Coffee, Create, Repeat: Planning Chaos

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My schedule is not that different from this. I even schedule a nap some days.

I have a daily routine: get up, read articles, drink coffee, get dressed*, write, exercise, lunch, shower, edit. Nearly all of the aforementioned activities are accompanied by music and the occasional caffeinated beverage. It sounds boring. That’s because it is. And that’s by design.

The less random daily shit I have to devote brain power to, the more space gets freed up for actual creativity. In other words, every second I don’t spend deciding if I’m going to read articles before or after my run is a second that I can use to think of reasons why my main villain seemingly devoted his entire life to being a giant douche. You know, the important stuff.

People think creativity is all about chaos: the endless swirl of energy that moves ideas around in your head and makes you spew them out on the page or the canvas or the eight-track**. And, you know, that’s part of it. But only part. Because the secret is to balance chaos with order. Very little gets created when you’re standing in front of the open fridge, wondering if you should have lunch now or later.

And then there’s the matter of time management. If your writing routine consists of ‘sitting down whenever I feel like it and scribbling down a few words before not looking at it for a month’, then you’re not going to produce as much work as someone with a more regular routine. Because of that, what you do produce will likely be of lower quality as well. Not because of talent, but because in order to get better at something you have to work at it consistently. I started a routine a couple of years ago, and the improvements I’ve seen in my writing in that span of time have kicked the living shit out of the improvements I saw in the years before when I was flailing around and figuring things out.

Now, what ‘consistently’ means to you is variable. I have to write five days out of seven, but I often do more because I want to. A lot of weeks I write every day. But not everyone likes to do that, even if they can. Maybe you’re a Saturday writer. And that’s fine. Maybe your routine involves getting up at 2 am to paint yourself with chocolate frosting and run naked through your neighbour’s backyard. And that’s fine, too.*** Whatever your routine is, just make sure it works—i.e., it makes you write.

And don’t forget to break your own rules every now and then. It’s a routine, not a prison sentence.

* I don’t like working in my pyjamas, though since I work from home, I totally could if I wanted to. That’s right: I’m just throwing that opportunity away because I can.
**I know there are artists out there who record on vinyl; is there anyone who’s doing eight-tracks?
***Just stay out of my backyard. I’ve placed bear traps.

The 7 Faces of Doubt, Or How To Never Get Anything Done, Ever

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That bat-faced little shit in the bottom right, he’s the Distraction Of The Internet.

Doubt is the worst of all demons. You can keep those weird ones with the goat faces that haunted Sunday School when I was but a wee impressionable young thing.* Doubt is the worst because 1) it’s insidious and 2) most of the time, you’re the one producing it. I’ve never met a creative person who wasn’t, at some moments, a festering boil of doubt. You’re being your own demon, which I imagine is a big savings for Hell. Teach people to condemn themselves, save demon-power. Of course, it’s non-unionized work, but you can’t have everything.

But doubt it a tricky bastard. It doesn’t always look the same, and sometimes it brings friends. Sometimes it takes the form of something so different that it could be mistaken for something sensible. But it’s a lie, and you need to be able to see through it.

So, to help you with your daily projects, writing and otherwise, here is my spotter’s guide to doubt:**

1. Procrastination: If you never get around to it, it doesn’t count as ‘failing’, right?

2. Research: I just need to know how yaks were essential in to the culture and economy of the mountain people of Outer Mongolia***, and then I can start.

3. Tiredness: Oh, I was totally going to get to that today, but I didn’t sleep too well last night because I had that dream about the robot otters again. And, you know, there’s not enough coffee, and I could really use a cookie, and *indeterminate waffling noises*. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s fine.

4. The ‘Muse’: I just don’t feel it. You don’t expect me to work when she’s not here, do you? Art cannot be rushed!****

5. Distraction. OH MY GOD I LOVE TWITTER SO FUCKING MUCH.

6. Perfection: I can’t start until I have the perfect opening line. And I can’t move on until I’m sure that everything is in place. It has to be perfect, or there’s no point. It’s not like there’s a thing called ‘editing’.

7. Timing: Ehn, it’s not really a good time now. I haven’t had enough Yak Butter tea*****, and it looks like it’s going to rain. Besides, I only start things on the first day of the month, and this month that was a Sunday, and I don’t work on Sundays. Maybe next time things will line up right. Today….mmm, doesn’t look good. Sorry.

So, what form is your doubt taking today?
*Honestly, I’m surprised more Catholics don’t write horror. The shit they tell you in Mass is fucking terrifying.
**At the moment, I’m dealing mainly with #3 and #7, with a side order of Holy Crap Am I Busy.
***…I actually wrote ‘yak’, realized I was just going on old movies to assume they were in Tibet and the like, and had to take a ninety second research break. IRONY FOR THE WIN.
****Fuck yeah it can. In the words of Henry Miller, “Even when you can’t create, you can work”. It’s not all fairy dust and magic wands; sometimes you need a sledgehammer.
*****Now I’m stuck on yaks. Though using the reference twice means the research is less a waste of time, right?

