Be Your Own Sous Chef (or: Screw You, Burnout)

Ever have that experience where you just finished a project and you sit down to start another piece and … there’s nothing in there? There are no characters playing around in the back of your mind. No images floating around in your heart. No worlds waiting for you play in. Or maybe there is some small thing, but when you go to write about it, you realize that it’s barely a wisp of a notion, and no matter how much you brain storm or free write, it refuses to develop into anything serious?

Yeah. That’s burnout.

Frida Kahlo Diary Pages

A page from Frida Kahlo’s sketchbook, which included preliminary sketches, doodles, tests of ink, and personal thoughts.

I’ve suffered from more than my fair share of burnouts. I tend to write in jags, whipping out three or four stories in a short period of time and then finding myself hollowed out and brain dead. I also get it when I’ve finished a serious rewrite–there’s nothing like working my butt off to solve a billion plot problems to leave me a blithering idiot. But I think I might have burnout licked these days–which is a good thing, since writing is now  my primary source of income.

Here’s the secret about burnout: you’re not broken. You’re not blocked. There’s nothing wrong with you. Burnout is what your brain gets when you’ve been really focused on one particular creative activity and when you get done, your brain is locked in that gear. You feel hollowed out and worthless, but you’re not. It’s just that your inner spotlight is set to one particular stretch of the mental stage, and now that you’ve finished that piece of work, there’s nothing on the stage anymore.

Most advice about getting your creativity stoked up after an experience like this talks about a process people call “filling the well.” The idea is that you’ve tapped out your ideas and that you need to rest and refill the pot of ideas brewing inside you. It’s a metaphor that makes sense because you feel hollow when you’re in this situation. The thought that resting and playing around with other forms of art and reading books you love can fix you? That’s a wonderfully comforting thought. But the problem with filling the well this way is that it can take a much longer time than you’d really like it to take. I need to get creative quickly if I’m going to make a living doing this!

Luckily, I found a trick to recover faster. See, when your brain is being creative, it’s taking the material of the world and your experience and running it through a kind of blender.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product. if you see a finger, it’s not recognizable as a human one. and that’s part of what makes Neil Gaiman (capital N and G) work. and, i’d argue, my choice to dial my art-blender down from a 5 to a 2 or 3 over the past few years, as i write more and more “direct” songs…i don’t know, it may be part of what i’ve needed to do to survive as an artist (or more likely, as a human).

we do these things instinctively, i think.

- Amanda Palmer, blog

But for most of us, we’re not running the blender all the time. And between smoothie orders, we spend a lot of time stocking up on ingredients and filling our pantry (or “filling the well”), but we’re not being our own sous-chefs. We’re not doing actively anything to get the ingredients ready for our smoothie, so when it’s time to cook, there’s an overwhelming sense of THERE’S NOTHING TO EAT! DISASTER! QUICK! SOMEBODY ORDER A PIZZA!

So if you’re like me, when you meet someone who’s always ready to whip up a delicious meal–or someone who’s always painting or writing or creating some wonderful thing–it’s awe-inspiring. But these people, whether they’re creative business-people like Martha Stewart or in-demand movie makers like Guillermo del Toro, aren’t inhuman creator-machines. They’re ready to go because they’re their own darn sous chef. They take time to actively engage with their experiences so they’re easily available for art.

Basically: They are working all the time. Just on stuff YOU CAN’T SEE. They’re making ingredients!

If you’ve ever taken an art class, your teacher probably told you that keeping a sketchbook would help your skills up and help you work out ideas before you ever need them. If you wrote a senior thesis in college, you probably spent a lot of time reading and making notes and processing texts before you finally found the perfect combination of ideas to use in your final product. You had to prepare your ingredients before you started cooking with them.

