Everyday

If there’s one bit of writing advice I’ve taken to heart and follow religiously — and will give it to every other aspiring writer — it would be this:

Write every day.

Three simple words, but so much nuance.

I’m not saying to drive yourself into exhaustion and illness by forcing yourself to get those five hundred pitch-perfect words down on paper or screen.  I’m not even saying you must sit down and make the effort at all.

I’m saying this:  think about what you write, every day.  Writing does in fact include the process of thinking and plotting and letting the idea percolate for a while.  Sometimes that’s all you need to do: just…think about your current project.  Untangle that stubborn mass of threads and let it play out.

It took me a long time to learn this, to be honest.  When I first vowed to write every day, I took it literally.  I tried to write something creative and new every day, whether it was for my work in progress or a new story idea or a poem or song.  That drove me to frustration pretty damn quick, and the resulting lack of any work at all only made it worse.

I soon chose to reinterpret that bit of advice:  Do something writing-related every day.  I started this by starting a year-long transcription project of my old writing.  I’d wanted to do that anyway to have it in digital form, but it also let me evaluate what I’d done over the last ten or so years since I was a teenager.  It let me see how far I’d come, what worked and what didn’t, and gave me ideas where to go next.  And eventually I made it a point to sit down at the PC and work on something, whether it was a journal entry or a blog post or project notes or what have you.

And eventually I got to where I really did want to be: writing something new every day.

Presently I’m doing the same exact thing with my artwork.  I’m currently working on a personal project that involves some drawing of self-portraits and other people and things alongside blocks of text.  I started this a few weeks ago and I’m drawing at least one page a day.  I’m reminding myself that these are pencil sketches and don’t have to be perfect.  Sometimes I’ll get a page done in fifteen minutes, other days I’ll do a bit throughout the day before it’s done.  I’m definitely seeing a marked difference in quality, which surprised me at first, because while I think I’m a decent artist, I’m nowhere near my top potential. This is mainly due to the fact that I haven’t done any daily drawings for years and I’m woefully out of practice…but occasionally I’ll do a sketch that surprises me and makes me proud.

It’s all about practice, really.  You don’t have to be perfect every time you get a pen in hand or start tapping away at the keyboard, or even when you pick up that guitar or those drumsticks.  Hardly anyone is a genius from the get-go.  [If you doubt me, listen to some Beatles bootlegs, especially where John Lennon is involved.  He flubs guitar licks and vocals something fierce.]

Practicing every day doesn’t make you a perfect writer or musician or artist either.  But it definitely helps you get closer to that point.  So write every day, even if it’s just a rough sketch of your character’s neighborhood.  Even if it’s just to kvetch about your Day Job in your journal.  Even if it’s to animate a BongoCat.  Even if it’s to play that twelve-bar blues one more time.

Write every day.  It all adds up.

Throw Those Curtains Wide

I’ve been thinking a lot about life changes lately.  A few personal and work-related events had conspired to unfold within the span of a few weeks to take me by surprise and upend a few long term plans I’d had in mind.

Without going into much detail, there may be a change in Day Job situation that, at first, bothered the hell out of me.  And rightfully so, considering I’m worried about the time lost when commuting or going to an office.  I treasure my writing time and fiercely defend it any way I can.  At the time of these personal events, I’d been thinking seriously about a long-term plan to make all that happen.

The personal events had upended all that.  Still…I never give up when it comes to my writing.  I’m fiercely protective of it.  It’s gotten me through a lot worse over the years.  It’s not just a lifeline but a spiritual release.  And it gives me clarity and drive.

But it wasn’t just about the writing; it was also about making important changes to my life and who I am.  After a day or so of flushing the resulting emotional freak-out from my system, I came to the conclusion: It’s time for me to do something about all of this. 

It’s time for me to be true to myself again.  Far past time.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working out how to make this happen.  First off: have a positive outlook.  I might not be able to work from home, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of writing time.  It just means a shift in schedule.  It means perhaps heading to the gym later than usual.  It means sneaking in some writing time during breaks and lunch times and bus commutes.  And continuing with this longer-term plan of changing and improving my life, despite any distractions.

And most importantly, it means not giving up on my dreams and goals.  Ever.

It’s time for me to be true to myself again.  Far past time.

Letting My Writing Evolve

 

naruto confused
Yeah, I feel the same way sometimes, Naruto.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve learned an amazing amount as I evolve as a writer… and I’ve ‘unlearned’ just as much.  It’s not just the hard-and-fast general rules we all learned in school that I’m talking about, like the grammar and composition and all that.   I’m talking about rules regarding style and theme.

I think of my pre-trilogy work as me essentially learning the basics: in short, how to tell a cohesive story.  They followed everything I’d learned up to that point.  While you can definitely see a personal style coming out of it, the end result isn’t quite up to par.  I’m going by the rules, but I’m really not putting all that much of me in there to make it my own.  [I mean, other than dropping in obscure music references, inserting bad jokes, and general whinging about how life sucks.]

