Studiolog: Week of July 9th

It is so very summer around here. Too hot to function on a computer until after 10 PM!

So without their PCs, what have the Shames been up to?

Mostly Star Citizen stuff these last couple of weeks! All four studio Shames wanted to participate in the Roberts Space Industries 600i commercial contest – but there was a catch: teams could only be three people, max. So we ended up splitting up: Jake worked with our friend Hasgaha and another amazing collaborator, Utho, on a luxury car-style commercial; and Josh, Amy and I teamed up to make a jewelry-style commercial called “600 Reasons to Fall in Love.” (I’m really happy with the music Amy and I composed!) We should find out who won in the next week or so.

We also published the 6th issue of Ships Illustrated, on the theme of “Adventures.” Not our most popular launch, but we were excited to say “ship it!” (punintentional).

Guitars continue to go well. Jake is now working with a local expert to learn how to wire and set up guitars like a pro, and meanwhile he’s done some amazing finishes using Crimson Guitars Stunning Stains.

Personally, I read a few books the last two weeks: Security, Heartsick, and Novel Shortcuts. Highly recommend the first two as, uh, very much not light fiction reads, if you can stomach a fair bit of gore and torture. The writing styles were starkly different and yet both fantastic. Novel Shortcuts made for an interesting first half, then sort of petered out in the second – but I highlighted a lot of good material from that, which inspired portions of my last post.

I’m about halfway through my Accidental Magic Project short story for August, and it’s one of my favorites so far. Speaking of my short stories, Nicole will be illustrating scenes from some of my shorts for her MFA portfolio! I’m very excited to see what she comes up with.

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

“I want an idea like that!”

When I’m perusing Half Price Books and spot a book with an amazing cover and jacket text to match, I often find myself muttering the title phrase of this post – half out of rage, and half out of sheer awe. How did not think of this? Oh, right, because I’m not as brilliant as the author who conceived of it, actually wrote it, and then got it published.

I say this despite having done this very thing. That’s because, it turns out, I approach every new idea with the same trepidation and terror I had with that first idea I successfully carried to completion. I’ve been writing for 25 years now, people, and I still get blocked in a major way.

And then there’s that feeling of despair that I experience when I’ve just read a marvelous book: How will I ever create something like this?!

If you, too, get this post-book angst, I’m writing this to intervene with your inner desperation. You can get an idea just like your new favorite one. It’s possible. I promise. It’s hard work, just like everything else in writing, but it’s very much a thing you can do.

Now that I’ve made that bold claim, I guess I’d better break down how I do it, huh? Disclaimer: This might not work for you, but the point of writing about writing is getting out something that works for me, just in case it could work for you too.

start by picking a focus, because the glorious problem with ideas is that they proliferate like mice as soon as you get two in the same room. So instead of starting a giant list of all my favorite everythings, I pick a single one that I’d really like to emulate right now, given my mindset and capacity. Then I answer all subsequent questions with that one favorite in mind. Otherwise, I’d end up in the same bottomless ocean of potential concepts I usually do, unable to pick the one that’s clearly better than the rest.

So you’ve picked an idea you’d like to emulate. After that, it’s time to make lists. And freewrite. Lots of lists, and lots of freewriting. Fair warning: that’s basically what the rest of this post is, so feel free to skip around between lists and illustrative paragraphs to find what inspires you to write right now.

Find the essence

This exercise is very subjective, but very, very important. You had this feeling of wanting an idea “like that” for a reason; the point of this exercise is to get at that reason.

You can choose how you’d like to go about this process: by making a list, free-associating, word-bubbling, freewriting… Whatever helps you write down what it is you love about the idea.

There isn’t a magical, pre-determined list of things that make an idea awesome or captivating or haunting. For example, if you ask me what I loved so damn much as a kid about The Last Battle, I’d start with the line that Jewel the unicorn cries out to his companions as they joyfully wend their way through the afterlife: “Come further up, come further in!” It captures the soul of the story in six simple words.