Del Toro Sketchbook & Cover of book

Cover and pages from CABINET OF CURIOSITIES, a book exploring Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbooks and collections. (From Mighty Mega.com)

Well, I’m finally keeping a notebook. I’m spending a little bit of time every day (or at least every few days!) working in my notebook. Not working on my particular current projects, but just thinking about images and texts and life experiences that I’m exploring right now. Instead of just reading a book and enjoying one of the characters, I’m jotting down what I liked or didn’t like about that person. I’m actively engaging my brain on a regular basis–and every time I get done working, I find I’ve come up with all kinds of new insight and engagement in the projects I have to work on. I feel inspired all the time!

I’m keeping my blender on the counter all the time, and I’m filling the fridge with lots of great ingredients that are ready to go in the blender. Just knowing that I’ve got material ready means I don’t have to ever feel worried about running out of material. And I don’t have to feel that horrible, hollow feeling of burnout (which can turn into a much darker feeling of depression if you’re not lucky).

So get out there and start thinking, and save your thoughts in a notebook. You might be amazed by how good it will make you feel.

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Enhance Your Writing Performance Now!

Sex and writing. I know, these two topics are always on our minds, right? And I’m amazed at the parallels you can find between the two. For example, suffering from writer’s block is not unlike being afflicted with sexual dysfunction. Maybe you try again and again but just can’t reach a fulfilling conclusion. Or you can’t even begin. Or the process is painful, or scary, or simply unexciting. Your self-doubt and high expectations interfere with your ability to perform. You’re frustrated by the poor quality of what you get out of it, in spite of all that you put into it. Or you get through it, and it’s just okay. You’re not satisfied with the results.

I wanted to see if we could learn something about writing (and maybe sex?) by comparing these two different issues. The comparisons are imperfect, to be sure. Also, I do want to note here that it is not my intention to diminish either problem, especially because there are physical and traumatic reasons behind why many folks struggle with enjoying sex.

1. Be cautious with comparisons. 

Maybe you’re worried that you won’t measure up in bed to your partner’s former lover, the wealthy well-endowed Swedish sex therapist with the discrete, countable abs. Or you can’t write the tactile, delicious prose of Nabokov. These comparisons can only lead to discouragement and diminished confidence. Remove that pressure. Be completely present with your partner or with your words. Don’t invite Benedict Cumberbatch or Anais Nin into these personal spaces. (I mean, unless, of course, you can.)

2. Create a safe space. 

Safe spaces are absolutely esssential for healthy sexuality. Sex should be an act of mutual consent and absolute trust, so that you and your partners have the freedom to be completely vulnerable, to take emotional risks. Remove the sense of safety, and free sexual expression and enjoyment evaporate. Your creative life should similarly be free to express itself without fear of failure, of unrealistic expectations, of harsh self-criticism. Only when you feel free to take risks and to be completely vulnerable can you reach the greatest heights, in art and sex. 

3. Be playful.

In both writing and sex, experiment and explore, take risks. You need a safe space to do this. In sex, you do this with both your own and your partner’s consent. Imagine that your writing is absolutely supportive and consenting. It’s waiting for you. So go on, cuff yourself to the your standup desk, write ridiculous blog posts comparing sex and writing, whip out new instruments and implements and feel their pleasing heft in your hand. Break out of old routines. Begin at a different place than you’re used to, stop abruptly, and immediately begin again somewhere else, somewhere completely different. Introduce new textures and rhythms, try new roles. Try things that maybe even scare you. 

It’s my hope that there’s something to be gained by comparing our biological and artistic creative urges and problems, small lessons that lead us to greater security and more satisfying experiences in each. I’d love to hear from you all if you have any observations to make along these lines.

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Lessons from Camp Revision: Split Screen

Late last year, I finished the first draft of my first novel. I celebrated. I printed it out. I re-read it and scribbled across its pages in glorious red ink. And then I ignored it for a couple months.

