Act Weird, Or, Hunting The Wild Story

Great Horned OwlCrossposted to the Deadline Dames, where there are giveaways, and cake that is not a lie. Check us out!

There’s that old saw–you never learn to write a book, you only learn how to write the book you’re writing now.

What do you know, it’s true.

Some books grow in layers around a single scene–for example, Heaven’s Spite grew out of the image of Jill Kismet sitting in a flaming circle with a gun, her back to the wall and an odd look of utter calm on her face. There are the books that grow from the first line–by the time you hear the first syllable, the rest of the book is a shining path, a cut has already been made. (Dante Valentine half-whispering, My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Monday…) There’s the books that won’t go away–Nameless, which has been rolling around inside my head forever–and slide out in huge jagged, painful, bloody chunks. There’s the fun galloping rides (Damnation, anyone?) and the Christ-I-Keep-Stabbing-But-It-Won’t-Die-And-The-Only-Thing-Keeping-Me-Going-Is-Sheer-Stubbornness ones, which come in an infinity of flavours.

Each one takes a different path, and takes a different sort of grit to endure. The Valentine series generally called for me to simply put my head down and endure; the Kismet books were generally angry writing sessions, a sort of clear cold clinical rage. The romances each had a different kernel, and they unfolded in pairs, his view and hers. A lot of Strange Angels (that series name was NOT my choice, I should just say that now) involved me going back to how it felt to be fourteen-fifteen, with no say in how I was disposed of and a body that was an ever-changing enemy. Bannon & Clare books are built mostly like puzzles, except for the Ripper Affair, which was a clockwork maze with sharp edges against the skin and a Goblin King who was not nearly as nice as Mr Bowie.

That said, there are certain things–guidelines, if you will (not rules, thank you, Pirate In My Head)–I’ve evolved to help me figure out the shape of the book I’m writing now, and what might help me get through it without blowing a fuse or losing most of my (physical or emotional) skin. Each book is an undiscovered country, but you can pack a kit to go exploring with. YMMV, all usual disclaimers apply, yadda yadda.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR CORPSE. Book’s not going well. I might as well drink a fifth of vodka and lie here and eat Cheetos. It doesn’t matter. Danger, Will Robinson! Not only does getting up and taking a walk do good things for your body, it also shakes loose plot points and solves knotty problems. Moving the body moves the mind. Dancing around a little bit to Broadway musicals in your living room or even just rocking out (quietly with some headphones, because you have neighbors) in your bedroom gets things moving when they’re stuck. Taking care of your body also gives you greater endurance for marathon sessions of sitting and pounding out the words. All things serve the work, you know.

FEED YOUR HEAD. Some books require certain music. Currently, I’m working on the Little Red Riding Hood book, and for some reason, it wants the Dredd soundtrack…and Wagnerian opera. (Don’t judge. Only because I’m judging myself hard enough to qualify for the Olympics.) Weird musical cravings, Pinterest boards, that YouTube video you’ve got to watch to feed the story–do it. And yet, on that path lies timesuck. Give yourself five minutes to feed the inside of your head (set a timer), then get back to work. All the feeding and none of the writing makes things bloated and wheezing.

PROTECT YOURSELF. This is a tricky one. I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling out a new book, certain…predators…appear. Or maybe I just notice the emotional vampires and entitled folks when I’m in that high-strung headlights-on vulnerable state. Jealously guard your borders and boundaries, and your writing time. There is a certain type of unfriend (they tend to hunt in crit groups and writer’s workshops, don’t get me started, that’s another blog post) that can scent that vulnerability and move in to make your creative process about their agenda. Of course, not every person in a crit group or workshop is such a beast, and sometimes a friend can just be having a bad hair day, and there’s no excuse for being an asshole and using “I’m figuring out a new book” as an excuse. SO. Be careful, and understand that the beginning of feeling out a new work is a vulnerable time. Protect yourself appropriately.

EXPECT THE STORY TO CHANGE. Say you’ve done an outline, or you have this one scene you want very badly to put in the book…but it’s just not working. The outline doesn’t fit what’s happening when you actually sit down to write, or the scene can’t be shoehorned in anywhere. Relax, and let it go. This is an organic process, and you aren’t going to make it easier by trying to force it to do what you want. Like cats, dogs, and children, stories grow in the most surprising ways and will do the most amazing things if you just stop trying to control their every goddamn breath. Expect the process of writing a book to be different, expect a story to take a different track, expect the outline to be guidelines instead of laws, and expect the damn book to have its own ideas.

HAVE A HOBBY. I read military history (the Eastern Front in WWII, to be precise) to make my brain stop eating itself, since I’ll never write about that particular time period. I garden, occasionally knit, and take pictures. I do these things to make my brain slow down and to fill up my sensory well with things that aren’t entirely inside my skull. (I don’t list violent video games because I’m not sure if they count…) You need something to let the engines come down from redline, as it were. Note that this is not an excuse to let the hobby take over from the writing. Timesucks are insidious shapeshifters, and will take the faces of the things you love to seduce you. Managed properly, though, the timesucks can be doors into a state where your unconscious has room and fuel enough to work on the next bit of the story for you.

