Do You Have This In Another Size? : Rules, and When To Break Them

Do you have this in a Slightly Irregular Plot With Digressions?

I think that the second thing a writer ever does—after finding that great idea, the one that shakes you right down to your little cotton socks—is look for advice. How to write. How to write well. What to write, and what sells. Markets, platforms, outlines, rules. And let’s not forget strategies, story arcs, structures, and genres.

But sometimes, when you’re working on something, you find that it just doesn’t fit. The structure is weird. The characters don’t do what they’re supposed to. There’s a prologue, or an epilogue. Or, gods forbid, a fucking flashback. The story you’re working on breaks the rules, as you have been taught them. So, what do you do: change the story so it fits the rules, or say ‘fuck it’ and go your own way?

Thing To Consider #1: The rules exist for a reason. And that reason is not to hamstring your creativity. These rules of fiction exist because people have, at various times, found that they work. Overall, characters talk, and do things. Plots move like this. Dialogue sounds like this. These things are all useful guidelines, especially when you’re learning the craft. Because there is a craft to this, like making furniture or laying bricks. A lot of those techniques and things just plain work, and result in you not making a table that collapses under the weight of a single beer bottle.

Thing To Consider #2: You know your story better than anyone. Or you should. So you should know how it goes. And why you’re writing it. Is it for publication? Is it for your own enjoyment? How much does the intention dictate what rules are necessary? Personally, I feel like punctuation is tremendously useful if I’m ever planning on getting anyone else to read my crap. You might feel differently. You might also be the newest incarnation of James Fucking Joyce, in which case I wish you luck, but I’m not reading your book. Once was enough.

Thing To Consider #3: Are you breaking the rules because the story demands it…or because you demand it? Are you writing the best story you can, as you understand the criteria, or are you just proving what a special snowflake you are? Is this story or ego? Choose honestly and wisely. Because if you’re warping things just to prove how special you are, or because you think all those guidelines are for other people, you’re not telling a story. You’re making noise.

If you have considered the above to your best ability, then make your choice. Sometimes we’re just flouncing because doing things the right way is hard, and we hate hard. Rules and techniques seem like shackles even when they’re what the story needs.

But sometimes you need to chuck every single rule out the window and just go. And if that’s the sort of story you have on your hands, then don’t be afraid to break the rules so hard an entire legion of King’s men and all their goddamn horses won’t be able to put them back together.

So, which way do you need right now?

Hit The Road, Jack: 5 Benefits To Getting Away From Your Desk

I swear, he was here just a second ago…

I know, I know. I just wrote a post on the benefits of having a dedicated writing space, and now here I am, writing about getting out of that space. I’m a living contradiction. Deal with it.

For reals, though, there are some serious benefits to occasionally shaking it up and moving your writerly ass to a new location. *blows trumpet fanfare* FOR EXAMPLE:

1. Step Away From the Reflecting Pool, Narcissus. Your space is sometimes so you that you lose sight of anything else. Your books, your radio, your music, your mechanized death ray security system. But not everyone has those, or even thinks they’re necessary.* There’s a whole world out there, buttercup, and it doesn’t revolve around you. Get out of your space and experience someone else’s. It’ll freshen up your brain and maybe give you some new ideas.

2. HOLY SHIT I CAN FINALLY BREATHE. Your space is also the place where everything tends to accumulate. Work, writing, other obligations like paying bills and having a family, the occasional court summons or contract killing. Burying your creativity under that mountain can stifle it, until you’re reduced to staring blankly at your computer screen, putting things in your Amazon cart and taking them out again. Get out and get some space.

3. Ghost Mode Enabled. If you’re always in a certain place at a certain time, then other people know where to find you. Which means they can interrupt you. And they will, because Murphy’s Law of Interruptions states that anything that can be interrupted will be interrupted. Leave your accustomed hidey-hole and you might just get a nice, uninterrupted block of time in which to crank out an entire chapter. Don’t forget to erase your tracks or THEY’LL FIND YOU.

4. Go Dark.  Man, I love Wi-Fi, but it has killed my productivity. Some days I just turn it off at home so I can get stuff done without wanting to pop onto Twitter every eight fucking seconds. Benefit of leaving my little writer nest: there is no guarantee of Wi-Fi. At least not free Wi-Fi. And at this point I’m as likely to pay for internet access as I am to pay for water: only if I’m desperate, and I’ll still complain about it.

