Category Archives: Resources

Finding your Voice

A few days ago, I muddled around, talking about a writer’s voice, exploring the idea that it’s not something that can be taught — not in the way that grammar or world building or plotting can be taught.

In fact, it’s possible that I made fun of the different (and contradictory) advice out there on “finding your voice” — it certainly sounds like something I’d do.

Obviously, the logical follow-up to that post should be my own advice on how to find your voice.

See, while I don’t think voice can be taught, I do think it can be trained in the same way a singer’s voice can be trained: with exercises, drills, and most of all lots and lots of writing. However, while training is good, you really have to have a pretty clear picture of what kind of voice you have before you get started — it’s not much good to simply decide “I’m a soprano” and proceed to train yourself accordingly.

Who’d have guessed the princess was a bass?

So… yeah, you have to find your voice.

But how’s that going to work? All joking aside, I’m pretty sure those bits of advice I mentioned in the last post are pretty useless, but neither am I satisfied with “just keep writing and it’ll sort itself out.”

Luckily, my granddad provides a solution.

Your Dominant Eye

There are certain qualities each of us possess. To sum it up in highly technical terms, it’s just how we’re wired. Fear of heights. A fascination with the structure of feathers. Maybe you don’t like pickles, or the consistency of cooked fruit. Ticklish feet. Whatever.

One of the most obvious of these qualities is left- or right-handedness, but for some people it’s equally important to know your dominant eye; it’s the sort of thing that matters when using firearms, shooting pool, or taking pictures. Also, you can’t assume your dominant eye is going to be on the same side of your body as your dominant hand — mine isn’t.

Luckily, it’s pretty simple to figure out which eye is the dominant one. My grandfather (who taught firearms safety courses for several decades) led me through the exercise when I was fairly young — maybe five or six — and spent the next five years or so arguing with my dad about it. (Dad was pretty sure my granddad had tricked me into thinking I was left-eye dominant just out of sheer orneriness. To be fair, that is exactly the sort of thing the men in my family would think is funny.)

One of the things I’ve always loved about this test is that it’s automatic — the subject doesn’t have to think, they just have to do, and the results present themselves without bias. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of dominant eye test for finding your voice?

But wait!

I don’t know if this is exactly the same thing as a dominant eye test for a writer’s voice, but it’s still pretty good. Stefon Mears hit us with a neat little “Status Check” writing exercise a few weeks ago — as a general rule, I don’t like writing prompts in any format, but I liked what I got out of this one, and asked his permission to share it. Goes like this:

First, a writing prompt: someone was killed in this room on New Year’s Eve. Write about that for five minutes. Go!

Do not read further until you’ve finished writing.

Spoilers…

All done?

Seriously: Do the writing thing first, because reading the next part will permanently ruin the exercise for you. You get one shot at this. Don’t be lazy.

Really all done?

Okay.

Look over what you’ve written, not in terms of what story the exercise might produce but in terms of the writing choices you made:

  • Did you write about the killing itself, events leading up to it, or the aftermath?
  • Did you devote more focus to character or plot?
  • What kind of conflict did you choose? Did you include more than one?
  • Did you write more dialog or narrative?
  • Point of View – is it 1st person? 3rd? Close or distant? Omniscient, limited omniscient, subjective, objective? Does the viewpoint stay with one character or shift to others?

Those are only a few examples. You can examine the work in terms of any craft tool or story choice you want. The key is to notice those choices, and realize which were conscious and which were automatic.

Emphasis (and some paraphrasing) mine.

As I said in the first post, voice isn’t point of view choices, or tense, or a preferences toward dialogue over narrative — not exactly. But it might contain those things, because “Voice” is a terrible, sloppy, catch-all, nest-stealing bluejay kind of term that encompasses whatever we need it to encompass at that moment, and looking at the stuff we do when we’re writing instinctively can be helpful when we’re trying to figure out what our voice actually sounds like.

It’s not perfect and simple, the way that dominant eye test is, but it helps.

Stefon again:

Spontaneous writing under time pressure can give us a snapshot of where we are as writers, not in terms of development, but in terms of choices. Every writer develops habits, and while many habits may play to our strengths, they limit the scope of our options. As writers, we owe it to ourselves to discover our habits and choose which we keep.

Good stuff, and I want to thank Stefon again for letting me use the exercise to illustrate the idea of a “voice test”.

There is one problem, though.

It’s possible I’ve oversimplified.

The thing is, the dominant eye test and others things like it work better (especially with younger kids) if the subject doesn’t know why they’re doing it. Foreknowledge can lead to skewed results. This is quintuply true for any writing exercise like the one above: now that you know what you’re going to be looking for after you’re done, you’ve tainted the results; the whole point is to do it without thinking about the choices we’re making. (River warned us about spoilers.)

