Setting Limits

Finished making revision notes on chapter 8 of Tallulah – it is so far the most fruitful chapter in terms of giving me material for the upcoming revision proper, as well as ending on a really weird relic of the previous draft (the first draft) that used to make sense as a bad, distracting idea and now makes no sense because that bad, distracting idea is no longer part of the story. This is part of the fun of revision, and the payoff of leaving a book for a while before coming back to look at it: it’s like archaeology, digging up the past, only it’s your past, and it can be rather interesting going through the experience of genuinely not being able to remember where the pieces that you find used to go.

I also wrote out a plan for my vampire novel. Yes, I do have one of those; it took me a while to come up with an idea that actually interested me, but now that I have it I am very attached to it. It used to have a title, but I’m not sure if I can use it anymore – it is a perfect fucking title though so I am attached to it, but I am afraid it has become a Darling and must therefore be killed. But I wrote out the plan because, looking at my premise, it is centered on an experience, and set of experiences, that I have basically no knowledge of. It’s really exciting to me and I would read/watch the hell out of it if somebody else did it, but I want to be the one to do it – the problem is not feeling up to the task of keeping the promises that the premise inherently makes. I have this issue with Tallulah as well, and having worked on it, on and off, for 5 years has made it easier and clearer, but still hasn’t solved the problem. Starting from scratch with this new one – newish anyway; I’ve had the idea since about 2013 but never actually got around to trying to write it – is trying to climb up another hill right from the bottom. This is a book that needs research done to make it as rewarding of a read as I want it to be, and for me as a writer, the more I know about this particular topic – politics, in this case, specifically career politics – the more opportunities to make and keep promises that are interesting I will have. The trouble is, as it often is with new books that have a cool premise and not much else: where do I start?

So, I wrote out a plan. I tend to not like writing out plans, because it’s very easy for me to get fixated on the plan and then never move past the planning stage, turning it into an infinite, self-replenishing cycle of hypotheticals and what-ifs. But in this case it went well, and my uber-leet hack skills developed from writing my shitty YA werewolf novel came back to the fore. I also had more of a reason to write out a plan for this book than just “well I don’t actually have any motivation to write this so I’ll write a plan to avoid the anxiety of the blank page. I need to do research, but I need to know where to start with that as well. So in writing the plan, I limited the scope of the research I will need to do; I don’t need to know everything, I just need to know about these things, the things that are relevant to my book. It’s still a lot of stuff, but it has become a somewhat more manageable task. Limitations foster creativity, this is true – they also let you cut down big, amorphous tasks into smaller, more clearly-defined ones.

I think this is probably the best reason I’ve ever had for writing a plan, because the reason for writing the plan is also limited, rather than just being a generic, vague excuse that gets me out of doing any work. I mean I didn’t write anything more after making the plan, but part of that is because I’m not sure now whether to draft that plan, or write the draft based around it and then draft that. And I think it’s probably the latter. Yes, there are some plot-holes and continuity errors in the plan as it stands, but those are easy enough to fix without risking devolving into another procrastination loop. I could fix them and then get started with writing, even probably without a ton of research. I think “I need to do research first” can also be a procrastination tool – and, as I am now indeed a proud self-proclaimed hack, I’m supposed to say “who needs research”? And I think that’s probably the smart thing to do at this point, because getting things written is more important than writing them well … to begin with, of course. One day I will indeed do the research, but until then I have a new thing to try out, in my new quest to try out my different book ideas and find out which ones stick, and which ones don’t.

Another reason I wrote out this plan was so that I would have things to think about with this story. I tend to think up characters and then fantasise about scenes taking place around them, without necessarily thinking of how those scenes might fit into the story they’re supposed to be in. I used to think of nothing but how the scenes in my head were going to be part of the story I was going to tell; I got excited about that shit. I haven’t done it in such a long time. So my theory is that if I actually have a set list of scenes that I have decided are going to happen, if I limit and specify the number of scenes that need to be created, then I can get some of that inspiration and excitement back by actually having something in particular to think about. It seems strange to put it into words, to make a plan just to think about a thing, but if I don’t make the plan I won’t do the thinking. And I gotta do the thinking. I want to do the thinking. It will make me feel good and shit.

