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.

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6 Things All Writers Should Start, Plus A Journey Song

Either stabbing practice, or a giant pencil sharpener. (Photo credit: wikipedia)

1. Start being weird. I know a lot of you have already gotten a head start on this one, but for those of you who are still hesitant to dip your toes into the waters of weird, allow me to give you a friendly shove into the deep end.
For starters, read the bit from Wednesday about stopping the fucking timidity. Apply that to yourself.
I once got my ass stuck in a tire swing and had to be rescued by the fire department. I trip while traversing the perfectly flat floors of the local mall, as well as malls abroad. I am not cool. And I am happy to not be cool, because cool by its very nature means giving a crap about the opinions of strangers who, apparently, exist solely to judge your social appearances.
Fuck those guys, real or imaginary. Be weird. Be different. Be you. And maybe then you’ll start to figure out what you want to write.

2. Start supporting each other. I don’t mean siding with people you know are an entire bag of dicks* just because they’re writers. I mean not actively tearing each other apart. Especially on the Internet. Using the relative anonymity of the online world to abuse others is cowardice, and the universe hates a coward, though not as much as I do.
Writing is not a zero sum game; someone else’s success is not had at your expense. So stop being a cock.

3. Start stabbing. Other people, I mean. Not yourself.
I practice Recreational Stabbing a couple of times a week, though at the gym they insist on calling it ‘fencing’. It serves the dual purposes of anger management and weapons skills. And it’s fun. Find your fun, whether it involves pointed objects or not.** All writers need some fun. And the weapons training doesn’t hurt.

4. Start a band. Writing is fucking lonely. But it doesn’t have to be. Find your people, your band, your superhero team with whom you can defeat evil, or at least give it a very stern talking to. They’re out there, somewhere. Some of them may be reading this blog. And, contrary to what some of the more paranoid corners of the internet would have you believe, not all other writers are out to steal your ideas. Only some of them, and those ones are easily defeated by feeding them the plot lines to Michael Bay movies.

5. Start DIY cybernetic implants. *Check notes more closely* No. Sorry. This is my to-do list. Anyone know where I can buy robot parts?

6. Don’t Stop Start Believing. Because Journey rocks.
Writing can be a long road. And the road to publishing can be even longer and more filled with potholes which are in turned filled with scorpions. So it’s easy to get discouraged. To get cynical.
But cynicism is like your mom: easy. And it doesn’t get you anywhere except to a pile of excuses filled with reasons why you can’t do shit: The industry is dead. It’s all who you know. I’m not willing to touch an agent’s Fun Zone, so of course I can’t get a contract.
Stop that. Start believing again. Not with the rosy-eyed glow of innocence, but the kind of hard-edged, diamond-tipped belief that will drive you through disappointment and failure. Believe in what you’re doing enough to get better at it, because belief does not replace hard work. But it does make the work go better.

*CoughOrsonScottCardCough.
**Though if it doesn’t, I don’t even know you anymore, man.

Squid-Priests and Second Acts: What Novel Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting

‘Sup?

So, this novel rewrite: it’s turning out to be a giant pain in the ass.

It’s no secret that I’ve been stuck for a while. That’s why I decided to devote this entire year to making the manuscript a good one. None of my usual method were working, so, at the suggestion my my friend Kat, I tried screenwriting exercises. And you know what? It’s finally coming together.

Here’s what I’ve learned about screenwriting methods in the last month or so: 1) they’re compact; 2) they’re broad strokes; and 3) I always imagine a bunch of white guys in suits whenever they talk about pitching an idea.*

The thing about using the screenwriting format to outline is that it’s all Big Picture. Some systems out there use a finite (and small) number of index cards to plan it out. Others rely on beats, again of a limited amount. You have to focus on the big stuff in order to hit that number. So all the fiddly bits and the little scenes and the nuance falls away. You’re left with the essentials.

This turned out to be just what I needed. I was getting too caught up on the minutia. Which, you know, is a part of it too, but I was getting too deep. Couldn’t see the giant robot for the bolts. I’m a scene-by-scene outliner, but I needed to pull back and hammer out the big moments so I could see where the problems were. Now I know, so I can start fixing them.

