Learning the hard-but-awesome way

I don’t think I’ve talked about my Fantasy Epic on this blog before, at least in any depth.

I have a Fantasy Epic.

Well, I had a Fantasy Epic.

See, after roughly 10 years of it just not coming together past chapter 3, after 10 years spent revising and adding and forgetting crucial details about plot and character and setting as they were submerged by my latest influx of useless junk acquired during my zeitgeist-chasing career, I realised that, if I ever wanted to work on anything creative and bring it to completion, I had to give up on it, because it had become an all-consuming distraction, and even a mild addiction. I was not short on influences; I had the opposite problem – I had no screening criteria, basically, no cut-off point, and that was because I actually just didn’t know what I wanted to do with this idea, when it got right down to it. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why, but I knew that if I looked any deeper than that, I would realise that, as far as trying to tell a story was concerned, I was simply participating in the grandest, most elaborate form of procrastination that I have ever committed as a writer, and as such these 10 years were spent in various stages of denial. It had massive sentimental value to me, but it wasn’t because it was any good as a story – it was because, after all the time and energy I’d put into it, I needed it to mean something. I needed it to validate me, and so I tied myself to it, and that is part of why I had such a horrible self-image as a teenager. I think this is a fairly common thing that writers do when they are both young and not actually remotely clear about what it is that they want to do – I’m picking on young writers here primarily because of my own experiences, seeing as my youth was spent attempting to make up for my perceived shortcomings by copying what other people were doing, and that went for writing as well, until I was about 19. And one of these spheres of influence was that of videogames.

I think any writers who are also gamers can tell you that the two practises do not exactly compliment one another; you can’t compare playing a videogame to reading a book, because with a book you aren’t controlling the action – a book isn’t about you. A videogame, on the other hand, is all about you, your decision-making, your focus, your attention, and it all has immediate feedback (if it’s a good game), so it’s easy to get wrapped up in that and lose energy for being generative when it comes to creative pursuits, because all of that creative energy goes into playing the game, at least if you’re enjoying it.

Videogames are traditionally like this because of two things. One: the developers want you to play the game, so they design the game to be as rewarding to invest in as possible. Two: games are kinda long. I mean books take a while to read as well, but you’re not getting the same level of stimulus in the same period of time; with a book you’re filling in blanks that words just can’t quite manage – sensations, emotions, aesthetics, geography, the passage of time – whereas a videogame not only fills in all of those blanks, but uses your input to help accomplish it; a videogame relies on you to make the action happen, to drive it forward, and as such it requires a far higher level of commitment and investment on your behalf as a player. You need to strategise, to innovate, to pace yourself, to look for clues, to acquire new tools and modify your existing ones to suit the challenges ahead, or the story won’t get told – you’ll get a Game Over screen and have to do it all over again. That doesn’t happen in a book; there is no consequence to stopping reading, no ‘failure state’ – you can’t really fail to read a book unless you decide you’ve had enough of reading it. A book will not visit failure upon you, has no mechanics that can possibly do that, while videogames are designed with expressly this kind of mechanic in mind, most of the time. Videogames drain you of your generative resources – and that’s fine if it’s a game you’re enjoying, but in the end it’s time and energy that you’re spending plugged into somebody else’s creativity rather than exercising your own. Creativity is like a muscle; it needs to be exercised, and in this analogy, playing videogames has the same kinds of health benefits as eating McDonald’s.

Now that’s not to say that us creative types can’t benefit from playing videogames at all; some videogames tell good stories and have good characters, and because videogames rely on functionality, us fantasy authors can see some examples of, for example, magic systems and, more than that, test them out for ourselves to see how they work.

I am a recovering magic-system-building addict. If there was a Magic-System-Builders Anonymous, I would probably have founded it. I love systems, and I love rules, and the act of constructing a magic system as a fantasy writer and gamer is a perfect fusion of two skillsets to meet two different needs in one activity. My rule-creating skills were particularly honed during the two years I was into Dungeons and Dragons, but videogames in general will foster the pursuit of system-building in anybody with a penchant for it, because interaction with functional, mechanical systems is at the core of all gaming experiences, computer/video-based or otherwise, and I transferred these skills onto both writing and system-building, and since I liked to write fantasy, and played mostly fantasy-genre videogames, creating magic systems for my own stories seemed like the perfect excuse to feed this particular habit of mine. But much like playing videogames, constantly creating systems and rules takes energy away from telling stories, from the interpretative side of narrative, and this system-building habit of mine has probably been the biggest obstacle to my progress as a writer, emphasising mechanics over narrative because that’s what I knew how to do – or at least it was, but I’ll get to that later.

