No Permits Necessary

Reading through some online forums about writing, one thing that always strikes me is the pervasive sense that there are rules. Now, you can tell from the title of this blog (and the book it’s promoting, coming out next year) that I don’t really think there are many rules when it comes to writing, but a lot of writing-related questions center on what’s “permissible” or “allowed.” As if there’s some sort of international court of literary pursuits that will hand down judgments.

Questions like “how many characters should this story have” or “is it permissible to begin the story this way” miss the point of creativity. There are no permits to be issued. You’re on your own.

Writing is Thunderdome

A writer friend and I have been engaged in a circular argument for decades now concerning movie reboots. His position is that reboots are almost always wastes of time because they’re usually rebooting a perfectly good movie to begin with—and almost all reboots are inferior. My position is that any idea can work. There’s no fatal flaw in the basis of the idea—say, the fact that it’s a reboot or remake—that dooms it. You can take a story that’s been done before and improve on it. Or fail to do so. But that’s a flaw of execution, not ideas.

And that’s the thing about writing. It’s Thunderdome. You can try anything you want, and if you pull it off it’ll be great. And if you fail to pull it off, you’ll get crushed. It’s that simple.

People like rules because it’s comforting. They like patterns and formulas because it makes it seem like a step-by-step guide to success. And yes, to some extent following rules or a formula can lead to a successful story—but so can winging it, or actively breaking rules. If you have the urge to ask, is it permissible to do this? why not just do it and find out?

Have a dead narrator? Have one hundred characters? Lie to the reader? Why not. If you don’t pull it off people will tell you it was a bad idea—but it won’t have been. It’ll simply be an idea you failed to pull off. That’s the bottom line: A bad idea is just an idea you failed to pull off.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go work on my reboot of The Sound and the Fury in which the whole thing is narrated by Benjy. You’re welcome.

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Dialogue: Sweat the Small Stuff

Writing good dialog means writing dialogue that seems natural even if it isn’t (because we don’t speak the way we write speech), that entertains, and that does a bit of work for the story, or for the characters. Dialogue is an excellent way to world-build, to flesh out your characters, and to get exposition into the story without just dumping it.

That doesn’t mean that every single line of dialogue you write has to be larded with purpose. Trying to make every single sentence spoken by your characters do plot work or offer back story will result in some pretty stilted and unhappy conversations in your book, and trust me: Stilted and unnatural aren’t words you want to hear in reference to your writing.

That’s why it’s important to relax a little with your dialogue. In real life, we have this stuff called small talk. Some people deprecate small talk as a waste of valuable existence, but the fact is it plays a vital role in our lives. Small talk is how we ease into conversations and situations. It grounds us in a universal pool of communication, a common ground from which to operate. So instead of deprecating small talk in your writing, embrace it.

Talk About the Weather

Small talk, humorous exchanges, the sort of chatter that doesn’t do any kind of plot work can be just as revealing as portentous dialogue that is just a series of info-dumps, anvilicious revelations, and dramatic reveals. You can learn a lot about a person from their small talk. You can learn how socially skilled they are, what their sense of humor is like, what they consider to be important.

While you certainly want to avoid lengthy exchanges of meaningless pleasantries, small talk is a great way to inject a bit of humor into your story and a great way to shade your characters with some complexity. If your character is in a tense, action-packed, hyper-real situation from page one the reader can get a little exhausted, and the best way to get your reader to think of your characters as people they care about is to give them a little sense of what they’re like when they’re not fighting demons or hunting foreign spies or solving crimes. And small talk is a great way to do that efficiently.

The urge to make every sentence a masterpiece of tension, drama, and plot twists can be considerable, but that book will read like a parody. If you want the big wham lines to land, you have to get small.

Put Down a Marker

Creativity is a funny thing. Sometimes it comes at you fast and furious and you can’t possibly write fast enough to capture all of your ideas, and you wind up with a series of word processing files on your hard drive, each containing a single mysterious sentence that was once a flaming idea in your head. And then, just as quickly, you find yourself staring at a page, uncertain what happens next or if it’s even worth grinding through this chapter. Why not just set the house on fire and start over under a new name somewhere? Easier than finishing this terrible novel you’re writing.

To jump-start your creativity, you sometimes have to challenge yourself. The brain can get bored with doing things the same way all the time, and our obsessions sometimes guide us into writing about the same things over and over again, just dressed up with new plots and characters.

One thing I try, usually in my short fiction, is to put down a marker. By that I mean I’ll sometimes start a short story with a premise requiring a solution—with zero idea of how to solve it. Then you shout CHALLENGE ACCEPTED and set off to figure it out.

Challenge … Accepted?

This works best with mysteries of some sort. An example would be a locked-room mystery story: A victim is found in a room with one door, locked from the inside in a way that couldn’t be done from outside. They’ve been stabbed, but there’s no blood in the body! How in the world was this crime committed?

