Arrow-Filled Death From Above: Some Thoughts On Valentine’s Day

“Made for sending sudden murder-y, razor sharp death to my enemies from afar? I think I’ll make this the symbol for love.” -Some ancient symbol guy who wasn’t good at his job.

My newsfeed is full of pink hearts and roses. Most people would assume that this fills me with rage, but here’s a dirty little secret: I’m actually a romantic. Not in the awful tear-inducing movie way, mind you; I still like my movies full of explosions and giant robots. But I do love love.

And even though Snowman and I don’t celebrate today*, I still like Valentine’s Day. Because once you strip away all the pseudo-Christian bullshit and the cards and chocolates and Diamonds of Obligation, it’s still about love. And there’s worse things to celebrate than that.**

Not just romantic love, either. What about the love you have for your family? Your friends? Hell, for yourself? Ever think about taking some time today just for you? And then there’s all the other things we love: books and music and movies and food and activities. Geeks in particular are good at this: when we love something, we really love it. And want the entire internet to know.

More in keeping with this blog, nothing keeps writing–any form of creativity, really–going like love. Love for what you do. Love for the idea. Love for what you’re making, out of nothingness and brain squeezings and fairy dust and fear.

But there’s a feeling of fucking obligation that overhangs Valentine’s Day. You have to do something for your significant other, if you have one. If you don’t, there’s a not-so-subtle undercurrent of what the hell is wrong with you seeping through all those ads for candy and jewelry like untreated sewage.

Two bits of advice here:

1) Try not to run your life based on ads. The ad industry*** is not on your side, and only makes money when you in some way feel inadequate.

2) Who’s to say what you can and cannot celebrate? If you don’t like the popular message of Valentine’s Day, then change it. Make it what you want. It doesn’t have to be about some chubby bastard of a god chasing people around with a Hunger Games weapon.**** Spend time with your friends or by yourself. Watch that movie that always makes you laugh. Pull out that book that puts a smile in your heart. Write that One True Pairing slash-fic you’ve always wanted, and damn the canonical relationships. Make something you love special.

Yes, it would be nice to do that stuff for the people and things we love every day. But we’re busy, and human, and hesitant, and we fuck up. So I don’t object to a set day every year when it’s okay to show how you feel. Better than not doing it ever, right?

Or just treat it as another fucking Friday if that makes you happy. And enjoy all the half-priced chocolate tomorrow.

*Years ago, we moved Valentine’s Day to better coincide with his out-of-town work schedule. Between the empty restaurants and cheap chocolate, it worked so well we never bothered to move it back.
**For fuck’s sake, people still celebrate Victoria Day. If that undead old bitch can have a day, surely having one devoted to love isn’t a big deal.
***Look, I’m sure there are many nice people in the advertising industry, but I’m sure there were many nice people who worked on weaponized smallpox, too.

****Does anyone else wonder if Cupid’s arrows are tipped with roofies?

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: 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: EXCITEMENT!!!1!!!

I’M SO EXCITED I PUT A HOLE IN MY FACE. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Good morning, word monkeys*.  So glad you could join me here on the first Monday of the new year. Are you ready? Are you pumped?

There’s something about the new year. It still feels fresh. The darkness has started to recede from the days, and, while I know it’s a long way off, I can begin to think that there might be a spring somewhere down the road.

But in the meantime, I’ve got this face-slapping cold waking me up and I have to drink my coffee fast before it freezes solid. Invigorating. Which is how January should be, because, god damn it, we’ve got shit to do.

*Cracks open a fresh can of words* It’s time to get started.

Last week I wrote about scouting ahead and thinking of what new projects you wanted to work on in 2014. What did you come up with? What excites you about this year? If you missed last week because of Holiday Hangover or if you didn’t come up with anything, do so now. There must be at least one fucking thing you want to do this year. Write about robots. Write a novel. Figure out how to create a romance scene that is not so sweet that it makes you want to stab your frontal lobe with pixie sticks. Something.

Are you excited yet? You should be. Because we can talk about hard work and craft and discipline from now until Ragnarok, and it won’t do a damn thing if you don’t have an idea that excites you. You need a reason to bash your head against that wall. You need something to light the fire that you will then use to power the unholy steam engine of your brain and your guts and your fingers.

So, today’s Monday Challenge, you little syntax goblins: find what you’re excited about and then write about why you’re excited. At least part of it. It can be a character you like, or a scene that sounds neat, or a line of dialogue that punches like a spiked knuckleduster. It can be the idea itself, how it makes you feel. Find your excitement. Hunt it down and drag it out and shake its hand/paw/tentacle/grasping mechanism. You’re going to be spending some time together this year. And it’s going to be awesome.

*Every time I try to type ‘monkeys’, my fingers change it to ‘monkies’. Which sounds like an affectionate diminutive for Jesuits or something.

