We are on vacation this week and heading to various local places so I’ll be taking this week off from blogging. See you next week!
Or to be more precise: On Getting Over Avoiding Writing Short Stories. For years I’ve avoided writing them by making myself believe that I couldn’t write them, no matter how much I tried. My brain always slid towards The Big Epic Story Idea and I couldn’t parse how to come up with something so….short and finite. Or so I believed.
My first attempt at seriously writing a short story was during the spring and summer of 1995, and it’s an embarrassing piece of crap and I can’t believe I thought Asimov’s would be interested it. It was a poor shaggy-dog pastiche of the virtual-reality/internet/etc wave of movies that had come out that year, and it read like I had no flipping idea how to end it. At the time I just shrugged and thought well, maybe I don’t have the chops to write like that, and gave up short-story ideas for years.
So what’s changed between then and now? Quite a bit, really. I’ve read a lot more short stories, microfiction, novellas, and novelettes over the years, many of them for Hugo Award voting purposes but also because it’s become a more accessible format with e-books, anthologies and story collections. I studied their flow and volume; how economical the author is with the action and the information, and how it all gets resolved. I taught myself how to write my own short microfiction by riffing on small ideas for my daily words.
Currently one of my many writing projects is to write short stories in a common universe. In this particular instance the common universe is a college campus, but it takes place in the same world as Diwa & Kaffi. No characters from that novel are involved — at least not directly, anyway — but the mood and the setting is similar. The idea was to write several small vignettes focusing on several students (and possibly faculty) and how they’re all just trying to figure out their lives as they mature. Some of the stories are linked, others are standalone. It’s all just one big experiment, both for me and for the characters.
In retrospect, it makes me wonder why I never tried this earlier. I suppose it might be because I was so focused on the epic scope of the Mendaihu Universe and my dedication to it for so damn long. I wrote Big Things and I enjoyed it immensely. It became habit to the point that when I thought of any new ideas, envisioning them as novel length became the default. And most of them failed because I could not flesh them out to that size, no matter how I tried, and they ended up trunked. It took me a long time to break myself out of that school of thought.
I feel different about short stories nowadays, now that I understand the form so much better. I’m still new at writing them, but I’m getting better at it the more I practice. (And that’s why I still do my daily words on top of my novel work.) I’m already seeing them as a viable outlet for submission for my writing career…I mean, that was the original plan anyway, right?
It’s about damn time I stopped looking at it all as hard work and an impossibility and started seeing it as an achievable goal.
I’ve been thinking about how my writing style has changed over the last couple of decades, and I think I can finally admit that I’m no longer a pantser. [For those of you unfamiliar, this of course refers to ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ — meaning that I used to be a writer that barely plotted ahead and just ran with whatever came to mind at that moment.] I’m actually just fine with that, to tell the truth.
Pantsing used to work just fine for me, especially back in the 90s and early 00s, when my main issue was spending far too much time hyperfocusing on whatever scene I was trying to write, and I needed to break out of that somehow. This style worked because it forced me to choose what I wanted to write and run with it. In the process, I’d get a full scene done super quick because I was finding it all out as I went.
Nowadays, though? I’ve become a huge fan of working out complete synopses! I haven’t quite nailed full outlines just yet, but I’m sure I’ll get there soon enough if I keep this up. Writing these synopses out means that I can come up with a solid main plot and maybe a few side plots that will serve as the structure and backbone of these stories. This in turn cuts down on time where I’m sitting here, staring at the screen trying to figure out where I want to go next. I’ve gotten really good at playing out the story a scene or two ahead, so the writing session is really me working from Point A to Point B. The synopses helps me work through that.
Perhaps I’m getting a bit too excited about this, as I’ve managed to work out four or five projects ahead, what with all these synopses I’ve been writing lately, but really, I’m not seeing a major problem with that, other than prioritizing them…and that’s where the whiteboard and daily schedules come in. It’s a matter of “okay, I need to do prose writing work for Project A this morning and Project B this afternoon” and maybe playing around with the world building of Projects, C, D and E when I want some light and fun work at the end of the day. The main idea of all of this is giving myself future projects to work on, or something else I can work on in tandem with whatever is currently going on. It’s so I can have multiple titles on hand to offer while submitting, really. [Jumping into the pro submission biz is another subject entirely, and I’ll be blogging about that soon enough.]
This is what I meant earlier about having good distractions. All this is keeping me busy and productive. I may have been able to pull this off as a pantser back in the day — I mean, I was too broke to do anything else, plus this was also back during my dial-up years so I wasn’t online nearly as much either — but things in my life have changed enough that it only makes sense that my writing process evolves along with it.
As long as I’m going in the right direction, as I often say!
If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that I find writing queries and synopses for novel submissions infinitely harder than writing the novels themselves. I can keep tabs on multiple plot threads in my head without ever writing them down. I can write two completely unrelated novels in tandem and not have any unexpected crossover issues. I can even update my blogs at some point during the week and have time left to focus on the big work.
But sit me down and ask me to write a query letter and explain my novel in one or two paragraphs? Ask me to write a short synopsis with the barest of details? Say I just need to do an elevator pitch? That’s when my brain stutters to a halt and I end up looking at you in anime-dots-for-eyes confusion.
I mean, I can write them. I did just that the other day so I could send out a novel project to a prospective literary agency. But it took me nearly all day to do both, even though I knew the novel backwards and forwards. I might joke that I’m a New Englander of French-Canadian descent and that talking about anything quickly and clinically is nigh on impossible for me, but it really is a frame of mind that’s super hard for me to shift over to. [Side note: I saved these documents soon afterwards so I can reuse them elsewhere if need be. I’d rather not repeat that work again, thank you very much.]