I have no idea. I just made that up. And it’ll be one hell of a solution … if I can find it.

I often fail at these challenges. Just because you set down a marker doesn’t mean you’re going to win. But it forces your brain to churn, and as you circle the problem you’re going to find compartments within yourself you weren’t even aware of. And every now and then, you DO solve the puzzle and wind up with a really amazing premise for a story that’s either perfect as-is or the basis of a genius novel. Either way, you win.

Resist Your Rut

The other day I went to the grocery store with a short list of items on a list, one of which was a certain kind of popcorn my wife, The Duchess, likes. In the popcorn aisle, however, there was confusion and despair, because I couldn’t tell which one of the several dozen varieties of popcorn my wife intended, so I took a photo of the choices and sent it to The Duchess, then called her as I moved on to gather the other items on my list. We chatted about all things popcorn while I shopped, she clarified her request, we hung up, and then I checked out without actually going back to buy the popcorn. I simply forgot all about it.

Routine is my friend largely because my memory has always been epically poor; I forget things within moments. If this were a new development in my dotage I’d be worried, but the fact is I’ve always been this way. I can forget things at a worrying pace. There’s a weird moment I’m aware of when thinking about something somehow clicks over to having done it in my brain. Like the popcorn: I thought about buying it, and therefore my brain reported it as having been bought.

As a result, I like a good rut. Putting things in exactly the same place and doing things in exactly the same way day in and day out helps me to remember things like my wallet, keys, and phone, and a routine helps me to always go to the places I need to be. Yes, I’m like a brain-damaged puppy, what of it?

This extends to my writing; I like a good rut because it means I will always find time to write. If I wing my schedule, writing often disappears because I simply run out of time. And I like to approach writing ritualistically because doing it the same way every day helps ensure I actually, you know, write. Without a routine and a rut, I’d be lost.

But sometimes, you have to break out of your rut.

Seeing the Rut

Ruts and routines are useful for getting work done, but not always useful for inspiration and creativity. Finding the balance between a routine that allows you have time to write and get words on the page and a sense of adventure that allows you to, you know, be creative and produce good work is always going to be a challenge.

One thing I try to do is to simply swap some time. For example, normally I work on freelance pay-the-bills writing in the morning and get to fiction in the afternoon, because I like to feel like I’ve paid some bills before I have fun. But sometimes it’s useful to push the freelance work and put some time into a novel in the morning. It feels like a fresh field of snow to write at a different time of day, and it tricks your brain into seeing things fresh.

Of course, even a new routine will slowly lose its freshness and become a new rut. You have to surprise yourself on a constant basis. And when in doubt, just start day-drinking. Any writing you do while drunk will be crap, but believe me, nothing blows up your routines like having a killer hangover at 3PM.

Writing What Matters to You

A lot of young writers get lost in the weeds, wondering what they should be focusing on. Questions like “how much should I focus on X” or “how much time should I spend on X” often show the weakness of feedback more than a weakness in your own writing; showing your work to Beta Readers opens up the floodgates for negative feedback that cause you to doubt yourself. One reader says “there’s too much focus on the back-story” leads you to scale back that aspect in a revision, but then another readers says “I need more info on their back story” and you’re in a tailspin of revisions, seeking some perfect balance that, frankly, doesn’t exist.

This leads a lot of writers to ask about specific, replicable formulas—as if there are precise values we can assign to things. You’ll never get answers to those questions, at least not meaningful ones. You can’t say “5% of your novel should be back story” or “5% of your novel should be spent on how your character lives a normal day.” It’s even more fraught in speculative fiction, where writers spend a lot of energy wondering what aspects of a fictional universe to concentrate on—like, do you have to discuss how your fictional culture views everything, from animal cruelty to humor? If so, how many words do you have to devote to the standup comedy of your fictional people?

These kinds of formulas simply do not exist. And it’s not that hard, actually. All you have to do when writing is write the stuff that matters to you, and you’ll be fine.

You Do You

The key to writing is always very simple: Write about what you’re interested in. What aspects of your character do you want to know about? What pieces of the fictional universe do you want to explore? It really is that simple. Write about the things you want to know more about, and you’ll be fine.

Because it’s impossible to cover every single detail, and not all details are created equal. It’s always useful to ask yourself who might actually care about the standup comedy routines of your alien culture, and whether it makes any difference to your plot. Not every detail you explore needs to do plot work, of course, but if there’s no plot-relevant reason for it, and you’re not particularly interested in it yourself, then … why bother writing it in?

Writing and reading are inextricably linked. If you write about the stuff you’d want to read about and forget the stuff you’re not interested in, you’re more than halfway there.

Of course, you can always overwrite and cut stuff out in revision. Which is what I do when I write about what I’m interested in and wind up with hundreds of pages of cocktail recipes.

