First Chapter Flailing

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop.

What I want to do is write a perfect opening when I start a new project. A great powerhouse opening that reels you in, or alternately, a poetic entrance that captures your interest. Opening scenes that get stuck in your memory.

More often than not, however, what I get instead is rambling and flailing crap. And each time, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to write a terrible opening. Or no opening at all.

In My Blue World, I think, is the only novel I’ve written where the original opening is the one you see in the end result, but that’s because I knew exactly how to open up that story as soon as I started it. I knew that Zuzannah had to enter the world of the Meeks sisters very unconventionally, literally ripping the fabric of space and time in front of their eyes. It’s been revised of course, but for the most part it remained very close to the original attempt.

Meet the Lidwells, on the other hand, started out as a series of Q&A sessions between the band and the unnamed interviewer, whom I later completely edited out, leaving their voice only as section headers and side notes. A Division of Souls had three completely different and unrelated opening attempts before I returned to the original idea of Nehalé’s awakening ritual. The other two Bridgetown books also started off slightly differently. And nearly all of my trunked stories had alternate openings.

With my two latest projects, I’ve had to remind myself, again, that the only way I can really start these novels is to just WRITE THE DAMN THINGS and not worry too much about how the first chapter sounds. I’m sure I’ll be rewriting or at least revising them in the future, once I have a stronger grasp on what they’re about and what the story needs.

Which is why I call it First Chapter Flailing. I’m still trying to discover all the important parts of the story. What kind of tone do I want to set for the rest of the novel? Who is involved in the first scene, and why? What kind of setting am I looking at? How is this going to tie in with the novel as a whole? The problem is not that I don’t know how to write it, it’s that I’m trying to stick the landing the first time out, and I almost always fail in the process. I either start it too early or too late in the story’s timeline. And then I get frustrated and want to start over. I don’t mind wasting a bit of time trying to write a good story, but I hate wasting words and scenes I won’t use. I know it sounds weird, but it happens.

So how to combat this? Well, like I said: just write the damn thing. Don’t be perfect about it. Just have a vague idea of where this particular first scene is going and what I want it to achieve, and run with it. Have a mental short list of points I want to hit right away. Don’t worry about giant infodumps. And by all means, go ahead and give those characters a somewhat mundane conversation, because that’s the perfect place to drop hints on what will come later on.

There are a lot of moving parts in a novel, especially at the beginning, where it sets everything else in motion. Of course the first draft is going to be messy as hell. It’s always going to be crap. Maybe you’ll luck out and nail it first try, but more often than not you’ll be doing a lot of revision and rewriting in a month or two once you have a much better handle on the story.

And that’s okay! It’s all part of the job of writing. You can always forgive yourself afterwards for all that First Chapter Flailing.

Updates and Processes

I took an extra week off from blogging, as you may have noticed, as I felt the need to give my creative processes another rethink. Long story short, I’ll be updating this blog once a week until further notice, and will be posting them on Mondays only. [As for Walk in Silence, those will appear on Thursdays only.] I’ve decided I need to give a lot more focus on the two novels I’m working on.

Yes, I’m doing the dual-project thing again. Not on the 750Words site, mind you — I’m actually putting that on pause as well — but straight into Word. It seems to be working out well so far, even despite the usual First Chapter Flailings I often have to contend with when starting a new work. The trick, I often have to remind myself, is to just keep writing, regardless of any concern that I’m getting nowhere or writing crap that won’t survive the final draft. There are a few reasons for this:

One, this is a good way for me to get to know the characters a bit more. This is where I’m still feeling my way, so I’m giving them a bit of free rein to move around a bit to let them figure out who they are, and in the process give me an idea how the story will revolve around them. I did this with In My Blue World when I gave each of the Meeks sisters specific personalities (the concerned Diana, the curious Katie and the rambunctious Allie) right from the beginning, which in turn created their own plot arcs and character evolutions.

