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.

Monday Challenge: Head On Down The Highway

Fuzzy dice on a car window

Your car wants to feel pretty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning’s Monday Challenge is brought to you by my neighbour Kat, who is currently parked on my couch due to being locked out of her apartment this morning.

We got to talking about vehicles* in fiction, as you do at nine AM on a Monday. She mentioned the Impala in Supernatural, which is a character in it’s own right. And I thought of Bella’s truck from Twilight, which had more personality than she did. Vehicles—or other modes of transportation—can take on their own persona. Horses, motorcycles, cars, trucks….basically, any thing that you can use to move your ass from one place to another aside from your own legs can eventually become more than just a thing. More than an assemblage of metal and plastic and fuel and little fuzzy dice and empty gum wrappers. My car is named Marcus. Over the weekend, a friend asked me why, and all I could say was, “Because that’s his name.” Which, of course, is shorthand for, “Because I’m a crazy person.”

Anyway.

The relationship we have with our primary mode of transportation bleeds over into speculative fiction. From evil cars like Stephen King’s Christine to the AI equipped star ship of Andromeda, who actually had a holographic avatar, these things are more that just a means of getting from place to place. And fantasy novels are rife with the notion of intelligent, talking steeds, from horses to dragons.**

Saddle up, word-herders. It’s time to ride into the Monday Challenge! Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to write me a method of transportation that has character. A horse, a car, a monster truck, a sentient rocket ship, anything. Something that is more than an assemblage of its parts, mechanically produced or otherwise.

I’m going to go clean Marcus and tell him I love him.

*She claims not to like cars, but has about a million seasons of Top Gear on her DVD shelf. Hm.
**Though, if I could think and talk for myself, I wouldn’t let some dippy knight sit on me.

Monday Challenge: Things Long Lost

Pecan pie.

Probably doesn’t cure migraines, but ask me if I give a fuck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s Thanksgiving weekend*, the traditional celebration where we stuff ourselves with as much food as possible in the hopes of surviving yet another Canadian winter. As you sit down to your feast, please, take the time to evaluate your neighbours as a possible food source for the months to come. It’s not rude; it’s tradition.

*Fact checks on Wikipedia* Oh. Well. It seems we celebrate things a little differently in my family. To each their own, I suppose.

So, according to this, the real point of the holiday is to give thanks for things that you have.** But, because this is me—and possibly because as of this writing I’m into day three of a marathon migraine***—we’re going to do something else.

Monday Challenge: Write about something you’re grateful that you lost. We lose things all the time; it’s a species trait. Keys, names, weight, baggage, faith, the way, the number of that guy from the bar last night. Stuff disappears from our lives and into the vast wormhole of Now Where Did I Put That? Some of it deliberately.

So, today, think of something that you no longer have. Some thing whose weight you no longer have to carry. Some thing whose loss improves your life.

Ready? Go. I’m going to go stake out the neighbours house again. Or maybe eat an entire pecan pie.

*Here in Canada it is, anyway. Those of you who come from the United States, I guess it’s just another fucking Monday for you.
**This year, in no particular order, I am thankful for the following: the people I love, hot sweet tea, October nights, sex, whiskey, the cats and their murderous ways, the existence of brownies and nachos, and that natural twenty I rolled the other night in an RPG.
***Secretly training for the New York Migraine.

Nerd-Herding: How To Keep Track Of Your Crap

Hoarders: small business edition

My office before digital media. (Photo credit: RobertFrancis)

I have, as I have mentioned, lots of ideas. And I gather a lot of information. When it comes to info, I’m the hunter-gatherer: I’ve moved beyond waiting for it come to me and now venture out on my own to find it.* But how do you manage all that? How do you turn the information and the raw idea seeds into something useful? And how the hell do you keep track of it all?

One word, people: notes.

I use two systems** for notes, one digital and one meatspace:

Evernote

Ah, Evernote. Or, as I think of it, the Junk Drawer app.

