Ten Imagination-Building Exercises

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Think Differently: Ten Excercises For a Better Imagination

I don’t have much truck with writing exercises. I think your main writing exercise is, and should always be, writing something. Just ‘doing an exercise’ is essentially giving yourself homework, and it’s giving yourself homework with the automatic assumption that what you’re doing is just an exercise, so it doesn’t really count for shit in the first place.

Success will never be had, in these circumstances. Most of us have a limited amount of time to sit down and write anyway; using some of that time ‘just for exercises’ isn’t helping you. Your aim, every time you sit down to whatever it is you sit down to, should be to create something you can eventually publish.

This is not, I note, the same as saying you should never experiment. Want to try writing a story with no adverbs in it? Be my guest. Want to do one of those cheesy ‘your character writes a letter to X’ things? Letter onwards. But only do it if you have an idea. Only do it if it’s something that strikes a chord with you. No good story was ever begun with the phrase ‘I’m going to write something today that never uses the word ‘said”. It was begun with an idea: ‘hey, what if there was a monk who lost his rosary?’, and then, if you please, you can shout, whisper, murmur, and belt your way to the conclusion.

Had to get that off my chest. The reason being, of course, that I’m about to offer you some everyday writing exercises. Ain’t I a hypocrite?

Not really. Very few of these involve actually putting pen to paper. What I’m offering, instead, are more thought exercises–ways to expand your mind, man. Imagination is key in good writing, and I see few ‘writing exercises’ that flex those particular muscles.

Because, yeah, you need inspiration to write. If you try to just churn it out, what you’ll churn out will be page after page of drivel (if you haven’t been keeping up with my NaNo experiment, I proved this to myself last month).

Here’s the deal with inspiration, though. You can’t just sit there and wait for it to come to you. You have to set out manfully into the West and find your inspiration, and lasso your inspiration, and drag it back to the paddy and break it like the wild motherfucking thing it is. There are a lot of thoughts floating around in your cranium bubble, and recognizing a good one–catching it as it passes you by on its gossamer wings–is a lot harder than all our talk of muses and inspirational writ suggests.

To find your inspiration, you have to start thinking differently. We’re humans–we’re hardwired to focus on our own survival and happiness. And that’s not a bad thing, when you aren’t doing something creative: when you are, though, it’s time to expand your fucking mind. A good idea doesn’t capture some great universal truth, it captures the little daily truths, which, if arranged correctly, might echo something that resonates. It’s why we show, not tell. Which is more powerful: the phrase ‘everyone died but me’, or the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with five life vests still in factory ties?

These exercises are intended to help you find life’s little truths, the details we miss when we start thinking about How The World Is Today. Imagination is limitless–which is awesome, yeah, but also kind of terrifying. Here’s me helping you use your imagination.

1) What coins do you have in your pocket? Look at them, examine them. Some are old and ugly, some are shiny and new. How many other people have touched these coins? What situations have they been in, to give them the scars they do (or don’t) have? Got an older coin that’s still in shiny shape in there? Why do you think it is that way?

2) Find one thing in the course of your day that doesn’t work. A cooler at the convenience store, an out of order vending machine, that sort of thing. Speculate on why. Speculate on how long it’s been that way.

3) Notice ten people of different ages and backgrounds. Now ask yourself: what kind of underwear are they wearing? If you feel like getting arrested today, go ask and see how close to right you were.

4) Read a book by an author from a different country. The less you know about that country, the better.

5) When you overhear two strangers arguing (and trust me, you will if you pay attention) pick an arguer to side with. Then, justify the point of view of the arguer you disagree with. (Handy dandy note: don’t do this out loud.)

6) When you’re watching TV: pick a scene. Imagine what went on when the camera wasn’t rolling.

7) Name three ways in which you have been lazy today, including why they are lazy. (I’ve already got one for you. I’m all rainsplattered and damp because, in the long run, it was easier to walk in the rain and get wet than it was to use my umbrella. Yes. I am that lazy.)

8) Take the first two words that come out of this random word generator. Now, write an eight hundred word flash piece using both of them. Don’t go over the word limit. (For extra credit, share your creations in the comment section.)

9) Take those same two words and write a second eight hundred word story. Don’t reuse anything–characters, setting, plot, theme–from the first one.

10) When you pass a building under construction, take a second. Imagine the amount of money that went into building it. Who’s putting up the cash? Why is it being built? Did anyone really not want that bulding to be there, and if so, who? Is this building some architecture student’s first job, or some world-weary master’s triumph?

More Poetry For Poncy Millennials

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Well, guys. Sorry I’ve been so little in evidence this week. I’ve had a lot of rush to deal with at work, and some editing stuff to do as well–this blog totally took second, possibly even third, place.

I know. I suck.

In the meantime, posting a few more happy little poems about The Millennial Condition–namely, being a Millennial parent. (What’s so special about this? I don’t know. But plenty of people seem to think it is.)

We’ll be back next week with heartfelt articles and all that shit you expect. For now, CLEVER RHYMES. (Dear hipster moms of the world–I deeply look forward to you being indignant at me saying Thieves relieves stress. Long story short: I don’t KNOW what it’s supposed to do. I don’t care.)

LITTLE JIMMY

Poor little Jimmy’s come down with a cold!
Hope these antibiotics aren’t too old.

Coconut oil. His hair’s a mess.
A dab of Thieves to relieve stress.
Ginseng for focus, he likes shiny lights,
And don’t forget the multi-vites.
Fish oil in his morning tea:
We think he’s low on Omega-3.
For energy and steady will,
A timely dose of clorophyll
And carotene, for better sight–
He only takes one? That can’t be right.
Vitamin D for healthy skin,
A fistful of A to let life in.

What else could be wrong? He still looks slightly ill.
Just give him a fistful of nutritive pills.

Oh no! He’s convulsing! Somebody, please save him.
It must be something the doctor gave him.

REASONS YOU’RE A SHIT PARENT

My child says your child
Gets cookies every lunch.
My child says your child
Still drinks Hawaiian Punch.

My child says your child
Got vaxed for the flu;
My child agrees that your child
Simply won’t do.

He’s never known the luxury
Of kale chips salted light,
Or cupcakes made with free-trade flour.
How do you sleep at night?

A gender-neutral nursery
And carseats ’til they’re twelve:
Right-themed novels into which
A little mind can delve.

These are the things that make a child
As good as he can be:
A moralistic member
Of our great society.

You say love’s more important? What?
Sit down, shit mom, and can it.
Child-rearing ain’t about the child:
It’s all about saving the planet.

Existential Retail Christmas Post

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'Santa' and 'Satan'--just one typo away.

An Existential Retail Christmas

Here’s a great way to tell, if you’re slightly sadistic, whether or not your significant other has spent a good portion of his or her life working retail.