5. Fresh Meat For The Writer Stew.  People-watching is a seriously underrated form of entertainment. The clearly hungover man three tables away from me, in a rumpled Armani jacket and a red silk tie that he’s tied too short, will probably appear in some story of mine eventually, if only because he cuts such an interesting figure slumped over his cell phone. And an entire platoon of small children just wandered by wearing sequinned devil horns. What the ever-loving fuck, universe. I wouldn’t see this crap from my living room.

I’m on vacation at the moment, but what’s your excuse for getting out? Where do you go? And why?

* Though people who live without music are like aliens to me. How do you do it?

Resolution Hangover: Making Your New Writing Habits Stick

Stop trying to make me drink this, every health food advisor ever. It’s not going to happen.

January is winding to a close with its traditional “start with fireworks, end with a cold so deep that you wish you were dead” progression. And with the end of the month comes one thing: the end of resolutions. Empty treadmills at the gym, unused bundles of kale sitting next to a dust-covered blender, desk chairs unwarmed by the buttocks of wannabe writers who swore that this year, the year of our internet overlord 2015, was the year they were going to really start to write.

I’d say it’s sad, but it’s not, really. If someone doesn’t have the minerals to stick with it for a month, then they clearly don’t want to write. They want to have written. And god help the editor who may one day have to deal with their meandering mess of a manuscript.

Resolutions end because the magic of the new year has worn off. Midnight struck, Cinderella, and all the glitter and glamour has gone, leaving only the work behind. This is, as they say in sports, gut check time. Do you have the intestinal fortitude to continue?

Luckily for you, there are ways to prolong the magic just a little. Until you find your own magic in the work, that is. And the sooner you do that, the better.

In the meantime, the following can help you stay on the path of the writer:

1. Make friends with other writers. Find a writing group, reach out online, make Twitter friends, whatever. Find other writers to talk about writing with, and soon the group instinct will take over. You don’t want to be the only one not writing, do you?

2. Worry less about sucking. Just write something that really moves you. Who gives a damn if it’s good at first? You can always edit that shit later. Just work on something that makes you not want to leave the keyboard. Being good comes with practice.

3. Read the right amount of advice. As my father is fond of saying, opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one and they’re usually full of shit. Stick writing advice in that column as well. Read only what resonates with you. Don’t read the blogs that made you afraid, or make you worry. Pick a couple of good books on writing that work for you, find the occasional blog or online community, and let the rest of the no doubt well-intentioned but often contradictory advice go hang.

Don’t let your resolutions go the way of the kale wilting in thousands of crisper drawers around the continent. Keep at it, and soon it will become your new normal.

Monday Challenge: The Geographic Cure

Eat my dust, old life.

God, the Monday Challenge. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Let’s bring it back, just for funzies.

If you’ve ever read about addiction—or had any experience with it yourself, either first hand or through others—you might have heard of the geographic cure. It’s a theory that changing location can get you sober. Move from the town where all your favourite bars and drinking buddies are, get away from your dysfunctional family or the job you hate, and maybe you can find the will to kick the habit.

I don’t know what the stats are, but I doubt the geographic works by itself. Wherever you go, you take yourself along for the ride, and that’s the part that needs changing. I’d hazard, though, that the geographic cure can help, if you’re using the change in location as a way to change yourself. Especially if it’s a temporary way to kickstart recovery. There can be relief in a momentary reprieve from the daily pressure, which is why vacations are so popular. But sooner or later, you have to face yourself again.

Aside from addiction, though, I think a lot of us secretly believe in the geographic cure. How often have you looked around and thought that if you didn’t have this job, this town, this family, this life, then everything would be different? Who hasn’t felt the urge to just leave, walking away from it all and vanishing without a trace into a new life? Into a new self?

Monday Challenge: write me a character trying to leave their problems behind. How far would one of your characters have to go to try a geographic cure for their problems? And how long would it be before the problems eventually caught up?

Four Ways To Make Getting Started Suck Less

Wait, what am I doing again?

1. Start at the same time every day. Or around about the same time. Pick a time that works for you—mornings, evenings, on the train to work, on your lunch break, on the weekends in between hunting your fellow man for sport—and stick to it as best you can. Yes, sometimes things get in the way. Just this morning I had to run errands when I normally start writing, because if I wait until the afternoon all the people who drive like rabid weasels seem to come out and make getting around on the ice that much harder. But I finished the errands as quickly as I could—key cutter, dry cleaner, vet’s office, robot death machine maker—and got back to my desk. Result: I still got my main writing done in the morning, albeit with a later start. Habit is a powerful motivator, so make it work for you.