The other thing about my magic systems is that, specifically with regards to my Fantasy Epic, I have this overwhelming urge to ‘correct’ every other magic system I’ve come across, the ones that tend to fall apart upon closer inspection, and rely utterly on willing suspension of disbelief to take seriously – at least if you’re a rule-nerd like I am. I have this need to know the inner workings of magic systems; I need to know that it’s reliable, and that it’s being used effectively, otherwise I will feel that the storyteller is not doing their job properly, because they’re leaving huge, obvious loose ends that can seriously challenge my willing suspension of disbelief. And this is something that translated pretty well into studying Arts and Majoring in English and Sociology; I am driven to examine and critique norms, rules and systems, to deconstruct them to see if they should work, given how they are used, and so often it’s the things that a system is not used for more than what it is used for that reveal its weaknesses – take The Force for instance, an instant I-Win button that none of the characters ever use, even the bad guys – and as a result of this need to deconstruct and justify, I wanted a system that was so thoroughly-designed that no amount of scrutiny could pick it apart, and my zeal distracted me from the task of telling stories – and in the end, magic in a story really is only as useful to the story as its contribution to that story. But as far as I’m concerned, this shouldn’t mean that mechanical soundness has to go out the window, and in fact, if we’re talking fantasy, and subsequently talking Monomyth, by and large, then symbolism is key, and the mechanics of magic can be even more powerfully symbolic if they’re also structurally sound.

In the end, though, and actually not very long at all after the beginning, this Fantasy Epic of mine ended up as dumping-ground for these kinds of desires – the desire to one-up the hard work and success of other fantasy authors whose ideas I felt fell flat on a mechanical level under scrutiny, and as such it was a project of copying and correcting other people’s work, rather than producing something that was truly my own. It overpowered what plot there was and turned the characters into postmodern pastiches with no grounding in the story, because there was no story, only critique and copy-pasting of ideas other people had come up with. And so I had to give up on it; and the great irony is that the magic system never worked the way I wanted it to.

What I didn’t realise was that in attempting to ‘fix’ all of these other systems, I had come up with what I wanted the system to do, but not how it did it, or what kind of limiting factor was in play to give it some kind of credibility – because the idea had never occurred to me. And it was just for this specific project, because I’ve got other magic systems that work fine within the stories that they’re in. I never considered that, for this story, I had to have a story-driven reason for having the magic system work a certain way, and since I was using this project to ‘fix’ literally every single mistake I’d ever seen in a magic system – in every magic system – that reason was not contained within the story itself (which, again, was a hodge-podge of collected and stolen ideas from unrelated media texts I’d come across, such sources ranging from Harry Potter to The Matrix to Dragonball Z to Tori Amos songs), but with my own agenda as an audience-member and critic. I learned the hard – and long – way that having a story that’s nothing but a disguised effort of trying to ‘fix’ every single other story out there is not a story worth reading, because it has nothing to offer on its own merit – you can just go to those other stories and draw your own conclusions.

And so the Fantasy Epic was cancelled, and what fell out of it gave me tons of inspiration for other, coherent and fulfilling story-seeds, and I finally got to let go of that horrible failure of a magic-system that, for ten years, I’d been insisting had to work. But coming up with this new magic system, while I’d promised myself that I could just ‘have this one’ and not try to attach it to anything, also triggered some old habits, and for better or worse I started experimenting with placing it in the setting of the defunct Fantasy Epic.

And it started to stick. And as a result, despite myself, I began to wonder if I might, maybe, have found a way into getting my Fantasy Epic going again.

All I needed was a plot.

Then other day, I watched one of my favourite YouTubers, Day9, playing a critically-acclaimed and pretty much universally-beloved indie videogame called Journey, which takes around two hours to complete if you’re not racing through it. It is a gorgeous game, both in technical terms – it looks and sounds wonderful – and in terms of the feelings that it evokes, the emotional connection that it elicits from the player – or, in my case, the viewer. I think that even if I had played Journey myself I would not have felt the same kind of creativity-drain that I feel with most games, for one because it’s so short, but for another because it’s so interpretative in its presentation – there is not a word of dialogue, nor a single written word outside of the title screen and end credits. All that there is is scenery and the action of the characters, and, of course, the journey that the game takes you on; it is a very new way of telling a story through the medium of videogames, and as such I don’t think that it can even be judged the same way as other videogames when it comes to looking at how it affects a person’s creative drive through playing it. This games seems genuinely generative, and that’s exciting to me, as somebody who was ready to swear off videogames altogether for the fact that, traditionally, they are so creatively vampiric.

Having said that, I do think that being one step removed from the action was helpful – I enjoyed watching the playthrough because the game tells a very emotive and interpretative story, and because I wasn’t playing the game myself, I had the opportunity to take the game’s story and use it as a wall to bounce ideas off of, and because Journey takes place mostly in a desert, I found myself thinking of the obligatory desert in my Fantasy Epic, and the visual and experiential design of the game’s world, the way the player interacts with the environment, gave me a whole ton of ideas for developing that concept and turning it into something new. I could actually tell a story with this idea – and of all things, I could tell part of a Monomyth with it, the quintessential Fantasy formula! I watched the game, soaked up the visuals and ran with my emotional and imaginative responses to what was happening on-screen, and the sands of my abandoned Fantasy Desert started shimmering with the promise of a story to be told.

But the proverbial oasis in this scenario was that I realised that the magic system I’d come up with actually helped to tell the story, and not only that, but was integral to telling the story, because of how it worked mechanically.

The rule-nerd in me squiggled with joy.

