On the Futility of Writing Things Down


Anyone who knows me would probably agree that I spend a little too much time in my own head, that I am “away with the fairies”, and that I overthink things. Not that there’s such a thing as ‘overthinking’. And too much time? Well, time is relative. And the space inside my own head is somewhere I will always inhabit and… yeah, I’m doing it again.

But when it comes to the sisyphean task of world-building and weaving an enjoyable narrative – simultaneously – there is oh so much world in which to lose oneself. And I’d like to talk briefly about the futility of writing any of it down.

Not that I don’t take notes, it’s just that they are invariably scraps of paper – sheets or even brown paper bags – there is no organisation and no sequence. How could there be a sequence when the world I’m creating is three-dimensional (four if you include time) and every detail has a consequence that should be dynamic and realistic. Life is not linear, and the world is not a flat plain upon which characters move like chess-pieces from their comfortable Shire, or Privet Drive, to the dangerous magical place without ever changing their minds or, crucially, changing as people. So my notes tend to be lines of dialogue, names of streets or businesses or background characters; or they might be a single cultural or character nuance  that has to sit there and haunt me, lest I take an easier route and forget a fun idiosyncrasy.


Here are some examples of my notes: “All political intervention, even the most benevolent, is a form of bullying”, “If you’re going to kill someone, make them the most lovable, class, cuddly, ingenious fucker in the book” or “Not enough old people. Needs more old people” This is not to say that the plot of the novel(s) and the world I’m constructing are less than fleshed out. Far from it. It’s just that all that flesh exists, for the most part, in my brain. It has only ever and will only ever be written down in draft after draft of the work itself. My justification for this – apart from laziness, and fetishizing the written word – is that my characters cannot be locked in to some inarguable track of a plot, just as my world cannot be interpreted from a singular, objective, omniscient view. Both world and character must be multi-faceted, and given the space to evolve. And therefore a vague nebulous shape of a plot is a far more helpful guide than a blow-by-blow account of chapters 1 thru 30.

I also find it more helpful and, frankly, fun to discover your world with your characters. More fun than meticulously designing the environment like some monomaniacal minecraft kid and then watching with boredom as the characters climb the hills and cross the rivers exactly as you expected them too. Maybe this technique will bite me in the arse but I find, having tried various approaches, that it works best for me. It’s similar to the way Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen construct their words. That is not to say it’s a more poetic technique, just that it shares more with the wandering discoverer mindset, than the exactitude of an authoritative designer like, say, Tolkien.

To sum it up, I don’t take notes because I’m hallucinating my world. I’m not a dungeon-master; I’m a dreamer.

And I’m lazy.


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