first Friend was my editor. My profile picture was Superman fighting a Jedi. Then it was ’60s Batman, and then it was Tina Fey, and then it was some eerily accurate likeness of me made by that Mad Men website (remember that?)

Over the years, Facebook became a lot of things. An indispensable procrastination tool when university and newspaper deadlines loomed. A fun, alternative way of keeping in touch with the cheese to my macaroni, living as we did for some 12 years in cities 400km apart. A means of meeting people working in my field whose services/advice/connections I might need, one day, and solidifying that connection with the click of a button, so that they are forever more a subtle notification noise away.

But it was other things, too. Things I started not to like.

A way for me to say “Yes, we should absolutely keep in touch!” to my large interstate family right before I get on a plane, and not feel guilty when I don’t hold up my end of the deal because I’ve got pictures of their kids eating a muffin in my newsfeed that prove I’m making an effort.

A way for people I haven’t seen in years to make me introspective and depressed, because I don’t have a new investment property/two dogs/gym membership/fiance/baby or because I know all my food pics would be of sandwiches and pies or because I don’t have any photos from my month-long stint in Europe so I must be terrible at managing my money if someone who’s worked retail for six months can afford it and I can’t.

For the world to remind me how awful it can be sometimes.

For the idiots to be idiots.

A way for me to be jealous and bitter, when I have no reason to be either.

At some point during all these realisations, I started to get angry. Angry that I’d get momentarily stuck on a sentence or scene, load up Chrome, log in and lose three hours. That I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation without someone without saying “Oh yeah, I saw something about that on Facebook”, like we were part of a cult worshipping at the altars of coffee-stained keyboards. Angry the word “friend” – one that, being pretty old-fashioned on this topic, I have never used lightly – had all the meaning sucked out of it by a faceless, formless website billions of people read like it’s the morning paper. Angry I could be so easily tricked into thinking someone cared about me enough to connect, when really, they just want to have a good ol’ Facebook Stalk. Angry that “Facebook Stalking” is a thing. Angry that I’d become the kind of person who did it, like I don’t have a script to redraft and a novel to edit and another to write and three more seasons of Battlestar Galactica to watch.

Anger, next to stressed, is my least-favourite emotion. It is useless and it does no good.

Luckily, I had two things in my favour: a job requiring a time commitment which redefined the belief “there are not enough hours in a day”, Twitter.

The job kept me off Facebook for a while. I was eating toast for dinner. I was getting five hours of sleep a night. I was responding to emails until 3pm when the real work could begin, and then again at 11pm when the other half of the world woke up. I fucking loved it. To say checking my Facebook page became “trivial” is an understatement.

Twitter… is awesome. I did not stay off Twitter. I had a job third parties apparently found interesting and insights that tickled the like-minded. I had useful things to share and so did other people. It was a pithy library of content curated for me, its only card-carrying member. And if I didn’t like something, I could simply unfollow the person who put it up there and not worry about my actions becoming the subject of dinner party analysis.

I don’t hate you now, you’re just the tenth person to RT that cronut recipe.

It wasn’t until I emerged at the other end of my work-tunnel that I realised, I hadn’t missed Facebook at all. I’d cracked 400 Twitter followers, lost track of the people I needed to lose track of and worked out who was prepared to send me a text if they wanted to get in touch and who considered it too much effort. I returned to it for the same reasons people gravitate back to an old lover: it was familiar, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do.

And then one of my closest friends deleted his account, out of the blue. When he told me, I realised I was jealous.

A week or so ago I turned 23. Phonetically, something about that makes me feel like I might finally be approaching adulthood after all. Twen-ty-three. If so, I should probably learn to eradicate the things in my life that I know are making me miserable, in the same way I like to think I’d tell an abusive boyfriend to GTFO or switch off Rizzoli & Isles reruns instead of wishing and hoping (They’ll never get together, Liz. Never). I’d officially become that person who either rants about how boring and annoying Facebook is, or gets distracted by how boring and annoying Facebook is. But no more.

To quote Frank Underwood: “I have no time for useless things.”

