For the past month-ish, I have had a number of phone alarms that I’ve set up to try and get myself to do shit I’ve Always Meant To Do. These alarms have titles to go along with them, advertising their ostensible purpose. For instance, on Thursdays and Saturdays I have my 1 p.m. “Be A Responsible Adult” alarm, made specifically to make me look for jobs and consider the state of my CV with a mind to update where necessary. I have my “Walkies” alarm at 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; I have my “Revision, Bitch” alarm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I have “Writing” every day of the week at 4 p.m.
I also have corresponding alarms telling me to stop doing these things, except for “Walkies”, which has its own built-in stopping-point. Occasionally these alarms go off and annoy other people in the house when I’m not there to turn them off. As a result, these are now calendar notifications instead of alarms, and will blip once like a text notification instead of playing the god-awful pre-packaged phone jingle that I can’t seem to change or customise in any way for five minutes straight, and again every five minutes until I finally arrive to turn it off.
They have not been effective.
Okay, they have been partially effective, or perhaps I should say selectively effective. “Walkies” is probably the one that works the best, which, hey, is something to be pleased with. Exercise is hard. “Writing” not so much. “Revision, Bitch” – I’ll leave that up to your imagination, because it’s probably more impressive than the reality has been. “Be A Responsible Adult” is the one where I finally started to think “maybe the reason I’ve only set this alarm up for 2 seemingly unrelated days per week is because I want to make it as easy as possible to dismiss such a repulsive notion and I’m intentionally sabotaging my efforts to make it happen because I don’t want to put effort into making it happen because I’m not a responsible adult”.
What has happened, though, is that I’ve continued coming around to newer ideas for things that I’d want to write, and yesterday while writing some outlines I hit upon an obvious problem, and a solution to the problem at the same time. The problem, as I’ve lamented before, is that whenever I plan out a story, I lose interest in it. Whenever I start devoting entire folds full of Word documents containing my plans and outlines for a story, I find that while I have ideas, I have no passion for making them come to life on the page, no desire for the story that these ideas supposedly constitute to be told. I was about to get very frustrated with myself for not having a better way of doing things, because while I knew that planning things out tended to kill my passion for those very things, I also needed a way to organise enough of my ideas so that I had a clear focus that I could refer back to if I got stuck or lost.
And then, the obvious solution came to me.
Don’t write a plan just to have a plan. Write a plan when you have a plan.
I tend to write outlines based on the idea that, if I want to be responsible about whatever story I’m writing, I need to have it planned out in advance so that I can be precise and exact and deliberate with what I’m writing. I don’t know where I got this idea, only that a lot of guilt and shame is involved in knowing that it’s not the way I operate. But the problem with that, as I now know, is that it’s not making an outline; it’s brainstorming. An outline is for when you’ve already had the brainstorm. And my brainstorms, when I recognised them for what they were, had no passion in them. I had somehow cut out the part in my creative process where the excitement of discovery and new ideas happen and gone straight to the part where I write it all down so that I don’t forget it, or so that if I do forget it I have a way to remember. And that’s the part that I want to get back.
The way to get it back, I think, is to just let myself think. To put ideas together in my head until they get interesting, and then write that down. Writing as safety netting, in a sense, rather than writing as an instruction manual – which makes sense with a new story in particular, because how can you write an instruction manual when you don’t even know what you need the instructions for yet?
So at the moment I’m just trying to let myself think, to be patient, and wait until I have something worth writing about before I get going. I am confident that this will work, but it also means that I have to be a bit more willing to drop everything and write down cool ideas when they come to me – and also to, like, write the fucking story. Which is maybe a little while down the road, because I haven’t had the cool idea that I want yet.
Also because I have a couple of full drafts of books that I do feel a responsibility to explore further, but that’s another consideration.
I’ve also been reading, though I have to confess that it got harder when I found that other people had borrowed the books that I wanted to borrow before I could, and had to put actual effort into thinking of what I’d like to read instead. It’s been good, in the sense that I’ve had to expand my horizons beyond The Dresden Files – not that I don’t enjoy that series quite a lot, but I definitely don’t want to only read that series, however easy it would be to do exactly that – and even got around to finishing up the Rebel Belle YA series that I started back in … 2014? It was right around the end of my YA kick, one of the last ones I read (and one of the main reasons my YA kick ended). I liked the premise, the lead character, and the generally light, energetic tone of the first book in particular, but when I finished the second book (not as interesting, and definitely not as memorable) the third had yet to be published, and I kind of forgot about it. The reason it ended my YA kick, by the way, is because I was so excited at how this book had things like pacing, things actually happening, characters who I was supposed to like that I did actually like – which all sounds good, until I realised that what was so refreshing about the book was that it was basically written competently, and so much of the other YA stuff I’d been reading was not. That killed the passion pretty effectively, and I haven’t gone back to YA since.
Until now. I finally got my hands on Lady Renegades, and while neither of the sequels are quite as engaging or exciting as the first book, I was happy to see what happened to Harper and the resolution of the plot. It’s the kind of ending that I wouldn’t expect to like, generally, but I like Harper quite a lot, and the fact that she ended the series happy was enough for me.