This is huge for me. The Fantasy Epic in question was a part of my life for almost half of it, a major part; it was my hobby, my career plan, my diary, my therapy, my coping mechanism, my escapist fantasy – it was everything except for a story, and perhaps it was never meant to be a story. Perhaps that’s the reason why it never worked as a story – it was never designed to be one. But whether or not the Fantasy Epic itself comes back to life through this latest development in my system-building legacy, this is still a huge stepping-stone for me as a writer, and as a fantasy writer in particular. I’ve found a way to combine my love of system-building in mechanical terms with my love of rule-following – and bending – in storytelling terms; I’ve found a synergy that I’ve been looking for almost for half of my life, and not only that, but it’s even a chance to possibly resurrect a story that I’d given up on, to find a use for all the time and effort I’d put into it other than just ‘learning the hard way’. And maybe it won’t work that way, and if not, that’s fine. But the fact that there’s even a chance is really validating. It tells me that all of that work wasn’t for nothing – it almost certainly won’t be what I originally wanted it to be. It’ll be better. It’ll be a story.

And it’s all thanks to two things that used to utterly drain my storytelling energies. This is like alchemy. These three things – storytelling, gaming and magic-system-building – seemed inimical to one another while I was growing up, and yet now they’ve somehow come together to help me create something I thought was impossible, because of how each of its components proved to repel one another in my previous experiences of trying to put them together. Part of why it’s worked now is undoubtedly because I’m more settled in myself as a person, so part of the recipe was simply time. But I also couldn’t have gotten this result without realising what was going wrong and working to address it – and in doing so, I had to give up devoting my attentions to things that I really enjoyed doing. Now I can do both, and for mutual benefit, and the result feels gestalt. Sometimes you just need a shift in focus for a while, and to commit to it – and when you come back, you may just find that you’ve stumbled upon a creative adhesive that literally did not exist before. You may happen upon the seed of your Magnum Opus.

As for videogames – well, I’m happy to just watch for now. Perhaps others will follow Journey’s lead and give us creative types something generative to play with, something that doesn’t make us feel guilty for not working on our own creative projects. But I’m glad that I ran across this game, because without it, I may never have gotten this … what, fourth chance? I think so. This fourth chance at making this Fantasy Epic into a ‘thing.’ And again, maybe it’s not meant to be a thing at all. But still, I’ve got something here, whatever form it ultimately takes, and I couldn’t have gotten there without being a rule-nerd and system-building addict, or a person who watched other people play videogames on YouTube, or somebody who spent 10 years of his life trying to force a story that wasn’t a story to work before finally giving up, or somebody who realised that they needed to focus more on storytelling.

Don’t go ‘all or nothing’ – just go ‘all’. It doesn’t have to be ‘all at once’ – and in fact, if you do that, you might miss out on learning a few things. Or, at least, you will learn different things.

But hey. So long as you’re learning.

And with that, at long last, it’s time to start thinking about reading through Tallulah, and seeing what I can make of that. Eep.

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Ruling it out

As time goes by and my commitment to the Interim Projects slowly but steadily leaks out of my ears, I feel that it may be fitting to talk about something that I have struggled with a lot: rules.

I like rules. I like any systemic means of rating the validity of an undertaking, a set of constraints that serve to distinguish a thing from some other thing, to contain and standardise it and make it coherent – to give it identity, and to make it easy to control, to define, to understand.

But when it comes to telling stories, there are so many sets of rules to choose from that the suggestion that you need to pick one to begin with can be not just daunting, but insulting, because they’re all arbitrary – they’re optional. The idea that there can be a right way and a wrong way to tell a story rubs a lot of writers the wrong way, and I was – and am – no different. But what I’ve come to learn is that this is not what rules are actually there for. What rules exist to do is to ensure that the subject that they concern is coherent and understandable, because they provide a systemic means by which the subject can be identified, scrutinised and controlled. Yes, they absolutely can be used for more political purposes, and so often are – just look at religion – but at the end of the day, just because there isn’t an objectively right or wrong way to tell a story does not mean that rules are worthless.

A story, according to the internet, is an incident or series of connected events that are narrated – action is what defines a story from a description or statement. ‘The sun rose’ is a story; ‘the sun is yellow’ is a description. And that low, low threshold for entry is all that definitively makes a story a story. After that, everything is fair game. (I’m not sure if ‘the sun is rising’ is a story or a description, but since it doesn’t denote action, merely something that is being stated, I’m going with description.)

When I was younger – not much younger – I saw people who ‘played by the rules’ as lazy and untalented, because they needed to look to a set of arbitrary rules made up and legitimised by somebody else in order to tell a story, and it seemed to me that all that could be stopping them from instead relying on their own talent and creativity was the fact that they didn’t actually have any. I imagine that this had something to do with being unschooled from age 6, which kind of makes you an instant hipster, as you are definitively ‘not mainstream’, especially not the way that you learn.

What I saw as mindless sheep begging other people to tell them how to think instead of doing it themselves, however – well, let’s be honest; some people do use rules to compensate for a lack of originality, talent, energy, initiative, or whatever – there is no one reason, but the point is that rules can be used as ‘crutches’. But what I’ve come to realise is that the rules of storytelling, while utterly arbitrary and optional in the grand scheme of things, aren’t simply shackles used to oppress the masses so that no ounce of creativity or originality can ever exist. Because the fact that there are so many of them means that you have that many different ways to examine your own work, to see how it fits within certain established parameters, and to gain understanding about it that you may not otherwise have done. Not ‘definitive’ understanding, not the be-all and end-all kind of understanding that many people do rely on Rules to provide, to their detriment when it comes to something as personal and subjective as storytelling or art in general, but definitive in the sense that rules exist specifically to define – if you take your story and apply the rules of the Monomyth to it, for instance, you can see how it does or doesn’t fit into that set of rules. And what I used to think was that the idea behind doing this was to see whether your story was Good or Bad. And I know that so many people believe that and buy into it, and I still absolutely hate that, because it discourages independent thinking, which is required for creativity and originality. But all that it’s doing is telling you, when you run through the checklist, whether or not your story is Good or Bad in terms of being the kind of story that this specific set of rules can tell you it is – which is only one kind of story.

