Category Archives: Resources

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.

Your Own Worst Enemy

Early this month in the comments for “the Gazebo post”, I wrote:

I’m definitely in the camp that believes you have to be the greatest defender of your time.

Sometimes, you need to defend your time from yourself.

I want to dig into this in a little more depth.

“Time Management” is the sort of catch-phrase that makes people nod along when it’s mentioned and roll their eyes when no one’s looking. Books like First Things First and Getting Things Done are often quoted, rarely read, and even more rarely put into use. (Or, if they are, they become a ritual of masturbatory to-do-list-maintenance that doesn’t actually accomplish anything but which looks and feels like you’re doing something. Productivity Porn, is what it is.)

Now, I read those books because part of my day job involves taking high-concept crap like that and boiling it down for blue-collar guys who need to know it. The end result of all that reading was a two-hour class during which the students get a blank pocket notebook and a double-sided business card on which I printed the entire ‘manual’ for the class.

About two years after I started teaching that class (and generally adopted its methods for myself), my wife came to me ‘in an emotional state’, as they say.

If you don’t know, Kate runs a pretty successful literary agency, specializing in YA and middle grade fiction. She does a great job, but she was starting to feel like some things were getting away from her: emails were backing up, for example.

She asked me if I could help.

So I showed her my little business-card manual, and gave her the gist of the thing.

“That’s it?” she said. She looked doubtful, but muttered something about giving it a try.

Months later, she’s so caught up on her work that she gets private emails from other agents and editors that say “I don’t know how you do it! I can barely find the time have a nervous breakdown anymore, let alone keep up with actual work.”

So… just for fun, let’s say the little system works. Let me give you the absolute basics.

The crystalline core of the thing focuses on Doing, because we as a species suck at Doing. Between people interrupting us and babbling away with no provocation, reminders from our email and calendar, our phones, Twitter, IM clients, facebook, Tumblr, new readers, and… you know… a life, it’s just hard to block out some uninterrupted time and then actually use it for whatever task it was intended to be used for.

So we try solve that problem by doing two things at the same time: Checking Twitter while visiting with family. Emailing while making lunch. Writing while doing… anything else.

I’m mentioned before that there are very few activities during which I’ll multi-task; I think the list starts and ends with “folding laundry while watching a TV show”. Pretty much anything in my life that I think is important enough to do, I believe is important enough to get my full attention. When that doesn’t happen, the end result of the two ‘intermixed’ activities is usually substandard. In fact, every single activity you try to do while also dealing with some other activity will probably suck, even if you don’t notice it right away.

You must avoid doing that.

That means focus.

So, here’s a few rules I (try to) follow to help me DO during those times I have allocated for Doing.

1. Focus on one task at a time.

This single-minded focus doesn’t have to go on for hours at a time. If you get on a writing streak then sure, go for it, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Do 30 minute sprints. Do 20 minutes. Do 10. Whatever works.

Eliminate all distractions. Shut off Twitter, Gmail, YIM, AIM, GTalk. Close your door, if you can. Make sure the cat, dog, kids, spouse, and coworkers are all are fed, then ignore them.

Don’t multi-task, and don’t let yourself get interrupted.

2. Seriously, don’t #*$#ing Multitask.

The supposed efficiency of multitasking is an illusion — it hurts your productivity, increases the chance of error, and generally makes the end product suck more than it should. It’s a good way to avoid two things you don’t really want to do by fucking them up simultaneously. Don’t do it.

The human brain is amazing in many many ways, but it positively sucks at concentrating on two things at once. As soon as you try, you can guarantee you’ll miss something important.

3. Control Who Has Access to You

“Timmy, Daddy needs some alone time right now, okay?”

Stop and think about something for a second: who has unrestricted access to you at virtually any time?

The answer to that question says a lot about who you are.

I set my GTalk Status as Busy most of the time because I know that there are very few people who will be comfortable sending me an instant message anyway (provided they feel they have a good reason). The people that know me well enough to ignore that message are the people on my All-Access list.

If you don’t control this, you’ll be typing along, just getting into a groove, and someone will ping you. You need to answer, right? You don’t want to be rude.

So you answer, and they need you to do something for them, and… well… you don’t want to, but pretty soon you hear yourself saying:

… and you’re screwed.

4. No one else gives a crap if you Finish.

No.

No they don’t.

Not even him. Not her either. No one.

Not even me; I’m distracting you RIGHT NOW with this post.

You are the only person who cares about getting your story done, and the only way to make that happen is to viciously (perhaps anti-socially) defend the blocks of time you set up to write.

“Sorry dude, but I’ve got another two pages to get done.”

You must do this, even if the interruption sounds like fun.

You must be cruel, even to yourself.

You Can Break Every Rule

There are a lot of rules when it comes to writing. Writers love to scribble down mandates like “don’t do this” or “always do this” and pretend that we’ve solved part of the vast jigsaw puzzle of creativity.

But the thing is this: pretty much every one of those rules can be broken or ignored, if you have a good reason for it.

I want to be clear, here: I think most rules about writing are good rules, and are valuable. “Try to leave out the part of the story that the reader’s going to skip.” That’s a good rule.

But, like most things, if you get good enough at the work, you’ll run into some situation where the rules you love are not only inapplicable, they will actually make the situation worse if you adhere to them.

(Warning: If you are at all unsure you’re qualified to decide whether or not to ignore a rule, I would like to humbly suggest that you aren’t. You will know when you’ve reached that point, without checking with anyone else first. Until then, stick with the rules. I know how pretentious this sounds. Please trust that I don’t mean it that way.)

This is why I tell people not to listen to the advice I have about writing (as opposed to NaNoWriMo): when it comes to writing, I’m going to automatically assume that I’m unqualified to give advice; I’m not an expert yet.

Let me demonstrate that by poking holes in the rules I’ve mentioned here in the past.

When you’re writing, write.

The basic idea here is that when you sit down to write, you must get some words out on the page — you should be producing, not wasting time — the first million words that you write are going to be glittery unicorn shit anyway, so you might as well get them out of the way as fast as you can.

That’s not entirely true. If you sit down like that every single morning at eight o’clock, you’ll develop your work/write habit, yeah, but there’s a tendency when you’re in that mindset to approach the whole thing in a very rational frame of mine, and we aren’t any of us very rational people. If you’re in that kind of frame of mind, and you get stuck, you’re going to give up on writing for that day in about fifteen minutes.

So sometimes when you sit down to write… you don’t write. You woolgather. You shut the fuck up and listen to the echoes in the empty spaces of your head, because those echoes are coming from somewhere — some whispers and hints and intuitions that are sneaking around just past the corner of your eye, and you need to lie still to trick them into the light. Do that. It’s okay.

Rules of Three

The basic idea here is to describe everything in your story by using three facts only. A good guideline, yes, but be ready to cast it aside when you need to. Maybe (like me) you never describe the physical characteristics of your main characters for the entire length of the story — the readers never find out if her hair is auburn or blonde, kinky or straight; what kind of shoes she likes, or what color her jacket, eyes, fingernail polish, or lip gloss are. If that’s the right thing to do for you, then go for it. On the flip slide, maybe you feel a pressing need to describe one particular character in your story in absolutely excruciating detail. Will anyone remember all that stuff? Hell no, but if you’re dishing that kind of detail, then the detail itself really isn’t the point; maybe it’s telling us something about how obsessed the observer is, or how fastidious the subject is, or… I dunno. I’m not you: I don’t know why you decided to drop a microscope on this guy, but if you did so, there’s probably a good reason for it, besides needing to bloat up your word count.

Right?

“Any word you have to look up in the thesaurus is the wrong word.” — Stephen King

I’m a big fan of this rule, but it’s one that attracts a lot of flak. Non-writers often comment with something like “But… what if I actually pick exactly the right word? Are you saying I’m stupid? Are you saying the thesaurus is always wrong?” Writers, on the other hand, can almost always trot out some example where they’re writing a character with a particular kind of vocabulary: someone who would never say shit when they can say excreta. Yes, fine: you’ve nitpicked the particulars of the statement to death; you win the Internet again. Go you.

