Category Archives: Writing about writing

Dogfooding your art

For a while, when I was a wee overachiever, I was often called a perfectionist. It wasn’t true, though. I was (and am) just good at spotting things that could still be improved.

A perfectionist can’t bear to put something out into the world until it’s perfect, and thankfully I’ve never really had that problem. (I’ve been posting my drafts online since 2001.)

When I started working at Microsoft nearly five years ago (!!), I learned of a business term that crops up in software development a lot: dogfooding. It’s short for “eating your own dog food,” or, “using your own damn product.” It’s great. I think it’s really vivid and kind of nasty, and that’s why it’s the right word — because at the point at which you’re dogfooding something, it’s probably not ready for your real audience. It’s a messy, uncomfortable process that’s absolutely necessary.

Dogfooding usually refers to software, or on occasion other products like cars or soft drinks, but I like to use it in regards to my art. You might stop me here and say, “August, how the heck am I supposed to use my own art?”

Great question! Start by reading it out loud, or sending it to a different device from the one you create on. Break out of the way you’ve been creating to experience it in another way. Turn it upside down if you have to. Read it backwards, sentence by sentence.

And then get your art out to your inner circle. Your squad. Your superfans who exist because they’re obligated by other social contracts: those people who, by blood relation or professional association or creative conglomeration, will happily consume what you make and then tell you what they think.

Bombard them with your art. Get a channel you’re comfortable with — whether that means making something private that’s invite only, or choosing a fresh username unassociated with your other online identities, or even just dumping your drafts on your regular social media platforms. Whatever you prefer, find a channel, set it up, and make it simple for you to post to it. Regularly.

That’s the secret. You have to constantly be updating, and pushing the latest to your dogfooders. The faster you get stuff out there, the faster you get feedback. And that’s what this is about: go forth and gauge your (limited and likely captive) audience’s reaction to what you create.

You don’t always need honest opinions from your dogfooders, or detailed breakdowns of their opinions. In fact, no answer at all can be very telling. Does your little sister “like” and comment on every one of your posts? Did she only “like” it this time? Take that as a tiny little point in the “no” column, make a few changes if you think she’s right, and test again, quickly.

Sometimes you might be uncertain of a detail or an approach you’re taking. That’s when you reach out and specifically ask for others’ perceptions of what you’re up to. You’ll be surprised to find out how often your audience is unable to see the flaws you’re stuck on, or how readily someone will offer exactly the perspective you needed to make it right.

If you want to improve, and if you want to truly speed up your ability to create, then you have to start getting feedback early and often. It turns out that the crappiest part of writing a novel is revising it; it’s tedious, frustrating, and confusing. And you’re only going to make any revision steps of your process easier on yourself by learning how to make good content the first time.

You get there by dogfooding.

Tensing up

I used to write short stories by sitting down and starting. Blank page, rough word count in mind, and go.

These days, I’m less inclined to begin without knowing where I’m going. (Yes, I traded in pantserdom for plannerdom.) I’ll start in my notebook, jotting down character or setting notes, poking at plot points. I might even start writing a paragraph or two by hand, to see if it feels right, before I transition to a Word document or OneNote page.

I’ve been working on my February short story for The Accidental Magic Project for about a week now, starting with the above notebook material. I’d actually come up with a potential starting place, and typed up five paragraphs of prose virtually…but then I’d stalled. It didn’t feel quite right.

I went over and over and over the words, looking for the weak spots. I tweaked something here and there half-heartedly. It didn’t feel like the changes were fixing the problem.

Then last night, I was reading it “aloud” in my head, and about halfway through it struck me — I had changed the tense from past to present in my reading.

The story came alive! My main character, Savas, wasn’t just dickish in the past, he was dickish now, and this gave the narrative the immediacy I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Off I went, speeding towards the plot points I’d outlined in my notebook.

Which brings me to the point of this post: If you’re stuck, try changing tenses. It won’t solve every instance of writer’s block, but it’s an immediate, powerful shift in purpose and perspective.

In present tense, I find that characters’ desires are more pressing, more present. I also find that even when I’m writing in third person, I draw closer to my main character when I write in present tense. (I use present tense exclusively in my [stalled] serial story “A Mutiny of Pirates.”)

Some stories demand the emotional distance provided by past tense. But if you’re sensing that yours doesn’t, give present tense a whirl and see how it goes.

Riding the wave

I’m starting to learn my own creative wave, my rhythm. It’s not exactly aligned to the mountain seasons, but it sticks pretty close.

