You Get A Gold Star: Tracking and Motivation

I would need a matching roll that said FAIL for days I missed.

Tracking writing progress is hard. Not the actual process, because every damn word processor has a word count dealie that you can enable and either watch obsessively as it goes up with every keystroke or check every now and then. But it can be hard, when you’re working toward an uncertain conclusion—Will you finish? Will it get published?—to feel like you’re getting anywhere except deeper into a hole.

So I added stickers.

This isn’t my idea. I came across it on Twitter when someone posted a picture of their month back in December, and Google’d my way around until I found this video. The idea is pretty simple: assign a value to a sticker. A day’s writing, say, or 500 words, or an hour, or three pages. Get a calendar. Every time you hit that goal, put a sticker on that day’s square.

Maybe it’s the undying third grader in me, but I love stickers. I did back then, when I had a sticker album and would trade with friends at recess*, and I do now, when I use them to track my writing progress.

Thirty-two years old, and I’m still collecting stickers. I’m pretty sure that’s on the next season of Intervention.

The whole point of this is to give you a visual cue to show your progress. You could do this with your computer or phone, I guess, but for me that’s not the same. I have to turn those on, for one thing. The calendar—Legend of Zelda, FYI—hangs right next to my desk where I can look at it before I fire up any of the Space Age Devices in the morning. I can see the progress I’ve made, and, just as importantly, I can see where I didn’t make any progress. I can see days I skipped, empty of stickers. Such a tragedy.

I’m using the stickers to track other stuff, too. Red is writing. Blue is sketching. Yellow is bloggery. Pink is reading. Which of course just adds another layer of obsession: I have to get them all.

My point: don’t be afraid to do something downright silly in order to motivate yourself. In fact, don’t be afraid to do something downright silly ever. Life’s too short.

So, how are you guys getting your January motivation on?

*But not the sparkly ones.** Never the sparkly ones. Proof that I was a magpie even then.

**You can have the damn fuzzies, though.

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New Year, New Manuscript: Kicking Ass in 2015

Does anyone know what happened last night?

*Emerges from a cocoon of chocolate boxes and gift wrap*

*Flails around for coffee*

*Finds coffee*

*Drinks all the coffee there is now and ever will be*

Right. That’s sorted.

So, back after the holiday break. Whether or not you celebrated anything at all, I hope you had a nice one. If you did not, then I hope it was because you were bereft without my presence and not anything serious. I got a mohawk while we were apart. Small children love it, and one of my favourite things this holiday season was when little boys and girls would tell me how much they liked it while their parents looked on in horror. I hope at least one of those children locked themselves in the bathroom with a set of clippers this Christmas and had a go at making their own mohawk. If not, maybe next year, Santa.

Now that the gifts, food, and bullshit family drama is being packed away for another year, its time to get back to business. You might be taking the year off, and that’s fine, but after a couple of weeks I’m ready to get back in the saddle. Those of you who are joining me, mount up. The rest of you, catch up to us later.

The thing about this time of year is that everyone and their dog and their dog’s dog is making resolutions. Which are so often broken that otherwise sensible people who want to change something are leery about the idea because, if they fail, it puts them in the same category as everyone whose gym membership is gathering dust by January 20th.

Which is bullshit. Not doing something because everyone is doing it is just as stupid as doing something because everyone is doing it. Either way, you’re letting someone else make your decisions.

Personally, I like resolutions. They might be a cliche, but I’m not above a cliche. It also feels like a good time of year to do things like this. The days have turned, ever so slightly, back toward light. And whatever darkness we carried into the ground-down stump of the year has been burned away on bonfires and fireworks, leaving just us, clean and ready to start again.

So. Resolution. I am going to finish this book before the end of the year.

Now that I’ve said it, I have to make it true, or else I’ll be a liar.

Coming back after a break, though, can be a rough road to ride. Easy to fall off. Easy to get discouraged. My best trick for coming back after a significant break—whether it was precipitated by holidays, illness, or just life getting in the goddamn way again—is to set the bar low. Make hitting that goal easier, but, and this is important, make damn sure you hit that goal every day. Then, when it gets too easy—like, you don’t even have to try—increase the goal.

What an easy goal looks like will be up to you. For me, it’s 500 words: the bare minimum I feel I can get done every day. For you, it might be 100. Or 67. Or 3,000. If you go past that number, great. Reward yourself somehow. Not with something that detracts from the original goal, though. For example, no extra days off if you go over. That’s like rewarding yourself for eating healthy by mainlining pixie sticks and caramel sauce: it is damaging to your overall goal. Instead, if you go over your writing goal, have a cookie. Watch a movie. Smash old cathode ray tubes. I have some posts about rewards that I’m working on for future days, so more on that later.