Wait until your bundle of joy is asleep. Creep closer, ever closer, to that cherubic slumbering visage, snuggled up by its pillow. Inhale, softly, and whisper into one shell-like ear:

“Wake up! It’s Christmas!”

Does your beautiful angel awake with a scream or a groan? Does he or she begin weeping, throw the pillow, attempt to hide under the bed? Does he or she mutter, with no provocation, the phrase: “no returns without a receipt?”

Your significant other has spent at least two Christmases in retail.

If your significant other is still working a retail Christmas, engage in this experiment at your own discretion. Ugly things might be said. Ugly things might be done. You might end up spending Christmas single.

You see, Christmas is a merry season in which people shop compulsively, usually at the last minute, for items that may or may not be appreciated by another person (they’re called gifts). These gift things don’t just grow on trees. They’re produced, often somewhere very far away, and are shipped in finite amounts to the retail location at which you’re currently shouting at someone because there are no more blue blenders in stock. That tired looking person who is patiently explaining to you, for what’s probably the fifteenth time today, that the next shipment will be in Monday, and if you really need one there are a few red ones in the back, has little to no control over whether that blender is there or not. The nametag on his or her chest brands him as one of the lowest-paid cogs in a vast grinding machine. Or, if you prefer, that person is an expendable human sacrifice, thrust out in front of you as a distraction tactic from the inexplicable rage you feel as another human pawn piece being slung across the board in a game of the consumerist gods.

Simply put: it isn’t that person’s fault your blue blender isn’t in stock. And, when you send off that email to corporate in a fit of pique, this person will get not only shit from you, but shit from management, where the blame for your absent blender could be more justifiably placed.

So. This Christmas, in the spirit of peace, love, and brotherhood that everyone is supposed to espouse, try not screaming at a sales representative for something that representative can’t control.

If your significant other is the nametagged cog placed in front of angry shoppers on a daily basis in the month of December, here are some tactics you can use to help make his or her Christmas nominally merrier, which in retail terms means ‘make it suck not quite as much’:

1. Don’t complain when the light is on early in the morning.
Your spouse is getting up before dawn to get paid a very small amount of money for making sure rich people have all the rich people things they need. The bathroom light is on because he or she has an existential horror of getting dressed for this day of torment in the dark. Don’t complain if the light wakes you, or the sound of the coffee maker, or the smell of the curling iron heating up. You can go back to sleep. Your life, for the next month, isn’t a raw vortex of mindless purchases. No one wants to be able to answer the question ‘did you get dressed in the dark this morning?’ with a guileless ‘yes’.

2. Buy liquor.
“Merry Christmas! Here’s a fifth of vodka on December 5th, so you can drink to forget.”

3. Do not, DO NOT, play Christmas music at home.
Thanks to the years I spent in big box retail, I now know every single word to ‘Santa Baby’, ‘Feliz Navidad’, and that Mariah Carey pile of bullshit. It’s been five years. I still froth at the mouth whenever a store’s muzak releases one of these little gems of excrement in my vicinity.

4. Let ’em bitch.
Retail Christmas is a horrible, soul-sucking thing. Your partner is working retail, and therefore can’t afford therapy. They do, however, have you. Nod and look sad when the stories begin. It might not mean a lot to you that some old dude patronizingly patted your S.O. on the bottom, but it sure does to them. If the stories become too much to bear–and there will be a lot of stories, so they might–learn to tune out. Sympathetic noises are all you need.

5. Make dinner.
You know what the worst part about coming home after fourteen hours of retail hell and transportation is? It’s making dinner. Why, by nine in the evening, is this not done already? Trust me, she isn’t spending her shift planning a four course meal for the late evening. She’s spending it contemplating the endless void of greed and self-righteousness into which humanity, for one month a year, sinks.

If you can’t cook, invest in some ramen and mac n’ cheese. After all, during Christmas, the body is a mere walking vehicle for information about coupons and return policies. Give it something to sustain it, sit back, and pray the end is in sight so you can have your spouse back.

Long story short: Christmas has become a vaguely symbolic pan-all holiday during which we ostensibly celebrate the birth of a penniless child in a manger by throwing as much money at retail giants as we can. If you want to celebrate in the ancient spirit of the holiday, try honoring the poor, like Jesus did: don’t scream at sales associates. After all, they spend your ‘holiday season’ working like dogs. Because of your need for a ten speed bicycle, many of them won’t get to spend Christmas with their families, or get more than one day off of work. Yes, we’re all sorry you won’t have that toaster oven in time to bring it down to the beach house when your vacation begins on the nineteenth. But somehow, somehow, it’s difficult to feel very sorry for you.

It’s been a while since I’ve done the big box thing, and Christmas still bums me out.

Happy Holidays. I hope you spend them somewhere far away from humanity, admiring the beauty of nature with the people you love most and neither giving nor receiving presents.

Nursery Rhymes for Disaffected Millennials

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Image by the illustrious Johnny Gruelle!

Nursery Rhymes for Disaffected Millennials

Wow, guys. Sorry I missed posting Wednesday. A lot can happen in a week.

…in this case, pretty much nothing happened. But still–a lot can happen. I mean, the nuclear apocalypse could take place. The world could burn. People could die.

Anyway.

I’ve been quiet because I just haven’t had much to say lately. So sue me. But I HAVE been working on getting a fun little side project together.

Most of you won’t know this (why would you?) but I actually went to school for poetry. I was plainly expecting to marry someone wealthy, or win the lottery, or have a patron who recognized my greatness and just cut me checks each month for existing.

Or maybe I figured someday I would write an astonishingly deep book of poetry. So astonishingly, turgidly great, in fact, that it made Americans get over the fact that nobody likes poetry long enough to read my poetry.

I spent my adolescence in search of The Burning Verse. I just knew, somehow, that I had something profound to say. (Surprise! I didn’t). I spent a lot of time reading and pretending I understood T.S. Eliot. I made definitive inroads into being an adolescent who appreciated Ezra Pound.

At some point in college, while I was busy searching the Dionysian depths of my soul for elusive inflammatory writ, I had an unpleasant realization.

All the people I met who immediately identified themselves as ‘poets’–all the people, in short, chasing after the same paindrenched literary dream I had been chasing–were dicks.

There’s this thing about people who loudly proclaim profundity, you see. They don’t have much of a sense of humor. Too busy drinking pathetically and imagining the greatness of their own epitaphs. Too busy thinking about what they have to say. Now, I’m not saying all poets are like this, but some of them are, and you know at least one of them. I suspect the best ones aren’t: I might go as far as to say the good ones aren’t.

But there’s a definite stigma, no matter how undeserved, attached to poetry in this country. And it says poetry is gloomy. It says poetry is self-serving and indulgent. It says poetry has to be painful to be real.

