Brains Riding Shotgun: Problem Solving With Other Writers

Ride together, dress as gnomes together.

Sometimes, while motoring along the story highway in your mental equivalent of a post-apocalyptic pickup truck, you run up against roadblocks. Problems that seem to have no solution. They yawn in the road ahead, impossible to pass.

You can quit, of course. A lot of people do, forever consigning themselves to the role of ‘non-finisher’ in the great story marathon. But you don’t want to do that, do you? No, I didn’t think so.

So, instead of quitting, this is when you call in the cavalry.

If you have friends that are also writers, they might be able to help. Non-writers can help, too, if they’re willing. But you’ve got to be willing to let someone else see into the guts of your broken story. And then willing to listen to their advice.

Getting someone else in on your story problems* will make them easier to solve. Why? I’m glad you asked.

1. Eyes On The Road. You’ve probably run over the same ground a thousand times looking for a solution. You’ve left tire treads three inches deep all along that road, even though you know where it leads.

Get someone else riding shotgun, and they might just be able to point out that side lane you, focused on your destination, missed. And that might just be the route you need to take.

2. Twice The Horsepower. You know what makes you more creative? Hanging around with other creative people.

It’s true. If you buy into the theory that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then spending time with other people with universes in their heads will make you more creative. And nothing solves problems better than the rapid fire bounce of ideas back and forth. Krys C and I have come up with some serious bits of plot spackle that way, either in real life or via text message.

Just, for the love of god, save the text messages.

3. Dangerous Curves Ahead. Sometimes you’ve got to eliminate the impossible to find out what’s possible. If your buddy is suggesting solutions that just aren’t working, think about why. Is there an earlier flaw that needs to be addressed? An area of worldbuilding that could use more work? Or are you just being a contrary piece of shit and vetoing perfectly good ideas out of ego?

Sometimes you’ve just got to drive the wrong way for a while before you figure out where you want to go.

4. Crossing State Lines. That other person you just called in, they have something you don’t: distance. They don’t have the same overwrought emotional state over the whole thing that you do. So when they say that something doesn’t work or that a character is useless, it’s worth listening.

Sometimes we get so caught up in characters that we love or bits that are just so fucking clever that we can’t see how they’re damaging everything around them. You don’t always have to cut those things; sometimes you just need to shore up the other stuff so that the side character or the clever phrasing doesn’t knock over everything around it like a giant storming the citadel. But those weaknesses will be obvious to another person the way they will never be to you.

So find a partner and ride together. You might find that the journey goes just that little bit smoother.

*Actually, I’d argue that getting someone you trust in on things helps with the vast majority of problems, story or otherwise.

 

Shake It, Baby: Breaking The Routine

I find it hard to imagine a better avatar for chaos than a Furry using a ShakeWeight.

I find it hard to imagine a better avatar for chaos than a Furry using a ShakeWeight.

 

Routines can be great. They give a structure to what is essentially a structureless thing and make sure that you’re not just dicking around on the internet, looking at cat memes and whatever argument is brewing on Twitter today. But watch out for the moment when the routine–as embodied in your schedule, your word count spreadsheet, your plan–becomes more important than the actual thing you’re trying to create.

I don’t think this is just limited to creativity, either. When I started running, I had a routine: five days a week. No excuses. On one hand, that worked out fantastically: I was far less likely to flake on a run in favour of a new video game than I would have been if I’d just said, “eh, I’ll just run whenever I feel like it.” And I ran more, which built skill and endurance faster. But, after a while, the schedule took precedence over other things. Like injury. I kept running with burgeoning plantar fasciitis for a lot longer than I should have, because, in my head, meeting the plan was far, far more fucking important than the pain. I’m lucky I smartened up eventually, or I could have done a lot more damage than I did. As it is, I have a little twinge in my left foot to this day. Which conveniently serves as a reminder not to be so fucking stupid. Not saying I always listen, but…

Writing is the same: having a plan is a great idea, but it should serve you, not the other way around. And sometimes the best way it can serve you is by fucking off altogether.

