How We Can Master Our Habits: The Diamond Age of Content (Part II)

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Nasty Habits

For part 1, go here.

There’s an anecdote that David Foster Wallace recounted in an interview that keeps playing on my mind*. He talked about the fact that he didn’t own a TV because of the great anxiety it brought him; he would spend hours in front of it, mercilessly flicking through hundreds of channels, never actually watching anything, continuing to look for something “better” (without any real sense of what that meant) instead just watching one show [skip to 42:43 if you’re on a tablet/mobile device].

This example resonated with me because perhaps one of my worst habits is spending copious hours idling on the internet. Idling being key here. When there’s no notification activity going on my various social media accounts or email I’m filled with an almost anxious malaise, flitting aimlessly between my various accounts and scrolling, searching for a good feeling. The funny thing is that this rarely happens; I can swallow hours of time doing this to little effect. Part of this, I think is to make up for something. You know, like resisting that forever empty?

A background motivation is that I’m chasing that rush you get whenever you see all the likes pouring in. I don’t necessitate it but I do enjoy the validation. And without it, there’s that emptiness. When I flit about, I don’t get edified but neither do I feel terrible. Not only that, I use this method to “decompress” when I’ve been out, for example. It’s not just phone scrolling, TV can fall under this, too. I often unwind with it but not with moderation, neglecting more productive desires.

If I can figure out why it gets to this point perhaps I can end up doing the things I get upset not doing (including sleep!). I want to write my novel, these essays, go for a walk but I’m just glued to the screens. It’s a perverse Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in overdrive.

This is partly due to the hook of modern entertainment is that it has the ability to tell more nuanced stories that explore a wide range of topics. And, with technological advancements, storytelling is at its most presentable. It’s very easy to immerse ourselves.

This kind of behaviour becomes ingrained. Had a bad day? I’ll watch some TV to make myself feel better. Didn’t get that job you were excited about? Fire Emblem’s looking enticing. Let’s do that instead of reading or writing or applying for more jobs.

Games like Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3 can tell visually pleasing stories with an emotionality that rivals cinema and television. The culture and developers always had this desire to come about, but now we have the actual means to tell these kinds of stories because our technology has caught up with our vision.

I’m not saying that everyone should write a book or learn violin. Or even that unwinding in such a way is necessarily a bad thing—or at all!”Taking your mind off things” sometimes is necessary to be a functional and rounded person, I think. And entertainment can provide that brief respite. But surely entertainment cuts into productivity.

It’s just fascinating how we spend our time, when habits drift away from pure decompression and start bleeding into other aspects of our lives.

And the internet is fun because it’s brought me a lot of connectivity with friends close and far afield, as well as being a place for learning. The method that I researched and am sharing this essay, for example, can only exist because of the internet. Be that as it may, though, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause problems. We have options for media, that just begs us to click and Consume. Remember the tabbing issue? The Diamond Age is here.

A FE world map theme: Why get bogged down with the application process if there’s a 3DS game with beautiful music like this?

I always feel like I need to occupy my time in some way. I can’t sit with my thoughts, and have a quiet moment and hear the wind sing unless I’m doing something else. When there’s any degree of loading, like Netflix is booting up on my home console or on my TV, I’ll reach for my phone or, if I’m feeling “intellectual”, my book. It’s not long enough to do anything but I keep doing it anyway.

My suspicion is that we have so much available to us that our minimum threshold of stimulation has been greatly raised and so we need to keep doing something. In other words, the abundance of Stuff makes us aware of how limited our time is. So to make sure we get as much as possible from our 100 blocks per day to spend we need to be doing Something. We know implicitly that we can’t get through everything we want to but boy can we try.

Maybe the motivations don’t match up with my suspicions, but behaviour is certainly shifting more towards pluralism: according to a study done by Deloitte for American consumers of television, a whopping 90% of watchers reported doing something else when watching TV. The most common activity is surfing the internet (32%), followed by email, then texting (both 28%)—some groups doing up to three tasks at once.

And get this: the multitasking isn’t even about the show itself. Any of the generational groups studied (14 years and older) reported less than 30% of the time the multitasking they were doing was related to the actual show they were watching.

When I was reading this study I was sceptical. But then I reflected that it’s at least true for me. I tend to start with a search that relates to what I’m watching, but then it dovetails into a series of searches and clicks and then I’m on Facebook again and whoops it’s been twenty minutes without paying attention …

What I’m trying to say is that I’ve let bad habits seep into my daily life too readily. Although it feels like more of an inevitability, something beyond my choosing. And in a way, that’s correct. But it’s not a good feeling and I want to help assuage it by doing something about it. I’ll explain soon this supposed “correctness” but we have to zoom out a bit first and get a better feel of habits so that change can occur.

The Power of Habit

In my research about habits, one guy kept coming up: Charles Duhigg. He authored a book called The Power of Habit which will inevitably explore this topic in more detail. He indicates that up to 45% of what we do is habit, not decision-making.

Habits can be broken up into three constituent parts, also known as a “habit loop”. Identifying these aspects will help in changing them:

1.) Cue: the trigger for the behaviour to unfold.

2.) Routine: the automatic actions—the habits themselves

3.) Reward: This is what ensures the habit is encoded in neurology; there’s something to be gained from this action. It’s like our brain’s way of saying: “This is good. Remember this for next time.”

So to overwrite a habit, the best way, Duhigg argues, is to target the cue** and the reward.

The cue usually relies on one of five categories:

1.) The time of day.

2.) A certain place.

3.) The presence of others.

4.) An emotional state.

5.) Behaviour that is ritualised.

To get a habit broken, a good thing to do is to write down these five categories and figure out the cue. This will reveal the reward (or the craving). Rewards are pretty complex, though, so part of the challenge will be to locate a specific one.

Let’s take my TV viewing as one example. The time of day varies but it’s usually

1.) day time;

2.) in my room;

3.) without anyone else;

4.) with some distress and dissatisfaction with my life situation;

5.) and I do this at roughly consistent times of the day [usually in the early afternoon until evening where my activities become more computer based].

When it comes to how habits are formed, behaviour and routine are the main focus typically, but we should look at the reward to get the why. Why do I want to watch the TV? Because it’s entertaining. That’s a prima facie (on the surface) good reason for a reward. But that might not necessarily be the case. The TV could actually be the distraction from something: boredom? Close, but probably not enough.

The reality is much closer to feelings of unaccomplishment and, to not go down the rabbit hole of negativity, I distract myself. For me, I think TV is a stand-in: it could be any sort of media that is stimulating enough like music, games, writing a stream of tweets maybe two people read ever—whatever it is. The reward is I don’t have to deal with that shit in the moments that I’m doing those activities. At least that’s a little bit the case because they’re not assuaged, but we’ll return to that.