While my work finally evolved over the many years I worked on the trilogy revision, it really wasn’t until Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World where I think I finally understood how my writing needed to evolve even further.  They’re both completely new projects that totally do not read the same way the trilogy does.  And even more so with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve completely broken down any self-made barriers I’d put up in regards to style and story.

I tend to go through certain phases like this with certain aspects of my life; I’ll latch on to a new habit or process, or follow a new interest, and stay with it for a few years until I get bored with it.  This boredom isn’t caused by the thing itself; it’s that I’ve been digging away at it passively and without question until I realize it’s doing nothing for me anymore.  I suppose in the context of the trilogy — where I worked on the damn thing for almost twenty years — it was not just a relief to finally let it go, but to find a new project to latch onto, and in effect, a new writing process and style.

I’m pretty sure that in the next five or so years, I’ll have come up with some new writing projects that the me of today would never expect.  [The Apartment Complex story is a perfect example here.]  I’ve come to fully embrace the shorter turnaround and the shorter project that won’t keep me busy for years on end.  I’m still thinking of writing new stories in the Mendaihu Universe, sure, but they’re not going to be my only claim to fame (so to speak).  I find the quick turnaround much more exciting, and keeps my creative brain on the move.

I enjoy the idea that my writing continues to evolve.  I’m trying to get out of the age-old habit of telling the same stories over and over again, and this is the best way to do it.  I might still possess the occasional tell-tale stylistic quirks that make my writing unique, but the stories themselves will be different.  And that’s how I want it.  It’s how writing will continue to be a joy and an adventure for me.

Distractions, Delays and Determination

polar bear cafe sloth
Yeah, a nap would be good right now…

Day Job Stuff is keeping me on my toes, that’s for sure.  A few things have come up that I’m having to deal with in different ways.  (Yes, I’m being vague for the moment.)  A few personal things have been serving as distractions as well.  Nothing horrible, of course.  Just some irritations, decisions, and changes.

On top of that, I’m going to need to delay the release of In My Blue World.  I don’t want to, but I’d rather delay it than rush the job and put out a half-assed and ultimately unfinished novel.  I won’t do that to y’all, it wouldn’t be fair.  So for all of you who might have picked up my freebie card at Worldcon with the lovely ‘Coming Autumn 2018’ sticker slapped on the back, I’m afraid it’s probably looking more like ‘Coming Early 2019’ instead.  Sorry about that.  But I promise you won’t be let down by the improved and revised version!

Which brings me to determination:  I’ve got a LOT on my plate right now, and strangely enough, I work really well when that happens, as long as I’m completely in charge of it all.  [If I’m constantly distracted by unexpected changes, that’s another thing entirely.]  So a lot of things juggling in the air, but I’m bound and determined to make it all work.  Such is the life of a writer: stubborn will and determination to keep going despite the odds.

Hopefully in a few weeks things will be back to normal and I’ll be able to breathe and take a break again…!

 

More On Being a Healthy Writer

polar bear cafe exercise

I’ve said this before:  one of the biggest problems with being a writer, especially one with a Day Job, is that you’re sitting on your butt for long stretches of time.  I’m really horrible at this, to be honest.  I might get up and stretch now and again, but I don’t do it nearly enough.  I’m sitting for most of eight hours, perhaps head to the gym a few times a week, and then sit for another few hours in the evening writing.

There’s also the fact that I’ve long had a bad habit of snacking whilst working and writing.  I’d like to say I don’t have a Junk Food Stash anymore, but that’s not exactly true… it’s smaller, but it’s still junk food, and it’s in the kitchen.  A few boxes of Pocky, an almost empty bag of chocolates we bought at the Heathrow duty-free.  I’m trying to change that up; I’ll have a banana, or some cheese sticks, or hummus and crackers (Trader Joe’s sells a great snack pack of these that I love).  I’m not drinking nearly as much soda as previous.

But it’s not enough.  I’m not moving around as much to burn those calories.  What I need to do is figure out some regimen that I can sneak in at some point during the day.  A few reps of crunches and stretches.  More walks after work.  More frequent trips to the Y.  I need to MOVE more is what I’m saying here.

So why the health kick all of a sudden?  Well, short version is that I’ve found myself on a lifestyle-change kick right now.  A need to change things both inside and out that I’ve either ignored or put off for far too long.  It really doesn’t have much to do with my age, to be honest — I’m forty-seven and change — but to do with personal things; career, emotions, physical issues, and what not.  I’m reasonably healthy if a bit overweight with slightly high blood pressure.  I’m also thinking more seriously about my calling as a writer, and what I want — and need — to do with my craft as a professional.  Among other things.  I think about it this way: it’s not a midlife crisis so much as it’s a midlife clarity.  Time to shed the bad habits and the lifestyle I no longer want or need and get movin’.

