Unexpected Break! Everyone Panic!

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Due to some Unexpected Serious Real Life Stuff that needs dealing with, I’m taking a two week break from blogging, starting now. I’ll be back on the 29th, just before New Year’s, to harangue you all into making writing a part of your resolutions, but until then, keep you word counts up. I don’t want any slacking while I’m not here. Don’t make me assign you busy work like a grade school teacher about to step outside for a surreptitious cigarette behind the wood shop.

In the meantime, read some of the archives, work on whatever project you have going on, and enjoy the veritable rain of junk food that heralds this time of year. No, no, don’t cry. You’ll be fine.

I’m out.

Scaling Back: When Too Little Is Just Enough

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I am not nearly this cute when I nap. Though I am often covered in cats.

I recently developed a Health Thing which means that I have to get more rest. Not ‘should’ get more; there’s very little I can do about it when the fatigue strikes except try not to fall asleep at my desk*. I can go from ‘totally fucking awake’ to ‘holy shit, no one has ever been this tired, where’s the cocaine, I have to—Zzzzzz’ in eight seconds flat. Aside from possibly being some kind of record, this means that I’ve had to alter my habits.

Like writing. I can no longer write my standard 2000-2500 words a day because, in addition to writing, I still have other things that have to get done. Like showering. And errands. And doctor’s appointments.

I’ll admit, I tried to bull through at first. I’m not known for my tractability, and as far as I was concerned, this was just another obstacle that had to be overcome, like ‘writer’s block’ and other bullshit. If I worked hard enough, I could get through it.

Which was a lie, of course. When your body isn’t working the way it should, you can’t just power through. And trying leads to frustration, anger, and resentment, both of yourself and the project that you should love but that just seems to eat every waking second of every day.

So I scaled back.

This wasn’t easy for me. ‘Doing less’ has always sounded suspiciously close to ‘giving up’ to me, because I am the Queen Bitch of Overachievers. That’s probably why I spent those first few weeks alternately giving myself pep talks and hating myself for not being able to follow through on them because my body, selfish cunt that it is, demanded sleep above all things.

If I’d had access to meth, I probably would have had a go. Just sayin’.

But, finding myself tired, angry, and meth-less, I had to try something else.

I made the choice to scale back my writing day. My daily word count is now 1000 words instead of 2000. And, lo and behold, it’s given me back my day. Now I can get the other stuff done. And, more importantly, I look forward to those 1000 words again. They’re not a boulder I’m rolling uphill. They get done, and I’m happy with them. You know, most of the time.

Writing is fun again.

So, this is your permission slip from me to your psyche or whatever overworked neurotic part of you can’t let go when it needs to: doing less is better than doing nothing. Sometimes it’s just what you need. And that’s okay.

…I’m gonna go take another nap. Later, word-nerds.

*Converted to a sitting desk instead of my more usual standing desk for the duration. I miss you, standing desk.

Holiday Writing Challenge: With Bells On

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This year, we’re going to ask Santa for faces.

It’s only just past the first week of December and already the Seasonal Madness is upon us. Parties fill the nights. Gift-wrapping, baking, and fielding endless calls from family about how you’re not coming home again this year, do you not love us, seriously, you’re breaking your mother’s heart fill the days. Even if you stolidly ignore the holidays every year, you still get caught up in it, because everywhere you go, it’s right in your face.

Do not take this to mean that I do not like the holidays. I love this time of year. But let’s face it: it comes with a price.

For example, with two parties down and another still on the horizon, my house looks like Christmas threw up in here. There are still empty glasses on some of the flat surfaces from Saturday night. The cats keep dragging shreds of wrapping paper from under the couch.

But, instead of cleaning up, I’m sitting down at my desk to write. Because I am a writer, god damn it. Even when I’m busy.

So, in the spirit of the season, I bring you the Holiday Writing Challenge:

This holiday season, in the midst of all the parties and the shopping and the businesses with weird closing hours…make some time to write. 

I know, I know: you’re already stretched to your limits and here I am asking you to do something else. What a fucking asshole, right? Santa’s going to bring me nothing but coal and flaming paper bags full of dog crap.*

But here’s the thing: if you don’t make the time, it’s going to be damn hard to come back to it in January.

Besides, making some time for something you love will help you keep your cool during the insanity that is the holiday season. Whether you celebrate or not, there’s no denying the sheer amount of bat-crap crazy that descends from the winter sky like poison snow. I love the holidays, but people are fucking nuts. Give yourself some mental space by losing yourself in your story for an hour and you might make it to January without bashing someone over the head with a plastic Nativity scene.

Also, all that start over BS for the New Year is a waste. If you’re going to start over, then why wait? If it’s something you really want, then why not do it on December the 22nd? Then not only do you get a head start on all the other people who will no doubt be bombarding your Facebook with their pledges to finally finish that damn novel, you can celebrate by gorging yourself on half-eaten boxes of chocolates on Boxing Day. Win-win.

