No Excuses


Why in the heck did I stop listening to the “Writing Excuses” podcast? (Stylistic note: I know the punctuation rules for plays, books, movies, and songs … what’s the rule for podcasts? Italics? Quotation marks? Bracketed with cats?)

For a guy in as much doubt as I am about my current novel (or, okay, novelS — I’ve still got that time-travel story locked in a drawer, just waiting on me to finish this superhero thing so that I can do some much-needed editing), it seems foolish to ignore tips and advice that are just floating out there in the open air. I’ve literally had episodes downloaded on my phone for months that I’ve not listened to, and I have no idea why.

This morning, for whatever reason, I turned it on.

<Writing Excuses> is awesome, it really is. If you are a writer like me (that is to say, a writer who maybe doesn’t fully, 100% consider himself a real writer because he has not as yet received any payment for anything he’s written; or perhaps a writer who doesn’t consider himself a real writer because he can’t shake the notion that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. Their most recent spate of episodes (they’re in season 11 now) deals with this thing they’re calling “elemental genres”, which is a different way of thinking about stories. In short, and to sum up episode 1, elemental genre is not your bookshelf genre: horror, sci-fi, mystery, romance. Elemental genre is the thing that drives the story itself: heist, discovery, love story, quest.

For example, Die Hard is an action movie, but it’s really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. Star Wars: TFA is a sci-fi space opera, but it’s really about a girl trying to find out just who the hell she is. The Hunger Games is a dystopian action story, but it’s really a story about political issues surrounding the balance of power.

In other words, genre as we typically think about genre is just the trappings of the story: the costume, the setting, the recognizable figures and signposts dotting the landscape. Sci-fi stories feature futurism or far-off planets or silvery bodysuits or aliens. Fantasy is gonna have knights and dragons and magic and names with lots of apo’str’ophes. (If I ever write a character with an apostrophe in their name, you can shoot me. Preferably with a word-gun loaded with exploding apostrophe bullets that explode and attack my face like a swarm of angry be’es.) But that’s just form.

When it comes to function, there is a world of possibilities lurking under the shape of the form. I listened to that, and realizations started crashing down around me like anvils in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I’ve been writing my stories as genre pieces without thinking too hard about what’s driving them. Which is why I’m off the rails and stalling out.

My current superhero story? The protagonist wants it to be a coming-of-age story, but it’s really a heist novel, because there’s a thing that the hero needs, and it’s closely protected by the bad guys.

My sci-fi time-travel novel? The protagonist wants it to be an action story, but it’s really an identity crisis, because the girl knows who she’s supposed to be but she doesn’t know why.

My head is exploding.

I have to go write some things down.

And then I need to listen to more %Writing Excuses%.

8 Writer Excuses (That Are Total B.S.)


As I get closer and closer to the end of my project, it gets harder and harder to write. Like a magnet that simultaneously pulls you in and repels you, the finish line of the first draft is a daunting milestone in the life of a novel, one that looks impossibly bigger and bigger the closer you get to it: an alien obelisk growing out of the horizon of an uncharted planet that never actually seems to get any closer.

As such, it becomes easier and easier to make up excuses not to write, and those excuses become more and more reasonable-sounding.

Here are a few of them (not that I’ve used any of these myself during this project or any other, OF COURSE.) Eight, to be precise. Why eight? I don’t know. Eight is musical. Eight is my lucky number. Eight is also how many I happened to think of before I realized I was using this blog post as an excuse not to write.

So.

