Why people plan

I realised today why it is that so much writing advice can be summed up in “have a plan and stick to it”: because the alternative – just winging it – doesn’t get you to where you want to be a lot of the time. Which is not to say that having a plan does either, but since a lot of that advice seems to come from writers who are disillusioned with the process of winging it, I can understand why they encourage others (and probably themselves) to do the exact opposite, because the grass is always greener on the other side etc.

Tallulah – I’ve had grand ideas about writing it for at least a week now, and nothing has come of it. I’m depressed about this whole student loan bullshit situation; I’m going to call Studylink tomorrow and inform them that they’ve fucked up and owe me a goddamn full-time contract, but who knows if that’ll get anything done. If not then I may just have to force myself to look for a job, and while that’s far from an unreasonable plan, anxiety don’t got no fucks to give about what’s reasonable and what’s not, and this whole situation is just making things worse. I’m sure I’m playing it up to some degree, but that is in part a coping mechanism; at least I can control how histrionic I get. Again, anxiety does not care for reason.

But Tallulah is suffering because of it, and as always, ALWAYS happens: when I don’t write, I feel worse. I just do. I feel bad when I’m not writing. And the reason Tallulah in particular makes me feel bad for not writing it is because what I learnt in my first draft is coming back with a vengeance: time spent writing does not equal progress made in the writing process. Perhaps another reason for why the writing advice I come across most often (or so it feels) is geared towards planning over pantsing: it’s organised.

I was thinking about this the other day, about how as much as the new ideas that I have for Tallulah are interesting to me and I really would like to see them in action, they are essentially no different to the first ideas that I had for the story, in the sense that they’re essentially filler. The core of the story has always been incredibly small and simple, and the other stuff has been little more than fancy trimming. I wrote out a brief plan for how Tallulah might go if I turned it into a series, and the first episode or whatever actually turned out to be very similar to the very first version of the story that I ever planned out – the specifics are different, but what they’re there for and how they shape the overall direction of the story are virtually the same. It’s kind of comforting in a way, because that first version of the story was so full of cliches that I’ve spent the following three and a half years trying to write a “counter” to it, and it’s contributed to how much of a slough it’s been to keep up with writing this book.

And again, that small, simple core of a story is the only thing that’s remained consistently appealing to me. I do think that returning to at least some of the original ideas that I had is a good idea, particularly the way that the supernatural elements are integrated. Gets me further away from falling into the “superhero origin story” I so dread, the one that my current revision of Tallulah very much does fall into, and that at the very least is something I want to keep.

But what’s dawned on me today is that while, on the one hand, I am finally coming around to taking a chill pill (haven’t heard that one in a while) and getting comfortable with the idea that this really is a very small and simple story, on the other hand it means that the past three and a half years worth of effort has essentially been for nothing. Yes, I learnt a lot from the writing process, and yes, better late than never, but that’s also three and a half years I’ll never get back. And while I understand the appeal of the idea of a plan, I have to wonder how much advice that touts the value of planning over pantsing is primarily borne out of frustration like mine, as opposed to plans actually working.

Now as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve done plans in the past, and yes, they have worked. The very first draft of a novel I ever wrote was meticulously planned-out, and it got written. Sure, almost as soon as it was finished I decided that I wasn’t happy with it, but that’s a problem with the story itself rather than the process I used to write the first draft. Planning does work. But I haven’t been able to recreate that success to date. A lot of that probably has to do with getting habituated to prioritising university obligations over my self-directed creative writing projects – which is fine, but facts are facts, and the fact may well be that I simply don’t have the mental bandwidth to do both.

