Monday Challenge: Sort Of

The looks are pretty aggressive. Both are pet ...

Actually, my head is less Socratic and more dog fight. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brain: Hey, what the ass, man? It’s Monday.

Me: I’m aware.

Brain: Then where’s the Monday Challenge, motherfucker? Not sure if you’re aware of this or not, but that comes out on Mondays.

Me: Yes, I—

Brain: It’s right there in the name and everything.

Me: Shut up for five fucking seconds, will you? I know you’ve been like a coked out jackrabbit* the last few days, but try to rein it in.

Brain: Sorry.

Me: It’s all righ—


Me:…Well aware of that. Anyway, the reason we’re having this uneasy Socratic dialogue—

Brain: Uneasy what-now?

Me: Go read some philosophy. The reason we’re talking is because I’m changing it up a little this week. It’s December now, which means that a fair chunk of people have finished NaNoWriMo. Some of them completed the 50,000 words, and some didn’t, but the fact remains that there’s a shit-ton of tired, burned out writers out there.

Brain: So your solution is to give them a break? That doesn’t sound like you. Hand-holding: not your go-to move.

Me: Christmas is coming. I’m trying to be nicer.

Brain: That also doesn’t sound like you.

Me: Fuck off. Look, while I don’t go with the soft and fuzzy approach, I know that there are times when bashing your way through a brick wall with your forehead will only give you a headache instead of the armoured head-carapace that writers need.

Brain: I have noticed less headaches. Nice carapace, by the way.

Me: Thank you. Burn out is a real thing. Trust me, I know. And it’ll keep you out of the game.

Brain: So you’re just going to let them off so easy? Dude, I don’t even know you anymore.

Me: Didn’t say that. Burn out comes from focusing on one thing for too damn long. So, for this week, I’m going to so suggest the following for the Monday Challenge: change it up. Work on something new. Try something new. Shift your focus a little, even if it’s just for a day. Write a short story, a blog post, a poem. Whatever you didn’t do during November. Even if you didn’t do NaNoWriMo, there’s likely something that you’ve been working on for a while. It’s time to take a break. Come back to the Big Fucking Deal Project tomorrow.** For today, take your foot off the gas a little and stretch your brain.

Brain: I don’t know if I like the sound of that.

Me: You don’t need stretching. Now back to work.

*Seriously, I don’t know what’s up. Can’t even blame it on the coffee; I’ve been waking up like this. And getting the nagging impression I should run five kilometres right fucking now.
**And make sure you do, especially if it’s not done. This is a break, not a vacation.

Sir, You’ve Had Enough: Knowing When You’re Done

whiskers bindle

Later, bitches. (Photo credit: chatblanc1)

1. You’ve Run Out Of Things. You’ve reached the end of the story. Typed ‘The End’ and everything. Of course, this only works if you’re the type to write chronologically. If you’ve been jumping around the storyline like a coked-out pole vaulter, then you might have to go back and take a look at what you’ve done. Did you miss the entirety of Act Two? Did your main character’s mother fall into a plot hole halfway through and never reappear? Are there enough ninjas?
But if you’ve managed to hack your bloody way to the end of the plot, then you’re done. At least, you’re one form of done. You’ve got a draft which will need the tender razor blade of editing eventually. But, still, done. Take a lap and hit the showers.

2. The Deadline Has Arrived. It’s called a deadline for a reason. Whether you’re writing for an anthology that has a cut-off date or working NaNoWriMo, there comes a time when the decision about doneness is out of your hands. Sometimes there are real world reasons to stick a fork in it.
That being said, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to stop. Every single one of my NaNo projects ran more than 50,000 words. I just kept going after I crossed that imaginary finish line. Often it took me until January to finish up a first draft. If your novel isn’t finished—if you haven’t met number one up there—then, while you may be ‘done’, you shouldn’t stop. Keep going until you get a complete draft.

