Cool Things to Write About™

My favorite writing exercise of all time is from Ray Bradbury, in Zen in the Art of Writing. It’s very simple: you generate a list of nouns, conjured from your life experiences, as if they were titles. Bradbury always did this exercise in all-caps, and so do I; it makes the results feel more title-like, therefore conjuring sensations rather than simply specific images. How ominous does THE BLACKENED TRUCK sound? How mysterious is THE GEM SHOP?

If this sounds intriguing, I highly recommend reading the entirety of Zen for yourself!

Despite all of the genius ideas locked away in those childhood nouns, I was recently very, very stuck. To call it writer’s block would be putting it mildly; it was more like writer’s constipation, a time of deep drought. I was sure I’d never come up with another good, heartfelt idea ever again.

So one day, I threw up my hands and put a twist on Bradbury’s exercise. And it worked. It got me past my mental block.

I call it Cool Things to Write About™.

It’s a self-explanatory exercise: You sit down with a piece of paper. You write “Cool Things to Write About™” at the top of the page. Underneath, you list cool things to write about.

Not cool as in people around the world love reading about these things cool. Cool to you. Cool because little you, the still-excited nerd child inside you, thinks they’re wicked cool. Thinks they’ll always be cool. Guess what? They are. To you. That’s all that matters. If you think it’s cool, I promise, there’s a way to sell it.

Don’t hold back. Write everything down that comes to mind as you stare at the title. When you’re done, the list of Cool Things to Write About™ should start to stir up your inspiration. Consider them in pairs. Contemplate the connections between them, the potential energy they bring to one another.

Dinosaurs and telepathy? Charmed objects and sailing into the unknown? Alien planets and practical magic?

Can’t you feel the possibilities already?

The Almost-Authors: Eva Gibson

Almost-authors are people with projects the world hasn’t seen yet. They might be a few drafts or just a few cover letters away from being a published author…for the first or the tenth time. They haven’t made it to the finish line yet on this one – but I’m going to find out how they plan to get there.

Eva Gibson is an author of contemporary YA, who is drawn to dark stories for both consumptive and creative purposes. When she’s not inflicting Dante-levels of emotional turmoil on her characters, she’s inflicting said turmoil upon herself, in her quest to balance writing with parenting. Eva is represented by Christa Heschke of McIntosh & Otis.

August Writes a Book: So tell me what makes you an almost-author. (Or at least, as much as your agent will let you.)

Eva Gibson: I am currently working on four dark contemporary Young Adult novels – one is on submission, one is in the revision stage, and two are unfinished first drafts.

August: What kind of publishing are you pursuing?

Eva: Traditional publishing.

August: What’s the biggest roadblock standing between you and publication?

Eva: I wouldn’t call it a roadblock so much as a step: getting my work in front of the right eyes. Rejection is a huge part of the publication process, from querying on up, and everything is subjective.

I was lucky—I found an agent who loves my writing enough to work with me through draft after draft. Once revisions are done, the next step is to find the right editor or publisher who loves it just as much. That’s where I am at the moment.

August: What have been your specific strategies to get past the roadblocks in your way?

Eva: Working on projects simultaneously, switching between narrative voices, and prioritizing my time to meet my goals. I have small children, so the only (mostly) uninterrupted free time I have to write is after they’re in bed for the night. So that’s what I do – once they’re down, I get to work. Since I have such a small window, I have to be very disciplined about writing every single night, in order to get as much done as I can. The only strategy for that is to just sit down and do it.

I write until it’s time for bed, and then I check my work for clarity and clean it up a bit in the morning. As for simultaneous projects, I work on whichever one is furthest along in the draft process – revisions based on agent feedback, for instance, take priority over new material.

August: What’s been the most obnoxious roadblock in the course of your process?

Eva: The writer’s ego, otherwise known as the worst possible gauge. I can write ten pages I think are absolute genius, then blink at them the next morning and wonder why I ever thought they were anything but an utter mess. Luckily, I have excellent critique partners to steer me and help me steer myself.

And the delete key. I do always have that.

Find Eva on Twitter.

Are you an almost-author? Would you like to talk to AWAB about your roadblocks and your master plan? Check out this post to get in touch!

