No seriously I love being a writer don’t give me that look

I should go back through this blog and make a running tally of every time I say something to the effect of “I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing”. Since I feel that way a lot, I’m going to assume it’s an  essential part of being a successful writer.

For the past 5-ish months I’ve been working on these “character maps” for my novel. My thought-process there was that, in the same way that writing out chapter summaries in chronological order and then rearranging them to base a revision on worked for taking me from the draft to the first revision, mapping out the arcs of each of the supporting characters could clarify structural matters – when certain key moments take place in the story, consistency of characterisation, seeing where the dead weight lies, etc. – and take me from the first revision to the second. Sounds great, right?

Well it’s taken me 5 freaking months and I’m still not done. Now to be fair, that is in no small part due to the terrible, soul-crushing semester I’ve had at uni; grades are pretty great on the whole but in terms of actually being a student it’s been terrible. However, that’s no the whole story: it’s just a lot of heavy lifting to carry this plan out at all, and looking back over the notes I’ve made it looks like way too much work put in for way too little reward. So I think at this point the healthiest thing to do, both for myself on the whole and with regards to my novel-revision specifically, is to just call it what it is – a fiasco – and rip it out at the roots, kill this toxic progress before it continues any farther, and start over again now that I’ve got a bit of free time to play with (and if I’m not accepted into Honours, it may be the last batch of free time I ever have before being drafted into the world of office-jobs and flipping burgers) (or, depending on how committed to my post-adolescent anti-establishment attitude I am, living on the street).

My revision plan needs revision. It’s brainstorming time.

 

~~~

Okay. Chapter summaries worked once; will they work again? I don’t think so, simply because the revision I’m working with right now is the product of putting that plan into action in the first place. I’ve already gotten the desired result out of that plan: a more coherent narrative structure. There is definitely room for improvement, but just looking at where chapters come in and what happens in them and shuffling it around isn’t going to be enough this time. I need different information.

The information I need is the role that each event plays (as well as where it happens in the story, so I’ll need to remember to include chapter tags or something, thank Thor I’m using Scrivener). I need to know, specifically, which roles are vital to the story and which are not.

So do I just stick to what I’m doing, but maybe start over and make it as to-the-point as humanly possible? The only thing I don’t like about that is the loss of nuance that comes with looking at character interactions purely as tools used to tell a story; yes that’s certainly their most important function, but conveying a plot is not the same as telling a story.

On the other hand, all of that nuance is taking up a lot of space, and honestly a lot of it is less nuance than internal monologue – through the filter of third-person narration. Good writing can bring nuance out of the barest-boned of plots, and that’s how you get a good story. Pick your battles and all that.

I mean this story was never meant to be about plot to begin with, but it’s gotten that way. It was a supernatural character-study with very (intentionally) blurred lines between metaphor and literality with regards to the supernatural aspects.

So … actually start over again from scratch and write an entirely different story that’s closer to the original idea that I had? Because that wasn’t a story; it was a story-seed. That has nowhere to go, really.  It’s done. It’s finished. I could write it, but I don’t think it would be rewarding.

But okay. I have a list of chapter summaries still sitting around that should – should – adhere to the current structure of the edit I’m working with; and I have three, almost four, character-maps already written, unwieldy and overblown as they may be. Is there anything that I can do with that, instead of rushing off to start from nothing and work my way up? Again?

I guess the problem with these character-maps isn’t that they’re bloated, per se; it’s that they’re bloated by design. They weren’t meant to generate concise instructions for what to do next; they were meant to act as a response to the character-arcs as I read through them, indulging my censor so that the next time around it would have nothing to say. And when I say that’s what they were “meant” to do, I mean it was a process that was structured in such a way to suggest that that was what they were meant for, and would have been if I had thought about it a little harder or whatever. In any case, that is the use that I can get out of them, and actually identifying that kind of makes me want to finish them – not to use them as useful notes, but to use them as a repository of first impressions. And then I can do the more concise work later without over-thinking it; and if I want to come back to them and delve through them for ideas on where to go next, they’ll be right there waiting for me.

Okay. That sounds like a good idea – read these character arcs in the same way as I’d read through the entire manuscript and make notes in the same way as well: as a first reaction. That way I’ll still be focusing on the character-arcs, which I do think is a good idea to get started on now even if I don’t end up making it my primary focus for whatever form the next revision plan takes, without the pressure of having to use these notes for something once they’re done.

And since that’s very non-committal, I do want to make much more efficient, analytical character-maps as well. Character summaries I guess, collections of key points with each character and an overarching sense of the role they play in the story.

Most importantly, and because I didn’t do it the first time: I need to account for Tallulah as a character. I think I noticed that she wasn’t really “doing” anything in this story – her story – about a year ago, and one of the good things that has come from doing these character-maps has been seeing that, yeah, that’s kinda true.

Ideally I want to be able see each of these character-arcs as a story in and of itself that serves the primary purpose of helping the main story-arc to progress, which is Tallulah’s arc. I don’t mean like all of these characters get their own completely stand-alone, completely satisfying plot within the bigger plot, because it’s not their story, but I do want their roles to be concise, clear and vital. I am totally happy to have their stories “compromised” a bit in order to better keep the focus on Tallulah – they are all figments of my imagination in the end after all – but for the sake of solid storytelling there must be clarity, there must be solidarity, there must be internal consistency, and most importantly there must be closure. It doesn’t matter if it’s shitty, disappointing closure; it just has to be closure.

That sounds like a mission statement for the story rather than a plan for revision, but still. That’s what I want.

Okay. I have a plan.