On the other hand, ask me why I adore Watership Down and regularly re-read it to this day, and I’m immediately put in mind of a character moment: Hazel, weighing up the flaws of a possible ally and deciding that kindness is more useful than criticism, tells Bigwig, “Good. We shall be glad to have you.” It’s Hazel who makes his story what it is for me, and if I were trying to emulate Adams’ novel, I’d likely begin with “an endangered family of creatures” and “a tenacious, reluctant leader as the protagonist.”

To keep things focused, as I’ve advised, I suggest that you make a list of no fewer than three things and no more than ten things that make the story what it is to you. Then go back and circle the ones it wouldn’t be the same without. I’ll call this the Love List.

This is what you’re going to start with to make your own amazing idea.

Gather the elements

Every story has certain components or elements, whether they’re explicitly acknowledged or utilized or not. These lists of exercises can help you understand the mechanics of getting to an idea “like that” by breaking the idea down into parts you can understand and change.

Start by creating an Element List that covers each of the following elements for your favorite idea, preferably in no more than 10-12 words at the most:

  • Title
  • Point of view
  • Voice
  • Character
  • Problem
  • Setting
  • Plot
  • Device

This might feel like a book report, or just gushing to a friend about something you enjoy, but that’s exactly the point. Enjoy it! Then you can move on to fleshing out more details about your favorite idea.

You may find you draw from your Love List to populate the Element List. That’s a good sign.

Character

Characters are the lifeblood of a story, without whom a plot is just a timeline. Chances are good that even if you weren’t too keen on a story’s main character, the supporting cast at least stood out to you. Here’s your chance to find out why.

Before you get started, though, which characters in your favorite work would you gladly (or at least curiously) read some fan-fiction about? Those are the ones you should focus on for the other exercises.

  • List your favorite lines of dialog from these favorite characters. Try to limit yourself to the quotes that perfectly capture their personality and attitude.
  • Write down the physical and personality details about your favorite characters that make your heart squeeze when you think about them — the reasons you love them so.
  • What makes your favorite characters unique? Is it the contrast of their occupation (a thief) with their personality (a heart of gold)? Is it the way they don’t fit with their setting (a pot-healer in a synthetic future)? Capture these oddities.
  • What are your favorite characters’ secrets and inner wounds? List as many as you can remember.

Problem

What struggle does the protagonist face in the story you’re choosing as your inspiration? That’s the “problem” — also known as the conflict, or the central challenge. It lies at the heart of the story, and the protagonist’s (nearly) every move should be an attempt to solve this problem.

This problem is likely something simple and human at its core: love, family, home, safety, survival… Nearly all of us face these problems in our own lives, to some degree. It’s the specific mix of character, context, and setting that make the problem come to life.

  • What are the obstacles that stand between the protagonist and solving the problem in the story you’re using for inspiration? List them out one by one.
  • What one word or phrase (no more than five words) can you use to describe the problem (see the above list for inspiration)?
  • Go through the jacket text for the story you chose, and highlight the specific vocabulary words and phrases that refer to the protagonist’s core problem.

Setting

The where and the when of a story can inject personality in a way that nothing else can, not even perfect characters. Choosing a time and place that provides ample vocabulary and circumstance to flavor a story is a masterful art many skillful authors practice. Perhaps it’s the setting of your favorite story that makes it sing…

  • Describe the when and where of your favorite story in the simplest terms possible: “19th century England,” “a far-off planet in 2000 years,” “10 years ago in a city like mine.”
  • What are some of the unique features of the world that set your favorite work apart, even from other works in a similar setting? Jot these down.
  • How does the setting of your favorite story manifest in the narration? Come up with 4-5 examples.

Plot

A plot is a formula: character + problem + setting + time = plot. It’s what happens to who, because of where and when it’s set. Not all stories about naïve protagonists, set in space an ambiguously “long time ago,” will be Star Wars, in large part because of who those protagonists are and what happens to them. Think of the plot as the window through which you will see the characters: how long the audience is with them, and for what key events in their lives.

