Break Out The Scotch, It’s Time For Year Four!

Maybe keep the candles away from the scotch, though.

Holy shit, here we are again. The beginning of a new year of Bare Knuckle Writer. Year four, to be precise. In the words of my role-playing character, “who would have thought we’d make it this far without someone nuking us from orbit?”*

I’m damn sure it’s no coincidence that I chose March to start this blog, with about as much prior research as it took to learn how to register a domain name and think of one I liked. February, as some of you might have gathered from the preceding post, is always hard for me. Shortest month feels longer in my head, and greyer, and colder.

But March…it might still be colder than a Frost Giant’s left testicle out there, but something has started to thaw. Maybe the ground. Maybe just my own imagination.

Things are moving again, and I like that.

As I said, I started this blog pretty much on a whim, and never set a timetable for myself. And every year when my renewal notice pops up in my inbox, I wonder if I should do it for another year. And, thus far, the answer has always been ‘yes’. I don’t plan any further than that, because I never want this to become an obligation. It’s my side project, like musicians recording under a different name. It’s something I do for fun, and occasionally to give difficult thoughts a place to live that’s not me. Or not just me.

But, to all of you who follow and read and allow the infectious spores of my thoughts to claim a section of your brain…thank you. Thanks for the follows, and the comments, and the questions, and the Twitter conversations. Thanks for your time and attention, which, goddamn, are valuable commodities these days. Thanks for listening.

And keep that dial right where it is. A brand new year is coming up, and you don’t want to miss it.

*Shortly after saying that, someone did attempt to nuke our party from orbit. Because DMs are like that.


Spring Comes: Getting Through The Hard Days

Fuck, if these things got through the snow, I guess I have to. Smug purple bastards.

The end of February is the worst. The cold makes me grumpy and tired, I’m entirely over any sense of the beauty of a fresh snowfall, and everything seems to take so much effort that I might as well give up and stay under a blanket on the couch while binge-reading all the Harry Potter novels again.

The sight of a shovel can reduce a grown man to tears at this point.

But I get up, and I haul my carcass to the desk, and write. And then I haul it outside to shovel. And haul it further to go to yoga and the gym and to see people. Because, despite what popular depictions would tell us, locking yourself in your room with the Muse* is not the best way to prove yourself a writer.

No, as always, the best and only way to be a writer is to fucking write. Judges judge, loggers log, carpenters….carpent**. Writers write.

Even when The Half-Blood Prince and a stack of marshmallow cookies is calling their name.

The thing to remember is that these shitty periods, the ones that crop up for me at this time of year and at least one other (November), the ones that never seem to end? They fucking end. Always. And once they’re over, you’ll never think of them again. Like high school. Seems so important at the time, but once you’re out, you find yourself wondering what all the damn fuss was about.

Anyway, this is less of a pep talk and more of a reminder. Whatever thing, be it the weather or your mood or your tiredness, is keeping you from doing what you love…it will pass. In the meantime, keep doing what you love anyway, because fuck those things. Seriously, you’re going to let a bunch of weather determine if you’ll write? I can see it interfering with gardening, but even then, read a seed catalogue and dream of spring.

Some times are hard. Some days are hard. But there’s never been a day when I regretted shovelling out the car and going to the gym. There’s never been words I regretted putting down because they were hard.

Writers write. Now get to it. And remember: spring comes.

*Ie, a bottle of gin.

**Shut up.


30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.


Can And Will Be Used Against You: Real Life Research

The tractor sent flowers to the hospital for Al, which everyone agreed was very classy for a piece of heavy machinery.

Whenever I’m around people and one of them tells the often-embarrassing tale of a particularly weird thing that happened to them or around them, the following happens:

Person Who Didn’t Tell The Story: *turns to me* That’s going to turn up in a story one day, isn’t it?

Me: Probably, but I’ll change the names so only we know who did it.

Person Who Told The Story: *nervous laughter*

It must be how psychologists feel whenever people start acting “normal”* when they’re around.

Rest easy: most of those stories you tell me and mine do not end up in our writing. Sometimes it’s because real life really is stranger than fiction; I still find it hard to believe than a well-educated person who had made it well into middle age would claim to find the taste of chocolate laxatives so good that they’d eat enough boxes to spend an entire day at work violently shitting themselves.** And sometimes it’s because the stories themselves are too distinctive. No one wants to explain to their family over Thanksgiving dinner that they didn’t think anyone would recognize Uncle Al in that short story about the guy who tried to fuck a tractor.