Surviving a Novel: Diversionary Tactics

In a lot of ways, Plotting and Pantsing aren’t such different approaches to writing a novel. Really, they’re just time-shifted ways of doing the same thing. Plotters try to work it all out in advance, Pantsers try to just let inspiration be their guide, but either way you find yourself at the same plot moments, and you’ll struggle at similar points when you’ve written yourself into a bit of a corner.

Every writer, whether staring down at a neat outline or riffling through hundreds of pages of already-completed manuscript, has hit that moment when they don’t know what happens next in their plot. Sometimes you’ve maneuvered your characters into a spot you can’t get them out of, sometimes you just don’t know what to throw at them next, or how to get from A to B.

When that happens to me, I save my file, close it, open a blank file, and start a short story.

Outfoxing Myself

The brain is a wonderful thing, and it’s going to keep working on your story even when you’re not consciously thinking about it. Sometimes, though, when you’re staring at a problem you get in your own way. The best thing to do is to trick yourself.

When I start a short story in the middle of a novel, it’s like hitting the reset button, because my brain shoots back into Beginning Mode, where the blank page is all possibility, instead of Problem Mode, where the blank page is all block and confusion. I get back to that crazy energy at the beginning of any story, when you’re excited and the story could branch off into any of a zillion possible routes. It’s very cathartic when I’ve been stuck on a plot point for a long time.

It doesn’t matter what the story is about, or whether it turns out to be any good. All that matters is that I take a break from my current plot problem and think on something else for a while. Just about every time I try this technique, I come back to my novel with a new idea for solving whatever plot problem I’ve been wrestling with. It’s basically tricking yourself, but it works.

Plus, you get a bonus short story that maybe you can sell somewhere. Or, sometimes, a rambling short story that ends with everyone dying in a plane crash because that story also led you to a maddening dead end. In writing, it’s often turtles all the way down—or, you know, instead of turtles, failed stories. I need a drink.

Mama Mia: Inspiration from Unlikely Sources

The brain is a curious thing. As writers, we all know that lightning-bolt moment when an idea hits us. Sometimes it’s while consuming some other bit of art—a movie, or book, or TV show. We see a plot thread, or a scene that doesn’t go where we want it to go, or just a story we wish we could have come up with. In order to steal it, you have to rub off the serial number and round off the edges, and in doing so it becomes something wholly unique, wholly yours.

I don’t know about other writers, but I am less in control of this process than I’d like, because my brain serves up ideas at the oddest moments. For example, during a performance of the Broadway musical Mama Mia!

Not My Idea

I didn’t want to see Mama Mia!, my wife, The Duchess, did. This was a long time ago. I’d been struggling with a novel at the time; I’d started it a bunch of times, wallowed in tens of thousands of words that didn’t really work or gel into anything solid. The Duchess decided we had to go see the show, and so we went, and I’ll admit to being a little bored; ABBA songs are not my jam, and the story seemed a bit thin. I mean, people were having a great time, it just wasn’t for me.

So, my mind wandered. And the basic plot of Mama Mia! (a young woman invites three men who could possibly be her father to her wedding in hopes of figuring out which one is her Dad) seeped in there, and suddenly, in the middle of the performance I realized the story I was writing wasn’t about the characters I’d been focused on, but the family behind them.

The first line of the book came to me right there while the actors cavorted on the stage in their glorious 1970s disco threads: This is a story about my father. And then, I thought, after that first line there would never be a direct mention of the father at all! CLEVER.

I wrote that book. And it didn’t work. That happens sometimes; sometimes the flash of exciting inspiration doesn’t lead to a great novel.

I revised the book a few times, and finally, about ten years later, I figured it out, and it might get published someday, we’ll see. The first line is no long this is a story about my father, so it’ll be interesting to see if anyone recognizes it.

So there you go: Sometimes all you need is some disco music. Although the fact that you could bring your alcoholic beverages back to your seat might have had something to do with it, also.

Don’t Write Every Day

“Writers write, every day” is one of those things you’ll hear a lot when you’re coming up as a writer. It’s one of those easy bits of advice that every single writer seems to throw around, implying that if you ever let a 24-hour period go by without putting some words down, your writing ability shrinks like some sort of role-playing character attribute afflicted by a mysterious roll of the die.

This is bullshit.

You know what? If you don’t feel like writing today, don’t. I guarantee you it won’t have any ill effects.

Making Writing a Chore

Look, as with most common advice in the writing world, there’s a kernel of goodness in the “write every day” scold. You do need to commit to writing if you’re going to finish everything, and getting words down on paper or pixel requires discipline. Boiling that down to the one size fits all admonishment that “writers write every day” takes the complex issue of how you can get work done and turns it into a flashy bit of pithy advice. In my experience, the pithier the advice, the less useful it is.

