The story I want to tell

I’ve been writing lately. This is a minor miracle in itself, because years of an anxiety disorder left me with a fear of failure so inhibiting that I’d rather hide under a duvet than even attempt writing a sentence that might go awry. But I had treatment, I wrote a hundred haiku as part of the therapy, and somewhere in the middle I realised that, all those years ago, I didn’t just start telling stories as an escape from things that I found painful. I started telling stories because I just loved imagining things, and I enjoyed bringing things to life inside my head, and I enjoyed finding the right words to describe them.

At the moment, rediscovering that is a delight so simple it’s almost hard to believe. I actually enjoy writing. Long may it last.

The story that I’ve been writing this month is one that’s been with me for quite a long time. I had the idea for it, oh, way back in 2007, 2008? It started flowing from my head to my hands, it had its own momentum. I started writing, wrote twelve pages, and then my computer crashed and I rewrote pretty much the entire damn thing from memory.

The story is almost unrecognisable from what it was then – it’s grown and changed so much, and the direction I thought it was going to go in just isn’t relevant now. I’ve struggled with how to distil these ideas into a book, not just a tour around a fiction landscape with its made-up mythologies and politics. I actively stopped writing it because I knew it wasn’t ready to be written – which is a bloody weird thing to have to say, but hopefully some of you will know what I mean. I couldn’t force a shape onto it, because it would have been the wrong shape. I had to wait for the eureka moment – or line of eureka dominoes, as it were. It’s taken years, it’s taken talking through ideas and concepts, it’s taken getting frustrated with my inability to write it and my inability to make it sound like the really fun story that I want it to be, both to write and to read.

This week, I was talking about it with my boyfriend, and he posed the very pertinent question: “Why do you want to write this one? Of all the stories you have notes for, what is it about this one that you keep going back to?”

He has a very valid point. I have a lot of stories that I could write. I have a lot of ideas I’d love to give time to.

This one has been refined and realigned so many times, which was a frustration in itself. Its working title, “Passion”, is a word that doesn’t fit in the slightest because it’s not a love story. It’s just a word that had the right sounds in it.

But it’s a concept that’s pretty much the point of this missive. This is a story that I love writing. My heroine is a delight to me. And, even though the actual plot has taken years to get right, it’s always been a story that I want to tell. There’s no real logical reason other than that. I want it to happen. That’s why I’m writing it. There are other stories that I want to tell, but this is the one that I want to tell first, that I want to tell now. And that’s what matters, that’s what gives it momentum.

Existentialism is a flawed philosophy in many ways, but its focus on action rather than thought is one that I often take a lot of comfort in. So at the moment I’m celebrating the fact that my actions are making more words – and I’m not worrying whether they’re the right words. I’m writing and I’m not editing as I go, I’m getting it out there and letting it grow. (Ah, poetry.) I’m embracing the feeling because it’s been so rare for me – and I am very much hoping that it will last.

What’s the story that you want to tell? Whatever it is, I hope you find the way to tell it.

Aisling edits ‘Write what you know’

This is me – my other identity, if you will. My writing name, and a different angle on blogging.

Aisling Edits

It’s a phrase that haunts the teaching and practise of writing, and I’m not sure it’s correct. I’ve heard it said so many times, and yet I’m not entirely sure what it means. ‘Write what you know’ suggests that your experience as a person is necessarily going to inform and improve your writing, but it doesn’t seem to suggest it in the right way. It also ties directly into the modern fad* of realism and ‘literary fiction’ somehow being more valuable and meaningful than genre fiction, because to ‘write what you know’ is, actually, not to conduct thought-experiments about alternative futures or to look for meanings in stories about worlds with magic or different systems of government. It undermines the power of imagination and the point of research.

In fact, I would argue that the books I dislike the most are the ones where writers have written ‘what they know’…

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Losing the Plot: A Discovery of Drafting

So I’m trying to write a book. I’ve been, in one way or another, ‘trying to write a book’ since I was about five years old, except for the one I wrote when I was six (which was a Thomas the Tank Engine story) and the one I wrote when I was twelve (which was pretty much a patchwork of the kind of predictable fantasy stories that I liked when I was twelve, but still, I suppose 62 000 words, even if they are largely very silly and predictable words, isn’t bad for a Year 7) and have since disowned and hidden in a drawer, as I have done with pretty much all of my writing before the age of 15 because it was around 15 that I stopped being earnest and started being analytical and also angry.

Anyway. I find the process of writing both very hard and very easy, which is also how I tend to describe playing the violin – it’s something I started to do at a young age pretty much by accident, but it took me a long time to work out my method. I realised recently that playing the violin is, for me, simple and difficult: you put your fingers down in the right place to make the right sound. Easy. What took work was practising how to do it until I was playing music, not just squawking. And then it’s a case of getting better, and learning all of the things that make music lovely, and not just functional.

