Thursday, June 30, 2011

One Time Only

If at first you don’t succeed... destroy all evidence you ever made the attempt.

No, no, don’t do that...

A few years back I was working on a film set where we were staging a bank robbery. The director... well, let’s be polite and say he wasn’t quite as knowledgeable as he thought he was.

We ended up doing a big dolly track move that encompassed the whole scene. Then we did a series of tighter moves. Then we did a wide master of the scene and got all the coverage. Then we did a reverse master of the scene and started doing coverage on that. Then came all the reaction shots for everyone in the bank. And by this time, the crew was starting to grumble, because every one of us knew what was going wrong.

As it turned out, my department had an intern, and he was still watching all this with complete newbie glee. As the day (and the bank robbery) wore on and on, he asked me what everyone was getting so grumpy about. After all, weren’t these all cool shots? I agreed they were, but pointed out that at least half of them were a waste of time. When he asked why, I came up with this way to explain it.

“When all this gets cut together,” I told him, pointing at one of our extras “you can only use one shot of them robbing that bank teller. You can break it up a bit, but not much because it’s happening so fast. At the end of the day, you can only rob teller number five once, so filming nine different versions of her getting robbed is a waste of time. If this guy knew what he was doing, he’d just get the shots he was going to use and that’d be it.”

The intern took those words to heart, and two or three more times during that project he’d give me a nod on days when scenes were just dragging and say “You can only rob teller number five once.”

The point of the story being, I know at least one person has gotten something useful out of my rambling.

No, wait, sorry, the point is that when you’re telling a story you can’t do the same thing again and again and expect it to have the same weight.

There’s an idea in literary theory (sorry, I do have to go there now and then) which says you can only experience a story for the first time once. After that first time, your brain can’t help but restructure your view of the story to see it with more experienced eyes. If you’ve ever read a mystery novel for a second time, or maybe rewatched films like The Sixth Sense, Dead Again, or The Prestige, you know it’s a very different experience when you go through these stories a second time. Or a third time. But you can never, ever get that first time again. Even something like The Empire Strikes Back changes between the first and second exposure to the material.

This is why we all hate spoilers, because the innocence, so to speak, of that first experience is being taken away from us and we can never get it back. To be honest, this is also one of the problems I have with the “film school” approach to movies. A lot of these folks get taught to study and dissect films rather than to watch them, so the first time with the story is lost on these people. They never see the movie the way it was intended to be seen—they just jump straight to the second viewing. Which seems counterproductive when you want to learn how to do something. It’s like going to cooking school and never bothering to taste anything.

Anyway... I digress. But not by much.

There’s another aspect to doing the same thing more than once, and this is the idea of noise. A few times before I’ve brought up Damon Knight and his wonderful observation about facts. A fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we already know is noise. This is true even if we just learned the fact ten or fifteen pages earlier.

An example...

I read a book a while back where one piece of information was “revealed” four times. Essentially, character A discovered a mysterious South American temple that shouldn’t exist. Then A was killed and B found his notes, so B discovered the temple. B quickly related the story to C and then C explained the whole thing to D, so now D learned about the temple. And D... well D was pretty high-ranking, so he went to the President and told the whole Cabinet about the temple. And every single time people would have incredulous reactions and then the reader got the explanation of what the temple represented and who built and how we know it’s ten thousand years old and what we think it is.

Every. Single. Time.

Y’see, Timmy, that information is powerful the first time we hear it. Like so many things that get repeated, though, it loses power every time. In this case, it’s not just losing power, it’s taking a rapid plunge from information to noise.

Plus, it’s taken a huge emotional hit. Finding out that the pyramid strongly implied, if not proved, a pre-human civilization was amazing... the first time. The second time it was something we already knew, even if it was new to this particular character. The third time it was annoying. By the fourth time, personally, I was skimming.

Here’s an easier example, and one we’ve all probably dealt with at some point or another. Have you ever had someone tell a joke (or what they thought was a joke) and then they repeated the punchline when no one laughed? Maybe they repeated it two or three times. Perhaps they went after people one on one (“Hey, Timmy, did you hear when Mike said he wasn’t putting in enough hours and I said ‘That’s what she said’..”). In these situations, as the joke was repeated again and again, we all just got more and more annoyed, didn’t we?

