On Finishing

So I finished NaNoWriMo this year, and that’s a pretty big deal for me.

I’ve attempted it more than once over the years. Every time, I’ve fallen behind and given up. There were times when I was wrestling with severe untreated depression, and literally could not summon the will to keep writing. There were times when I’d start strong but have my computer break down and/or eat my novel-in-progress. There was NaNoWriMo 2005, when I tried to write my novel in a Moleskine notebook, because I was a Hurricane Katrina evacuee, and I hadn’t brought my computer with me when I left Louisiana. (I made a substantial amount of progress, all things considered, and maybe one of these days, I’ll go back to that story.)

I’d keep making half-assed attempts, in addition to my usual on-again, off-again poking at unfinished novels, but I could never really envision myself finishing in time. I spent years being really, really bad at finishing things, as my collection of partial manuscripts can attest. And someone who doesn’t believe they’re capable of finishing something will always find a reason not to.

This year, a week into November, the woman who had been the number one priority in my life for years broke up with me. It wasn’t a bad breakup, as far as such things go… as far as any circumstance in which two people who love each other realize they can’t make it work goes, it was actually a pretty good one. When I try to describe the breakup, there are four words I come back to over and over again: She was very kind.

I spent several days drinking too much, crying at the slightest provocation, and occasionally (and always unexpectedly) bursting out in angry muttering, because no matter how kind they are, getting dumped by the person you were planning to marry still hurts like hell.

And then I realized there was no long-distance girlfriend to wait for. No reason to hold off on going back to school until we were married and she got an assistantship that could help me with tuition. No reason to keep telling myself I’d devote serious time to writing when we lived together, when we didn’t have to spend so much time being there for each other online, because we couldn’t be IRL. All my plans for the future no longer applied, and the sudden sense of freedom was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

So I wrote. I set my chin and started writing again the day after the breakup, only to lapse for a few more days of drinking and crying and distracting myself however I could. And then, I went back and wrote more, and more, and pulled off a NaNo win through some truly frenzied writing in the final week.

My entire world had come apart, and it was something to do. More than that, it was the thing that, once upon a time, I had loved more than anything else in the world. I figured if stories couldn’t save me, I was well and truly fucked… and as far as rebound relationships go, a whirlwind affair with my word processor was probably the healthiest possible choice.

The current draft of Monstrous Things, it must be said, is a steaming pile of crap. I started out with the idea of another retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where both characters are monsters in their own ways, and no one gets transformed into something prettier. Eventually, it became more Tam Lin than Beauty and the Beast, with elements of Der Erlkönig and obscure German undead/shapeshifter critters for flavor. But the problem with telling a love story when you’ve just been through a breakup should be obvious: everything becomes about your relationship. The primary couple has all the arguments the ex and I never had, but which were the elephants in the room for much of our relationship. My narrator’s insecurities are pretty much identical to mine. And despite everything that goes wrong, and the major reservations the narrator has about absolutely everything, they still end up happily married because true love and magic and fate, and stubborn determination to work everything out, and yes, this was what I did instead of going to therapy.

I suspect that when I go back to edit it in January, I’ll end up wanting to set both it and myself on fire. But I’m okay with that.

I finished a thing. It’s a crappy thing, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and can be edited and made better. I proved to myself that I can do it.

Sometimes people leave. That’s life. But stories? Those are always there, if you’re willing to put the work in.

Outlines and Inspiration

I’m not going to bore all five of you reading this blog with the excuses for why I haven’t been blogging, and why my wordcount’s still so low on To Circumscribe Eternity. I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re here for, anyway.

will, however, point out that living in Dallas when the air conditioning’s broken is kind of like being trapped in Satan’s armpit. (My A/C-less Florida peeps are better equipped than I to judge whether they’re in Satan’s other armpit, or are in fact dwelling in his ass-crack, but my heart goes out to them. Love you guys.)