3. You Just Keep Picking At It. More for complete stories than partials, this is the disease where you just can’t stop second-guessing yourself. It’ll never be over if you keep picking at it. Just one more edit. One more pass. Maybe you should change ‘table’ to ‘horizontal food platform’ throughout. And that guy’s name. And that one scene could use 300% more robots.
This is a slippery slope. Yes, you need to make changes. Yes, you’ll probably do more than one edit. But there comes a time when you’re not adding anything of value. At that time, say ‘fuck it’ and let it go. Incidentally, this is a great time to look at submitting it somewhere. Hard to keep picking at it when it’s out in the world, bindle over its shoulder, hunting its fellow stories for sport. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

4. You Hate The Sight Of It. Much like certain people, too much time with your story can breed contempt. No, not contempt, the other thing…oh, yes, bowel-knotting hate. That.
You can burn out on your own stories. If you feel like this—consistently, I mean; the occasional day where you want to set it on fire is fine—then it’s a good sign you’ve been bashing your head against that particular brick wall for too long. Take a break. Work on something else. Come back to it when you can look at it more objectively. Or at least without wanting to spit acid at your computer screen.*

*I wish I could do this. Though not just at computer screens. I’d never have to hack the ice off my front walk again.

Monday Challenge: The Home Stretch

Sumo Wrestler Asashōryū fighting against Kotos...

Come at me, bro. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is it: the last week of NaNoWriMo. Participants, how’s your sanity holding together? Spectators, how’s the rubber necking? I’ve seen some truly nuclear meltdowns online so far, though not in real life. I’ve learned to keep my distance from NaNo-nauts when I’m not taking part.* I’m always afraid they’re going to think I have story ideas I’m not using and try to gnaw them from my brain. And I like my brain whole and ungnawed upon.

Whether you’re doing NaNo or not, this is the home stretch for the year as well. Time is sliding downhill with the speed and majestic unstoppability of a greased-up sumo wrestler on a bobsled track. We cannot avoid it; best we can do is hop on and enjoy the ride.

And maybe finish some stuff up.

This bitingly cold Monday morning, for your writing challenge, I want to hear about something that is winding down. Will it coast to a controlled finish, or will it spend everything in one last wild burst of energy before careening into a wall? Will it reach the finish line, or will it fall short? No do-overs, no time to go back. Whatever this is, it is. It’s nearly over.

And when the curtain goes down, what comes next?

*Though I did have one guy follow me around at the gym so he could explain the intricacies of his tragic science fiction story.** Short version: everybody dies. In space.
**Don’t be that guy.

Here Be Dragons: The 140,000 Word Outline

English: St George's Hall, Liverpool Stained g...

Shown: Me figuring out the outline for the second draft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, those of you who’ve been here a while—or read through some of the archives—know that my Big Project, the one that’s taking up nearly all of my writing time at the moment, is the re-write of The Patchwork King. PWK* was last year’s NaNoWriMo project. You can read about the gradual descent of my sanity level here, and here, and here. I finished NaNo by the nineteenth, but that wasn’t the end. I went all the way to the end of the first draft, which took me to the second week of January. It ended up being 140,000 words or thereabouts. Printed off, it’s a phonebook.**

After I was done, I shoved it in a metaphorical drawer on my hard drive and let it sit. I did other stuff, and came back to it  a while ago. I read it over, made a lot of notes, thought about the story and the characters, generally devoted a good amount of brain run time to it. Then, when I’d finished thinking, I looked at what I had.

And that’s when I realized that what I had was a 140,000 word outline. Of stuff that doesn’t necessarily happen any more.

Now here’s the important bit: when I made that realization, I did not a) give up, b) throw away the manuscript in disgust, or c) drink heavily.*** Why not? After all, hadn’t I just wasted months of my life on a manuscript that was now worthless?