The other thing about rules and playing by them is that, actually, it can be a lot of fun. Anybody who’s ever played (and enjoyed) a game can attest to that; for me it was Dungeons and Dragons that really hooked me on this idea of rules, because they provided the framework for a lot of creativity within their parameters. Understanding the rules, and more importantly, the same rules as everybody else, gives you the opportunity to have your work recognised and understood instantly by an audience, and appreciated for its adherence to the rules – you can get competence, and you can develop a specific skillset that has practical application, which is pretty much always a source of self-esteem if nothing else. Look at Star Wars, LOTR or A Wizard of Earthsea for examples of this with the Monomyth. Obviously it can go wrong; just knowing it isn’t the same as being able to do it well, but sometimes it is done right, and if you know the rules inside and out, if nothing else you can geek out rather happily at the results.

But the other part of this adherence to the rules is that by coming to understand how they work, you can play with them, twist and tweak them a bit and come up with something totally new. Knowing that other people invest in the rules gives you an advantage if you decide to go the subversive route, because you can catch them off-guard so much more easily. Hence we get awesome texts like Ruby Sparks, The Magicians, and almost anything by Joss Whedon, stories that play with certain sets of rules that people all instantly recognise and thus have certain expectations of, which makes playing with these expectations all the more effective, not to mention fun. (In fact even LOTR plays with this, though some people would say that the ‘playing’ is resorting to a Deus ex Machina, which I think depends on whether you want to take LOTR literally or symbolically. But that’s another debate altogether.)

And then you can toss any set of widely-understood rules out the window completely and write Alice in Wonderland. But even Carroll was operating by rules; they just weren’t rules that anybody really knew about except for him. What we do know is that he had the intention to essentially conduct a metacritique on the kinds of moralising children’s stories of the period because he detested the trend (and then went on to write what amounted to religious indoctrination in the form of a children’s book), but other than that, at least going by the kind of analysis that has been conducted on the story, he seemed to be operating purely on an internal set of rules. And obviously the story is readable, and compelling, and very enjoyable, but it is also – as intended – nonsensical, because it does not fit into any preconceived notion of what a story is supposed to be – except, pretty much, for the fact that it is a series of connected events that are narrated. It is a story on a technicality, but that’s only because no rules existed or do exist now that can tell us what kind of story it is, not because it isn’t a story.

I am not trying to say that Alice in Wonderland came out of nowhere or was an act of literary genesis or that it was conceived in a vacuum; Carroll’s internal ruleset came from his life experience, which was defined at least in part by his place in his culture and society, so obviously he understood things more or less the same way as everybody else, and that included how to identify and tell a story, even if he wasn’t a literary scholar or an expert on narrative devices. And he didn’t have to be in order to tell a good story, and one that millions of people still resonate with today, and nobody else has to be an ‘expert’ in any set of pre-established rules in order to tell a good story, either.

And this is how I think of ‘the rules’ today: useful for certain reasons, but not necessary in order to tell a good story, so long as you meet the absurdly low threshold for entry. After that, the ‘rules’, the formulae and templates, the Monomyths and Bildungsromans and rom-coms and what-have-you, are almost negligible except for marketing purposes, unless you expressly want to tell a certain type of recognisable story. And even if you do, there’s no reason why you can’t choose to do some cherry-picking from many different sets of rules, so long as they all work to compliment each other in the telling of your story, which I imagine would take some experimentation, seeing as not all systems are very compatible, at least at first glance or in their entirety.

So play by the rules if you find it fun and rewarding, and play with them or utterly disregard them for the same reasons. If you do want to try and get published, it bears remembering that most people like familiarity in their stories, and hence why things like the Monomyth spring up and are relied on so commonly for structuring stories – it sells. And just because you’re ‘following the crowd’ doesn’t mean you can’t also stand out from it; in fact you probably won’t get anywhere if you don’t. In the end, the most important rule for telling story is that you tell it, whatever it is, however you want to tell it, in whatever way it works for you to tell it.

Avatar divorce

Interim Projects are starting to happen.

Thus far, all I’ve done is write a 2839-word ‘trailer’ for one of them. The story is something I came up with when I was 15 and The Troubles were happening, and I was so disillusioned with my life and my writing that I had to invent a whole story just to express it, which was called Lentherone. It was basically what Narnia would have been like for an angst-ridden teenager with an ambivalent relationship with their best friend and family and absolutely no direction in life, written by an angst-ridden teenager with an ambivalent relationship with their best friend and family and absolutely no direction in life.

This was also one of two of my Author Avatars that I’ve come to loathe over time; I do technically have a third, though she’s distinct enough – more or less – to count as an actual stand-alone character, and I’m going to be looking very critically at Tallulah to see if she’s fallen into the same morbid mire as these entities.

