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Fiction writing ramble, 1 of ??:

I've been trying to introspect lately on my fiction writing process. My brain is opaque about what it's doing, which I guess makes sense – I've been telling stories since literally before I knew how to write, and I've never had any formal instruction in it.

Current question: why is it so intensely a superstimulus for me? Writing fiction is pretty much the only thing I will eagerly and endorsedly do for 16 hours straight. My best and most enjoyable writing periods feel very much like "chasing the shiny" – what "the shiny" is, is hard to describe, but it feels more "substantial" than other second-to-second dopamine-hit-seeking behaviours like chasing links on Wikipedia or TV Tropes. Somewhere between pushing towards an exercise high, and drinking water when I'm thirsty, whereas Internet dopamine-seeking is more like eating sugar.

Thinking about a story I'm writing, and especially talking meta about it with friends, is also extremely rewarding, to the point that sometimes I'll find myself off in daydreams or having a chat conversation instead of, you know, actually writing. Reaching the shiny thing on the page is effortful, much of the time – the feeling is often that it's "far away", and I'm sort of hill-climbing towards it, but often spotting smaller shiny things along the way. The big shiny thing can be a particularly clever or cool plot event that I'm setting the groundwork for, a felt sense theme-shaped-thing I'm groping towards, a lesson I want to convey, or the resolution of foreshadowing I've been setting up for dozens of chapters. (Or, let's be honest, my biggest self-indulgence in writing: gratuitous medical emergencies). The opportunities snatched up along the way can be an amusing interaction between characters, a bit of neat worldbuilding my brain generated on the spot, a snippet of dialogue that feels deliciously in-character, or just a sentence or word use that feels poetic and satisfying.

(Things I'm not chasing that I suspect other authors are: funny or badass one-liners, comedy that much in general, or clever deconstructions/reconstructions of "tropes". My fiction seems to have the quality of being consistently funny to anyone who has exactly my sense of humour, which involves e.g. laughing hysterically at particularly surreal accounting errors or, more generally, Murphy's Law in action, and basically not funny to most people. Interestingly, there are scenes in my current fic that I was cackling the entire time I wrote them, that like 3 people have commented on finding funny and most other people think I'm going for dramatic-and-stressful.)

Opening up Scrivener to write feels a lot like going somewhere – vaguely like opening up a new book in a series I love, or playing the next level of an awesome video game, which I suspect is a kind of juicy-anticipation shared by more people. Or returning to a familiar CFAR venue, let's say, with a mix of walking by familiar landmarks and people carrying out instinctive routines, and setting up for something new. The early stages of fleshing out a new world and story feel a bit like times I've flown to a new country, complete with making my way on foreign public transit to the AirBnB I'm staying in and going around opening all the drawers and cupboards to see what's in them (I, uh, will instinctively do a full inventory of every new place I'm staying in). There are big things that I see vaguely at a distance, and smaller local details that I can dig into, almost fractal complexity – except that, of course, I'm making up the details as I go, adding them to a world-model that I'm investing in and know I can return to play in anytime.

So, I'll give here a possible explanation in terms of my current theory of human minds.

Humans are prediction minimizers with additional homeostatic feedback loops with set points for things like caloric intake, water intake, oxygen intake, etc.

This implies that anything that is super compelling in the way you describe must be super compelling from this standpoint such that a couple things hold true:

  • it aggressively causes you to minimize prediction error (or more correctly, minimizes self-measured/perceived existence of prediction error)
  • it allows you to satisfy your homeostatic feedback loops
  • both of these effects are strong enough to overcome to general desire to satisfy other feedback loops

So for something to capture our heart and mind such that we're willing to do it on hours on end, day after day, it must be very strongly causing us to become less confused about the world (or, again, properly the world as we perceive it) and causing us to believe many other homeostatic feedback loops that are in competition for our attention are also being satisfied.

In your case, my prediction would be that your perception of the world includes many unknowns or points of confusion that you find to be resolved by writing fiction, and you believe writing to be satisfying many other important needs you have. For example, maybe writing feels like socialization because you're in (simulated) conversation with the characters, so you don't get distracted by feelings of loneliness or lack of social interaction when writing. I have no idea if that specific example applies, but it's the kind of thing my model would predict to be happening.

For comparison, I used to love playing the Civilization video games the same way you seem to love writing. I would come up with all kinds of custom scenarios to play, would find great joy in spending hours or days on a game to find out where it took me (felt like I was going somewhere), and even when the game felt like a slog I still kept going because I wanted to see how it turned out. It similarly felt opaque at the time as to why I liked doing it; it was just fun and engrossing and felt like I was doing something worthwhile.

