The writer’s mind is an unruly chimp.
He steals your beer. He throws your Sports Illustrated football phone through the glass patio door. He defecates in your blender and makes a monkey dung smoothie. He mauls you and eats your extremities.
Like I said: unruly.
The only way Mister Tinkles is going to stop making your life a living hell is if you get down to some hardcore chimpanzee training techniques. You’ve got to fool that monkey into primate compliance. For the record, none of that is meant to be a euphemism for engaging the chimp in sexual activities. That is not what Darwin had in mind. I’m just saying, you need to tame the monkey. Non-sexually.
Same goes with taming your writer brain. Your mileage may forever vary, but me? I’m constantly my own worst enemy in terms of Getting The Work Done, and that’s just not good eats. You need to start tricking yourself, giving a leg-up here and there to get you where you need to be day in and day out. And so I give unto you: STUPID WRITER TRICKS.
These are little tips, tricks and techniques that bear minimal relation to one another except for the common bond that each are geared toward Finishing The Shit You Done Started, Wordmongers.
Let us open the cabinet of curiosities.
The Mini Tiny Itty Bitty Micro Outline
Two words: trail of breadcrumbs. (Wuzza? That’s three words? Shit. See, this is why I’m an ink-slinger and not a sorcerer of numberology.) Writing any big project, be it a novel or a screenplay or a giant epic game doc, an outline provides a way through the madness, looking both forward and backward. But, some folks don’t dig on the outline proper, and that’s okay: whatever gets the shit done.
That said, do consider the option of the micro-outline.
Here’s how it works: when you stop your writing for the day, take five or ten minutes to write a quick slapdash paragraph of what you plan on accomplishing during your next day’s worth of writing. “Jimbo slays the Humbaba. Mary-Ellen becomes queen of the vampires. Jojo eats some bad eggs.” You’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs not to look back, but to make your way forward.
It helps me because my thinking organ is riddled with so many holes you’d think termites live there. So, when I open the document the next day and there’s a paragraph — I highlight it yellow because, mmm, yellow is the color of caution and crazy people — telling me what I wanted to do, I feel relieved. “Oh, right, I forgot that I wanted to have Gerry meet the dolphin in this scene. Nice. Thank you, Me From The Past! A little nipple squeeze from me to you, bro. Tweak!”
Maintaining Your Word Boner
The same thing that gets readers through reading your book should be the same thing that gets the author (erm, you) through writing the damn thing. The reader must have sustained excitement.
And so too must the writer.
So, you know how a cliffhanger creates suspense? Leaves the reader’s mouth and other orifices juicy with narrative need? This is that. End your writing day in the middle of something. As penmonkeys we are often trained to finish things, not leave them hanging, but here as a course of action leaving your writing for the day a bit open-ended can help you complete the project in the long term.
The goal of this is to get you excited for the next day of writing. Sometimes starting a new chapter or scene can cause you to suffer some of that same sluggy and uncertain ennui you might have felt at the beginning of the project when all you had was the ceaseless snowy expanse of the white page to taunt you, so ending in the midst keeps your mind champing at the bit (word-nerd trivia: not chomping at the bit) to get back and complete the scene. Leave yourself room for excitement. End with the need to go back and keep working.
Behold The Fanciful Power Of The Newfangled “Inter-Net”
You may be saying, “Whaaaaat? What’s that? What’s an… Inter…net?” And to that I respond: “You’re soaking in it!” And then we all share a laugh and do lines of blow off this dead hooker coffee table.
Still, you’re probably saying, “Your big writer trick here is to… tell us to use the Internet? Yeah, that’s great, Wendig. Should we also, I dunno, use our words to tell stories? Because, wow, revolutionary.”
Shut up, you. The Internet is soggy with snark these days, innit? Anyway. The Internet is home to resources you may not at present be considering in terms of your day-to-day storytelling. First, if you’re writing about a world that is not a fantasy realm or some weird sci-fi future and you need to know what Main Street in Duluth looks like, or you want to check to see what’s on the corner of Numbered Ave and So-and-So Street in New York City, ta-da: Jesus invented Google Street View just for you.
Second, Flickr. Flickr is a great resource for finding all kinds of inspiration. Looking for some descriptive meat? Or a location? Or an animal? Go to Flickr, search for the term. You’ll get an unholy host of images, many of them quite beautiful, and many of them beautiful in a way that might stir a new layer of metaphor and description that you’ve been looking for.