I sat down to start revising, earlier this year, and I felt my soul wrench. I skimmed the page and, with the calm of a impartial observer, realized that the words on the page didn’t match what I thought I had written. It wasn’t just that the draft was bad — it was — but it was broken. It was incomplete. An entire sub-plot made no sense. Inconsistencies galore. A hook that existed only in my head. Here I was thinking that I could rip through a second draft in a few weeks and be ready to send it off to beta readers and start querying agents. Instead, I needed to start over and do a rewrite.

Well, not quite a complete rewrite, but at least a redrafting.

I have to admit that it was hard not to despair. A lot of work went into that first draft, between research, world building, and actually writing it. It felt like I’d already failed. I sulked for a while, and then I made a plan.

Before raiding the castle, one should take stock of their assets. I had a solid start to the novel I wanted to write and the complete story in my head. But I needed to figure out how to revise.

I usually write longhand. Give me a notebook and fountain pen (preferably filled with purple ink) and I’ll write until my hand is ready to fall off. The thought of turning to a fresh page and rewriting everything from the beginning was, let’s just say, not good.

Editing on the computer presents its own problems. I didn’t want to trash what I’d already written; I wanted to preserve the first draft, as reference, and maybe as an to my future self on how not to first draft. I was also worried that it would end up being a line edit rather than a true revision. I needed to cut paragraphs and take whole scenes and throw them out, to write new ones in their place.

I use Scrivener, so I figured that there had to be a better workflow than retyping it all. I started clicking around and reading how other people used it, and I stumbled across split-screen view (Patrick Hester has a lovely write-up of using it here). I could have a blank chapter on one side of my screen and the first draft on the other. I was free to copy and paste, to rewrite, or to add new words. The unedited first draft remained intact in all of its glory, while creating and reshaping something new from its bones.

Progress, at last.

We all get stuck from time to time. What matters is that we figure what is holding us back, find a way around it, and finish things.

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The Bleak & The Blue: Home Decorating for Artists and Writers

Mexico_-_Musée_Frida_Kahlo_-_Entrée

This is Frida Kahlo’s backyard. On the left, you can just barely see inside through the back door, and standing just above head level is a paper mache monster, arms outstretched. Frida’s house was full of such figures, the kinds of strange folk art that inspired her the most. Biographies of the artist show pictures of her inside a home that would never make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens–it’s cluttered, sometimes tacky, and visually staggering. But it is not a space decorated for hosting chic dinner parties or relaxing after a long day in the board room. It is a space decorated and designed to stimulate an artist to create work.

For the last two years, I have had to work very hard to siphon up anything out of my well of stories. The part of me that dreams has felt … empty, as if what I had left inside it was choked with mud. I’ve gotten some good things out of there, but at the result of much harder work than I used to use, and with much more polishing and scrubbing to get it shipshape.

For the last two years, I’ve lived in a house that my husband and I haven’t actually decorated. We used to live in a larger apartment, and over the years of living there, we had filled the place with artwork. Even the ceiling was decorated–we hung dried leaves and tiny Lego sculptures on fishing line. But since we’ve been here in our house, we’ve been struggling to make decisions about decor. We wanted to get to know the house. And we wanted things to look, well,  pretty.

Last week, I finally, finally got a copy of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which I’ve had on hold at the library since December. And turning the pages, I suddenly understood why my well had gone dry. It was my house. It was the blank cream-colored walls and the bookshelves that are still filled willy-nilly from our move–the comic books mixed up with the hiking books, the treasured volumes about Picasso and Frida jammed into a bottom shelf that had been hidden by the laundry basket? Everything in this house is bland, bland, and quiet.

It’s time to redecorate. My husband and I are artists (he paints, I write), and we work at home. If we want our house to work for us, it needs to be more than a place to hang out and eat dinner–it needs to be a laboratory of ideas, an inspiration incubator.

Here is Guillermo Del Toro to share his studio, a place called “Bleak House” (or when he’s feeling silly, “The Man Cave”).

I think he’s got the right idea about how to decorate for artists. I can’t wait to get to work on my office!

