Monday, April 10, 2017

Side Missions

Okay, hotshot, here's the situation: You've finished your manuscript. You've done the mandatory edit, revise, edit, cry, rage, edit, revise and revise again dance, and now it is finished. Finally. Truly. Finished. All that's left now for your newly birthed child is for your agent (or you) to sell it for a suitcase full of cash and promises of questionable moral behavior. So what do you do now?

Conventional wisdom says to do exactly what I'm pretty sure you're thinking right now: Start the next novel. But then you sit down at your keyboard and nothing comes. The pressure mounts as the damned cursor blinks at you from the screen, and every idea you have seems trite, seems stupid, seems worse than the book you just finished. It's frustrating. It's maddening. And you start to have those same negative creeping thoughts that burrow into your skull.

"What if I'm out of ideas?" "What if this is it?" "What if I'll never have another novel to write?" "The world is meaningless!" "I'm a hack!" "I may as well just gorge myself on Oreos and pizza and turn into a swollen toad and die!"
"Fuckoff... I'm stuffed...."

First off, calm down.

Second, there's something you can do. Instead of screaming and crying and throwing yourself on the couch in a fit of self-loathing, go on a side mission.

But Scott, I hear you say, what the hell are you talking about? So glad you asked.

Your imagination, according to the late, great, Ray Bradbury, is like any other muscle. You either use it or it atrophies and dies. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The less, the weaker. So you, as a writer, need that particular muscle to ply your trade. Think of it in terms of a professional athlete. A pro fighter goes into a training camp for each fight. It's an intensive workout designed to make him the best he can be. But what does he do after that fight's over? Does he stop working out? Does he quit fighting completely?  Not bloody likely. No, they do light workouts. They do maintenance workouts. They keep the muscle memory fresh, keep the joints moving, keep the timing up. Why? Because they want to be ready when the next contract comes in.
Massive power poop in 3...2...1...
Just like you.

Once the big fight (your novel) is over, you want to keep that momentum going, but you don't necessarily want to climb back into he ring for the next fight (you're new novel). So you go on side missions.

A side mission is a short project. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's just a few paragraphs a day to keep the creative juices flowing. Maybe it's fodder for your idea folder. Side missions can be things you never see again, or things that unexpectedly blossom into full-fledged novels. The point is, they're things that keep you sharp, but don't necessarily have the emotional attachment of a full-fledged novel. They're things that are fun, because, let's face it, if you're not having fun, you're doing this thing called writing wrong. And if you never pick them up again, so what? You had fun writing them. And if they develop into something more, cool, but no pressure, right?
It's casual.
So how does one go on a side mission? First, place butt in chair. Second, place fingers on keyboard. Third, start typing. Pretty much, it's that simple. I mean, sure you want to give yourself a writing prompt. I have shelves in my writing room that are full of curios and oddities that are all story fodder. I pick one (or two or whatever) and think about a past or a future I could give that item, and just start going. That jump drive? What could be on it that would save the world? That weird brick with all the signatures? Who are they and where did it come from? The suspicious bag hanging from a braid of hair in the bell jar? Where'd it come from and what's it for? Then I start writing and just let it jump out of my fingers and brain like electronic vomit. And when I've reached my daily word-count, I get up and go enjoy the rest of my day. Just like when I write a novel.
Lookit this friggin' guy... enjoying his day...
So lets try a quick experiment, shall we? Quick... Look immediately to your right. What's the first thing you lay your eyes on? In my case, it's big metal coffee thermos (I have a problem... I know... Don't judge me). Now, take into account the two basic plot lines that any fiction follows (A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town) and see how you can place your object into that arena. Got the idea in your head?  Now GO!  Type for your minimum word count! And when you're done, get up, kiss your loved ones, and flex your taut imagination muscles at them like the author you are.
And the great thing about side missions are this: Y'know that genre thing that you stubbornly adhere to? Yeah, you don't have to cling to it. It's an experiment. You're trying it out. You're just giving yourself some breathing room. You tried weights instead of cardio. No big deal. You wrote sci-fi instead of horror. It's okay. You can diversify.

So yeah. Side missions. Get on it.

Until next time --