The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

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2020 Goals, writing-related and otherwise

I am a chronic maker of lists. You should see the chaos that is my Google Keep, a mess of immediate and short-term and long-term and unknowable-term tasks all jumbled together with lists of ideas and movies I want to watch.

When things get really hairy, as they did during law school, I find myself making to-do lists that get as granular as “eat breakfast” and “shower.” Even, on dismally rough days, “go to class.” Because there is an unmatchable joy that comes from crossing something off, even if my life is otherwise a dumpster fire.

It has never so far gotten quite as bad as having to remember to “breathe” and “sleep,” but never say never.

There is a push-pull relationship between me and the lists. Part of me delights in writing them down, because in that moment it feels like proof of the delicious possibility of the future. Look at me—I’m going to run five miles and write five chapters of a book after work on Tuesday, after I cook myself dinner! God, I’m unstoppable.

But then, inevitably, Tuesday-after-work shows up, and I’m exhausted from work and also pretty cold and hungry, and I rebel against that taskmaster who assigned me the run and the writing project and the cooking assignment. I eat packaged ramen and watch Netflix and feel both free and kind of nauseous.

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Update: writing is hard.

In theory, I’ve been working on Book Two for a little while. But you sure wouldn’t know it from looking at the scraggly little collection of notes I’ve got stored in various places, or from the monotone rambling I do when someone asks me what I’m writing.

The doubt gremlin is still pretty active. It’s harassing me noisily about how this book is a pretty dumb idea and a waste of time.

I respond that it’s all about practice, all about finding that really sweet spot between discipline and play, where I’ll grow my skills. It’s about abandoning the capitalist mindset’s demand for results, and just seeing what is possible.

The two of us are basically at an impasse, meaning I’ve got the following:

  • Three (3) meandering outlines of the plot
  • Seven (7) characters sketched out in varying levels of detail
  • Twenty-two (22) plot points sketched out on one of the outlines
  • Unknowable number (?) of scenes planned underneath each plot point
  • Four (4) chapter documents created in Scrivener with notes attached, because I spent last night retaking the tutorial and now I’m a genius at using all of the program’s bells and whistles, which is the writing equivalent of cleaning your entire apartment instead of packing for vacation when you have to leave for the plane in two hours
  • A vague sense that I’d like to write my SFD (shitty first draft) by the end of the year, just to say I did
  • Another vague sense that I should relax a bit and write a different book I can coherently describe to people

At this point, there’s really no excuse not to just start writing. Maybe I’ll treat the rest of 2019 like a prolonged NaNoWriMo and just blindly crunch out 1,000 words a day, most days. At the very worst, this will result in a nice healthy increase in my lifetime number of words written.

Ooh, actually, at the very worst, I’ll become so focused on finishing this silly book that I’ll alienate my boyfriend and friends and family and employer and lose my job and end up a pariah on the street, never to be heard from again. Plus, the book won’t get written, and my pauper’s tombstone will read: “Never finished that dumb book; shouldn’t have tried.”

But that isn’t very likely, is it?

…is it?

Book Two: the doubt speaks up

Book Two is in the works.

However, the works are a little jammed up. 

The process of writing book one had such a nice rhythm to it, or at least so it appears in rosy hindsight. I often felt like I knew what needed doing next to inch it closer to what I had in mind.

Now that I’ve paused working on that one for the moment, I’m trying to get moving on a very different idea to keep myself writing. But choosing which of my ideas to get started on was a little hairy, and now that I chose one and got partway down the path of planning it, the doubt gremlin (N.B.: a close cousin of the fear gremlin) is noisy.

“It’s a dumb idea,” says the gremlin. Thanks, I grimace.

“No one would be interested in that concept except you, and you’re only barely interested.” Yes, thank you for that contribution.

“Even if anyone likes your current draft, they would hate this one.” Let’s leave that up to them to decide, shall we?

“You’re not even spending any time working on it.” That’s an exaggeration. I’m just spending almost no time working on it, which is different. 

