Stupid Scenarios #1: Duran Hits the Liquor Store

I’m currently in a headspace where I can squeeze out just enough words to keep momentum going on my current project, but don’t have much more, so I’m forgetting about regular blog updates for a while. One thing I’m doing, to keep my head in the story when I can’t squeeze out actual story because it’s become a thick glue-like paste and clogged up my brain tubes, is putting my characters in hypothetical situations. It’s a great exercise because you should know your characters well enough to know what they’d do in any situation, no matter how unlikely. I’m writing them synopsis style (third person present tense) so I don’t waste too much writing energy on them. I figured I’d post them here, because why not. The first is my take on the prompt: how would your main character go grocery shopping? Since my main doesn’t eat human food, I had to improvise.

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Clash of the Obsessions

Octavia Butler once wrote about “positive obsession” – something constructive you do because you just can’t stop yourself. It completely takes you over. For her it was writing, and led to a great career. But what do you do when you have more than one, and they keep wrestling with each other?

I’ve struggled with this for ages. I keep bouncing back and forth between one art and another. For a while, one takes over – and I’m driven to do nothing but. It feels great, but at the same time I neglect my other passions when I’m fully immersed in one of them. I can’t seem to find a balance.

This is why I’ve had a problem finding a career, because a professional has to focus on what pays, and keep doing it even when it’s a chore. Instead, when I’m feeling unchallenged, or over-challenged, or bored, I jump into something else entirely and get all caught up in it.

I’ve read all kinds of advice like, “Write down five things you love to do. Now figure out the one you want to do most and AVOID THE OTHERS LIKE THE PLAGUE FOREVER.” Maybe that’s the only way I’ll ever be a pro writer, if I give up all other art forms completely – but it feels like I’d be losing a richer life. I don’t want to be single-minded. I want to have hobbies as well, but it’s a little like having dessert before a fantastic feast. You fill up on the guilty pleasure and have no room for just-as-tasty food that’s good for you.

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How Important is Backstory?

I’m currently wrestling with this question because I have on my hands over sixty thousand words that don’t fit in the novel I’ve been trying to write. One of the many reasons the creative life is fraught with angst: you can work hard for months only to have to scrap everything you did. After keeping a steady word count for months, I have to stop, have a good look at what I’ve done, and possibly retool.

Not knowing where to start with my current novel, I decided to write my character’s story from the beginning and see where that took me. I started with his early life and, after fifteen thousand words, figured out that story wasn’t right for my novel. So I jumped to the next bit and spent a whole month writing twenty thousand words that could be something, but still wasn’t right for the novel. I did the same again last month, writing twenty five thousand words and – nope, still not my novel. Dammit! At least I can take heart knowing Mark Twain did the same thing.

I’m at a crossroads where I can either keep going with this exercise, getting all my character’s backstory written until I eventually stumble into the novel, or I can cut it off here and spend a month plotting to figure out what stories actually need to go in the novel and only write those. I’ve already weighed the pros and cons of both, so I’ll sum up:

If I keep going with the backstory, I’ll have my character’s whole prior life to draw from, probably enriching the main story in ways I can’t foresee. But I also know I’m stalling because I don’t feel ready to tackle the novel – is that a good or bad thing? It’s not like I have concrete deadline. Any stories I do include in the novel will have to be rewritten completely because it will be colored by the context of his current experience. Continuing along these lines means pumping out more verbiage for the scrap heap. However, a few of these stories might be worth turning into novellas, so it’s not all wasted effort.

If I quit writing backstory and get on with the novel, I do have a couple short scenes in the framing story to use as a jumping off point. Everything I write from there will be more relevant and automatically shaded in context. It means less work rewriting, but I also risk losing depth the story could have if I knew all the backstory lying below the surface. Not doing that groundwork also means potential continuity issues, because the novel demands being told in a non-linear fashion. The original reason for writing the story in its proper order first was so every puzzle piece would fit together when I mixed them up later.

So now I have a big choice to make. Do I make the big leap into my novel in a desperate attempt to crank out a first draft by the end of the year, or do I continue plodding along until I reach my novel naturally? Part of my anxiety comes from running into more than a plot hole – a great big information gap in the linear story that I’m scrambling to fill because nothing I write later will make sense otherwise. I could shrug and say who cares, but – no, actually I can’t. My brain won’t let me get away with that. I guess I’m stuck filling the gap and writing a crapload of exposition for my story bible until the world I’ve created once again makes sense to me. Sigh…

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The Well Needs Time to Refill

Good ideas take time to form. I have to remind myself of this when they’re coming out in a slow trickle, and when they’re pouring out of me faster than I can write. My new habit, to plod ahead at a steady pace, means tightening the reins in both cases. Learning to harness the muse this way has helped me write more and better than I have before.

