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.

Height, Weight, and Genital Size: How To Write More Effective Character Descriptions

The first thing I noticed was that he had a bat on his underwear… (Photo Credit for this awesome thing: Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr)

Here’s a thing: I usually don’t know what my characters look like until after the zero draft.

Weird, right? A lot of writers and writing guides will get all up into the physical descriptions. I can understand the reasoning: it makes the characters more concrete, gives them a toehold in reality. And I’m definitely not a fan of those stories where the characters are deliberately not described so that the reader can imagine themselves in their place or some bullshit. If you’re slipping inside the skin of one of my characters, bring some disinfectant. And the ingredients for an exorcism.

No, I don’t give much thought to physical descriptions until after the zero draft because I’m too busy finding out who they are to give a damn what they look like.

During that zero draft, there are two things I concentrate on when it comes to characters: personality and voice. Which is really one thing, since how they speak is an extension of who they are.  So the only physical things I put in are the ones that are integral to either who they are or what happens. If a dude is missing an eye, that’s probably going to come up.*

Think of it like running through the story: all I notice is the important stuff. The things that jump out at me. His eyes. The way she smiles. Those hands, long-fingered and slender and fragile. Then later, I’ll go back and add in some of the other details, if I need to.

My general rule is as follows: imagine you have just seen this person across a crowded coffee shop. What is the one detail that jumps out at you? How they dress? A particular hairstyle? A face tattoo? Other details can be dropped in as necessary, but one striking thing should be the dominant feature. After all, after meeting someone for the first time, how many of you remember their exact hair colour? Whether or not they had freckles? What their nails looked like? Chances are that you will notice the thing that is unusual. The arrogant man with the bloody, close-bitten nails. The woman with two different colour eyes. The punk kid with the foot high bright pink mohawk. And if there’s nothing unusual, that’s a characteristic, too.

For example, throughout the entire zero draft, there was really only one detail I knew about one of my main characters: the colour of his eyes. They’re brown, not dark like the earth but a golden-tinged honey brown, all warmth and light. A boy’s eyes in a killer’s face.

And that was all I needed. Stuff like hair colour wasn’t as important because it didn’t tell me anything about that guy. Now, I’m putting in a few of those details, because I’m editing my way towards a complete sensory experience, but they’re still less important than that single detail.

Next time you get the urge to put in everything from exact height to genital size, ask yourself this: if your characters had a single defining physical characteristic, what would it be? And why?

*If only because it’ll be easier for people to sneak up on him.

Staying Inside The Lines: Writing For Anthologies And Other Stuff With Rules

“Monsters and Waving Hero Junk” sounds like an anthology I would read. Someone get on this.

Short stories and I are taking a break from each other right now—it’s not you, stories, it’s me—but most of the ones I’ve written have been written just for anthologies or collections. Which means that I’m writing to a specific set of guidelines. This is a valuable skill for all fiction writers to have because 1) it’s a cool way to try something new, and 2) it gives you more markets for your work.

But how do you fit your style into a set of guidelines? Unless your style is entirely illegible, it’s not that hard. Here it is: the Bare Knuckle Guide to Writing For Anthologies.

1. Read the guidelines. Then read them again. Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to write. I’ve seen guidelines that ranged from the crazy broad to the hella specific and everything in between. If you’re going to write for something, then make damn sure it fits the guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

2. Check your pipeline. Got something half finished that could work? Or something that you completed that fits the guidelines? How about an idea that you had a while ago and hadn’t gotten around to writing yet? You might surprise yourself with what you have already available. A few tweaks might be necessary, but, hell, you’re a writer, aren’t you?

3. Research. Is the anthology/magazine/collection/whatever based on a time period? Do some reading about history. Particular sub-genre? Google it and check out what comes up. Spend some time trawling Tumblrs and Pinterest* boards with the keywords. Get images, styles, philosophies, geographies. Anything you think might help.
A note for those who worry this might taint their final project with unoriginality: bucko, you can’t work in a bubble. Well, you probably can, but it’s not advisable. Have faith in your own awesomeness and do the goddamn research. It’ll stop you from making silly mistakes.**

4. Let it percolate. With the theme in mind, let your hind brain work on things. Brainstorm a few things, and then settle in to think. This is less about driving toward an idea than it is about filling your brain up with crap and then seeing what it comes up with while you’re doing the dishes.

