The Myth of Recommendation (Or the Overabundance of Critics, and the Lack of Criticism)

It’s taken me a long time to come round to criticism. For the longest time, I felt there was something almost inherently unfair about it; something unnecessarily disparaging or needlessly negative. To my younger self, surrounded as I was by the mediocrity of most internet reviews, and the general culture of soullessly technical dissection that is popular in many spheres of self-declared critics, it seemed to me like people were just taking great pains to ruin things for themselves. And, in those highly specific cases, I think I may still feel similarly. When faced with the sort of people who try to say Guardians of the Galaxy is “merely Space Avengers,” I can only feel a great, mourning groaning in my heart of hearts, and wonder privately how someone can hear a whole story without actually listening to any of it. For the longest time, this is precisely what made me wary of any self-declared critics.

But I’ve come round now, as I say. Not to the Space Avengers people, but to the realization that such people are not, to put it baldly, necessarily critics. Or rather, just because they say they are critics, and call themselves critics, and may even talk like critics, does not mean they know how to give actual criticism. You can be a critic without being a good one. Frankly, though, I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not you are a critic, or that there is some difference between “true critics” and “pretend critics.” I don’t believe Criticism is some anal matter of rites of passage, or official recognition, or any other such banalities we might come up with. The truth of the thing, I believe, is that Criticism is not about critics. It may be a subjective thing, but it is not truthfully a personal one. It is not a celebrity affair. A neater way of putting it would be that Criticism is not about the critic, but the thing being criticized.

Now, the fact that the words “criticize,” and “disparage,” are now more or less synonymous in our modern language is, I think, rather exemplary of my inner misgivings towards the institution in general, but I will not blame the foibles of the English language on a time-honoured part of literary appreciation. Criticism, I believe, is valid, even if we don’t know how to talk about it.

To return to the point, I think the problem with much of what we pretend counts as criticism, with much of what might be called Reviewer Culture, is that it is far more occupied with the reviewer—with the idea that the whole thing is a review—than it is with the story. This, I think, is best characterized by that fact that most reviews—most so-called criticism—boil down to whether or not the critic liked the story. How a critic feels about a story may be absolutely relevant, but it is only relevant in the same sense the lens of a microscope is relevant. Necessary, yes—even important—but ultimately not the point. The point is the story itself. It is not the lens, but what you see through it. And if the story cannot be examined for its sake, judged on its own merits, sought after and thought through simply for what it is trying to say and do, then what good is criticism at all? What is Criticism, if it is not merely listening and thinking, in a deep and delicate way, about what a story is trying to say with its words?

For the first time in my life, I find myself warming up to certain critics I have encountered, in one place and another. But it is not because I agree with them. In fact, most often I don’t, simply because I disagree with most people on most things. I am an oddball, and perfectly used to that. I don’t especially care whether or not such-and-such a person enjoyed Infinity War, except in the general sense that I care for humanity and its happiness. What I care about, as a seeker of literature and a bearer of the torch of Story, is what Infinity War is trying to say, and if they (the critic) are thoughtful enough to see it. What is the story doing, what is the story breathing, what is the story about? That is the point! Not the plot, which anyone could likely summarize in a short jumble of dull sentences (unless the story is immensely complicated, which is not always a compliment), but the actual themes, the breadth, the characters, the conflicts, the life between the lines of print. As Ray Bradbury put so beautifully, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” Anyone can count footprints. Story, on the other hand, is where the characters are trying to go, and why, and what that says about them and us; their world and ours.

I do not, under any circumstances, consider myself especially capable of what one might call storyspection; the practice of delving deep into the layered, entangled weave of a story to find out the meaning behind the web of dreams, and how well the web has been spun to show it. It is natural, then, that I—and I think all of us—seek out others who are more capable. There will always be great minds who can peer into the looking-glasses of Fairyland and see visions we, in the rush of our lives, could only glimpse momentarily upon the rim. No two human perspectives are identical—that, after all, is why we have Story in the first place—and to see what others can find in a great book is one of life’s most sublime joys. That is why we have Criticism, that is what Criticism is for, and that is what I look for in a critic.

To finish: If you are hoping to become a critic, and I hope you are, I can only say, as a mindnumblingly meta critic of critics, to avoid the myth of recommendation. A part of modern Reviewer Culture, a part of the trend that I believe has bred Youtube breakdowns, and so-called “angry reviews” that are most often little more than private rants broadcast at an unnecessarily broad scope, is this idea of whether or not a given critic recommends a given work. Now, recommendation is not a bad thing, by any means, on its own. If someone I know and trust recommends a story to me, it can be a delight. But the fact of the matter is that an online voice most often does not know you, and you as an online voice do not know the majority of your audience. You can’t. The internet is too large a public square to glimpse the many faces of those around the edges. You can recommend something from one friend to another, but broad recommendation to an indeterminable audience is an endeavour built to fail. You can’t know if someone will enjoy something if you do not know them personally, and to me it hardly seems much of an occupation to make jabs at educated guessing. It conjures in my mind the image of some old man at a video lottery, calling out numbers to an unfeeling machine. Surely there are better ways to spend our time.

If you are aspiring to be a critic, it is not your job to tell people what to like. Moreover, audiences do not need to be told what to like, and shouldn’t be. The world is not made of electric sheep, to be programmed by a shepherding switchboard of internet trends and celebrity vlogs. As human beings, we should be capable of determining whether or not we like something, and why, on our own. It is not a critic’s job to preach a sermon of subjective pleasure or dissatisfaction. It is a critic’s job to find a story’s heart and expound upon its pulse.

I realize there is some irony in my saying all this. On this very blog, I have frequently recommended this or that movie, this or that story. I have written many reviews, some of them angrier than others, and they probably make up the bulk of this site’s content. The myth of recommendation is everywhere, stamped across everything in our reactionary, trendy internet culture, and I am neither special nor exempt to it. And I do hesitate to say it doesn’t have its place. If there is someone whose work or ideas I admire, and they recommend a book, I may enjoy the book. That logic is sound enough. But recommendation certainly warrants a much smaller place than it has.

My point is, whether we like or or not, recommendation is not actually Criticism. Even if you never read a book, to read a criticism of it ought to give you some insight, or some fresh idea about the world, or whatever the book was about. Blandly boiling a story down to “worth your time,” or “not worth your time,” seems blind to me, as if stories were just coins to be flipped. Heads or tails, good or bad, recommended or not recommended. It is naught but an empty, chilling echo of the meaningless, knee-jerk, like-dislike culture of social media and the binary, zero-or-one mentality that is the bane and the basis of computer culture. Stories may be good or bad, all-in-all, in the context of their own quality, execution, and ideas, but to merely blandly state so achieves nothing. Anyone could do the same. But to take that quality, that execution, those ideas, and to actually examine them, turn them over, to try and see what they say altogether as whole about our world and the worlds that could be through the eyes and the struggles of the characters, that to me is Criticism.

And Criticism of that sort, I believe, is something we need far more of.

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Putting in The Hours (or How Stories are Magic, but Writing Isn’t)

Heigh ho, we’re back again to talk about writing things. I’ve been writing a heck of a lot lately, so I figure it’s high time to take a bit of a break and… write some more. What? I like writing.

