Detonation #8: If You’re Gonna Write, You Gotta Read

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re on the right side of the issue. For everyone else, shut up, I don’t care. I’m taking no prisoners because there is no grey area. Let me be perfectly clear:

It is immoral to write but not read.

That’s right, children. It doesn’t matter if you are dyslexic, or struggle with ADHD, or have a very busy life. Your excuses bore me. If you have the ability to write, you have the ability and the moral obligation to read.

But let’s back up and first establish what I would consider reading. Perhaps not an exhaustive list but you get the gist.

Books

Comics

Audiobooks

Articles

Essays

Short stories

Poems (I guess)

And perhaps more importantly, what does NOT qualify as reading:

Social media

Headlines

Memes

Podcasts

Buying books

Sniffing books

Posting pics of books to your insta

Talking about how many books are in your TBR pile

Rhapsodizing about how much you loooooove books

Watching the movie (Seriously, this didn’t work in middle school, why would it work now?)

Why is it so important to read if you aspire to write? Why is writing without giving equal time to reading a sign of corrupted character, anti-intellectualism, and a weak narrow mind?

Fairness. Obviously if you are writing with the expectation that others will read your work, it’s rather selfish not to devote attention to the work of others.

Empathy. If you are not regularly taking in narratives that do not originate with you, how are you to craft a story that will connect with others? How are you yourself to connect with others?

Better Building Blocks. Do yourself a favour and unsubscribe to that fucking word of the day email. There is no better vocabulary builder than a robust reading practice. There are so many words to play with and if you never read anyone else’s, you’ll be stuck with your boring starter set forever.

Craftsmanship. It’s been said the way to learn how to write is to write. And yes that’s part of it, but like any other craft, honing it means apprenticing yourself to those more knowledgeable. Study how an author you admire turns a phrase, describes setting, or adds flesh to a character’s bones. Self-taught won’t teach much.

All right, Octoclot, you’re thinking, you may talk the talk but are those tentacles walking the walk? So let me tell you, I was a delayed reader, unable to read fluently at grade level until I was almost nine years old, but once it clicked, it unleashed a monster. I demolished books like it was my job and I didn’t slow down until my thirties when I started to write. The more I wrote, the less I read, and my writing reflected that. It lost depth and breadth. It lost sparkle and imagination and universality. It became familiar and predictable. It didn’t take long to notice a direct relationship between the quality of my writing and the amount of time spent reading.

I’m also a bookseller, so reading a lot and reading broadly is critical to doing my job well. All told, I read about 30-50 books a year, and spend at least an hour a day reading online articles and essays. A good long form journalism piece is one of my fav ways to pass a lunch hour. By almost any metric, I read a lot. This isn’t bragging, but disclosure for the purposes of credibility. You don’t have to read as much as me, and possibly you read more, but trust me when I say the act of purposeful reading is essential to all writers.

You don’t have to read fast. You don’t have to read War & Peace (I haven’t). But a good rule of thumb is to spend at least as much time reading as you do writing. Ideally more. Read in long stretches, read in tiny bites, read literature, read trash, read poetry, read something translated. Do it every day. Cultivate in yourself a love of reading so passionate that if someone were to ask you to give up one or the other, you wouldn’t have to think twice. I promise it’ll make you a better writer and a probably a better person.

A writer writes. A maxim meant to shore up the confidence of those suffering from imposter syndrome, tentative to claim the title of ‘writer’. While the sentiment is well meaning, it’s not quite complete. Here’s the secret half of what a writer does: a writer reads.

Detonation #7 – Smart Resolutions

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

So, it’s that time again, the commencement of yet another cycle around the sun, marked by a semi-arbitrary date that doesn’t quite align with cosmological anchors. Like how hard would have been to just set New Years on the Winter Solstice? It’s the sort of thing that grinds Noggy’s OCD something fierce. And don’t get him started on why months have their fluctuating number of days.

Fucking Romans.

It’s a happy time none-the-less. A chance to wash away the sickly stains of a cursed life with overpriced and underwhelming champagne. Maybe reminisce about the highlights you captured with your goddamn selfie stick. Eat loads of crap. Socialize with friends, enemies, frenemies, or in all probability, yourself, pantsless and eating pie in the backseat of your Pontiac Aztek or garbage filled K-car.

Call it what you want. Tradition. Ritual. Self-loathing and/or self-reflection. It’s a transition, that’s the important part. From one oozing nugget of time to the next. When you crawl out of your cocoon sometime early January, you know it’s a clean slate, you know that everything that came before is last year’s news. You made it. And this year will be different.