~~~

So, the new plan is:

  1. Identify what it is that Tallulah needs from each of the supporting characters, and in doing so also conveniently end up writing a summary of her own character arc, like a boss
  2. Relying mostly on memory and then looking at the list of chapter summaries that gave me the structure for this current edit of the manuscript, pick out key character moments and build (hopefully very concise) plots out of them
  3. Compare what Tallulah needs to what Tallulah gets from the other characters
  4. Use this comparison to make a plan for the next revision
  5. Do the next revision
  6. Win

And before I do that I’ll finish the current iteration of the character-map plan that I’ve got going, simply so that I’ve got a general idea of what I’m working with, and I may end up ditching it after all and that’s fine.

Cool. We’re in business. I now have something productive to do with what will hopefully be a month-long-ish break between semesters.

 

Do it all now

I need to get this freaking novel written.

I have no free time, and isn’t that the secret to getting things done: to do them while everything else is going on? Because that mythical “free time” you keep hanging out for, that magical experience of suddenly having absolutely no pressure to use you time to do something with that is not directly up to you as to whether or not it should get done, where you will have pleasant cushions of freedom supporting whatever task you choose to undertake on either side – that shit ain’t happening. Ever. So do it all now.

Do it all now.

And do it all now.

Yes it’s messy; yes it’s a product of my working from an older storytelling model, in which I deployed tropes and cliches unthinkingly and these things have bothered me ever since in one way or another; yes when I try to look at the story from my main character’s perspective to try and get a feel for what needs to happen all I can see is my own external overview – it’s a mess, it’s not what I want, it’s clunky and distracting and voracious beyond my ability or desire to fulfill.

And I have to get it done. And I have to get it done now.

Chuck Wendig is a writer whose books I’ve never read, but whose writing advice generally strikes a cord. Yesterday I found one such piece of advice that really stuck with me (to paraphrase): it’s not about writing, it’s about telling the story. The reason “writers” are “writers” is because the medium of written words is what is comfortable/affordable for them to work with. But it’s about the story. Once you start getting caught up in the writing part, it’s all too easy to forget what you’re writing. Writing is a tool, and the story is the job.

For me, with this novel, it’s certainly a matter of looking not at how I should be using my tools, but what I’m using them for. Because the story is so unruly as it is, and I don’t know if it means I need to cut a whole bunch of it out or just deal with the fact that there are certain storytelling devices in there that I think are antiquarian and kind of offensive and accept it for what it is. Because if I’m being honest, the structure is standing as it is. It’s not a handsome structure, and it could certainly use some tightening of bolts and a couple of repairs, but it is standing up. The question is whether I want it to stand up.

And the answer is: I don’t have time to deliberate.

I mean I do. Of course I do. But I may as well not, because the biggest motivation for finishing this story has become so that I can move on to the next one.

Kind of like these essays. But, as I’ve just said, you can’t wait for free time. You have to do it all now.

