Brains Riding Shotgun: Problem Solving With Other Writers

Ride together, dress as gnomes together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Only Two Tools Writers Need

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

Let’s talk about writing tools.

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

Are you ready?

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

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

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

For that you need the sledgehammer.

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

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

Here’s another way to break it down:

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

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

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

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

*Could someone invent this real quick?

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

***Magic does not equal nice.

Monday Challenge: I Like My Coffee Like I Like My Stories*

I love you, too, coffee.

Back in the long ago, Krys and I used to spend boring moments—bus rides, waiting room visits, that sort of thing—discussing every possible preference of fictional characters. Favourite drink. Preferred cigarette brand, if they smoked now or ever did. Favourite leisure activity. Sexual preferences. So many things that never make it into the story, but which real people do.

The one I remember most is a classic morning question, asked in diners and unfamiliar kitchens the world over: how do they take their coffee?

Don’t scoff. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a cup that’s over-sugared or far too bitter knows that, while it might be personal preference, it’s still kind of a big deal. And, for lactose intolerant me, having someone else dump cream into the cup pretty much ruins the experience.

And it’s not just the taste. There was one character that, after much argument, we decided took his two ways. When he was around others, he’d order it strong and black, but when he was alone, he added so much goddamn cream and sugar that it must have been like drinking dessert. Because he had decided that he wanted to be the kind of guy who took his coffee black, even if he didn’t like the taste all that much. Anyone who’s spent time around insecure teenagers pretending to like the taste of beer has seen this phenomenon in action.

So, assuming you haven’t just skipped down to the bold text, you know what today’s writing prompt will be. If you have just skipped down to the bold text: seriously? It’s less than 400 words. If I can write it on the teensy amount of sleep I got last night, you can manage to read it. God.

Monday Challenge: how does your character take their coffee? Black and bitter? Sweet? Floating in cream? Decaff? Irish? One of those coffee-milkshake things available at Starbucks? Do they not drink coffee at all because of an ulcer, or PTSD because of the incident with the carafe and the monkey? Tell me what they’re ordering because that tells me about them.

I’m going to go make another pot.

*Dark, strong, and able to keep me up all night.

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

Sweet, sweet weaponized death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Challenge: Chicks Dig Scars

Not the scar I had in mind, but judging from the Internet, a lot of chicks dig this guy, too.

I’ve got a huge scar on my right knee. The full details of the incident can be read here, along with accompanying pictures of the original injury, but these days it’s healed into a weird crater-like mark over the bottom half of my kneecap. It still looks odd and as of yet I haven’t regained feeling in the whole thing. Pretty sure I left some nerve endings on the pavement that day. On the bright side, when I inevitably fall down again—because I will—it will likely hurt less.

Scars have stories. Sometimes they’re silly ones, like mine; other times they’re dangerous and daring tales full of adventure. Or, if you’re my dad, cautionary tales related to work accidents.* But there’s always a story, always something that goes along with the mark. Because scars are your body’s notation system. They’re the way you remember to do things, or not do others. They’re reminders.

But for some scars, and for some people, there are two stories: the one that happened, and the one they tell.

We shift things for a lot of reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that I edited some of the details of the above story. Not out of a desire to conceal anything, but because, hell, I’m a writer. I want to make a story out of everything. There has to be a narrative flow instead of just things happening one after another. And sometimes we change the details of our stories because we wished it had happened slightly differently. Or that it hadn’t happened at all.

Your characters do the same thing.

Monday Challenge time, you grubby little wombats: What scars does your character have, and what story do they tell about them? It might be the truth, or a version of it. Or it might be something a little more…colourful. Or less, depending on the provenance of those scars. Sometimes the version we tell is the less exciting one.

Show me their scars and tell me their stories, people. Get to it.

*Lesson learned: never believe the other guy when he says he shut off the air pressure to the valve you’re about to open, because if he hasn’t, you’re gonna lose a finger.

Livin’ In A Material World: Characters and Objects

You want a signature object? Try not thinking of this as a Sherlock Holmes hat.

I’m this close to buying a pendant off Etsy because it’s very much like something one of my characters wears. In fact, at this point, it’s damn near identical, because when I saw this version, the one in my book subtly changed to match it. It was too perfect for the character, and now I’m trying to decide if I want a copy of my own to wear while writing about this guy kicking ass and taking names.*

Why? Because things are important.

You can make this as materialistic as you want, but humans place a lot of stock in things. Tools. Symbols. Whether they’re things we need to do our jobs or just things that make us feel like us, things are a part of how we see ourselves and how others see us. A surprising amount of people have a signature item, something that’s always with them and without which they would feel a little…off. Maybe you’re that guy who always wears big leather boots, or has a huge collection of comic book t-shirts**. Maybe you’re that lady who loves red lipstick.*** Or you could be that person with the really cool glasses that you wear all the time. Nor does the item have to be fashion-related. It could be a holy symbol you wear beneath your clothes, or your lucky underpants. It could be a book.

All you armchair philosophers out there who are getting ready to tell me that those things don’t make us who we are…I know they don’t. Because that’s ass-backwards. They’re a physical manifestation of who we are, and who we want the world to think we are. Inside becoming outside.

Characters are the same. They have symbols. Things that they always have with them, that in a small way helps them feel like themselves. So if you really want to get inside their skin…think about that stuff. Give them tokens. Pieces of their history that they carry around, readable to anyone who knows the code. The guy who owns that necklace I’m thinking about buying? He’s had it since he was thirteen, when he killed something to get the pieces of the pendant. The part-time sheriff of his piss-ant little one horse town hammered it together for him so he wouldn’t forget. And he never has.

So, turn out your character’s pockets. Check their clothes and their bags. What are they carrying that’s theirs in more ways than just possession? What defines them, in their own eyes or in the eyes of others?

Figure that out, and you’ll know more about them.

*Ah, who am I kidding? I know I’m going to order this.
**Bonus fact: I am both these guys.
***I’m also this lady.

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: 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.

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.