So, because I wasn’t already doing too much, I started a podcast. The only way I could justify this was by recording it in one take and not bothering with fancy things like editing or sound production or music.
Basically each episode is me talking for ten-ish minutes about a problem I have encountered in writing. Usually something emotional, or some kind of psychological blocker I’ve had which I didn’t expect to.
As I dive into professional writing as a full time job, I’ve found a lot of advice online about writing craft, about marketing, about systems and processes… but I’ve not found much which deals with the human side of it. I didn’t expect to feel like crap when I published a book, but apparently it is a thing which happens.
I’m here to talk honestly about what it feels like, and what has helped me to get over these little interal obstacles. My hope is that it will help others as well, and eventually maybe I’ll even have guests at some point.
If you like podcasts, writing advice, or just to hear me bleed my heart out in ten minutes, then please like subscribe, follow the podcast where-ever you can.
Who are you and what have you done with the Real Christopher Ruz?
I’m Ruz, an Aussie author, teacher, and one-time stuntman. The original, more handsome Ruz is buried in the potato patch. Don’t cry for him. He died like a punk.
Harry Potter world: what house are you? And what animal would be your patronus? Harry Potter houses are an artificial mechanism used to divide students ideologically and turn them against one another so they won’t band together and overthrow their oppressive wizard and witch overlords!
Are you a Think Everything Through Before Acting person or a Great Idea Let’s Try It! Person? I always dive in without thinking. Who has time to think? Huh. Maybe I’m not a Ravenclaw at all.
What got you into writing?
The Lord of the Rings BBC radioplay adaptation. My Dad used to play it for me on long car rides, and I fell in love with those mysterious worlds and grand battles of good versus evil. Some of my first stories were LOTR fanfiction when I was about six. They weren’t real good.
Why do you write now? I’ve got too many worlds in my head! There’s something special about being able to share them with the folk around me, a feeling of sharing the greatest adventure of your life. I can’t get that feeling anywhere else. So, I put these worlds and characters and conflicts on paper, and hope everyone else enjoys them as much as me.
What’s a book you remember reading as a teenager and absolutely loving? IT. I borrowed it from the school library when I was absolutely not supposed to, and read it late at night when my parents wouldn’t catch me. It was dark and dangerous like no other book I’d read before, and it sunk its hooks in deep. I reread it every few years, and it’s still special to me.
Can you name some formative books for your own writing? Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun changed the way I saw storytelling. Elements of it seep into literally everything I create.
Stephen King’s IT, of course, seeded everything I write with malevolence. Finally, Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. Looking back on Xanth now, it’s weirdly misogynist and creepy and not something I’d recommend for young teens (or anyone). But for teen-me, Xanth showed me how a world could be ridiculous and compelling at the same time. It taught me to take risks.
Creative writing in primary school, what did you write about? Can you remember any stories?
SO MANY STORIES! They were mostly inspired by the videogames I played at the time, so I wrote a lot of Wolfenstein fanfic. My mother was horrified (and fair enough, too). But I was also already dipping my toes into horror, with a lot of Goosebumps inspired stories of children my age being stalked by werewolves and bog-beasts.
What do you do/where do you go for inspiration?
Current events plus personal drama plus horrifying imagery generally takes me somewhere fun. For example, my current WIP is about a North Korea-esque hermit state, the gigantic floating corpse of a dead god, and destroying incels. I have more ideas in the bank than I can deal with right now.
Do you believe in a divine muse? I don’t. My muse is sitting down in front of Scrivener and doing the work. I believe the ideas and the energy comes when you put yourself in a professional mindset.
What does your physical writing space look like?
My office is quiet and cold. My monitor is haloed with post-it notes covered in new ideas, potential plot twists, and character sketches. My desk is a travesty of old teacups and unfiled paperwork.
Open up your skeleton closet: can you tell me about an abandoned project of yours which seemed awesome when you started but you’ll likely never return to?
