Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Thinking Too Much

I'm writing this on April 27. If and when I get the call to go back to work I should get a minimum of three days notice. That means the beginning of May at the earliest. Can't be too much longer than that, now.

By then it'll have been four months since I last did any work. I haven't been idle. All this enforced leisure has done wonders for my productivity in the things that matter, not least among them this blog. 

So far in 2021 I've failed to post on just four days. I'm not about to go back and put every post through a word-counter (I did run a few samples...) but at a rough estimate I've turned out something between a hundred and fifty and two hundred thousand words so far this year.

That's two novels. Three, if you're writing Y.A. It does occur to me, now and again, that maybe I should, in fact, write a novel. I did try a couple of times, long ago, but although I was quite pleased with the result (I'm disturbingly pleased with most things I do) I found it incredibly difficult. Much, much, much harder than any other kind of writing I've ever done. 

There were two major problems. The first was knowing what to write about. I had no idea. Literally. 

I do not "get ideas" for stories. They don't "just come to me". I can't work them up out of sheer energy and willpower. If I do think of anything it invariably turns out to be a pastiche of something I read, once. 

Characters, settings, dialog? All of those come easily. Plots? Never.


Still, I was determined to try so I sat down and stared at a screen and started typing. And that kind of worked, for a while. I found that if I let the characters talk to each other, eventually they'd come up with plots of their own. Most of it didn't make much coherent sense, no more than real life ever does, but unlike life I could fix that in the edit. (Or I thought I could. I never got that far to find out).

Tough as it was, plotting wasn't the worst thing. The real killer was the fugue state. 

It turns out writing fiction is like taking bad drugs. You lose your sense of self. You even black out for a while and wake up with no memory of what you've done. Or I did, anyway. 

Sometimes it wasn't like that but on the bad days (or maybe it they were the good ones) it felt like spirit-writing. I don't even mean that as an analogy. I would read back a couple of thousand words and have no memory of having written them. It was as though someone else had channeled through me and left me with their thoughts to interpret as best I could.

When I finished a chapter I'd look over what I had so far and find myself unable to imagine any of it being something I could have written, far less had. There never seemed to be the least chance I'd be able to repeat the trick (because it did seem like a magic trick) and yet somehow I almost always could.

So, that was weird. And exhausting. And a tad bit scary. It took so much out of me there was never much chance I'd kept it up long enough to hit my 80-100k target. And I didn't. Both the pieces I was working on faded out about half way through. Neither came to any real conclusion but I did. My conclusion was I wasn't ever going to finish. So I stopped.

And then I bought EverQuest and didn't need to think about anything else for a decade. But that's another story.

Cut to today. I still have no ideas for fiction. No plots. Only now it does appear I can spit out all kinds of stuff in gobbets of several thousand words a time, without any difficulty at all. I mean, look at what you're reading now.

Is that a transferable skill? Would it work for fiction, too? Should I try to find out?

In ten years of blogging I've racked up something like two million words. That's a lot. If it was novels it would be two a year, every year, for a decade. Halve it for the edit and it's still a book a year. That has to be my 10,000 hours right there and it's not even counting all the writing I've done in the forty years before that. 

You might think I could parlay all that experience into one finished work of fiction. Yeah... but no. I'm still doubtful. I'm pretty sure that's what I thought last time and that didn't work out so well.

Then, there's the question of motive. Why would I even want to write fiction? Isn't the point to have the idea for a story first and then want to tell it? Having an idea that writing a story might be a nice thing to do and then looking for a story to tell is getting it all back to front, isn't it? If you have nothing to say, why say anything?

I know a lot of people think if they can just bang out a novel they'll be rich. I talk to people like that alogether too often. I'm under no illusions there. I know how little authors make, nearly all of them. And it's not about posterity or leaving a mark, either. Almost all the fiction ever written was forgotten long before the authors put down their pens. That's if it was ever noticed at all. It's about as likely that anything I've written for this blog will have an afterlife as almost all the fiction ever written.

Still, it can feel a little self-indulgent, spending so much time on these snippets of prose. It's like living on snacks. It keeps you going but eventually you start to wonder if you shouldn't stop and have a proper meal, just once in a while.

What I'd probably be better advised to consider than fiction would be some kind of long-form version of what I already know I can do. Five or ten thousand word essays on the kind of topics I keep coming back to, for example. God knows there are enough of them and I never feel I've even scratched the surface most times I circle round.

