Detonation #11: Keeping Your Muse Lubed in the Time of Contagion

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.

***

Welp, the world’s on fire, folks. Like really this time. If you’re not there already, it’s likely a matter of when and not if you’ll end up locked in your hovel, let out once a week to drive the Aztek to the feed lot for your family’s alfalfa ration. God willing, the liquor stores will deliver.

And lest you think we don’t take this seriously, let your Auntie Octoclot assure you. WE TAKE IT FUCKING SERIOUSLY.

Amazon is going to clean up, and the rich will emerge richer than ever. You think this plague is the great equalizer? Think again. Maybe you’ve got it worse than most. Chances are you still have it better than some. Those inequalities are immortal, but you aren’t. Statistically you’re likely to survive, but a shit ton of people are dead, and a lot more will follow. This is a crisis.

So, in a time of economic death rattles and social distance (which we know you’re doing as best you can because you also take it fucking seriously) the question becomes…

How do we get through this?

Art is needed now more than ever. It’s the balm we’re all desperately seeking to escape or at least soften this reality. But wow is it hard trying to stay inspired when your theoretically homeschooled kids have gone feral, you’re trying to work from home, or scrambling for any work at all, separated from your friends, and suddenly cellies with a partner whose middle name you actually forgot in the last twenty years.

Let’s talk about creative process. Right now, your muse is probably drier than a Death Valley creek bed. She needs a little lubrication and you may have heard that everything is material, but you can’t just grease her gears with any old gunk. A prime example would be The News. There’s staying informed, and there’s gorging on catastrophe causing an overgrowth of doom and wiping out all your healthy creative flora.

A case study:

Lola and Noggy attended a gift exchange last solstice where Lola ended up with a dubious (and expired, she would later find out) bottle of g-spot stimulating lube. How was she to know it was a joke?

Noggy: You’re not gonna actually use that are you?

Lola: Well, it doesn’t taste too bad. Kinda like toothpaste. What could go wrong?

I don’t want to frighten you. This story ends happily, thanks to Canesten, but Lola learned a lesson that day.

The wrong lube will only crank your creativity up long enough to burn it into a pile of yeasty ashes. So, for fuck’s sake, stay informed, but don’t cram a world’s worth of toxic news in your pussy. I forget where I was going with this. It’s been a weird couple of weeks.

Lola: Nog, I have to tell you a story.

Noggy: Not if it’s about your vagina.

Lola: All my stories are about my vagina.

Noggy: You know other people can hear you, right?

In fact, Lola respects her vagina a great deal. It works hard and she tries to give it everything it needs to be happy. Your muse deserves the same consideration. So, lube her up with something nice, something that will last, that’s compatible with your creative chemistry.

Read the books you’ve been meaning to get around to, listen to the amazing quarantine concerts being livestreamed, take one of those cool virtual tours every museum on earth is throwing online, go for a run at night. For the love of Gary, don’t poison yourself when there is so much delicious creative nourishment to be found so easily.

I think we’re going to look back on this pandemic as a time of great tragedy but also of great discovery. Moments like this are defining. So, stay healthy, stay slick, and who knows what you’ll slide into.

***

P.S. Hang tight, critters. We’ll get through this together, 2 metres apart.

xo

Sarah & Rob

Detonation #10: The Side Piece

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.

***

Gather round spawlings, and let Auntie Octoclot tell you a tale of two novelists. A pair of faithless whores who barely get past writing the prologue before their eyes are wandering. Before they’re burning through a string of short stories, some very short, some they don’t even bother to name before slipping away and crumbling back into bed with their novels. It’s disgusting, really.

Or is it?

What is it about these slutty distractions encountered in the periphery of our novel writing journeys? Why isn’t one project enough? Where is the harm in stepping out on your novel?  Glad you asked, as I hereby offer the following arguments in defense of the much maligned side piece.

Novels are long and monogamy is boring

Let’s just say it’s a good thing each of my tentacles doesn’t feel entitled to know what crevices the others are exploring at any given moment. But when it comes to writing, your novel is in fact well served by occasionally dripping your quill over a fresh sheet of vellum.

A case study. Noggy and Lola are best friends. Imagine them locked in a room together for a year. They’d run out of things to say and Lola would zip the nose hole on Noggy’s gimp mask shut in his sleep. Or what if this wasn’t a dystopian dungeon world and they were permitted to come and go, spend time with other people, and still hang out in the dungeon whenever they both want? Isn’t that a more gratifying relationship in the end? RACK rules apply.

Saying you can only work on one project at a time is as ridiculous as saying you can only have one playmate at a time. But srsly, Nog + Lola = BFF

Procrastination can generate a robust body of work

It’s truly astonishing how clean your house gets, how orderly your filing cabinet, and how much other writing you can produce when you’d rather do just about anything than work on your fucking novel.

Noggy: Did you work on your fucking novel?

Lola: Erm…no.

Noggy: You made me promise to bludgeon you with a garden weasel if you didn’t work on your fucking novel.

Lola: I did, but so ardent was I in my fucking novel avoidance that I wrote three bitchin’ short stories.

Noggy: A promise is a promise.