Everything I know, I learned from talking animal stories

Dramatic, right? But ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you it’s accurate. Many of my literary models of heroism and virtue were people who ran on four legs, not two. Even now, I can’t get away from writing talking animals (case in point: my novel Daugment).

Looking critically at which childhood stories have stuck with me, I’ve found several other reasons why a talking animal makes an incredibly powerful storytelling tool.

Talking animals allow the reader to practice empathy for radically different perspectives. I often re-read Watership Down because of how deftly Adams makes me care about the very rabbit-centric plight of his rabbit characters. And yet – it’s a very humanizing story, every reading of which reveals more layered nuance about our stewardship of the Earth, our treatment of marginalized people, and our own personal heroic journeys.

Complex concepts can become subconsciously absorbed, thanks to the inherent simplification of animal characters. Author Clare Bell (of The Named series) used prehistoric cats and primates to illustrate consider the implications of civilization and technology. The fierce, impulsive hunter nature of cats and the meeker disposition of monkeys allowed her to pare away the complexity of social explorations and address them in a bare, simple way that I could understand even as a young reader.

Traits worth emulating are easier to identify and understand through animals. A non-human character is automatically “other,” and so to portray them as being defined by some positive or negative trait still felt honest (I was and am very sensitive to disingenuous prose). Talking animal characters, like Martin the Warrior of Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, can be nuanced but still defined by their leadership, compassion, selflessness, sacrifice, perseverance… I saw the behaviors in these characters that added up to those traits, and found it simple to understand what those traits were, what it meant to embody them, and how I could emulate them.

Animals free you up to write with less risk. I can choose an animal for its stereotypical characteristics and assign it traits of a friend or family member – and process what I needed to process without fear they would identify themselves in an opossum or a dragon. By transforming the people in my life into creatures, I hold them at a slight distance in my stories, and am able to gain perspective on both my own feelings and the other person’s behavior.

Today, I still find ways to sneak talking animals into my stories. Daugment is all about a man-turned-dog, and I decided Pitney would become a beagle-basset because I wanted him to face the inherent indignity in becoming a “bagel hound.” Without touching any human stereotypes, I’m able to use the power of stereotypes to set up some crucial details early on.

Interested in some quality talking animal stories? I highly recommend the books mentioned in this post, as well as Avi’s Dimwood Forest series, The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West by Mary Stanton, and Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing series. (I’ll write up a complete list of my talking animal story recommendations later this summer!)

Living computers

I’ve seen the Living Computer Museum‘s neon green sign fly past for five years now, and only this weekend did we stop in. And thank god we did. What a trip.

It seems modest enough at first, though as delightful as you might expect – all neon and big displays and the bright colors you’d expect of an exhibit on modern technological superpowers, like self-driving cars, virtual reality, and big data. There was a display on Barbie’s influence on women in tech, a digital studio section, and an old Cray unit. All very cool.

But then we went upstairs, to the living computers.

We all pulled out our smartphones in awe, to take some 20+ megapixel photos we could instantly share with people we felt like sharing them to.

And I immediately thought, How quickly we take it all for granted.

The sounds! The recent past was a constant tapestry of high-pitched whines, whirring fans and hard drives, clattering keyboards and ka-chunking switches. Somehow we lived and worked beside that sound, day after day of it singing through our brains.

The time it took to complete simple tasks now seems staggering. Back then it was the latest, the quickest, the newest. Something to compare to what your friends’ families had.

I walked from thrumming machine to stuttering screen, in awe of human ingenuity. And so much of what I saw at the museum was predicted in some form by speculative authors. The imaginations that play with the future shape the future.

How far and how fast we’ve come, how accelerated our acceptance of change. How young and unprepared so many of the icons were: Bill and Paul and the Steves, especially. I saw photos of Bill Gates in high school, looking 13, his hands on a keyboard. (Where else?)

Yet with every decade of silicon I wandered past, I wondered, how many times now have we faced the same questions and assumed the answers would be different, because “the world is so different now”?

