Tis that time of the year when the year’s just born — pushed from its temporal womb, squalling and wriggling. That means it’s also time to put forward a list of upgraded attitudes and mission statements for the year ahead. Some of these are for me. Maybe some of them are for you.
I don’t buy that we should rely on a single day to cleave to shame and fix mistakes — but I think the first of the year is a nice temporal marker to push ourselves to re-examine, to evolve, and to keep asserting our ability to kick as much ass as we are able and allowed.
With that said, let’s get to it.
1. Level Up, Ding
Up your game. Always. With every paragraph, every chapter, every script scene and blog post, we should be looking to level up our work and ourselves. We level up, we gain new weapons in our fight against Shitty Writing (“I HAVE THE ANCIENT SWORD OF THE HAIKU MASTERS, IT IS +1 AGAINST RUN-ON-SENTENCES”) and we face new challenges in the road ahead (“NOW I MUST DEFEAT THE LITERARY AGENT IN BATTLE USING NOTHING BUT A QUERY LETTER AND SOME BAD-ASS DANCE MOVES”). We must never sit on our hands. We must pull our boots out of the mud. We must move forward and improve ourselves and our work. We must better our shit.
2. Let Art And Entertainment Have A Little Creative Love Baby
Once upon a time I thought, my goal as a writer is first to entertain. And that remains true, to a point — but the more I think about it, the more I realize “entertainment” is a lowest common denominator. If my only true goal was to entertain, I could achieve that by uploading a series of YouTube videos where various things hit me in the dick (Frisbee! Coconut! Bowling ball! Charging goat! A goat driving a lawnmower!). A good story connects beyond mere amusement; its tendrils sink into deeper earth, winding around the human heart. Let’s aspire to do more than merely entertain. Let us reach for meaning, for connection, let us present stories with purpose and power. (Or, at the very least, we could write porn. HEY PORN COUNTS SHUT UP.)
3. Cleave To The Human Condition
It’s oh-so-easy to get lost in all the fiddly bits of storytelling. All the plotty twists, all the crafty and conjurous worldbuilding, all the clever turns of phrase, all the wonderful ways to describe a person’s naughty bits (dangle rod love canal wizard’s wand swamp grotto turgid shillelagh lusty sex-pond). Thing is, we write stories for one reason: to talk about people. And we read stories because we want to read about people. Every story is a Rosetta Stone attempting to translate the human condition to the humans gazing upon it with knitted-brow and quizzical sneer. When we as writers drift away from that, we lose what’s powerful about stories: we lose the character. Stories are written by people, for people, about people. I mean, at least until the day comes when they’re written by robots, for robots, about murdering all the meatbags.
4. Face The Fear, Best The Beast
(Man, if those aren’t some of the lyrics to You’re The Best Around, then the 1980s has failed me.) Let every tale be a cage match between you and something that scares you. Death, life, rats, clowns, disease, lost love, parasites, credit ratings, God, Satan, the apocalypse, being awake during surgery, Kentucky, the dark, wizards, tiny children with straight razors in their jam-smeared hands, otters — find a thing that frightens you and write about it. Mine that struggle. Writing with that measure of genuine of emotion behind it creates a palpable effect: the prose grows stronger, the story becomes richer. Think of it as upgrading the story’s megapixels. Every page contains so much more when you write with passion and authenticity.
5. Have A Fucking Point
Every story is an argument. Have the argument on the page. Give it to the audience. Make the case for why love conquers all — or why love can suck a big quivering tube of elf dick. It’s not about being preachy; it’s about threading your fiction with theme and meaning.
6. Embrace The Unanswerable
On the other hand, just as sometimes we go into fiction with an answer already in mind, other times we approach the page with an unanswered question hanging over our heads like a reaper’s sickle. The ending of the tale, uncertain — its conclusion both in terms of event and theme existing as a Schroedinger’s Cat inside the narrative box, the outcome ever in flux. Can love save the day? What is love? Will human monstrousness win out over selflessness? How do I remove this skin tag? Do bears really shit in the woods or do they share a series of secret bear toilets?
7. Stop Letting Passion Ferment Into Poison
Passion can be a paintbrush — or it can be a gun. It can be a warm cup of go-go juice or an icy syringe jacked up with blowfish toxin. Passion is a horse that either carries you racing across the sunlit plains or stomps you bloody into the mud. Creators are passionate people; they have to be. Passion drives us to do what we do. But that passion easily goes septic and next thing you know, instead of pointing it toward our work and our desires, we’re instead letting it fuel some bullshit argument or be the rope that binds us into some crass emotional tangle. Writing the next great story from the deep of your heart is so much more valuable than EGADS SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERTUBES I WILL EXPEND MY CREATIVE ENERGON CUBES ASSERTING MY SUPERIORITY.
8. Lock The Bastards In A Box
We will forever meet those who don’t believe in us, whose apparent goal is to hold our heads underwater rather than teach us to swim. Those are our bastards, and fuck every last one of those human speedbumps. Don’t engage. Shut them out. Close the door and lock it. Let this be the year we populate our lives with people who challenge us and help us be better, not punch us in the balls (or lady-parts) and leave us groaning and gasping in a pile of canine excrement.
