There is nothing quite so distracting from writing a draft than the prospects of how much better you could make everything in the second draft.
Which is fine. It’s good to have that kind of thing to motivate you to finish what you’re doing, to have ideas and the energy to use them, and as I’ve said before, this is where note-taking once again proves its worth as a writer’s tool – take those ideas and catalogue them for future potential use. You never know if you’ll need them or not, but it’s far better to give yourself the option.
And then there are the days when this alluring vision of the future becomes so strong, calls to you so insistent and yearning that you start hating what you’ve got so far, because every moment you spend expanding what you know, in these moments, is a steaming pile of biological waste with no future anyway is keeping you from exploring the superior vision in your mind of the way things could be, an instant escape from the drudgery of your present obligations, if only you would put aside propriety and commitment to the task at hand and let yourself have a little fun.
And at the end of the day, that’s all it is: a little fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that – except that it is a distraction, and you’re writing a draft, and writing is …?
Yes, that’s right: it’s WORK. It’s a lot of work. It’s frustrating, it’s upsetting, it’s painful, it’s stiff and stubborn and it’s a constant battle against parts of yourself that you would never face in any other context, and unless you ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ or whatever other masculinised analogy for perseverance you wish to employ, the work will not get done, and that goes for your ‘bit of fun’ as well. And at the end of the day, the reason you started the draft, or the painting, or the drawing, or the screenplay, or the sculpture, or the dance choreography, is because at one point, it too was ‘a bit of fun’, and enough of a ‘bit of fun’ to see if you could make it work. And chances are that this is still the case – it’s just that the honeymoon phase is over, and now the real work begins, and your commitment is being tested. This is the time where you make your biggest decisions with your project – do you bugger off in order to chase after something younger, newer and different? Or do you have faith that you were on the right track in undertaking this thing, and even though things are getting difficult now, that you still are?
This is not an argument against fun; without fun, there is probably no reason to live. I firmly believe that. But that is definitely not to say that work that is not also fun all the time is therefore pointless. This is an argument for finding a balance – a sustainable and practicable balance – between the two, incorporating both, and in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a chore or part of a schedule to have fun, and that you feel like you’re actually accomplishing something when you buckle down to work. Basically, I’m arguing that you need to find what works for you.
It could very well be that your initial idea of ‘how things were going to work’ was made at a point where you lacked the knowledge and experience to make such a decision – or, to be more specific, to make a definitive decision. Having an idea of ‘how things are going to work’ is necessary, even if it turns out later on that it needs to change, because at the end of the day, you need some kind of structure. If it needs changing later on, then that’s because you’re learning about yourself, how you work, under what conditions you feel the most motivated to work and, conversely, the factors that take you away from the work; you’re learning about the balance that your mind and body wish to maintain in order to work healthily, rather than running yourself ragged or, on the flipside, not pushing hard enough to yield any rewarding progress and therefore no sense of accomplishment or personal fulfillment.
It’s like working out. You don’t just want to pump iron every day; for one, it would drive you insane with monotony, and for another, your body actually can’t handle it, at least at first. I only ever went to the gym for a month with any kind of consistency, so I don’t know if that changes. But at the very least, when you’re starting out, you need – let me emphasise that: need – to pace yourself, to protect yourself, to be aware of what your limits are and, rather than trying to break them in a mad dash to the finish (which will not work if you want persistent, long-term benefits), instead just gently expand your limits at a healthy, gradual pace. It is not about ‘getting fit’; it is about keeping fit, and that means that you need to cultivate a sustainable routine for doing the things that make that happen.
With writing, it’s not just about telling the story or writing the chapters; it’s about cultivating good writing habits so that you can keep doing it. That’s why things like a daily writing-quota or a set period of time each day devoted to nothing but writing that one specific project are so important: they are there so that they can become habits, things that you do because your brain is hard-wired to do them, things that you would have to make an effort to stop yourself from doing. Things that you do without even thinking about it. And the important thing is that you work more habits into this than just when you write, or how much you get written during that time, because it’s not just about writing either; you are not a machine, and you need to remember it. You are a person, and you need breaks from work. ‘Work’ is not about enjoyment; it is about accomplishing tasks. It is the accomplishment that is rewarding most of the time, rather than the actual work, so that’s about long-term rewards. But I don’t think that people can thrive on long-term rewards alone, always having to wait and postpone any benefits that they might get from what they’re doing. I also don’t think that you should just aim to do whatever looks like it’ll have the fastest results, because a lot of the time they’re also temporary and you want to get into the habit of being able to look ahead, to build a legacy rather than just going for a quick fix – again, it’s about balance. Have some of both, and work that balance into your routine.
So as you may have gathered, I am not simply spouting wisdom and advice because I have nothing better to do; I’m having trouble with this draft. I am at a juncture of the kind that I have outlined above, and right now there is nothing more than I would like for this whole thing to just be over and done with so that I can move on to the next step that, in my mind anyway, is incredibly appealing.
It is the idea of changing the format of Tallulah from a ‘straight’ novel into more of a collection of episodes. Not a serial, because I don’t want to stretch this story out any more than I already have through resorting to ‘filler’ when I don’t know what to write but I haven’t met my daily quota yet, but the idea of episodes makes a lot of sense for the story I’m trying to tell. And it’s an idea that I like, a lot; it may be my new ‘thing’, using an episodic format for stories, because other than anything else it makes it easier to divide the story up into sections and then focus on each of them individually as more-or-less self-contained short stories. With a project like writing a novel, the smaller the pieces that you can divide it up into, the easier it is to manage when it comes to editing and, indeed, writing, because your focus is framed within clear boundaries.