Over the course of my weird and wonderful life, and its many inane days, I have had a tendency to mystify my work as a writer. I mean, writing does feel sort of magical, at least in retrospect, right? I start out with this blank page, and an hour or two later I have all these pictures and peoples and ideas and emotions splattered all over the place. Awhile after that, give or take few weeks—or a few years, depending on whether it’s a short story or one of those monolithic, fancy-pants Novels—and you have a story that actually makes sense, with a plot and everything (if you’re lucky). As a writer, you just kind of have to look back and scratch your head and go, “How did that happen?”

The thing is, reading feels like wizardry. Whether you’re reading your favourite book, or something you just wrote yesterday, it feels magical. You’re peering into other worlds, full of magic and monsters and anything else at all, where any lie can be a truth, and any truth a lie. Reading just feels like magic. So, when you’re writing, you just kind of assume it’s magic too. Or, at least, I often do. I’ve never really been super clear on where my ideas come from (I’ve heard it’s a common feeling)—my really good ideas, anyway, the ones I try and make stories out of—so, in the past, I’ve usually just spread my hands and explained it away as just “Magic!” Call it a lack of self esteem, if you want, but owning that I made these crazy stories of mine is just kind of hard. Now that I think about it, it may be the same reason, or at least the same impulse, that drives some people to think there are no original ideas in the first place (“I didn’t make this magic story, I just subconsciously stole a load of bits from other stories, and didn’t add any flourishes or fine details of my own that make it its own thing.” “Dumbledore is really just Gandalf,” and the rest). My ideas may be so weird and odd I can only really hold my own demented mind fully accountable for their final results, but thinking of them as my ideas has never come particularly naturally to me. My impulse has always been to chock it up to inspiration, or some other arbitrary factor. It wasn’t me, it was just the music I was listening to, or the picture I was looking at, or the weather. Or what I ate for breakfast. I don’t know if this is a common emotion, or just a me thing, but I’m willing to wager it’s not rare.

Whether or not you struggle with admitting ownership of your own ideas (which I do think is important, for the record—owning your ideas is a part of having a healthy relationship with your work. At least, I think so. Honestly I’m just pulling this out of my butt, or wherever else all my writing comes from. Now that I think about it, I hope it’s not my butt), I think this tendency to mystify the writing process is something worth addressing. It’s so very easy to blame inspiration, or your Muse (whatever the heck that’s supposed to be), or that notebook you happened to use for your first notes, or how you set up that first paragraph, or even how many breaks you used (please tell me I’m not the only one who’s obsessive about formatting). I myself have spent most of my life enslaved to this impression there was some special trick, or shortcut, or metaphorical magic word that made my writing work. The thing is, I can’t deny that sometimes I write, and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I just get so stuck I scream internally and try feebly to tear out my hair (mostly because I think I saw someone do this in a movie once, and it strikes me as the Thing To Do when you’re frustrated beyond wit and soul’s end). I’ve always figured there had to be a pattern or a reason, so it has become my habit to search for any outward explanations. We all want to beat writer’s block—it’s the main enemy for so many of us, especially, I think, as aspiring writers—and the idea that there is some special trick or hidden weapon is very attractive.

It has been a surprising help to me to actually study writer’s block, a bit, and learn the difference between being stuck and being drained. Sometimes, when you stare at a page for ages and ages, and nothing happens at all (I’m not talking about what I sometimes classify as nothing, but as in actual nothing, where there are zilch words coming out), your creative tank is just empty. Recognizing this isn’t writer’s block is, I think, super important. At least, it’s helped me a lot, so perhaps it might help others. When you’re empty, you’re just out of gas, and you have to go fill up on music and reading and video games and whatever other Art you can cram in your face. Fundamentally, we can’t make anything without consuming fuel. It’s why so many people who read wind up writing, and so many writers who don’t read enough don’t get anywhere (coughcoughIdidn’treadforyearsandIwroteutterubbishcoughcough). You’ve got to feed your creative fires, otherwise they just go out. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, it just means you’re tired. Creative fires is kind of an unusual analogy, but it makes me think of dwarf forges, and dwarves are cool, so I’m going with it. Creative fires.

Knowing the difference between being empty and being stuck is, I think, a key component to conquering that dire enemy, writer’s block. Furthermore (and here’s where I loop to this back to what I was actually talking about), I think overcoming the  impulse of mystifying writing, and reducing it to a pseudo-superstitution of inspiration, is absolutely necessary for overcoming writer’s block. At the very least, it has been necessary for me. I get stuck writing for a variety of reasons, but if I only believe I can write effectively in the first place because I have my lucky writing hat (to clarify, I do not have one of these, per se), I will never be able to find those real reasons, because I’ll be too busy looking for my hat. It’s so, so easy, especially when you’re a young, aspiring writer (ahem, like myself) to give into that age-old impostor’s syndrome, and become convinced your ability to write is reliant on some arbitrary inspiration thingummy. I’ve been doing it for years, to be honest. Maybe it was a desktop picture that “set the vibe” for me, maybe it was a place or a chair, maybe it was just a mood, or sheer motivation itself, but I’ve always had this tendency to believe I can only work when things are “just right.” When I “feel inspired.”

And I’m not trying to say that inspiration is nonexistent. Stuff inspires us; that’s how we make ideas. But perhaps—perhaps—inspiration is only the spark, not the fire. And perhaps—perhaps—it’s just the first flame, and therefore, in some ways, the least important. The first flame may feel the warmest, but it’s the long, slow, deep coals that come with time that actually burn the hottest. And the only way to keep the fire really burning is not by adding more initial sparks, but by putting in the real labour and stocking it with hard-cut wood. You can’t build a fire with only flint.

What I’m getting at here is that, ultimately, I’ve come to believe that writing comes down to the unmagical, uninteresting, but ultimately imperative task of just putting in the hours. I actually read this years ago, and resented it entirely at the time, and spent the next week or so explaining to myself why it was wrong, and how I was different. Truly useful writing advice—advice that actually changes how you write, and fundamentally alters your workflow as a writer—takes years to sink in, I think. Anything really impactful is going to take its time to process in your head. If writing was just a matter of reading the right tips and shortcuts—the Top Ten Things You Need to Know If You’re Writing a Novel—then everyone would just become master-class novelists in the space of an afternoon.

And that’s what I’m getting at. Maybe the writing process isn’t a series of elaborate tricks played upon your psyche to make you creative, or some arcane inspirational sorceries, but rather just cold, hard work. I know that’s not very fun, or very magical, but I’ve firmly come to believe that, while stories are magic, writing isn’t. Writing is blood and sweat and tears and soulfelt agony, but it isn’t magic. Reading may be magic, but I don’t think writing is. As writers, we love a good story, but I don’t think the process of actually writing one makes for much of a tale. If you actually want to write, I think you literally just have to sit down and write. It sounds glib, but I think it’s true, even if it isn’t glamorous or particularly nice to hear. It may not be easy—nothing worth doing is—but it is simple, at least. Maybe you don’t need that special notebook, maybe I don’t need my mood-setting desktop picture. Maybe I don’t need to be in the right mood, or in the right place. Maybe there is no Muse.  Maybe, rather than a beautiful Muse of Inspiration, there’s just an ugly Monkey of Determination, trying to climb up a tree to get the Bananas of Prose. Maybe writing isn’t a matter of counting up words, but rather putting in hours (I actually have a lot more to say about this, so hopefully this topic’ll get its own blog post. And by “this,” I mean the thinking in hours over words, not the monkey thing).