So I did some Googling, found this article and started at step one. It took most of the afternoon, because I’m not talking about deactivating my account, which any schmuck can do; I’m talking about stone-cold, here-lies-Liz’s-account, deletion. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it until I’d almost done it, so I could avoid being talked out of it. Then I posted a message saying what I was doing (which got a lot of likes – ironical) and included my email address for those who couldn’t bear to see me go and didn’t already have another means of contacting me. I left it up for an hour and then I hit the delete button, which Facebook keeps well-hidden. You’re then given a 14-day grace period in which to change your mind, log back in and cancel the scheduled deletion. Today is Day 7. I haven’t received a single email.

The aftermath has been interesting. At first, I did feel a tiny bit lost, a microcosm of the full-blown distraction I feel whenever I misplace my phone. I erased the web history and passwords on all my devices and browsers to avoid accidentally logging in, and I had to cancel my Spotify account and start new, because I’d logged in with Facebook when I first downloaded it a year ago and couldn’t circumvent it now. I’ve caught myself about to log in once or twice, mainly on my phone (I stopped using the App ages ago). I still find myself opening a fresh tab when I’m on my Mac and bored, but then I realise, I don’t care.

I’ve had friends try to convince me to return, concerned I’ll forget everyone’s birthday (I am great with birthdays) or reminding me that I wouldn’t know about the marriage of some chick I went to high school with if I’d never had it (devastation).

I’m on Twitter more often, and have learned I need to cull my follows soon or risk boredom, and I’m also refreshing Pocket pretty frequently, but neither with the obsessive routine that once characterised my relationship with the ‘book. I’ve written 10,000 words of a New Thing I’m fairly excited about, finished season one of Veep and started reading Bedroom Philosopher Diaries and Gotham Central (both brilliant). I’ve taken to calling my housemate, whom I’ve temporarily abandoned for a job out of town, and I’m more mindful of when I last contacted any of my friends.

Friend, n.

1. A person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.

I know which definition I prefer.

What HIMYM (and *that* finale) taught me about writing and audiences

To anybody who’s not watched the How I Met Your Mother finale, or any of the other episodes, and wants to without spoilers: you’ve been warned. (The finale hasn’t actually aired in Australia yet – we’re like, four episodes behind – but, uh, Google’s a thing, so yeah). 

Anybody with internet access or a social media account will know that a show nobody thought would last nine years has very recently come to a conclusion, and pretty much precisely what went down. Looking back on it all now, the show taught me kind of a lot about writing, and now the finale’s taught me even more about the audience I’m writing for. Now that we’ve all had time to process, let me start at the beginning and continue as concisely as you can when a TV show runs for nine years.

I so vividly remember watching the How I Met Your Mother pilot all the way back in 2005. I wasn’t prepared to like it as much as I did, but being a sucker for a half-decent ensemble cast and the multiple personalities they can foster, I stayed along for the ride. Each character was their own person, had their own schtick, and the way they interacted with one another was the show’s focal point (this is something that, credit where credit’s due, didn’t change throughout all nine seasons).

This was not a show about an international espionage agency cracking down on bio-terrorists, or a team of mutants looking for a cure, or The End Of The World As We Know It. It was just a show about… people. Which brings me already to Thing Number 1 HIMYM taught me about writing – or perhaps more specifically, about the kind of writing I’m most interested in.

If there are numerous characters with at least an inkling of three dimensions and distinct personalities, I’m on board until the wheels fall off.

For those not in the know, Wikipedia exists. But the short version is, architect Ted sits his teenage kids down to tell the story of >insert title here<. Flashback to 27-year-old Ted. He’s looking for love, meets wannabe news anchor Robin, falls immediately in love with Robin, gets sort-of-dumped by the commitment-phobic Robin when he tells her as much, and finishes it all up by saying “And that, kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin”. So ends Season One, Episode One.

Within that, though, were more than a few promising things. For starters we had Robin, who represented an intriguing counterpoint to your usual doe-eyed, blonde-haired love interest (those would come later on in the series). She had a career track, a few dozen dogs and lived independently in a small apartment. She was smart and driven, but easily spooked by the earnest Ted’s immensely premature declaration of love. She – wait for it – had DEPTH. Or you know, as much depth as a character in a pilot episode with about ten minutes of screen time can possibly have.

Then there were Marshall and Lily. Ted’s best friend and his best friend’s lifelong girlfriend-come-fiancee/wife/babymama are pretty much the whole reason I watched HIMYM for as long as I ended up doing so. I wanted to be both of them, and be both of their friends, simultaneously. Marshall (a then more-or-less unknown Jason Segel) was a lawyer-in-the-making with bleeding heart morals and Lily (Buffy’s Alison Hannigan in a role she’ll never be able to shake now) was a spunky artist and kindergarten teacher.

