Last night, I had the strangest trouble falling asleep. Normally, I try to think through some creative effort while I fall asleep, either a story or a code problem. For the past month, I’ve been pushing hard to finish my troublesome novel, Honest Impulses. Good grief, that link is almost exactly a year old, and for that year now, it has been my brain crack, something I wanted to enjoy, and kep iterating on rather than completing. What really stood out for me, what was really my brain crack, was the wham line [warning: TVTropes!] that turns not just the story but much of the Journal Entries’ ethos on its head.

Last night, I finished the chapter where the wham line is delivered. It’s not as whammy as I’d hoped; it’s more of a slow-burning fuse thing that’s going to reach deep into the future of the series, I suspect, with interesting consequences. But it’s still done, it’s out of my head, it’s been mined, it’s on paper. And it’s no longer brain crack. Now it’s just material to be refined into a story.

And when I went to sleep, there was a peculiar silence. My brain and I had nothing to say to each other. The Honesty trilogy is finally reaching finished draft status, and like a phoenyx rising from its ashes, the Steadfast trilogy may be coming after it. I don’t have much clarity on Steadfast yet, but it’s coming along. The second Fragility story is actually done, but may need some rewriting to accomodate events told in Honest Impulses.

I wonder what’s next?  Yo, Muse, get off your butt and come help me with this.

It occurred to me the other day that of the three Disney films I’ve seen recently, only Wreck-It Ralph really follows the beat sheet, the much maligned guide to writing movies that came out about ten years ago. In Wreck-it Ralph there’s the opening scene that sets tone, the debate (which really is a debate!), the theme stated, the catalyst, the promise, fun’n'games (“Shut up and Drive”), absolutely the entire beat sheet followed to the letter from beginning to end. It works because it breaks other tropes, because the romance between Ralph and Vanellope (and it is a classical romance, because Ralph initially embraces and then sheds his mask for his essentially good nature, although it’s pretty clear that he’s got it from the start), and because Sarah Silverman.

Tangled weirdly compresses and twists the beat sheet: most of the movie is “Fun’n'Games,” the point in the story where the protagonist embraces the weird new world she’s found herself in and starts to enjoy it. Although if you argue that Flynn is the real protagonist, then it’s a more classical romance: the weird new world is Rapunzel, and fun’n'games is from when Rapunzel enters the city to when Flynn spots the Stabbington brothers (from “Kingdom Dance” through “I See The Light”).

Now that I think of it, that really is the way to see the movie. Despite Flynn’s protestation, this is a story about him, and how he saved a plucky young lady from danger. He’s a classic romantic hero: roguish exterior, romantic interior, and he sheds his outer mask for his inner essence when he decides to dance with Rapunzel in the town square.

In that light, “When Will My Life Begin” is just the set-up; it’s “I Have A Dream” where the theme is stated, and the campfire is the debate and catalyst. It is entirely possible for two characters to have different plots and different beats, and Tangled really manages to match up a traditional beat sheet with a wildly unexpected one, and tells us (explicitly!) to watch the wild one while soothing us with a story that’s traditional and familiar.

Frozen just throws the beat sheet away. Anna gets fun’n'games at the very beginning of the film (“For the First Time in Forever”), but the classic beat sheet “world turned upside down” is in fact not the world where the film occurs: it occurs in a ramped-up version of her old, miserable existence, but with one new piece of knowledge that she thinks will help her escape back to the better world. There’s no debate: every character is propelled not by questions but by answers, sometimes wrong answers. Major themes are stated by speakers and and then (sometimes quickly!) contradicted by outcomes. One promised premise (“Let it Go”) is revamped into a story about isolation; the other (“Love is an Open Door”) is so cruelly twisted I heard eight-year-olds in the theater gasp with murder in their eyes.

I kinda admire Disney for greenlighting a story that, really, is so radically different from everything they’ve done before, that not only dances on so many ancient Disney tropes with ecstatic glee, but is also willing to completely ignore The Formula on which Hollywood has been depending for so many years, and instead try to tell a good story about good characters trying to do the best they can.

I love fanfic writers.

Fanfic writers break the rules. Fanfic writers let their characters say “I don’t know.” A lot. Fanfic writers let the plot take forever to get to the point, there’s none of this wham “get the story moving in the first 100 words” bullshit. Characters have no relationship at all to their originals except a name and, if the writer is very good, a fairly accurate description.