ACT WEIRD. So there I was, making bobble noises with my mouth and pretending to be a fish. The Princess, fifteen and a half, watched me go past. “I’m a fish,” I informed her.

“This is what I love about you, Mom,” was her equitable reply.

Being weird–stepping outside normal modes of behavior–serves many purposes. It gives you the courage to write weirdness. It is a prism through which to see new and wondrous angles, which show up in your work. It stops you from taking yourself too seriously and gives the Muse, that bitch, a signal. Look, I’m playing. You can come over here and have fun with me, too! It keeps the mental muscles supple.

Plus, it keeps those motherfuckers wondering, you know? And it gives you a certain amount of comfort with stumbling around in the dark, looking for the way to write the next book. If you’re used to looking ridiculous, it won’t bother you as much, and you can concentrate on finding the way.

GIVE YOURSELF TWICE THE TIME. Try not to get into a huge hurry. Understand that some parts of the creative process take a while to get into gear. I generally ask for a *mumblemumble* longer than I need to finish a project, just so I have time to get the freakout of “AH GOD I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING THIS BOOK IS GOING TO SUCK HATE HATE HATE FEAR AGONY ANARCHY!!1onety!!” out of the way. Respect your time and give yourself some cushion.

BUILD IN DAYDREAMING. This sort of falls under “Act Weird.” You might call it “daydreaming.” Certainly a lot of parents and teachers do, as well as a lot of managers. I call it “processing.” There’s a certain amount of staring off into space and letting the engines below the conscious floor do their thing necessary for finding the contours of a new book. Again, your mileage may vary, beware of timesuck, and the like. But also, allow yourself a little bit of daydreaming. You might think it’s just unproductive staring into space. What you can’t see is the germination beneath the soil surface.

LEARN YOUR GROUND. I note in my diary the way a book’s going. Just a sentence during my daily five-lines-of-what-happened, next to the weather. Looking back over those, I can begin to see patterns. Some books take long gestation periods before they slide out whole and screaming, others have an initial white heat explosion of work and then dribs and drabs until it’s finished. Seeing those patterns and my own reactions to them gives me a sense of what shape the book in front of me is likely to take. The map isn’t the territory, sure, but it can prepare you for some terrain features.

LEAN SIDEWAYS. I hesitated to mention this, because it’s so…amorphous. In the end I decided to chuck it in, because who knows, I might not be completely crazy! (Silence from the peanut gallery, please.) Don’t look at the book head-on. Imagine it’s a skittish animal, perhaps a horse, and if you look straight at it, it will think you’re a predator and flee. Instead, approach it from the side. Don’t look at the centre of the book. Keep it in your peripheral vision. Work around the edges. If it takes writing scenes out of sequence, do so. Eventually, as every horse trainer knows, you can turn your back on the beast that outweighs you, and it will be unable to resist the urge to group up and put its head over your shoulder, smelling your hair. Keep writing, calm and collected and watching in your peripheral vision, and the way will become clear.

You’ll find your own ways of sneaking up on the book you need to write, bashing it on the head, and bringing it home to cook over the fire, I’m sure. There are as many ways to do it as there are writers. (Feel free to add your own below. I will stealBORROW them with attribution, madly and with glee.) Just remember: the map isn’t the terrain, every work is different, and a certain flexibility is needed to hunt each one down and skin it.

My goodness, my metaphors are violent today. I must be hungry.

Over and out.

photo by: mybulldog
  • Last year I started writing a new book in a series and it was the most difficult thing I’d ever written. Took me over six months to pry out the zero draft and I’ve never had such a mess to work with, not in over two dozen finished books. But I thought, well, that’s over. Nothing else will be that bad.

    AHAHAHA and then I started the sequel. Now, six months after starting THAT, I am but halfway through and have just now figured out the shape of the thing. Unfortunately, that shape is nowhere near what’s on the page. I have never felt so incompetent writing in my entire life.

    One of my ways of dealing with difficult processes is to make the book jealous by working on another. Oh, you don’t want to play? That’s okay, there’s this nice, shiny new thing over here to play with. I don’t need you (reverse psychology ftw!). Usually then a difficult story will start talking. (Not the problem manuscripts above, of course–those ones just laughed at me and said, “Oh sweetheart, you’ll be back.” But it has worked many times in the past.)

    My writing process is invariably like the Bride fighting the Crazy 88s/O’Ren Ishii in Kill Bill. “You didn’t think it was gonna be that easy, did you?” *sigh*

  • wolflahti

    The hardest part for me is maintaining the belief that it will all work itself out. I know, consciously, that that is true, but somewhere along the way I lost the faith that it is so.

    True writer’s block isn’t something blocking your way, it is an emptiness inside you.

  • martian moon crab

    and a Goblin King who was not nearly as nice

    and who said the Goblin King had to have manners, but just very sharp teeth?