Monday Challenge: Hatching Time

Moon Moth eggs hatching

Hey there. We’re your nightmares. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The entire world has been shellacked. For real.

We’ve been getting a lot of freezing rain the last few days. For those happy souls out there who live in an area where this is not a thing, freezing rain falls as a liquid, but freezes when it hits the ground. It covers everything it touches with a layer of ice. Back in Newfoundland, we call it glitter because, damn, is it pretty when the light hits it. All shiny and new like the human at that bar last night, the one that was out of your league. Just don’t make the mistake of actually approaching it, because there is a reasonable chance that it will destroy you.

The car is entombed in a sheet of ice. The snowbanks have all been candy-coated. In some places, a vagary of the fall has made the ice completely opaque. So things like the compost bin have turned into white eggs, waiting for some unspeakable hatching. Anything could be under that layer of ice. For all I know that’s not even the goddamn compost bin. It could be anything out there. Maybe something made off with the compost in the night and has replaced it with this white egg, trusting that the humans won’t realize it is not their green plastic bin full of banana peels and manky leftover salad until it’s too late. Until it hatches, emerging into the still winter air with an unfurling of unspeakable limbs and wings, ready for action. And hungry. So very hungry.*

Monday Challenge: what’s inside that shell?

I’m going to arm myself with rock salt and a flamethrower now.

*I swear to god, I sat down to write something nice and light about the weather for this. BRAIN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

On Strange Ground: Finding Your Weird

A growler of beer

I always feel like growlers should have three Xs on them, like in cartoons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My foot’s itchy.

This, of course, signifies the presence of story ideas. Or maybe hookworm. One of those.

When I was a kid, my mother would say that an itchy foot meant you were going to walk on strange ground. When it came to random folk superstitions, it was right up there with not breaking mirrors and wearing an item of clothing inside-out when you go blueberry picking so you don’t get stolen by the Fair Folk. I must have heard that one—all of them, really—a dozen times a month. And they never really struck me. It’s just part of being a kid, especially in Newfoundland.

Then, this morning, as I was drinking my coffee and watching the sun and snow make Murder Icicles on my eaves, my foot started to itch. And I thought, Strange ground is coming.

And that, children, is where story ideas come from.

I’d heard that little bit of nonsense for decades; I’ve even said it myself. But that’s a damn strange thing to think watching the sun rise over the snow, the only one awake in the house.* And the strangeness of the situation makes me think about the phrase itself.  About how it’s not “you’re going to go somewhere new”. It’s strange ground.

I’m not going to labour this too much, so here’s the Cole’s Notes version: never underestimate the potential strangeness of everyday things. Especially when seen in the cold shadowless light of dawn.

You want a never-ending fountain of inspiration? Just fill up your brain and see what weird-ass wine gets made when it ferments. Find what strikes you at odd times. For me it’s often phrases; I had a similar experience at the Farmer’s Market last week when I was lining up to buy beer from a local microbrewery. They sell it in big glass jugs called growlers, a term that goes back a long way. I read a book on Prohibition a while back** and they talked about children going to the local bars with a container to pick up beer for their parents. It was called ‘rushing the growler’. And that’s another story idea, as well as the title to go with it.

Both strange ground and rushing the growler had been floating around between my ears for a while. In the case of the former, for decades. But they needed that one little moment of oddness to float above the swirling chaos in there and become ideas.

Find your weird. All your stories are there.

*By nature, I’m an early riser. The Snowman, on the other hand, prefers a lie-in.
**Last Call by Daniel Okrent. Very good.

The Five Types of Stories and Other Bullshit Lies

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Selfies, old school. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a lie: There are only five/seven/nine/three and a half stories in the world, and they just keep getting told over and over.

This is one of the most prevalent pieces of dubious writing advice out there, and, trust me, I recognize dubious writing advice when I see it. After all, most of this blog is full of dubious advice*. The difference is that no one has ever quoted me to a new writer in the hopes of squashing their creativity underfoot like a stray eyeball.**

The reason this lie gets repeated is because it sounds like the truth. And because it plays on the festering pile of insecurity that lurks under the surface of many new writers. You’re no good, it says. You’re not doing anything original, and if you’re not, what’s the point? Tolkien covered the Quest myth, and if he didn’t, Lucas damn well did. So why bother?

Allow me to switch arts for a moment: this is a bit like saying that there are only five paintings in the world. And that there’s no point in doing a self-portrait because Van Gogh already covered that and it’s so done. After all, it’s not like anyone came along and invented a bunch of new fucking colours recently, am I right? So don’t bother.

Reductionist bullshit is exactly that: bullshit. There may be a grain of truth buried in it somewhere, in the same way that there may be a tiny speck of diamond nestled inside a fertilizer bin worth of shit, but are you going to dig for it?

