Things To Do When You Finish A Novel*

Writers do it old school.

1. Get Your Cake On. You finished a book. That’s a big deal. It might be a sucky book right now, but that doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about editing later, after the post-coital glow has faded. For now, celebrate.

I used to be really bad at this. I’d finish a manuscript and not tell anyone, and if they found out, pretend it was no big deal. I have no idea why I used to pull this crap, but it wasn’t helpful. Acting like it wasn’t worth celebrating made damn sure it wasn’t, and didn’t make me feel good about getting further than 99% of the wannabe writers out there. Which made it harder to do again. Don’t worry; eventually I pulled my head out of my ass and scored some Scotch to celebrate. However you do it—cake, dinner, wine, that thing with the chains and the feathers—mark the occasion. You can get back to the grind tomorrow.

2. Take A Break. At least from that story. Working on something else—particularly something small, like an essay or a short story—is a palette cleanser for your brain. Then you can come back to that first draft with fresh eyes and a clean brain, ready to fix the hell out of it.

Of course, sometimes you can’t take a break. Deadlines exist. In that case, feel free to skip this suggestion and do the first one twice. Twice the cake! Twice the scotch! Twice the chains and feathers!

3. Get Back In The Saddle. Sooner or later, that first draft you churned out is going to need editing. Wait until the idea doesn’t fill you with dread if you can. Then you can look at the inevitable mistakes, wrong turns, and general WTF-ness with more equanimity and less bowel-loosening horror. Relax. It’s not that big a deal. You can fix it. In fact, keep repeating that to yourself over and over again: I can fix this. It will help. If it doesn’t…well, there’s always the leftover Scotch from step one.

Who out there has a finished novel now that November is over? Who’s still working? Who has given up in a flurry of despair and soggy Kleenex? I’m firmly in Category Two**: still motoring along with my eyes on a January-February finish date, but I’m keeping Category Three open!

So: where you at?

*Note for those of you fresh off NaNoWriMo: finishing NaNo is not necessarily finishing a novel, unless your novel happens to be 50,000 words. If it is, cool. If it’s not, I’d advise continuing to work until such a time as you can definitively type The End and mean it. Stopping in the middle just because you hit 50,000 is a great way to accumulate a pile of unfinished manuscripts.

**At least two levels below my Kaiju Rating.

Protagonists I Would Like To Put In A Sack And Drown*

Goddamn it, Jacob, stop hugging me so I can go unleash a plague or some shit.

1. The Earth Angel. So fucking perfect all the fucking time, until you just want to smash their imaginary face in. This character is sometimes known as the Mary Sue, but that’s fucking sexist and also ignores the term’s origins in fan fiction. So I’m going with Earth Angel, because this character, whether male, female, another gender, or entirely genderless, is so goddamn perfect that they stop the story dead in its tracks. Nothing ever happens that they can’t fix perfectly, with no consequences or fucking it up or accidental deaths or anything. Snore.

2. The Psychopath. Dead, emotionless, usually bad-ass, and completely in control. I don’t know how this became a thing—though I’m looking hard in your direction, American Psycho—but it is creepy as hell. If your protagonist relentlessly mows down others in order to get their own way, then I’m probably rooting for the villain.

This doesn’t mean characters can’t be selfish. Selfishness is part of being human, and a healthy amount of self-interest drives characters to make interestingly poor choices. But a dead-eyed hustler who uses other people as a means to an end and then discards them without a second thought? Someone put a scorpion in their Armani jacket, will you?

3. The Lump. Need a character who does something? Look elsewhere. This often-found problematic protagonist never actually does anything. Instead, they’re relentlessly shoved around the story by other characters, like a leaf on storm-force winds. They might as well be a camera lens for the reader to see the story, an dispassionate observer of the events. The good news is their dead weight will be enough to drag the Sack of Crappy Protagonists into the briny depths.

4. The Emo Sad-Bag. We get it. You’re fucked up. You hurt. But, for the love of Christ’s most holy butthole, do you have to keep talking about it? Or thinking about it? Or generally sitting around like a mopey sack of crap, looking in mirrors and sighing wistfully?