Of fucking course not.****

Pay close attention, children, because here’s the magic: that flawed, doomed manuscript was exactly what I needed. It is a map. With all the pitfalls and dead ends marked out and Here Be Fucking Dragons scrawled in the margins.

With this, I can rewrite. With this, I have something to fix. As long as my enthusiasm for the story holds. And it does. I know this one will be good. All it needs is work. Hard work, admittedly, but if you’re going to shy away from that you might as well not write at all.

So, those of you who are NaNo-ing along, or those of you who have a damaged manuscript on your hands, stand fast and fear not. You can fix this. Just remember that the end of the first draft is not necessarily the end of the project.

*Acronyms are cool. Shut up.
**And the phonebook of a proper city, too, not the mini-version we get out here in the boonies.
***Only lightly.
****Knowing where to add the swear word properly in any phrase is an advanced writer skill.

Don’t Look Back: A Retrospective of My First Drafts

don't look back.

Don’t look back. Something might be gaining. (Photo credit: mariaguimarães)

It is fall of 2012, and I am writing.

The new novel—the good one, the exciting one, the one I’ve been waking up at night to think about—is being written, and for these short weeks or months or however long it takes, I’ve caught lightning in a bottle. It doesn’t like being caught. It fights me. It turns back on the hands that hold it. It hurts, sometimes. But I’m getting it done. And the good days are so good. I’m going to win NaNoWriNo, but that doesn’t matter anymore because this is about the story. NaNo is just a bonus, a background note, a way to stay connected to other people. I know this draft isn’t perfect, isn’t even close, but that doesn’t matter, because right now I’m fucking flying. I remember all the things I learned from the last time…

…Which was 2011. I’m grinding my way through this messed up story, fighting it every step of the way. I know I’m being horrible to other people, know that I’ll pay for this hell-bent run later, but right now I need this. I need to go through the fire. The victories here are hard ones, and I make a lot of mistakes. But I’m resigned to that. Hell, at this point, I welcome it. I’ve made mistakes before.

Like 2009. The corpse of the half-finished novel falls dead from my word processor and I feel like a murderer. Or, worse, a failure. The mistakes I made this time around will keep me from writing long fiction for almost two years. I went too fast, I got caught up in the panic of the word count and competition instead of in the story. I finished NaNoWriMo, but crippled the story to do it, and I know in my heart that it’s broken beyond repair. In later months, I’ll return to the story time and time again, a killer returning to the scene of the crime, trying to put it right. Eventually, I have to drag it out back and put a final bullet in its head before burying it deep, putting us both our of our misery. I almost give up entirely, because this isn’t at all like….

2008, and I can totally fucking do this. I did it last year, didn’t I? And that was just a trial run. All right, the novel before that one was hard, but that’s understandable, because I was just learning. Now I know how to do this. Funny, people always said it took fucking years to figure out how to write a novel, but here I am and I feel like I know everything. Not like that kid last year…

…In 2007. I’ve done this before—sort of—but not like this. Not in such a short period of time. Maybe it will hurt my writing. Or maybe it will help. I have no way of knowing. Fed up with my own insecurity, I start to write anyway. Whatever happens will happen. I’ll be fine, I tell myself. After all, you made it through the first one.

Which was only six months before. For the first time in too many years, I have time to write, and I’m doing nothing. Just staring at the blank screen, waiting for something to happen. Too many questions—can I do it? Will I be good at it? Will I fail?—and absolutely no fucking answers. The screen doesn’t give me any, and I’m too goddamned inexperienced to know on my own. I don’t know what to do. I’m scared of failing, scared more of doing nothing at all.

But the universe hates a coward. I take a deep breath that calms me not at all, reach for the keys, and—hesitantly, badly, but getting better—start to write.

Monday Challenge: I’m Being Followed

Deutsch: Rattenfängerauszug Hameln Tag der Nie...

