Reading new books

Source: Makoto Shinkai, ‘The Garden of Words’

Please I beg of you if you want to be a published author read one effing book published in the last 5 years. Just start with one. I’m BEGGING. — Sarah Nicolas on Twitter

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Last week a YA author posted the above tweet, but the reaction to it was quite unexpectedly divisive. While quite a few authors completely agreed with her, there were just as many who acted as if she’d took the lord’s name in vain or something similar.

To be honest, I totally get what she means by it, but it’s not something I can easily explain in just a few words. Personally, I’ll admit to reading a lot of books that have been published within the last five years, and hardly any that are older than that. It’s just my tastes, I guess? I did a ton of reading of the classics when I was younger; I was a middling Asimov fan and had a brief obsession with Vonnegut, but I kind of grew out of that in the mid-90s when I started reading more recent titles.

For me, it was never about trying to stay on top of whatever happened to be popular at the time. Even then I understood that it would no longer be hip by the time I got my own manuscript out there. It was more about checking out different voices and styles. Each writer has their own way of using and even subverting trusted ideas and tropes to make them unique to their own style. It’s informed not just by their imagination but often by their culture.

Sure, I’ll occasionally pick up an old book now and again. I still have to get through the last few books of Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, nearly all the CJ Cherryh Union-Alliance books, reread Mary Gentle’s Ash books, and all those Robotech tie-ins. I’ve been wanting to revisit the Transmetropolitan trades, and I’m about to get caught up with John Allison’s Giant Days trades as well. So many books, so little time!

But back to that tweet. I mean, I can understand how some might have been upset by it (though to the point of trolling harassment is just a titch overboard, mind you), but let’s be honest: there really is a lot more out there nowadays. A LOT more, thanks to indie and self-publishing, e-books, anthologies, Kickstarter-funded publications, and even concerted efforts by big name publishers to introduce new voices.

If you want to write similar to Tolkien or Asimov or even George RR Martin or Stephen King, by all means, go for it. If that’s the style you’re best at, that’s cool. But this tweet isn’t about forcing you out of that style — this is suggesting that perhaps you should check out more recent books written in a similar style. Perhaps you’ll see that the genre has evolved in ways you hadn’t expected, giving you an even wider playing field for your created universe.

On Starting A New Project

I’m always worried wen I start a new writing project, especially during the initial world building sessions and the writing of the first couple of chapters. Is this going to keep going, or is it going to crash and burn? I’ve worked on enough of them to the point where I should be used to this, but it still happens. And I won’t know either way unless I get started on them.

Over the years I’ve found that the most important signal to watch for when starting a project is resonance. Do I resonate with the story? And I totally mean that in a KonMari way: does it spark joy? It’s been said so many times that if writing the story feels more like a chore and you no longer feel happy about writing it, it’s time to trunk it. [Yes, I know… I keep threatening to un-trunk a lot of those ideas when the mood strikes, but by the end of the day I’ll put them back when I remember why the previous attempts didn’t work. I should invest in a padlock, shouldn’t I?] I’ve started so many ideas that had good intentions that died on the vine for one reason or another.

But what if it keeps resonating? Well, by all means, go for it! Keep working and have fun with it! There’s really no reason to second-guess yourself, at least not at this early stage. Don’t put up obstacles you’ll only end up breaking down. Just keep going with it.*

[* – As a caveat, you should at least have some kind of conscious reminder at this point of how your readers will react to the story. It’s hard to explain this without resorting to tired phrases like ‘political correctness’ — which, by the way, was a lazy and ignorant conservative-minded complaint about getting called out back in the early 90s as it is today — but you should at least be aware that if you’re going to consciously write a subject matter or in a style that someone might find insulting to their culture or lifestyle, you’re going to receive some noise complaints.]

I’ve approached each new project in different ways as well. Sometimes they have a long gestation, a small germ of an idea that I put aside for a length of time before I decide to dedicate time to them. Sometimes they’re a riff on a dream or a thought that popped into my head. Or as with this current project of mine, sometimes it’s the product of desperation, a need to get something down on the page before I drive myself crazy, and the outcome being an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

Whatever works. And if it works, don’t question it. Just keep going!

Changing Things Up

As I’ve said before, having to go back into the office has definitely shaken things up for me. Sometimes for the worse: I’m doing a lot of shuffling of priorities within a very narrow window of time now. But sometimes for the better: it was far past time for me to get used to being part of a larger crowd again after years of hiding in Spare Oom.