For me, the cold, dark months are for curling up and digesting heavier stories, more thoughtful fare, including non-fiction. They’re also for browsing through full notebooks and harvesting old ideas, and shuffling virtual notes around to experience them all again.

Then the bright, rainy months are for slow, quiet progress, and revisiting old favorite stories. It’s a time for making new human connections too, who bring inspiration and fresh voices.

Then the warm, stagnant months are for frenetic weeks of inspiration and writing followed by languid weeks of wanting nothing to do with words. This is time for video games, movies, and outdoor experiences.

And then the crisp, chilly months are for forgetting how to write, except when it’s very structured, like projects for other people. It’s a time of extreme writer angst — right up until November, when a last-minute burst of guilty inspiration means NaNoWriMo is happening once more.

I’m learning to lean in. (It says that on the front of my current notebook. That’s how serious about it I am.) If I resist writing, I fill up with material instead, until I’m so full I can’t help but write. If I’m drawn to throw a ton of words down, I try to eliminate my distractions and allow myself to work at a frantic pace.

If your creativity is tied to the weather, and the weather is different where you live or has different effects on you, your rhythm might not be the same. But start to keep an eye on your patterns, and when you tend to want to write, over the next year or two — and see if you can spot when you give yourself plenty of good books to read and when to get out of your own way and just write.

How bots make good storytellers

I love bots. My career is about natural language and language generation, and bots (will) sit right in that realm, when they’re done well. And it turns out that having a bot as a co-author creates a unique marketing opportunity.

I know a lot about designing bot-like things, but not so much about building them. So when I decided this summer I wanted to experiment with a storytelling bot for the Damn Shames characters, I went looking for a simpler option than coding my own. I found cheapbotsdonequick.com, set up a fresh Twitter account, and granted all the necessary permissions.

Then I had a delightful exercise before me that was half solving a logic puzzle, half dissecting the elements of a story. I had to come up with the moving parts, such as the character names I wanted to use or the actions the characters would be taking, and figure out how to nest them to form proper sentences (such as associating male characters with male pronouns).

After that, I had to write a bunch of sentences like this:

#ShamesName# is happy to see #AllCharactersName#.
#ShamesName# is yelling at the oorhunds.
#ShamesName# is eating space oranges in an attempt to ward off space scurvy.

And so on.

Each of those sentences (and the [now] hundreds of others I’ve written) has some random chance of being chosen and sent out as a Tweet on @ShamesBot every six hours. The Cheap Bots Done Quick service does some helpful stuff to ensure the bot is only generating 140 or fewer characters, so what I end up with is four published micro-stories a day.

Crazy, right?

There are definitely limitations to this very simple approach. (I’m not even using the advanced coding options CBDQ offers.) Sometimes, characters will interact with themselves in odd ways — “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab” — but that’s sort of what makes the bot an intriguing storyteller.

Because when I read “Rahab is saying something mean to Rahab,” I don’t actually think, “Oh, the bot just put that in there twice.” I think, “Rahab would be as mean to herself as she is to everyone else. That explains why she’s so angry all the time… poor thing.” And suddenly I’ve invented this entire context for what is really a random generator’s weird glitch.

Humans look for the narrative; it helps us organize life’s chaos into something resembling coherence. When the bot produces chaos, the brain fills in the blanks. (Especially if you’ve already read the story the Tweets are about.)

And that’s the genius of a bot as a storyteller. You fill in the blanks for yourself. Bots are powerful narrative tool because their limitations leave so much room for the imagination to play — and when the imagination plays, it often claims what it plays with as its own. (Readers and writers of fan-fiction understand this concept well.)

You can build loyalty with this kind of cooperative storytelling. You can get someone to ask questions, or chime in with their own contributions. And it’s a really fun way to make your stories work for themselves.

Rolling the story dice

I’m really grateful for the online community I built as a kid interested in the Redwall series. I might talk about it more at length another day, but for now, know that I grew up alongside a diverse group of creative people of all ages, many of whose art I still follow today. Carolyn Paplham is one of those people – she makes delightfully whimsical, imaginative art that could have come straight from my childhood stories.

She’s been posting some Inktober drawings lately, and in one of her pictures, I noticed she was using what looked like my creative kryptonite: physical random generators. So I asked about them. Turns out, they were Rory’s Story Cubes.

Needless to say, I acquired all three sets immediately. (If you only get one for yourself or an artistfriend, I recommend the original set.)

