Moving Past the Trope: Creativity Through Lists

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At the moment, I’m brainstorming for a new novel, and I thought I might help myself along by writing about the process. (And by “help myself along” I mean make myself stop goofing off on Twitter.)

In the moment that any writer looks at a blank page without a good idea of what to put on it, the possibilities are basically infinite. I could write about anything, really, including a random jumble of geometric shapes and nonsense squiggles.

But I don’t, because I’m a fiction writer. And I like magic and crime. And I’m a white dude living in America 2017.

And each of those things narrow that range of infinite possibility, because there are some things I’m more likely to write than others. Sounds obvious, right? Sometimes it helps me to think through obvious things.

Other times, I narrow that range with an easy answer. So the question: “Who will be the main antagonist in this book?” could be answered quite easily with a trope: A vampire. A werewolf. A Voldemort. A Lucifer.

And that’s fine. Some people love those tropes and want to play with them. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s the intent. For me, it’s not the intent. I’m hoping to find something on the far side of that trope. Something weird or unusual that readers maybe haven’t seen before.

Some readers don’t like that. That’s fine. But for me, the question is always How do I get there?, and the answer is almost always With a list.

I came across the idea of using lists for creative purposes in a book about writing comedy, especially a standup comedy routine, and it’s served me well in my fantasy/horror books ever since. The first step is always to identify the question. The second is to list the easy answers I won’t use in my book

So, “Who will the the main antagonist in this book?”

Possible answers:

1. Werewolf
2. Vampire
3. Voldemort
4. Lucifer
5. Ghost
6. Genius Serial Killer
7. Shadowy Gov’t Agency

And on and on.

I put them on the list because I want them out of the way. I don’t have to think about them anymore because they’re already on the list.

And let me say once more that I’m not bashing these tropes. I’ve written two novels with werewolves in them, so I recognize that they exist to be used and they persist because of the readers who love them. But sometimes that’s not what I want.

Next, I force myself to keep going. I write down terrible answers, like “ghost horse” or “newborn god of public transit who’s sick of waiting for his human sacrifices”.

Eventually, I get to weird stuff, like maybe “super-intelligent hive-mind of wharf rats”. What do the rats want? How intelligent are they? Will they join the longshoreman’s union?

It’s weird. Twenty years ago, if you told me my most creative work would come from a nearly rote exercise of making lists, I would have been horrified. And yet, here I am, writing a book about a rat colony that share a single mind.

(Obviously, I’m just kidding. No way am I writing a rat book. The research alone would give me the heebie-jeebies.)

The State of the Novelist Address: I just sent a book to my agent

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I thought I’d pop in and update things for folks, writing-wise.

First, earlier this week I sent a new novel to my agent. It’s a crime/mystery novel, a genre I’ve been reading for years. This isn’t my first attempt at this style, but it is the first one that I feel comfortable with. Some aspects of it fall right down the middle of the genre, while some are probably all wrong and will make me tear my hair out in revisions. We’ll see! But it feels good to start a book and send it to her in under six months. I’m not usually that prolific.

Which means I’ve returned to revision on my Twenty Palaces novella. I know I’ve been talking about this for a while, but this mini-book has resisted several attempts to write it. At this point, I feel I’ve solved most of the problems and hope to have it on sale before the end of the year.

Once I finish that, I’ll be working on something new. No idea what it will be, but I’m just going to pick an idea that sounds cool and run with it.

Thank you for reading this, and being here.

It’s how you spend your free time: the power of small decisions

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One of my friends said something really smart on Sunday, and I thought I’d share it.

She and her partner live in Denver, and my son (who is 14) is planning to spend two weeks with them to pick their brains about Photoshop, After Effects, and a number of other programs they use. They make their living using all sorts of fancy software that I don’t know anything about, so he has a lot to learn in those two weeks.

ANYWAY. What she said, which I have to paraphrase because it was during an extended conversation, was: “What matters is how you spend your free time.”

To which I say: Yep.

Her story is that she was in college some years ago, learning software as part of her design class. I think it was Photoshop, but there was some cross-talk. Anyway, it was relatively new, and she and her friend were so fascinated by it that they spent their free time on a deep dive into the program, learning all the things it could do. In not time, the professor realized that she and her friend were more capable of teaching the software and asked them to do so. When she graduated, they offered her a teaching position.

It wasn’t because she was so good in class; it was because she was so engaged outside of it. The same is true of any kind of challenging field. If you want to be great in the arts, you have to cut out time from your daily life to practice and improve. That’s time you could be spending watching TV, going to the gym, sleeping in, playing video games, or making money.

If you click on the Tweet below, you’ll get a thread by comics writer Gail Simone on this very subject.

[Update: she deleted the whole thread. The gist was that people determined to be writers have to make the time to practice.]

I’ve tried to explain this to my son, because he acts like his great ambition is to be the best Overwatch player ever. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tempted to take away his computer games for good, even though he and I built a gaming computer for him just this past January. (Personally, I try to avoid most games because they’re addictive, and I’m vulnerable to that.) Choosing to spend all his free time playing video games is essentially choosing to be a regular joe with a joe job, and the US culture and economy squashes people like that now. If he’s going to be squashed, he ought to have the satisfaction of making art (or something!)