And it says good poetry doesn’t rhyme. Good poetry isn’t metered. And for this stigma to exist, my dears, somebody has to be feeding it. Teenagers on message boards. Folks with dreadlocks in coffee shops. The Rimbaud look-alike dangling a cigarette from his lip in the back of the bar.

I happen to love metered poetry. I swoon over sonnets. I sway to sestinas. The stranger and more complicated the verse form, the more impressed I am when somebody’s mastered it. Poetry, to me, isn’t a matter of sturm und drang, it’s a matter of puzzles, and limits, and mental exercise. Can you write a strictly correct Spenserian sonnet and still say something worth saying? No? Your blank verse doesn’t impress me. Not until you can work with limits.

I’m not saying I dislike blank verse. When something is done well it’s done well, regardless of form. But I do think it’s time we moved past this idea that poetry is one thing or the other. This is a postmodern society. You can shit on a brick wall and call it poetry and someone will not only believe you, but think you’re sparklingly brilliant (especially, I note, if you’ve recently eaten glitter).

One qualification I see for good poetry pretty often is that poetry should ‘say something’. Of course it should. Any piece of writing should say something–if it doesn’t, why’re you wasting your time? I rarely see specified what, precisely, poetry should say, but the inference is clear–something world-rocking. Something deep.

I don’t know about deep. Usually, unless the word is used in tandem with ‘frying’, I don’t trust deep. I trust sensible and I trust funny. I also trust true, but that’s getting harder and harder to identify.

Why am I rambling like this? Because I’m introducing my collection of nursery rhymes for disaffected millennials.

Is it great poetry? No. Is it the expression of my generation? Not really. Will you be impressed by my understanding of human nature? Pfff.

But it’s funny. And if you’re of the millennial generation, it might be a little true. More, maybe, than you want to admit.

I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do with it–I could make a little book, or just post ’em up on Wattpad–but I found these darling public domain kid’s book images (by the guy who created Raggedy Ann and Andy, no less–see them and a little about him here) so now I’ve got to do something with them, even if it’s just posting it here.

At any rate, welcome to my self-indulgence project. For your pain or pleasure, here’re two of my millennial nursery rhymes:

DINNER OF THE DAMNED, I

Little Meggie Makon
likes tattoos and gourmet bacon
while bearded Willie Wooten
avoids the fuck out of gluten.

Maia, Vindra and Teagan
are, as individuals, vegan
(but when they get together
they eat pretty much whatever).

Eileen will surely panic
if her cake pop ain’t organic
though her friend Bethesda Vancer
knows essential oils cure cancer.

(Neither talk to Linda Wu,
who sometimes drinks a Mountain Dew).

When they all sit down to the Holiday table
they Instagram their meals, if they are able.
They can’t eat the food, but it’s awfully thrilling
to hear how their lives are so very fulfilling.

OLD FRIENDS

Some of your high school friends are sinners.
Some of your high school friends are whores.
Some of your high school friends cook dinners,
some of them mop your high school floors.

Some of your high school friends made money.
Some of them got a law degree.
Some are comics, ironically funny;
some want to make art and live rent free.

Some are suffering crises of spirit,
some are victims, repeatedly.
Some do well, and you’re happy to hear it.
Some deserve what they got, and it fills you with glee.

But when you look at Facebook
here’s the fact you can’t ignore:
all of their children
are better behaved
than yours.

Fantasy Homonyms

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Fantasy Homonyms

Starting this blawg with a story. (Do I even know how to actually spell ‘blawg’ any more? I’m just asking because you’re probably asking. The answer is no.)

When I was twelve, maybe thirteen, the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. Was it the only thing that happened that year? No. The Twin Towers fell, and I think I got leg hair. But it was, by far, the most important to me.

(Cue crazed patriotic backlash over opinion statement. Get over it, I was twelve.)

I’d read the books. They were all right. I had always been, and always will be, more a fan of the Hobbit than LotR, but LotR was all right. The scenes in Moria kept me awake at night. I cheered for Eowyn. I was involved.

I did not, however, turn into the screaming, wheezing, mouth-frothing geek I have been ever since until viewing the movies.

To this day, I’m not certain why they struck such a chord with me. Maybe my shabby twelve year old pubescent existence needed heroes and glory. And swords. (It definitely needed swords). And all my friends had something to obsess over, why not me? I was, at twelve, too old for boy bands (in my head, at least,) and too young to go to concerts.

So I obsessed. I read the trilogy like twenty times. I read the Silmarillion and, to my surprise, enjoyed it. I developed a fondness for Feanor and his sons. I wrote poetic and terrible Feanor fanfiction. Surprisingly, I don’t think I had many pimples, but I did have a pretty gnarly set of braces. Eventually, I got a boyfriend. He didn’t share my fondness for terrible and poetric Feanor fanfiction. I was deeply disappointed. Why couldn’t I just live in Middle Earth, where everyone knew who Feanor was. Etc. You’ve been a preteen. You know the drill.

I’ve diverged somewhat from my original point here, which was to talk about a single phrase in what I think was the first LotR movie, which floored me then and still floors me now. It was:

They will raze Minas Tirith to the ground.

Okay. Now, imagine you’re twelve. You’re stuffing your training bra with toilet paper at the school dance; the biggest book you’ve read is Great Expectations, and that was mostly for the Accelerated Reader points, which you hoard like a dieter hoards Hershey kisses.

Raze is not a word that exists for you. It’s archaic: it’s old-fashioned. But you sure as hell know what raise means, you didn’t get all those reader points for nothing. So, just hearing it spoken, it sure as hell sounds like Boromir is saying they will raise Minas Tirith etc. Which is awfully confusing.

You’re an only child, and your friends aren’t out to play because it’s raining and they’re boring, and this is before the internet was a total thing. So you go to a dictionary. And you spend an amount of time adults might call ‘unhealthy’ looking through the RA section.

A light goes on in your dopey little twelve year old skull.

Holy snickers bars, Batman. There are words that sound like other words but mean different things. How can you trust the world now. How can society continue.

These words, you learn during the five minutes of computer lab where you AREN’T mindlessly playing Oregon Trail, are called ‘homonyms’. Or, to be honest: homophones. For more on the potential difference between the two, check out this link here. I’ll use them interchangably, because I can’t make up my mind about anything more than what to have for dinner without planning.

I still think the phrase ‘razing (Minas Tirith) to the ground’ is one of the worst word choices in cinematic history. I guess, in some ways, I’m just as much of an unimaginative pedant as I was when I was twelve.

But the fact is, at least the script had ‘raze’ in it. They knew what they meant and they knew how to spell it. This is not, unfortunately, a thing I see constantly in independently published fantasy novels: I ran across a high fantasy character in a book last week who took a bridal off a horse several times, and I’ve been thinking about that raise/raze moment ever since.