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Three Things Make My Writing Life

"Keyboard and Cress" from wetwebwork on Flickr. This photos is Creative Commons licensed.

“Keyboard and Cress” from wetwebwork on Flickr. This photos is Creative Commons licensed.

There are really not a lot of absolute rules for writing, just a bunch of guidelines and advice from other writers — “this is what works for me.”

It’s up to each of us to distill all of this collegial advice and our own experiences into something that “works for me.”

So I’ve been blogging on writing long enough now, that three things have emerged as my “Guiding Principles” for the kind of writing life I want to lead.  I pass them on in the hope that maybe you’ll find something useful in my approach.

Finish 

“Finish what you write,” says Neil Gaiman, and it’s pretty great advice. You can learn a lot from writing story fragments, but you can’t go very far in your career if you don’t have finished stories to send out into the world. The first time I actually finished a story, I had this weird, pins and needles sensation. Oh wow. I did it. I still get that sensation every time.

Finish your stories, even if you think they don’t work. I’m certainly not the kind of writer who figures everything out in the first go –my stories live and die in revisions.  Sometimes I can’t even see the big picture until I have a finished draft.

Beyond that, I think of finishing a story as a bit of a level up. Links in a chain. Every story I write teaches me things that help me in the next one, and the next. Even if one of these stories ultimately gets trunked, I know I’m experimenting, learning new techniques, and building a body of work. I’m building confidence to tackle the next challenge I set for myself.

Some stories are worth sweating over, while from some stories you’ll get what you need even if you never write the ending. It’s okay. Some stories you ulimately have to abandon. But it’s better to build a habit of finishing them.

Be You

Ted Chiang was one of our “Mystery Muses” when I attended Clarion West. He urged us to write the things we wanted to read.

“What are you not getting out of what you read? It’s your job to write it.”

He also told us to cultivate a unique voice, to write the stories we liked to write — even if it means not finding popular or commercial success. That can be a tricky road to take, to be sure. But Ted’s been successful in finding his own path.

I got similar advice from no less than Ray Bradbury when I timidly told him at a book signing that I was a writer, too. I figure if it works for Ted and Ray, it should work for me!

Ask yourself, will I be happy following popular trends, writing things I think other people want to read? Or will I only be happy writing my deepest loves, hates, and fears?

There’s no right answer, except “are you writing what you love?” Keep in mind that can change from story to story, from project to project. Just because one story is a deeply psychological exploration on a theme doesn’t mean the next one can’t be an homage to all the things you loved about Star Wars. 

Be you. Write what moves you. What you love. There are readers out there waiting for a voice just like yours.

Be Kind

The internet gives us many opportunities to be a dick. As Will Wheaton says, don’t be.

We’re all a pile of opinions, biases, blindnesses, righteous anger, disagreements, social anxieties, political ideologies, loves, hates, and fears. Treat other writers, readers, fans, and colleagues with respect and kindness. Even when it’s hard. Even when they don’t deserve it. Maybe especially when they don’t. As much as possible.

But most importantly —  be kind to yourself. This is a hard sort of life. Writing is lonely. Opportunities for mingling with other writers can be scarce. We put our innermost vulnerabilities out there for all to see, so rejections can seem personal, even though they aren’t. Other writers (younger writers, older writers, good writers, bad writers, etc.) will always seem to be more successful that you feel you are. Impostor syndrome will kick in. Acknowledge that it’s hard. That you feel like you aren’t where you want to be — those feelings can help spur you to get where you want to go!

But be careful of getting too caught up on those feelings. They aren’t the whole story, and they can distract and impede sometimes more than they can help.

Finish. Be You. Be kind to others, be kind to you. It’s working so far.

 

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Hitting the trail

 

By karol m from arizona, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So my book is out. Well, it’s sort of out. If you go to the publisher, you can order the paperback edition. In about a week, you’ll be able to order the ebook. And if you look at the listing on Amazon, it’s due out April 15th. But basically, my book is leaving for its big adventure out in the world.

