Jess (@herself at Micro.blog) wrote a post on her writing process, which struck a chord with me. It’s turned into a rumination of my own ongoing writing journey.
Over the summer I spent a week or so seeing if I could fit my novel into the seven-point story structure. I did this for each sub-plot, and then even went so far as to step out each scene, staggering the various sub-plot developments along the number of scenes I decided I had to write.
Then I went away on holiday. Came back, three weeks later, and couldn’t bear the sight of the thing. A spreadsheet — what was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.”
A novel is not a house to be built, but a tree to be grown.
At first, I was going to respond to Jess’ post by documenting and sharing my own writing process. I wanted to share my outlining, the 7-point-plot-structuring I do, the world-building wiki I’ve created, and how all of this “process” helps me and facilitates my own novel-writing.
But the truth is, it doesn’t.
I’ve recently come to terms with this fact: my process is quite ineffectual. Instead of facilitating my writing, it’s hindering it. I haven’t written for several months. More recently, I attempted to edit and continue writing the story I was working on, and every time I sat down, I felt an overwhelming sense of malaise and despondency. Writing is just too hard, and I’m not up to it.
Some of it is procrastination and avoidance on my part, but I think it’s also a problem of comfort.
Now, I actually like putting up such structures that organize information. It’s familiar, enjoyable, and I’m well-versed in doing this kind of architectural work. But when it comes down to writing, this structure backfires: there’s too much of it, and it causes friction with writing. Whenever I write, the writing is usually fun and free-flowing. But when I start putting up outlines, wikis, lists, etc, around the writing, all that scaffolding ends up stifling the actual doing of the work, to the point that writing is no longer fun.
I’ve tried to reinvent my process many times, try out different strategies to see what works, if there is a silver bullet for my writing process. And just when I thought I had it figured out, I discover that it’s not producing the ultimate result: finishing a novel.
It is frustrating. To the point that I look at all this scaffolding and feel that overwhelming urge to throw it all out. Burn it down. Start afresh. What was I thinking? Even now I look back at it and want to shake myself. It’s just too much.
Burning everything down is well and good. But what will I do after I’ve started afresh? If I burn down this ineffectual house I’ve built for the novel, am I just going to build a new house on top of it?
And that’s where things have to change. I’ve been going about it all wrong. I should not be building a house, but growing a tree.
The Everyday Novelist, hosted by author J. Daniel Sawyer, is my favourite writing podcast. I’ve been listening to it since its inception. One thing Dan has said since the beginning, and continually stresses, is this: The hardest writing obstacle to overcome is to get out of your own way. To rid your mind of all its obstacles (whether in-built inhibitions or imposed from external sources) and let the subconscious self flow into the story. This head game is always the biggest challenge, every author contends with it throughout their career. And the more intellectual you are as a person, the harder it is to get out of your own way.
In my conceit I keep insisting that Dan is wrong, and I’m the exception to this rule. And I keep discovering that he’s right, and everything I’m doing to “scaffold” my novel and systematize my process has only served to obstruct the writing of them. Sure, the scaffolding helps for a while, but in the long run, all I have to show for it is mental chaos, half-finished drafts, and a sense of being roughly shaken out of a fever dream and back into ugly reality. Oh, what was I thinking? It’s just too much.
And Dan is also right about it being harder the more intellectual you are.
I’m a born systems thinker. I think in processes, and my inner life is a network where everything is connected to everything else. Everything in life is slotted somewhere into this network.
I’m pretty good at building objects, but I’m not great at growing living things. (Just ask my pet bird. Poor fellow. I take better care of my electronics than I take care of him, sigh. 🙁 )
I’m not giving my novels enough time to grow. When they start sprouting, I immediately come in with all that wiki-ing and outlining and scaffolding, to try and systematize things so that I will know what to do next. Indeed, *I* will know what to do next. But my creative process won’t — indeed, it ceases to flourish, and the story itself is stunted and remains half-grown.
Perhaps this scaffolding is a sign that I don’t trust myself: I will forget the details, or it’ll be too big for my brain to hold. Maybe I will need those scaffolds eventually to help. But the first order of the day is to write. And if I’m not writing because the scaffolds are causing too much friction, they are not helping. I’m just standing in my own way, and what I need to do is to throw away the architectures and learn how to grow a tree.
I think I have to be intentional about resisting this reflex to systematize. It’s so ingrained that I can’t imagine not doing it. But that’s the point that The Everyday Novelist is making. Dan says, and I paraphrase: “your subconscious is the wellspring of all the brilliance of your writing, but you’ve been conditioned by external and internal inhibitions to put a lid on it. What you need to do is to blow the lid and fall down the well and let that water gush out of you. This is the key to becoming an everyday, long-term career writer.” (He says it all the time, in those episodes and many others; “head games” is one of the biggest tags in the podcast archive.)
A novel is not a house, but a tree. You build a house; you grow a tree. There’s no way to build a tree, unless you want a faux-tree that bears an image of the thing but has no breath of life in itself.
I see now that my process is just encouraging the creation of faux-trees. Some of the real stories may live, but ultimately all of them end up being stunted and stifled. The faux-tree looks good, but the real story is suffering and may not grow to its full potential.
The question is: do I want to keep doing what I’ve always done, because it’s comfortable and familiar, end up stifling all my stories, then throw in the towel and say that writing is just too hard? Or do I care enough about my writing and my stories to do something unknown and uncomfortable?
Maybe I should burn everything down and start afresh. And by that, I mean burn everything. Delete all the outlines and notes. Delete my world-building wiki (which contains as many words as all my half-finished novels put together). Throw every single chunk of scaffolding out — or at least, put them onto a USB drive and stuff it into a hole too small for my hand to fit in. Keep nothing except the most recent old unfinished drafts. From here, just write or revise off into the dark. And resist the instinct to build more scaffolding, resist it to the bitter end.
I started writing in 2014, for NaNoWriMo. I started a novella, and finished it. I’ve been writing ever since, during NaNo season and off-season, but ever since that first one, I’ve been unable to finish any long-form story.
That, I think, is the key. When I started in 2014, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t have any clue about How to Write a Novel — I just wrote, and I finished what I wrote. But now I know something, and so I bring in all the strategies I’m learning and architectural tools I’m familiar with, to try and systematize a helpful process. And in so doing, jammed a lid onto the novel-finishing source.
I am very afraid of never finishing a second novel. It is a thought that haunts and hounds me. Which is why I’ve pushed so hard at all subsequent ones. I think this fear is the very thing driving the scaffold-building, which is ultimately killing the things I want to keep alive.
Maybe I will just have to tear down all the scaffolding and risk utter death. Yes, perhaps those half-grown trees may die. Perhaps they have to, for the sake of future trees I’ve yet to plant. That is very painful to come to terms with. Kill your darlings, eh? These are whole novels, whole stories, and all the beloved characters therein, that face utter death.
Then again, who knows? They may die, but equally, they may live too.
Is it better to risk death and the unknown for a chance at gaining true life, or play the familiar and safe and remain in this limbo of quasi-existence?
(Seems like what is true for faith and eternity is also true for story-telling.)
Time to delete a whole lot of files.