I hate Author Avatars in general, unless they help to tell a good story, and that is rarely the case. Sajen, my first ‘official’ Author Avatar (the very first was a quasi-superhero called Professor Jason, he had rollerblades and a cape and his entire head looked like a hedgehog whose spikes had been trimmed into a Mohawk), was more or less the Good version of Sean, the protagonist of this Teen Narnia story – they were both me, but while Sajen embodied everything that I wanted to be, Sean embodied everything that I thought I was, and being 15 and thus nobody understanding me, what I thought I was amounted to a boring angst-bucket with some humour that derived from both this and being genre-savvy. The story excited me, until I brought my at-the-time best friend into it and gave him an Avatar of his own, and things went downhill from there, because, trying to be true to life, his Avatar had to be to mine what my friend was to me – just a better version of me who people actually liked.

So, having ruined my own self-indulgence by trying to be ‘authentic’, I stopped writing the book, and though I tried to resurrect it with my female AA, named Janine, it didn’t quite work out. But I’d always wanted to find a way to make it work, because even if I couldn’t execute it quite the way I wanted at the time, there was something about it that resonated with me.

Then, last year, I seemed to start making progress. I realised that I had tried to take my own angst out of the story, but the thing is that the story was entirely founded on that angst to begin with, and so even though I was motivated by trying to make it less of a self-insert vanity project, the end result was that the entire story lost its core, its central theme. I was also worried that if I tried to re-create that angst, I would have an emotional relapse or something. As it turned out, though, I was not only able to re-create the angst, but also found that it felt almost entirely alien to me – it was like drawing on somebody else’s memories. And on that strength, I went back and finished the story. It was all done in one chapter; it was meta, it was intentionally existential and self-deprecating and intended to be funny because of it, and most importantly, to be anti-climactic, because I like critique and satire. And I realised that this was what was missing from the original – self-awareness. Self-deprecation was there in overabundance, but now, ten years later, I could finally see myself through a lens – and I could even start to see Sean as his own character. And that was the missing ingredient.

Thus, without planning it, this became one of my Interim Projects – seeing if that idea could be turned into something. And yesterday, it seemed to all come together.

I just did a ‘one shot’ summary of the story, using Sean as a narrator, and I liked this exercise as lot – it could certainly do with some work, but it was a chance for me to focus on key plot-points, narrative structural  integrity, and finding a character’s voice all in one. And the end result was that I ended up finding things about Sean that, actually, were rather unlike me.

And that was so exciting, so validating, that I may actually try and write this story right away after I’m done with Tallulah.

I have never taken an Author Avatar and successfully transformed them into a stand-alone character, and this seems like a chance to do that. Obviously I don’t think that I could ever write a character who I didn’t understand – which is not to say that I’d have to understand them as a person; I’m sure I could write a stereotypical Dark Lord because I understand that particular stereotype, for example – so inevitably something of myself is going to end up in their cake-mix, and that goes for all storytellers whose stories involve original characters. But there’s a difference between that and Bella Swan. And I do think that Author Avatars can be effective in their own right, but when they’re not, they could still be fine as a starting-point to evolve from.

So that’s one Interim Project down, and a potential story-seed planted. It’s doing what I wanted it to do: making me get concise and focused on specifics, and on cutting out the clutter. Seeing as my next step with Tallulah is editing, that’s exactly what I want.

Today has been slightly less productive, but there’s still time. Now I just have to decide whether or not I can live with myself if I write fan-fiction.

To the limit

I have set a date to get started on the editing for Tallulah: the 4th of March shall be the first day of resumed activities. With luck on both my side and that of my fantastic Beta Readers, all feedback shall be returned to me by the 25th of this month of February so that I have the opportunity to ruminate over it and attain that wonderful elixir known as Outside Opinion. It also keeps me from getting too complacent, or from losing too much momentum – I definitely needed the time off, but I also feel myself pulling back from all the progress I’d made through writing the draft, like a wave dragging itself back into the ocean after rolling ashore. So I need to strike while the iron is hot, while also giving my arms a rest. It’s a precarious balance, and thus the time-limit comes back into play – not for dictating an end, but a beginning, which is far friendlier a prospect, at least in this situation.

I also have to get around to reading the draft myself and making my own notes, which I want to do before I read anybody else’s, and that idea is really quite frightening. I think I have to approach it like another draft – just write my reactions, whatever they are, and then see what other people thought, and then at the end of it all come up with something that I can use to guide my second draft. I assume that’s the intelligent thing to do at any rate. Doing things you have no idea how to do ‘properly’ requires mistakes; all I have to do is be willing to make them, so that I can learn from them. I do know that this, at least, is the ‘right way’ to do things.

In the meantime – those Interim Projects may be more trouble than they’re worth. Every time I’ve tried to make myself write them, despite having plenty that I want to say through them, despite really like the premises and the ideas, it just feels like a chore – like it’s taking me away from something that I need to be doing, and more importantly, want to be doing, instead. But today I’m going to do an experiment, and make a start on every single one of them. Today is going to be a day of beginnings – not of endings, not of ‘following through’, but of generation, of production.