But it’s not just about the Day Job, though… I’ve been trying to break out of a lot of old habits over the last few years, and while it’s been easy to let go of some things, it’s been like pulling teeth for other things. Some days I’ll revel in trying out new things and thinking about things in different ways, and some days I’ll slip back and get caught in those old feedback loops and forget I was trying to change myself.

Still — sometimes it’s the most mundane things that help in changing things up. Like changing the wallpaper of my PC (I just changed it from a pen-themed slide show provided by Microsoft to a Year of the Rat-themed picture from a webcomic I currently read. I’ve stopped wearing so many silly tee-shirts and changed to simple colored tees from Old Navy. Every now and again I’ll do a mass cleaning of Spare Oom and rearrange a few things here and there. Like I said…mundane, but it keeps things interesting.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, I suppose it ties in with the current thing I’m working on with my daily words. After spending most of January flustered and flailing, I figured I may as well change things up by playing around with a new idea, just for the fun of it. No concrete ideas or plans, just something to work on. And I’ve done this with my music and writing as well: trying out a new playing or drawing style, listening to new bands that I wouldn’t have listened to in the past, reading new comics for inspiration. It clears the slate a bit, blowing away the dust of old ideas and giving me new things to focus on.

It’s hard work, and I’ll still slide back into old habits and forget the new ways I’ve been approaching things, but eventually I’ll catch myself and continue again.

On Using and Avoiding Tropes

Tropes can be your friend, especially if you’re trying to use them as a guideline for a project. Recently I’d been frustrated by my lack of fresh story ideas and decided the only way to break out of that block was to come up with a list of SF tropes that I’d enjoyed over the years and play around with them a bit. For example, I’d long had an idea about a group of young adults living on either a generation ship or a space waystation, and purposely created a list of plot tropes and characters with classic traits, just to see where it went. I let myself go much further than I usually would with the characters; rather than creating each one organically like I usually do, I came up with a list of five Classic Characters, each with the usual personalities one would expect from them. The Uplifter, The Popular One, The Misfit, and so on. I took a page from a lot of my favorite recent anime and manga series and created people I’d want to write about.

The trick here was to take those tropes and twist them a little to make them unique. For instance, the Overly Positive Character With a Dark Secret became an extrovert and the group’s ringleader not out of a need for attention, but because she’s terrified that when they do go their separate ways, there’s a good chance not all of them will ever come back; she’s desperate to keep them together for as long as she can. She’s genuinely worried about their futures.

On the other hand, tropes can also be a crutch that you might lean on far too much. I could have stayed with this Overly Positive Character and actually given her a Dark Secret, such as her having some kind of physical or mental handicap. Not that that’s inherently wrong in and of itself, of course*. What I’m saying here is that, at least for me, using that idea on a shallow surface level seems like Doing the Least Amount of Work. It would be like just labeling her as anorexic but not actually focusing on why she’s anorexic and how it would tie in with the story, if at all. Just giving her that quirk isn’t enough for me; I need it to be directly or indirectly connected to the story somehow.

[* – Speaking of handicaps, this was something I had to keep in mind when I wrote the character of Cole Caine for Diwa & Kaffi. He’s a humanoid psychic vampire with what I named Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome; essentially it’s a disorder unique to his kind where, when he’s passively feeding off the physical and psychic energies of those around him, there’s a chance it could escalate sort of like a feedback loop and he’d be unable to dislodge himself. I went through great lengths throughout the story to a) explain what the disorder is and how it affects him, b) show that he accepts that he has it and has to live with it, and that his friends are aware of it, c) show or at least mention moments where the syndrome kicks in to show how it can affect his life, and d) it is never used as a trope plot point, i.e. ‘he overcomes it and it never returns’ or ‘everyone is inspired by his strength which boosts their own success’. To me those two tropes feel like an easy out for my writing and not true to the character at all. I like my characters a lot more nuanced than that.]

Either way, I do what I can to avoid being overly dependable on tropes. They’re good as guidelines, but that’s really all they should be; what changes them to strong stories and characters is the added humanity and depth we as writers need to put into them.

Breaking Past the Barriers

Source: Hisone to Masotan (aka Dragon Pilot)

Oh hey! I’m back again. Sorry about the delay. So what’s been going on in the writing world for me lately, anyway?