I dunno maybe I’m just a moron.

I am going to try it though.

Essay ahoy.

Looking for book

I love book reviews. I love how they’re neatly divided into two camps:

  1. “I loved the way the characters were so well-realised and given the chance to develop;  the tension and suspense kept me hooked all the way through to the end, which absolutely delivers on its promise of a thrilling climax that leaves you wanting more.”
  2. “I was disappointed at the missed opportunities for character development, and the flat characterisation was not helped by the plodding pace of the story, with an ending so lazy it makes the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother seem like a cathartic, satisfying reward for the fans’ faith in and loyalty to the series.”

Such helpful, many informative, wow.

For any of you who are wondering: I’m looking for some YA stuff with which to occupy my time after I’m done with these essays, two of which will hopefully be finished and submitted tonight. Upon finding out that I’ve passed 2 of my papers already, even without these final essays, I am feeling much more relaxed and able to actually focus on what I’m doing without the disorienting miasma of “if I fail this paper I have no plan” terrifying my brain into paralysis, and subsequently feel a bit more optimistic about my future. So I took a look at reviews for The Maze Runner, and … yeah, wow. What’s frustrating is that all we get is telling in most of these reviews, so I actually have no idea where the stark differences in opinion are coming from – is it just a case of X’s nightmare being Y’s dream, or are they looking at and therefore evaluating completely different aspects of the story and there is no crossover whatsoever in their presented opinions?

Take The Hunger Games for example. I love the series, although I do want to go back and re-read it with a more critical eye after these essays are done. But the reason I love it is because I identify with it in a very specific way, a way that I don’t think many other people get – or, at least, I haven’t seen them blog about it, and that’s really all I have to go on when sourcing other people’s opinions. In a sense I think I like the series in a way I’m not “supposed” to, but it doesn’t stop me from liking it my way.

My point is that I can understand why some people hate Peeta and some people love him. I went from camp A to camp B in Catching Fire, and now I’m hovering back over camp A looking for an opportunity to sneak back in while everyone’s asleep and pretend I never left. But it’s also part of the reason why I like him: he’s kind of like how Edward Cullen should have been, and it’s all to do with framing. Edward is framed as the perfect man, whereas Peeta is framed as somebody Katniss idealises (as do a lot of other characters in the series). That’s very different. Again, going back to re-read it I will hopefully get a clearer picture of all that business, but yeah, I get it. Peeta has his sweet side, the gentle, really quite lonely boy with the bread, and he has his asshole jealous stalker side, and I can see how people would overlook or privilege one side of his personality over the other and come to their conclusions about him that way, and then further polarise the matter by only sharing their opinion of that one side of his character with other people. I personally think that the setting of the story and the overarching thematic framing of this being a war where everybody is fucked-up in some way or another makes Peeta a good character for this story, as opposed to a good or bad person – but as far as book reviews go, I can imagine not having a leg to stand on if I tried to get a feel for the series based on such published opinions as the ones for The Maze Runner, and, really, every other YA novel I’ve read reviews for on Goodreads.

I suppose I could get my reviews from someplace other than Goodreads, but is it really so much to ask for even just an example in a review of why Reviewer 1264 didn’t like X or found Y really compelling, instead of just saying that they didn’t like it or found it compelling? This is perhaps the perfect example of where “show don’t tell” is a really good guideline to operate by: book reviews are really unhelpful when they just say “it was good” or “it was bad” – the same with book critique. Give a little analysis please. Don’t just tell us you don’t like chocolate; tell us how it makes the roof of your mouth feel muddy and the way it saps the life out of the sweetness receptors on your tongue, like a Dementor stealing every good experience you’ve ever had and leaving you only with horror and torment.

Maybe not that last bit, for copyright purposes, but that is how chocolate tastes to me. It tastes like babysitting a hyperactive 2-year-old while the season finale of Game of Thrones is on and everybody but you is watching it and you have a cold.

Tell us how you hate the way Peeta threatens Katniss with everything from his own suicide to their mutually-assured murder by Cato if she dares to leave the cave in order to get the medicine that will save his life; tell us how the way he went to Haymitch immediately after hearing about the Quarter Quell and made him promise to do everything he could to keep Katniss alive made your heart melt. By telling us these things, you are showing us what you’re talking about, informing us as to how you formed your own opinions on the matter. That is helpful.