  • What plot twists do you find particularly satisfying in your favorite story? Spoilers are welcome for this exercise.
  • Which parts of the plot of your favorite story feel inevitable, but not cliche? Describe them in 3-5 words.
  • What is the cheesiest moment of the plot of your favorite work? How about the most dramatic? Where do these fall in the timeline of the story?

Devices

Devices are storytelling vehicles. They run in all shapes and sizes, from “one-syllable words only” to “Hans Christian Anderson-style fairy tale” to “the narrator watches the events unfold from a security room, so sometimes the story occurs concurrently.”

A good writer uses the device to squeeze the most emotional tribute out of their audience as possible. A fairy tale, for example, might set up the expectation of some sort of “happily ever after,” and if you choose this device, you can throw more and more seemingly impossible obstacles in the way and readers will still buy that things turn out alright.

  • What scenes or plot points does the device enable in your favorite story? (In other words, which would not be possible if the story had been told in another manner?)
  • Can you think of stories that are similar to the one you’ve chosen, but that use different devices? You may have to think hard on this one – a good device can disguise many elements.
  • Make a list of 10 or more devices you enjoy (from different stories). When you’re done with the list, go back through and circle any recurring themes.

Titles

OK, here’s a little secret: titles don’t really matter. Whoops! That’s going to get quoted out of context. Look, it’s not that titles don’t matter. It’s that you, the author, the person who’s closest to this work and its most fiercest defender, are probably not the right person to come up with a title that will matter. And when I say “matter,” I mean in selling your idea, in convincing a potential buyer to shell out some hard-earned money for it. Leave that to the marketers and publishers in your life; they’ll help you cross that bridge when you come to it.

But the right title sticks with you, and so if you’re inspired by the title of your favorite work – if you feel it’s so integral to that work’s meaning, it wouldn’t be the same without it – here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • What are some other possible titles that your favorite work may have been given? Brainstorm 8-10 options based on pithy quotes, character names or roles, dramatic events, cultural references, or whatever else was memorable material. How would these alternate titles change your perception of the story?
  • What is the cadence of the title? One syllable, or eight? Is it simple or full of complex meaning (or both)? Come up with some titles that “feel” similar, but are meant for entirely different works.

Point of view

A story’s point of view indicates both the perspective used (first-, second-, or third-person), as well as which character(s) the audience is privy to. Third-person limited point of view, for example, means that a character is not narrating the story themselves, but the audience will witness only that one character’s thoughts.

Genre and content can dictate point of view, but you should feel free to experiment on this element.

  • How does the point of view chosen for your favorite work help the storytelling? Does it keep the audience in suspense like the character, or does it give the audience a breath-stealing view into what will happen before the character is ever aware?
  • As a reader, you’re led along by the chosen perspective of a work. How does that of your favorite story help you better understand – or intentionally misunderstand – the protagonist?

Voice

Ahh, the buzzword of my industry. I purposefully chose to use “voice” here because it’s ambiguous. It means the writer’s own tone and word choice – and, by proxy, that of the protagonist – but it also means the characters’ dialog, the way they speak and what the writer allows them to say.

  • Go back through your favorite work and jot down 8-10 favorite lines. If these are dialog, even better.
  • Describe the style of your favorite work’s author in a few paragraphs. Pretend you’re writing a book report focused solely on the stylistic choices they made.
Put your spin on it

Ahh, 50 Shades of Grey. What a crazy thing! Someone took an extremely popular idea they loved that happened to inspire them, broke it down into its elements, changed just enough of those elements, and spawned another hit franchise in doing so.