But this is not a complete loss.

Go back and pull out a bunch of different first drafts and look them over, asking the same questions as the exercise above, and you can start to see the recurring patterns.

Once you see those patterns, decide what bits you like and get better at them — work on it in your writing, pursue it in your reading, whatever.

Decide what bits you don’t like and… you know… stop doing that.

You can’t teach voice, I said, and I believe it. But you can find it, and you can train it, and I think maybe that’s how.

Hidden Things Reading Guide Now Online (finally)

Is your reading group meeting to talk about Hidden Things? Are you just discussing it over coffee with a friend? Did you assign it to your Modern Lit class during a fit of whimsy? Then this reading guide (long promised, finally finished) might be for you!

… and that’s it! I don’t have much more to add to this little announcement, except to thank Edi for inadvertently giving me well over half the material for this guide. (Writers: treasure a reader who asks good questions!)

Recent Hidden Things Reviews

Hidden Things is out today! Here are the latest reviews (that I know of — if you spot one I missed, let me know). Let’s see what people are saying…

Kirkus Reviews, notorious purveyors of the cutting one-liner, gave the book a pretty terrific review, calling it “agreeably creepy” (which makes me smile) and Calliope a “clever, determined, dauntless protagonist.”

Though not exactly a review, the Library Journal gave Hidden Things a great shout-out in their “Hungry for SF” Genre Spotlight.

Reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasies and the early books of Stephen King, Doyce Testerman’s fantasy debut Hidden Things (Harper Voyager, Aug.) follows a young woman as she embarks on a surreal cross-country road trip after receiving a phone call from her dead business partner and former lover. This exploration into the supernatural places that lie hidden in the American heartland was a pick of “Books for Dudes” columnist Douglas Lord at the Fourth Annual Librarian Shout & Share program at June’s BookExpo America conference.

The Original Edi won an ARC of the book and wrote about it. Later, she even added a second post to show how much cross-referencing and research she’d put into her read-through. Edi wins the prize for “someone I’d like to add to my ‘reads it before it goes to print’ list.” What an eye for detail!

My Bookish Ways (really gorgeous website, by the way) put up a very touching review of the ARC. The reviewer says lots of nice things, none of which I’m (quite) shameless enough to repeat verbatim, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go and read it.

Library Crystal has a review up that (favorably!) compares Hidden Things to some of my favorite books.

Finally, if you just can’t get enough of these reviews (or want to write one of your own), Goodreads provides, with reviews ranging from five-stars down to no-stars-did-not-finish. (Hey, you can’t please everyone.)

My favorite reviews?

The ones that say “I want to know more; when’s the sequel?!”

“Toss it in the Water”

Things have been a little quiet around here. Let me see if I can explain why:

I am completely innocent. Don't listen to the old man.

I don’t want to imply that when you have a small human to take care of, you can’t get anything else done, but I (at least) tend to let non-essential systems atrophy. Navel-gazing (which, I will be honest, is often what this blog is about) drops off tremendously, twitter accumulates a cobweb or two, the elliptical machine gathers some dust, our front yard…

My god, guys; the front yard. Seriously. If it weren’t for the pallet of wine-in-a-box I sent the planning committee last Christa McAuliffe Day, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to paper our family room in letters from the HOA.

None of that implies I’ve had nothing going on. On the contrary, I’ve been a busy little beaver, even on the internet, just not here. Contracted writing gigs. The slow push towards book publication (more on that soon(tm)). Basically, since I don’t find I have the mental bandwidth for rumination and musing aloud, I focus on concrete writing tasks meant to ensure that I’m hitting the keyboard every day. For instance, I’ve been writing articles for a number of gaming sites and, when said sites are inevitably swept under by a wave of spambots and turned into the internet equivalent of a Brood Mother from Dragon Age, I come back to my gaming related blog and write stuff there.

Indirectly, that’s what I wanted to talk about.

Four months ago, as the little man started to release us from the iron grip of Infant Sleep Schedules, I took a look at what I’d been writing since his arrival and found that examples were a little thin on the ground.

“I need to get my fingers back on a keyboard,” I thought to myself. Then I sighed, because the very idea seemed kind of exhausting. What to write?

“Baby steps,” I replied to myself, then giggled madly, because… you know… ‘baby’… and I have a baby… and…

Still needed a lot more sleep at that point, I think.

