IF YOU ONLY HAD 50 STORIES LEFT TO TELL, HOW WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

I’m thirty years old and I’ve probably written well over a million words of finished material and probably ten times that of complete shit. I like to think that I am still young and in many ways I am, but my shoulder aches from the past ten years of holding a pen and it takes a couple of extra hours to bounce back from a hangover. These, along with many other deteriorating things are just small remainders that our bodies will one day fail us completely. I think about this, and I think about how it’s going to affect my writing, because whether I like it or not, death will have an effect on my career.

So I get to thinking, in my very limited mathematical mind, that any which way I cut it, I probably only have fifty stories left in me. Now, I don’t mean ideas for stories or even completed short stories, but long form prose. Novels or screenplays that have been dragged through the ten drafts that it takes to make the bloody things readable.

50 may sound like a lot, but for the prolific writer it’s depressingly small. The question I am now faced with is, which stories are good enough to make it into my top 50.

I have three requirements before embarking on a new story:

DO I LOVE IT?

Is it the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning? Is it what I’m thinking about when I’m pretending to listen to somebody talk? Is it the kind of story that I can live with for at least six months and more than likely years on end?

CAN I MAKE IT PLAY?

Whenever I look at a story I always think, ‘can I make it play?’ No matter how much I may love a story, if I don’t have the skill set, insight or interest level high enough, I can’t make it play.

I adore the writing of Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Bukowski and Richard Yates but that doesn’t necessarily mean that their breed of writing is something that I can, or should even try to achieve for many reasons.

DOES IT TELL SOMETHING NEW ABOUT THE WORLD WE LIVE IN?

If a story passes the first two requirements, the final question to be asked is, is this a story worth telling? What about the world have I learnt that I am now telling others about? Without that personal insight, belief or viewpoint about the world, simply put, what’s the point?

Writing is hard. So if you’re going to tell a story, make it one that matters.

Having 50 stories left to write means that I have to think very carefully about the stories I choose to tell. That I have to give it a lot of care and thought and not be too hasty and rush into a foolish decision and waste one of my precious stories. If I did that, I may find myself on my deathbed thinking about what masterpiece was I capable of that I never gave myself the chance to write? Then at other times I think, fuck it. Life’s short, write what you want.

The Post Office Hotel
5.21PM
29/10/2012

10 BOOKS TO PUT HAIR ON YOUR CHEST

There are books out there so mean they give you paper cuts just from turning the pages. They’re filled with bastards and broken women; their pages faded brown and yellow and they smell as if they’ve been passed through the hands of one hundred men and left in the toilet stall of some dive in a part of town you wouldn’t step foot into unless you’re looking to get you knuckles bloody.

They are books that put hair on your chest. In no bloody order:

THE HUNTER – Richard Stark (1962)

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This book is as cool as cool can be. Parker, a professional thief and cold hearted prick is screwed over on a job and then rips apart the city to retrieve his forty-five grand (lots of money back then).

KILLING FLOOR – Lee Child (1997)

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Jack Reacher makes Jason Bourne look like ‘chick lit’. This former MP roams across America, with no ID and literally no baggage, getting into adventures. He falls in love with the girl, kills everyone and leaves town.

RED HARVEST – Dashiell Hammett (1929)

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Hammett’s Continental Op is assigned to Poisonville to solve a murder but ends up punching, shooting and killing his way through a web of corruption in a world where everybody has gone ‘blood simple.’

FIGHT CLUB – Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

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This dirty little book of rebellion follows a man suffering from insomnia, through support groups, underground boxing matches and revolutionary advances in the cosmetics industry in search of therapy.

IN A LONELY PLACE – Dorothy B Parker (1947)

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Not only does In a Lonely Place have the best name for its hero, Dix Steele, it’s also one of the best portrayals of a psychological serial killer ever put on the page. The writing is subtle, and the characters superb in their post WWII California setting.

SIN CITY: THE HARD GOODBYE – Frank Miller (1991)

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Everything Frank Miller writes has balls. The Hard Goodbye is the first in the Sin City series in which, brick shit house, Marv, is framed for the murder of the only woman who ever showed him a little bit of tenderness.

THE KILLER INSIDE ME – Jim Thompson (1952)

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Jim Thompson, makes you read him. He’s uncompromising in his tale of local deputy sheriff/sociopath Lou Ford who has blackmail and murder on his mind. The Killer Inside Me has an amazing 1st person perspective, at one stage in the novel, Ford even apologies for the son of a bitch that he is.

L.A CONFIDENTIAL – James Ellory (1990)

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3 cops, 3 cases and some of the fastest and most epic storytelling in the history of the genre. Ellory is brutal, his characters flawed and if you’re looking for a nostalgic look back at L.A in the 50s, fuck off.

THE GODFATHER – Mario Puzo (1969)

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The ultimate decent into hell as we follow the young, idealist Michael Corleone as he destroys everything he holds dear while trying to save it.

Not only is it a great tale, but it is also full of lessons.

Three things we learn from The Godfather:
1) Always put Johnny Fontaine in your movie.
2) Never ask Michael about his affairs.
3) And don’t forget the cannoli.

SAVAGES – Don Winslow (2010)

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Savages has the fastest and toughest first chapter in the history of first chapters. It’s the story of a couple of independent marijuana growers fighting off the cartel from taking over their business. It’s a demented underdog story where the words come off the page as if they were trying to uppercut the reader.

The Union Hotel
4.07 PM
17/10/2012

How to write with a gun to your head

Some writers can unleash words on the page with the speed of machine gunfire, others labour over the delicate placing of a comma for half a morning. Whichever camp we fall into, we would all like to write faster. To get that speed, there’s no need to bury your face in a bowl of cocaine or load up on caffeine.

You can’t sit at your computer, hammer away and hope for the best. Without knowing what you’re trying to achieve, you’re never going to achieve anything. You need to set goals, both big and small and more times than not, the smaller ones are by far the most important.

If you set yourself the goal of writing a 70,000 word novel in 6 months while working full time you probably wouldn’t write a word. The thought of it is too overwhelming. But if you set that God awful, daunting task into a series of mini goals, it’s not only achievable, it’s surprisingly easy.

70,000 words in 6 months
That’s 11,600 words per month
That’s 3,000 words per week
That’s 416 words per day

416 words per day!

If you can’t commit to 416 words per day, then you have no business being a writer. Sorry, it’s best you know now, go do something that’s fun and sociable. You can’t do anything with any sort of speed without knowing what it is you’re trying to achieve. So set yourself goals.

The blank page can be intimidating but knowing what your story is before you write makes the page easier to fill. Write outlines. I wouldn’t write a shopping list without an outline. Start small and write your story in one line. If you can’t tell it in 20 words, you’re going to struggle getting it into 50,000 words. Go from a one liner to a paragraph, to a one pager, five pager, ten pager and finally a scene breakdown (not every writer works this way, but I find it helps when working with complex plots). Working with small documents saves you from writing scenes that you may not need.

You might be as insightful as Richard Yates or as beautifully brutal as James Ellroy, but you will never know it unless you have the discipline to give the world the middle finger, plant yourself in front of the computer and commit your words to the page.

Writers write and the writers who don’t are not. A writer works at their craft every single day, whether it’s for half an hour on the train or ten hours at a desk. Instead of watching TV, write. Instead of going on a date, write. I don’t care if there’s a bomb on the bus and if it drops below 50 mph the bomb will go off, write. Because they’re the types of sacrifices you need to make to the God of words if you are to write long form fiction.

The image of drunken and drugged writers indulging in vices to make deadlines is a cliche that is sometimes not far from the truth. I recommend fistfuls of codine for down and dirty, fast writing. Booze is another issue. I always end up drinking more than I write and no matter how much I try to pretend that drinking half a bottle of Jameson’s and listening to Guns n Roses is writing, it just isn’t. Booze and pills may get you through a heavy weekend but it’s not sustainable in the long run when you need to produce hundreds of thousands of words each year. So reach your daily word count, then get hammered.

To write fast, set a goal. Know your story before you start writing. Outline the hell out of it and don’t leave your desk/computer/office or cafe until those words are on the page. It’s that extra hour, day or week that makes all the difference.

The Retreat Hotel
8.23 PM
7/10/2012