I JUST WANT HELP IN FINDING A GOOD BOOK TO READ IS THAT SO UNREASONABLE

I mean I still have 5 or 6 books from The Book Depository that I haven’t quite gotten around to reading yet, but nowadays I’m more about the library. I’ve got Cinder by Marissa Meyer sitting on my desk awaiting my attention, so I do have at least one thing to keep me going before I dig back into Miss Everdeen’s PTSD-inducing chronicle. Then I’ll probably re-read The Magicians, because I’ve had this huge post about authenticity in writing characters trying to be written for the past few months and that book, along with Beautiful Creatures, has a big part to play in my discussion. And examples will be plentiful, I assure you. Hopefully I remembered to record page numbers for Beautiful Creatures while I was making notes on it, otherwise I may have to hire it out again … ick …

But I think my YA kick is coming to an end, slowly fizzling out as I find there are only so many variations on “highly problematic teen romance with fantasy/sci-fi backdrop” that I can handle. I think finishing the Vampire Academy series is probably going to be as far as I’ll get before needing to move on to different pastures. I do still want to read me some John Green, just so that I don’t feel totally out of touch with my peers, and I hear good things about The Knife of Never Letting Go … I want some variety, basically. I think that Young Adult literature has massive potential to be really significant and a helpful tool for people – not just teenagers, but yes certainly them as well – to evaluate themselves and their place in the world through. Not like finishing school or anything, but just in the sense that it could take teenagers seriously, trust them to handle complex and ambiguous moralities and give them a challenge that they’ll find rewarding for engaging with. And I think that these kinds of YA books do exist, they have to exist. I’m just having a hard time finding them.

Really I just want something to get my hopes back up. Everything I read about The Maze Runner in those reviews makes it seem guaranteed to disappoint me, particularly the use of the The Chick trope. And that’s partly because I actually think it’s really awesome that YA is the one category in literature, other than Romance, where female protagonists are the norm. I would just like something other than romance to drive a significant portion of the plot, unless it’s done in an intelligent, thought-provoking way.

Which is yet another reason to re-read The Hunger Games, and holy crap I need to finish these essays so that I can actually start enjoying my life again. I have decided I’m going to buy a bike, and ride on it. Perhaps fitness shall occur in the process, but either way, fun will be had.

As a parting gift, please take the time to read this inspiring, motivating, passionate speech made by author N.K. Jemisin about the relationship between science-fiction/fantasy and people who are not white, able-bodied, cisgender and heterosexual. I didn’t quite click with The Killing Moon, but I did appreciate what motivated it, and I have nothing but admiration for Jemisin.

Okay. Essays. For serious.

Early Start

Hopefully what I’ll be getting tomorrow with these remaining three essays.

But I also – finally – made myself do some novel-revising, and it’s kind of astounding how easy it was to pick up where I left off.

And instantly a huge, plot-changing idea came to mind in the form of moving one of the key revelations to the start of the story, as opposed to near the end where it currently is. It would change a lot of events, but not much of the core story. So I don’t know about that. Any plot-changing idea is something to be considered more carefully than I am able to at 1:00 a.m. in the morning.

But it’s good to be writing my book again, even if only for like 20 minutes, and then spending an hour making notes. That tends to be how it goes.

More later.

Facing reality

It’s a pun. It’s also not a pun.

FEAR THE POWER OF THE WRITER.

*ahem*

I am currently making progress with this essay that should have been finished about five days ago, progress that has required pushing through shame and nausea in order to make anything happen. Momentum has occurred, and the only reason I am pausing to write this post is for the sake of my mental health.

This semester has gone horribly.

