Internal Programming

Human bodies are weird, and human brains are even weirder. Today’s party trick trivia of the day is that the human eyes see the world upside down — something to do with the ocular lenses — and that it’s the brain that flips these images right side up. It kind of makes you wonder how that kind of stuff came into being, evolution wise, I mean. Was there a period where whatever ancestral monkey was walking around seeing the whole world the wrong way up?

So brains are elastic, sure, but they’re also infinitely programmable. As people inhabiting these sponges driving around meatsuits, that can be a blessing or a curse. I can train myself to be able to play a song on the piano without even thinking about it. Or, I can accidentally train myself to not wake up when my alarm goes off in the morning, and allow my brain to go on its own internal clock.There are infinite possibilities, especially if you use that idea about how humans only use 10% of their brains. (It isn’t true, but think about all the B movies it’s spawned.)

As people writing stories, these weird sponges sloshing around in our skulls can count as antagonists, helpers to the protagonist, or anything in between. Take it literally like in It’s Kind of a Funny Story where the main character has depression. Take it metaphorically like in any Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Make it interesting, above all.

Myself, I’ve got half a mind to write a short story about how somebody sleeps in too late because they’re not as young as they used to be and they wake up in the wrong world. (I told you, the plot bunnies strike from anywhere.) (Also, I’m only twenty three, how is my sleep cycle so much less elastic than it was just two years ago?) (See, there’s your verisimilitude. Some things you write because you think they’re interesting, and some things you write because you know them inside out and you want to know you’re not the only person who does.)

Whatever way you play with the concept, it’s always more interesting to see what happens when it goes wrong. The pianist who has played his favorite song “Moonlight Sonata” so many times that he accidentally starts playing it instead of the wedding march for a friend’s marriage ceremony. The famous detective who relies on his brain to solve his mysteries for him, who makes a fatal mistake by assuming something that’s been right a thousand times before but that isn’t right now. Et cetera, et cetera — go nuts.

Inspiration (1/?)

I’ve mentioned before about how inspiration can come, lo, in a burst of light, with much singing of angelic choirs, etc etc, but that it comes inconsistently and that you can’t rely on it. That’s still very much true. If you sit around and wait for it, then the world will go past without you having written more than a few hundred words. (Trust me, I tried writing that way for a while. It really doesn’t work.)

So inspiration, or the muse, or whatever, it’s a fickle thing. Long dry spells are par for the course, and you have to sit down and write no matter what. But sometimes inspiration decides to go nuts and see new story ideas in everything. Including car commercials.

In fandom space, this concept is called a “plot bunny.” Some idea tugs at your brain and you have to write it down, follow it, see which Wonderland it leads you to. Maybe the Cheshire cat has needle-sharp teeth this time, or maybe he’s a goofy thing that sounds like Winnie the Pooh. It’s a toss-up! But it’s just the bare bones of an idea, an inkling that has potential but that needs to be properly fleshed out. And the problem is that it won’t leave you alone until you do.

On the one hand, if you’re hurting for ideas, plot bunnies are really, really nice. For example, the project I’m working on now: I had ideas for the beginning and the end, but nothing for the middle bits. And then here came plot bunny #8465, with a fun little mental image of somebody with a frying pan walking through the forest. Oh Yes. And suddenly I knew how the middle would work out.

On the other hand, if you already have a fleshed-out project you’re working on, getting ideas from new landscapes or car commercials or Hulu commercials or whatever … yeah, it’s a little silly, but inspiration comes from anywhere, right? Still. Getting a lot of ideas when I’m already working on a project is a little overwhelming. I’m kind of a one-person-dog when it comes to stories. I can’t work on four different things at once, or I’ll lose my mind.

The solution is one that I read about in a Book On Writing – Managing Your Inner Artist/Writer: Strategies for Success by M.L. Buchman(s). You give the plot bunny a few pages, and then you stick it in a folder, so that the next time you’re hurting for ideas you can find one that has already occurred to you and that you know you like.

Oh yeah, as for that car commercial plot bunny … I’ve got four words for you: Sentient crash-test robots.

Have fun.

Favorite Books

Picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite food. Some people know what it is immediately, and other people agonize over the decision because there are so many wonderful options to choose from. I’m definitely one of the latter.

And people pick their favorite books for many different reasons, too. I’ll expand more later about mine, and the reasons for them, but I’d like you to share yours. What are your favorite books? Why are they your favorite books? And when did you first realize they were your favorite?

Tell me in the comments!

First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.

Wonder Woman

Warning: spoilers ahead for the movie.

When practically the first piece of exposition is a tale about how all the Greek gods were killed except Ares, I was pretty skeptical that this would turn out better than another Wrath of the Titans movie (or that awful Gods of Egypt thing). Having extensively read Greek mythology as a child, movies like that tend to make me cringe. The Greek gods can’t, don’t, die. That’s kind of the whole point. So the first few minutes I was just a little bit waiting to see how bad it was going to be.