Into the sack. Try not to drown in your own bravely-held-back tears before we get to the shore.

5. The Idiot. I cannot deal with stupid protagonists. Short-sighted is fine; bright but not as smart as they think they are is even better. But genuinely stupid, to the point of making bad choices for no goddamn reason at all other than the author needed a way to move the plot along? Get in the sa—actually. You don’t go in the sack. The lazy author who created you goes in the sack.

What about you? What protagonists can you not abide?

*As always, your mileage may vary. Someone out there must love psychopath characters, or they wouldn’t keep getting written.

3 Reasons To Quit NaNoWriMo

Finally, I have the free time to take up cliff-diving.

That whooshing noise you just heard? That was the halfway point of the month going past. Which means, for thousands of writers around the world, they’ve either hit their the halfway point of their story or are behind and wallowing in despair.*

If you are one of the latter—or even if you’re not—you might be wondering about the viability of continuing. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. And that’s fine. Don’t get caught up in the hype generated by the NaNoWroMo True Believers. For one thing, they’ve become increasingly crazy as the month has progressed, and are likely to continue down that caffeine-buzzed path for the next two weeks. For another, if they thought it would help their word count, they’d knock you down and suck your brain out through your ear.

Here are some signs that your NaNo experiment is failing:

1. The stress is ruining your love of the book. If the stress of meeting a 50,000 word target is making you hate and/or resent your story, it’s time to stop. You shouldn’t hate what you’re doing. There will be times it’s frustrating or difficult, but consistent hate is probably a sign something you’re doing isn’t working for you. Don’t stop writing, but stop writing to meet someone else’s goal. Make your own instead. If that’s 500 words a day, fine. If it’s 100, that’s fine, too. Just ready yourself for a longer timeline to first draft and beyond.

2. You’re starting to hate writing. Not just your book, but all writing. Even a list brings the Spiky Needles of the Hate God to your brain. Like a more extreme version of number one, this is an indicator that something isn’t working for you anymore. Take a break. Or at least stop complaining on Twitter.

3. You’re lying about what you’re writing. No one likes a liar. Or, if you’re going to lie, at least make up something more interesting than how many words you scored** over the weekend. The problem is not so much the lying but what it indicates: you are more interested in meeting an arbitrary goal than you are in actually writing something. Unlike the above two, stopping writing altogether is not recommended, because, let’s face it, you’d probably just continue to lie. Instead, drop quietly out of NaNoWriMo and just write. Don;t worry about the word count.

Or continue to humblebrag about winning that word war while sobbing and eating icing directly from the can. Whichever.

So, who out there is continuing? Who’s stopping? Who never started and looks down on the rest of us? Leave a comment at the sound of the beep. BEEEEEEEEEEP.

*There are also some who have already finished the requisite 50,000 words, but let’s not speak of them. It only encourages them.

**Words are like heroin, right?

The Definitive Ranking Of Places To Write

I’ve either seen this at church or airbrushed on the side of a van.

Desk:  This is your writing sanctuary. It’s got everything set up just the way you like it, with the pencil holder and the computer and the caged marmoset that you can unleash to get you coffee. This is your place.

Pro: It’s your territory. Try not to urinate on anything, though.

Con: Unless you are vastly different from me, any flat surface in your house is quickly colonized by half-read books, drawings of rockets, robot statues, and Cats of Unusual Size. You can either clean or attempt to write on top of this mess, neither of which is great for focus.

Rating: 7/10 because of cat hair in my coffee.

Bed: It’s comfy. It’s cozy. It’s got pillows that you can make into a fort. And thanks to Wi-Fi, you don’t even have to get up to do your research. And by research, I mean watch Netflix.

Pro: Coziness, especially with the upcoming cold dark sarcastic months.

Con: Falling asleep without backing up and realizing that you accidentally deleted everything when you rolled over on the laptop.

