There are darlings, of the “kill your” variety, that every writer has to deal with. That one hilarious scene that totally breaks the tone of the overall story; the super-interesting side-character with the intricate story who doesn’t contribute anything to the one they’re in; the extraneous worldbuilding that gets more attention than the story it’s supposed to support the telling of – it’s not all things in the story that need cutting; sometimes it’s things in the storytelling process, the writing rituals that we perform to get the job done.
Sometimes, though, the darling is the entire project.
Realm of the Myth, my sprawling postmodern high fantasy self-fanfic, is a story that I have had going for about 15 years now, on and off. I started when I was 14, and I was still 14 when, after writing the first and second chapters and having a lot of fun with them, I got to the third chapter and realised that I had absolutely nowhere to go with it. At 14 I was showing the kind of writing judgment that now, at almost 29, I would kill for. Then at 15 I had a brainwave and picked it up again, and for the next 12 years it was all I wanted to think about, to both its detriment and mine. I don’t know how many writers this happens to – young writers I imagine are most at risk of this happening – but it became one of those books that exists mostly in its notes, in fact almost entirely in its notes, and a few dozen attempts to write the first chapter. I have so many goddamn notes about this story; I basically have a Silmarillion‘s worth of world-building I could fall back on if I wanted to, but I hate that kind of story, and even back then I hated it, because outside of the notes I could rarely actually bring myself to write the actual story, because it really wasn’t a story. It was a world-building exercise that never ended.
And that pretty much sums up what became of the next 12 years. I sank too much time, too much thought and too much “what if” into it, and it took talking to another writer to convince me to finally kill it again. Upon killing it this second time I was rewarded with a burst bubble of creative juices, and I really wish I’d used them better than for the purposes I put them to: putting the story back together again – although I did hold out for a good 10 months or so – and giving it a third chance at life. I removed and swapped around a bunch of stuff, went back to the first time I tried to reboot it and picked out the one actually interesting and fun idea that came with it, and I tried to write it for Nanowrimo 2014. But it was too big, too unwieldy, still not even remotely suitable for using as a story for the fact that it needed to be too many other things. And so now I’m looking at killing it for a third and, hopefully, final time, because it has finally dawned on me that this entire story may, in fact, be a darling that really has it coming.
Here’s the thing, though: maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. And I already know how this part goes, where I try really hard for way too long to fix what’s not even broken but just inherently wrong to begin with until I eventually come to the realisation that I’m having right now, which is that it’s a lost cause. But I don’t actually believe that right now. I would love to, I would love to be the guy who games the system and is all genre-savvy about the tropes of human existence by avoiding this obvious narrative pitfall, but I honestly think that I just haven’t tried hard enough to make it work, and specifically to look at all the millions of tiny darlings that are in this story and committing genocide upon them.
Although part of the reason for this is because, while I’ve never put it into words before now, I’ve always known that without those darlings there is absolutely nothing holding this story together and there will be nothing to salvage.
But maybe that’s wrong too.
I sound like the desperate partner in a toxic relationship who, after all the time and energy they’ve put into it and equally into not doing other things, just really needs to believe the investment is worth it. I do have a very fucking toxic relationship with this story. But thankfully it’s just a story. Or a non-story in this case, an anti-story that represents, in so many ways, all the things that I hate about high fantasy, and yet I’m doing them anyway. I’m doing the thing where I compromise storytelling for airtight system-building – the magic system has always been a problem in this story, and in none of my others, because only in this story have I felt accountable to some kind of collective critic who is out to get me, and that for some reason matters. I don’t know why it matters, actually. Sales, perhaps. The entire fandom of X genre that I’m writing for – this genre, apparently, whatever the fuck this genre is – will turn against me if I don’t get this particular detail right. And it’s not that I can’t or haven’t come up with good magic systems: it’s that it’s never enough. Nothing is ever enough for this story. And while that’s a red flag and a half, it’s also because, just looking at what this story has morphed into over the 15 years we’ve been together, it’s too much already. It’s too much of what it’s not, because so much of what it is is just what I wish it was.
