The Problem of Progression

The Problem of Progression

Publication; that is the elusive goal that I, and many other writers on this site, are after. We envision it as finish line, a medal we can wear that says ‘Author’. If you’re published you’ve made it, you’ve moved from dreamer to doer, amateur to professional. Lay people out in the world will take you seriously, you’re not just that guy at the party ‘working on his novel,’ you’re legitimate.

I know thinking that way is a trap, but it’s one that I often fall into. There are so few tangible bench marks in writing that publication becomes alluring. A clear sign that you are doing something right; that you’ve progressed. Often in my day to day writing I can’t tell if I’m getting better, if I’m challenging myself enough, if I’m too afraid to share my work, if I’m really ‘moving forward’ or what that even means.

We like the idea of progression, that one step leads to another. It’s one of the reason RPGs are so fun, you level up, you have real rewards for your experience. The stories we hear about success follow that same linear structure and when we look back on our own success we often organize our history into a clear path of progression.

But that path is never clear. It’s marked by failure, experimentation, stalling and hurdling leaps. You don’t move forward as often as you move in an angle, you’re footing never certain until it is, the demarcation lines of success only visible when you turn around, what’s head is nothing but fog.

I’m at a point in my writing that I know that I’m not a beginner and I know I’m not an expert. I would love to be intermediate, but I have suspicion that I’m several style books behind that (seriously, I’m in dire need of regular line editing). I’ve been writing consistently for close to ten years, mostly creative work, mostly creative work that no one’s read.

When I started writing, the path forward was easy to see and the goals tangible: write a short story, write a novella, write a novel, edit a novel. Writing advice was easier to find or at least more relevant. There’s a lot advice out there about ‘finding time to write’, hell I’ve got some if anyone wants to hear it, but I’ve found the time and done a fair bit of writing and now I’m not sure the way forward. The more I learn about writing, the less I seem to know.

When everything is murky like this it’s best to get out of your own head. Talk to someone who knows you. I have a friend who is a creative too. He’s read my work and we bounced ideas around together. He was able to explain how arriving at the murky part of my goal meant that I had gone farther than before. I’ve progressed to a point where I have no real experience to base it on and need to do some experimentation. I need to prod different avenues, I need to fail a little and find out what works and what doesn’t. The unknown can be exciting; an opportunity.

If you don’t have a friend, you have yourself. Tell yourself your story, look back, see the points where you’ve done well and how they’ve led you to this moment. Remember the missteps, the rejections, the work you’ve abandoned. They are part of the path, they’re not so much dead ends as circular steps, spinning you around and leading you forward. When facing the fog, pick a direction, any direction, work out the steps to it and start moving. You’ll find that you stumble and slide and maybe it’s not worth going there, but at the very least it will eliminate a heading.

Writing is art and art isn’t neat. It can be hard to define. It can be nebulous and therefore it’s success can feel that way too. Embrace it. It’s okay to get lost for a little bit, if you keep trying different ways to move forward, you’ll eventually improve. Don’t focus on one goal other than to be better, to grow, to learn more. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to try. I’ll let you know when I find my way out of the fog.

Ghets Update

Ghets Update

I don’t update this blog as much as I should (my incomplete StarWars Trilogy is proof of that). But the reason I don’t blog as often as I’d like, is that I’m hard at work cranking out a new novel ‘Ghets’!

I already wrote about Ghets after I completed the rough draft last year. Well, now I’ve completed draft two. Ghets has ballooned to 210,169 words, plot holes have shrunk, characters that were previously named ‘BLANK’ have proper names, and the world of Ghets has further solidified.

I’m in the process of rereading this giant monstrosity so I can share it with Beta-readers. This is the first time I’ve read the novel as a novel and not a series of chapters since the rough draft. And the reread is breaking me.

Does that mean the novel is bad?

I don’t know.

Does that mean it’s a huge, unwieldy mess that only it’s author can understand?

I don’t know.

Does that mean that it’s a boring slog that most readers won’t put up with?

I. Don’t. Know.

Does that mean that it’s just okay?

You guessed it, I have no idea whatsoever.

I have read the first five chapters together a dozen times, and like an optical illusion, it’s always different. The novel goes from being the most hackney, amateurish pile of garbage sentences every dumped into word document, to an enjoyable, breezy fantasy novel to something else entirely. I have stayed up until two in the morning studying those chapters like arcane scripts, trying to divine their quality and still have no idea if it’s any good.

There are many parts of me that go into being a writer. There’s Matt the creator, Matt the editor, Matt the reader, Matt the critic, and they are all at war with each other. I start to see the repetitive patterns of my chapters, the limits of my skill to convey emotions or reactions, the scenes that are devoid of description to the point that they feel lifeless. And did I mention the repetitiveness? I did? Well, let me repeat myself, because I do that a lot in my novel work.

That’s not to say it’s all bad, there are moments when I get lost in the flow, like a magician fooled by his own tricks, the critical part of me pulls back and the reader takes over and I find nothing, but joy in it. It’s a fun story and it’s meant to be fun, it’s not the great American novel, it’s not going to win a Pulitzer or a Nebula or a teen choice award, but it’s something I enjoy.

The problem is that I’m not just seeking joy when I read, I’m seeking validation. Just as there are many Matts that go into being a writer, writing itself means a lot of very different, but mostly important, things to me. It’s not just a hobby, it’s a dream. During my drafts I can sit down for a couple of hours a day and write and edit without feeling that weight. Drafting is granular, piratical. But when I read it as whole, the enormity of what I made, and of what I want, hit me and it’s a difficult emotion to navigate.

Even so I’m making progress. I’ve finally made it past the first five chapters and I’m not looking back. I hope to have a shareable version of Ghets available soon. Unfortunately, I won’t have it ready before I go to Japan next week (a subject for another post, maybe). But by the end of the week I will post the first chapter, so you can finally read what I’m talking about.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!

The Persona Paradox

The Persona Paradox

When Persona 5 was released at the start of the month I wasn’t going to buy it. Despite waiting nearly ten years for it, and that the fact that Persona 4, was one of my all time favorite games, (seriously, I bought a PS-Vita just to play the best version of it, ‘Persona 4 Golden’) I was supposed to hold off. I was in the middle of another excellent game, ‘Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wilds‘, and I needed to finish a novel draft that had already gone on for far too long (more on that in another post). I didn’t have the time to get sucked into a game that would last over a hundred hours.

And yet, on Persona 5’s very release date, I made the snap decision to stop at Best Buy on my way home and pick it up. I’m about fifty hours in and only about halfway through the story. I’ve played it every evening after work and have sacrificed whole weekends to it. I can’t stop, which I find both understandable and utterly bizarre, because at its core Persona 5 is a game all about time management.

In Persona 5 you’re a teenager who is sent to live in Tokyo on prohibition after being falsely accused of a crime. There the player character finds that he can travel to another dimension known as ‘The Metaverse’ where he gets some dope threads and starts stealing the ‘hearts’ of corrupt adults to make them confess their crimes. It’s a game full of teenage rebellion, coming of age stories, young love, talking cats, virtual tourism and the slickest menus and smoothest background music you can find. The last two are vitally important because you spend a lot of time in those menus planning your day.

Unlike most RPGs were the progression of time might exist only to change the scenery from night to day, Persona 5 has a friggin calendar. Each morning the date is prominently displayed by a slick cartoon knife throw. You start the day going to class and then get the afternoon off to run dungeons, work part time jobs or hang out with friends, with a similar free time existing in the evening. Each dungeon must to be completed by a certain date, and if you don’t pull it off, well it’s game over. In Persona, if you fail at time management you die.

This emphasis on making smart choices with your time is a paradox, because Persona 5 is a massive time commitment. The game is a dialogue heavy experience that takes over a hundred hours to complete a single play through. And to get the entire story, boosting all your stats and social links, you must beat Persona 5 multiple times. Accomplishing that would cost you hundreds of afternoons and evenings, the very resources that Persona 5 teaches you are precious and shouldn’t be wasted.

Thus Persona 5 rewards me for being smart with my time in game and yet it costs me a ton of my real-life time. I first discovered this paradox back in Persona 4 when I skipped the gym to play more Persona 4, but told my character in game to work out, in order to improve his ‘guts’ stat. I gained a point in the game and lost one in real life. I was shocked, and yet I kept playing.

