I started my current book during NaNoWriMo 2017 and, after completely changing the direction of the last third of the story, I have a solid first draft that I’m going to get stuck into editing during Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2019 (less than half a month away!). I’ve set a goal of 50 hours for the month and while I’m fairly sure I’ll end up doing more, I made a conscious choice to focus on making progress that I’m happy with rather than trying to rack up however many hours of work. Without a sensible strategy, I will basically go insane trying to do all the things in as short a time as possible because I haven’t managed to fully exorcise the scary perfectionistic workaholic tendencies just yet (although I’m getting there!).
So, I could leave it there. I could just say that I’m doing Camp NaNo and I’ll be editing an existing project and not explain anything about why I’ve been so totally stuck with this book for the last few months. But I want to talk about that stuff because getting stuck with projects is totally normal and moving past the stuckness is super important, so I want to share something about how I’m getting into moving-past mode.
If you’re not interested in lots of feelings about things, feel free to stop reading here. I’ll be Tweeting my way through Camp NaNo, so if you’re also on Twitter you can find me there as TanyaSSimpson. I’ll probably post some updates here on my blog as well. If you’re Camp NaNo-ing this April, let me know and we can cheer each other on. I absolutely love the shared energy of big creative events with communities built around them!
OK, if you are interested in the feelings, keep reading.
When I first started working on Winter Follows (that’s the name of the book, but it had a different name in the beginning) I was still 100% trapped in the mindset of writing-as-a-business. That is not a bad mindset if it’s actually where you want to be, but it really isn’t where I wanted to be. It still isn’t and it might never be. Due to a whole heap of messy life-stuff that I’m not going to get into, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend doing something as huge and involved as writing a novel-length story just because I wanted to create it and share it, without the goal of somehow making money from it.
Because finishing the book would have meant having to start doing all the things I didn’t want to do, I kind of didn’t want to finish the book. Or at least I was happy to plod along, fiddling with bits and pieces here and there, with no real end in sight. Then I got my shit together and realised it made more sense to finish the story, because I actually did want to, and then do whatever the hell I wanted with it because it was my story and I got to choose how to share it with the world. If you’re interested in finding out more about all that schtuff, I wrote a big blog post back in January about coming to terms with what I want to do vs what I thought I should do, which you can find here.
Onto the other reason for my stuckness. Winter Follows is not a nice story. It’s about crime, murder and drugs, unhealthy relationships and ill-advised life choices. The whole thing is a mess of fuck-uppery and it’s supposed to be. I suck at assigning genres to things, but if I absolutely had to it would be somewhere in realms of dark, neo-noir or transgressive fiction. I love writing about terrible people doing terrible things. I love reading about terrible people doing terrible things. My favourite TV shows and films are basically crime-soaked bloodbaths of gratuitous violence and mind-bending wrongness.
As a person, I’m bouncy and enthusiastic about pretty much everything. Not that I never feel down, but I look for, and usually find, the good in most situations. I can’t walk past a cat without cuddling it or a piano without playing it. I’m happily married, I love my family and friends, I have a gratitude journal and a daily yoga practice, and my favourite days are spent baking, gardening and devoting time to my online volunteering in which I encourage people to engage with a global creative community. I like making pretty jewellery and other lovely things, and I’m currently working on opening an online shop where other sweet witchy souls can find tools and adornments that will make them smile. What I’m getting at is that I take no shit and I’m far from fragile, but I don’t live on the dark side. Yes, I’ve been there, but it certainly isn’t home.
Somewhere along the way, I started to internalise the deeply flawed message that if I write about violent and disturbing things, I must be a violent and disturbing person. Logically, I’m aware that dark art and entertainment media serves many purposes. Consuming it can be cathartic. It can be empowering to turn challenging subjects from things-that-fuck-your-life-up into stuff-in-a-book-and-that’s-all. It can be a safe and isolate-able (I’m making up words today) exploration of a full spectrum of human emotion and experience. It can inspire you to think differently about society and the people in it, including yourself. It can be exciting to dip into worlds that you would absolutely never want to be part of in real life. It’s not to everyone’s taste and I’m not writing children’s books, obviously, but it’s not bad and wrong for something that isn’t real and isn’t presented as real to explore darker themes.