The other thing is that despite how depressed I’m feeling about the two biggest parts of my life – writing and study – I do think I’ve reached a new place in my writing and in my general outlook on life (and yes, that includes study) that is very positive and generative. I am moping about not having found my way back to “thinking in story” ever since that glorious little burst of story-focused fantasising-about-my-unwritten-books I had two months ago, during my werewolf kick, but I know it’s possible, and it has to do with thinking of my story as a limited thing, rather than a sandbox of potential. I’m getting better at it, and it’s more satisfying because it’s limited; it means that not everything I could ever possibly hope for will make it into the final product, and it forces me to commit to actual choices rather than flop around in unending fields of what-if. Yet another reason why planning seems like a good idea, and this time I have no snide comments to make about it. Limitations are good; they foster creativity, and if they work for you, they help you get shit done. No, you can’t have all of these things because they won’t all fucking fit; you can have some stuff, and you’d better choose which ones you actually want, because you only have 80k words to work with.

In fact maybe that’s what I’ll do; maybe I’ll go back to imposing a word-limit on myself. It did work for the first draft, even if part of why it worked was because I eventually did away with it altogether, which was, at the time, the very best decision I could have made. But now I need a narrowing of my range of options; I need the frustration to push up against and filter myself through; and I want that feeling of disappointment at not being able to fulfill every single fantasy that I have in one single story. I really do, because it suddenly makes a story feel real to me. And above all, that is what I need in order to get started again.

Which means that, rather than plans not working for me, it may just be a matter of finding a new way to make those plans. And what I actually think it might well be is that my plans need to be in my head rather than down in words. If I put it in words, then I may as well not write them out as a story. And if I find it easy to remember because I actually like it, rather than because I wrote it down somewhere – also because I’m forced to remember rather than outsourcing that task to putting it down in writing, which also probably contributes to my lack of commitment now that I think about it – then that’s probably a good sign.

It’s about getting a sense of the finite nature of the story. That, I think, is the ultimate benefit of planning, when it works: it forces you to accept that you aren’t going to be able to fit every single fucking thing you could ever dream up into one project. A while a go, I made a post lamenting the way that writing digitally feels like writing in pencil, and I wanted a way to feel like I was writing in ink instead, that my decisions actually meant something and I had to deal with the consequences of them, because it would make me better at getting focused. This is the same thing. The finite nature of a story is what rescues you from the infinite abyss of “what if”. Keep notes, jot down all your thousand and one brilliant ideas; map the abyss. Do that. There’s no reason not to. But it’s not a story. A story only includes so many details, only offers so many options, and that’s what makes it a story. That’s what I want so badly to get back in touch with, and what I think planning over pantsing is going to do for me if I can make it work.

So tomorrow onwards is a big deal for me. I wrote another post ages ago about how I wanted to think of my books in writing rather than in imagery, and this focus on finite story-space within which to satisfy my storytelling urges ties into that as well; thinking in images is intuitively boundless to me, but thinking in words is very, very finite. It’s imagining in ink. It’s getting intimate with specifics and rejecting the grand tapestry of “what if”, and finding that you actually love it. That’s what I want to get back to. And I think I can.

Just gotta … y’know … do it.

 

Wait what

I realised something this morning, as I fantasised about one of my many soon-to-be-a-thing novels, about all the time and effort and love I’d put into it because despite what I said in my last post sometimes you actually do have to force yourself to care in order to get the ball rolling and there’s nothing wrong with that, and then it dawned on me – I’ve already been putting time and love and effort and energy into a book, for a very long time. That book is Tallulah, the book that inspired this very blog so that I could vent about and celebrate the process that has been the writing of it.

And I realised something so mind-blowingly interesting that I had to share it today.

Tallulah is almost finished.

I have recounted time and again how time spent on a book does not equal progress made. I mean fuck, I’ve been trying to write Realm of the Myth in some incarnation or another for the past 14 years, for exactly half my life, and okay actually I did write a full draft of that about ten years ago BUT MY POINT is that Tallulah has felt like an ongoing project because there was always something “more” that I felt I wasn’t reaching, some higher plane of Good Writing that I was unable to access – and yet I had to access it, had to reach it, otherwise all of my time and energy would Be For Nothing because it wouldn’t be Good Enough. And I mean that in a moral sense, which should give you some idea as to how fucking deep down the rabbit-hole you can go when you’re writing and you care.