Fanfic writers actually are saying things about the ambiguity of daily life, and the pace of it, and what they’re telling me is that a lot of the whole “modern sensibility” stuff about what editors and audiences want is a shared delusion.  Fanfic writers want to tell stories, and they enjoy the clay of ordinary storytelling.  Fanfic writers expose just how wrong the expectations and standards of mainstream publishing are by writing stories that are so “poorly written” yet so inexpressibly compelling they crowd out and overwhelm the supposedly “carefully edited” stuff that lines bookstore shelves and on-line epublisher outlets.

Alyssa Rosenberg, in her review of The Lego Movie, praises the film for stabbing at the heart of media homogenization.  ”Awesome” isn’t the only reaction we should have to a film, or a piece of music, or a book.  Rosenberg also points to the story about how the hero’s discovery that he is not The One, he is not Neo or Katniss or Aang or whatever, allows those around him to be free to solve the problems on their own, no longer fearing they’re standing in the way of the messiah fulfilling his destiny: “When creativity is available to everyone, the things they create turn pleasure and joy into a kind of infinitely renewable resource.”

And thus it is with fanfic.  Yes, a lot of fanfic writers are reaching for the brass ring of awesome.  But many aren’t.  They want us to feel something else.  They want us to get into their own minds, where their stories are so much less about saving the world, and so much more about saving some small piece of themselves.  Ordinary struggles with our own demons, in the vernacular of ordinary people.

More importantly, this tells me that my own fiction still has a place in the world.  My stories are often about characters trying to figure out how to preserve themselves against an onslaught of new emotions, finding themselves in new and difficult situations.  And often they’re “about” something in the real world, be it the ongoing struggle to find a working “coming out” narrative or the inevitable commodification of human affection as our machines get better at satisficing our sexual and emotional desires.  Fanfic writers tell these stories.  That’s what they’re living.  And they live it, and write about it, better than Peter Watts did in Blindsight or Gary Shteyngart did in Super Sad True Love Story, both of which addressed similar issues but felt like retrofuturist fiction by the time I’d read them, missing the precious immediacy.

Charlie Stross is fond of reminding writers that a science fiction story is never about the future.  It’s a well-told story about the present with (sometimes) imaginatively chosen furniture.  Fanfic writers borrow furniture, and they borrow characters, and settings, and sometimes everything else.  (Oftentimes not; the whole AU genre is about answering the question, “What if Rapunzel [insert your favorite character here] worked at Starbucks [insert your favorite setting here]?” and running away with it, creating new conflicts, new plots, new emotional value.  Those are some of the best fanfic stories.) But fanfic writers live in the present better than anyone else, and that’s why I love them.

Okay, I can’t say “every.”  I don’t know “every.”  I do know that I’ve now read eight different books in the 50 Shades subgenre, the most recent being Beg Me, which is one of those books that’s so close to getting it right that it’s almost painful. I understand that these books are meant to be fantasies, and that part of the fantasy, at least for women readers, is the swept-awayness of it all, the overriding of the woman protagonists’ reserve, sense of caution, and even sense of self-preservation, in the tearing down of the mask that she presents to the world in order to access her inner essence, the submissive, pain-loving, man-loving creature that hides behind that professional demeanor.

And every one of these stories is missing this critical scene:

Anna glanced around the coffee shop, unbelieving that she was here, talking to this man.  Couldn’t the other patrons see?  Couldn’t the gothic woman with the laptop smell the lust hovering in the air?  Those three women at that table conferring over the book titled Sermons and Service, they must have felt the power arcing between Flynn and herself.  Right?

Flynn waved his hand.  ”Anna?”

“Sorry,” she said, her breath rough in her throat.  ”I just needed a moment.”

“I understand,” he said.  His knowing grin should have infuriated her.  It didn’t.  Instead, it simply sank into her and pooled down in her belly, reached down into her cunt, and glowed like an ember.  ”But,” he said, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the table, “We should do something important first.”

“What?  When?”

“Now.”  He reached into his jacket and pulled out a slim wallet.  Anna was stunned.  Was he going to offer her money?  ”Let’s perform a little trust exercise.  Our first.  Do you have a friend, someone you can rely on?”  He opened up his wallet and held out a small plastic card.  She realized it was his drivers license.  ”I want you to message her.  I want you to tell her that you’re going out with a man, but your battery is going to die soon.  So, if she wants to reach you, she should message this guy at this phone number.”  He tapped the driver’s license, then took out a pen and wrote a number on a napkin.  ”If you want, you can dial now to confirm it’s this phone.”  He gestured toward his pocket again.

She was confused.  ”Why?”

