My Biggest Mistake Was Writing A Book.
Although I should qualify that statement: my mistake was attempting to write a book from start to finish, in reading order, from page 1 to 500. I started with the opening chapter, I wrote every chapter in sequence, I edited it while I wrote, I bumped into obstacles that totally destroyed the pace, I kept pounding my head against the walls of the scenes that just wouldn’t come out of my mind, I got stuck in frustration on finishing an unwilling chapter before I could start on the next, and I exhausted myself before I finished.
And then I found out that the second storyline sucked and had to be removed, leaving only one side of a zipper without a corresponding side that could be zipped together into a coherent story. So I wrote another storyline that had to be inserted into the existing storyline.
The result was a lumpy, lopsided mess that brought me to despair. And since I’m an autodidact writing suspense fiction in my second language, I had no peers around.
Then I found a writing website, now sadly gone, called Thoughtcafe, where I found my peers. People who read my stuff, told me it was incredible and worthy of all the attention I could muster to polish out the lumps and make it run smoothly like the zipper was oiled with eel’s snot.
My second novel practically wrote itself. I didn’t give a shit anymore about the order in which to write, I wrote the draft for myself without any regard for punctuation, grammar, and spelling, and I kept my inner editor locked away in a dungeon until I finished the whole rough draft.
Only after I wrote the draft of the entire novel did I sit back and reread it while highlighting problem areas and adding notes on how to fix the flaws.
Which is why I always tell beginning writers: ‘Don’t Write a Book, but a Draft‘. Write the scenes in random order, assemble them in a sequence that pleases you, see what’s missing and fill that in until the story flows, then get your editor to help you iron out the wrinkles.
The first draft is ‘For Your Eyes Only, Only For You’. Not to be shown to anyone else until you turned it into a manuscript, which will be read by your betas and editor, who will provide you with feedback to improve the manuscript into something publishable.
But the writing part? That’s yours, and nobody should touch that.
I don’t recognise myself in the ‘struggles’ of my peers, who complain about blocks or not knowing what to write, or the arduous task of editing. I also don’t get bored or disgusted with re-reading my own work for the umpteenth time.
I’m convinced that just because you want to do something, it doesn’t mean you will be good at it. Not everyone has aptitude for writing. Face it, if it was actually that easy, then everybody could be a writer. And despite what people might say to encourage those who are floundering, not everybody can become a writer.
Nobody who knows how to cut a turkey develops ambitions to become a surgeon, but somehow people who got a B+ on an essay in school imagines they could become a writer. Just being facile with words doesn’t make you fit to become a novelist. Stringing words together in a sensible sentence is not an indication for future professional prose.
To become an actual writer requires a confluence of several different talents to come together. And knowing how to write is actually quite low on the totem pole. Your ability to spin stories is much more important, as is your understanding of humanity – psychology, anthropology, psychopathology, interaction, communication. Observation is a crucial skill, as is curiosity. And having the ability to adopt a unique perspective also goes a long way towards being a writer.
If these skills/talents are missing from your palette, you will struggle. And because you don’t know any different, you will assert that writing is this onerous task, a steep uphill battle to put one word after another. While, in fact, you might have committed to a task that is not totally suited for your skill set. While this sounds like a ‘Know Your Limitations’ answer, take heart. You can learn these other skills, and there is no shame in battling uphill to write your book. It’s damn courageous, and I mean that.
And while a talent for writing often goes together with aptitude for the art, the published writer is not always the one with the most aptitude, but the one who perseveres. Perseverance can trump aptitude, easily.
*My disability has been terminated, by the way, sending my marketing budget all the way down beyond zero. So now, I’m relying even more on you, my readers, to do what I cannot do – tell others that you liked my books and help spread the word that my books are worth reading.
I thank you for your support.
“Do you outline your novels beforehand, or allow the story to take you where it wants to go?”
Popular opinion tends to divide Novelists into two camps: the Outliners and the Pantsers.
- The Outliners are this anal bunch who take an almost mathematical approach to the novel, writing down the number of chapters and a synopsis of exactly what will happen to whom in what order. And they rigidly adhere to their Holy Outline, or Hell and Damnation will follow them into a pauper’s grave.