And what of myself? Thinking about spending down time always makes me audit myself, and I have to confess that I’ve been obsessing over Twitter and the election these past few months. It seems like my duty as a citizen to be as informed as possible, but how much of my time and energy do I REALLY need to devote to this? How much can I push off onto other citizens?

Clearly, I need to cut back and focus more on my work. The book I’m revising is complex and I need to get it to my agent so she can sell it. But Twitter is soooo tempting, almost like a video game.

And that’s the power of tiny decisions. Not the big stuff, like Where should I go to college or Should I quit my current job for that new one? No, the really important decisions are the huge clusters of tiny ones that we all make every day. Should I work on my book, or should I watch this tv show/go to the gym/hit the pub/etc?

Obviously no one can spend every spare moment of their lives writing (nor should they) but if you never choose writing over those other things that’s a clear statement of priorities.

[Added later: See also: Twelve Years from Hobbyist to Pro]

Sitting in the train station in Los Angeles

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Awaiting my last train ride home. In an hour, we board the Coast Starlight which will return us to Seattle about 35 hours from now. I’ve enjoyed the trip, but I’m so very ready to be home. I guess that means a 30-day trip was exactly right.

We slipped out to Olivera St.–the “Mexico replica” street beside the station, but every place was closed except one. We had delicious Mexican breakfasts and bought burritos for the train. I loved it, although my son scorched his tongue and the experience was therefore ruined.

I haven’t been following blogs, or LiveJournals, or anything except Twitter, and even that has been pretty sporadic. You can see some pretty terrible pictures at https://twitter.com/byharryconnolly/media mixing in among my other stuff.

As for my books, I’d hoped to finish One Man on this trip, but it’s too hard to write on the train. Too chaotic and distracting, even with my headphones on. Plus, a month of iffy sleep hasn’t left me at my best.

Soon, it will be over. I’ve really enjoyed this trip, but I’m ready to be back at my book in a big way.

Huge delay in my next book

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m not going to hit my NaNoWriMo goal. No big deal; I was just using it as a goad to pick up momentum with ONE MAN, my current WIP which has stalled.

It was a new thing for me, and it didn’t work.

What I realized on Wednesday was that I needed to start over. I plan to keep most of the 65K I’ve written so far, but I need to revise it extensively. The protagonist need to be someone else. I’m even going to give him a new name.

So today is the second beginning of my book. It’ll be a deeper, stronger story, and I’ll be able to make serious progress on it.

Sometimes I wish I could be one of those writers who finish a paragraph, tweak it here or there, then never look at it again. Sometimes I would like to be one of those writers to takes five years for a single book, and just keep revising like mad until it’s perfect.

Unfortunately, I’m me, and tossing a book so I can start over is part of how I work.

Portugal posts on hold, plus gaming and other stuff

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My kid is downloading Fallout 4, and we’re already into day 2 and it’s only half done. Our internet is bullshit, but I hate the idea of upgrading to a cable company for better. So while that’s using up our internet, no uploading pictures, so no posts for a short while.

My gaming group is about to start up a new game with a new system: BREACHWORLD. It’s been a while since we started a game with practically helpless level one characters. I’m concerned. My PC has zero fighting skills and the magical healing skill that’s his whole justification has a 16% chance of success.

I’m currently reading The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman. There’s all kinds of woo woo bullshit around being lucky, but (as I’ve mentioned before) a lot of luck seems to boil down to specific psychological traits and behaviors, like being open to meeting other people and so forth.

I’d like to be lucky. I’m giving it a try.

My NaNoWriMo is still bullshit. What I need to do is ruthlessly cut out everything from my life for a week or so just to get back into it. It doesn’t help that I have all kinds of distracting crap going on–not all of it bad, but still distracting. For example, our dishwasher broke and the landlord replaced it. The guy who put it in tore the front off our cabinet (and I didn’t even notice at first). Plus, I keep thinking I need to put together a Bookbub proposal and whip up reddit ads for my trilogy.

Stuff! There’s so much stuff all the time, and I just want to write my book.

My NaNoWriMo is off to an amazing start!

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It’s day six of NaNoWriMo.

I said I was going to give it a try this year because it’s been hard to get back into the swing of things after a month without any progress while I was in Portugal.

Words written so far this month: 1900.

Truthfully, I don’t give a shit about goals and monthly word counts. I just want to regain the momentum I used to have on this book, and I’m not sure how. Frankly, I think I’m going to have to blow off some of my current responsibilities so I can pick up the pace again.

I’m not feeling it.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: the way to pick up momentum is to start moving forward and don’t stop. That’s what I need to do, and that’s been really difficult.

I took 4 days off writing. Here’s why that’s okay.

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A while ago, I tweeted this:

I joke a lot on Twitter, but that’s an actual thing I do to motivate me to get out of bed: I imagine the burning regret I will feel for every minute of my wasted life, because there have been a lot of them.

For me, a lot of the work I’ve done to make myself a better writer has been about increasing my productivity. When I first started out, I could barely get through a few hundred words a day. Finishing anything took forever, and everything I finished was mostly bullshit, and it was all so incredibly hard.