I’ve been tossing two or three cubes together at random intervals and jotting down the ideas that flow forth. I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (more on that in the days ahead!), so I’m spending time on my characters, plot points, and world details – meaning that more often than not, my Story Cube free-associations have given me fodder for November.

For example, one toss of the dice presented a thought bubble + a person in the act of being startled. I took it as an opportunity to jot down each of my main characters’ biggest fear, embarrassment, and hatred.

(I plan to use the outcomes of this exercise against my trio at every opportunity.)

Another toss got me thinking about a key moment early on in the story where the characters encounter something under light-hearted circumstances that, towards the end, becomes crucial to survival. I always want scenes in my books to serve at least two purposes, so when the dice showed a bowl of rice and a smiley face, I decided to make the light-hearted circumstances be visiting a miquil restaurant (for world-building purposes).

If I was reviewing Rory’s Story Cubes, I’d give them a 5/5. I’m all about embracing the little tics of imagination that lead to real inspiration, and the Cubes help me right along. Write along? Whatever. Yes.

Irresistible

I’m sitting down with a “Now Write!” exercise book for speculative fiction (thank you, Half Price Books!) in front of me, and I’m having a little writercrisis.

See, I love brainstorming. And taking notes. And organizing those notes. And then brainstorming based on the incidental connections firing in my imagination.

But I guess I don’t really let myself call that “writing.”

As I was doing one of these exercises, I got that grippy hoarding feeling at the top of my stomach. (what? you don’t get that when you suddenly have an overflowing of ideas and want NO ONE ELSE TO KNOW ABOUT THEM until you have a chance to make them AMAZING for YOURSELF?! …oh. just me then.)

I started to think about all of the notes I wanted to write about these goofy composite ideas (The Lion King, but with aliens! and so on). And I realized I was about to chastise myself for wasting my time on more notes when what I really could be doing is writing another novel and…

SHUT UP, ME.

No. Seriously. Hold up. What about this, me? Try this on for size:

What if by brainstorming whichever random idea I want to brainstorm about, I develop a bunch of ideas to the point that I just. can’t. NOT. write. the stories?

Revolutionary, I know. Radical. Game-changing, even.

…but seriously, what if.

The best kind of theft

Until recently, I would start the process of creating a character by addressing a need: a genre need (like “strong heroine,” “handsome lover,” “funny sidekick”), a plot need (such as “someone to give my hero advice”), or a world need (as in “this stable needs a groom”). Then I would sketch out the vaguest outline of a character, and fill in the details as they became relevant.

As you might imagine, one-dimensional characters were a hallmark of my early stories.

KC the kitty cat’s entire thing was being stubborn and hating his name. Willow the otter could be (and often was) summed up in two words: steady leader. Ata, griffon-riding warrior that she was, only ever expressed herself by swearing in gibberish (Wu zxy Sohn!).

Much to my chagrin, I’ve never been one of those writers to whom full-fledged characters present themselves, ready to be written. (I envy my dear friend Jill for having this particular writertrait.) Instead, I have to hunt them down and make them reveal themselves.

Because I wasn’t very good at hunting them down, every line my characters used to utter sounded wooden and hammy. It isn’t uncommon to find lines like this scattered throughout my largest complete manuscript: “Then if it be the will of those whose bodies are not whole…I will allow it.” Blegh. Nope.

While I was writing Daugment, trying to capture Pitney’s reaction to a well-intended but ill-timed gesture, a realization sort of struck me. (Sort of, because every good writing book I ever read probably mentioned it somewhere, and it took one weird moment of clarity for everything I’d ever read and heard to fall into place.)

I just had to borrow the heck out of the people I knew in real life.

It only took a minute or two longer to identify someone in real life who shared traits with Pitney, ask myself what they would do under the circumstances, and waltz past my writer’s block.

Now, I start with someone I know. I still consider the genre, plot, and world needs I’m addressing when sketching out my characters, but I immediately choose a real person who at least shares some core traits. Even if I know I want the final product to stray far from the source, or be a composite of multiple people, I ground my inspiration in reality.

So what kind of things do I steal from my friends, family, coworkers, and mortal enemies?

Their mannerisms. So much about how a person uses their physical presence tells you about their personality and motivations. The way they walk, the way they sit. Their ticks and tells. How they shrink into themselves or expand outward when surrounded by an audience. The specific ways they gesture when they speak; their personal sign language. A list of all of the little aspects of body language and paralinguistics might go on forever, and each one you add to your character is a tiny brushstroke of relatability.