Well, no need, kiddies, because I did that for you. Here’s the diamond: there are types of stories out there, and studying these types can help you understand what you’re writing. But they are not prescriptions for your story. That’s going at it backwards, and like anytime you do something backwards, you’re likely to fall on your ass.

The devil is, as always, in the details, and that’s where the art is, too. No one made new colours, so paintings are about the arrangements and the proportions and the shape and the subject and the emphasis. And so are stories. The new part—the part that’s you, incidentally—is in the characters, the changes, and the details. The mixing of types and genres. That’s where you make the stories like a mad scientist crossing a cobra and a mongoose to create the dreaded MONBRA, Scourge of Mumbai.

And anyone who says there’s nothing original out there isn’t looking hard enough.

*The breakdown is as follows: 60% dubious advice, 30% swear words, 8% out of context pictures, and 2% chaos.
**At least I hope not. If anyone has, stop that shit right fucking now, or your eyeballs are on my list.

Monday Challenge: Present

Presents

Ignore any twitching; that’s normal. (Photo credit: Wysz)

I got you a present.

Yes, I know it’s early. But this isn’t strictly a holiday thing. It’s not even strictly a present, really. It’s more of a…challenge, I guess. Yeah. That’ll do.

It’s over there, under the tree. No, not that one. That one’s mine. Yours is the big one. Yeah, that one. The one that’s moving slightly.

Why? Well, I can’t tell you that. It will spoil the surprise. And I love surprises.

Sure, you can pick it up if you want. Careful, though; it’s heavier than it looks. And don’t be alarmed if you hear anything. It’s supposed to make that noise.

What’s that? Why is it leaking? Strange. It shouldn’t be doing that. No, no, of course that’s not blood. Though it is very red and festive-looking, isn’t it?

You know what? Maybe you should open it now, just to check and make sure it’s okay. Go ahead. I’ll be over here. Behind the door. You just open it, and tell me what’s inside.

Merry Christmas.

Static and Noise: Getting Off The Computer To Boost Creativity

English: Picture of San Francisco at Sunset. F...

It looks so peaceful before the Idea Beasts come to play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a computer addiction.

Seriously. If there was a device that could be implanted in my eyeballs that allowed me 24/7 access to my computer, I’d do it.

So you can imagine how fucking difficult it is for me to take a break from that sweet, sweet glowing box. At the moment, I am taking a computer break. I’m still on it for writing these posts, of course, because the alternative of hand-writing it and then posting a picture of the paper seems a little too cutely hipster-ish for me. But I’m no longer spending most of the day on it: writing, editing, researching, digitally painting.

Not because I don’t love all those things. I do. God, I do. But the computer is full of noise: Twitter, news feeds, the Book of Faces,  YouTube. And then there’s the articles I need to read, and the notes I have to make on them, and the endless rabbit hole of information that I can follow so very, very far down.

I love noise and chaos. But some things need silence to grow, and the semi-ripe ideas I’m working on are among them. Too much static and they never get the brain runtime they need to come to fruition. They just get lost in the swirl of new information. If they’re every going to turn into anything worth writing–and by extension anything worth reading–then they need a little quiet space in which to turn from larvae to monsters that can knock down San Francisco.

So. Time for a break.

Now, before you abandon your internet connection entirely, a caveat: I can only take this break because most of the things I’m doing right now can be done offline. The re-outlining of the novel works best on paper or index cards. I have no short stories in the first stage of writing or editing; instead, I have ideas that I need to work on. Nothing is awaiting final editing before being returned to editors. And I’ve switched to sketch books and pens for a while instead of digital for art. If I had other things that had to be done, then I wouldn’t be able to unplug. And some of those ideas I’m working on would probably die.

The circle of life, baby.

This whole ‘no unnecessary computer’ deal may seem to run contrary to other things I say. Especially the bit about reading a lot and letting a brain compost pile build up so that the ideas bubble to the surface like swamp gas. Two responses to that: 1) what in the name of Primordial Chaos gave you that idea that I ever make sense? Seriously? You’re expecting logic here? And, 2) one thing does not work all the time. Knowing when to switch it up because it’s the right move—as opposed to switching because what you’re working on is hard—is an instinct you need to cultivate. And right now, mine is saying, get the fuck off the computer, woman. Go lie on the couch with a notebook instead. That’s what has to be done now. Worry about tomorrow at the next sunrise. This is what will work today.

So, riddle me this, word herders: what will work for you today?

*A friend of mine once created an RPG character that is so obsessed with information she has a staff of hundreds to sort it and send it directly to her cybernetic implants. That character? Apparently loosely based on my information habits. I can’t decide if it’s an insult or a marvelous pastiche**. Though I suppose it could be both.

**Or an attempt to tell me that I creep him the hell out.

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.