Glad you asked! Because I’d been getting rather annoyed with myself because nothing was going on. I mean, I have been doing my daily words for the most part, but I really wasn’t getting anywhere with it. It’s all fine that I was using this time to write something just out of necessity — in this case, a few holiday-themed experiments in the Mendaihu Universe (which I may or may not expand on at some point) and quite a few outtakes for an as-yet-unnamed college campus story set in the Diwa & Kaffi universe. I even played around a bit with a few older ideas…but nothing seemed to be sticking. I was either getting bored with it, or there really was no story there to begin with.

To put it bluntly: I’m itching to start a new project. And none of these outtakes were calling out to me.

That is, until I decided to try a different approach: one day last week, I wrote out a few detailed paragraphs of various story tropes that I’ve positively gravitated towards, both past and present. Nothing specific, just working out what kind of stories resonate with me at this time. In the process, I let my imagination go wild: how would I go about writing these stories, anyway? Would I be able to expand on this, make it a novel or some other format? Not that I was about to write one then and there — this was just to expand my mind a bit. This is exactly how I’d approached my last three novels, and the process worked pretty damn well.

In all honesty, this was EXACTLY what I’d needed to do. Because now I have a few Possible New Projects worth looking into. Again, I’m not going to look at these as Big Epic Undertakings… I’m just going to let them evolve.

And hopefully something new and exciting will come out of it.

That one story that just won’t go away

I believe I came up with the story for Can’t Find My Way Home back in…2007 or so? I know it wasn’t that long after we moved out to San Francisco, and it was right about when I’d finished writing that vampire novel I’d soon trunk. I’ve done some work on it here and there, even trunked it multiple times, but every now and again I have this urge to revive it and try again.

It’s not as if I don’t have it planned out…I actually have a full outline for it, and I have a number of outtakes started, both typed and longhand. I even made a mixtape for it back in 2018. [The version of the title song by Electronic is the one I have in mind as the opening credits for the tv show.] But each time I attempted to revive it, I never got any further than maybe a chapter or two; I was either working on the Bridgetown trilogy or something more exciting came up that I wanted to focus on. In the end, I felt I wasn’t yet prepared to write this kind of story. It was forever put on the back burner until it was trunked once more.

Every now and again, however, I’m tempted to revive it again. It would need a hell of a lot of work and some serious refocusing, that I’m sure of. I recently reread the outline and while there are some really great ideas, there are also some incredibly weak points that would need to go. [Having already written a sort-of-time-travel novel with In My Blue World, I think I can pull off the genre so that’s not too high on my list of concerns.] I know one of the things that keeps bringing me back is that I’m fascinated by its format, inspired by anime shows: twenty-four episodes, many of them standalone at first, but with a long-game story arc pulling it all together.

Will I pick this up once more? Who knows. I’m still dithering on what project to start next, as none of them feel like they’re ready to be written just yet. Maybe I’ll try it out on my Daily Words for a bit and see where it goes.

And then maybe this story idea will stop haunting me!

On Getting Back in Gear

After I finish a major project, I almost always suffer from a severe case of the Don’t Wannas.

It’s different from simple exhaustion and wanting to take a break. I always let myself have those, guilt-free, because I’ve earned them. This is after all that, when I really should be writing again. I have the Daily Words platform up but all I end up doing is rambling about personal stuff. It frustrates me because I’ve already decided that’s what my longhand journal is for; these Daily Words should be part of a creative process. It doesn’t matter if it’s outlining or just riffing on an idea or an actual chapter for a book.

I just…Don’t Wanna. And I know for a fact that I’m just dithering. Putting it off. Like my homework back in my school days, I just don’t want to do it until I have to do it. I let myself believe that I can’t come up with anything worth writing about. And like then, when I do return to it, it feels rushed and half-assed and I get mad at myself.

So how do I combat that? How do I get myself back on the creative track? Good question. I can remind myself to just shut the f*** up and DO IT already; I can assign myself specific things to write on certain days (such as these here blogs); I can just ignore the Don’t Wannas; I can stop making excuses and jump into the deep end with a completely random idea and see where it takes me. Whatever works. Hell, I started three novels on the barest threads of an idea and just…went for it.

Some days I work past it, other days I need that swift kick in the butt. Eventually I get there.