It’s really not. The world is never different. Nature goes on, with or without us. The tools we’ve got to contend with the dull parts, those change a lot. But the things about a life that make stories timeless, the struggles and the triumphs and the quiet happiness, those don’t go away.

If we keep thinking our tools will change the world, we’ll keep making the same mistakes.

Attention almost-authors! I want to interview you.

Do you have a book that’s nearly there? Are you a few drafts — or even just a few cover letters — away from being a published author for the first or the tenth time? I’d like to interview you!

I think it would be interesting to interview writers who haven’t gotten to the finish line yet. Because we’re all there on something in our lives. It can be a lonely and disheartening place to be, that place of partial project completion.

I’d like to chat with people who have a story, a dream, and a plan for how to turn the other two into a published book. I’m interested in talking to writers who are going the traditional route, would-be indie authors, and everyone in between.

If you’re in the pits of despair, wondering if you’ll ever escape the editing nightmare, let’s talk. If you’ve got a 27-step strategy for landing a publishing deal, but can’t seem to gain traction, let’s talk. Maybe by talking me through your roadblocks, you’ll think of ways to get past them.

Reach out to me if this is you! Email me at augustwritesabook@outlook.com, or message me on Facebook.

Writerguilt

writerguilt, n. the intense feeling of failure and existential doubt that occurs when words are not being applied to pages

Writerguilt is the nagging feeling that the world is waiting for your words. Writerguilt is also self-indulgent. Breaking news: The only person waiting for you to write is you.

But someone’s waiting on me! I hear you insisting. Fine, sure. Deadlines are real things. But editors, agents, and publishing companies work with writers who produce. Readers want to read, well, books that actually exist. Spend your time despairing, and you’ll have nothing to show for it except a steaming pile of intangible angst.

As it turns out, writerguilt is very, very easy. It’s certainly easier than slogging through a thick research book, or crafting yet another post about how you’ve been absent from blogging but “oh this time I’m back, with a vengeance!” Or any of the thousands of other ways you might practice the craft of writing.

My theory is that we writers revel in writerguilt because feeling guilty about not writing is an activity mutually exclusive to writing. And if there’s one thing writers can agree on about writing, it’s the sincere and professional practice of avoiding it.

When I indulge, my own writerguilt takes on the form of a question wrought with existential agony: how can I possibly know which project is right to focus on next? As I’ve gotten older, the sharp edges of this quandary have been honed by the acquisition of knowledge. These days, I know all too well the myriad ways I might make the wrong decision.

At age 10, I had a very particular way of dealing with my writerguilt. I kept an inventory of works in progress, and I coded a random generator so I could select my stories one at a time and dedicate a tiny block of time to each.

Those five-minute writing sprints added a few sentences or mere words to each document. But I was making progress. On everything. Decisions be damned.

Trick thyself into creativity is my creator’s motto these days. It’s a nod to the irritating ingenuity I displayed 18 years ago: By deciding not to decide, I made a decision anyway—the decision to write. To produce. To put something down, even if it was just a single line.

At least that’s one more line than I’d had five minutes earlier. And eventually it adds up to a book.

I know the writers reading this are also afflicted by writerguilt. It comes and goes, and contrary to expectation, not in the inverse of inspiration. When guilt and ideas hit at the same time, the storm of despair can be monumental. You can really spin your wheels trying to decide which project will be a bigger hit with your audience, or bring in more passive income, or…whatever your Big Project Questions may be.

If you’re wrestling with writerguilt, do something for me, right now. Pick something you’re working on (randomly, if you have to). Open it up. Set a five-minute timer. Write at least one word. It’ll be one more word than you had before. Maybe it’ll alleviate your writerguilt, just a smidgeon.

The only way off this hamster wheel is to make a decision and write.

crows

crows
laughing
and bouncing
and sharpening their beaks

crows
rustling their feathers
lost in their own shadows

crows in a jagged line
on a telephone wire

crows
dipping in a rosy puddle

crows
gathered round the fallen

crows
streaming towards the sunset
weighing down the boughs
allopreening,
lost in a private moment

crows
swooping in front of cars
and stooping on the gas station roof
and rooting through the trash

crows foraging in trios, loosely bonded
or crows gliding in pairs, trading who leads

or crows alone, mourning.