Mostly, though, that stuff doesn’t end up there because it’s not the stories we’re looking for.

What is far more likely to end up in our writing material are feelings, atmospheres, quirks of speech, habits, places, or things. That lamp made seashells from a long-ago vacation that Aunt Ida took in her youth; most of the shells have fallen away, leaving dried glue and memories behind. The way family dinner feels when everyone’s just waiting, waiting, for Racist Inappropriate Grandma to make some comment about Sophie’s new boyfriend. The hollow sound of the wind in the now-abandoned neighbourhood of your youth, rattling loose shutters that no one will ever come to repair.

The way you hesitate and flush, twisting your glass around and around in your hands, before telling that story, half embarrassed, half proud.

So, you’ll end up in our stories. All of you. But you probably won’t recognize yourself when you do.

* Or what they think is normal. Hint: it’s not.

** God, I wish I was making that up.


3 Ways Role Playing Makes You A Better Writer

Roll for damage to your free time.

1. Players, like characters, do whatever the hell they want. If you’ve ever played a tabletop RPG, you might be familiar with these people:

-The one who wants to fight everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who wants to fuck everything, from healers to legendary dragons to inanimate objects.

-The one who tries to murder other party members.

-The one who refuses to explore any area beyond a cursory look and complains anytime another character wants to check something out.

-The one who soliloquizes every movement, describing everything they do in excrutiating detail.

-The one who hesitates and takes forever to decide what to do every time.

-The one who jumps in without understanding the situation and almost gets everyone killed.

-The one who’s only here for the loot. If it comes from your corpse, they’re not complaining.

And a thousand other iterations of these and other player qualities. I’m not slagging players; I’ve done a lot of these myself. And I’ve run games with all of them, at once. Sometimes one person is all eight.

Understand the motivations, and you can get them to do what you want. Most of the time. This will be good practice for working out character motivations. Just like the players, characters in your story shouldn’t do something ‘just because’. They should want to fight something, fuck something, steal something, be rich, be powerful, be famous. You should know what you have to do in order to get them to walk down the suspicious path in the oddly-quiet forest.

2. Character Knowledge versus Player Knowledge will fuck you up. Picture this: you’ve stormed into the Temple of The Dread Spider God. The High Priest is in the middle of his chant that will summon the Endless Eight-Legged Horrors of Crawling On Your Face While You Sleep. If he finishes the ritual, shit will go down. What do you do?

If you’re 99.9% of role-players, you smite that bastard, and you smite him good and hard. Job well done.

Except…

Except when you kill him, his blood falls on the altar, thus completing the ritual and summoning the Eight-Legged Horrors anyway.

The player made the best choice they could, with the information they had available, and it still turned out badly. Keep this in mind for your writing, because characters should do this, too. They don’t know everything. And if they don’t know everything, there’s a reasonable chance that the choice they make to fix something will actually fuck it up.

Making it worse: every character’s superpower.

Differentiate between character knowledge and author knowledge. You know that pushing that button won’t turn off the alarm, it will summon the guards. But the character doesn’t, so they’d probably push it. Or a character doesn’t know that talking about their family will activate that other character’s anxiety because they don’t want anyone to find out about what their father did. Mess things up.

3. Roll with it. There is one guarantee in role-playing games: no matter how long you’ve been playing, no matter how many campaigns you’ve seen to the end, no matter how many mounts your fighter has had eaten out from under them by the goddamn Tarrasque, something you never thought could happen—something you never even conceived of—will happen.

And you’ll have to roll with it.*

The random nature of the dice roll is such that occasionally the unthinkable or the unimaginable happens, and it rockets the plot down a new road. It’s not quite that random in writing, but sometimes the tumblers click in your brain and you realize that the only way forward is to do something new. Maybe something that you don’t like. Maybe that character you really like has to die, or betray the protagonist. You can go back and change everything to get a new outcome, or you can roll with it and see what happens.

Role-playing makes you flexible. And, speaking as someone who loves critical fails almost as much as critical hits, it can make you realize that what you thought was the worst outcome is actually the best.

Do any of you role-play? Has it taught you anything about writing? Make a knowledge (gaming) check and tell me your best role-playing story.

*Roll with it? Like rolling dice? Get it? Get it?


Mind Games: Tricking Your Jerk Of A Brain Into Getting Started

It’s like a time bomb, except instead of killing you, it makes you a warming beverage.

Brains are weird things. They look like a plastic bag of worms left to die in a jell-o mould, but somehow they control everything you do.

And they contradict you! They work against you! You say you want something—like to eat healthy—and they somehow see to it that you find yourself ears-deep in a cupcake box again.

Aside from the gratuitous unfairness of all this, there are a few takeaways:

1. Your brain is not on your side. It is on its own, survival-based, side, which occasionally coincides with your side, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hamstring you every time you contradict it.

2. You can trick that little wormy bastard into doing what you want.

Ever meet people who claim to only be able to work under pressure? “It helps me concentrate”, they say, while you froth at the mouth and try to avoid cracking them one with a five-iron. Really what the looming deadline and the attendant pressure does is give them a way to short-circuit the part of their brain that procrastinates by presenting it with a worse alternative than having to do work: facing the consequences of not doing it. Which might include the five-iron again.

The good news is that you can borrow this trick. Or, if you’re one of the ‘work better under pressure’ brigade, you can use it for other things.

Play games with your brain. One I use all the time is called Race The Kettle. I drink a lot of tea, winter and summer. If I’m having trouble getting started—which, honestly, is about 40-50% of days, especially at this time of the winter when things get all grey—I put the kettle on. Then I have until it boils to get something done. Usually something around 400-500 words. Put the kettle on the stove, turn on the element, and…..GO.

And it works. Why? Because I’m cutting off the procrastination by imposing a short-term deadline. It might be as fake as a January tan, but it’s still there. And it gives me something else to focus on. Can I get it done before the kettle boils? Sounds hard, but maybe if I try really hard…

You get the idea.

Other games I play with myself while writing: Finish By Noon And You Can Start That New Book Over Lunch; Hit Word Count Before Your Doctor’s Appointment Because You Know He’ll Order Blood Work Again; You Have A Lunch Date So Get A Move On; and the always popular Finish The Scene Before The Coffee Wears Off.

Maybe you’re the type that responds to rewards; maybe you like the pressure of deadlines. Or maybe, like me, you need a new way of looking at the problem.

Or maybe I’m just bat-crap crazy. Do any of you play these mind games with yourself? Tell me about yours if you do. I swear to only steal them if I’m really desperate.


Do You Have This In Another Size? : Rules, and When To Break Them

Do you have this in a Slightly Irregular Plot With Digressions?

I think that the second thing a writer ever does—after finding that great idea, the one that shakes you right down to your little cotton socks—is look for advice. How to write. How to write well. What to write, and what sells. Markets, platforms, outlines, rules. And let’s not forget strategies, story arcs, structures, and genres.

But sometimes, when you’re working on something, you find that it just doesn’t fit. The structure is weird. The characters don’t do what they’re supposed to. There’s a prologue, or an epilogue. Or, gods forbid, a fucking flashback. The story you’re working on breaks the rules, as you have been taught them. So, what do you do: change the story so it fits the rules, or say ‘fuck it’ and go your own way?

Thing To Consider #1: The rules exist for a reason. And that reason is not to hamstring your creativity. These rules of fiction exist because people have, at various times, found that they work. Overall, characters talk, and do things. Plots move like this. Dialogue sounds like this. These things are all useful guidelines, especially when you’re learning the craft. Because there is a craft to this, like making furniture or laying bricks. A lot of those techniques and things just plain work, and result in you not making a table that collapses under the weight of a single beer bottle.

Thing To Consider #2: You know your story better than anyone. Or you should. So you should know how it goes. And why you’re writing it. Is it for publication? Is it for your own enjoyment? How much does the intention dictate what rules are necessary? Personally, I feel like punctuation is tremendously useful if I’m ever planning on getting anyone else to read my crap. You might feel differently. You might also be the newest incarnation of James Fucking Joyce, in which case I wish you luck, but I’m not reading your book. Once was enough.

Thing To Consider #3: Are you breaking the rules because the story demands it…or because you demand it? Are you writing the best story you can, as you understand the criteria, or are you just proving what a special snowflake you are? Is this story or ego? Choose honestly and wisely. Because if you’re warping things just to prove how special you are, or because you think all those guidelines are for other people, you’re not telling a story. You’re making noise.

If you have considered the above to your best ability, then make your choice. Sometimes we’re just flouncing because doing things the right way is hard, and we hate hard. Rules and techniques seem like shackles even when they’re what the story needs.

But sometimes you need to chuck every single rule out the window and just go. And if that’s the sort of story you have on your hands, then don’t be afraid to break the rules so hard an entire legion of King’s men and all their goddamn horses won’t be able to put them back together.

So, which way do you need right now?


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