So maybe, next time you’re faced with that blank, staring page, instead of turning away with a groan and putting it off for when you feel inspired (as I’ve been doing for the past several years), it would be worth trying to buckle down and try writing anyway. It will be hard—monstrously hard—that I promise you. I regularly slam my laptop shut and fling it away, and feebly try to tear out my hair when faced with this stage. The Resistance of emptiness is suffocating; overwhelming almost to the point of being unbearable. But only almost. If you can overcome that resistance, if you can get over that craggy hill and come sliding down the other side, and cast off the chains of counting words and parsing paragraphs and just abandon yourself to putting in hours, perhaps—perhaps—you’ll find that you’ve written something by the end after all.

At least, I hope so, because, as unmagical as it is, putting in hours is something I can do, and catching the magic butterfly of Muse is something I cannot.

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What do you think? Do you kind of hate me for suggesting writing just takes boring old hard work, and nothing fun like magic elves and mood boards? Have you ever tried just logging hours writing, or found it effective? Does everyone actually do this, and I’m just behind? Do you think this post was inadvertently way too smug for its own good? Do you think that fickle inspiration thing is even necessary to write? Do you feel like it’s even important? Is inspiration even real, or is it just Keebler elves whispering to us through our breakfast cereal? Let me know your thoughts in the comments. After all, what’s the good of having an internet if we don’t build a hive mind—I mean, if we don’t communicate?

Non potui cogitare quid dicam.

Juxtaposing Beauty and Ugliness in Storytelling

So, today I wanna talk about a phenomenon which I first really heard talked about in (of all places) the behind-the-scenes of the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, but more recently saw perfectly illustrated in the Studio Ghibli Film Princess Mononoke (which is fantastic, in case you didn’t know already; I’m always late to the party on these things). It’s the sort of thing that you might hear talked about in discussions of art direction and so forth, but I think it extends, as an idea and a narrative paradigm, to all forms of storytelling and story direction.

Fundamentally, it’s the fairly simple idea of taking something beautiful and contrasting it with something ugly. You can see this very visibly in films (like GOTG), but you can find it, at the most basic level, wherever there is Story.

Morag_(Planet)_02.jpg
(Credit to Marvel Wikia. And hey, look, I have illustrations now!)

Take the planet Morag, for example (pictured above). It’s that abandoned planet the first Guardians of the Galaxy film starts on, where Peter Quill finds the orb. As you can see, its surface is kind of a hole, with wet ruins and belching clouds and abyssal trenches and so on. It’s covered in the wrecked remains of a broken civilization, and some of their skeletons. It’s a generally gnarly-looking place. But it’s got this glorious, beautiful sunset-type skyline to it (more evident in the films than in the picture above), which results in this very powerful contrast, which does a lot of cool stuff I’d like to talk about (incidental rabbit trail: This trend continues throughout the film, and into the next one, which is part of the reason why Ego’s Planet feels kind of unconsciously unsettling, because it’s all beautiful all the time, unlike every other location in the GOTG universe shown up until then).

At a basic level, this juxtaposition (what a fun word that is!) effectively amplifies both the ugliness of Morag’s surface, and the beauty of its skies, making them both ultimately more effective, and more meaningful. Relatively, something beautiful is going to seem all the more gorgeous and precious if you surround it with ugly or banal things; a diamond in the rough feels a thousand times more poetic, and thus a thousand times more precious, than a diamond in a pile of equally shiny diamonds. The plant in the movie WALL•E carries a lot more weight because it first appears in a landfill, and not in a forest. Conversely, something ugly appears all the more hideous when it is surrounded solely by beautiful things. Contrast implies and thus creates conflict, which is the building-block of story.

And where does Princess Mononoke come into this? Well, simply put, it executes on this amazingly. In the very first few moments of the film, you’re confronted with these utterly beautiful, Ghiblian vistas, which are then contrasted (slight spoiler?) with this totally hideous monster which shows up. All of a sudden, those vistas feel that much more beautiful, and that much more idyllic, simply because we’re shown something so much more monstrous than them. And that monster immediately creates such a powerful impression as it rampages through those vistas, when, if it was in a film as dark and hideous as itself, we might dismiss it as mindlessly macabre.

And I think there is a great lesson here. Not merely in the fundamental, pseudo-philosphical rule of contrast—of light and shadow—that can be found in all forms of art, but also in the balance of Story itself. I feel sometimes, in this polarized and ultimately haphazard age, we have become very unbalanced in our storytelling. We either tell ludicrously gritty stories, where everyone is covered in mud, everyone is bleeding, and our protagonist has machetes instead of basic human inhibitions, or else resort to the other extreme, and sling saccharine rainbows at our readers and viewers with unbridled exuberance, and forbid even a single cloud to cast its shadow over our story’s skies. And while there is room for nearly every sort of story on this wide world of ours, I do think we are making a bit of a mistake as aspiring creatives when we decide to write stories that are either “gritty” or “pretty,” as if the two are mutually exclusive. And we are certainly making a grievous mistake when we associate a “serious” story with an exclusively “gritty” one.

Speaking as someone with a long and boring history of trying to write dark, gritty, “serious stories,” and then intermittently running off to write sunshiney, ludicrous, rainbow-sparkle stories that lacked any real heart, I think if we purposely tried to balance the grandeur and the grit in our stories, we might find better results. I’m not saying every story has to be gritty, or every story has to be gloriously beautiful, but I do think a little beauty ought to be found in every book, and a little darkness ought to rear its head in every scene. For without light, how can the shadows seem long, and without darkness, how can we find the light? Shading and lighting are important in painting, and they’re important in painting Stories as well.

If we want to write gore, we don’t have to shy away from it, but we shouldn’t shy away from beauty, either. There is a great deal of violence Princess Mononoke—when there are action sequences, they are plenty gory ones—but the film still stops at the tops of hills to admire the view. It doesn’t cheapen anything, and thus everything is incredibly impactful. It doesn’t feel the need to relentlessly pursue the same theme, or to follow up action scene after action scene with yet more action. And yet, it’s not merely all walks in the woods. It’s all very measured, and so you never become desensitized to any of it, so the story really reaches you without any interruption.

Having watched both of them recently, I can’t help comparing the violence of  Princess Mononoke to the violence of the Bruce Willis movie RED (and yes, I know that comparison isn’t fair in the slightest). RED was a perfectly good action movie, as an action movie, but its violence certainly didn’t have nearly the same heartfelt impact on me that Mononoke‘s did. I would’ve never considered crying over the loss of anyone in RED, and I certainly didn’t feel upset over the destruction of anything in the midst of its explosions. It was so relentlessly violent and destructive it ultimately made its world feel worthless (granted, that’s not a problem with RED specifically, that’s a problem with many action films in general). The thing is, I can’t remember really anything strictly beautiful about RED. And, sure, I know that it wasn’t trying to be beautiful, and I’m definitely not trying to play movie critic here, but still, all stories being stories, I think the more balanced narrative of Mononoke absolutely had a deeper effect on me. And perhaps that simply is because it did pursue the beautiful, as well as the gruesome.

