Week 3 of 2019 in Review

Trying out a new post format, both to keep a record of my year and to share good content:

  1. Reading: Widdenshins the comic. A delightful magic-infused set in a semi-Victorian light-steampunk world. There are seven volumes published to date comprising a major story arc – and you can read it all online here.
  2. Listening: Ragnatalk by Anthony Carboni and Chuck Wendig, a podcast dedicated to an in-depth discussion of the movie Thor: Ragnarok. It’s both hilarious and great insight into storytelling.
  3. Also listening: Short Change Hero by The Heavy. Been obsessed with that song ever since I heard it in the opening cinematic of Borderlands 2.
  4. Playing: Borderlands 2. I was late to the console party, and I had to play through several easier games before attempting a first-person shooter. The game has an excellent story and is chock full of extremely colorful characters. Here’s a video showcasing one of the all-time fan favorite, Tiny Tina.
  5. Uh, apping? Encouraged by Nicole Dieker, who is known for her work on the Writing and Money podcast series and The Billfold website, I tried YNAB aka You Need a Budget in order to get a better idea of where my money’s going, and it’s been very educational so far.
  6. Cooking: pre-Brexit Britain is probably the worst time and place to do a Pantry Challenge, but I’ve been doing a softcore version thereof by cooking something with just the stuff in the house, at least once a week. This week featured a buckwheat and veg faux saag (scroll to the very bottom of the post for the recipe)
  7. Random thing I really liked: the complaints of medieval scribes recorded in the margins:

Grain and veg saag-like thing

  • Dice an onion and tomato, and fry them in some vegetable oil until the onion is transparent or light brown.
  • Make the resulting mixture resemble a saag by adding turmeric, cumin and mustard seeds. Stir the spices in until everything looks yellow and smells nice.
  • Add other vegetables of choice, diced or chopped. I used a mix of chickpeas and spinach. If using frozen veg, blast them in the microwave first. Stir in and cook for a few minutes.
  • Cook a grain of choice to the ready-to-eat state (rice, buckwheat, quinoa, whatever). Drain if necessary, dump into the frying pan, stir everything together, cook some more depending on how mushy or crispy you want it.

Your Story’s Way of Telling You: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Featured image by Drew Coffman

This week, my editing efforts seemed to have run into a brick wall when my approach to a (by design) exposition-heavy chapter started as a light edit and ended up as AAAAAARGH. Part of the reason was that the Piece of Sci-Fi Technology Used for Evil I was introducing in the chapter had been conceived a good five years ago, and when I wrote out exactly what it could do, my concusion was that 90% of the Technology’s capacity was not science fiction, but the story of Cambridge Analytica. My main problem wasn’t the need to ramp up the fi in the sci-fi, though – it was the realization that I’ve never really put the Technology’s ultimate purpose into words.

I mean, I knew that Technology existed to spread propaganda of Isolationist Message for the benefit of Evil Corporate Government. But at no point before had I actually asked myself: okay, but how exactly does the ECG benefit from its citizens believing in Isolationist Message? That marked the transition of the ECG’s image in my mind from a vague capitalist blob into a collective of people with interests, opinions, egos, and history. (More on that in another blog about the perils of writing a story without a supervillain.)

This is hardly the first “brick wall” moment in my writing or editing process. In the past, whenever I’d find myself rewriting the same chunk of story over and over again, the problem usually lay either before or behind the problematic piece. In the former case, I’d likely railroaded my characters into an unnatural place – so no wonder I couldn’t get them to act naturally anymore. In the latter, I had likely tried to build story without laying some backstory groundwork, so now I was trying to bullshit my way through instead of getting to the point.

Going even further back, when I tried to write the synopsis of First Original Novel I Ever Finished, I would fail miserably time and time again. I managed to cobble something together eventually, but looking back now I can see what my real problem was: it wasn’t as much of a story as of a string of events happening one after another. Try to synopsize an average day in your life, and you’ll see what I mean.

My conclusion from the numerous run-ins with these brick walls is: when the story seems to fall apart or get stuck in place, maybe it’s trying to tell you something. Maybe that’s the story’s way of saying “It’s not you, it’s me”. As in, there’s nothing wrong with you, the writer. You’re not blocked, you’re not stupid, you didn’t suddenly lose the ability to write. The problem’s in the story itself. Maybe you need to back up and figure out something about your world or your characters. Maybe you need to rethink some bigger things, like what are the stakes, what’s the conflict, where’s the growth, etc. Maybe you actually need to take your narrative apart and reassemble it in a different way. In the past year, I’ve done all of the above, to a varying extent, and my gut tells me that I’ve got a much better book to show for it (and I’m not even done yet).

Anyone having similar writing experiences? Tell me about your brick walls!

