10 Things I’ve Learned In A Decade Of Creative Work

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This wine is for medicinal purposes after realizing how long I’ve been writing.

Writing Tuesday’s post made me do some math, and the result of that was: it has been almost ten years since I completed my first manuscript.

The actual decade mark will come sometime early next year, but it’s close enough. I remember it quite well, because in the spring of 2006 I was finishing up my master’s thesis and wondering how I would fill a year before going into PhD work.

Eight months later I burned all my PhD applications and watched the ashes flutter away in the January wind.

Since then I have not had a ‘real’ job. I’ve worked temporary part-time stuff, but nothing that you can tell people when they turn to you at a party and ask the dreaded question: “And what do you do?” I’ve been writing.

Here are some things I’ve learned in the last almost-decade:

1. There is no validation. Do not expect the easy win. In some ways, doing this is worse than a day job, because at least there someone can tell you if you’re doing it right. Artists are all pitching words or images or songs into the void and hoping something comes back. It is not for the faint of heart.

2. This is a long con. Be prepared for the long haul. This road runs into the desert, and there’s no proof it ever comes out again. Take water and sunscreen and a machete, because you’re going to be out there a while.

3. People don’t get it. Maybe art is something they don’t understand or something they wish they had done or something they feel is morally wrong, but, man, a lot of people do not fucking get it. Tell them you’re an artist and if you’re lucky you’ll get a blank stare. If you’re not…

4. It makes some people angry. On the upside, these people usually act like complete assholes, so you can safely ignore them while they flail around with their judgmental snark and passive-aggressive comments. It’s about them, not you.

5. Even work you love can be hard. There will be days when you want to punch yourself in the brain to make all the words fall out.

6. If it takes more than it gives, then you’re probably in the wrong job. All jobs take, and creative jobs are no exception. The only difference is what they take. In my case, writing has taken my time, my mental energy, my personal financial security, my independence, my other ambitions. It gives me joy, entertainment, freedom, and purpose. If you’re not getting more than you’re sacrificing, according to your own idiosyncratic math, then you’re doing the wrong thing. Actually, I guess that applies to all jobs.

7. You’ll work harder at this than any other job you’ve ever had. A couple of years back I had to put myself on a regular schedule, because I was spending almost eighty hours a week working on writing and was on the verge of burning out altogether. Even now, I work about fifty. That includes writing, outlining, editing, researching markets, sending out submissions…there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into producing art. And you usually don’t get paid for it. Be prepared for that.

8. It makes you a different person. Not a better person, note. Just different. I am not the same person I would have been if I had gone on to do my PhD. Or gone into teaching. Or done anything else. I look at the world in different ways. Sometimes they’re good ways. Sometimes I’m mining personal tragedy for story fodder.

9. You’ll want to quit. At least once. More likely thousands of times. Sometimes all in one day.

10. There is no rush like creation. When everything’s clicking over just right and all your hard work is coming together, you’ll fly. And you’ll never want to come back down.

Recycling From The Fail Pile

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Not Pictured: That Manuscript. This is a completely different one.

I wrote a scene for a book ten years ago.

Shit. Writing that sentence was the first time I stopped to do that particular math. Fuck. That was longer ago than I thought.

Anyway, this was my first finished book. It sucked. I mean, it’s not spectacularly bad– it doesn’t physically hurt me to read it, like some of my earlier, unfinished stories–but it still sucks. It will remain in cold storage indefinitely, or until the sun explodes and burns us all to a crisp.

But there was this one scene. I liked it. I still like it. Not the way it was written, because, dude, I was just starting out then. I had spent the previous six years writing academic papers. My fiction writing was not great, to say the least. I could over-explain like a boss, though.

But I liked the idea behind this scene. It’s one of the only parts I remember really clearly from that first book, so it stuck with me, even after the rest has been mercifully flushed down the memory hole.

And over the weekend, I was doing the brain work on another story and I realized something.

I had written that scene for the wrong book.

The one it belonged in was the one I was working on now.

So what’s the moral of this tale? Well, it’s not never throw anything away, because some of the stuff you produce will be complete garbage and you should absolutely throw garbage away.

But some things don’t stay on the compost heap. They claw their way back. And those…those you should give a second look. Because it might be a case of right place, wrong time. Write place, wrong time, maybe, if I’m allowed a moment to be completely insufferable.

Old scenes, old characters, old plots can be reused, especially if you originally created them for something that never quite came together. Break it down for spares and use the parts that work.

And let the rest stay on the fail heap. For now.