Did you ever play the Oregon Trail game? There’s a whole sequence at the beginning when you pick up supplies and load your wagons. There are a lot of decisions to be made. Do you choose oxen or mules? Do you buy one spare axle or two? How much ammunition do you bring along? And every choice you make, you know it’s going to affect your ability to survive along the way.

That’s how I’ve felt during this pre-release period. There’s so much to do that might help promote a book. And there are so many small things to think about! For example, my book cover wasn’t finalized when the information went to the book distributor’s catalog, so Amazon and Goodreads had a mock-up of my cover. Since I’m new to all of this, I had to figure out how to get it changed and then jump through the right hoops to make it happen. (In case you’re wondering, the number of people on Goodreads who added the book as “to-read” doubled the day it changed.) There are interviews to schedule, blog posts to beg for, and press releases to write. Planning a reading at the local bookstore was its own challenge. Thank goodness for all the good advice Mary Kowal has shared over the years, because while I may not have an idea of what I’ll wear to my reading, at least I know what pens to bring and how to choose the right selection to share.

I have no idea how far my little book will go or whether it will be successful. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won’t. I can only keep my fingers crossed that all the work I put into it will have created a good read. But I can’t waste too much energy worrying about it–I’ve got to focus on writing my next book and all the short stories I’ve promised people I would write. The pioneers knew that after they got done walking to Oregon, they’d have to build their own houses and start a farm.  I don’t feel too bad for myself.

Unless I get dysentery.

 

dysentery

 

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You’re a Beautiful Grain of Sand, by J. C. Hutchins

Oh, you silly, naive little thing. You want to be a writer.

Didn’t you get the memo? The pay is lousy. If you’re with the Big Six-Now-Five, your publisher will barely promote your stuff (and you’ll never earn out your advance). If you self-publish, your wordbaby will be lost in a sea of other self-pubbed stuff, doomed to drown in the surrounding crappily-Photoshopped ebook covers.

But most important of all, naive thing: All the stories have been told.

That idea you’ve got? For that novel? Been done. It’s derivative tripe, a thousand-times told. Sure, your friends say it’s packed with book-selling genre tropes — but that’s just a polite way of saying it’s cliched to Hell and back.

Your spurs, naive thing. Take ‘em off. Hang ‘em up.

*cautiously looks around*

Pst. Hey. So, are they gone? You know, the pretenders? The people who incessantly talk about writing stories but never actually do? Did I scare ‘em off? Is it just us now, the people who’re actually crazy enough to keep typing, despite the market uncertainty and the endless waves of self-doubt? Is it just us wordherders?

Whew. Good.

Hi.

So all that bugaboo stuff I said up top? It’s still pretty much all true. You gotta be pretty wrongheaded to want to make a living at this racket. Competition for attention is piranha-tank fierce. The money is often insultingly bad. And yes, it’s true — there aren’t any new stories.

It’s all been done before. It really, sincerely has. And on its surface, that’s a dreadful and disheartening thing to know. Take 1977’s wildly original Star Wars: It’s widely regarded as a remixed frappe of Akira Kurosawa’s films The Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro and Yojimbo. And Yojimbo was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest! It’s turtles all the way down, my friends.

So where does that leave you, and your manuscript?

We’ll get to that in a sec. First, let’s take a look-see at this weird story-in-progress called Life.

You know the tale: We’re born, we grow up, grow old, die. In that three-act adventure, there are dozens of rites of passages: first kisses, first loves, first jobs, first cars, first homes. Children. Illness. Recovery. Ecstasy, doldrums, despair. Parents grow old and wither. Our childhood heroes die. Our friends die. Our best friends die.

There are a hundred-hundred milestones on this road. And as we experience these things, they feel fresh and raw. That’s because they’re new, to us.