Guess what? There’s an actual legal definition of “just enough.” It’s 20%. Twenty percent of your work has to be materially different from the original, and then it’s legally not the same idea. It’s derivative, sure, and maybe not every writer would be proud of themselves for walking as close to that 20% line as E.L. James did. But then again, she’s making bank, and I think artists should be proud of themselves for making something that people like enough to pay money for it. (I digress. That’s a topic for another time.)

So here are some ways you can put your own spin on your favorite idea. The thing is, even if you “only” change 20% of the elements you’ve been listing in the above exercises, your work will still be something unique born of your own voice, experience, and sense of wonder. Don’t worry too much about how far you’ve pushed the envelope. That can come at the revision stage, when an editor or sharp alpha reader can help you bolster the things that are unique about your work and downplay the things that aren’t.

Three degrees of separation

This is a pretty straightforward exercise. Take the Element List you created for your favorite idea, choose three of the elements, and change them. (Or use some of the material you generated in the more specific exercises.)

Now start exploring how these new elements affect the others. How would the characters act differently in another time period? What plot points would become irrelevant if the setting changed? How does the narrative change if you remove the device altogether?

Use this list for inspiration:

  • Make the story about a different character.
  • Give the protagonist a different problem.
  • Give the same problem to a different protagonist.
  • Put the same story in a different setting.
  • Put a different story in the same setting.
  • Tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.
  • Using the same point of view, tell the story of a different character.
  • Tell a different story about the same character.
  • Use the same device on a different story.
  • Frame the same story with a different device.
  • Throw in an unexpected twist to the plot.
  • Take the plot and set it in another time.
  • Give the story a different title.
  • Come up with another story that could share the same title.
  • Change the voice to tell the same story.
  • Try to emulate the same voice, but for a different story.
The final touches

By this point, you probably have something that you’re pretty excited about starting in on. Hold up, one last thing! Just to bring this whooole exercise full-circle, make a Love List for your new idea.

Of course, you don’t know yet what your future story won’t be the same without, or what your audience will savor forever about your story. But hopefully your writerly heart is beating a little faster and your word-ful blood is pumping a little harder, and you already kind of know what it is that makes you want to do all of the hard work of dragging an idea out of your imagination and into the world.

Whenever you falter, whenever you start to question why you bother, pull out the Love List for your idea – and remember why you once told yourself, “I want an idea like that!”

Studiolog: Week of June 25th

As a person who works on a product that synthesizes data and tries to help people make sense of it, I regularly wish there was an easier way to track my creative cycle. In my fickle memory, summers are a mixed bag: some years I’m on fire, some years I’m sluggish. I wish I could see the larger pattern somehow.

With or without data collection, life rolls on. So what have the Shames been up to?

We met last weekend and talked seriously about what kinds of projects we thought could bring some money in to the studio. The general consensus: music, guitars, self-published fiction, and our comic book project with Alex. That list is where we plan to put the majority of our efforts.

To that end, Amy and I have been working on a song called “Bloom with Me.” It’s melodramatic and ridiculous, and I’m excited that I got Amy to do the vocals for me, because she’s great at selling the tone of the song. I’m also pleased with the fact that I have a song, something I don’t have to care about too much but that I will be able to say I finished…when it’s done.

I’ve laid out the 6th issue of Ships Illustrated, and we’re expecting to launch that on July 9th. I created a trailer (I made the music too!) for the upcoming issue last weekend.

The Sharper Axe is almost finished with a few more guitars, which should go on sale this week. The Pinkie Pie guitar is still available, so if you’ve got a kiddo or a friend who enjoys My Little Pony, this would make a fun gift! My Seagull turned out beautifully, by the way.

The purple is a little more even in person, but it’s definitely this shiny.

I must admit, this month, I slacked on The Accidental Magic Project. I wasn’t able to find the time and motivation to contribute a story this month, so I’m going to save it for next month. I’m very excited about it, I just couldn’t do it! I look at this as a tiny victory for self-care.

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Studiolog: Week of June 18th

Is this thing still on?