Now, anytime a writer has a fair-sized cast of characters and an even slightly challenging plot, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. You can’t have everybody walking around together experiencing every single thing at the same time. Which means there are going to be points when A and B know something C and D don’t. The trick is coming up with ways to share that information without having the story come to a grinding halt while characters discuss things the reader already knows.

I bring this up not just because of the head-banging nature of that book I referenced above, or because of scarring memories of the bank robbery. Y’see, this is something I’m dealing with right now. In my current project I’m juggling a large cast who are investigating a mystery separately, but keep coming together to compare notes. I know my mystery, but the roadblock is getting past awkward infodump scenes without neglecting this character or that one. I mean, Debbie’s reaction to what they found in the sub-basement is just as valid as Pash’s, isn’t it? She just had the bad luck of having to work that day so she couldn’t go exploring and had to get that information second hand.

You get one chance for your big reveal and that’s it. One. You can’t keep revealing it again and again and expect that reveal to have the same emotional weight. It’s also not going to draw the audience in, because it’s gone from being a surprise to being... well, just another fact.

And if you’re not careful, repetitive facts can get dry and boring really quick.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

No, actually, next time I’d like to describe something you’ve probably never seen before.

Until then, go write.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Top Eight... No, Top TEN Mystery Tips

Our three secret weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency...

So, a few years back I attended the SDSU Writers’ Conference and got to listen to a gentleman named Esmund Harmsworth. Look him up. Nowadays he’s an agent at ZSH Literary.

He caught my attention one year when I attended a Q&A panel with a bunch of agents. The panel had been running for about half an hour when one fellow stood up and asked a question about his sci-fi novel. One agent immediately told him to throw it away and two others joined in. The trio of battleaxes berated the poor questioner and loudly declared genre as the absolute worst thing to write. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy—it was all garbage. Each of them stressed that they would never, ever look at a genre writer as a potential client.

After a few minutes of them going on and on, Mr. Harmsworth (on the far side of the platform) cleared his throat into his microphone. It tripped them up for a moment, and in the pause he pointed out to the questioner (who had, at this point, shrunk to a height of about two feet and was crying quietly to himself) that if you write something good any agent is going to want to see it. That’s their job, after all, and every agent on the panel was secretly hoping to find the next Stephen King. He sat back in his chair and the battleaxe brigade immediately backpedaled and agreed that quality writing was what mattered over everything else.

Needless to say, when I saw Harmsworth’s name on a seminar list the following year, I made a point of being there. Yeah, it was about mysteries, his chosen field, but I figured there’d be something to glean out of it. And there was, even though Harmsworth admitted halfway through that he’d really only had eight rules but the conference folks said ten looks a lot better on the seminar listings so he made up a couple to round out his list.

That being said—I’m not repeating his entire ten points. If you were in the room that day or have heard him give this little lecture since, don’t try posting an “AHA!!!” because I misnumbered something or left something out. I’m telling you now—things are probably misnumbered and left out.

Also, I can’t understand all the notes I wrote to myself seven years ago...

First Rule – There are no rules. Despite everything I’m about to recount, there is no “A-B-C-Done!” when it comes to writing. I’ve mentioned this here before. You can’t point to any rule of writing without acknowledging there are at least twenty examples of violating that rule. So if people are telling you “you must absolutely, always do this!”—especially when this relates to things like page counts or turning points or redemptive moments-- it’s a sure sign they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Now, that being said... Agents sell books (and movies) by comparing them to books that have already sold. Makes sense—that’s how most of us buy books. So saying “it’s not like anything else” makes your manuscript very hard to sell. Your book needs to follow those rules you keep hearing about to some extent.

However... following all of the rules makes you a formula writer. Nothing wrong with that. Lots of people make a decent living writing formula books and formula television shows. Just be clear that no one’s going to sing the praises of such a thing or offer mega-millions for it. Formula manuscripts are the junk food of publishing and Hollywood. They sell steadily, no one pays a lot for them, and most folks forget them half an hour after they’re gone.

Second Rule – Know the difference between mysteries and thrillers. Agents sell your manuscript to publishers and producers, but you need to sell it to an agent. One of the key elements, of course, is to know what you’re selling. It can be a pain in the ass these days with some of the sub-sub-genres out there, but you should have a solid idea which one of them your story fits into. This is when you need be honest with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much you wanted to write a historical drama—if you’ve ended up with a low fantasy story that’s what it is and you need to admit it.