They kind of miss the point of the statement, which (taken in context) is simply that you should write with the language and vocabulary that you have immediately to hand; the tools with the most worn and comfortable grips. Writing with those words helps you sound exactly like yourself on the page, and that helps your story’s authenticity and honesty. It helps the story be true, at least in the sense of a realization, if not as an actual fact. Taken in context, it’s a very nice rule.

And, of course, there are times when you should — when you must — ignore it. Aside from anything else, you will grow as a writer/reader, and your vocabulary will expand, and what was once a thesaurus-word may become a you-word. Even then, sometimes the word you need — the perfect word — will be a word only found in a thesaurus.

(I’m still suspicious of perfect words: perfect things are rarely true things, and true things are rarely perfect, and on the whole I’d rather be true than perfect, but I’ll leave that navel-gazing alone in this case.)

Kill Every Adverb

Oh… man. I dunno. This one is tough. I like this rule. This is a good rule. Adverbs are largely useless, lazy, slugabed motherfuckers and I won’t have anything to do with em.

But sometimes…

Sometimes… an adverb is just the right way to say it.

Sometimes. Yes. Fine.

God that hurt to write. Ouch.

Some Things Are Not Rules You Ignore

There’s a difference between rules and tools. Rules are the things I mentioned up above. We will learn when to ignore those, just as we’ll learn that most of the time we shouldn’t.

Tools are something different. Tools are things like spelling. Grammar. Punctuation. Tools require respect. You don’t paint your house with a screwdriver; you don’t frame a wall without your hammer.

Create whatever you want to create, but build the fucking thing correctly, is what I’m saying.

Leave the AWOL punctuation and a weird aversion to quotation marks to guys like Cormac McCarthy or Charles Frazier. On anyone else (and, in fact, even on them) it looks like pretentious fuckery, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Now, I need to get back to the woolgathering.

You: get back to work. Have fun.

Stuff that Helps that I used to Hate (#nanowrimo)

1. Write-ins

I’ve never been a fan of meeting new people. That’s an odd thing for an undeniable extrovert to say, but it’s true: walking up to a crowd of unfamiliar faces that all turn toward you with a blank lack of recognition? Not my favorite activity ever.

That reluctance kept me away from NaNoWriMo write-ins for many years.

The other thing that kept me away? The part where you go to a gathering of nanowrimo folks and don’t end up getting one fucking word written. Not really surprising, when you think about it: take a bunch of people who are working on a brand-new, shiny story, sit them all down with readily available caffeine, and watch them (us) turn into cute little chatty hunks of non-productivity.

That was my experience with write-ins for the first couple years I showed up. It got to the point where I didn’t go unless I was ahead on my word count for the day, and since I’m almost never ahead on my word count… well, you see where this is going.

Saturday was different, though. Saturday, after a long day in a long class, I decided to drop in at a local write-in to clear my head.

It won’t help me get caught up, I thought, but at least I’ll get a free nanowrimo monkey sticker out of it.

I showed up about an hour after it’d gotten started at the local bookstore (Tattered Cover), snagged a frozen latte, and walked over to the circle of couches and comfy chairs where our particular nerd herd tends to assemble.

Good turn out. Lots of folks, most of whom I didn’t recognize.

No one looked up.

I mean it: no one. Hands on the keyboards, butts in the chairs, eyes on the screen, tappity tap.

Damn, I thought. I found a chair, pulled out the writing machine, and got to it.

About fifteen minutes later, everyone suddenly looked up, blinked, and started chatting. Some got up to snag another coffee or hit the head. I looked around for the professional hypnotist. Folks compared word counts, chatted about disobedient main characters, compared their laptops and recommended writing software they liked. The local ML came over and hooked me up with my monkey sticker.

