Every couple of months or so, a spot next to the love seat in Spare Oom starts collecting a pile of books. These are books that A. and I have finished reading and don’t plan on keeping for whatever reason. We may have enjoyed them, but have no reason or inclination to read them again. I mean, there’s a finite amount of space in this apartment, and as much as we’d like, we can’t keep it all.
Besides, we live right down the street from Green Apple Books, which is a Very Dangerous Place Indeed. We often need space for newer purchases.
Whenever that spot on the floor collects three or four stacks about shin-high, I start putting them into boxes. Then on a nice weekend, I’ll drive them down to the Friends of the SF Public Library Bookstore down at Fort Mason in the Marina for donation. Sure, I could probably bring them to Green Apple and get credit for future purchases, but to be honest, I like donating better.
The Friends of the SFPL have a Big Book Sale a few times a year in one of the HUGE warehouses at Fort Mason. We’re talking football field huge. Book donations brought to any of their drop-off sites that don’t get sold at their in-library stores get brought here, and it’s quite an event. Books, videos, dvds, cds, all sorts of media are sold super cheap, often as low as a dollar. You can literally fill a shopping cart (we often do) and spend maybe twenty bucks total. It’s a good deal, and it goes to a great group. And my old books get into new hands, which is even cooler.
[As an aside: yes, I have in fact seen my own donations on the table at these book sales, which I find quite amusing.]
They’ll have their next Big Book Sale next week, and A and I are planning on going. Which is good timing, because I just brought the last pile of books in last weekend!
So it’s revealed via the New York Times — on a Sunday morning, no less — that the current administration wants narrowly define gender as what you were born with, essentially eliminating any definition of transgender.
The biggest WTF line in that article:
For the last year, the Department of Health and Human Services has privately argued that the term “sex” was never meant to include gender identity or even homosexuality, and that the lack of clarity allowed the Obama administration to wrongfully extend civil rights protections to people who should not have them. [Emphasis mine.]
I say FUCK THAT.
And I say FUCK YOU, Don.
So why am I posting this here?
Let’s just say ever since this complete sham and embarrassment of an administration came into office — before that, even — I’ve been tempted to write a specific novel on how I feel about what they’ve been doing to the country over the last few years. It’s similar to the idea I had with the “Noah and the Schoolyard” story that I trunked sometime ago. I’d come to the realization that the actions and words of this administration were sadly and pathetically similar to the worst of our own childhoods; the jocks and the popular crowd that vilified you for not fitting into their narrowly defined social norms, the teachers that couldn’t find the time or the ability to provide extra mentoring, the elimination of creative extracurricular groups (sometimes at the cost of maintaining a solid sports foundation), the path to ignorance when information is simply not provided, and of course the appearance of an ‘underground’ crowd that decided to say fuck all that, we’re doing our own thing.
I mean, yeah, it sounds like a John Hughes version of Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye, doesn’t it? That’s why I found I couldn’t work on this story. It just felt far too personal for me to be able to handle it.
Now I’m not so sure.
It angers me that anyone, presidential administration or not, would go this far. It angers me to hear ignorant morons gleefully follow this path, all the while saying ‘fuck y’all, you’re on your own.’
Sunday’s news was a big fucking slap in the face for me, on multiple levels. I’d almost forgotten what this kind of directed hatred felt like. And it bothers me even more that I don’t always remember that others still get that on a daily basis. [Well, actually I do remember, just that I often have the privilege of avoiding thinking about it.]
As Charlie Jane Anders tweeted later that day:
It’s easy to feel helpless when bigotry and bad science are becoming the law of the land, and our government is trying to dehumanize so many of us. But we have the power to make noise, to make ourselves heard, and one of the most powerful ways we can do that is thru storytelling.
To that I say ‘AMEN’, and to that I say, I think I might have a new project to work on.
It’s all well and good to find your own comfort zone, of course. It’s always healthy to have that stable ground to come back to when things get crazy. You can hibernate there for a little bit and recharge, so you can come back out, rested and ready to go.
This is the same for my writing as well. I have certain comfort zones I stay within, at least for my rough drafts. I use them as a baseline to work off of, so I know precisely how far I’m letting the plot threads evolve. This is how I’m able to read the feel of my stories, how I’m able to control how they will affect the reader.
But sometimes it’s good to break out of that comfort zone, and head towards unknown territory.
I realized this when I wrote the Apartment Complex story; one of the reasons it wasn’t working for me was that I was trying to keep it in a stable comfort zone that it didn’t belong in. So instead I let fate and instinct take the reins on this one. The end result was that I’d created character styles I hadn’t written before, doing things I had never written about previously. I definitely wasn’t pantsing it; I knew exactly where this story was supposed to go. I just let the characters tell me how they wanted to evolve. They knew more about themselves than I did. In the end, the story ended up being, in my opinion anyway, one of the best ones I’ve ever written. I can’t wait to share it with everyone in 2019!
Breaking out of the comfort zone doesn’t necessarily mean doing the exact opposite of whatever your idea of living a safe, comfy life is. I’m not about to take up free climbing or whatever it is middle aged Manly Men are supposed to do. But it’s definitely given me a lot to think about in terms of my life at the moment. This is about getting rid of those old blinders and barriers you’ve been hanging onto for so long, and seeing how far you can go. You’ll be surprised how big the playing field may have gotten while you weren’t looking.
Recently Dave Grohl released a 23-minute instrumental called “Play” that was written and played entirely by him alone, and upon hearing it, I realized the creation of this track is very similar to how I write novels.
The accompanying video is prefaced by a six-plus minute talk about not just the recording but a music school for kids that he’s taken part in. It’s worth watching for both; in particular, I’m intrigued by how dedicated he is to his creation. It’s not a long-winded progfest at all, but very similar to an orchestral piece in its structure. It’s going in a specific direction through deliberate sections, laying down certain motifs to experiment on and later return to, and each instrument is supporting the other. Grohl also ensures that each segment is played to the best of his ability, leaving no weak or meandering moments.