Special.

Energized.

Productive.

You heard right. Productive. Whatever writing or editing or design or marketing or publicity or publishing you did last year, you’ll surpass it this year. More. Faster. Better.

Why?

Because you made a fucking New Year’s Resolution, that’s why.

You’ve resolved one or possibly many things. It may be a vague decree like “I’m going to write every day”, or more explicit, like “I’m going to a thousand words every day.” Or it might be ambitious like “I’m going to write and publish three novels this year.” Or ethereal like “I’m going to procrastinate less this year.”

Kinda bullshit.

I’m not saying those aren’t worthy goals, because they totally are. They’re just soft. And squishy. Moist even. Soft resolutions are like ideas. Everyone has a billion of them, but at the end of the day, rather small and limp.

The concept of “I’m going to write more” is pretty vague, and the more vague and fuzzy the resolution, the harder it’ll be to stick with. What is “more”? What is “less”? If you can’t quantify progress, if you just jam your thumb or tentacle or mating appendage in the air and guess that you may be doing more of what you said you’d do, you’ll rapidly fall into the same old lull you’ve always fallen into.

Imagine meeting up with your writing partner at the end of January.

“How’s the novel going,” asks Lola, stuffing a grinning orifice with crisp Kale salad. “You talked big at NYE before I left you rotting in the dumpster.”

“Meh,” says Noggy. “My resolution was to write more than last year. I’m spitting out words.”

“How many more?”

“Well, more… Way more… I think. It feels like way more at least.”

“So, you’ll be done by summer?”

“I have absolutely no idea. How about you? I sort of recall you mentioning you had serious resolutions of your own this year.”

Lola slides her tongue under her lip to clear out a yard of astroturf, swishes her mouth with rosé. “Yeah, got some killer ones. Turning the hot tub into an alcoholic sex cauldron three times a week for six months and drowning anyone who doesn’t like it. Then, I’m going to ruin two marriages by seducing spouses in Japanese love hotels. Targeting one every three months, but I’ve built in a month overlap contingency.”

“Uh, I meant writing resolutions.”

“Exactly. I’m taking copious notes for my book, which will be done by year’s end. Next tub is Monday by the way, you should come.”

***

Noggy can do better. If he can stimulate his Bourbon soaked brain cells for two minutes, he’ll realize he just needs to be smart like Lola is. That’s smart as in SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. While maybe the concept has been around forever, George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham first formalized it in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. The exact definition of each element has shifted over time, but SMART goals tend to have these elements:

Specific – Pick an unambiguous writing/editing/publishing objective.

Measurable – Make it something you can quantify with a number and keep track of progress. Spreadsheets baby!

Achievable – Make sure you can actually do it. We can go into BHAG’s, Big Hairy Audacious Goal’s, in another time and space, but don’t set yourself up to fail. And don’t include qualifiers that are out of your control – specifying that you want to sell X number of stories or novels is grand, but perilous since that’s in the hands of someone else.

Relevant – It should be an actual writing/editing/publishing goal. Sometimes I wonder about Lola…

Time-based – Choose an end date, and/or dates to measure progress by.

***

Boom!

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even literary science (which, if that isn’t already thing, it is now). Now repeat after me:

“I’m going to write at least three hundred words a day for the next month.”

“I’m going to write six short stories this year and submit them to markets until they are sold.”

“I’m going to complete my novel by the end of May, have it edited by August, and query a dozen agents by year end.”

Rinse and repeat.

***

So, call them what you want. Resolutions. Goals. Objectives. Just remember to be SMART and don’t be caught with your pants down in the back seat with only pie for company. We won’t judge unless it’s Saskatoon Berry.

Detonation #6: Hustlers

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Recently I watched a YouTube video of Jennifer Lopez taking pole dancing lessons in preparation for her role in the movie Hustlers. I learned that the only thing I have in common with J.Lo is…well, nothing. She’s a goddess. I’m a goblin. Moving on.

Let’s talk about the money. Makin’ it rain as a writer. You’re good at this wordsmithing stuff, and you work really hard. Is poverty inevitable? Is there a way to use your skills and ambition to make a bit more cash than it takes to buy a second helping of gruel?

Some writers make bank off their writing, we’ll call them Darryl, and they can go directly to Hell. Others, like Noggy, are gainfully employed in a day job where they go to an office, do business, get regular paychecks that are more than three digits, and can afford to get their kids teeth unfucked. I both respect and resent that, but I’m not talking about them either. I’m talking about Lola, and those like her. The freelancers and part-timers, Frankensteining an income through several different writing adjacent streams. I’m talking about the writerly side-hustle.

