The Hansel and Gretel Approach: Navigating the Forest of Lampshades

And suddenly I want to write a new book.

There is something very treacherous about writing stream-of-consciousness that I did not really touch upon in my last rant about how great it is and how I wouldn’t trade it for any other process.

And that is the fact that, when ideas come to me in that stream, they sometimes pass me by without my being able to so much as glance at them before they are gone forever.

A lot of the time I end up writing them into the same document as my draft – which I would say is probably bad, though nothing that can’t be made up for. Sometimes the ideas make sense for the story, at least at the time I come up with them. Others, though, I just find fascinating and shiny and want to play with them for a while, so I snatch them up and put them in the closest receptacle to hand: the body of my manuscript. And this is another reason why I think note-taking is a good idea at any part of the writing process.

Some of these ideas end up shaping a fair bit of the narrative of the manuscript, and it can be hard to extract them – or even impossible, if they’re rooted deep enough. Well, no, I shouldn’t say impossible, because of course that’s a lie. You can change anything. But as for whether it’s a good idea or not – well, that’s up to the individual to determine.

Once it starts becoming evident that something like this has happened, though, and the story has been steered down a certain path because of my indulging a spontaneous urge I had to jam a new idea into my established set of mechanical workings because it seemed neat in the moment, and that path ends up being – as is quite often the case – something that actually stops events from taking place in the way I’d wanted them to, I resort to hanging lampshades.

This is what I shall term the Hansel and Gretel Approach to writing a first draft. I go wherever I want, on whatever whim or fancy takes me there, without inhibition, but also always leave a trail of unmistakeable evidence behind me so that I know what I did in the past to inform my situation in the present, and can come back to it in the future, if you want or need to. If I screw something up in my story – and that happens a lot with stream-of-consciousness writing – then I make it as obvious as I possibly can to my future self, the editor, that this has indeed happened, and I do it with lampshades.

For instance: if I happen to make my main character reluctant to do something because I feel that it’s in keeping with her personality at the time, and then later on realise that it’s choked off a very natural-feeling direction to take the story in further down the line, I try to make it very obvious that this is what’s happened. I won’t realise it until the blockage happens, but when it happens, I need to sprinkle some glowing, radioactive breadcrumbs to point it out to my future self. Because if my future self is anything like my past and present self, he has the attention-span of a goldfish with ADHD.

To be honest, revision is a very different process mentally to writing, and so I’m picking up a lot more than what I’d even intentionally tried to lampshade to myself while writing it and discovering how I’d kneecapped myself unwittingly simply because rather than working with a veritable flood of ideas, unpredictable and distracting and inspiring, revision is, while still very generative in its own way, far more static, and much more of my mental faculties can be devoted to analysing the placement of ideas as I’m not (as) caught-up in trying to determine where or if to place them as they smash into me like particles in the Large Hadron Collider and then rocket away again at the speed of light.

I think trying to write stream-of-consciousness without some kind of contingency plan to compensate for the massive overbalance that occurs is folly; I still want a coherent story by the end of this process, so using lampshades as landmarks helps me to see the forest after I’ve finished messing about in the trees. It provides some very informal structure to something that was created with a dynamic, improvised blueprint – a guide to what was done and how it shaped the end product. And that kind of information I find absolutely vital.

Especially today, upon discovering that I had set up this brilliant and organic-feeling interaction between two of the characters and then never followed through with it, and to my delight, hanging there was a lampshade, in fact several, just to let me know. I cannot describe just how helpful that is – helpful not just to me as the editor, but also to me as the writer, because it means that I can still write whatsoever I please in the moment, so long as I keep tabs on what it is that I have in fact written, and how that has affected everything that I wrote afterwards. To the best of my ability, of course.

Spoilt

UGH.

I HAVE SPOILERS.

SO MANY SPOILERS.

And now I’m in a pickle.

On the one hand: the posts I’ve written that include spoilers are mostly fairly easy fixes. There is one – one of the most recent ones I’ve written – that is not an easy fix, though, because the spoilers basically constitute the entire post. And having bits of my story out in the open like this means that, if somebody was so inclined, they could steal them. So I have a very strong compulsion to want to do away with all of these spoilers.