This could apply to any of my first four novels. I have a particular attachment to Alpha Slip, which was a near future cyberpunk psychological thriller about a psychiatrist diving through (and being trapped in) layers of a POW’s memories in order to extract key information on military crimes. I finished the final draft two days before the trailer for Inception dropped, and I was so disheartened that I never opened the doc again.
Star Wars or Star Trek?
It used to be Trek. Then it became Wars. Now I’m firmly on the fence. Fingers crossed for Picard!
Hogwarts or Narnia?
They’re both nightmares of child endangerment! Can I choose Destin instead?
Ideal holiday, price and time no concern, where would you go?
Japan. A nice town somewhere in the south, where the wind is sweet and the evenings are quiet, and I could eat well and write all day and pat random cats.
Favourite song to sing at Karaoke?
Shatner’s cover of Common People.
Favourite song to sing in the shower when no one else is home?
Rammstein’s Auslander. The tiles amplify my naturally weak baritone.
The weirdest hobby you have, other than writing?
I’m an artist in my spare time, mostly focusing on life studies and portraits. I don’t know if that counts as weird, though. I also paint miniatures, even though I don’t play any tabletop games that actually use them. I just like the zen calm that comes with all those tiny details.
— My bio: Teacher, designer, and one-time stuntman (don’t ask), Christopher Ruz is a rabid fan of fantasy, science fiction, body horror and crime thrillers. Born in Hong Kong to well-travelled parents, Ruz was fortunate enough to live in South Africa and Vienna before returning to live and work in Australia. His love of dark fiction began when a worn copy of Pet Semetary caught his eye at a local flea market. He bought it with his pocket money and hid it under his bed so his parents wouldn’t see. He was eight years old, and has been a little odd ever since.
Ruz can also do twelve chinups. Neat!
His best known works are The Ragged Blade (Parvus Press, 2019) and his ongoing horror series Rust. Meanwhile, he publishes the Olesia Anderson series of pulpy spy novellas under the pseudonym D.D. Marks. He has sold stories to Andromeda Spaceways and Apollo’s Daughters, has beaten the grueling Immerse or Die challenge twice, and was a finalist in the 2017 Aurealis Awards. When not writing, Ruz teaches art and design at a west-Melbourne high school and works at boardgame conventions across Australia.
I’ve been using a bullet journal this year, and I’ve found it useful in a lot of ways. Specifically I’ve been loving tracking my word counts/pages edited for each day. This is an example month spread from May. I used to just have words across the whole page, but then I realised I wanted to have editing and learning and things accounted for as well.
So, here’s May with the central spindle date margin, editing etc on the left and wordcount on the right. The running total wordcount for the whole project is on the far right.
I usually try to focus on one project, but you can see I jumped around some (and did work on two projects in one day towards the end… ) I also had a full week of learning, but it gives you a general idea.
But then for the month of August, I tried this system from youtuber Garrett Robinson:
Suddenly my hours were focused. I was less likely to get distracted, or mooch around on other tabs on my laptop. I would be tempted to but just say to myself ‘no, this is my hour to do X’ and apparently that was all my brain needed to really knuckle down. So to speak.
Here’s my running totals for August. You can see that my daily word counts have shot up, I’ve been more focused on a single project, and my pages edited have increased as well. August 11th is, as far as I can tell, my most productive words day ever. It’s a heady feeling.
More than that, I wrote 25k words in one week. I think my previous record was a very exhausting 20k week which resulted in almost nothing the week after. With this system I was still energised, I wanted to keep writing, but I knew my editing on another project was my priority so I jumped into that instead.
This last weeked I travelled to Christchurch and went to the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference, so my word count’s been a bit all over the place. But I learned a lot and have a nice new list of actions for various projects, etc so. It’s all good.
I love this bullet journal tracker, it really really works for me, and I recommend anyone looking to up their productivity gives it a go, for one month at least. I’ll definitely be using it for September and churning out some serious words.
