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.


Chuck Wendig’s Awesome Advice To Young Writers

If you don’t know Chuck Wendig yet, you should.

Not only does he dispense extremely nail-on-the-head-like, brutally honest, bullshit-free writing advice to all corners of the “penmonkey” (as he calls us writerfolk) galaxy, he also writes some pretty excellent fiction.

He blogs at Terrible Minds and his most recent post is so great I’m giving it a post of its own just to bring it to everybody’s attention. It’s called “Ten Things I’d Like To Say To Young Writers”.

If you don’t read it, you should at least read this:

“You will chase your voice like a dog chasing a car, but you’ll never catch it. Because you were your voice all along. You were never the dog. You were always the car.”


Now go click on that link right now.


Six Degrees of (Book) Separation: Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites

We’ve all heard the expression “six degrees of separation” – the concept that any two people, places, things or events can be linked by just six steps.

I once watched an entertaining little indie documentary predicated on this phenomenon. In My Date With Drew, everyman Brian Herzlinger decides to pursue his lifelong Hollywood crush, none other than the wonderfully cool Drew Barrymore, for the sake of taking her out on one date. To do this, he has a little over $1,000, a handheld video camera and the convenience of living in Hollywood, where a surprising amount of people know – or know people or know – the object of his affection. The “six degrees” rule keeps him motivated; he’s always only four or five steps away from his goal, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. I won’t spoil the ending, but you definitely need to see this film.

Anyway, Mr Herzlinger’s not the only person to put this technique into use, and now Perth authors Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman have come up with a way for the thinkers and booklovers among us to put it to good use. And Annabel’s kindly brought myself and many other bloggers in on the action.

The idea’s simple, and author and fellow participant Natasha Lester explains it thusly on her blog:

“The first book they’ve chosen is Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites. All you have to do is think about what other book Burial Rites reminds you of. There are no rules about what the link might be; it could be setting, character, title, where you were when you read the book, how the book made you feel etc. You have to do that 6 times, for each book you come up with along the chain. The fun of it is in seeing where you end up.”

I recently bought three new sets of bookshelves and reorganised about 80 per cent of my library, incorporating the many books I’ve amassed in recent months working for the Perth Writers Festival (an excellent job perk if ever there was one). So I have many titles swirling around in my head, which means this could go pretty much anywhere.

Here goes:

Burial Rites American1. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

It’s earned a slew of Australian and international awards, has recently landed on the Stella Prize shortlist, and earned the ridiculously young and talented author a record publishing deal for what is, if you can believe it, Hannah Kent’s debut novel.

I had the pleasure of working with Hannah in the lead-up to PWF (she was a guest and I, the program manager’s PA). She’ll probably be very embarrassed when I tell you she is legitimately one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Which leads me to the next book in the chain.

luminaries2. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

It’s impossible for me to not draw comparisons between Hannah and Ellie’s books (forgive the name-dropping snobbery – we’re not BFFs but it’s just weird to call people you’ve met/spoken with “Kent” and “Catton” in this context). Both are hugely successful works of historical fiction and both authors featured at PWF. Like Burial RitesThe Luminaries has a terrific jacket design and an incredibly evocative setting. Oh, and she wore the nicest freaking dress for her big speaking event.

3. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayowe need new names

I haven’t read this one yet but, as with The Luminaries, when I first cracked it open I was immediately sucked in until I’d made it to chapter two and realised I’d spent twenty minutes just… ahem… reading at my desk. The copy I have is an uncorrected bound proof of Bulawayo’s first draft and it’s dishearteningly amazing for something a professional editor hasn’t touched yet.

this_is_how_you_lose_her4. This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

Another book that’s been on my “to-read” list for an incredibly long time, and which I still regret leaving on the shelf after first reading the opening scenes in a bookstore and deciding I “already have enough to read at home” (I know, crazy talk). It’s a short story collection and I am in love with its title. (Bonus Book: The title reminds me of Jonathan Tropper’s hilarious and poignant family drama This Is Where I Leave You, in production as a film starring Jason Bateman and Tina Fey).

palo alto5. Palo Alto, by James Franco

A short story collection I have read, and which I liked infinitely more than I thought I would. I’ve only read it once, and it’s been a while, but I do remember there’s a high schooler having a relationship with a teacher, a slacker pothead carrying a gun around, drugs, sex, swearing, suicide, and a lot more drugs and sex. So, not my usual fare, and yet somehow I read it in one sitting. There was a vibrant immediacy to Franco’s style that appealed to me, and the momentum of each story was never breakneck, but enough to propel me into the next, and the next. And yes, it is that James Franco.

6. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornbyhigh fidelity

Here’s how my brain works: Palo Alto‘s being made into a movie (starring Franco, because that’s how he rolls), and in that movie is Emma Roberts, who’s pretty great and also stars in the recent release Adult World, alongside John Cusack. Cusack’s a favourite of mine also, and one of his best roles is as the protagonist of High Fidelity, the film adaptation of one of my Desert Island All-Time Top Five Favourite Books (people who’ve read it will know what I’m talking about). And here we are, in the hallowed halls of Hornby. HF is a frank and funny book about flawed humans, love and music, and I’ll never tire of it. It also contains one of my favourite quotes, “What came first, the music or the misery?… Am I miserable because I’m listening to pop music, or am I listening to pop music because I’m miserable?”

Which is how we get from Burial Rites to Nick Hornby. I never saw it coming. 

[While editing this post, I realised Junot Diaz’s praise for We Need New Names is quoted on the inside cover of my copy. Cue The X-Files theme.]

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

When Dogs Cry: A Belated Re-blog

Recently, diligent blogger, talented author and now fellow Perthite Annabel Smith kindly asked me to contribute to a regular feature on her blog, aptly named Friday Faves. Here she invites someone bookish (Exhibit A) to write about their favourite book, and why it’s their favourite, and why virtually everyone on the planet needs to stop what they’re doing and read this book ASAP. 

I wish I could’ve chosen Anna Karenina, or The Potato Factory, or whatever, but I went with a thin, unextraordinary and for me pretty well life-changing book called When Dogs Cry, by none other than Markus Zusak. 

But don’t listen to me, head over to Annabel’s blog and read it for yourself here.

It’s never too late to find your passion and follow it. >cue ’50s inspirational music<

Stick A Fork In Me, I’m Done: Ten Things University Gave Me.

This post has two functions:

1. To justify to you (if it’s been a problem – I kind of doubt it. This isn’t John Green’s blog, guys, that’s over here) why I’ve not posted in some six months when my second-last post in that timeframe was about my New Year’s Resolution to blog more (hello, irony).

2. To justify to myself that abstaining was worth it (not like that. Again, John Green’s blog ^^).

So, I finished my university studies last Friday.

I’ve waited 3.5 years to write that sentence. I’ve actually done kind of a lot in that time. I went from working at a restaurant to working at a newspaper to working at an international arts festival to working at a performing arts venue.

But the general point of my existence involved  a large pile of weekly readings and lectures, essays, tutorial presentations, more essays and the occasional exam. So ever since I handed in my last essay (it was titled “Setting As Character: A Sense of Mourning in Rohan Wilson’s The Roving Party”, because somebody other than my English tutor has to appreciate that) I’ve been doing what I always do and thinking about the past, but also the future.

I’d like to start my list with something very university-ish like:

1. A venereal disease.

but again, JOHN GREEN’S BLOG.

It actually goes something like this:

1. Five kilos. Give or take.

2. A refined approach to highlighting that does not involve the entire page.

3. The ability to rationalise “Toasted cheese sandwich at 2am” as “Dinner” (see point 1).

4. The ability to function regularly on three hours of sleep.

5. An admiration for all people who Go Back.

6. This band and this amazing song, because procrastination.

7. “Intoxication, of course, is the sole experience in which we grasp the utterly immediate and the utterly remote, and never one without the other. That means, however, that communicating ecstatically with the cosmos is something man can only do communally. Modern man is in danger of mistakenly dismissing such an experience as trivial, dispensable, and leaving it to the individual – a rush of enthusiasm on fine, starry nights.” – Walter Benjamin.

8. An irrational, intense hatred of Sylvia Plath and everything to do with her that I genuinely cannot explain.

9. A stronger, perhaps stupider, determination to write creatively for the rest of my life, because in all the late nights, in all the sacrificed weekends, in all the moments of self-discipline that drove me to tears and shouting and sometimes a little of both (I’ve long since apologised to all the concerned parties, don’t worry), the fictional people and places and stories I live to create are the things I missed the most.

10. A Bachelor of Arts, with majors in English and History. For what it’s worth.

Here’s to point 9.