Sometimes you get burnt out. Even with a whole day to write, I can’t write all day. I’ve spent whole days doing nothing but reading and writing – I reach a point where I can’t read anymore, I can barely think, and I end up going to bed early because my energy is spent. Everyone has different limits, and I’ve been pushing mine a little to see how far I can stretch them day by day, but I have more energy if I spent time on other things. I forget I wrote my first novel around a dreary day job. I’d spend my day on mindless drudgery and run home brimming with ideas. Allowing yourself to be bored can help refuel the tank.

Sometimes you need to write anyway. Especially if you’re stuck. It’s too easy to turn being stuck into a plug in your brain that stops you from writing altogether. I’ve written before about priming the subconscious by engaging with your work even when the ideas don’t flow. The other day I was so stuck on a plot problem that outlining didn’t help. So I wrote a couple character interaction scenes to see if I could find a plot hiding among them. This primed my brain enough that the next day I was exploding with ideas, but I decided not to write it all at once because…

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The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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Sometimes You Have to Say Screw It

I’ve decided to have another go at getting a proper blog post done today even though, due to sickbrain, I don’t have the focus to edit the post I’d drafted for this week ages ago. So this will be short. As well, I’ve deleted a more ranty replacement post because it was absolutely useless to anyone. With a cooler head, if not clearer one, I just have this to say: saying screw it is sometimes ok.

You can draft and outline, plan everything in advance, and otherwise prepare yourself for failure, but sometimes you crash anyway. Sometimes you miss a deadline, and even under the pressure to get it in anyway, can’t manage because (for example) you’re legitimately ill and there’s not enough energy to get the job done. Sometimes you have to take a sick day, or sick week, or whatever. Sit back and read a book or watch a movie instead. And save that energy to say tomorrow, or next week, or whatever will be better.

So I’m going to check this couple paragraphs off as another blog post done, because short can be useful as long as the words have a point. Also, I’ve almost reached my 20k word count on the novel this month, so I figure I’ve done enough of my writerly duty to not beat myself up about this little thing.

 

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Bad Writing Days are Worth the Effort

We’ve all had days, at least if you’re a writer, where you stare at a blank screen and try to push an idea out of your brain that just won’t come. It gets blown into a huge confidence crisis. You question whether you’re cut out for it, or if it’s even worth the effort. You might feel like giving up, or at least taking the day off.

I’ve learned its worth the effort even when it sucks.

I’m not saying you have to write every day, or sit in front of that blank screen and beat your brain in. Maybe you do need a break – get a snack, have a bath, take a walk – to get the creative juices flowing. But if you’ve done all that and it’s still not helping, I’ve found sitting down and trying to engage with what you’re working on is often the best solution, even if it’s only taking five minutes to outline.

The writing may suck that day and make you feel horrible, but what you’re doing is priming your subconscious to work on it in the background. Since I started planning what I want to write tomorrow before going to bed, I’ve been having more good writing days than bad ones.

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Why Some Fantasy Franchises Fail

There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in failed movies trying to make the next Harry Potter out of a book series that had reasonable sales. They’re usually big budget, with tons of gorgeous CGI and special effects, and hit the box office like a cold lump of lead. There are a lot factors, I’m sure, in what makes a movie box-office poison, but the biggest one in fantasy movies, particularly those aimed at kids, is this: a missing sense of fun.

Now, I say fun because “sense of wonder” is what all those films are going for. The problem is a “sense of wonder” isn’t enough if the movie’s a dreary slog. Perhaps it was back in the 80s, when The Neverending Story captured a whole generation’s imagination despite being incredibly depressing. What I’m saying is vicariously getting to ride Falcor the Luck Dragon made up for watching a horse drown in the mud.

The Neverending Story eventually got a sequel, but much like part 2 of the book, it was a hundred times more unpleasant and deservedly tanked. All I’ll say about the second half of the book is it lives up to its title because no one’s ever finished it. Most films following the The Neverending Story format never get a sequel these days. After all, who wants to waste their time watching a humorless hero go through a thankless quest just to see a unicorn when there’s more enjoyable fantasy fare out there?

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The Power of Habit is Real

We’ve all heard this advice a million different ways: bum in seat, don’t wait for the muse, don’t worry about how bad it is – just get the words down. It’s been six weeks since I vowed to write for an hour every day, and I can tell you one thing: it works. It’s not as simple as writing gurus say it is though, which is of course why people find it so hard to follow (guilty). Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

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When Details Matter

Last week I talked about how excessive detail can bury the purpose or meaning of a work, and also waste your and your audience’s time. But there’s a time and a place for heavy detail work, and becoming a better artist is learning to recognize when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you do it right, you awe people when they realize how much care you put into the project. There are also times when people will only notice on a subliminal level, praising work for its realism even when they can’t put their finger on exactly how it achieves it.

About not showing your homework when it comes to world building – people don’t appreciate a massive info dump in the middle of a narrative, but that doesn’t mean don’t do your homework at all. You can end up with a hundred thousand words of notes, especially if you’re working on a large series, that never make it into the story directly, but influence its outcome behind the scenes. The key to managing the amount of work you put into your “story bible,” verses how much actual narrative you get on the page, is learning to recognize when your bible mechanics matter.

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