I’m wondering now why it took me so long to realise that writing is exactly the same. There’s a trick to it, and the trick is that you have to practise.

Also, having the talent doesn’t mean you’re going to be good straight away. You have to learn how to work at it. I took a long time working out how to work at something (if I’m completely honest, I’m still working out how to properly work at writing: I’ll let you know when I work it out). It can be a very slow process.

What’s slowest for me is my plots. They tend to start off with an idea – often a character springs up, or a situation. And then I try formulating it into a story, and it germinates for a little while, and then kaboom! Six billion little wiggly threads that all might go somewhere, or nowhere, but they won’t be going anywhere unless I think about them, and that’s a lot to think about. And it can take such a frustratingly long time to work through it.

If I’m completely honest, I think my plot problems are my biggest barrier in writing: because I don’t know what the story is going to be, I lose all confidence in writing, because I don’t want to write something and for it to feel written if I’m then going to have to go back and change it.

Today, though, I had a realisation. It was this: working on the plot is all very well, but if I’m not writing it, the story’s not going anywhere. It’s still just sitting there in my head, dry ingredients of ideas. When I actually mix them up and put them on the page, they might solve themselves. And they might not. If they do, that’s great – if not, then I will have to do some serious background work.

I’ve been doing a lot of background work for Passion recently – working out a little local history, some family relationships and political ties. And while I was doing it, I realised that what I was doing was essentially building scaffolding around a wall that wasn’t built yet. Now, I personally dislike stories that don’t seem to understand the world they operate in, or that clearly make up or alter the world in order to submit to the tyranny of the plot (see ‘Eddings and editing established reality’ below); I’m not a big fan of making things up as I go along. I like my stories to be coherent, I like worlds that are plausible and interesting. But all of that can have very little to do with the initial writing. As E. M. Forster had it in Aspects of the Novel, ‘a story can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next’. The story doesn’t care about background or what happened to the government of that world twenty years before the plot of the novel unless it’s directly relevant to that plot – and at the initial writing, the rough carving of the sculpture, it’s not necessary to know.

My epiphany, you see, was, very simply, about the power and the point of the first draft. I realised that it was ridiculous to be reluctant to write because my first draft wasn’t going to be good enough. I don’t know where or why I picked up the expectation that a story was going to slip, perfect and pearl-like, from my imagination onto paper, but it’s one that I am seriously having to combat now. I need to learn to lower my expectations and to know that, yes, while coherent details and world-building will probably make the novel very good in the end, they aren’t really what I need to be worrying about right now.

This post didn’t go exactly where I intended it to go, to be honest. It was going to be a consideration of plot problems and how to resolve them. I’m wondering if the answer to plot problems is to write everything down, stick it in a vague order and then go about filling all the holes, rather than spending ages planning it out first and then writing it up. Instead it turned into a rather personal analysis of my writing style, but still, it’s been useful. It seems that I started doing background work in an attempt to make the story better and therefore forgot the point of writing the first draft at all, whereas now I think I need a lot more writing and a little judicious planning on the side. I’ll let you know how the new method works out: now I just need to muster the courage to put it into practise.

Writing Matters: Eddings and editing established reality

So I’ve started re-reading a David Eddings book for winding-down-of-the-brain purposes, and my (possibly over-trained) English Literature brain has been Noting Things. Therefore it seemed perfectly logical to record them here, for Future Reference.

I read David Eddings because it is, for me, the mental equivalent of coming home after a long day and eating beans on toast for dinner (not that I’m knocking beans on toast. I am, in fact, a big fan – particularly when there’s marmite on the toast and cheese on the beans. Perfection). Eddings is safe, predictable medievalist fantasy set in a pseudo-Europe that, and this is perhaps the most interesting point for me, doesn’t allow the reader to quibble. At all. When reading, you are Told What Happens: a lot of information is Just True. Now, forgive me some of my references, because I’ve been enjoying TVTropes‘ company a lot lately (it is one of my favourite sites: funny, interesting and thought-provoking). They have a term, ‘Word of God’, for ‘what the author says about the world that must be true because s/he knows what s/he’s talking about as the author of the world’. I find, reading, that a lot of The Tamuli (that’s the series I picked up) comes across as extremely thinly-veiled Word of God. Eddings is telling what happens – even when it seems utterly out of character, illogical or just plain silly. Interestingly, Eddings is predictable in two ways: in the good old-fashioned way of it being predictable from the tropes he uses, but also because if you’ve read one Eddings, you’ve read them all, because he repeats his own tropes in extremely unsurprising ways.