This is where articles, essays, pictures, news items, recipes, knitting patterns, and random pieces of information go. I make a note, tag it, and then throw it into one of the notebooks. I have all my newsfeeds synced to this, so I can send things to a giant SORT pile to take a closer look at later. An important step, that one, because otherwise I’d lose hours of my day just going through things and figuring out if they’re useful. Now I tag it and toss it.

It syncs to my phone, so I can glance at this stuff during the dead space time of the day: standing in lines, waiting on hold, going to the bathroom, trying to escape from a boring conversation. I read it more closely then, and highlight or tag any particularly interesting sections. Then it goes into the right notebook—‘Writing’, ‘Food’, ‘Weird’, ‘Tech’, ‘Skills’, ‘WTF’, what have you—so that I can call it up when I’m scratching my head and trying to remember what I read somewhere once.

Notebook

I never met a writer who didn’t love notebooks. I swear to Christ we’re the only ones who get excited about back to school stationary sales.

As I mentioned, I use the Moleskin Cahier Large and am very happy with it. Or rather them, since there’s a herd of the fucking things by now.

There is a distinction between the notebook and Evernote. Evernote is for raw information. The notebook is for the physical equivalent of thinking out loud. It’s easier for me to test an idea to failure if it’s in a form I can scratch out. Which is why you’ll find long sections in my notebooks with titles like ‘Reasons why M. Should die’ and ‘A Bunch of Things That Don’t Happen’ and ‘What if there were space badgers?’*** Half those sections contradict each other, sometimes in the space of a page. Doesn’t matter. They’re just for working that crap out.
And sometimes, when it is worked out, it goes back into Evernote. In a notebook called ‘Story Ideas’.  This is the cycle of ideas: information from Evernote, working out on paper, then semi-coherent crap back into Evernote. It’s a system that works for me because, one, things rarely get lost and, two, I can find it when I need it. Nothing’s worse than trying to find that one idea in the pile of papers six feet deep. Besides, it’s a fire hazard.

So, this is my system, but I’m always open to improvements. Writers and other information junkies out there, how do you keep track of your shit?

*Actually, truth be told, I have designed a variety of systems to ensure that information I’m interested in—technology, science, medical, crime, just plain fucking weird—is delivered to me automatically and continuously throughout the day. And night. The stuff I go looking for is the stuff I don’t know exists.
**Mostly use two systems. In a pinch, I’ve been known to use email, bar napkins, and my own skin to keep track of things.
***For extra fun points, I went through the notebook on my desk and took actual section titles. You’re welcome.

Monday Challenge: Open Road

Route dans les Pyrénées françaises

There’s a robot around the turn, but you can’t see it from here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Roads are odd things. They start right in front of your own house, but after that they could go anywhere. And sometimes it seems like they’re trying to suck the brain right out of your head. Highway Hypnosis, my ass. Highway Brain Stretch is more like it. On a long road trip, I can feel my brain expanding.

We did a lot of driving over the last five days, between work meetings in the Nearest City of Any Size and a camping trip on the side of a mountain. The Husband drove for most of it, leaving me free to daydream out the window. Which I did. A lot. I also, when asked for a story, made up the tale of Sir Jack and Lady Snow, two knights on a long trip and their return home. They were racing the sun, because when the darkness came, the road would no longer be safe.*

There’s just something about the sight of an open road that brings out my creativity. I get the best plot spackle on the road. And while I don’t tend to get full-fledged ideas, I do get the seeds of ideas. The things that, once planted in the fertile soil of my hindbrain, will grow into something worth thinking about. I’m a mobile seed collector on long trips, the idea-spores clinging to me like burrs to a dog’s fur.

Of course, I can’t do anything about those ideas on the road. That’s what home is for. The road is for gathering; home is for making something useable out of the stuff you accumulated.

So, I honour of my brain-enhancing road trips, I present your Monday Challenge: write me a journey. Not the start, not the end. Just the part in the middle. The space between. The time when anything might happen.

