Dawn Of The First Day: 4 Questions For Getting Ready To Write

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Tick tock. Are you ready?

Saturday is the first of November. Halloween Boxing Day*. And while you’re prying yourself from the queasy grip of a sugar-induced coma, I’ll be up and writing.

Because Saturday is also the official start of NaNoWriMo.

You might not be starting a new book on Saturday—or you might be doing it a little differently—but this checklist is applicable to anyone who is starting a big ass project. So whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or just charting the frantic mental decline of those of us who are while waiting for a better time, check this list and make sure you’re ready.

1. Do you know what you’re writing? If you don’t, you’re in for a rough ride, bucko. Not saying it can’t be done—there are anecdotes of people doing so all over the place—but it will be like unto going down a slide made of gravel in steel-wool underpants. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not judging.

2. Have you set aside time to write? Maybe you blocked off a section of your day, or picked a day a week which is for writing. Maybe you’re going to fit it in where you can, which I understand is the preferred** method for those with children. The important thing is to make a commitment. What that commitment looks like is up to you.

3. Do you have a borderline unhealthy addiction to something that gives you energy? I hear this is a great use for leftover Halloween candy. I might have to resort to this since I’m off coffee for a few months. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not I remember how to write without it.

4. Do you love it? The writing, I mean. Because there are going to be hard times. There are going to be times when it feels like you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with your fucking face. At times like that, you need something to keep you going. And what will do that, what will keep you standing when you should have fallen long ago, is love: love for the story, for the idea, for what you’re doing even when it sucks. Love will get you through it when coffee and bite-size Mars bars fail.

So, are you ready?

*For those unfamiliar, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, when you either go shopping to spend whatever money you got for Christmas or sleep off your food hangover from the previous day.

**Read: only.

It’s More Fun If You Take It Out And Play With It: How To Grow Ideas

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Together, we will raise this idea to destroy cities.

Ideas are fragile things. They need care and attention before they can blossom into…

Wait a second. Got my notes mixed up. That’s kids. Kids are fragile blossoms. Or something. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention during those baby-sitting courses. And yet all my cousins survived. I think. I have a lot of them, so I’d need to do a head count to be sure.

Anyway.

Ideas. You have an idea. A little one. And you need to know how to grow it into a book, into a full-fledged mecha-Baphomet-Idea with fire breath and razor wings and inspiration spewing from every orifice. It will storm forth from your word-writing engine to lay waste to the shelves of lesser books and hear the lamenting of their indices.

Buuuuut it’s also kind of…new. Undeveloped. And until it grows and loses its first set of fangs, you don’t want to risk anything happening to your little baby idea.  So you don’t tell anyone about it. You don’t pick at it very much. You just wrap it up and keep it safe. You want to protect it from the viciousness of the word-world, with its reviewers and unpleasant Twitter accounts. You want to coddle it.

Too bad that won’t get you anywhere.

Ideas are not fragile. They can’t be and survive. You might feel protective of it at first, and that’s only natural. After all, it’s a part of you. But if it’s ever going to be all that it can be, then it needs to get kicked around a bit. Have those rough edges knocked off. If you keep it locked up away from anyone and everyone, it’ll turn out like one of those weird kids whose parents never them go outside and refused to let anyone inside the house unless they were coated in hand sanitizer.

So, here’s what you do with your brand spanking new baby idea: take it out into the fresh air. Let it stretch its tiny little wings. Examine your idea from all angles. Look for the flaws. What doesn’t fit? Where are there gaps, and what can bridge them? You can do this yourself or you can get others in on the game. But, much like toys, ideas are a lot more fun if you take them out of the packaging and play with them.

Before you know it, the idea will grow. First subplots, then characters, then a set of rending talons the likes of which the world has never seen themes. By questioning it and prodding it and generally working with it, you’re giving it what it needs to get big and strong. And it will. Eventually, if it gets big enough, it’ll dominate your thoughts, squatting in the middle of them like a dragon on a conveniently-located pile of gold*. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

And what do you do then?

You write it, of course.

*Handy for the shops and near a good school, just in case it gets hungry.

Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

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Outlining: Not Just For Bodies Anymore.

It’s no secret that I love my outlines. And, man, I mean love. Like the way I love coffee: I may drift away, but I always come back, and while I know it’s not entirely healthy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway.

I used to outline on paper, with the straight-up Roman numeral system I learned back in the sixth grade*. Then I switched to doing the same thing in a Word document, because it meant less little directional arrows when I had to add something in the middle.** Then there were index cards, which could be endlessly shuffled around but inevitably lacked space and got eaten by the cat.

But now I have found my ride-or-die outlining system, and most of you are going to be entirely unsurprised that it’s Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this particular piece of software before, but never really gone into how I use it. Probably because that would take forever. I use Scrivener for everything from research to planning to editing. It’s a powerful suite of tools all rolled up in a good interface.