Rating: 5/10 because the cats followed me and are sitting on the laptop.

Coffee Shop: It smells like boiled adrenal glands and, these days, Pumpkin Spice Badger Nads. If you can score that corner table and get the friendly barista who periodically checks in to make sure you’re still alive, the buzz of a good coffee shop can get the juices flowing.

Pro: Never far from a supply of caffeine.

Con: Presence of others makes casual porn viewing unwise.

Rating: 6/10 because I actually like Pumpkin Spice Badger Nads.

Work: Whether you’ve got your own office or you’re part of a cube farm, if you have some free time and  access to a computer, you can peck out a chapter here and there. Just make sure to have a cover window available for when someone comes in without knocking.

Pro: You’re already getting paid, so you’re ahead of 98% of writers.

Con: Constant checking for your boss can lead to neck strain and severe paranoia, which 98% of writers already have.

Rating: 3/10 because Doing Personal Things On Company Time Is Wrong. Or something.

Church: Nothing like the haze of incense* to free your mind. If the Latin chanting doesn’t lull you into a coma until it’s time for the free wine, it is possible to hide a notebook in your hymn book and write.

Pro: Lots of weird stories being told to give you inspiration, especially if you write fantasy or horror. Burning hedges that talk! Walking dead guys! Some kind of seven-headed child-eating dragon that destroys the stars!

Con: Risk of eternal damnation.

Rating: 5/10 because no one gives better stink-eye than old church ladies.

Space: Picture yourself floating free above the earth, the panorama of the stars your backdrop. The chains of gravity no longer tether your body to the earth, and the chains of normalcy no longer tether your mind. You can write anything.

Or check Twitter and YouTube. Whatever.

Pro: Chances of being disturbed by your spouse, kids, friends, family, nosy neighbour, or dog are slim.

Con: Chances of survival without a spaceship or space station of some kind are also slim. Also: alien parasites.

Rating: 9/10 because it’s fucking space.

*Virtually all my church experience has been Catholic, with its arcane rules and incense and chanting. Feel free to substitute the religious affiliation of your choice and adjust accordingly.

Imaginary Enemies: Your Periodic* Reminder That Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Writer’s block was in this picture, but Godzilla ate it.

We all have those days when the words just aren’t there. We don’t know where they went—Atlantic City? Barcelona? Rigel-7?—but they are goddamn well not here when we need them. We stare at that blank page and wait for something, anything, to cross your brain to write. Nothing does.

We tend to call this bullshitty empty brain feeling Writer’s Block, like that explains it. Like writers as a group have some kind of monopoly on this. Giving it a name makes it feel legitimate, somehow. It’s not my fault, I have writer’s block. For reals. I have a prescription and everything. It’s called whiskey.

If you seriously have a problem where you can’t physically think of new stuff, then you might want to make an appointment with a neurologist, because something’s crossed upstairs. But if, instead, you use writer’s block to refer to the lack of motivation and ball-busting that you need to carve words into a semi-legible order, then that’s a unicorn of an entirely different colour.

Because writer’s block isn’t real.

Fear, on the other hand, is.

And that’s what writer’s block really is. It’s not a lack of creativity, because most of us have no trouble finding the creativity to craft the perfect tweet or Instagram filter while we’re not writing. It’s just ordinary, garden-variety fear. Fear of sucking. Fear of failure. Fear of being found out for the fakes and posers that we are.** Fear that this story that we’ve put so much of ourselves into isn’t any good.

So we procrastinate, and waste time, and sigh mournfully about our epic case of writer’s block. Because that’s easier than actually doing something about it.

The time for this bullshit is over. Be honest: admit that you’re afraid. I am. Every day. Of screwing this up. Of never being good enough. But the only way past is through, so after I’ve admitted to these sad, soggy little fears, I ignore them. And get on with it. Sometimes the words I write on those days suck, but most of the time they’re…normal. It gets hard to distinguish, upon another reading, where I was feeling great and where I was feeling shitty. Because it doesn’t matter. Not really.