The interactions between Steve and Diana were everything I could have hoped for. The culture clash was interesting and sometimes quite funny. Walking away from the movie, I was glad we finally got a superhero movie where the female character is the main focus and not the sidekick; and especially where the female character is just as well developed as any male protagonist. But mostly I thought about the antagonists in the story.

On the one hand, Hades was refreshingly absent as the bad guy; on the other hand, Ares was the bad guy, and Ares in the original myths is actually a pretty chill dude for being the god of war. Okay, substitute one stereotype for another. War is bad, rah rah, men are all good hearted if it weren’t for the devil’s sorry I mean Ares’ influence, rah rah. You know the drill.

The movie set out to fool you. Clearly David Thewlis and his mustache were not the bad guy. Clearly the fellow with the German accent was the bad guy, especially when he breathed the weird blue fumes. See? Evil comes in a little glass vial, or behind an unsettling mask. I do have to admit I was a little disconcerted when he revealed himself and went full armor mode but still had the signature Thewlis mustache. I’m sorry, dude. I can’t take you seriously anymore. All I can see is Creepy Remus Lupin in a metal suit.

It’s a study in assumptions. Diana makes a lot of them through the movie — part of that previously mentioned culture clash. The part where she declares that the Germans are all good people when out from under Ares’ influence made a lot of people in the theater cringe, and made Steve cringe too. The world is messy and imperfect and you can’t always win. And even when you do win, there are losses. I’ll admit that on a storytelling level I appreciated why Steve didn’t make it, even if on the audience level I was disgruntled.

It was an interesting movie with good characterizations, an interesting premise, and a lot of explosions. All in all, not darn bad, even with the skewed Greek mythos.

Keep Making Progress

The number one best marketing tool for new writers is to write the next book. Every single Book or Article On Writing (for indies, that is) stresses that quantity is nearly as important as quality: the more books you have out, the more opportunities there are for people to discover your work, and the more likely you are to actually be successful in the business. You still have to be good — or at least, good enough to sell — but the backlist sells the frontlist sells the backlist, and it accumulates sales like a snowball.

It’s something of a science by now. I’ve heard varying accounts, but the big break for indies seems to be somewhere around the tenth book. I look at that figure, and I look at the publishing schedule I have worked out, and that’s not going to be for another two years. I can only imagine how much my writing techniques, and the length of my books, will improve during that time. Ten books. Yes, I’m a novice in this business; I have so long to go before I even reach journeyman status. It’s a little daunting.

But as they say, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which is why this evening when I come home from the day job I’m going to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up the first draft of book two. And which is why I have a publishing schedule worked out of ideas to turn into books. I’ve got a whole series or two basically mapped out. Nothing that emerges in the skull actually turns out exactly the same way on the page; that doesn’t make the end product bad, it just makes it different. So probably things will end up differently than I anticipate. But having a map for those ten books, and beyond, helps that ten-book-goal seem a little less daunting.

I don’t know for sure that I’m going to take off as an indie writer. The week between publishing the last one and starting the next one has thoughts (mostly worries) rattling around in my head. If I sell x number of copies in a month then I’ll be making y in royalties and that means z after taxes, etc etc etc … Shh, self, stop. Of course if I only have one book out it’s not going to sell that well. Who are we, some kind of one-hit-wonder? That might have worked for the childhood daydream, but not for real life. Just focus on the next book, and stop worrying. Well, all that means is that I need to make the gap between finishing and starting smaller next time!

Made progress — good. Now continue making progress.

The Long Game

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a writer!”

The term “writer” signified to me, at the age of six or seven, being able to live in a big white house with a huge backyard and wear a nice bathrobe while you worked, possibly sipping from a mug of cocoa and looking out at the wide forest just beyond the edge of your property. There would be dogs of course, and at least one cat, and a parrot who could talk, and a snake in a big terrarium. In short, it was more about being filthy stinking rich than actually doing the work of writing. I wanted to be a writer the way some kids want to be astronauts.

Now I am slightly older and slightly wiser in the ways of the business, and I still want to be filthy stinking rich, but I want writing to be the thing that gets me there, and for specific reasons, not just because it’s a way to wiggle out of doing an honest day’s work.

In short, even when I said to myself, “self, we are going to be a psychologist” or “self, we are going to be a French translator” or whatever else I decided I wanted to do, I was still writing as a hobby. Not finishing a lot of drafts, mind you, and a lot of it derivative (that’s the fancy word for fan fiction, folks), but still I was writing. I liked doing it. Tapping on a keyboard isn’t just a way for me to yell into the void, it’s a way to share experiences and memories and ideas, to convey what’s rattling around in my head and make it rattle around in someone else’s, too. That’s a really cool thing.