I mentioned this briefly before but the reason habits are so hard to break is that they don’t really feel like thought. This is what I referred to when I said “correctness” in thinking that this sort of behaviour is inevitable in some capacity. Now there’s two ways this can get cashed out.

The first way is when you don’t realise that you do something in a certain way. Take brushing your teeth. It’s apparently the case that you brush your teeth in the same way every time you brush them. If you start from the top then go to the bottom set, for example, you won’t even realise that this is so unless you actively start thinking about it. This is a good thing. It’s so we don’t have to think about every such action whenever we want to do it. It’s a neurological shortcut of sorts.

The second way is a far more stressful experience. It’s a realisation that this activity is not good but you do it anyway because not doing it is harder than doing it. You’re sat watching hours of Daredevil instead of revising for exams, for example, but keep going despite your imminent deadline. When I think of breaking habits, it’s this latter version. You slip into this state like a glove to distract yourself but of course the problem lingers, maybe intensifies. Why does this happen?

The basal ganglia is one of the oldest structures in the brain and is annoyingly and amazingly exempt from the process of what we call “thinking”, which is what Duhigg is getting at. It’s almost as if it’s run on autopilot. It’s the part of the brain that is linked to a lot of things like voluntary motor skills, procedural learning, and of course routine behaviours or “habits” like moving your eyes, cognition, and emotion. Its primary function is to make sure we can do voluntary actions more smoothly. Habit-formation is pretty strongly embedded into our lives and is necessary for us to function as we do.

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The basal ganglia and associated parts. In terms of habits, the basal ganglia can be contrasted with the cerebral cortex which is associated more with what we understand to be “thought” and awareness (consciousness anyone?)

Duhigg uses the example of complete amnesiacs who remember nothing, but are still able to form habits like everyone else. The “lack of” thought is why habits are so hard to overwrite. Think about walking or blinking. Providing that one is able, these are automatic things that we do and is part of our reality. Have you ever thought about changing your walk or thought about blinking? That’s the moment when those automatic things start feeling very, very weird. That’s because we don’t think about them in normal circumstances. I imagine it would be stressful to think about blinking while doing something else. Our brains are designed to make shortcuts so we can function and do other things like receive new information.

A quick note before we continue: I’m using “overwrite” here in lieu of “breaking” or “getting rid of” habits because I feel like overwriting is a more accurate picture of what’s happening when we change our behaviour. We’re encoding new activities that will be part of our passive everyday lives—so normal we won’t have to think about it. The elimination of one habit only allows space for a different—in our case better—habit to take its place.

Okay, let’s quickly take stock. There are three parts to a habit: cue, routine, reward. To overwrite a habit, you’ll need to look at the cue in depth and figure out, from the five categories above, how it came about and what the reward is. If you can do this, the benefits can bleed into many aspects of your life.

A keystone habit, for example, can cause a chain reaction that affects other habits. A common one (almost to the point of cliché) is exercise. Let’s say you spent a lot of time on the computer/phone/tablet/delete-as-necessary-or-until-I-stop-adding-needless-bits-of-this-forward-slash-list-and-want-to-do-that-less. You might consider going for a thirty minute run. As a result, you feel more awake and more productive, which in turn leads to less procrastination in general (it works, annoyingly). This is an example of a keystone habit. Identifying one of these might help in restructuring your relationship to a nebula of habits that you want to change, in rewriting your neurological code.

Next Steps

In psychology, there’s a term called “quantum changers” which refers to someone who is very specific about habits and their relationship with them, usually changing something in a pretty dramatic way, as the name implies. My Dad, for example, lost a lot of weight for his health in what seemed like all of a sudden. He did this through reshaping his diet alongside the exercise he did. What he and many other quantum changers have tapped into is the structure of habits. Once you understand that, it’s much easier to change things.

And it needn’t be big things, either. Incremental adjustments, in fact, are the things that change you; they are parts of a larger goal. The end result comes about because of these small steps. Remember stretch goals and a specific plan to get there? Well shit, we’ve come full circle.

In fact, not only is it a more realistic way of looking at habits, it’s probably the best. This is why you target the reward. The reward is the craving, a desire to be sated. The habit is just filling in the gaps, one way of many in order to achieve the same thing. It should stand to reason therefore that you can overwrite it by getting the same reward through a different habit.

And you need to actually do it. This sounds trite but how many times have you said that today’s the day you’re going to read 100 pages, write 1000 words, do the seminar reading, go for a run, etc. and end up not even starting? It’s upsetting isn’t it? Being in the right frame of mind is only a tiny fraction of it, but it is along the right lines. My research has revealed a lot of things and while intentions aren’t the be all and end all, they are an important stepping stone to overwriting habits.

In fact, it’s been shown that the more you believe you can, the more you can actually change it. Take Alcoholics Anonymous, a support group to overwrite the habits of alcohol with something like work. The reason it works is not because of its scientific basis (the famous “Twelve Steps” were created not from psychological expertise but a combination of spirituality and philosophy), but because it operates as a machine for habit change through the simple method of looking to others for support. And not necessarily in the “Friend, help me for I have lost my way” sense. No, it’s more like “That dickhead is well-adjusted? Him?! Well if he can, I sure as shit can too.” The effect of watching others to help us change is astonishing.

Other Strategies

Here are three principles which will help in cultivating positive habits:

1.) Derail existing habits: where you make space to act on new intentions (see my point about overwriting, not destruction? It’s a replacement, homie.)

Moving city, for example, is a great way of doing this. Part of the call to move city must be tapping into the notion that a new place = change of existing habits.

Of course, this is an extreme reaction. Nobody my age*** has the kind of capital to all of a sudden move city, unless there’s a specific reason (i.e. university, a job or family.) On the more affordable end of things, going on holiday can actually help in rewriting habits. The cues (and as result rewards) are going to be different because of not only the setting but the context of them as well. It’s a good chance to change the habit. You’re not thinking in terms of your daily routine, but away from that all.

Smaller changes go a long way too, though. Let’s take phone use. Suppose your goal is to reduce how much your phone, try reducing your access. Some people lock themselves out of their phones. There are apps that do this sort of thing if you think that will help. I’ve found that having a lock code (that I have access to!) diminishes my access purely for the fact that I can’t as easily get to my phone. This means that I will only reach for it if I need it for certain purposes. That’s a tiny act but has put me on the right track.

2.) Repetition is key: It takes time to master but take heart because any goal can be subdivided again, stretch goals and specific plans. If you can do something for a little bit of the intended goal, over a longer period of time you will achieve it. Again, sounds simplistic, but the size of a goal is often enough to detract real effort.