Anyway, what I decided to do was just write about what I was doing in this MMO I was playing. That’s it. I found the situation I and a couple of my friends had put ourselves in to be kind of compelling and interesting and dammit even if everyone else in the world thought it was boring as hell, I didn’t.

That was the key, really; it interested me, so I wrote about it without needing to be prodded. Hell, it was something I looked forward to every day and as a result, I was putting a thousand or fifteen hundred or two thousand or sometimes three thousands words down, every day.

What I didn’t worry about at any point was is someone going to read this? Hell, I assumed that no one was reading it (except Kate, who always reads everything, because she’s wonderful). It was always kind of a surprise when anyone I knew mentioned it. One friend who didn’t play took the time to tell me that he enjoyed the stories, even if he had no intention of checking out the game. De went so far as to try to figure out why I liked the topic so much that I was writing about it every day, because it was curious.

In any case, that didn’t happen that much, and honestly, I didn’t care. Throughout the whole thing, I’ve been writing for me. Partly to remember; partly to just be writing something; mostly to entertain myself.

And a funny thing started happening.

People started leaving comments. Asking questions. Asking for more. Telling me that I wasn’t allowed to stop, and in fact needed to post more frequently.

That was kind of nice.

Then, a few days ago, I logged into a website that — if you do the sort of things that I do in that game I’ve been writing about — is pretty much the single most important website to have on speed dial.

And at the top of the page, before any of the important stuff that you actually come to the site for, there’s a note that says “Hey, if you’ve got a few minutes, you should really go read the posts being written over at this blog here,” and it was me they were linking to.

Easiest example of what that was like would be if you were really really into knitting, and you blogged about it, and one day you went to Ravelry and found a link to your little blog on the front page.

It was kinda cool.

Now, I’m not telling you any of this to brag (because that would be… incredibly ridiculous) — the point here is that I wrote the thing I wanted to write and (observing the constraints of the topic) wrote it well.

That’s it.

I didn’t network. I didn’t “promote my brand.” I didn’t “find my audience”; I did a thing I enjoyed, and an audience found me.

Are We Even in the Zipcode of your Point?

NaNoWriMo is here once again, and a lot of writers are revving up their engines for another fifty thousand word sprint. I’m watching it all happen with what is, for me, an uncharacteristic silence, because it’s an interesting thing to observe. A lot of excitement. A lot of nervous energy.

A lot of people wondering if what they’ll write is going to be marketable.

What? Really?

I feel like this is where I should mention Chuck.

Chuck Wendig will be the first to tell you that writer’s write, and that is absolutely true, but I want to point out what they don’t do, so they have time to write.

They don’t seek their audience. They don’t fuck around with SEO. They don’t network.

Alright: yes they do, but not while they are writing.

I don’t want to make it sound like professional writers can ignore that kind of stuff but, in my opinion, thinking about any of that (or, god forbid, if what you’re working on it “saleable”) while you are supposed to be writing is the worst. possible. thing.

When I was a kid, I used to go fishing with my dad and granddad. (I was generally terrible at it, because I over-thought it, but if I remembered to bring a book along to read I usually ended up catching the biggest fish, because I left the line alone.) One of the things that always used to confound me about river fishing in a boat was the tie-line. It didn’t matter how I pulled that line into the boat in the morning, or how I coiled it up, or how well I’d avoid disturbing that coil during the day — when we got back to the dock in the afternoon, that fucking rope would be tangled up.

I would pull at it, and frown at it, and start to work through the knots and twists, but whenever it seemed like I was making any headway, I’d look at the parts of the pile I wasn’t working on and realize that the whole situation had only gotten worse.

The closer we got to the dock, the faster I’d work (because tying up was the one cool boat-thing I got to do), and the worse it would get.

Then we’d pull up about ten feet off the dock, and my dad would look down at this colossal fuck-up I’d managed to assemble in less than ten minutes.

“Just throw it all in the water,” he said.

“But –”

“Throw it in and let it float there for a minute,” he’d continue. “It’ll sort itself out.”

So I did.

And it did.

Every time.

That’s what I’ve found in writing. Do the thing you want to do. Do it as well as you can. But don’t get ahead of what you’re doing and start thinking about what this thing will do.

It has to be before it can do anything.

Throw it out in the water. It’ll sort itself out.

Genre-Appropriate Ninjas

So awhile back (damned if I know exactly when), Amy Spalding (who’s one of the coolio authors Kate represents) muttered something about being stuck on a scene she was writing.

I, feeling helpful, said, “Dude. Ninjas.”

And she was like, “Wait, what?”

And I was like, “Ninjas. They attack. Problem solved. The end. You’re welcome.”