What I’ve realised – in large part, I like to think, because of my new “write fast, predictably and impulsively, all without shame” philosophy of writing – is that all of these higher planes and states of Good Writing are very real. They are. All skills can be improved upon, and if you stick with anything long enough you do absolutely get transcendent on that shit. But that doesn’t mean that Tallulah is meant for any of them. It doesn’t mean anything I write is meant for any of them. What I realised is that, actually, I already have a deliciously predictable, cliche, iterative, by-the-numbers version of Tallulah that I can work with and still stay true to my vision, vague and rambling as it is – which just means that, like I said, it’s almost finished because a lot of the work has been done.

And I’ve realised that I am actually happy to think that Tallulah could be finished soon, even if it’s not the transcendent uber-narrative I dreamt it would be. I wouldn’t just be content with it, I wouldn’t just tolerate it as a necessary step on my path to greatness; I would be happy. I would like it. Hell, I started thinking about Tallulah not living up to my ridiculous standards and suddenly I was thinking about turning it into a series again, like because I was allowed to use less than my absolute best ideas suddenly the floodgates opened and now the possibilities are endless, it’s pretty fucking awesome.

It also means I can probably use a lot of the first draft, too, because there’s a lot of cliche shit in there, though not as much as the filler. The filler is the main issue, and also that the characters evolved over time while I was in the process of thinking about rather than actually writing Tallulah for two and a half years, leave anything long enough and bacteria starts congregating, my point is that now that I’m embracing my capacity for being a total fucking hack it’s like I have fucking superpowers or some shit, is this why people write shitty cliche stories that take literally no thought whatsoever to create because if so I totally fucking get it this shit is fucking rad, yo.

When I make myself get back to writing Tallulah, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I know that I can finish it really quickly. I know that I can bring back the original draft and maybe even *gulp* read it … again … so much filler … and then cut out chunks of cliche goodness (and actual goodness) to use. Or just do my own thing and rely on memory to reconstruct the parts that I liked. I know that maybe I’ll get back to work on it and suddenly be seized with the desire to make it the best most amazing story ever told and try my very hardest to peak early and have everything else I write only go downhill from here, in which case it’s probably not almost done. But it could be almost done. That is within my grasp, and holy crap would I like this thing to be done. In whatever state. Good enough really is good enough for me at this point. This was never a solid story; it was a good idea wrapped in a bundle of attractive padding that changed with the seasons of my inspiration. Right now I’m inspired to write fast, shamelessly and use the oldest tricks in the oldest books I can get my hands on without leaving my desk. And that’s okay. I can have a not-the-best-thing-ever-written first book. I’ll live. I’ll get better.

And, like I said, I truly believe I’ll be happy for it. Because it’ll be a real first step, not just fantasising about it and what it’ll be like. Maybe Tallulah won’t be my opus, but I’m starting to remember that it was never meant to be. It was just a story I never thought I’d be able to tell, and now I feel like I can. Maybe not to the ambitious heights I have often dreamt of attaining, but I can still tell it.

Also it’ll take my mind off the academic bureaucratic bullshit I’m currently wading through like fucking seriously can the university and the institution that provides financing for said university not have a little better communication between the why do I have to be your fucking errand-boy why can’t you just make shit easy for me oh GOD why did I decide to do Masters …

Same new story

I spent all of … Friday? I think it was Friday. Well, I spent some day within the past three just reading stuff I’d written when I was 16, namely my sprawling postmodern self-fan-fic story, Realm of the Myth, and feeling incredibly inspired. Like, a lot of it was actually incredibly useable, and really solid in many vital areas. I can imagine that these bits of solidarity were things I pulled out of my ass while I was caught up in the writing, but looking back on it 12 years later you’d never be able to tell that, because they just made sense. An example: the main villain of the piece – who also died exactly one thousand years ago when the story begins – was an elf, and after his death the elves put a lot of energy into just being super-awesome to the rest of the world to make up for it. I know for a fact that I never put any thought into that little snippet, never had any plans to flesh out or explore it when I wrote it 12 years ago (I couldn’t even remember writing it), but seeing it there it just felt right. Of course they’d be nice to everyone; they’d want to distance themselves from that dark chapter in their history as much as possible.