One of the issues with the Interim Projects is that, by and large, they are projects that I want to have at least as much time as I did with Tallulah in order to do justice to – and they probably aren’t as well-suited to being Interim Projects as they could be for that reason, because a lot of them are just Projects that I put on hold while I drafted Tallulah, and now that I’ve committed to continuing that process, I don’t want to interrupt myself.

But I can still come up with ideas, with premises, and see how they feel while I’m waiting for feedback. That does not require a huge deal of commitment, while still offering me an opportunity to burn energy and keep the ball rolling.

It’s kind of the idea of having a ‘pattern’ with a story – it needs to dip and dive, to rise and fall, otherwise it’s all very one-note and it feels much less impactful. Much like how the Helm’s Deep sequence in LOTR would have driven people insane without the odd cutaway to other things happening, my current theory is that, if you’re drafting, you can’t just keep writing meaningful, important things that Need To Get Done all the time, otherwise it’ll all become horribly monotonous and you’ll stop caring. The old adage of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ does not just apply to a subject; it also applies to how one experiences that subject. It’s why trying to ‘fill the void’ never works; you try taking the habits that applied to one thing and were part of why you liked it so much and tacking them onto something else in the hopes of making it a fitting substitute, when the truth is that you don’t need a substitute – you need the original, or you need something entirely different. This is assuming that the original was something – or someone, as is often the case – you do actually sincerely like and that works for you by being part of your life. So I can’t just be telling stories all the way through all the time, or I’ll go insane from the monotony of always telling stories, and I think that this is what that feeling of hesitation I felt for these Interim Projects was telling me, because they’re almost all stories that I just don’t have time to tell right now. Sometimes, writer’s block can actually be exactly what you need. I need a break. I need something different.

So today, I will structure and then write something equivalent to a first chapter of each of these Interim Projects, or perhaps something more like a summary – something like a film trailer. I have all of these ideas but not the time or will to commit to seeing them all through right now, so I want to flesh them out and make a project out of getting them out of my head in an orderly and generative fashion. Something self-contained, systemic, concise – something to do, but not to keep doing. A collage, if you will, of story-seeds, to be planted now and left to germinate while I go cook a meal with the last season’s crop. It took me two years to decide to try writing Tallulah, and that turned out pretty well if I do say so myself.

And for the Interim Projects that don’t suit the ‘trailer’ format – I guess I’ll do something else with them. Or just leave them.

The point is that I have reached my storytelling limit right now, while not having reached my ideas limit. So I’ll just go with ideas for now. And who knows – I may get some for Tallulah.

If I haven’t already said this, I’ll say it now: if you’re having trouble writing, try to solve it with writing. That is a cardinal rule of Being a Writer – you have to write. Because if you don’t write, how can you be a writer? That’s not to say that you always have to write your Main Project; you can write a blog entry, as I tend to do when I’m all out of creative juice but still have some mileage in the Writing Stuff tank; you can Freewrite, which every single person who has ever considered writing should do at least once, just to see if it’s useful; you can write about not being able to write because you have writer’s block. You don’t have to do anything ‘productive’ – you just have to write.

And so, that’s what I’m going to do.

The nising organ

This is a very important organ to keep healthy when you are a writer and have many different things to focus on in terms of writing.

I’m not talking about multiple projects; I’m talking about multiple facets of each project you have – drafts, notes, backstory, character bios, emergency rambling/venting/panicking – and having an appropriate place for each of these things is very important. Just like having all of our organs smushed together into one homogeneous mass would not help us very much in terms of functioning, a writer needs specialised areas within which are contained specific functions of writing. And one of these functions, which I almost abandoned last night, which would have been to my detriment, is note-taking.

The thing with the word ‘notes’ is that it’s actually a really broad term for what functions they perform, and in that sense it’s a bit inappropriate. I take notes in a variety of situations:

  • When I’m in the middle of writing and an amazing idea comes to mind that I don’t want to lose 
  • When I don’t know how to approach the bit I want to write and need to generate some options
  • When I realise I need to work out what it is that I’m writing because it actually doesn’t seem to make sense
  • When I think of interesting character-arcs and interactions
  • When I’m freaking out and need to vent
  • When I think of an alternative outcome/meaning/direction to what I’ve written and I’m not sure whether it’ll work if implemented right now
  • When I think what I’ve just written is horrible and need to rectify it so that I feel like I’m not a worthless writer but don’t want to get in the way of the drafting process because I know objectively that this would be a bad thing
  • When I can’t write the story itself and just want to look at backstory or setting or plot or character-motivation or whatever (which usually loosens me up enough to get back to the story)

The thing that they all have in common is that I take notes when my mind is occupied with thoughts that are not the work I’m sitting down to do – writing the manuscript that will constitute the draft. Of course ‘the draft’ does include notes and all the other ‘peripheral’ stuff, but you get the picture. ‘Notes’ are, broadly speaking, anything that is important to your writing performance, whether that’s getting yourself unstuck, or to get an idea or reaction about your writing out of the forefront of your mind so that you feel safe to focus on writing the draft itself. And having a space to panic in safety, without judgment or repercussion, is one of the most important aspects of note-taking for me personally, and I imagine for many other writers as well.

I wrote those notes last night about how horrible my draft was and how to make it all better, and I am very glad that I did – it’s done. Notes are not things that you have to ‘come back to’; they’re things that you write.

