Embracing the Writing Process II
Inspiration is fleeting. Motivation went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. You need something of substance to drive your work, sustaining and putting words on the page when the willpower needle is dangerously close to E. Trust me, it's the case. At the time of my last article (March 2020), I was sitting at a measly 5 storygames published, 3 featured, none of which were contest winners. In the time since, I'm sitting at 14 published, 7 featured--yes, a contest winner--earned my personal trophy, and drafted a book (October 2022). That's the second most featured next to EndMaster. I'll allow that to sink in...
There're my credentials. Think of me like Ron Swanson in Lowes. I know more than you. Listen, if you're reading beginner level articles on storywriting, you're probably not very good yet. That's fine. Stick with me and with enough effort, you could be a competent member of the site. That's all we ask for. Is the bar set low enough? Sure is.
Consistency. That's the heart of it, baby. Things deteriorate without attention. You ever had a girlfriend? Oh, sorry--forgot my audience for a second there. Imagine you have a girlfriend. Devote time to her each day, and you're working towards happy wife, happy life type goodness. On the other hand, ignore her for days, don't give her attention--only when you're motivated--then you're in for a bad breakup, a love tale gone awry: same thing with your story. She needs attention, a good amount of your everyday life spent towards making her happy and making progress; otherwise, you face the deepest nightmare of every writer: a story, starting with blazing fireworks, fizzled out, hit a dead end, dug itself six feet under. You ever picked up a video game after not playing for a few weeks? You have trouble remembering what's going on, and that's in a designed setting; now try picking up where your own imagination left off, like recalling a dream from days past. Most of you probably can't even remember what you had to eat yesterday. Good luck, Chuck.
It's through consistency that your story will unfold and remain Subway bread levels of fresh, and it's through consistency that your creative mind will remain without guilt. You know what I'm talking about, the feeling that you should be doing something, whether that is a pile of discarded, unfolded laundry (often sitting for days), homework, going to the gym--writing. The good news about writing is that no one is forcing you; it's self-driven, and you can decide where the trip goes. And man, let me tell you, it is a trip.
Let's talk a bit about guilt. Where does it come from? Is it evidence of an inner morality within humanity? Find out by upgrading your account to Premium, only $9.99 per month!
Out of all the possible hobbies, writing is a strange mix of entertainment and work, finding a place in-between productivity (in the most boring sense of the word) and pleasure; it's an active activity that is run by both the conscious and unconscious, requiring the utmost concentration, imagination, and knowledge of story relating to real-life human interaction, meaning the writer can't sit back and passively put thoughts to words; that's where many stories die: the imagination, where the thinker (passive) is unwilling to become the writer (active).
But why the guilt? In my experience it comes from two places, excluding sex, drugs, and rock n roll:
1. A failed commitment
2. The death of a world
There's another good "C" word for us, commitment. It's a promise to be fulfilled, a responsibility of a task, taking ownership until completion. It's as simple as telling your family you'll make coffee in the morning to the big one, marriage, literally a commitment until death do us part. Writing the first sentence of a story is an unspoken commitment that you mean to finish, otherwise why put an incomplete piece to words? Now this gets tricky because many a young writer--myself included--can get caught up with a project too big, essentially signing up for a commitment we're unable to keep. That's ok. CTRL + S. Put it on the shelf until you're ready. I'm referring to a project that is within the bounds of possibility to finish, and the only thing stopping the story is the writer him/herself. Since this is a branching story site, I'm mostly referring to writing storygames, but the same sentiment holds true for all types. Whether you're writing a 100,000 word epic or short story to earn a few commendations in the Creative Corner, writing the first line is a commitment between the writer and the story that you mean journey together until the very end, until death do us part. I knew the implication before starting to write my first story (The King's Command. It's an absolute mess and still on the site if you want to learn how NOT to write a story). I remember taking long walks, debating, thinking on how the next few weeks would need to be reorganized in order to finish the damn story, and that was before even responding my intention to the contest thread. The implication of joining a contest is very real and can be measured. Take your desired word count length and divide it by average word pace per hour. Voilà! There's the approximate time you must devote to finishing your story.
Example: Desired word count: 20,000 / 600 words per hour = 33.3 hours, which is still more time than watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy back to back to back. Yeah maybe you should write faster, noob (not to mention proofread).
Fortunately, joining contests are a good way of making a commitment public, either to your glory or demise. Contests kickstart motivation and give hard deadlines, the latter being the biggest benefit in my opinion since you can't afford to let the story sit. But remember: once you're in, you're in--no backing out. If you respond to a contest thread, you're dedicating hours and hours of your life to the story. Taking a step back from the writing aspect and examining life as a whole, no one likes the type of person who goes against their word. If you say you're going to do something, just do it. Pretty simple stuff. Although CYS is a writing hobby site, there are real implications, and who's to say your failures (and successes) here don't transcend into "real" life. It's all real life, baby. And don't tell me you don't have time to write; wake up earlier, maggot.
The death of a world: Dun dun duuun!
The stories you create are uniquely your own. There is no one like you, little snowflake; your perspective and imagination are truly one of a kind, even in their most horrible imitation. No one's got your brain, and no matter how small it is, the way ideas connect and images appear are completely down to the individual.
Remember the first time reading Eternal? I discovered the storygame at work and didn't do a single thing for three days straight. It brought me to another world, escaping this tragic one for three merciful days. The best stories, and I'm talking books, movies, storygames, heck, even video games, pull the consumer from reality into a fabricated world to such a degree that time loses meaning, often damping the sensory affects from "real" life. Ever have your nose so deep in a book that it seems to draw your ears in as well? Take out the trash, honey, your mom says, and you don't even hear her. That's what I'm talking about, ya nerd.
