Writing When You’re Broken

There would be a post here, but life got in the way.

Seriously, though, life sometimes does get in the way. Vacations, family responsibilities, illnesses, day jobs. But what about the days when you have several hours free and you sit at the computer, staring at the screen, willing the words to come?

What about when you get in the way?

I’m not talking about the distractions of social media. Everyone knows they can shut off their net connection if they have no willpower otherwise, right? I’m also not talking about writer’s block, at least not in the way you think.

What if the illness is a big one? What if the day job is suddenly gone, along with the paycheck and the health insurance? What if your partner or spouse just packed his or her bags and took a permanent vacation away from you?

How do you find the mental will to write when your brain is slowly crumbling from the stress and chaos?

The first choice is the easy one. Don’t write. Step away from the computer completely or limit your use to Twitter and Facebook. Maybe you have that luxury. Maybe writing is just a hobby.

But what if you have a deadline waiting and not writing is not an option? What if the bats in your belfry are not just lingering but swarming in a chaos of ammonia and fluttering wings?

Use your stress.

Yes, gather up those bats and channel them into your writing. Feed your words with anger, with sorrow, with hurt. Do terrible things to characters, give them the life you wish you had at the moment, or give them the life you fear most. Write dialogue that says all the things you wish you could.

Your writing may very well end up with a different, stronger, resonance. You may be able to see things from a different point of view. Strong emotions don’t have to work against you. They can be the incendiary fuel for your phoenix of words instead of immolation.

But maybe you can’t. Maybe what you feel is too big, too much. So escape from your stress. Disappear into your fiction. Use it as the buffer from the chaos. Maybe things outside the word cave are terrible but inside, you are the master. If you wallow too much in your chaos, you’ll end up spinning your wheels on a stationary bike to nowhere.

View your writing as a toy. Ever notice that kids like to play even when they’re sick? Sure, you say, they’re kids. They have that endless energy. Maybe so, but maybe those towers made out of blocks help them not pay so much attention to their illness. Use your words in the same way. Build your own tower. Slay a dragon. Banish a ghost. Break a heart.

Words can cut, they can wound, but they can also help you heal. Even when you’re not aware they’re doing so.





Past Endurance

I have been medicated for over a year now, to treat mental illness. I’ve been medicated in the past, but I said I was stronger than medication. I was better than that.  I was trying to write while enduring panic attacks, suicidal depression, generalized anxiety, manic highs and disorganized thoughts. Terrifying hallucinations.

I was coaching myself through a panic attack in a bathroom stall at the newspaper I was working at, when I decided I wanted to be able to actually eat lunch on my lunch break. Not hide in a bathroom stall having a panic attack. I had started to take honest, successful steps with my career. People were starting to hear my name. And I had fallen in love.

The way I saw it, my choices were to try treatment again, or keep losing the battle. If treatment was successful, I’d hold onto words, the love of my life, and actually start living. If I didn’t get treatment, I was going to drown. I didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to keep going.  And you can only hide in a bathroom stall for so long.

That was in 2010. I’ve written through tapering off the pills that didn’t work, through starting new medications, and the awful adjustment periods. There are entire phases of projects that are just a coloured smear of memory. They got done, but goodness knows some bits are fuzzy. If you’re just starting medication, I can tell you that yeah, it’s not easy, but it’ll get easier.

Many of my peers, who are also your peers, are on medication. Slowly, some of them have started to be public about it. About being suicidally depressed. The blown deadlines. The litany of agony and self-medication many of us experienced for years. People I love and respect are medicated. They still struggle, but they use whatever resources they have to stay some measure of sane. And now that I have some small measure of success, and things I love and never want to lose…I emulate that. I do what it takes to stay healthy and sane. I am far from perfect or normal, but I don’t spend every single day panicked, and every morning regretting that I didn’t die in my sleep.