The best way that I trained my thinking in this aspect is by doing NaNoWriMo which is when people challenge themselves to complete 50,000 words in a month, usually November****. The way forward is seeing the goal is over 30 days and 50,000 divided by 30 equals 1667 words (rounded up), the daily word count. Seen in this way, it’s still challenging but much more manageable. The task itself hasn’t changed, your thinking towards it has. The notion of writing daily, especially towards such a large goal, is quite daunting but once you get into it the actual process becomes more manageable.

NaNo needn’t be the only way you can change your thinking. There are other practical means with which you can apply this conceptual framework. Let’s say your room needs tidying and one of the tasks is to pick up the pile of clothes. The prospect of tidying the whole room is daunting: you haven’t tidied in months and there’s a lot of junk on the floor. But if you set yourself the task of dealing with one pile at a time, then the notion of the whole room being tidied feels a lot more realistic.

3.) Have stable context cues to trigger a pattern: a new cue following an existing one helps. Specific contexts attached to others help overwrite bad habits. Reading during breakfast/around it—either 10 minutes before or 10 minutes afterwards—for example will help in adding more reading into your life because it’s attached to the meal of breakfast.

The initial cue is necessary to create subsequent ones. This is like keystone habits.

Concluding Thoughts

If you can master your habits they won’t destroy you/consume all of your time. Some people go to extremes, like taking social media diets. Things like that must have something to counterbalance what they’re dieting. So the assumption is that they go on these diets to invest more time into things that social media is eating into, which tends to be the case. These aren’t the only way in which you deal with hangups, nor do I think they are necessarily the best. But if it works, it works.

For me, it seems I’m escaping in some capacity because I’m in a state that I dislike and I have to learn to be okay with that. I suppose it comes with life: there are bits of it which will be disappointing and painful but that comes with. If I can’t look at that in the face then I need to address why, especially if I just end up in a loop of Copious Entertainment instead of something productive. (Didn’t I say I want to draw more this year?)

Also, when I am “decompressing” with my phone, I’m endeavouring to reconsider that and just decompressing without any stimuli, just sit (or lay) with my thoughts for as long as needed.

To sum up: we learnt about habits, how they form, why they can become ingrained in our psychology and what to do about them. Pop culture is the most alluring its been ever—we’re in the midst of the Diamond Age—and establishing complex mental frameworks to resist passivity is going to be paramount, especially since this quality will only increase. With better presentation for entertainment, IMAX and 4k, for example, we’re constantly enhancing the experience of entertainment. We need to say no every once in a while, sit in silence and just hear the wind sing.

What about you: do you have any habits that you need to correct?

*I know I know I know I know, another dude talking about David Foster Wallace. But that particular anecdote freaked me the fuck out and will stay with me for a long time to come.

**I kept writing “the Cure” instead of cue. I feel a new habit forming.

***Dare I say: MILLENNIAL?

****How many times have I written this is in cover letters in the past year I wonder? I’ve lost count.

 

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New Year’s Reflections: Redux (Growth)

It’s been a while! I realise I’ve had an extended absence but hopefully this post will be the first offering of many.

A not-so-good month has meant a not-so-good blog. It hasn’t been all dark—I’ve seen friends, done a few cool things—but it has been fairly trying more often.

I started this thing in earnest and I posted every week for about five weeks. Then I made this post and things went very quickly south. March, for better or worse, has slipped past me with little sound. It’s not that I haven’t been making content in that time, I’ve just been struggling quite a bit. This post will serve as my return and maybe elucidate future steps.

What’s new is that I have topics for the coming few weeks that I’ll work as diligently as possible to release. My aim is to have a new essay out by the end of the week, either before or alongside March’s review round-up. Failing that, it should definitely be out by next week. Then we’ll continue weekly for a bit.

Next, I’ve decided to discontinue Song of the Week. It’s an unsurprising development considering the erratic posting. It was pretty unpopular and generally a lot more stressful than I would have initially thought it to be. It’s sad, I know, but it might be good news in disguise. To be clear: This is not to say that music is forever gone from The Singing Lights. I plan to continue to talk about it in some form. Figuring out a sustainable way to write about it will be a focus of the coming weeks and months. The likely look for the future of music would probably be something in a similar vein to the review round-up. I’ll leave the page with the links on if anyone wants to revisit it.

I’m working on expanding the content range of the site as well. What this will be I’m going to have to be a bit coy about while it takes shape but I’ll reveal all in due time.

Now I want to revisit what I said in that New Year’s post and see how I’m  doing.

I want to create more. I’ve just explained my blog stuff but because of this strange month everything I’ve done has suffered. I’m working on climbing back from this faltering. For the short stories I wanted to write: they’re taking shape and should be ready by their deadlines (one of which is Sunday). As for drawing and guitar-playing: I am working more diligently to cultivate habits. It’s a process.

I’m going to plug an extension into this and state that I want to write at least 150,000 words (of fiction) by year’s end. I usually do my dues of Camp NaNoWriMo in July and NaNoWriMo in November but I am going to up my word count by 40k by doing April’s Camp NaNo. I’m doing two short stories of about 4,500 words a piece so I should make it up fairly easily if I’m diligent (and focused). I haven’t planned my writing year but by no means are April, July, or November the only months where I’ll do big writing blocks. But you have to build first so I’ll start with the 150k per annum and do more.

I want a job. Still waiting on this front, I’m afraid. It takes time. Working on my applications, keeping my ear to the street for new ones has been my routine. Trying to stay optimistic with mixed results. A work (ha) in process.

I want to read more non-fiction. This one’s going well. I’ve been picking up topics of interest every month which is cool but what I might start doing come the second half of the year is deeper learning of ideas I picked up in the beginning half. I’ll have a think about this.

No updates on my feeling of this Big Thing but whatever, we still have time.

There are new goals that I’ve set in the time since as well.

I want to finish Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (DFW). Last week or so I got to page 700 of the nearly 1100 page Infinite Jest. I started the book in the summer of 2015 and it’s been slow going until recently. I want to finish the book before year’s end. I think this is perfectly achievable.

I don’t know if this is because I’m about 60% of the way through the book but it seems more readable now, which leads me to wonder if I’m just getting used to it or DFW is starting to draw elements together a little more cohesively—I’m starting to see how it all fits? I suppose we’ll soon see. This book will take at least an essay to unpack (you can tell because it’s a whole goal of its own unlike literally any other book I’ve read). Expect this essay by 2018.

Explore more places. I had vague plans in university to do a bit of a tour of Britain—one on my own, one with friends—but they sadly never came to fruition. Of course, at this present moment, budgetary constraints are a thing but I might just draw up a plan of places to go to ahead of time so that when I get a reliable income I can just go. The good news is that this will inevitably result in new content as well.