This… this was the nanowrimo write-in I knew; the one I expected.

About twenty minutes later, though, it all came to a stop again. Everyone was back, everyone got settled, and the ML said “Okay, are we ready for another sprint?” There was a general murmured agreement.

A gah what-now? I thought. The only time I heard that phrase was when I’d used Write or Die in the past.

“How long are we going this time?” she asked the group. “A little shorter? Fifteen?”

Again, agreement. She set a time on her laptop, tapped a key, and said “Go.”

They went. We went. Boom. Writing. Heads down, fingers going. Focused.

I may not know much about how the writer-brain works, but I’ll tell you one thing that’s pretty consistent: it responds to deadlines. It responds especially well to looming deadlines.

I take back everything I ever said about the write-ins. Maybe the (excellent) MLs in Denver are the only ones to figure this little trick out, but maybe not — and if not, I have to recommend dropping by a write-in in your area. Socializing with the other nanowrimo crazies is always a good thing in the long run, but now it’s something else: now it helps.

2. Twitter

Now, I like twitter, but I don’t love the easily available distraction it provides when you need to get some writing done, so what changed my mind? Two things.

2a. The #nanowrimo hashtag

If you need a little inspiration, I humbly recommend checking out the #nanowrimo hashtag on twitter. For one thing, it’s really kind of neat to see all these excited and creative people talking about what they’re working on, but it also really encourages to you to get your butt in a chair and write.

How does it do that? The same way that seeing a guy you really don’t with an “I Voted” sticker on his shirt will get you to the Ballot Booth — all it takes is about four tweets where some rat bastard is all like “Just broke 30k on my #nanowrimo WIP” to get me back in my chair. Shame and Resentment, baby: that’s what makes the world go ’round.

Yeah, yeah: “shared creative energy” blah blah blah… sure. Whatever. Bottom line? We wanna beat that other dude.

2b. NaNoWordSprints

I hadn’t heard about NaNoWordSprints until a few days ago, and I highly recommend it if you can’t make a write-in but still want that feeling of someone firing off a starting gun and saying “Go!” It’s like a write-in for shut-ins. It seems to be something semi-official being done by the NaNoWriMo folks. Check it out. Make Twitter actually help you out this year.

Here’s the Thing

Marathons are hard; even people who run them all the time know they’re hard. People who do them for fun are a) crazy and b) actually running a more difficult race than the ‘regulars’ are, because they probably trained less, run less, and may not really know what they’re getting themselves into. They show up for the race and the veteran runners are like:

This NaNoWriMo thing is the same kind of deal. As De points out, professional authors like to say they they do NaNoWriMo every month and while that’s a cute answer, it’s not – strictly speaking – true. Yeah, they’ll often knock out 50k in a month, but for most everyone doing NaNoWriMo, it’s not just about getting the word count, it’s about getting the word count while holding down another full time job, filling out TPS reports, getting the kids to school, taking care of all the things that need to be done around the house, and all that.

Have help. Make friends. Connect with the folks who are running this crazy-ass race with you — who also don’t know really know what they’re in for. The whole thing may drive you crazy, but at least you’ll have company.


(Personal hurrah: Hidden Things is heading back out to publishers today to see who salutes. I am pleased. Agent Shana is pleased. Even some of the editors getting it are pleased. A good way to start the day. I took a look at an old copy of Hidden Things this weekend — the version that I actually queried with several years ago — it’s approximately 68% the size of the current manuscript, and even that version was a far different animal than the very first NaNoWriMo copy. I will throat punch anyone who tells me their NaNoWriMo story is ready for publication as of December 1st. I will do so jovially, but still: throat punch.)

You do not need Neil Gaiman’s gazebo

I love November, I really do. From a writing point of view, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and creative energy floating around. I don’t know if that’s something that’s generated by NaNoWriMo, or if Chris Baty just tapped into it (possibly by accident) when he scheduled the event the second time around. (I suspect it’s the latter.)

Aside from the energy, I just like this time of year for the weather — fall is far and away my favorite season.

