Comes and goes

Madara coutesy of Naruto

The other day I was thinking about how my list of active story and project ideas seems to fluctuate. This time last year I felt kind of frustrated and empty-headed for various personal reasons and trying to write anything felt like an absolute chore, but now I’m champing at the bit to get multiple projects up and running!

A lot of the time it can be a reflection of what’s going on with me in real life. This can be on the macro-level — such as my frustrations with the former Day Job — but it can also be on the micro-level as well, and it’s the latter I don’t often talk about. I do have days now and again where I just can’t get my shit together mentally, and working past that can be hard. Sometimes it’s because I’m heavily distracted, whether it’s by simple fun things or by lack of focus. I try to soldier on regardless, even if it feels like an uphill battle at times, but by the end of the day I might end up having completed a hell of a lot more than I expected.

The few times I’ve actually had nothing on my plate — or having cleared off a majority portion, such as when I’d finished and released the Bridgetown Trilogy — can feel a bit unnerving. With the trilogy done and away by 2017 (just in time for a twentieth anniversary of its creation), it took me a long time to get used to not having a major epic project constantly in the works. This was precisely why I chose to write multiple shorter and self-contained stories…I knew if I tried writing another large-scale project right away I would burn myself out and fail. But that initial time of a year or so, when I’d started playing around with Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi, I focused on smaller projects. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to see them through, to be honest. All I could do is just keep going, day by day. Rewire my writing brain and create new styles and processes. In the end, I was extremely proud of all three.

Right now I’m actively writing two novels in tandem*, which I know I can do, having done it with IMBW and D&K. In addition to that, I have two further book projects I want to work on that are in pre-production mode (notes and ideas, maybe a few outtakes and a mixtape, but no major writing just yet). So right now I’m in a good place — consistently busy working.

[* – These are actually temporarily on hold while I finish the D&K revision, but I’ll have them back up and running in about a month.]

Do I worry about running out of ideas (or fuel, for that matter)? Not really. I’ve worried about that before, but I’ve always bounced back eventually. Something will eventually inspire me to start something new.

This time last year

Source: Makoto Shinkai’s ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’

This time last year, I’d left the (Former) Day Job after what…thirteen or so years?…and took some time off to get my head together. I’ve been thinking about just how frustrated and angry I’d been then, and for how long. The job had effectively cleaved my writing time (and personal time) to almost nil. By the start of 2020 I was barely writing anything worth talking about. I’d fleshed out some story ideas here and there, but I’d barely written any new words at all.

After that time off, I started from the beginning again. I asked myself several questions.

What made me want to write? What stories did I want to tell? What was my writing style? What did I no longer want to write about? Did I really need and want to write what I was currently working on?

And then I just…started writing again. Learning from the beginning again.

It took a few false starts, but I got there eventually. I was aware of my processes now; I knew when something wasn’t working, when something needed more work, when something resonated with me so much that I knew I could see this project to the end. I compared it to other moments in the past: instead of thinking if only I could write like this again, I was thinking this is just like that previous project I enjoyed so much. And I just kept at it.

It’s been a year, and right now I have a full stove with things on many burners: a submission-ready revision of Diwa & Kaffi, the fourth Mendaihu Universe story, a new project based on the work I’d done in those final Day Job Days, and a few possibilities I’m yet to start work on. I’m still working for a replacement Day Job — preferably one in the city that doesn’t maliciously carve away at my cherished writing time — and I’m actively getting in better shape. I’ve been extremely busy, but in a good way. A way that challenges me the way I love to be challenged.

BRB, doing some much-needed revision

So yeah, over the last few days I did a Reread What I Have So Far of my current WIPs, which is something I normally do at various points of their production.

I often do this near the start of every project for a few reasons: one, to see if any of it holds up and holds my attention (which yes, both do, yay!), and two, to get a firm grasp on the story and its many moving parts. This second reason is the more important of the two, as it’s my way of establishing continuity.

And let me tell you, my novels ALWAYS start off with the shittiest continuity ever. This is mainly due to me trying things out just to see where they go. This includes character traits and personalities, extended family and friends, time of day, whatever. I used to say I was ‘flailing’ at this point, but I don’t think that’s a good word for it. More like ‘feeling my way’, honestly. After maybe four or so chapters, I’ll do a Reread What I Have So Far and see what works and what needs work. The end result is that Project A is going in an unexpected but fun direction and I’m quite happy about that, but I definitely need to get its continuity under control. Project B, on the other hand, is going a bit slow but the continuity is just fine. Woo, go me!

Added to that, I’ve decided that I’m going to spend a bit more time doing another revision of Diwa & Kaffi, because I’m taking a writing friend’s suggestion to heart: it needs more description. Not a lot, but after doing a Reread after distancing myself from it a little bit, those bare spots definitely stick out a lot more now. There aren’t going to be any major revision issues with this one, no inserts or deletions…this one’s just to give it a bit more needed meat to it.

So yeah, this is going to be my job in the next couple of weeks. My Writer Brain of course is a bit irritated because I won’t get any new words out for a while, but it’s the price I have to pay. I’ll get back to those new words soon enough.

That idea that just won’t go away

Image courtesy of Depeche Mode

I had this idea for a coming-of-age-in-the-80s story back in the 80s, of course. It had numerous titles and unfinished outtakes, one sort-of complete extremely rough draft, and countless attempts at restarts over the years that all ended up in the trunk. Then I posted a short memoir about that time of my life on my LiveJournal. Then I had an idea to write about the music of that era that I loved so much…which has been on the backburner and in the trunk for a good number of years now, even though I named my music blog after it.

And now, thanks to the imminent release of the movie Shoplifters of the World (a ‘one crazy night’ film based on city kids shocked by the breakup of the Smiths in late 1987) and my, shall we say, adverse reaction to the trailer (this is totally not how I remember the 80s being, at least in central Massachusetts at any rate), I’m contemplating reviving the idea AGAIN.

Considering that I’m already writing two novels, I’m not sure if I have the time or the brainspace for a third — although my brain is of course responding with ‘you never know until you try’. I’m not taking it too seriously right now, but I’m playing around with how I’d properly work on it so it’s a sustainable project and not just another moody roman à clef. I want it to be enjoyable and relatable. I want it to be funny as well as emotional. I want it to show that you can write a story about outsider kids in a small town finding and supporting each other without having to resort to the tired trope of drugs, sex and ennui. And of course I want it to have a killer soundtrack filled with all my favorite college rock favorites and some great obscurities!

It’s one of those ideas that keeps kicking at my shins and demanding attention even when I should be focusing on the other two projects I have going. I’ve already contemplated using the currently-neglected 750Words platform to plan it out (or alternately, going full lo-fi to set the mood by working it out with notebooks and index cards). And I’m even thinking of writing it in tandem with a fourth project: the long-delayed Walk in Silence music book itself. And more to the point, it’s an old project that I’ve always put aside mainly because I’d never quite figured out how to approach it. But now that I have the time and the inclination, it’s tempting me more than ever.

I’m not promising anything, but we’ll see where this takes me…

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!