One of the most difficult things about writing fantasy is the fact that, for verisimilitude, some archaic/infrequently used words have to become commonly used for you. Unless you grew up with horses, you probably haven’t had to type ‘bridle’ very often. You might not understand that Aunt Cynthia’s tea cozy horde and the oncoming horde in your novel are different things. And we won’t even talk about affect/effect: the internet has done that for us, often snottily.

So, please. If you’re self-editing, check your homophonic spelling. Make sure you’re using the right word. Because if one more person tells me they’ve hit the motherload on Facebook, I’m going to go batshit crazy.

Here, collected just for your pretty selves, are twenty fantasy-esque homophones that you need to outright master. I’ve seen about half of them wrong in print, and when you put a bridal on your horse in print, children in third world countries starve to death.

If you want to view more shiny homonyms, this is a good list, and includes, as far as I could see, most of the ones I talk about here.

Raze/raise
Raze–to destroy, to burn down.
Raise–to build or raise up.

Council/counsel
Council–a group of people offering advice.
Counsel–a single adviser, or sometimes the advice itself.

Altar/alter
Altar–That thing in the church people worship and get married at.
Alter–to change a course of events.

Load/lode
Load–a portion of something, usually to be carried.
Lode–a source or supply of ore (note: motherLODE.)

Affect/effect
Affect–to change somehow.
Effect–the result of that change.

Blonde/blond
Blonde–yellow haired (female).
Blond–yellow haired (male).

Reign/rain/rein
Reign–a rule or regency.
Rain–water that falls from the sky.
Rein–a thing you control your horse with.

Ale/ail
Ale–delicious beer.
Ail–to be sick or ill.

Gorilla/guerrilla
Gorilla–large grunty primate.
Guerrilla–non-regulation soldier, often a rebel.

Manner/manor
Manner–a fashion of doing things.
Manor–a large house.

Bough/bow
Bough–a tree limb.
Bow–that bending motion you make to important people. Also, pronounced differently: that thing with a string you use to shoot arrows at people.

Hoard/horde
Hoard–a large collection of items, or the act of collecting these items.
Horde–an invading army.

Bear/bare
Bear–a fuzzy animal that might kill you. Also: to carry a burden.
Bare–to shed clothing or layers.

Yoke/yolk
Yoke–a holster of sorts.
Yolk–that orange thing in the middle of an egg.

Exercise/exorcise
Exercise–something you need thirty minutes of a day, at least.
Exorcise–what you do to the demon inhabiting cousin Clara’s body.

Grizzly/grisly
Grizzly–a type of bear. Also–having a weathered, unkempt look.
Grisly–gory.

Capitol/capital
Capital–the foremost part of something. Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina; moving out of it is a capital idea.
Capitol–a specific type of government building. Psst–there’s one on Capitol Hill.

Bridal/bridle
Bridal–things relating to the woman’s part in a wedding.
Bridle–that thing you put over your horse’s face.

Faint/feint
Faint–weak and unobtrusive; to fall down in a swoon.
Feint–a move intended to mislead an opponent.

Fourth/forth
Fourth–what comes after the third.
Forth–moving forward, going out into the world.

How to Critique II: Who to Listen To

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How To Critique II: Accepting Criticism and Who to Listen To

Part I of this series is over here. I don’t know why I’m telling you that: if you scrolled down the page at all/ever you could figure it out yourself.

Anyway.

There’s plenty of literature around the web about handling criticism, especially critical reviews and critiques. I’m not going to get too into that, since it’s been done a billion times before–besides. Realistically, how am I supposed to help you with your anger/self esteem issues? Only you can do that, buddy, and until you decide to do it you’re going to respond to criticism just how you feel like responding, and it isn’t going to be pretty, and you’ll probably lose friends. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like criticism either–I sympathize with you on the ruffled feathers/negativity thing. However:

Adults are polite. Or, at worst: adults are silent. Those are the two options you have: there are no others. Don’t be that person who defends a story decision into the next millennium: listen to your critique partner’s advice. Either take it, or don’t. There you go, dealing with criticism mastered.

A note: if you’re having trouble NOT firing off that hotheaded email about how no, really, Princess Cracklypoof NEEDS to have sex with that two-headed dragon in Chapter Three, take a moment, sit back, and picture how this email looks to people who are not you. Childish and butthurt, yes? Don’t send it.

Something that doesn’t get touched on as much, and probably should, is the governing idea of my blawg here:

Who should I listen to, when taking critique advice?

If you’re part of a critique group, you might have four or five other opinions to take something from. If nothing else, I hope you at least have your mother/father giving you useful advice while simultaneously castigating you over your use of swear words. All these opinions are unlikely to agree, and they certainly aren’t going to agree with you. So: whose advice should you take?

Here are some ideas to help you determine the answer to that question.

1) Is this a majority opinion?

If more than one person is saying your description of the muddy river is unclear, you might want to consider listening (and, perhaps, finding a critique group that doesn’t love puns quite so much). If it’s something more than one person has noticed, chances are, it’s not all of them, it’s you.

2) Do I like this person’s writing?

If you’re in a critique group with other writers, it might be worth it to read something these folks have written, if you haven’t already. If you have two critiques telling you to do opposite things, and you prefer one critiquer’s writing over another’s, I’d recommend listening to the person whose writing you prefer, or at least taking that person’s ideas into higher account. A little elitist? Maybe. But you know what you like. Think of it this way: whose advice would you prefer when asking how to roast a turkey? Grandma’s, whose turkeys are always briny and delicious, or your cousin Meredith, who burned the shit out of the five pound turkey breast she roasted for Thanksgiving that one year?

A note: your acceptance/denial of advice probably shouldn’t include this information. Ever. But you figured that out yourself, I hope.

3) Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

Don’t get all hot n’ bothered just because someone’s trying to give you advice. Some of this advice, if you let yourself admit it, will resonate with you: some of it will have even occurred to you as you were writing. Always take this advice. After all, you’re the end authority, and if you agree, there’s nowhere else to go.

4) Who are you writing this story for?

Let’s say you wrote a story about a Tinder date gone awry. One critique partner, a twenty-four year old girl from Michigan, thought it was hilarious. Another critique partner, a sixty-five year old man from Iowa, found it very confusing.
Sit back and ask yourself a few questions here. Tinder is mostly used by younger people, specifically millennials: is this who you want this story to reach? If it is, you want to listen to your twenty-four year old compatriot more than your sixty-five year old one, as she’s in the age demographic the story is intended for. She’ll get some of the references your older buddy won’t get, and in this case, that’s fine.

(A note: I felt super-ageist after posting that. Obviously, this post is assuming your 65 year old friend doesn’t know much about Tinder. There are exceptions. If he’s a 65 year old Tinder guru, listen to him, of course!)

Don’t get me wrong, you should make you story as digestible for a wider audience as you can. There’s no point in purposefully excluding people who might otherwise like it. But there comes a time when too much backstory causes a plot to suffer, and in the end only you can determine whether an explanation of swiping right ruins the flow of the story or not.