On the other hand: since it’s already out there, if somebody has decided that my ideas are the ones that they want to poach – maybe it’s better to leave this stuff exactly as it is, just in case I need to bring it up in court one day …

😥

I guess that was always going to a danger with this blog; I’m writing about my experiences of writing, and sometimes my experiences, the ones that I want to share with people, pertain to things that I maybe shouldn’t be saying on a public forum like a blog, no matter how badly I want to share the experience. I get it now, though. A little late, sure, and there’s so much I wish I hadn’t done – but oh well.

I guess the other option is to make these posts private and, if not kill two birds with one stone, then at least severely injure them. If they’re private then at least they’re still there as evidence if I need them, which I desperately hope I never do, and perhaps I can post up edited versions of them in order to get across the message I wanted to get across without spoilers. It also means that any newcomers to this blog won’t have everything spoilt for them, or have the potential to spoil it for me.

Ugh.

Well, lesson learnt. I shall think before I publish from now on.

Here’s hoping privacy still means something on the blogosphere …

Birthday Words

It’s my birthday today! Not my one-hundred-and-eleventh, sadly, or perhaps not sadly, as I feel old enough already at twenty-six, but hey, a birthday is a birthday. Lots of crap eaten today, and it’s getting to the point where I actually prefer healthier food. Healthier, mind you.

To sort of follow-up on my little rant about writing advice, I’ve gotten past the halfway point of my revision, and all of the writing advice and tips I’ve accumulated over the years, mostly through osmosis, are finally starting to sound like really good ideas.

The kind of advice I’m talking about is the ‘make index cards of every scene in your story and shuffle them around until they feel right’, or ‘identify what your characters want’ sort of advice – in fact, these two pieces of advice specifically. Basic structural stuff that comes, in my mind, with the stigma of being ‘what you should do’ as a writer. But I have an aversion to starting at this ‘administrative’ step of the process, and I always have. Maybe because my ideas are very stream-of-consciousness and trying to plan them out just bores me, because what I enjoy is the stream-of-consciousness writing for its own sake, and that’s where my ideas for stories come from. Even when they’re rather well-structured or the basic premise comes pretty much fully-formed, my brain still works in the same stream-of-consciousness way, just with clearer, more cohesive bundles of ideas. And trying to put it into shape before it’s even ‘there’ to begin with – or when it’s already in shape – just always felt so invasive to me, like somebody insisting that I do my own thing somebody else’s way. Bad writing advice, basically. And so I tend to write very stream-of-consciousness stuff when I’m inspired to actually write a story through to completion, and that’s been the process with my last two novels.

What I’m finding now, though, is the urge to put all of this advice into practice, now that I have something to work with, something that I’ve been spending the last month or so analysing the structure and rhythm and consistency of; those two pieces of advice in particular sound really useful now, like they never have before, certainly not when I was just starting out. And it wouldn’t have helped, either. I really enjoy writing an entire draft of a novel and then coming back to clean it up; it feels right sequence of events to follow for me. It feels organic and generative. Doing it by trying to ‘pin it down’ first, to me, kills a lot of potential for firing off ideas spontaneously, and without that, I actually don’t know how I could write a story, without generating as many possibilities as I can. I like to know what I’m working with before I start toying around with it – because to be honest, I do like planning, but more often than not if I start off in the planning phase, I never get around to writing the damn thing, forever tinkering and perfecting – and of course, you can always make something better.

And really, that’s just what that advice is trying to tell me, anyway: know what you’ve got before you starting trying to get fancy with it. But I see now that my understanding of what that means is quite different to what ‘most people’ think it means. Which, I’m not going to lie, I rather like. The’ basics’, to me, are the ideas, the stream-of-consciousness concepts and fantasies and tangled, loose ends. I see no point in even trying to ‘clarify’ those until they’re all out in the open and I can see them fully, roots and all, not just the leaves and flowers. Then ‘getting fancy’ is, yes, included in the generation and application of those ideas as they come, but it’s also bringing in the structure afterwards, the ‘rules’, taking the things it seems you’re supposed to do first and instead seeing how I can fit them in with the random mess I’ve produced after I’ve produced it – letting a rat run around with a paint-brush tied to its tail and then trying to build a maze based on the trial it leaves (and taking liberties, of course, to have the maze make sense to your tastes), rather than building the maze before you even think of bringing in the rat. That, to me, sounds like a lot of fun. That sounds creative, and creativity is definitely what I’m after. And most importantly, that is the method that seems to me to be the most productive.