At the moment, I’m struggling with that dread beast, the Outline. The sad truth is that not everyone who hates outlines is capable of writing without one, myself included. Oh, sure, I can knock out vignettes without thinking twice, but when it comes to Big Plotty Things, I end up glaring at a blank screen, telling myself that I should be able to just write and let the characters lead me around while they do things seemingly independent of me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

I’m well aware there’s a lot of scorn heaped on the idea of characters having wills and agendas of their own. It’s (sometimes deservedly) derided as an excuse for writers to relinquish control of their writing, to react to criticism with what they imagine is a bulletproof defense: that’s just what the characters wanted to do, and the writer’s just transcribing it. But for some writers, our brains just work that way.

This isn’t to say that a writer should just transcribe what the characters in their heads do and then deny all responsibility. Quite the contrary: for me, it’s a collaboration between myself and the character as I see them. And it doesn’t matter if they exist somewhere in an infinite multiverse/the astral plane/the creative aether/my subconscious: it’s my fucking story, and I’m writing fiction. If I wanted to write the biography of someone who might or might not exist on some other plane of reality, with no editing or tightening of the plot, I’d be self-publishing and writing in the New Age category, not SFF.

That may actually be the most important lesson I’ve learned so far: as a writer of fiction, my first responsibility is to the story. Not the characters, not my eccentric and highly animistic belief system, but the story. And that means that if a character “just does something.” I need to figure out how that makes sense within the bigger plot. Sometimes that means changing the plot, and sometimes it means going, “Okay, that was fun and all, but now I need to switch to the version of events where you did this other thing. I wish you and your deus ex machina and your harem of attractive members of your preferred gender(s) all the best. Call me sometime, ‘kay?” It’s why fix-it fic exists in fandom spaces, but complaints still arise when everything magically gets better in canon: we want our fictional loves to be happy, but we don’t actually want to shell out money for nothing but fluff and spun sugar.

So I roll with the fix-its, I write scenes of platonic cuddling that may never make it into my final draft… and then I have to tell myself, “Okay, what would actually make a good story? Can I chase that down?” Because otherwise, I’d just sit around writing nothing but glorified hurt/comfort fic.

And I’m learning to make outlines.

It helps to think of it as a sort of trip planning: not a hard and fast guideline, but more a general map of what I’d like to do. Maybe the people I’m planning the trip for have tickets to a show that’s one night only, so that’s important, but there are a bunch of other times where they could go to the zoo, or an amusement park, or whatever. Maybe when driving to the amusement park, they pass the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine and decide to check out weird roadside attractions. There has to be some flexibility built into the schedule to allow for spontaneity, but without some idea of what’s out there and what they might want to go see, it turns into two people sitting in a hotel room (or, in the case of TCE, on a spaceship) looking at each other and going, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” And there’s very little as excruciatingly boring as that.

Getting the outline actually written, though, is still more or less like pulling teeth. I’ve been going through the Snowflake Method (And how awesome is the Scrivener template for it? Pretty damn awesome.), sulking and pouting the whole way. Do I have to eat my spinach? There’s ice cream right there. It’s not fair. I don’t have to fill out the long and obnoxious plot summary from the point of view of a secondary character, do I? I already did it for the two main characters. Can’t I just write my story now? This is stupid.

And then I have to remind myself how much better my writing is when I have some idea of what I’m doing, when there’s a concrete goal to work towards, when I can make actual informed decisions about where to go and what I can safely skip. Having the outline makes the fun parts even more fun. But my inner five year old pouts and sulks regardless, and I have to suppress the urge to pick the phone and whine to my mother about how this is hard. And stupid. Did I mention stupid?

I imagine the conversation going something like this:

“Mamiiiii, I don’t wanna write this outline.”

“Okay, then don’t write it.”

“But if I don’t write this outline, I’ll never finish my book!”

“Okay, then write it.”

“But I don’t wanna!”

“…I really don’t know what you want me to say, kid.”

“But… but…” And then I’d just make high-pitched whining noises at her until she says, “No. Stop. I don’t need this migraine. Write your outline. I love you. Bye.” and hangs up on me.

(I love you, Mom.)

Basically, if anyone ever tries to tell you writing isn’t work, they’re lying liars, and you’re allowed to kick them where it hurts. This is the shitty, tedious part. It’ll get better. I know it will. But in the meantime? So much whining. Be thankful you’re just getting the abridged version.