Monday Challenge: 4 AM On The Bathroom Floor

God damn it, if you knock over the BBQ while stealing my neighbour, at least put it back! Assholes.

Nothing good ever happens when you wake up suddenly and unexpectedly at four AM.

I don’t care what your life is like, if you’re not intending to wake up at that time and you do, some shit is going down. A phone call from jail. That worrying knock at the door. The feeling that something is very, very wrong.

Or, if you’re me, the food you ate several hours before rising from its bodily tomb with a vengeance.

I was thinking about the nature of four AM as I was lying on the bathroom floor very early Sunday, feeling the nausea eventually turn into a migraine.* Partially because I had nothing else to do once I finished re-reading all the comics I keep in the bathroom, partially because I’ve decided to turn all the random crap that happens in my life into ‘research’.**

I came to the conclusion that it’s not just the circumstances. There’s something about four AM that sets off a reaction in our heads. It’s like a short hand for ‘something bad is going to happen’. Like sunrise being used as a symbol of new beginnings. Waking up unexpectedly at four am, in the darkest armpit of the morning, is the symbol of something fucking up. The machine of your life gives a lurch.

It’s probably a great place to start a story.

So, Monday Challenge, which was technically conceived on a bathroom floor at Ass O’Clock Sunday morning***, is this: wake your character up at 4 am. Something has happened to get them out of bed, and it’s nothing good. What is it? The knock at the door? The explosion outside the house? The baby crying? Or the aliens landing in the back patio knocking over the barbecue?

On your mark. Get set….write!

*That’s just how my body rolls.
**Hey, you deal with shit your way, I’ll deal with it mine.
***Probably not the only thing conceived that way.

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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.

Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

Today’s writing challenge is a shameless homage to one I did in a writing workshop a couple of years ago. This post captures the essence of it, but for the non-clickers, it was about writing places. New ways to look at settings. I learned a lot of stuff in that workshop that I still use. When it comes to writing techniques, I am like the little old lady with a pocket full of string: never throw anything away that might, eventually, turn out to be useful.

Usually, when I think of places having souls, I picture urban environments. Maybe it’s the concentration of people, or the very human marks we leave on the landscape, but I just find it easier to put a face to the place. To figure out who that neighbourhood is, not what. But I feel like stretching out today, so let’s look at non-human habitations. They don’t have to be rural or isolated, but the human presence shouldn’t factor in.

Monday Challenge: Take an inhuman landscape and tell me who they would be if they were a person. Discard human furnishings like buildings and roads and nuclear power plants; tell me about the land and the sky.

For example, if I was to look out my window, the backyard thus viewed would likely turn into an icy, cruel, androgynous figure with a smile like a razor blade and long, blackened nails tap-tapping on the glass. Come out, it says. You have to come out sometime.

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.

Monday Challenge: Show Your Teeth

Yes, button. It is bullshit.

Everyone has a snapping point. I don’t care how well-adjusted they are, I don’t care if they’re the sweetest person alive, I don’t care if they’re an angel stuffed with rainbows and cotton candy who rides a hybrid unicorn*—everyone has a point where their patience, their strength, whatever keeps them in control and on the beam runs out. The place where they say this far…no further.

Of course, it’s not the same for every person. Some people snap after the first raised hand, others will ignore that for ten years…until that hand is raised against their children. Some people lose their shit at any criticism, even the constructive kind; others will take criticism but not a dismissal. Some never seem to let it get to them, but are letting the pressure slowly build like water behind a dam. Others live so often on the cusp of explosion you might wonder if they have any self-control at all.

If your characters have no limits, then you don’t know how to push them. Because fiction is, in many ways, like that sibling who finds out what bothers you and then just pushes your buttons. Over and over again. Until things reach a head and someone ends up grounded.** Fiction is about finding the goddamn buttons and pushing them.

Writers really are a giant bag of dicks most of the time.

Monday Challenge: write the moment when someone finally, after much provocation, snaps. Do they cry? Do they Hulk out and smash something? Do they fight? Do they argue? Or is there just a quiet click somewhere inside as an internal spring breaks and whatever powers them runs loose?

*Good for Fantasyland Knights of The Ponyboy Order, good for the planet.
**Why, yes, I do have an older brother. How did you know?

Monday Challenge: Hey, I’m Talking To You!

DIAF, you creepy little git.

It’s amazing that people ever manage to talk.

Ever listened to conversations? I mean really listened? Half the time, you’d swear that the people involved aren’t even talking about the same thing. They wander, repeat themselves, subtly try to shift the conversation back to their own concerns, forget what they were about to say…

Considering that we’re a species that prizes communication, I don’t know how we get anything done.

But in fiction it’s different.* In fiction, people are on point. Not so much that they’re Conversation Robots**, but it’s a little more controlled. And it has to be; fiction, like spice, must flow.

One way you can do that is to make your character’s voices distinctive. You should know it’s them talking without a dialogue tag; leave out the “he said, she said, it said” and you’d still have a pretty good idea of who was speaking. It’s not all about accents, either, though that can play a part. Better way to get there is to use grammar and sentence structure. Which is what an accent really is, but never mind that. Also: try using distinctive words. I know people who use ‘listen’***, ‘massive’, ‘really’, and ‘you see’ more than most. Kind of like verbal tics.

A great way to polish this skill? Poach from your friends. Because you talk to them on a regular basis, you’re more likely to notice distinctive speech patterns. For example, if someone wanted to imitate me, they’d have to drop pronouns at the beginning of a sentence. “Just the way things are” instead of “It’s just the way things are.”**** And swear. More swearing.

Your Monday Challenge: write two characters talking—or more than two, if you’re feeling ambitious—with no dialogue tags. Make their voices as distinctive as possible so that the tags aren’t needed. You should not get the speakers confused with each other. I don’t care what they talk about—death, taxes, who ate all the snacks, the problem with these love-lorn robots all over the place—but make sure they talk as themselves.

You have your marching orders. Dismissed. *Salutes*

*Most of the time. There are authors who use the hyper-realistic model of conversations, but it’s rarely pulled off well. Usually it just confuses the reader. Conversations in fiction are conversations distilled.
**Like Conversation Hearts, but more metal-ly. DOES THAT UNIT FEEL POSITIVELY TOWARD THIS UNIT QUERY.
***Like that goddamn fairy in Legend of Zelda.
****What can I say? I like efficiency.

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.

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.