Different genres also tend to have different lengths. You can sell a horror novel that’s 115,000 words, but mystery novels should be topping out around 90,000.

Also, you should know who your audience is. Most mysteries are bought by women (they’re 80% of the sales), most thrillers are bought by men. If you’ve written a kick-ass thriller aimed solidly at a female audience, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Not an impossible one, mind you, but be aware of what you’re up against.

Third Rule – Have a real mystery. One telling thing that came up in this seminar—editors will reject a mystery if they can solve “whodunnit” before the hero does. The story needs to have real clues, red herrings, antagonists, foils—a good mystery isn’t just withheld information. It should involve a lot of thought by the reader—thoughts that a good writer will be guiding down the wrong paths.

As I’ve mentioned once or thrice before, mysteries also depend on strong characters. I need to care about Wakko or his finding clues and working out answers isn’t going to mean anything to me. Plus, if you think about it, most mysteries tend to be mystery series, and no one’s going to want to follow multiple adventures of a character who’s just not interesting or likeable.

Fourth Rule – Location is key to mysteries. Harmsworth summed this up in one neat line. Most mysteries take place somewhere people would go on a dream vacation. People read mysteries set in Las Vegas and Hawaii and New Orleans. These are places most people will read about regardless, and will love to see a clever story set there.

Keep in mind this dream setting can be manipulated a bit and can be represented by some industries or careers. Hollywood is a dream job for a lot of people, so it makes a great setting for mysteries. So is Washington, because we’re all curious about those hallways of power.

Make sure your story is set somewhere inherently interesting—and not just interesting to you.

Fifth Rule – The idea is key to thrillers. I’ve mentioned the term “high concept” here before. It’s when you can sum up the whole idea of a story in just one or two sentences. A great high concept idea doesn’t even need that much, which is how you end up with pitches like “big lizard, big apple,” “Jurassic Shark,” or “it’s like Die Hard in a building.”

A good thriller depends on a central idea that can be summed up in one or two lines. If it can’t, then the whole thing needs work. Because of this, thrillers tend to be very linear and don’t rely on a lot of subplots or a vast array of supporting characters. They’re driven by suspense and the mounting threat that was mentioned in that two-line pitch..

Sixth Rule – Be patient. You can write an amazing novel or clever screenplay and still have the bad luck of finishing it just as interest in said topic has dropped to an all-time low. Some people tried to jump on the supernatural romance boat just as Buffy and Angel were coming to a close, and... well, that ship got dry-docked for a couple of years. Then there was Twilight and suddenly that ship wasn’t just crewing up, it was press-ganging people.

If someone tells you that your book won’t sell, just put it away, go work on something else, and try submitting it again in four or five months. If it’s a good book it will sell eventually. Honest.

If it’s a good book.

And there you have it. Ten (more or less) tips on how to write better mysteries, many of which can be applied to almost any manuscript.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jane, You Ignorant Slut!

Pop culture. Really. I pity you if you don’t get it.


I know I said I was going to write about mystery tips, but I got distracted by a few things. And then my mind went other places. So I ended up scribbling notes for some potential rants down the road rather than working on the one for... well, this week.

So I thought, hey, what if rather than doing a rant about mysteries, I did one about getting distracted by other ideas? Yeah, it’s more of the procedural end of writing than I usually deal with, but isn’t it about time to try something new? Doing something a little different could really ignite the old spark again, right?

Well, let’s see...

A while back my girlfriend told me a wonderful story about the slutty new idea. I laughed a lot and immediately identified with it. She’d read it on a message board, but couldn’t remember who posted it. I dug around and found it here on Richard F. Spencer's blog, and he’ll be getting credit from me unless I hear otherwise.

The story goes something like this...

You, the writer, are out with your story. Maybe it’s a novel or a screenplay or just a short story you’re working on. Whichever it is, you’ve been together a while and you’ve fallen into a good pattern.

Perhaps, in fact, too good. Maybe a bit of a rut. You just don’t have the enthusiasm for the story you once did. There was a point that it was fun and exciting and all you could think of, but as of late... well, the honeymoon’s over and now it actually takes a bit of work to get anywhere with your story. Things have almost become mechanical.