“Anna, some people call this a hobby.  Others call it a lifestyle.  Whatever it is, this thing that we do attracts more than its fair share of weirdos.  Not all of them are good weirdos.”  He tapped his ID again, then his face spread into that knowing smile.  ”Your friend should know where you went.  That way, you know I have no fear of being found. You said you wanted to give me everything.  But there are some things you shouldn’t have to risk.”

Anna stared at him.  She hadn’t considered that possibility.  ”Do it,” he said, and this time it was that voice, the one that made her shiver deep within.

She pulled out her phone and hammered out the message with her thumbs.  ”Done,” she said.

“Good.  Are you ready for the next one?” She nodded.  ”What should I not do?”

She shivered.  He’d seen the incident at the bar.  He knew.  She leaned toward him, close enough to whisper.  ”Don’t call me a slut.  Don’t say I’m dirty, or… or wrong.  Don’t make me feel ashamed.”

“I’m going to make you feel, Anna.  You’ll feel pain.  You’ll feel ecstasy.  I want you to feel like a queen.  But I will never deliberately make you feel ashamed.”

I don’t know why I’ve never seen a scene like this in a mainstream 50 Shades clone.  Maybe in the world of romance novels negotiation and trust building just aren’t sexy.  Actually having to say what you want takes away from the fantasy of being overwhelmed, swept away, completely understood.

Then again, you know, I’ve actually done this stuff.  Not just written about it.

I stand in a cold, basement room painted that most banal of industrial beige-yellow with brown faux wainscotting, the institutional-quality rug thin and worn from years of feet, the brown, unupholstered folding chairs arranged in a circle with an opening toward the door. “Uh, hi. I’m Elf Sternberg. And, uh, um, I’m here because I have a problem. I’m addicted to brain crack.”

(This is where everyone else says, “Hi, Elf!” in tones of ritual unspontaneity.)

Brain Crack is Ze Frank’s memorable phrase for an idea you love so much that you’d rather enjoy thinking about the outcome than working on the project. I have a terrible brain crack problem, both in relationship to storytelling and to software, that manifests itself in lots of little ‘starter’ files filled with ideas and sketches and snippets and quotes, none of which add up to anything at all that I could show to other people.

I go through these phases regularly where I think that my work doesn’t matter to anyone and that nobody is paying attenton. I follow too many great writers who produce work regularly, and I think back to my heydey when I was putting out some 2000 words a week, a new story every month. These days, I can’t even manage 2000 words a month.

Part of that is simply life. In September, my wife fell and broke her shoulder. We forget how big we are, and how tall we are, and how much we weigh, but when you have an uncontrolled fall it’s the same physics as if half your weight fell on you from your full height, and 50 pounds landing hitting your shoulder after falling five feet will do a lot of damage. She was hospitalized briefly, and then spent weeks in bed before being able to get up and move. It was eight weeks before she was well enough for me to travel on business again. Meanwhile, I still have two teenage daughters, and if the older one’s declaring her complete independence the younger one is right now at the height of her need for strong parental support. I have a full-time job and my commute sucks, and the job definitely keeps me more occupied than during the recession. Even my weekends are full.

I did have one story, Honest Impulses, which I’ve written about before, and this story was pure-grade Brain Crack. I have almost 130,000 words of it, and it doesn’t add up to a decent story at all. So instead of just re-reading it, and cackling over how brilliant I was about it, I started taking notes of every major turning point in the story, every darling (you know, the ones you’re supposed to kill), every lovely moment that I wanted to keep Some were in direct conflict with each other (a character can only come out of the closet to one other specific character about that thing she’s closeted about once; I had that scene three times in different settings and at different time points in the original), others just didn’t have as much impact as I’d originally thought.

But when I was done, I had 61 of them. Many of them were crammed together into a single scene. If I parceled them out instead, carefully kept them separated so that each would build on a prior, allocated 1200 words per each of them, I’d have a 72,000 word story. And with that much work I’m sure I could find other things to complicate the heroines’ lives even further.

So I tried that. One “point” per chapter. Organize them according to the story I’m trying to tell.

So far, it seems to be working. I’m 10,000 words into it, and well into chapter five, so I’m over quota and the story seems to be working.

I’ve never outlined before. (Well, okay, I had chapter cards for Bloody Beth, and Aimee, and Pyu Rika.) Usually I’m a pantser type, the kind who just gets an idea and writes the story out and it comes out pretty good the first time. I can’t do that with a novel, apparently.

More practice is needed!

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