It’s one of those times of year when I really envy Neil Gaiman. Not for his writing (he has his, I have mine), or amazingly supportive group of friends (I also have that), or his dogs (got those), or daughters (got one of those too), or even his house (which is lovely, yes, but there’s too much snow in Wisconsin).

No, I envy him for this:

This is Neil’s Gazebo. It’s where he writes.

Nice, isn’t it? All the amenities, none of the distractions. It positively screams artistic and charming, and my god, I can’t even imagine what those trees look like right about now.

It makes me want to build a writing shed in my backyard. Seriously. I’m utterly fascinated by small, efficient living spaces, and have spent hours – even days – scanning sites like shedworking, drooling over videos like this one, and making sure that tumbleweed‘s monthly hit count stays up. Wouldn’t it be great to feed that obsession and get a whole new workspace out of it in the bargain? That’d mean my office inside the house would open up… We could use the extra bedroom…

*slaps self repeatedly*

*blinks*

Right. Where was I?

Ahh… right. I was daydreaming about a nice, personal, private, darling writing space.

Instead of writing.

I’m seeing that a lot right now. There are a lot of people out there who are supposed to be writing and are instead wasting their time trying to build Neil Gaiman’s gazebo. I see a couple of people doing it every day.

“Not me,” you think, smug in your superiority.

Oh really?

Let me give you a couple examples of what I’m talking about.

Every day, Twitter sends me a message (or two, or three) that reads something like this:

@writeria90210 is now following you on Twitter!

Bio: I’m a writer. I love writing and books. And writing books. This is my new twitter account devoted to writing.

See that? That’s a gazebo. @writeria90210 has some other twitter account, but decided to make another special twitter account just for writing. How charming and artistic. Their twitter account probably looks like this:

How about:

Bio: I am currently writing my debut novel and looking for a [sic] agent.

That’s a gazebo designed to house the cart that you bought before you bothered getting a horse.

Or this one:

Bio: Switching from @oldusername account to this @myrealname account, so that all my writing is associated with ME.

I think I’ll call that one “painting the gazebo”.

I don’t mean to pick on anyone, but I think it’s really important to call this what it is: procrastination. (My granddad, puttering around in the back of my head, wants to call it “bullshit”.)

Don’t get me wrong: I understand why you’re doing this. It feels nice to create these cozy little writerly spaces. As an added bonus, these little side projects are finite and quickly achievable; it doesn’t take much time to set up a new twitter account (believe me, I know), and boom: when you’re done, you have this whole new space to play around in. You’ve accomplished something.

Writing? Writing is a sort of a never-ending battle; sometimes it’s nice to have a battle that’s a little more… endy.

Plus, once this little space is created, there’s more stuff you can do with it! Get the throw pillows just so, adjust the light through the window, get the wallpaper up, and maybe… down near the end of the day… maybe write someth — Oooh! Or you can post stuff to the new twitter account! Even better! A series of 140 character posts, each one with a definitive end, and lovely little ‘ding’ of completion! So much more satisfying than the ongoing slog of your Work In Progress.

People: I understand. I really do. Scientists have done a lot of studies on procrastination, and their conclusion isn’t that we’re lazy: it’s that we simply like things that we can have now. (Hat tip to ***Dave for reminding me of that post.)

Their conclusion is also that we’re better people who make better stuff if we can manage a little delayed gratification.

That means no quaint and adorable writer space and more writing in whatever space you’ve got handy.

It means more writing instead of building gazebos (whatever form those gazebos happen to take): less twitterbation, fewer blog posts about ‘the process’ and ‘how the writing went this morning/this afternoon/this evening/yesterday’, fewer posted excerpts, less time “getting in the mood”.[1]

More writing.

Get back to it. The gazebo can wait.


1 – Anyone who knows me knows that I am guilty of all those things. If you feel I’m directing any of these comments out to the rest of the world with you in mind, remember one key thing: If it’s not about me, I’m probably not going to waste time talking about it. Sad, but true. XOXO