How have your New Year’s goals been going? Sometimes it’s good to check back on them and see what’s really achievable. The temptation is to set unrealistic goals but after a few weeks even it becomes clear they can’t be achieved—without at least some significant sacrifice. It’s no shame in revising what you want to do. Maybe you wanted to write 30k every month and you realised now, on the dying days of March that that is not a reality as you stare at only a few thousand words. First of all, that’s still awesome you’ve got those words out, but also revising that goal would be not be the end of the world. In fact, I see it as potential for improvement. I think these goals are as good as you can make them and if you can’t make them, change them. Don’t quit. Personal development is a long, sometimes laborious, affair, but being aware of the difficulties of life means you can still shape it around everything else. That’s what I’m trying to do. Start small, and build. To quote one of my favourite lines in music: “My moves are slow, but soon they’ll know.”

Currently reading: The Copper Promise by Jen Williams, Economics (A Beginner’s Guide) by James Forder. (You’ll hear about these soon.)

Currently listening to: Semper Femina by Laura Marling, The Daily from the New York Times, The Book Riot Podcast, and Skylines from CityMetric (which is an off-shoot of the New Statesman).

 

New Year’s Reflections

So we’re five weeks into this thing. I started this blog with 10 weeks of content planned ahead of time so I’m going for a little bit of an interlude post. Also, I realised I didn’t do the obligatory New Year’s Day post and it’s the end of the month so here it is.

On New Year’s Day I was in my friend’s flat thinking about what the year held for me. One of my friends talked about people erroneously using the year as a means for a sudden, unlikely evolution in one’s character. Be that as it may, the symbolic value of it is very tempting. The old year has gone and a new one has taken its place. Sure, time as we understand it is constructed, but the chance for real evolution has a good space in the roots of a new year.

I don’t remember much of the first half of 2016. I remember being quite optimistic, though, as I often am. I was never a huge fan of Christmas, but I love New Year’s. It’s like a giant chance to hit the refresh button, and evaluate where I’ve come from, and where I’ll go in relation to them. And yes sudden evolution is unlikely (though it’s certainly not the goal) and yes, effecting change can happen anytime: a Sunday in the middle of June at 4:13 am, for example. But still, a new year brings about the possibility of a whole year’s worth of events, of development. The year started with me starting a novel, for example, one I’ve worked on in various forms since 2011. I finished it on Christmas Eve at the other end of the year, which is definitely a plus. There were quite a lot of dark moments too, both personal and global, but I want to focus on the good. Such as:

  • I graduated from university with a 2:1 which was one of my life goals, set many, many years ago.
  • I went on holiday for the first time in ten years to Belgium. Bruges specifically but on the last day spent some time briefly in Brussels. Beautiful cities/country.(Click to enlarge)

 

  • I met the guy who directed a game I’ve followed for ten years, from a series that literally changed my life.
  • I read a lot.
  • Thrice came back for their ninth album after a hiatus. Usually a band going on hiatus signals curtain call for good but they came back in full swing and delivered. I don’t think the record as a whole is my favourite, but there are some songs on there that are. And not just in Thrice’s library: my music in general.
  • I saw Brighton when it was warm. A beautiful city.

So, while there might have been a lot bad in 2016, there was a lot of good in it too. Milestones, for a lot of them.

So for the year ahead I want to be buoyed by this general optimism and hopefully inject it into the year ahead.

It’s the last week of the first month of 2017 and it’s been going pretty well. I started a blog and it’s been generally well-received: people I’ve never even met have been helped by stuff my crazy brain put to the page. That means a lot and hopefully the people already here and more will join me in what’s to come. As I said before I have the next few weeks clear but beyond that is pretty murky. I’m sure new ideas will come to me so I’ll react as and when they come. Expect the weekly stuff to teeter off at the end of this period as I figure things out.

I want to create more. The blog is a good first step but I want to push my limits a bit. I haven’t tried short story competitions but I think I will this year. On top of my typical novels and this blog, of course, writing short work will be good practice. I want to do more than that though. I should focus on two things: my new art in music, and my abandoned art in drawing (remember when I said I wanted to be a comic book artist before?). Regularity is going to be the key in making this a success.

I want a job! I think this should have come first but hopefully I have some kind of employment before year’s end. My lofty aim was before my birthday in midsummer, but I’ve been burnt before—I thought I could secure employment before Christmas when I graduated, more the fool me!—so I’ll hedge my bets. It’s really unlikely that it will take me 11 whole months to get a job. Again, though, we’ll see. I’ve been a bit coy about it but I’ve been a little worried about it, mostly because there is only so much control I have over this during the selection process. Having regular creation has helped in stopped the Blues so I think if nothing else the blog has helped a lot.

I want to read more non-fiction. I have no shortage of fiction, but I’d like to get on board with more non-fiction. This is not just to potentially mine for data for future posts, but for me more generally. There might be a post in this for why but we’ll shelve that for now (keep it mind!). The first 6 months of my grad-life was mostly spent reading article-upon-article. I might look at my list of topics to read about again.

I have others but if you’re of the eye-rolling type then your eyes will soar into orbit at them. Above are the main things. I can say though that I have a feeling that something Big is on the horizon. Good or bad, I don’t know. But Big. You can roll those eyes now.

I hope your year is treating you well. If not, I hope it will.

Being a Better Writer

writing

I couldn’t sleep if this post didn’t have a picture like this to lead it.

In university I was a member of the Creative Writing Society. There I bonded with a diverse group of people who are crazy enough to spend copious amounts of time writing.

I was having coffee with one such friend from CWS (let’s call her Lana). Inevitably we strayed onto the topic of writing: We traded ideas about things we’ve either written or wanted to write (one of the best thing of having writer friends is being able to keep doing this without the person you’re speaking to getting weary by your earnest but misdirected insanity). Now I heard a lot of cool ideas from Lana, things that are possibly more original than anything I’ve seen in the market right now.

Her problem? She lacks focus. Dozens of ideas blossom in her mind to be chewed over, maybe even started, but are inevitably put aside for the next exciting idea, never to be finished.

This isn’t me having a go or deeply criticising her. Far be it for me of all people to be a critic of not being able to focus on one project at a time. I am victim of similar vices; I have a bunch of posts lying in the drafts because of the way my brain is designed, as well as numerous little side projects stuffed under the mattress. That being said, the amount of projects that I finish versus the amount I don’t is weighed greatly in favour of completed things. So while I’m not criticising my friend, she is one example of many that helps to show a ubiquity when it comes to writers and their relationship to the craft. I think it’s worthwhile so we can see what our issue is—of many—and maybe come to some sort of solution about fixing it.