So, your turn: who’s making word-herding a part of their 2015 plan?

Stealing Inspiration: What To Do When You Get Stuck

Yoink.

In an ideal world, the words would always come when you needed them to. And every computer would double as an espresso maker.*

In the world we have, though, you will, sooner or later, get stuck. Maybe you wake up too tired to properly boot up your brain that morning**, maybe you’re just running low on the old imagination juice. The inspiration tank is low.

You need to go steal some.

Inspiration isn’t rare. It’s not some precious spark that drifts down from the heavens/up from the underworld once every century or so. If it was, we’d have a lot fewer books and movies and comics and ill-advised artistic endeavours than we do.

Inspiration, in fact, is everywhere.

But you have to look for it. And I think this is where the rarity myth comes into play: we think it’s rare because it finds us only occasionally. That’s because we have to go out and hunt it down. And when you find it, you have to steal it like a ninja with a maxed-out Dexterity stat.

If you’re finding yourself stuck this morning, like I am, there are places you can go. Inspiration, like any prey, has habits and haunts that make it easier to find. Look to the places you usually find inspiration. There are blogs and books full of writing prompts. If you head to the NaNoWriMo forums, you’ll find pages and pages of ‘adoptable’: random plot/character/setting/word elements that you can steal and put in your own work. Some of them don’t seem to work at first, but even the mental exercise of trying to imagine how a lesbian stripper ninja will fit into your historical romance set in medieval Scotland can jumpstart your brain.

Writing prompts not doing it for you? Go for a read. Read something new and try to decide if it works. If so, why? If not, why not? Or read an old favourite and try to put your finger, mandible, or pseudopod on just why you like it so much. Reading something great might inspire you to get your own story moving.

Or maybe you don’t need words. Go look at some pretty or not-so-pretty pictures on DeviantArt. Listen to some music that gets you in the mood. Put on a favourite movie and let it play in the background as you get down to business.

Somewhere out there is the thing that will give you that spark you need for today. But you need to get off your ass and go find it.

*As long as I’m wishing for the impossible, I’d actually like mine to do triple duty as a computer, espresso maker, and fully-functional mech suit. And I’d like for cigarettes to improve your health.

**That’s me. My neighbours were having an epic screaming match in the street last night. Net result: five cop cars.

No One Can Teach You How To Write

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.

Writing By Comet-Light: The Lie Of The Right Time

The people in 1070 realize it’s finally time to write that strawpunk bubonic plague epic.

Here is a pervasive myth of our era: I’ll start when it’s the right time.

When I can concentrate. When I feel creative. When I can devote my undivided attention to it.

And “the right time” goes on to encompass a set of demands so far-reaching and esoteric that it could be Slayer’s tour rider. When it’s Sunday. When the moon’s full. When I have a bowl of M&Ms and two bottles of Cristal and 100 white goats for sacrifice.

But the fact of existence is that the perfect time never comes along. Ever. I’ve been on the look out for a perfect time for more than thirty fucking years and I haven’t seen one yet. Maybe they only come along at great intervals, like Halley’s Comet.

And, guaranteed, there’s someone out there waiting for the next appearance of that flaming sky ball to start writing something. See you in 2061, asshole. Rest assured we’re not waiting with bated breath for whatever masterpiece you think you’ll shit out by the light of a comet.

There will never be a right time to start anything. So you might as well get off your ass and do it now.

What’s the rush, you say. I have time. What’s the hurry?

The hurry is that the reaper is on you trail, motherfucker. And you don’t know how close it is.

A little melodramatic, but it’s true. There might not be time tomorrow. Okay, it might not be death that slows you down*, but there’s always something else. Social gatherings. Jobs. Families. The siren song of bad television. The inertia of trying to start something new. 

I fall prey to this as much as anyone. For years, I put off writing because there wasn’t time. I was busy: studying, moving, doing thesis work, learning to fight, learning to be in a relationship, learning what happens when you overwork and burn out. I couldn’t possibly add another thing to that pile.

And maybe I was right. But I know that I wouldn’t have burned out so hot and so fast if I’d made time—even a little; an hour a week, maybe—to work on something I loved as much as fiction writing.

If you wait around for the perfect time, you’ll grow old and die without doing anything. And I’m not even talking about climbing mountains or figuring out how to use monkey blood to power your robot army. This is writing. You start writing by opening up to a new page and putting words on it. Words that you know. As far as barriers to entry go, it’s only marginally higher than putting on your fucking socks. And you have to do that twice.

After getting started, of course, things change. You have to work at doing better. At doing it right. And that’s a whole other bucket of snakes. But realizing that you can start whenever you want is a pretty damn big snake on it’s own.

There is no right time. There is only the time that you make.

*Especially if the assassins fail again.