So, anyway, you and the story are out and you happen to notice an idea across the room. It’s big and bright and it’s got that look to it that just says “you know it’d be fun to tumble around with me for a while.” It’s got a naughty edge to it, and it’s showing just enough to make you think about all the stuff you aren’t seeing, and how great it would be to get at those hidden parts. Just looking at it across the room you know that is the kind of smoking hot idea a writer’s supposed to have, not the dull thing you’ve somehow wound up with

In fact, let’s just take a moment and be honest with ourselves. That’s how we all want things to be with our ideas, right? It’s supposed to be a wild and spontaneous and intoxicating relationship you just can’t get enough of. You want it to keep you up late and wake you up early so you can get right back at it.

By the way, any innuendo or double meanings here are purely your own inference, I assure you.

Alas, more that a few of us know the awful truth of the slutty idea. Oh, it’s fun at first, but then one of two things happens. Sometimes you find out there’s not really anything else to it. Oh, that first night is fantastic, maybe the week after it is pretty cool, but it doesn’t take long to realize the slutty idea is... well, it’s a bit shallow. You had some fun, but after a couple days you realize things just aren’t going any further.

On the other hand, things might work out with you and the idea. The passion fades a little bit, but you’re still giving it your all and getting quite a bit in return. Eventually the two of you settle down into a comfortable story together. And just as you realize things are becoming a bit of work with your story, the two of you are sitting down one evening and you happen to notice a slutty new idea hanging out over at the bar...

Again, let’s be honest. We’ve all been there.

Now, a sad corollary to this that I’ve developed is the booty call idea. This is the idea you used to spend a lot of time with, but now you don’t for one reason or another. Maybe you needed some time apart. Maybe it just wasn’t working out between you. It’s possible you decided to call it quits altogether.

But, there you are late at night, and suddenly that idea looks really sweet again. There’s a lot of stuff you could do with that idea if you had a little time. Nothing serious, mind you, just a writer and an idea hooking up for a few hours and doing what they do. Yeah, there’s other things you should be working on—putting serious effort into, really—but one night won’t make any difference, right? Heck, not even the whole night. Just a couple hours to ease back into it and take care of that little itch you’ve had.

And yeah, maybe this time it’ll be different. But more often than not, come morning you’ll feel a bit guilty about that time you spent with the booty call idea when you should’ve been, well, doing other things.

Y’see, it all comes down to focus. Writing isn’t always going to be fun and fast and exciting. Sometimes it’s going to be work. There are going to be periods when the days just blend together. But if you stick with it and don’t just chase after every little idea that flashes you a bit of plot, you’ll find that most of the days are going to be good ones. And more than a few will be fantastic.

So, don’t chase after the slutty idea. Resist the urge to check in with the booty call idea. You’ll be a better writer if you do.

Speaking of which, I should really go work on that top ten mystery rant so I’ll have it for next week.

Until then, go write.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Was A Very Driven Boy Scout

Not pop culture. Crap joke. Blame Eddie Izzard.

I’m sorry this is a bit late. I wanted to have it done for Thursday, but then... y’know, then I just couldn’t find a compelling reason to work on it.

Speaking of which...

I read a book a few weeks ago where the main antagonist is an ex-con. While he was in prison he found a niche market, learned about computers, and set up a nice little business for himself involving convicts still inside. It’s nothing great, but it’s completely legal, ethical, and he’s pulling in close to a grand a week for fifteen or twenty hours of work. He often ponders the fact that if he’d know it was so easy to make money legitimately, he never would’ve ended up in prison.

Which is especially confusing because at the start of the book he’s working as a one-man Brute Squad and committing murder to neaten up “any possible loose ends” for the big man who’s pulling all the strings. Much later in the book (after more brutality and further explanation of how great his niche business is doing) the antagonist finally explains that he feels he owes a debt of honor to this person he’s working for. That man pulled a few strings to help get him out of prison, after all, and he sure as hell doesn’t want to end up back in prison.

Those last italics are mine. They’re not from the ex-con who’s got a completely legitimate business pulling in a grand a week for twenty hours of work and is murdering people on the side. A guy who, it’s also been established, has no real loyalty to anyone but himself. And his business, which he’s thinking he may expand.

Sooooooo... it wasn’t really clear why this guy was doing any of the stuff we saw him doing. In fact, as the book went on his actions became less and less plausible. Especially when he kidnapped a woman so he could blackmail her husband and then suddenly decided to rape her.

Definitely the action of an ex-con determined not to go back to prison.