2. Start before your brain fills up with other junk. If you’re a morning writer, no dawdling while you catch up on last night’s Twitter feed. If you do your word bashing in the evenings, sit your ass down right after supper or after the kids are in bed. No watching that one episode. No reading that one chapter. Just plant your keister in front of the computer before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it.

I use this for morning workouts, too: before bed I lay out my running gear and plan my route. Then when the alarm goes off I can operate on automatic pilot and get out the door before I can think better of it. I’m a kilometer in before I even wake up, and by then I might as well finish the damn run.

3. Start with a low goal. I mentioned this last week, but it bears repeating. Set your initial goal low and move on from there. My 500 word goal has me consistently hitting 1500-2000 words, just because once I get in the flow I don’t want to stop. But it also gives me an exit if I have to stop: meetings attended, appointments kept, food hunted down and stuffed in my trunk. I mean my car trunk, not my steamer trunk. The steamer trunk is strictly for bodies.

4. Start knowing it’s the hardest part. Getting started is like trying to yank a tree stump out of the ground with nothing but a chain and a four wheel drive: there can be a lot of wheel spinning and cursing, but it’s not going to happen otherwise. And then when it finally gives, the hard part is past and you can just drive freely. Except maybe you should remove that stump first. Probably not good for your truck to have it bouncing along behind you like a newlywed’s tin cans.

Anyway.

Getting started sucks, because you have to start from zero every time. But once you’re rolling, it’s so much easier. So get started knowing that it will be the hardest part of the whole damn deal.

There Is No Writing Without These Five Things

The muse isn’t this into you.

1. There is no writing without reading. Okay, there is, but it tends to be shitty writing. Read, and read widely. Fill up your brain’s compost bin with ideas and let them sit. Turn occasionally. That’s a thing you do with compost, right? I don’t know, I’m not a fucking gardener.

Anyway, soon, you will have idea compost in which you can plant your own stories. Just don’t be surprised if the fruit they grow is strange. Or radioactive.

2. There is no writing without getting your ass in the chair. You have to work at writing. You have to place your sitting bones in a chair, or otherwise prop them in front of the Magical Writing Box, and get to work. Writing will not do itself while you’re watching YouTube clips of Russian dashcams. It doesn’t turn up if you wait around. The muse can be a shitty date that way. You can dress up nice and wait around for it to pick you up, but it never does. You’d be better off taking yourself out, getting a table, ordering something big and alcoholic, and starting on your own. Get the party started and the muse will show up. Or it won’t. Whatever. Fuck that guy. You don’t need him.

3. There is no writing without coffee. Not for me, anyway. Hey, at least it’s an improvement on the cigarettes.

4. There is no writing without fun. If you hate sitting down to your computer or notebook or stack of engrave-able methane tablets, if you hate having to put all the words in the right order, if you hate the time you spend doing it every single time…then you’re not writing. I’m not sure what you’re doing, but it sounds like you’re engaging in some really boring form of torture. And I bet it makes you bucketloads of fun to be around, champ.

You gotta have fun, or what’s the goddamn point? Though if you want to beat yourself up that bad, there’s probably someone on the internet who will pay to watch.

5. There is no writing without investment. And I don’t mean day-trading. If you’ve got no investment in your story, in your characters, then the writing isn’t going to happen. You don’t always have to like it—the above comments on fun speak to the majority of the time, not the entirety of it—but you should want it. You should want to tell that story. You should want to spend time with those characters, even the ones who make your skin crawl.

Fill in the blank with your must-haves, word nerds: There is no writing without_____________.

You Get A Gold Star: Tracking and Motivation

I would need a matching roll that said FAIL for days I missed.

Tracking writing progress is hard. Not the actual process, because every damn word processor has a word count dealie that you can enable and either watch obsessively as it goes up with every keystroke or check every now and then. But it can be hard, when you’re working toward an uncertain conclusion—Will you finish? Will it get published?—to feel like you’re getting anywhere except deeper into a hole.

So I added stickers.

This isn’t my idea. I came across it on Twitter when someone posted a picture of their month back in December, and Google’d my way around until I found this video. The idea is pretty simple: assign a value to a sticker. A day’s writing, say, or 500 words, or an hour, or three pages. Get a calendar. Every time you hit that goal, put a sticker on that day’s square.