Only that really does sound like work. And work's something I've never been keen on.

Nope, on reflection I think I'll just stick to this for now. I reckon I can keep it up for a fair old while yet. And I'm finding the diversification that's been trickling into the blog to be quite energizing. Surprising, too. It's not quite the spirit-writing I was talking about but some days I really don't know where I'm going with a post until I finish and read it back.

Take this one, for example. It started out as a couple of introductory paragraphs for the monthly music post and look where it's ended up. That's what happens when you let your mind wander. Now I suppose I'm going to have to come up with another way to get that one started.

Good thing I never get tired of writing, isn't it?


  1. There were two major problems. The first was knowing what to write about. I had no idea. Literally.

    I do not "get ideas" for stories. They don't "just come to me". I can't work them up out of sheer energy and willpower. If I do think of anything it invariably turns out to be a pastiche of something I read, once.

    Characters, settings, dialog? All of those come easily. Plots? Never.

    Yeah, I can understand this. Dialogue also flows easily for me, but plotting --and moving the plot forward-- sucks. I honestly have no idea how fiction writers can do that so well, when I struggle so much with it. And even when there's an easily definable plot --in my experiments with writing my WoW toon Cardwyn's experience with the Deadmines questline-- I keep reaching parts where I say "The way it was written sucks, but how do I make it more organic?" And I get stuck.

    But I'll also freely admit that I sit and stare at a blank screen for a PC post, wondering what to write about, and there are plenty of times where I simply don't have anything interesting to say. And I hate that I don't have the ability to summon something quirky and interesting to post about, even when I consult my notepad of potential post topics that I keep around me.

    So major props to you for trying to write fiction, and also major props for finding things to write about on such a regular basis.

    1. Thanks. And props to anyone who keeps a blog going more than five minutes, I say!

      Fiction based on gaming, particularly mmorpgs or tabletop rpgs, is a curious hybrid. It cleverly side-steps the need to come up with a story out of thin air because the bones of one develop organically every time you play. I have a particular fondness for accounts of people's D&D campaigns - they often come across like draft screenplays or notes towards a novel. If I had a taste for writing fan fiction, something that's never really appealed to me, I can see how it would remove one of the big barriers.

  2. Here's my unsolicited and probably unwanted advice: outline. Ouuuutttliiiine.

    Thorough outlining sounds like the one thing you are lacking for writing a longer work. And I know you can do it. If you want to.

    When I'm coaching a student through a thesis or dissertation, the first thing I tell them is: Start with a one-page top-level outline that gives chapter titles. Then expand it to two levels. Then keep expanding it until the lowest-level points in the outline are almost literally the topic sentences for paragraphs. Now you're ready to start writing.

    I tell them that because that's what I was taught, and I've found it works.

    Long-form fiction / nonfiction is pretty much the same. As a really experienced and skilled writer you need not go as deep as topic sentences. But you should probably at least get down to beats of blog-post size. I'm betting you could do a 15-30 page outline in a couple of months at most, without huge amounts of pain. Once you had that outline I'm betting you couldn't help yourself filling it out all the way to the end at your own pace.

    Have you considered long-form nonfiction? I suspect that I, for one, would read the hell out of your novel-length study of MMO/RPGs. Or whatever.

    Your writing is fantastic and I love reading it. If you think you have a big book in you at all, you should give it a go.

    1. That's both really useful and very encouraging. Thanks!

      Outlines are interesting. When I was at school and then university, which was a very long time ago, I honestly don't remember them being pushed very hard at all. I remember my A-Level French teacher being keen on them but I don't think any of my supervisors even mentioned essay planning. There may have been some discussion on it for my dissertation - I guess there must have been - but I don't have any memory of it (then again i can't even remember who supervised my dissertation so it shows how much attention I was paying).

      I have thought about an outline structure or a plan for a writing longer fiction. I agree completely that it would be a good way to support the process and make it manageable. If I ever get an idea that I think might be worth working up into something of substance I would probably have to come up with some form of outline, if not right at the start then as soon as the thing began to collapse under its own weight. The real problem, though, is having that idea in the first place. I'm not sure an outline is going to help with that.

      I am toying with the general concept of writing something longer than blog posts, all the same. Having had all this time off and seeing just how much I've been able to write while hardly noticing I was doing it does make the possibility seem more feasible. Also, I'm not getting any younger. If I'm ever going to do it (and like many people I've kinda-sorta been thinking about since I was a teenager) I should probably get on with it.