Despite my surprise Persona is hardly the first game where I’ve bumped into similar paradoxes. RPGs are my favorite video games, but they’re a genre that require a lot of time and even some work. Things like grinding and sorting through gazillion pieces of equipment aren’t actually fun, but you do them to bump up stats and get the best stuff. Back in high school my mom always found it infuriating that I could be so thorough planning out a massive game and yet never had my homework done on time. It was all because of the Persona Paradox.

For instance one of the many tasks you can do in Persona 5 is laundry. Laundry takes up one of the game’s afternoon or evening slots (just like in real life). I can now say that in one of my favorite games, you do laundry. How does Persona 5 make something like laundry compelling?

There’s a lot of answers to this, some are obvious, in Persona 5 laundry takes a game ‘afternoon’ which is like 15 seconds. There’s a scene where my character sits down stares at the laundry machine and my adorable talking cat says something cute and it’s over. Laundry only cost me about two pushes of a button. In real life it takes more time and effort. There’s also the rewards.

In Persona 5 if I do laundry I get new, better equipment. In the real world, the same clothes I already own are now clean, it’s just not the same. And that’s true for all of Persona 5’s daily activities. In Persona 5 if I spend my afternoon working at the flower shop I gain both money and also a sat boost to my ‘kindness’. If I spend the evening playing Shogi with my friend I move our relationship forward and get a stat boost to my ‘knowledge’.

Certain apps and TED talks have suggested we can ‘gamify’ life. Take the rewards and habit loops that are so addictive in games and recreate them in the real world. You get points and experience for doing chores, you can level up. If I make it to level ten blogger maybe I’ll earn a follower, that sort of thing. I see the allure of this thinking, but real life is a lot messier than video games.

Take the stats I keep on mentioning. In Persona 5, like in many games, you can increase stats by doing repetitive tasks. This is kind of like real life. If I get up every morning to run, I’ll get better at running over time and be able to go farther and faster. But my path forward is not a straight video game experience bar. I don’t know exactly how many runs I’ll need to progress to a new level as runner and no video game randomly injures me when I push too hard. I could strain myself and that might cost me some of my gains. And running is pretty clean example, what about some of more the abstract persona stats? What repetitive tasks make you kinder or more charming? How do know you’ve progressed in those areas?

The social links of Persona would be even harder to quantify. In the Persona games you gain more experience, neat tricks and occasional stat boosts by hanging out with different characters. These characters are your friends, but also maybe your teacher, or guardian, or that shady guy at the gun store that asked you to ‘hold something’ for him when the cops came calling. On top of being rewarded levels for hanging out with people you’re also rewarded with insight into their lives and get little story arcs that are fun and touching. Progress these far enough and you might even get yourself a girlfriend (every girl in the game is kinda into the player character, which yeah, that ain’t like real life.)

In real life how do I know I’m progressing in levels with a friend or colleague? If I hang out with my friend Pete I’m not going to get a neat little story every time like in Persona. Sometimes we’re just going to watch a movie or argue about politics. Some people you’ll never gain intimate insights to regardless of how often you hang out with them. There’s also no toxic relationships in persona.

And since Persona 3 they removed the very real world mechanic where if you didn’t regularly hang out with a social link, then that link would start to deteriorate and you could even be demoted levels with them. From real life experience I can tell you that if I start hanging out with a girl then ignore her for weeks on end to break into cognitive palaces, play with my talking cat or rent dvds to increase my ‘proficiency’, she won’t become my girlfriend when I decide I have time to get back to her. I’d be lucky if she even responded to my texts at all. (Side note; Persona 5 taught me that renting DVDs is apparently still a thing in Japan).

And yet, I can’t let the Persona fantasy go. It is so tantalizing close to real life. Sure, I can’t be a dashing phantom thief with great hair, but hanging out with my friends, volunteering to help local politicians, and reading to increase my knowledge? I can do those things. I can look at my afternoons and evenings as chances to expand my relationships and experiences. Time management can be fun and engrossing. I can even get a girlfriend! Or I can play Persona 5 where all that is as easy as pressing a button. Maybe that’s the true allure of the Persona Paradox, that the fulfilling exciting life you always wanted is there for you, and all it will cost you is your time.