I also got around to reading The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which I’m trying to write a review of that may or may not ever get finished. I liked it, and it took me a while to get into it. I realised halfway through that it was a pretty perfect anti-Twilight, deconstructing a lot of the problematic tropes (but not all of them) inherent in that series, but mostly what it reminded me of was The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is one of my favourite books. It has a humane balance of sadness and hope that has a strong family resemblance to Tombs, no matter how much like an overt Twilight deconstruction it is on the surface. It’s all about the emotional and thematic core to me, and both Coldtown and Tombs use metaphor in similar ways, and similarly powerful. I recommend it.
Currently I am reading, and probably not finishing, The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher, seeing as at the time I was looking at about a month of waiting before I could continue the Dresden Files series. This is a high fantasy novel about airships, a “steampunk” setting that makes me roll my eyes at the idea that what people will classify as “steampunk” has any sort of coherence to it – it’s just non-electricity-based technology, and even that’s not quite true – and while I do like the setting and find Butcher’s pacing and structure a refreshing change from the usual flavourless drivel that I’ve come to expect from the genre … I have to say, there’s something about how odious high fantasy can be that actually makes sense for the genre. The fact that it does linger on the details, rather than surging from one scene to the next in the way that your typical UA novel will, gives the genre a feeling of weighty consideration. This can often become an oppressive weight, and the purple prose that often accompanies such consideration is tiresome to say the least, but it made me realise that there are actually things about the genre that I at least expect to see in a book belonging to it, even if I don’t actually like them in practice a lot of the time. I want a slightly slower burn; I want something a little less dynamic and more deliberate. The Hero and the Crown probably falls on the opposite side of that balance for me; where Butcher’s book is a little too fast-paced where it should be steadier and more considerate of the steps its taking, McKinley’s book took me several months to read the first half of. As I said in my review, I’m very glad that I did finish it, but I definitely like my books, whatever the genre or pace, to make it a little more appetising of a prospect to me as a reader.
The Aeronaut’s Windlass also suffers from what seems like poor characterisation, with at least one chapter all about one character trying to suss out another that offers us not so much character insight as incomplete character backstory. The POV character for the chapter starts off suspicious, and ends the chapter suspicious for exactly the same reasons. The chapter, in other words, does nothing, and in a book that’s already really fucking long – over 600 pages, and I’m not even halfway through yet while the book is due back tomorrow – while it may seem counterintuitive, you cannot afford to have filler. Filler in a short book is bad enough, because there’s so little of it to begin with. Filler in a long book is bad for a different reason: it’s a real effort to commit to reading a long book to begin with, and being rewarded for your efforts with stuff like this just feels like a slap in the face.
There’s other stuff, too, like most of the characters reading like authorial mouthpieces, and when there are several main characters – so far there are seven – that shit gets obnoxious really quickly. The reason they sound like authorial mouthpieces is not because of what their political stances are and I think that’s what Jim Butcher believes or anything like that. It’s because they’re all so fucking reasonable, and they’re reasonable in the same way. It’s kind of like how all of Joss Whedon’s characters sound the same, except at least with Joss Whedon you generally have different actors playing these characters who can differentiate them, even with similar dialogue, whereas in a book you’ve just got writing, and it’s the same writing for every character. I don’t have a problem with characters being reasonable – in fact a lot of the time I wish characters in books I read were more reasonable – but it does feel in places like this is an effort by Butcher to counter that common critique of fiction in general, and it’s ended up causing a different problem altogether. It’s not even that they’re so reasonable that all the potential issues and conflicts in the story are overcome just by talking; it’s just that they are reasonable in the same kind of way, using the same kind of deductive, procedural dialogue to spell things out, and it’s really freaking annoying. I’m not sure I want to read another 350+ pages of it, is what I’m saying, and it’s a shame, because the setting is really quite awesome. I like airships; I like the idea of humanity living in floating cities (we haven’t been told why yet, and it’s not really important to me to find out). I like the technology, and I like the way that explanations of the technology and its history are pretty much entirely left out in favour of just showing it off. It’s not even like I hate the characters, at least on paper. But it is just a bit too samey for me. If I had the book for a few more days, I think I would definitely finish it just to see what happens, but I’m also not exactly brokenhearted that I have to return it tomorrow.
The one thing I will say for it is that, while this may not seem like particularly high praise, at least it got written. As a writer, that’s probably the highest praise – and most infuriating – that I can give, because writing is fucking hard. I made a decision a while ago to take the “just do it” approach, which was the inspiration for setting my alarms and shit. It hasn’t worked. It has never worked. That’s not to say that it won’t, one day, but it is to say that as of yet it isn’t working, and the long history of it not working makes it all the more difficult for me to keep trying to get it to stick.
I do think, though, that perhaps my approach needs to change. Rather than just writing for writing’s sake, perhaps I would do better devoting myself to the completion of projects, whether that involves writing, reading, talking, thinking, whatever. I do think some sort of regular writing every day or every set number of days per week is a good idea, but I do have these manuscripts that await my attention, and in the meantime, while I’m excited at the prospect of waiting for new ideas to inspire me, I don’t have any right now. I don’t really have anything new to write. So perhaps the best thing I can do is to instead work on the stuff I’ve already started writing, and see what I can do with that.
And keep reading, too. New ideas need somewhere to come from.