Not because of my grades, because they have been some of the best I’ve ever had, which is very frustrating, as it’s also been my lowest-attendance semester ever. It’s been horrible because I failed to achieve the goal I set out for myself of keeping on top of things, which basically meant keeping up with weekly readings and viewings, as well as following through with the attitude towards assignments of “just hand something in”, as opposed to fretting over how I could (or couldn’t) make it perfect, and thus circumventing my ongoing and rapidly increasing trend of handing in assignments late (which is another reason this semester has gone horribly). If the grades are good – and by and large they are, excepting my grades for the paper I’m writing this current essay for – then all that’s really left to complain about is what I’ve taken away from this semester in terms of personal development and/or reflection, and I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know where the responsibility lies. I don’t know if it’s my anxiety crippling me or my failing to challenge my habituated laziness that has led to my abysmal attendance and deadline-meeting this semester, and while I am somebody who can just choose not to care – a skill I spent a fair amount of time perfecting, also for mental health reasons – I don’t want to not care. I want it to be important to me that I get things done when it is my intention to get them done, and I want that importance to hold me to task.

Overall it’s been a very confronting semester, and I just haven’t had the opportunity to sit back and reflect, to face that confrontation and really absorb it. I don’t like this direction I’m heading in; I know at least that much. The ability to persevere in shitty circumstances (like the one I’m currently in) is a good one, no doubt, but the ability to, like, avoid said shitty circumstances – as much as is within my power anyway – is also good. And that’s the one I’m lacking in, or it feels like I’m lacking in, and again it’s frustrating not knowing how much of it is in my control and how much isn’t. And there was the stress of moving house all throughout the semester, and the fact that my shiny new laptop didn’t (and still doesn’t) quite work properly, and my ambivalence about going to see a counselor to handle these various stressors all throughout the semester tied up in notions of self-worth and personal growth – none of that helped, and to some extent none of it could be helped. But I still know I could have done better this semester, easily. Maybe not a lot better, but some degree of better, and it may have been enough to avoid my current predicament of having a late final essay to finish tonight, and then three essays all due tomorrow (and one overdue, because writing this essay has meant not writing the one that was actually due today), and a general bitter taste in my mouth with the sense of how I’ve let myself down.

And it’s also keeping me from doing the things I actually want to do, like finishing Ni No Kuni, an awesome JRPG with animation from Studio Ghibli and music by Joe Hisaishi; getting a bike and starting to get back into exercising regularly; finding time to draw and learn guitar and experiment with YouTube and maybe dancing; reading copious amounts of YA novels to satisfy my morbid fascination with problematic teen romances – and writing my own fucking goddamn novel. That was another missed goal this semester: finding time to revise while studying. To be fair, it went a lot better than it did last semester. There was improvement on that front, so I guess I have to take that for what it is – improvement. Not as much as I wanted, but improvement nonetheless.

And focusing on improving as a writer. I talked about that a little while ago and never really went any further than that. Yesterday I was having lunch with my best friend and the issue of faces came up – she was asking about this woman in one of my tutorials and I was trying to describe what she looked like – and it brought home to me the fact that I feel really uncomfortable describing people’s faces. When it comes to faces, I feel like I have to be really literal; I can’t just give a general impression, because that wouldn’t be perfectly, totally, completely accurate. No, with me it has to be clinically exact, and I don’t know why. I guess my perfectionism isn’t only limited to assignments.

I’m great with landscapes, with moods, with internal monologue and simile. I’m good with body language, speech patterns, tics and revelations. Hell, give me random objects and I’ll infuse them with more meaning than they deserve, just because I can. But give me faces (or clothes, actually) and I’m reduced to a blubbering Frankenstein, tormented by my inability to perfectly articulate the exact literalness of every specific detail, because for some reason that’s what I think matters.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. It’s just fucking annoying.

I’d better finish this essay.

Welcome Home

So we finally finished moving house. There’s still a ton of stuff in boxes in the garage and not everything has been set up at the new place yet, but as far as getting things out of the old house is concerned:

(Well, that one was a convenient find …)

And because it’s What You Do, I took one last gander around the house, now empty and vacuum-cleansed. I sat down against a wall I don’t think I’d ever sat down against before and saw the house from an entirely new angle. Tears were starting to well up by the time I made it to my mum’s old bedroom, where I spent a decent amount of my childhood because the bed was massive and made for a rather good rec room.

I lay down on my back the empty, slightly clingy floor, staring up at the ceiling, letting myself take it all in. I took in three things almost immediately: how dark the room was, how full of memories the room was …

And how ready the room was.

And as soon as I felt that, I knew that I had to leave off my drinking up of bittersweet nostalgia for both our sakes – we were done. Our business had been concluded; our time together had reached its end. We were both ready to move on, and I knew that if I didn’t go now – well, I had to. That was that.