It’s not just the question of what definitely needs to be in this synopsis and what can I leave out?, but crafting it in a way that makes sense to someone who has not read the story yet. It kind of feels like a job interview in a way: I’m trying to upsell my abilities while at the same time not overwhelming them with detail. I’ve talked to agents at cons many a time, and they always come across as nice and easy to approach, and yet I always feel super nervous and that I’m about to fail the most basic of introductions because I freeze up and flail and blather and my thought process is rarely in chronological order.
One of the many assignments I’ve given myself over the last couple of weeks is to fix that mindset once and for all. After that massive exercise the other day, I was confident enough that I’d gotten my point across and managed to edit everything down to a normal requested size. I sent out the submission without feeling like I was about to make a fool of myself. [Side note: Synopses can still be tricky, as I’ve had agents and publishers say they should be three paragraphs or three pages, depending on who you ask. I’ll adjust as necessary, but whoo doggie is it hard for me to adjust either way sometimes.] And usually when I get through this kind of thing once or twice, I’ll be comfortable enough with it so future attempts won’t be as agonizing. As with most things, I just have to do it.
It’s tough as hell sometimes, but with experience, I’ll get used to it soon enough.
Sequels can be a tricky thing to write sometimes. Such projects can end up being a lesson in frustration when you realize that you haven’t really written a new story in the universe you’d created so much as you’ve just attempted to rewrite the original story again, and that can be a huge problem in itself.
I’ve been working off and on with a sequel to the Bridgetown Trilogy (which I’ve been referring to as MU4, as in ‘Mendaihu Universe Book 4’) and as tempting as it is for me to write another story about the dysfunctional shenanigans of Vigil or the PoeKaina and CarNando ships (heh) or whatever, that’s the last thing I should really be doing. That’s why one of the first rules I’d come up with when I first started playing with the idea was to have Book Four set seventy years after the events of The Balance of Light, ensuring the original cast was already in the past tense, at least in the physical sense. I had to come up with new characters, each with their own histories and drives, yet somehow tie it in with the Mendaihu Universe. That in itself wasn’t too hard, as I’d left myself wide open for all kinds of exploration in this particular world.
No, the hard part was how to tie it in with the original trilogy yet not write the trilogy again. So how do I do that?
With In My Blue World, I deliberately left the story open-ended to a degree that its main characters could go on further adventures with Zuzannah and the rest of the alternate universe gang. That kind of sequel is in a ‘continuing adventures of…’ format, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, or Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Conversely, Diwa & Kaffi evolved out of a world I’d already created for a multi-short story project involving different species of beings on a college campus, so that one will end up sort of going in reverse when I get to writing those stories. That format is simply standalone stories in a shared world.
So with MU4, I had to give everyone a new directive: it had to relate to the supernatural/spiritual goings-on in that world, with many of the rules that Denni/The One of All Sacred laid down by Book 3…and then twist them somehow. Historical knowledge tends to warp and evolve over the years; what really happens and what we want to remember can often be two completely different things, especially when spirituality and religion is involved. That ends up being the main rule of the new version of this universe: Bridgetown (and the world) is filled with loyal Followers of the One…yet do they truly follow the tenets Denni laid down so many years ago? And then follow it up by imprinting these new characters onto that rule and see where it goes.
There are many ways to go about writing sequels, and of course how you decide to write them totally depends on how you want to approach them. My favorite way, as you’ve noticed, is to keep my original stories open for such possibilities! My only caveat then is to keep a finite number of ground rules…and the rest is fair game.
So I was working on two different projects over the last moth or so, writing out a synopsis/outline for each with the future plan of starting the writing soon after I felt comfortable with what I had planned out. So what happened?
Well, two other projects kept nagging at me. Two that have been on my back burners even longer than the two I’d been working on. Two that I pretty much knew inside and out already, they just needed sprucing and leveling up to make them better. I kept them at arm’s length for the last couple of weeks of May, focusing on the ones I already had going but letting these two sit a bit and germinate a bit more. I figured, if by the start of June these two other projects refused to go away (or alternately, started hanging out rent-free in my head all day long), then maybe that was a sign that I should focus on these first.
I mean, it’s not as if any of these have a specific deadline other than a self-made one. I want to get something new done by the end of this year! But no, there’s no agent or publisher chasing me about any of these.
So. June arrived, and I figured, why the hell not? These are two projects that I’ve already done a lot of work on in the past, so it’s not as if I’m starting with a blank Word document here and scratching my head, trying to figure out where to begin. I fired up the 750Words site and did the same thing I’d done with the previous projects: worked out a synopsis, a cast of characters, and the style and mood for Project A. [I say “mood” here because several of the older versions leaned a bit too heavily on the pathos. Which, in retrospect, is precisely why they didn’t work. This version will hopefully avoid that pitfall.] For Project B, I’m going to need to do something a bit different and work out a major outline and piece it all together. Again, most of this has been done several times in the past so the turnaround should be quick and painless.
It’s been only one week, so far it’s been positive forward motion, which is a very good sign indeed. It means these are projects that I’m enjoying, that they cover subjects I’m confident speaking about. Even when I’m stumbling, I don’t (yet) feel like I’m in over my head. Do I feel that way about the former two projects? Well, not entirely. I feel like I’m still flailing a bit on them. Not nearly as much as previously, but my confidence is not as high with them just yet. So I don’t feel bad about shifting them to the rear burners for a bit while I focus on these.