If It’s Not Broken, Break It

This hamster very firmly believes in not judging books by their covers and that when it rains, it pours.

I’m learning to hate adages.

I shouldn’t; I mean, they’re just words. But, much like Twitter*, the effort of condensing a sentiment into a small, memorable package means that it either 1) comes across as something a mentally-deficient hamster would say or 2) loses all meaning and context.

Adages are too often the shortcut of thinking.

Today’s annoyance? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sounds good on the surface. Why mess with something that’s functioning perfectly well? After all, it’s working, right?

But.

But.

What if there’s a better way out there?

Something that you’re refusing to see because good enough is…well, good enough?

Much like ‘write what you know’, this phrase has the ability to become a straight jacket. You get stuck in a routine or a method of creation because it’s always worked and it’s fine and trying something new is too much work. But if you’re never going to fix anything as long as it functions with the minimum efficiency, you’re never going to expand your horizons.

If I didn’t try to change things that weren’t broken, I never would have written short stories, or horror, or young adult fiction, because adult fantasy novels were fine. And while not all those experiments worked out for the best, they were still valuable.

Hell, from the Real Life Files, that adage would have seen me never ask my husband on a date, because we were fine as friends. It would have seen me still trapped in an academic career, because it was good enough. It would see us stuck in another province, because why risk the move to a strange town?

So fuck that. Sometimes you have to break things before you can make new things. Break your routines, break your characters, break your stories, and see what you can make out of the pieces. If you can’t make anything, then go back to what you knew. At least you tried. But in the trying, you might just make something great. Isn’t that work the risk?

You always write at home? Go to a coffee shop, or a library, or the park by the river. You always write hard science fiction? Write a romance. Learn something from it. You only read speculative fiction? Pick up a literary award-winner or a non-fiction history.

The new and the novel are where ideas come from. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. And if you’re a writer, then why the hell would you choose complacency?

So break things. Raise new things in their place. And find out what you can do, not just what you can get by doing.

*I love you, Twitter, but you are possibly the shittiest place on earth to have a nuanced conversation about anything.

Break Out The Scotch, It’s Time For Year Four!

Maybe keep the candles away from the scotch, though.

Holy shit, here we are again. The beginning of a new year of Bare Knuckle Writer. Year four, to be precise. In the words of my role-playing character, “who would have thought we’d make it this far without someone nuking us from orbit?”*

I’m damn sure it’s no coincidence that I chose March to start this blog, with about as much prior research as it took to learn how to register a domain name and think of one I liked. February, as some of you might have gathered from the preceding post, is always hard for me. Shortest month feels longer in my head, and greyer, and colder.

But March…it might still be colder than a Frost Giant’s left testicle out there, but something has started to thaw. Maybe the ground. Maybe just my own imagination.

Things are moving again, and I like that.

As I said, I started this blog pretty much on a whim, and never set a timetable for myself. And every year when my renewal notice pops up in my inbox, I wonder if I should do it for another year. And, thus far, the answer has always been ‘yes’. I don’t plan any further than that, because I never want this to become an obligation. It’s my side project, like musicians recording under a different name. It’s something I do for fun, and occasionally to give difficult thoughts a place to live that’s not me. Or not just me.

But, to all of you who follow and read and allow the infectious spores of my thoughts to claim a section of your brain…thank you. Thanks for the follows, and the comments, and the questions, and the Twitter conversations. Thanks for your time and attention, which, goddamn, are valuable commodities these days. Thanks for listening.

And keep that dial right where it is. A brand new year is coming up, and you don’t want to miss it.

*Shortly after saying that, someone did attempt to nuke our party from orbit. Because DMs are like that.

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.

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.

Unexpected Break! Everyone Panic!

Due to some Unexpected Serious Real Life Stuff that needs dealing with, I’m taking a two week break from blogging, starting now. I’ll be back on the 29th, just before New Year’s, to harangue you all into making writing a part of your resolutions, but until then, keep you word counts up. I don’t want any slacking while I’m not here. Don’t make me assign you busy work like a grade school teacher about to step outside for a surreptitious cigarette behind the wood shop.

In the meantime, read some of the archives, work on whatever project you have going on, and enjoy the veritable rain of junk food that heralds this time of year. No, no, don’t cry. You’ll be fine.

I’m out.

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.

Eleven Things The Writer In Me Is Thankful For

Honourable Mention: Michael Bay, for ridding us of that pesky drive toward nostalgia.