Man, what have the Shames been up to? Besides, of course, sprawling in the heat, getting more new jobs, and rescuing guitars…

Wait, rescuing guitars? Yes, Jake is now the lead artist at the shop in our garage we’re calling The Sharper Axe. He finished his first guitar this week, and yes, it IS inspired by Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony. (It’s also for sale, if you have a kid or pal who loves the show!) There’ll be pictures of the avocado guitar (also going up for sale), the spectacular orange bass for Amy, and my own purple Seagull M4 very soon.

We’ve been posting semi-regularly on our musical collective’s Instagram, so if you’re interested in our weird little loops, you can find ’em there.

For The Accidental Magic Project last month, I wrote a short story called “The Chessboard“. Trivia that’s probably only interesting to me: it was inspired entirely by a visit to a pawn shop in West Seattle – I had none of this story when I walked in, and most of it when I walked out. Funny how some places and people can just grab your imagination.

I’m itching to work on a novel again, so I have a feeling I’ll be picking up one of my trusty inspiration books – like Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing or Lamont’s Bird by Bird – or one of the many “novel tricks” books that always get me fired up, and following that up with wrapping on the first draft of “Portent.” How long can I drag this damn thing out? Weeee shall seeeeee…

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Oasis Orchards Pinot Gris

I challenged Amy to some really goofy writing prompts the other night, and this came out of the prompt, “Write a snooty, nonsensical wine description.”

Step into the tantalizing, arid desert with this titillating blend of tart chords and chevron harmonies. Catch a note of aged wild rebellion, twined perfectly with daring hints of mammoth proportions – all complimented by a variable symphony of brown.

How not to hate someone

I ran into the original Mr. Shoes the other day, and I didn’t even recognize him.

Weird sentence? Let me back up a bit. I call both of the individuals I consider my personal nemeses at work “Mr. Shoes.” Not to their faces, of course, but suffice it to say I’m not the only person who knows of this nickname.

Harmless, isn’t it? Yet…oddly condescending. My favorite kind of spell to take away someone’s power over my emotions and reactions.

The title of this post suggests I’ve had to do this often. Not really! In fact, I like all the individuals I get to know as a rule; that means those who are the rare exception really stand out for me. If hate someone, you know I’m not the only one. (Or else I really am the only one and that’s when I know they’ve bewitched everyone else.)

But when I do dislike someone, more often than not, I still have to deal with them on a regular basis. So back to Mr. Shoes: I encountered him outside of my normal work haunts, and when he came bounding out of his office to greet my manager with a weird handshake-hug combo, I didn’t recognize him. Probably because he was wearing a sweatshirt, and the Mr. Shoes I knew would never have dared to come to the office in a sweatshirt. That’s the kind of thing August, the wearer of flip-flops, would do.

I’d so resoundingly forgotten his momentary sway over my feelings that I’d forgotten what he looked like.

Call it a blessing of how my memory works, sure, but I like to think it’s because I was able to apply these tactics that help me not despise someone who rubs me the wrong way and then crosses my path on the regular:

  • Give them a harmless nickname in your head. “Mr. Shoes” works so damn well because it’s non-specific to the person. To someone who doesn’t know the context, the nickname is meaningless, meaning it won’t come back to haunt me later in my career.
  • Identify their positive traits and build an inverse caricature. This may be something you have to do on a daily basis with some nemeses, like I had to do with a former coworker I’ll call “Ben.” My friend and I had similar frustrations with Ben, on totally different projects, so we regularly let the other vent. Then one day, we found ourselves consoling each other with the sensical things Ben had said to our common enemies, and from then on, we could both handle his nonsense. It’s the little things.
  • Look for explanations that humanize, not dehumanize. People have bad days, OK? Bodies hurt, hearts and egos are bruised, or futures are bleak. Look, digestive trouble hits all of us on some days, and some of us on most days. Assume your nemesis is going through the worst, unless you know they’re being an asshole for other reasons.
  • Indulge in little rebellions for yourself. By deriding my choice in footwear during a meeting, Mr. Shoes presented me with the perfect tiny rebellion: wearing flip-flops on days I knew I might encounter him. I once had a roommate who hated a particular shirt of mine – so I would wear it on those days when I needed a little extra boost to get past her snark.

