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.