*Blows The War-horn of Announcements*

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Chapter One: A bird stole my laptop, and plans to use it to sail to Ecuador tomorrow. He won’t let me come.

Blog vacation time! I’m taking the next two weeks off from regular blogging to get a solid start on my next novel. First drafts eat my brain, so you’re not missing anything. Unless you like it when I type five hundred swear words in a row.

I’ll also be enjoying the last few weeks of summer and my birthday! So, until the Labour Day long weekend’s past, adios. Keep writing until I get back. I’ll know if you lie.

See you on the other side.

Attack of the Plot Robots: Working Backwards

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Oh God, what does it want? TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS IN AN IMPLAUSIBLE MANNER, FLESHBAGS.

So, as I mentioned Wednesday, I now have my outline. It’s very shiny, and will probably remain that way until I start writing and it gets kicked around a bit.

An important note, though, is that when I was finished my outline, I went through it again. And this time I went through it backwards.

If you’re setting up an ending, you need to make damn sure the threads of it are unwound throughout the story. Yes, even a twist ending. I’ve mentioned this before, but the ending of the story should be the inevitable outcome of the character’s actions as seen in retrospect. In other words, even if it looks like a twist at first glance, the reader should be able to look back and slap themselves in the forehead when they pick up on the clues that were scattered throughout.

One way to do this: work backwards. I knew my ending, and I knew what that ending meant. So, I had to make sure that it was set up properly: characters making certain references or acting in a particular manner; the room where it goes down has a particular type of flooring; the tradition that ends things is mentioned and seen in action much, much earlier. By doing this, the ending doesn’t come out of nowhere. It doesn’t feel forced, or like a deus ex machina.* It becomes about character choices and actions, not about hammering discrete events together into a Plot Robot.

For example, if your protagonist is going to take out the Big Bad with a previously unknown branch of magic, then don’t you think you should at least hint at the possibility of new magic before she whips out the Flaming Balls of Rh’leh, God of Social Diseases? And possibly show Protaggy McGeee experimenting with her magic before she has to try it on Big Bad? Maybe praying to Rh’leh a couple of times? Otherwise, no one’s going to buy Protaggy suddenly becoming one with Rh’leh at the moment when it is the most fucking convenient for her.

Coincidence is evidence of a badly-thought-out story. Excise it without mercy.

*No one likes a deus ex machina. I have to believe that even the gods don’t like that shit. They’re all like, “Fuck, what did you guys do this time? And now I have to save your sorry ass again? Fuck it. Pray all you want, you shit-disturbing assholes, I’m out. OUT.”

I might have missed a few points in theology class.

Why Outlining Won’t Murder Your Story

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That smile? That’s because he has a map. And a fabulous moustache.

After several years away, I am returning to hardcore outlining.

I got away from it for a while. Mostly just to try something new. I hadn’t tried to seriously write something long without one since my first writing days, and while those stories turned out to be little more than half-intelligible brain droppings smeared across a page, that might have been due more to my inexperience than the method itself.

It wasn’t.

When I write without a meaningful outline, yes, I get ideas. But there’s no framework for them to hang on, and too often they’re like fireworks: burning bright and pretty to look at, but not much damn use. And there’s a lot of them, so it takes time to sort through the mess.

So I went back to outlining and, man, what a fucking difference.

I finished the final outline for my novel the other day. It’s not a scene-for-scene layout, but it’s pretty close. It’s got every meaningful moment and every decision made by every character that influences the ending laid out.

I hear a lot from the anti-outline brigade about how outlining kills the story. They feel that outlining too tightly, as I have done, kills any sense of creativity and spontaneity. Besides, if the outline is done, why bother writing it? You already know what happens.

First of all, it’s a disservice to your creative mind to assume it’s as fragile as an anaemic butterfly. Creativity is tough, and good ideas always survive. If you story dies at the first sneeze of questioning, maybe it wasn’t strong enough to carry a whole book on its own in the first place.

Secondly, outlining is not writing. It’s not even pretending to write. It’s preparation.

Or, to look at it another way: an outline is to writing what a recipe is to cooking. A recipe is a damn useful thing, especially when you’re making something complicated. Having a good one can keep you from making huge, time-wasting mistakes. But no one would ever suggest that you could satisfy your hunger by writing a recipe for blitzes.