Fear only has the power you give it. So stop giving it everything. Stop thinking of it as a condition, a syndrome, a block. Admit what it really is, and recognize it for the self-involved bullshit that it is.

And then get yourself another cup of coffee, and get on with your day. Because those words aren’t going to write themselves.

*I was going to go with annual, but I couldn’t remember how long it’s been. I know I’ve written on this before, but my archives are Having A Moment and I can’t be arsed to figure out exactly when. So, periodic. Which is a fun word. Much better than annual. Anyway.

**I’m pretty sure that everyone feels like this sometimes. One of my teachers once said that she felt like a fraud when teaching, and that for the first ten years she thought someone would figure it out. No one ever did.

Stealing Inspiration: What To Do When You Get Stuck

Yoink.

In an ideal world, the words would always come when you needed them to. And every computer would double as an espresso maker.*

In the world we have, though, you will, sooner or later, get stuck. Maybe you wake up too tired to properly boot up your brain that morning**, maybe you’re just running low on the old imagination juice. The inspiration tank is low.

You need to go steal some.

Inspiration isn’t rare. It’s not some precious spark that drifts down from the heavens/up from the underworld once every century or so. If it was, we’d have a lot fewer books and movies and comics and ill-advised artistic endeavours than we do.

Inspiration, in fact, is everywhere.

But you have to look for it. And I think this is where the rarity myth comes into play: we think it’s rare because it finds us only occasionally. That’s because we have to go out and hunt it down. And when you find it, you have to steal it like a ninja with a maxed-out Dexterity stat.

If you’re finding yourself stuck this morning, like I am, there are places you can go. Inspiration, like any prey, has habits and haunts that make it easier to find. Look to the places you usually find inspiration. There are blogs and books full of writing prompts. If you head to the NaNoWriMo forums, you’ll find pages and pages of ‘adoptable’: random plot/character/setting/word elements that you can steal and put in your own work. Some of them don’t seem to work at first, but even the mental exercise of trying to imagine how a lesbian stripper ninja will fit into your historical romance set in medieval Scotland can jumpstart your brain.

Writing prompts not doing it for you? Go for a read. Read something new and try to decide if it works. If so, why? If not, why not? Or read an old favourite and try to put your finger, mandible, or pseudopod on just why you like it so much. Reading something great might inspire you to get your own story moving.

Or maybe you don’t need words. Go look at some pretty or not-so-pretty pictures on DeviantArt. Listen to some music that gets you in the mood. Put on a favourite movie and let it play in the background as you get down to business.

Somewhere out there is the thing that will give you that spark you need for today. But you need to get off your ass and go find it.

*As long as I’m wishing for the impossible, I’d actually like mine to do triple duty as a computer, espresso maker, and fully-functional mech suit. And I’d like for cigarettes to improve your health.

**That’s me. My neighbours were having an epic screaming match in the street last night. Net result: five cop cars.

10 Things To Stop Doing So You Can Write Instead*

Alternate plan: reserve showering for moments when you’re in space.

1. Showering. You’re a writer. People expect you to smell like a combination of gin, despair, and the bottom of a rabbit hutch. Besides, if they stay away, it’ll mean less of a pesky social life to interfere with your creative vision.

2. TV. Just cut one episode of Orphan Throne of the Dead or whatever the hell you can’t turn off until you’ve binge-watched every fucking second of it and are left in a huddled pile on the living room floor as you wait for the next episode. One episode. You can do that much.

3. Talking/Thinking/Daydreaming about writing. You know what you could be doing instead? Yeah, you know.

4. “Research” on Wikipedia**. Whatever answer you’re looking for, it’s not there, hoss.

5. Obsessively checking Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Whatever. You’ll live the extra half hour without knowing exactly what that dude you knew in junior high, no, not that one, the other one, had for lunch today. Spoiler alert: it was tacos.

6. Reading about writing. Except for this blog, of course, which you should check hourly with the devotion of a convert to a long-forgotten god.

7. Sleeping. Not entirely, of course. But it might be worth getting up early to hack some word-ore out of the brain mines.