And she was like, “Dude. I write YA Romance. No ninjas.”

And I was like, “DUDE. Genre-Appropriate Ninjas. GAN. The GAN in YA Romance is Kissing. ATTACK!”

And then she was like, “Whoa… that totally works.”

So let’s talk about Genre-Appropriate Ninjas and how they make everything better.

“Have somebody come in guns blazing, and figure out who they are later.” — Raymond Chandler

Man… Chandler. There was a guy who knew about ninjas. Am I right? Chandler had a method with his stories that make them — at least for me — kind of breathless. There’s no fat there — no time when the main character gets to just sit still for a little bit and simply ruminate like a thoughtful cow. No. He might get a moment or two, and then boom, something happens. There’s no downtime — there’s always something that the MC needs to react to.

All those things are what I like to call ninjas.

It isn’t all throwing stars and bullets

Put simply, a genre-appropriate ninja attack is any sort of event or piece of information that requires action (and often a significant choice) from one of your characters. (A particularly fun G.A.N. attack is when that’s all true, and you don’t already know what they’re gonna choose.)

Don’t get me wrong, I like throwing stars and bullets, but the Chandler quote up there highlights only one small part of the larger Ninja Toolbox, and let me assure you he used the whole thing — why should we do any less?

You know the thing in the noir detective thriller where the main character is like “Damn, I need to talk to Sarah McHotness and get some answers out of her, but no one knows where she is… ahh hell, I’m just gonna go back to my office and sack out for a couple hours, I’m beat.” Then he gets back to his office, and who’s waiting in his office chair? Sarah McHotness herself, of course; the one person it couldn’t possibly be, it is, so now what do you do, hotshot? The cops want to talk to her, the mob wants to kill her, anyone standing near her is probably a dead man, and she’s hiding in your office. Go!

You know what he isn’t going to do? He isn’t going to take that nap he’d planned; he isn’t going to ignore the girl in his office.

Sarah is totally a ninja attack. Sure, so is the guy who comes in guns blazing a few pages later, but that’s the obvious ninja attack; one thing we know about ninjas: the subtle ones are the most dangerous.

Chandler uses the HELL out of these things. Every time the story pacing starts to lag — hell, any time the speedometer drops below fifty — he attacks the scene with something unexpected that the MC has to react to: guy with gun, lady with a problem, married lady making with the kissy-face, dead partner, cops show up for a chat, mob shows up for a chat, cops and the mob show up for a chat at the same time, automotive homicide, et cetera. That’s what I mean when I say his stories are kind of breathless — he never lets up.

(Complete aside: As a result of this method, his stories — and many if not most good stories from that era and somewhat later — are lean, mean, storytelling machines that rip right off the page and tear down your eye canals in about 150 pages or less. They are whip-thin racing greyhounds, and the bloated 750 page couch potatoes clogging up bookstore shelves today could do with a big dose of the cardio workout that the previous generation of writers gave their books. But I digress.)

Now, Chandler’s novels are short by today’s standards, but that’s okay for us because NaNoWriMo novels are short by today’s standards. (It is so hard for me not to put standards in air-quotes. Rant for another day.) We can totally use this pacing trick to keep the story zipping along and to make sure we have something fun and interesting to write.

Also, if your story’s wrapping up too fast, GAN attacks are great for throwing a monkeywrench complication that stretches things out some more.

What Is it About, Then?

So here I go repeating myself. A Genre-Appropriate Ninja attack is:

  • Something happens that cannot be ignored and which demands some sort of response.
  • [Bonus Points if:] You’re not entirely sure what your protag is going to decide to do.

And, just in case you missed it, every scene should have something like this – a conflict – going on. Any scene that doesn’t is pointless cruft.

The benefits of these things are:

  • They keep things into motion.
  • You’ll learn something you didn’t know (or weren’t entirely sure of) about the character when they make their decision about what to do.

Character and Conflict. Character and Conflict. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s the story.

Speaking without any sort of genre specifics in mind, I think you can break your GAN attack down into a few types.

Dilemma: You grab two Important Things and make up a situation that forces the character to make a decision between those two things. Finding the Important Things is pretty easy – take what you know or think you know about the character, pick two things that seem to be roughly equal in importance, and set up a situation where somebody’s gotta choose. This sort of GAN might result in the character losing the thing they didn’t choose, but this isn’t necessary, and it might be better (read: more incredibly awkward and painful for the character at a later point in the story) if that doesn’t happen, and the un-chosen thing/person comes back to confront them with a heartfelt “What the hell?!”

J’accuse!