Moral of this story, kiddies: it never hurts to mix things up.

If you’re getting stuck in the minutia and the details and the neat character relationships but you can’t seem to get the whole thing together, try taking a few steps back. Hell, take a mile. And look at the biggest moments. You want the pieces of your story that you can see from space. Then you might see why it’s not working. Maybe there’s not enough happening in the middle. Maybe there’s too much. Maybe you’ve had the Horrible Thing happen to the wrong character.

Conversely, if you have the bare bones but the story just isn’t filling you with the righteous holy fire of creation**, get closer. Dissect it. Take a good hard look at the innards: the characters, the world, the little nagging details. The way people talk. The changes having domesticated dinosaurs has changed the nature of public transit. The headdress of the Water Priests, which is supposed to be a stylized squid but looks disturbingly like a penis, leading to their irreligious nickname of the Holy Peckerheads.*** That’s how you find the stuff we’ll care about.

Yes, I just used the word ‘peckerheads’ to illustrate things you should care about. And now you’re stuck with that image in your head for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

*Drops the mic, leaves the stage*

*Might just be me.
**Or that could be heartburn. Hang on, let me check the coffee pot level….yeah, heartburn. My bad.
***Which now also sounds like a sports team in my head.

We Can Rebuild It: Making Your Writing Better, Stronger, Faster

Faces? Where we’re going, we don’t need faces.

I recently had the opportunity to help a couple of friends edit their writing. Not fiction, not this time, but essays. Essays they’re using to get money, no less. And because I’m never the type to leave material like that lying around unused, they now get to be the focus of a blog post. Congratulations, guys: you’re now teachable moments.

Though what I was carving into pieces with my pretty red pen was non-fiction, these lessons apply to fiction as well. This is all about making your prose lean and sharp so that it slides in as effortlessly as the blade of a just-honed knife. Nothing to catch on and make a mess that might lead a keen crime scene investigator to you.

When confronted with a blank page, it’s easy to ramble. It makes it less intimidating, and, hell, you’re getting something down, right?

Actually, yes, that is right. But sooner or later you’ll have to trim it back. Here’s how:

1. Think Hard About What You’re Trying To Say. Writing an essay? Think about your point, and then see if what you’ve written actually makes that clear. Letter? Think about the person you’re trying to portray to the reader; cut everything that doesn’t serve this. Fiction? Every chapter, every scene, every god damn sentence is trying to say something. Make sure it does. If it does not, then either change it or cut it.

2. Thou Shalt Not Suffer Intensifying Modifiers and Adverbs* To Live. If I could put an embargo on the use of the word ‘really’ in writing, I would. Not that you wouldn’t be able to use it, but to do so you’d have to fill out forms and provide character references and prove that you need it. As is, it feels like someone loaded up a Really Cannon and let fly. And then followed it with the Very Shotgun.
Likewise—and this one goes out to the fiction writers—think before using adverbs. People are always doing things quickly, tremulously, defiantly, and languorously. Cut that shit out. The manner should be clear from the writing; you shouldn’t need to bludgeon the reader over the head with it.
These words are filler that rarely do anything helpful. Quite the opposite: they slow things down and make it harder for a reader to get your point. Knock it off. Then, when your application goes through and you’re approved to use “really”, it serves its original purpose: to intensify that point and give it more weight.
A words of caution to the fiction writers: this doesn’t apply to dialogue. People use unnecessary words all the time when they’re talking. But it should still serve a purpose: defining that character. Possibly as a wordy bastard.

3. Stop Repeating Yourself. Or, To Put It Another Way,  Stop Repeating Yourself. You already said that. Why are you saying it again? Do you think I didn’t get it the first time? Do you think I’m stupid? Well, do you?
Is this the reaction you want to provoke? Or worse, do you want to bore the reader?
Our inclination as writers is to repeat the things we feel are important. How else are we supposed to make sure that they get it? But in fiction and non-fiction alike, this just means you bludgeon your reader with the Big Important Stick. They don’t like it.
This comes in two main forms:
A) The Summary. If you feel like you need to restate your thesis or your theme to tie things up, don’t. It reads like a sixth grade report**: “My Totally Original Idea can be seen using A, B, and C. [Writes A, B, and C.] In conclusion, A, B, and C prove My Totally Original Idea.” We know. We just read it.
B) The You Don’t Get It. “Becky stared at the huge mecha-dinosaur. She’d never seen anything so big in the parking garage. It dwarfed the vehicles it was eating, making them seem diminutive in comparison. It was HUUUUUUUUGE.” Yeah, Becky, we get it. Big fucking mecha-dinosaur. Moving on.

