The Point of No Return

REPENT

Found this carved above the toilet in a public restroom. Even the can judges my writing choices.

A question today, for all you writers and readers: how far down the dark road can a character go before they’re completely irredeemable?

It comes up because I’m doing some rewrites, and, man, some of them involve a particular character going to a bad place. I think it’s necessary, but this character, who is already not a great person, is going to do some stuff which might make them irredeemable to readers.

Which could be a problem, since I intend to redeem them. Eventually. You know, after they’ve suffered for a bit.

Writers really are such assholes.

Note that being irredeemable is not the same as not liking a character. I might dislike a character for plenty of reasons, including but not limited to whining, passivity, entitlement, meaningless brooding, and just being a little shit. For a character to cross into irreversible damnation, they have to commit a pretty big sin, and most of the characters I dislike don’t think that big.

My line, such as it is, is fairly simple: in order for a character to be morally dead to me, they have to punch down. In other words, they have to choose to hurt someone who is weaker than them or unable to strike back and know it. Strike the helpless, abuse an animal, verbally cut someone you know is already hurting just because you can…choose to do those things when you damn well know better and you are on thin ice, friend. Do it twice and you are on thin ice while wearing a seal costume with a big hungry polar bearheading your way.

These metaphors got really Canadian all of a sudden.

Where’s your line, dear reader? What thing can a character do to make them just the worst? Or do you think everyone, from the most minor sinner to the Darkest of Dark Lords, can come back to the side of the angels? Tell me your thoughts.

In the meantime, I’m going to go ruin this character’s life. Again.

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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?

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.

Can And Will Be Used Against You: Real Life Research

The tractor sent flowers to the hospital for Al, which everyone agreed was very classy for a piece of heavy machinery.

Whenever I’m around people and one of them tells the often-embarrassing tale of a particularly weird thing that happened to them or around them, the following happens:

Person Who Didn’t Tell The Story: *turns to me* That’s going to turn up in a story one day, isn’t it?

Me: Probably, but I’ll change the names so only we know who did it.

Person Who Told The Story: *nervous laughter*

It must be how psychologists feel whenever people start acting “normal”* when they’re around.

Rest easy: most of those stories you tell me and mine do not end up in our writing. Sometimes it’s because real life really is stranger than fiction; I still find it hard to believe than a well-educated person who had made it well into middle age would claim to find the taste of chocolate laxatives so good that they’d eat enough boxes to spend an entire day at work violently shitting themselves.** And sometimes it’s because the stories themselves are too distinctive. No one wants to explain to their family over Thanksgiving dinner that they didn’t think anyone would recognize Uncle Al in that short story about the guy who tried to fuck a tractor.

Mostly, though, that stuff doesn’t end up there because it’s not the stories we’re looking for.

What is far more likely to end up in our writing material are feelings, atmospheres, quirks of speech, habits, places, or things. That lamp made seashells from a long-ago vacation that Aunt Ida took in her youth; most of the shells have fallen away, leaving dried glue and memories behind. The way family dinner feels when everyone’s just waiting, waiting, for Racist Inappropriate Grandma to make some comment about Sophie’s new boyfriend. The hollow sound of the wind in the now-abandoned neighbourhood of your youth, rattling loose shutters that no one will ever come to repair.

The way you hesitate and flush, twisting your glass around and around in your hands, before telling that story, half embarrassed, half proud.

So, you’ll end up in our stories. All of you. But you probably won’t recognize yourself when you do.

* Or what they think is normal. Hint: it’s not.

** God, I wish I was making that up.

Scaling Back: When Too Little Is Just Enough

I am not nearly this cute when I nap. Though I am often covered in cats.

I recently developed a Health Thing which means that I have to get more rest. Not ‘should’ get more; there’s very little I can do about it when the fatigue strikes except try not to fall asleep at my desk*. I can go from ‘totally fucking awake’ to ‘holy shit, no one has ever been this tired, where’s the cocaine, I have to—Zzzzzz’ in eight seconds flat. Aside from possibly being some kind of record, this means that I’ve had to alter my habits.

Like writing. I can no longer write my standard 2000-2500 words a day because, in addition to writing, I still have other things that have to get done. Like showering. And errands. And doctor’s appointments.

I’ll admit, I tried to bull through at first. I’m not known for my tractability, and as far as I was concerned, this was just another obstacle that had to be overcome, like ‘writer’s block’ and other bullshit. If I worked hard enough, I could get through it.

Which was a lie, of course. When your body isn’t working the way it should, you can’t just power through. And trying leads to frustration, anger, and resentment, both of yourself and the project that you should love but that just seems to eat every waking second of every day.

So I scaled back.

This wasn’t easy for me. ‘Doing less’ has always sounded suspiciously close to ‘giving up’ to me, because I am the Queen Bitch of Overachievers. That’s probably why I spent those first few weeks alternately giving myself pep talks and hating myself for not being able to follow through on them because my body, selfish cunt that it is, demanded sleep above all things.

If I’d had access to meth, I probably would have had a go. Just sayin’.