And that’s it.

Never look at them again if it serves no purpose; pour over them for weeks on end if that’s what’s helpful – the point is that writing notes serves its own purpose; the purpose of writing notes is to satisfy your urge to write them. That’s an important function, and it’s important to have the capacity to perform each function that is necessary for you to perform as a writer. Different writers need different functions performed, have different particularities, but whatever those functions are, make sure they’re things you have specialised organs to handle the process of.

Using myself as an example: with the first draft of Tallulah, I have a folder entitled ‘Tallulah’. Within this folder, I have several other folders; I have, among others, one for iterations of chapters (if I write a chapter over a number of days, I always create a copy of the document to write from, rather than working from the original, and the same goes for if I have a chapter that I realise I have to re-write some parts of – never throw anything away!), one for finished chapters that I will count towards the completion of the draft, one for character bios and interrelations, one for random ideas I have and can’t be sure of remembering or finding useful later, and one for Emergencies (which is where I wrote my notes last night, because I needed to panic).

Now, for example, the folder that handles both character bios and character interrelations – to be fair, I count them as being part of the same process for a story like this, which is so character-driven in nature that it becomes a bio in and of itself that the only reason there isn’t just one huge document about it is because I want different documents for different character perspectives, or relationships between certain characters that are specific to those characters and not others, but I also don’t really have a devoted folder for character backstory, which I guess I could differentiate for added specialisation – I know that my note-taking needs some work, especially in terms of notes about changes I thought of making but decided to save for later in case they ended up being unnecessary or ‘heat of the moment’ doubts; these are embedded in all sorts of different folders at random, wherever I thought they’d fit best at the time, and that’s something I want to change so that, if I ever do want to find them, it’s easy to do so – listing by date and which chapter they pertain to and so on, so that’s something to do for the next draft.

It’s also part of the reason I haven’t started working on my Little Red Riding-Hood adaptations; I started them years ago and the organs of that project are not quite optimised in terms of their functions. And simply due to the fact that I wanted to jump right in rather than doing preliminary labour, I avoided the project altogether. So that’s why it’s important to have things organised as a writer – it’s not to be a neat-freak, and it doesn’t cripple your spontaneity; it facilitates your creativity by taking the labour out of assigning focus to the various areas that you will end up focusing on while writing. It makes things easier, basically. Yes, it requires work in and of itself, but it’s productive work because of the function it performs: reducing clutter. And if you do it regularly, it’s a net gain in terms of energy saved organising things compared to waiting for ages and doing it all in one go.

So get those organs assigned and organised, if it’s something you’ve been putting off; I’ll endeavour to do that today with LRRH so that one less obstacle is in my way and I get get to work on it, and give myself a distraction. Distraction is so important for focus and perspective; the trick is to use it responsibly and actively – using it, rather than letting it use you.

Because in the end, the trick is to take care of yourself. You have important work to do. Give yourself every advantage that you can in order to get it done.

Sitting still

So my friend Sam and I have started this pledge to write 2k words per day, which was meant to start on Tuesday. I haven’t met the quota – or even contributed to it – for any of the three following days. I had some momentum with writing notes and generating ideas for certain of the Interim Projects, but today I just really wanted to rewrite Tallulah.

Hindsight is 20/20; I have yet to reread the draft and so whatever it is that I’m feeling about it is affected by this lack of perspective, but for all of today I’ve been obsessed with how I could make it better, more streamlined, more crisp – and less … um … I can’t quite think of the word …

Bad, basically. Less bad.

All I’ve been able to think about all day with regards to Tallulah is how messy this draft is, how indulgent, how un-progressive, how ‘not getting it’, how … well, bad. I’ve spent the whole day thinking that it’s bad.

And that’s not helpful; I was at least thinking of how to improve some things that I thought were really weak and regressive about it, but again, it’s all hindsight at this point; I tend to forget each chapter after I’ve written it and moved on to the next one, so who knows how much I’ve forgotten by this point? It also increases the importance of my moving on to these Interim Projects just to take my mind off of things.

But there is this compulsion, this seductive allure to take this mess and map it onto a far more generic and solid narrative. Something a little more YA. Only without the love-triangle, or even a love-line, because I am so sick of that tripe.

Also seeing a post about cliches in YA that should die on Tumblr shook my confidence as well, seeing as I hadn’t eliminated every single issue raised within my own work. So obviously I’m in a very sensitive state right now.

So basically I’m stuck here until I get feedback … back … and can get back to work on Tallulah – until then I need to make do with Interim Projects, and try not to upset myself over how god-awful my storytelling skills are, as evidenced by a first draft, which is not even a story to begin with.

And part of me wants to take copious amounts of notes about all of these ideas I’m having about how to fix what I think is wrong with the draft without having read it, and part of me says ‘no that’s a stupid and uninformed idea so don’t do it’, and the last time I did something like that I ended up taking so many notes that I actually couldn’t focus on the story itself anymore and got bogged down in revisions. True, going to university and not actually having the time to draft didn’t help any, but still, I’d rather ‘write properly’ than take notes, if I have to choose one over the other.

Then again, as Sam literally just suggested, it might give me closure. And note-taking is kind of one of my main principles of Being A Writer. So note-taking it is – practice what you preach.