It took me a while to realize why I couldn’t get anything done: I’m easily distracted. Looking out the window, checking the internet, oooh that book looks interesting… all of it stole my time and attention away.

Then there’s the daydreaming, and I don’t mean about my characters or what they’re feeling. I’m talking about stupid shit like wondering if I could hit one of the rats running through the tree outside with an arrow, or what I would say to encourage JRR Tolkien if I could time travel back to the time he was struggling with Fellowship…. Really useless, stupid shit.

But I learned that working slowly was hurting me. Too many word echoes. Too many continuity errors. Poor pacing. I became a much better writer when I taught myself to speed up. I’m still not all that fast, but I’m better than I was.

The thing is, I suspect I’ve hit my personal upper limit.

Recently, I challenged myself to accomplish 10k words a week, with the added incentive that I could take days off, guilt-free, if I hit goal early. Why not? I’d certainly managed 2k or 2.5K on dedicated writing days. If I could manage five days of two thousand words each, I could take two whole days off and feel fine about it.

And it worked. For one week. Then I had to stop because I realized I was just typing out weirdly detailed extraneous bullshit about every minute detail of whatever behavior was happening in my mind’s eye. Everything was draggy and dull and bloated. So I stopped, tossed aside my dumb new plan, and took a couple of days to do nothing.

Check out Chuck Wendig’s post here about his productivity. Chuck writes quickly, finishing a few books a year. His stuff is popular (unless you love Mandalorians more than you probably should) and he gets critical raves, too. But, as he says in his post, this is what works for him. As much as I would like to be that prolific, it just ain’t gonna happen. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

(One place I would disagree with Chuck is this statement: “Fourth and finally, and I’m mighty sorry to report this, but a full-time writing career is not easily maintained by writing slowly.” I’d suggest a writing career isn’t easily maintained in general, and there are plenty of authors doing very well releasing books slowly. GRRM, Susanna Clarke, Pat Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch each have probably sold more copies of their latest than I will sell in a lifetime, but it has nothing to do with writing books quickly)

And this is why (to finally get around to the point of this post) I would warn people against gamifying your writing output. Yeah, I just spent a couple hundred words talking about increasing productivity and finding what works for you, but turning your process into a game, with points and levels, strikes me as leaning way too hard on productivity.

Because increasing productivity can be harmful to our work and our legacy, if we’re lucky enough to have one. It might be pleasant to award ourselves points for submitting stories, but if the stories don’t sell, then what good is it? Better to award points for actually selling work to a publisher, which supposedly writers can’t control, but if the work is solid and we’re putting them into the hands of buyers, we’ll eventually hit the mark.

And that’s why I cut off a productivity experiment. It was turning my fast-paced thriller into yet another bloated fantasy, and that sucks. Yeah, it would be great to write four books a year that were critical and popular darlings. It would be great to write a book every four years that readers turned into instant best-sellers. It would, in fact, be great to revive my moribund writing career so that I could maybe hit the midlist someday.

But then I read something like this and I’m reminded that I simply need to keep doing what I do, for the reasons I do it. I need to keep pushing myself toward better, more personal, more original stories, and productivity is secondary.

Not fair

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I return to the rallying cry of my son, from several years ago. Because guess what: shit is not going my way right now.

The continuing heat wave we’ve been suffering has been triggering my allergies. I take my anti-histamines, but I still itch down my back and along my arms.

Yeah, I know that our temps aren’t nearly as high as the temps in other parts of the country (low 90’s), but other parts of the country have air conditioning, or at least buildings that are meant to pass a breeze through them. Seattle, not so much. Bad enough that we have to run baseboard electric heat in the winter (with no insulation in the walls at all, and no storm door) but in the summer there’s nothing but to set a fan beside me and keep still.

On top of that, last weekend I had a sudden recurrence of my back spasms. It’s been years since my back gave me any trouble, but I confess that I’ve let my stretching and exercises lapse over the last few months while I wrap up the Kickstarter, and now I’m paying the price. Exercise is slowly making things better, but the sudden jab of pain when I turn my body the wrong way is not conducive to careful thought.

And I just burned my hand on the oven door.

Which is pretty fucking annoying, because I’ve finally begun work on the first book of a new series, but almost everything about my life is conspiring against me actually getting anything done. I have to work out details of the plot and the world-building, but between itchy hives and sudden jabs of/lingering pain, I can’t fucking concentrate.

Still I have an interesting book to read, and homeschooling to manage. Something will get done, if not as much as I’d hoped. I just wish I could finish the prep for this book so I could start it.

Progress is being made: Fate Core style

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Happy news to be shared: I finished the (very) rough draft of the Fate Core rpg supplement for The Great Way. First of all, yay. Fucking yay. Second of all, writing game supplements is really hard. I have never written anything this dense before.

Anyway, I need to finish the supplement for Key/Egg, too, then do another pass through before I pass the pages off to a GM friend of mine for inspection. Then there will be yet another pass, and it’ll be done.

And when it’s done, I can FINALLY move on to my new novel.