It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good story will have days where that story turns on them, rending the skin from their face and chewing on their entrails.*
Yesterday was that day.
Today? Jury’s still out. My entrails are still scattered on the hardwood and I’ve yet to try reading the future in them.
This is the point where I suppose I should write something inspiring about how bad days make better writers, about the Artist’s Fight, about how even James Joyce struggled. Except fuck James Joyce.
Or I could do a list. People love lists. Seven Things To Do When Writing Sucks Harder Than A Closeted Varsity Athlete, maybe.
Except I don’t want to.
What I want to do is write. It is what gives my days purpose.
But I need to get this blog post done first. Not that I think any of you live and die by my words, but I made a commitment. And if there is one rule for writing, it is: finish.
So. Bad day yesterday. And if you’re here because you had a bad day, then I only have one thing to say.
Bad days happen. You can spend your time navel-gazing about whether this means you don’t have it in you to be a writer, beating your breast about the difficulty, the unfairness, the grand sweeping suckitude of it all.
Or you can get on with things.
Pick up your entrails, stuff them back in your body, and duct-tape everything together. Staple your face back on. Smile.
Because we’ve got work to do.
*I’d say “with apologies to Jane Austen”, but I’m not sorry. I might be an asshole, but I’m not going to add ‘liar’ on top of that.
The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.
The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.
The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.
The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.
The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.
The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.
The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.
The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.
Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.
Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?
For me, editing is the hardest part of writing. And it is a part of writing. It’s the part that takes whatever you produced during the other part of writing and makes it suck less.
But editing hurts. It kicks your ego right in the fun bits. And it can be really, really fucking frustrating.
A thought: if writing was video games, first drafts would be like fighting games: AAAAHHHHH HIT THAT GUY NO NOT HIM THE OTHER GUY WHAT’S HAPPENING BUTTON MASH BUTTON MASH. You’re hanging on for dear life, just trying to make it to the end of the round.
Whereas editing is a puzzle game: okay, if I move this block, that door opens. But if that door opens, then that torch goes out, and I need the torch to see the block, so I need to find another torch or another block…or maybe a lever? Maybe…
…followed by ninety minutes of moving things around and then rage-quitting to do literally anything else.
Drafting is flying high; editing is patiently grinding away on the ground. But you need both, and of the two, editing is usually the one that gets neglected.
And you know what happens then?
You produce shit, that’s what.
This is the problem with bad self-published works. No one edited them, so none of the rough edges have been worn off. It’s like the author crapped out a first draft and, instead of hitting ‘save’, hit ‘publish’ instead.
Which is a shame, because I’ve read some fantastic self-published works. But they’re surrounded by festering clumps of toilet-bowl manuscripts. And those unedited crap-piles make it harder for people to take self-published works seriously.
To shamelessly switch similes, editing is like vaccination: yeah, it hurts a bit, but if you don’t do it you’ll get rubella.
If you don’t edit your stuff, you’re letting your story be that unvaccinated kid wandering around Disneyland: they’re not as strong as they could be and you’re compromising the effectiveness of everyone else’s work.
So, for the love of whatever Invisible Beard In The Sky you believe in, edit your work.
And vaccinate your kids.
1. Write down what happened. In your current draft, anyway. Simple sentences, scene by scene. Cover everything. Everything important. Hint: if you leave it out of your outline, it’s probably something you should think about cutting, because you couldn’t be arsed to write one goddamn sentence about it.
2. Code them. If you’re using Scrivener or Trello or some other index card maker thing, then mark the scenes somehow to indicate different metrics. I mark plots/subplots and viewpoint character. Then I lay them all out in order and see how they stack up. Does one of the subplots disappear, only to reappear at the end? Or never reappear at all? Am I spending more time inside a secondary character’s head than I am inside the main character’s? Cast the augury of the cards. They will reveal your weakness, through which your enemies may strike at thee.
3. Patch and fill and cut. Move stuff around, change viewpoint characters, create some scenes that resolve that subplot…or cut it altogether. Make it count or flush it.
4. Write down what should have happened. New set of cards, writing down what needs to happen now that you’ve changed fucking everything. This is the worst. It’s okay. We’re almost done.
5. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Mark up your new cards with pacing elements: action, exposition, character revelation. Does the flow work now that you’ve added in things? If not, get more cards. Oh god, more cards. Keep working at it until it flows like sweet, sweet bourbon. Which reminds me: you might need some bourbon.
6. Mark the scenes as Stop, Go, and Slow The Hell Down. I use the Label function to turn my cards green, red, and yellow. Stop is a new scene entirely. Go is a scene that can be taken 90% verbatim from the old draft. Slow The Hell Down is a scene that needs to be tinkered with in order to fit. Try not to freak out over the amount of red and yellow cards.*
7. Begin. Again. This time with a plan.
*For example, I sat down with a huge coffee at the local caffeine pusher and worked my way through all these bloody cards and here’s my breakdown: 13% Stop, 55% Go, 32% Slow The Hell Down.