Unless they’re like a nation in real life, in which case if they’re powerful enough they just let everybody affected deal with it themselves.

See? Getting the creative juices flowing already.

I tried to get right back into it and more or less pick up where I left off, but I found, as I have found before, that even thinking of trying to write that self-insert author avatar main character again feels like the emotional equivalent of stubbing your toe. The ideas are all there, the setting feels good, but the problem is that I have no investment in the story itself, especially the main character. And it’s gotten to that point with my fun little werewolf thing; I have ideas that I like, I have the sense of excitement at the thought that I could finish it really quickly, but I just don’t care about the story itself anymore. And I never thought that that would be an issue, because the “story” was so thin and predictable that, upon trying to get back into the mood after my hiatus, I just assumed I’d never cared to begin with, that it couldn’t have been a factor. But I was completely wrong, because it’s the only thing I’m missing, and I’ve never been able to write without being invested in the story before, so it stands to reason that this project was no different. How could I have invested in something so iterative though? It threw me off when I thought about it, and it made me realise just how far off-track I’ve gotten with this whole “write without thinking” philosophy of mine.

Because it’s not true. “Write without thinking” is actually the opposite of what this philosophy is. You think a lot, it’s just that you think on the fly, and you intentional barricade your mind from the kind of thoughts that halt your creative momentum, like considering political correctness or representation or how many times X has been done before, and especially any thoughts of “but that’s not original enough”. I think a more accurate title would be “writing quickly, predictably and impulsively, all without shame”, because that’s all it is. And it means that I have to allow myself not just to write shitty iterative regressive shit, but to like it. Kind of. It’s actually a fine line between allowing yourself to like something and forcing yourself to like it, and it’s an important one. If I happen to like a story idea that isn’t iterative and cliche and regressive, I certainly shouldn’t try to make myself dislike it or alter it so that it becomes worse in order to fulfill my criteria for being “allowed” to enjoy it. But it is to allow myself to substitute a potential original idea for a definite predictable one if it keeps things moving, and if it makes the story progress in a story-like way.

Like all inspired moments, this one eludes me now that the moment has passed; I didn’t get the formula bottled and written down and now I’m trying to re-create it after losing touch with what made it work. I just really cared about werewolves about a month ago, and I don’t anymore. I wanted to steal and copy and re-create on my own terms, and now I don’t. I mean I saw Ant-Man twice, maybe I can rip that off or something.

But maybe I don’t actually have to finish this werewolf story to prove that the strategy of writing quickly, predictably and impulsively, completely without shame actually works, because I got 20k words written in 2 weeks by doing that. I still kinda like the idea, and maybe one day I’ll go back to it, but for now the spark is just gone, and I think part of this philosophy is respecting that. It happens, and if, like this werewolf project, it wasn’t something I really deeply cared about to begin with, then letting it sputter out is actually okay. I needed to write it while I was really invested; I left it too long and got too clever for it to be manageable. It’s kinda sad, but there it is.

As for Realm of the Myth: I really do want to do something with all the material I found so inspiring. I’m just not sure what. The Nano reboot version is still on my to-do list, but it’s also become pretty unmanageable. I like the ideas that have gone into it, but it’s a lot of work, and it kills the passion. I think that’s indicating that I actually need to think harder about it, rather than letting it sit, and it’s not like it’s going to get any easier. But I think writing a few more super-iterative semi-fanfic kinda things couldn’t hurt. In fact maybe it’d help this project out immensely.