This doesn’t mean, of course, you should discount everything your sixty-five year old friend says. He’ll have some useful advice for you, too. But when he demands you give the website URL with http:// in front of it (‘otherwise, how will people understand this is a website?’) you might want to turn a deaf ear. You’re looking to make this story digestible to the majority, of course, but it’s already about a specialized subject, and you have to accept that it won’t be absolutely everyone’s cup of tea.

If the idea of writing a specialized story bothers you, it might be time to consider making this a generic ‘blind date’ instead of a Tindr hookup. Though that, too, can hurt your story, by taking it into the realm of the general and out of the specific.

Which brings me to my last advice crumb:

5) Why are you debating taking this advice?

Try and be objective, here. That can be hard, if a critique feels extra harsh, but keep in mind what I said in Part I: no one here is trying to hurt you. Everyone has good intentions, and if you don’t assume that, you’re going to go slowly mad. So take a step back and try and consider the advice you’ve received honestly. Ask yourself: do I want to take this advice because it’s genuinely good, or because this person seemed nicer? Or, conversely: am I ignoring this advice because the critique ruffled my feathers?

That second one especially is something to be wary of. Especially since constructive criticism often ruffles feathers, and is, to my mind, generally more honest than endless compliments. Everyone wants to hear they don’t need to change a thing in their story: however, this is almost never true.

There y’go. I actually wrote Part II of this. I’m so proud.
E

How to Critique Correctly

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How to Critique Correctly

At this point, as an indie writer, I’ve done some critique swaps and critique groups, and I’m going to be honest: nobody likes doing them. Constructive criticism is a necessary evil, and nobody likes receiving it or giving it. Doing it well takes time and effort, and you pretty much know you’re ruffling somebody’s feathers a little if you have a lot to say. And, of course, then there’s the end where YOUR feathers get ruffled: I feel like the emotions involved there pretty much need no introduction.

Here’s the thing, though: there are right ways and wrong ways to critique, and knowing how to do it right will serve you well. The members of your critique group are, after all, your allies–they’re not trying to hurt you, and you aren’t trying to hurt them. Handling your critiques carefully can save time AND animosity, and is a necessary skill in group editing situations.

1) The Compliment Sandwich

I learned this–and you’re going to laugh–at creative writing camp as a kid. Yes, they have creative writing camps. But, kid or not, it’s a very useful and painless strategy, and simple to employ:

Sandwich your criticism in between two breadslices of positive feedback, the first complimentary and the second constructive.

It’s that easy. For instance:

This was a great story, and I enjoyed your dialogue especially: it flows well, and you pass important information along with no stiffness or hesitation. However, you might want to back away from using so many emdashes: after a while, all the emdashes made it difficult to tell who was speaking. If you want characters to seem like they’re interrupting each other, emdashes are a good way of making it happen, but you might want to consider adding more speech tags to denote who’s who.

See how that worked?

You begin with an undisguised, unabashed compliment. Even if you’re NOT feeling it, do it. It’s just polite. You’d want others to do the same for you. (‘Why do I need to possibly lie to make some thin-skinned writer’s ego happy?’ some of you might ask. My answer: ‘is typing ‘that was a great story’ really so goddamned difficult? Are you betraying your core values that much? You don’t belong in a group critique.’)

Now, find a SPECIFIC thing you liked about this story. Compliment it honestly. Come on, there’s something.

After that, narrow down to your critique. ‘I really enjoyed your dialogue, BUT.’ Remember, as you critique, that you’re trying to be helpful here. State your problem specifically, and, if you can, offer a constructive solution. If you don’t have a solution for the problem, it’s best to mention it anyway: you can’t have all the answers, after all, but if you think it’s a problem then it probably is. (‘I don’t know how to tell you to fix this, but I really feel like Castor and Pollux sound out of character in the fifth chapter.’)

2) Consider the Writer.

An established writer, or, really, anyone who’s been doing this for a while, has a certain style. Consider, as you critique, whether or not your critique is style related. A writer who’s been writing short, terse sentences since 1978 probably isn’t going to expand into flowery page and a half long sentencegasms just because you advise it, and, furthermore, is probably going to get a little bit pissy over you suggesting they try.

Even if you think it’s an issue, basic style concerns aren’t going to change. Only comment on these if it directly affects the clarity or effectiveness of the story: for instance, if your page-and-a-half sentencer is writing a noir novel, it might be time to mention something.

3) Do YOU understand what’s going on?

Also: before you critique, please Jesus, make sure YOU understand what the author is saying. I’ve gotten a lot of critiques in my time from people who plainly only read the story once, and then not too carefully, and lemme tell you, I mostly just throw these out. The critique writer hasn’t made the effort to read my story, why should I read their critique?

A few years ago, someone criticized a story of mine pretty strongly because a girl was running, jumping, and climbing trees in a petticoated dress. This would have been absolutely fair criticism, if I hadn’t devoted the better part of a page to the girl changing her clothing early on in the story. Guess the critiquer just skipped around a little, eh?

A note: if you read the story carefully and still don’t get it, then yeah, the problem isn’t with you, and you need to mention it. You might not be the sort of person the story was written for, but, hell, any sort of person can read a story, and the author would probably like to know what makes sense to whom.

4) Watch your language.

Don’t curse at your writer friend, obviously. But, more specifically: choose the words in which you give your critique carefully. Avoid accusatory statements, such as ‘you didn’t —” or “you shouldn’t have —“. Actually, I’m tempted to tell you to avoid second person as a form of address altogether, except I don’t think that’s quite right, either: referring always to the writing and not to the writer can leave your critique sounding cold and impersonal, and besides, you know how it is. You insult a writer’s baby, you insult the writer anyway.

My final thought: try and employ second person more in the compliment parts of your critique than the negative parts. Just…try. It also helps to emply first person often: ‘I felt that —‘, ‘when reading the second chapter, I noticed–‘. I’m not sure why this is, maybe it just adds in a personal element, but it makes the medicine go down a little easier for me.

Long story short, avoid accusative statements, and loaded generalized words such as crazy, bad, mistake, stupid, lazy, etc. Comments that include these words aren’t constructive, and you can put in better feedback without using them. (For instance, instead of saying ‘first person was a poor choice for this story’, try saying ‘I think this character’s motives would be a lot clearer if the story was written in third person’. Not only is your point more concise and reasoned, but it comes across as a lot less negative).

5) Remember your goal.

Your goal in criticizing a story is NOT to tear someone down, or prove how great at giving advice you are, or just get through it so you can get your own critiques. Your goal is to HELP. It is to provide useful, directed advice that will, in your mind, make this story better. And, to that end, you want to be as clear as possible, without offending. After all, statements like ‘this story needs a lot of work’ don’t help anyone, do they? If it needs a lot of work, list the things that need to be done. As you’ve agreed to provide critique, this is quite literally your job.