In a lot of ways editing is my least favourite part of the process, but at the same time I do enjoy it, and I do like seeing that my skills in editing have improved.
So the first thing is that I was under the impression you need to let a manuscript ‘rest’ in a drawer for 6 months to a year, so that you can gain distance from the work and let your sub-conscious work out plot problems or whatever.
This is, to put it bluntly, crappola.
You can edit something right away. Or you can wait a week if there are puzzles that need fixing up, or you can set it aside. But know that on some level the setting it aside for a time is you avoiding the next step. Remember that the resistance in your brain is trying to stop you succeeding, and telling yourself ‘no, I must not look at it for X time’ is a really easy way to never take the next step.
That said, a little distance can be nice, and sometimes you want distance. If it’s a particularly problematic manuscript for example.
Anyway, assuming you have let precisely the right time elapse, here’s some tips on how I wrangle the editing process.
Weasel words – Or filtering words. These are words which find their way into your writing but can easily be dropped or rephrased in order to make the sentence stronger. For example: That, just, looked, up, down – you’ll have your own words that you’re using or overusing, and a quick Ctrl + F + search for that word will highlight how many times in your manuscript you have it. Whittle them out, rephrase the sentence and see how your prose improves.
Beta readers – Beta readers are amazingly magical unicorns who like your work enough to read it and give you feedback on it. If you find good, reliable beta reader do whatever you can to keep them. I have a brilliant one who keeps track of plot holes, points out when a character’s turn of phrase doesn’t sound like them, and also peppers the manuscript with compliments and “Oh my God, I know these feels!” Besides giving feedback on a draft, you can also bounce ideas off a trusted beta reader, such as “what if I made this guy the villain?” and see what they think.
Actual professional editors – these are worth their weight in gold, and although it can be a little daunting to pay someone a large chunk of cash when you’re starting out, the difference a good editor can make to your manuscript will definitely pay itself off in time. You learn more about writing craft, your own weaknesses as a writer and new techniques that can improve your next draft.
Proofreaders – different to an editor. An editor will look at characterisation, tension highs and lows, ways to improve the story itself. A proofreader will look for grammar errors and typos. Freaking genius, because even if you’ve done this yourself you’re going to miss things. You get so used to your own words that your brain skims over the details.
Editing software – I love Grammarly, but there’s also Hemingway, ProWriteAid, even the spell check in Google docs or Word. They’ll all pick up things you might have missed. Grammarly and Hemmingway will also pick up sentences which are too complex, or incidents of passive voice.
So I’ll generally do a few passes, one searching for my weasel words, one with beta reader feedback, then send it to the professional editor and do another pass with their feedback. Then run it through grammarly and word spell/grammar check and made the changes those programmes find which I also agree with.
And then Proofreader time, which I do last before uploading to Amazon. Amazon itself will also find a typo or two sometimes!
So editing is time consuming and it’s hard, and I don’t really like it, but it’s necessary and it’s a great way to upgrade my writing skills.
You’re never going to get a perfect, typo-free and perfectly punctuated manuscript, so at some point you have to say ‘fuck it, that’ll do’ or you’ll be polishing that thing forever. Don’t do that, accept it’s as good as it’ll get and let it go.
Okay, so let’s say you’ve read and applied the previous posts, you’ve started something and you had momentum for a while. But then something came up – maybe a cool new TV show was released and you’ve marathoned that for days. Or maybe you got sick or work got intense and you haven’t had the headspace to write.
It happens to everyone.
I find around the 8 – 10 thousand word mark I often trail off and think about a new, more exciting project I could be working on. I’ll can always come back to this one later, right?
How do you keep with the same thing?