My hat is better than this, but if you guys want to dress up as rats, I’m not going to stop you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hello, new followers!* Welcome to the Bare Knuckle Army. Don’t worry, it doesn’t require any real service, though you will be receiving a complementary tinfoil hat in the mail so I can read your thoughts.**

The concept of a follower is an odd one. I picture a bunch of people hanging out in my living room while I write this: sitting on the couch, petting the cats, occasionally getting up to peruse my bookshelves. That one guy in the corner talking to himself. There is the nagging sensation that I should put out snacks.

Or I imagine a huge trail of people following me, in my comic book t-shirts and ripped up jeans, over a mountain range. Like a fucked up Pied Piper.*** We’re all heading to the same place: story land. But on the way there’s an awful lot of monsters. Some of them will come with us, too.

Well, I can’t promise I won’t lead you astray, but at least the trip will be an interesting one.

Down to brass tacks then: you’re here for a reason. Those of you new to this, every Monday I put up a writing challenge to get your week started off right. Sometimes it’s an idea, or a character exercise. Sometimes it’s whatever weird shit I find floating around in my brain when I stagger out of bed on Monday morning and have to remember how to act like a Qualified Adult. Give it a try and see what happens. And if there are any brave souls out there who would like to post their results in the comments, I’d love to read them. And I salute you.

In honour of all of you today, you Monday Challenge is this: write about someone being followed. Write from the point of view of the follower or the followed; write is as paranoid or as silly as you like.

And stay close. We’ve got a long way to go yet.

*Every time I get a new follower, I turn around, half expecting to see someone lurking behind the lamp in the corner. Watching. Waiting.
**It is very stylish, though. Tell your friends.
***Pied Piper Me also has a very stylish hat.

We Can’t Stop Here, This Is Plot Twist Country: Getting Past The Middle

Time to call roadside assistance.

Okay, you’ve made it this far: you’re in the middle of your project. Pause for a moment. High fives and congratulatory ass grabs all around.


You feel it: something is going wrong. You’re losing steam. You’re slowing down. Sweet Velociraptor Jesus, you’re losing interest.

Relax. You’ve just reached the Pit*. This is where creativity goes to die. This is where a lot of stories sink into the muck, never to be heard from again. If you look under your feet, you’ll see the bones of other writers. Here’s where they fell. Don’t be one of them.

The thing is, most advice about the rough patches in the middle of stories is about fixing something in the story. But that’s not always the problem. The problem, dear reader, is also you. You’ve lost confidence. And a writer without confidence gets lost very fucking quickly.

So, here they are, my best tips for staying motivated in the middle of a story when all you want to do is give up.

1) It Happens To A Lot Of Guys. It’s true. It does. If you need proof, have a look over here. That’s Neil Gaiman’s essay on the point of giving up. Those of you who can’t be arsed to click over, I’ll summarize: every book he’s written has been beset by this particular point, where nothing feels like it’s going right. If he can manage to get through it, so can you.

2) Re-Evaluate. Sometimes you’re not stuck, you’re just lost. Did you take a wrong plot turn a while back? Have you run out of road? Go back and have a look. Maybe the way you were supposed to go will be clearer now. Maybe you shouldn’t have gone straight through to Boringville; the left at the corner of Plot Twist Alley and Some Really Fucked Up Shit Boulevard is a better route.

3) Tinker With Your Brainmeats. We humans may be pretty good at stopping, but we are absolutely balls at figuring out why. But you are no longer just a human; you are a writer, and that means you don’t get the excuse of not figuring it out.
So, why are you tempted to give up? Are you bored? Do you not know what happens next? Do you need to spend more time with the characters to figure out what the hell they want so you can prevent them from getting it? Or is it just hard? If it’s the last one, then move on to the next item on this list.

4) Suck It Up. Expecting something nicer? Buddy, if you’re looking for hand-holding, then you are in the wrong fucking place. Here’s the bottom line: sometimes things feel like shit. Sometimes writing is hard. And it’s not even hard hard, like being a coal miner or a front-line soldier. It’s just kinda hard.

