Yet Another Reason Writer’s Block Is Fucking Bullshit.

It was close to this. Good thing digital files don’t burn well.

Last week, I had something I haven’t had for a long time: I had writer’s block.

I didn’t know what it was. I was just staring at the screen like I was staring into Nietzsche’s abyss, except that while it might have been staring back at me, it sure as hell wasn’t saying anything. Everything I tried seemed like shit. Even the stuff I’d written the day or the week before seemed like shit. There was, in fact, a lot of shit around, and it seemed like I was responsible for creating most of it.

I was close to deleting a lot of it. The last chapter, for sure. And I did in fact throw about 10,000 words—about 40 pages, if you prefer to calculate that way—into the wood chipper I call The Purgatory File. It’s where stuff goes right before it gets deleted forever, so I can harvest its organs and tasty bits before digitally mulching the rest. Fuck this, I was thinking. It’s not worth saving.

It was not a good day.*

After I dumped all those words into the wood chipper, I fucked off. Again, unusual; I rarely quit before the word count’s done. But that day I didn’t want to look at it anymore. So I sat down on the couch to read.

But I never got past the first couple of pages, because as soon as I sat down, I fell asleep. For three fucking hours.

When I woke up—disoriented, with a book on my face and two cats pinning down my legs—I felt…better.** And when I read over what I’d written, imagine my shock when I realized that it didn’t suck.***

I didn’t have goddamn writer’s block. I was fucking sleep deprived.

The lessons to be learned here are three-fold:

1) Writers can’t be trusted. We can’t. It’s a fact. We’ve all got a platoon of jabbering, sharp-edged little goblin monkeys caged up inside our heads, and when those little bastards get loose, it’s hell up there. We lose all perspective and turn into whiny little sods. It’s annoying.

2) Your body is more than just a carry case for your brain. What it feels, all of you feels. So crappy sleep habits, bad eating, no exercise…all of that will reap dividends you don’t want. Take care of yourself and the work gets easier.

3) Writer’s block is still bullshit. It’s just a lack of something: confidence, technical skill, passion, or, in my case, sleep. Something. Solve the deficit, and writer’s block goes away.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some words to make up.

 

*I should point out that I have very few writing days like this. Most of mine are more the “rock and roll on the stereo, coffee in the belly, let’s get some words, motherfucker!” type. Which I prefer, but the neighbours probably don’t.
**I’m condensing for the sake of story here; it actually took another eleven hours sleep that night before I felt fully normal again.
***Most of it, anyway. A couple pieces were still garbage.

Monday Challenge: Character EDC

The EDC: because going out without your Tuesday knife would be silly.

A while back, I did a post on my Every Day Carry*, or the junk I always have on me. It’s the bare minimum I consider essential for my average day, and I always have those items in either my purse or my pockets. Or, in the case of the jewelry, actually on my body. Whatever. You get the idea: it’s with me.

I was writing a scene with a character going through her bag the other day, and had to sit down and think about the items in it. In other words, I had to write her EDC.

The EDC tells you a lot about a person. Just like this post I did about bedrooms, the things a person always has on them tells you what kind of person they are. A sentimentalist? A minimalist? A survivalist? All those people will have different things. And what about their job? A sword-for-hire will have different stuff from a computer programmer, who will in turn have different stuff than a D&D-style mage with pockets full of spell components. What do they need? What do they take even though they don’t need it?

Monday Challenge: Write the EDC of one of your characters. What do they always have?

And, because I like the connection, I’ll turn out the pockets of my characters from that bedroom post:

The first one carries a lot of stuff lately, because she’s on the road and the EDC is everything she owns. Or at least everything she owns that she didn’t have to leave behind in a hurry after that bloodbath six months ago. Aside from her money and the religious pendant she inherited from her mother, most of the important stuff is in her shoulder bag: notebook, emergency rations, water bottle, knife, bandages, matches, extra clothes, uppers. She believes in being prepared now. If she’d believed that six months ago, she wouldn’t be in this situation.

The other carries very little these days. Mostly weapons. They’re all she needs to do her job, and her job is pretty much all she is now. One pocket always has cigarettes and matches: a vice she’s had since childhood. And around her wrist is the leather thong her brother tied there years ago, the one with the little carved-bone bead. She spins that bead so often the leather’s on the verge of wearing out. She knows that soon it will break, and the last little piece of him she has will be gone forever.