Honestly? you just have to be super strict on yourself. There’s always going to be a time when you struggle to motivate. You have to find what motivates you. Here’s some ideas, but you have to find your own golden ticket…
Read through the plan for the book and remind yourself of the neat stuff to come
Write your back of the book blurb. Writing the blurb is so depressing and difficult I’d rather do almost anything but write it
Reconnect with your reason for writing – the most motivation I had was at the start of the year when I was in a job I actively disliked. I hated having to go into the office, and I wanted a way out – writing could be the way out, but I have to complete manuscripts for that to work
Daydream about your potential future readers, and how much they might love your story
Bribe yourself. I really want to play my new video game, but I have to get words down. Well, if I get X many words today, then I can take a break and play for half an hour. Then I can write more and ‘earn’ more time. Then if you get into the flow of writing, you can put the reward off a bit longer and earn bonus extra words. Brains are easy to trick sometimes!
Some sort of tracker or progress recorder, which has worked especially well for me lately (more on that soon)
It’s hard work.
You have to put the next words down or the thing will never get finished. But just think of the end point – if you get to the end of the manuscript then you will have finished a manuscript! and that’s pretty miraculous, really.
You just gotta want it and keep on wanting it as hard as you can. Then you do the work and keep on doing the work. Then one day you can type ‘the end’ and feel like the big goddamn hero that you are.
There’s no foolproof method here, it just comes down to understanding your own reasons for writing and what motivates you. If you want to write for money then of course you have to have completed manuscripts to publish. If you want to write to tell your story and share it with people – you have to have it finished to do that.
If you have a way to force yourself back into a WIP when you’re in that ‘fallen out of love’ stage please comment and let me know!
I’ve written before about a daily writing habit, but I think there’s more to actually writing. And by actually writing I really mean writing enough of a first draft to complete a piece of work. So, here we go…
Part three: the actual writing
Honestly? Finishing a draft is the hard bit because it requires self discipline and saying no, and forcing yourself to be creative. I don’t have a tried and true method for making any of this easy, but here’s the basic tenets I stick to, that I’ve found helpful to remember in terms of writing a first draft.
Don’t edit as you write – it’s really easy to fall into a trap of perfecting things as you go. You can’t do this. Your job when writing a first draft is to get the first draft done.
Don’t judge – following on from point one, it’s really easy to write something and immediately think ‘oh no, that sucks, I’m terrible’. You can’t do that on your first draft, instead you have to stick to your plan and …
Just spew it out – write as much as you can as fast as you can manage. There’s lots of quotes around this ‘you can’t edit a blank page’ and ‘you have to write what you’re going to throw away’, that kind of thing.
Don’t over commit or stress yourself out – signing up to something like NaNoWriMo or giving yourself a really big daily word count to start up with, or even telling yourself you have to write every day is a quick way to burn yourself out. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Maybe you just give yourself five minutes a day, or a half hour, or aim for 500 words, whatever works. Don’t call yourself a failure if you don’t manage to stick to your initial goal. Just look at your goal and see if you need to make a change to it. Then forgive yourself and try again when you can.
If it’s boring, skip to the next bit – this is a hard one to realise when you’re in the woods of writing, but if you’re struggling with a scene, it could be because it’s boring. You can either skip this bit (often when it’s ‘and then character A got to place B’ you can safely skip it). If it’s a scene you need for plot reasons, then my favourite way to fix it is to ask what would make it fun? Don’t let a boring scene slow you down, nothing boring has to be included. Readers will find it boring if you do. Another thing you can ask yourself is…
What’s the worst that could happen? – conflict drives story and reveals character, so look for it in every scene. Then at the end of the story, you can ask ‘what’s the best that could happen?’ and make things brilliant for your babies… well, assuming you’re writing something where everyone survives and your leads get a happy ending. I’m writing romance at the moment and it may be influencing things.
You have permission to write whatever – I know this is kind of obvious, but I have definitely run up against an internal belief that I have to write something worthy or I’m wasting my time. Now, this is a stupid belief and it needs deconstructing.
First: what is worthy? I don’t know, but it sounds stuffy and elitist.
Second: Why the fuck shouldn’t you write just exactly what you want to write?