Sometimes success, even the start of it, crushes writers. I’ve lost friends to that moment, when their resources surpassed their ability to hold on.I nearly lost myself to that.  I was lucky enough to get treatment I needed before I could try a second time. The path back from that has not been easy.  I don’t think it is easy, for anyone. I still struggle, often daily, to write around the remnants of an illness the pills cannot cure, to keep fighting through what they call incomplete recovery from my mental illness. But every day I sit down to my laptop, pop the cap on the bottle next to it, and take the pills.

I don’t regret going back on medication. You couldn’t pay me to give up my life, or the things I’ve written, since clearing that hellish fog.


12 for ’12: Writing a Dozen Books a Year

Matt Forbeck is an award-winning game designer and freelance writer living in Wisconsin.  In addition to being one of the nicest guys in the business–in any business–Forbeck sets a new standard for diversification.  He’s designed collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures games, board games, and logic systems for toys and has directed voice-over work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, screenplays, and computer game scripts and stories.

Last spring, I had this crazy idea that I could write a dozen novels in a year. I spent much of my summer chatting with friends about it and hoping that one of them would do the right thing and talk me down from that ledge. Instead, as I explained it in greater detail, they lined up to either encourage me to jump or to push me off.

Maybe they just wanted to watch the show, which was guaranteed to be a fantastic stunt or a total car wreck, complete with blazing tires flying into the helpless crowd. Either way, it worked.

I’m a fast writer, and I’ve been at it full-time for a long time: twenty-three years this summer. When I’m on a writing roll, I can knock out 5,000 words in a day without too much sweat. Tackling a novel the size of a National Novel Writing Month book — about 50,000 words — then should only take me about 10 days, right? That’s short compared to most novels these days, which often clock in around 80,000 to 100,000 words, but it still qualifies as a novel by just about any major award committee, for which the cutoff is usually 40,000 words.

So, technically I could do it. The trouble was I couldn’t afford to just take off a year to write a dozen books, as much fun as that might sound. I’m the father of five kids, including a set of quadruplets, and my wife’s salary as a school social worker alone can’t cover our bills. It seemed my insane dream might be grounded on account of finances, but then Kickstarter came along.

Kickstarter is a popular crowdfunding platform on which creators can post a pitch for a project and ask for pledges. If you hit your goal, you set to work. Otherwise, everyone gets to walk away, no harm done. I’d seen a couple friends have big hits there with their roleplaying game projects, so I thought I’d give it a try with the first trilogy of books for my 12 for ’12 project: Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World, based on an RPG I wrote back in 1999.

We beat the goal and raised over $13,000, and I set to work. A couple months later, I launched a second Kickstarter for a new trilogy of fantasy noir books I wanted to write, set in a world I call Shotguns & Sorcery. That raised almost $13,000 too.

This week, I launched the third Kickstarter in the series, this one for a trilogy of thrillers called Dangerous Games, set at Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in this hemisphere. Will it fly too? I’ll let you know in about a month.

The real question, of course, is how the writing went. I managed to complete the first three novels on time, but then fell ill for a week at the end of April. (Having all these school-age kids around provides lots of disease vectors.) That bumped me wrapping up that novel into the start of May. Still, I got it done and had time to move on to my next novel — which is actually a full-sized tie-in based on the Leverage TV show that I’m still hoping to finish this month.

Meanwhile, I revised the first novel and got the ebook out to my backers in April. That means I took a novel from an outline to a published book in under four months. The others are underway as well, and I just this week released the first ebook — Brave New World: Revolution — to the general public too. So far, I’m thrilled with the results.

Note that I’m self-publishing the books. No publisher would touch a plan like this. It’s too crazy, it involves too many books from a single writer, and it would be impossible for them to release the books so fast. That’s why I had to do it myself.

Of course, I wanted to do it myself. I’ve been eyeing self-publishing for a while now, having been a game publisher myself back in the late ‘90s. I’ve seen a number of my author friends do well at it, but mostly because they were able to bring old titles back into print.

I’ve had 16 novels published before this, but 13 of them were tie-ins for things like Dungeons & Dragons and Guild Wars, which meant the rights to those books would never revert to me. The only way I could build up a critical mass of titles to publish myself would be to write them, and I didn’t want to have to wait for the years that might take to pull off.