Of course, I’m not advocating that you overlook truly abominable behavior. Report that ish through the proper channels. This is for those folks who irritate the heck out of you…but who aren’t really doing anything wrong.

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.

Studiolog: Week of May 7th

Sometimes, life just gets out of control. Like a wild mustang with a mind of its own, only a lot less sexy.

To sum up the last four months: chaos, brilliance, triumph, frustration, angst, challenges.

And in the midst of all of that – what have the Shames been up to?

Building out the studio, to be completely honest. We’ve all acquired new loves for physical instruments, as well as their digital counterparts, and that’s taken us away from our virtual lives. But that’s okay. Despite everything, we’re all still happier.

Some of us got new jobs, or our roles in our existing jobs changed. Plus we’ve been rearranging the house where we all live to be a more effective studio. Between the two, they’ve completely eaten up our time for the last four months.

Today, we sat together in the sun and spent an hour and a half going over what we wanted our future to look like, and how we are going to get there. That means multi-colored index cards with responsibilities for everyone. Some things are small and easily accomplished, like writing micro-fiction for the Star Citizen competition. Some things are a little more ambitious, like writing a children’s book series about space (and a couple of aliens).

Of course, Amy and I have somehow continued to contribute to The Accidental Magic Project. I recently dropped the story “The Dog“, about a boy’s adventures at a magical animal shelter, and Amy’s most recent tale was “Fairly Bad Mother“, about second-rate fairy godparents.

What’s coming up? Plenty, I’m sure, but mostly we’re going to concentrate on launching the Damn Shames 2.0 – our publishing company. This means that I’m on the lookout for collaborative partners of all kinds!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

Studiolog: Week of January 22nd

Delays, delays. Our entire household has been sick at various times, the return to work for the new year exploded everywhere… Can I just something bizarre like, “The crows sagged on the line,” whenever I actually mean, “All of the usual excuses kept there from being updates lately”? Cool OK great.

So what have the Shames been up to, besides making excuses? Loads, actually!

For one thing, we’re going to produce a comic book. That’s right — a comic book. It’s something none of us have ever actually done before, but have all wanted to try our hands at in various capacities. We’re teaming up with spectacular comic artist Alex, who just happens to be offering his sketches for a fabulously affordable price (I highly recommend commissioning character art to inspire yourself to write!). I’m writing the script in Scrivener, using a template from Antony Johnston.

Everyone — and I mean everyone — has picked up at least one instrument in the last three weeks (Josh dug out his electric guitar, Amy found her true love in an electronic wind instrument, and Jake has rediscovered his Maschine), and the Damn Shames are making wild, weird, and (sometimes) surprisingly decent tunes together. We’re not trying to be a band, per se — it just turns out we all enjoy letting our brains unwind with a little collaborative music. The hope is to make all of our own music for our videos, and maybe sell some of the better songs as stock music on the side.

The Accidental Magic Project rolls on, with Jill contributing her first story, “Working Title,” and Janice gracing us with her first installment, “Imbolg.” My colleague and weird wordfriend Dylan is our first guest, and, spoilers, his story is great. (It’ll be up on our website tomorrow!) I’ve started my February story, but barely; as usual, looks like I’ll wait until the last minute to really get going.

I’ve got a commission of my “Portent” characters coming from artist Katharine Linnea, so I should be sharing that in the next few weeks. We’re trying to get the fifth issue of Ships Illustrated to the virtual presses. Aaand, I need to get off my ass and buy an ISBN number for Daugment so I can sell a physical edition. Goals!

If you’re someone who writes collaboratively and regularly, and you’re interested in being a part of an author collective, please contact me! I’d love to talk.

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.

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