*Interestingly, three of the eight items in that picture are no longer with me. The phone died—RIP, first smartphone, you made my life so awesome—and had to be replaced. Those particular glasses got lost on vacation, though I have other pairs. And the wedding band** disappeared somewhere in the house. No idea where, and I tossed the place a dozen panicky times when I realized it was gone.
**It’s okay. Snowman let me pick out a new set for both of us, and I went with a hammered titanium set, inscribed with a quotation from The Hobbit: “I am going on an adventure.” NERD LOVE RULES.

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.

One Question Writers Need To Keep Asking Themselves

Do you have any gummy mascara wands?

Working on a long piece can be like traversing a deep dark forest: you’re pretty sure you’re moving, but you could be going in circles. And those suspicious mushrooms are starting to look tasty.

There’s a question you can ask to keep yourself from getting lost. Well, from getting irretrievably lost, anyway. I’m bang alongside getting periodically lost.* But when the word-forest is starting to close in and you can hear the wolves in the distance, take a breath and ask yourself the following:

What the hell am I trying to say?

This is loosely about stuff like theme and the other words that made you cringe in high school language arts classes, but it’s more about purpose. Writers love wandering. We find a pocket of unexplored randomness and we just want to hang out there forever, turning over every rock and naming all the plants. And that stuff’s good; it gets the creativity moving. But there are times when you need a little focus, and that’s when you should ask yourself that question. What the hell are you trying to say?

You should have an idea, even if it’s only a vague one: I want to talk about families and relationships and stuff, but there should be rockets and an intelligent marmoset. Well, maybe semi-intelligent. It doesn’t have to be a Big Important Universal Theme***; it just needs to be a target you can shoot for, tailored to fit. I want to show how Rylan is being a complete asshat to Dyson****  is acceptable for a scene or chapter; Rylan being an utter knobstick is a comment on his upbringing is better for a novel. But you should be thinking about it, turning it over, finding the creamy centre of your story nugget. You should be saying something, not just making noise.

Focusing on what you’re saying—however distant it might be when you’re scribbling down that initial zero draft—gives you purpose. It turns you from a blindly hammering word chimp into a clever ninja-ing word gorilla: cooler, hairier, and far more dangerous.

You need to have something to say. Otherwise, why are you writing?

*This weekend I got lost underneath Toronto for a few hours. It was fun. I found a candy store** I never knew existed, and ran giggling through the empty marble lobbies of huge financial buildings. You can get a hell of a slide across those shiny floors in wool socks.
**I think it was a candy store. It might have been a Korean cosmetics counter. Whatever I bought, it was pink, glittery, and tasted like lychee.
***Henceforth known as a BIUT. Because.
****Might be a character, might be a vacuum. Might be both.

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: Scouting The Path

Crows feeding

“What do you know? They taste like chicken. And Doritos.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the last blog post of the year. Tears me up a little, that does. Well, not literally, because I’m not a big crier*, but if I was, I would be. And if I hadn’t done really nice eye makeup that day. But if I was a crier, and if I hadn’t done something like this Smaug the Dragon-inspired makeup look**, then there definitely might be a slight chance of mistiness. Maybe.

It’s been a fun year. But it’s time to look down the road.

So that’s what this Monday Challenge is for, word wombats: thinking ahead. You’ve got a new year coming up. A whole year in which to write.*** That’s three hundred and sixty five fucking days during which you can be creating pocket universes and spinning beauty and terror out of the void.

What are you going to do with that year?

Monday Challenge: come up with something you want to create this year and then write that the fuck down. On a notepad, on a whiteboard, on your forearm or forehead. I don’t care where you write it, just write it. And then put it somewhere you can see it every day. Not to nag, but to remind. Because it’s a lot easier to forget about our goals when they’re not staring us in the face every fucking second like carrion birds wondering what your insides taste like.****

Plans of attack come later, along with everything else. For today, just think of what you want.

What is 2014 going to be the year of?

*Except, as established, during the first nine minutes of Up.
**The word ‘fierce’ was invented for this.
***And do other stuff, I suppose. If you have to. God.
****The pair of crows I keep seeing lately have this look.

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.

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.