“Why don’t you get started on the better ideas?” Well, obviously because those ones will take a lot more research and work, and I’m tremendously impatient and a little sleepy, I admit.

“Those don’t seem like great reasons to commit to this idea,” says the gremlin, looking taken aback, and I have to agree.

But here’s the thing: the doubt only matters if I’m attaching some great weight to doing this. If I need my two-weeks-to-several-decades of work to be of maximum efficiency, resulting in the written product that will create the most good for the most people in the shortest amount of time, then I’m doing it very wrong. 

That’s okay, because that isn’t really what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to stretch the muscles and follow the curiosity. I’m trying to make myself laugh sometimes, and make myself feel stuff other times, and those stakes are a lot lower. The payoff is pretty high, too, because being able to make yourself laugh while you get better at something is pretty rewarding. 

Anyway, on with it–whatever it is. 

Book Two.

I recently finished a draft of a novel. It was a meandering process, guided by occasional spurts of planning, and then re-planning around the total chaos that ensued when I actually sat down to write.

What’s more, it was based (semi-closely, in places) on true events, so I didn’t have to make everything up on my own. I also couldn’t make everything up on my own, to the extent that I felt bound to be loyal to the true events. Sometimes this took away from my ability to follow the ideals of story crafting. (Or, isn’t it pretty to think so, a nice excuse.)

Now that I’m done with that draft, I’m going to try to do another one. Different genre, not based on true events this time, no longer historical fiction. In other words:

The grand plan is to spend the next six months or so planning Book Two, and then hammering out my SFD (“shitty first draft,” for anyone who is rusty on their Anne Lamott.)

I come prepared so far with a very rough outline: as I see it now, it’s three mini-novels, unified by a common story that underlies each part. I have the loose sense of where I want each part to go, plot-wise, and the feel I want each part to have. I know, for now, where each part is set and a lot of what might happen. But what I lack right now is something tremendously fundamental to a readable novel:

Characters.

Sure, I have the vaguest sense of a few of them. One of them looks like Bebe Neuwirth in her Frasier years. I know their Enneagram types, because naturally I would. And that actually is something: it gives a framework to start building on, both with what the behaviors might be and with the directions these people might go when distressed, or when secure (about which more later.) But I don’t know much else about them, and that won’t do.

A tool that is often helpful for people in building characters is doing an exercise that I have been internally calling, grotesquely, a “character dump,” but Google is giving me no reassurance at all that this is a phrase anyone else uses. Could it be that I, on my own motion, started calling it that? Horrors. In any event, this exercise is one in which you sit down and start writing down a bunch of details about a character. When were they born? What do they like to eat? What do they wear? What was the saddest thing that happened in their childhood? What makes them laugh? Who is their best friend? What dreams do they have? Do they think a hot dog is a sandwich? And on and on.

Now, you may say, “you just said a few paragraphs up that you don’t know much about your new characters yet. How could you possibly know all these details?” Gentle reader, I don’t, and I probably won’t even after I finish this exercise. I’ll make some stuff up, like a kid half-assing an English Lit final, and maybe some of it will resonate, but most of it won’t be helpful. That’s okay. This process isn’t what you might call efficient.

Then, later, I’ll do other exercises relating to plot. They might similarly be inefficient, but then I’ll have more words down, about both these half-formed people and the half-seen things that will start happening to them. Then I’ll sit down and start writing the thing. Every 200 words or so, I’ll realize I’ve got a plot hole, or my character isn’t wanting to behave the way I expected. Fine. I’ll make new stuff up. I’ll do some tailoring at the edges of the plan. I’ll start a new plan. I’ll write more. I’ll find some massive hole. I’ll give up for a day or two, binge some romantic comedies on STARZ. I’ll come back to it and realize I have a way out that is just brilliant. I’ll write in a delighted frenzy for a week. Then I’ll realize I created an even bigger hole than before, I’ll fix it. Someday I’ll have a draft, and I’ll start over and write draft 2.

It’ll be fun.