Two, this keeps me from overthinking it. Seriously, I have a terrible habit of overthinking my stories when I start them out. Overthinking creates too many boundaries that keep me from expanding on anything. I figure if I’m going to overwrite any part of these works, it may as well be the beginning. I can edit them out and reinsert the basic points of reference later on. I did this a ton in the Bridgetown Trilogy.

And finally, it creates an output flow that, after a while, can (and often does) become habit. After a few chapters I can usually nail that day’s work in less time and with higher word count because I’m used to reaching for that flow now, and I can easily pick up where I left off. This worked beautifully for the tandem-written In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi.

And in order to do all this, I need to give myself a bit more room to maneuver. Writing five blog entries a week (two here, two at WIS and one at Dreamwidth) plus Daily Words just isn’t working for me this time out, so something’s got to go on hiatus, or at least get cut down. I’ll still be practicing my music and my art, since that’s something I can do a half hour a day without providing too much brain power at this point. And besides, they’re great mini-distractions that are fun and relaxing.

I’m not entirely sure how long this change will last or if it will be permanent, but we shall see in a month or three, once I’ve been immersed in it a while. Thanks for your understanding!

Yeah, no.

If I’ve learned anything about being a writer over the last few decades, I’ve learned to notice when I’m bored with my own work. And unfortunately, Theadia is heading in that direction almost directly out of the gate.

BUT! I’ve also learned that this is a good sign. What this really means is that I’ve just gone in the wrong direction, which is completely normal for me when I start a new project. It almost always takes me three or four tries before I get it right. I just have to keep at it.

Why does this happen so often? Good question. I think it’s because so often I start with a pretty sturdy long-game story arc, but I don’t put enough thought into the short-game subplots as I should. This was exactly why Diwa & Kaffi stuttered to a halt a few times. It’s all part of the process.

So what do I need to do to fix this? Simple: start over. Think of the short-term goals and story arcs that I need to hit first before I can introduce the long-game arc. And if it doesn’t work the second time, try it again from a different angle. Start in medias res if I have to. Effectively what I need to do is raise the stakes a lot more than they’re currently at.

Recently I started thinking about why I’d suffered the same fate with Mendaihu Universe book four, and I can see I made the same mistake there as well. It had nothing to do with the story idea itself…it was that I started it wrong. And I think I know what I can do with that particular project as well, so who knows…maybe I’ll be writing more tandem projects again soon? Heh.

Onward and upward.

World building when you’re not an expert

My new project takes place partly on a space waystation, but I will admit that I am certainly no expert in writing hard SF where such things would be normal. I’m pretty sure I’d need to consult a LOT of people just to get all the technical things correct.

But to be honest? That’s the least of my problems, because that’s not what the story is about. Theadia will be told from the point of view of two of its citizens who live on the bustling waystation, which has its own city, suburbs and cultures. They’re just two working class kids who aren’t all that interested in knowing how to fly a station-to-planetside transport because there’s no reason to. It’s just a form of public transportation for them. They’ve got more important things that concern them.

I was partly inspired by the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers and to a lesser but still influential degree, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. There’s also a bit of Cowboy Bebop and Star Wars: Resistance in there as well, among other things. I liked the idea of a local space station/stargate hub being used not so much as a hard sf thriller but mostly as setting. Like Diwa & Kaffi, it’s more about the people within the station rather than the setting itself.

Of course, I do have the usual rules and regulations to follow, even though they won’t be visible in the story itself. For instance, a ship so big and in geosynchronous orbit with its local planet would of course be incapable of reshaping itself and achieving escape velocity as if it was some Robotech warship. There’s also the matter of keeping the balance of on-ship citizenry and visitor count stable, both physically and economically. I came up with similar House Rules when I wrote the trilogy as well; there are some things that can be done, some that can’t, and some that really shouldn’t. These aren’t arbitrary rules, they just make the fictional society, and the story, run a hell of a lot smoother.