If you’re one of those people who is staring at the screen and sighing wistfully an awful lot, then maybe you should take half the time you’re devoting to complaining and do something else with it. Like writing. Complaining is not useful unless it leads to a solution. So, the next time you find yourself whining about how hard this is, try to think of a solution. Fix the problem and move on. Look at number one up there. This happens to everyone. It’s part of the deal. So either fix it or shut up, because the rest of us are dealing and we are getting real tired of your shit.

Now move on. Fight the Pit, or at least go down swinging.

*Also what my sister-in-law calls her home office. I haven’t checked it for bones, but I suppose there could be some.

Writing When Extremely Fucking Busy: A Guide

Dream Police

The Dream Police are here to help you manage your time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s get this out of the way: we are all Busy Adults With Many Important Things To Do. I get it. But some times are busier than others. Like the soap-box racer run from now until Christmas.

So, how do you fit the writing in? Here’s how.

1) Bring Down The Walls. Put as few barriers between yourself and writing as possible. I used to be bad for this. I never said I could only write in the morning, but if the morning went by and I hadn’t written, I was way more likely to say ‘fuck it’ until the next morning. Ditto for the computer: if I was AFK*, I’d likely not do anything. This is writer fetishism**, and it kills books.
Don’t make it so that you have to be using a certain computer, notebook, desk, system, or pen. Don’t make it so that you can only write at a certain time, a particular day, one specific location. Carry a notepad and pen for times when you’re out of the house. Learn to love the note function on your smart phone. As the ideas occur to you, jot them down. Make notes or scribble out full sentences on cocktail napkins. Don’t save it for later; do it now.

2) Hello Sunrise. Get up earlier. You’ll expand your day by more than that extra hour. If you’re like me, getting up early means I had to make a special effort. If I get up with the dawn—or before it, as has happened on occasion—I’m going to make damn sure that shit gets done. Otherwise, why the fuck did I bother to get up at all? Besides, most people are either still asleep or getting ready for the day, so the chance on interruptions is smaller. By the time the rest of the world is firing on all cylinders, you’ve already powered through the day’s writing and half your to-do list.

3) Crank it To Eleven. But first get a good pair of headphones. I’m writing this on the foldout couch in my sister-in-law’s basement while the washing machine is cranking, the weather outside is raging, my brother-in-law is working on the phone in the next room, and the rest of the family is wandering around upstairs and talking. It’s not quiet, is my point. And it is very easy to get distracted. So I have headphones, and I listen to Cheap Trick and Skid Row while finishing up my blog post.
Also, a very key point is that headphones serve as a visual cue for those around you that you are fucking busy and do not welcome conversation at this time. It’s the real world equivalent of being AFK or changing the Skype icon to ‘UNAVAILABLE MOTHERFUCKER, CAN YOU NOT READ?’*** I love talking to people, but sometimes you’ve just got to shut it out for a little bit in order to get shit done. Then you can go back to being a social human.

4) Say The Dirty Word. Not ‘fuck’, or any of the others that speckle this blog. And my conversation, for that matter. Learn to say ‘no’. No, I can’t take care of that for you. No, I will not be going there. No, do it yourself and go away.
The world is full of time vampires. Most of them do it not out of malice, but out of thoughtlessness. But the result of the same: your precious time will slip through your fingers. Unless you learn to say no to the constant demands for it.
So learn that word, you little badgers. Use it well. Because if you want the time to do this, you have to take it.

*Away From Keyboard, for those who don’t spend a lot of time online.
**In the sense of imbuing an object or ceremony with power, not in the sense of sexual preference. Though the two concepts are related, if your ever want to do some reading in anthropology.
***They also serve this function well while flying. I don’t love talking on planes. I just want to sit back, crank some good tunes, and enjoy the miracle that is human flight.

Monday Challenge: The Cure For Writer’s Block

I got your cure right here, motherfucker.