Third, social media hive-mind. Get on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever hot new social media tool is out there by the time you read this article (“I use Circlehole!” “Won’t you become my companion on Flurg?”), and you can ask folks questions that Google can’t quite grok.
Embrace Your Inner 12-Year-Old Girl
Make a collage.
No, yeah, I get it. You’re an adult human being. What’s next? Shoebox dioramas? (Don’t be ludicrous. That’s reserved for a later post.) “Collages?” you stammer. Yes. That’s right. Collages.
Wait, sorry — collages, motherfucker.
I’m working on a personal project right now and I wanted to get my head into a certain space with it, so I whipped out a sack of National Geographics and went to down on those sumbitches with a pair of scissors (safety scissors, as the government mandates I not be allowed the real deal — also, if you ever see me with an uncorked fork, run for the fucking hills because somebody is gonna bleed). Next thing I know, I’ve got a wall full of cool images and neat quotes about all manner of awesome shit. I go over to that collage, meditate on it for a couple-few, and my head neatly aligns with the story and the world. Snap-tight.
Next week: training bras, and how they can help your creativity blossom!
Make Out With Marginalia
Marginalia: scribbled notes in the margins of a book.
A delightful practice, and I love to see it in books I pick up, whether I take them out from the library or steal them from a frozen hobo. “Oh, on page 5,462 of James Joyce’s Ulysses, this person has written, And Molly Bloom represents Penelope out of the myth. On page 5,463, someone else has drawn a lobster with a giant human penis. And hey, look! Oh page 8,922, bloodstains!”
Sometimes, you’re chugging along on your own manuscript and you start to get bogged down in something — maybe you’re not sure about a name or don’t really know the word you want to use but damn sure know that “semen-shellacked” isn’t it. Instead of slamming on the brakes and cutting your rhythm in twain, jot a quick note in the margins and move on.
Most word processing programs have some kind of note or comment function — so, use that. Highlight the word, paragraph, or bloodstain, drop a quick comment into the margins, and sally forth.
Do The Editmonkey Shuffle
Hemingway reportedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I would amend this to, “Write without pants, but drunk; edit with pants, but maybe also still drunk if you want to, because, y’know, mmm, drunk.”
Whatever the case, the takeaway from that isn’t so much that you should write whilst pickled on bourbon and edit whilst clear of head. For me, the takeaway is more about the change in state.
When editing, shift as much as you can away from the way you wrote, which is to say, edit differently than you wrote. I don’t know why this is, but by shifting certain elements, it becomes easier to view the edit more objectively. What kinds of state changes are we talking about here? You’ve got multiple options, and surely you’ll come up with your own, but here are a few:
Change the font size. Change the font. Print it out instead of editing on the screen. Edit in a different word processor. Edit on a different computer (desktop -> laptop, for instance). Put two pages on screen at a given time instead of one. Edit naked and covered in bacon grease. Whatever it takes to view the work in progress differently so as to more easily catch those things you need to catch.
Track all changes when editing.
And read the work aloud.
I don’t consider many pieces of writing advice inviolable, but for me, this one comes close: reading your work aloud is the best way to catch mistakes and sense problems in rhythm.
If you don’t read your own work aloud, you make Story Jesus foul his diaper.
Spreadsheets Suck Unicorn
(Remember: if something sucks unicorn, then it is awesome.)
I sometimes see a sentiment that puts forth the notion that using a spreadsheet during the writing or editing of Your Big Writing Project will kill the creativity necessary to complete that thing. To this I say, if your creativity is killed by a mere spreadsheet, it must have been a weak and wormy thing, like the sad wang of a mangy anorexic possum. Be careful, because exposure to any of the banalities of life (checkbooks, mailmen, bowel movements) could easily destroy your papier-mache “creativity.”
Seriously, spreadsheets are the bee’s boobies. (That’s a thing, right? “The bee’s boobies?” I always feel behind all the hot new slang.) You can use a spreadsheet to do any of the following:
Track word count. Track deadlines. Determine character arcs. Do outlining (light to robust). Figure out plot tentpoles and the rough word count for those tentpoles. Figure out (and rearrange) plots and sub-plots. Track freelance payments. See how often a character shows up. Track critical beats like those from Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT. Track days without pants. Chart your descent into madness. And so forth.
You writer-types out there. Surely you’ve got your own weird little bucket of tricks. Whip one out, dangle it in front of our dewy eyes and tell us all about it. Share and share alike. Join the hive-mind.