Angry critiquers, who feel like this is ‘pussyfooting’, I would like you to note the things I have NOT asked you to do here:

1) Hide your opinion.
2) Lie, except in the most innocent general way.
3) Cover up your problems with the story (in fact, my method allows you to state them more completely).

The fact is, a proper critique should NEVER leave a writer with even an eighth inch of skin thinking their story is bad. (Yes, there are some super-sensitives out there. They don’t belong in group critiques, either).

How, you might ask, is this possible, if I have ten pages of negative critique to bestow?

My answer is, no critique should be downright negative. Constructive, yes. But not negative. It costs you very little to let the words ‘good story’ escape your lips, and it might make your ten pages of critique slide down a little easier. It might, even, be good for the story to compliment–a writer who doesn’t feel mortally offended is more likely to take your advice.

Next post, we’re going to do the version of this on accepting criticism with grace.

Yours,
E

Fantasy Worldbuilding: How-To

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Worldbuilding: Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why

I don’t talk about worldbuilding much on here. A lot of that is because I one hundred percent don’t believe in the traditional fantasy worldbuilding approach: I don’t think you need your whole lineage of kings written out, I don’t think you need a map, and I don’t think you need to pause and describe every landmark your characters pass. I think, if you do this, you’ve essentially written a travelogue for an imaginary place. And, trust me, I don’t even like to read travelogues about places I’m going.

What you need to do, instead, is flesh out your world. That sounds simple, right? Surprise, surprise: it’s not.

The first thing you need to do, when building your fantasy world, is consider this question: what constitutes ‘flesh’?

The ‘flesh’ of your built world is a series of details that perform a double purpose. ‘Fleshy’ details–the good, meaty stuff–do more than show the world around your characters as you picture it. In addition to showing, they also explain: for instance, if there’s a statue of four soldiers made up of lapis and granite at the gates of the city in which your main character lives, your MC has been passing those statues every time he goes into/out of town his whole life. What do they mean to him? Did he meet a girlfriend at the foot of the statues once a week for a whole summer, until her father found out? Do stonemasonry students from the city university attach expertly carved penises to them every Fool’s Day? Do your MC and his father bet every time on which statue will be gifted with the largest set of bait and tackle? (I told you these details were fleshy).

(A note, about ‘fleshy’ details: the very best ones are bombastic. They are memorable. If you’re just going to drone on about Ghern heir of Kern heir of Bernie, I’m not interested. Why should I be? I’m not a history major. Mention in passing, instead, the great rule of Ghern the Incontinent, followed by that of his son Kern the Bladderblaster. And why are we hearing about them, anyway? Is this story about bathroom humor? It better be. Otherwise, I don’t want to know at all).

The building blocks of your world aren’t just static things, to be removed and changed at your convenience. Gods, statues, customs, clothing–your characters interact with these things. They have opinions about them, inclinations towards or away from them, friends who have been helped by them, friends who have been hurt by them. Women disappointed in love might traditionally drown themselves in a river outside of the village called Talia’s Tears: do you think this would make people of the village less or more likely to draw water from that river?

Recapping: your characters live with this stuff. They don’t just hate the Empire or love the Empire, believe in the gods or not believe in them. People are more complicated than that. Even a character who believes firmly in the grace of Plougtagh the Magnificent is going to have his faith tested every once in a while. And why does he believe so firmly, anyway?

Which is going into my main bit here. Cliched as it sounds, if you want to worldbuild, you need to ask these grade school questions:

Who, what, when, where, how, and why.

Because your religion, your economy, and your lineage of kings don’t exist in separate vacuums. They’re shaped by one another–they build one another.

Let’s start with an idea I had the other day. I was reading some articles about freediving (which is, actually, fascinating) and came across some stuff about the Ama of Japan, women who dove as deep as thirty feet underwater with no gear whatsoever, in the early days. They were able to hold their breath for two minutes, and would often dive near-nude in below freezing water in search of pearls and food.

Badass, right?

I started to think to myself: what if I wrote a story about a freediver in a pre-mechanical era where the climate was extremely cold?

I started picturing it: a woman in a hand-stitched skin suit caulked up with some sort of pitch, probably, diving through a hole in the ice. She’d only have a small amount of time before the shock killed her, and how would she see, and who the hell is she anyway, so I had some questions, and where did I turn?

That’s right. Who, what, when, where, how, why.

I’m going to try and verbalize this process, just so you can get an idea of how to answer these questions yourself. Look at the way I do this–there are rules to the way I answer my own questions.

Who?

A young girl, obviously. Strong, agile, small, but probably with a good insulating layer of fat on her. She’d have to be trained to do this–by whom? There must be a lot of people doing it, if there’s training. It isn’t the sort of thing you just learn to do on your own, without great need.

So who are these divers? Are they some sort of archaic first responder, saving shipwreck victims? (Maybe there are fjords. Lots of wrecks around fjords). Are they diving for something valuable–a food item, or something worth a lot of money? (It would have to be expensive and/or a great delicacy. These dives obviously take up time and resources for this community). Or–maybe there’s a religious reason. Maybe their god is a grey whale, or something, and these girls leave him offerings (in which case, why THESE particular girls?).

What?

Let’s talk about this suit. This is a premechanical society, so it’s not a fancy manmade fabric. The best thing I can come up with is skin–leather of some sort. Now, they’re in the far north, so where does this skin come from? Maybe it comes from the same thing she’s diving for. I don’t know. Hell. But they’ve stitched it together somehow, so they’ve probably
pitched up the cracks, or put wax of some sort in them. How does she get into this suit, anyway? It isn’t like they have zippers. I guess she puts it on with buttons or eyehooks as fasteners, and someone else caulks that seam up.

Which means there’s more than one person involved in this dive. Well, I already knew that, she’s got to have a trainer. I’m starting to think this is an Ama-style dive for valuables more and more–it sure is taking up a lot of time. Maybe their economy is centered around whatever she finds underneath the ice.

When?

I’m picturing Vikings. Well, not exactly Vikings, but something Vikingesque–so these folks won’t have much in the way of technology yet. I’m picturing Dark Ages shit here. Honestly, I imagine this society is kind of isolated anyway, a la early Icelandic settlers in Greenland, so when doesn’t concern me too much yet. However,

Where?

Is a pretty big issue.

This isn’t civilized society, though there is some sort of society in place. I picture a cold and horrible place, a small village isolated from the rest of the country (maybe it’s a colony, or an outpost). Life’s obviously pretty hard here, which is what makes me think this girl of mine is diving for something of physical value: perhaps what she’s diving for is the only dependable food source for her people. (Which reminds me–there are all sorts of health complications possible with freediving. Do these girls usually die young? Do they do it of their own free will, even?) Maybe there’s a heat vent on the ocean floor, and the water’s warm enough to support life on the rocks just under the ice. Maybe she harvests some sort of scallop-y creature for her people to eat there.