5. Listy McListPants. Make a list of ideas. You might have to roll a few around before you find something that sings. Don’t throw the others away, though. They might fit something else down the road. Writers: we’re like idea hoarders.

5. Write. Now you actually have to write the story. With your hands. Like an animal.

6. Check the guidelines again. Does your story still sound like what they’re looking for? Stuff changes in the writing sometimes; it’s like trying to pin down a Hydra. Double check what you’ve done with what they want and see if they still cross over. If not, you have two choices: change the story to fit, or keep it as is and write a new one. Use your own judgement. And remember that if you feel changing it would alter the story in ways you don’t like, that’s cool. Just don’t submit it to that anthology. You’ll waste everyone’s time and come off like an entitled douchebag who can’t be bothered to read the guidelines. Don’t worry, a home for that story will come along sooner or later.

7. Submit: Again after reading the guidelines. Write the cover letter (if one’s needed) and send that bugger packing. Move on to the next one while you anxiously wait for a reply. Rinse. Repeat.

*Fuck me, but Pinterest is obsessed with steampunk.

**While giving you all the freedom to make bigger, better mistakes, of course.

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.

17 Ways Writing Is Exactly Like Sex*

Betsy never knew you could dangle a participle like that.

1. Fun by yourself, fun with a partner. The right partner, obviously. Or partners. No one likes those selfish collaborators who never reciprocate critiques.

2. There are a million and one products that claim to help you do it better. Who doesn’t know the shame of the midnight clicking through pages and pages of glossy ads? New software? Workshop? Ooh, yes. And all I have to do is give you my credit card number? Sold.

3. Most of those products are bullshit. Put the Special Snowflake Writing Method with Extra Specialness in the bathroom cabinet with the Spanish Fly and never look at either of them again. They’ll only come up when someone else is going through your stuff and says, “Um…what exactly is this?” Have an excuse ready.

4. It’s awkward to talk about in public. Except for that one guy. You know the one. Way too many details, dude. Now I have to spend the rest of the night with images of your bacon-themed space opera popping into my head.

5. It’s all building toward a climax. Ooh, yes, right there. Give me that foreshadowing, baby. Ratchet up the tension, you know I like it like that.

6. But you should still have fun along the way. No prizes for speed in this race, hoss.

7. You can spend ages thinking about it. In bed at night, on the bus, waiting in lines…it’s never far from your mind. You imagine every detail, placing things just so. God, is it hot in here?

8. But it’s never quite the same in real life. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse. But whatever it is, it’s always more real, with stuff that you never thought about.

9. You should try to finish what you start. No one wants to be left hanging. It’s frustrating as hell.

10. Rejection hurts. Does it ever.

11. But you can always try again. Put on your lipstick and get out there, sweetheart. Just because the last one didn’t work out is no reason to quit.

12. There is no one right way to do it. Everyone likes it a little differently, and that’s okay.

13. But people will try to tell you there is, and get pissed off when you disagree. You like multi-genre crossover fiction that combines traditional science fiction tropes with western elements? What are you, some kind of fucking deviant? And you’re into subtle character pieces with nuanced family dynamics? God, you’re so close-minded.

14. There are people out there into the same stuff that you are. And most of them are on the internet. Be careful of their Tumblr pages, though. Some things can’t be unseen.

15. There tends to be a lot of awkward fumbling around, especially at the beginning. Hang on, let me just put this scene—wait, what if it went like this? No? All right, how about here, I think I can bend this—oh, god, sorry! Do you want an ice pack?

16. But you get better with experience. And some day those initial attempts will make great stories to tell. With maybe a couple of cautionary tales thrown in.

