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?