Be ready: your character may decide to pull a Batman and change the situation: they don’t accept that they can’t get one thing without losing the other, so they put a third thing at risk, trying to save both of the original things. This is awesome. Go with it.

The cool thing is you can start out with a small either/or decision and continue to revisit that choice, gradually amping up the tension.

“Oh, you decided to go with her over him, huh? Well what about now? Oh yeah? What about now?!”

Which leads us to:

Escalation: this is essentially returning to some previously-introduced Dilemma, upping the stakes. Basically, you take the unselected option from a previous dilemma and make it more important or more endangered. Maybe before the choice wasn’t life or death, and now it is. Maybe it affects more people this time.

Maybe now there’s a giant flame-throwing bug. Whatever.

Identity Crisis: Someone thinks they’re one thing, and they find out they’re something or someone else.


“You totally suck, man!”

There. Hit em with the Sith Lord Daddy and see what happens.

Something Totally Weird: Exactly what it sounds like. Something really weird happens which can’t be ignored because it’s so… weird. With no particular clue about a solution, what we learn about the character (hopefully) is how they try to address the event.

Maybe they go a little crazy.

Actual Ninjas: You’re kind of out of moral dilemmas, but you still need to get the action going. It’s at moments like these that we give the floor to the Reverend Raymond Chandler. Boom. Bang. Kiiiyah. Fzzzwap. Kaboom. Kapow. Braaaaaaains. Whatever.

Take this guy. Give him a knife. Oh yeah. Good times.

Does your guy fight or run? Do they freeze? Are there innocents to protect? Valuable stuff that needs to be kept from harm? Watch, learn, and write it down.

Every story has ninjas

I thought I might go through a list of genres and list out specific Genre-Appropriate Ninjas, but I like this idea better: Think about it for about 60 seconds, and then tell me in the comments what kind of ninja attack ideas you came up with for your story. Alien abduction? The authorities show up? The authorities don’t show up? The deal falls through? The jock asks her out before the cute nerd has a chance to?

Let’s hear it.

Midwestern Rules

All right, nanowrimo people: it’s that time again.

The first five days were kind of wild and crazy — you didn’t really know what was going on in the story — the characters were sort of running around going “Look what I can do! No, me! Look!” and you let them have their head and run it out.

The next seven or so days, we got a sense of what was going on and where the thing would take us, and that sense of purpose and vision imparted a lot of fire and motivation to the writing. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to ride that right down to the point in a few days when you realize that a bunch of your favorite people need to die.

However, that’s if you’re lucky. In other cases, you’re at this point where… well, things are happening, but you’re not sure if they’re going anywhere. In fact, you’re not sure if the story is going anywhere. Your loved one comes into the room where you’re sitting and looks at you for a few seconds and then says “how’s the story coming, hon?” And you’re like:

You sit down at your desk to get another couple scenes down, read the last line you wrote, think about what should happen next, and:

Pretty soon, it’s time to go pick up the kids and you’ve written all of a forty word paragraph in which the main character sits around thinking about how he doesn’t know what to do next.

Doubts start to creep in. Maybe 50 thousand in 30 days is just too much. Maybe you already told the one good story you’re going to tell. Maybe you’re brain is broken. Maybe this thing is going to be no good. Maybe it’ll be actively bad — the kind of bad where you give the finished draft to some friends to read and their feedback is basically:

I’m not going to make you feel better about that. It’s (theoretically) possible that all those doubts you have are grounded in indisputable fact — maybe one of your friends is one read-through away from a horrible disfigurement — I just can’t say.

But here’s the thing: none of that matters.

I’m going to have to get a little Midwestern on you now; that’s just who I am.

When I was growing up and going through junior high and high school, I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. A lot. First chair in band. Marching band. Jazz band. Choir. Swing choir (yeah, glee, whatever. shut up). Oratory/Debate. Drama. Newspaper. Yearbook. Football. Basketball. Wrestling. Track. Was there more? I think there was, but it’s all kind of a whirling haze.

In the parlance of the region, I “kept busy”.

You might say I dabbled in a lot of things, and you’d be right: with the exception of the music stuff, everything just kind of came and went with its appropriate season. My folks had a very simple rule for any of these projects: I could try anything I wanted, but if I decided (after the first serious introduction) to keep going with it, I had to finish it. Period. No exceptions. Every time I signed up for something, it meant rearranging schedules, figuring out who was going to get the car when, and generally bending everyone into pretzels to make it work. You want to do wrestling? Fine; you’re in it til the end of this season. Yearbook? No problem – but you’re not done til this year’s edition goes out the door. It didn’t matter if I lost every fucking match I ever competed in (I did), or if my particular style of prose was often very wrong for the yearbook (it was) — I was in, by god, and I wasn’t getting out til the bell rang.