17. That cozy glow when you’re finished—and you know what you did was good—is fucking great. Hoo. That was really something. Now someone give me a cigarette.

*Today’s post brought to you by Questionable Thoughts I Have After Donating Blood.

How To Write Less Every Day

Nom nom writers.

I can feel the weird look you’re giving the title of this post.*

It’s okay. In your place, I’d look at it like a three-headed chicken crawling out of my Eggs Benedict and demanding that I take it to my leader, too. It’s not what I’m supposed to write about, here on a goddamn writing blog. It’s supposed to be me breathing fire and roaring “MOAR WORDS” like a literary version of Smaug.**

But here’s the thing: just as you can write too little—too little to finish, too little to keep the spark of the story going, too little to force yourself to invest in these godforsaken characters like they’re your own children—you can also write too much. You can exhaust yourself. You can write yourself into a corner that you see no way out of, and give up in frustration.

Both writing too little and writing too much are different symptoms of the same disease, which is lack of confidence. You write too little because you’re unsure; you write too much because you no longer care about being sure (good) but also stop caring about putting in the proper work (bad). Consider it the writer’s version of doing a shit job so that you can prove you’re no good. Setting yourself up for failure.

This is the problem with zero drafts, for some writers: you spill all those words out, never giving a good goddamn about how they fit together, and tell yourself you’ll fix it later. But sometimes you find that you can’t fix it later. Or you think you can’t, anyway, and you give up.

As you lot well know, I’m a big fan of the zero draft. But I always go into it knowing that whatever I produce will need so much work to be readable it’s going to be a completely different book. The zero draft is a way for me to think on the fly. Half of what I think up will be bullshit, and half of the rest will be mediocre. But I’m perfectly well prepared to dig through a ton of shit to find a single diamond. If you’re not, then the WRITE ALL THE WORDS NOW approach may not turn your crank.

So, though I completed the zero draft of the Big-Ass Novel in a mad sprint, I’m rewriting at a much slower pace. 1,000 words a day. That’s it. I’m trying really, really fucking hard not to go over***, because I’m trying to think ahead now, trying to fit everything together, and it’s a bit like solving a Rubick’s Cube in five-dimensional space. I move this, but it changes that, and now I have to fix this, but that makes this other thing slide out of alignment, so I tweak that bit over there…

You get the idea.

A caveat here: the ideas of ‘too little’ and ‘too much’ are so subjective I shouldn’t even be allowed to write them out using only two words, as if those two words could possibly convey the inherent complexity. It’s like the world’s worst short hand. Only you know what is too little or too much for your daily word count; it’s going to be different for everyone. And—here’s another qualifier—you’re probably only going to figure out your limits with time. By fucking up a few dozen times. By not finishing stuff, and by writing other stuff until it looks like a tangled mess of intestines spilled out on your desk.

Isn’t writing fun?

*I’m pretty used to weird looks, so believe me when I say I know how they feel.
**”I am fire! I am death! I am the end of the dangling preposition!”
***Unless I’m on fire that day. Obviously.

5 Low Down Dirty Tricks For Days When You’d Rather Swallow A Pinecone Than Write

This: It’s what’s for dinner.

No matter how much you love writing, no matter how much it tickles your fancy*—whatever that fancy is—there are days when doing it sucks balls. Giant, unpleasantly hairy, sentient alien balls that, apres sucking, are planning to raze the planet to the bedrock.

Unless that is what happens to tickle your fancy. In which case, disregard previous statement. And, you know, ew.**

Anyway, my point is that sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes because of the material, sometimes because of your own brain. Yesterday, I started off the day with a rejection letter, which didn’t do much for my motivation. Some days it just doesn’t want to get done.

Which is when you have to cheat.

I might have a few methods I use. Might.

If you’re looking for ways to get ‘er done on the crappiest of days…*slides you this list under the table*… you might find this of interest.

Steph Snow’s Low-Down Dirty Tricks For Crappy Writing Days

1. Bribery. Hey, it works for toddlers, it works for me. Sometimes you just need that carrot. For example, yesterday I promised myself that I could have an extra comic from the local comic store if I ground out the word count. Yes, I am essentially a 12-year-old in some ways.