- The Pantsers are this hippy trippy bunch who belief that Inspiration is the Holy Grail and that any attempt to harness the Flights of Fancy will result is stale, dull, utterly formulaic Hack Writing that is devoid of the Literary Liberalism that will elevate their prose to the Zenith of Literature.
Truth is, they’re both wrong. Writing a novel is work. Like all work, there are some structural necessities – for instance, you need to write, and if possible you have to write every day. Then someone from the Peanut Gallery will shout ‘You have to set yourself a word count goal!’. Yep, works for some, not for everybody. Just like deadlines get some people off their asses and paralyses other people.
The writers who have written novels can agree with me that the words sometimes flow and sometimes dribble. Distraction can help, but can lead to procrastination. Some turn off all distraction to force the brain into creativity, but that can also lead to despair and alcoholism and drug abuse.
Creative processes can go through phases – like the cycles of a werewolf, or the passing of the seasons. Changing habits can work – people who tend to Outline start to plan less and all for more improvisation, people who write by the seat of their pants realise that structure is not always a bad thing…
Most writers fall somewhere in the middle.
I soaked up a lot about structuring novels through osmosis by reading lots of great books. But my greatest revelation in the art of writing came through the art of sword fighting.
I started writing at a moment in my life when I was sick of the life I was leading, and it was pretty clear that I would die a violent death if I continued down the path I was taking. So I turned away from that path, but I had certain issues that needed channeling into positive activities: martial arts and writing.
I’m never one for taking the easy road. When I chose a martial art, I didn’t chose a martial art that would capitalise on my strengths, like my long reach, strength and resilience, but I chose aikido, which required grace and technique and to use the other person’s strength without using more strength than absolutely necessary. When I chose to write, I didn’t start off with a creating writing course and short stories, but I dove straight into my first novel.
But what did kenjutsu teach me about writing?
Unlike modern kendo, where there’s a sporting element with competition and scoring points by hitting locations on a harness, kenjutsu teaches how to handle a live blade by performing kata with heavy wooden swords (bokken) and no protection.
I was taught postures. Sword in the high position, sword in the low position. There were no explanations, just a series of positions flowing from one into the next. Well, when I say flowing, it was more stumbling. And my teacher would walk around and mold my body into the correct posture, without explaining what was wrong with my previous position. In the beginning I had to do it slow and trust my opponent to light touch his wooden sword to the crown of my head before I moved into the next position and ‘attacked’ him, where he’d wait for the tip of my sword to touch him before he moved. When the structure became familiar, we would move faster and our teacher would comment on how sloppy we became and to do it slower and correct before we moved faster.
And still, no explanation was given. Just more structure, more rules, more positions, but the why and wherefore were absent. Then, when I was taught the third kata, after two years of training, my teacher explained to me why I did certain positions in the first kata, so that now I understood. And with this understanding, my performance of the first kata improved beyond what I had expected. I was enthusiastic, so when I was training with new students, I started to explain to them why they were certain things in the first kata. And my teacher took me aside and told me to shut up. He explained to me that the information was only given after I put my time in. After I showed that I could do something without asking all the time what the hell I was doing. By showing fortitude and polishing my technique until i was ready for the information.
Because receiving the information during the learning of the first kata would’ve muddled my progress. I would’ve been thinking instead of doing. I wasn’t ready for the information, I had to put my time in.
Writing is similar. When I started writing my first novel, I wrote a novel, not a draft. I worked on my first chapter until it was perfect. If it wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t move on to the next scene or chapter. Writing my novel became an exhaustive slog. And when I was finished, I realised that I had put together two storylines of which one was great, but the other sucked. So I had to take out that whole storyline and put in another one, like trying to match two different zippers together. Sometimes I despaired, but I hung in there and managed to turn that mess into a novel. Working on that first novel and all the mistakes I made were my school – the endless rewriting and editing taught me how to polish something until it shone.
By the time you learn the fourth kata in kenjutsu, the teacher no longer has to look at your footwork. You can wear the hakama that hides your legs beneath flowing robes, because the teacher knows that your stances are solid and your steps measure the appropriate distance.
When you finished that first novel, and you tackle that second novel, you know the pitfalls of either Outlining into Mathematical Precision or Pantsing like Improvisation is Key. When I began on my second novel, I knew what I needed and how to get it and I wrote down one scene after another, not stopping until I finished the first draft. Because I had learned not to write a novel, but to write a draft. A draft is like the four hours of film a director has when he enters the cutting room and the producers expect him to exit the cutting room with a consistent story of 90-120 minutes.