It’s just …

I mean I do really want this story to work, so this is all natural and stuff. I guess it’s just frustrating not being able to touch it, and knowing that trying to change things right now, before getting feedback and reading over the draft myself, would probably do more harm than good, and so keeping myself from going back to work on it is really agonising. Denial of instant gratification degradation of social mores and values and all that.

Guess I should write something.

It’s a bit of a nothing post, this one. But this blog is about the experience of drafting, and this is part of it: having to put up with nothing happening, and for a very good reason – the big picture. The end product. Long stretches of unbearable but vital un-productivity will have to be managed and negotiated somehow, hence Interim Projects and having two blogs on the go at once and trying to make some videos to put up on YouTube just so that I can say I’m on YouTube and spending all day watching Nostalgia Critic reviews.

So when there’s nothing to do but wait …

Make something to do.

I guess that’s the moral of the story. Because I have to have a moral of the story in every single one of these posts. That’s what being productive means, yes?

Yes.

Glad that’s settled.

Starting a Dialogue

Here’s another Interim Project: writing scripts for a webseries that I want to make.

I’m very much in Tallulah-Mode until Tallulah is finished; that’s my commitment, and it’s why I’m a little hesitant to get started with this project, because it’s a project that, if I do it the way I want to do it, requires other people, requires more than just me and a computer to ‘get stuff done’. It’s also a concept that is very much in the ‘pre-writing’ stage; I have a concept and some general ideas, but I don’t know quite what I want to do with them, what kind of story I want to tell through them – and I certainly don’t know if I can sustain a webseries.

I’m using The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as a template, just because it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think ‘webseries’ – it’s a serial, as opposed to something like Squaresville, which is more of a Sherlock-style recurring mini-series. (And yes, I do think Mary Kate Wiles is awesome.) And I like Squaresville plenty; the writing is pretty great, the actors are, dare I say it, yes I do, fantastic, it’s a high-quality production, but it’s also much more ‘traditional’ – it’s a TV show on the internet. It doesn’t matter a whole ton that it’s online rather than on TV; the medium is not that important. Yes, there are Q&A videos and other ‘behind the scenes’ kind of stuff, and that’s made immediately available because it’s online, and that is certainly taking advantage of the format, but it’s not quite transmedia. And that’s fine, don’t get me wrong; transmedia is not the be-all and end-all of good storytellng in this day and age, and while I do think that Squaresville uses YouTube more like Cable (or what I understand Cable to be, living in New Zealand and not having Cable) than YouTube, the fact is that this show may not have gotten made – or gained a following – without YouTube, and this show is really good, so that would have sucked. So again, while it doesn’t quite sate my dark and burning hunger for example of awesome transmedia storytelling, it’s still good storytelling; but with all of that said, transmedia is what interests me currently in terms of creating a narrative.

I have no idea how long it took them to plan out the transmedia aspect of the LBD, but it’s a pretty massive undertaking. There’s a really damn devoted team working on that show, several writers – and I think that’s the part that freaks me out the most: multiple writers. I want absolute creative control over this thing, because it’s my idea – I don’t think that’s the problem; what I think the problem could well end up being is trying to take on all of this work all by myself and then not being able to keep my own pace. I have no problems delegating work to people I trust – it’s just that I trust very few people when it comes to something that is My Vision, because I’m horribly narcissistic that way. I think you have to be a very generous person to delegate what is essentially Your Responsibility in a creative undertaking to Other People, and I admire the people who can do it, because I assume it’s a lot more practical than trying to do everything all by yourself, especially if I’m using something as prolific and consistent as the LBD and its associated ‘peripherals’; that seems utterly exhausting – but perhaps because of the unique way in which it’s presented I’m conflating the presentation and the production and it’s actually not any harder than ‘traditional’ visual media in that regard …

But in any case, that’s all for the future. Right now, I’m just thinking about scripts, and dialogue. My current feeling is to make this a character-driven story; using the vlog/blog format for the characters and telling the story through social media certainly lends itself to telling a character-driven story, and I have no problem with doing that.

What I have a problem with is writing dialogue that people might actually use in real life.

I’ve talked about this before; I think this is a fear that is less about my inability to do this thing and more about the fact that I just don’t have enough feedback to gauge either way.

And I guess the biggest issue here is that I just don’t pay much attention to the kinds of conversations that I have in real life.

Also, for that matter, I don’t really have many conversations in real life to begin with.

Then again – a vlog isn’t a conversation; a blog isn’t a dialogue: it’s a monologue presented as a dialogue, because it’s addressing The Audience. And seeing as I am a blogger already, and have read blogs and seen vlogs, and considering that I want to use social media to tell this story, I just have to be literate with those formats and I’ll be sweet.

It’s still rather foreign to me. And the idea for this series is that real life does start encroaching and becomes part of the story – just an idea, but it would help if I thought I could do it. So I dunno. Guess I’ll just try writing some vlog-style dialogue.

This is very different to Tallulah as well, so that’s good. Tallulah is character-driven, but this webseries is running on nothing but character at the moment; I don’t have a plot at all. Just a premise and some ideas for a cast. It’s very interesting to be working from that point and wanting, actually, to stay there – I want to see how I get along without a plot at all.

And hey, I do love me some dialogue. Fictional or otherwise.