Getting away from my daily stuff–the word counts, the research goals, the deadlines–cut something loose inside my head and helped me solve plot problems I’ve been working on for months. Part of it was because I was hanging around another, very creative person that I could bounce ideas off. But I think a lot of it was just the change. The routine ceased to matter at all, and the ideas flowed.

Now that I’ve returned home, I have gotten back into a routine. But it’s a different one. The time away also allowed me to reassess my day, see where it was helping and where it was holding me back. And I can put those ideas into practice, make something out of them.

So, if you’re a planner, inject a little chaos into your life. Your creativity will thank you. And the routine will still be there when you get back, ready to put all that new madness to good use.

The Only Two Tools Writers Need

Time to get rid of that special software that promises to write your novel for you.

Let’s talk about writing tools.

There are eleventy billion products out there that will attempt to convince you that you need them to write. Software. Notebooks. Workshops and courses. Special pens that make coffee and are also vibrators.* Some of these things might help some people. But, aside from things to write with and on, there are only two tools you really need when it comes to writing, and both of them are mental.

Are you ready?

Your two tools are: the magic wand and the sledgehammer.

The magic wand** is your creativity and wonder. It has a sign that says Ideas come from right fucking here, asshole.*** This is the thing that shows you all those possibilities. Everything you can possibly create comes from here.

But the magic wand, for all its power, is useless on its own. It’s fun, sure. It always keeps you entertained. But it’s incapable of making anything.

For that you need the sledgehammer.

The sledgehammer doesn’t give a shit about magic. It’s about results. It takes the ideas and makes something out of them. Stories, mostly. Every time you sit down to grind out the word count, that’s the sledgehammer at work.

And, like the magic wand, it is also useless on its own. With no magic, your writing will lack life. Ever read a story that felt like a DVR programming manual? That’s a sledgehammer with no magic wand. The story gets finished, but you’re left wondering why you bothered in the first place.

Here’s another way to break it down:

Magic Wand: Holy shit, check out this dinosaur ninja I just thought up, it has lasers and claws and is also a princess, oh my god, hahahahahah

Sledgehammer: Turn on the computer. Let’s figure out how to make this work. Oh, and you’ve got 1000 words to go today.

Of course, they don’t always work this well together. Sometimes the magic wand gives you samurai unicorns and the sledgehammer thinks that’s stupid. And sometimes the sledgehammer builds something that the magic wand thinks is booooooorrrrrring. They fight. They work at cross purposes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever get it together. But, like the odd pairing in every buddy cop movie, if you keep throwing them into ridiculous situations, they eventually figure out that they work better together.

So strengthen both. Absorb the weirdness that the magic wand runs on. Hone your practical skills so the sledgehammer is easier to lift. With those two in your toolbox, you’ll be amazed at what you make.

*Could someone invent this real quick?

**Bonus fact: The Husband used to have a magic wand at his place of work, for customers who demanded the impossible. When new regulations required that everything be labelled, he even labelled it ‘magic wand’.

***Magic does not equal nice.

Skinny Dipping In The Fountain Of Weird: How To Get More Ideas

Sweet, sweet weaponized death.

I get a lot of questions about the way I think. Not all of them the good kind, either; about half those queries are phrased “What’s wrong with you?” That’s because, if you spend any significant amount of time with me, either in real life or online, you’ll eventually be exposed to the Fountain of Weird. This is what I call the part of my brain dedicated entirely to Weird Shit: dinosaurs with tanks for heads, six-limbed cat-people, a five-dimensional intelligent ebola virus, Soviet Russian weaponized cupcakes that eat you. Everyone who reads this blog? You’ve already been exposed. I hope your shots are up to date.

The questions, though—or at least those ones that don’t cast doubt on my sanity—are mostly about the process. How do I think of stuff? Why is it so easy? Why the hell would you say that out loud?

The reason I think of this stuff is because I’ve trained my brain to say yes.

It’s easy to dismiss things as childish or silly or ridiculous or wrong. It’s especially easy when those things don’t actually exist. But by taking the time to consider them, no matter how fucking weird they are, you open the doors to creativity. You’re allowing your mind to play. And that’s where the good stuff comes from.