Here’s the thing. A Lola is nothing if not an opportunist. She’s been fortunate, strategic, and manipulative enough to do work that dovetails with her writing career. Like Lola, I coordinate literary events at an indie bookstore, teach creative writing, and freelance edit. I’ve also written articles, done one-on-one mentoring, and ‘assisted’ young people with their college admission essays (all ethics are situational). It’s a juggling act I perform on top of my own writing projects, publishing, running in the woods, attending to family and friends, and other…interests (see the Six Lives Theory).

I’m grateful to be a professional creative, but it didn’t just fall into my tentacles. When Auntie Octoclot was just a baby mollusk, slinging ink and dreaming of one day maybe, maybe, seeing my work in print, someone gave me some very good advice. GET INVOLVED. The writing community is not just a group of people doing what you do, they are a resource, a pool of limitless opportunity. So, I took classes, went to events, volunteered, collaborated, and worked hard at building real relationships. Finding kindred monsters is its own reward, but beyond that, when paying work comes up, so does your name, and when it does, you gotta be ready to say yes.

Jennifer Lopez is the original Lola. A creative role model. An artist with an appetite for experience and an eye for opportunity. Dancing, singing, acting, and learning to kill on a pole at fifty freaking years old. I bet both her kids have Invisalign. Making a living off your writing is great, for Darryl, but if I did that, I probably wouldn’t have the drive to do and learn all this other cool stuff, like planning burlesque literary salons, singing, acting in plays, and posing as a corpse for someone’s book cover. My writing is better for the experimentation, and while I may not be J.Lo, I’m definitely a hustler, and my back porch ain’t half bad. Just sayin’.

Detonation #5 – Ending It, One Way or Another

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

If you’re a rational human bean you undoubtably spend more than a trivial amount of time contemplating the end. It’s inevitable, right? Everything has a beginning and an ending. Everything. It’s a fundamental law. The universe began with a singularity programmed by an alien basement dwelling nerd and will succumb to painful, spasmodic, heat death, billions of years in the future.

Entropy is a bitch, and there is no appeasing her.

So yeah, everything ends, and the literary landscape is no exception. Books have beginnings, middles (we’ll delve into those horrid soggy messes another day), and endings. When you spend your ill-gotten lucre on that piece of trash dead tree, recommended by someone you’ll never trust again, you’re invested. You dive in, praying you can figure out what the fuck those metaphors actually mean, and crawl along, double checking the back copy every fifteen minutes to make sure you’re actually reading the right book. Maybe you’ll put it down so you can re-enter your pointless existence for minutes, days, or in rare cases, years, but you will eventually finish it. You will! Unless it blows chunks, or the book is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. At twelve hundred and sixty-six pages, you’re likely to kill yourself first.

And the end, after you’ve put in so much time and energy, has an excellent chance of not meeting your expectations, and in many cases, just plain disappointing. There’s a ton of reasons for that of course, the primary one being that writing awesome finales is hard. Like brutally hard. Authors are vicious, emotionally conflicted monsters when they write, and unless they’re pumping out four shitty, cookie cutter books a year, they want their books to be award winning masterpieces from start to finish. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of doing just that.

Here are a few bits we dislike about endings, in no particular order except metaphysically.

It’s better to Burn Out than Fade Away: Chuck Wendig swears even more than Noggy, and that’s saying something, so when he talks about the third and major climax of the book needing to hit Holy Goatfucker Shitbomb! magnitude we tend to agree. Too many endings fall short by not exceeding what came before, ramping down instead of up. The last thing a reader wants to find when they’ve clawed their way to the top of Mount Doom is that the eagles got there first and those idiot hobbits could have retired to the Prancing Pony for ale and weed.

John doesn’t Die in the End: You’ve set the stakes high. The moment arrives where everything is on the line and you pull the punch right before it lands, striking a glancing blow or missing all together. On purpose. WHY? A poet-musician has to die, or at least be brutally maimed, or your reader is going to break the spine and use the pages to line their neurotic parrot cage. If your book says Poet John has to die, you better bloody well kill the bastard.

Too much of a Known Thing: Noggy and Lola step out for ice cream. One thing leads to another and they’re racing down the blacktop, police cars and angry spouses and various aggrieved parties hot on their trail, a famous yet poor life choice thriller writer bouncing around in their trunk. And then? Off the preverbal cliff, nose diving two thousand feet into the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Everyone suspected it would end that way, hopefully with some inspired screaming.

