Four Ways For Writers To Read More Non-Fiction

This bridge shows off the latest Italian fashions for winter.

A shocking number of writers only read fiction. I ain’t judging; until a few years ago, I was among them. And even then, I tended to read within a few specific genres. Read what you want to write, right?

Wrong. And boring. Reading only what you want to write, whether it’s space opera, short stories, or Supernatural slash-fic, is too limiting. Read broadly. Read indiscriminately. Read like the book slut* you always wanted to be.

But it’s hard to get started with non-fiction. Especially if you go to the library or the book store or Amazon and see the endless, endless choices. So here are a few entrances to this new field. Explore at will.

1. Read about something you’re already interested in. Like historical fantasy? Have a go at reading about royalty, or technological achievements of that era, or the Big Gooey Plague That Melted Everyone. Or, if family dramas are more your thing, start reading some memoirs about people who lived with their real-life fucked up families. Bonus: this might help you write your book in that genre and not make it sound like everyone else’s. Also, you’ll finally learn what a lot of Victorian/Steampunk writers and their cover artists seem to forget, which is that corsets go on the inside.

2. Learn more about something odd. Remember the last time you saw a news story on something you thought was strange? Like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Tea Party movement, or yarn-bombing? See what you can find out about it. Maybe you’ll pick up a new interest. Maybe you’ll just expand your knowledge of the complete insanity that lives in our world. Either way, from a writing perspective: WIN.

3. Find a book one of your characters would read. This gets a little meta, but follow me: if you have a character who’s really, really into woodworking or wine or shibari-style bondage, you’ll be able to write them more effectively if you read something on it. And, once again, you never know: you might find yourself eyeing the rope section at the hardware store with more interest.**

4. BOOK ROULETTE. Pick a book at random on a topic you’ve never heard of and get cracking. Sounds insane, but I’ve done it and discovered some books that I otherwise never would have read. And because I’m a writer, no knowledge, no matter how esoteric, is ever wasted. Because who doesn’t want to write a bouncer/cage fighter with a serious knowledge of hand-made lace?

Now, go forth and read! And tell me: what’s the weirdest knowledge you’ve ever acquired?

*No book-slut shaming, either.

**But don’t. Go to a sex shop and get some bondage rope. Your skin—or your partner’s—will thank you.

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Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Boring Things Are Boring: Getting Stuck And Getting Past It

FIRE THE PROBLEM CANNONS.

Raise your digital hand if you’ve done this:

You’re writing, and you hit the point you just don’t want to write. You don’t know why, but getting through this part is a fucking slog. It’s like trying to climb a mountain wearing lead boots and cement underpants.

You’re just not interested in writing this part. It’s necessary—you can’t just flip from the intro to the big EXPLOSION at the end*—but, damn it, you’re bored writing it. So you do other stuff—hello, Twitter—and complain and generally go slower and slower.

Well, here’s a thought:

Maybe you’re bored because it’s fucking boring.

It’s an unfortunate thing to say about your own writing, but think about it: if you’re bored writing it, how interesting is is going to be for a reader? I was writing a section recently that I had avoided for ages, because it bored me. Eventually, I just cut it altogether and you know what? No one noticed.

The middles of books are tricky. You’ve introduced most everyone, you’ve got the conflict going…but you’re not sure how you get from there to the end.

So the characters remain in a holding pattern, which is boring as shit.

You’re treading water, so better get out of there before the sharks turn up. Try cutting the part you don’t want to write. Does it make a difference? If not, great! Move on. If you still need it, maybe you’re being too nice. The middle of the story is a great time to fuck things up.

What would make the section less boring? A new villain? An old boyfriend? An explosion? A car accident? Basically, what shit do you not want to deal with in real life? Try that. That might be good. Tie it into the main plot somehow, load up your Problem Cannon, and let loose with both barrels. That gives the characters something to scramble around and fix—badly, usually, because that’s how authors roll—while you explain whatever it is was boring you in the first place.

But whatever you do, never settle for the boring scene, or chapter, or book. If it can’t keep your attention while you’re writing it, guaranteed it’s going to boot the writer out of your little world faster than a handsy drunk out of a strip club. It’s up to you, writer, to make it interesting enough that they stay. And that means you have to be interested, too.

*Even if it’s a FEELINGS EXPLOSION and not a regular one.

Decide or GTFO: I Hate Your Wishy-Washy Character

Which do I want? Toast? Muffin? TOAST OR MUFFIN? I WILL SPEND THE ENTIRE BOOK ON THIS DECISION!

It’s no secret that I love a good bad guy. A great villain can make a piece of fiction, just like a shitty one can make me wish I spent my time doing something else, like regrouting my bathroom or organizing photos* or conquering a neighbouring country.

The conflicted bad guy, the grey area bad guy, the downright evil bad guy…I love them all. And my love for them is matched only by my hate of another character.

No, not the good guy. It always surprises people, but I love good guys, too. From the slightly-shady Black Widows to the perfectly stand-up Captain Americas, they are their own kind of fun and I love them for it.  It doesn’t matter if they use guile or brute force to achieve their aims. Because what I like is conviction.

And what I hate is wishy-washiness.

That is the character I hate: the one who won’t commit. The one who lingers on the sidelines, wringing their hands, never getting a damn thing done.

The heroes who refuse to take a stand.

The villains who won’t take the steps needed to win.

The secondary character who could have solved all this if you had just bothered to do anything.

You all suck.

Worse: you’re all boring.

I’m not saying they can’t be conflicted. Look up the page: I love conflict. Have a hard time with a decision. But then decide.

Writers, beware: life is full of enough hesitation and half-measures. I don’t need that in my fiction. Go big or go home.

And make sure your characters get the memo.

*I still have not printed a single wedding photo AND I DON’T CARE.

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.

Spring Comes: Getting Through The Hard Days

Fuck, if these things got through the snow, I guess I have to. Smug purple bastards.

The end of February is the worst. The cold makes me grumpy and tired, I’m entirely over any sense of the beauty of a fresh snowfall, and everything seems to take so much effort that I might as well give up and stay under a blanket on the couch while binge-reading all the Harry Potter novels again.

The sight of a shovel can reduce a grown man to tears at this point.

But I get up, and I haul my carcass to the desk, and write. And then I haul it outside to shovel. And haul it further to go to yoga and the gym and to see people. Because, despite what popular depictions would tell us, locking yourself in your room with the Muse* is not the best way to prove yourself a writer.

No, as always, the best and only way to be a writer is to fucking write. Judges judge, loggers log, carpenters….carpent**. Writers write.

Even when The Half-Blood Prince and a stack of marshmallow cookies is calling their name.

The thing to remember is that these shitty periods, the ones that crop up for me at this time of year and at least one other (November), the ones that never seem to end? They fucking end. Always. And once they’re over, you’ll never think of them again. Like high school. Seems so important at the time, but once you’re out, you find yourself wondering what all the damn fuss was about.

Anyway, this is less of a pep talk and more of a reminder. Whatever thing, be it the weather or your mood or your tiredness, is keeping you from doing what you love…it will pass. In the meantime, keep doing what you love anyway, because fuck those things. Seriously, you’re going to let a bunch of weather determine if you’ll write? I can see it interfering with gardening, but even then, read a seed catalogue and dream of spring.

Some times are hard. Some days are hard. But there’s never been a day when I regretted shovelling out the car and going to the gym. There’s never been words I regretted putting down because they were hard.

Writers write. Now get to it. And remember: spring comes.

*Ie, a bottle of gin.

**Shut up.

30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.