For some reason, while I’ve spent far too much time writing far too much flowery, descriptive prose, I’ve never really considered beauty as an ingredient in any of my stories. I’ve thought about grit and violence, mostly because the present culture emphasizes these things as being “adult” and “serious,” but never really beauty. And I think this was a serious mistake on my part. I don’t think the solution to my writing tribulations is the complete purging of all grit from my storytelling—as someone who has been through a lot of heckfire in life, I think grit is a genuine part of my writing—but I do believe a conscious inclusion of beauty in my work is going to result in a better balance, and thus ultimately a better story. Stories are, at their essence, conflicts, and conflicts are merely contrasts, one way or another. And, artistically speaking, you have to balance your contrast.

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Have you ever thought about intentionally including beauty in your own work? How do feel about grit, both in popular culture and in your own writing? Have you thought about the balance of the beautiful and the macabre in your own story, or the contrast of your story’s “shading” in general? Let me know in the comments!

Non potui cogitare quid dicam.

Thoughts on Writing Advice (And Also Dragons)

Writing is like dragons: it’s different for everyone, even if we all agree on it generally, it’s fearsome to face, even more fiercely rewarding to conquer, and it popularly involves damsels somehow, often at its own expense (objectification of damsels in a plot = shabby story, objectification of damsels by dragons = angry knights with really pointy swords). I’m not sure what all that means, but it’s not my job to understand what I’m writing, just to write it. The dragon must be vanquished, even if his dietary and social habits are not ever studied or properly understood. Dragons are an under-appreciated race, despite being wicked cool, though it’s mostly their fault for always eating their callers and being so ridiculously obsessed with sleeping on money. Though, I mean, really, can we say anything much better about humans?

Anyway, today I wanna talk about writing advice, which totally has everything to do with dragons. Okay, you got me, I actually just kinda wanna talk about dragons, but I also sort of had some half-baked thoughts about writing advice (not any actual advice of my own, mind you, just thoughts on other people’s, because that’s easier and takes way less personal intelligence), and it’s a good excuse to talk about dragons. That’s the nice thing about dragons, isn’t it? Anything goes with dragons. You want zombie dragons? Sure, absolutely, that makes perfect sense. Dragons that breathe water? Heck yeah, it’s just like reverse fire, right? Who cares where they’re getting all that excess moisture, it’s not important (the answer, of course, is Magic with a capital M, and hands spread wide with your fingers wiggling slightly, which totally makes the explanation 100% more reasonable).

Writing is very much the same way. We all know what it is, even if we only dimly grasp how it works (it’s Magic, not science, unless you’re Jules Verne, in which case I applaud you, and ask pretty please to see your time machine, and if you stole it from H. G. Wells), and it can be pretty much anything, despite us all totally getting it. You could write a story about a superintelligent toaster from another galaxy (though not anymore, as I just called dibs on that idea) and it would still be a story, and everyone would totally get that. And you could write that story pretty much any way you wanted, so long as you wrote it. Heck, you could write it while standing on your head, dictating to your computer in Klingon (assuming you have a text-to-speech app that understands Klingon, in which case please send me the link to that, as I need that in my life right now), and so long as you actually finished it, and didn’t get lost somewhere on the way like I always do and end up at a psychological 24-hour Denny’s at mentally four o’clock in the morning (which is basically all writer’s block is), it would be a story and people wouldn’t think twice about it. Unless you left it in the original Klingon, but even then hardcore Trek nerds would be all over it. Actually, they’d probably be so happy to read an original story in Klingon they’d be way more forgiving of its faults than the ordinary press, so that’s actually kind of a good thought. I don’t suppose anyone knows where I can learn Klingon…?

I’m being facetious, of course—I already know where to learn Klingon. It’s on Duolingo.

Anyway, the point I was getting at before I derailed and starting talking about Klingon is that it doesn’t matter how you write, so long as you actually do write. And so long as you don’t break any laws, or hurt yourself overmuch, or actually at all. Oh, and so long as the story is at least halfway good, but that’s less important. If you write something and it turns out rubbish, you can just call it a practice round and still feel like a hero. Once again, it’s like dragons: Even if you slay the smallest, measliest one, you still killed a freaking dragon, which is way cool, if a bit monstrous. And isn’t that what writing really is? Minus the monstrous thing (maybe)?

And that’s sort of my problem with a lot of mainstream writing advice. Bam! Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? From Klingon, to dragons, to the thing I was actually supposed to be talking about. I told you I knew what I was doing. Well, actually, I didn’t, and I would’ve been lying if I did, but you don’t need to know the secret machinations that go on behind the curtain of words, or rather the complete lack of secret machinations. What matters is I wrote the thing, and you read the thing. Whether you think it was a plan all along isn’t important. But it totally was (not). Okay, I’m doing myself a slight disservice here. There was (part of) a plan. Kind of. Maybe not. It’s secret, okay?

Anyway, my problem with mainstream writing advice, right. Totally on topic here. The thing with mainstream writing advice is that it’s usually, well… Let’s not split hairs here, it’s kind of full of itself. Because it’s Right, right? It’s the Right way to Write. Right Write Right. It’s like that stupidly successful businessman who has made millions working at his father’s company saying that all you have to do is “work hard,” and it’s got nothing to do with opportunities. Admittedly (and thankfully) writing is a lot more skill-based than life, but it’s also a lot more flexible, just like dragons. Dragons are flexible, like cats. Mixed with dinosaurs. Which is precisely why they’re way cool (cats = cool, dinosaurs = cool, cats + dinosaurs = way cool = DRAGONS). Who said that writing wasn’t a science? Wait, I did.

And that’s kind of the point, right? It’s easy to say things about writing—you don’t even have to be a writer to do that. It’s easy to say you need to make sentences like this, and talk about your characters like that, and outline your plot the right way (i.e. my way). Anyone can talk like that, with a little practice. Authority has nothing to do with experience or intelligence, it’s just attitude (ask anyone who has a boss, or just Google politics). It doesn’t matter what I know; so long as I talk like I’m British, everyone will believe me. If I have a Youtube channel, I’m automatically an expert, right? That’s the magic of the internet—we all get to play newspaper journalists, while knowing even less than they did (which wasn’t much, by all accounts).

And even if you are a Super Successful Novelist Wizard Writer of Successful Stupendousness (I’m calling preemptive dibs on that title, too, for when I eventually do publish something, if only because it will be wonderfully ironic), and you know all these things about writing, you’re still just you. Writing is like dragons: it’s different for everybody. Smaug ain’t no Toothless, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ain’t no Lord of the Rings. Stories are all different, and they’re all written in different ways, because we’re different people (surprise surprise). That perfect balance of planning and improvisation that you may have achieved may just not work for other people. That plot-outlining trick where you imagine all your characters as chickens in a wagon trying to escape the butcher (let the record show, I do not do this) may just not be as effective for other writers. Sure, doing headstands and writing in Klingon could be fantastically inspiring for you, but for me… Well, I don’t know Klingon, and I can’t do headstands. You see where I’m going with this? Good, because I don’t.