This does in fact tie in with my writing.  Over the last few months, while working on the revision for In My Blue World as well as writing the Apartment Complex story — as well as a few smaller personal things I’ve been sneaking in when I can — I realized that my writing can’t truly evolve if I don’t evolve somehow.  I’ve mined as much as I can from what I’ve been working with for years, and I want and need to change it up.  The AC in particular has been helpful here; it’s the first story where I did not hold back for any reason, and the result so far has been eye-opening on many levels.  I’m immensely proud of what I’ve done with it so far, and I can’t wait to share it.

So yes — this is me saying that I need to keep moving, both physically and mentally, if I’m going to get anywhere.  I can’t be half-arsed about it anymore.

All in.

Other Voices

I’d say one of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer, especially when I was younger, was learning how to give each character their own distinct voice.  By this, I mean letting each character sound unique.  [Let’s just say that a lot of my high school-era writing sounded like a lot of Jonc clones spewing bad puns, whining about how life sucks, and making obscure music references.  It makes for extremely embarrassing and painful reading…]

I learned to do this in different ways over the years.  During my film college years I paid attention to differences between characters in the numerous movies I had to watch for assignments.  In the mid to late 90s and into the 00s I became a voracious reader, not just of fiction but comic books and manga.  Nowadays I keep my eyes and ears open for even more unique voices out there.

It becomes a focus on how the author or director wishes to let the story unfold.  There’s often a reason why this character is written the way they are, and why they act the way they do. It’s easy to fall into safe character tropes.  They’re not inherently bad, but I try not to rely on them too often, as I feel that makes for samey characters and stories, and I don’t write those very well at all.

My personal way to get around this is often to go beyond the tropes and make them unique.  Twist them a bit.  Instead of the Disheveled Investigator nursing a hangover and trying to find out why no one’s talking about a murder, turn it on its head: Disheveled Investigator is stone cold sober for personal reasons that tie in with a previous case, and the murder is being covered up by a rival investigator who’s a raging alcoholic and also his best friend.  Et voilà, unique characters and a nifty use of conflict for your plot!

I’ve also made it a point to read a lot of different writers — not just in terms of gender, but in race.  I’ve long had a love for Japanese literature, and that’s expanded to Latinx, Chinese, and more recently, Arabic/Middle Eastern literature as well.  I love to witness how a story unfolds in different cultures; why they unfold the way they do, the tropes they use in their own culture, and so on.  It gives me grist for the mill.  [I should probably state here that I’m not purposely appropriating here; I’m paying attention to how other characters in other cultures work within the context of the story, and contemplating if this is the kind of character I could write myself.]  There is indeed a little bit of Method Acting involved, at least for me.  I like to get inside each of my characters’ heads a bit to learn how they tick.  And I learn a little bit in the process!

This process of learning how to write other voices other than your own can be tricky, but with time and practice, you’ll eventually get it.

 

On Submitting a Novel

I’m trying to remember the last time I tried submitting one of my novels to a publisher or an agent, and I’m thinking it may have been at least five or six years go, when I’d just finished the final edits of A Division of Souls.  I’d submitted it and other projects off and on over the years before that, with no success.

That part was frustrating, sure, but I won’t hold it against the publishers and agents.  I get why it’s so hard to get past the slush pile.  I got over it, and it helped me take the idea of self-publishing a hell of a lot more seriously.  It also made me a better writer in the process.

During our vacation a few weeks back, I reread what I have so far of the Apartment Complex story, and I was struck at how different the style is from most of my other novels.  It’s not as frantic as the Bridgetown Trilogy, or free-floating as Meet the Lidwells, or as fantastical as In My Blue World.  It feels like a style I could really sink my teeth into with future novels.  At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think this is some of my best stuff yet.  [Even after threatening to ragequit the project in frustration earlier this year, at that!]

Dare I say, I’m rather proud of it right now.

It got me thinking — maybe this one has a good chance of being picked up somewhere?  I mean, yeah, I have a wish list of publishing houses and agencies where this would fit in quite nicely, and that’s a good place to start.

So why now, and not with the other novels?  I think part of it is due to the fact that my previous work does feel rather indie.  I’d like to think they’re decently written, but they purposely don’t have that Manhattan Literary Sheen™ to them.  [I’m not saying that as a put-down.  I say this as a parallel to, say, the loose noise of early-era Dinosaur Jr or Sonic Youth on indie labels versus their much cleaner late-period major label releases.  I produced my self-published novels to be indie on purpose rather than to attempt to conform to something more commercial.]

Simply put, the Apartment Complex story, I feel, is a story that deserves a strong platform.  I’d rather not see it fall through the cracks due to my inability to get it seen by potential readers.  It’s a story that I truly would like to share with a lot of people.