Now, sometimes you just want to jump in without an outline and write for the hell of it. And I still do that. But now that’s part of the prep work, too. I stack all that shit with the outline as I write it, or use them as test-drives for characters or locations or ideas. But when I sit down to do the heavy writing, I’ll have my trusty outline by my side. And the writing will go much smoother and more quickly for it.

As always, your mileage may vary. But if you’ve never tried outlining for fear of crippling some creative organ, put that fear aside as the bullshit it is and give it a go. You might just find the new thing you love.

Monday Challenge: Obey Gravity! It’s The Law!

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Standing on the ground was overrated, anyway.

Been reading more science fiction lately, mostly in the form of short stories, because 1) my attention span in shorter in the summer and 2) the best way to keep what attention remains is through spectacle. I’m pretty sure that’s the reasoning behind every summer blockbuster ever made, but since I love meaningful explosions, I’m okay with it.

In science fiction, however, especially space exploration, it’s amazing how many planets are just like ours.

Sometimes it’s explained: terraforming, the space equivalent of gentrification, goes on a lot. Other times it’s not. And I get why: you want characters that relate to the (hopefully) human audience, so your aliens need some kind of bridge to make them easier to understand or feel sympathy for. This is the premise on which the entire original series of Star Trek is built.* Go to a strangely earth-like planet, bang one of the locals, leave. Probably with space herpes.

Of course, this is a vast generalization. There’s lots of science fiction out there in which the environments—and therefore those who live in those environments—look so different as to be nearly incomprehensible. That comes with its own set of difficulties: how do you explain the body language of a species with shared bodies? What expression indicates sarcasm in a hyper-intelligent shade of the colour blue? Nevertheless, at least these attempts show that someone’s trying to explore their own imagination. They’re thought of what it would be like if something in the physical world as we know it was different.

So, now you get to as well.

Monday Challenge: Write a scene in which one of the fundamental laws of nature (gravity, the speed of light, conservation of energy, the makeup of a breathable atmosphere, whatever) is different. Maybe it was always different, maybe it just changed in the last five seconds**. Either way, find a thread of change and follow it to see where it leads.

*Well, that and the limitations of budgets and special effects in those days.

**Though if it’s breathable atmosphere that’s changed, that’s going to be a short scene.

Delightfully Tacky, Yet Unrefined: How Your Good Taste Is Killing Your Creativity

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And here’s where I’ll put the lasers.

How familiar does this sound: you start writing. You work hard, but your stuff just isn’t coming out the way you want. It doesn’t have that…special something that all the works you love, the ones that changed your life, have. Hell, it doesn’t even have that passable something of the works that you read to kill time. It’s bad. Real bad. Or, worse, boring.

You know what you like. You know what’s good. And the words have been there for fucking centuries. Not like someone came along and made a whole new vocabulary, unless you’re counting words like ‘twerk’ and ‘vajazzled’, and really, who does?

So you think: I should probably give up.

A lot of people do.

Welcome to Suckage Lane. This road becomes the final resting place for many a creative endeavour. You can see their bones scattered along the lane as you slog along. And, hey, a lot of those bones look awfully fucking familiar.

The problem, though, is not the road.

The problem is you.

Or, more accurately, your good taste.

Too much awareness of what is ‘good’ kills creativity. You know what’s good, so you think you should only be making that, whatever that is. Otherwise, what’s the point?

But “good” is something to strive for, not something you need to achieve right out of the gate or give up. Because before you can make something good, you have to be willing to fuck up. You have to be willing to do something epically bad. So fucking bad that it never sees the light of day. Otherwise, your perception of good will smother your infant creativity right in the crib.

You ever see kids doing something for the first time? They’re not concerned with good taste. More rockets, more glitter, more tentacles, more unicorns…kids will try anything to see if it works. That’s why they’re little fountains of creativity that we need to harvest for their sweet, sweet brain juice learn from.

Try some stuff. Story not working out? Be willing to try anything. Introduce a city-wide outbreak of Sudden Poop Explosion Disease. Make the main character a cyborg with a pet lemur. More stripper assassins. Something.

You might still fail. But at least you’ll go down swinging. And you never know: maybe that ridiculous, insane, utterly tasteless thing…was just what you needed to keep going.

And if it’s not, you still thought big. You went outside your comfort zone and tried some new shit. You braved Suckage Lane, and, instead of turning back, armoured yourself in the bones of your past projects.