And that’s not to say that writing advice can’t be useful—it can be, and I believe that firmly enough to even dispense a little of my humble horde when called upon—but it is to say that it is definitely unsalted. Meaning that it requires a grain of salt—specifically, many, many grains of salt. What works for Successful T. Samantha Bestsellinger may not work for you, and what works for Internet Authority Phil, contributor to WikiHow, who may or may not even write himself, probably won’t work for you. But, if it does work for you, that’s great, because the whole point of writing is to, y’know, write. Boy that was profound.

I feel like I’m kind of dancing in circles here, which is seen as alluring in some circles (you see what I did there?), but hopefully a few shards of my poorly-chiseled point are coming through. It’s easy to dispense advice, much harder to implement it, and even easier to use it and find yourself worse off, or just plain confused. Impostor’s syndrome runs deep in our tradition, and nothing cripples the insecure aspiring author (speaking from personal experience here) like being told we’re Doing it Wrong. Let me give you an example.

Recently, I was perusing the internet (that’s a lie—my mother actually sent me a link, I’m not really much of a peruser myself), and I came across a blog that was (you guessed it) dispensing writing advice. It had nothing to do with dragons, but shockingly, I read it anyway. It started out alright, but the more I read it, the more I got confused, and then just generally became kind of gently disgusted with it. I’m obviously not going to name names (the hilarity of hyperlinking that did not escape me, but I’m sincere about this), because there’s no point in that, but the general crux of the article seemed to rest on this idea of worrying what, or who, you sounded like. Now, obviously there’s merit to examining and understanding the sound and feel of your prose, but I don’t think that’s what they were talking about. I think the specific example they used was something like worrying about sounding like a “over-educated fifth grader,” or something. Now, putting aside I don’t even know what that’s supposed to sound like, I have serious issues with the assumptions this worry rests on. I thought we were here to blanking write, not play AutoTune with prose. For the love of dragons, why should you care who you sound like, so long as your story’s good and your characters genuine?

Obviously, imitation is a worthy and useful thing, to a degree, but no one honestly and genuinely imitating a great author for the sake of getting better themselves is going to compare themselves to that author… Right? Like, do we do that, seriously? That just seems kinda messed up. You can’t compare yourself to other people like that, because you’ll never be them, and trying to be them, or judging yourself by other people’s identities rather than your own, is just going to seriously mess with your worldview. Like, if you can’t comfortably sound like who you are (and instead, say, try to write dark, gritty novels all the time instead of funny blog posts about dragons, heheh…), then you need to sit down and get comfortable, because you can’t change who you are deep down. You can totally improve yourself, and become a better version of yourself, but what you sound like is gonna be tied up with your identity, to some degree, and you’re gonna be happiest when you’re sounding like yourself. If you like Pokémon, but don’t do anything about it because It’s Not the Cool Thing, then you’re gonna feel all miserable and shrivelly till you do Pokémon (whatever that entails—don’t look at me, I only really know Magic: The Gathering). Your writing style and your identity kind of work the same way: you’re going to figure them out as you go, but ultimately you’re going to get them figured out, and then it’s just going to be a matter of improving them, or ignoring them and trying to be something you’re not (and thus being miserable and unsuccessful at the same time).

Okay, so, I can’t really say that got derailed there, because this is technically what I’m supposed to be talking about, but it got really hard on the rails. Let’s just take a deep breath for a moment. There we go, that’s a lot better. Okay, let’s do this.

When you read, you’re learning more and more not just about the story, but also stories in general, and how they work and how to write them. Books that have a profound impact on you and teach you a lot are going to have an impact on your style. However, as far as I can tell, that’s kind of a natural, organic thing. You certainly can’t just import someone else’s style. And, as I see it, you certainly shouldn’t be worrying about sounding like someone else, whether real or imagined (I’m looking at you, over-educated fifth graders—I don’t think you’re even a real group of people). How you sound is just how you sound, and if you’re being true to the way you wanna write, there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as I can tell.

I’ve rambled a lot here, and probably said a lot of things that don’t make perfect sense, but I’ve never been one to want exact change (sense, cents, heheh, puns…). I didn’t get to talk about dragons as much as I wanted, but hey, life isn’t perfect.

What about you? Where do you think the balance lies between imitating the greats, and staying true to your own personal style? Do you worry about sounding like something or someone, and is that worry as problematic to you as I feel it is, or does it actually help you write better? Are you vaguely fed up with writing advice, too, for reasons not quite fully explained (despite the length of this article)? Let me know in the comments.

Non potui cogitare quid dicam.

Letting the Novel Dream Die (At Least a Little Bit)

As writers, we all wanna right novels, right? Authoring a novel is, for one reason or another (don’t look at me, it wasn’t my idea), the throne we all seem to want to sit on. Everybody who’s anybody has written a novel. Plenty of people have written New York Times Bestsellinginging Novels of Glamorous, Gritty Successfulness. Some people have hundreds of such novels (which begins to make me question just how Bestsellingerish such a Bestselling list can be, if so many books Bestsell so easily. Then again, I guess there’s always someone at the top of the sales list, right?). The point is, everybody seems to want to do it, and while authoring a novel is obviously a worthy and wonderful venture, it is also (of course) a terribly difficult, mindnumbingly strenuous one of brain-tearing, sanity-unseating proportions. Seriously, like, you ever tried writing a novel? Tough stuff, that.

What’s my point? Well, I’m still not entirely sure, but I know it’s the end that’s not the eraser. I happened to read something (I believe it was by Paper Fury, or C.G Drews, as I suppose she’s now Officially called, since she’s Published a Novel—seriously, though, Cait, congrats on that novel, that’s freaking amazing) about writing blog posts you’d like to read yourself, and I happen to like to read rambley blog posts with a lot of confusing jokes, so buckle up. We’re just getting started. Oh, and don’t mess with the rubber band on the dashboard—that keeps the blinkers working. No joke.

Well, yes joke, actually, but true story. Just not my story. Actually Phil Vischer’s story. Getting distracted here.

What were we talking about again? Ah, yes, Novels and Things. Well, pour yourself a cup of tea, and let’s get down to talking about that, shall we? Don’t mind the spill, it happens to the best of us.

As I was saying, everybody who Writes (I won’t say All Writers, because that just sounds presumptuous, even though it means the exact same thing) wants to write a Novel. We all read Novels, we all love Novels, I even capitalize Novels for no clear reason. Clearly, Novels are big deals. And they’re really good, right? Some of the best books are Novels. Actually, most of them are. A few of them aren’t. Some houses have two bedrooms: some have more, some have less; it all works out, everybody seems to get a bed. I’m getting distracted again.

But seriously, as a writer, I’ve often felt the pressure, intermixed with the desire (they’re not the same thing—some people feel pressured to fit in and Do All the Latest Fashion Things, but I’m firmly convinced nobody actually wants to look like literally everybody else with no exceptions) to write a Novel. I’ve often felt like Noveldom was some faraway mountain; a mountain I would climb with ropes of words and a minimum of planning (or, occasionally, a maximum of planning, with the same disastrous results). Authoring a Novel seems like some grand, desirable accomplishment. They even devote a whole month to it every year, just so some lucky [insert derogatory noun here—in case of emergencies where your words won’t word after writing for four hours use ‘phlegmwad’] can say, “Hey, look at me! I wrote a whole Novel in only a month! Now I’m a magic pony, and nobody can take that from me!”