Maybe it’s the undying third grader in me, but I love stickers. I did back then, when I had a sticker album and would trade with friends at recess*, and I do now, when I use them to track my writing progress.

Thirty-two years old, and I’m still collecting stickers. I’m pretty sure that’s on the next season of Intervention.

The whole point of this is to give you a visual cue to show your progress. You could do this with your computer or phone, I guess, but for me that’s not the same. I have to turn those on, for one thing. The calendar—Legend of Zelda, FYI—hangs right next to my desk where I can look at it before I fire up any of the Space Age Devices in the morning. I can see the progress I’ve made, and, just as importantly, I can see where I didn’t make any progress. I can see days I skipped, empty of stickers. Such a tragedy.

I’m using the stickers to track other stuff, too. Red is writing. Blue is sketching. Yellow is bloggery. Pink is reading. Which of course just adds another layer of obsession: I have to get them all.

My point: don’t be afraid to do something downright silly in order to motivate yourself. In fact, don’t be afraid to do something downright silly ever. Life’s too short.

So, how are you guys getting your January motivation on?

*But not the sparkly ones.** Never the sparkly ones. Proof that I was a magpie even then.

**You can have the damn fuzzies, though.

New Year, New Manuscript: Kicking Ass in 2015

Does anyone know what happened last night?

*Emerges from a cocoon of chocolate boxes and gift wrap*

*Flails around for coffee*

*Finds coffee*

*Drinks all the coffee there is now and ever will be*

Right. That’s sorted.

So, back after the holiday break. Whether or not you celebrated anything at all, I hope you had a nice one. If you did not, then I hope it was because you were bereft without my presence and not anything serious. I got a mohawk while we were apart. Small children love it, and one of my favourite things this holiday season was when little boys and girls would tell me how much they liked it while their parents looked on in horror. I hope at least one of those children locked themselves in the bathroom with a set of clippers this Christmas and had a go at making their own mohawk. If not, maybe next year, Santa.

Now that the gifts, food, and bullshit family drama is being packed away for another year, its time to get back to business. You might be taking the year off, and that’s fine, but after a couple of weeks I’m ready to get back in the saddle. Those of you who are joining me, mount up. The rest of you, catch up to us later.

The thing about this time of year is that everyone and their dog and their dog’s dog is making resolutions. Which are so often broken that otherwise sensible people who want to change something are leery about the idea because, if they fail, it puts them in the same category as everyone whose gym membership is gathering dust by January 20th.

Which is bullshit. Not doing something because everyone is doing it is just as stupid as doing something because everyone is doing it. Either way, you’re letting someone else make your decisions.

Personally, I like resolutions. They might be a cliche, but I’m not above a cliche. It also feels like a good time of year to do things like this. The days have turned, ever so slightly, back toward light. And whatever darkness we carried into the ground-down stump of the year has been burned away on bonfires and fireworks, leaving just us, clean and ready to start again.

So. Resolution. I am going to finish this book before the end of the year.

Now that I’ve said it, I have to make it true, or else I’ll be a liar.

Coming back after a break, though, can be a rough road to ride. Easy to fall off. Easy to get discouraged. My best trick for coming back after a significant break—whether it was precipitated by holidays, illness, or just life getting in the goddamn way again—is to set the bar low. Make hitting that goal easier, but, and this is important, make damn sure you hit that goal every day. Then, when it gets too easy—like, you don’t even have to try—increase the goal.

What an easy goal looks like will be up to you. For me, it’s 500 words: the bare minimum I feel I can get done every day. For you, it might be 100. Or 67. Or 3,000. If you go past that number, great. Reward yourself somehow. Not with something that detracts from the original goal, though. For example, no extra days off if you go over. That’s like rewarding yourself for eating healthy by mainlining pixie sticks and caramel sauce: it is damaging to your overall goal. Instead, if you go over your writing goal, have a cookie. Watch a movie. Smash old cathode ray tubes. I have some posts about rewards that I’m working on for future days, so more on that later.

So, your turn: who’s making word-herding a part of their 2015 plan?

In Your Face: How To Stop Ignoring Your Writing

Thank you, Encouraging Picture Frame. Now enjoy your nap on that pile of cushions.

