Monday Challenge: Eye/Nose/Sensing Tentacle of the Beholder

The object of the game was to make the Beholder realize it was beautiful just the way it was.

Ever get weirdly thoughtful about how your cat sees you?

No, I’m not high.

I’ll back up a little.

I was doing some reading the other day on sensory perception. How it differs across species. And across time; we don’t see things the way our ancestors do, and I’m talking about more than having to put up with Bieber’s smug, punchable face sprayed across every magazine I pass. The Ancient Greeks saw colours differently than we do because of a difference in the eye’s ability to perceive; hence Homer’s description of the “wine-dark sea”.

Some scientists believe that it also differs across gender–women see more shades of colours than men, probably due to genetic selection for finding food–and, possibly, across individuals. There’s no guarantee that what I perceive is the same as what you do, even though we might put the same name on it.

It’s about this point that things start to devolve into the kind of thoughts one normally gets from the cataclysmically stoned.

However, for the sober writer*, the questions bear some interesting fruit. Especially for the speculative fiction writer, which usually has some kind of non-human being to deal with. How does that race of aliens see us? Do unicorns see into the magical spectrum? What does the sentient magical sword perceive? What does it think of this scabbard? Is it so last season?

Monday Challenge: write about beauty from the point of view of a non-human being. How would their perception differ from ours? What would they find attractive? A sentient crow, for example, would think more about air currents and thermal lift than we do, and less about traffic. To it, beauty might be movement. A plant-based being would perceive light more completely, so their idea of beauty would take into account spectrums for which we have no words. Metallic creatures might adjust to resonating frequencies, and read their environment in vibrations, leading to the development of the phrase, “Will you listen to the ass on that one?”

Try not to be lazy. If you use another humanoid character, try to make something very different. Infrared vision, extra senses, alien physiology. Stretch yourself. Expand your mind.

And remember that beauty is often in the tentacle of the beholder.

*Contradiction in terms, right? Right? (silence) …I’ll show myself out.

Monday Challenge: I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Stories*

I love you, too, coffee.

Back in the long ago, Krys and I used to spend boring moments—bus rides, waiting room visits, that sort of thing—discussing every possible preference of fictional characters. Favourite drink. Preferred cigarette brand, if they smoked now or ever did. Favourite leisure activity. Sexual preferences. So many things that never make it into the story, but which real people do.

The one I remember most is a classic morning question, asked in diners and unfamiliar kitchens the world over: how do they take their coffee?

Don’t scoff. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a cup that’s over-sugared or far too bitter knows that, while it might be personal preference, it’s still kind of a big deal. And, for lactose intolerant me, having someone else dump cream into the cup pretty much ruins the experience.

And it’s not just the taste. There was one character that, after much argument, we decided took his two ways. When he was around others, he’d order it strong and black, but when he was alone, he added so much goddamn cream and sugar that it must have been like drinking dessert. Because he had decided that he wanted to be the kind of guy who took his coffee black, even if he didn’t like the taste all that much. Anyone who’s spent time around insecure teenagers pretending to like the taste of beer has seen this phenomenon in action.

So, assuming you haven’t just skipped down to the bold text, you know what today’s writing prompt will be. If you have just skipped down to the bold text: seriously? It’s less than 400 words. If I can write it on the teensy amount of sleep I got last night, you can manage to read it. God.

Monday Challenge: how does your character take their coffee? Black and bitter? Sweet? Floating in cream? Decaff? Irish? One of those coffee-milkshake things available at Starbucks? Do they not drink coffee at all because of an ulcer, or PTSD because of the incident with the carafe and the monkey? Tell me what they’re ordering because that tells me about them.

I’m going to go make another pot.

*Dark, strong, and able to keep me up all night.

Monday Challenge: Chicks Dig Scars

Not the scar I had in mind, but judging from the Internet, a lot of chicks dig this guy, too.

I’ve got a huge scar on my right knee. The full details of the incident can be read here, along with accompanying pictures of the original injury, but these days it’s healed into a weird crater-like mark over the bottom half of my kneecap. It still looks odd and as of yet I haven’t regained feeling in the whole thing. Pretty sure I left some nerve endings on the pavement that day. On the bright side, when I inevitably fall down again—because I will—it will likely hurt less.

Scars have stories. Sometimes they’re silly ones, like mine; other times they’re dangerous and daring tales full of adventure. Or, if you’re my dad, cautionary tales related to work accidents.* But there’s always a story, always something that goes along with the mark. Because scars are your body’s notation system. They’re the way you remember to do things, or not do others. They’re reminders.

But for some scars, and for some people, there are two stories: the one that happened, and the one they tell.

We shift things for a lot of reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that I edited some of the details of the above story. Not out of a desire to conceal anything, but because, hell, I’m a writer. I want to make a story out of everything. There has to be a narrative flow instead of just things happening one after another. And sometimes we change the details of our stories because we wished it had happened slightly differently. Or that it hadn’t happened at all.

Your characters do the same thing.

Monday Challenge time, you grubby little wombats: What scars does your character have, and what story do they tell about them? It might be the truth, or a version of it. Or it might be something a little more…colourful. Or less, depending on the provenance of those scars. Sometimes the version we tell is the less exciting one.

Show me their scars and tell me their stories, people. Get to it.

*Lesson learned: never believe the other guy when he says he shut off the air pressure to the valve you’re about to open, because if he hasn’t, you’re gonna lose a finger.

Monday Challenge: Which Inane Buzzfeed Quiz Are You?