I’m going to start growing some of these ideas.

* It was a fun story. They found their way with the aid of magic boxes created by an undead sorcerer named Steve of Jobs.

Monday Challenge: Watershed

Convetible Ventilated Trousers shown with one ...

Some Trousers of Time may be more tasteful than others. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is why I never trust book reviews.

I’m currently reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Though I’m mostly a King fan*, I put off reading this one for quite a while because I had heard, through various reviews, that it was about the Kennedy assassination. Interesting in a way, but the obsession with JFK and all his might-have-beens is one I’ve never really gotten.

But it’s not about Kennedy at all. Or, it is, but only as a historical example in a convenient period. It’s really a story about watershed moments: those tiny places in history, personal or global, that mark a turning point. The place where two paths diverge. Readers of Terry Pratchett will be more familiar with the idea as the Trousers of Time. A moment, and then two diverging histories. The narrator of the book, Jake Epping, is confronted with watershed moments over and over, most of them of the smaller, more personal variety. Which is far more interesting than the fate of the 35th President of our neighbour to the south.

Because changing the course of history is one thing, but what plagues us are the decisions we have made, and all our own might-have-beens.

Monday Challenge time, children: write me a might-have-been. What watershed moment could have gone differently for you or your characters? What leg of the Trousers of Time might you or they have hurtled down, if things had changed only a little?

Now, I haven’t finished the book yet**, so I don’t know if the ending will be good. But I got through 400 pages yesterday, so it’s fair to say it’s made an impression. And isn’t that what counts?

*With a couple of exceptions. Seriously, what the hell is up with Wizard and Glass?
**And anyone who offers spoilers will be eaten by carnivorous iguanas by night and by day.

On Book Promiscuity

English: Blotter

And that was how I learned if someone offers you a sticker for your tongue, say no. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been a reader. I was that kid who would figure out the number of books I was allowed to take out, and then choose books long enough to get me through the week before I could come to the library again. Although, to be fair, it was rarely a week. My parents were quite willing to encourage me in this kind of prolific reading. They didn’t even vet my choices or prohibit certain things*, reasoning that whatever I read was probably still better than getting involved with ‘The Drugs’ that haunted the school of every child of the eighties.**

So I read everything. Mysteries, horror, LGTBQ literary fiction, god-awful drugstore romance, non-fiction about dying in the Arctic…everything. Reading was my favourite thing to do, especially during classes when I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.***

But when I went to university and generally became a Busy Adult, reading was the first thing to fall off the List of Things To Do. Not because I didn’t still enjoy it, but because it was the easiest thing to cut. Besides, I was focusing on writing, which can eat a lot of time. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t reading as much, because I was focusing on making my own stories. So I let the reading lapse.

And then I was surprised when the writing became harder.

There’s all kinds of reasons, from learning mechanics to finding inspiration and blah blah blah, but here’s how I think of it: I have a Word Tank. That’s where the writing comes from. But it also needs to be filled. To fill it, I need to consume other people’s words: books, articles, hell, even movies and TV and video games. If I go too long without filling up, I’m coasting on fumes and nothing works the way it should. Simple, right?

Every now and then I meet people who want to write but never read. Odd cats, those. One once told me that they didn’t read out of some fear that they’ll copy an idea or a voice or something. In the circumstances, this is like wanting to learn to cook but never eating, because you don’t want to know what other people’s food tastes like. And, having read a few pieces by these people, by the Lord of Undying Fuck, can you ever tell they don’t read.

I’m happy to say that I’ve made more time for reading the last few years—ten books in the last month, woot!—and it’s paid off. The words come easier and flow smoother. You know, most of the time. And I’ve read some great books that I otherwise might have never seen.

So, writers, do yourself a favour: read more. Read everything. Fill the Word Tank. You might be surprised at the dividends.