Obviously, I’m being facetious, and bear no real envy for these people. Writing is so stupidly, mindnumbingly, soulsuckingly, heartbreakingly hard that the victory of any writer feels like a victory for all writers. We’re all in this together, right? We’re all fighting the same enemy—words. And simultaneously working with them, and weaponizing them, and trying to remember them past midnight after drinking too much of our caffeinated beverage of choice. We’ve all been there. And, after the calamities I endured just trying to write the first chapter of a novel, all I can give to finished Novel Authors is the most earnest and deepest of respect. You guys are proof that real wizards exist.

But I’m not a wizard. Hagrid came to my house and told me. He was really nice about it—totally apologetic and all—sat me down all kind and said, nice and straight, “You’re not a wizard, Luke.” Except he didn’t say Luke—that’s just an internet handle. Aaaaand we’re getting off track again, aren’t we?

But seriously, though, I’m no wizard of words. I consider myself a halfway good writer in some respects, but stuff like genuine plot arcs, long-term character development, actually interesting characters… These things escape me at times. Specifically, a lot of times. And trying to write a Novel just makes everything more complicated, because it has to be Long. And, more importantly, it has to be Good and Properly Novelish.

And really, that’s the point I’ve been trying to get at (and kind of missing completely): there’s this weird sort of pressure, especially in my (admittedly rather unusual and obsessive) mind, to make a Novel Good and Novelish. Because (seemingly) everybody wants to write a Novel, and because so many Novels are so Good and Bestsellingingish, whenever I sit down to try my hand at one, I sort of buckle under the pressure of making mine properly Novelish. I have, over the years, found a style I really enjoy and find quite fulfilling to write, but, somehow, whenever I sit down to write a Good and Proper Novelish Novel, I throw that style completely out the window in my very efforts to write something Properly Novelish. Novels have to be Serious, right? Genuine, Grown-up, and Gritty? For some reason, silly as it is, that’s my impulse. The insidious side of imitation can be a very dangerous thing for me, and, perhaps, for many writers (or maybe I stand alone, who knows, I sure don’t get out enough to). I have this style I love writing, but when I get into that magic headspace of writing a Real Deal Novel, I somehow leave that style behind and supplant it with a dark, gritty, Properly Novellian one that I actually honestly kind of hate.

Perhaps other people know this struggle. It’s part of imposter’s syndrome, right? You sure don’t feel like you know what you’re doing, so you try to do what other people are doing, since they seem to Have it Under Control (though they really probably feel the same way). I’ve always been rather old for my age, or rather young for my mind, and as a consequence feel a bit insecure about not being taken seriously. And we all want to be Taken Seriously, right? That’s an impulse that’s in there. I want my Good and Novelish Novel to be Taken Seriously. So let’s open up the Violence Box, sprinkle in some Gritty Grit, and make every day cloudy and every face aftershaved, right?

Obviously, this is not how you actually write a good novel, but it’s very much an impulse I struggle with, even if it’s entirely subconscious. And it’s precisely for this reason that I’ve decided to, once and for all, let my Novel Dreams die—at least a little bit, anyway. If I can only seem to stick to the style I love by writing short, nonsensical, comedic things that are specifically meant to not be taken seriously, then I’m going to do just that. Ideally, in a perfect world made of rainbows and kittens, I’ll find a way to make a Novel in that very style—in other words, to write a Novel without trying to take it seriously and make it Properly Novelish—but until then it’s time to set the dark gritty goulash aside and write what I actually love to write, and not what I subconsciously feel I should write. You notice that this blog post is way different than any of my previous? That’s part of that.

For years and years I’ve tried, for one reason or another, to write dark, dramatic, Truly Serious stories. These were my Main Projects—you know, the ones that never went anywhere while all my cherished, actually fun side projects did, you know the type—the ones that would hopefully be Published Some Day. And, finally, officially, I’m going to give it up. I’ve never really enjoyed it, never been particularly good at it, and frankly don’t know why I’ve been trying to do it for so long (except for the reasons I rambled about above, I suppose). I don’t even read dark, gritty, Truly Serious books, so I have no idea why I felt the impulse to write them. Better to let the imposter-syndrome-fever-dream die late rather than never, though, right?

How about you? Have you ever found yourself writing a way you didn’t particularly enjoy, just because you felt like That Was How it Was Done? Do you secretly enjoy your weird side projects way more than your “Main Ones”? Are Novels magically easy for you, because you’re a wizard? Am I just a lone madman making a mountain out of a mad hill? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Non potui cogitare quid dicam…

To Tell the World a Story…

Well, after probably two years, I’m doing it again: I’m writing an online story.

If you want to just go read the thing and not listen to me yammer about it, head over to the site I’m writing it on. I guarantee you it’s not what you expect. It’s even illustrated with Lego renders.

This new online story of mine is very different from my previous, not merely in its tone but also in its format and general nature. Heretofore (what a fun word that is!) all my stories have essentially been serialized novellas: Long narratives cut up into arbitrary parts and posts based on the character limits of message boards (the Lego Message Boards, to be exact). This new story of mine, which frolics under the absurd title of TEJFAF, is written in self-contained episodes, and has no particular planned ending in sight. It will simply go on, rather like a webcomic or something along those lines; meandering along in a mishmash of episodes.

Unlike any other stories I’ve ever shared online, TEJFAF is not meant to be some sort of display of my abilities. I mean, heck, I named it TEJFAF. That doesn’t even mean anything. Well, it does—actually it means two things—but I’ll leave that for you to find out about should you read it. The point is, TEJFAF isn’t a portfolio item; it’s not a grand epic or exercise of narrative skill. It’s simple, ludicrous, shabbily written, and accompanied by poorly rendered illustrations made of out virtual Legos. I’m not taking it seriously, and it’s a rollicking good time.

Anyway, should you feel the need to read some absurdist sci-fi with Lego illustrations, head over to the TEJFAF site and see what you can see.

Kingsfield Trotter

In retrospect, I should’ve posted this a month ago when I made it, but after posting it here, here, and here, I was rather all posted out, so to speak. I think it would be pretty cool to start posting Lego creations here, in the spirit of some of my earliest posts, but we’ll have to see if that actually happens, considering all the other Lego communities I’m trying to frequent. Not to mention the fact I rarely build anyway these days.

Regardless, here’s the first thing I’ve built in awhile: the Kingsfield Trotter.

Kingsfield Trotter.png

This is the Kingsfield Trotter, a lightweight reconnaissance walker used on the outskirts of the Highborn Empire, primarily in the Wide Wastes and deserts of Pzjim (because worldbuilding). Though usually disdained by the Imperial Forces for its lack of heavy armament, the local militias and mercenaries of the Wastes make great use of the Trotter in their patrols, its twin anti-infantry gatling cannons being perfectly suited to dealing with the disorganized outcasts, bandits, and monsters of that region.