Or, hell, quite sleeping entirely. The resulting descent into madness could be fun to watch.

8. Those games where you must either buy extra lives or spam-bomb your friends into giving them to you. It’s one thing to take a break to experience the tremendous story and cinematic wonder that is a full console game. It’s another to smash candy for six hours and then freak the fuck out because why won’t it give you a red one, you just need one red one, goddamnit, is it so fucking hard to do that?

9. Complaining about how you’re not writing. I hate to tell you this, but none of those words count towards your goal. Not even the swear words. Sorry.

10. Comparing your word count with others. You’re not going to chance that number by logging into the NaNoWriMo forums and despairing about how far behind you are. Or, if you’re not behind, about how far ahead other people are. Just worry about your own shit. You do you, and let everyone else do them.

*I am not a doctor, dentist, chiropractor, minister, therapist, or anyone who should have any input on how to live a healthy life at all. But I am a stranger on the Internet,  so of course I must know what I’m talking about.

**Legitimate research, where you find the answer and then return to what you were doing, is acceptable. I’m talking about being best by a sudden urge to find out what happened to every single child actor on that show you watched as a kid. I’ll save you the trouble: 23% still in the industry, 31% working behind the scenes, 26% just a normal dude now, 20% drug overdose.

Dawn Of The First Day: 4 Questions For Getting Ready To Write

Tick tock. Are you ready?

Saturday is the first of November. Halloween Boxing Day*. And while you’re prying yourself from the queasy grip of a sugar-induced coma, I’ll be up and writing.

Because Saturday is also the official start of NaNoWriMo.

You might not be starting a new book on Saturday—or you might be doing it a little differently—but this checklist is applicable to anyone who is starting a big ass project. So whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo, or just charting the frantic mental decline of those of us who are while waiting for a better time, check this list and make sure you’re ready.

1. Do you know what you’re writing? If you don’t, you’re in for a rough ride, bucko. Not saying it can’t be done—there are anecdotes of people doing so all over the place—but it will be like unto going down a slide made of gravel in steel-wool underpants. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not judging.

2. Have you set aside time to write? Maybe you blocked off a section of your day, or picked a day a week which is for writing. Maybe you’re going to fit it in where you can, which I understand is the preferred** method for those with children. The important thing is to make a commitment. What that commitment looks like is up to you.

3. Do you have a borderline unhealthy addiction to something that gives you energy? I hear this is a great use for leftover Halloween candy. I might have to resort to this since I’m off coffee for a few months. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not I remember how to write without it.

4. Do you love it? The writing, I mean. Because there are going to be hard times. There are going to be times when it feels like you’re trying to knock down a brick wall with your fucking face. At times like that, you need something to keep you going. And what will do that, what will keep you standing when you should have fallen long ago, is love: love for the story, for the idea, for what you’re doing even when it sucks. Love will get you through it when coffee and bite-size Mars bars fail.

So, are you ready?

*For those unfamiliar, Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, when you either go shopping to spend whatever money you got for Christmas or sleep off your food hangover from the previous day.

**Read: only.

It’s More Fun If You Take It Out And Play With It: How To Grow Ideas

Together, we will raise this idea to destroy cities.

Ideas are fragile things. They need care and attention before they can blossom into…

Wait a second. Got my notes mixed up. That’s kids. Kids are fragile blossoms. Or something. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really paying attention during those baby-sitting courses. And yet all my cousins survived. I think. I have a lot of them, so I’d need to do a head count to be sure.

Anyway.

Ideas. You have an idea. A little one. And you need to know how to grow it into a book, into a full-fledged mecha-Baphomet-Idea with fire breath and razor wings and inspiration spewing from every orifice. It will storm forth from your word-writing engine to lay waste to the shelves of lesser books and hear the lamenting of their indices.