And now that I think about it, that reflects the philosophy of unschooling exactly, the idea of child-directed learning – instead of telling somebody what to do and then having them do it within certain parameters, letting somebody do whatever they want and then building on that – following inspiration, rather than trying to direct it before it even appears. Though even if I hadn’t been unschooled, I think I’d probably prefer doing things this way anyway. And plenty of people who weren’t unschooled – the vast majority of the Western world being included here – still like doing things this way.

Don’t get me wrong; I know a lot about ‘good structure’, and I agree with a lot of it, and a lot of my story ideas follow those rules, or as much as they can in a pre-draft state, while they’re flatting in my headspace. My ideas do tend to follow pretty typical narrative conventions, even when subverting them – you can’t subvert something without knowing what it is you’re subverting, after all (not intentionally anyway). I don’t ever think that I’ll just write one draft of a novel and be done with it; it’s always my intention to come back to it and sculpt it into something more  universally recognisable. But that’s how I finish, not how I start.

What about you guys? I haven’t ever asked for comments on this blog (I don’t think), but no time like the present. Plus it’s my birthday, so why not make this a little different? How do you approach creative projects; what works for you?

Much of a good thing

Too … many … options …!

I just finished another chapter revision, and the signs are pointing me in the direction of making a pretty big change in terms of one of the characters. In that they do not die in the current draft. But I … I just …

It just feels like they should …

I have all of these horrible, poetic, ironic implications that concern their death as pertains to Tallulah …

And I just …

I just want to do it.

I just want to make it so.

All right. I’ll do it. That character is so dead.

Yep.

Hmm.

I’m not changing my mind like I thought I would …

Ah, there we go; back to the options menu!

I love having options, and I hate having options, because at some point I’ll have to settle on one. It’s such a drag.

Without this drastic change, though, the chapter I just revised serves next to no purpose in the story whatsoever. Yay.

There’s good stuff in it. There’s a big confrontation and it feels horrible and painful and awkward and that’s good, that’s how I like my confrontations – but it just doesn’t matter. It’s fun to read on its own, but it’s not on its own; it’s part of the overall story and it just doesn’t … do anything.

Maybe other people will think differently, and I know I am not in the most critical mindset tonight, as today has been frustrating, simply because I don’t feel like I got anything done – or didn’t until I finished that chapter. Gonna power through the rest of them over the next few days. I feel like I can finish it on the 26th, spend my birthday reading feedback, and then get straight to making a plan of attack for draft 2. Which I hope will be really fun and hectic and challenging in all the right ways.

And that’s about it, really.

Thank Odin for tangential notes …

When a plan comes together

8 chapters down, 20 to go.

This particular part of the manuscript is one that I have had lots of thoughts about ever since I wrote it, because it was shown to people immediately after it was written, and I got a lot of feedback on it. Namely that the chapter I just made notes on didn’t come soon enough in terms of pushing the story forward, and I would have to agree. Thankfully, though, the chapter itself is actually pretty good, because while reading it, even though there were a few notes to make, it just felt like an actual story was taking place, and that is unspeakably gratifying as a storyteller, to find that somewhere in this first attempt of mine there is actually a story to be found, and it feels like a ‘real’ story, something that I recognise as a reader, as a movie-goer, whatever – it feels the same as it would with any published story. And seriously, that feels amazing. I feel like I now have certified proof that I have done something right.

I’m going to try and ramp up my progress from here on out. I want to get started on draft 2 by my birthday, which is the 27th, so that gives me twelve days to make my own notes, read other people’s feedback and digest it, and then make a plan for draft 2. Obviously I’m not going to stick to this time-frame if it sabotages my work, but it’s my goal. I need some good old-fashioned deadline pressure.