*Which is how I came to be reading Anais Nin at fifteen. Talk about your eye openers.
**What were these? Does anyone know? All I remember is a lot of vague lectures about the Dangers of The Drugs. And that one cop who showed us what LSD looked like.
***To date, I’m the only person I know who has ever gotten detention for, and here I quote the notification that got sent home to my parents, “reading too much”.

Monday Challenge: Fade

End of summer

Soon, the deck chairs will hibernate. (Photo credit: Amadeu Sanz)

Summer is fading.

I always know my birthday is getting close because I can feel it in the air.* The sun doesn’t seem as warm, nights get cooler, and the kids around the neighbourhood pool have a frantic air, as if they know this won’t last. And it won’t, of course. Soon fall will be here and they’ll be trudging to school while I watch them from my back deck with hot tea in hand and laugh.**

I’m okay with this. I like to look outside and see the leaves staring to fall. And feel the chill in the night. I might have been born in the summer, but in my heart I belong to the autumn. I belong to cool winds and early evenings and bonfires.  You can keep your heat and bikinis and cocktails with little umbrellas. Give me crisp air, sweaters, and a good smoky scotch.

Still, there’s something melancholy about the fade. It’s the slow fall into winter, sometimes graceful, sometimes not. It’s the ending.

So today, I want you to write about an ending. A slow fade into nothing. The end of a season, a day, a relationship, a life, a labour…all things end. It’s not always a sad ending; some things are better off done. But there’s an end in there somewhere.

I’m going to go get my sweaters out of the attic.

*And, you know, because I can read a calendar. Shut up. Trying to make a point here.
**Maniacally, of course.

Cleaning Day At The Brain House

A number of cleaning brushes.

Where’s the pick axe? And the flamethrower? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hate clutter. In my house, if something gets in my way enough, I have to either find a place for it or get rid of it before I take it out into the backyard and set fire to it. My house doesn’t have to be perfectly organized*, it doesn’t have to be spotlessly clean, but it does have to be fucking functional.

I feel like there’s a mental analogue to this: mental clutter, if you will. My head is organized kind of like a house. Though, given the size and confusing byways when I picture it, a labyrinth is more likely. In all those rooms and corridors there are Things. Household Things and errands go in the hall. Family Things in the parlour. Writing Things in the massive, conflicting maze of offices, which twist around each other and have secret passages and background music and some kind of fucking monster-thing that lives in the ceiling.**

But the Brain House is just like the Real Life House: leave it alone long enough and stuff…drifts. Old glasses end up on the coffee table, a file folder of tax stuff in the dining room, a half-knitted sock next to the computer. Maybe I left it there on my way to do something else. Or, and this is an increasingly probable theory, maybe it moves itself when I’m not looking.

Periodically, the Brain House becomes cluttered with bits and pieces of leftover projects, half-formed ideas, incomplete paintings, unfulfilled obligations, and all the other assorted mental detritus that accumulates upstairs. And so, periodically, I have to clean it out.

Which is what I did last week. I took a week off from new obligations and got through some of the backlog and put everything back where it belongs. And, while I was at it, I took the time to clean out some old thoughts, some old habits, some pieces of mental garbage that no longer served a purpose.  Bad writing habits included.

So now I start again, in a freshly cleaned Brain House. All the surfaces sparkling. All ready for new projects and new ideas, without having to worry about tripping over some junk left from the last project, or some half-formed stillborn piece of shit I no longer want to work on.

It feels good.

So, tell me, fellow idea wranglers, what sort of state do you think your Brain House is in? Anything up there that can go? Anything that’s just taking up space and slowing you down? Some misconceptions, maybe? Something that needs to go back to the Idea Maturation Chamber for a few rounds? Or just some bad fucking habits that have never been reevaluated and exposed for the expired, useless pieces of mental garbage they are?

Take some time; clean the toys out of your attic. You might just find space you never knew you had. And once you find that space, you’ll be surprised at how big you can think.

*Though that helps.
**I call him Bentley.