Idea Seeds: How It All Starts

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HI I’M THE IDEA FAIRY.

So, you’ll be doing something completely fucking mundane, like grocery shopping or showering or brushing your teeth. And while you’re zoning out and thinking of nothing but cereal or whether or not you should shave or floss, something appears. A scene. A character. A plot. For me, it’s usually two characters and a terrible situation, because I am a terrible person.

And you’ll pause, with a box of Lucky Charms in hand or with the water running over you or with toothpaste dripping from your chin, and look at this thing in your mind for a while. Eventually you stop asking where they came from; you just look, and see if it’s going to do anything interesting.

And sometimes it does, right away, and you can play with it while you finish your shopping or rise or spit. And sometimes it doesn’t, and you have to put it away on a mental shelf somewhere with a lot of other things and hope that someday it does.

When they get interesting, you sit down with a notebook or a laptop or the voice recorder on your bloody phone or a sharpie and your bare skin, and take notes. What it can do, what it can’t, what it needs to become. And eventually you wrestle it into a shape somewhere between what you want it to be and what you’re capable of making.

Once the writing starts, it moves again, because this thing is alive, and it’s evolving, and it’s making itself as much as you’re making it. Sometimes it won’t go anywhere because you’re looking in the wrong direction. Sometimes it’ll die because either it’s not right or you’re not, and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Sometimes dead ones come back, because they weren’t dead, they were just waiting for the right time.

And sooner or later you’ll have a story. It won’t be what you thought it was. It never is. But it’s enough.

You’ll look back, and remember that moment in the grocery store or the bathroom, and the first thing that appeared. And sometimes you’ll see the road from there to here clearly; other times it’ll be hidden behind years and edits, because you were a different person then.

And then, one day while you’re doing something completely fucking mundane, it’ll happen again.

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Recycling From The Fail Pile

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Not Pictured: That Manuscript. This is a completely different one.

I wrote a scene for a book ten years ago.

Shit. Writing that sentence was the first time I stopped to do that particular math. Fuck. That was longer ago than I thought.

Anyway, this was my first finished book. It sucked. I mean, it’s not spectacularly bad– it doesn’t physically hurt me to read it, like some of my earlier, unfinished stories–but it still sucks. It will remain in cold storage indefinitely, or until the sun explodes and burns us all to a crisp.

But there was this one scene. I liked it. I still like it. Not the way it was written, because, dude, I was just starting out then. I had spent the previous six years writing academic papers. My fiction writing was not great, to say the least. I could over-explain like a boss, though.

But I liked the idea behind this scene. It’s one of the only parts I remember really clearly from that first book, so it stuck with me, even after the rest has been mercifully flushed down the memory hole.

And over the weekend, I was doing the brain work on another story and I realized something.

I had written that scene for the wrong book.

The one it belonged in was the one I was working on now.

So what’s the moral of this tale? Well, it’s not never throw anything away, because some of the stuff you produce will be complete garbage and you should absolutely throw garbage away.

But some things don’t stay on the compost heap. They claw their way back. And those…those you should give a second look. Because it might be a case of right place, wrong time. Write place, wrong time, maybe, if I’m allowed a moment to be completely insufferable.

Old scenes, old characters, old plots can be reused, especially if you originally created them for something that never quite came together. Break it down for spares and use the parts that work.

And let the rest stay on the fail heap. For now.

On Bad Days

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Maybe this will soften the blow of the swears I’m about to drop.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story will have days where that story turns on them, rending the skin from their face and chewing on their entrails.*

Yesterday was that day.

Today? Jury’s still out. My entrails are still scattered on the hardwood and I’ve yet to try reading the future in them.

This is the point where I suppose I should write something inspiring about how bad days make better writers, about the Artist’s Fight, about how even James Joyce struggled. Except fuck James Joyce.

Or I could do a list. People love lists. Seven Things To Do When Writing Sucks Harder Than A Closeted Varsity Athlete, maybe.

Except I don’t want to.

What I want to do is write. It is what gives my days purpose.

But I need to get this blog post done first. Not that I think any of you live and die by my words, but I made a commitment. And if there is one rule for writing, it is: finish.

So. Bad day yesterday. And if you’re here because you had a bad day, then I only have one thing to say.

So?

Bad days happen. You can spend your time navel-gazing about whether this means you don’t have it in you to be a writer, beating your breast about the difficulty, the unfairness, the grand sweeping suckitude of it all.

Or you can get on with things.

Pick up your entrails, stuff them back in your body, and duct-tape everything together. Staple your face back on. Smile.

Because we’ve got work to do.

*I’d say “with apologies to Jane Austen”, but I’m not sorry. I might be an asshole, but I’m not going to add ‘liar’ on top of that.

Where To Find Ideas When Your Brain Has Dried Up

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Come on, the ideas are just waiting. Photo by Stephanie Snow

The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.

The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.

The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.

The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.

The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.

The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.

The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.

The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.

Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.

Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?

Post-Mortem: Gutting Your New Year’s Resolutions

If this was your list, maybe skip this post.

Here we are, three months into the new year. Is it still new? Or is it a slightly used year now? Previously loved? Whatever, 2015 is now one-quarter over, and you know what that means?

It’s time to check in on those New Year’s Resolutions you made.