As a reader, you willingly suspend your disbelief in order to let the story pass through your mind. But willingly suspending disbelief doesn’t mean we also suspend all rational and logical faculties along with it. I want my stories to be plausible, not suddenly have unexplained deus ex machina endings or a plot so clanging it’s ringing its own death knell.

Anyway. To illustrate Eddings’ patchwork reality, I refer to one character with whom I think the reader is supposed to be sympathetic explaining a sudden, unexpected political awareness as ‘I’m not manipulating royalty… I’m manipulating a woman, and I’m an expert at that’. Now, out of context that looks pretty dubious, right? But this is Eddings. Kalten is written a nice guy, so therefore his comments cannot mean anything cruelly underhand: Eddings’ narrative rhetoric has no truck with a questioning reader. So the reader is delivered the story sealed, as fact, with no space to question it. It’s a pretty standard tactic of quest-based or medievalistic fantasy: this happened, reader, deal with it. There’s no jiggling points-of-view, no unreliable narrator, no indication that the world is a mystery to be explored: it’s mapped and known, and, in its most reduced form, it’s a travel guide to a fantasy land (hello, Diana Wynne Jones).

Now, this can be very frustrating, particularly when it seems that established characters, situations, politics and back-stories are simply warped to the author’s will: forced into a different shape in order to facilitate the telling of the story. (This is a big part of my problem with J. K. Rowling, too, but that’s a story for another day. I’ve outlined a few notes below*.) I am going to use the phrase ‘fictional ontology’ to describe all these concepts, an ‘ontology’ being a term to describe the study of what there is: a formal system of knowledge that concerns itself with what exists. Eddings’ rhetorical style delivers a narrative that is, as noted above, ‘sealed’: it’s whole and incontestable by the reader, and therefore constructs what seems a similarly incontestable ontology. The world simply is the way it is: he’s given us the details, we as readers accept them in order to move on with the story. However, he then changes certain things, such as fluxes in the behaviour of established characters, when his plot requires it: someone suddenly swings between intuitive cleverness and comedic stupidity, for example. It drives me bonkers when writers do this, and particularly when Eddings does it, because it comes across as so lazy. He is basically editing his own reality in order to make the story work, but in editing that reality he ends up undermining it. Why can he not come up with something more plausible for the world he has created – the world that includes established characters? Why can he not write the story expanding on the ontology he’s already given us, rather than sticking a temporary patch over part of it until that part’s usefulness is complete? It is frustrating, because in a system where the writer is handing over incontestable pieces of reality, some parts of that reality are terribly inconsistent. You’d think he could pay attention to the details, right? (In fact, that his style seems inconsistent shows that the rest of his narrative does seem solid; the rest of his fictional ontology is not something we argue with (but he’s allowed to).)

This consistent handing over of facts then allows him to do some things that are quite genre savvy. It means that actually he can sneak a few nice twists up on the plot and the reader because the reader is so used to accepting everything the narrative says as a sealed fact. It’s a nice trick: it makes me think that sometimes he’s aware of the reader, and not just the story. In fact, my main criticism of a lot of writers, and particularly fantasy writers, is that they seem to get so focused on the story, on managing their ideas onto the page with words, that they forget that the reader’s there, and will have probably have questions and comments along the way. A reader wants to be fooled sometimes, wants to be teased with drips of information, wants to wonder various possibilities and motives, not just held in place while an infodump of a story is poured in her metaphorical ear.

Anyway. These are some of the thoughts that were flitting through my mind as I was skimming through Domes of Fire last night and this morning. In short, I want to read stories that have plausible ontologies, no ‘Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere‘ (TVTropes again) that appear in the plot and the author instructs me that this makes sense because it’s his story and he says so. I’m willingly suspending disbelief, and I enjoy willingly suspending disbelief, but I don’t like reading stories that don’t let the reader ask why. I don’t think a writer should be allowed to edit an established reality if they’re going to do it clumsily, and I don’t think writer or reader should be the slave of a story to the extent where nothing that the characters say or do seems to make sense with everything that’s gone before.

*J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t have a consistent fictional ontology in Harry Potter, which is part of why I find it so unsatisfying (and also a part of why she often looks very silly in question-and-answer sessions). She makes things up as she goes along in the worst possible way. Obviously, to a certain extent, all writers make things up as they go along, but J. K. doesn’t seem to direct an analytical eye at her work at all, and so all of her plot solutions just appear out of nowhere. The initial Horcruzes are pretty much the only satisfying Chekhov’s gun in the whole thing, and that’s only when you’re re-reading it: everything else just appears ‘like magic’. Things shouldn’t appear like magic: they should appear like something magical that makes sense for the world that’s been created.