So let me lay this out for you now: you’re in til the bell rings. It doesn’t matter if the story stinks, or you can’t think of an ending, or everything seems to be coming apart at the seams; you’ve asked your friends and family to bend around your schedule for the last three weeks, and if you quit now, you’re basically giving them a silent but nonetheless profound “fuck you” and walking off down the street, whistling a carefree tune. In short, you’re an asshole.

And, come on, you’re not an asshole. You’re tougher than a little bit of story ennui. You’re the kind of person who wants to finish up a story and set it in front of all those people who helped you get through the rough parts and say “This is for you. Thank you. It’s a little busted in places, but I think it’s a good start, and I can fix the rest.”

You can’t fix something you never finish.

You don’t really know if you like the game unless you stay in a full season.

A Few Tricks

All these “hoo-rah, you can do it” speeches are fine, but how about some actual concrete stuff to try?

If you’re feeling like you don’t like what you’re writing or where things are going, there’s things you can do.

  • If things are sort of sans direction, make something happen that your protag has to make a decision about — not just react to, but actually make a tough decision about: do I save the bus full of children or my sister? Stuff like that. Hard decisions, preferably ones you don’t already know the answer to.
  • Are you over-describing stuff? Stop. Switch to nothing but dialog for awhile. If you’re protag doesn’t have anyone to talk to, FIX THAT RIGHT NOW.
  • Is the scene boring you? Drop it and skip to the next. Flag it with a [finish this later] and move on.
  • Are you stuck on how to get through the current scene, but you’re writing a solution anyway? STOP. Go write some other scene — that reluctance is your brain telling you that you’re writing something stupid and that it will give you something not-stupid LATER. Write some other bit, and maybe that’ll even explain how to fix the other scene. Hindsight is actually useful when you can jump back and forth in time.
  • If all else fails, attack the scene with genre-appropriate ninjas. I am totally not kidding. You’re writing a romance? Then genre-appropriate ninjas (GAN) might be an unexpected kiss from an unexpected person. Boom. Ninjas. Every genre has ninjas.
  • Finally, every scene has conflict.

Get back in the game.

Don’t worry about falling down.

The best smile in the world is the grin on the player who’s covered in mud.

Choose Your Doom

Bet you thought this was going to be a NaNoWriMo post.

I mean… come on: Middle of the month? Ironic yet clever title? Something about conserving ammo, checking your exits, and knowing when to double tap your closest friends to maximize your own life expectancy? Clever analogies… OR ARE THEY?

But no.

Today, I don’t want to talk about writing; I want to talk about reading.

Specifically, I want to talk about Choose Your Adventure books and the cultural wasteland of my youth.

Where the Outbreak Began

A few things that have always been true: from as early an age as possible, I’ve been storyteller, a reader, and a gamer. Also, I grew up deep, DEEP in the heart of the Great Plains about an hour from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s old place (seriously). My only playmate for five miles in any direction was my sister.

We got in a fair amount of trouble.

And by “we” I mean “I”, and by “I” I mean “I’m still really very sorry about accidentally spraying that superglue in your eyes, sis.”

My parents (and my relatives, and our neighbors) were very enthusiastic about anything that might keep me busy for a few hours that didn’t involve me trying to construct a functional airplane from a 2×8, our welcome mat, and a plugged-in battery charger I was about to clip to my belt buckle. (True story! Short, but true.)

As a result, people got me copies of every Choose Your Adventure book ever printed. In some cases, I had two. In the eyes of my gift-givers, they were the perfect combination of elements: a story! but a story he made up himself (kinda)! and you choose paths, like a game! Seems an obvious choice, really: I can see why folks picked them up for me by the five-pack. There was only one key bit of trivia they overlooked.

They were positively execrable. Holy pinball-tilting buddha, they were bad.

You know what I used to do with the CYA books? (Never did a three-letter acronym serve multiple masters so admirably.) I used to read them in page order. Not because I didn’t understand how they were meant to be consumed, but because digesting the elements of the product as a mishmash of unrelated plot points, sappy successes, predictable reveals, and weak failures was not, on the whole, any worse. Also, when I did it in that order, I could make up the interstitial stuff that lay between each page so that the whole thing still (or, finally) made some kind of sick sense.

That was my experience with Choose Your Adventure books when I was a kid. (A few years ago, someone gave Kate a copy of a CYA reprint at a book fair. It did not encourage me to revise my childhood impression.)