1) Supportive Peeps. Family, friends, cats, that other cat who comes to sit on our deck in the morning…thanks for being you. And for not clawing my eyes out while I sleep.

2) Good Books. For the inspiration. Or the maddening, liver-gnawing jealousy that can pass for it sometimes.

3) Bad Books. For making me feel better about myself.

4) Coffee. For giving me the energy I need to vibrate at exactly 4.346 x 10^6534 times a second. No, 4.347 now. 4.346. 4.347. 4.346.

5) Scotch. For being scotch.

6) Music. For giving my days a rhythm, a rhyme, and a beat that I can dance to.

7) The Comment Block and Twitter Mute Buttons. For making it possible for me to ignore all the mouth-breathing pieces of shit that demand that I send them tit pics.*

8) Fountain Pens. For being elegant, timeless, and sharp enough to stab people.

9) October. For being the prettiest damn month I’ve ever seen.

10) The Delete Key. For destroying the evidence of my mistakes.

11) Readers. For making this whole writing thing seem a little less like a crazy person ranting into the void.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! What are you thankful for?

*I like to imagine all the creepy randos that demand tit pics of me are all locked in a tiny little Rapunzel tower together every time I hit one of these buttons. The only way out is to be a decent human being, so they’re never going to see daylight again.

Writing By Comet-Light: The Lie Of The Right Time

The people in 1070 realize it’s finally time to write that strawpunk bubonic plague epic.

Here is a pervasive myth of our era: I’ll start when it’s the right time.

When I can concentrate. When I feel creative. When I can devote my undivided attention to it.

And “the right time” goes on to encompass a set of demands so far-reaching and esoteric that it could be Slayer’s tour rider. When it’s Sunday. When the moon’s full. When I have a bowl of M&Ms and two bottles of Cristal and 100 white goats for sacrifice.

But the fact of existence is that the perfect time never comes along. Ever. I’ve been on the look out for a perfect time for more than thirty fucking years and I haven’t seen one yet. Maybe they only come along at great intervals, like Halley’s Comet.

And, guaranteed, there’s someone out there waiting for the next appearance of that flaming sky ball to start writing something. See you in 2061, asshole. Rest assured we’re not waiting with bated breath for whatever masterpiece you think you’ll shit out by the light of a comet.

There will never be a right time to start anything. So you might as well get off your ass and do it now.

What’s the rush, you say. I have time. What’s the hurry?

The hurry is that the reaper is on you trail, motherfucker. And you don’t know how close it is.

A little melodramatic, but it’s true. There might not be time tomorrow. Okay, it might not be death that slows you down*, but there’s always something else. Social gatherings. Jobs. Families. The siren song of bad television. The inertia of trying to start something new. 

I fall prey to this as much as anyone. For years, I put off writing because there wasn’t time. I was busy: studying, moving, doing thesis work, learning to fight, learning to be in a relationship, learning what happens when you overwork and burn out. I couldn’t possibly add another thing to that pile.

And maybe I was right. But I know that I wouldn’t have burned out so hot and so fast if I’d made time—even a little; an hour a week, maybe—to work on something I loved as much as fiction writing.

If you wait around for the perfect time, you’ll grow old and die without doing anything. And I’m not even talking about climbing mountains or figuring out how to use monkey blood to power your robot army. This is writing. You start writing by opening up to a new page and putting words on it. Words that you know. As far as barriers to entry go, it’s only marginally higher than putting on your fucking socks. And you have to do that twice.

After getting started, of course, things change. You have to work at doing better. At doing it right. And that’s a whole other bucket of snakes. But realizing that you can start whenever you want is a pretty damn big snake on it’s own.

There is no right time. There is only the time that you make.

*Especially if the assassins fail again.

Inertia and Nipple Clamps: Getting Started On A Difficult Day

+2 Laptop of Punching

+2 Laptop of Punching

Getting those first words of the day down on the page can be the worst. Thing. Ever. Writing my second thesis, it was a challenge to get going every single day.* To stop staring at the blank white page and the damn blinking cursor that mocked me. You’ve been looking at me for an hour, it says. Nothing done yet. I’m just gonna blink here, ticking away the seconds of your life.

Eventually, though, I figured out a few ways to get past that initial block. Some of them involved drinking. Another was mainly about yelling at the cursor that I was in control, damn it, I will write the shit out of you, who’s winning now, YOU LITTLE BLINKING ASSHOLE.