I think it’s unlikely she’s diving for religious purposes, given this cold barren location I’m picturing. I imagine the gods don’t get that sort of sacrifice, when people are so hard up. And ships? There probably aren’t many. So it’s either food, or something they use to procure food. Though, if that’s the case, where the hell did she get the skins for the suit?

How?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Maybe the women dive under the ice, while the men take boats out and hunt seals. Sealskin would be pretty good for that sort of thing, all the blubber and stuff. Though, god, that would mean the skin was uncured. She’d smell awful. Rancid blubber. Hell yes. I know I’m on the right track when there are smells involved.

And, as you might have noticed, all of this leads us to the most important question, the one you really want to answer.

Why?

Why, why, why would a small village exist in this location? Why would these people go to so much trouble just to get food, when they could move?

It’s not like the Icelandic settlers. Those guys thought they had a pretty good thing going, and then a mini ice age set in, and poof, time to die out or move. Why aren’t these people doing the same? They’ve obviously got a system worked out for living here. Why?

Well. If they have to stay there, they’re either exiles, or they’re trapped.

I like exiles. Maybe this is like a fantasy Siberia of sorts, where people guilty of some crime in the kingdom proper are sent to live out their days. In which case, why are they sent there? Was our girl sent there, or was she born to people already living there?

I like the idea of a long-ago banishment. Maybe these people took place in an uprising or a rebellion, a hundred years ago, and they and their descendents have been doomed to live in this awful (but probably very pretty) place for the rest of their days. But–oooooh, here we go, we like buts–maybe the new king is young and of a different kind. Maybe, though these people don’t know it yet, the political climate is ripe for their return.

And with that, we have a story. The action opens when a messenger comes from the capital city with news of the old king’s death, and the rule of the new king. It doesn’t mean much to them at the time–they’ve lived through a few kings–but the arrival of the messenger would be an event. They don’t get many events.

So they send their young girls diving, to get food for the feast. Scallopy creatures, seaweed, etc. The men are out hunting seals, hoping for a whale maybe. And when our girl dives, she finds something that might change the course of history for her people.

What does she find? I have no idea. But I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, see how that works? Not far along at all, and I already know some things about these people. I know they’re resourceful, and tough, and hardy. I know that, at some point, they were rebels. They live in a place of stunning but inhospitable wonder, and they probably love it more than they hate it, since, after a hundred years of exile, they don’t know any other life.

And I know their king, or grand vizier or whatever he winds up being, is a decent guy.

Or maybe he just has a use for them.

Either way, progress has been made. We’ve got some sensory details, some answered questions. Now, to write.

Finishing NaNoWrimo: Last Thoughts

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Finishing NaNoWriMo

So I just, less than an hour ago, finished NaNoWriMo.

I wrote 50,076 words, at final count. I had to fluff a little to get the last bit out and make it 50,000 words. With how I write, this’ll some day turn into a 100,000 word novel, so I’m not too upset about it.

But I feel a little funny.

Y’see, after all that effort–after all that work–I’m not sure it was worth it.

I know. Betraying the cause, etc.

But here’s the thing. I’m a professional. (If I keep chanting that to myself, it’ll one day feel like it’s true). I’ve written over 50K in less than a month before, and it wasn’t during NaNo. So the wordcount honestly doesn’t mean much to me. I already had proof of my own productivity, long before I did this.

The hard truth of it is, I don’t know if this is a story I would have finished, if not for NaNoWriMo. And I don’t mean that in an ‘I would’ve fucked off because I never finish anything ever’ way.

I mean it in a ‘this was not my best story idea’ way. In the last 25K, it lacked inspiration.

Editing can cure a lot, but I don’t know if it can EVER cure a lack of inspiration.

There’s a lot of talk on writing blogs about inspiration not being a real thing, but I think, deep down in our hearts, we all know that isn’t true. Inspiration is what happens when you write the good stuff, and yes, some of your stuff is better than other bits of your stuff.

You can still write without inspiration. I think I just proved that for about 25K words. The question becomes: should you? Really–should you?

I’ll be honest, I usually pick up the pen whenever I have that ‘a-ha!’ moment. Whenever I’m sitting around, thinking about that scene I left my characters in, and I suddenly know what should happen next. This isn’t to say I’m not a productive writer–I’m plenty productive. I know how to force the in-between moments when they need to be forced. In addition to my NaNo novel this month, I wrote two 6K stories, about 5K worth of blog posts, and, oh, we’ll say about 10K on a beloved side project. I can make the numbers add up no problem.

But, in the end, I don’t think NaNo quite leaves you enough time for those ‘a-ha!’ moments. And, while I think being able to force out 50K in a month is a good exercise, and might help folks who have trouble with it with productivity, I don’t know that it’s the right way to go about things for me.

Creative writing isn’t about cranking about copy. That’s an element of it, sure–but it’s an element in the same way composition or perspective are elements in the artistic process. Is it important to understand these things, and be able to use them? Yes. Undoubtedly. You wouldn’t get very far without them.

But a simple understanding of perspective does not a masterpiece make. Like good writing, good art is extremely subjective–and illusive. Long story short, if you don’t think you’re going to paint a masterpiece, don’t stretch the goddamn canvas in the first place.

Because, trust me. If you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got a masterpiece in you, you sure as hell won’t fool anybody else.

With the last half of this one, I haven’t fooled myself, and that is NOT a good sign.

So we’ll take our sad little NaNo novel, and we’ll let it rest for a month. And then, when the holidays are over, we’ll see if we can edit it into the story it should have been. More likely than not, it’ll have to be rewritten: but there’s the germ of a good story in there, and Rome wasn’t built in a day, etc. etc., aphorism aphorism.

So I won NaNo, but I don’t FEEL like I won. And all the chirpy little automated NaNo messages in my inbox–‘OMG u finished! Wow! We’re so proud of you for some reason!’–wind up ringing false.

I’m hard on myself, a little. But what I’ve done WASN’T an incredible thing, and writing isn’t about wordcount.
And that’s just how it is.

See you on Friday, kids. Happy Thanksgiving to my American followers.

Affordable Christmas Gifts for Writers

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A NOTE: There are a lot of links in the post. Mostly because, after writing it, I got curious if some of these things actually existed. Lo and behold! Internet magic! You can buy plot dice, an E.E. Cummings tshirt, AND a stupidly expensive fountain pen all in one fell swoop! I don’t necessarily encourage you to buy these things–hell, it’s me, I encourage you to buy as little as possible. Links are included fo’ yo’ edification.

Affordable Christmas Gifts for Writers

We’re coming up on Christmas.