Making this plan today felt productive, and making a plan for a book has not felt this productive for … 7 years? No, wow; 12 years. The first and only full draft of Realm of the Myth I ever wrote was also the only draft that I planned out beforehand, and it worked. I stuck to that plan. And it needed it. My shitty YA werewolf novel did not need a plan, because the point was to make a story up on the fly, and it worked out about as well as it possibly could have. But that story did, and this one does too. This isn’t something to hack my way through; this has to be more deliberate.

Although that doesn’t mean I can’t use my hack skills in other ways. It might not be a seat-of-the-pants, run-with-the-first-idea-that-comes-to-mind sprint, but the ideas themselves don’t have to be super original – again, to begin with. I’m trying to make myself more comfortable doing things this way, because writing at all is more important than writing well. So long as it’s written well before you submit it to an agent, everything up to that point just needs to be written, period. And I really, really want this thing to be written. I love this idea.

And hey, vampires. The last and only time I really did vampires, it was a weird kind of ripoff of Discworld. Also about 12 years ago. I never thought I’d write about vampires, perhaps because I came of age at a point in history where vampires were the most over-saturated and reviled form of Gothic monster in existence, so having an idea of how to explore what it means to be a vampire in a new way is very exciting to me.

And no, I’m not going to tell you about it. It’s not even written yet, and honestly while we do live in the age of self-promotion and over-disclosure, I’m still not comfortable with sharing my ideas online before I’ve had a chance to actually write them out in book form. It feels like they’ll be safer that way, though for all I know it would actually protect my intellectual property better if I just wrote out the premise here, published it online. I’m not sure how it all works.

I guess I should do some research?

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.


Full Steam Around

I mean yes, it’s pushing my progress bar up, and we all know progress bars only go “up” or “down” so, techincally, this is a case of “full steam ahead” but …

Maybe I should start somewhere else, actually …

So this afternoon I have been working on my chapter summarising for the second revision of Tallulah. It’s going well; I’ve got new toys to play with in an old playpen, and that feels very right. So much of what I’ve already got is actually perfectly fine, and just wants a bit of rearranging and recolouring to fit together in the way I want them to.

The reason why I’m thinking around is more appropriate than ahead is because of this focus on rearrangement as opposed to what I’d call “changes”; most of this story is going to stay the same in terms of its content, plot etc., but the story is changing, because its voice is undergoing a transformation – hitting puberty I guess – and while many events are staying the same, they’re being shifted around and given different emphasis to what they currently have. Some scenes will be filled-in more, some will be pared-down so that they take up less affective space. I’m recognising that the emotional impact of this story is a limited resource, and that I need to manage it carefully, and therefore that’s very much what I’m attempting to do with this revision: to re-negotiate the emotional stakes and how they’re offered to the audience, not so much what they are.

Although, yes, there is going to be some of that. I can’t just move things around; certain scenes may have to go altogether – I can think of a few – that I kept in for the first and only revision I’ve done so far because they approximated the emotional link that I needed between one scene/plot-point and another, if I twisted them a bit and packaged them a bit differently. And while that repackaging is exactly what I’m aiming to do with this second revision, I’m also going to be cutting a lot more ruthlessly, though not before thoroughly going through everything and identifying why it needs to go (or stay).

It is odd to do what you want to do and then find out that you don’t actually want to do it. Useful as well, but very odd. You’re supposed to know these things innately, aren’t you? You’re supposed to know not only what you want, but that you want it, as opposed to just liking the idea. But I suppose I should definitely know better by now, particularly when it comes to writing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve danced this same dance to this same tune, and that’s with this novel alone. It’s been a long three years, and I’m still going, and so much of it is the same. This revision is very much the same as the last revision in terms of content; I’m just looking to revise toward a different final product. Every task you can systematise is iterative to a large degree. One more reason this feels like going “around” rather than “ahead”.

But I know that it’s still going ahead, however it feels to me. And that’s good enough. I don’t have to feel it to be able to do it.