Strange Animals 22apr2019: Writing for Writing
It’s Sunday evening as I write this, and I’ve been back home nearly a week, and am in the process of easing myself back into work mode. Still not full-time – I’m planning to keep aside at least two full working days every week just for writing, and maybe one for general life stuff that needs doing – but a bit more than the two days a week I’d been clocking for a while. It feels like it’s time.
I think that’s partly because I finished my first comics script in two years or so. I don’t know if I’ll end up producing this specific script – my plan is to write around 10 scripts in the next few months, and then select six of them to bring to artists – but writing the final caption on this script felt like a release. I feel like I’m officially a comics writer again.
Comics has felt like my home medium for the last decade. I started writing with prose, but comics seems to reflect how I think a lot more closely. And when I started writing again, I stuck to prose for the longest time, because it was easier, and because I could judge the quality of a piece without having anyone else’s work tied up in it. Now I’m ready to let the world in again, and for me, that starts with finishing a comics script.
Recently, I created a folder in my writing app called ‘Juvenilia’ and scoured all my hard disks, Dropbox folders and email archives to find every piece of creative writing I wrote before I actually started getting published so I could have a backup – you know, just in case.
As expected, pretty much throughout my teenage, my writing bore the fingerprints of whoever I was reading and enjoying at the time. Douglas Adams, Irvine Welsh, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Pratchett – they’ve all been thoroughly, albeit lovingly, ripped off by a teenager searching for a voice they wouldn’t find for a really long time. A couple of hundred thousand words, just searching for something.
Then it starts getting … well, not good, but there’s a person there trying to say things they see in the world. It’s ugly, it’s rough, but some of it is – I dunno – striking, and my breath catches as I see myself coming through. There’s no audience in consideration, so there’s nothing here that’s meant to please anyone. There’s just someone trying to find their voice without knowing that’s what they’re doing.
But this isn’t about voice – not just yet. It’s about method.
See, when I first started, I didn’t know how anyone else wrote. So I’d sit at my computer, and write a story all the way through, and it was done. I had no idea you could rewrite or tweak things, or even plan ahead. I didn’t know what drafts were. I’d just have an idea – or sometimes not even that – and I’d find the story quite literally in the telling.
Then I found out that you could revise stuff – and I hated the concept. There was a thing in my head, a gem. Why should I not be able to get it down first time round. Why should I remove things I really liked just because they didn’t quite fit. Why should it take work. I still dislike it – sometimes it feels like pulling teeth – but once I knew about it, it was there in my head, available if I felt up to it.
Back then, I’d wait for stories to come to me. I don’t know why, but I thought that the muse would strike me when it wished to, and I’d have a story ready in my head that I’d just have to write down. But reading them back, I started to realise that they weren’t all good, and I had a bit of a crisis, because I had no idea if this was a solvable problem. I’d found out that just because I wanted to write something, it wasn’t necessarily good or even worth writing. I proceeded to have a writers’ block – mainly a paralysis borne out of not knowing how to connect the beginning of the process (inspiration) to the end of it (a finished story that I could be happy with).
I started reading books about writing (and it’s still one of my favourite ways to procrastinate), and I realised there were as many ways to write as there were writers – you might wait for ideas or you might try to generate them, you might outline loosely or tightly, you might write character descriptions and scenes, you might write the whole thing out of order or all the way through, or, like my then-idol Stephen King, you could start with an idea and then let the characters tell you what they wanted to do.
King’s On Writing demystified the actual process of writing and got me out of the block, because King is ruthlessly practical about a lot of things to do with writing. But in retrospect, his method of sitting down and figuring out the story as you go is a very specific, very Dickensian method of writing that’s not necessarily replicable for every other writer. And even then, I didn’t pay close enough attention to his admission of how many years it’d take him to write some books where the characters stopped talking to him halfway through and he’d have to find his way back to the last point where the connection still worked and start over.
So when I realised I couldn’t reliably turn out stories by the seat of my pants, I went the other way, planning as meticulously as I could to make sure I wouldn’t be too stuck anywhere I didn’t want to be. I took inspiration out of the equation and just concentrated on being able to produce. But this was an outward-oriented process. In losing inspiration, I lost my connection to the reason I had gotten into writing in the first place – to express something about myself, and because it was fun.
On sale this week:
Little Bird #2, written by Darcy Van Poelgeest, drawn by Ian Bertram, coloured by Matt Hollingsworth, lettered by me, designed by Ben Didier, from Image Comics.