Only you know your schedule. Only you know the state of your mental exhaustion. Only you know whether you’re inspired or not tonight. And if you’re exhausted, or uninspired, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t take a day off and go play some video games, or read someone else’s writing. Plenty of famous, successful writers take time off from writing, sometimes going a very long time between projects. When it comes to your writing schedule, you do you.

Of course, if you always give yourself permission to do something else, you will fall into the trap this pithy advice is designed to prevent: You’ll never get anything done. The point though, is that you have to figure out how to defend against that. Maybe making yourself sit down and write every day works for you. Maybe it doesn’t. It’s up to you.

For some, the whole “writers writer every day” thing is more about identifying as a writer and less about actually creating great stories. If forcing yourself to write every day without fail works for you, great. If it doesn’t, don’t fret. You’re still a real writer.

Surprise Yourself

One mistake a lot of writers make is to forget to look at their work like a reader. Writing requires a certain mind-frame, a distancing from your subject matter. You have to be a sort of dispassionate god of your fictional universe, moving chess pieces around and casually destroying villages and slaughtering populations, putting your hero in jail or murdering their wives.

But you can take that distance too far and get lost in your own references, your own cleverness, your own intricate technique. And you can get too attached to the plot you think you’re writing, and ignore the fact that it’s not working and getting less and less interesting, because you’re thinking too much like a writer, impressed with how you’re solving plot problems that a reader would never even see.

If you’re finding the book to be a bit of a struggle, if you’re less and less excited about what you’re doing, it’s time to step back and think more like a reader—and surprise yourself with a plot move that even you weren’t expecting.

When I was a very, very young novelist I wrote a sci-fi novel—the first novel I sold, technically (there was a contract, but the company went out of business before it could publish)—and I got bogged down halfway through, uncertain of where I was going. So I suddenly had the main character arrive at a planet where magic appeared to work in a standard sort of epic fantasy setting. And it was delirious and insane, but it got me super excited about how to tie everything together, and that’s what led me to finish the novel.

The Crazy Ivan

This sort of out-of-left-field plot device is a bomb that blows up your narrative, of course. You were writing a police procedural thriller, and suddenly vampires show up and start tearing people apart. You were working on an epic fantasy about a religious war in a universe where the gods are alive and involved like the old myths, and suddenly it’s revealed as a holographic illusion that’s contracted a computer virus. All your careful plans, ruined.

But ruined in an exciting way, because for a moment you’re just as amazed and stunned as the reader would be—and that’s powerful. You get a glimpse of what it would be like to actually read your novel without any idea of what’s coming.

And, sure, it’s probably disaster. Those kinds of crazy swerves can destroy the clockwork of your universe, undermine characters, and generally sow nothing but chaos. But if your story isn’t working anyway, why not? Throw some magic into a hard-sci fi world, and see what happens.

Or get really, really drunk. That sometimes works too.

Suck It Up

There aren’t a lot of rules when it comes to actually writing a story or novel (I would say that, wouldn’t I, considering that’s the title of my book?). Writing a story can be accomplished in an infinite number of ways, and there are endless strategies for fixing up plots, fleshing out characters, and stringing ideas together into great concepts. There’s simply no right way to write.

There are, however, some rules that do apply to the writing life in general. One that came to mind recently was this: If you ask for feedback on a story or idea, you have to take that feedback like a grownup.

Sucking It Up

I was out with a fellow writer the other day, enjoying a few beers and chatting. The subject of his WIP came up. He’s usually a bit cagey about what he’s working on, but he smiled and asked me if he could lay out his concept for the book. I was happy to hear it, and then he asked me what I thought, and I told him: It was a great idea with a lot of potential, but the story he’d described to me was flabby. It was a series of incidents without a central conflict for the character. The incidents themselves were interesting, but it didn’t hold together as a story.

My friend didn’t like that. He didn’t complain or punch me in the nose, but he got a little … grumpy. It became obvious that he hadn’t been looking for real feedback, he’d just wanted a pat on the back. He wanted me to say wow, that’s great stuff! and move on.

And that’s bullshit. Look, if you ask someone to listen to your ideas, you have to accept the fact that just about everyone will give you at least a kernel of negative feedback. It’s human nature—what I sometimes call Challenge, Accepted! Syndrome. We all want to prove our smarts, so when you tell us your idea or give us a manuscript to read, we’ll look for stuff to critique.

It’s annoying, sometimes, and often not helpful. But it’s the way it is, and as a writer if you ask someone for feedback you cannot then complain about the quality or tone of that feedback. You have to just smile, say thanks for your thoughts, and grouse privately about it. And, very likely, slowly come to realize that there was some real truth in that negative feedback and start the sad work of dealing with it.

These moments are, after all, why beer was invented in the first place. Order another round and then get back to work.