One of the most common things that makes a character unbelievable is when they have no motivation for their actions. We’ve all seen it. The guy who decides to pick a fight over something petty in the middle of a crisis. The person in charge who continues to ignore someone with key information. The spouse who’s just a jerk. The ninja who attacks for no reason.

Y’see, Timmy, nothing knocks a reader out of a story faster than people just randomly doing stuff. There’s a simple reason for this. In the real world, when people do things for no reason, they’re usually considered to be insane. Not an interesting insane, either, but the “lame motivational excuse” insane. If I run into a burning house to save a baby or a dog, I’m going to be considered a hero whether I make it out or not. If I run into the flaming house just because it’s there, I’m going to be considered an idiot.

People need a reason to do things. Real reasons. Reasons that jibe with their background and their personality and with basic rules of behavior. That’s why you’ve heard of people motivating horses with a carrot on a stick but not with a t-bone steak on a stick. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s completely understandable that Belloq wants to open the Ark before taking it to Germany, and believable that the Nazi officers would feel uncomfortable about performing a “Jewish ceremony.” This fits with Belloq’s smarmy background and it makes sense—historically, even-- that Colonel Dietrich would be a bit by disturbed by what needs to be done to open the Ark.

So here’s a challenge for you—try to picture that scene reversed. Can you imagine if, at that point in the film, Dietrich is insistent on performing the ceremony and Belloq is saying “no, no, I really think we should just take it to der Fuhrer and let him deal with it”...? It wouldn’t make any sense, would it?

In the book I’m working on right now, a very major motive for many of the characters is curiosity. So is fear. And, after a certain point, survival. I’m not saying that everyone in the book acts rationally, mind you, but their actions fit who they are and what they believe they’re going to accomplish.

Now, sometimes the story needs people to act a certain way. It’s been plotted out and now the characters need to do this so that can happen a bit later. What some writers don’t seem to get is that this doesn’t make a character’s actions more believable or forgivable.

In the example I gave above, the reader’s given two contradictory sets of information about the ex-con. On one hand we’ve got a man determined to stay on the straight and narrow with all the motivation he needs to do it—good character building stuff. However, almost all we see him do in the book is commit acts of murder, kidnapping, blackmail, and even one breaking and entering. All this advances the plot, yes, and at a breakneck pace, but it does this by making the character less and less believable. And that really made him less and less of a threat. To be honest, I realized at one point I was actually picturing him as a cartoon. In my mind, the book had turned into a sort of high-tech thriller version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit because the only way to rationalize this nonsensical character was to turn him into something completely absurd.

Here’s one other good point worth noting. The reader has to be able to relate to the character’s motives. This is especially important for stories set in radically different cultures (Japan, for example, or India under the caste system) or perhaps in entirely fictitious ones (Barsoom, Diagon Alley, or the grim darkness of the future). While the characters might have very true and proper motivations within the context of their tale, those motivations still need to be interpreted by the chosen audience. It’s common to hit this wall in stories where the writer knows their chosen setting too well or maybe had to build their amazing world from the ground up.

People’s motivations tend to be simple. If you’ve ever seen a procedural show, they often talk about the common motives for murder. Love, money, revenge—they’re very basic ideas. The unspoken motive for the cast of these shows is justice, or perhaps closure. In Raiders, Belloq is looking for glory and maybe a bit of power (I think it’s safe to say he was secretly hoping he’d get all the benefits of that “hotline to God”).

Look at the characters in one of your stories. Follow them for a few pages. Can you explain their actions with one or two simple words? Are they words that most people will know? Do these words relate to the character and not your outline?

Then you’ve probably got some very driven characters.

Next week, a few tips from Esmund Harmsworth about mysteries—many of which can be applied to writing as a whole.

For now, hopefully you feel motivated to go write.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

As The Tree Said to the Lumberjack...

I had no idea what to rant about this week. None. Blank slate. I’d had an idea in the car a few days ago, but it’d slipped my mind by the time I got home.

You people weren’t much help. I asked for suggestions last week, but apparently none of you have any problems or issues with writing. Must be nice.

So this reminded me of the recurring gag in Throw Momma From The Train. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a movie about a completely blocked novelist (played by Billy Crystal). Said novelist is framed for the murder of his ex-wife (played by Captain Janeway) by a clueless and incompetent student from one of his writing classes (Danny Devito) who thinks Crystal’s tips on writing a murder mystery are an offer to trade actual murders (ala Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train). Anyway, throughout the film, our hero is constantly lamenting—whining almost—about the fact that he’s been completely blocked and can’t get past the first line of his next book. Was the night hot, or was the night humid? He’s been going back and forth between those two words for months.