Lastly, Barney. Barney’s a morally repugnant womaniser who has somehow made friends with three (four, once Robin joins The Group) perfectly well-adjusted and generally incorruptible adults. That’s… that’s really all I ever got from Barney. Zero redemptive qualities. None whatsoever. Oh, except he’s played by Neil Patrick Harris, of course.

Man-children, in fiction as in life, can only be tolerated in small doses. Unless some serious personal growth is had, they are and will forever be a gigantic douchebag. 

Now, discovering Robin wasn’t the ‘mother’ of the title in the pilot was the first of many, many misdirections and red-herrings the HIMYM writers would throw at us, the audience. It’s kind of what you expect from a show entirely founded on discovering the identity of one person – there’s plenty of “Is it her? Is it her?” Or else why would you tune in each week?

Let’s be honest here: as big a fan as I am about the whole “this is a story about real-ish people doing real-ish things and isn’t that refreshing?”, the thing about this kind of plotting is, the stakes couldn’t be lower. The bio-terrorists won’t win, the mutants won’t find their cure, The World As We Know It won’t end, and the audience knows that going in. And you know what that means.

People need to care, like or relate to at least one of the characters. 

Put broadly: people need a reason to give a crap. I’m gonna argue that this is a rule in any medium, no matter what kind of story you’re trying to tell, since it seems to me all stories are ultimately of the character-driven kind: things don’t just happen, they have to happen to someoneBut this applies to some stories more than others.

Characters I got on board with aside, I did not stick with HIMYM until the wheels fell off – or maybe I did, depending on when you think said wheels stopped turning, and the show’s sizeable and loyal fanbase has many opinions on this topic. For me, I think it was somewhere around when Robin stopped being in the picture after a whole two seasons, and when we already knew she wasn’t the mother, and she didn’t even point Ted towards the mother. At least Rachel Bilson’s character was her roommate while Ted dated her. Robin is somehow quite probably my favourite HIMYM character, but I feel like those first two seasons are almost a waste of space as far as the general plot is concerned. The general plot as it was pitched to the audience in that pilot, I mean. Which we now know turned out to be something of a lie. (I’m still getting to that).

You don’t have to rush things, but you don’t have to drag them out, either. 

Nine seasons? Nine? What kind of world do we live in where this show, with this limited a narrative, goes for NINE SEASONS? Props to the writers, honestly, because as I’ve established, and as has been written elsewhere, the HIMYM pilot really was something special, but could they have taken any longer to get to the conclusion they got to? That takes skill and imagination, but were you all too busy watching John Hughes movies on the day enrolments for the Don’t Shoot A Dog When It’s Already Dead lessons were open?

Like I said, I probably dropped out around season three, ducked back in for a while in season four/five (because Sarah Chalke), and really re-invested in season six. That has a lot to do with the character of Zoey, the protester trying to stop Ted’s first big architecture project from demolishing a historical building. She’s unhappily married to a rich jerk and spends a fair few episodes genuinely loathing Ted, which for once put a pretty convincing obstacle between the will-they/won’t they shtick (I know the “oh they can’t stand each other, obviously they’re destined to have four babies” is a common thing, but man, did those two hate each other). They have a brief and surprisingly touching relationship (once she works up the courage to ditch the husband) and I spent about a month in denial when it turned out that no, no, she wasn’t the mother, either.

The show had jerked me around yet again, so I stopped. And this time, I stopped for good.

If the audience sticks with you, they deserve to be rewarded for it. 

There are exceptions to this, like anything, but I’ve always thought – and now I think more than ever – that if an audience sticks with you for an entire book series, or dedicates nine years of their life to watching your television show, that kind of loyalty needs to be repaid. Hell, if somebody picks up my future novel and sticks with it for even a week, I want to reward them. I want them to enjoy the journey and its conclusion. What’s a good story without a great ending? SPOILER ALERT, Romeo and Juliet die, Ned Stark gets his head cut off and Harry Potter marries his best friend’s little sister and it’s not weird at all.

Because this is how it all really ended:

[Did I mention “SPOILER ALERT?”]