Or, more simply and grammatically put: most of what I think of as being part of this “story” is the stuff that I haven’t written, that floats around in a nebulous mass of potential in my head and never touches down. No wonder there’s no pleasing this story, or its writer.
But the question remains. Is there a way? Can I save this story? Is there anything to save? And is it worth finding out?
Well, if I knew that I wouldn’t have bothered writing this thing. But having said that, in the time it’s taken me to write this post – all day – I have found the same thing that I’ve found upon trying to “prune” this story before: there’s enough here for about four or five separate stories if I want to take bits and pieces and separate them out. There is way, way the fuck too much material for one story, at least one story that I would ever want to tell. It’s a mess of conflicting ideas, angles, mythologies, characters, characterisation, continuity, philosophy … in trying to get to the “core” of this story and “narrow it down”, I think I’ll end up just breaking it apart.
Much like how I’ve been breaking it apart ever since that first reboot attempt; it got so frustrating, being tethered to this writing heap of time and energy investment, that even while I was still enjoying writing it for the most part I was siphoning off bits and pieces that didn’t quite feel central anymore and putting them in other, new projects, a lot of which I probably could have followed through with to completion. I don’t know that any of them were any good, but at least they could have existed. The issue was that, because I just wanted Realm of the Myth to work so badly, I ended up assimilating most of those other projects into it in the end, along with whatever parts of Realm of the Myth I had migrated over to them.
Wow, I haven’t thought about that in a long time. So many other projects, right down the drain.
God fucking damn I hate this fucking bloated, pretentious, aimless, vacuous, nebulous, time-wasting anti-story. It’s ruined so many things for me.
But I’m not writing my stupid werewolf YA thing that was supposed to teach me some shit about writing or whatever, so you know what? I may as well do this. I may as well use this opportunity to learn how to kill my darlings and just see what comes of it. I have done this before with this story and it hasn’t stuck. Well, the lesson now is to make it stick, to just parse it back to whatever basics I … like the most? If I can even remember them? It’s been 15 fucking years why am I doing this to myself?
No, okay, you know why? You know why I haven’t killed this fucker for good already, despite knowing that I should?
It’s because about a month ago, I told myself I’d killed it. It didn’t stick. Just like telling myself that I’d killed Tallulah didn’t stick. And that second example I’m happy about because Tallulah still has a lot of potential, but while Realm of the Myth has potential as well (apart from that title, way to go 14-year-old me), so much of that potential has already been spent on wasted endeavours. It’s kind of my answer to the Star Wars prequels: it’s the fastidious, precious, perfectionist project that can never be done right because that means it’d have to end. I needed RoTM to cope with a lot of shit in my life, and most of that shit is now either irrelevant or stuff that I seriously need to let go of and make irrelevant.
So basically I need to make the decision stick. And maybe the way to do that is actually to lean into it really hard, give it this final chance, and … well, give it the chance. Give myself the chance. Maybe something will come together. And maybe it will finally, at long last, collapse under its own weight and never get up again, and I will be able to move on and believe that it’s really happened.
So this month – what’s left of it – and next month, I’m going to be going hard as a motherfucker on Realm of the Myth. Everything else barring my MA goes on hold (I say that like it’s not on hold already this is actually an increase in my productivity) as I lean in and see how long it takes until something cracks. And maybe it won’t. Maybe it will actually finally start fucking working. Who knows, right? I’ve gotten it to almost work so many times. I just hate the idea of giving up just before I would have figured out a way to get it to finally work.
But I also know that that’s how these things suck you in. “Just one last try.” Sure it is.
Well, my compromise is the next … 37 days. Including today. And if that’s too long, then fuck it, it’s not worth the hassle trying to reach some kind of cathartic resolution to my prolonged escapade with this bullshit story. I’ll just have to accept that the only conclusion to this episode in my life is an anticlimax, and move the fuck on.
But not for another 37 days. Better make the most of them.