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.

 

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Shake It, Baby: Breaking The Routine

I find it hard to imagine a better avatar for chaos than a Furry using a ShakeWeight.

I find it hard to imagine a better avatar for chaos than a Furry using a ShakeWeight.

 

Routines can be great. They give a structure to what is essentially a structureless thing and make sure that you’re not just dicking around on the internet, looking at cat memes and whatever argument is brewing on Twitter today. But watch out for the moment when the routine–as embodied in your schedule, your word count spreadsheet, your plan–becomes more important than the actual thing you’re trying to create.

I don’t think this is just limited to creativity, either. When I started running, I had a routine: five days a week. No excuses. On one hand, that worked out fantastically: I was far less likely to flake on a run in favour of a new video game than I would have been if I’d just said, “eh, I’ll just run whenever I feel like it.” And I ran more, which built skill and endurance faster. But, after a while, the schedule took precedence over other things. Like injury. I kept running with burgeoning plantar fasciitis for a lot longer than I should have, because, in my head, meeting the plan was far, far more fucking important than the pain. I’m lucky I smartened up eventually, or I could have done a lot more damage than I did. As it is, I have a little twinge in my left foot to this day. Which conveniently serves as a reminder not to be so fucking stupid. Not saying I always listen, but…

Writing is the same: having a plan is a great idea, but it should serve you, not the other way around. And sometimes the best way it can serve you is by fucking off altogether.

Getting away from my daily stuff–the word counts, the research goals, the deadlines–cut something loose inside my head and helped me solve plot problems I’ve been working on for months. Part of it was because I was hanging around another, very creative person that I could bounce ideas off. But I think a lot of it was just the change. The routine ceased to matter at all, and the ideas flowed.

Now that I’ve returned home, I have gotten back into a routine. But it’s a different one. The time away also allowed me to reassess my day, see where it was helping and where it was holding me back. And I can put those ideas into practice, make something out of them.

So, if you’re a planner, inject a little chaos into your life. Your creativity will thank you. And the routine will still be there when you get back, ready to put all that new madness to good use.

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.

Yet Another Reason Writer’s Block Is Fucking Bullshit.

It was close to this. Good thing digital files don’t burn well.

Last week, I had something I haven’t had for a long time: I had writer’s block.

I didn’t know what it was. I was just staring at the screen like I was staring into Nietzsche’s abyss, except that while it might have been staring back at me, it sure as hell wasn’t saying anything. Everything I tried seemed like shit. Even the stuff I’d written the day or the week before seemed like shit. There was, in fact, a lot of shit around, and it seemed like I was responsible for creating most of it.

I was close to deleting a lot of it. The last chapter, for sure. And I did in fact throw about 10,000 words—about 40 pages, if you prefer to calculate that way—into the wood chipper I call The Purgatory File. It’s where stuff goes right before it gets deleted forever, so I can harvest its organs and tasty bits before digitally mulching the rest. Fuck this, I was thinking. It’s not worth saving.

It was not a good day.*

After I dumped all those words into the wood chipper, I fucked off. Again, unusual; I rarely quit before the word count’s done. But that day I didn’t want to look at it anymore. So I sat down on the couch to read.

But I never got past the first couple of pages, because as soon as I sat down, I fell asleep. For three fucking hours.

When I woke up—disoriented, with a book on my face and two cats pinning down my legs—I felt…better.** And when I read over what I’d written, imagine my shock when I realized that it didn’t suck.***

I didn’t have goddamn writer’s block. I was fucking sleep deprived.

The lessons to be learned here are three-fold:

1) Writers can’t be trusted. We can’t. It’s a fact. We’ve all got a platoon of jabbering, sharp-edged little goblin monkeys caged up inside our heads, and when those little bastards get loose, it’s hell up there. We lose all perspective and turn into whiny little sods. It’s annoying.

2) Your body is more than just a carry case for your brain. What it feels, all of you feels. So crappy sleep habits, bad eating, no exercise…all of that will reap dividends you don’t want. Take care of yourself and the work gets easier.

3) Writer’s block is still bullshit. It’s just a lack of something: confidence, technical skill, passion, or, in my case, sleep. Something. Solve the deficit, and writer’s block goes away.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some words to make up.

 

*I should point out that I have very few writing days like this. Most of mine are more the “rock and roll on the stereo, coffee in the belly, let’s get some words, motherfucker!” type. Which I prefer, but the neighbours probably don’t.
**I’m condensing for the sake of story here; it actually took another eleven hours sleep that night before I felt fully normal again.
***Most of it, anyway. A couple pieces were still garbage.

Monday Challenge: Character EDC

The EDC: because going out without your Tuesday knife would be silly.

A while back, I did a post on my Every Day Carry*, or the junk I always have on me. It’s the bare minimum I consider essential for my average day, and I always have those items in either my purse or my pockets. Or, in the case of the jewelry, actually on my body. Whatever. You get the idea: it’s with me.

I was writing a scene with a character going through her bag the other day, and had to sit down and think about the items in it. In other words, I had to write her EDC.

The EDC tells you a lot about a person. Just like this post I did about bedrooms, the things a person always has on them tells you what kind of person they are. A sentimentalist? A minimalist? A survivalist? All those people will have different things. And what about their job? A sword-for-hire will have different stuff from a computer programmer, who will in turn have different stuff than a D&D-style mage with pockets full of spell components. What do they need? What do they take even though they don’t need it?

Monday Challenge: Write the EDC of one of your characters. What do they always have?

