Strange, but true. When I first started working on Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, around the end of last year, it was partly a reactionary gesture. I'd been in the middle of trying to plan a project that just wasn't coming together properly — too inert, too stiff, too unadventurous, too square — and so I decided to chuck it and do something wild-'n'-crazy, do something fun.
Now cut to me around ten or so months later, and I'm neck-deep in this thing, and it's becoming as complex as that behemoth Flight of the Vajra was. Did I goof?
When I first created the stub entry for this post, I was tempted to say "yes" and leave it at that. The whole original point had been to create something fleet on its feet, and now here I was with my tires in mud and the tow truck at least two hours off.
But I had to be honest. With every project I've ever started, I have always pushed myself in some new direction, even if I wasn't aware of what that was at the time. Maybe also especially if I wasn't aware of it.
There are roughly two ways you can challenge yourself with any creative project. First is to use it as a vehicle for tackling things you never tackled before; a way to up your game. The second is to approach something that looks like it's well within the scope of your abilities, but novel all the same — and to find out that by doing so you're being challenged in totally unanticipated ways.
With Always Outnumbered, this manifested in a couple of different ways. One was the milieu for the story, something that required me to do a fair amount of research on criminal undergrounds and gangs. This is tough stuff to get right, but I am trying to ameliorate it by not making the story about that stuff exclusively. Rather, it involves (in part, anyway) how the mindset created by such a world is a limited one, but can be transformed by the right incentives and experiences. To use a phrase I find myself trotting out often, it may start there but not end there. I still want to get the starting-point details right, though, and that may take several passes and some more research.
The other way it manifested was in the logistics of the plot. I've always been bad at "clever" storytelling, where there was A Plan All Along, and everything happened According To The Plan. One of the central premises in the story (no spoilers!) lends itself to plotting of that sort — fairly demands it, in fact. I wasn't comfortable about this, because a) I've never been very good at that kind of storytelling, and b) I've never been all that fond of reading it, either. But it seemed partly obligatory: you don't set your story in the Wild West without there being at least one gunfight, even if such things were far less common in that time and place than the mythology leads us to believe.
Still, I figured if I was going to include such things, it would be twofold: 1) as a starting point for things that are not dependent on tricky plotting to be interesting, and 2) as a way for me to become incrementally more comfortable with such things, and less averse to them on principle. If I wrinkle my nose at tricky plotting, it's only because I've seen way too many stories that try to be clever instead of human.
Here's the thing: I don't like the fact that such nose-wrinkling has led me to deprive myself of a good source of material. If I dislike something, that means I deprive myself of things to learn from it. This doesn't mean I have to force myself to like things — just that I owe it to myself to be aware of what goes on in that particular neighborhood, and where there's a good place to eat. That's what I'm trying to do here: know the territory. Maybe even master it.