Lola: You’re at Home Depot right now, aren’t you?

Noggy: You’re lucky the weasels aren’t out until Spring.

Not all ideas are shelf stable

A brilliant story idea is not like a can of condensed milk pushed to the back of the pantry. You can’t come back in a year expecting it to be as vibrant and magical as it was freshly squirted outta the creative udder. Some ideas you need to use right away before they spoil.

Noggy: Wanna help me drink a bottle of insanely expensive Japanese whisky?

Lola: You said I wasn’t worthy

Noggy: Yeah, but I opened it a year ago, thinking I’d finish it when I finished my novel. Now it tastes like socks, and somebody needs to drink it, even if it is you.

Lola: I’ll be right over…

Art is a process as much as it is a product. That process is rarely linear. As an artist the last thing you want to liken yourself to is a factory cranking out ‘art’. So redraw your novel writing maps to allow the occasional detour of a short story, essay, or even a goddamn poem(if you must). The finished novel is a worthy final destination, but the side piece turns that journey into a winding, recursive, messy, metaphor-mixing ride you definitely don’t want to miss.

Detonation #9 – First Impressions

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.

***

People are boring, living their monochrome little lives at their monochrome shitty jobs in their sad monochrome existences. Endless lists. Vague descriptions. Random numbers.

Devoid of personality.

How do I know? Because Noggy just spent the last two days reading hundreds of resumes, that’s why. And if I have to judge people, which I’m emphatically willing to do whether I get paid to do it or not, then I’m going to give it to you straight. What the absolute fuck? Does anyone ever take a step back, look at their resume, and think “Wow, amazing! I’m amazing. People are going to read this and shit themselves trying to hire me.”

Short answer: NO.

There’s blame to go around of course, all the job site optimizers and expert self-help influencers that tell you how to game the system. How to include every damn industry buzzword, stat, skill, tool, process, and methodology which, I discovered, almost always involve the word ‘cucumber’, so to better fool the modern yet stupid AI enhanced job placement fit scanners. These sorts of resumes don’t give you an actual picture of the person you’re looking to hire, they’re more like D&D character sheets without the bio and background part filled in.

But I guess there’s no room for colour when the ‘experts’ insist on mashing your life into a single page, reducing ALL resumes to the SAME resume. Which means that once it does get picked out of the labour carnival bin-o-fun by the claw and deposited on my donut crumb crusted desk, I get riled up enough to write another one of these fucking articles.

Look, I’m not saying you ARE necessarily boring, but your public business persona probably is. All I ask is that you find ways, even simple and subtle ways, to give me some idea about who you are and why I should spend any energy hiring you. Give me an interest, give me something you’re proud of that doesn’t involve this particular capitalist self-sacrifice. Present yourself differently. Show personality. If I see a flicker of light, where you casually mention in your soft skills section, that you’re drilling a hole to the hollow earth in order to find a dinosaur husband to add to your polyamorous collective, I can guarantee, given a minimal required skill set, that I’ll be booking an interview.

***

I’m sure you’re asking what the fuck this has to do with writing and why the hell you forced yourself to suffer through four hundred words of old man yelling at clouds?

Everything. It’s exactly the bloody same.

I have a question for you.

“How do you present yourself to first time readers?”

Unless you are already an established author with a solid fan base, or a true phenom, you’re constantly mining for one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. I’m talking, of course, about attention. Every author desires it. Every author strives for it. Few get more than a few grains, sluiced from the meandering, braided river of current public trends and interests. A river brimming with other prospectors, elbows up, trying to stake their claim and eek out a passable existence, hoping to hit the mother lode and strike it rich.

Let’s, for the sake of simplicity, focus on one particular type of author: the eager up and comer, one with a couple of stories ‘out there’ in the weird wide world, one who doesn’t have an agent or a contract or a big-name publisher. An indie author. Our aspiring literary star wants to gain attention, has to gain attention if they don’t want to get washed away.

As with resumes, authors fling themselves and their creations into the world. They toss the dynamite and thousands, if not millions, of eyes see the resulting explosion.

Boom!

Then what?

There are a couple of co-mingled elements at play here. The author and their writing. Not the same thing, though they eventually merge together as time goes on.

But the important part is the First Impression.

So, I ask again, “how do you present yourself to first time readers?” When they pick up your book and lick the cover, fondle the spine, devour the backmatter, gape at your bio, and leaf through a few pages, what impression are you leaving? Does your bio invoke awe? Does your writing speak for you, providing amazeball feelings? When they come across you on social media or your website or at book events or conventions, do they think “Holy fucking shit, this author is the cat’s ass, I want to be them, I want to be with them, I might even read their book if I can get it on sale.”?

You’d better hope so.

Every second another hardscrabble author picks up their pan and wades into the mayhem working on just that. Sure, you can slave away, slowly building up your claim, and maybe, just maybe you’ll eventually get lucky or at least modestly successful. But if you wait for a break or let poor work speak for itself, it may be a long dreadful bitter life.

So do yourself a favour, take a step back, look at your resume and make it as fucking interesting as possible, even if it’s only eighty percent honest. Oh, and don’t forget the cucumber.

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’.