The Infection Spreads

You can, given this background, imagine my terrified caution when I learned of a new book coming out. It’s called Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse, and it looks like this:

Take a look at that cover. I’m not really qualified to discuss nuances in a piece of art, but I feel compelled to point out it’s got zombies in it. I believe my love of zombies is well-documented.

But then there’s this cover copy.

You control the fate of Tobe, a teen-aged slacker living in the shadow of the Cheyenne Mountain military complex. When a secret experiment goes awry, the citizens of Colorado Springs are exposed to an alien mold that turns those infected into zombies. With your help, Tobe must battle the newly undead, wild animals and the most dangerous creature of all: Man. Will your decisions help him save the city, or lead him to certain doom?

Obviously, I was torn. On the one hand, you have this:

But on the other, this:

I think you can understand my concern.

Clearly, there was only one thing to do: for my sanity, for your safety, I had to read the thing.

“But Doyce,” (you ask), “how can you have made this sacrifice for us? The book doesn’t come out until November 26, 2010.”

Obviously, I am a time tra–

Err. No, wait. You don’t know about that yet. Paradox. Right.

Obviously, I used my many nefarious contacts within the underworld and put out the word that I needed a copy of the book a few weeks earlier than the unwashed masses. I was eventually put in contact with De Knippling, one of the authors, and we met for some unpronounceable yet delicious coffee in her home town.

“Your city,” I said. “Nice place.”

“Err,” she replied, “thanks.”

“Be a shame if anything… happened to it,” I cliched.

“”Umm…” She raised an eyebrow in my direction, obviously to conceal her trembling fear. “Dude, do you want the arc or not?”

“SUBMIT TO MY COERCION.”

“Whatever.”

Conversion is Complete

Following that exchange (or one almost exactly like it in all ways except the actual words spoken, and the location, and the coffee), I set in to ‘read’ this ‘book’.

I died. Then some other stuff happened. Huh. Cool.

I read it again.

Dead. Some entirely different stuff happened. Heh. Funny.

Again.

Dead. (A hippo?!? What the hell?)

And again.

Dead… and this time I felt the slightest tug of… sadness? Was that a real moment of touching humanity there? Why yes, yes it was.

People, I’m horrified.

You know what the authors have done with this thing?

They’ve destroyed a (literally) life-long prejudice; my well-considered and heartfelt disdain lies dead and mouldering while a category of books that died in the mid 1980s shambles upright and stumbles back into the light. Worse, they’ve taught this unholy creature about humor and pacing and suspense and the tragedy and joy of the human condition. They made it good.

That’s what Choose Your Doom: Zombie Apocalypse is: it’s good.

I wanted it to be bad. I needed it to be bad so that I could continue to cling to my childhood, but this book denied me — it pulled my tattered copy of Inside UFO 54-40 out of my hands and turned my eyes toward the light.

Then it ate my brains.

I suggest you check this thing out. Sincerely. It’s fun romp, a number of entertaining yarns, some surprising depth and (if you know the authors) unsurprising humor, and I think most of the people I know will like it.

And don’t worry about the way it makes your eyeballs itch; the infection only burns for the first few minutes, and zombies are always more effective as a horde.

The Life of a Furtive Writer

You know what’s a funny sounding word, no matter what the context? Furtive.

Furtive. Furrtive. FURTive. FURT. Heh.

Yeah. I’m twelve.

ANYWAY. Over on terribleminds, Chuck dropped some great advice on how he fights the distraction monkey of himself. As I mentioned yesterday, we are our own worst enemy when it comes to getting anything done, and Chuck takes my vague directives and supplants them with some concrete-solid examples of what focus looks like. I totally recommend you go read it.

Okay? All caught up? Good.

Now, Chuck’s post is awesome for a number of reasons; the most valuable bit of advice is simply that we need to trick ourselves into paying attention. It might be as simple as putting “the internet” on another computer from the one you’re doing your writing on, or in another room. It might be something like Scrivener’s “writing mode” or WriteMonkey’s… umm… entire interface — that blanks out the rest of the screen and reduces the chance you’ll be distracted. Those are all good tricks.

There’s only one problem, and it’s a relatively tiny one: Chuck’s a full-time writer — man’s a pro (in more ways than one) and as such, there’s the teensiest possibility that some of his tricks aren’t things a part-time writer will find applicable.

So let’s go through the day of a Furtive Writer and add a few things to Chuck’s list of focus-tricks.

Morning

Wake up 30 minutes before you need to be at work. Snoozebar got a workout this morning, didn’t it? Send spousal unit to get The Child dressed, and throw yourself into the bathroom, shower, and closet, hopefully in that order.

Thank god for Oatmeal Squares.