Now, before you look guiltily at your running shoes and then dive head-first into a bag or Doritos, I am not here to make you feel bad. I’m quite sure most of you have other people for that.*

All I want you to do is think back. Did you make a resolution? How did it go for you? If you stuck with it, why? And if you didn’t, why not?

Don’t turn away from this stuff, especially if you didn’t follow through on your resolution. Yeah, it might suck to look at what you consider to be a failure, but look anyway. Get down there, rip it open, and sniff the entrails of the failed attempt, because they are fucking full of information.

This is where you learn stuff. About yourself, what motivates you, what doesn’t, what can keep you going when you don’t want to,  and what makes you give up in hopeless frustration.

So do your post-mortem. Did you resolve to write 1,000 words every day and give up halfway through January? Then maybe that’s not the right goal for you. How about 500? Or writing every weekend? Or maybe not writing at all, and spending that time on something you actually enjoy. Or perhaps you need a different type of motivation: writing a flash fiction story and posting on Twitter every day.

Or, if you persevered, why? What kept you going? Because, after three months, I know damn well that there were days you wanted to give up. So what did you use to keep yourself on the path when the going got rougher than off-roading on a bike made of cheese graters?

For my resolutions—finish The Book by July, finish a sketch every day—I’ve been making good progress. I had to take three weeks off from writing due to Serious Health Issue at the end of January/beginning of February, but I got back on the horse and kept going. And I still kept up the sketching during that time. I used things like my sticker motivation calendar and public accountability in the form of posting the daily sketches to Facebook to keep me on track. As of now, I have 89 sketches (missed a day in the hospital) and 70,000 new words on the novel manuscript. Go, me.

Make notes. Examine where you succeeded, and where you failed. And be better prepared for next year, when we’ll do this all over again.

So, that’s me. How about you? Did you make resolutions? Did you stick to them? Did you learn anything from not sticking to them?

*If you don’t, then there is a surcharge for Making You Feel Bad, which comes in Regular, Mocking, and Disappointed Mother Who Only Wants The Best For You flavours.

The Creative Brain And Other Bullshit

If you look close, you can see the creativity.

I was going to write a response to this article, but Chuck Wendig seems to have taken care of that for me, so just go read his instead. It has the added benefit of Urethral Bees. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, really, what are you doing with your life?

Instead, I’m going address another pervasive myth that creators of any kind have run across: the myth of the Creative Brain.

Raise your hand if you create—anything, from carpentry to cooking to handicrafts to sculpture, not just writing—and have heard this:

“I wish I could do that.”

“You were born with so much talent.”

And my personal favourite:

“Who even thinks of that?”*

What do all these statements have in common? They all assume the existence of a special type of mind, a creative type, which is different from a normal person’s. And, significantly, that this type is one that you are born with. Weren’t born like that? Fuck you, back of the Creativity Line.

Bullshit. No one is born creative. Or maybe the better way to look at is that no one is born uncreative. Life takes a certain amount of creativity, and you start right at the beginning, figuring out a way out of your crib and deciding if you can blame that mess on the dog. Children are creative. Just listen to one lie and you’ll be blown away by the breadth and depth of their deception. And by the way it doesn’t make sense, but that’s also creative. And awesome, even when they’re lying to your face about the ninjas that came from the ceiling vents to fight the dinosaurs from the basement and that’s how the lamp got broken.**

The difference between those kids and all the adults who mourn their lack of creativity is that no one tells the kids they can’t do it.***

Anyone can be creative. It’s just a matter of training your mind to think in certain ways. Ways that you, having grown out of dinosaur-fighting ninjas, probably think are dumb.

And that’s where the problem lies. People who think creative people are special forget that, for every idea that blows you away, we have hundreds, thousands, that are dumb. That don’t even make a lick of sense. That never pass the first test, which is: can I explain this to another human? ‘Should I’ is another important question, but that comes later.

You want the creativity, you have to be willing to be dumb. Silly. You can’t build the wall between ‘serious’ and ‘silly’ in your mind and expect things flow. You have to think the stupid things and not immediately push them away, because very clever things can often masquerade as stupid at first glance. Only by careful examination will you sort one from the other.

Best thing about this sort of thinking is that it’s never too late to start, if you really want it. Sure, it might be hard, but push against your brain boundaries and sooner or later they’ll give way.

And you never know: maybe you’ll like what’s on the other side of that wall more.

*I mostly like the undertone of horror with this one.

**For real, kids are awesome.

***All right, some people do, but they’re assholes.

From My Reading Pile: ARTING HARD LIKE AN ARTFUL MOTHERFUCKER by Chuck Wendig

And this is just the whites.

I just got back from vacation, and in addition to bringing home a pile of laundry the approximate size and shape of a medium-sized mountain*, I have also brought home a lot of stuff to do. Oddly, I usually find it easier to keep up on blog stuff while on vacation than while working through the crap that piled up while I was gone.

But one of the things that I have on my list today is to read and sort the research articles that accumulated during the away phase. In that pile was this, from Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog: ARTING HARD LIKE AN ARTFUL MOTHERFUCKER: 25 WAYS TO BE A BAD-ASS MAKER WHO MAKES BAD-ASS STUFF. All about how to live a creative life, but with lots more swearing and the possibility of making money at it. Go and read and learn something. I know I did.

Bare Knuckle Writer posts resume on Monday.

*Ie, big enough to brag about climbing, small enough that you probably won’t die on the trek.