On Bad Days

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Maybe this will soften the blow of the swears I’m about to drop.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story will have days where that story turns on them, rending the skin from their face and chewing on their entrails.*

Yesterday was that day.

Today? Jury’s still out. My entrails are still scattered on the hardwood and I’ve yet to try reading the future in them.

This is the point where I suppose I should write something inspiring about how bad days make better writers, about the Artist’s Fight, about how even James Joyce struggled. Except fuck James Joyce.

Or I could do a list. People love lists. Seven Things To Do When Writing Sucks Harder Than A Closeted Varsity Athlete, maybe.

Except I don’t want to.

What I want to do is write. It is what gives my days purpose.

But I need to get this blog post done first. Not that I think any of you live and die by my words, but I made a commitment. And if there is one rule for writing, it is: finish.

So. Bad day yesterday. And if you’re here because you had a bad day, then I only have one thing to say.

So?

Bad days happen. You can spend your time navel-gazing about whether this means you don’t have it in you to be a writer, beating your breast about the difficulty, the unfairness, the grand sweeping suckitude¬†of it all.

Or you can get on with things.

Pick up your entrails, stuff them back in your body, and duct-tape everything together. Staple your face back on. Smile.

Because we’ve got work to do.

*I’d say “with apologies to Jane Austen”, but I’m not sorry. I might be an asshole, but I’m not going to add ‘liar’ on top of that.

Where To Find Ideas When Your Brain Has Dried Up

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Come on, the ideas are just waiting. Photo by Stephanie Snow

The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.

The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.

The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.

The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.

The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.

The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.

The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.

The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.

Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.

Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?

Editing, Video Games, and Vaccination: Too Many Metaphors

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Editing: it’s important.

For me, editing is the hardest part of writing. And it is a part of writing. It’s the part that takes whatever you produced during the other part of writing and makes it suck less.

But editing hurts. It kicks your ego right in the fun bits. And it can be really, really fucking frustrating.

A thought: if writing was video games, first drafts would be like fighting games: AAAAHHHHH HIT THAT GUY NO NOT HIM THE OTHER GUY WHAT’S HAPPENING BUTTON MASH BUTTON MASH. You’re hanging on for dear life, just trying to make it to the end of the round.

Whereas editing is a puzzle game: okay, if I move this block, that door opens. But if that door opens, then that torch goes out, and I need the torch to see the block, so I need to find another torch or another block…or maybe a lever? Maybe…

…followed by ninety minutes of moving things around and then rage-quitting to do literally anything else.

Drafting is flying high; editing is patiently grinding away on the ground. But you need both, and of the two, editing is usually the one that gets neglected.

And you know what happens then?

You produce shit, that’s what.

This is the problem with bad self-published works. No one edited them, so none of the rough edges have been worn off. It’s like the author crapped out a first draft and, instead of hitting ‘save’, hit ‘publish’ instead.

Which is a shame, because I’ve read some fantastic self-published works. But they’re surrounded by festering clumps of toilet-bowl manuscripts. And those unedited crap-piles make it harder for people to take self-published works seriously.

To shamelessly switch similes, editing is like vaccination: yeah, it hurts a bit, but if you don’t do it you’ll get rubella.

Wait. No.

If you don’t edit your stuff, you’re letting your story be that unvaccinated kid wandering around Disneyland: they’re not as strong as they could be and you’re compromising the effectiveness of everyone else’s work.

So, for the love of whatever Invisible Beard In The Sky you believe in, edit your work.

And vaccinate your kids.

Round and Round: How To Re-Outline A Writing Project Because You Made A Terrible, Terrible Mistake

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Spin me right round, baby, right round.

1. Write down what happened. In your current draft, anyway. Simple sentences, scene by scene. Cover everything. Everything important. Hint: if you leave it out of your outline, it’s probably something you should think about cutting, because you couldn’t be arsed to write one goddamn sentence about it.

2. Code them. If you’re using Scrivener or Trello or some other index card maker thing, then mark the scenes somehow to indicate different metrics. I mark plots/subplots and viewpoint character. Then I lay them all out in order and see how they stack up. Does one of the subplots disappear, only to reappear at the end? Or never reappear at all? Am I spending more time inside a secondary character’s head than I am inside the main character’s? Cast the augury of the cards. They will reveal your weakness, through which your enemies may strike at thee.

3. Patch and fill and cut. Move stuff around, change viewpoint characters, create some scenes that resolve that subplot…or cut it altogether. Make it count or flush it.

4. Write down what should have happened. New set of cards, writing down what needs to happen now that you’ve changed fucking everything. This is the worst. It’s okay. We’re almost done.