And your process changes again, because you stop being dependent on structure. When you train in kenjutsu, you reach a point just before your black belt level, where you start to let go. You are not actively thinking or repeating anymore, but the sword becomes an extension of your arm and you can feel through your sword and everything flows together – technique, timing, distance – and you look at your opponent who is not there yet and they are sweating and making mistakes and correcting mistakes and spending lots of energy, while you become so efficient that you only move when necessary and not a moment too soon, nor a step too far. And you look at them and you can see that they’ve almost reached that moment too and you know how happy they’ll be that they hung in there and didn’t search for the shortcut.
Because there isn’t one.
I write drafts that are just a string of scenes that I will transform into a novel when I take them into the cutting room. There is no Holy Outline, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure – I can clearly see the storyline to which the scenes will be hung like pearls onto a silver string. I’m not Pantsing, because I can trust in my ability to come up with the correct scene from the right perspective. And I don’t have to rewrite most of my work, because I become more and more attuned to composing in my head and writing down my sentences without tripping over my thoughts and stumbling into a garbled mess.
I’ve published four novels and four short stories in my Amsterdam Assassin Series – a total of some 600,000 words, but I easily wrote ten times that many words. I put in my time, and these are my rewards.
There are no shortcuts. You can sit at the foot of masters and study their books and adhere to all those rules that are taught in all those creative writing classes, but it’s like learning how to cobble together a pair of shoes from a Youtube video. You have the knowledge, but not the experience. And it’s experience that counts here. The experience of mucking your way through your first draft and finishing that first draft and realising that you have finished a book-length story, and despairing that it isn’t good enough and agonising over the manuscript and rewriting and editing the monster until you tame it into a novel.
Sure, I can give you some tips. Like: ‘Don’t write a novel, write a draft’. Don’t worry about the rules and the grammar and whether everything fits together, just get it all down. Make it 150,000 words, because once you drag that beast into the cutting room, that draft will lose all that extra weight until the lumbering beast has become lean and hungry and ready to feed on the brains of the readers.
And by that time, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether someone outlines or improvises, as long as the process has the desired results – a solid draft that can be polished into a publishable novel.
Too many would-be writers allow themselves to be held back by ‘rules’ like ‘Write about what you know’.
If authors would only write about things they’ve experienced, there would be no science fiction; authors would only write from the perspective of characters of their own gender, race, and age or younger; there would be no books from the perspectives of rabbits (like Watership Down) or other animals; all books would be set in the same location the authors have lived in; all novels would feature contemporary times; et cetera.
I’m a white male in his late forties, married with two young children, and write suspense fiction about and/or from the perspectives of:
- a Dutch white female freelance assassin, specialised in disguising homicide and close quarters combat
- a Dutch white male blind jazz musician, strategist, and martial artist,
- a Jamaican black male Rastarian session musician who grows cannabis,
- an American white female DEA agent with a drinking problem,
- an American black male DEA agent living in the Netherlands
- a Colombian male DEA undercover agent,
- a Dutch white male biker,
- a Chinese blind man in his late seventies,
- a Dutch female lesbian sculptor,
- a Chinese deaf-mute enforcer for a triad,
- a Japanese male Yakuza posing as a club owner and martial arts instructor,
- a Japanese male undercover agent for the DEA,
- a Canadian female professor of music,
- a French party girl caught in a stifling marriage,
- a Dutch legless biker running a bar,
- a Dutch nomadic pickpocket caught in a web of lies,
And that is not all of my characters, just the major ones.
While I do write a lot of stuff from personal experience, I write about shooting guns while being fired at (I handled a variety of handguns at a shooting range, but I’ve only been shot at by Nerf guns); sustaining gunshot wounds and fleeing from the law; being blind and playing saxophone in a full jazz club; dying from drowning in my car at the hands of an assassin; dying from being stabbed in the throat and suffocating on my own blood; being a woman and having sex with a man; detonating a bomb in a parking lot across the water; being interrogated while spreadeagled naked on a bed and tied to the bedposts; being force-fed whisky while held motionless in a vacuum bed; et cetera.