Writing draws in the writer in the exact same way, and that's why I've never been a huge outlining guy; it's like reading a plot summary (with spoilers) then watching the movie. Sure, it's entertaining regardless, but it's missing the novelty of exploration. Discovery writing brings problems of its own, so if you need to plot out your journey ahead of time, by all means: it's your world to create. Just answer me this: did God outline his 7-day world creation? Checkmate!
When you fail to finish writing a story, the world within both the producer and consumer never comes to be. Characters never appear on the page to dazzle our hearts and minds, becoming fictionalized versions of real people with (hopefully) thoughts and lives of their own. I've certainly fallen victim to paper-thin characters, stereotypes that are cardboard cutouts of already existing work. Science Fiction does this all the time. How many movies have a tough lesbian with dyed hair shaved on one side? Yeah. In my defense, from a second person point of view, the narration originates from a single point. Do you really know what people think or notice? Do you know what your fellow humans do when no one's watching? So, like in the real world, your conscious self only notices a small about of detail, and the rest is tossed to the unconscious mind as its problem, which often appears at a later time seemingly out of nowhere. I suppose there's a life lesson in that; the failing to consciously notice another human results in the death of their story--at least as it relates to you. Stories are cool. Stories are fun. That's why we make them.
One final note on this: I think young writers often get the notion that they need to lock themselves away from the world, turn on the imagination, and let the pages fly. That's true if you have something to write about. In my experience, the dreamlike appearance of a scene is exactly that: a scene, without any narrative as to getting there or where it's going. Now as fellow discovery writers know, that's no problem; write the scene and watch the story unfold. Besides, in a branching story, there are no wrong answers. Inconsistent plot can be written off as a dead branch. If you don't like it, add an END GAME AND LEAVE COMMENTS link and be done with it. Easy peasy. But if instead of imagination, the cold bee-otch of writer's block arrives, it's worth taking a step back, literally. Walk away from the blinking cursor, ideally from a computer or phone. Go outside. Clean up your room. Go for a walk. Make coffee. Exercise. Do some mindless activity in the real world while meditating on your story, and there's a good chance you'll find where the story progresses next. Endlessly staring at the blank page or forcing words to reach a count goal makes writing painful, rather than the thrilling, powerful process it is. The great Stephen King calls it an act of telepathy, sending images from one mind to another irregardless of speech, proximity, or time period. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy. Right on, Steve-o.
Consistency, consistency, consistency, consis...
Some writers do this by tracking word or page count ensuring a goal or deadline is met. That feels too much like homework to me, and as a fella who was kindly asked to leave community college at the tender age of 17, homework is the enemy (apparently my GPA was bringing down the student average). Oh well, I have 7 featured storygames, Mr. Dean. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it. You'll find what works best for you. For me, I need to touch it everyday.
As a workin man, that means about 30 minutes in the morning before heading to the office, just a little taste, a tease to leave me wanting more. The weekend is where the heavy lifting happens, writing first thing in the morning (like every other day) with no set time period or count goal. It's just me, the story, rock music, and a pot of coffee. I write until the pot is empty, however long that takes, and step away, making food, playing guitar, reading--whatever. If life comes and steals the day away, hey, at least I'm guilt-free from writing first-thing in the morning. Before lunchtime I'll repeat the process with a cigar (sorry, mom), again, with no goal: it's just me, the story, rock music, and a fatty (ok, and maybe a few brewskis); it's the weekend, after all. As soon as the fatty is down to a nub of burned ash--my version of an hourglass--it's back to real life in whichever form that appears. Sometimes I'll call it quits and be done for the day. Sometimes not. If I'm lucky, there'll be another short session in the afternoon with Mr. Johnnie Walker, just what the doctor prescribed. It's all about consistency, and like exercising, going too hard one day can cause fatigue, taking you out for days; there's no delayed onset with writing: the soreness is immediate and lasting.
Now to interrupt the program with a brief message from our sponsor, and I mean the kind who gives out AA coins. If you're going to use, don't abuse, and that goes for any consumption. Notice how my designated writing blocks are before meals. Writing is mentally draining, and you don't need to unnecessarily handicap yourself by eating a stack of pancakes before trying to focus. The writing, the breaks, the booze, the smokes, diet, sleep--everything is accounted for. As you begin to write daily, take note of what helps and what doesn't. Lean on what aids, remove what hinders. Again, simple stuff if you have a single shred of self-awareness.
Prepare yourself for a lot of time devoted in solitary confinement. Know that there's no guarantee your labor will be rated well. Rejection is good feedback. I think of it like bumpers on the side of a bowling alley preventing a story from ending in the gutter. Writing is a form of entertainment for the writer, but the finished product is entertainment for the reader. You'd do best to remember both as you engage in telepathy. There's no secret Krabby Patty formula here: there is lots of writing, and there is lots of reading, both of which should be done everyday. Should. I can sense the guilt creeping in again. Do what you want. If that ends up being writing and reading, good for you. If not, well, you might find your storygames (if you even finish one) capped at a 5 rating level.
Time to get to work. Why are you reading an article on writing when you could, um, I don't know, just write? It's kinda like watching Food Network instead of making dinner (also a daily activity). I've given you my recipe, and as a gluttonous reader, I can't wait to taste your unique flavor of writing. Bon appétit!