A woman in Barney and Robin’s wedding band, named Tracy, is the mother. She and Ted meet on the train platform in the rain, and as hinted a loooooong time ago, a yellow umbrella is involved – he claims. They’re engaged for a long time and have two kids before getting married, and then the mother falls and dies not long after. Oh, and Barney and Robin’s marriage lasts three years, after which they get a divorce, Robin goes back to being Season One Robin and Barney, aside from the fact that he fathers a daughter with a one-night stand who’s name he doesn’t bother remembering, goes back to being Season One Barney.

Future Ted’s kids take all of what they’ve just been told (no doubt a 100-hour long stay around the coffee table, let’s get real) and interpret it to be Ted’s way of telling his kids he’s actually completely in love with their Aunt Robin. “It’s ok”, the far-too-casual daughter tells him, “Mum’s been gone six years now. It’s time.” Cue Ted running to her apartment. She appears at the window and smiles down at him. And they smile at each other.

Fade to black.

Roll credits.

End series.

When I distilled it all into a nutshell for my housemate, she was palpably pissed off, and she’s never even sat down to watch an episode. To say long-term viewers felt betrayed is the understatement of the year. How I Met Your Mother? More Like How I Met Your Step-Mother.

Now, I’m not saying this is a terrible ending. I’m saying it’s the exact plot of the underrated 2008 film Definitely, Maybe. Duration: 112 minutes.

There are many, many gripes the finale’s haters have with it, but my main one is this, and I do think this is the cardinal sin of all the sins Bays and Thomas committed here:

The show’s writers spent a lot of time, energy and episodes promising the audience two things they deemed to be important and crucial, both of which ended up being completely untrue. 

Promise One: Ted and Robin will not, under any circumstances, end up together. Robin is not the ‘mother’ and Robin is not Ted’s soul mate.

Promise Two: Barney and Robin, in spite of their many differences, will end up together. They balance one another perfectly.

Since it aired, Bays and Thomas have revealed the ending was plotted (and the young actors playing Future Ted’s kids were filmed so they couldn’t age during the show’s lifespan) all the way back in 2005. This whole time, they’ve been adhering to a template, dedicating themselves to fulfilling an ending that might have worked nine seasons ago, but really doesn’t work now.

Creativity is what dies when you’re busy following other plans.  

A writer on a serial like HIMYM needs to have a Grand Plan or else the audience will see through the directionless nature of each episode in a heartbeat, and that’s bad. But if the writers had paid any attention at all to what they’d created by series four or five, this cannot be how it all would have ended. I want Barney to end up with Quinn and Ted to end up with Robin. Robin not being able to have kids could be yet another of the show’s many red-herrings, because they can freaking ADOPT. (Although How I Met Your Mother And Oh By The Way You’re Adopted doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). 

I don’t write to plan. I never have and I can’t say I ever will. I sketch things out if I’ve written myself into a corner, but for the most part, I find the ideas and characters I like most come to me on the fly, whether I’m in the middle of a sentence or making toast. This definitely does not work for everyone, but it sure does work for me. Maybe restricting ourselves with a template we feel we have to follow is


The mother of the title dying in the series’ final minutes was not surprising. A lot of people predicted it (it was alluded to a couple of times) and a lot of people asked the actress who plays Tracy (Cristin Milioti) about it in interviews. As soon as I heard about this theory, I bought it hook, line and sinker. It seemed oh-so-likely, and voila, here we are. This is not the writers taking a risk, being brave or making the tough decisions. The tough decision would have been to let the mother live and have promises One and Two kept, because the hardened cynic within all of us had to suspect some variation of the neatly-packaged-Robin-is-his-destiny ending we got was the one we would get. I know I rolled my eyes.

Better yet, if you’re going to bother to introduce a character as critical as the mother over an entire season and endear her to the audience so much, make her death mean something. Ted’s a born storyteller and romantic, so it makes total sense that he would immortalise his beloved wife in story. Why does it have to mean anything more than that?

I watched the finale after I learned the mother would indeed die, and of course I teared up when I realised this intelligent and lovely woman, who really did seem to be Ted’s Other Half in all the best ways, wasn’t going to last the hour-long episode she’d been given to shine. I’m not made of stone, and I wish I’d had more time to get to know her, in the same way I regret missed opportunities and wasted time when a relative or friend dies. It isn’t fair, and neither is life. To this end, for making me feel these things (and motivating me to write a 2,500-word blog post, lord) I do admire the writers.

But to the ending itself?