I could go on, but it’s clear that most writers have to write about stuff they haven’t experienced in person. That’s why it’s called fiction. Writers imagine stories and make them as close to the truth as possible, and readers immerse themselves in stories that gives them experiences they could never have, on worlds that may or may not exist.
There’s a necessity on the part of the reader called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’, where the reader will believe what the writer tells them, as long as the writer fills the story with the verisimilitude necessary to keep believing. The reader has never flown a dragon, but when the writer writes about the main character flying a dragon, the reader imagines themselves astride the broad neck, inhaling the dragon’s sooty exhalations, feeling the smooth scales under their buttocks, the wind rushing through their hair, and the exuberance of flying unprotected miles above the earth through cold clouds that leave a sheen of water pearls on their leather jacket.
But it’s a tough job getting readers to keep their disbelief suspended. One wrong word, one author intrusion, one mistake, and the whole illusion comes crashing down and the book gets tossed in the waste bin. That’s why good writers treated with such high regard for their ability to enthral with mere words.
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I was asked on Quora: “What is your personal method for finding short stories ideas?” and this was my response:
BONEBAG by Martyn V. HalmTalons digging deep in her bony shoulder jerked Ange from pleasant dreams into cold dark reality. Muted green numerals floated in the dark bedroom to inform her that it was a quarter past two in the morning. Angrily she reached up, pried the fingers from her shoulder and turned to face her lover.“Christ, Carla! It’s two in the morning, what the…”A skittering sound in the kitchen made her swallow the rest of her tirade. Ange sat up and listened. The neon sign of the bar downstairs sprang on, blue light washing over the bedroom walls and the pale blob of Carla’s face, her dark eyes wide with fear.Soft paws skittered along the length of the kitchen floor, followed by big paws that scrabbled for a hold. Ange could hear the claws gouge the linoleum floor as the cat wheeled around in pursuit of some ignorant rodent that had entered their apartment by mistake.“That’s Felicia,” Carla whispered in a high strangled voice. “Your cat got something…”Ange cocked her head. “Not yet. But she will in a minute. Now, can we go back to sleep? I have to be up at—”“No, Ange.” Carla’s warm damp hand fell on her thigh and she could smell the sour smell of sleep on her breath. “Please, you got to do something.”“Go to sleep.” Ange slipped back under the warm eiderdown, pulled the covers over her head as she turned on her side.On the other side of the wall steel clanked against steel. Felicia’s food bowls. Apparently the pursuit had progressed into the bathroom.“Ange!” Carla tugged her shoulder. “You know what she did last time!”A couple of weeks back Felicia killed a mouse, opened the tiny rodent from throat to anus, and deposited the mutilated corpse on the floor in front of the bed, in obeisance to her mistress. Carla, who usually slept in, had the misfortune to get out of bed early. Still half asleep she put her foot in the gored mouse, her toes squishing into the juicy carcass. Yelling the whole apartment building awake, Carla had hopped on one leg to the bathroom and vomited all over the toilet seat while she removed the rodent’s entrails from between her toes.“Just look where you put your big feet tomorrow,” Ange mumbled chagrined and turned on her side again. “And try to project your vomit into the bowl this time.”“You know I can’t help it!” Carla took a deep shuddering breath. “Dead animals upset me.”Upset was a mild term for the phobic revulsion Carla exhibited when confronted with a flattened hedgehog or a fish floating belly‑up. Her irrational hysterics spoiled walks along the beach and trips through the countryside. It put a damper on a pleasant walk in the woods when you had to hold your lover’s hair out of her face while she puked another meal behind a tree.And still…What bothered Ange was the suspicion that Carla’s abhorrence was mixed with fascination. Why else would her eyes scan the asphalt for roadkill? Or make Carla stand transfixed at the sight of gulls hacking an unfortunate crawfish to pieces? A slaughtered mouse in the house would keep her up till dawn.And Ange with her.“What the fuck do you want?” Ange turned around to face Carla. “You want me to help Felicia kill the stupid bugger? Is that what you want?”