This is how my mind works when I’m writing an extended project like a novel. While the initial pass-through might be raw and desperately in need of revision, once I immerse myself in the serious work of laying it all down, I’m all in. I immerse myself in the story by seeing it from multiple angles: there’s the shape of the overall piece, where I can see the plot’s peaks and valleys as a whole; there’s the attention paid to the scene itself, and its relationship not only to what’s already gone on, but how it’ll affect future scenes; there’s the volume of the piece, where I can feel when it needs calm and when it needs friction; there’s the motifs (such as character traits, for instance) that I will return to in different shapes and forms throughout the novel.
Over the years I’ve talked with writers and musicians (and music historians) alike and interestingly I’ve found that many of them are kind of surprised when I tell them this is how I taught myself how to do it all, that this was the way it made the most sense to me. I think this is also why I find myself drawn to other creative people whose process is unique and/or unexpected. To me it gives their projects a deeply personal touch; it’s not just their style that gets imprinted in the words or the music or the art, it’s their own spirit. It’s what makes their creation uniquely their own.
I’ll be afk all next week, as we’ll be heading eastward to New England to visit friends and family, check out the foliage, and all that fun stuff. I have already created two mixtapes to listen to on the flight, and I shall be doing a full read-through of the Apartment Complex story just because I can. [I may also bring In My Blue World for some revision work as well.]
We shall return again on the 15th, hopefully with some nice pictures to share!
I’m still not entirely sure how I pulled it off, but I pulled it off. I managed to write In My Blue World (and start in on its revision) while writing the Apartment Complex story at the same time. Each book hovers around 75k words, give or take a few thousand, and each book in its first draft completed form took around six or seven months.
If you’d asked me about ten years ago if I could write two full novels in a year that quickly, I probably would have answered ‘only in my dreams’.
So how did I do it, anyway? Well, the short and boring version is this: two daily sessions at 750Words (one during Day Job breaks and the other in the evening), five days a week. Simple as that. [This is not a paid commercial for that site, by the way — I just happen to love using it for my projects.]
Going into more detail, I’d say that it was a bit of a trick. First of all, I had to make sure I had the drive and the willingness (and the time!) to dedicate to it, and that is a lot harder to achieve in reality. I had to set up a concrete plan — the 2-entry/5-day I just mentioned — and I had to make sure I followed through. Granted, working from home did help matters considerably, as I had immediate access to the site during my morning and afternoon breaks. So did providing myself a concrete schedule that never wavered: the morning break at 9:30am and the afternoon break at 2:30pm, plus the evening writing sessions that start roughly around 7pm. It’s the same reason I managed to write The Persistence of Memories so quickly.
Secondly, I had to ensure that I dedicated the same amount of energy and time to each project, and make sure they stayed separate. In My Blue World was written during the evening, and the Apartment Complex story was written during the day. This worked out well, as my mind was on one story during the afternoon, and I could momentarily forget about it and focus on the other one in the evening. It helped that the two stories are not related in any way so there was no potential confusion!
And third, I treated every session as a way to write a complete and self-contained scene, or alternately, a segment of a much larger scene I’d already planned out that would take a few sessions to write. I’d always think these out ahead of time, maybe one or two scenes ahead, so I knew which direction I should be headed. (Knowing what to write and how to start it was another issue altogether, of course, but once I got into the groove it worked out!) I didn’t worry too much about the scene feeling too short, or incomplete; all I needed to do is just get the basics down, and the rest I can fix in revision.
I hadn’t planned on writing both novels at the same time, but I had invested in both of them to some degree and didn’t want them to stagnate without ever being worked on. As long as I kept both projects separate and consistent, I thought I could at least give it the old college try. The fact that I actually did it still surprises me, to be honest!
Writing multiple projects in tandem does require a lot of patience and dedication, so I’m sure it’s not for everyone. But it can be done. A lot of writers do in fact work on multiple projects that are at various points of completion. It’s good business sense to have something new going while your recently completed project is doing the submission rounds. (There’s also the fact that some writers may also be working on some short-term freelance work as well. There’s good grocery money in that.) Now that I know I can do it, I’m more inclined to believe that I could make a habit out of it.
After four attempts, one ragequit, and still no official title, I finished writing the first draft of the Apartment Complex story! It’s a little over 79k words (about what I expected and wanted) and has been copied to a single semi-formatted doc file that I can work on. So now what?
I’m going to let it sit for a little bit.
Wait wait wait, I hear you say. You’ve been working on this damn thing for six months and talking about it endlessly about how much you loved writing it. Why are you NOT working on it now??
And that’s a legitimate question, and there are two answers for it. The short one: I’m about to start revision edits for In My Blue World, which is next on the release schedule. This one needs my attention the most right now.
The longer answer is that giving it a bit of distance lets me look at it with fresh eyes. Even though I feel that the AC story is my best work to date, will I feel the same a few months down the road? Reading this particular novel with rose-tinted glasses might keep me from seeing possible issues that need fixing. Alternately, I might end up being overcritical and pick it completely apart and ruin any joy I felt with the story.
My days away from my novel projects are also personal; I’ve just finished a six-month, almost-daily slog, so I’m due a few days off to do nothing except goof around. Play FreeCell. Fiddle around with my mp3 collection. Post fly-by blog entries. Go outside and take walks. Work on my exercise regimen. Vacations from writing are great! You should always take a few now and again, especially when you’ve just finished not one but two projects that both need revision. Your brain and body will thank you!
The novel will always be there until I come back to it. And hey, I might even have a title for it by then!
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.
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.
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.