  1. I don’t have time. This is probably the easiest to claim and the easiest to dispel. Unless you’re one of the rarefied few doing this writing thing for a living, this is probably true on some level. (Then again, those rarefied few are long past making this excuse.) But the fact is, we all get the same 24 hours in the day, and time can be stolen in bits and snatches from any number of sources: lunch breaks, wasted time in front of the TV, hell, I’ve been known to forego an hour or so of sleep to get it done. The fact is: if it matters to you, you will find time or you will create it from the raw fabric of the universe.
  2. I’m just not inspired to write today. We tend to think that writing is a sort of magic, and on some level, it is: Where else does the average person get to play god like a writer? And on some level, some sort of inspiration is required, but not in the way we think. You need a decent (not awesome) idea, and you need the willingness to work at it, to stick your hands into the clay time and again, shaping it and molding it and firing it and destroying it to start again. That’s it. And some days, the writing does feel like the gods themselves are pushing your cursor around the page, spilling their divine wordseed through your brain and onto the page. But far more often, writing is a little bit like playing nose tackle: it’s a whole lot like getting your brains smashed in, again and again, and crawling back to take another one on the chin. To reiterate: inspiration may strike now and then, but you’re a whole lot more likely to be struck if you drape yourself in tinfoil and wander out in the storm carrying the biggest TV antenna you can find.
  3. I can’t write when I have xxxxx going on. Again, anybody could claim this at any time, really. Life happens to us all, bringing with it a stew of relationship difficulties, livelihood uncertainties, existential doubts, or, well, just name it, really. There’s always something going on that we could use as an excuse. And sometimes, to be fair, it’s a valid excuse. When your house has burned down or you’ve just lost your job, it’s maybe a good time to take some time off the writing project, because that sharknado will bleed through into your work. The thing to be wary of is allowing yourself to continue making this excuse beyond the time when it is reasonable to do so. Momentum matters, and this excuse will destroy your momentum if you let it.
  4. I’m not any good at writing. Well, pardon me for saying so, but who the hell is? Writing is a skill like any other. No budding musician picks up a guitar and starts shredding like Steve Vai. No wannabe singer just spontaneously spouts the perfect lyrics and harmonies one day while driving to work. This thing takes time, and the beginning writer is allowed — if not expected — to suck. It’s a thing to be embraced and accepted and forgotten about. We’re all toddlers that have been chucked into the deep end, and we’ll either figure out how to keep our heads above the water, or we’ll half-drown and be terrified of water for the rest of our lives.
  5. My idea isn’t going anywhere. Ideas are as wonderful and varied as the fishes of the sea; some of them have huge, smoke-belching jet engines, while others are lost puppies trembling in the thunderstorm. Some slide along under their own power for a while (but, really, THE POWER IS YOU) while others have to be dragged along by the wrist, kicking and screaming and whining every step of the way. But the fact is, if you’re not working on it (and as tempting as it is to think that thinking about it or outlining it or in any other way laying the groundwork for it counts as working on it, none of those things actually increase the idea in any way, none of them move it closer to the goal), then at best, it’s a tricked-out Bugatti sitting abandoned in a ditch. At worst, it’s a busted-out, multicolored hoopty sitting abandoned in a ditch. The constant, of course, is the ditch. Your idea won’t get out without some pushing.
  6. It’ll never sell. I’m probably unqualified to be dispensing this sort of advice, but I’ll do it anyway: if your primary concern for a story is whether or not it will sell, then maybe, I dunno, you need a new idea. What sells your story is that it’s your story, told in a way that only you can tell it. Plus — frankly — it probably won’t sell anyway. The market is a bloated jellyfish floating around on unpredictable currents; maybe your story will get snared in the tentacles and carried off to the promised land, maybe it won’t. But if you don’t love your idea, if you’re not burning to write it whether it sells or not, then the story is going to languish in the unpublishable depths, whether the jellyfish scoops it up or not.
  7. My idea isn’t original. Yeah, sorry, but this one is absolutely true. I’m one of those pessimists that feels every story has been told before, every arc has been explored, every wrench in the gears has already been thrown there, multiple times, by multiple monkeys. (See tvtropes.org if you don’t believe me.) The upside to all this is that it doesn’t matter. As I mentioned above, what sells a story — what people love about a story — is not the nuts and bolts of the story itself. That stuff should be practically invisible. What sells it is all the you-juices oozing out of all the nooks and crannies you build into the story. And that stuff only gets in there if — again — you love what you’re writing.
  8. I just don’t feel like it. Here’s where the real harsh truth sets in. Again, outside of the rarefied few, writing isn’t a job. It’s not something that people are depending on you to do, it’s not like paying your taxes or fixing that loose board in the back porch or taking the car in for an oil change. The world will keep on spinning, and you won’t go to jail or into the doghouse if you don’t write. But if you really don’t want to write — and that’s true for, I dunno, a week? A month? — then maybe — just maybe — it’s not that important to you, and maybe — just maybe — you ought to just save all of us the trouble and stop beating your head against this particular wall.

Now, look. I’m hardly an expert, but I do have about 300,000 words in various stages of completion between my second-draft first novel, my nearly completed first-draft second novel, and almost two years’ worth of drivel here at the blarg. Whether any of it is any good is a question for people smarter than me, but I have all that while scores and scads of people out there are just dreaming of writing someday. That’s something. And I certainly didn’t get it by listening to my excuses.

Speaking of which, it’s about time I take my own advice and go work on my project.

A Plague of Excuses


Usually I like to use the SOCS prompt to write about my writing process, but given that the prompt for the week is “four-letter words”, there’s only really one thing I can think about.

Plague.

No, wait. Disease.

No, sorry. Too fancy.

Sick.

We’re all sick. Everybody in my the house. Sprout the first is sniffling and snuffling and coughing his brains out. Sprout the second has a perpetual river of snot running down her face. Poor wife has been snagged by the grasping claws of the sore throat that I shook off a couple of days ago, and I’ve got the stuffy-headed feeling of a skull stuffed full of mucus. So, we’re all a little bit miserable.

And maybe that’s why this week seemed to stretch out for eternity, as my wife and I both agreed it did. In addition to the regular tribulations of the day, we had to come home to runny noses and coughing fits and the general bad humor of little kids suffering from sickness. Which is enough to take the wind out of anybody’s sails.

And as much as I like to find an inspirational or motivational spin to put on any hurdle to writing, it’s hard to think of much that’s positive to say about this one. There’s no positive to mopping snot off faces and having millions of germs coughed into your face holes by kids who haven’t got the motor control or consideration to even conceive of covering their mouths.

So writing on the project has been at a bare minimum this week. Posts here on the blarg have been next to non-existent. The plague going around the house has taken the mustard right out of my sails. And for all I write about powering through the crap days, writing even when you don’t feel like it, and embracing the work for its own sake for its therapeutic and uplifting properties, even I recognize that there are some days when that just isn’t the case. When you’re sick — really afflicted with something nasty, something physical or chemical that’s keeping you from firing on any of your cylinders, let alone all of them — the only thing to do is to hunker down, chug back a bottle of Nyquil or Pepto or whatever, and wait for the storm to pass.

Luckily, it feels like the storm might be breaking. I feel much better today than in the past couple of days, Sprout the Second’s face is not nearly so crusty this morning, and Sprout the First… well, he’s still coughing fit to serve as the percussion backbeat to a dubstep track.

Guess you can’t win ’em all.

Luckily, for that, they have Dayquil.