First off, let me clarify something incredibly important—I did not render this. I am by no means skilled enough to pull something like this off. Because I was not well enough to easily access my rendering computer at the time I built this, I asked a friend of mine by the name of Brickman to render it. If you want to see more of his stellar work, check out the new Lego community he’s running here on WordPress: Bricklab. The man’s a rendering wizard.

Also, while I’m at it, the posing and a lot of the design of the ‘fig is all Brickman, too. The original minifig I’d cooked up didn’t run through Mecabricks, the bit of online magic that turns LDD files into something Blender can read, so we had to change him up. I think this version is a lot better, actually.

Moving onto the build itself, I quite like how this turned out, though I feel the design sort of stalled after the legs were finished. My original idea for the body was that it would terminate in a roofless circular platform, in the style of one of my favourite things I’ve ever built, but unfortunately that didn’t work in the slightest. So instead I had to completely redesign the body, resulting in what you see above. I think it might’ve turned out for the better, but I’m still unsatisfied with its comparatively lower detail and general chunkiness.

Anyway, that’s about that. As usual, I feel like I really should build more.

Worldbuilding Adventures

In my (relatively) recent post on my inspiration in creative writing, I mentioned that I “didn’t worldbuild.” And, to some degree, this is true. I never worldbuild for my stories (not anymore, anyway), or try to set them in any engineered or planned worlds. They just sort of unravel on their own, revealing facts about their worlds as they get written.

However, to clarify, I do actually worldbuild, and have been worldbuilding since I was very young. I’ve built loads of worlds over my lifetime, or at least loads of languages and cultures and races that were tacked together, and had a great deal of fun creating planets and peoples with my brother. However, I never seemed to manage to set any stories in the worlds I made, mostly because that simply doesn’t seem to be how I work. If I just make a bunch of languages and cultures and creatures, they don’t really provide me with any leads for a story.

And the trouble is, it’s the stories I really care about. Sure, creating a world with all its creatures and things can be good fun, but the novelty soon wears off, and if there’s no stories or characters involved I quickly loose interest. And, when you mostly just build languages and peoples, you don’t really get characters, let alone proper stories.

It’s because of this that I’ve steered away from personal worldbuilding more in recent years, focusing instead solely on my stories. But, as a life-long worldbuilder, I’ve missed it, and while I’ve worked on some communal projects with my brother, I’ve been having this slow desire build up in me to make a world that is my own, like I used to when I was young. And then, just awhile ago, I remembered a worldbuilding project of mine that had lasted for well over five years, and only stopped because of difficulties in a transition between computers.

This project was called Legends, and, honestly, if you’d asked me about my past worldbuilding projects, I probably wouldn’t’ve thought to count it until recently. See, it wasn’t an amalgamation of languages or cultures—it was a game. If I’d know what tabletop RPGS were when I created it, it would’ve been a tabletop RPG, but since I didn’t, I guess it doesn’t quite count. Essentially, it was a sort of sandbox roleplaying game where people could wander around this world I created and more or less do as they pleased. The combat was shallow (players basically just won every time) and the few rules the game had secondary to fun of the players, but people did enjoy it, and I absolutely loved running it. The thing that really made it interesting was that I constantly added onto it, adding new locations and elements and characters, so that the world actively developed and grew and was fleshed out. And because people were playing in it and buying dragons and exploring mazes and usurping kingdoms, it was constantly creating stories. And not only that, but because it had NPC characters that populated its towns and wizard towers and so forth, I had hooks to hang my own narratives on, and I ended up creating everything from history books to literal wars that players could watch transpire.

Admittedly, Legends was a horrible mess, as it wasn’t thought through in the slightest and wasn’t governed by any real systems or rules to keep it consistent and interesting. But it was good fun, and what it became in its final days was truly something I’m proud of. And it occurred to me—why not do it all again? Why not make something like Legends now, when I’m a high school graduate and not a nine-year-old? Sure, I’ve made attempts to create Legends-like games in the past, but instead of just focusing on developing a cool world, I always ended up getting bogged down in the format I’d used for Legends (which was literally just a chain of folders and files on my computer representing locations and entities). Why not just develop a cool world that, rather than being linguistic or literary, is just a really cool playground and backdrop for people to roleplay in? Considering Legends lasted over five years without me ever even being tempted to abandon it (something I can’t even dream of saying about a story), the format of a world for a tabletop RPG obviously works very well for me.

So that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m developing the backstory, mythology, religion, politics, and structure of an entire city, all the while with the intention that people will be experiencing it from the level of actual characters on its streets. And somehow this angle is working beautifully for me, just like it did with Legends years ago. In fact, it’s working so wonderfully I want to share its development with you all. I’ve created a Collection over on Google Plus (yes, I’m one of those people), and I’m going to be sharing all the material for this world of mine in posts on there, including any changes or overhauls I may make to it. So far it’s already been great fun, and I highly encourage you to go check it out. I’m not going for top quality with my writings about this world, but it’s still not half bad.

So, if you like, go hop over to the collection—it might interest you, or at least give you a laugh.

 

A Few Meditations

A couple weeks ago I wound up in a pseudo-poetic mood, and since I wasn’t feeling up to writing any actual poetry (keeping track of meters can be a headache), I just jotted down a bunch of random phrases that occurred to me instead. I daresay they’re not particularly good, and honestly I’m not actually sure if I agreed with most of them, but they sounded nice and so I thought I’d share some of the better ones. A few of them are probably rather trite and cheesy—inspirational beach sunset poster fare, like as not. But, then again, perhaps you had some inspirational beach sunset posters wanting captions.

“The world is a mystery, and I am but a puzzler wandering these weary wastes; alone in thought and deed, a voice of reason trapped inside the body of a weak man.”

“There is a fairyland beyond it all where ideas are born; nourished and raised on the sweet nectar of inspiration and gifted with wings immaterial to alight upon the thoughts of the mortal mind.”

“If I was a tree, I would not grow upwards to rear above the rest and touch the mighty sky; but rather I would grow outwards, and give to all my welcome shade.”

“Tears are the seeds of change.” Now that was a cheesy one. Probably shouldn’t’ve bothered posting that one.

“If I mourned the loss of all things, and filled the rivers of time with the weeping pieces of my broken heart, would I have time to feel any joy?”

“Hatred burns hottest in the heart of the hater, and it is his heart that is consumed for fuel.”

“If I cried a tear for every sorrow that I saw in a single day, I would be washed away; but if I cried one for every joy I left unnoticed, I would drown.”

“It is precisely the people who have failed who will say you cannot succeed.”

“A broken window is a sorry sight, but it is also a way out.” I’ll be honest, I have no idea what that one means.

“If there is no way out, it is because you are beating the wall and ignoring the door.”

“To be is to cry and to laugh and to give it up for someone else.”

“A book is like a sailboat: the words are the wind, but you have to provide the sail.”

“A story is useless without readers, and beauty is nothing without eyes.”

“Many people want to be strong, and many others want to be beautiful, but few want to be good.”

“If I dreamed a dream of reality, would it be a dream at all?” Now that one is trite.

“If I sound wise and speak in rhythm, can you help but feel inspired?” Sometimes I can’t help a little self-parody.

