🖋️ To write a novel is to grow a tree.

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.

She wrote:

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.”

Truth. Truth.

A novel is not a house to be built, but a tree to be grown.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Drawing a physical line against miasmic incursion.

Apropos of @cheri‘s recent post.

Cyberspace (digital and online spaces, or the “noösphere” according to Dan Simmons and others) is uniquely and insidiously intrusive because it’s aetheric — or, to use a more appropriate adjective, miasmic. It is “in the atmosphere”; it occupies no physical space, but has the potential to occupy indefinite amounts of mental space. That would be alright if access to it was limited and/or difficult, but the gateways are proliferating. Thus cyberspace intrudes more and more into the atmosphere. And its disembodied character allows it to bypass the physical to encroach directly on the consciousness; the boundary between outer life and inner life is crossed, and one may not really notice it.

How to resist the miasma when it has no physical substance to resist? Perhaps, indeed, it does need to be anchored to physical substance. Then it becomes easier to set boundaries, because physical substance is just easier for human minds and bodies to keep track of.‡ By “training” the mind to manage the boundaries of cyberspace through the medium of physical substance, eventually, the mind begins to associate cyberspace with those boundaries without needing the training wheels. In other words, shove disembodied, nebulous cyberspace into a physical mould until such time as it will retain that particular shape when the mould is removed.‡
‡Implications for A.I.? O-ho, a whole rabbit trail to go down.

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I’d never noticed this truth before. This explains why the strategies of putting your electronics in “the time-out basket” upon entering home are so effective.

Also explains I’ve been so successful with setting boundaries on my gaming and smartphone usage. With video games, I only have Steam et al and games installed on my desktop PC; laptop and smartphone have no games, and I once made a conscious decision that owning a PS4/Xbox console was not an acceptable life option (and reinforced my resolve by declaring this to gamer friends). With the smartphone, I’ve corralled its potential functions into a narrow channel: local communication, and music/podcast playing. Apart from that, it has few apps and does only the most menial tasks. If I want to do anything more substantive, I have to use analogue means, or hie myself to a computer.

At the start, I actively and ruthlessly policed the gaming and smartphone boundaries. And it’s paid off in spades: these boundaries are now so ingrained into my consciousness that gaming is a “desktop PC activity, sheesh, why would I game on anything else?” And the smartphone is the least important screen around and the last thing I’d turn to if I want a diversion. In fact, it’s the only device around that has social-media apps on it, and they’re seldom used. Ironic that when most people are removing access to social media from their smartphones, I’m shunting them all there. But, a menial tool for menial, low-priority activities.

I still need the physical boundaries, but I don’t need to police them so hard now; my mind is already conditioned to view those electronic devices a certain way.

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It’s high time I re-examined my containment of the miasma, in terms of cultivating my creative inner life.

With blogging, moving to Hierofalco.net was very timely. I catch myself surfing the Micro.blog timeline more than blogging or doing other creation. Well then. The menial tool can retain the sole gateway, but on the major screens: close off all gateways to M.B, and open all gateways to blogging/writing/coding/other creative works.

Ordering my creative process is the harder task. Especially the novel-writing: my workflow is in a state of chaos that brings no productivity and fosters procrastination. Surfing the Internet has been the easy way out of the former and into the latter. There are currently no boundaries, and there are no physical anchors to help contain the miasma.

Things to try out:

  • Return to handwriting. Previous attempts at handwriting novels weren’t hugely successful. But if I want to be productive and actually write something…
  • Make laptop the dedicated writing tool. Restrict browser usage — the Internet is the main floodgate for the miasma.
  • A second monitor has been very good for writing workflow. Move a monitor (maybe the main monitor??) permanently off desktop PC to laptop.
  • The major task: Figure out a long-term, sustainable system to order and pipeline the meta surrounding storytelling. Currently, my novelling notes, outlines and world-building wiki are spread over OneNote, WikidPad, Word documents, an online notepad, and physical notebooks — all artifacts of trying different methods but not yet settling on one. Unsustainable, and currently the source of most mental friction, chaos and inability to make progress (and hence, procrastination). The workflow needs to have boundaries, if not actual order, imposed on it. How to anchor this disembodied space in the physical world? What is a system and pipeline that is sustainable in the long run? (Will such a restraint liberate or stifle my creativity?) Bears some thinking.
  • Dedicated “no-screens, creative-only” days. A part of me is now squirming and squealing, “you don’t need it, why are you even contemplating that, stop thinking about it, don’t even think of doing it of course you don’t need it why are you still thinking of it–“ Well. Even more reason to anchor that physical boundary and enforce it with extreme prejudice.