I write to you now from the middle of a battle. Somewhere deep in a forest, I'm pitted against some awesome monster, a creature of green feathers and red face, wings flapping. The creature demands that I write 700 words in just over two hours, although at the speed I race through this, hardly daring to let my fingers leave the keyboard, I'll be done much quicker than that.
I'm on a quest. This is the next stage of a quest-line I've been working on for the last week. It's my first week in this forest, and I've so far battled forty monsters of varying sizes and hues. At this point, I have a leaf helmet and boots, and I'm equipped with a plain wooden sword and a bow made of string and the legs of some kind of gigantic purple spider. It's been a week.
However, this week has also been profound. I wasn't expecting this at all, but the story of how I got to this forest has led to the story of Amnar, and back into a world I've secretly been terrified to rediscover. Apparently, the trick to overcoming the monstrous procrastination and fear that's dominated my life for the last twenty years has been to battle monsters through it.
I'm talking (well, writing), about the app called 4TheWords. I discovered it after I finally decided I should step up and get myself Shift, a browser app that reduces my cognitive load via some magic I don't fully comprehend. I don't know why it's more efficient and better for my brain to work through this app rather than attempting to keep my browser tab habit under control manually, but that's the way it is.
Briefly, Shift works by assigning your most commonly used apps to a vertical menu on the left, with a horizontal menu at the top dividing each of the tabs you need in these apps. It took me two hours to set this up, but now I've done it, I love it. Over the course of figuring out this tool, I came across 4theWords, and decided to take a look.
It's writing, but not as we know it, Jim.
It's writing, but re-imagined as a fantasy quest through a fairytale forest. I have to admit, I'm not all that into fairytales. It's not a corner of the fantasy landscape I'm all that familiar with (although I'll admit to having a long-standing fascination with the Russian witch Baba Yaga and her house on chicken legs). However, 4theWords has a fantasy appeal: various mystical landscapes, magic clothing, modifiable characters, adventures. It's Skyrim, I suppose, if Skyrim battles were entirely based on writing rather than fighting.
Initially, I thought this couldn't possibly work as a strategy for writing. I'd do it for a day, maybe, and then I'd give up. I'd be overwhelmed by the pressure to write every day, and that would mean 4theWords ended up like all the other anti-procrastination tools I've used in the past. A heap of broken promises and me feeling like a stressed little heap of failure.
I signed up for the free trial last weekend, in order to give it a go. It couldn't hurt, and I allowed myself to write what I wanted. I let go of the internal insistence that I should be writing Amnar, and strictly Amnar, in a comprehensible order from the gripping first sentence to the emotional last word. Instead, I would just write what came into my head at the time and see what happened.
Now I have to explain something else before we go any further. Today is the first anniversary of me being diagnosed as autistic. This was a quest of its own particular kind, also made up of a lot of paperwork and writing things down. I must have completed four or five assessments this way before I finally went through the lengthy ADOS2 that gave me my diagnosis. On March 10th, this year, I sat up where I am now and waited, unable to do anything else but stare at my phone, for the call that would tell me whether I was autistic or not.
I won't dig into all my complex reasons for seeking a diagnosis, the difficulties of getting one, and whether one is necessary at all here. Only that the moment somebody else was able to explain to me all the reasons I had struggled to comprehend the world and the people around me my whole life, everything changed. I will write about it more, when I'm ready.
The short version is that while being diagnosed was the end of the "diagnosis journey", it was the start of the "getting used to the diagnosis journey", and even as I write this I know I'm not done with that. It takes a long, long time to undo 43 years of being told you're wrong about everything and a bad person because you can't understand what's going on around you.
I've been writing as a way to process through all the different confusing feelings and memories. Somehow, in the midst of this, I came upon 4theWords and decided to write about it there. And this turned, quite without me intending it to, into me writing Amnar again. Not clear chapters with structured openings, turning points, rising actions, and the like. But it seemed helpful to channel what I was coming to understand about myself into Io, and to write it as if it were her describing her experience.
Okay then, author insert.
This is one of those highly contentious subjects in writing. I tend to think that characters are all to some degree built from fragments of ourselves, but it's worth being cautious about putting too much of yourself so obviously into a piece of fiction. The red flags start flapping if you're describing your author insert character as being indescribably beautiful but also not like the other girls. Although this is fairly innocuous, compared to recent examples I could name.