In fact seeing as borrowing, stealing and outright copying other ideas and stories is part of my new philosophy, it would be silly not to do that, right? I mean this story was already super-fan-ficcy to begin with, and while that certainly didn’t help because I kept updating it to reflect my evolving tastes and influences, it was also what made it work to begin with. It was what made everything I used to write work.

Dear god, I actually do kinda want to write an Ant-Man ripoff.

I don’t know where I’m at now, or where to say I’m at, but it’s not a particularly good place for writing. It might become one, though.

In the meantime I’m kinda tempted to make a new category for posts like this where I just try to talk myself into writing when I’ve hit a brick wall. I have a lot of them. Like, maybe 50% of this blog’s content.

I did say I wanted to write about writing …

Fly my pretties

I have to finish this stupid werewolf thing I promised myself I would finish it I used to feel so excited about it I owe my long-dead sense of excitement the fulfillment I decided in the heat of the moment I owed it otherwise I am an immoral flake unworthy of love who cares if I don’t want to do it anymore it’s probably just because I haven’t been doing it for ages and need some extra momentum it can’t be that I could actually just go do something else and it would be no big deal because I promised and you have to keep promises that’s what promises are forget your own feelings or desires or changes in circumstance that require adaptation if you promised to do something then you have to do it that’s what God said and God is WHY CAN’T I JUST FUCKING MAKE THINGS WORK THE WAY I WANT THEM TO

Here’s the thing: I do want to write this werewolf thing through to completion. But early on I lost the drive, and only got it back when I started thinking about a potential sequel that would “make things more interesting”, and in order to get to that sequel I had to write the first book so that it made sense. Well right now I’m sick of that rationale, that utilitarian “motivation” that is less motivation and more justification, doing something for the sake of some other thing rather than for its own sake. Which is what made this werewolf thing so wonderful: I was doing it for its own sake, it was basic as fuck, really unoriginal, really un-interesting, and it was working. It was getting written.

Guess I’ll be drafting after all.

I had hoped to just rush through it at top speed and not give a fuck about editing or revision – and I’m going to keep to that. But what I’m also going to do is just kinda pretend that some of the stuff I wrote never got written, which is easy enough to do, because most of my plot-centric ideas are distributed neatly throughout individual documents rather than clustered together, making editing more difficult. I think I’ll just do that and hope that it works.

This story was never meant to be interesting or well-planned out; it was meant to be spontaneous and derivative, a test to see how fast I could create a story and still make it coherent. At no point was this story being good on the agenda, just solid. And I definitely lost sight of that. And I miss it.

I’ve been in Malaysia for the past 7 and a half days, and haven’t written anything other than a couple of blog posts during that time. It was great. I am so glad that I went. I am happy to have traded some writing momentum for such a life-changing experience.

Now I’m back home though, and it’s time to get back to business. Tallulah is always in the background, continuing to transform as well, into something more like a story than it currently is. Other stories I’ve been struggling with are coming back to life. It’s all been because of this werewolf project, and I know that if I make myself persevere with its original function, allow it to be limited to the mental bandwidth reduction I’ll be working under as a result of writing fast, apolitically and uncritically, those stories will only get better, become more accessible. Hell, even my ungainly Realm of the Myth is starting to take a more coherent shape, not just the Nanowrimo re-imagining but the original, super-iterative version that I gave up on after about a month when I was 14 years old and writing self-fan-fiction without even knowing what that was. I’m starting to allow myself to have ideas that I haven’t allowed myself to have since I was 13, just getting myself involved in the world of writing and indulging in every silly, exciting notion that popped into my head. A lot of it didn’t go anywhere, because this was before I started trying to discriminate between story ideas and idea-ideas, but I think I’ve learnt that lesson well enough, at long last, that I can go right back to indulging all over again. It’s all just starting to click.

And I know that it’ll click even more if I make myself finish this werewolf thing. I know it. And it’s worth it.