I’m not saying to skip all the parties or to lock yourself in your house with nothing but shelf-stable eggnog and fruitcake so you can write. But carve out half an hour or an hour here and there. Have one less drink at the party so you can get up earlier the next morning. Skip It’s A Wonderful Life** because you’ve already seen it a thousand goddamn times and work on the next chapter. Find a little time for yourself, and for your story.

And if you want to pour a little Christmas cheer into your coffee while you do it, well, I won’t tell anyone.

*Santa is apparently in junior high for the purposes of this sentence.

**I hate this movie, so it’s no difficulty for me. Harder would be skipping a Christmas screening of Die Hard.

In Your Face: How To Stop Ignoring Your Writing

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Thank you, Encouraging Picture Frame. Now enjoy your nap on that pile of cushions.

Writing is easy to ignore. Whether it’s because it’s a solitary activity, or there’s no immediate reward for most of it, or just because it’s easier not to do it, so often the projects we start with all that hope end up languishing forgotten in your hard drive, never to be finished.

Stop that. You’ve got to finish what you start. Maybe not all of it, because even the best of us has a crappy idea now and then, but you should be finishing more than you don’t. And that starts with not ignoring your writing.

Personally, I think that writing is easy to ignore because it’s not demanding. Not the way that people and pets and work and other crap is. Even working out can be demanding: don’t do it and you start to get all jiggly/don’t sleep as well/get cranky. But writing…it’s the unobtrusive emo kid of activities. If you don’t get around to it, it’ll just slink away, muttering Morrissey lyrics under its breath. And then it’s gone.

So start paying attention to your writing. Don’t let it slide. Best way to not ignore it? Same as anything else: keep it in front of you. If you want to run regularly, you put your running shoes somewhere where you can see them all the time. Partly it’s guilt, but mostly it’s just so you don’t forget, in the hustle and bustle of your day, what it is you meant to do.

Leave whatever you’re working on in plain sight. The notebook you’re writing in, with a pen, can live comfortably on a coffee table. I think that coffee rings on the covers add a certain authenticity, but I think the same thing about scars, so use your own judgement.

Or, if you write on a computer, like so many of us, try this: set your document to open up automatically when you boot up the computer. A while back I changed my laptop’s default settings from opening up my email and Twitter accounts automatically to opening up Scrivener and Evernote. There they are, right in front of me: the project I’m working on and the giant pile of notes I’ve made for it. Harder to ignore.  Harder to pass over in favour of blearily scrolling through spoilers for Every Single Show On Earth on Twitter.

You can’t ignore what’s in your face 24/7. So put something you want to get done in front of your eyeballs. Pretty soon you’ll find the excuses fading.

And in their place? More writing.

Things To Do When You Finish A Novel*

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Writers do it old school.

1. Get Your Cake On. You finished a book. That’s a big deal. It might be a sucky book right now, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about editing later, after the post-coital glow has faded. For now, celebrate.

I used to be really bad at this. I’d finish a manuscript and not tell anyone, and if they found out, pretend it was no big deal. I have no idea why I used to pull this crap, but it wasn’t helpful. Acting like it wasn’t worth celebrating made damn sure it wasn’t, and didn’t make me feel good about getting further than 99% of the wannabe writers out there. Which made it harder to do again. Don’t worry; eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and scored some Scotch to celebrate. However you do it—cake, dinner, wine, that thing with the chains and the feathers—mark the occasion. You can get back to the grind tomorrow.

2. Take A Break. At least from that story. Working on something else—particularly something small, like an essay or a short story—is a palette cleanser for your brain. Then you can come back to that first draft with fresh eyes and a clean brain, ready to fix the hell out of it.

Of course, sometimes you can’t take a break. Deadlines exist. In that case, feel free to skip this suggestion and do the first one twice. Twice the cake! Twice the scotch! Twice the chains and feathers!

3. Get Back In The Saddle. Sooner or later, that first draft you churned out is going to need editing. Wait until the idea doesn’t fill you with dread if you can. Then you can look at the inevitable mistakes, wrong turns, and general WTF-ness with more equanimity and less bowel-loosening horror. Relax. It’s not that big a deal. You can fix it. In fact, keep repeating that to yourself over and over again: I can fix this. It will help. If it doesn’t…well, there’s always the leftover Scotch from step one.

Who out there has a finished novel now that November is over? Who’s still working? Who has given up in a flurry of despair and soggy Kleenex? I’m firmly in Category Two**: still motoring along with my eyes on a January-February finish date, but I’m keeping Category Three open!

So: where you at?

*Note for those of you fresh off NaNoWriMo: finishing NaNo is not necessarily finishing a novel, unless your novel happens to be 50,000 words. If it is, cool. If it’s not, I’d advise continuing to work until such a time as you can definitively type The End and mean it. Stopping in the middle just because you hit 50,000 is a great way to accumulate a pile of unfinished manuscripts.