Carter Bays and Craig Thomas made a mistake. They must know that, since the DVD boxed set soon to hit stores allegedly includes an alternative ending. But it’s okay, guys. You’re not the first, or the last.

Everyone’s an expert: On taking (and giving) writing advice

Or, How I Named My Protagonist After One Week And Many Sleepless Nights.

Every writer living or dead has sought out advice, at some point or another, about their craft – the dos, the don’ts, the only-if-you-want-to-get-laughed-all-the-way-to-the-rejection-piles. I’m the first to admit I couldn’t be less experienced about writing and lord knows I’ve spent many an hour Googling things only writers will understand:

“how short is too short for a short story”

“are semicolons really the devil”

“what even is passive voice”

“famous rejection letters”


But recently I’ve been especially prone to the myriad bloggers and webkeepers out there who each have their own take on things, from the pros and cons of unreliable narrators to the dos and don’ts of writing for a young adult audience (my conclusion on that last part is: let’s not patronise the world’s most patronised demographic by being stupid adults and assuming their preferences can be neatly defined in a grid, list, and/or template. Yep).

In my recent and slightly desperate traipses through writer blogs and pithy advice columns, I’ve learned something really important and stupidly obvious:


(Except you, Chuck Wendig. You’re definitely my boss).

Example time.

What led me to my hair-pulling canvassing of what the blogosphere has to offer? I needed a name. For my character. And I couldn’t choose. So I Googled it.

Do you guys KNOW how many names there are in the universe? A freaking LOT. In no time, I had a list of possible candidates as long as my arm (this is not an exaggeration and my arms aren’t exactly short) and I was thinking of going all Layer Cake on this thing, because how on Earth am I supposed to choose just one?

The best part is, of all the many crises we neurotic writer-types can conjure up on a damn-near daily basis, the “choosing a name for my character” thing is definitely my most frequent dilemma.

My spiritual guide and much-maligned BFF, JB, will vouch for this. If that boy had a penny for every time I’ve thrown names at him to see which stick, he would’ve bought us dinner last night and not me. (Sidebar: his laptop, which he somehow kept alive for ten years, died last week. Go send him a follow or a kind comment to help ease his pain). I resumed my usual game last week when yet another protagonist I may or may not be developing for this (eek) had their own existential crisis. Is there a name for when a writer has to deal with a character’s existential crisis and reshape their identity? I feel like there ought to be.

In any case, to Google I went. I typed in “how to name your c…” and autofill did the rest:


I love that “child” is fourth, after “car”. GOOD JOB HUMANS.

So I knew straight away that at least I’m not the first person to routinely beat their head against the unique identifier wall.

First Rule of Google: You’re not alone.

Then I proceeded to wade through the mire that is, well, the internet. Because:

Second Rule of Google: Everyone’s an expert.

The Wiki-How article wasn’t the first one to come up, thanks SEO, but I’m a sucker for a good (read: terrible) Wiki-How article, so that consumed my attention immediately. Here it is, and all things considered, you could be given worse advice. My favourite thing about it is the brackets: “(see also, the Desai family from Coronation Street)”. At which point I leapt out of my chair and declared, “British soap operas? How did I not think of these fountains of wisdom sooner?!”

But seriously, I started to suspect I was wasting my time with dodgy advice about halfway through (it’s Wikipedia, after all), but my tipping point was the ninth and final pearl of wisdom, in which we learn:

“If your character has a best friend, enemy, partner, sibling, etc who they spend a lot of time with, it is best not to have their names too similar, or the readers may confuse the names. Examples include Rachel/Robert, Mary/Martin, Sophie/Sam etc.”

I think my gut reaction was outrage. I’ve already had a little mini-rant about my feels on patronising a YA audience, but these feelings extend to any and every audience. Nobody likes to be patronised, to be talked-down to, to get the feeling Their Version and Your Version are different because one’s been filtered, edited, trimmed and neatly polished For Their Own Good. Screw that. You stick a kid in front of Adventure Time and they’ll love it just as much as an adult will (adults, you will) but for entirely different reasons, and isn’t that the awesome thing about what we do? That people will understand and interpret things at their own speed? Maybe one will hate it and the other like it but at least both have formed their own opinions based on the same version of the same thing. Better yet, maybe the kid will hate it now and love it in five year’s time. Scrubs, I’m looking at you.