If you’re always saying no, then sooner or later your brain will stop presenting you with the strange and wonderful and often downright disturbing stuff that it comes up with. It won’t do work that’s not rewarded.

This is why so many writers say that coming up with new ideas is never a problem. They’ve trained themselves to think this way. To say hell, yes to the sentient muffin bakery with the side-mounted cannon* that just crawled out of the dark recesses of their mind. Because what looks silly at first glance might have a great idea hidden inside.

And if not, you just spent five minutes imagining a sentient bakery firing muffins through windows**. How is that not awesome?

So, teach yourself to say hell, yes before no. Teach yourself to consider before you reject stuff outright as stupid or wrong or, my personal favourite, ‘a waste of time’. Give that weird thing some time, even if it’s only a minute or two.

Because the weird things, my little badgers, are the best things.

*”DO YOU KNOW THE MUFFIN MAN NOW, MOTHER FUCKER?”

**I’m officially stuck on weaponized baked goods today.

The 7 Faces of Doubt, Or How To Never Get Anything Done, Ever

 

That bat-faced little shit in the bottom right, he’s the Distraction Of The Internet.

Doubt is the worst of all demons. You can keep those weird ones with the goat faces that haunted Sunday School when I was but a wee impressionable young thing.* Doubt is the worst because 1) it’s insidious and 2) most of the time, you’re the one producing it. I’ve never met a creative person who wasn’t, at some moments, a festering boil of doubt. You’re being your own demon, which I imagine is a big savings for Hell. Teach people to condemn themselves, save demon-power. Of course, it’s non-unionized work, but you can’t have everything.

But doubt it a tricky bastard. It doesn’t always look the same, and sometimes it brings friends. Sometimes it takes the form of something so different that it could be mistaken for something sensible. But it’s a lie, and you need to be able to see through it.

So, to help you with your daily projects, writing and otherwise, here is my spotter’s guide to doubt:**

1. Procrastination: If you never get around to it, it doesn’t count as ‘failing’, right?

2. Research: I just need to know how yaks were essential in to the culture and economy of the mountain people of Outer Mongolia***, and then I can start.

3. Tiredness: Oh, I was totally going to get to that today, but I didn’t sleep too well last night because I had that dream about the robot otters again. And, you know, there’s not enough coffee, and I could really use a cookie, and *indeterminate waffling noises*. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s fine.

4. The ‘Muse’: I just don’t feel it. You don’t expect me to work when she’s not here, do you? Art cannot be rushed!****

5. Distraction. OH MY GOD I LOVE TWITTER SO FUCKING MUCH.

6. Perfection: I can’t start until I have the perfect opening line. And I can’t move on until I’m sure that everything is in place. It has to be perfect, or there’s no point. It’s not like there’s a thing called ‘editing’.

7. Timing: Ehn, it’s not really a good time now. I haven’t had enough Yak Butter tea*****, and it looks like it’s going to rain. Besides, I only start things on the first day of the month, and this month that was a Sunday, and I don’t work on Sundays. Maybe next time things will line up right. Today….mmm, doesn’t look good. Sorry.

So, what form is your doubt taking today?
*Honestly, I’m surprised more Catholics don’t write horror. The shit they tell you in Mass is fucking terrifying.
**At the moment, I’m dealing mainly with #3 and #7, with a side order of Holy Crap Am I Busy.
***…I actually wrote ‘yak’, realized I was just going on old movies to assume they were in Tibet and the like, and had to take a ninety second research break. IRONY FOR THE WIN.
****Fuck yeah it can. In the words of Henry Miller, “Even when you can’t create, you can work”. It’s not all fairy dust and magic wands; sometimes you need a sledgehammer.
*****Now I’m stuck on yaks. Though using the reference twice means the research is less a waste of time, right?

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.

Under The Porch: Character Creation

Another benefit to the process not being magic is that I don’t have to dress like this. I mean, seriously, is she going into battle like that?

I’ve just realized one of my characters is a lot smarter than I thought.

