Digital Raven (digitalraven) wrote,
Digital Raven

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On Writing

Two thousand words on writing. Not a story, but a slightly more academic approach to something I've noticed in my own work. Behind a cut because it's not a story.

Recently, as I read over some of what I have written, I get struck by a thought. It's the same thought that always strikes when I've been pounding out high quantities of wordage: Why am I doing this? Why do I want to be a writer? Is it for the fame, the money, the lack of boss, the lifestyle? Because if it's any of those things, I should give up now[0]. The only reason to want to write is to want to tell a story, to express an idea. To write for the sake of writing.

Most days I don't question that as my reason. But some days I do. Especially when I've been pumping out words like some kind of machine, and I have to wonder. Especially, as I say, reading over some of the latest stuff. Double or Nothing exemplifies the changes in style that I've noticed. So, why has my style changed? How? And what was my style before? Time to answer some questions rather than just asking them. In standard contrarian style, however, I shall tackle the details in reverse order.

Prior to this downturn (something I noted occurring around the point of Memories of Summer Rain), my style was simple. Idea->words. The only goal of what I wrote[1] was to portray an idea in such a manner as to make it interesting and engaging and such. I framed an idea that I had so that other people had the same idea and saw how cool it was, rather than the usual way non-creators talk about ideas — the clumsy, faltering vocabulary that hinders simply through a lack of expressive ability. It's a targeted meme, and the story is a mechanism for delivery that is rifle-like in effectiveness.

That's the base of the style, but the real flair comes from how it was done. Everything improvised, setting and characters invented on the fly to carry the story. Nothing re-used unless the idea really warranted it. Short. 2000 words a piece, maximum. A self-contained idea, ready to explode right into your forebrain and leave you reeling. Everything stripped out to fit that length, because a lot of what I learned about storytelling comes from comics — not the crap superhero soaps, but oneshots and mini-series, self-contained eventual tradebacks where every issue has to be worth buying[2].Storytelling has to be tight to fit the space and still have an impact, and 2000 words is a good approximation to a single issue. So that's my style, entrancing ideas stripped back to the core, all fat trimmed. Precise. Direct. When I started I had a hard time making 1500, and it's only since the ideas have got bigger that I've needed more words. If an idea really is big, such as Option X[3], Thatcherpunk or Strange Future, I break it down. Again, comic style. They're the series, singles out only until I get a chance to collect the lot of them. Makes it easier for me to write the whole thing, and to gather feedback as I go.

This leads rather naturally on to a description of how my style has changed. In brief: I've been sucked into the trap of writing serials. I'm no longer writing pure electric ideas. I'm going back to old stories and extending them, or making sure there are enough hooks in new stories that I can go back and do the same later. That leads to the idea getting less focus as I focus on setting myself up for being lazy later. If I have a setting pre-written with hooks, I can extend those hooks and resolve them and explain why X was X and not Y. And I can do that with an idea that otherwise isn't fit for a story. Hence, being lazy. Using a raw idea that hadn't been stewing in atmosphere and hoping that the hooks would make up for my lack of effort. The curse of series.

These are not the same series as those mentioned before. These series are not embodiments of one idea broken down, they are smaller ideas built up into a whole, held together with the duct tape and bailing wire that are my settings. People tell me that it's not bad, just different. I beg to differ. It is bad. I liked my style, thank you very much. One reason why I still write the occasional Fastfic, I have to exercise my style to pare things down again. But in general I don't have to; in general I force myself to build up a setting and pay attention to it. The precision meme-cannon is scrapped in favour of a shotgun; less accuracy needed but less ranged impact. Lazy writing.

I repeated myself there quite a bit, but that's because I want to be extremely clear as to both what I think the situation is now and what I think about the situation[4]. It's not easy to articulate; because people who write don't share my approach to writing and those that don't write have occasion to come out with complete crap[5]. I wish to avoid as many misunderstandings as possible.

Finally, I should get around to addressing why my style has changed. Here we have a combination of factors. Recently I've been exceedingly busy with a number of projects. They have taken up a lot of the time I normally have free, so it feels to me like I haven't been writing enough for this journal. It's my main means of keeping in touch with most people I know, and I like to keep people entertained. I'd prefer that entertainment come from me rather than being a link/quiz whore[6]. Hence, if I don't write a story for the LJ every couple of weeks I start to get annoyed with myself. Add to that, when I do have free time I inevitably end up with a need to write something but no idea what.