“Just end its suffering.”Ange whipped the eiderdown away. “I’ll make it suffer all right.”The bedroom window was partially open and she was freezing her scrawny butt off, the cold waking her up completely. The neon sign flashed again, outlining her body in an almost pornographic blue nimbus reflected in the mirror in the corner of the room.Where her parents found the audacity to call her Angelique was beyond her, for her appearance was anything but angelic. Her slanted green eyes narrowed as she viewed her reflection. Her thin frame with the pointed breasts, pelvic bones jutting out from her hips like handlebars, limbs strangely angular and bird‑like. She looked like she belonged in an enchanted forest, a malevolent pixie leading unwary travellers astray.No wonder her nickname at school had been Bonebag.The sign winked out again and Ange shivered as her feet touched the cold linoleum. She hurried across the kitchen floor and entered the bathroom.After she closed the door behind her to keep the mouse in, she pulled the switch cord and shielded her eyes. The fluorescent strip light over the bathroom mirror flickered twice, then burned steadily, humming like an angry mosquito.Felicia hunkered by the cabinet under the washbasin, her tail swishing from side to side. The cat didn’t even glance up at the light, her yellow eyes glued to the tiny creature hiding under the cabinet.With her foot, Ange shoved the cat aside, but Felicia skirted behind her heels and took up guard at a different angle as Ange grabbed the sides of the cabinet and lifted it of the floor.The mouse—startled by the rude disappearance of its shelter—spurted away, a small brown shape streaking across the floor for the back of the toilet bowl.Felicia pounced and looked confused.Ange noticed the trembling mouse behind the mop. Small fella, this time. An inch and a half at most, its tail three times the length of its body. Ange grinned, took the handle of the mop and shook it. She could see why Felicia liked this game so much.The mouse didn’t like the game at all and fled into the shower stall. The rodent realised its mistake too late, for there was nothing to hide behind in the pristine cubicle. And the holes in the drain were too small to pass through, even for a tiny mouse like this one.The petrified mouse cowered in a corner, while Felicia stalked it at leisure, her furry belly low to the ground, clearly savouring the moment. The mouse stared in the cat’s menacing yellow eyes, captivated like a rabbit in the bright light of a poacher. With her furry chin lowered to the tiled floor, Felicia stretched forth a tentative paw and nudged the mouse as if trying to spurn it into action. The mouse scurried back into the corner, reared up on its haunches and froze. Even the whiskers and the nose stopped moving. Its beady eyes, shiny with fear, glazed over. The mouse wasn’t petrified anymore. In mortal fear, its little rodent heart couldn’t handle the stress and stopped pumping.Scared to death.Felicia tilted her furry head. Surprised by the unexpected demise of her prey, the cat sat up and eyed the motionless rodent warily, her quivering ears twisting back and forth. With blinding swiftness, the cat lashed out. Her stiff paw whacked the mouse like a golf club and made the stiff rodent skid the entire length of the shower stall, until its diminutive corpse came to rest upended against the wall. Felicia uncoiled and pounced, coming in for the unnecessary slaughter.Ange held the cat back by the scruff of her neck and picked up the stiffening mouse by its long tail to study the tiny creature. Its eyes—small black nodules bulging from the springy grey‑brown fur—were dull and lifeless. A tiny circle of blood had formed around the left nostril. Its slightly parted jaws revealed small yellow incisors. The tiny front paws were raised to its tiny chest like a dog begging for a morsel.Ange opened the bathroom window to throw the corpse into the dark gardens three stories down. Felicia jumped on the toilet seat, her yellow eyes riveted on the dead mouse. Ange grabbed her cat by the neck and they both looked at the tiny dead creature swinging in the cold November air.“Ange?”She didn’t drop the mouse, but pulled back her arm and closed the window.“Ange?”Ange opened the bathroom door, noted the soft yellow light of the reading lamp over the bed shining into the dark hallway. The bedroom looked warm and cozy and here she was standing cold and naked in the freezing bathroom. All because of that stupid bitch and her necrophobia.“What is it?” she yelled back.“Is it… dead?”Ange looked at the tiny corpse dangling from her fingertips. “You can say that.”