He wasn’t much at the beginning. Frankly, I created him because the main character was too isolated. I decided that she needed a sidekick. And that’s all this guy was, especially in the early notes before I thought of a name for him: the Sidekick. An aid to the main character in times of distress. Somebody that she can count on, and also someone she can worry about.

But now, as I cross that 20,000 word threshold, I’m starting to think he’s been going behind my back. Reading books. Learning stuff. Making himself more useful. In a couple of scenes, he might turn out to be indispensable*. Maybe he worries that, if he’s not, I’ll murder him George R.R. Martin -style. I still might. But now I’ll feel like I’m killing a real person, not a cardboard stand-in.

We like to say, as writers, that our characters do their own things. They develop on their own. Which is at least half bullshit. Unless you have multiple personalities or a colonizing alien intelligence living in your brain, it’s just you up there, and all you’re hearing are the echoes of your own thoughts coming back from some unimaginable distance.

But, like a lot of things writers lie about, there’s a seed of truth in it. We probably don’t think about the characters. I sure as hell didn’t devote much brain time to the Sidekick. At least not consciously. But the under-brain, the part of my mental equipment that’s absorbed thousands of stories**, knew that he had to be something. So it pushed him out of the darkness under the porch inside my head, and he appeared into the light of conscious thought as if by magic. Then he hung around until I noticed him and stuck him where he needed to be in the story and, just like that, I had my Sidekick. Whose name is Vik, by the way. I didn’t think of that, either. It came with him.

But it wasn’t magic. It was just me.

Now, maybe that makes it less impressive for some of you. You want the magic back. You want the font of unimaginable creativity. But, to me, the idea that all that shit comes from me—and from every writer—only makes it cooler. All that stuff is inside our heads somewhere. There are thousands of characters in the wings of my imagination, just waiting until I need them.

All they need is their moment.

*Really, he should, or he’s just dead weight. But it’s weird to find it happening without planning it.

**The whole time I was writing this, I’m imagining the under-brain to be somewhere in my occipital lobe. Dunno why. It just feels like that’s where the ideas come from.

Monday Challenge: 4 AM On The Bathroom Floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On your mark. Get set….write!

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

Monday Challenge: Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies

The lesser known “Pole vaulter falls, everybody dies” never really caught on.

You ever read a book and wonder how in the name of God’s most holy asshole it got published? I don’t mean the ones that you, personally, have a problem with; those are a dime a dozen and not every book is going to appeal to your taste. I mean the ones that are genuinely, deeply flawed. Not literary flawed, either, the kind that in the right light can sometimes be mistaken for artistic vision. I’m talking about the big problems: a character that disappears halfway through, a major plot point that’s never resolved, a sinkhole-style plot gap that opens under the rest of an otherwise acceptable book and sucks it down into the nether realm.

Or the ending. Somehow that’s the worst. It’s like a betrayal of all that time you spent on the rest of the goddamn book. You’ve got to stick the landing, folks. It’s not over until the covers are closed.

I distinctly remember being in bed with the Snowman when he finished a particular book. He turned the last page, read, blinked, and said, “What the hell was that?” In bewildered and increasingly irritated tones.

Probably not what the author was going for. *

You’ve read at least one. So have I. And while the initial urge might be to throw that book so hard that it leaves quite an impressive dent in the drywall**, I’m trying to wreak less havoc on the home lately. Hey, some places you can go full-on kaiju, like a daycare, and some you can’t.

So, in the interests of not having to go to Home Depot again this week, I present the following alternative:

Monday Challenge: Pick a book or story that didn’t end right and write the ending it should have had. According to you. If it’s really irredeemable, then ‘rocks fall, everybody dies’ might be your first instinct, but push through it. There was something that made you read that godawful word abortion to begin with. What was it? What promise was made that got you hooked? Then write what the resolution of that promise should have been.

Just like the Olympics, kittens***: you’ve got to stick the landing.

*Though you never can tell with some.
**Three points if you have to plaster it afterwards.

***Now I want the internet to provide me with Olympic Kittens. Or Kitten Olympics.

Monday Challenge: Places and Faces

Can you feel the hate?

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

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

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

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

Like fuck I do.

I showed you mine. Now show me yours.