9. Read Widely
Our reading habits are creatures of comfort: we know what we like (urban fantasy novels where bad-ass were-dolphin girls wage war against a parliament of sexy demon-priests) and so we hew to those books we know will please us. But again, look beyond the boundaries of entertainment. As we challenge ourselves with our writing, so too should we seek similar challenge in our reading. Read that which you would not normally read. Seek new input. Don’t let your mind grow indolent and complacent, a sluggy psychic blob covered in mental Dorito dust.
10. Know More Shit, You Clod-Headed Ignorasaurus
If we are to assume that write what you know has any value at all (it does, in a sense, and more on that in a moment), then we can also assume that it is our mission as official penmonkeys to know more shit. Your mission: learn more, read more, do more.
11. Dig Into The Dirt Of Your Own Experience
Let’s talk a little about that last one: “do more.” When we write, we tend to write more effectively when we milk the udders of our own experience rather than come to the page cold and unaware. That’s not to say we must literally write what we know — otherwise, every story would be a biographical transcript. Rather, our experiences are filtered through the various sieves and strainers of fiction: we translate and teleport the events of our lives, finding those sensory moments, those essential elements (or elemental essentials), those core authentic “truths.” What that means is: strive to bring yourself to the page. And further, it means to do more. Have more experiences. Travel. Eat new foods. Try new things. Apply it to your fiction. (“Hey, honey, I went to a gangbang last night with a bunch of strangers. Don’t worry, it’s just me bringing authenticity to my novel. Yes, I smell like lube: a detail for my fictions.”)
12. Find Comfort In Discomfort
Fuck safety. Jump, then stitch the parachute on the way down. Comfort is the enemy of good fiction. As an author, seek some measure of discomfort — put it into your work, try new things, challenge yourself to take the difficult path because that is the path that will yield greater reward. Hell, break a drinking glass and pepper your office chair with the shards so that you’re experiencing constant enlightening buttock pain. *receives note from the official terribleminds lawyer* Oh, umm, wait, yeah, don’t do that last part. Just do the other things.
13. Find Opportunity In Change
The winds have shifted. The earth trembles beneath our feet. Genres warp and mash together. Age ranges for reading spawn hydra heads (Middle Grade! Young Adult! New Adult! Adult Zero! Pre-Adult! Post-Toddler! Geriatric Erotica!). The shift to digital is a change. The fact that big publishers are glomming onto big publishers and creating some kind of drug-resistant super-mecha publisher-kaiju is a change. The rise of self-publishing is — drum roll please — a big-ass change. And more unseen changes are surely on the way in the coming year. Each change is bad for those who cannot adapt, and great for those who can. So, adapt. Find opportunity and challenge instead of difficulty and misery. Surf the turning tide.
14. Find Signal In Noise
We can either fill our lives with meaning, or bog it down with distraction. The latter is easier, frankly: it’s so much simpler to lose ourselves to the Internet or video games or stupid arguments or Russian elk porn. But a life of writing requires focus. It demands that we tune out the noise and zero in on the signal. Signal will save us. Noise will drown us.
15. Stop Pooping In The Temple
They say the body is a temple; mine is probably a back alley pawn shop. (“Want to buy a cassette player and an off-brand Samurai sword?”) Just the same, I shouldn’t be savaging the architecture of my flesh with gross indolence and needless diet. The mind and the body are inextricably linked — it’s time to stop dragging down the mind with the negligence of the body.
16. Stop Defining Yourself By What Other People Think
Everybody wants you to be something. Some people want you to be nothing. None of that matters. The tiger in the cage doesn’t think, “The zookeeper wants me to wear this jaunty hat.” He just eats the zookeeper and then pees on that hat. Be the Most Awesomest You-Version that you want to be, and let everyone fall in line behind your ideals. Don’t fall in line behind theirs.
17. Love What You Write, Write What You Love
The thing about writing is, it’s easy to get caught up in work that isn’t “for” us — rocking out some freelance word count, or maybe in a pitch meeting you pitched something on a lark and under pressure (“Uhh, something-something astronaut family sitcom in a future world owned by robots who have not yet learned to love”) and you really don’t like the thing you pitched but now, here you are, writing it for money. You find it miserable and that misery translates. It always translates. The miserable threads wind around each word like a choking vine or a pubic hair caught in your teeth. Here’s how to fix this: first, make sure to save projects Just For You. Write projects that speak to you. But you can also reverse that: you can bring your love to the project at hand even if that project is not one you enjoy. There’s always a way “in.” Always an angle. Always a way forward that you don’t hate. Find that path through. You’ll feel better for it.
18. Be Inspired By All The Crazy Penmonkey Motherfuckers Out There
Jealousy is an ugly thing: it’s bitey like a plague monkey, empty like a mummy’s scrotum. The way we see other writers is sometimes through lenses smeared with the greasy unguent of envy, or worse, we think, “They did it, but I can’t, and now I’m just going to lay down and take a thousand-year-nap on this pillow soggy with my tears.” Going forward, let your proper response to other writers be awe. Let it be inspiration. Let the collective efforts of a thousand penmonkeys be the fist of wind that punches your sails.