Focus

First, when I say writing requires focus I mean a lot of focus. You have to translate your whirring thoughts into tangible and intelligible symbols and that takes a lot of effort. Also, you need time to work on your project, something that’s not easily available when you have other considerations like a job, a degree, kids, etc. To keep perspective about marrying your basic needs and your desire to craft, keeping focus in mind is key. Effective time management, for example.

Focus is the only way that Projects ever get finished though. All the poems, literature, songs, plays, TV shows, films, games, etc. that you may or may not have consumed, these all had people who sat down and wrote something. They focused on a Project; they finished what they set out to do.

If you explain this to a writer, you’ll get a dismissive wave and they’ll be wearing a distracted frown, eyes on their special Project. They know that. Who doesn’t? Way more qualified people have discussed this, so I’m not going to belabour the point.

What you might not see in the thinking of the writer is why they can’t focus. A large aspect of Not  Writing comes from fear. The Project is a delicate thing that is a part of them, part of their DNA. In a lot of ways, their writing is them.

I’m asking a lot, I know, but imagine having a newborn. A precious, squalling pile of flesh. It cannot speak or feed itself. It is so tiny, so vulnerable, and you love it very, very much.

Now imagine if someone—let’s suppose a tetchy nurse—says that your baby is ugly, apropos of nothing. Worse, imagine if your loved ones did that. That’d be devastating. Why would you say that about my baby? It hasn’t hurt anyone. It couldn’t.

Writing is like that. This precious thing you’ve invested energy into? What if it’s utter crap that no-one likes? And the potentiality of those negatives dulls the brain and freezes the fingers.

If you get to that stage in thinking, that’s sad.

First and foremost: writing should be selfish. It’s yours before it’s anyone else’s. If you like it, then no-one else need to. Seriously. If you can finish something and you look at it with endearment, you’ve succeeded. Nobody else’s opinion on it matters.

Besides, writing that is good and true to the writer will always find a way to its correct audience. Don’t get me wrong though: when those kind of doubts are assuaged, there’s still the issue of doing the thing. In that there will be snags.

The temptation here is to move onto the next thing as soon as you get stuck. Why bother with this thing if it’s not working out, especially considering there are millions of other better ideas that are howling for a little love? Lana might have this problem too. That issue will not suddenly change when you move to a new project because at some point you’ll run into the same difficulties and again, the temptation here is to move on to another idea. With this model, your ideas will be scattered like tombstones across the landscape behind you*. Sooner or later you’ll need to finish a thing.

I’m pretty sure she’s well aware of this. Even with that knowledge, it’s still fucking difficult. But there’ll be an ongoing dissatisfaction if this becomes your only relationship to the craft, much greater than any snag mid-project.

There are ways around this. One such is how writers like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson write multiple books per year. The advice they usually give is that they tend to move projects when they get stuck and that keeps the words flowing. Splitting your attention across multiple projects might seem a little promiscuous but it might help in reducing an ideas overload in the head. Also, you needn’t write linearly if there’s a snag in the writing. You could write a different scene and come back to the issue later on. This is less confusing than you think and if anything it will reveal the path forwards. The point is to try something.

The Time Issue

You might have got to this point and thought “Well, yeah, dude. This is nothing new.” Okay, true. But what have you done about it? To which another person might add “I don’t have time to write!”. This is something that’s worthwhile to investigate, because it kind of gets to the heart of some people’s issues:

  1. Writing takes a long time to produce.
  2. I do not have a lot of time to write (given commitments x, y, & z)
  3. Therefore, I’m literally unable to write (given commitments x, y, & z).

I want to take this opportunity to say that that’s not strictly speaking true. Mostly because of the second one. My target audience and likely readers are undergrads, post-grads, and maybe recent graduates. You know … grads of varying degrees (with varying degrees, ba-bum tsssh). These people with their varying degrees of busyness are quite different from a CEO, for example. But even with a 16-hour work day you can still write. You might not want to but you can.

For example, I recently did a work experience for two weeks, where I would work 9:30-17:30 daily. Impossibly strenuous, I know. To get there from my brother’s flat was a four-minute walk to the tube, then a half an hour ride. So an hour round trip, roughly. Now this placement was ongoing when NaNoWriMo began. On one day there was a problem on the tube line which meant having to get two buses back home.

Unfortunately, two of them terminated early so the journey, which should take an hour maximum, took two. So I got quite frustrated. Basically, I didn’t feel like writing when I got back. I vegged out for a little bit, true, but then I thought to myself the significance of NaNo to me—to commit to something that’s important to my well-being—and sat down and wrote.

It was horrible. Gruelling and miserable and slow. But I did it. I met my daily word count after a long while and then promptly went to bed. What I’m getting at is writing isn’t always going to be a barrel of laughs. If you wait to feel inspired—or are buoyed along by the enticing prospect of The Other Project—then you’ll write infrequently and that’s not going to be much help to your ambitions. Now, despite my next section I should add that I’m not necessarily advocating for a year-round write every day kind of situation. I don’t and I still manage to get quite large word counts in a year. I’ll explain more in a little while.

Narrow goal and stretch goal (word count limits)

NaNoWriMo is an event where you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words in the month of November. Crazy right? Fifty thousand words. To give you some perspective, The Great Gatsby tots up to just over 50,000 words, which is about 170 pages.

This sounds large and unattainable and it might be the first time you do it: I didn’t do it the first year I tried back in 2010, but since then I’ve completed it five years of the seven years I’ve done it. I’m not boasting but merely trying to say that if I can do it, you most certainly can, too.

To make something like that achievable you need to break it down into workable chunks. Think of working on something in relation to stretch goals and a specific plan to get there. For NaNo, the stretch goal is to complete your 50,000 word novel. The specific plan would be the minimum 1,667 words (rounded up) per day to get there. This is much less scary now, right? It’s still a fair amount to do in a day, especially considering commitments xyz.

But here’s a thought: you needn’t constrain your writing time to one part of the day.

If you commute to work, think about scribbling some ideas down to and from there. If you drive, of course don’t do that, but you still have lunch breaks, certainly? Even if you write a sentence down, which can literally take a few seconds, you’ve written. Oftentimes I’ve developed whole scenes from a few scribbled notes I did earlier on. No notebook? A note in your phone or a blank text work just the same. No phone? Leave a note on your hands.

The point is that it’s about those digestible chunks: If you find a spare few moments, use them. Even the daily word counts don’t need to be done all at once. Typically speaking on a “work day” my attention span can only really manage sub 2000 words which means the word count for NaNo is within my attention span limit. It might not be the case for you. Weekends are good for this sort of thing (provided they’re free).

