Baby Steps

It’s happening. Ish.

I’ve actually sat down and done some writing today – not proper writing, mind you, but reading over a few older projects and coming up with some new insights and ideas that are getting me excited to actually get around to proper writing. That whole D&D-inspired thing has shifted to being more of a reboot of an old premise of mine, because for one I can’t actually write a D&D-inspired story set in a D&D-inspired world without running up against copyright issues, and for two I don’t actually want to write D&D. But it was a good launching-pad, and that’s really all I need right now: momentum. And slowly but surely, I am getting some of it back.

I’m considering changing my strategy for waking up earlier by incrementally conditioning myself to wake up slightly earlier every morning until I’m ideally waking up really early. I might just set my alarm for 7:30 and see what happens. Though I predict that what will happen is that I’ll go right back to sleep, so maybe not.

But I am craving a bit of a writing marathon right now, and while I can do a lot of writing in the evenings I much prefer the idea of starting off the day with writing. I might look into getting 2 lots of writing done, one in the morning and another later in the day, if things go well with this experiment.

In any case … I really haven’t done very much writing this year, and it feels like a very long time since I’ve put writing off for this long. And things have changed. I don’t feel like I have to write anymore, but I do feel like I’m missing out on something by not choosing to do it. I want to write. Not necessarily because the ideas that I have are filling me with passion, but more because they are ideas that I have and I want to express and work with them. It’s not so much about what I have to say as it is that I have the opportunity to say it. It’s a big change to how things used to be. A lot less pressure, for one.

It’s going somewhere.

I think I will set my alarm earlier. I’m in the mood to dive in.

Cross-disciplinary action

It turns out that I actually grossly underestimate myself, because according to my thesis supervisor my thesis is going really well.

This assessment comes after meeting with him today to discuss the revised chapter breakdown I sent to him – we also inevitably discussed a lot more than that, and he reckons I’ve got a really solid, original angle to approach this topic from and that I’ll probably be ready to start writing the actual thesis thing by October.

Interestingly, I agree with him.

I was expecting to sort of nod and laugh and agree and then walk away in a cold sweat of terror at being expected to start writing a thesis in three weeks, but the truth is that I actually think his assessment is accurate to my ability to perform. I can do it.

And I think it’s because part of my not taking study as seriously as I probably should is that I think it’s going to be harder than it actually is.

I mean who knows; in three weeks time I may discover that I’m just as inadequate as I think I am and that I have no business being anywhere within ten miles of a university, let alone Masters level study, but I don’t think that’s true. I think I’m actually prepared for this.

What I also think is that this thesis is going so well that I need to find a way to apply whatever’s working in this process to my other writing process: my novel-writing process.

This thesis goes against everything I do when I write creatively. I have a fucking chapter breakdown. I don’t even have a rough plan – that I like – that I’m using for Tallulah. I have plenty of notes, but they’re the note equivalent of a motorway pileup; I don’t know where it started, certain notes only make sense if you take them in the context of older notes that I have completely forgotten I ever wrote and therefore am not assuming are in play, and all I know is that it is a pileup and I’m stuck in the middle of it.

No wonder I don’t want to write it.

The other thing is that trying to apply “whatever it is that’s working” in my thesis to my novels is a really big, broad, vague statement. And I mean honestly, what’s working with my thesis is that I have a supervisor who I am accountable to for my work, or lack thereof. I can’t really translate that into my writing process.

Or can I?

Is the answer obvious enough yet?

It’s yes. Yes I can.

I need a proper wall-planner. That’s the first step. That’s going to be my “supervisor” for whatever novel-writing project to embark upon.

I also need a plan. A plan can change, but in order for that change to be meaningful I need to practice what I used to preach back in the early days of this blog: be able to both commit entirely to a plan and reserve the right to completely change my mind at any time. Because that is what’s working with this thesis. However the other thing that’s working is having somebody to bounce ideas off. I can’t really do that by myself, no matter how committed-yet-changeable I am, regardless of how wall-planner-y my wall planner is.

What I can do, though, is read a lot of stuff that seems similar to what I’m writing, and just read a lot about writing in general.

I can learn craft.

hate the idea of learning craft.

