Every time I sit down to write out a story, the beginning is the interesting part. Ideas come bouncing out of my head, hitting the keys and then bouncing right into the screen. I’ll type five single-spaced pages in an hour. I don’t even take bathroom breaks, and since I have a bladder like a thimble, that’s not insignificant. It always starts with characters: the cranky spinster princess, the eccentric inventor, the dashing pirate. I see them taking form in my mind – what color hair, how tall, what their voices sound like, what their relationships to each other are.
After that, their universe starts to take shape. It’s a fairytale kingdom or a steampunk coal mining boomtown or an ancient empire or something like that. When it comes to settings, I tend to follow the “go big or go home” philosophy. Universe-building is an easy task for me, but after that initial stage, I usually hit a wall: what are they all supposed to do?
Stories are about characters, but they’re also about plot – sequences of events. Sometimes I can sketch out a rough outline: Character A is supposed to rescue Character B from the lair of goodlooking-but-heartless Villain C; Mechanical men invented by Protagonist II upset the economic system of PrimarySettingTown, where Protagonist II lives; Something-something-something-metaphor-for-19th-century-politics-something-magical-beans-something.
I run out of steam. I have upwards of a dozen files saved on my computer with titles like “Unnamed Quest Adventure,” “Awesome Historical-Novel-Fairy-Tale,” “Characters of Awesome,” etc. They’re junk drawers filled with descriptions, snippets of dialogue, character sketches, and anything else my mind spits out while I’m high on ideas and listening to one of my four iTunes writing playlists. Essentially, it’s brain vomit. My Documents folder is full of brain vomit. After I hit that roadblock, I stop. Sometimes I stop writing completely for several weeks for one reason or another. I always go back to it, either out of a genuine desire or the creeping feeling that it’s what I ought to be doing, but I rarely revisit those epic sagas I frantically shaped at 1:30 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep because there were these ideas jumping around in my head. And so these documents become mausoleums for characters and stories that burst forth full of life, but soon wilt.
These ramblings rarely merit editing and revision, because I have discovered that my writing is never as clever upon a second reading, and it sometimes makes me cringe to read it. Writing fiction is like drunk-dialing: you think you’re articulate and deep at the time, but in the cold, clear light of morning, you get the sinking feeling you’ve made a terrible mistake, and you can’t even understand the messages you left for yourself.
More troubling to me is the fact that I’m not emotionally invested in these stories. Sometimes they’re aesthetically pleasing; despite my harsh criticism of my own writing, I’ll admit that I’ve written a few pretty passages here and there. No, it’s not that: I just don’t really care what happens next. I should: I created these characters. I find it difficult to identify with my heroine when she’s in the depths of despair or – especially – the heights of romantic passion. My heroes begin to bore me, and my villains never seem terrifying enough. And so I fluff – I add more and more until I’ve produced a mountain of meaningless prose.
I read through my graveyard every once in a while. I have deleted a few stories that aren’t going anywhere, but I think I keep them around because throwing them away means admitting that I’ve wasted time, or that I’ve had another false start on this “being a writer” journey I am on – the fear of mortality, I suppose. I keep asking myself, “What do people like to read?”, instead of, “What do I know? What do I care about?” This is probably at the heart of my writing troubles. I’m writing about interesting, fantastical places and people, but there’s no core to the stories. It’s all very interesting window dressing. It’s time for me to write about what I know, about what I want to say to the world, about what I want to accomplish with my writing:
I want to write about bravery. I want to write about imagination. I want to write about the power of love, but not in that shallow, sappy, only-romantic way we get spoonfed so often in movies.
I want to help young people through my writing. I want to make somebody like little!me feel less alone and powerless. That’s what I want.
And starting today, that’s what I am going to do in my writing. Less fluff, less self-congratulatory purple prose and oh-so-clever dialogue, and more reality.
There will still be pirates, though. What’s a good story without pirates?