But it’s all been lived before. The path is soggy and well-trodden. Strip away the fashion and technology — the parachute pants, the push-up bras, horseless carriages and iPads — and the arc of our lives, examining it globally, isn’t especially different from others’. It’s been like this for centuries. Bummer, dude.

But of course it’s different. It’s absolutely different. Grains of sand look the same on a beach, but go granular, baby, and your brain’ll implode from the colorful and wild variations.

(You’re not a beautiful snowflake, see. You’re a beautiful grain of sand. Sand is better. Tougher. More versatile. All-weather.)

You’re a clever wordherder, so you know where I’m going with this. It’s not your life; it’s how you live it. It’s not your book; it’s how you write it.

I recently launched a fun ebook project called The 33. It’s an episodic adventure series, presented a bit like a TV show, about 33 misfits who been tasked to save the world from a never-ending stream of ruthless criminals, malicious technologies and hostile supernatural beings.

At first glance, it’s familiar turf: a team of misfits … all with dodgy pasts … saving the world on a regular basis. The nods to some of my favorite childhood stories — from Godzilla to Knight Rider — might appear pretty familiar, too. But those are just ingredients, see? It’s all in the baking. It’s all in the telling. It’s all in the characters.

Those ingredients can be as unique as you are. This is what the salty vets mean when they say “Write what you know.” They’re not telling you to Mary Sue your way through a manuscript. It’s the lessons you’ve learned, the perspectives you have, the voice you possess — a voice that’s different from anyone else’s. Perhaps “Write what you know” should actually be “Write what you are.”

Be conscious of your creative influences, and the inevitable well-tread paths that lie ahead in your manuscript. Pay witting homage to them, if you wish. But above all, thoughtfully process your narrative through you, mindful of the unique perspective you have — that granularly, wonderfully unique life you’ve led.

Suddenly, your story will change. It’ll improve. It won’t be as familiar as you fear. It’ll be fresh. And fellow wordherders, that’s what editors and readers are actually jonesing for. Familiar turf ain’t a bad thing. A fresh perspective on it — a gentle remix, much like George Lucas created all those years ago — is what makes it noteworthy. And purchase-worthy.

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti, Macmillan Publishers and Harebrained Schemes. He has been profiled by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition, ABC Radio and the BBC. Learn more about him, and The 33, at JCHutchins.net.

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Four Tips on the Ancient and Venerable Art of Infodumping — guest post, Jonathan Wood

Let me introduce our guest writer to you.  NO HERO by Jonathan Wood

Jonathan Wood is as tremendously entertaining as only an Englishman living in New York could be. His first novel, No Hero, which chronicles one Oxford cop’s confrontation with cosmic horror, was so funny and rad that is being re-released in just a few short weeks. (I have to confess that it was one of my favorite books I read in 2012!) I couldn’t be more delighted to have this Lovecraftian gentleman sharing pointers with us.

 

***

 

Four Tips on the Ancient and Venerable Art of Infodumping

Come close, young grasshhopper. Tell me, what have you learned? Yes: infodumping is bad.

All writers learn early that infodumping is one of the cardinal sins. Thou shalt not infodump if thou wantest anyone to ever finish reading your stuff. And it’s good advice. I’m not here to tear it down. Face facts: nobody wants to read your 2000 word tract on muffin flavors of the 1870s. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.

Except this advice can leave you in a bit of trouble if a working knowledge of the muffin flavors of the 1870s is critical to your plot. This is a steampunk bakery-oriented murder mystery, and the apocryphal artificial cherry flavoring is what the entire time-dilation mcguffin pivots around goddamit.

Well, the good news is that if it’s information the audience needs to know then you’re already halfway there. Infodumping is only a heinous crime when it’s self-indulgent, when it’s extraneous information that doesn’t help push forward another part of the book, be it plot, setting, or character.

So let’s assume this is necessary information. That just leaves you with the dumping part.