I only stopped playing and stopped finding Civilization fun after some stuff happened in my life such that I no longer was able to perceive playing Civilization as something that was causing me to learn anything, and instead saw it for the game it was rather than the game I imagined it was. Specifically, Civilization, it turns out, was fun to me because I thought of it as a simulation of things I was interested in. Once I saw it was a game with specific mechanics and I could play that game directly, I became less interested and eventually stopped playing all together as I figured out it was just about the game and not about the content. This also turned out to be a general change: almost no game could hold my attention anymore unless the mechanics themselves were interesting; you could dress up the game with any flavor you wanted and it didn't make a difference to my level of interest. Whereas things like story, setting, and character design were interesting to me in the past, now they are just surface-level details to be seen through because they can't engage me because I know they don't tell me anything about the world that I care about.

My prediction, based on all this, would then be that writing may become less compelling to you if you come to believe that writing fiction isn't helping you better understand things you care about in the world or less believe it to be satisfying your other needs.

I think writing is in general helping me understand things about the world, often things about myself and processing emotions around ethics, effective altruism, work vs play, (and death and grief, so much omg), but also things like "how can a group of people coordinate to make rational decisions in response to confusing and fraught situations". Interestingly, the parts of my fic that are most explicitly about understanding-the-world, like the politics or the parts that required me to read a bunch of Arbital AI safety stuff for research, are generally the least flow-y? That often feels like a thing I am doing to get to the shiny, and given that I'm doing it I should do it right, but it's not necessarily the shiniest thing.

I think sometimes I'm practicing a skill that I already have by making the characters go through a scenario where they need it, and this ends up being pretty satisfying (I have been nerdsniped into doing so much logistics for fictional battles.) Probably writing fictional medical emergencies is satisfying for this reason too?

(It's maybe slightly wireheading a desire-to-understand-the-world-and-people by creating a miniature world and people that I can understand perfectly by definition because I created them? Like, I find fantasy worldbuilding super shiny even though it's literally not about our world. Maybe I feel on some level like I'm learning model-building-in-general? I sort of expect my deep attentional processes to not be that effectively oriented towards learning, though.)

I think it also is a social thing, in that I have a group of ~10 beta readers with whom I've become much closer friends as a result of writing this and their reading it, and a piece of the shininess is when I'm imagining how much a particular person will like a scene (when I finally finish writing the next book and send it out to my betas, anyway, so there's a big delay, but I can imagine the deliciousness of them reading it later and get dopamine hits now). Sometimes I've also written stuff

It also just feels satisfying to make something exist, I think, to draw it out of my head in exactly the form I want – I remember getting into the same kind of flow drawing pictures or composing music, which have much less "content", and I even get some of the thing from singing.

It also just feels satisfying to make something exist, I think, to draw it out of my head in exactly the form I want– I remember getting into the same kind of flow drawing pictures or composing music, which have much less "content", and I even get some of the thing from singing.

I no longer feel this way about things, but the strong desire to make things exist because I can and it's cool is definitely what motivated me to become a programmer. Over years I just kept at it because it was SO COOL to make the computer do what I told it, and I had all these daydreams about what I would make the computer do next. Now that it feels like there is nothing computable I can't in principle make a computer do, it's kind of boring on its own.

Very interesting comments, any thoughts on how you might make a certain activity compelling again? Would explicitly framing an activity such that it highlights a particularly important feedback loop be worthwhile? Minimising the impact/importance of your other desired loops?

Do you believe a manipulation like this is possible or do you think it would have to organically align with the types of loops you deem to be necessary at the time?

Just thinking from the point of, say, getting back into the gym...compelling myself to go seems to be overrided by other loops, at least until the point where my health has sufficiently declined to warrant a re-prioritisation.

So I don't think you can go back to the way things were. The kind of thing I'm describing causing these changes is a thing that once seen cannot be unseen. You might say there's no blue pill for the kind of change of relationship to reality that made something cease to be a super powerful motivator.

What I do think you can do is find new way to do the things you did before, if they make sense to do where you are now.

To take your case of the gym, maybe in the past you went because it was super stimulating in that you were constantly satisfying many set points at once and were minimizing prediction error, possibly strongly in the form of taking actions to bring your model of yourself in line with your observations of yourself via changing your observations by changing your body so that they matched the model. Or maybe it was some other specific predictions powering things.