Being pretty knowledgeable about your attention span will help you focus, especially when you break it down. Because when small digestible chunks get further subdivided, it really does make all the difference. 100 words every hour will be a breeze. Sure if you follow that strictly over the course of one day it will take you all day to get to the desired word count limit. But when you start and get a rhythm going, it’s pretty tough to break it: you’ll find that you’ll get a respectable word count much quicker than imagined. I tend to find that I write more than I thought I could by starting from modest goals: “Write 100 words and go eat dinner” but then I end up writing 500 words and my stomach is growling. Oops.

And, to be clear, the stretch goal needn’t be as extreme as 50,000 words in a month. It could be a different, much smaller, value. Last year, I was fairly committed to writing 3,000 per month** which is 750 words per week, which is just over 107 words per day. Broken down into those figures, they don’t seem so gargantuan or absurd, do they? That’s not even an hour’s work. It’s nice to look at it in terms of the bigger picture, too. 12 of these 3,000 word months will give you 36,000 words in a year. It’s no novel but you’re well on your way. And by the end of Year 2 you’ll have something much more substantial. Think about that long game.

The same for poetry: try a poem per week. Fit the structure to your needs. Script? Several pages per week. Song? You know the drill. Etc., etc.

It’s a work in progress that starts little and eventually adds up over time. To come back to my point from before: I don’t even think you need to write every day to produce the desired amount of work. Even though I am a committed (see: addicted) participant of the respective WriMo events, the main thrust of the advocacy is regularity of writing. Habit-setting is a good way of actually finishing things.

Quality

Beyond the fragility of feeling towards the Project, there might be an issue more localised which is to do with idealisation vs actuation. Last week I talked about how there was a disconnect between the art I consume, the art I want to produce, and the art I actually create. When I started writing novels for real that was very upsetting. I wanted my stuff to have lots of subtle foreshadowing, tasteful subtext, rich characterisation, and an engaging plot which will give it “unputdownable” status on its jacket. My books would make people more moral or some shit. No-one could stop me and my raging Genius.

The reality? Not so good.

Seriously. Those words you write the first time? Stale prose, 2-D characters, obvious unnecessary subplots. Incestuous undertones (don’t ask). Bad rhymes and lazy imagery. Nowhere near close to that ideal. It’s probably because you have good taste***. A lot of creators have that fear. Perfection is the Great Enemy of creators.

And that’s okay.

First drafts need to be crap so you can make it the thing you’ve always known it to be. But you need to finish it and you’ll do that through focusing on the long goal, of working toward its betterment. Now this seems to be in direct contravention of what I said up above. To be 100% clear: above I said that it’s sad if you think your writing’s utter crap. What I’m saying here is some understanding of the qualities and noticeable deficits of your work will go a long way. The first go isn’t going to be gold, but neither is it going to be entirely awful. It’s a learning experience!

Writing that you become acquainted with in popular spaces (novels, poetry, TV, film, etc.), is made in revision and the sooner that’s digested the better your relationship will be.

Writing’s hard and that’s probably why moving on is so enticing. When you start it’s so new and exciting, it might even be easy. But then doubt starts to set in and its flaws are on clear display, and the mood is definitely lowered. Resisting that harsh critic will be the first in many steps to higher quality writing. Sure, I’ve been writing for a while but I’m still learning new things all the time. There are some projects that I’m legitimately proud of that literally would not exist without me writing its shitty first draft. And yes, it’s easier said than done but the potential pay-off should help in assuaging some of those fears. It’s that ideal that you should be working towards, that stretch goal. The specific steps to get there is through constant reformation.

Editing, essentially, is where all the craft comes into writing. The first draft should be reserved for putting the ideas down. Once they’re down, it becomes much easier to develop things into what you want it to be. Thinking about producing that ideal thing the first try will only disappoint and stump you when you come to the page. Enter the writing room with the full knowledge that what you’re putting together needs to be a bit crap before it’s good.

“What about the ideas, man?”

A lot of the things discussed here presuppose that you have a fully-formed idea and the only thing stopping you is yourself. This section is to be the diving board for ideas.

I would recommend ogling. Not that perverted gazing, ogle (though it is about as intense). Focus on the way people talk: are they assertive dominant speakers with direct communication, measured and confident diction, or are they accommodating speakers who steer conversation less directly? Do they use hedges and markers of sympathetic circularity (“um … like … y’know”)?

The best way to collect information if you’re too self-aware to look at strangers (which, let’s be real here, is likely) is maybe pay attention to specific actions of your loved ones. How do they look when they’re excited versus when they’re mad? Are there specific actions attached to certain emotions or do they remain consistent irrespective of mood? Does someone have a lisp that’s noticeable, a way they kind of look up and away into the clouds between—or sometimes during!—conversations, only to pulled sharply back to the ground? Posture, hairstyle. What can you see? It can be the simplest thing. Someone biting their lip, for instance.

Despite what I just said, don’t simply steal from reality. What I’m trying to tease out is what your observations can tell you. What sort of story can they possible evoke?

If, for example, you have a character that has certain traits, don’t copy everything down to the appearance from whom you observed it from. Let’s say there’s someone you know who bites her lip when she’s deep in thought, and reacts to them in real-time, as if she’s engaged in a real verbal conversation. It might be a nice character feature—and will add to realism if you’re taking it from a real person as opposed to an imagined character—but part of the challenge (and fun!) of writing is the creative embellishments.

Take the image of the woman biting her lip again and ask yourself the range of possibilities involved. Why is she doing that? Is she bored? Why? Perhaps she’s in the waiting room. For whom? Is it her awaiting results or is she yet to have a test yet? What can she see, smell? What does this situation (or someone in this room) remind her of, make her fear?

Is she waiting on someone else’s results and here for moral support? Perhaps she’s more worried than her counterpart. But then, who is that supposed to be? Relation, lover? A stranger she feels responsible for? Why?

You could picture her on a date, or maybe just before, and she’s nervous, catching herself on a bench … where? NYC? Seattle? Hong Kong? Leeds? Mozambique?

You see how many different scenarios you can pull out from a simple action such as biting your lip? I pulled that out on the fly. It’s hard to believe because this has been written down so all you have is my word, but honestly, there are so many ways to tell a story from even the simplest of details. You just have to pick a thing and build. It might not lead to anything or might lead into something much bigger. You won’t know until you try. Either way it’s exceptional practice to be able to consider things like that, though they needn’t be so specific.

For other mediums, the same applies, but there might more specific needs. It’s nice to imbibe the rich imagery of your favourite poets, listen to the ways your favourite bands or artists make music, or observe how your favourite screenwriters or directors write and present their features.

The temptation from here is to maybe copy certain styles and then develop there. How about this: when consuming the art you like, what’s missing? What is it that you’d really wish to see? I’ve seen this a lot for people encouraging aspiring book writers but there’s some malleability—some universality—that can be applied here. That might be a good jumping off point for going forward in your writing crusade.