Creativity is a weird little plant that grows its best in fucking bizarre soil. So if you’re dedicated to only making things that are ‘good’…you’ll end up only making things that are boring.

Writing By Comet-Light: The Lie Of The Right Time

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The people in 1070 realize it’s finally time to write that strawpunk bubonic plague epic.

Here is a pervasive myth of our era: I’ll start when it’s the right time.

When I can concentrate. When I feel creative. When I can devote my undivided attention to it.

And “the right time” goes on to encompass a set of demands so far-reaching and esoteric that it could be Slayer’s tour rider. When it’s Sunday. When the moon’s full. When I have a bowl of M&Ms and two bottles of Cristal and 100 white goats for sacrifice.

But the fact of existence is that the perfect time never comes along. Ever. I’ve been on the look out for a perfect time for more than thirty fucking years and I haven’t seen one yet. Maybe they only come along at great intervals, like Halley’s Comet.

And, guaranteed, there’s someone out there waiting for the next appearance of that flaming sky ball to start writing something. See you in 2061, asshole. Rest assured we’re not waiting with bated breath for whatever masterpiece you think you’ll shit out by the light of a comet.

There will never be a right time to start anything. So you might as well get off your ass and do it now.

What’s the rush, you say. I have time. What’s the hurry?

The hurry is that the reaper is on you trail, motherfucker. And you don’t know how close it is.

A little melodramatic, but it’s true. There might not be time tomorrow. Okay, it might not be death that slows you down*, but there’s always something else. Social gatherings. Jobs. Families. The siren song of bad television. The inertia of trying to start something new. 

I fall prey to this as much as anyone. For years, I put off writing because there wasn’t time. I was busy: studying, moving, doing thesis work, learning to fight, learning to be in a relationship, learning what happens when you overwork and burn out. I couldn’t possibly add another thing to that pile.

And maybe I was right. But I know that I wouldn’t have burned out so hot and so fast if I’d made time—even a little; an hour a week, maybe—to work on something I loved as much as fiction writing.

If you wait around for the perfect time, you’ll grow old and die without doing anything. And I’m not even talking about climbing mountains or figuring out how to use monkey blood to power your robot army. This is writing. You start writing by opening up to a new page and putting words on it. Words that you know. As far as barriers to entry go, it’s only marginally higher than putting on your fucking socks. And you have to do that twice.

After getting started, of course, things change. You have to work at doing better. At doing it right. And that’s a whole other bucket of snakes. But realizing that you can start whenever you want is a pretty damn big snake on it’s own.

There is no right time. There is only the time that you make.

*Especially if the assassins fail again.

Monday Challenge: First Steps

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STFU n00b.

I’m starting something new this week: I’m going to learn acrylic painting. I draw (mostly ink and markers) and I used to dabble in watercolours, but this will be a new experience.

I expect it to be messy.

Being a beginner at something is both exciting as hell and frustrating as trying to explain superhero retcons to non-fans.* Exciting because: new thing! I will make all the things! And they will be great! Hey, do you think this paint is poisonous? Frustrating because: why does new thing not come out like I imagined? Why am I not great at this right now? I AM GREAT AT EVERYTHING.

It’s probably for the best that Snowman’s working a lot of hours this month.

There’s a great scene in the Engineer Trilogy by K.J. Parker in which one of the main characters, a nobleman in hiding, has to sew something for the first time ever. Because he can’t reveal his ineptitude for fear of being discovered, he can’t ask for help. So he instead looks at the materials and the tools and works out what sewing is from the first principles. It’s a very funny little scene in the middle of what is a near-constant storm of grimness**, and it gives a great look at learning to do something for the first time ever.

We all have to start somewhere with skills. I’ve been learning to code in Python for the last couple of weeks, and, boy, was that eye-opening. And I expect that acrylic painting will be the same.** Writing sure as hell was: a mixture of thrill and frustration, interspersed with moments of brightness and wild inspiration.

Or, if you want a relatively universal example: remember having sex for the first time?***

Monday Challenge, in honour of my upcoming +2 Art Skill: Write about something trying to do something for the very first time. Awkwardness, frustration, wild inspiration, and all.

*”No, see, it’s fine because in this timeline, she’s really that girl’s sister, except they were both exposed to Zorg radiation, which made them think they were the same person….”

** But with less of a possibility of creating a roboctopus army.

***Spoiler alert, virgins: it’s gonna be awkward.