5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Mark up your new cards with pacing elements: action, exposition, character revelation. Does the flow work now that you’ve added in things? If not, get more cards. Oh god, more cards. Keep working at it until it flows like sweet, sweet bourbon. Which reminds me: you might need some bourbon.

6. Mark the scenes as Stop, Go, and Slow The Hell Down. I use the Label function to turn my cards green, red, and yellow. Stop is a new scene entirely. Go is a scene that can be taken 90% verbatim from the old draft. Slow The Hell Down is a scene that needs to be tinkered with in order to fit. Try not to freak out over the amount of red and yellow cards.*

7. Begin. Again. This time with a plan.

*For example, I sat down with a huge coffee at the local caffeine pusher and worked my way through all these bloody cards and here’s my breakdown: 13% Stop, 55% Go, 32% Slow The Hell Down.

The Point of No Return

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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.

Health Aids That Live At Your Desk, Because So Do You.

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Home sweet home.

Bonus: none of these are location dependent. Work in a coffee shop? You can do this! Standing desk? Sure, you hipster douchebag!* Hunched up on your bed with your laptop? All this shit fits on a nightstand, next to the lube and that serious book you want your one-night-stands to think you’re reading.

Tennis Ball. Use it for self-massage, releasing whatever that shoot pain in your hip is, rolling your probably overworked forearms and hands on, and throwing at people. Really, for a couple of bucks a can, you can’t get a better multi-tasker. Plus, apparently there’s a game you can play with them or something?

Water. Not coffee. I’m sorry, coffee, you know I love you, but you are not a replacement for water. Bonus: drinking more water makes you retain less water, so you feel less like a bloated sack of crap when you leave your desk to go be human among the humans for a while.

Fitness Tracker. Entirely unnecessary, but it does add a certain “futuristic cyborg” element to the day. Mine reminds me to move occasionally, presumably because it thinks I’ve died. My selection process boiled down to “this one looks the least like shit, so I’ll probably actually wear it.”

Eye Drops. Working at a computer leaves me with eyeballs that feel like marbles covered in sandpaper and then dipped in hot sauce. Get some drops so you can stop peering at people like you were just accidentally awoken from cryo-sleep.

Stretches. We’re all going to be hunchy gargoyles before too much longer. Stand tall above your peers and stave off vulture neck by occasionally doing some stretches and exercises.

*I did the standing desk for a while. I liked it, but found that it only worked for certain types of work. First draft writing was great, editing not so much.

PSA: Don’t Read The Comments, Even On A Fucking Recipe.

talking without brainsI read the comments this morning.

Not the comments here. No, I keep those well-moderated and have no problem slam-dunking someone into the Oblivion of the Block List if they act like an ass. And most of you are awesome, so, go you.

No, I made the mistake of scrolling past an article I was reading into the comments section.

I know. I know. Rookie mistake. You hate to see it.

Usually I know better. Hell, I used to have a browser extension that blocked the comments sections of websites unless I clicked to make them show themselves like the cowardly insects they are. It was great. No more accidental scrolling past the updates for the local library to see the barely-literate complaining that libraries are “obsuleet”.** No more looking up a book review and seeing the hate for characters that are anything but straight white cisgender men. No more sexist trolling on feminist journals. I switched browsers recently and hadn’t put the extension back up yet. No reason; I’m used to stopping before the comments.

But I was looking at a recipe, for fuck’s sake. I wanted to check other’s results making it. I thought that was safe.

Silly writer.

Anyway, after the devolution of a fucking recipe into a bigoted, slur-filled, all-caps screaming match, I am prompted to issue the following notice:

If you preface a sentence with “I’m not a racist, but…”, then you probably are. And a liar to boot.

Likewise for “I’m not a sexist, but…” and “I’m not a homophobe, but…” and “I’m not an ableist, but…” and and and…

I could really keep going forever. Just like those comments sections. Reading them is like swimming in raw sewage.

If you follow one of those openings with a comment that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted, then, yeah, you are that thing. You’re just trying to deflect the criticism with a half-assed attempt to show that you know those things aren’t cool. Which is somehow worse. You know saying those things is bad, but you can’t be arsed to actually stop saying them.

That behavior will get you blocked on this site, now and forever.

So, the next time you feel the urge to say “I’m not a [insert bad thing here], but…”, just don’t. Because you probably are. You’re just giving yourself an excuse.

*Immediately after writing this, I enabled Shut Up for Chrome. Ahhhhhhhhh.

**Not a joke.