1) Little by little

Just like any pile of shit, an infodump is harder to spot the smaller it is. So the first trick is to break the larger dump up into chunks as small as possible and then scatter them through the book. Only give the information the reader absolutley has to know at that moment. Nothing else. Anything that can come later, include later.

2) Mask the flavor

Even if you’re conveying only as little information as possible, you can still be left with a fairly sizable dump. So mask the flavor. Cut the infodump with a little high octane action. Sitting down with a baker to learn about muffin flavors is boring. Learning about muffin flavors while a steampowered death-bot tries to shoot the baker with a death ray is fun. Simple as that. Hide the infodump in amongst something else and soon everyone will be chowing down.

3) Use your characters against your readers

Readers identify with characters. They want what the character wants. So if you can establish your character’s urgent need to learn about muffin flavoring then you have also established your readers urgent need.

This trick can often lead to the outsider character who needs things explained to them. I used to worry this might seem like a little bit of a cheap gambit, but as long as you have a strong character and they have a strong need to know, then readers tend to be very forgiving. And it sure beats a “Well as you know, Sally…” speech.

4) Be an entertainer

For the most part, people are reading fiction for fun. The reason infodumps aren’t fun is because they’re dry boring chunks of information. But they don’t have to be. We’ve all had the fun teacher. We’ve all seen the cool TED lecturer who brings the information to life. Be that person. You’re a writer. You have a unique, exciting, entertaining voice. Make your infodump sing and dance. Put it in the mouth of a funny character, a depressed character, a deranged serial-killing character. Have it downloaded into a character’s brain by an AI. Make it fun. Hell, if you do that you can even move into muffin flour consistency and not lose too many folk along the way.

And that’s pretty much it. A nice round number like “Ten Tips” would have made for a better post heading, but I don’t think you need any more than four. All you really need to do is work out what it is with you and this muffin obsession. Seriously, it’s getting a little weird.

***

Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.” Barnesandnoble.com listed it has one of the 20 best paranormal fantasies of the past decade, and Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels described it as, “so funny I laughed out loud.” His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Chizine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as anthologies such as The Book of Cthulhu 2 and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.

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Hot Baths in the Desert (Dealing with Anxiety)

I’ve been taking a lot of hot baths lately. Long ones. Often with a bowl full of grapes to eat (seriously) and always with a book. It’s my coping mechanism when anxiety hits. My son constantly chides me about the book part; he doesn’t approve of the curl of moistened pages, finds it disrespectful to the book. I understand, but persist. Steamed book pages are the least of my worries. More on my mind each time I fill the tub is the fact that living in Tucson AZ, over half of my water has to be piped in from long distances; the fragility of tap water in the desert. I curl up in the steaming water, skin turning red, fingers and toes wrinkling, and I feel bad for the trees outside that could use this water more than me. (I’m thinking about a method of pumping water out of the tub into a portable basin that can transport the bathwater to the thirsty plants outside. But that hasn’t happened yet.)  When not fretting over wasted water I fret over all the other things I could be doing with the time. (I did mention these are long baths). Illustrations to be finished. Emails to be answered. Housework to do. (Blog posts to write.)

A shower would be more efficient.

But sometimes there is anxiety to be dealt with and hot water up to my chin is required. I appreciated Theodora Goss’ experience of emerging from  Depression and Sandra Wickham’s practical advice to rest when you are sick and Andrew Romine’s admitting to not writing through stressful times. I’m finding comfort and solidarity in the repeated message to “take care of yourself!” (Incidentally, I also quite enjoyed Christopher Cokinos’ essay about the hypocrisy footprint of a nature writer owning a pool in Tucson AZ.) So, I’m taking baths. Later, when the anxiety bores of getting soaked and leaves me for drier climes, I’ll get back to taking showers and being all efficient (and maybe actually figure out that bathwater recycling device.)

Meanwhile, what’s your prefered coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety?