“Just as a picture is marred by a streak down its center, so is society marred when it is divided by a wall; and just as a picture is nothing without the lines that give it shape, so a society is nothing without the boundaries that give it meaning.”

“To wish upon a star is nothing; to believe a star can grant a wish is another.”

“If I ran a thousand miles to find you, would you think me a fool or a saint?”

“Something is weird if we do not understand it in the slightest, or if we know it all too well.”

“I cannot abide people who sit around complaining when they have the tools to make a difference, while many sit by unable to lift a hand and yet are fired by an inspiration they cannot harness.”

“Ultimately, there are two feelings in life: Loss and meaninglessness. Which would you rather have?”

“If everyone died, would anyone notice?”

As you can see, the last few get progressively darker, but that tends to be the way of things in my writing. The lattermost actually had a variation that went, “If we all died and went to Hell, would anyone notice?” but that was frankly just stupid. A nice little bit of poetic ranting against the miseries in the world, but just stupid in its blindness and intellectually foolery.

Honestly I don’t really know what the point of this whole post was, but I’ve made a resolution to just post what I actually write and not worry about it, so that’s that. I hope at least one of these stirred something vaguely poetic inside you. At the very least, I hope you found a nice caption for your inspirational beach sunset.

What is this “Inspiration” thing, anyway?

So, recently, I came across an article by a writer talking about their writing struggles, and being a writer myself, I gave it a read. I figured it’d be a nice bit of catharsis to hear about someone else’s writing problems and so forth, but, unsettlingly enough, I found some of the struggles listed to be completely foreign to me. Sure, some of them were fairly commonplace and empathizable, but others completely befuddled me. Things like finding published books unnervingly similar to your own, or having your creative tank run dry. I mean, sure, I fight with writer’s block a lot, but “filling my creative tank” has never been the answer. Reading great writing does help me improve in a general sense, but it doesn’t refresh me creatively. I don’t have a sort of creative stamina bar that runs out if I write for too long. If I get on a roll, it usually lasts until I physically have to stop, while if I can’t get going, no power in heaven or earth is going to get me going.

And all of this finally brought me to the unusual realization that I don’t get inspired like other people seem to. I don’t read a great book and go, “Man! I should write a story like that!” At least, not consciously. Sure, when I was much younger I’d prance around after watching Star Wars and weave little tales of spaceships and lasers, but those never became stories. Not that I wrote. And sure, when I was really young my stories were essentially just ripoffs of other things, but I quickly over-compensated and instead became neurotically obsessed with originality. Granted, even nowadays I may hear a phrase or something that gives me an idea that feels like gold, and I’ll jot that down, but I don’t have any recollection of ever using some of this “gold” in a story. Not if it was inspired by anything that didn’t come from my own head.

And yet, despite this, I talk about inspiration a lot, and depend upon it utterly. If i’m not inspired, again, no power in heaven or earth can make me write. I can’t simply write whatever and whenever I like, even if I have a great idea. If I’m not inspired to write that thing, it will not be written. I can try all I want, but it’s like juicing a lemon with a pillow. It just doesn’t work.

But, if I’m not inspired by books or movies or anything along those lines, what is this magic inspiration that I depend on? And where does it come from? The answer is I have no idea. The only thing that maybe slightly inspires me is visual art like paintings, and even then I don’t decide what that art inspires me to write (it’s rarely even tangentially related, if I’m honest). And I really don’t think I ever get any real inspiration from other writing. At least, as far as I’m aware. There may be something deep down in my subconscious that pulls together tiny bits of other people’s ideas and then presents me the result, but I wouldn’t know if there was. My inspiration just sort of feels like a tap in my head, and moreover a tap I don’t have real control over. Sometimes it’s on and sometimes it’s off, and most of the time something’s always dripping out of it.

I never decide what comes out of this tap, it just comes. I don’t have a “creative process.” I don’t sit down and consciously, intentionally invent characters and worlds. My writing isn’t engineered. I don’t think any of it through, and I haven’t knowingly grabbed bits from other things and tacked them on since I could ride a bike (at least as far as I can remember). Most of all, I never flesh out details. I never “worldbuild”, not for my stories. I can write the first ten chapters of a story and never know the color of my protagonist’s hair, only to find out randomly one day in the middle of an unrelated sentence. I never “flesh out” my characters; I just sort of get to know them as I go along. I don’t create them, they just show up.

I have a little fancy that in my head somewhere there’s a sort of super-dimensional office that characters come to from fairyland (or Faerie, if you want to sound more grown-up) to interview for a role in my stories. Frankly, though, this metaphor is hardly accurate. In reality, there’s no interviewing. The characters just barge into my office and won’t go away, and they bring their stories and their worlds along with them. I have practically nothing to do with it.

I used to try to make outlines for my stories, to try to get a better idea of what I was doing ahead of time, but, once again, the outlines just sort of made themselves up. I never followed a formula like The Hero’s Journey, and I doubt I really could if I felt like trying. I had enough trouble sticking to the outlines I created myself. Honestly, my “outlines” would kind of end up turning into narrative and description anyway, the story just writing itself despite my intentions to create a framework to flesh out later.

I don’t plan ahead for my stories anymore, because I never exactly know what’s going to come next. I mean, I have a rough jumble of ideas in my head, but if I tried to write them out I’d either end up just writing the story or squeezing out a useless shell that I’d end up ignoring later on. Or worse, I’d expend all of that precious inspiration and be unable to revisit the idea because I already incarnated it into that outline. I have loads of outlines on my computer for stories I never wrote, and, sadly, will probably never write. I had the ideas, but instead of making a story out of them I made an outline, and then the inspiration tap shut off and that was that.

Once again, I can’t write something just because I want to. I probably can’t even come up with a simple character or a plotline unless it shows up in my head ready-made, or at least ready to be explored and discovered through writing. It all depends on that stream of inspiration.

I’ve never, ever sat down and made a character based on a pile of pre-requisites or advice. I almost never make a character because they are necessary to the plot, and the one time I did in the past few years it was so disastrous it destroyed the entire story. I’ve never put together a backstory for a character or come up with a motive. All that sort of thing was already part of the character. Generally speaking, I can feel why a character would do something and how they would act without thinking about it, and I learn where they come from, once again, by just writing them. I don’t plan, I don’t prep, I don’t worldbuild, I don’t invent, I just write.

Now, I’m not trying to brag, or even say this is a good thing. If anything, I think it speaks very low of me. I call myself a writer, but I can’t easily control what I write or when I’m “inspired” to write it. It’s like I’m a sojourner in Faerie, finding things I cannot fathom and being gifted graces I cannot fitly use. I have millions of ideas and characters and worlds, and they never stop coming, but I can’t plan for them and I definitely can’t accommodate them all.

My real question, though, is not why I have all of this stuff in my head, or where it comes from, or why on earth it picked me out of all the writers in the world, but if anyone else has this same experience. Does anyone else write like this, or meet their characters like this, or discover their worlds like this? Or does everyone follow those online writing guides and meticulously plan out their characters and what they mean and how they appeal to popular culture?

Maybe most people write like I do and they just don’t talk about it. Or maybe I’m an odd duck. Or maybe I’m raving mad. Who knows? Seriously, do you know?

I’m genuinely curious.