And, because I like the connection, I’ll turn out the pockets of my characters from that bedroom post:

The first one carries a lot of stuff lately, because she’s on the road and the EDC is everything she owns. Or at least everything she owns that she didn’t have to leave behind in a hurry after that bloodbath six months ago. Aside from her money and the religious pendant she inherited from her mother, most of the important stuff is in her shoulder bag: notebook, emergency rations, water bottle, knife, bandages, matches, extra clothes, uppers. She believes in being prepared now. If she’d believed that six months ago, she wouldn’t be in this situation.

The other carries very little these days. Mostly weapons. They’re all she needs to do her job, and her job is pretty much all she is now. One pocket always has cigarettes and matches: a vice she’s had since childhood. And around her wrist is the leather thong her brother tied there years ago, the one with the little carved-bone bead. She spins that bead so often the leather’s on the verge of wearing out. She knows that soon it will break, and the last little piece of him she has will be gone forever.

*Interestingly, three of the eight items in that picture are no longer with me. The phone died—RIP, first smartphone, you made my life so awesome—and had to be replaced. Those particular glasses got lost on vacation, though I have other pairs. And the wedding band** disappeared somewhere in the house. No idea where, and I tossed the place a dozen panicky times when I realized it was gone.
**It’s okay. Snowman let me pick out a new set for both of us, and I went with a hammered titanium set, inscribed with a quotation from The Hobbit: “I am going on an adventure.” NERD LOVE RULES.

Monday Challenge: Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies

The lesser known “Pole vaulter falls, everybody dies” never really caught on.

You ever read a book and wonder how in the name of God’s most holy asshole it got published? I don’t mean the ones that you, personally, have a problem with; those are a dime a dozen and not every book is going to appeal to your taste. I mean the ones that are genuinely, deeply flawed. Not literary flawed, either, the kind that in the right light can sometimes be mistaken for artistic vision. I’m talking about the big problems: a character that disappears halfway through, a major plot point that’s never resolved, a sinkhole-style plot gap that opens under the rest of an otherwise acceptable book and sucks it down into the nether realm.

Or the ending. Somehow that’s the worst. It’s like a betrayal of all that time you spent on the rest of the goddamn book. You’ve got to stick the landing, folks. It’s not over until the covers are closed.

I distinctly remember being in bed with the Snowman when he finished a particular book. He turned the last page, read, blinked, and said, “What the hell was that?” In bewildered and increasingly irritated tones.

Probably not what the author was going for. *

You’ve read at least one. So have I. And while the initial urge might be to throw that book so hard that it leaves quite an impressive dent in the drywall**, I’m trying to wreak less havoc on the home lately. Hey, some places you can go full-on kaiju, like a daycare, and some you can’t.

So, in the interests of not having to go to Home Depot again this week, I present the following alternative:

Monday Challenge: Pick a book or story that didn’t end right and write the ending it should have had. According to you. If it’s really irredeemable, then ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ might be your first instinct, but push through it. There was something that made you read that godawful word abortion to begin with. What was it? What promise was made that got you hooked? Then write what the resolution of that promise should have been.

Just like the Olympics, kittens***: you’ve got to stick the landing.

*Though you never can tell with some.
**Three points if you have to plaster it afterwards.

***Now I want the internet to provide me with Olympic Kittens. Or Kitten Olympics.

One Question Writers Need To Keep Asking Themselves

Do you have any gummy mascara wands?

Working on a long piece can be like traversing a deep dark forest: you’re pretty sure you’re moving, but you could be going in circles. And those suspicious mushrooms are starting to look tasty.

There’s a question you can ask to keep yourself from getting lost. Well, from getting irretrievably lost, anyway. I’m bang alongside getting periodically lost.* But when the word-forest is starting to close in and you can hear the wolves in the distance, take a breath and ask yourself the following:

What the hell am I trying to say?

This is loosely about stuff like theme and the other words that made you cringe in high school language arts classes, but it’s more about purpose. Writers love wandering. We find a pocket of unexplored randomness and we just want to hang out there forever, turning over every rock and naming all the plants. And that stuff’s good; it gets the creativity moving. But there are times when you need a little focus, and that’s when you should ask yourself that question. What the hell are you trying to say?

You should have an idea, even if it’s only a vague one: I want to talk about families and relationships and stuff, but there should be rockets and an intelligent marmoset. Well, maybe semi-intelligent. It doesn’t have to be a Big Important Universal Theme***; it just needs to be a target you can shoot for, tailored to fit. I want to show how Rylan is being a complete asshat to Dyson****  is acceptable for a scene or chapter; Rylan being an utter knobstick is a comment on his upbringing is better for a novel. But you should be thinking about it, turning it over, finding the creamy centre of your story nugget. You should be saying something, not just making noise.

Focusing on what you’re saying—however distant it might be when you’re scribbling down that initial zero draft—gives you purpose. It turns you from a blindly hammering word chimp into a clever ninja-ing word gorilla: cooler, hairier, and far more dangerous.

You need to have something to say. Otherwise, why are you writing?

*This weekend I got lost underneath Toronto for a few hours. It was fun. I found a candy store** I never knew existed, and ran giggling through the empty marble lobbies of huge financial buildings. You can get a hell of a slide across those shiny floors in wool socks.
**I think it was a candy store. It might have been a Korean cosmetics counter. Whatever I bought, it was pink, glittery, and tasted like lychee.
***Henceforth known as a BIUT. Because.
****Might be a character, might be a vacuum. Might be both.