A question today, for all you writers and readers: how far down the dark road can a character go before they’re completely irredeemable?
It comes up because I’m doing some rewrites, and, man, some of them involve a particular character going to a bad place. I think it’s necessary, but this character, who is already not a great person, is going to do some stuff which might make them irredeemable to readers.
Which could be a problem, since I intend to redeem them. Eventually. You know, after they’ve suffered for a bit.
Writers really are such assholes.
Note that being irredeemable is not the same as not liking a character. I might dislike a character for plenty of reasons, including but not limited to whining, passivity, entitlement, meaningless brooding, and just being a little shit. For a character to cross into irreversible damnation, they have to commit a pretty big sin, and most of the characters I dislike don’t think that big.
My line, such as it is, is fairly simple: in order for a character to be morally dead to me, they have to punch down. In other words, they have to choose to hurt someone who is weaker than them or unable to strike back and know it. Strike the helpless, abuse an animal, verbally cut someone you know is already hurting just because you can…choose to do those things when you damn well know better and you are on thin ice, friend. Do it twice and you are on thin ice while wearing a seal costume with a big hungry polar bearheading your way.
These metaphors got really Canadian all of a sudden.
Where’s your line, dear reader? What thing can a character do to make them just the worst? Or do you think everyone, from the most minor sinner to the Darkest of Dark Lords, can come back to the side of the angels? Tell me your thoughts.
In the meantime, I’m going to go ruin this character’s life. Again.
1. Fresh Fruit. “Nature’s candy”, as natural food enthusiasts will tell you when you ask, and even if you don’t. Pros: Infinite variety, tastes good, pretty colours, actually fucking good for you. Cons: sticky juice hands, obnoxious crunching, equally obnoxious sense of superiority to those inhaling Cheetos around you.
Rating: 3/5 Hungry Rats
2. Vending Machine “Cookie”. This isn’t a real cookie. Real cookies don’t hang out in a metal box waiting for your willpower to drop at 3 pm. At best, it’s sugar glued together with vegetable oil and boiled hooves. At worst, it’s already home to a cockroach which you will discover only when it’s half a cockroach. Pros: Sugary, quick energy, can be dipped in coffee, comfort food if your idea of comfort is being kicked in the lower intestine twenty minutes from now. Cons: expensive, tastes like regret and cardboard.
Rating: 1/5 Hungry Rats
3. Trail Mix. Suitable even if the closest you’ve ever been to hiking is that time you got an allergic reaction watching Naked and Afraid. Sweet, salty, both…there’s a mix for everyone. Or you can just throw a bunch of chocolate chips and almonds in a bowl and go to town. Pros: Tasty as fuck, customizable, probably not deep fried. Cons:People with allergies will stab you in the neck; also, everyone’s got that friend who picks out the stuff they like and leaves everything else, which clearly violates the social contract.
Rating: 4/5 Hungry Rats
4. Chips. Like cocaine to us salt addicts. Pros: Available fucking everywhere*, cool regional varieties, enough salt to de-ice a road. Cons: Salt bloat, that asshole who “just wants one” and then takes a handful.
Rating: 4/5 Hungry Rats, minus 1 for having to go up a belt notch.
5. Coffee. As a starving student I learned the age-old truth: with enough cream and sugar, this can be a meal. These days I drink it black because I lost my taste for sweets. Plus I’m lactose intolerant and soy milk is a crime against nature.** Pros: Keeps you awake, cool mugs, your only friend on lonely nights when your face is lit by the neon glow of your laptop screen and you can pretend you’re in a noir movie. Cons: NONE DON’T YOU DARE SAY ANYTHING BAD ABOUT MY BELOVED I WILL FUCKING CUT YOU.
Rating: 11/5 Hungry Rats SHUT UP.
*Except the graduate pub of my old university, which banned unhealthy snacks but still served beer. I dunno, man, my eight pint while I drank away my thesis stress just didn’t go down right with celery sticks.
**Soy milk tastes like drinking smugness and dishwater.
You are broken.
That’s okay. So am I. So is, I assume, everyone else reading this, because if you’re of the age where you think you’ve got a story to tell, then you’ve probably got a few cracks. Whether you know it or not.
Sometimes they’re hairline fractures, hardly big enough to see, but definitely big enough to feel. Sometimes they’re fissures wide enough to let the darkness in until it seems like the darkness is all there ever was and ever will be.
That’s okay, too.
Because if you’re trying to tell a story–whether it’s with words or pictures or chords or steps–then all those broken pieces are where it starts.
We want to hide those pieces. If life teaches a lesson, it’s to keep that shit to yourself. No one wants to see that. No one else feels this way. Fuck you, you think that’s a problem, there are people starving to death, you entitled first world asshole.