At the moment, I don't consider myself to be writing The Novel, or Novels. I'm not sure what's happening here. These are experimental passages, largely devoid of external action. I notice as I read back through sections of the original first draft that I rarely dealt in internal feelings as such. I have some degree of alexithymia, and find myself uncomfortable with describing sensations. When I've attempted to do it before, I've fallen back on cliché.
These exercises are something else, since they are, at their core, an exploration of my own honest experience of myself. I don't know how much they will influence whatever novel or novels come out of this. I'm still figuring that out.
The power of exploration.
For the last few weeks, I've been digging back into my obsession with Welcome to Night Vale. I listened to the podcast when it first came out in 2012, on the recommendation of a friend. As is typical of a hyperfixation, it went dormant for a bit. When T mentioned listening to an episode last month, I went back, to find I had not only ten years' worth of episodes to catch up on, but also three novels and a load of live shows. Glorious!
As part of this, I listened to some of Good Morning, Night Vale, which does deep dives into the old episodes. I was fascinated to discover that when Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor started Night Vale, they had no idea what they were really doing with all these potential storylines. They had no idea that when they first described the man in the tan jacket, he would become such a vital character to the first novel.
It was a reminder to me that exploration, and not knowing where you're going creatively-speaking, can be a powerful thing. When I started Amnar back in 2003, I had no idea what would happen. I had an outline in my head, but nothing else. I wasn't au fait with plotting, intense structuring, all those complex facets of story-writing. In the last few years, I've become obsessed with planning and plotting, but back then, I never worked more than a few chapters ahead.
I've also been reading a couple of books on writing, including John Truby's work. He says very much the same thing, and it makes me wonder if I should perhaps consider whether I should relax my grip on needing to have every detail set in stone before I start. Characters do unpredictable things. They turn out to be people we never knew they would be, and it's vital to allow them to grow independent of one's control.
As such, I've been trying to do the same with Io. I never did enough work on Io as a person, and she often seems to vague. She does whatever she's told, never really challenging or questioning much, especially at the beginning. Now I'm giving much more time over to exploring her as a person and how she sees the world she's living in now. I've also given some time to exploring how she is at different moments of the story.
I do have the bulk of a plot though. This came from working through the early sections of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. Although it's intended to be a book for scriptwriters, many of the ideas carry across. Truby seems to understand the necessity for developing a balance between exploring (i.e., pantsing) and planning (i.e., plotting). He remarks early on that focusing too much on intense plotting and concretising the story down to every possible level, makes stories that feel very rote. They hit the marks they're meant to do according to books on structure, but lack emotional depth.
Emotional depth is really what I'm looking for here. Balancing plotting and pantsing is a very difficult trick to pull off, which is why I've tried to break myself out of staring at other people's first lines and wishing I could write like that. I'm comparing everybody else's polished final published work with my own scatty, barely-a-first-draft, attempts at consolidating ideas. Of course it's going to be messy.
I've struggled so much with the idea of writing again, and with starting again, that I've found it much easier to take these little chunks of a young person explaining themselves to me, which is in turn me explaining myself to me. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted, or how I was supposed to be in the world. If this is going to be a story for anybody other than me, it's for those people who have a similar sense of confusion and uncertainty. I'm not sure I can provide the path out of the confusion, but writing my own experiences as if they were Io's feels like it's given her more depth.
So, for this week, I have a few things worth looking at, if you're so minded.
Consume: First of all, there's Welcome to Night Vale. Start at episode one and just listen and enjoy. Then there's John Truby's Anatomy of Story. Get the free Kindle sample and see how you get on. Think about premises and vague ideas.
Create: Then, if you have a moment of confidence, write an internal experience, an honest experience, as if it were being told from the perspective of your point-of-view character. Break away from the idea of clichés—clenched jaws, and pretty much anything to do with pounding hearts—and think about how you are living and feeling your way in the world.
I haven't done a consume/create section in a while (ha! not since the first one), so this is my first attempt at taking what I'm learning and turning it into something that might be useful for readers. During the week, I may post some bonus subscriber-only content, featuring a few of the descriptions I've come up with as I explore these ideas.
Finally, a note on the first year of being diagnosed autistic. I thought it would be easier than this. It did explain everything, but at the same time I had to re-explain my life to myself. I realised even as I wrote this that the first year was its own journey, and I've only just come through that and acknowledged it. I think I might be doing this for a while yet.