Buuuuut it’s also kind of…new. Undeveloped. And until it grows and loses its first set of fangs, you don’t want to risk anything happening to your little baby idea.  So you don’t tell anyone about it. You don’t pick at it very much. You just wrap it up and keep it safe. You want to protect it from the viciousness of the word-world, with its reviewers and unpleasant Twitter accounts. You want to coddle it.

Too bad that won’t get you anywhere.

Ideas are not fragile. They can’t be and survive. You might feel protective of it at first, and that’s only natural. After all, it’s a part of you. But if it’s ever going to be all that it can be, then it needs to get kicked around a bit. Have those rough edges knocked off. If you keep it locked up away from anyone and everyone, it’ll turn out like one of those weird kids whose parents never them go outside and refused to let anyone inside the house unless they were coated in hand sanitizer.

So, here’s what you do with your brand spanking new baby idea: take it out into the fresh air. Let it stretch its tiny little wings. Examine your idea from all angles. Look for the flaws. What doesn’t fit? Where are there gaps, and what can bridge them? You can do this yourself or you can get others in on the game. But, much like toys, ideas are a lot more fun if you take them out of the packaging and play with them.

Before you know it, the idea will grow. First subplots, then characters, then a set of rending talons the likes of which the world has never seen themes. By questioning it and prodding it and generally working with it, you’re giving it what it needs to get big and strong. And it will. Eventually, if it gets big enough, it’ll dominate your thoughts, squatting in the middle of them like a dragon on a conveniently-located pile of gold*. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

And what do you do then?

You write it, of course.

*Handy for the shops and near a good school, just in case it gets hungry.

Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

Outlining: Not Just For Bodies Anymore.

It’s no secret that I love my outlines. And, man, I mean love. Like the way I love coffee: I may drift away, but I always come back, and while I know it’s not entirely healthy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway.

I used to outline on paper, with the straight-up Roman numeral system I learned back in the sixth grade*. Then I switched to doing the same thing in a Word document, because it meant less little directional arrows when I had to add something in the middle.** Then there were index cards, which could be endlessly shuffled around but inevitably lacked space and got eaten by the cat.

But now I have found my ride-or-die outlining system, and most of you are going to be entirely unsurprised that it’s Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this particular piece of software before, but never really gone into how I use it. Probably because that would take forever. I use Scrivener for everything from research to planning to editing. It’s a powerful suite of tools all rolled up in a good interface.

For outlining, there is a very convenient feature called the Outliner. It has a number of pre-set columns, but—and this is important for me—you can also customize those columns. Mine are as follows:

-Scene Title: often something basic like ‘Jimmy Finds Orthotics of Power’ but occasionally something more entertaining, like ‘HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL FUCKED UP NOW’.

-What Happens: does what it says on the box. Mostly a Coles Notes version with the pertinent points laid out

-Who’s There: Because characters are like cats: hard to keep track of and then they turn up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

-Questions Raised: Anything dangling hook of information that gets introduced in the scene. I keep track of these so I can make sure that all the important ones get answered eventually.

-Notes: Because sometimes I need to remember something that doesn’t fit in one of the above categories.

Once I have a bunch of these laid out, I use to Label feature to colour-code everything. Partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s by point-of-view character, to make sure I’m not spending all my time inside the wrong head. Other times it’s by plot line: main, sub 1, sub 2, romantic, whatever. The colour coding makes it easy to take in, at a glance, the overall spread of attention. Am I not developing sub plot two enough? Maybe I don’t need it at all. Is Talulah the Overly Sarcastic Orderly taking over a lot of scenes? Consider bumping her up to major character, or scaling back the scenes from her point of view.

Of course, the outline thus created changes once I start writing, but I track those changes, too. Then, when I’m done, I compare what I did with what I meant to do, and see where the changes improve the manuscript and where they were the products of too much coffee and a bad dream the night before.

Most of the above can be done with any spreadsheet program, or a table if you have the patience for formatting. I prefer Scrivener because it’s simple and I have to change programs far less, but if you have something that can do all of this, more power to you.

So that’s my system. What do you do to outline?

*Heeeeeeey, Mr. Butler.

**Also less hand cramps.