Writing is easy to ignore. Whether it’s because it’s a solitary activity, or there’s no immediate reward for most of it, or just because it’s easier not to do it, so often the projects we start with all that hope end up languishing forgotten in your hard drive, never to be finished.

Stop that. You’ve got to finish what you start. Maybe not all of it, because even the best of us has a crappy idea now and then, but you should be finishing more than you don’t. And that starts with not ignoring your writing.

Personally, I think that writing is easy to ignore because it’s not demanding. Not the way that people and pets and work and other crap is. Even working out can be demanding: don’t do it and you start to get all jiggly/don’t sleep as well/get cranky. But writing…it’s the unobtrusive emo kid of activities. If you don’t get around to it, it’ll just slink away, muttering Morrissey lyrics under its breath. And then it’s gone.

So start paying attention to your writing. Don’t let it slide. Best way to not ignore it? Same as anything else: keep it in front of you. If you want to run regularly, you put your running shoes somewhere where you can see them all the time. Partly it’s guilt, but mostly it’s just so you don’t forget, in the hustle and bustle of your day, what it is you meant to do.

Leave whatever you’re working on in plain sight. The notebook you’re writing in, with a pen, can live comfortably on a coffee table. I think that coffee rings on the covers add a certain authenticity, but I think the same thing about scars, so use your own judgement.

Or, if you write on a computer, like so many of us, try this: set your document to open up automatically when you boot up the computer. A while back I changed my laptop’s default settings from opening up my email and Twitter accounts automatically to opening up Scrivener and Evernote. There they are, right in front of me: the project I’m working on and the giant pile of notes I’ve made for it. Harder to ignore.  Harder to pass over in favour of blearily scrolling through spoilers for Every Single Show On Earth on Twitter.

You can’t ignore what’s in your face 24/7. So put something you want to get done in front of your eyeballs. Pretty soon you’ll find the excuses fading.

And in their place? More writing.

Imaginary Enemies: Your Periodic* Reminder That Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Writer’s block was in this picture, but Godzilla ate it.

We all have those days when the words just aren’t there. We don’t know where they went—Atlantic City? Barcelona? Rigel-7?—but they are goddamn well not here when we need them. We stare at that blank page and wait for something, anything, to cross your brain to write. Nothing does.

We tend to call this bullshitty empty brain feeling Writer’s Block, like that explains it. Like writers as a group have some kind of monopoly on this. Giving it a name makes it feel legitimate, somehow. It’s not my fault, I have writer’s block. For reals. I have a prescription and everything. It’s called whiskey.

If you seriously have a problem where you can’t physically think of new stuff, then you might want to make an appointment with a neurologist, because something’s crossed upstairs. But if, instead, you use writer’s block to refer to the lack of motivation and ball-busting that you need to carve words into a semi-legible order, then that’s a unicorn of an entirely different colour.

Because writer’s block isn’t real.

Fear, on the other hand, is.

And that’s what writer’s block really is. It’s not a lack of creativity, because most of us have no trouble finding the creativity to craft the perfect tweet or Instagram filter while we’re not writing. It’s just ordinary, garden-variety fear. Fear of sucking. Fear of failure. Fear of being found out for the fakes and posers that we are.** Fear that this story that we’ve put so much of ourselves into isn’t any good.

So we procrastinate, and waste time, and sigh mournfully about our epic case of writer’s block. Because that’s easier than actually doing something about it.

The time for this bullshit is over. Be honest: admit that you’re afraid. I am. Every day. Of screwing this up. Of never being good enough. But the only way past is through, so after I’ve admitted to these sad, soggy little fears, I ignore them. And get on with it. Sometimes the words I write on those days suck, but most of the time they’re…normal. It gets hard to distinguish, upon another reading, where I was feeling great and where I was feeling shitty. Because it doesn’t matter. Not really.

Fear only has the power you give it. So stop giving it everything. Stop thinking of it as a condition, a syndrome, a block. Admit what it really is, and recognize it for the self-involved bullshit that it is.

And then get yourself another cup of coffee, and get on with your day. Because those words aren’t going to write themselves.

*I was going to go with annual, but I couldn’t remember how long it’s been. I know I’ve written on this before, but my archives are Having A Moment and I can’t be arsed to figure out exactly when. So, periodic. Which is a fun word. Much better than annual. Anyway.

**I’m pretty sure that everyone feels like this sometimes. One of my teachers once said that she felt like a fraud when teaching, and that for the first ten years she thought someone would figure it out. No one ever did.