Bloodborne #11, written by Aleš Kot, drawn by Piotr Kowalski, coloured by Brad Simpson, lettered by me, from Titan Comics, which – fun fact – contains exactly four words of lettering. Probably my shortest lettering job ever.
I don’t see too many writers talking about enjoying the process. I myself indulged, for a long time, the idea that I didn’t enjoy writing, I enjoyed having written. A lot of this is practicality – if you’re trying to write for a living, then you have to write on the days it’s not fun. And looking back, you can’t really tell the difference, so why would it matter?
It matters because it has a lot do with the why of writing. In most fields, it’s accepted that you do work you’re passionate about because you enjoy doing it. Hell, I letter because I enjoy it. Not every single day, but most days. Writing seems an odd little exception, by the looks of it.
So when I started writing again, I talked about how I’d quit writing for money, but I still wrote for “pleasure”. That became a lodestone that I’m grateful for.
Because as I started producing again, I was tremendously erratic in terms of quality, as was to be expected – I wrote stories ranging from readable to terrible, I was not sure what I was trying to convey through my writing. I would send every finished story to one of my friends and ask, bemused, whether it was any good. But wherever I went, I could come back to “pleasure” and find my way again.
Here’s the thing. Individual stories can be good or bad, but if you want writing to be a continuum, that can’t be your goal. You can’t want to produce excellence every time, because that’s not really a replicable thing. You can try your best and still write an absolute turd. Some will write out of a need to get things out of their system, some will write because being a writer was important to them. I decided that I needed to have a good time.
So when I tried to figure out a “method” again, I had to stop myself from constantly worrying about how the story was going to turn out. That was for the future, when I had a draft to work with, and I could put my editorial hat on and try to make it good. The first step needed to be me telling the story to myself, and that needed to be something I could have fun doing.
I’m still figuring this stuff out. Just as there are as many methods as there are writers, there are also as many methods as there are stories. Every story needs something else. Sometimes I’ll sit and start writing from a germ (this especially works well for prose) and find the story, go on tangents, find my way back, all knowing I can fuck about with it later. Sometimes you need to know the end before you can begin – there I’ll write a beat sheet, or even an outline that I can work from.
A lot of the time, before it exists as a draft, a story will exist as a mutating, talky document called a rambler that’s me chatting with myself, sometimes morphing into actual writing – scene and dialogue – before melting back into notes that I want to keep in mind. Sometimes after a knotty draft, I’ll come back to the rambler and realise that the solution to a problem is right there buried between other things I wrote in the liminal reality I was in when I was just trying to keep up with everything that was trying to get out.
A rambler bears no responsibility to the story, it is for me. As Ram, from whom I stole the concept, put it, “Don’t bother with anything that distracts from actually telling the story. Format, names, locations – nothing matters. Just spit it out. Ramble.”
Not only does this get the story out of my mind and on to the page so I can look at it, it’s also an enjoyable process. Everything that’s difficult – consistency, polish, research – is left out, and it’s just you left to express the feeling that got you there in the first place. And every time something feels too difficult, rather than reacting like I used to – which is to avoid writing the story – I have something to work towards: What am I missing here that has taken the fun out of it?
This week’s recommendation is a bit of a difficult one to experience, but quite valuable.
Jack Graham is one of my favourite commentators on pop culture, writing and podcasting from a Marxist perspective. (He is also a nice person who has directed me to some very valuable reading about communism.) In the podcast I Don’t Speak German, Jack interviews Daniel Harper about the progress of the alt-right, from a rather unique perspective. From their podcast page:
More than two years ago, podcaster and online writer Daniel Harper started investigating the ‘alt-right’ – really the far-right and present-day fascists.
He’s gone where few other researchers have gone, and subjected himself to hours and hours of the podcasts and Youtube shows produced by the multifarious people and groups who make up this pernicious subculture. He’s listened, at length, to what they say to each other in their own spaces. And, having done the listening so you don’t have to, he’s back with his report.
It’s frequently difficult to listen to, and usually there are trigger warnings for the extremely difficult bits, but it’s also quite funny, and tremendously insightful about how extreme points of view congregate and how bad faith aids their growth and proliferation. You’ll probably want to take lots of breaks while listening, and maybe don’t listen first thing in the morning.
Warren Ellis, in a lecture at the Impakt Festival:
The monomyth is iterated – Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the near-algorithmic combination of all the world’s most enduring epics into a single template. It has no power or significance or information to transmit now. It’s been cooked down into a twelve-step timeline that’s in everything from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to almost every single Marvel movie. This isn’t mythophysics. We have, on some level, lost control of storytelling.
Filed under #writing.