Cooking and writing

I’m extremely lucky to be married to a former chef who catered for sitting presidents. Yes, I certainly get all of the consumption benefits of having a chef under my roof — but more importantly, I get a world-class firsthand education in how to food.

I haven’t just learned “how to make a dish that tastes good.” That’s actually pretty simple: Follow a good recipe. What I’ve really learned is how food behaves. What the system of food is like. The science of food, the art and craft of choosing proportions for desired results. I’ve always known what good food tastes like, but now I know why.

This systematic knowledge took me from following recipes step by careful step in 2013 to freestyling it with substitutions and eliminations as the whim seizes me today. It’s also allowed me to develop a distinct style — I’ve come to love certain combinations of ingredients, and increased my ability to experiment within those flavor profiles.

I’ve gone through a similar transformation in my writing, too, though inversely. I used to freestyle too much; I’d sit down with a first line or a vague notion and punch out a few pages of something unstructured and full of interesting frayed ends.

Ultimately, those weren’t stories that held up under much scrutiny. I’d bore of them and wonder why I couldn’t finish anything.

In the last few years, in addition to the “writing about writing” books I’ve always read, I started scrutinizing good stories in all forms of media, and studying writers’ systems of crafting plots and characters. This has given me the vocabulary for my instinctual sense of how to story.

Now I can flip through a draft I wrote a few months before and not only spot the holes, but name them, and understand how to find fixes for them. I’m no master of fiction, but I’m a much more confident writer than I used to be.

The ingredients, the proportions of a good story — these are things I know when I meet because I’ve been a voracious reader for so long. But now I understand them and have the toolbox at my disposal to fix them in my own works.

Such is the magic of learning how to cook.

The Parentheses Process

I love details. They’re sort of the hallmark of my style, especially in my short stories — I choose very specific but arbitrary details, putting down broad strokes about a world I hardly know yet. I’ll describe how the clay coins of the realm feel in one’s hand, for example. Or the name and earthy smell of the new-fangled liquor everyone in the land is addicted to.

But sometimes, instead of getting caught up in exactly what I should call the god-leader figurehead role of a nomadic ice planet society, I need to crank out the skeleton of a scene. I can’t always afford to stop and get lost in random generator land. So instead of agonizing over a detail and allowing it to slow my roll, I use what my producer/hub calls “the Parentheses Process.”

In reality, I don’t use parentheses, I use curly braces. {These ones.} They make it easy for me to use Ctrl+F (the Find function) and track down all the places I left blanks without running into false positives, since I sometimes actually use parentheses. But whatever. Parentheses Process is catchy-ish.

I used the heck out of this method while I was working on my novel Daugment. I didn’t know much about Daugment when I started the book, other than the main character being a human-turned-dog, so I ended up leaving a lot of world-building details unspecified as I went along. Or, I would specify them, later remember that I’d made a decision but not what that decision had been, and then just put the general idea in brackets so I could come back to it later and cross-reference to my heart’s content, once I was wearing my editor’s hat.

The Parentheses Process is especially useful for NaNoWriMo and other speed-writing scenarios. If you’re trying to crank out an essay, wrap up your manuscript in a couple of weeks, or complete the first draft of a novel in a single month, stepping away from the details is a must. Plus, this method strengthens your stories and your world-building skills by letting the details percolate in your mind as your world and plot unfold in a more structured way.

Yes, even “pantsers” who don’t outline will benefit from leaving some things until the end. The brain naturally tends to make loose ends click into a neat package, if you let it sit idle on the problem long enough. Thanks to the fact that brains like patterns, yours will passively work to sort things out and make connections where you may not have seen them at first brush.

The basic premise of the Parentheses Process is, if you can’t come up with it nearly immediately, put it in brackets and move on.

Your goal should always be to get through the first draft as fast as you can. Even if the first draft is really a “zero draft,” just a few sentences that sketches out what you’re going for, you benefit from having something to work with rather than nothing at all.

It’s how you eliminate the fear of the blank page. Know that this is something I spent fifteen years of denying, despite reading all of those trusty books about writing, wherein every author ever coaxed me to get the first draft down quickly…

But I digress. Here are some examples of the Parentheses Process in action.

