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On Mess

There’s this thing that happens, and it seems to get worse with every novel I write.

You know, the thing where you get a decent way into a first draft, then you suddenly realise that everything has so much backstory it could probably fill an entire continent. All these long chains of events that happened which explain some of the reasons why Main Character With Mysterious Past is the way they are and why Huge Big Plot Catalyst Thing has to happen, and how this random thing links with this other random thing which links with this other thing which is actually really essential to everything.

A story, like a house, might seem big when you first go there, but it isn't really. There's only so much space. People don't want to read stuff that's crammed with every little thing that ever happened, because it's like walking through one of those scary houses where no one ever throws anything away. You know, for when the aliens come.

It actually reminds me a lot of housekeeping, because whatever I do, there’s always this endless build up of stuff in my flat. It’s quiet, gradual but constant, like erosion but in the opposite direction. My book collection grows way too fast, every piece of paper in the whole entire universe seems to be magnetically attracted to the desk, and then there's all the weird stuff, cords for charging the camera, washing racks, Star Wars DVDs, strange singing dolls, stray socks. And it's all there, some essential, some not, all these bits and pieces that connect a life together. I try and organise it as best I can, but there's never a definitive victory.

There are those houses in magazines, all beautifully decorated and flawless, and I sometimes wonder if the reason for that is because they've shoved everything in a cupboard. But the cupboard is never in the pictures, because for all intents and purposes a cupboard like that should not exist. People should not have backstory, dammit, or stuff. Life should be straightforward and beautiful. There should not be muddle everywhere. The world should be a tidy place.

Or should it?

Don’t get me wrong, I love those magazine homes, but I can never actually believe that anyone lives in them. Because most of us live in the world and mess things up slightly as we do so, and then we have to try the best we can to fix it so things can be liveable. And on the bad days, when there is a massive pile of stuff on the floor, to navigate when things aren't quite as liveable as they should be. And amongst the mess there's always stuff that connects directly with who we are and where we've been and where we might be going.

Likewise, I love stories about people with backstory so strong that it's almost spilling out of them at every moment. I like characters with history, navigating all the clutter that their past has made, with chains of events that connect with each other which start way back before the story actually starts.

It's hard, trying to get all the essential bits in the right place, the things which tie in with other things, the stuff that lights up other stuff and makes it make sense. And also to get it all in just the right amount. Enough so that there's the presence of people and their world and a sense of wholeness, but not so much that the mystery disappears. So it gets complicated.  Some of it slides in quietly, into description, into conversations. And there are flashbacks. I love flashbacks, but they’re big and gawky and have to sit comfortably with all the present day stuff around them so that the story doesn’t get too disjointed. And then there's all the stuff which has to vanish, because it turns out it wasn’t needed after all. But it doesn’t always completely go. It sometimes leaves a kind of residue, a sense of mystery, of fascinating things the author could tell but is witholding instead. And that can be the best thing of all. Dealing with mess well is all about knowing what to throw away.

I think it’s time we give up on thinking that all mess is unhealthy. Mess can be beautiful. It’s just a matter of finding the right place for it.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I have to admit: my parents' house and my boyfriend's mom's house both look like those creepy magazine perfect houses.
    But I can promise, at least for my parents, it wasn't quite like that when my sister and I were kids. It gives me hope that when I'm older, maybe my house will be so neat and organized.
    But for now, I'm messy too. And I like mess, in both my house and in stories. It's an awesome analogy, and this is a great post!

  2. I'm so with you. No one lives in houses like that. I mean, srsly.

    Because LIFE is messy. And that's part of the fun of living it.

  3. just beautiful.

    And my house is exactly like your flat. probably worse. I will have everything I need when the aliens come.

  4. *throws backstory all over the floor and sprawls across the mess*

    Silly me, I didn't realize I'd have to pick up all that backstory and put it in it's proper place during Draft 2. XD

    Great post! I agree on so many points. Mess is beautiful. Mess makes things homey. So anyhoo, yes, lovely post!

  5. Lol, this post came just in time. I hate cleaning, but when I usually take a whole day to do so. I love your analogy, I should just write the story and take the whole "day" to "clean" it. Nobody's first draft is like a model home.

    Wonderful post and great analogy, I never would have thought about it that way.

  6. I feel more comfortable in a lived-in place. In the perfect houses I'm afraid to spill or tear something.

  7. *gapes at Leila*

    Amazing post. I want to date you.

  8. I explained to Josh quite early on that if we were ever to get married, I would be known in his family as the first Arbury woman who didn't keep a perfect house. Seriously. His sister, his mother, his grandmother - they all have beautifully tidy homes, the sort that I could only ever dream about.

    It took me a long time to be able to admit it, but I like mess. Mess shows that life is happening.

  9. I agree!!! As long as the mess doesn't include, you know, mold and week old sandwiches stuck in the couch. But I have no desire to live in an "everything has its perfect place" environment.

    Really awesome analogy, Leila!

  10. This was lovely, Leila!
    And I couldn't agree more. The magic that happens when you sink into a story is built on the fact your characters are human, and everyone has stuff shoved into the closets somewhere.


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Item Reviewed: On Mess Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin