Sweat and Ink: Finding Your Passion In The Armpit Of Summer

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Sun: IMMA BE HERE FOREVER.

This is it: the dog days of summer. If you’re anywhere near me, you know that it’s been hotter than the devil’s jockstrap and twice as sweaty.*

What’s the first thing to go in this weather? No, not your clothes. If you’re like me, you’ve been working in a bikini top and daisy dukes since the last week of June, anyway.

The first thing to go is enthusiasm. The muggier it gets, the harder it becomes to give the contents of a roach-infested Hyundai’s ashtray about whatever the hell your characters are doing. Or about anything other than the nearest source of air conditioning, but let’s focus on the writing.

This related to this post on writing in the summer, but if that’s Summer Writer 101, consider this Summer Writer 201. You’ve shown up to write, but your brain is too hot to get it done. To get through the oncoming stickiness with your word/scene/note count intact, we need to dredge your passion for the project out of whatever damp hole it crawled in to die. Here it is: Finding Your Passion, Hot Weather Edition!

1) Change your venue. To an igloo. You might think this is too silly to work, but that’s just the sweat talking. Moving from your stifling living room, where the Crotch-Scorching Firebrick** slow-roasts your junk, to a cooler location can give you the mental energy to write. Your local library might have air conditioning. Or there’s coffee shops. Or malls. Find somewhere to cool down your brain. And your junk.

2 a) Write the good part. There’s probably a part of your story that you’ve been looking forward to writing every since you conceived the idea. Now is the time to write it. Because, god damn it, if you can’t get excited about that right now, it might be time to hang up the pens.

2 b) Read the good part. Maybe you’ve already written the good part. I have. I couldn’t wait. So now is a really good time to go find that part and read it. Remember why you couldn’t wait.

3) Make some inspiration. No, not meth. You don’t want to cook in this weather.

Go make a playlist of music that sounds like your characters, or your settings. Find or make some art: maps, character sketches, artefacts. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Feel the inspiration.

Then make meth.

4) Spread the love. Enlist another person in your project. Find a second reader and send them pages or chapters as they’re finished. They might just get excited, which will make you more excited. And then you can get together and fan-person it up.

5) Strip down. Not like that. Put your shorts back on, slick.

Strip your story down to the most exciting idea. What makes your imagination’s loins quiver with the thought of writing it? What are you trying to say? What does it all mean? Remembering why you got into this might help you get out of it with your sanity intact.

Anyone else? How do you stay motivated to stick with projects when you’re sticking to the chair?

*By Canadian standards, obviously. Those of you from places like Florida and India, keep your weather far south of me and get back to turning into walking sweat glands.

**Also known as your laptop

 

Monday Challenge: Man’s Best Friend

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In retrospect, the Millers regretted letting Mittens get his firearms licence.

I learned yesterday that Jezebel, my friend’s obese, cantankerous, generally demonic cat, no longer waddles the planet. She was occasionally difficult and often gave the stink eye for absolutely no reason, but she could also be very cute. Usually when she wanted something.

She died as she lived, though: I’m told she bit the veterinarian who put her down.*

Jezebel might have been a demon of the ancient world** but she was also someone’s beloved pet. As someone who has owned some kind of furry quadruped since the age of three, I find it hard to imagine life without pets. Even the ones that are jerks. From the family dog that used to kick me out of my own bed to the cat that dragged an entire chicken breast out of the frying pan and ate it under the couch, they’ve given my life some interesting stories.

So maybe it’s time to give my stories some interesting pets.

Consider, if the plot allows, giving one of your characters a pet. From a story point of view, they serve so many purposes. They humanize villains, aid heroes in need, allow someone to monologue without talking to themselves too much…

And, depending on your story, they may be more than just something to cuddle with while your character watches reruns of Parks and Rec. They may be intelligent. They might be a helper pet for someone with a disability. They might be equipped with reinforced titanium jaws to guard against intruders.

Monday Challenge: write about a character and their pet. Pet dog, pet horse, pet acid-spitting wyvern. Or, if you have alien characters, pet human. What purpose does the pet serve? What do they do? Can they do any neat tricks? What will they do for their owner? And what will their owner do for them?

*Pour one out for a fellow honey badger.

**I should point out that this is not in fact a judgement of her. I have a demon of my own, and while I occasionally wish Fender would be less bitey, I do love her.

 

Prime Cuts: Carving Up Your First Draft

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I didn’t need those paragraphs anyway. Or that chapter.

My zero drafts are a mess. Too many words, too much explaining, some really obvious character slips, the occasional monologue*…it’s not pretty.

But it doesn’t have to be. That’s why it’s a zero draft: so I can edit it and make it pretty.

Most of the energy in making the second draft–or, as I call it–the Working Draft–goes into cutting. Getting rid of the crap so I can see what I’ve actually made. Making the writing flow better so that the story comes out without the writing getting in the damn way.

If you want to picture how I edit, imagine a sentient woodchipper and Edward Scissorhands had a mechanized baby that loves red pens and slash-and-burn deforestation.

But how do I know what to get rid of? What gets tossed into my whirring mechanical maw, and what passes by, unnoticed for today?

Simple. There’s a list.

Here are my top picks for how to make your writing go down smoother than the Skittle vodka your cousin made that time.**

1) Kill the passive voice. For a refresher:

“The sundae bar was burned by the fire-breathing velociraptor.” (Passive) [edited: thanks for the catch, sucoletta!}

“The firebreathing velocipraptor burned everything in sight, including the sundae bar.” (Active)

A good hint to discern whether you’re writing passive voice is the use of ‘was’ and its confederates. Changing to active not only makes the writing smoother–less crap to get in the way–it also wastes less words. Which is important if you’re writing to spec.

2) Murder the qualifiers. Here’s a partial list:

very, kinda, sort of, massively, intensely, insanely, a small amount, a vast amount, partially, a little, a bit, a lot…

God, I could just keep going.

In 99% of cases, these add nothing to the sentence they infest like ticks on a monkey’s ass. Degrees can much more elegantly be conveyed if they’re necessary. Leaving you with nothing but clean, useful monkey ass.

However, I’m not from the school of thought that says you should never have adjectives. But only use the ones you need. “Glanced quickly” is not only redundant, it’s wasteful. CUT.

3) Suffocate your desire to explain everything. Go back and read Wednesday’s post (bonus: contains strippers) and remember: showing is generally better than telling. And explaining, whether it’s done by the narrative or by a character, is boring. Not to say that you shouldn’t explain anything, but do so with a light hand.

Note: this doesn’t just apply to the alternative world stuff you’ve made that your are very proud of. Think twice before having characters explain their motivations. One, it should be evident already. Two, no one likes to listen to a bunch of self-justifying crap.

This is the biggest one for me. In the zero draft, I’m generally working out the reasons for things as I go, and they end up coming out of some character’s mouth. On the next pass, I edit that crap out. After all, I already know it, and, for the most part, the reader doesn’t need to. And what they do need to know can be presented in a far more subtle way.

I’m always looking for that new edge, so: what are your tricks? What do you cut out of your zero draft?

*I’ve started leaving a line from The Incredibles as my editing comment: “You caught me monologuing!”

**Taste the rainbow. The burning, chemical rainbow.

 

Show and Tell: Classic Writing Advice Explained With Strippers

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Aside from “do better“, my most common editing note to myself is that classic bit of writer advice, “show, don’t tell.”

And, like most classic bits of advice–see my diatribe on “write what you know” here– it’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean you should never tell the reader things. Just that, if there’s another way, consider doing that before falling back on the good ol’ tell. Because showing is more inviting.

To put it another way, you’re trying to titillate the reader, give them a reason to continue reading. And titillation events are called peepshows, not peeptells.

I will illustrate the difference in the traditional manner: with strippers.

Imagine it’s your birthday. Imagine your friends have hired two strippers. The first arrives, drops his* pants, and then stands in the middle of the room while Depeche Mode plays for twenty minutes. He doesn’t do anything. He just stands there and allows you to admire him.

The second knocks on the door in a fake police officer’s uniform, and comes in to ‘inspect the premises’ before spending his twenty minutes putting on a show. You are involved in the show–pulling off a glove, catching a thrown hat–and while the end result is still nudity, the process is very different.

Which stripper would do you prefer?

If you say the first, you’ve probably got a good future in writing technical manuals.

This is the difference between showing and telling in writing. Telling removes the mystery, the interpretation. It’s just there, in your face. Showing takes you along for the ride, inviting you to be an active participant.

Now, there are times when the pants-off telling approach works. Sometimes showing doesn’t get to the point. Imagine Stripper #2 leaving after having taken off his hat and one shoe. There’s a guy who’s not getting a tip.

And sometimes showing isn’t necessary. It would take too long, or interrupt the narrative flow for no good reason. Sometimes you just want to see a naked dude in your living room.

Metaphorically.**

My general rule–and as usual, your mileage may vary–is that emotions, reactions, and other stuff like that should be shown if possible. Don’t tell me someone is angry; show me their clenched jaw and the spit flying as they yell. But if it drags focus from the main purpose of the passage, slows down the narrative too much***, or otherwise distracts, then telling is fine. You should exhaust the possibilities of showing first, then move on to telling. And never forget the purpose of what you’re doing.

Flash a little skin, spin your ostrich feathers, smile…and go for the big finish.

*It’s my blog, the strippers are what I say they are. Feel free to fill in the gender of your choice.

**And not metaphorically.

***Though I should point out that, if this happens a lot, your writing style might be to blame. There are quick ways of showing most things if you work at it a little.

Monday Challenge: That’s What She Said

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Yup.

I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. Again.

Just another part of the job, along with making floor plans for places that don’t exist and getting on a government watch list with every Google search. Writing fiction is telling someone else’s story in our words. Ever wonder how much of it we get right? Or, more interestingly, how much of it we get wrong?

Readers of Stephen King’s novella collection Different Seasons will remember this motto: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the teller has their part to play as well. After all, what is Nabokov’s Lolita without its fundamentally untrustworthy narrator? And I bet Vader had a different take on the lava fight than Obi-Wan.* There’s more than one side to every story, certainly, but there’s also the difference between the events as they happened and the story that is told.

Hell, we don’t even have to go that far afield. You mom probably tells the stories of your youth differently than you do. How often have you interrupted a friend who was attempting to tell a story of which you are a part? That’s not how it happened, you say. Let me tell it.Here’s how it really went…

And who’s right?

Hard to say, without a memory machine. And even then, things are open to interpretation. Which is part of the fun.

Monday Challenge, should you choose to accept it: write a character telling someone else’s story. How well do they do it? Do they get it right? Do they even try? Are they trying to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense? Or are they just doing the best they can?

*Did anyone else find that part super fucking weird? “Oh hey, you’re terribly injured and in a lot of pain. Think I’ll leave you here to die slowly. And I’m the good guy!”

Back In The Word Mines: Establishing A Writing Routine

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Psst. Hey. Hey. Hey, dragon. Hey. You wanna watch Korra?

You want to write regularly? Get yourself a writing schedule. No, not a fucking day planner. A routine that you follow in order to make sure you get ass in chair and actually write.

But making a routine in tricky. How do you make sure you have enough time? How do you stop people from bothering you? Does this mean you have to give up competitive wombat wrestling? All tricky questions.

Here’s how to get started.

1. Figure out your personal schedule. This has two parts: the times that you naturally work best, and the times you have available.

Me, I’m a morning person, especially for creative work. I like to have the grunt writing work done before noon, pouring out all the novel stuff in a caffeine-fueled rush like a hail of word-bullets. Then I save the afternoon for editing or non-creative projects, like writing copy. My editing brain sleeps in, but the creative brain is an early riser.

You might be a night person. Or a mid-afternoon person. Whatever. The key is: identify when you’re at your best.

Then look at the times you have available. If you’re lucky, the Venn diagram of your optimal time and your available time is a perfect circle. If not, you need to adjust. This might require sacrifice. I started getting up 5:30-6:00 am every morning to take advantage of my best brain time. Does it suck some days? Like a coked-out Hoover. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

2. Guard your time like a dragon with a horde. Other people will not respect your writing time. It’s not a mean thing; most of them just want to spend time with you and don’t understand why you insist on spending time banging on a keyboard when you could be playing Halo with them. You must be firm in your defence of your schedule if you hope to get anything done. Make them understand that this is important to you, and that they should respect that.

Or lock your door, turn off your phone, and invest in a couple of guard monkeys. That works, too.

3. Don’t waste your time. You’ve gone to all the trouble of setting this schedule up only to find yourself obsessively refreshing Twitter instead of writing. #amwriting should be #ampretendingtowrite.

Like you were firm with others, be firm with yourself. Set a word count and meet it. Try the Pomodoro technique (I’ve used it, and it works very well). Or, for the hardcore among you, download Write or Die and set it to Kamikaze Mode, which deletes words if you stop writing for more than thirty seconds or so.

4. Reward yourself. Yeah, yeah, in a perfect world, doing the writing itself would be reward enough. And, for me, most days it is. But others I need the extra spur.

Likewise, when you’re first trying to establish a routine, it pays to make like Pavlov and have the reward coming. Finish 1,000 words, get an episode of Orange Is The New Black. Or an hour of video game time. Finish a chapter, get a new comic book. Eventually you won’t need them, but, especially in the beginning, these little carrots can be hella helpful.

When I finish this novel, I get a robot. You’ve been warned.

So, what do you guys do to establish a routine?

 

Welcome To The Old Apartment: Creating Settings That Don’t Suck

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This is the cafe. It's Jasper's Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That's Snowman at the table.

This is the cafe. It’s Jasper’s Caffeine Dealers on Brunswick Street in the Fitzroy area of Melbourne, Australia. That’s Snowman at the table.

Your setting is more than just a geometric surface for the characters to stand on. And occasionally have sex on. Done right, a good setting can almost become a character in its own right. Look at Hogwarts. The worst part* of the seventh book for me is that Hogwarts isn’t much of a part of it. It’s like missing a great supporting character that you’ve grown to know over the years. Or how about Serenity from Firefly? It was a more than a mode of transportation/place for people to argue.

However, not every setting is a magical castle or a spaceship. And they don’t have to be in order to be awesome. 221B Baker Street; Gotham City; Castle Rock, Maine; Hardy’s Wessex County: all of these could–and in some instances, do–exist in our world. But they all have those little touches that made them more that just a stage on which the plot reveals itself.

A trick for making good settings? Frankenstein them together out of places in real life.

Whenever I go on vacation, I take pictures of interesting places. Most of them will sooner or later be reincarnated into a story. That coffee shop that had a back seating area between two buildings, a little alley barely three feet wide crammed with tables. The bar set up in an empty lot out of pallets, oil drums, and a shipping container. A friend’s strangely laid out apartment with the weird staircase to nowhere.

You don’t have to go on vacation, of course. Maybe your main character lives in a house with the same floorplan as your childhood home. Or they hang out at your favourite beach or restaurant. Or they go to your gym, with the grunting steroid-heads in the corner and the stack of strangely greasy magazines that you always regret touching. The trick is to find what is special about each of those places, and bring that to the fore.

Just like taking character traits from real people, you can take settings from real life locations. Change the name, change the details, but keep whatever drew you to the damn thing in the first place. The view. The proportions. The location. The barista who only speaks Esperanto.

Keep a list, somewhere. Document it with pictures if you can, or floorplans and sketches if you can’t.

And see what happens in those places.

*Fine. Second worst.

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