19. Forge Partnerships In The Raw Metals Of Awesome
Time to get shut of the notion that we do this thing alone. The author is always the tip of the iceberg: beneath the hoarfrost waters is forever an unseen pyramid of supporters. Editors! Agents! Book designers! Artists! Other writers! This year, go out. Find one other person in your creative ecosystem. Press your two magic artist rings together — bwing! — and form a partnership. Use that creative energy — and yes, sometimes, creative agitation — to be the fist of wind that… what? I already used that metaphor? Fine. Use that energy to get shit done.
20. Create Before You Consume
We often gain our desire to tell stories from consuming the stories told by others. This often becomes our default mode: we read! We watch! We play! The problem is when it remains our default mode and we never switch tracks from consumer to creator. That’s not to say we shouldn’t still hungrily stuff our mind-mouths with the narrative meals cooked by others — but there comes a time to give our own work that priority. Both in terms of time and in terms of regurgitating staid, tired tale-telling. Your story comes first. All other tales trail after.
21. Write Fiction Red In Tooth And Claw
Punch. Kick. Grab. Bite. Fuck passivity. We don’t get to be paid penmonkeys and crackerjack creators by lying on the ocean floor like a bloated sea cucumber letting food glom onto his turd-blob body. You’re not a morbidly obese shut-in who can order opportunity and creativity from Amazon (delivered with Prime Shipping to your double-wide trailer!). You are shark. You are wolf. You are shark-wolf hybrid with machete-flippers and fire-eyes and a deep and unabiding creative hunger. Creators must take aim at their goals. They must sniff out opportunity and stab it with their steely knives. You want that pound of flesh? You want your novel on shelves, your script on a screen? Move, motherfucker. Or get out the way.
22. Realize: Yesterday’s Gone And Tomorrow’s Too Late
Today is what you have, so use it. Don’t even think about what you didn’t do yesterday. And fuck putting aside things for tomorrow. It’s today. It’s Right Goddamn Now — a sharp dagger stuck in the pages and maps of this very moment. Grab the knife. Start cutting words off the block. Start arranging them into sentences, and start shoving those sentences together to make a story. Don’t look back. Don’t wait. Now is the only time you are promised. Now is the time to create.
23. Just Keep Swimming
Regret is for assholes. Hell, regret is an asshole — a giant flappy asshole that works opposite as it should, vacuuming up instead of purging out, suctioning up optimism and motivation and light and also, the cat. (Poor cat.) It’s easy to get caught in this mode, to have the thought running laps in your head that says, I fucked up, I did something wrong, that thing will haunt me. A query letter with a typo, some pissing match with another author, a book that nobody bought, a self-published tale with a cover so ugly it should be on trial for war crimes. Forget regret. Aim to repair. Seek to reclaim. (And other re- words!) Very little you do will mark you as a Permanent Dickhole or Forever Dumbshit provided you are earnest about moving forward and upping your game. Stop getting caught on the carousel of remorse. Stop turning in circles.
24. Fuck Good. Go Great.
Perfection is the enemy of the good. But does that mean we shouldn’t aspire to be better? Hell no. It doesn’t mean we can’t push ourselves and reach a little further. It damn sure doesn’t mean that we cannot seek to elevate that thing we do beyond the realm of merely “good” and — one hopes — into the stratosphere of “great.” (“THIS MONKEY NEEDS A PROPELLOR. THIS ICE CREAM NEEDS BACON! THIS BACON NEEDS CHOCOLATE! THIS TOASTER NEEDS A PINK FLOYD LASER LIGHT SHOW AND A BELT PUNCH AND THE INTERNET.”) I don’t know what makes something great. More of this? Less of that? A stronger flourish? A simpler elegance? Nobody knows. But that’s no reason not to try, is it?
25. Know Thyself
The biggest and bestest resolution going forward? Know who you are as a writer. This is, I find, the curse-iest curse that plagues us — and it doesn’t just plague us at the beginning of our journey. Oh, if only. It’s a nettling, nibbling, nattering imp riding on our shoulders years into the great egress from our old, uncreative lives. Find your process. Uncover what works for you. Find your voice. Find what you like. Discover why you tell stories. Discover your desires. Find your frailties. Find yourself in your fiction and find your fiction in you. The faster we can start to figure out who we are, how we work, and what we want, the faster we can move forward telling the kinds of stories we want to tell — and the more confident we become in doing it. So ring in the new year by… if not answering these questions then at least asking them, having them staple-gunned to the front of your cerebral cortex. Let your work and career be less of a question mark, and more of an exclamation point. And now for…
26. Shh, The Not-So-Secret Secret Resolution
Write till your fingers bleed.
Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?
500 WAYS TO TELL A BETTER STORY:
500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER:
500 MORE WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER:
250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING:
CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY:
REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY: