Digging Myself Out of the Past: 1. If You Can't Do "What If"

A lightning explosion between two canyon walls.
The Gap Opens (Rad Ruinn) Art by Art Breeder

I'm so tempted to write "Try this!" to really make the title as clickbaity as possible. But I hate doing that. It leaves an itch under my skin I can't scratch.

Since the winter of 2006, I've struggled to write. I've occasionally managed to do something, but nothing as consistent as 2003-2005. That's the dream, that's what I've been hoping for.

I don't know why I can't write. Every time I think I've figured it out, my head shifts to something else. I might get a minute or two of feeling better, but then the wall slams up and I'm stuck again.

If you think this isn't a problem, or I could move on to something else, I'll say this. It's my special interest. I had no word for why I was obsessed with Amnar and writing just for me, just as what I loved to do, until I got diagnosed earlier this year.

Now I get it. And now I have a language to explain to people why this is so vital to me and my life.

Course #529750274957

Looking for a bit of a kick up the butt, I've signed up for a course. I do this every so often. I've done half a billion courses out there now, from publishers, agencies, other agencies, writing companies (just about every single one of them)...

All of them are pretty much the same. There's a generic standard, pretty much regardless of where you get your course from. You'll spend some basic time on plot, character, structure, then there's always a bit at the end with promises of Q&As with industry professionals.

Right now, the "learn to write" industry has evolved to the point where a lot of these agencies are offering genre-specific courses. These all seem to be pretty much the same thing as the standard offering, except with a genre-twist. A week on world-building if you write fantasy, a week on plot twists if you write thrillers. You get the picture.

None of these worked. I show up in week one all keen, then by week three I'm lost, deep in my resistance and struggling.

This year, I stopped myself doing this. I see the pattern and the only thing to do with a pattern that isn't working is to notice when it cycles round again and try to stop it before it re-starts.

So why am I doing this? Well, I've been doing another course on this website, and this new one stood out for me. The other course is a mental health one, for which I did my usual sign up, ignore, abandon approach. Until last week, when I suddenly began completing the exercises.

And you know what, I think it helps. Or is helping. Something like that.

This course isn't your standard "Idea/Plot/Character". It's more esoteric than that, and digs more into the emotions and the fears around starting the weird journey that is reaching into the ether of the imagination and pulling forth a thing to make it real. So, let's see how this goes.

Week One: "What If"

Right off the bat, we have a problem. I read through the long introduction and ignored the first exercise, which involves staring at a blank sheet of paper on my wall. I jumped straight to the next exercise, which was all about writing something. That's what I wanted. Let me just dig right into my pain and resistance with some actual words.

Then... Oh. It's a "Figure Out Your Premise" exercise. A "What If" exercise.

I know these from Lisa Cron's Story Genius. She makes a valid point that standard writing prompts don't appreciate the need to have a character with a specific resistance to doing the thing who must do the thing. That's really the essence of all stories. A person must do a thing, but they don't want to do the thing, so they must overcome that to learn the vital lesson of the plot.

I spent all day yesterday squirming with this in my head. I've got a couple of events playing out in my head, one from Amnar and one from Five Empires. I tried to pick out the main character—the one I'm most interested in—and apply the "What if..." formula.

Bear in mind, for this exercise, the prompt is very vague. It assumes you have an idea. You've got a character and, presumably, a thing they need to do that they don't want to do. But I don't. This depresses me. Why can't I do this? I've been writing since I was five. What's the matter with me?

After a full day of turning this over and being pissed I couldn't make it work, I came to this lightning-bolt realisation.

Oh. I don't think in "What ifs..."

I think in "How..."


If I want to get back to how I used to write, so I can feel mentally healthy and supported by my own special interest, I've got to go back to how I did it before. I never asked "what if..." questions. Amnar was just there in my head and I asked it questions like I ask research questions.

"What does this do?"

"How does this happen?"

"Why does this happen?"

Instead of asking "What if...", I decided to reframe the question, the big one I've had in my head for a while now.

Actually, no. I've got two questions, one for Amnar and one for Five Empires.

"How does Isha get her powers?"

"How does Amin Duum fall? How does it all fall apart?"

That feels easier. That feels like something I can work with. I begin to play with the people in my head and the worlds they live in, without the stress of thinking in terms of trying to come up with a story frame assigned by somebody else.

So, in summary, what I'm saying here is that sometimes you have to find the right way to word the question you want to ask. I'm breaking the rules already, but I think if I do it this way, I might be able to come back to "What if". Like translating a language from one to another, from the one that works in my head to the one that works for people outside it.

Baby Yoda in his container, waving his arms.