Thesis time was intense.

Many of the lessons I learned there cross over to fiction writing, though. And the experience of writing a very big thing with a very definite deadline was instructive. You have to get it done. There is no time to sit around watching YouTube and jerking off. Do that on your own time. This is writing time, god damn it. So here’s how to get started:

1) Brush up on your physics. Understand what’s really happening here by applying the principle of inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.**

In other words, it’s harder to get started than to keep going. And that you need to push to start. What that push is depends on you, but keep in mind that coffee/cigarettes/monkey adrenal glands will only take you so far. Look for your push in the same place you look for an alien pupal sac: within.

2) Kill the editor, stuff the body in a cigar box and bury it at the cross roads. You never know, it might sprout into a Criticism Tree. Which is like a Giving Tree, but all it grows are snarky one-star reviews.

You can’t get started if you’re already worried that you’re doing it wrong. So slip a knife quietly between the internal editor’s ribs and write something. It might suck. It might be great. But, whatever it is, it’ll get you started.

Oh, and don’t worry about the editor. That bitch comes back more than an indecisive vampire.

3) Break out the tequila and nipple clamps, it’s fun time. You can’t get started if you’re dreading it. Well, you can, but you’ll waste quintuple the time on Twitter and Buzzfeed first.

Find the fun in what you’re doing. Getting the blog post started today was hard, so I decided to look forward to the ridiculous figurative language I use to write here. Tequila! Alien parasites! Crossroads murder! Yelling at cursors!

It’s all fun and games until you punch through your monitor.

4) Write a blog post. Well, that was easy.

*The first one, oddly, went much easier.

**Scientists: yes, I’m aware this is a colloquial approximation. I’m trying to make a point, not write an essay on Newtonian physics.

Sweat and Ink: Finding Your Passion In The Armpit Of Summer

Sun: IMMA BE HERE FOREVER.

This is it: the dog days of summer. If you’re anywhere near me, you know that it’s been hotter than the devil’s jockstrap and twice as sweaty.*

What’s the first thing to go in this weather? No, not your clothes. If you’re like me, you’ve been working in a bikini top and daisy dukes since the last week of June, anyway.

The first thing to go is enthusiasm. The muggier it gets, the harder it becomes to give the contents of a roach-infested Hyundai’s ashtray about whatever the hell your characters are doing. Or about anything other than the nearest source of air conditioning, but let’s focus on the writing.

This related to this post on writing in the summer, but if that’s Summer Writer 101, consider this Summer Writer 201. You’ve shown up to write, but your brain is too hot to get it done. To get through the oncoming stickiness with your word/scene/note count intact, we need to dredge your passion for the project out of whatever damp hole it crawled in to die. Here it is: Finding Your Passion, Hot Weather Edition!

1) Change your venue. To an igloo. You might think this is too silly to work, but that’s just the sweat talking. Moving from your stifling living room, where the Crotch-Scorching Firebrick** slow-roasts your junk, to a cooler location can give you the mental energy to write. Your local library might have air conditioning. Or there’s coffee shops. Or malls. Find somewhere to cool down your brain. And your junk.

2 a) Write the good part. There’s probably a part of your story that you’ve been looking forward to writing every since you conceived the idea. Now is the time to write it. Because, god damn it, if you can’t get excited about that right now, it might be time to hang up the pens.

2 b) Read the good part. Maybe you’ve already written the good part. I have. I couldn’t wait. So now is a really good time to go find that part and read it. Remember why you couldn’t wait.

3) Make some inspiration. No, not meth. You don’t want to cook in this weather.

Go make a playlist of music that sounds like your characters, or your settings. Find or make some art: maps, character sketches, artefacts. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Feel the inspiration.

Then make meth.

4) Spread the love. Enlist another person in your project. Find a second reader and send them pages or chapters as they’re finished. They might just get excited, which will make you more excited. And then you can get together and fan-person it up.

5) Strip down. Not like that. Put your shorts back on, slick.

Strip your story down to the most exciting idea. What makes your imagination’s loins quiver with the thought of writing it? What are you trying to say? What does it all mean? Remembering why you got into this might help you get out of it with your sanity intact.

Anyone else? How do you stay motivated to stick with projects when you’re sticking to the chair?

*By Canadian standards, obviously. Those of you from places like Florida and India, keep your weather far south of me and get back to turning into walking sweat glands.

**Also known as your laptop