Monday Challenge: Anything To Declare?

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“And I see here you’ve claimed your suitcase is a sovereign nation…”

I just got back from a week in Cuba with friends. There are many stories I could tell of that time—Hector the Crab King, the Kamikaze Nightclub Bat, the Trouble with Troblins—but I’m going to tell the one that happened before I’d even set foot on the island.

When you’re flying internationally, on the last leg of the flight, someone comes around with customs forms for you to fill out. Name, rank, serial number, most recently committed crime, that sort of thing. Just the basics.

And, significantly, any controlled or banned substances you’re bringing into the country.

I’ve never been entirely sure why those sections are included. Perhaps customs officials use it to catch the stupider of the smugglers. Or maybe some people don’t realize what they’re bringing is illegal. “Holy shit, no illegal drugs or firearms? Do I ever feel silly! Better go to the bathroom and flush this kilo of heroin and AK-47. ”

Before any of you get on the phone to Homeland Security or whatever the Canadian equivalent is*, no, I was not smuggling anything illegal. But I had gotten very little sleep the night before, and I didn’t read the customs form carefully enough. I assumed I was checking that I had not brought drugs, firearms, or illegal llamas into the country.

Instead, I had checked that I had.

And not just one thing, either. According to that customs form, I was bringing everything. Liquor? Sure. Drugs? Why not? Animal products, plant seeds, toxins? Hey, check out my suitcase full of kittens, daisies, and ebola.

Thankfully, before I approached the customs window and got taken away to a dark windowless room by the Cuban police, the Husband spotted the mistake. He’s a pharmacist, so it’s just second nature for him to double- and triple-check every document he sees. So, instead of the story of how Steph Was Never Seen Again, this becomes the story of Steph Having Another Laughable Screw-up In A Lifetime Of Them.

But it almost didn’t.

Monday Challenge: someone is having trouble at customs. Did they do anything wrong? Maybe. Or maybe they just screwed something up. Or this can be as Kafka-esque as you like.

And in traveling as in the rest of life, remember: read the damn directions.

*One dude with a German Shepherd and a stern look. But not that stern.

Turn Your Head and Cough: Diagnosing Writing Problems

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DOOM IS NOT THAT KIND OF DOCTOR.

Symptoms are the things that make you realize you’re sick. The cough, the runny nose, the sudden breakout of blue pustules that sing the national anthem at night.* They’re signs, some subtle, some not. They indicate that something, somewhere, is wrong.

But the symptoms, no matter how annoying or unpleasant or off-key they are, are not what’s wrong. That’s the disease. But when you’re stuck in the middle of it, it can be damn easy to treat the symptoms and ignore the cause of the sickness entirely. 

Problem is, that doesn’t fix anything. That’s like taking more and more pain pills for that hamstring tear you gave yourself without bothering to rest and repair the leg itself. Unhelpful and you’re going to be limping for a long fucking time. 

To move from dubious medical metaphors back to equally-dubious writing advice, the problems you’re having in your writing on a particular day might be indicative of something else entirely. And if you just treat the symptoms, you won’t fix it.

Example: you’re writing a scene and hit a T-Rex sized roadblock in the middle. It’s not working. You don’t know why, so you rewrite the scene a bunch of different ways, but it’s still not working. You go away and come back only to find that, lo and behold, still not fucking working. You bull through. You cut it entirely. You try it again.

Still nothing.

You’re mistaking the symptom—not being able to finish the scene—for the disease. Which is probably a bigger problem, and, significantly, is probably behind you. Maybe you didn’t set this up enough. Maybe you know there’s something off about the character’s reactions. Did you take a wrong turn recently? Go back and read. Does it make sense? Did you not give that scene the time it deserved? Did you make a mistake in motives? Is one of your characters acting strangely? Or are they being so gratuitously stupid they could star in Expendables 4: The Attack of Sly Stone’s Arm Veins

Or is this a world-building problem? Are you trying to explain something that you don’t fully understand yourself? That’s like a toddler trying to explain thermonuclear dynamics: it might be cute as hell, but it’s not getting us anywhere. Sometimes the problem is that you started writing before you were done thinking.

And, yeah, you can bull your way through and move on. But, in my experience, if those sorts of problems crop up once, they’re going to again. Just like that tweaked muscle, if you don’t repair it, it’ll cause problems down the road. 

So, when you’re stuck, take a step back and look behind you. Sometimes a problem sneaks up on you like a coyote ready to rip out your hamstrings. 

*Bare Knuckle Writer: still better than WebMD.

No One Can Teach You How To Write

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Heeeeeeeey! I’ve got some oil to sell you!

I imagine a lot of you got here—here being my little corner of the internet, complete with whiskey fountain and exploding mailboxes—the same way I got to my favourite writing blogs: you were trying to find out how to write.

I had a pretty good idea of the basics—put words one after another, try to make sense, try not to suck—but I’d run into some problem or another and I wanted to get another perspective. Sometimes the problems were mechanical, but more often they were procedural. What’s the best writing schedule? How do I keep the enthusiasm going on a long project? How do I know if this idea is worth devoting my time to? How do I become a writer?

When I Google’d those things, I came up with a few good blogs and a metric assload of self-promoting shills trying to sell me their Perfect Method for Creation. 

*Cue my skepticism face*

Lots of people will say they can tell you how to write. Some of them will even offer to sell you that secret for lots and lots of money. But you should look at them with the same scepticism you’d give a door-to-door cancer cure salesman. Yeah, they might have something worthwhile in that bag of Amazonian Snake Heads, but chances are you’re going to end up poorer and maybe poisoned.

This is not an indictment of writing advice. Advice is different from solutions. Advice says: “here is a way of doing a thing”. Solutions say: “Here is the only possible way of doing a thing and if you don’t see that you’re going to die alone and unloved and bookless, you hackneyed asshole.”

If you look carefully, you can spot the difference. 

No one can tell you how to write. Not even me. All I can do is tell you how I write. Some of that might work for you. Some of it almost certainly won’t. But the point is the take the bits that work and leave the rest to die by the side of the road. Take enough ideas from other people and add in some of your own and before you know it you’ll have a writing method of your very own.

Which will still fail you occasionally. No worries. That’s when you go back to the advice pool and see what you can dredge up.  

And remember: if it doesn’t work, throw it the fuck back.

Monday Challenge: Haunted

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In retrospect, we should have paid a little more attention to this sign outside the door.

My house is haunted.

I’m, like, ninety percent sure of this. For one thing, the stats are there: 

-Our house is almost a hundred years old, which is pretty fucking old for North America. Shush, Europeans.

-I know for sure that at least one person died here.* 

-There’s an attic, which horror movies have convinced me is essential to any haunting.**

Now, to be clear, I don’t think it’s bad haunted. If there’s something living inside the walls of Chez Snow, it’s the type of spirit that randomly rearranges your books and puts your action figures in compromising positions. Not the type that wants to wear your skin like a cheap suit. 

It’s just that things move when I’m not looking. I’ll put everything away for the night and wake up to find books left out. Maybe the cats are more literate than I thought.

I’ve thought of setting up some kind of Misery-like trap—“The Groot bobble head always faces South.”—but if this thing has been here since we moved in, it’s had time to read that book by now.*** I’d probably find Groot in the same position but Knifehead and Gipsy Danger having anatomically improbable sex. 

Monday challenge on the table: things keep moving around when you’re not looking. Who’s moving them?

Updates may be on a strange schedule this week, because we’re gone away. I hope they’ll go up at the right times, but if not you’ll just have to rest assured that my Type A personality with fix it as soon as possible. Or whenever I’m not playing D&D on a beach somewhere.

*That would be the previous owner, who—according to her children, from whom we bought the house—passed away quite peacefully. Of course, if I was selling a house, that’s what I’d say, too.

**Because where else does the ghost live? Obviously.

***If it hasn’t, get on that shit, ghost.

The Ghosts of Past Drafts: Rewriting A Manuscript

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“BITCH GET BACK DOWN THERE.”: St. Michael exorcising demons with the help of of his pretty floral bonnet.

Rewriting is harder than people think. I mean, you have the story down, in one form or another. You have the characters. Now it’s just a matter of taking out the bits that don’t work and replacing them with ones that do. Easy-peasy, right?

Imagine I’m pressing the world’s largest error buzzer right now.

See, it would be easy if the pieces you don’t want were happy to go away. If they would die, quietly and peacefully somewhere out of the way, like a gerbil that crawled into the wall and was never seen again.

But they don’t. They want to live. So they claw and scramble and pester, trying to get back into the story.

This is a problem I call the Haunting. Old drafts can haunt your current one, trying to warp it back to a mirror of themselves, flaws and all. 

Most of the problem is pure authorial laziness. Cutting and pasting without really—and I mean really—examining whether that scene works? Then get your bell, book, and candle, lads, because you’re going to have to exorcise something out of it in the future. 

Rewriting is like fighting the old draft for control. 

I was trying to rewrite a scene. A pivotal one, one that had been in the story since its very conception, when it was but a story fetus. I was fine with how it started and ended in the original, but the bits in the middle didn’t work with the changes I’d made. This will be easy, I thought. After all, the end points are the same. It’s just a matter of joining them up in a new way. Simple.

But every time I tried to rewrite it, the old scene wanted to intrude. Dialogue that I liked tried to work itself in, despite the fact that none of those characters were present any more. A fight kept trying to go a certain way when it had to go differently. Even setting details kept creeping in. The ghosts of those old drafts were doing their damnedest to hang on. 

When I realized what the problem was, I closed all other windows, including the old drafts I was working from, opened a new document, set my computer to block all incoming notifications, and started rewriting that scene again. With nothing to refer back to, it went easier. Not easy, mind you. I still had to claw for every sentence. But at the end of that day, I had a scene that was no longer haunted. 

A note for those of you embarking on the journey that is the rewrite: watch out for ghosts. Because they’ll drag you back every chance they get. 

Drop and Give Me 50 Pages: Using (and Losing) Creativity

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If it helps, imagine me doing this.

People tend to look at creativity as a natural talent. Some people are creative, some aren’t. And there’s not a whole lot you can do to gain it if you don’t have it.

Bullshit.

Creativity is a skill. Anyone can pick it up, anyone can expand it. But you have to be willing to change long established patterns of thought, and that’s fucking hard. So most people don’t do it. 

But it’s completely within reach. And creativity, like most skills, gets better and easier the more you use it.

In other words, you get creative by doing creative shit. I know that sounds like the worst kind of circular logic, but hear me out.

When you first start doing creative stuff, it will be hard, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while. I took years off from doing anything creative (thanks, back-to-back theses). When I finally went back, it was like trying to remember how to do a backflip when you haven’t since you were seven. Things that used to be so simple are more complicated because you’ve lost the habit.

But you can always get it back. Think of it like working out: if you take years off from exercising, then those first couple of months getting back to the rink or the field or the gym are going to be fucking rough. But the only way you can get better is if you keep doing it.

And, like a muscle getting stronger, you creativity will expand. It’ll get used to doing the stuff you’re asking and look for new challenges.

If I can keep the gym metaphor going for a while, take it easy at the beginning. Make little goals and hit them. Ease back in. It’ll help you avoid injury and burnout. If you go all out, you won’t tear your ACL like an armchair quarterback rushing back onto the field for the first time since he was 18. But you might hit a roadblock and get so frustrated that you quit again. Like getting back in the game after a lay-off, do some stretches, warm up a little, and then see what you’ve got in the tank.

One more thing: be willing to look stupid. If you’re not, you won’t get far. And, in the words of Our Lady of Fabulous, RuPaul, “Your fear of looking stupid is making you look stupid.”

Get out there, all you out of shape creatives. Run a few laps of the imagination track and remember, as you’re huffing and sweating: it gets easier.

Monday Challenge: Roll Your Skill Check And Pray To Your Gods

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Have you considered bringing Hamster Berserkers into your story? Or your life?

When you write something—especially the first time you write something—there’s a sense of inevitability. That’s the way the scene goes because of course that’s how it goes. Especially if you like it. That’s it, man. No room for error.

Except there is. I’ve played enough tabletop RPGs to know that one critical failure at the wrong time can change the best-laid plans of mice, men, and hobgoblins. And real life always has room for chaos.

Of course, writing a story is different than playing a game and, you know, living, because you do have more control. You can make sure things go the way you want. I’d be lying if I said this control wasn’t a big draw to writing for me. 

But that sense of control can put shackles on your creativity. Sometimes we get so enamoured with the way things should go that we forget about the possibilities and miss out on something a hell of a lot more interesting.

Imagining a critical story point going a different way is also a useful tool for detecting plot holes. If your story relies on a staggering amount of things amazing failing to go wrong, you might want to rethink that. A reader will accept one or two coincidences, but a whole string of them smacks of laziness and a peculiar contempt for the reader’s intelligence. 

This is not to say that whatever counter-factual scene you imagine will replace the one you already had. Sometimes you do get it right the first time. But tweaking so the hero accidentally casts the Spell of Ultimate Destruction and Tacos on her friend instead of the villain can lead to some interesting places.

And let’s face it: we wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t like fucking with people.

Monday Challenge time: There’s a scene you’ve written that went a very specific way. It’s hard to imagine it going any other way now. 

Write it going differently.

Maybe instead of saying exactly the right thing at the right time, someone says the wrong thing. Maybe they screw up. Or, if the scene is a screw up already, maybe they roll a natural 20 on their skill check and fucking kill it. Maybe they’re not there at all, and someone else has to do this.

Twist it, shake it, and see what falls out. You never know: it might be your new favourite thing ever.