On Writing: Unexpected Ideas

puella magica homura
Homura Akemi from Madoka Magica

I’ll say this: pay attention when ideas pop up, even if they’re weird and unexpected.  Especially when they’re unexpected.

A few weeks back I was listening to the new live album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Wembley Or Bust — it’s quite excellent and contains a lot of ELO classics old and new) when their take on “Xanadu” came on.  I remember being a big fan of that movie as a nine-year-old kid.  It wasn’t just the music that captivated me — I was a fan of the band even then — but I was intrigued by its fantasy elements, of muses come alive.

Amusingly, it occurred to me that it would be quite fascinating to see an update/rewrite of Xanadu as a Magical Girl story.  And then I riffed on that a little: ELO’s next album after that was the cult classic Time, a time-travel concept album which also happens to contain the track “Twilight” (known in anime circles as the track used in the DAICON IV film).  Somehow that album would tie in as well.  I shared that as a tweet and didn’t think too much about it after that.

A few weeks later, and the idea is still stuck in my head, and I think I might be able to do something with it.

I thought about it some: a magical girl sent back in time (Time) to save the world somehow, or at least change someone’s fate (Xanadu).  She realizes she’s stuck in that time stream and can’t escape (Time) and has to come to terms with her own fate (Xanadu).  She changes the lives of a few certain people by teaming up with them (Xanadu) though she’s afraid she can’t completely connect with them (Xanadu, Time).  In the end she’s changed the world, or at least someone’s fate (Xanadu) and is finally able to transcend the time stream to return temporarily (Time).

Of course, I’m omitting the rollerskating and the musical interludes, but still…I’m a bit surprised at how easily this came together.  I’m still not sure if I’m going to follow through with it, but the temptation sure is great.

So yeah…pay attention to those ideas when they come up unexpectedly.  You just might have your next story!

On Writing and Stylistic Moods

anime snowing gif

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my recent new projects, and how much lighter and more positive they are in terms of mood and setting.  Not filled with Shiny Happy People, mind you, but neither have I filled them with Miserable Wretches.  I’m quite sure this is a personal emotional and mental reaction to things going on In Real Life, but I’m fascinated by this decision nonetheless.

The Infamous War Novel was written a) when I was a moody-ass teenager and b) during the last few years of the Cold War in the 80s, so you can well imagine how much of a funfest that book would have been.  Several of my trunked stories from that era and up to the late 90s were written during my high school, college and post-college years when was trying to figure out who the hell I was and what I wanted to do with my life.  So a lot of Gen-X whinging going on there.

It wasn’t until the project that became the Bridgetown Trilogy that I forced myself out of that rut and made it a point not to write purely as a reaction to Real Life Stuff.

In a way, though, I haven’t really shaken that off, not completely.  I know I’m not the only writer who’s done this.  Put it this way: I’m nerely making it a point not to write something pessimistic or grimdark, because that’s not where I want to be right now.  I want to write stories that are more positive in some way, to balance that out.  Granted, I’m certainly not writing Teletubbies-level harmlessness in reactive response, either.

Meet the Lidwells was an exercise in writing something purely for the fun of it, and for someone to read for the same reason, and I think I’ve pulled it off.  There are serious moments in that story, but they’re not High Drama.  It’s about the evolution of a band, as well as a family, as they grow from teens to adults.

The next project — the Apartment Complex story — is along the same lines.  There’s a reason I’ve been describing it as my Studio Ghibli story; the style is not just about the physical action, but also about the evolution of lives.

It’s kind of hard to describe, because it’s not exactly an American style of storytelling; it’s more inspired by Asian fiction than American.  There’s a kind of poetry to this style, where your focus on the physical movement of people is just as important as the movement their internal changes — spiritual, mental and emotional.  The pace of the story slows down a little, causing you to pay more attention to the details.

Will I pull this style off?  That’s a good question.  I’ve read so many books of this style over the last ten or so years that I think I have an understanding of how it works.  I hope I pull it off, and I hope you’ll enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

New Project Tunage

yuri plisetsky tunage
Calm down, Plisetsky.  I’m getting there.

Now that Meet the Lidwells is in post-production revision status, I can now finally move parts of the New Project to the front burner.  Yay!  I’m really looking forward to writing this one.

