I want to write fiction. I want to write short stories and novels. But I haven’t quite been able to get started. My attempts at starting so far seem to have fizzled out. Maybe I haven’t been making enough attempts. Maybe the best way to approach this is to just step up to the plate and write over and over again, just like I have been doing with these vomits. Maybe I should even set aside 100 vomits to do fiction-directed rambles.
I might just do that. But in the mean time I’d like to ramble for a bit about why I think I’m stuck, or just in general whats on my mind.
I’ve been thinking about what I’ve been watching on TV / Netflix, as well as the games I’ve been playing. Off the top of my head – Game of Thrones, Limitless (TV series), Glow, Sense8, Rick & Morty, Better Call Saul, The Expanse, Westworld, Master of None.
What do you need to write a story? You need characters. You need conflict. You need a setting. Storytelling is joke-telling; you need a setup and a punchline. You need some sort of challenge for characters to be overcome by, and to subsequently overcome. We want to care about characters. The audience is always desperate to be made to care about something – goddamnit, please just make me care.
Maybe I just really need to get into the practice of writing stories. Storytelling is joke-telling. You need a setup and a punchline. You can work backwards from the punchline to try and conceive of a setup, but that seems forced to me, and will probably be boring. What you really need to do is to come up with interesting setups, and then work your way to the punchline. Then tidy up the storytelling afterwards.
What are some hard challenges in the world, and how can they be described compellingly, such that we’d root for the characters, and feel for them when they fail, and want to see them succeed? What do I know?
It’s really about waking up to what is already here, rather than trying to “invent something from scratch”. Remember, everything is a remix. My life, and the lives of the people all around me, are already full of all sorts of tough challenges and compromises. We’re all struggling with all sorts of things. They may be relatively trivial compared to the big themes like war and poverty and death, but they’re still real, and they can still be interesting. My job as a writer isn’t to be insanely profound, my job is to make something really compelling and interesting.
A story needs to make a promise. It needs to say, “Look, trust me, this is going to be interesting. You’re going to want to see what happens. You’re going to wanna follow this guy, see what he does next, see how he handles it.”
What are the conflicts that come to mind?
Conflicts within an individual. John wants to do several different things, but he can only do one of them. So he has to sacrifice something to do something else. Which is he going to choose? What are the choices he has? Usually this is framed in some boring way, like do you go to school and study, or do you play music in a band after school.
Pause. Analysis. Why did I say “some boring way”? It’s not actually boring. It’s a little bit familiar, like a G chord after a C chord, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It can be interesting! It boils down to how you do it.
So John wants to study to please his parents, but he really has no interest in it. He wants to play in a band. He wants to be a rockstar. He knows in his hearts of hearts that it’s not fucking likely that he’ll ever be a rockstar. A Singaporean rockstar. Who can name any? The best you can get after 20-30 years of lugging your equipment around to poorly attended gigs is some shitty feature in Straits Times Life!. And most people would probably be more interested in Sumiko Tan’s column, anyway.
Why does John want to be a rockstar? Well… why doesn’t everybody? Have you seen rockstars? They’re so big and bold and vivid and exciting! On his wall he has posters of Axl and Slash and Ozzy and Hendrix. Those people opened his ears and opened his eyes to a whole other way of being, a whole other reality – one that was violently loud and true. There is a truth and an honesty in rock and roll that you don’t get in the boring bureaucracy of everyday life in Singapore. Everything is just safe. Everything is automatic. Please stand behind the yellow line, says the MRT. Drive safely, says the taxi. For what? For fucking what? Stay so safe for what? So you can take a few extra steps between the cradle and the grave, cowing to your corporate masters?
But of course life is not so simple lah. Otherwise people would already have done it. If John is going to do it, he needs to be smart. He needs to be cunning. He needs to have a plan. He needs to learn from those who have succeeded before. He needs to take advantage of the Internet. He needs to pick up skills, become more entrepreneurial.
First John needed to learn an instrument. Obviously guitar is the way to go. It’s the most portable instrument. You can play at home. Drums are lecheh. Singing… singing is for people with real talent, people who are either really musical or really have the lead singer attitude. Guitar you can learn from YouTube, you can hide one corner and play a cool solo and still be impressive.
Next, John needed to find a band. What are your options? You can join an existing band. If there’s a really good band looking for a guitarist, you can just plug into the band like plugging in your guitar into the amp and poof, you got your shit settled liao. But then you have to follow their direction, their vision. And if there was a band with a great vision, surely John would have heard of it already by now.
Alternatively, you start your own band. Start finding musicians one by one and sell them on your vision. Write your own songs. Maybe if you’re really lucky you can find a songwriting buddy partner. All the great bands seem to have partners. Lennon-McCartney and so on.