That said…I’ll have to start doing my submission search soon, because it’s been ages since I’ve looked at a Writer’s Market to see who’s out there nowadays and who’s accepting and who isn’t, and what format they prefer.

But that part’s easy.  It’s getting the thing done and all cleaned up that’s the hard part!

I’ll read to you here, save your eyes

 

doctor who matt smith reading

I’ve been working without my reading glasses lately, and strangely enough I seem to be doing better.  I have kind of weird eyesight in that I’m not entirely near or farsighted, but lately it feels like my sight is getting better for some reason.  I often wear glasses when driving or when reading, but I’m finding it harder to read with them than without them.  Especially when I’m reading text on my phone.

Yeah, I’m not sure either.

Anyway, I’ve chosen not to wear my reading glasses during Day Job hours or during writing, just as an ongoing experiment to see how my eyesight truly is.  I know there are certain things that get me dry-eyed (staring at a screen for hours, natch) and angles that give me issues (looking hard to my left, my eyes go slightly out of skew and I see double — but not to the hard right!), and I’ve been making sure I don’t ignore these issues.

Having decent vision is right up there alongside decent hearing for me.  I read and write about as much as I listen to music, and I do both FAR more than the usual person.  (I also do all the driving in this household, so I’d rather not drive like Mr Magoo, thankyewverymuch.)  I try not to overdo it, and if I do feel like I’m overdoing it, I’ll make sure I take some time to give the ol’ eyes and ears a rest for a bit.

This brought to you by a writer who needs to remind himself to keep to healthy habits more often!

Too Much Information

During a Worldcon panel the other weekend, someone had asked one of the panelists about detail in your prose; when do you need more, and when do you have too much?  It’s a very good question indeed, because it’s one of the biggest mistakes a beginning writer often makes.

I should know, because I’ve gone through both extremes.  Back in my school days, my writing lacked so much exposition that it read more like a shooting script than a novel.  A few years and a handful of trunked projects later, I finally got the hang of balancing exposition with the action and dialogue.  However, I soon slid to the opposite end of the spectrum: my prose was far too verbose.  It took a few more years before I finally found and stuck with a happy medium.

How do I handle keeping a fine balance between prose and exposition in my writing?  Good question, because half the time I’m going by instinct.  I suppose all writers have their own balance they’re comfortable with, and mine is achieved by being aware of my pacing.  It all goes back to my equating novel writing to songwriting: I go with what sounds right to me musically.

When I’m writing a scene, I’ll know ahead of time whether or not this is going to contain a lot of action and detail (fast beats, layered production, a high-powered chorus, and perhaps a middle eight to provide a quick breather before moving on again), if it’s going to be a highly emotional scene (slower pace, minimal production with detailed focus on the melody, a memorable chorus, and a solo to pull at the heart strings), or if it’s just going to be a connecting scene (short, sweet, and to the point, and the barest hint of a motif borrowed from a previous piece).

With this in mind, I’ll know when I need to fill out the scene with exposition or detail, or when it needs the barest of touches.  A connecting scene will be tedious and drag on if I decide to put an infodump there, but it’ll make much more sense if I spread it out over the course of an action scene.  Perhaps as a character slowly coming to the realization that the cousin was the murderer after all, and that all the pieces suddenly fall in to place and giving him even more reason to keep chasing this now-familiar shadowy figure in the alleyway.

Most of this is instinct to me now, because of my decades of listening, studying and memorizing different pieces of music.  I write the scene according to the pace and the emotion I’m looking for.  This is my particular style of writing so it may not work for everyone, but it certainly works great for me, and hasn’t steered me wrong yet.  I even use it now and again when I’m writing these blog entries; even if it’s only a quick five hundred words, it’s still worth it for me to make the flow and style enjoyable to you, my readers.

I can’t tell you exactly what works for you as a writer, but I think keeping all this in mind might give you an idea of providing your own answer to that question:  when do you need more information in your prose, and when do you have too much?  Listen to the pace you’ve set, and let it provide the clues for you.

All at once

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Yeah, I’m having one of those months.

I won’t go into detail, but it’s one of those times where Best Laid Plans are thwarted by no other reason than Unexpected Events.  And this time out I have a few personal issues that have popped up that are causing stress and frustration.  All I can do is deal with them, and balance them alongside these same Best Laid Plans.

It can be incredibly frustrating when this happens when you’re a writer.  You don’t want to ignore the personal issues going on, but you’d rather not put your livelihood on hold, especially when you’ve worked so hard over the years to make them happen.

The most you can do is soldier on somehow, same as if your Best Laid Plans were thwarted by the Day Job, or whatever has come your way.  For me, the most I can do is continue to find the time to push through these projects the best I can, despite it all.