But, finding myself tired, angry, and meth-less, I had to try something else.

I made the choice to scale back my writing day. My daily word count is now 1000 words instead of 2000. And, lo and behold, it’s given me back my day. Now I can get the other stuff done. And, more importantly, I look forward to those 1000 words again. They’re not a boulder I’m rolling uphill. They get done, and I’m happy with them. You know, most of the time.

Writing is fun again.

So, this is your permission slip from me to your psyche or whatever overworked neurotic part of you can’t let go when it needs to: doing less is better than doing nothing. Sometimes it’s just what you need. And that’s okay.

…I’m gonna go take another nap. Later, word-nerds.

*Converted to a sitting desk instead of my more usual standing desk for the duration. I miss you, standing desk.

In Your Face: How To Stop Ignoring Your Writing

Thank you, Encouraging Picture Frame. Now enjoy your nap on that pile of cushions.

Writing is easy to ignore. Whether it’s because it’s a solitary activity, or there’s no immediate reward for most of it, or just because it’s easier not to do it, so often the projects we start with all that hope end up languishing forgotten in your hard drive, never to be finished.

Stop that. You’ve got to finish what you start. Maybe not all of it, because even the best of us has a crappy idea now and then, but you should be finishing more than you don’t. And that starts with not ignoring your writing.

Personally, I think that writing is easy to ignore because it’s not demanding. Not the way that people and pets and work and other crap is. Even working out can be demanding: don’t do it and you start to get all jiggly/don’t sleep as well/get cranky. But writing…it’s the unobtrusive emo kid of activities. If you don’t get around to it, it’ll just slink away, muttering Morrissey lyrics under its breath. And then it’s gone.

So start paying attention to your writing. Don’t let it slide. Best way to not ignore it? Same as anything else: keep it in front of you. If you want to run regularly, you put your running shoes somewhere where you can see them all the time. Partly it’s guilt, but mostly it’s just so you don’t forget, in the hustle and bustle of your day, what it is you meant to do.

Leave whatever you’re working on in plain sight. The notebook you’re writing in, with a pen, can live comfortably on a coffee table. I think that coffee rings on the covers add a certain authenticity, but I think the same thing about scars, so use your own judgement.

Or, if you write on a computer, like so many of us, try this: set your document to open up automatically when you boot up the computer. A while back I changed my laptop’s default settings from opening up my email and Twitter accounts automatically to opening up Scrivener and Evernote. There they are, right in front of me: the project I’m working on and the giant pile of notes I’ve made for it. Harder to ignore.  Harder to pass over in favour of blearily scrolling through spoilers for Every Single Show On Earth on Twitter.

You can’t ignore what’s in your face 24/7. So put something you want to get done in front of your eyeballs. Pretty soon you’ll find the excuses fading.

And in their place? More writing.

Things To Do When You Finish A Novel*

Writers do it old school.

1. Get Your Cake On. You finished a book. That’s a big deal. It might be a sucky book right now, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about editing later, after the post-coital glow has faded. For now, celebrate.

I used to be really bad at this. I’d finish a manuscript and not tell anyone, and if they found out, pretend it was no big deal. I have no idea why I used to pull this crap, but it wasn’t helpful. Acting like it wasn’t worth celebrating made damn sure it wasn’t, and didn’t make me feel good about getting further than 99% of the wannabe writers out there. Which made it harder to do again. Don’t worry; eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and scored some Scotch to celebrate. However you do it—cake, dinner, wine, that thing with the chains and the feathers—mark the occasion. You can get back to the grind tomorrow.

2. Take A Break. At least from that story. Working on something else—particularly something small, like an essay or a short story—is a palette cleanser for your brain. Then you can come back to that first draft with fresh eyes and a clean brain, ready to fix the hell out of it.

Of course, sometimes you can’t take a break. Deadlines exist. In that case, feel free to skip this suggestion and do the first one twice. Twice the cake! Twice the scotch! Twice the chains and feathers!

3. Get Back In The Saddle. Sooner or later, that first draft you churned out is going to need editing. Wait until the idea doesn’t fill you with dread if you can. Then you can look at the inevitable mistakes, wrong turns, and general WTF-ness with more equanimity and less bowel-loosening horror. Relax. It’s not that big a deal. You can fix it. In fact, keep repeating that to yourself over and over again: I can fix this. It will help. If it doesn’t…well, there’s always the leftover Scotch from step one.

Who out there has a finished novel now that November is over? Who’s still working? Who has given up in a flurry of despair and soggy Kleenex? I’m firmly in Category Two**: still motoring along with my eyes on a January-February finish date, but I’m keeping Category Three open!

So: where you at?

*Note for those of you fresh off NaNoWriMo: finishing NaNo is not necessarily finishing a novel, unless your novel happens to be 50,000 words. If it is, cool. If it’s not, I’d advise continuing to work until such a time as you can definitively type The End and mean it. Stopping in the middle just because you hit 50,000 is a great way to accumulate a pile of unfinished manuscripts.

**At least two levels below my Kaiju Rating.