But telling stories is sharing, and not in the kindergarten sharing-is-caring way. Sharing is ripping yourself open and examining what falls out of the cracks, even if it’s bloody. Especially if it’s bloody.
We’re afraid of what other people will think about it, but that shit is fuel and vehicle, N2O4/UDMH and rocket, guzzoline and War Rig all in one. And everyone’s got their own. We all come equipped to roll, but most of us never make it out of the station and into the desert.
People ask writers where their ideas come from. It’s there. The cracks and the stuff in between. The only question is: what will you do with it? Will you put all those broken parts on display? Will you drag up the stuff that’s too personal, too sharp, too real, and use it? Because if you do, you’ll tell a story that’s more you than anything else. The story only you could tell. The only one that’s worth telling.
So write about it. Write about shitty relationships and broken homes. Write about being ten years into a life you chose and not being able to sleep because what if you chose wrong? Write about struggling and falling down and not knowing if you want to get up again. Write about escaping, about fighting, about settling, about watching the clock roll over to midnight and realizing that another day is over and you didn’t do anything that you wanted with it. Write about the stuff you left behind and the stuff you carry with you into the desert.
You think no one want to hear that? Fuck you. The only story no one wants to read is “once upon a time everything was fine.”
And we don’t want that because we’re all just as broken as you.
So tell that story. And don’t worry about the judgement. Underneath we’re all held together with duct tape and rusty staples.
1. A scribble pad. For all those ideas that need a place to live.
2. Something you enjoy writing with. I got my first fountain pen last year, and I heart it so hard. Here she is.
Aside from being beautiful and a genuine pleasure to hold, I’ve found that it actually helped my hand pain. Less pressure to write = less pain for me. And for someone who always does their best thinking in a for-real notebook, that’s a big deal.
3. Something nice to look at. A window. Some good pictures. I have a framed blueprint of the arc reactor from Iron Man. See?
Oh, and some pictures of people or something. I don’t know who those people are. I’m definitely not married to one of them.
Dean: What the hell, Sammy?
Sam: I don’t know!
Nightmare Moon: EVERYPONY SHALL BOW TO ME.
Dean: Screw this, let’s just kill it.
5. Motivational Poster.
Or cross stitch. As the case may be.
6. Headphones. Very necessary equipment. Whether I’m listening to heavy metal, Taylor Swift, or stereoscopic thunderstorms, I don’t want to be able to hear my neighbour’s reciprocating saw while I’m working. Or his kids. They’re both loud.
7. Stress Relievers.
A d20 because I’m a nerd. Brass knuckles because I’m a nerd who can kick your ass.
8. Breath Freshener. No one likes your six-cups-of-coffee-and-two-cigarettes breath, man. No one. Not even the cat, and he licks his own butthole.
9. Places for all your shit. Corral that crap lest your desk disappear beneath a thousand thousand pen caps and paper clips.
If you avoid it, it’s not a workspace; it’s just a place you store crap you don’t use. And that’s what the pit in the basement is for.
I’m picking my way through my manuscript right now, piece by excruciating piece. And, as that last sentence might tell you, it’s not fun. Few things in writing are less fun than looking through your own stuff for every fucking thing that’s wrong with it. Unless, you know, you don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. In that case, one, yes there is, and two, you’re in for a rude awakening when you ask for feedback, cupcake.
Sometimes the only way to get through this crap is to set goals. Make a chart. Figure out how much you need to get done in order to reach the end, and then divide that by the number of working days. I can only edit for a max of about two hours in one go before my brain melts out of my ears, so 110,000 words at two hours a day is…
A long time.
Well, not that long.
Other things probably take longer.
Like building a house. Or learning a second language. Conquering Australia.*
But, still, in writer terms, this is taking a while.
And it should. Finishing it too fast would mean I rushed through it, which means there’s still problems I didn’t find.
This way, a piece at a time, I can get…well, not all of them. But most of them. Plot holes are like ants, or the mystery pens: I don’t know where they come from, but if I see one, guaranteed there are a thousand more of the fuckers hiding nearby.
My job, on this second edit, is to expose their places, mark the locations, and come back later with fire and poison. Editing as I go leaves me with a tangled mess, as the plot holes scurry back into their nests because I’m too busy remembering what I changed here to find what I should change there. I need to take my time and get this right, or at least as right as I can.
So, when you’re tearing through your story, making it up for editing, remember: go only as fast as you can and still do a good fucking job. Otherwise it’s more work later, and one more chance that you’ll either fuck it up or get frustrated and give up.
Edit first; fire later. Say it to yourself.
I’m almost to the fire. So close.
But not yet. First…first I’ve got a lot more of these days to get through.
* I kid, Australia. We’re cool.