Anyways, I’ve said before that I’m no expert (that’s the crux of this whole post, if I’m being too obtuse), but I like to go into a draft without thinking my audience might get confused if I give two completely different characters – of different genders – names beginning with the same letter. Maybe that’s just my pesky inexperience shining through again.

Also, it would be remiss of me not to include the ever-wonderful and hilarious Hank Green’s thoughts on How To Name Your Baby Properly, which obviously, is relevant. Hank is the brother of author John (who’s responsible for THIS) and they vlog to each other once a week since they live on different sides of the country. His post is in response to this post, in which I learned the first person to attach an eraser to the end of a pencil was named Hymen Lipman. No, really.

Article number two the Google machine brought to my attention was the ever-reliable BabyNames.Com, weighing in on the topic of writers choosing character names as opposed to expectant mums looking for the perfect middle name – and this is actually perceptive of them, because:

Third Rule of Google: Baby name websites ARE character name websites. (My personal favourite is Nameberry).

So BabyNames.Com taught me that “exotic romance names are out”, which actually helped, because it meant I could nix Brittaeny Billingsley and Xander Humperdink and be two less in my list of candidates. I also learnt that the comments section on these kinds of websites are sometimes even better than the website itself, thanks to a lady who ended up naming her son Hildebrand because “Disney took Flynn” (that character’s real name turned out to be Eugene Fitzherbert, FYI. Clearly somebody didn’t watch the movie).

Third and last, and this is where my tipping point reached critical levels and I started thinking about writing this post, is this article, which suggested I name my character based on a certain theme. For example:

“A family with three sisters has the theme ‘spice.’ The girls’ names are Pepper, Nutmeg, and Cinnamon.”

I literally closed my laptop and walked away.

I’m not saying any of these articles (there are so many more) are full of bad advice. I’m saying, in a backwards kind of way, that when it comes to writing, I’m not sure if there is such a thing as Bad Advice, or Good Advice. You should probably employ common sense every once in a while, and I know I’ve heard many things from trusted friends and mentors that immediately strike me as an incredibly useful technique, but for the most part, I’d say there’s just Advice.

I’m grateful to have an internet and blogosphere chock full of writers with varying degrees of experience for me to turn to when I decide my character’s name no longer cuts the mustard and I get bogged down in pages of alternatives. I hope these people never stop posting about what they’ve learned so far, having done the hard yards I’m yet to do, knowing it might help their fellow writers to improve their game or crack that scene. But I also hope I, and every other writer out there, feels empowered enough to pick and choose which nuggets of wisdom they need to keep and treasure, and which they can safely let fall by the wayside without thinking it’s the difference between a million-dollar publishing deal and eternal obscurity.

I got my name decided in the end, but how? I did what I always do. Sweated over it, tried a thousand on that didn’t quite work, easily crossed off a few because I knew there was no way I’d be typing that twenty thousand times in a script, narrowed it down to ones I could think of nicknames for and paired a surname with a first name I wanted to use for reasons of metaphor, and voila. It wasn’t the most streamlined process in the world, but it worked.

The bottom line is, when it comes to writing, everyone’s an expert, and nobody is.

Oh, except Chuck Wendig. Chuck Wendig has something to say on the topic of characterisation, and I’m gonna go tattoo it all to my forehead.


Footnote: Here are some blogs by authors I have the good fortune of actually knowing, if vaguely. They’re all very talented women and writers, they do write ‘advice’ posts from time to time, and they are definitely worth listening to. That’s my advice.

Amanda Curtin

Annabel Smith

Natasha Lester

Big City Life: Things I’ve Learned

A couple of months ago, I moved.

I moved to a place that’s really, by almost anyone’s definition, not particularly exciting. It’s a place I bemoaned the existence of in the years prior to my moving here. I’ve been known to call it “the Dullsville capital of Australia” on multiple occasions, a slogan most would consider fit only for that last bastion of peculiar mediocrity, Radelaide. I thought it perpetually filled with utterly pointless roadworks, without identity or culture, incapable of progress, an exercise in painting with only several shades of beige.

Factor in a few things. The place I started in – and spent much all of my formative years in a tumultuous love-hate relationship with – is a place with not a single set of traffic lights to its name. It’s 400km from the nearest Big W and contains a population still loudly and vehemently bemoaning the demolition of a beloved pub going on ten years ago. But its people, in my experience, are a kind and special breed, its location world-class, and aside from the obligatory backward town planning there’s really only so many things a resident can complain about. Unless you’re somewhere between the ages of 16 and 30, perhaps, in which case you’re likely to bemoan the lack of things to do.