**At least two levels below my Kaiju Rating.

Protagonists I Would Like To Put In A Sack And Drown*

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Goddamn it, Jacob, stop hugging me so I can go unleash a plague or some shit.

1. The Earth Angel. So fucking perfect all the fucking time, until you just want to smash their imaginary face in. This character is sometimes known as the Mary Sue, but that’s fucking sexist and also ignores the term’s origins in fan fiction. So I’m going with Earth Angel, because this character, whether male, female, another gender, or entirely genderless, is so goddamn perfect that they stop the story dead in its tracks. Nothing ever happens that they can’t fix perfectly, with no consequences or fucking it up or accidental deaths or anything. Snore.

2. The Psychopath. Dead, emotionless, usually bad-ass, and completely in control. I don’t know how this became a thing—though I’m looking hard in your direction, American Psycho—but it is creepy as hell. If your protagonist relentlessly mows down others in order to get their own way, then I’m probably rooting for the villain.

This doesn’t mean characters can’t be selfish. Selfishness is part of being human, and a healthy amount of self-interest drives characters to make interestingly poor choices. But a dead-eyed hustler who uses other people as a means to an end and then discards them without a second thought? Someone put a scorpion in their Armani jacket, will you?

3. The Lump. Need a character who does something? Look elsewhere. This often-found problematic protagonist never actually does anything. Instead, they’re relentlessly shoved around the story by other characters, like a leaf on storm-force winds. They might as well be a camera lens for the reader to see the story, an dispassionate observer of the events. The good news is their dead weight will be enough to drag the Sack of Crappy Protagonists into the briny depths.

4. The Emo Sad-Bag. We get it. You’re fucked up. You hurt. But, for the love of Christ’s most holy butthole, do you have to keep talking about it? Or thinking about it? Or generally sitting around like a mopey sack of crap, looking in mirrors and sighing wistfully?

Into the sack. Try not to drown in your own bravely-held-back tears before we get to the shore.

5. The Idiot. I cannot deal with stupid protagonists. Short-sighted is fine; bright but not as smart as they think they are is even better. But genuinely stupid, to the point of making bad choices for no goddamn reason at all other than the author needed a way to move the plot along? Get in the sa—actually. You don’t go in the sack. The lazy author who created you goes in the sack.

What about you? What protagonists can you not abide?

*As always, your mileage may vary. Someone out there must love psychopath characters, or they wouldn’t keep getting written.

Fast Versus Slow: Picking A Writing Speed

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Mm, writer brains.

The eternal debate: fast versus slow. Whether you’re talking about zombies, sex, or writing, everyone’s got an opinion.* Some love the heady, breakneck pace of an out-of-control zero draft, feeling the rush as they careen toward the finish line like a drunk chimp behind the wheel of a tank. Others prefer a slower, more considered pace, choosing words with exact care and placing them with all the deliberation and delicacy of a obsessive-compulsive Faberge egg maker.** So, which way is better? Which way will lead you to novel-finishing glory? Which way will gain you legions of minions fans and AN ARMY WHICH BLACKENS THE EARTH ON WHICH IT WALKS?

I don’t know.

Kind of anti-climactic. Much like the vast majority of arguments about sex.

The thing is, as I’ve said before, no one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how they write. And even then, it tends to be a homogenized version, as if every day at precisely nine am they sit down with their cup of monkey brains and a freshly-sharpened femur to begin the daily process of scratching out exactly 1000 words. Or 5000, or 500, or 329. I do this, too—the glossing-over, not the femur thing—and it’s just because it’s easier to explain that way. Also, no one wants to listen to an endless daily recitation of how each writing session varies. Or, if they do, presumably they’re already on Twitter where writers like me bitch/snivel/cheer/hoot triumphantly as we live-tweet our days into the void.

There are benefits to writing fast and there are benefits to writing slow. Write fast and you’ll finish fast, but you’re probably going to spend more time editing because THERE IS NO TIME FOR EDITS IN THE THUNDERDOME. Write slow and you’ll probably get something more polished, but you run the risk of never finishing at all and falling prey to the most boring type of creative endeavour, Describing Reasons You Can’t Write.

Which works for you on which day will depend on the following:

-Writing style

-How much planning you did before you started writing

-How much you already know about your story

-How much editing you want to do

-How easily you get bored

-Lifestyle and available writing time

-Caffeine levels

-Blood type

-Star sign

-Number of episodes left of that show you’ve been binge-watching

-Presence of spouse, kids, roommates, a social life, and other things that can take away from writing

-What the hell you feel like doing at the moment when you sit down to write

Through this highly scientific list, you can tell that it all depends.

The only way to find out which one works for you is to try stuff, and note which methods work for you. Try writing an entire chapter in a day, or a single page in a weekend. See which result you like better.

And then be prepared for it to change at any moment, because writing is a bitch like that.

* I would in fact argue that the zombie arguers are more vehement than the sex arguers. Or maybe it’s just that the former can shout their opinions in a crowded restaurant without getting kicked out.

**Presumably, Fabrege.