Their physical traits. You can directly rip off entire descriptions of people you know, but risk of “resemblance to real people” aside, I think the best characters are composites. They’re the kind of people who make your reader say, I know someone just like this! But I do advise snagging especially striking physical details from your dear friends and frenemies, and mixing them with less notable details from others for a realistic blend.

Their speaking styles. My dad has a peculiar way of butchering common phrases (“You couldn’t hit a brick!” is a family favorite); I’d recognize it anywhere. Take these tendencies to mis-speak, repeat certain words, lay the catch phrases on thick, drop into phony accents, and invent colorful swears… and watch your dialog perk up and come to life.

Their reactions. People don’t all grieve the same way. They don’t all process anger in the same way. They react to times of self-doubt, hunger of the soul, or intense joy differently from one another. In the interest of “show don’t tell,” watching how those around you uniquely express their strongest emotions will give you more to say than, “He grieved deeply,” or, “She was gripped by a deep joy.”

Their secrets. Some secrets would be dark to anyone, but the little secrets one person is desperate to keep are simply the daily routine for someone else. (For instance: a “secret” of my own I’ve often given my characters is a fear of water + darkness. Not such a juicy secret for a writer, but could be a great secret for a world-class diving instructor…) Collecting these from people you know gives you a good variety of shameful and silly. Caution: you must be very gentle when stealing someone’s secrets, lest you pin them on their keeper in the public square. If you’re going to use someone’s secret that you know about, make everything else about the character you give it to different from the real secret-bearer.

Their personal histories. What was her first job? Where did he have his first kiss? Who gave them the advice that catapulted their career? Where someone comes from, their formative experiences and the places they come from… these things can really inform how someone presents, thinks, speaks, and acts in the present.

Their family relationships. Depending on the family, it represents a juicy source of conflict or a solid grounding force in someone’s life; comedy gold, or a ball-and-chain tragedy. Choose a genuine family dynamic you know and can observe, and draw from their interactions to inform your character’s relationships with their own family members. Figure out who advises whom and whose praise is impossible to win. Jot down the kinds of conversations held over an ordinary dinner or a holiday dinner.

Their Meyers-Briggs profiles. This last one is a tried-and-true technique I use to quickly draw the “boundaries” around a new character. Once I’ve picked someone I know who shares some traits on the above lists with my character, I then take a free Meyers-Briggs personality test as if I were the other person. I answer the questions the way I imagine they would answer them. Then, using the results, I browse the myriad web resources on Meyers-Briggs personality types, which give me a sense of the strengths, weaknesses, communication styles, and conflict management techniques I should give my character.

Cheatsheets

Not so long ago, we Damn Shames took on an interesting project that lasted about a year. We love writing about digital spaceships, and so when a client wanted us to make some buyer’s guide-style content for their website using Star Citizen game assets and our imaginations, we went for it.

First, we created something we thought the client might like and sent it off for feedback. Then we incorporated the feedback and got the first final product approved for text and images. At that point, knowing that I would be one of two writers on the project, I set out to make a template we could both follow.

I took that first product, knowing what the client liked about it and what we should emphasize going forward, and sketched out a basic template: introduction, elevator pitch, physical description, full sales pitch, anecdotes, and conclusion. I knew that structure had produced a successful outcome, and it was broad enough to be applied across a spectrum of spaceship styles.

From there on out, the other writer and I leaned heavily on that template. We used it to sketch out what we needed to deliver every two weeks. Every guide we produced felt tailored to that specific ship – but overall they felt like they all belonged to the same series. And we always knew what was left in the project.

Much like the five-paragraph essay format, a “cheatsheet” like this gives you a comfortable structure to fall back on when you just can’t pull something truly creative out of your ass. It’s okay if you don’t always feel original. Life – and writing in particular, I think – falls into a set of familiar tropes for a reason: people like when something feels right. You don’t have to be lazy – just learn when to rely on a formula that works.

Paid writers get repetitive projects. It’s not a sin to make yourself a cheatsheet. I look at it this way: any time I can free up in my paid writing process, I can spend on my creative writing. (Does that always happen? Nah.)

Here’s how I suggest going about making your own repetitive project cheatsheet:

  • Make at least one that you’re happy with (or that your client is happy with). Set it aside for a few days.
  • Go back through the piece and mark out its basic structure. What elements hold it together and make it work? Look for repeatable patterns and distinguishable segments.
  • Write up the template. Make sure you have examples or explanations where necessary, especially if others will be using the same cheatsheet.
  • Copy it each time you want to start a new project so you don’t have to begin with a blank page!

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?

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!)