If that's fallen away for some reason and you want to go back to the gym, I can think of at least two questions:

  • Do you really want to be going to the gym, or do you just want to want to go to the gym?
  • If you really want to go to the gym, why don't you?

I think failures of motivation often come from mixing up genuine wanting with wanting to want (and then suffering because you think you want something and then you don't do it because you don't realize you don't really want it). If that's the case, the problem is you are not convinced going to the gym is worthwhile. Maybe it's not for you, I don't know; I heard all the arguments and didn't start going to the gym regularly (twice a week) until I was reminded a few years ago that I could go to the climbing gym and just climb walls instead of "working out" and since I find climbing fun (something we could expand but I'll leave be for now) it made gym going appealing and even "working out" like strength training desirable since it makes me better at and have more fun climbing. To return to the gym you probably need something similar that makes it viscerally appealing.

Excellent reply, strong upvote. Have a feeling I really want to go to the gym but because nutrition is poor (not eating enough), my gym feedback loops have been spiralling downward to the point where I have given up.

Will certainly look into how to make my nutrition more compelling now, perhaps that means learning to cook better or something similar. Very much appreciate your comment and may actually look at looking more deeply into this idea, maybe I will turn it into a blog post.

Edit: In the spirit or learning this idea more deeply, I am very interested in anything else you would be willing to disclose about what it is that was your turning point for stopping finding Civilisation enjoyable - feel free to send me a message if willing (no pressure whatsoever)

Oh, the answer to that is pretty esoteric, which is why I was vague about it. I'll just say here that I attained to what I would call second path, but also identify with Kegan stage 5 or the "teal" level of development.

I could imagine an intersection between the thing Gordon's saying about learning stuff, but also flow, where people get into flow states easiest when the difficult is juuust in that narrow range between "challenging, but doable at your current skillset."

Like, solving a particularly hard puzzle is rewarding. But I don't get into flowstates doing it. But puzzles that are hard-but-consistently-doable I might get into flow more easily.

So: "how can a group of people coordinate to make rational decisions in response to confusing and fraught situations" might be something that's hard-enough-you-to-be-REAL-challenging instead of 'flow-state-level-challenging.'

(You could potentially also map the "my friend will really love this part" thing into Gordon's model. I think Gordon's model predicts that you'd stop finding that rewarding if you hit a point where you were able to do that effortlessly all the time, because it's no longer an interesting learning challenge)

I think I am not actually in flow the majority of the time I'm writing? Like, I get very rare periods where I lose track of time and suddenly it's the end of the day and 10K words have appeared, and I get shorter snippets of forgetting-the-outside-world, but in the second-to-second timescale there's often a feeling of effort and of deliberately staying on task. It just seems to be overall reinforcing enough that I will continue to block out time to do it and throw myself at getting through the hard parts, even if it's been effortful and not felt rewarding in realtime for days or weeks. (I think this has happened more and more as I've gotten further into my fanfic, actually, because I'm writing situations that are harder to model.)

Probably another factor is that when I am sufficiently deep in writingmode, not writing is kind of painful and getting it off my mind enough to do other things is even more so.

You might keep doing things even if they are effortless if they satisfy some other set point. After all, breathing is pretty boring to most people and you keep doing it. But once it is no longer something you have enough uncertainty about it will certainly become less interesting and so maybe not a super stimulus.

I agree there is something where if stuff is too hard we don't seem to view it as a chance to update and instead view it as just requiring more effort than is worthwhile...except in these supercharged states where we'll put up with more to get what we want. I haven't thought much about how this might interact with naturally arising flow states people get into. My theory says that should somehow be powered by minimization of prediction error since it says everything ultimately is, I just haven't thought about how that might work.

In your case, my prediction would be that your perception of the world includes many unknowns or points of confusion that you find to be resolved by writing fiction, and you believe writing to be satisfying many other important needs you have.

If it is not that, I believe it to be something very close to that.

I remember reading Stephen King's book about writing fiction (On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft) and I remember him particularly talking about the overall themes of his books. In particular he seemed to confess that his books were only a few limited subjects he wanted to know more about:

  • If god exists why does he allow bad things to happen.
  • Where does this technology revolution is taking us.
  • The attraction of violence to good people.

So it's quite possible he uses writing to minimize his error predictions about those particular subjects. What's more, he also talks about that "shiny" thing to reach and what it means to him.

As for me, I clearly do the same, elucidating my thoughts be it on fiction or in plain-notes is completely satisfying the curiosity and at the same time illuminating what I thought to be obscure, although I am not entirely sure how it relates to other feedback loops.