Entertaining? You bet. Unexpected? Not at all. You, the reader, knew they were going to going to be eating fireball sandwich the moment they snatched the drooling lush from his opulent digs and roared away in their Pontiac Aztek. At least set the damn story in Gloucestershire with a subplot involving a cheese wheel race for god’s sake.

Overstaying your Welcome: While the climax and end of your story aren’t technically the same thing, we’re in the camp that feels they should be close together. If your heroine slays the dragon and gets the girl and then goes home and bakes cookies for a hundred pages, there better be something sinister about those cookies. Just because Tolkien got away with it at the end of Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean you can. After a world spanning adventure of epic proportions, he earned it (though the movie version destroyed a generation’s worth of bladders).

Best to leave the bar before they toss you out.

Ends that Aren’t Ends: While standalone books need hard, satisfying endings, the current genre writing trend is trilogies (which, contrary to the laws of mathematics, can comprise anywhere between two and fourteen books) where endings are often just transitions to the next episode. This is often extremely unsatisfying. Every book should stand on its own, with an ending that wraps up the story the book is telling, even if there is MORE ending at the absolute end. And don’t get us started on cliff hangers if there’s a better than average chance of abandoning your baby, or dying of old age before you write the next one (I’m talking to you George. And you, Lola…).

***

Call us negative Nellies if you must, but yeah, so many bad endings. Can we explain what makes a good one? Sure. Avoid writing a bad one. As we said, not easy, but honestly, not THAT difficult. There are eight million stories in the naked city, and every one of them has potential for a horrible, gruesome, unhappy ending. So get writing.

Detonation #4 – Networking on Social Media: Do We Really Need to Go Over This Shit Again?

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

Facebook defines people with whom you agree to communicate as ‘friends’ and I wish they wouldn’t. Friend is a loaded word. If a person has agreed to speak with me, it doesn’t make us friends. We don’t have a relationship. We don’t even know each other. At best we might know a few people in common, which is usually my criteria for accepting a friend request.

So what the fuck is up with dudes on the internet? And Jesus Christ of course #notalldudesontheinternet Look, if you aren’t a creep, then you aren’t being kicked here, so quit yelping. And for the sake of argument, let’s not even single out dudes on the internet. Let’s invoke Kant’s Categorical Imperative and design rules of conduct that are most effective when applied to every digital meatloaf currently hammering away at a keyboard, or staring slack-jawed at their phone while masturbating in their Pontiac Aztek.

The following are Octoclot’s ten commandments for networking with new Facebook ‘friends’. Listen up motherfuckers…

  1. Thou shalt not follow up an accepted friend request with an immediate pro forma DM to like your page/buy your book/subscribe to your podcast.
  2. Thou shalt keep DM inquiries related to your common interest. Remember, you don’t actually know this person, so don’t ask personal questions.
  3. Thou shalt not stalk your new friend’s page and like old posts and especially not their old photos.
  4. Thou shalt be honest. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying “Hey, thanks for accepting my friend request. I’m trying to get to know more people in the writing community.”
  5. Thou shalt not ask for favours. Ooh, remember? You aren’t actually friends and they don’t owe you a beta read or a blurb or a review so don’t make it weird by asking.
  6. Thou shalt keep DM exchanges brief. Demanding a lengthy conversation with a near stranger is a good way to get ghosted.
  7. Thou shalt like or comment on current posts if you find them interesting. This is actually the best way to get to know your new friend. In the common area. Chat ‘em up in the living room, don’t corner them in the toilet.
  8. Thou shalt not slide into their DMs and steer the conversation into sexual territory. Fuck, that this has to be said is fucking exhausting as fuck and I’ll just leave it fucking here.
  9. Thou shalt keep your personal problems to yourself. That door isn’t open yet, in either direction.
  10. Thou shalt be cool. Can’t we all just be cool? Social media is about connecting with people that share our interests without the barrier of geography. That shit is brilliant! So enjoy it, and be cool, ffs.

That is all. Octoclot out.

Detonation #3 – You’re a Grown-up Monster, so Meet Your Goddamn Deadlines

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

Everything is connected. Each critter throbbing on this planet is at least indirectly dependant on every other critter. For food, shelter, companionship, employment, transportation, entertainment, and bulletproof alibis etc.  It’s the great social supply chain and we are all but tiny links in the mail. We give in order to get, and we don’t like to wait. We want the Amazon Prime of existential deliverables, human and environmental costs be damned.