It’s so close now!

I was so excited about getting started on draft 2 near the end of draft 1, and then when I first started revision, and the excitement has gone, but I know that it can still come back. It is very difficult to keep myself from planning things right now, so I am very glad that I have actually been taking notes this whole time to scratch that itch while not jeopardising my focus on this revision. 20 chapters is a lot of chapters, after all. I’m still a ways off.

I think I’ll try NaNoWriMo this November, just to see how it feels to get a draft of a novel done in a month. Or is it a whole novel? I can’t remember. It sounds like fun, anyway. I actually signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo but then chickened out (plus wanting to focus on revising this novel), so my hope is to have draft 2 and maybe even 3 done before November so that I can kick back and have fun with something different.

For now, though, I can see a story, and it makes me feel like what I spent a year doing last year was actually worth it. Just want to keep momentum now so that the feeling remains and I don’t have time to get discouraged.

Onwards and forwards.

Doing what Works

So I just finished revising a chapter after two days of inactivity.

I looked at all of these articles in my Tumblr feed about writing and overcoming procrastination and perfectionism, both of which I have a very high statistical likelihood of enacting. This one in particular was very useful, and there was one piece of advice that resonated with me: start small, because you need to build back up. And I remembered that incident with me doing my workouts after like a month and a half of no physical activity and then feeling like I was going to cry, vomit and die for the next quarter of an hour while sitting in a near-unconscious heap in the shower. And remembering that I vowed to take better care of myself, specifically so that this sort of thing would not happen again. Because it’s not worth it, no matter how much of a rush your inner critic – which is still a part of you – gets out of berating your shortcomings.

So I decided, instead of doing my intended three chapters of revision, instead of even one chapter of revision, I would start small.

I would make one note.

I would open the document, and the first note that I made would be my entire workload. And that would be that.

An hour or two later, and that one note was followed by a whole lot of extra-curricular notes, and the chapter has been critiqued. As fate would have it, it was a fantastically rewarding chapter to critique and read, because it presented me with a scenario that I have come across in too many texts to count: seeing what the main character should be like and enjoying that version of them so much that the one presented on the page feels disingenuous. And it’s almost always that the character on the page is being presented as a Goodie, when the more satisfying version of them is, in fact, a bit of a tool.

Or, in Tallulah’s case, in this chapter, a huge bag of tools.

And I loved it. I loved discovering this side of her, discovering that I liked it as much as I did, that I was able to identify it in something that I myself wrote and not just in things that other people have written, because it made me feel … not unbiased, but it framed my bias differently to how I’d been thinking about it beforehand. I had always wanted Tallulah to be a ‘grey’ character, and this chapter has given me enough motivation to write a whole other story if I want to. But I want to write this one, and if this version of Tallulah, interesting and viscerally gratifying as she is to imagine, does not work in it, then I will not try to shoehorn her into it. I hope.

But the best thing about this toolbag character I discovered was that it made so much sense. It’s like watching Disney films as an adult, seeing all of the confrontational and messy directions that they hint at but never follow through; they just feel so right. (Especially Beauty and the Beast.) Or imagining what Twilight could have been if the characters were actually meant to be horrible toxic people and Meyer had followed through with it. I think that story, while depressing, would have been freaking awesome. And in Tallulah’s case, it sets her up so nicely for a huge cathartic redemption story, if I can do it right. Which I can. Perhaps not on the first try, but this set-up is so wonderful that I won’t be able to live with myself if I can’t find an equally wonderful payoff. It’ll be worth taking the time to get it right.

So I like this new strategy for now, because I am so very, very out of shape as a reviser right now: just do one note. That’s it. I found tonight, and starting at like 1am, that I couldn’t bear to leave it at just one note, but it took the pressure off, and I just did the rest of it because, for one thing, the chapter was awesome to read through and analyse, and for another, it was that whole ‘well, so long as I’m here’ thing. And if I had only done that one note and then stopped, that’s one more note that I can tick off the list.

Not that there is a list. I imagine that would be a horrible way to revise.

And the moral of the story is: do what works for you. Because then whatever you do will always work.

Knowledge-bomb deployed.