I hated those people. I always thought they were stupid, that they never opened their eyes and paid attention to the riches created when beautiful countryside and determined tourism industry combines, and then I realised I was, when it suited me, one of them. But at the point of realisation, I was less like them than I’d ever been, and that meant I had to get out.

Not because I hated it. Not because I saw no future there. Not because there’s only so long a person can live in a place with only two dedicated bookshops. Because I was getting comfortable. Too comfortable. Soon I would see the need to visit Target in the hope of finding that obscure book I’d been looking everywhere for not as a pointless Hail Mary but as a perfectly reasonable step in my search (I know. Crazy talk).

It’s because of The National, really, and what Matt Berninger said.

“If I stay here, I’ll never leave.”

And there has to be more to the world than a place with a Red Rooster that routinely runs out of chicken.

It took more than my little existential crisis to get me out, though. It took the job I’d been eyeing off for years falling into my lap (in that agonise-and-cross-fingers-for-weeks kind of way) and an apartment I didn’t even know I was looking for suddenly becoming available.

Sometimes the stars align right when you need them to, sure, but in my case it seems there was less timing and more waiting involved. It seems this is where I’m supposed to be, at least for now. I’m comfortable again, already, but it’s a different kind of comfort. If I were a sap I might call it contentment, but I won’t because it’s not and also because I’m a writer and we have no damn idea what that word means. There’s always a better get to be got and always another offer just around the corner we wish we could seize with both hands. For now I think I’m realising this is one of those offers, and I did seize it. I did the thing that had caused me to lose sleep countless times. The thing that scared the bejesus out of me in more ways than one. And now there’s like, 40 bookstores within a ten-kilometre radius of my house.

When I’m not counting bookstores I’m learning other things about this place I hated so vehemently until I moved here. I think, actually, that I arrived with the world’s most open mind. The city itself is almost entirely foreign to me and I am the brave exchange student who has taken the plunge and gapes, wide-eyed, at all this new and newer landscape has to offer. Every alleyway hides a coffee shop and every street corner holds a restaurant, and apparently Sunday trading is not a myth or a topic for debate but a liveable, tangible thing people engage with each week.

Here are some other things I’ve learned:

1. City lights at night are proof that, just occasionally, man-made things can be as beautiful as natural things.

2. Don’t believe Loreal. Paying $16 for two cans of Glen 20 and feeling ripped off is the first sign of ageing.

3. Silence doesn’t exist as a concept within a 300 kilometre radius of not just this city, but any city. Cities have cars, and construction, and people shouting across the road to each other for reasons good or bad and even though they’re not especially loud the sound echoes off everything fixed in place. And they have sirens. Lots of sirens.

4. Getting annoyed at the sirens, even though they generally mean a house is burning down, or someone’s livelihood has been broken into and ransacked, or a wife has found her husband slumped in a heap in the kitchen and doesn’t know what’s wrong with him – in spite of all these things, it’s important to remember: you are allowed to get shitty when the sirens wake you up at 2am. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

5. Having a McDonald’s outside a five-minute drive is the best thing for you.

6. When one of the two elevators in your building breaks, your chances of finally meeting your neighbours doubles.

7. Paying for parking is a ridiculous concept but it only takes three fines within the space of a week (I’m just guessing) for you to backpedal and wholeheartedly embrace the system.

8. Buy a bike. Buy a bike buy a bike buy a bike. Then bike.

9. There is a special place in hell reserved for drivers who don’t know how to merge.

10. There’s something to be said for following the logic of a song. I think I’ll do it again sometime.

Regarding The World’s Greatest Question: Have You Heard?

Somewhere in the world, right this very second, in libraries and hotel lounges and those mythical cafes with free Wi-Fi and expensive-but-worth-it coffee, a person is desperately hoping nobody else will find out what they’re listening to through the buds in their ears or the headphones momentarily around their neck.