I do need ideas to write, though. All too often those ideas don't come into focus until seen through the lens of a title[7]. I'm trying to wean myself off being dependent on others for titles, so I need good ideas. Unfortunately, these are in short supply. I crossed a line in July, having lived with the parents for over a year after four years of living away. I can't say that this hasn't left me more depressed than I was before this point[8]. Another thing I know about my mind is that the amount of ideas I have drops off sharply with depression, and continues to drop as the depression increases. lim(ideas) ~= 0 as depression -> +(inf), to mathematicians.

So. lack of availability and need to write when I can increases the demand for ideas. Depression lessens the supply of ideas. One does not have to be an economist to know what's going to happen. I end up using lower-quality ideas because I haven't the time or my preferred tool for refining them. I also try stretching the ideas over a wider area, or combining two sub-par and hoping that the combination will be somehow 'as good as'. It's not, and because it isn't I find myself with the urge to write more to make up for the perceived lack. I can't, and so end up hoping that quantity will mask quality.

In closing, I should present two points related only tangentially to this article. First is the obvious change in attitude that has accompanied the change in style (by need) and second is the larger issue of longer fiction.

Last Friday, 15/10/04, Warren Ellis opened up to the world for a day. Anyone could post, as long as it was a) creative, b) original and c) about the future. And the limit for text was 200 words. I had a week to come up with some idea that I could fit through and pare down. In the end, I didn't have anything but a few superficial ideas, tied together with the string of a rather sub-par future setting. This is the final thing. I wasn't very happy with it, and followed up with a microessay on the future.

On 16/07/04, Warren held a contest. 200 word stories from unpublished writers. I had an idea, wrote it out, and edited it down to 200 words. That story is here. It took me the same amount of time to write, but without having to wrack my brain for an idea. It just flowed, fast fiction bubbling up and into words without wracking my brain and stressing and wondering and panicking. It just flowed. It worked, because I could grab an idea — a real idea, not one of the subpar ones — and pin it down with laser-like precision. In just three months, my writing style has changed incredibly, to the point where such a story was a real struggle.

Finally, I'd like to touch on longer fiction. The length that gets actually published rather than posted here for general enjoyment. Several people will, I believe, wonder why I am complaining about writing longer (in wordcount) stories. Breaking the 2000 word barrier is something I've wanted to do for a long time. But I want to do it on my own terms. I want to do it with punchy ideas and tight storytelling, I want to do it in a style I can be proud of. I want to write 10000 words and have as many ideas as other people fit into a novel but have it work anyway because that's when I'm happiest with my writing.

I don't want to write long works if I don't think they are as good as they should be. I'll save that for when I know I'll be getting money for it. I don't think that the new style of story+sequel = longer story is good enough to count, quite frankly, and while other people may not see much problem with it, I owe it to myself to represent myself and my take on the craft of writing as best I can. If that means I have to build the long works slowly, so be it. This is an evenings/weekends job anyway, so a bit more delay won't hurt. I certainly have no illusions about making money from it, not yet at least.


[0]: And punch myself in the face, because I know better than to fall for that stuff.
[1]: This is still my goal when I write. Recently it's been diluted, as I explain later.
[2]: Transmetropolitan is the longest running comic series I've read. The rest has been specific writers on specific titles or limited-length series.
[3]: Prose superhumans, without spandex or stupidity.
[4]: I welcome alternate perceptions — it's certainly possible that the slump really started when I ran the sequel-contest.
[5]: "Just Editing? So you've got the hard bit done then." should be a trigger-phrase. Anyone found to utter it seriously should have his or her disembodied head impaled on a large fountain pen and mounted on the battlements. Crack squads of writers should hunt down his or her immediate family and horribly butcher them and have their way with the family dog. Anything more is overkill.
[6]: The link posts are generally research. I should do something about them, even so.
[7]: It's a bad habit, I know. But condensing an idea without a title is bloody hard for me.
[8]: Reasons for not moving out are many and all boil down to £££ on some level. Hence why I am looking for jobs in other cities.

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