For outlining, there is a very convenient feature called the Outliner. It has a number of pre-set columns, but—and this is important for me—you can also customize those columns. Mine are as follows:

-Scene Title: often something basic like ‘Jimmy Finds Orthotics of Power’ but occasionally something more entertaining, like ‘HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL FUCKED UP NOW’.

-What Happens: does what it says on the box. Mostly a Coles Notes version with the pertinent points laid out

-Who’s There: Because characters are like cats: hard to keep track of and then they turn up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

-Questions Raised: Anything dangling hook of information that gets introduced in the scene. I keep track of these so I can make sure that all the important ones get answered eventually.

-Notes: Because sometimes I need to remember something that doesn’t fit in one of the above categories.

Once I have a bunch of these laid out, I use to Label feature to colour-code everything. Partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s by point-of-view character, to make sure I’m not spending all my time inside the wrong head. Other times it’s by plot line: main, sub 1, sub 2, romantic, whatever. The colour coding makes it easy to take in, at a glance, the overall spread of attention. Am I not developing sub plot two enough? Maybe I don’t need it at all. Is Talulah the Overly Sarcastic Orderly taking over a lot of scenes? Consider bumping her up to major character, or scaling back the scenes from her point of view.

Of course, the outline thus created changes once I start writing, but I track those changes, too. Then, when I’m done, I compare what I did with what I meant to do, and see where the changes improve the manuscript and where they were the products of too much coffee and a bad dream the night before.

Most of the above can be done with any spreadsheet program, or a table if you have the patience for formatting. I prefer Scrivener because it’s simple and I have to change programs far less, but if you have something that can do all of this, more power to you.

So that’s my system. What do you do to outline?

*Heeeeeeey, Mr. Butler.

**Also less hand cramps.

Subvert The System: 6 Ways To Hack NaNoWriMo

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Quick, before the NaNo Police arrive!

So I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Kind of a last minute decision. But, since I’m already in the process of doing something else—namely The Big Edit—I figured this would be a good chance to kick start it.

Now, I won’t be starting from scratch; I’m actually rewriting the last NaNoWriMo project I did. Don’t tell the NaNo Police*, since it isn’t strictly by the rules, but rules were made to be broken, baby. Or at least severely bent.

I know there are more than a few of you out there who might have considered NaNo as a jumpstart for writing, but you don’t feel that your project fits their guidelines. Well, guidelines be damned; this is about writing. So here are a couple ways to hack NaNo to fit your project.

1) Go Short And Sweet. A small but interesting group writes short stories instead of novels for November. Some do thirty in thirty days; others try to tally 50,000 words worth of short stories in a month. If you’re more into short fiction, this could be your project.

2) Hack and Slash. Maybe, like me, you’ve got a project that needs editing. NaNo can jumpstart that, too. Depending on your needs, maybe you could edit a chapter a day. You’d be through those edits in no time! Or, if you need to spend a little more time on it, go for a page a day and really fucking dig into it.

3) Draw Me A Picture. I am a long-time lover of comics and graphic novels, as evidenced by the contents of my t-shirt drawer, and I see nothing wrong with taking NaNoWriMo and working on a comic script. Whether you’re writing a poignant narrative about life during the Enlightenment, a heady space adventure, or a rocking cape story with heroes galore, this could be your time.

4) Just The Facts, Ma’am. Or maybe you need to grind out some non-fiction. Honestly, if I’d known about NaNoWriMo when I was working on my theses, I would have jumped on it like a meth-addicted cat on a slow mouse. Talk about footnotes with your fellow academics! Or compare dodgy research methods and start messing up Wikipedia articles!

5) Roll A Craft (Writing) Check. All you tabletop gamers out there: do you think those books of rules, monsters, scenarios, and dodgy magical items write themselves? Jump in and have a go. There’s a small group that sharpens their pencils and rolls the dice to make up scenarios for their favourite games. Or maybe writes their own game. Break the rules by making other rules!

6) Something Else Entirely! There’s a group on the NaNoWriMo forums called NaNo Rebels. There’s not as many things in there as you might think; the rules have changed a little in recent years to allow for other sorts of projects than the puke-it-up-as-you-go zero draft. But if you’re not sure what it is that you want to do—if, in fact, all you have in an amorphous idea blob that could become any number of things—then trawling through there might give your project a shape.

And if you are in doubt about the legitimacy of your project, they will be more than happy to tell you whether or not you belong in the regular forums or in with the rebels. Also, I hear that they might be giving our eyepatches and parrots to eligible candidates.

Still think it’s not for you? Fair enough. But know that the doors are more open than the title ‘National Novel Writing Month’ might imply. And, even if they’re not, there’s no harm in squeezing under the door when no one’s looking.