So I decided that this would be the year instead. So far, so good.

The Writer’s Toolkit: Almost Everything You Need to get the Story Started

It’s long gone now, lost to some damnable garage sale or other, but my father once had a wooden shoeshine box that sat at the back of the bedroom closet beneath a rack full of awful ties. The box was a real showpiece: furniture-quality American poplar with dovetailed joints and an elevated footrest. As a kid who liked to dig through his parent’s stuff, I’d get the box out from time to time, flip open the brass latch at the front, and play around with the contents.

The shoeshine box held two horsehair shining brushes, a dauber brush, a bottle of cleaning cream, tins of Kiwi brand shoe polish (black and brown), and a soft shining cloth. There was no polishing glove. In all the times I watched my father shine his shoes before going off to work, he’d first pull an old sweat sock over his hand to prevent the dark polish from staining his fingers.

I mention the shoeshine box because I’m a big fan of toolkits. I’m fascinated by the things professionals collect to do their jobs – the stranger the better. Ever see a professional piano builder’s kit? It’s a sexy assortment of lathes, chisels, and auger bits. Have you ever heard of a tobacco smoke enema kit? Oh, they’re very real, I assure you. In the 1800s, they were the indispensable piece of medical equipment for assisting drowning victims – until they were debunked. Once, on a research trip to a medical history library, I got my hands on a Civil War-era surgeon’s battlefield kit. Although most of the implements were of the cutting and sawing variety, everything was stainless steel – still gleaming – and very lightweight. Nasty little cutters. Take an arm here, take a leg there…

Every professional has their toolkit. As writers, we’re no different from the rest. It can be easily assumed that anyone reading the BookLifeNow.com site on a regular basis has stacks of books on every flat surface in their home. But there’s always room for more, eh?

Recently, I was at a conference during which a panel attempted to come up with a list of essential books for any writer to devour before picking up the pen. The panel moderator called it a “writer’s toolkit.” I listened, made notes. I didn’t agree on a number of the titles mentioned – some were irrelevant to my chosen genre, others didn’t interest me. But the mention of the toolkit held my interest. When I returned home to the paperback-and-empty-whiskey-bottle nest I call an office, I walked the stacks and hunted down every title that had been helpful to me in all my efforts. My writer’s toolkit (abridged):

Dialog gives definition to your characters, reveals motivations, aids in setting, and propels the story forward. No two characters should speak alike.

Dialogue (Write Great Fiction Series) by Gloria Kempton

Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella

Characters in fiction should be treated like real, live human beings. With history, motives, and reputation – they are believable and worth caring about to the last page.

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Linda Edelstein

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Writing Your First Novel is damn difficult work. Ask any professional and they’ll tell you the same. It’s hours and hours of dedication to the craft, but it beats working.

Your First Novel by Rittenberg and Whitcomb

How NOT to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Writing Great Horror is a topic near and dear to my heart. Horror has its own language and rules and pitfalls. Whether a slasher or a morality tale, horror stories are part of a genre that is continually reinventing itself.

On Writing Horror by the Horror Writers Association, Ed. by Mort Castle

The Philosophy of Horror by Noel Carroll

Writers Workshop of Horror by Michael Knost

Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

Story is the realities, not the mysteries of writing. Story is the essential element to any successful product of the craft. A bad story does not excite readers and turn pages.

Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald Tobias

I’ve always thought that books on writing are invaluable, due to the fact that they are a resource available at any time of day or night. I can’t count how many times I’ve left the bed at three in the morning and picked up one of these books to sit at the kitchen table until I’d worked out some plot turn or character aspect. If nothing more, a writer’s toolkit is a preparation – waiting for that moment when you’re struggling to hammer something together.

In the title, I suggested that this toolkit was almost everything you need to get the story started. Every toolkit is personal. None is ever complete. What is your essential writer’s resource? What books do you lean on in times of trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.