We all do this shit. That’s why we edit. Now go forth and cut, word goblins. And sharpen those knives before you do.

*Bonus Fun Fact: I just googled to make sure I was using the right word. Because nothing burns like being wrong on the internet.
**This is fine if you actually are in the sixth grade. We all have to start somewhere.

Monday Challenge: That House Is Looking At Me Funny

This house probably has a panel van it wants to show you. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s talk about places.

If you spend time in a place, you might start to feel like it has…something. Maybe a soul, if you’re feeling like a hippie today. Maybe a spiritus loci. Maybe just a tingling in your spider sense.  But, whatever you call it, some places feel, in your heart and related organs, like more than assemblages of concrete and wood and dust. They have a presence.  It could be the amount of time you spend there, or the people you associate with it, or the things that happen within those walls, if there are walls. Or it could just be a feeling, without logic that you could use to explain it to someone else.

I used to make playlists for writing based on characters. I still have some of those, but lately I’ve been making ones based on settings. The garage where a character works. The garage that she owns later on. The bar where they gather. The lair of the enemy. The streets where a few of them grew up. The smoking crater where the truth finally came out.

Draw inspiration from your own life. Where do you go that has a soul, even if it’s not a very nice one? Maybe your work feels like a grey vampire, stealing your life. Maybe your home feels like a flock of squabbling crows, noisy and intrusive. Maybe your favourite coffee shop feels like a pretty girl curled up in her coziest sweater with a good book, ready to relax.

Settings have character. They do more than just provide a place for your characters to stand while they work out whatever problems you’ve set them. They add tone, they help or hinder, they create a feeling.

And they could use a little love from you today.

Monday Challenge: if a setting—city, street, house, room—were a person, what kind of person would they be? What would they look like, sound like, smell like? How would they act? What kind of music do they listen to, or do they hate music? Are they on your side? What are they hiding in their pockets/under their floorboards?*

What do they want?

*I realize the metaphors are getting mixed now. Though I like the idea of a person with floorboards. Sounds vaguely steampunk.

Strap In And Grab Your Important Bits: Planning Your Year In Writing

Get in, loser.

All right, we’ve talked about ideas and talked about getting excited. Now it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Except we’re dealing with the imagination, so I suppose we should be getting down to…brass dendrites? Brass gut flora? Something brass, anyway. * We need a plan.**

Here is your plan:

1) Define your goal.

2) Figure out the steps along the way.

3) Fucking do it.

I recognize that some clarification may be in order.

Part of your plan is going to depend on your goal. Want to write a novel in 2014? Figure out how long you think it’ll be. If you’ve got no fucking clue, guess. I usually say 100,000 words. Why? It’s a nice round number. And it translates to roughly 400 pages of a paperback book. A good length for fantasy or horror, which is what I tend to write. I’ve written shorter and longer, but this is my benchmark.

Got a length? Good. Now figure out how long you have. Got a year? Then that means you have to write…273.972 words a day. Better round that up to 274, just so you don’t stop mid-noun. Not much, is it? Even assuming that you’ll only write five days a week, that’s only 385 words a day. You can do that. So you do. There we are: plan set. All you have to do is colour it in a little.

But what if your goal isn’t to write something, but to publish? Well, assuming you have a finished manuscript—you do have a finished manuscript, don’t you? If not, finishing that is the first step, so back the fuck up—then start researching places it could find a home. Agents or publishers for a novel, magazines or anthologies for short fiction. Make a list. Write a letter. Start sending. When it gets rejected from one place, move to the next on the list.*** Repeat.