They’re ok until someone asks. Someone might see you sifting through album covers with the swipe of your thumb or opening up the new playlist you’re working on (because that is a fucking art, and don’t let anybody tell you any different) and it might get them curious. They might think you’re attractive and use it as a conversation-starter. They might think they can hear it and don’t want to anymore. They might spot the few CDs in your bag you took from the overcrowded shelf in your living room with every intention of depositing in your car for the times commercial radio makes you want to swerve into the oncoming lane of traffic and regret nothing. But if I’m the someone who’s asking, think carefully. Your answer’s going to mean more to me than it probably should.

If you’re anything like me, you judge people based on the kind of music they like. I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill, slight grievance. I’m not talking, ‘Holy mother of God. You have Guy Sebastian on here?’

No, I’m talking a full-blown, your-taste-is-immeasurably-awful-and-your-argument-is-invalid, deal-breaker.

Mutual taste in anything is a pretty important feature of any relationship. I’ve been known to have lengthy conversations with total strangers – staff, usually – in bookshops and record stores and never, ever see the person again but still feel as though I’ve gotten to know them, if only a little. I like to romanticise this (see: everything) by considering exchanges like these to be the entire foundation of human connection.

Hello. We’re talking. We’re talking about the CD I’ve picked up, the book I’m holding, the one you’re shelving, the pile you’re trying not to drop. I can see their spines, their covers. I know them, and so do you. We agree on something. We can now talk about that thing, together, with vested interest. And because we agreed on that thing, I wonder if we’ll agree on this other, similar thing. You haven’t heard of this new thing? Allow me to change your life with this new thing. This new thing that in five years time will undoubtedly remind you of me, whether you want it to or not, whether fondly or not. This new thing that might, if we’re lucky, lead to other new things and other new experiences and these will be, inexplicably, all shared from hereon in. It’s brought us together. It might drive us apart. But it’ll still be there, all the time, in either scenario.

I am, especially, a big fan of the “Have you heard?” conversations. Those things can start World War Three quicker than you can say Lana Del Rey.

The problem, I’m learning, in being so darn high-and-mighty when it comes to music (and writing – and, heck, films) is that you leave yourself extremely susceptible to massive fits of hypocritical behaviour.

Sometime while I was in the throes of essay-writing, over-tired and especially susceptible to any and all things that provided comfort – be it food, TV or setting – Fall Out Boy released a new album. And I listened to it. And I didn’t completely hate it.

See, I was, once, young and dumb. I’m still pretty young (and pretty dumb) but my tastes, as I have to remind my father every time Simple Plan put out a new single and he surprises me with that terribly uninteresting news, have changed. Matured, I like to think.

It doesn’t make me half of the cultured audiophile I probably like to think I am, but I now count among my favourite bands in the entire world groups like Death Cab For Cutie, The National, Frightened Rabbit, Vampire Weekend and, a little less importantly, Something For Kate,  Sigur Ros, Counting Crows, The Jungle Giants, The Mountain Goats… My list goes on and on. One day I’ll get around to writing long manifestos on why everyone in the world needs to listen to albums like Narrow Stairs and Everything Is True before they die, but until then, trust me when I say that all the bands I like I almost always like because of their words. I have to love their lyrics. Everything else – everything – is secondary.

But lately, I’ve been regressing ever so slightly into much, much older territory. I think it started when My Chemical Romance broke up.

I’m remembering a time when I thought lyrics like “I could write it better than you ever felt it” was the most insanely poetic thing I had ever heard and would ever hear come out of a singer’s mouth. (Not gonna lie. Googling that song’s lyrcis has led to me listening to it again, right now. SLIPPERY SLOPE, GUYS).

The good news is, I have a solution: listen to bad music, but do it ironically.It’s pretty much the only way you, like me, are ever going to know every freaking word to this freaking awful/criminally underrated song and still be able to sleep at night.

Because at the end of that day in which you’re trying to get to sleep, you’ve been inspired. You’ve listened to music you love and love loving, and music you sort of wished you didn’t but can’t help it, and either way it’s made you think. About yourself, maybe, or the world, or a friend, or that random but in the very least polite record store guy who first said, ‘Have you heard?’ I suppose, in the end, it’s a defence mechanism. If we didn’t learn to like, or at least tolerate, the things that would have once driven us to distraction, we’d never get out of bed in the morning. I’ll try to be less judgemental. I like getting out of bed. I also kind of like the collaboration Fall Out Boy did with Elton John. (Things You Never Thought You’d Say). It means I’m either not as much of a music snob as I thought I was, or I’m never too old to not grow up, in however small a way. I kinda like both possibilities.