Okay, here are some things to get the juices flowing!

  1. Pick a place and a time of day. Who is your character and what are they doing there? 
  2. An invasion of your hometown has occurred it is [object to your right] but luckily [object to your left] is there to help out. What happens? (I acknowledge the wackiness of this one.)
  3. Write about something memorable in a character’s life. Why is it so significant and how does it shape who the character is? 
  4. Pick a colour! What’s significant about it in your character’s life?

If you think prompts are lame then you clearly don’t like writing as much as you pretend to. Anywhere can be a jumping off point, you just need the right sort of push.

Other resources include:

Writing Excuses. Great (and short!) podcasts about many aspects of writing with an added dimension of specificity.

There are other places like here.
For songs, try here.
For poems, have a look at this.
For scripts, have a peek.

You can also do a Google search. The possibilities are endless.

Okay, you’ve proven that you have more than enough focus to read this. Now go and write! Good luck.

* I took that line from Donny T’s inauguration speech. I found it to be darkly poetic.

**These days I’m averaging 5000 per week. For the most part these posts are part of the problem but I do get some other bits of creative writing done. Regularity has been a big boost.

***It says a lot that I’ve mentioned that Ira Glass quote twice in two weeks now. I hope this doesn’t become a trend, great as it is.

My Writing Story

 

Writing for pleasure began with a very tiny video game called Final Fantasy IX (FFIX).

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So many fond memories …

 

My brother got it for our PlayStation when I was about six or seven so it’s sometime in 2001. This game changed both of lives for the better but to understand its significance we have to talk about an even smaller book series called Harry Potter.

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Contrary to the common thoughts surrounding writers, I was an awful reader as a kid; I didn’t like it all that much. A distant part of myself understood its importance but as an activity of leisure? It was laborious. I’d much rather draw. Besides, where were the pictures?

The same year FFIX was released, the film for The Philsopher’s Stone came out. I think I was pushed to the books when I was told that the films were based on books.

So I went to the school’s library and read up to the Azkaban, which would later become my favourite. My engagement with this showed me the excitement of the written word. Reading could be fun and without pictures. Madness.

So how does this link to FFIX? Well, back in those days, games were rarely voice acted so stories had to be told through text. Now, FFIX had the benefit of (at the time) exceptionally gorgeous presentation, and bright colourful character models and settings. To interact with this story, you’d have to do a lot of reading. But that was fine, because my brother and I would act out the voices of the characters in the game to make it even more interesting. I began to digest ways about the structure of plot and setting, as well as characters from the game and at some point later in the year I wrote a comic, titled Final Fantasy XX.

I chose this title deliberately not for copyright reasons but because I thought I’d pick a future number that was unlikely to be realised in the comic’s lifetime. (I mean, XV only dropped a few months ago so I wasn’t wrong.)

The plot was simple, the narrative poor, but it had almost original (although derivative) characters. Zidane, the protagonist of FFIX is a dude with a monkey-like tail and so naturally my protagonist and any of my original cast would also have these tails. It’d also be derivative of Dragonball Z tropes of energy beams (look above) and transformations. In any case, this is really the first time that I’d engage with the idea of creating stories. At that time, I still wanted to make comic books, more specifically, combining my original love of drawing with a newly found one: Writing.

We continue on in my life, more Harry Potter releases occur that I devour, more films to gush over, and I get to my teens. The notion of reading soaked into my DNA properly now, I swallowed whole the Noughts & Crosses series, at some point Northern Lights coming in as well, alongside other games.

My life would change again by another book. I don’t even remember what it was specifically about it that drew my eye—perhaps, the colourful book jacket? All I know is as soon as I picked it up I needed to have it. It was Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings. Some pages have been loosened and have fallen out (not lost though, thankfully) but safe to say I read that book with some fervour.

 

 

In the early parts of the book, the main character Garion is a child. Eventually there is a time skip and Garion starts his adventure-proper at the age of fourteen, which so happened to be the age I was at the time. This was such a big deal to me that I violently fist-pumped, even though Harry Potter had by now gone through his fifth year at Hogwarts. The book had everything in it I wanted at the time: swords, sorcery, adventure, princesses, danger, gods.

It was an exciting quintet that made me decide to pen a story. Pen being quite literal: I wrote about 30 sides of it on ruled paper over about six months before giving up; I realised how difficult it was to write a novel, especially one with such scope.

Besides, it wasn’t very original. The home country of Garion, for example, is called Sendaria; the home country of my main character was called Rhendaria. Another way that Garion is referred to is as the pawn of prophecy, while my character, Varim, is called the decider of destiny. Even the names are similar: the “a”, “r” and “i” are in the same order and position in the name, being the second, third, and fourth letters. It’s a little uncanny. Not hugely original either.

This is between 2007-2009 and the book eventually fell to the wayside, forgotten about for some years.

Between me picking it up again I had another idea titled Our Dreams, Our Desires, a project that I did for my first ever NaNoWriMo project all the way back in 2010 about a magically-capable girl who is persecuted by armoured authorities sometime in the future. For those not in the know the aim of NaNoWriMo is for participants to set themselves the challenge of writing a 50,000 word “novel” during the month of November. I use scare quotes here because it’s often contested how long a novel is. Usually people say 60k and upwards.

Anyway, I failed, and got around 33,000 words. This is by no means a modest amount, true, however, it was ultimately abandoned. Something about it wasn’t working, I knew tacitly.

Jump forwards to sometime in 2011 and I learn of a similar event that happens in July (this is JulNoWriMo, which is now no longer running, not Camp NaNoWriMo which I do now that Jul is finished). This is a good thing for me because I was still in college during this period which meant I had coursework and exams to wrestle with on top of writing in long form. I had no assignments in the summer and I even had an extra day to write. I knew I had it in me to finish something. All I needed was that something.

I started another attempt at a YA book about 16 year olds. It’s around this time I got into John Green books which would influence me some more. I completed JulNo 2011 with this book named Just Like Old Times. It was a teen fic that I think has origins in about 2009, replete with outrageous plot lines. I was happy to write it though.

The November of that year was dedicated to a similarly-themed—school kids at the end of school*—but much more coherent book called The Heart of Summer. By the time JulNoWriMo 2012 came around, though, I was all out of ideas.

I scrambled around for some until I came  across my crumpled notes of the original draft of my book from back in school: the weathered character sheet, the old maps, the draft pages.

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Character list (right side), age of the character, and another number in brackets to denote position in story: 1 being main, 2 being secondary, etc. I think it also means when they’d be introduced in the story. On the left side of the page is a location list, with notations of what book the characters will visit them in. On the bottom of the page is a synopsis, below which are some words I learned and thought I might use at some point.