And what if, like yours truly, your goal for the year involves not writing something entirely new, but editing an existing project? It’s not such a clear cut goal then, but it’s still definable. I will come back to this in a later post–actually, I’ll come back to most of these in later posts–but for now, here’s the bare bones: go through the manuscript with a red pen; make a big list of what needs to change****; make a plan for those changes and figure out how long they will take. Good rule of thumb for editing? Unless you are very experienced at it, it will take three times longer than you think. At least. You think you can have the changes written in a month? Budget three. If you get done early, then, hey, happy handshakes and big bottles of booze all around. But budget more time than you think. Trust me.

Making a plan—especially one that you figured out the timetable for, and not one you got out of a book that claims anyone can write a novel in two weeks or can be published in three—keeps you on track. It breaks down the bigger goal—Write A Novel, Get Published, Edit The Unmerciful Fuck Out Of That Story Until It No Longer Resembles A Half-Digested Dictionary—into smaller ones—write 500 words today, send out a query letter today, figure out the end of the first chapter today. It grounds you in reality. Which, for people who work inside their own heads, is not at all a bad thing.

Some caveats:

1) Goals change. It happens. Sometimes you think you’re working toward one thing, but realize halfway through that you’d be better off working on this other thing. It’s cool. Don’t panic. Just re-evaluate. Sticking with something that’s no longer what you want is a waste of time. Just make sure it’s really a change and not just you giving up. I suggest strategic reevaluations at three, six, and nine months. That way, you have enough time to get in there and have a go, but also ample opportunity to make course corrections if they’re required.

2) Don’t forget the all important Step Three. Fucking do it. Or all this talk is just masturbation—might make you feel good but it sure as hell doesn’t accomplish anything. You can abandon plans, you can change goals, you can fling yourself out of the literary airlock and into the great vacuum of I Don’t Know What I’m Doing….as long as you keep moving. Plans are good, steps are good, but at the end of the day, the only part that matters is strapping into the launch seat and putting the pedal to the floor.

Now go forth and conquer.

*I really do think like this. It’s amazing I get anything done.
**If you’ve ever read A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett, you know the importance of a good PLN. If you haven’t, go read it.
***This approach assumes no simultaneous submissions, but if your market allows them, then go for it. Just keep a list so you don’t forget what went where.
****Don’t be upset if it says ‘everything’. Mine does.

Monday Challenge: EXCITEMENT!!!1!!!

I’M SO EXCITED I PUT A HOLE IN MY FACE. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Good morning, word monkeys*.  So glad you could join me here on the first Monday of the new year. Are you ready? Are you pumped?

There’s something about the new year. It still feels fresh. The darkness has started to recede from the days, and, while I know it’s a long way off, I can begin to think that there might be a spring somewhere down the road.

But in the meantime, I’ve got this face-slapping cold waking me up and I have to drink my coffee fast before it freezes solid. Invigorating. Which is how January should be, because, god damn it, we’ve got shit to do.

*Cracks open a fresh can of words* It’s time to get started.

Last week I wrote about scouting ahead and thinking of what new projects you wanted to work on in 2014. What did you come up with? What excites you about this year? If you missed last week because of Holiday Hangover or if you didn’t come up with anything, do so now. There must be at least one fucking thing you want to do this year. Write about robots. Write a novel. Figure out how to create a romance scene that is not so sweet that it makes you want to stab your frontal lobe with pixie sticks. Something.

Are you excited yet? You should be. Because we can talk about hard work and craft and discipline from now until Ragnarok, and it won’t do a damn thing if you don’t have an idea that excites you. You need a reason to bash your head against that wall. You need something to light the fire that you will then use to power the unholy steam engine of your brain and your guts and your fingers.

So, today’s Monday Challenge, you little syntax goblins: find what you’re excited about and then write about why you’re excited. At least part of it. It can be a character you like, or a scene that sounds neat, or a line of dialogue that punches like a spiked knuckleduster. It can be the idea itself, how it makes you feel. Find your excitement. Hunt it down and drag it out and shake its hand/paw/tentacle/grasping mechanism. You’re going to be spending some time together this year. And it’s going to be awesome.

*Every time I try to type ‘monkeys’, my fingers change it to ‘monkies’. Which sounds like an affectionate diminutive for Jesuits or something.