 

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(Not) Writing My Way Through Stressful Times

The last two months have not been easy. Long hours at the day job, unexpected travel, a major death in the family, stressful Christmas, several close friends in distress, and almost six full weeks of both of us being sick on top of that.

But I’m not here to whine, not really. Everyone has days/weeks/months/years like that. (Too many people to count, if I judge by my social media feeds.)

What I wanted to talk about today is how the hell do you keep your writing mojo going in the face of so many disruptive life events?

The answer for me, is, I barely did. For most of the month of December, I couldn’t concentrate on fiction for more than a minute or two at a time. Even when I had the rare twenty minutes or so to myself.

The answer for others is, writing is that constant thing that gets them through all of life’s BS, from work stress, to souring relationships, and even through great personal struggles like serious illness. I have the deepest respect for people who manage to keep working in the face of that.

This post isn’t about “finding the time to write” in the middle of the usual ups and downs of life. If you’re going to write at all, you’re going to find some way to overcome the day-to-day distractions. (Plus, I think I’ve sort of written that post before! :P)

I wanted to talk about some strategies for writing through major disruptive periods of life. (Well, MY strategies, anyway. Like with all things process-related, these are intensely individual. YMMV.)

Don’t Write.

Sometimes, when you sprain that ankle, or break that leg, the best thing you can do is stay off of it. Under proper medical care, of course, you do everything you can to leave it alone. Let it heal. Let it rest.

Our creativity is like that, too. Sometimes it takes a blow that it needs time to recover from–like grief for a loved one who’s passed. For me, at least, I needed not to worry about the daily word count or untangling the plot of the short story I was working on before the craziness began. I couldn’t even imagine pulling out the novel. Well, I tried once, and stared at it like it was a big gray lump of wet dog hair.

I gave myself permission to rest. Of course, my writer-guilt brain cranked into overdrive every once in awhile, especially when I saw my friends and colleagues post about word counts, daily progress, and even sales, online. When I put my weight on my creativity though, it hurt. So I took a deep breath and did my best to ignore my writer-guilt brain.

Recharge.

Watch a bunch of movies. Good ones, bad ones. Genre. Documentaries. Oscar-bait. Read comics, books, interesting articles. Play some video games. Fill that Creative Well. It’s almost like creating something yourself. Kind of. You’ll absorb the energy, ideas, and they’ll be there when you need them later.

Spend time with people you love and that love you. This is probably the biggest part of recharging for me. Have a quiet dinner with friends. Play D&D with your sister who’s all of a sudden taken up the hobby and loving it (yay!). Plan and cook a special meal for your family. Be with them.

Sit on the riverbank (or beach, or mountain trail, or at a campfire) and stare into the beauty of this time, this moment and don’t think about anything at all. Exercise. Meditate. Pray. Any and all three, according to your desires and beliefs.

Do write. A little bit, anyway.

It was difficult for me to focus my efforts into a coherent beam of creativity. But I made notes when an idea struck. Or jotted down a phrase or two of dialogue that welled up from the depths of my brain. Don’t stifle or shut off all of your creative thoughts, but capture them for examination later. I had a couple of new story ideas come along while I wasn’t looking. There was no way I could write them right away, but the ideas are still there.

I knew that my log-jam began to break-up for me when I sketched out a hypothetical D&D game on the way back to L.A. I hadn’t played for over a year (not counting the Christmastime game), but the unrestrainable urge to plan out a campaign I may or may not ever play was the first trickle of a flood of creativity.

That kind of writing, the kind that doesn’t have word counts or deadlines, but only pure excitement and joy — can be the way back to to the keyboard. For me it was D&D. For you it might be fan-fic, or a blog post on your favorite movie, or album, comic book, or TV show.

(RPGs have always been my version of fan-fic. In fact, D&D is probably what got me into writing in the first place, but that’s a story for another blog post.)

You’ll find your way back. Give yourself permission to wander a bit.

I’d love to hear about your wanderings in the comments.

 

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