It is work. Seven year old me just thought that inspiration came like a divine stroke of lightning and created the characters fresh on the page. Well, sometimes inspiration comes and punches me in the face, but that isn’t reliable and it can’t be relied upon if you’re going to make writing into a business. You have to sit down, get the fingers on the keyboard, and write whether inspiration comes that day or not.

And the other thing is that it is a business, which means you have to treat it like a business. Tax forms and IDs and bank accounts and paperwork, so much paperwork, dear God save me from the paperwork. But it’s all stuff that has to get done before you can start reaping even the smallest of rewards.

That sounds horribly unglamorous, I know. But the cool thing is that, at the end of it, you’ve made something that is uniquely yours, and not the gift of some weird bolt from the blue. You made those characters, you made an entire world for people to play in and visit over and over again. And you get the satisfaction that comes from knowing you worked to create something — it might not be physical, but it’s still affecting the world we live in just a little. Which is way better than just lounging around in a bathrobe drinking coffee all day.

I’ve just started out in this game. I am a complete novice out in the wide world. Watching the royalties trickle in makes me fidgety, to be honest. I want to be where the big guys are. But just because this is where I am now doesn’t mean that this is where I’ll be in five years — or that that’s where I’ll be in ten years, or twenty. I’m young and I’ve got a long ways to go, and all the time in the world.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Too much traveling on the railway could turn you into a philosopher, although, he conceded, not a very good one.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam)

I’ve been traveling by plane, train, or car since I was very small. I don’t remember a lot of those childhood travels — cassette tapes were a big factor on long car trips, as I recall, and that’s about it. But as a slightly older person I remember a lot more, not least because I wrote some of it down.

The first time I was on a plane I was too young to have even the slightest shred of a memory. But the first time I remember being on a plane was for a family trip down to Florida with the grandparents. It was a two-hour flight, and the sheer novelty of being able to see the tops of clouds was amazing. If I had had a camera phone, I’m certain I would have taken a million pictures. (And later, on a plane with a smart phone, yes, I’ve taken a million pictures.) On one level, the fact that a whole bunch of people have been crammed into a giant tin can and are zooming through the air at high altitudes might be ho-hum; after all, we’ve been doing it for just over a hundred years.

It’s interesting to think about all the technology that we’re used to, that people two hundred years ago would have boggled at. But the fact that we’ve constructed these tiny worlds that go far faster than we ever could, on pavement or on rails or in the air, I think that’s pretty neat. I think, however we get used to it, we shouldn’t forget a little of that wonder.

All of which goes to say two things. The first — whatever you write, put some kind of wonder into it, no matter how familiar you are. The second — this post is a little abbreviated because, well, guess who’ll be flying in a tin can in a few hours?

See you on the flip side!

Gross Corporeality

I write my blog posts after workouts in the morning — part of that whole time management thing I was going on about earlier. So here I am, trying to stop sweating in time to go take a shower and maybe smell better than the inside of a goat.

It’s gross. It’s grossly corporeal, mostly. This is my body at work, the one that I’m living in, with sweat rolling down my temple and sticking my hair flat to my scalp. I don’t really think about typing, except for the words that I’m trying to write, because my body is mostly stationary; but boy do I think about the rest of me when I’m working out. You’ll notice that it sounds like I haven’t worked out much in my life — that’s true. I’m good at stationary. I’ve been stationary most of my life (usually because I thought reading, writing, drawing, etc were more interesting than anything else out there), much to the consternation of my sister, who is the very opposite of stationary. It’s only pretty recently that I’ve decided to do a lot of things, consistent exercise being one of them, except that writing and exercising make me aware of my body — the way I take up space, the way my physical form exists in the world, I mean — in very different ways.

I’m sure, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen at least one amusing comic strip about the various ways that writers or readers configure themselves in order to properly go about their business. (My favorite is the RubyEtc comic.) How many times can I sit cross-legged on a couch and not have my leg fall asleep? How many times can I sit cross-legged on a couch, then go to stand and promptly sit down again because all of my leg has fallen asleep? The answer may surprise you!

But writing is still my body, stationary. Sitting curled up on a couch, crouching over my laptop and reaching out every so often for a mug of cocoa, that’s one thing. Cardio with sweat pouring down my face, or climbing a huge flight of stairs and feeling my legs start to holler at me, is something else entirely.

Honestly? The main satisfaction that I get from working out is the fact that I’m doing something to actively affect the world around me, specifically the organism that people call by my name. Digging a hole in the dirt to plant a flower is similarly very cool, because I was able to physically affect my surroundings. Groundbreaking! (Holding a printed proof of my book was really cool, you guys. I made this thing, and it’s out here in the world. I can only imagine the heady feeling Michelangelo felt.)

It’s little stuff, I know, but we only live once in this weird wide world, and every little bit counts. So get out there. I know how comfortable it is inside, but go. Do something. Make something. It’ll be messy but maybe it’ll be fun, too.