Oblique Strategies For Authors, By Stephen Blackmoore
Today’s guest post is by esteemed urban fantasy slash crime writer, Stephen Blackmoore, who wrote the whip-cracking Dead Things last year (one of my favorites), and who will actually be carrying the Gods & Monsters mantled, continuing the series put forth in my own Gods & Monsters: Unclean Spirits. Stephen is here today — well, he’s here because he has incriminating photos and this is what it takes. SHUT UP DON’T JUDGE ME.
Back in the Seventies musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt came up with this thing called Oblique Strategies that was designed to help artists when they get blocked. It was a deck of cards containing a phrase or a word on each designed to help inspire the user to look at a problem in a slightly different way. Feeling stuck? Grab a card. See what it does for you. Maybe it does nothing. Maybe it unlocks the whole problem. If it doesn’t work, grab another. The point is that it give you something to help guide your problem solving.
The cards themselves are hard to come by these days, but you can see what was on them over at this site, which has an ever increasing list of these little phrases. Cryptic ones like “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” and “Use an old idea”. Things that you might need to unpack a little to really get a feel for what they’re trying to say.
Most times Oblique Strategies is a little too oblique for me. “Disconnect From Desire” or “Cascades” has never really done much for me. Possibly because the deck is really aimed at musicians. Or, more likely, I just need something a little more concrete because I’m an idiot.
What has worked, though, has been reminders. Things I always try to remember, but inevitably forget when I get stuck. Sometimes it’s a couple of words. Sometimes it’s a whole sentence. It’s still reads like bumper sticker advice, but the important thing is context. I know what I mean by them.
I started compiling these little phrases a while ago and I’m up to 15 at the moment. It’s a handy cheat sheet of my blind spots. At least the ones I know about. And remembering them helps me move forward when I get stuck.
So, here are my own oblique strategies. I’ve added context so you know where my brain is when I look at them, but this isn’t advice. This is just what works for me and has to do with my particular weaknesses. Maybe they’ll help you, maybe they won’t.
When in doubt, shoot the protagonist.
Sometimes you just gotta do it.
“But” and “Therefore”, not “And”.
Couple years ago Matt Stone and Trey Parker talked to a bunch of NYU and made an excellent point. “And” is fucking boring. This happens AND this happens AND this happens. Instead, try This happens, BUT this other thing gets in the way, THEREFORE these are the consequences. Easy to forget.
A straight line is the most boring way to get there.
Shit needs to happen between the plot points.
Own worst enemy
Fucking over a character is fine. Having them fuck themselves is better.
There are no darlings.
Words, sentences, scenes, chapters, characters, punctuation. Everything is on equal footing. If it’s in the way out it goes.
I get caught up in the shape of the story rather than all of the moving parts a lot.
Watch the players, not the ball
And on the other hand, there are times where I get too caught up in the details.
A long time between monsters.
Read this. It’s educational. It’s a story about scheduling issues for The Thing that allowed John Carpenter to pull together a rough cut of the film between studio and location shooting. It didn’t work. Lots of problems. No one character driving the story, overly-bloated scenes. But the one thing that stuck with me was this. “He said the movie came to life for the first time during The Kennel, then lapsed into passivity until the next effects scene which was then the Norris transformation. And for a film that was trying to lay down its’ marker as a state of the art monster movie that, I remember John saying, was “a long time between monsters””
Burn it all down
A plot point, a character, somebody’s car, the whole fucking book. Also occasionally good life advice.
Go back to the beginning.
If I’m stuck, it’s usually because I took a wrong turn somewhere and need to backtrack.
Jump to the end.
And sometimes I just need to remind myself where I’m going.
Check the wall for Chekhov’s gun
I hide shit I can use all the time. A long lost cousin, a dead hobo, a treasure map. But I can’t shoot the rifle on the wall if I don’t remember I put it there.
Sometimes walking across the room is just walking across the fucking room.
I can spend HOURS on scenes that turn into “He left.”
Only an idiot would do this.
I don’t want my characters to be too stupid. Kind of stupid, because we’re all kind of stupid, but not so stupid that they won’t call the cops, or that they’ll go into the basement alone.
Motive motive motive
But if they are going into the basement alone, they better have a fucking good reason to do it.
How about you? Got any of your own?