I know, I know. It doesn’t feel like it. But the Santa Seepage has already begun–the craft stores have Christmas endcaps, and Target has its oblique we-know-it’s-not-time-for-this-yet-but-buy-stuff back Christmas wall up, lurking like a hungry red and green shadow behind the current commercialized holiday section, Thanksgiving. For those of us who work retail, the nightmare has already begun. I’m basically getting this post over with early, as resident Grinch.

For those of you who DON’T work retail, and therefore like Christmas, you can start humming ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ under your breath. What’re those lyrics, again? Does anybody actually know the lyrics to Jingle Bell Rock?

Anyway.

I see ‘Christmas lists for writers’ a lot online, but y’know what? A lot of times, they’re things like t-shirts with ‘I’m a Writer’ written on them, which is pretty much useless in the art of writing, except possibly to blot your blood, sweat, and tears on (or, alternatively: if you hit your head pretty hard on something, and forget who wrote all those half-finished stories on your laptop). Or, it has the Hemingwrite on it. Because gadgets. I mean, who doesn’t like expensive gadgets? Who doesn’t like to buy them? Everybody has the money for a twenty dollar coffee mug and a Hemingwrite.

So I wanted to take a minute and give you guys a useful (and, hopefully, slightly more affordable) list of things you can get your pet writer. Here we go:

1) A Coupon Book.

Broke this year? Saving all your money to buy Granny that five-speed blender? It happens, buddy. And, when it happens, the homemade coupon books appear.

However, for your writer, you might want to consider going above and beyond the standard free back rubs and Netflix n’ chill night ideas. Here are a few authorial coupon concepts for you:

1) One FREE night of you telling me all about your novel. I’ll ask questions. I’ll get into it.
2) One FREE night of locking yourself up in your room to write. I will not ask you why dinner isn’t ready. I will not ask you why you aren’t keeping me company.
3) One FREE dinner left obliquely by the door of your room while you’re writing. I won’t complain about making it. I won’t ask you to join me at the table. I know you’re writing.
4) One FREE read-aloud. Read me your story!
5) One FREE accompaniment to the convention/signing of your choice. I’ll stand there next to you and be super supportive, even if I don’t know what’s going on and I had to take the day off work.

2) Services Rendered.

No, not sexual services. You dog, you.

Do you have a skill that might help your writer buddy out? Are you a graphic designer, a photographer, an editor, have a job in marketing, etc? (Even if you’re none of these things, you could always be a beta reader).

If your writer buddy is trying to self publish, or publish through a small indie press, he or she could probably use some help, and they may have been too shy (or too introverted, whatever the popular term du jour is) to ask. So this Christmas, if you’re broke but want to still make somebody smile, offer aid.

3) Kindle Unlimited

Does your writer read a lot? If he or she doesn’t–are you sure he or she is still alive? Poke this person a few times with a stick. Whisper the words ‘Fifty Shades or Grey’ or ‘E.L. James’. If this doesn’t provoke a strong reaction of some variety, your writer friend has passed on, and your Christmas gift should probably be a mourning bouquet and help with the burial.

If your writer friend is still alive and vociferous about Shades, you might want to consider a Kindle Unlimited subscription. KU is a great program on Amazon by which certain ebooks (a lot of solid bestsellers among them) can be ‘borrowed’ for a month. It gives your Kindle-possessing writer the chance to read whatever kind of books, and as many of them, as they please.

A note: Amazon now has a reading app for all smart devices. So, yeah, your writer doesn’t even need to have a Kindle for this one, though it is recommended.

4) Supplies.

Writing isn’t a profession that requires a lot of stuff. You don’t need a two hundred dollar leatherbound notebook to write. You don’t need a pricey fountain pen. And, honestly, if a lot of us had these things, we wouldn’t use them, or probably look at them ever. (PS–if you haven’t reached your ‘humanity is ridiculous’ quota for the day yet, check out that fountain pen link).

But your writer does use something to write. Moleskine notebooks? A tablet? A laptop? You can buy a passel of Moleskines for pretty cheap. A keyboard case for a tablet. Long story short, if you want to buy your writer an actual writing related item, make sure it’s something this person will use. I’d recommend staying away from plot dice and Hemingwrites and clever t-shirts with E.E Cummings jokes on them: these items are more or less useless (unless, of course, your writer has expressed a desire for one of them. For instance, no E.E. Cummings t-shirt for me, but I’d love something with a quote or two on it from A Confederacy of Dunces. Or this Henry Miller Library poster: ohmigod, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life. I get what they were going for, artsy bastards, but this has to be one of the FUNNIEST accidental truisms ever manufactured about Henry Miller. Look, the gal in the picture is even asleep). 

5) Support.

Did I mention love and encouragement? No? Well, they’re cheap, and in the end they’re the best gift you can give anybody.

Note, I’m not suggesting you give your writer a Christmas card with ‘You Get My Love For Christmas!’ scrawled on it in Sharpie. That’s kind of an asshole move, man. At least make a coupon book, or something. But, nevertheless:

Self and small press publishing is pretty horrible. It’s difficult to build a following, difficult to keep a following once you’ve built it, and almost impossible to make money (at least, in the golden way your writer dreamed of before actually self-publishing). So the best gift, and the best way to keep up the spirit of the season? Be there. Be supportive, be a fan, be a friend. Like stuff on social media. Leave a glowing review of your writerbuddy’s book on Amazon. Help out. For all you know, you might be helping somebody keep their dreams alive.

6) Money.

You have enough to give it to other people? Oh, man. What’s that like?

If you do, money is pretty much appreciated across the board by everybody. And, for your writer buddy, it might be your best option, if they haven’t given you any hints on what else to buy. Money’s such a cheap gift, you say? Really? It’s worth exactly what it’s worth. How the hell can it be ‘cheap’?

Sorry, that expression’s always bothered me. Anyway. Money can buy a writer advertising, listings, a five pound sack of gummy bears. Whatever this writer needs–which is something you might not necessarily know.

Or, if you just can’t bear to be that awesome friend or relative who just gives out money: does this writer go out to a certain coffee shop frequently? Perhaps a gift certificate to that coffee shop. Is there a conference he or she wants to attend out of town? Plane tickets, or a gift certificate to a really good restaurant you know there. Just published a book? A gift certificate for framing, maybe, so that book can go up on the wall where it belongs. An Amazon gift certificate is always awesome, too.

Long story short, give your pet writer a gift just like you’d give a gift to anyone. Listen to that person. What do they say they want? That’s. Um. Probably what you should give them. People don’t usually lie about that stuff.

Last words: just because someone makes a percentage of their income from writing doesn’t mean you have to give them a writing related gift. Maybe what your writer friend really wants is Granny’s five speed blender. In which case: skip the glittery pens and get this person a blender. After all, do you get your architect friends a t-shirt with ‘I’m an Architect’ on it?

See, kids? It ain’t half hard, nor does it have to cost you an arm and a leg.