Third: Forget worthy. Channel your inner child, think about the coolest most fun thing you can imagine and tell a story about that. Worthy is a trap (and an excuse not to write).
So, there you have it. Those are the things I try and remember, and generally this has helped me.
Some other hacks if I’m having trouble getting going:
write on paper in a cafe or library
voice to text on whatever programme you have, and dictate your story
alternate writing on a new draft with another project – have both open in tabs on your laptop and switch between them when you get distracted
Part two – Characters, who are they and how do they happen?
Some of the time my characters appear fully fleshed out and raring to go, most of the others take a little breaking out.
The hardest part for me is always naming them though. Good reference lists for names are googling baby names websites, especially for meanings. Or searching for names on pinterest – a quick search for ‘male names for romance’ for example, will bring up some names. Baby name websites, a google for ‘names which mean…’ is also useful for meaningful names.
Once I have some names, I assign a character archetype to each one. This is kind of intuitive and kind of not. I start with a Hogwarts house sorting…
For example in Rival Princes, Nate is a Gryffindor with strong Hufflepuff tendencies, and Dash is a Ravenclaw who people read as a Slytherin. This gives me a broad intersection of personality types and a springboard to more information.
Then I think about the role the character has in a story – okay, so Nate’s a Gryff in a new job, and I know he’s a natural charmer, because Dash is a hard worker who has researched and planned and strived to get where he is. The natural conflict there is that Dash feels like Nate hasn’t ‘earned’ his stripes the same way Dash has. Which is a totally normal and relatable way to feel. What does this tell us about the characters? Dash is competitive and has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Then I ask myself, what is a good contrast to that? What if Nate was kind of oblivious to all that? What would make you oblivious? Maybe Nate just believes the best of people all the time, he’s a genuine and kind person, and he assumes the same of others.
If you’re not into Harry Potter, you can also use Horoscopes or zodiac, Myers-Briggs style personality types, oracle cards, whatever works for you.
Then I look at those characters, recognise parts of myself in both and build on those as well.
Add in some character details which I can bring depth into the characters with, working in contrasts really makes this easy. Dash is a neat freak, so Nate doesn’t really care about mess. Dash eats a healthy, well thought through and locally sources diet, Nate gets a lot of takeaways. Dash has one friend, and everyone else finds him prickly, Nate is a charmer who makes friends quickly and easily.
From there I start writing and let the characters reveal themselves as they go. I keep a document open for notes and have little profiles for each of them I can refer back to.
For characters who are harder to nail down I’ve had luck with character questionnaires before. You can find these by Googling or searching in pinterest. There are a lot of them out there, but they all seem to have questions that I wouldn’t think of otherwise, and even if the stuff you discover never ends up on the page explicitly, it might inform something.
At a recent conference I attended a panel by Jan Goldie about faceblindness and how it informs her character creation. She had folders of information with all the physical and personal details of her characters recorded to refer back to. It was like police records for each character, but included things like what their sense of humour is and who they look up to. I aspire to this level of information, but I’m not there yet.
Also….there’s nothing wrong with borrowing from other characters. Maybe your lead is partly Mr Darcy and partly Clark Kent. Maybe you want to take a tablespoon of Veronica Mars and a half cup of Tahani Al-Jamil and blend them up in a big bowl of Lisa Simpson, I dunno. I’m just saying you have permission to use characters which aren’t totally unique. Don’t copy directly – that’s gross, and people will notice – but it’s okay to make homages with some aspects of your characters.
You don’t have to be a genius Zeus plucking fully formed and utterly original new gods and goddesses out of your brain.
So, those are some of the ways I come up with characters. I also like to mooch around online and find an actor or a model who matches the basic idea of how my character looks as a reference but your mileage may vary on that one.
The point of going deep with all this stuff on your characters before you start writing is that if you know them well, then you know how they’re going to react to things. You’re going to find it easier to write their interactions and responses. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?