I fell down some utterly fucking stupid rabbit holes. I listened to the wrong people and I let ideas (accusations, wildly judgmental and inaccurate assumptions, whatever) take root that had nothing to do with my own values, beliefs or experiences. I’ve spent a long time throughout my life feeling like the bad thing that happens to good people (I know this isn’t true and I’m working on getting that ridiculous notion out of my head) and over the last few years the social environments I existed in, both online and in meatspace, involved a lot of what now feels like toxic bullshit. At best, what I was creating was only vaguely acceptable if it was somehow a means of processing my own brokenness and desensitisation to violence so that I could become A Better Person. Sorry to disappoint, but it isn’t.
All that crap got piled on top of my preexisting insecurities and I ended up feeling utterly terrified that creating transgressive, subversive literature, freely and without apology, meant I was somehow inciting other people to commit the acts described in my books, or was at least responsible for people doing bad things after consuming my art. Maybe not literally, like someone would read a thing I wrote and immediately rush out and shove a pile of cocaine up their nose and shoot someone. More like I was contributing to a terrible force of art and entertainment that ‘made’ people do awful things they wouldn’t otherwise have even considered. I shit you not, that was legit an idea that got wedged in my head to the point where I was ashamed of my own art and of myself for creating it. A similar thing had happened before, when I was regularly creating horror photography, so I should have recognised what was going on in my mind. I guess some lessons take longer to learn than others, especially when you tend to believe that it’s probably your fault, whatever it is, even when it isn’t.
I also got stuck in weird anxiety loops about What if my female characters aren’t strong in the right way or flawed in the right way or otherwise fail to represent All Women Everywhere in an inspirational but also suitably realistic and relatable way, even though I’m not writing about All Women Everywhere? and What if bad things happen to my queer characters and that’s somehow wrong, even though most of my characters are queer because I’m queer so I tend to write queer characters and therefore if bad things happen to characters there’s a good chance those characters will be queer? and Do I need to state everyone’s ethnicity to make sure I’m Doing Representation, even though I very rarely ever mention a person’s skin colour in anything I write, and if I do that is it tokenism, which is also wrong?
By the way, I completely understand why women are scared to write female characters, queer people are scared to write queer characters, and people in general are scared to write characters who are in some ways the same as them, as well as characters who are in some ways different from them, because there’s a weird level of pressure to somehow do it perfectly, even though ‘perfectly’ means a different thing to everyone and what is ideal to some people may be abhorrent to others. It starts to feel like there’s a long list of rules somewhere that you have to follow, except you’ve never seen the list and you can’t find it anywhere, and no matter what you do or how hard you try to not fuck up you’re going to break at least half the rules and you’re going to hurt people. It’s paralysing.
If all that sounds like a fucking mental breakdown, that’s because it was. As it turns out, spending time surrounded by people in the physical or virtual world who obsess over earning special moral virtue points by telling everyone else how wrong, broken, socially irresponsible and innately problematic they are is not actually emotionally healthy. But like the boiling frog fable, sometimes you don’t realise how much something is fucking you up because it fucks you up slowly, and at first it even feels warm and comforting.
I’m not blaming anyone else or being all “The nasty people made me have sadfeels and I didn’t want to write my story” about it. I let myself remain in situations that I knew weren’t serving me. I internalised things I should’ve shrugged off. I allowed negative and unhelpful experiences to affect my creative process when I should have worked through them and left them behind. I take full responsibility for not stepping away from all that long ago and now I take full responsibility for stacking up all the misplaced shame in a big pile and setting it on fire because fuck that noise. I’m not writing moral guidance. I’m writing dark, weird, messed up fiction and sharing it with zero pretence of it being anything other than exactly what it is, so anyone who doesn’t enjoy that can make an informed choice not to read it. I am unstuck and this book is getting finished, the way I want to finish it.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I appreciate you so much. I struggle with being totally open-hearted in public spaces where it would be easier to hide behind unscalable walls of protection, but I honestly believe that there’s value in vulnerability and I care deeply about taking every opportunity to explore it. When I encounter other people baring their soul, I see incredible courage there that inspires me to do the same ❤