writing

I’m Doing This Backwards

I’ve been working for several weeks on an idea for a novella. It started with an idea that wasn’t very “high-concept”, which I usually try to avoid. Before long I realized that all my favorite parts of the idea were the character bits—the parts that got me choked up just thinking about them.

This is not how I operate. I do hook first—always the hook first, so I know why anyone would even think about reading the story. I do not do character bits first.

Now I’m trying to retrofit this character arc onto an actual concept that can hold together a fantasy storyline people actually want to read. It’s brutal. I keep sitting down with my spiral and my 3x5s and cranking on mind maps and outlines every weekend until I think, “Yeah, that’s it, right?” But some tiny part of my brain always knows that’s not it. So I spend the work week mulling over the story, then sit down on Saturday determined to nail the outline for good this time.

And by the end of the weekend I think, “Yeah, that’s it, right?”

Nope.

Building a plot around character beats. Not the way I do things.

Numbering My Days

Sometimes, at the end of the weekend, when the advent of Monday morning begins to steal the last few hours of Sunday evening, I feel the weight of my accumulated days dragging at me. I lie down to sleep fighting the urge to count the remaining weeks in the calendar year, as if the fear of another December come and gone will lend some urgency to my choices.

I can stave off this dread by making some sort of vaguely-defined meaningful “progress” on one of the creative projects by which I have come to measure my own self-worth. Even writing this post indicates a final desperate attempt to end the weekend on a higher note—to brand the fading memory of Sunday with a sense of accomplishment rather than futility.

“Teach me to number my days.” The more I internalize this, the better I get at choosing to spend my time in ways that will make me feel hopeful, empowered, and alive.

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
George Orwell

You Just Shouldn't

If your response to something you dislike or disagree with in your chosen subculture is, “I just can’t with this,” you’re writing in the wrong place.

Non-writers can afford the luxury of being too triggered or disgusted to respond to something. Writers focusing on one particular niche topic may feel free to disregard or shrug off ideas in a different niche than their own. But if an idea in your subculture starts to gain traction—any attention or viability at all—excusing yourself from the conversation with “I just can’t with this” probably means you should excuse yourself from the conversation entirely.

This isn’t a knock against people who have wounds or trauma that make it too difficult for them to address certain subjects. And it may just mean you need to narrow your focus. For example, if you, a fashion blogger, have experienced emotional trauma from fat-shaming such that you can’t write about body image issues, fine: you’re a fashion blogger who doesn’t write about body image. If, on the other hand, you claim to be a fashion blogger who does want to address body issues, but every fifth article you read on the subject makes you shut down for the day, you probably need to stop writing on this subject.

I can hear you thinking now, “Oh sure, invalidate my opinions because of their strong emotional component.” Nope. Your opinions are totally valid. Your status as a writer is not. If you want to have a voice in a certain discussion, you have to be present for the entire discussion. Nice, considerate people—people who already feel kindly-disposed to you and eager to hear your thoughts (that is, the core of your existing audience)—will listen to whatever you have to say, even if you need to duck out of the conversation halfway through. If you want everyone else to pay attention to you, though, you’re going to have to grit your teeth and stay in the conversation, refusing to back down in the face of not only strong, direct opposition but unintentional triggering as well.

If you want to call yourself A Writer, you don’t get a choice about this. Do you think war correspondents with PTSD get to keep their beat as long as they don’t have to see anything too grisly?

Some Love (and a Little Hate) for Comics

I was thinking this morning about the amount of time and mental energy I give to indie comics and wondering if I should spend more time reading screenplays and online short stories instead. For example, if you’ve been paying attention to my recent posts you’ve probably seen references to at least some of the following:

And these aren’t even all the comics I read–just the ones I love the most and spend the most time on.

Later in the day I decided that the answer is: No, I don’t spend too much time on these. It seems like a lot in the aggregate, but really it only takes a few seconds to read a comic page, so even the ones that update daily don’t usurp too much of my attention.

(I’m going to conveniently ignore the time I spend re-reading the same ones over and over. Scary Go Round, I’m looking at you, you sexy, addictive beast.)

Anyway, even the comics that suck up a significant portion of my time are ultimately still “literature”, and they provide most, if not all, the same benefits that reading narrative fiction or watching movies provide.

For exmple, I’ve been puzzling over why the characters in Scary Go Round are so very delightful and endearing. You’ll have to go read it yourself or just take my word for it, but the majority of the characters are selfish, blindly-inconsiderate people with no real ethics of any kind. You should really hate them, and you would if you knew them in real life, so why do I actually love them so very much? I finally figured it out (I think): because they’re all just big kids.

John Allison, the writer of Scary Go Round and Bad Machinery, gets away with writing alarmingly near-sociopathic characters because he writes them like 5th-graders–non-empathetic beings full of life and cheeriness and curiosity. They can be thoughtlessly cruel one moment and overwhelmingly affectionate the next, then throw relationship out the window to wander off on some vain and quixotic adventure.

This may have significance for me because I struggle with giving my characters flaws. Maybe my way into creating people who have actual bad qualities lies somewhere in this notion of turning them into pre-adolescents, who can be forgiven because they’re just so damned cute.

Urgh. Don’t judge that last sentence too harshly; I’m still following up this train of thought.

Anyway, Shut Up! I’ll keep reading comics if I want, and you should, too. Start with the ones I listed; if you like one of them, move on to other comics they recommend.

For example, Gunnerkrigg Court is a particularly wonderful blend of sci-fi and fantasy and British boarding schools.

Don't Be Precious

No, not the depressing movie about the pregnant girl. The character quality (definition #3 is the one I mean).

Today I had coffee with a producer-friend so he could ruthlessly slash the proposed budget for Murder! and tear apart the synopsis I’d written for the one-sheet.

And I let him.

Back when I was but a young wart hog I probably would have bridled and argued and resisted change. Thankfully, subsequent years of critiques from my good friends and fellow writers have softened me.

So I took his notes (where by “take his notes” I mean that I typed out verbatim what he suggested). And you know what? The synopsis was better for it.

So don’t be precious with your words. Or art. Or whatever it is you do as your creative outlet. Do you want to be better and more successful as an artist, or do you just want praise?

Ah, Truisms.

I’m really starting to realize the validity of the idea that you should only write what you’re passionate about.

Plunk me down in the middle of a draft, two months into writing (since I have the discipline of a kitten), and I won’t have the faintest idea what the career implications of this project are.

I won’t remember why I started this stupid script. I won’t be able to think straight about whether I could use it to whip up any interest from an agent. Or a producer. Or anyone who matters.

The only thing I’ll be able to tell you is whether I’m enjoying what I’m doing. So it better be something I enjoy, or most of the motivation goes straight out the window.

There is the odd exception. Like that rom-com that I kept working on (and will continue to work on later) simply because it was such a beautiful, golden, commercial idea (with a correspondingly golden title) that I couldn’t justify not finishing it. But ordinarily, I’m going to have to be really stoked about what I’m doing, or despair quickly sets it.

Which is why this book adaptation is so great. In addition to being easy to write, as I’ve mentioned over and over and over, it’s just the kind of story I really like. It’s a movie I would race to the theater to see: dark, compelling, and full of veiled metaphysical ponderings.

My only regret about writing it is that I won’t be able to take any credit if it turns out to be great. All that credit will have to go straight to the author. *Sigh*

But if by some wild chance it got made, I would be so excited to see it. And that’s the kind of thing to write.