This is a way of saying deadlines are a fact of life. The key word being “dead”. As in, something unpleasant may happen should you fail to accomplish your task in the allotted time. This is the colloquialism we use to explicitly define when things need to be done. Work projects, school assignments, household chores, car maintenance, taxes etc.

So why do we have such a hard time meeting our creative deadlines? Because we’re busy, we don’t have family support, society doesn’t value art, we’re uninspired/day drunk/on the run from law enforcement… Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Time for real talk. On the most primitive level, human beans, and almost every other sentient piece of ooze, are far more motivated by aversion than affinity. Want to avoid starving? Store up nuts for the winter. Want to avoid freezing or being eaten by a mastodon? Build that fire and keep it burning all night. Want to avoid being friendless and lonely? Don’t be a cunt and return a text once in a while.

The problem is that nothing objectively terrible happens if we don’t finish writing that novel, essay, or poem*. World keeps on turning, you know? Maybe we’re frustrated and sad, but there’s no shortage of well-meaning friends to tell you it’s okay, you’re a brilliant artist, and you’ll get around to it eventually.

Well guess what? It’s not fucking okay, you’re not that brilliant, and why on earth would you get around to it eventually when you haven’t managed to get around to it already?  I mean, is this important to you or not?

But Octoclot, you may ask, doesn’t this make you a big slimy hypocrite? Heck, yes**. But it doesn’t make it any less true. The first step is realizing that your excuses are worthless. With few exceptions, getting shit done is within your control.

Okay, hear me out… maybe we’re more motivated by punitive measures, but if no one is going to flog us if we don’t write (unless we pay for it) and rewards don’t work, what’s a writer to choose? Neither. This is about habits, children. Forming good habits, so you don’t have to rely on external validation or condemnation to be productive.

But where’s the roadmap? Don’t worry, I gotcha. I call it the 3Ps and I’ve applied them to a case study for your amusement and edification.

The subjects: Noggy Splitfoot and Lola Silkysocks are writers. They are both quite good writers. They are also unmotivated bags of hot diaper pail trash. How can the 3Ps help them meet their creative deadlines?

P1 – Prioritization

Schedule writing time. Plug it in the damn calendar if you have to, and find a buddy if you can. It’s a lot harder not to show the fuck up when someone else is waiting on you. Lola and Noggy agree to check in over FB messenger on Friday night. Like they had anything better to do?

Noggy: Hey Silkysocks, ready for our writing sprint?

Lola: Yes, indeed. Having a friend to write with creates a compelling illusion of accountability.

Noggy: Plus, depravity loves company, so there’s that (sends gif of hippos mating in a mud wallow).

P2 – Planning

Mission statements are horse shit, until they aren’t. You need a plan, man. What are you going to use your writing time to work on, specifically? Share this with your buddy.

Lola: Imma edit that Detonation about meeting your deadlines.

Noggy: I’m going to write the sex-cannibal scene in my middle grade novel.

Lola: Right on. Check in again in an hour?

Noggy: See you then!

Lola: (sends gif of lascivious typing tentacles)

P3 – Permission

You’ve got your tush in the chair, set your intention, and perhaps like our subjects you’ve poured yourself eight fingers of bourbon. Now it’s time to actually write. But here’s the thing, don’t hobble yourself by demanding greatness. You’ll never commit anything to paper with such high standards. Get over yourself. It’s okay to churn out rubbish. It’s more than okay. It’s encouraged, necessary even. So, stop whining, drink your bourbon, and embrace mediocrity.

Lola: How’d you make out, Nog?

Noggy: I wrote ten thousand words

Lola: You…in an hour?

Noggy: It’s mostly shit, but I got one salvageable paragraph, wanna read?

Lola: Hit me.

Break up the writing sprints in any way that works for you, refill your glass, tuck your crotch goblins into bed, swap more disturbing gifs (sometimes sending them to unsuspecting friends because you’ve got too many conversation windows open).

And so it goes. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Do it enough and it becomes routine. Kind of boring, right? Maybe, but this is how a body of work is generated. One sprint at a time, using the 3Ps or however you want to organize your process. Not through a system of punishment and reward, not through will power, or hauling up buckets of inspiration from a magic well, but though habitual practice.

Take it from your Auntie Octoclot: you can finish what you start. All you have to do is show up, decide where you want to go, and get there. One shitty word at a time.

*If you must

**Take all advice with a pillar of salt, and hypocrisy is the least of our sins, trust me