It might just be due to how I think about the difference between episodes and chapters when it comes to books. Chapters I generally see as somewhat arbitrary points in the book where you can safely put it down and not really need a bookmark to avoid losing your place in the story. Episodes, on the other hand, feel like full, miniature stories that, when taken together, present you with one whole, varied, and hopefully dynamic story; it sections up the content and gives you not just a story, but a story consisting of multiple smaller stories. That’s the idea I’ve got about the difference between these two ways of doing relatively similar things, and it is for this reason that I am so eager to revision Tallulah as an episodic story, rather than just a continuous, run-on narrative, which is what it feels like at the moment; and it’s so tempting that I really am just getting more and more frustrated with the reality of what I’ve got written already, and where it seems like it’s going, because every time I seem to make any progress, it feels like I instantly get blocked again.
Whether or not this is an accurate assessment, I certainly feel that making Tallulah an episodic story would help with this feeling of aimlessness, because it would also force me to be very specific with what I want to happen in the story, and when. I also theorise that it would feel more satisfying upon finishing an episode, because it would be like finishing a story. It’s more up-front planning to do, but it’s also a more manageable and fun-sounding way to do the planning, because rather than trying to just plan out a linear plot, it’s planning out a series of self-contained events that link up to create that linear plot.
But the main reason I like this idea, I think, is because it’s different to what I’m currently doing, which feels like it could be accomplished by slamming my face into the keyboard over and over again and occasionally hitting the space bar until I meet my word-quota for the day, because no sooner do I ‘finally’ write that one chapter that feels like it’s opened up all the possibilities in the world and simultaneously shown me the path to the story that I want to tell than does some new obstacle land right in front of me and cut me off again.
The obstacle right now is a matter of planning, or lack thereof. And it’s not the end of the world, in the grand scheme of things; ideally I would know exactly the story I wanted to tell right from the start and then have written that, but that’s not what went into this story. What’s gone into this story is more than just what I’ve written; it’s also what people have said to me about it, their responses, their opinions and feedback on something that is not just unfinished but totally experimental, which I asked them for. I am now of the firm opinion that all those people who never show their first drafts to anybody have a really good grasp on the situation. But who knows how I’ll feel by the end of it all.
The main reason I kept writing Tallulah to begin with is because people responded positively to the first chapter, and I felt like I’d finally cracked some kind of secret code by writing a female character that real-life female people said read like a believable female character with a believable female perspective and in the end that’s just a very specific kind of praise; I kept writing Tallulah because I was getting praise for it, and it was the specific kind of praise that I wanted. As such, motivated by this, I now think that I may have done something rather silly and tried to write a story for these people who were responding to my work in a way that I wanted them to. And right now – perhaps because of my current frustration, perhaps because I’ve realised something important about drafting, perhaps a bit of both or perhaps something totally unrelated – I’m of the opinion that a first draft is not actually about trying to write at story at all – or that perhaps a first draft is not actually the most useful place to start.
What I think is that what I think of as a ‘first draft’ is actually something that comes after you already know what story you want to tell, a process that you begin when you’ve done some preliminary experiments, just written a bunch of ideas down, not in any particular order, and then had ideas about those ideas, and that this process of note-taking and experimentation is what an actual ‘first draft’ is. But whatever you want to call it, it’s the thing that I feel I missed out on by trying to write a story right from the beginning, because I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what story I wanted to tell, which is why right now it feels like I have so little control over what’s going on.
Or maybe I’m doing it all ‘properly’ after all and the disappointing truth is that this frustration is just one more thing that I’m going to have to learn to deal with in some way, either by just bulldozing right through it, which feels like I’d be missing out on some sort of vital clue my subconscious is trying to give me by setting up this block, or by wracking my brains until the ‘right thing’ tumbles out of my head and onto the page in the form of prose. I don’t know.
And once again, this is something to work into the routine – when writer’s block strikes, have a way of dealing with it. I don’t know what way, but I guess I have to try something and see how it works. At the moment, my method is to write this post, and get this off my chest. It’s sort of worked as well. I think I’m now de-enraged enough to clearly state what the blockage is, and knowing is half the battle, after all …
The main issue I have with what I’m currently writing, the point in the story, is that I’ve set up a bunch of things that I think are interesting, but I don’t have the energy or motivation to write about them all. I only want to expand on one of those things. And seeing as it’s a first draft, I suppose I could do a lot worse than to go with my gut on this one, and just let the other stuff do its own thing for a while until I get back around to it. If I ever do. It does feel like I’m leaving some opportunities unexplored …
But at the end of the day, you don’t need to take every opportunity that you come across; you just need to take the right ones. And since you won’t know until you try, you may as well go with your gut, with the one that appeals to you the most. Just so long as you have a little self-awareness about it as well. Again, don’t just go for a quick fix, or for what you feel you ‘should’ be trying to accomplish with your limited time on Earth. Life is not a story, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell one anyway.
All right. Thanks for reading. Hopefully something in there has been useful to you, or at least a relatively entertaining way to pass a few minutes on the internet; I know it was helpful for me.
Back to the old writing-board.