I’ve spent three years on this fucking novel. Three fucking years. One conversation with a friend was enough to get me to throw those three years halfway out the window and dangle it above the pavement by the ankle. This tells me that I’m really not happy with the story, and that I’m desperate to change it, just in general, because anything might work better than this novel in its current state.
So I tried writing out a plan for this new take on it, peeling back to a version of the story closer to the original by cutting out or at least seriously diminishing the roles of the side-characters, and it got dark and heavy really, really fast. It went that way because I thought about the original premise for the story and, while it was uncomfortable and sad, it was also kind of uncomfortable and sad in a very privileged way. So this time I thought: “Hey, why not put in some *actual* pain and misery instead of this vanilla bullshit and prove that I’m a real person who has no privilege whatsoever and is totally not sheltered and lacking in life experience at all? That’ll be fantastic.”
It is not fantastic; it is so dire that I don’t want to write it, and if I did write it I would not want to read it. I would also not want to read it if somebody else wrote it, and that for me is probably the main thing, because I try to write stories that I want to read but don’t exist yet.
I’m down with pain and suffering, I really am; pain and suffering in fiction, when done respectfully, give us tools that we can use in order to engage with real-life pain and suffering that we might otherwise lack. Including our own. Stories that contain pain and suffering can help us to deal with those things in our own lives, in the lives of those we love, and can help to bolster our survival toolkit, making us more resilient. But what I worry about is that this story as I’ve planned it out (and not very thoroughly, so I might just be overthinking things as per usual) is not helpful or respectful, but, for lack of a better term, suffering-porn. You put in too much pain and suffering and suddenly what you have to offer is not a story but a smothering blanket of unpleasant moods and thoughts, and that’s nothing to offer anybody.
There are two other plans I want to draft out an outline for: the original original idea, which would be about 20-40k words, and a more narrative-driven version where I keep all the side-characters and just beef up their roles. Hell, I might even throw in another plan where I cut them all out but instead of making things bleak and miserable I turn it into a dramedy.
My other issue with the dark tone this plan has taken on is the fact that the darker the story gets, the more it just sounds like excerpts from my life, which makes me feel guilty for lacking self-restraint and impulse-control.
I am looking forward to writing something else come November. And I think that, regardless of whether I have anything planned out for Tallulah by then, I’m still going to move on and write something else, because simply for my mental, emotional health I think this would be a wise move.
And when I get back to Tallulah, I feel like I’ll be faced with the frustration of having spent three years getting to the point where I had to start over again, that I have to go back to basics and actually work out what the fuck I want to write about, why it is that this story means so much to me, in precise terms, which I should have done from the very start. I’ll have to go back to the drawing-board, because I’ve realised that I never really spent any time there to begin with, and what time I did put in there didn’t pay off because I got completely sidetracked while writing. As happens, but it’s still frustrating having to deal with this kind of stagnation and three years of my life devoted to maintaining it.
I mean maybe that’s what this is; maybe all that’s going to come of this is that I’ll learn, the exceptionally hard way, that I should have not pushed forward as blindly and brazenly as I did, that the progress I think I’ve made up to this point is actually hardly anything at all, like when it took me a year to finish the zero draft and I realised that, however long it took me to write it, it had not come any further than it had come. Time spent does not equal progress made. And honestly I think that if I’d really forced myself to write this thing instead of sitting on my hands for most of the year, I could have done, like, three drafts this year alone, and probably three last year as well.
All this “hard work” I’ve done has mostly been procrastinating and worrying. And it is hard work, emotionally, but it’s not progress, just labour. It’s energy spent and time invested, and 80% of it is going in the exact opposite direction to what would be helpful and productive. So I am going to have to really force myself to get shit done from November on. I’ve got the shitty YA paranormal action/adventure/comedy/romance thing to practice with in Nanowrimo, and hopefully what I’ll learn from that is that I can work hard and I can work fast, and most importantly I can work consistently and not need to wait around for inspiration to strike, that I can actually just grind shit out until it’s finished. Hell, I need to do that starting right now anyway because I have two huge research assignments due by the end of the month, which it almost is already.
To be fair, I had to get this far to realise what I “should have done from the beginning”. I don’t think my process was that bad, really; it just took too goddamn long. And maybe it’ll turn out that this was all a horrible idea and I should just give up and move onto the next thing, and not have a book by the end of this process to show for my efforts. That’s quite depressing, but maybe it’s true. I don’t know how to look at this project as a story I want to tell, and thinking back to when I decided I’d give it a shot, the main reason I did make the attempt was because it was a story unlike anything I had ever thought up before, something so unlike my “trademark style” that I had to give it a shot, just to see how far out of my comfort zone I could get. And that’s been worth the experience in and of itself, even if the story never gets published. I’ve found that, yes, I can actually tell more than one kind of story, if I try.
A lot of what the story has turned into now is just the result of concessions and coping mechanisms for how awkward to handle I found the whole thing, the sprawling first draft where ideas kept popping up and, instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, I just took the whole package as it was and tried to carve it into a nicer shape. I focused on presentation rather than content, and I did that because I was too exhausted to make the effort of really looking into what happened in this story, and what needed to happen, because I had no fucking idea. Or at least no idea beyond the vague story-seed that started the whole thing, and got submerged in several sub-plots and other distractions over the course of the zero draft’s construction.
All that hard work turned out to just be the process of making more work for myself further down the road. That’s how it feels right now.
Right now it is 3am, though, so my state of mind is not exactly that of the peak-performing linguistic and narrative athlete. I’ve just been stuck in a fucking rut with this book for a year and it hasn’t ended, I haven’t broken out of it, and I’m fucking fed up. I’m done with this creative cul-de-sac, and other than just going out the way I came and undoing all of this “progress”, or trying to take what I’ve got and make something out of it as best I can, which I don’t want to have to settle for …
Like, should I be okay with settling for it? That’s a question that only I can answer, and my answer is “No, but I’m so fucking tired and it sounds easier than the other thing”. And I don’t know that it was a mistake to make that decision the first time this question of how to proceed arose, to take the easy way out because at least it came with a fairly coherent set of instructions instead of wrestling with my own lack of clarity that was only further compounded by the messiness of the zero draft, but I think it’s a huge concession to make right now. And if there’s a chance that I can get my energy back and actually have what it takes to pick the harder but, to my mind, better option – and if all it’s going to take for me to get that energy is to go away for a while and write something else – then that’s a chance I’m not willing to pass up on. I mean in the worst-case scenario I’d get the energy and just decide I want to do the easy thing anyway; the point is that I’d have the option, rather than giving in due to fatigue. That’s a survival tactic, and this isn’t survival: this is writing a goddamn book. I don’t have to survive. I’m thriving. I don’t need to resort to these kinds of measures. I can take a goddamn break and come back and do it later.
I mean it’s been three years already. What’s another month?