Looking for fresh inspiration

Source: Read Or Die

I’ve been having this itch to do a major book purge. I mean, I’ve done quite a few of these over the years, so this is nothing new. I’ll get rid of books I haven’t read in ages, ones I’m no longer interested in, ones I’ve had for years but never cracked open. Do I need to have these in my life? As I’ve said before, the books are donated to the library and it opens up spaces for new books. Win-win!

I’ve also been having this itch to find new inspiration for my writing. This happens now and again, especially if I spend far too long reading my own stuff for revision purposes — which I’ve been doing the last few months with Diwa & Kaffi. I’ve finished that part of the project, however, so now it’s time for me to read new things again.

But what? My tastes have definitely changed over the years, to the point where I’m not entirely sure what I’m interested in reading at the moment. There’s the manga: the intriguing and unique storytelling such as Nagabe’s Siúil, a Rún: The Girl from the Other Side or Paru Itagaki’s Beastars. There’s the countless music biographies and histories I can catch up on, such as Ed Ward’s The History of Rock and Roll Vol II (the first volume was much more enjoyable than I’d expected it to be), or Prince’s The Beautiful Ones.

But I’m also at a loss when it comes to new titles. I used to find them via Publisher’s Weekly, but I let that subscription lapse some time ago. Sometimes it’s word of mouth, sometimes it’s just a book store browse. But I haven’t really looked for anything completely new in a while now. I’m not sure if I’m just dithering or if I’m just lacking inspiration. Not much is really jumping out at me lately.

I know it’s not the titles themselves or the current trends. I’m just out of the loop and not being very active about my search. I’ve been busy with a lot of things. But now I’m not as busy, and I’m looking for something new.

And I feel like I’m no longer resonating with a lot of my old collection, either. I gave up a lot of titles some time ago, but I think it’s time for another go-round. A KonMari level purging this time: if I’m not going to read it within the next six months, chances are good I won’t be reading it at all. Time for it to go.

It’s time to open up more space on these shelves again. Time to find new inspiration. Time to find new books that will refresh and reinvigorate my creativity.

Time for something new.

New Year, New Plans

When I made my unceremonious return to the office for the Day Job, I gave myself a month. I’ve done this in the past; life throws me a curve ball that I can’t avoid no matter how hard I try. I’ll be angry and frustrated and be stuck in that feedback loop. But I’ll give myself a month to Just Get Over It.

Mind you, it’s not the same as giving up. I’m still angry about the situation and I’m still making alternate plans. But I’m not giving in. I am not making do. In fact, I’m making the best of a frustrating situation. To wit:

–I’d forgotten what it felt like to have a car commute. When was the last time I had to drive to my job? That would be the temp jobs back in 2005. (I had office jobs in 2006-2014 or so, but I could get to those via public transit.) This reminded me of a few things: how to head out early so I had a cushion of time before logging in; how to find alternate routes; how to utilize the drive time creatively. I spent most of December relearning a lot of that.

–I might be getting home anywhere between 5pm and 6pm (and believe you me, I hate the latter), but I can still work on the laptop while hanging out with A in the living room after dinner. And I still have the weekends to do things.

–I found ways to best use my time for creative endeavors, even on company time. I can write longhand (journal and poetry), my daily words (as of this moment, I can access 750 Words on my work laptop and this makes me so blissfully happy right now), and considering that I’m stuck in a cubicle without all the distractions of Spare Oom, I’m actually forced to not goof off.

–I have multiple mp3 players to keep me entertained when need be, and a lunch and two breaks if I feel the need to surf social media.

So what does this all mean? This means that I’ve realized that my situation is nowhere as dire as I was making it out to be. I spent that month getting that frustration and flailing out of my system, and spent the entirety of December thinking okay, how can I make the best out of all this?

This means that I’m going to continue with the writing schedule that worked so well for me over the last few years. Walk in Silence will be posting Tuesdays and Thursdays again, and Welcome to Bridgetown will be posting Mondays and Fridays again. I’ll be doing my daily words Monday through Friday.

Do I have any specific projects I’ll be working on? I’ve a few, but I’m holding them close right now. I’ll reveal them when the time is right. I can say that I’ll be submitting Diwa & Kaffi to publishers in the next few weeks, however, and I’m really looking forward to that particular project. It’s been too long and I think it’s time. I’m ready for it.

It’s 2020, and I know what I need to do.