2. Enlisting Friends. Meatspace friends, online friends, whatever. Ask someone for a motivation boost. Just, you know, don’t do it like a whiny little brat.
Yesterday, my friend Kat came over in the morning to make cookies and talk writing. Between the chat and the copious amounts of refined sugar, I had the needed boost to finish off ALL THE THINGS in the afternoon.

3. Public Shaming. Ah, social media. You’re so good at this. It’s the flip side of the ‘enlist friends’ scenario. Announcing that you will do something in public invokes the good ol’ social pressure. You have to do it then, or other people will know. And judge you with their smug, judge-y faces. Those jerks.

4. Get To The Good Bits. Note that this only works if what you have to do isn’t a specific project that’s on a deadline. Deadlines trump all. But sometimes, on a longer project, you can get around the bullshit roadblocks by switching to a different part. Write the bit you really want to: the fight scene, the part with the robot butlers, the time warp orgy. Whatever.

5. Just Grind It Out. All right, not so much a trick this one. But I will say that there have been days, really awful shitty days, when all I thought I was managing to do was smear half-dead ideas on the page until closing time. I hated what I’d done and thought it wasn’t worth a syphillitic monkey’s fart.
Until I read it over the next day. Then it realized that it wasn’t bad. It might not have been perfect—though there have been moments when the shittiest, hardest pages ended up being the ones I liked best—but it was far from the word abortion I thought. So, if all else fails, keep in mmd that you could be dead fucking wrong about the quality of the work you’ll produce. It might give you the juice you need to hit that word count.

Got your cheat sheet? Good. Then get out of here and write some words, you little badgers. It’s okay to use these tricks on the DL. I won’t tell anyone.

*Fancy Tickling is illegal in two provinces and nine states.
**Not that I’m judging you. But, seriously, man, where do you even get a fetish like that?

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.

The Parts Readers Skip: Cutting The Boring Shit

Fuck this, I’m out of here.

I was trundling along though my daily word count* yesterday when I reached it: the boring part.

Fuck, I don’t want to write this, I thought as I reached for my monkey skull full of bourbon and souls.** The main character’s just staring and thinking, I know it goes here, and after the Great Plotline Disaster of ’08, I’ve committed to writing mostly in order, but this part is boring.

And then it occurred to me: if it’s that fucking boring, why write it at all?

Because it has backstory, and you need to set up That Big Thing, nagged the Internal Keeper of the Outline/Spreadsheet. And because it’s right there on the plan. Look.

So, I looked, and I thought, and then I cut that scene. The Spreadsheet Keeper whined about it, but I stuffed her into a steamer trunk somewhere and broke the lock. I can still hear her thumping at the lid and screaming obscenities at me***, but you get used to it. Also, I’m having a heavy metal morning, so it blends into the music.

I wrote about Elmore Leonard back when he got shelved****, and it’s another piece of his writing advice that comes back to me now: “Try to leave out the parts that readers skip”. If readers are going to skip it—or worse, get bored by it and drop the book entirely—why bother to write it? Everything that I was going to do in that scene—setting up That Big Thing, exploring the family, maybe hinting at a murder—can be folded into other scenes with more finesse. And far less of the protagonist staring off into space and remembering the Not So Good Ol’ Days.

I’m still not entirely sure about this decision. I might reconsider later, when I’m trying to dribble backstory in between stabbings. But for now it seems right. Cut the boring parts, because if I want to skip it, you can be goddamn sure the reader will.
*Yes, I have a daily word count. It keeps me on track and makes sure I don’t have too many ‘ah, fuck it’ days. I even have a list where I track how well I’m keeping up.
**Relax, it’s a ceramic monkey skull. The bourbon’s real, though. And the souls.
***Yes, even my spreadsheet Keeper is a potty mouth.
****I’ve got some of his books next on my re-reading list and I can’t wait. *Pours out some bourbon and souls for Leonard*

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.