But I also love it, and I think at the very least it’s a kind of sounding-board. I love narrative structure and conventions and all the rest of it, so it actually makes a lot of sense. And I’ll disagree with tons of it anyway so I probably won’t become a mindless sheep just by finding out what Robert McKee has to say about the Hero’s Journey. I probably won’t have my entire identity replaced by a line-toeing brain slug just by learning craft.

And, of course, I can invest in something like Nanowrimo, or a writing community, if I want people to bounce ideas off and talk shop with.

The answer to my issue, the way to apply what’s working with my thesis-writing to my novel-writing, is to take it seriously. To invest, rather than theorise and assume. To treat it as something I’m living through rather than something I could or could not “do”, as if it’s in some “doing things” space that I can choose to visit or not visit. The answer is to treat it as the material that I am constructed from.

This year I came to the life-changing conclusion that I’m not a Writer. I still maintain that.

But I can still act like one.

And the thing is, I can take what’s working about my thesis and apply it to anything I want to do, from finally starting my YouTube channel to my exercise and diet to drawing or playing guitar or singing every day. I just need to approach it as something I’m living, rather than something I’m just interacting with. Because you don’t get the motivation to do things, sometimes, until after you start doing them.

So, in short, my plan is this:

  • Get a better wall-planner and find a place to actually put it so that I can actually use it to keep me on track
  • Read books in my field (genre is probably not going to work out); read books on craft (such as finishing Joseph Campbell)
  • Make a chapter breakdown (which actually did work for my first revision of Tallulah go figure)
  • Seek out other writers
  • After recovering from my anxiety-induced coma, talk shop with said other writers

I sense I’m still waffling on those last two, but the first three seem doable.

Who ever said an Arts degree wouldn’t give you any life skills?

Let’s see this through.

Push

Well, I will.

So what if I’m “not a writer”? I can still do all the same stuff, right? Like pushing on through a bad writing day, a lack of inspiration, that sort of thing? Just write some bad shit, allow it to be bad and then pick it up later?

I think at this point in my life I actually love how fast my mood can swing, how quickly and completely my motives and justifications for what I will or won’t do can flip over. It’s fantastic. Mostly because it’s amusing. What kind of person is like this?

To be fair, it’s only for writing, and writing is such a fickle habit with me. It’s so reliant on my mood, simply because that’s how I’ve trained myself to write – well, “trained” is a bit generous (or harsh, depending on how you take it); “conditioned” is more accurate. It’s just what ended up happening. My discipline went into ensuring, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that no matter what happened I would always go with my mood when deciding whether or not to attempt … well, anything. If I don’t want to do it, then why bother?

Some ideas don’t come until you write the damn thing.

This means you have to write the damn thing.

And the beautiful thing is that I don’t have to; as I covered a couple of posts back, my new stance on writing as a priority is that it is a priority within the context of being a task that I undertake for zero financial gain or other extrinsic rewards. It is something that I do for me, so why not just be really moody and fickle about it? It’s not like I’m getting anything out of it other than personal satisfaction.

But the flipside of that is that, if I so desire, I can treat it more seriously, as though I’m doing it as a job or it’s the most important thing in the world. I can push through the slumps and the bad writing days; I can persevere and write something that sucks and leave it be until it comes time to revise. I can do all of that.

The part that makes it work for me now when it hasn’t for, I dunno, ever, is that now I no longer feel that I have to. I don’t need good writing habits; I don’t need to “finish”. I just can.

So why not?

Hell, why not go hole up in an abandoned caravan in the woods and write an entire manuscript with pen and paper? Other than that it sounds really unhygenic and also boring and terrifying. But the possibilities are endless when you aren’t making yourself have to do things.

And that’s important – writing is something that I make myself do. It is not a need. Not in the usual sense. I do need to tell stories, but it’s not like breathing air or drinking water. It’s more like I need to tell someone how I feel if I’m in a shitty mood or really excited about something; it’s an urge that won’t go away, and if left to fade away by itself it leaves a certain weight in its wake, a reminder that the opportunity passed and a chance at fulfillment, even if only for a moment, has been lost forever. That weight adds up over time. I won’t die from it, but I’ll feel it forever, in my habits, in the path that I lead from that decision.

