As I mentioned on Twitter the other day, I finished a draft of a new novel.
It’s only a rough draft of what was once a short story that was trying to do too much and now may well be a novel that’s doing *just* enough.
At the beginning of the year, I took part in the Crystal Lake Mentorship programme (which was fantastic!) and I got a lot of great notes on this particular story from none other than Stephanie Wytovich.
The most important of which was slowing way the hell down and exploring the things I was writing.
However, as I was writing another novel at the time it took a few months to gear up to writing this one but — checks notes — around mid May according to my file dates I started trying to flesh out the story in earnest.
Overall, I’m really happy with the result but it’s very different from what I thought I’d have. It began as a retelling of the Pied Piper and then just veered far off the beaten track with new characters, locations, and monsters appearing throughout.
So I have a LOT of rewriting and restructuring to do but I’m suuuper happy with the idea and the characters and world have a lot of fire and energy.
Side note, I haven’t done anything on this site in months, so maybe I need to revamp things a little. New picture maybe.
‘Writing updates’ as a genre provide such a dopamine kick. (Particularly on social media but you also enjoy telling your very patient and supportive girlfriend, too.)
You have no “following” but simply writing something about the routine of writing, how it’s going well or badly, dispatches into the vast space of The Net provides a sort of Feel-Good-INC. euphoria. Melancholic but hopeful.
You feel suspicious of it though. It’s self-congratulatory before you’ve even done anything, right? Or is it? Have you done anything by writing for an hour? Twenty minutes? Five? At all? Do you deserve dopamine?
Sometimes writing doesn’t “go great”. You may feel bad then. Most writing days, you come to realise, are fine to shitty. Making time for it is the achievement then. This is all there is. Being okay with that.
But then you can’t update anyone. You have to stay quiet for a bit. And then people might politely ask, how’s your writing going? And you go, yeahhh, and make a face, maybe laugh it off. But now you hear yourself and how self-regarding you are and you realise that you sound like a baby playing an incredibly low-stakes game.
And then you feel bad again.
It’s a self perpetuating cycle and the repetitive nature of
a) telling yourself “I am enjoying this and feeling good” or “Today was bad I didn’t write (well/ enough/at all)”,
b) giving anyone who will listen a State of the Union address on your Writing (with a capital W)
feels like the equivalent of tonguing a particularly malevolent mouth ulcer.
You go to bed marking the days since you started this project. How that will affect how people “see” your work etc etc. The list of these tiny, self-made irritants is long… and annoying to recount.
You remind yourself that none of this matters. No one cares. Not a single person is bothered if you finish that story, flesh out that character, study The Great Works or anything else you tell yourself is important. It’s just you.
In it he talks about a writer’s anxiety to move away from the claustrophobia of the sentence onto the next one and ultimately leave behind pages of unfulfilled prose.
The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language.
Gary Lutz, The Sentence is a Lonely Place, The Believer
After reading George Saunders’ Paris Review interview earlier in the week, I’d started playing around with words more and trying to figure out how I could be a better writer on the sentence level. So Lutz’s essay really spoke to how I was feeling.
Writing was, for yet another reason, becoming great fun… This particular joy kept up for about three days.
All this would have been fine by itself. Clustered together, however, it came to a head this morning.
I started rereading a passage I’d been working on from an opening chapter and I just couldn’t get past it.
So far, so normal.
I read, reread, moved things around, edited, reread, edited, read under my breath, edited, finally at last moved past it only to come back later on (30 seconds maybe) thinking about a million questions which don’t really need answering in the drafting stage I’m currently in.
Does that sentence use assonance in a subtle way? How could I double up the l and k sound here? Is there tension within the scene, what about the pacing? Are there enough stressed syllables in the sentence? And so on, and on, ad nauseam.
The claustrophobia was now firmly in my own head which should really be the most wide open space.
I stopped writing. Stepped away from my computer and assessed my problem.
A brain-cleanse is in order. I’m not sure what that would entail (is there a brain scrub on the market?) But it’s a comin’.
I did some work on the novel this morning before work. Came up with a pretty great scene that takes place largely before the point at which I started my narrative.
I knew that scene was there, all along. Skulking in the shadows.
The problem–as is always the problem with coming up with new beginnings halfway through–is that it wouldn’t necessarily fit with the current narrative structure. It would require moving things there over here, replacing that with this and so on, and so on… But I think it’d work far better.
Writing, am I right?
Must he retreat into mysticism, Or locate the base and climb? Surmount all obstacles. Progress.
It was a fascinating read and the subject matter, though difficult to fully execute in prose, is something I’ve already started considering how to utilize.
Essentially, he’s talking about power structures. The ones in which we operate in and how we make choices within those power structures.
These are not always (perhaps, importantly so) the Perfect Choice but rather the Best Choice We Can Make Given the Situation.
All of these systems and power structures can and should and will be resisted, but at the same time many people have no choice but to live within them, with someone always benefitting even as others are injured, and of course I know that standing up against one power structure doesn’t automatically mean being able or willing to do the same against another. We all make choices from inside these systems, and for me, [Octavia] Butler’s novels are some of the best examples I know of how to depict those choices in fiction.
It’s something I’m already interested in, generally, but I’d never considered how it could be applied to fiction writing.
Elsewhere in the newsletter he links to Charlie Jane Anders ‘s ongoing essay-series/book Never Say You Can’t Survive. I’ve only just started reading the first few entries but I think I’ll be reading the whole thing.
“And escapism is resistance. People sometimes talk about escapist storytelling as a kind of dereliction of duty, as if we’re just running away from the fight. That’s some bullshit right there. In her 1979 essay collection The Language of the Night, Ursula K. Le Guin paraphrases Tolkien thusly: “If a soldier is captured by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? …. If we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape and to take as many people with us as we can.”
So yeah, escapist fiction is about liberation, and imagining a happier, more just world is a direct assault on the forces that are trying to break your heart. As Le Guin says, the most powerful thing you can do is imagine what if things could be different…