This unfinished world and its characters were demanding me to write it to completion. So I did, under the name Trick Fantasy. I can’t remember the reasoning for the title; I did retroactively locate that I had lifted the title from an ability in Kingdom Hearts II but I don’t know the referent of the title and, to be honest, don’t want to go back to that manuscript and find out why. Don’t make me do it!

My experiences writing it are kind of fuzzy but I imagine it was like any other writing month challenge: difficult, irritating, but very rewarding in the long run. Proud of myself, and very exhausted, I knew that this 50,000 words was only the beginning but I eventually left that by the wayside as well, thinking about how I could improve upon it.

Over the next few years Trick Fantasy morphed and developed, and became Trick Fantasy: The Dragon’s Amulet, a much bigger but mostly poorly plotted book about the various people caught in a power grab for an erstwhile fake artefact of a race of creatures believed to be extinct. I got that one to 105k and planned to do two more books in that sequence, but I opted to discontinue it.

When you’re writing a book, especially a big fantasy book, it takes a lot of time. Over that long period of time you grow and develop as person and, as a result, a writer. So naturally you think of the myriad ways in which you can redevelop a story. This book was no exception.

I had done it though; I’d finished my passion project born many years ago and it resembled little of the copy of David Eddings’ classic. It had become its own story. The first typed version of Trick Fantasy was a test in completing something; the second an attempt to tell an original story. There was a lot I was missing but I could chart noticeable differences and there are important elements in this version of the book that continue in its most recent rendition.

But despite this noticeable progress there was still a disconnect between the art I was consuming, the art I wanted to make, and the art I was actually making. Ira Glass mentions it in, you know, that quote of his.

By the time I had finished Trick Fantasy: The Dragon’s Amulet sometime in early 2013 I felt I had read more and played more games—lived more, experienced more—to the point I could do this story justice, and NaNo was just around the corner.

The first step in this change: lose the name. I had played the third Golden Sun game which I had fun with, but not as much as the original two. In it, there’s an equipment set called the Umbra Gear. I liked this name. It means shadow and there is a lot of darkness in my newer idea. In fact, an energy force is named after it because of the shadowy mist that trails from casting the magic. It will do: Umbra it is.

Much of what I wrote in that completed draft of my old story was gone by the time it came to redrafting the book for 2013’s NaNo. And it was at this point it finally left its stilted origins, and began matching my head in what I wanted a fantasy book to do. The world took on new dimensions. Some characters were lost, but newer ideas developed in their place, as well as new characters. It was a much bigger book, too, in that it took well over a year to finish it: January 14th 2015, two years ago Sunday, at just under 175,000 words. I’d only planned for it to get to 150k maximum, but it kept going and going and going. Turns out it’s pretty tricky to write an ending (it made me more forgiving on The Return of the King Extended, but then again I was already pretty soft on it).

I remember it quite clearly. I was in a group study room at the bottom of my university’s library for the Creative Writing Society. One of my good friends had gathered everyone around her laptop to watch a meme. I was hammering away, hurried along at regular intervals, but eventually came to my final line.

I felt nothing. Not complete abject, existential Nothingness, just nothing. I had poured maybe eight years of work into this book which, when done, was about 70-80% to my satisfaction. I announced that I had finished my book to the room, stood from my seat, ass numb from not moving, and watched the video.

Since finishing this draft I’ve started its sequel, but have already thought about the redraft of the first book in this sequence. The changes to this one are much smaller than before which leads me to believe that it’s almost ready, in the final stages of its chrysalis before it emerges Fully Formed (or so I hope). Then I can think about querying the thing (eek).

Now when people find out I’m a writer and ask how many books I’ve written, I often say that I’ve done nine books (as of December 2016). The reality is I’ve only really written about four; I’ve spent most of this last decade rewriting old ideas. That book I finished in December was the second reworking of The Heart of Summer (don’t worry, it’s lost that name, too).

Stories evolve so much over time, it’s kind of ridiculous—and exciting. Here are some things that have happened to my stories in the past decade:

  • Ideas can literally come at you from nowhere. The original idea of Our Dreams, Our Desires is lost to me. My suspicion is that the anime Witch Hunter Robin had some influence on it. The initial premises are near-identical, in fact, so I’m almost completely certain. My reworking of this idea is also lost to me. I know what I was influenced by but I pulled at a lot of threads that don’t resemble any fiction I’ve come across. I’ve come to accept that sometimes that happens though. Some of my more recent book ideas have just struck me from the æther but I think that’s a good thing. Their origins make fun talking points but their instantiations are where the real fun is.
  • Sometimes stories just stop being viable. While I’m firm believer in finishing things to understand what you’re working with (more on that next week) sometimes it just doesn’t work at all and you really need to step away. That’s what happened with my teen fic book. The characters had a reincarnation though. Which leads me onto my next point:
  • Characters can migrate whole projects—even genres. I reworked Our Dreams irregularly between 2012 & 2015**. If you want to think of my characters from that 2010 book as actors, then picture they went out of work. It was a show that had a short and fairly warm reception but was cancelled before the first series was even finished. The cast would reunite again two years later older and a little changed, which fitted my newer, darker book.

I think it’s fun to look back on your influences. If I hadn’t had come across Pawn of Prophecy, I wonder if I’d even be writing this post right now. God knows if I’d be doing anything of the sort without FFIX. 

My writing in non-comic form owes so much to that book though, it’s kind of crazy. In my mid-teens I would end up reading Sabriel, finishing the other two books in the original Abhorsen trilogy (but Nix has thankfully revisited the world on two occasions), a few years later. It’s been a significant influence on me. But what if I had read something like that first? Would I have reacted in a similar way? What if it was His Dark Materials or Noughts & Crosses? It’s so strange to think about.

What I’m influenced by now is so numerous I can’t even list them all. I am a sponge for influences. What’s really been consistent for me is artwork; it really gets the creative juices flowing, probably a symptom of my old drawing habits. Yoshitaka Amano and Akihiko Yoshida continue to be visionaries in the tradition. They’re known, for the most part, for the work they’ve contributed to the Final Fantasy series. They simulate how I could potentially present fantasy worlds.

Akihiko Yoshida’s work

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Some examples of the brillance of Amano.

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Getting a better look at this might be a good idea. 

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This is just a tiny, tiny taste.

What are you influenced by? Is there a piece of work that’s the linchpin for your writing/art?

 

*The main characters were fifteen and sixteen which, at the time someone could legally leave formal education. To think the change in education would be so recent is interesting to look back on.

**The first year was promising but then, for various reasons, it became Waylaid. For a first draft it went through Development Hell. I really struggled with this one.