I’m saying this now because a writer and blogger who I’ve followed pretty much since I started this blog, Shannon A. Thompson, just recently lost her publisher. It really sucks. When I’ve had time to do so, reading her posts has always inspired me to push myself a little bit further along in whatever writing project I’m currently working on, and her energy for self-promotion is something I find absolutely mind-boggling. I don’t know how she does it, but she does, and for that reason I am certain that, as awful as this situation is, she will find a way through it and go onto bigger and better things.

And also for that reason, I want to give it a shot myself. Push through and get somewhere beyond where I’m at now. I don’t have to. I’m not relying on my writing for a living. But maybe if I give it a shot, I’ll get there without even meaning to.

Never mind the whole thing where being a published author for a career has been my life’s ambition since I was 13 years old; this is 2015 y’all. Things change.

And since I tried revisiting Tallulah the other day just to check up and see where we are only to find that we’re good, but not quite “there” yet – I’ve got some choices. Potentially another book to marathon through; potentially another couple of years of ranting about my writing, which is supposedly what this blog is my platform for doing anyway. I do hope I’ll go back to Tallulah long before this year is up. But if not, I hope I’ll find some story, or stories, that I want to tell.

In the meantime, I’m gonna give myself a little push.

Running up that hill

What little I know of Kate Bush is that she is a very talented woman – the constant comparisons to Tori Amos don’t make any sense to me, but whatevs. This is kind of beside the point, but the fact that she sings a song about running up a hill is rather important to me tonight, because essentially that’s what today has felt like.

I had Ideas about What I would Do today, and none of them came to fruition. It’s because they weren’t plans. It’s because I just sort of thought ‘well I have like 12 hours to play with, surely I can make myself use some portion of that to further my goals’. Mostly, though, it’s because I didn’t want to do it.

It’s not that simple, though. The more time spent not doing it was time spent wishing that I was doing it. But I am still actually not sure what ‘it’ is, nor how to measure it, what kind of units to break this task down into, how to tell when something has been accomplished with my time spent doing ‘it’ …

It’s work. And it’s not just task-oriented; it’s operationally-oriented. I can do tasks fine. Activities, even. I can do a mean activity. Operations, on the other hand, the big sequences of tasks and activites that are bundled together in an order of due process in order to reach a certain goal – a goal that, for whatever reason, every fibre of my being screams at me ‘oh HELL no’ in response to – that’s like Kryptonite to the Superman of my motivation. I don’t know why I don’t want to ‘do it’, but I sure don’t. That I know with resounding clarity.

And it feels, exactly, like being back at university, and putting off that assignment, just one more day, just one more day isn’t going to hurt, blah blah blah …

It’s no good saying I’ll do it tomorrow. Today was tomorrow yesterday. Things are still not done. Tomorrow means nothing.

So. Analysis time.

Last night, after I wrote my post, I thought to myself: ‘Well, tomorrow I’ll Find My Voice and then Do Some Planning, and I have plenty of time to do it in’. Today, I didn’t know what to turn that into; there was no intuitive process of ‘breaking it down’ that I could think of, and so I ended up playing computer games instead. So obviously, somehow, I need to take this very broad generalisation that I’ve given myself by way of a ‘plan’ and find some way to translate it into a series of clear-cut micro-tasks, something more tangible and coherent, something that I don’t have to think about while I’m doing it.

So the first question is: What Am I Doing?

  • I am taking my existing manuscript, looking at how the series of events currently plays out, comparing it to what I want to happen in my head, and then making as many alterations – not changes – to the existing structure as I can in order to meet up with what I wanted to happen in my mind, relying on what’s already there instead of an overhaul.
  • Writing a synopsis of what I want to happen in the story – only what I know I want to happen and not trying to tie up loose ends yet – could help me to clarify that and hold that image, and help me to find the Voice of the story. I already have a synopsis or two floating around somewhere, so I could use those as a template, but I’ll probably want to write a new one. At least one new one.
  • The story is divided into chapters already, and each chapter is at least somewhat episodic in nature. That means that each chapter is sort of like a mini-story in and of itself. And I have made notes on every chapter, including an endnote for each chapter that summarises what the chapter ‘does’ in its current state and my thoughts on how it contributes to the overall story, both in terms of what happens and in terms of when it is happening. This is a good starting-point, because it is (fairly) succinct and clear analysis of the kind that I am looking for in terms of what I want to move around and where I want it moved to, and why.
  • I also have a document with chapter-by-chapter summaries that I wrote after finishing each chapter (slightly idealised to reflect what I imagined the chapter to be more than what it actually was, so I don’t know how useful that is, but it’s worth looking into).