“Don’t forget to wash your hands, okay?”Jesus H. Christ. Why had she ever shacked up with the stupid cow? She could have been lying in her warm bed. Felicia could have enjoyed her kill. Holding the mouse aloft in her right hand, Ange turned on the tap with her left and looked at her face in the bathroom mirror. The corners of her mouth, her most distinctive feminine feature, were turned down. She touched her full lips, so out of place in her narrow face. Stroked the sensitive skin, the tiny corpse in her other hand momentarily forgotten.Felicia meowed and swatted the air under the swinging mouse.Ange had a mind to take the mouse back into the bedroom and ask Carla to check if the tiny rodent had really kicked the bucket. An impish glitter filled the green eyes looking back at her from the mirror and her wide mouth curled into a wicked grin.She took the fragile corpse between her fingers, felt the bones under her fingers. A little bonebag. Ange opened her mouth and placed the mouse inside, facing out. Tilted forward on her tongue, the tiny paws and the small furry head stuck out over the lower hedge of her white teeth. It looked like the mouse lived in her head and her mouth was its balcony. Staring into the eyes of her reflection, Ange closed her mouth gently to keep the little corpse in position. To keep the inside of her lips from touching the mouse, she had to pout lasciviously. Ange turned off the tap, switched off the light and left the bathroom. Her step was light as she padded to the pool of light in the bedroom.Felicia followed closely, rubbed her furry body against her moving legs.Carla sat in the middle of the bed, hugging Ange’s pillow against her breasts. Her dark eyes searched her face.Ange stopped at the foot of the bed and kneeled on the eiderdown, pinning Carla’s legs under the covers. With a seductive smile around her pouting lips, she came slowly forward over the bed, supporting herself on her hands, trapping her lover under the eiderdown.“Did you throw it out of the window? I heard—”Ange shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on Carla’s.“No?” Carla looked worried. “You didn’t throw it in the trashcan, did you? I can’t…”Ange leant forward and opened her mouth, arched her tongue under the small paws and moved the mouse up and down behind her teeth.Carla blinked and focused on the dead mouse wobbling in her lover’s mouth. Her huge dark eyes widened in horror and she backed away until her back was against the wall. Ange closed her mouth, rocked back on her heels, pointed at her throat and swallowed thickly.Carla’s eyes filled with revulsion and she broke away, threw herself off the bed. She bounced hard with her elbows on the carpet as she tumbled in a heap on the ground. Loud retching noises came from her mouth as she grabbed the door frame to support herself as she stumbled off to the bathroom.Ange rose from the bed, opened the bedroom window and spat the tiny rodent corpse into darkness. The dead mouse dropped three stories and landed with an audible thud on the sidewalk. She hawked up a gob of saliva and spat into the blue neon night.Wiping her mouth, Ange climbed back into the warm bed. She thumped the pillow back into shape, turned off the light and listened to Carla vomiting in the bathroom, then smiled to herself and pulled the warm eiderdown over her head.Copyright: Martyn V. Halm. All Rights Reserved.
Now, I came up with the idea for this story because three things about this story are real experiences:
- My mother has extreme necrophobia, like Carla in the story. Her revulsion to dead animals borders on hysteria and used to make me extremely angry at her when she would scream like she’d broken her hip when it was just the cat bringing home a dead bird.
- I once got out of bed and stepped into an opened carcass of a mouse, lovingly laid out by my cat. I wasn’t revolted, like Carla, because I recognised that the cat gave me a gift. I was her master, so she gave me an offering. I praised my cat and pretended to eat the mouse, then – when she wasn’t looking – I tossed the carcass out the bedroom window for scavengers in the gardens to enjoy. And I recall thinking how my mother would’ve been in hysterics if she had stepped in a dead mouse.
- And I was woken by the sounds of my cat stalking a mouse in the bathroom, where the events happened like in the story – I lifted the bathroom cabinet and the mouse fled into the shower stall, from where it couldn’t escape. It sat back on its haunches watching as my cat stalked into the shower stall, and then the mouse just died. My cat had the same response as Felicia – she was surprised and disappointed, then wanted to bat the mouse through the bathroom, but I intervened and picked up the mouse, studying it briefly before tossing it out the bathroom window.
I came to writing really late, which is weird because the signs were there for a long time – my father wrote non-fiction about nature and gardening (for several decades he wrote a weekly 3/4 page in the weekend supplement of a national newspaper on the appreciation of nature) and he used to work as an editor for a children’s publisher in the Netherlands (Ploegsma), so we had all the Ploegsma books. I was an avid and voracious reader, and a convincing storyteller, but my parents were abusive and neglectful of my talents and those of my three brothers, so we were not inspired and motivated to do something with them.