I just hope I can keep focused and not get distracted by my pesky morals and principles and beliefs and shit. What true artist needs those, amirite?

Life Stories

Spoilers: I’m in Malaysia.

I wasn’t sure if it was going to happen, if I’d do my usual term of service to my habitual anxiety and bow out or if I’d power through and force myself to have a new experience. It turned out it was the latter, and despite missing my first flight, spending the next week in a state of perpetual panic as I tried to wrestle not only with re-booking flights but also my ambient anxiety shrieking at me to stay at home so that nothing would change, and having a few more near-panic-attacks while here, I’m really glad that I did.

It’s really hot. Thank god everywhere I go there’s air conditioning.

I’m trying to record my experiences in a journal type thing – it’s been ages since I kept a dedicated journal, mostly because the last few I kept some ten years ago became excuses to stop participating in my own life, and pretty addictive ones at that. I managed to put into words my first experience of flying, and I didn’t think it was too bad, honestly. Despite my penchant for purple-ish prose (or perhaps because of it) I like finding experiences that you can’t explain any way other than literally and, as it turns out, flying is one of them.

The rest I think I’ll put on a back-burner. I came here with some books and, of course, my laptop (though not my charger; there’s gotta be at least one journal entry’s worth in that episode alone), planning to manage myself as usual and erect barriers of solitude so that I could net some of the me-time I’m so accustomed to. That was the biggest and hardest brick wall I ran into while over here, exactly as I thought I would: the brick wall of not having any time to myself. And I really haven’t, or it hasn’t felt like it. But what I’m also finding is that I don’t really mind, not yet. I’m just not used to thinking about it that way, that I don’t mind, that I actually kinda like living for other people. I’ve thought for a long time that the reason I’ve got a personal history of reservedness and prickliness is not because I’m a dedicated introvert, but because I’m an extrovert who hated himself too much to try and do it properly. It seems like, in some way at least, that might be true after all.

I think it might be time to finally write that incredibly autobiographical “angsty Narnia” story I’ve been sitting on since I was 16 years old. Not because I’ve finally come full-circle or anything quite so cathartic, but because I’m far enough beyond that that I think I could handle it. I’m finding I can handle a lot of things I was certain I could not, actually, and while I know I’ve done that in the past, the difference is that this time I think I’ll actually take it with me after the moments themselves pass. And writing that story is going to be proof of that.

It could also be that I just finished The Magician’s Land, the third and final part of the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, which is itself a very blatant “angsty Narina” story. When I have the time and focus I will totally write a review for it, probably after re-reading the series again, because I’ve realised that these books are just as much glorified fan fiction as anything Cassandra Clare has ever written, and I find it interesting that it took me until now to realise it.

I honestly can’t explain the state I’m in right now. I feel exactly the same in terms of my capabilities and comfort levels and everything, but at the same time I hardly recognise myself. It’s not even that anything particularly huge happened. I guess it never is. It’s always a million little things, and you only ever feel them as a million little things, never the monument that they all add up to when taken together. This is so corny. Dude goes traveling and finds himself. What next, an orphan farmboy discovers he’s the Chosen One to overthrow the Evil Empire and Save the World?

But that’s how stories are, and it’s why life isn’t a story. Stories are cliche, corny and repetitive, but life isn’t, even though it’s full of cliche, corny and repetitive stories. Life is life, and it never gets old. I know that because it used to feel old, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve felt myself getting younger somehow, like waking up slowly and realising you’ve been asleep.

I’m pretty sure I took that line right out of one of the books I read in the past month. Maybe it’s time to call this post and go to bed, because I have to get up kinda early tomorrow. That was a fun hour or so of shame-inducing anxiety, let me tell you.

And I will tell you, and everybody else in the world, as soon as I can bring myself to return to that “angsty Narnia” story. It’s time to tell it. I think I’m ready to make it work. Maybe it’s what I’ll write after Tallulah. Or maybe even before. Nothing like closing up the loose ends of the past to mark a new beginning.