Good Books for Creatives: Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Let me preface by saying that I’m very skeptical of self-help books and writing advice. Books that combine both tend to be on my permanent no-fly list. Thus, I went into Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills fully ready to abandon the book as soon as it suggested a specific morning routine, 4-30 am wake time, or any similarly unicorn practices.

That didn’t happen. What did happen was a series of frantic highlighting on my tablet, and said tablet being brandished at every family member available as I proclaimed, “She gets it! No, really, She Gets It. Ohmygahd.”

This is how Jessica’s book is different from many other books for creatives: it doesn’t promise to transform you into a productive individual and a morning person with a bulletproof schedule. The full title of the book is Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life – and it literally does what it says on the cover. The core premise of the book is not to transform your life; it’s to give you the tools with which to manage the life you’ve got. To, indeed, grow gills instead of expending your energy paddling towards a shore that may not even be there.

If I could summarize this book in one sentence, it would be: “You do you; here’s how.” There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. No affirmations (unless that’s what works for you). No morning pages (unless that’s what works for you). Basically, Jessica has you take stock of the goals you want to achieve, then take stock of the life you’ve got, and then work on ways to slot the former into the latter. Oh, and she’s totally on to you, frequently reminding the reader that just reading this stuff without doing won’t bring change. (As I said, she GETS it.)

For me personally, Growing Gills became a tool with which I went from being afraid to restart art after recovering from a long burnout, to working on my art on a reasonably regular basis without neglecting my paid work, family, or health. Equally importantly, I believe that I’m a good chunk of the way to figuring out the balance of productivity and sustainability that works for me.

So whatever your goals, if you can use more balance in your life, I strongly recommend you check out Growing Gills. Oh, and if you made a New Year’s resolution to “work on [insert thing here] more in 2019,” make sure to go and say hi to the Should Monster.

Do it.

My Novel is 0.1% Coffee, 0.1% Firebird Trans Am

This is official: my book is 01.% coffee and 0.1% Firebird Trans Am. Photo by David Bares from Pexels

This is the kind of thing you do at the end of the work week, when the brain is refusing to produce any more remotely creative content. You run a search to see how often certain words occur in your manuscript. (Don’t judge me.)

Here’s what I found:

  • Once we get past the articles, prepositions, pronouns and some common verbs, the most commonly used word in the story is the name of the story’s protagonist’s friend and mentor, Weatherman – which is suitably representative of his importance in the protag’s life, considering that Weatherman himself is off-screen for large chunks of the story at a time. By comparison, the protagonist’s own name, Rain, is used half as often (to be fair, it’s a first-person POV story)
  • Interestingly enough, the names of most recurring characters used in the story are very close together, frequency-wise, even though I tend to think of all of them not having that much screen time. Notably, Rain’s car, Firebird, gets as many mentions as anyone else, in the region of 140.
  • There’s a chance that Rain smokes more than he’s willing to admit, seeing as word “cigarette” alone is used 66 times, and “smoke” another 45. To be fair, he’s not the only smoker in the story: I’m willing to bet that a good chunk of these can be attributed to his doppelganger.
  • Coffee, though, is definitely the most important substance in the story, with the word used 128 times in a roughly 130,000 word manuscript. This is official: my book is 0.1% coffee.
  • I’m going to finish on an uplifting note. Rain’s history and personality combined give light, fire, and darkness all important roles in his story, both symbolically and literally. Well, I’m happy to say that, no matter how dark the story can get sometimes, it’s literally not all doom and gloom: combined, the words “light” and “fire” are used more than twice as much as “dark” and “darkness”.

Residue of the Writing Process (ft. a threatening Pusheen)

A lot of my current process-sharing is inspired by Austin Kleon. This post is no exception – it is directly inspired by his blog titled The Residue of Creativity.

Even though I finish my work digitally, the first drafts are almost invariably written down longhand. As a result, stuff piles up, which can be fascinating to look at later. Here’s some of the residue of my writing work, starting with a blatantly staged shot from a few years ago that I called “A Novel: Exploded View.” (Staged or not, all the stuff in here is from the real process).

A Novel: Exploded View

I also had a delightfully teenage period when I’d use the inside covers of my moleskines as a scrapbook to paste images relevant to the story (including my protag’s face claim).

On occasion, my friend and my partner added their own illustrations to drafts made available to them. Both tended to focus on the protag’s ongoing fear of the dark, but seemed to take different sides:

Finally, taking dialogue notes on Pusheen stationery results in the darling cat saying some shockingly threatening stuff. (Transcribed in the captions, as I don’t expect you to read my handwriting.)

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P.S. Just watching a slideshow of these notes makes me want to start a project where I put the most threatening quotes from my book in the mouths of adorable creatures pictured on stationery…