A related question I find myself wondering first is "why are you curious about that?" Is it just raw curious about how the physics/mechanics/chemistry/neuroscience/maybe-philosophy works? Or is the answer to this intended as a means towards some other ends (like "what other things might be so intensely superstimulesque?")

I want to try to pull more of how-I-write into conscious awareness, both because other people have said they were curious & would like to hear about it, and because that might allow me to better troubleshoot and deliberately optimize it (e.g. sometimes I fail to get into flow and writing is effortful - why?), which I guess is a "curious about the mechanics for instrumental reasons" thing.

(Or, let's be honest, my biggest self-indulgence in writing: gratuitous medical emergencies)

There’s something really funny about the phrase “gratuitous medical emergencies” :)

Fiction writing ramble, #2: Worldbuilding.

This is an attempt to walk through the mental process I follow when writing fiction. [Goals: I'd like to better understand what my brain is doing, and put out ideas for other people who might be interested in writing fiction.]

Historically, worldbuilding (I'm talking mainly about fantasy settings here, but sci-fi as well; earthfic applies less) has been one of the planning steps that I most struggle to do alone; I've tended to do it via brainstorming with friends. Figuring out how magic systems and societal norms work is shiny, but apparently less shiny to me than just writing. This method has some obvious downsides; it's harder to get a setting that feels lawful and consistent, and I can write myself into a corner; though the upside is that I don't tend to get nerdsniped on the worldbuilding step and never end up actually writing anything. (I've known several aspiring authors with this problem).

There are two basic ways that I've approached worldbuilding for fantasy:

1) Top-down: posit some rules for a world, and simulate out the consequences; can include what magic is possible and easy/hard, but also the consequences it would have on society.

2) Bottom-up: posit some facts about that world, and try to reverse-engineer the underlying rule-set that would generate those observations.

Thanks to my tendency to do worldbuilding "as I go" while already halfway into a story, rather than figuring out all the rules of the setting in advance, (and my more recent choice to write fanfiction in a setting where the rules were very poorly explained), I've done more of the latter. Both feel "generative" in a sense that's hard to describe, but has some similarities to e.g. doing murphyjitsu on an upcoming event I'm running – I'm building up a model of a scenario, asking a lot of "if X, then what?", and trying to poke at my assumptions and edge cases. (I'm assuming there are multiple ways that fantasy authors do their worldbuilding, and some are less logistics-based.)

It feels like a really important step is adding constraints – reducing the space of what's possible in a setting, getting it down to a set of assumptions that I can simulate and play with. My brain will generate a lot more ideas if I have fewer degrees of freedom.

One of my guiding principles is "it would be really epic if X". Even following method #1, which I'm trying for my next original fantasy setting, any underlying ruleset still gives a lot of options, and I can run it forward and flesh out the details based on which version I think is really cool.

There can also be constraints added by the plot – if I don't have a setting yet, but I do want a particular plot event to happen, I at least know that whatever rules I pick need to make that event plausible.

I can also grab a mishmash of ideas from other books, fiction and not, or straight-up do research for some aspects (I'm currently reading "Legal Systems Very Different From Ours" in order to brainstorm institutions for a fictional civilization.)

In terms of motivation to actually do worldbuilding, probably "getting nerdsniped" is the thing I want to happen, to make it shiny enough that I actually do it rather than jumping straight into writing ch1.

I'm more directed towards figuring things out as I go.

While directly writing what comes to mind, I think that I rarely put myself into a corner, like saying,"huh this doesn't quite work because of this and that" but rather I do that task when reading the first-draft and then clarifying and solving inconsistencies in the second draft.

I've listened to an interview with J.K. Rowling (maybe one of the best world-builders of this generation) and she said that she had sort-of like an epiphany, like a dump into his consciousness of the world of Harry Potter; she wrote the ideas as it came to her mind, which is to say that I don't think she ever stopped in the tracks to start thinking what the world was capable of (at least not until later books maybe).

(don't write fiction, but have run and playtested a lot of RPGs, which share many of the worldbuilding elements).

Among the hard parts is figuring out how much suspension of disbelief your audience will willingly bring, on what topics. This _is_ fiction, so we're not generally trying to truly predict a hypothetical "possible" outcome, we're trying to highlight similarities and differences from our own. This VERY OFTEN implies assuming a similarity (where the point of departure has less effect that is likely) and then justifying it or constraining the departure so it's less difficult to maintain that this element of society would still be recognizable.