Brains Riding Shotgun: Problem Solving With Other Writers

Ride together, dress as gnomes together.

Sometimes, while motoring along the story highway in your mental equivalent of a post-apocalyptic pickup truck, you run up against roadblocks. Problems that seem to have no solution. They yawn in the road ahead, impossible to pass.

You can quit, of course. A lot of people do, forever consigning themselves to the role of ‘non-finisher’ in the great story marathon. But you don’t want to do that, do you? No, I didn’t think so.

So, instead of quitting, this is when you call in the cavalry.

If you have friends that are also writers, they might be able to help. Non-writers can help, too, if they’re willing. But you’ve got to be willing to let someone else see into the guts of your broken story. And then willing to listen to their advice.

Getting someone else in on your story problems* will make them easier to solve. Why? I’m glad you asked.

1. Eyes On The Road. You’ve probably run over the same ground a thousand times looking for a solution. You’ve left tire treads three inches deep all along that road, even though you know where it leads.

Get someone else riding shotgun, and they might just be able to point out that side lane you, focused on your destination, missed. And that might just be the route you need to take.

2. Twice The Horsepower. You know what makes you more creative? Hanging around with other creative people.

It’s true. If you buy into the theory that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then spending time with other people with universes in their heads will make you more creative. And nothing solves problems better than the rapid fire bounce of ideas back and forth. Krys C and I have come up with some serious bits of plot spackle that way, either in real life or via text message.

Just, for the love of god, save the text messages.

3. Dangerous Curves Ahead. Sometimes you’ve got to eliminate the impossible to find out what’s possible. If your buddy is suggesting solutions that just aren’t working, think about why. Is there an earlier flaw that needs to be addressed? An area of worldbuilding that could use more work? Or are you just being a contrary piece of shit and vetoing perfectly good ideas out of ego?

Sometimes you’ve just got to drive the wrong way for a while before you figure out where you want to go.

4. Crossing State Lines. That other person you just called in, they have something you don’t: distance. They don’t have the same overwrought emotional state over the whole thing that you do. So when they say that something doesn’t work or that a character is useless, it’s worth listening.

Sometimes we get so caught up in characters that we love or bits that are just so fucking clever that we can’t see how they’re damaging everything around them. You don’t always have to cut those things; sometimes you just need to shore up the other stuff so that the side character or the clever phrasing doesn’t knock over everything around it like a giant storming the citadel. But those weaknesses will be obvious to another person the way they will never be to you.

So find a partner and ride together. You might find that the journey goes just that little bit smoother.

*Actually, I’d argue that getting someone you trust in on things helps with the vast majority of problems, story or otherwise.

 

Skinny Dipping In The Fountain Of Weird: How To Get More Ideas

Sweet, sweet weaponized death.

I get a lot of questions about the way I think. Not all of them the good kind, either; about half those queries are phrased “What’s wrong with you?” That’s because, if you spend any significant amount of time with me, either in real life or online, you’ll eventually be exposed to the Fountain of Weird. This is what I call the part of my brain dedicated entirely to Weird Shit: dinosaurs with tanks for heads, six-limbed cat-people, a five-dimensional intelligent ebola virus, Soviet Russian weaponized cupcakes that eat you. Everyone who reads this blog? You’ve already been exposed. I hope your shots are up to date.

The questions, though—or at least those ones that don’t cast doubt on my sanity—are mostly about the process. How do I think of stuff? Why is it so easy? Why the hell would you say that out loud?

The reason I think of this stuff is because I’ve trained my brain to say yes.

It’s easy to dismiss things as childish or silly or ridiculous or wrong. It’s especially easy when those things don’t actually exist. But by taking the time to consider them, no matter how fucking weird they are, you open the doors to creativity. You’re allowing your mind to play. And that’s where the good stuff comes from.

If you’re always saying no, then sooner or later your brain will stop presenting you with the strange and wonderful and often downright disturbing stuff that it comes up with. It won’t do work that’s not rewarded.

This is why so many writers say that coming up with new ideas is never a problem. They’ve trained themselves to think this way. To say hell, yes to the sentient muffin bakery with the side-mounted cannon* that just crawled out of the dark recesses of their mind. Because what looks silly at first glance might have a great idea hidden inside.

And if not, you just spent five minutes imagining a sentient bakery firing muffins through windows**. How is that not awesome?

So, teach yourself to say hell, yes before no. Teach yourself to consider before you reject stuff outright as stupid or wrong or, my personal favourite, ‘a waste of time’. Give that weird thing some time, even if it’s only a minute or two.

Because the weird things, my little badgers, are the best things.

*”DO YOU KNOW THE MUFFIN MAN NOW, MOTHER FUCKER?”

**I’m officially stuck on weaponized baked goods today.