Given the few ideas I have for this story so far, I don’t need to worry too much about the technical details. If I need them, well…that’s where additional research and outside assistance will come in. But for now I’m not going to burden myself with it. Right now I’m more interested in creating that on-ship society, its ‘city’ environs and even its traffic infrastructure. Most of the focus will actually be on the two characters and their friends and family anyway.

Theadia might not contain any zero-g chases or bypassing security in air-free cargo holds, but that’s okay…that’s not the story I’m planning on telling anyway. Our heroes are more fiddle-with-the-data anyway when it comes to things like that. Things that you and I might pull off. And that’s the trick, at least for me: sometimes all you really need to do is enough world building to make it realistic for your characters. The rest is just shiny and cool-looking artifice.

Starting a New Project

I’m happy to say that I’ve been consistent on the Daily Words all week so far, and I’m hoping to keep it up until further notice. I’m super excited to return to it! After backing away for a good number of months and for varying reasons (most of which I’ve already explained in previous posts), I felt I was more than ready to get back to what I’d like to think I do best.

What am I writing, you ask? It’s a new-ish project, something I’d been playing around with during the waning days of my Former Day Job. Right now it’s going under the project name of Theadia. It’s about two best friends who find themselves in intrigue much bigger than their immediate surroundings. I’d say it’s a mix of the lighthearted approach of Diwa & Kaffi and the immersive world of the Bridgetown Trilogy. Best of both created worlds! Heh.

This is the second new project of mine where I’m following my new and improved approach to writing. A lot of the processes are still the same — I’m still a bit of a pantser with minimal outlining, and yes there is already a playlist/mixtape in the works — but like D&K, I’m approaching the story organically by letting the characters tell me what the story is. With the Trilogy (and to some degree, both Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World), there was a set universe and I had to ensure the characters worked within its confines. This time out, I’m letting the two main characters discover themselves as well as the bigger story that surrounds them.

Is this a sane way to write a novel? Sure, if one remembers to set up certain rules and boundaries, as well as a final goal. Yesterday I wrote up some rules and regs of the place where a good portion of the story takes place. I also started building up the framework of The Long Term Plotline. This is the plot that I’ve borrowed from anime shows for the last few projects: the one that’s only hinted at near the beginning (which, on the other hand, focuses mostly on character development and single episode arcs) but grows and expands as the overall story goes on, until it becomes the main plot that drives the rest of the novel.

Am I worried it’ll crash and burn? Sure, I always feel that way at the start of every project. It’s either that, or I’m so excited by it that I crash and burn before it’s finished. But if I have faith in the story, I’m willing to see it through. I’ll know if it’s a success once I’m done.

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.

Decisions, Decisions…

It’s the question that nags at every writer at some point: what should I write next?

I’ve got two, maybe three projects idling in the background, and I’m not entirely sure which ones I want to start first. I’m not making a solid decision just yet, as I’m still heavily focused on this current revision phase of Diwa & Kaffi. If I’m going to do any prep work for any of these at this time, it’ll just be a few notes here and there or some practice words.

Each new project starts off a bit differently from the previous one, I’ve noticed. Meet the Lidwells started out as an enjoyable diversion while trudging through the massive prep work for the Bridgetown Trilogy releases. In My Blue World started out as a light adventure, and Diwa & Kaffi started as a serious approach at YA. I really have no idea how these two or three possibles are going to kick off.

And once I start them, who knows if they’ll see completion? Between the those three books and the Trilogy, there are at least three or four more projects that I’d started but eventually trunked. That’s always a frustrating decision, but sometimes it’s got to be done. [There are many red flags that will tell me when a story needs trunking, but the biggest one for me is when it truly feels like I’m wasting my time.]

The most I can do as a writer is just DO it, and hope for the best. I doubt I’ll ever truly run out of ideas. I might have a dry spell, sure — I had one of those about ten years ago — but something else will come along eventually. And when it does, I’ll do my best to see it through. And if that fails, well…onto the next project.