*No such thing, but a trip through the internets could leave you thinking differently.

Five Things You Need To Write A Novel

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Here. You’re going to need these.

1) A Fine Set Of Big Brass Ones. Balls or ovaries, dealer’s choice. You will need these to start, because without them, you’ll likely be discouraged by naysayers, lingering self-doubts, or the idea of putting words in order for several months with no promise* of a giant pile of money at the end. There are a million reasons not to, and before you’re done you’ll find out what most of them are and maybe invent one or two new ones on your own. If you’re pitting your will against all that, it’ll help to have the stones to follow through.

So strap on your biggest pair, because you’re going to need ‘em.

2) An Idea. Ideally, an idea that you’ve worked with a bit and which has spawned a whole colony of sub-ideas, all of which can go into creating an interesting whole. But in a pinch you can substitute a brand new Flash-In-The-Pan and see how it goes. Maybe it’ll fizzle out after a chapter or two, or maybe it’ll make a fire big enough to toast your brain from the inside. Only one way to find out, right?

3) A Practical Concept Of How You Write. Do you prefer to pick at it a little every day? Or are you the weekend binger, knocking out whole chapters while watching the Sunday afternoon games? Do you want to get up in the morning and scratch out a couple of pages while your spouse sleeps and the paper boy runs from the neighbour’s murderous Rottweillers? Or do you want to stay up past your bedtime, pecking away by the blue light of the computer? Have an idea of how you work, or how you want to try to work. This will give you discipline.

Don’t worry if it’s your first time; if it doesn’t work, you can always change it. I’m not going to come to your house and kick your door in.**

4) A Sub-Atomic Transcription-ator. Or a computer. Or a notebook. Some means by which you will take the raw, fresh squeezings of your brain and turn them into a useable form. Like making booze, you’ve got to have the right container. Charred white oak or a brand-new journal, sherry casks or a clean Word document: each will give your writing a different feel and a different flavour. Pick the one that suits the story.

5) Desire. You have to want it. And you have to want it enough that you are willing to invest something of which you have a finite amount: time.

So want it. Want it right down in your mitochondria.

That’s my list. What do you need to write a novel?

*If you do have a promise of a big pile of money at the end, congratulations on the satanic book deal for which you sold your soul.

**Unless you have coffee when I’ve run out. Or pecan pie. Big pie fan.

Eleven Things The Writer In Me Is Thankful For

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Honourable Mention: Michael Bay, for ridding us of that pesky drive toward nostalgia.

1) Supportive Peeps. Family, friends, cats, that other cat who comes to sit on our deck in the morning…thanks for being you. And for not clawing my eyes out while I sleep.

2) Good Books. For the inspiration. Or the maddening, liver-gnawing jealousy that can pass for it sometimes.

3) Bad Books. For making me feel better about myself.

4) Coffee. For giving me the energy I need to vibrate at exactly 4.346 x 10^6534 times a second. No, 4.347 now. 4.346. 4.347. 4.346.

5) Scotch. For being scotch.

6) Music. For giving my days a rhythm, a rhyme, and a beat that I can dance to.

7) The Comment Block and Twitter Mute Buttons. For making it possible for me to ignore all the mouth-breathing pieces of shit that demand that I send them tit pics.*

8) Fountain Pens. For being elegant, timeless, and sharp enough to stab people.

9) October. For being the prettiest damn month I’ve ever seen.

10) The Delete Key. For destroying the evidence of my mistakes.

11) Readers. For making this whole writing thing seem a little less like a crazy person ranting into the void.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?

*I like to imagine all the creepy randos that demand tit pics of me are all locked in a tiny little Rapunzel tower together every time I hit one of these buttons. The only way out is to be a decent human being, so they’re never going to see daylight again.

BUSY BUSY: Announcement

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Busy Adult With Many Important Things To Do

All right, you little confound-its. Bring it in and take a knee. It’s announcement time.

I have a bunch of writing projects that I’m trying to juggle and some aren’t getting the time they deserve. I did an audit on Uses Of My Time, Legitimate And Otherwise*, and have made a plan to finish them, which starts now.  The blog will be going to two posts a week. Check here on Mondays and Wednesdays for the finest second finest interestingly profane writing complaints, advice, harangues, rants, bitchfests, pep talks, and absurd pop culture references that you’ve come to rely on. Mondays will not always be writing prompts, though those will still appear.

I’m also looking for those interested in doing guest posts here for times when I’m away. Got a story coming out? Have a writing story to share? Whiskey recommendations? Get at me. If you’ve got a writing axe to grind, email me at bareknucklewriter@gmail.com and we’ll talk.

All right, that’s it. Get back in the game. And I’ll see you all back here on Monday.

*Watching my neighbours grow increasingly sketchy, yet still not as sketchy as their “DJ” landlord, is, sadly, not on the list of necessary things.