Of course there were a few odds and ends left to find transport for, and a foosball table to break up to toss into the skip; but right on cue as we stuffed in the shattered wooden corpse of the already broken novelty, lovingly given to us by my older sister years ago, rain began to fall, and I took this moment to proclaim to everybody present: “Okay, it’s raining – time to go.” And we did so, with little ceremony, because we were all ready for it. Maybe even over-ready. I don’t believe in magic or gods, but I really don’t want to try and explain how the rain came at just the right time, to move us on.

We left our house for the last time, the rain washing us well on our way. I gave it my gimmicky little salute that I always use to commemorate momentous occasions or show profound respect, kind of like a customised, agnostic prayer as we drove up the hill, and we were gone.

When we arrived home – because this is home now, and I’m looking forward to getting used to it – the rain stopped, right on cue again. Obviously the weather had been attending some storytelling workshops.

One stage of our journey is over, and another begins. Now is the time for a new history, a new episode, a new season, a new saga. A new story.

“Welcome home.”

Yeah. I could get used to that.

Storage

I assume that it’s the haze of still-moving-into-the-new-house at work, but I feel like I don’t really live anywhere right now. I don’t feel like I’ve lost my old house, and I don’t quite feel like this new one is mine just yet. There have been stories forming here from day one, simply as a result of how much time, effort and unavoidable drama goes into anything involving people performing a large task together, and I really like the feeling of being bouyed up by this rich narrative loam. I feel rejuvenated as the process continues, and find myself growing anxious as I feel it winding down, and old patterns and responsibilities re-emerging from the temporary storage space I’d stashed them in order to focus on getting the job of home-migration done, beginning to reassert their old positions of privilege over my focus. I don’t really want them back at all. I like this newness. And while it can’t last forever, there’s a lot here that I could very well get used to.

The biggest thing for me now, in this moment, sitting at my desk that overlooks the street and watching cars drive between two rows of modern two-storey homes on a highway as the sun sets just beyond the corner of my window, is finding out what kind of stories I’ll be driven to tell from here. I think place matters a lot when it comes to any affective labour, from thinking about what you’ll have for dinner to remembering a long-past friendship. This new place is waiting for me to put a stamp on it, and I wonder what kind of stamp I want to put on it. I haven’t really felt this place out yet for its own sake, but at the same time you can’t help but feel a place out when you move your entire life into it over the course of a week. It’s only been five days, but we’re still not quite done yet. This is like the prologue I guess, the scene-setting that doesn’t quite impact the story significantly but still takes up space within the narrative. But I do have one projection: I’m going to like it here. And that’s simply because I already do like it here.

Which suggests to me that the stories I’ll come up with here I will also like. I’ve taken them all with me as well, and perhaps in part because I haven’t worked on any of them since the moving process began, they feel incredibly unaffected. It’s good in the sense that they have strong identities that do not buckle and sway just because I changed my address, but I wonder how much of it is because they, too, are in storage, and I haven’t brought them back out yet. I wonder how much of their permanence is due to my not giving them the chance to be a part of this move. I can’t anyway. It’s too much effort, and I have other things to do. But what I now realise, writing this, is that the only way I can avoid the post-move slump that feels inevitable is to go to the storage space and open it myself, rather than just letting things spill out of it while I neglect it.

Maybe because of that, I’ve started to realise how used I’ve gotten to letting things slip out of storage, and how accustomed I am to putting and leaving things there to begin with, giving them far too generous a number of chances to catch me off-guard instead of taking control of them and owning those parts of my life. It actually ends up feeling like living out a prologue, where things are happening but it doesn’t feel like anything’s getting done. So I think it’s time to turn this prologue into a first chapter. Life may not be a story, but stories can sometimes be life.

So I’m going to look up articles about Shailene Woodley’s statements on feminism and draft an outline for one of four final essays for a while, and then I’m going to get started on the final batch of character-maps for Tallulah. I do think that’s the first story that needs to come out of storage, and it’s definitely earned that recognition from me. It keeps on giving the more time I spend with it. We can definitely wrap things up between us before I worry too much about what other stories I’m going to tell.