Hello. Come on in. I know why you’re here. I’d offer you a drink, but we both know that’s not going to help.

No, you’re here because you have a problem. It’s all right. You don’t have to tell me. I can see it in your face.

And I can see it because I’ve been there. Every writer has. You’re writing a story, but you have a huge fucking problem: you don’t know what happens next.

It’s okay. It happens to the best of us.

Maybe you should have that drink now.

The good news, though, is that I can help. Well, I say I can help. Really you can help yourself. But I know a few things to get you back on track.

You’ve got a character, right? Or maybe more than one, but there’s someone who is the focus of whatever you’re writing. They’re the centre of this scene, chapter, whatever. They’re there, in the situation. They’re dealing with sexual encounters, arguing families, alien invasions, magic gone wrong. They’re getting it done.

Tell me: if you were to ask them, what do you think they’d tell you is the worst possible thing that could ever happen right now?

That’s what you should write next.

It sounds cruel, but…no, there’s no excuse, it is cruel. But that’s the nature of fiction. If you really loved your characters, you want them to be happy all the time, and then you’d have no story. Because the centre of story is conflict. If there’s nothing wrong, then there’s no story. Or not one that anyone with a fucking pulse is interested in reading.

So, if you want to know what happens next, just ask your characters. Ask them about their fears, their insecurities, their worst nightmares. It might not be exactly what you need—you might have to tweak things a little—but it will get things moving again. Guaranteed.

Popcorn and Rubber-Necking: NaNoWriMo Survival Guide For Spectators

Buckley and Eddie.

Dude, we should totally order a pizza and watch writers flip out. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As promised, part two of my Survival Guide to NaNoWriMo. Part One, for Participants, is over here. This time, pull up a sideline chair and get the popcorn. Here’s how to make it through the month when it seems like everyone around you is obsessed with plot bunnies and word counts.

1) Breathe. Don’t get caught up in the hype/panic. That shit is contagious. Hang around enough stressed out people and you’ll feel stressed even if you’re not doing anything. Avoid this bullshit—since stress is probably half the goddamn reason you’re not doing NaNo to begin with—and remember to take a deep breath. Or get a drink. Both help.

2) Do Other Shit. Not doing NaNo? This looks like a great time to reorganize your office. Or get a head start on your holiday shopping. Or finally make some headway on the ninja-training-for-dogs program. Bonus points: you get to brag about the stuff you’re getting done to your word-count-obsessed friends.

3) But Don’t Neglect Your Writing. You don’t have to write a novel, but that doesn’t mean you get a free pass. My favourite: using November to really nail down the outline for my next big project. Or catching up on my submissions. Continue to work on something, just to keep your hand in. Besides, it builds good habits for when the Great Time Suck, also known as the holiday season, strikes.

4) Enjoy the Show. Make some popcorn and crack open a cold one, because shit is about to go down. The autumn-chilled streets will be filled with wandering packs of word-herders, all looking for inspiration and extra words and ninja plot spackle techniques. Avoid the mobs, but enjoy the spectacle of creative madness. For extra rubber-necking points, go to the NaNo forums and eavesdrop on the freak outs.* You can even help with some, if you’ve done NaNo in the past and have the benefit of wisdom and experience. Or at least what passes for them on the internet.

5) Be Kind. Your friends are not themselves right now. It’s their Time Of The Month, if you take my meaning. They will return to the fun-loving rock-and-rollers you know and love soon, but until then, remember that they’re bat shit crazy and should only be approached with caution. And a stick. Don’t forget your Writer Poking Stick.
If you have forgotten your stick, then remember to be kind. They’re stressed and deep in the horrifying child birthing process that is required to bring a story into this world, screaming and covered in goo. Cut them a little fucking slack.
And pray for December.

*This may strike some people as voyeuristic. Sure it is. But if you don’t want to get gawked at, have your freak out somewhere that’s not a public forum.