    2. Here's a dirty little secret of long-form writing: the idea doesn't matter that much. It's the elaboration that matters. If I look hard at the fundamental ideas behind some of my favorite works of fiction, I find myself surprised at how much I still enjoy them.

      Try this: Set yourself to write 5 to 10 point outlines, one per week. Don't try too hard on them, just throw down whatever you might think of. Doesn't matter if it's been done before, doesn't matter if it's "dumb". Steal from your favorite stuff. Steal from something terrible that you know can do better.

      I'll bet by the time you've done ten of these, one will stick as a starting place…

      And again, if you want me to stop with the unsolicited advice, I fully understand. I know it's impolite as a stranger on the Internet, but I can't help myself. I want to read your book, and that ain't happening until you write it.

    3. I would definitely recommend creating an outline. My own background is as a software developer, and I was taught something called 'functional decomposition' - you start by stating what you want the overall program to do, then break it down onto ever-smaller chunks until each one is simple enough that it's easy to code. I do the same when starting out with a novel. Write a quick synopsis of the overall plot (you'll need that later anyway). Then expand it into a few acts or parallel storylines. Then break those down into chapters. By the end of the process I've got a plan for 30 or so chapters with a note of what is supposed to happen and the POV character for each. My own problem is then getting around to writing the actual chapters...

      Also, don't worry about the plot. There are very few original plots, especially in genre fiction. Characters, voice and setting are more important - and probably in that order.

    4. The advice and suggestions are very welcome. The real issue, though, is whether I want to do it at all. At the moment I'm questioning my motivation. I used to think it would be nice to write a long work of fiction but I was pretty convinced I'd gotten that out of my system twenty years ago. I think what's happening now is a combination of having a lot of free time (and anticipating that continuing to a large degree), noticing that I'm already producing a very significant quantity of writing on a consistent schedule (of a kind) and, probably most importantly, being aware of how old I'm getting. It's more to so with feeling I ought to do something about it than actually wanting to do it. If I had to say honestly whther I *want* to write a long work of some kind or not... I think I'd come down quite firmly on "not". Frankly, it seems like a lot of work and I am not joking when I say I really don't like to work. It needs to feel like play before I'll find myself wanting to do it. All the writing I do here feels that way.

    5. Heck, I've never written a book. It's too much work. :-) So I totally get where you're coming from. If you find yourself changing your mind in the future and actually want to do it, please let me and the others here know if we can help in any way. For now, I'll quit pestering you with advice and enjoy your very regular writing here.

  3. I read a recent report that something like 98% of published books in a year sell 5,000 or less copies. Which sort of falls into the vocational type of act, rather than the odds of making a career from it.

    Sure is a different audience for a blog.. and certainly a passion project.

    1. And do you know how much you get from selling 5,000 copies? "When an author sells 5,000 copies of a self-published book, he makes an average of only $1,616, while traditionally published authors receive an income of about $4,485". Median income for authors in the UK is £10,500, well below minimum wage. The Guardian published a piece about that in 2016. What's more, that figure has been consistently falling, year on year, so the prospects are getting worse. Only 14% of writers make their income solely from writing, figure that's declined steeply from 40% a decade and a half ago.

      I've talked to a lot of aspiring authors over the years, including several who've gone on to be published by big, respected publishing houses, had their work reviewed in the quality press, appeared on radio and tv talking about it... I still don't know anyone whose made a living out of it.

  4. Time and energy are the two factors that hold me back the most, and have done for some time. I've continued to work almost fulltime (~90%) throughout the current situation and I've found it utterly exhausting. My blogging has suffered a great deal, I simply need more time away from the PC nowadays, and that means less gaming and less writing about said gaming.

    I've toyed with the idea of writing novels a few times over the decades, but I feel you have to have your heart in such an endeavour. I also feel like I should really knuckled down to studying writing as a craft first. I have written and published a couple of D&D modules in the last 18 months but I've stalled rather even on that project.

    In my case it's not a lack of ideas, but I find the day job too exhausting to want to think deeply about other things afterwards. A change of career is really needed but that's a huge endeavour in and of itself. It's glib in the extreme to say I wish I'd been furloughed, but honestly it would have given me time to do a lot of the things I'd much rather be doing. I've no illusions about writing as a career though, I long wished I could work for Paizo or Wizards of the Coast writing rpg modules, but I recognise that it's highly unlikely that'll ever be a main source of income.


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