All right. So, I have notes for each chapter, a synposis (or more) for an overview of what I want to happen in the story, and chapter summaries.

My idea right now is, using my existing manuscript as the basis, write a synopsis of what happens. Then I want to compare what happens to my old synopsis (if it’s in good working order) of what I wanted to happen, and see where the disparities are, and if there are any solutions that currently exist within the synopsis of what happens that I can use to make it more like what I want to happen.

So essentially, my first task is to do some comparative research and analysis on two synopses.

I can do that. I can do the hell out of that.

And how will I measure my progress? Well, the first thing to do, I think, is to write my new synopsis, the one that represents the entirety of the current manuscript. This means, at the very least, going back through the endnotes and seeing what my thoughts were. But it might actually end up mean reading the manuscript all over again. And since I just did that, and it took like three months, and I’m looking to start university in less than one (if I do indeed go back), I am not super-psyched about that – so I’ll see how I go on the endnotes.

This synopsis must also be broken down into events. Scenes. Interactions. Whatever – they need to be broken down and unitised so that I can more easily shift them around.

After writing that synopsis, I will go back and find my original synopsis, and then do the whole comparison thing, looking for ways to shift things around in the current manuscript in order to better match my ideal, and also looking at where the gaps in my vision are that can also be filled by what I’ve written.

Here is the issue: I actually don’t think that I have an original synopsis, at least not a ‘clear’ one – if I have a synopsis, then it’s full of attempts to bridge big gaps instead of just being a list of the things that I wanted to happen. So if I don’t have one, and I can’t use that document of summaries of each chapter for whatever reason (though I almost certainly can), I’ll have to write a new one. One that is honestly what I want to happen, and without worrying about how. That’s what the other synopsis is for.

The theory here is that, once both of these synopses are written, I can ‘overlay’ them and all the holes in the first will be filled up by the second and vice versa, and between the two of them I may have the story that I’m looking for.

That’s where I’m starting, anyway. If I knew it would work, I would have done it already. I’m worried that it’ll end up being a huge waste of time. But I need to get moving.

And I also need a next step to look forward to. Because I did actually try writing a synopsis a month or so ago, and it ended up not working out because, again, I jumped the gun and tried to fill in the gaps that I knew were there. I have to include the gaps this time; I have to accept that my vision for what the story should be may well not be complete, and include that incompleteness, because that is part of the vision, and I need to see the whole thing. I need an accurate map, so that I can get to where I want to go safely, and then do the necessary terraforming after the initial area-scan.

So the next step, after writing these synopses, is to take the scenes and shift them around until they feel right. And I have no idea how long that’s going to take, so I’ll just have to mark off whether I’ve done it or not every day, until it’s done. Rather than giving myself a window of time every day, though, I think I’ll give myself a deadline. That way, at the very least, I can get some last-minute adrenalin, because while it was far from ideal, some of my best essays have come from waiting until the last minute (though to be fair, almost all of my essays were written at the last minute anyway, so that’s not saying much).

I give myself until the 17th to get those two synopses written, and until the 22nd to have a synopsis from which to work so that I can get started on draft 2.

And that is something that I don’t know what to do with, but seriously this is good for today, I’ll work that out later, once the work actually starts getting done.

Deadlines and units. And a wall-planner. That’s what I need. I can’t say ‘work from X until Y’, but I can say ‘have work completed by Z’. That works for me. A deadline will help me bypass the ambiguity of how I’m supposed to measure my progress, cognitively if not logistically, and take the pressure off trying to think my way out of it instead of working through it. The logistics are taken care of by unitising, so that I have something tactile and tangible to work with. And the wall-planner is there to provide the only adhesive that can hold this ship together: accountability. This needs to get done. I need to do this. So I need to be accountable for it.

And that, ladies, gentlemen, and everyone else, is how you run uphill.