And then, while all this was rattling around in my head, someone thanked me over on my Facebook page for helping them get past the mental impasse they’d hit a while back with one of their stories.

All of which is well and good, but doesn’t help me figure out what I’m going to do for this week’s ranty blog.

Now, despite how I started this paragraph, I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think there can be moments, maybe even minutes, of indecision or problem-solving, but I just can’t believe any halfway decent writer is going to get so completely blocked that they can’t write anything. When presented with the question of hot or humid, most writers will agree it’s very important to have the right one, and they’ll probably come back to it many, many times during their revisions and edits, but I find it hard to believe they’d stop there and do nothing else. Heck, Stephen King was hit by a van and almost killed, but he was still back at the keyboard a few weeks after he left the hospital.

I think when a lot of folks say they’re blocked, what they really are is nervous. They’re sitting down to write and they’re afraid the words getting put down may not be the glittering gems this particular story needs. I mean, one slip up and the whole thing’s over, right?


This fear may be normal, but it’s completely unfounded. It’s just this asinine idea of creating ART rather than writing. Do any of you think Lady Gaga never touches a piano except for recording sessions and concerts? Does Michael Phelps stay out of the pool unless he’s at a competition. Does every single thing Gordon Ramsay cooks go out on a restaurant plate?

More to the point, do you think it’s always been that way for these folks? Did Gaga write a few number-one hits the first time she sat down at a piano? Had Phelps ever gone swimming before the Olympics? Do you really think the very first thing Gordon Ramsay ever cooked got him high praise?

But, alas, so many writers think the first words they set down are going to be the ones that get them a Pulitzer. And it makes them freeze up. And so they never write.

Do you remember that old joke about the guy who tells his doctor it hurts whenever I do this? Remember the punchline from the doctor? That’s the big secret for beating writer’s block. If you keep writing, you can’t get stuck.

So, more to the point, here’s a few easy ways to keep writing.

Stop Before The End-- This is what I try to do all the time. It was something I read years ago in a Writer’s Digest sidebar, if memory serves. I leave myself stuff to start with tomorrow. If I feel like I’ve got five or six pages of writing to get out today, I only do four. If I know where the rest of this page is going, I stop after the first paragraph.

What I’m doing is giving myself an easy starting place for tomorrow. There are few things more intimidating than sitting down with no idea where to begin. This way I’ve got that last bit I left to start with, and once the storytelling engine’s up and running it’s a lot easier to keep it going.

Shuffle-- This is another suggestion you’ve probably heard before. I used to do it a lot, but not as much since I’ve cut way back on magazine work. It can help to have more than one project going at a time. If you get stuck on A, you can switch over to B or C. It also helps if these projects are a bit different, in terms of genre, format, and so on. Any bodybuilder will tell you that you can’t just work one muscle group day after day. You get better results when you rotate. When I wrote Ex-Heroes I was constantly switching between that book, screenwriter interviews for the magazine, and the ranty blog here.

Fill er’ up-- Sometimes the reason you’re not moving forward is because you’re out of gas. Despite those silly folks who claim “real writers don’t have time to read,” the simple fact is you need input if you want output. Read a book, watch a movie, or play a videogame. Not one of your favorites that you know by heart, but something new. Get some fresh words and ideas and images into your head. Once they start swirling around in there, you might find that starting point you were looking for—or maybe even an all-new one.

The Batting Cage-- Take the pressure off yourself and just write anything with the knowledge it doesn’t matter. Name and describe all the pets you’ve ever had. Type out a list of your favorite books or your favorite birthday presents. Write up explicit lists of people you’ve slept with or people you wish you’d slept with. It doesn’t matter what you write or what language you use—no one’s ever going to see this. Just get the words flowing. Go with stream of consciousness or random fragments or quotes you’ve been meaning to jot down for other projects.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of this, you’ll probably find you’re writing coherent, consecutive sentences. Even if they don’t have anything to do with your current project—or any of your side projects—they’ve still gotten that part of your brain up and running for the real work of the day. So now you can toss all that and get back to important stuff.

Like trying to come up with something to post on your blog.

Next week, I feel motivated to talk about character stuff again.

Until then, go write.