Arrive at work only five minutes late.

Check email for all your accounts (work and personal). Catch up on Twitter and Newsreader. Do work stuff. Maybe get 300 words down in a 15 minute sprint, but probably not.

Lunch

Go back out to your car, hit the nearest drive-through or pull out your brownbag and wolf a sandwich and soda. This leaves you 45 minutes. Pull out your laptop and get typing. You should be able to get roughly 650 words out in this time, assuming you don’t fuck around. Don’t fuck around.

If there’s some kind of wifi near where your car is parked, hook up to it ONLY in the last five minutes of your lunch break — just long enough to save your WIP and let Dropbox sync.

Back to the office. If you were using your work laptop to do your writing (not recommended if you have any alternative), reconnect it to the network and let Dropbox sync up.

Afternoon

During your entirely legitimate 15 minute afternoon break, knock out another 215 words. Otherwise, use your time-wasting allotment to look up stuff you needed to know at lunch, but couldn’t look up then.

After work

Pick up The Child. Arrive home. Make supper.

If you’re a super-parent, do nothing but hang out with the child until bedtime.

If you’re a pretty-good-to-all-right parent, alternate between some quality child/spouse time and pasting that stuff you looked up this afternoon into the spots in your WIP where you left text like [GDP OF SLOVAKIA HERE]. This will add about 100 words.

If you’re going to make up for some bad parenting at Christmas, drop your kid in front of Backyardigans, hand them a sandwich, and disappear til bedtime.

The Child’s Bedtime

Read to your kid. Steal ideas from their chapter book.

Blessed Silence of Night

You have gotten anywhere from 600 to 1300 words down. Assume it’s 600. Also assume you want about 2000 for the day, so you need about 1400. That’s two 700 word (roughly 3-page) scenes. Get to work. If you’re lucky and the words are flowing, you’ll be done by about 10 pm. If you aren’t, you’ll be done around 12:30 am.

1 am

Stagger to bed. Set the alarm for an hour before you have to get ready for work, so you can get some writing in. (This will never work, but it can’t hurt to try.)

GOTO: MORNING

Sound familiar? I expect it does.

So here’s a few extra tips I’d suggest.

Good Batteries

Make sure whatever laptop you’re using has them. Nothing sucks more than really getting on a roll and having your laptop go dead.

Good WiFi

This seems really counterintuitive, but you probably want to make sure that any ‘out of the house’ writing you do is somewhere with a decent internet connection. You don’t want to have it on all the time, but WHEN you need it, you want it to connect easily, quickly, painlessly, and you want it to be super-snappy-fast.

Why?

Simple: if it fails to be any of those things, you will fuck around with it, which will waste a lot of  time. A lot. I’m just saying.

Good Notebook

Have analog means of writing available. Sometimes the laptop isn’t an option. Sometimes you just want to write something down for later. Sometimes you’re someplace where people will look over your shoulder at your screen, but would never DREAM of looking at your longhand notes — society is a weird like that.

Back up early and often
I use Dropbox. Use whatever you want, so long as you use something. This is not. fucking. optional.

Don’t bring an external mouse with you

The harder it is to use your laptop to browse the internet, play Farmville or Torchlight, or scroll back to correct your previous work, the more likely you are to focus on writing. You. Keyboard. Screen. That’s it.

Personally, I do almost all of my writing on my little “triple e” — a netbook I bought awhile back as an award for meeting a tough goal. It’s comfortable to type on for long periods, has about a six to seven hour battery life for writing purposes, and when I combine it with a Logitech lapdesk, I can use it damn near anywhere (I mention this because the netbook itself is too small and too top heavy to really ‘work’ on your lap for more than the most desultory use, in my opinion). The netbook technically has all the same distractions available to it as my desktop (which, if I’m honest, is 90% a gaming rig), but they aren’t as easily accessible, aren’t as fun to use on the netbook, and generally just aren’t worth the effort — I don’t even like using my newsreader on the smallish screen. When I sit down with the netbook, I’m working; one keystroke disables the wifi, another opens either Word (for revisions) or WriteMonkey (for first drafts), a third shuts down my touchpad (so I don’t do something stupid by accident) and off I go.

For whatever reason, I’m shit at writing in the morning — I seem to have engineered my life so that interruptions occur in the A.M. — even when I try to get shut of distractions before lunch, stuff just happens that I HAVE to deal with. I’d RATHER write in the morning, and maybe eventually I will shift things around so it’s possible, but right now? No. That’s me. Your mileage may vary.

How about you? What tricks do you use to leave yourself NO OPTION but to write? Give me something I can steal.