This is a trap. Go take the ‘Which Creepy Cult Are You?’ test instead.

There’s always a black hole of the internet ready for new victims. It used to be Wikipedia links. Then YouTube videos. Instagram, Vine, Twitter…all these have their followers. My new time-sucking black hole? Inane Buzzfeed quizzes. And I mean fucking inane. Somehow, I managed to go my whole life without knowing what haircut I should have, or who would play me in the movie of my life. But no more.

In the last week, I’ve discovered that I am Captain Kirk, a dragon, the colour red, Faith from Buffy, Commander Riker, a member of Dauntless*, and that I should be living in the Netherlands. Future quizzes will probably reveal what Elder God I should worship, the detailed sketch of my next tattoo, and which one of you will be responsible for my death.

God, how did we know anything about ourselves before internet quizzes?

To break up the inanity—or play into it, I’m no longer sure which—I started taking quizzes as characters and recording their results in the Story Bible for the rewrite. Why? I don’t know. Why do I do anything?**

Some of the results were spot on. Some were completely off base. Others were somewhere in the middle. But, whatever the result, I had to try and think like those characters to take the quiz. Fun mental exercise. Or introduction to having multiple personalities. One of those.

Monday Challenge: Take a random Buzzfeed quiz as your character. Does the result suit them? If so, why? If not, why not and write the result they should have gotten.

To get you started, here are some fucking random quizzes:

Which Late Night TV Show Host Are You?
Are You Hungover?***
Which Street Fighter Character Are You?
Which Miyazaki Character Are You?
Which Gay Sex Position Are You?****

For extra super bonus points, post your results in the comments below.
*I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, so I don’t know if this if a good thing or not.
**’Because I wanted to see what happened’ narrowly edges out ‘for the lols’.
***I don’t feel you should need a quiz to know this.
****Stay classy, Buzzfeed.

Monday Challenge: One Distinguishing Feature

That guy looks familiar… (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot about my characters this weekend.

Normally, we get weekends off from each other. They retire back to whatever alternate dimension they came from, and I either work on other stuff or take a break from writing. But this weekend…I don’t know. Maybe it was because winter rose from its frost-lined grave to terrorize us one more time, thus reducing the number of runs I could complete.* Maybe it was because I finished the TV show I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Either way, they were taking up more mental real estate than usual.

I came up with some good stuff, so I wrote out character descriptions for most of the main ones. Not physical descriptions; remember Friday’s post? This was stuff about backgrounds and voices.

But I did make sure to include the one physical characteristic I associate with the bastards, because that’s what makes them them. The rest of their appearance crystallizes around that one thing.

Monday Challenge time: describe your characters using only one physical characteristic. What defines them? What stands out?

And, because I like these as much as you do, here are my entries for the seven main characters I didn’t get to on Friday:

Contestant number one is a woman who has lost a lot of weight. Too much. In the right light, you can see the bones under her skin.
Number two has eyes the faded blue of a desert sky, all wide open plains and endless vistas.
Number three’s hands are large, with blunt, short fingers and scarred palms. You wouldn’t think they’d be capable of the kind of delicate work he’s known for.
Number four is dark: not just skin and hair, but eyes, too. The irises and the pupils blend together, making her look either unearthly or concussed, depending on the context.
Number five is…nothing. Nothing stands out. You would pass him in a crowd and never remember he was there. Which is just how he likes it.
Number six has curly, reddish-gold hair that almost glows in the sunlight. It’s beautiful, and she hates it.
Number seven is a big man, but he moves like a small one: all enthusiasm and quick gestures. It can be unnerving.

That’s mine. Now show me yours.

*I love running, but even I’m not crazy enough to run on solid sheets of ice.

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: 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: Wrong Choice Combo #2 With Extra Fortune Cookie

An oyster pail (Chinese takeout container) con...

Can I get that poor life choice with a side of Felt Good At The Time Sauce? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Characters are sad, fucked up little bastards. They ask the wrong questions, fuck the guy they know they shouldn’t, say things just to hurt people, drink the jar of bubbling green liquid marked ‘Poison, Seriously, Don’t Touch’, and generally exhibit what our high school guidance counselors called “poor life choices”*.

At least, the good ones do.

Here is a hurdle at which many otherwise decent writers fall. The instinct as Story Gods**, since we make all the choices for the characters, is to make the right choice. Or at least not a badly, horrifically damaging one. Because the characters are us, in a way, and if we know what the right choice is, why would we make the wrong one?*** At least if we know what the worst possible choice is, we’re not going to do that.

Are we?

Evidence suggests that human beings make those kinds of choices all the fucking time. Sometimes we do it because we’re confused, or angry, or want to hurt someone, or want to hurt ourselves. Sometimes we do it because we think we’re making the right choice, but it later turns out to be Bad Choice Number Three with a side of Bastard Sauce, Extra Hot. Part of it is because, being humans instead of Story Gods, we don’t fucking know what the right choice is sometimes. But a bigger part is just people being people. We fuck up so much we could do it for a living.

Monday Challenge time, godlets: Someone has to choose. It could be a life or death choice, or it could be what sock to put on first. But, whatever they choose, make sure they choose wrong. And write what happens next.

*I knew a guy in university who double majored in Poor Life Choices and Passing Out In Stairwells. They were related subjects.
**I’m trying this out as an alternative to Writer. I think it will be a more interesting way to introduce myself to people at holiday parties.
***Again, I know a guy who does this. More than one, actually.