“{Something inspirational and foreshadowy!}” Leyla cried, one edge of her blade gleaming in the low-slung sun.

Dialogue isn’t easy. If you can’t hear it in your head yet, you may just not know your character well enough. That’s totally reasonable! Put it in brackets and move on.

He picked up the gleaming {swordthingname}.

Well, crap, you know you named that sword-thing in an earlier paragraph, but it’s at least four pages back, and you’re kind of on a roll… Put it in brackets and move on.

Their eyes met over the candle. Hers gleamed, and his answered with a mischievous twinkle.

{Cute thing that becomes an inside joke}

They were full of wine and sleepy, and even the promise of more kisses couldn’t keep them awake. They fell asleep with their arms around one another, their clothes disheveled in an innocent, sleepy way.

Sometimes you have a general idea of what needs to happen in order to make a plot point down the road feasible… But you don’t have any experience with that kind of scene and you’d like to read or watch a bit of research material. Put it in brackets and move on.

Fair game in the Parentheses Process:

  • World-building details you already selected*
  • Lines of dialogue
  • Names you haven’t chosen yet
  • Physical characteristics
  • Emotional content
  • Portions of scenes
  • Entire chapters
  • Literally anything

*Pay special attention to those details you feel the need to look up over and over — such as names of places, people and things; character continuity details; and timelines. If you need to reference stuff regularly, you may want to develop a system for yourself so you can easily reference it again.

If you’re anything like me as a writer, you want to make sure you get worldbuilding details absolutely straight. Especially if you know you wrote something down already, whether it was in your meticulous notes or your messy draft, you shouldn’t stop your writing flow to hunt it down! Getting out your first draft should always be more important than the details. That’s what editors are for. You should know this. Consider this a gentle love-whap. First drafts first.

The Parentheses Process is all about ensuring you stay in your flow when you find it. The most important rule is: Give yourself just enough to know what you meant later, and move on quickly to maintain your momentum.

(Another rule: Be consistent. If you use {curly braces,} stick with ’em. If you use [square brackets,] stick with those. Otherwise you’ll find your Ctrl+F process is much harder than it needs to be.)

The Parentheses Process eliminates a huge excuse that many writers rely on to keep from actually producing — research. Yes, research is absolutely key to a successful project. Yes, you can and should have research phases in your writing process…just not in the middle of your writing time. Random generators and web searches are just an excuse not to write, most of the time.

The biggest secret to my success is that I know now, the writing portion of the process should be satisfying. I try to exploit this fact by using the Parentheses Process to jump to the stuff I’m interested in writing right now.

If there’s something you’re excited to write about or want to get out of your head, jump to it. Jot down any notes or thoughts you don’t want to forget in brackets {like these}. Then get to where you want to be!

That’s it. That’s the whole Parentheses Process. It’s how you get through drafts, and fast. It’s how you plow through all those little distractions that add up to writer’s block. It’s how you identify details about your characters and world that are important to write down somewhere else for future reference. (Planning on turning your stand-alone novel into a series? Better hope you’ve kept track of the stuff that’ll matter for the next book and beyond!)

The Parentheses Process is not the same as “not knowing what happens” — i.e. not plotting your story or series. This method shouldn’t be used in place of outlines. At the very least, even if you’re a true “pantser,” you should have some vague notion of what your character’s motivation and goals are.

However, used in tandem with an outline, loose or otherwise, the Parentheses Process lets your brain work its magic. It will find patterns if you tell it, “Look, brain, I know what needs to happen, just not how it happens.” It’s likely that your story world already has a way for that plot point to not only be feasible, but probable. You may just not have unearthed it yet.

Put it in brackets and move on.

View from the office

Moving sucks. Especially when you get caught in an inch of snow for three hours, five minutes away from each of your two homes (former apartment, future home).

But, this place was totally worth it.

This is the view from my desk, or something like it, when we eventually get the combination library-office set up. (!!!!!)

No complaints here.

The whole studio team is here, too, all under one roof. The Shames have, as they say, arrived. Now to get the whiteboards up…

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