Monday Challenge: Chicks Dig Scars

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Not the scar I had in mind, but judging from the Internet, a lot of chicks dig this guy, too.

I’ve got a huge scar on my right knee. The full details of the incident can be read here, along with accompanying pictures of the original injury, but these days it’s healed into a weird crater-like mark over the bottom half of my kneecap. It still looks odd and as of yet I haven’t regained feeling in the whole thing. Pretty sure I left some nerve endings on the pavement that day. On the bright side, when I inevitably fall down again—because I will—it will likely hurt less.

Scars have stories. Sometimes they’re silly ones, like mine; other times they’re dangerous and daring tales full of adventure. Or, if you’re my dad, cautionary tales related to work accidents.* But there’s always a story, always something that goes along with the mark. Because scars are your body’s notation system. They’re the way you remember to do things, or not do others. They’re reminders.

But for some scars, and for some people, there are two stories: the one that happened, and the one they tell.

We shift things for a lot of reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that I edited some of the details of the above story. Not out of a desire to conceal anything, but because, hell, I’m a writer. I want to make a story out of everything. There has to be a narrative flow instead of just things happening one after another. And sometimes we change the details of our stories because we wished it had happened slightly differently. Or that it hadn’t happened at all.

Your characters do the same thing.

Monday Challenge time, you grubby little wombats: What scars does your character have, and what story do they tell about them? It might be the truth, or a version of it. Or it might be something a little more…colourful. Or less, depending on the provenance of those scars. Sometimes the version we tell is the less exciting one.

Show me their scars and tell me their stories, people. Get to it.

*Lesson learned: never believe the other guy when he says he shut off the air pressure to the valve you’re about to open, because if he hasn’t, you’re gonna lose a finger.

Livin’ In A Material World: Characters and Objects

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You want a signature object? Try not thinking of this as a Sherlock Holmes hat.

I’m this close to buying a pendant off Etsy because it’s very much like something one of my characters wears. In fact, at this point, it’s damn near identical, because when I saw this version, the one in my book subtly changed to match it. It was too perfect for the character, and now I’m trying to decide if I want a copy of my own to wear while writing about this guy kicking ass and taking names.*

Why? Because things are important.

You can make this as materialistic as you want, but humans place a lot of stock in things. Tools. Symbols. Whether they’re things we need to do our jobs or just things that make us feel like us, things are a part of how we see ourselves and how others see us. A surprising amount of people have a signature item, something that’s always with them and without which they would feel a little…off. Maybe you’re that guy who always wears big leather boots, or has a huge collection of comic book t-shirts**. Maybe you’re that lady who loves red lipstick.*** Or you could be that person with the really cool glasses that you wear all the time. Nor does the item have to be fashion-related. It could be a holy symbol you wear beneath your clothes, or your lucky underpants. It could be a book.

All you armchair philosophers out there who are getting ready to tell me that those things don’t make us who we are…I know they don’t. Because that’s ass-backwards. They’re a physical manifestation of who we are, and who we want the world to think we are. Inside becoming outside.

Characters are the same. They have symbols. Things that they always have with them, that in a small way helps them feel like themselves. So if you really want to get inside their skin…think about that stuff. Give them tokens. Pieces of their history that they carry around, readable to anyone who knows the code. The guy who owns that necklace I’m thinking about buying? He’s had it since he was thirteen, when he killed something to get the pieces of the pendant. The part-time sheriff of his piss-ant little one horse town hammered it together for him so he wouldn’t forget. And he never has.

So, turn out your character’s pockets. Check their clothes and their bags. What are they carrying that’s theirs in more ways than just possession? What defines them, in their own eyes or in the eyes of others?

Figure that out, and you’ll know more about them.

*Ah, who am I kidding? I know I’m going to order this.
**Bonus fact: I am both these guys.
***I’m also this lady.

The Power Of Hate: Making Monsters

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You wanna get a drink after we’re done burning this place down?

The opposite of the hero is not the villain*. It is the monster.

The hero and the villain are often flip sides of the same coin. One dark and one light, they nevertheless have a connection. A common background, a common cause, a shared set of ideals…the villain has something of the hero’s, just twisted.

The monster, however, is a different beast altogether. They can sometimes be the villain, but not always; sometimes they’re an associate or a secondary villain, sometimes they’re a henchman** who lurks in the corner, exuding menace like Axe Body Spray at a junior high dance. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they are the one who does the unthinkable: sets fire to the house with the kids still inside, butchers the village even after they collected the taxes, lets the virulent toxin loose in the air recycling systems of the old folk’s space station. The monster goes toward evil—and then goes a step further.

If you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie where there was a bad guy…and then the guy that you really hated, you’ve met the monster.

Sometimes the villain and the monster are the same person. One memorable Stephen King book I read had the villain, very early on in the book, beat a dog to death because it tore his pants. It was a horrifying act, clearly defining that man as both the villain and a monster. Heroes are often said to have a ‘Save the Cat’ moment—the point in the story where they, literally or figuratively, save a cat from a burning building because they’re the hero, god damn it. Monsters can have the opposite: a ‘Kick the Cat’ moment. Or, in this case, kick the dog. The point where they hurt someone because they can.

To take a pop culture reference: in the Harry Potter series***, Voldemort is the villain, hands down. But Bellatrix Lestrange is the monster. [Spoilers coming, though if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies by now, I doubt you’re going to, so quit your fucking complaining.] She kills Sirius, tortures Hermione, and is not only responsible for the worst crime of the entire series, but gloats about it. The characters fear Voldemort; they hate Bellatrix.

And that’s the point of the monster: to make us hate. It’s an emotional investment in the story. Just like the characters we love, the ones we hate draw us in. Some villains we can understand, or even empathize with, despite their actions. But not these guys. We just want them to die. Or, at the very least, be confined to the deepest, darkest prison imaginable with no hope of parole. They become the lightning rod for our desire for revenge and we want to see them go the fuck down.

Even better: because of their nature, we can safely hate them. They have no hope of redemption. There is no saving the monsters.

Nor does there need to be. Because there’s nothing that gets your audience going like the character they love to hate.

*Or not always. Read the rest of the post, ding bat.
**Women are significantly underrepresented in the henching fields.
***Using this one because I’m reading it again.

Monday Challenge: Draw A Card

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You’ll never look at Pac-Man the same way again.

I played Cards Against Humanity with some friends this weekend*. Actually, in point of fact, we played Crabs Adjust Humidity, which is a third-party expansion, because we’ve played the regular game and all the expansions so much we needed to look to outside sources in order to fulfill our Being Horrible People quota. In our defence, we all have a high threshold for that sort of thing, so it takes some doing to fill our needs.**

If you’ve never played the game, I highly recommend it. It’s kind of horrible, but, if you’re reading this blog, I assume that you are also, in some small way, kind of horrible. It’s okay, though. So am I. This is a safe space.

Anyway, the game consists of drawing question cards from a deck and attempting to answer them in the most creative way possible from the answer cards in your hand. It wasn’t much of a stretch from there to writing prompts. The only difference is that you will have to come up with your own answers. They can be strange or obscene, they can be unusual, but they should be yours.

So, drawn directly from the deck of Cards Against Humanity on my dining room table, I present today’s Monday Challenge: What’s that smell?

Dazzle me.

*The regular group, that my husband insists on calling the Wolf Pack, mostly because it annoys me.

**While setting up the links for this post, I discovered a fourth expansion pack for Cards Against Humanity that I don’t have. ORDERED.

Bathroom Break: Life Details In Fiction

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Thank you, Poop Writer, for inspiring this post. At least you did something right.

I once read a story in which every characters’ bowel movements were graphically described.*

It wasn’t a very long story—maybe ten pages, max. But, of those ten, about three were devoted to detailing the process and product of taking a dump. And those pages were so detailed that I can barely remember the plot of the story. Everything else has been eclipsed by the endless descriptions of shit. I’m not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination, but at a certain point even I was all, Enough, dude. What’s the point of this?

When I read the afterword—yes, it was one of those publications that has afterwords for short stories, presumably to give the authors a chance to explain what the hell they just did to you—the author discussed how s/he** was striving for more realistic stories. S/he felt that most stories didn’t accurately represent the actual human experience, as far as conversation, thought processes, and, of course, sitting on the porcelain throne.

To which I say: well, duh.

Had Poop Writer been in my home at that time, I likely would have pointed out that fiction doesn’t need to be a perfect representation of daily life, with all its dead ends and wanderings and everyday boring errands, physical or otherwise. We already have something that does that. We call it life.

Fiction*** is an idealized representation of reality. It’s streamlined. It has to be, because fiction has something life doesn’t: plot. There’s a story being told in there somewhere, and all things are in service to it. Even ‘reality’ television knows this rule, which is why story lines and villains and drama emerge in every season. Someone out there is carefully cutting those scenes together and making a story out of them instead of the random, chaotic mess that is real life.

Which means I damn well don’t want to read about your characters musing on their digestive tract health unless it is key to the story.

It’s not just bathroom breaks; I’ve read things that had the occasional detour into What The Hell Land many times. Unreasonably long sections about running errands. The minutia of hair styling. And, on one memorable occasion, an entire chapter devoted to deer hunting and the preparation of the skins for wearing. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting, or even useful to the story. But in these cases, they weren’t. They were just…filler. Or the author showing off how much they knew.

When writing fiction, children, remember this: if it doesn’t serve the plot or illustrate character—preferably both—leave it on the killing floor. If it does one or both of those things, it’s probably a keeper.

Even if it’s about poop.

*I typed that sentence one-handed because I was drinking coffee at the same time. My right hand skipped most of the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Presumably because it thought the left hand was on that. Muscle memory is weird. Anyway. Back to the post.
**Can no longer remember the author’s gender. Or name. They will forever and always be known to my brain as The Poop Writer.
***Usual caveats apply. Surrealist fiction is, of course, a horse of a completely different colour with seven legs.