Which of course means switching up the tunage I’d be listening to during my writing sessions.  Being the music nerd that I am, I’d been thinking about this for the last few months.  What would fit the mood of this next story?  It’s going to be a much lighter story, at least in terms of mood — I’ve been describing this as my Studio Ghibli-inspired project — so I don’t think the epic epicness of alt-metal or prog rock that were my stables during the trilogy would fit all that well.

No, I think this one’s going to go all the way and attract a lot of dreampop and light electronica like M83, BT, Lamb, and my latest find, The Sound of Arrows.  That sort of thing.  And maybe some alt-folk?  We shall see.  I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.

What’s in a name?

your name ribbon
Yes, yet another gif from your name. :p

When I start a new story, I don’t really focus too much on character names right away.  I’ll give them a placeholder name that I think fits at least for now.  If it sticks, it sticks.  If it needs changing, well… that’s what Find/Replace is for in MS Word!

I rarely assign a name based on what the name means.  Instead, I go with how their name — and sometimes its spelling — resonates with the character that I’m creating. I’ll at least ensure the name fits the character’s culture, but that’s about as far as I’ll take it.  The character’s name, in my opinion, should fit their family’s dynamic.

For instance, Caren Johnson from my trilogy:  she has a very unexciting, stereotypical last name, as she’s supposed to come from a very blue-collar family that’s been in the police force for ages.  And her first name is deliberately spelled with a C and not a K, even though her Mendaihu name starts with a K, to hint that there’s a bit of a rebel in her.  She’s someone who doesn’t want to stick out, but she doesn’t exactly want to fit in, either.

Now, did I really think that at the time of creation?  To be honest, no.  Her name just sort of popped up when I started the book and it sounded right to me.  It wasn’t until a few chapters in that I realized that the personality I imagined from the name could be imprinted on the character.

Yeah, I do tend to do a lot of things bassackwards, but hey, if it works…!

Anyway…

For the new project, have the names of about a dozen or so characters.  All but one was created in the same way: just a name out of thin air that sounded right to me.  I still do this for the same reason, actually.  I usually have a basic idea of who the character is and what they’re about, so the name becomes a memetic or an anchor for the idea.

Sometimes the original name I came up with no longer fits and I have to change it.  I changed five or six names in the trilogy over the course of writing it, one major change taking place well into the revision period.  And that’s okay too.  Sometimes the name I come up with is just a placeholder, waiting for me to figure the character out a little more before I can assign a much better fit.  I’ve already decided to change the name of one of the main characters in my next project, because I’ve finally figured out his own family background.  Thankfully, the only places I’ll need to change this is in my notes, as I haven’t started the first draft yet.

This process of naming characters might not be for everyone, but it seems to work well for me.  I like the idea of a character’s name not always being a perfect fit; it reveals part of their personal background and fleshes it out.  That background may have nothing to do with the story itself, but it certainly could help reveal why they might act as they do.

Secret Future Project Outtake: Ghosts

A little something I wrote on Friday that may or may not have something to do with the Secret Future Project, aka the College Story.  Enjoy!

[Note: the College Story is not a horror novel, nor is it only about the hedraac (my vampire-like characters that are also in the Secret Next Project universe, though the stories are not related).  This is most likely going to be a New Adult coming-of-age story, which happens to feature many human and non-human characters.]

*

When I cross the quad, there’s always a sense of stillness there, even if other students are mingling about. They could be shouting political slogans, or grunting and shuffling about playing touch football, or practicing their scales and harmonies, or simply scuffling along on their own, but all that tends to get drowned out by the stillness in the air. Even on a windy or rainy day.

I haven’t quite figured out why I feel that, and sometimes I even avoid crossing the quad some days, and I’m not sure if I ever will. Perhaps it’s the ghosts of the campus, forever traipsing along the four corners of the flat grass, forever hovering in front of the brick buldings with blank books and styli long emptied of ink in their arms.

I can sense those ghosts. Not many of us can. Mostly the hedraac, but there are others. The faculty tend to ignore the ghosts. They’ve gotten used to them by now. You know who the new professors are, because like me, they get skittish when they cross this area. They’re not scared, just wary. Like me, they’ll eventually learn to cross the quad without a single worry.

I met one of the ghosts during one of my shifts at the radio station. I’d just entered Davis Hall and headed down to the basement, and I was just about to pull the heavy door into the station, when I stopped short. Hovering in front of me, maybe less than six inches off the ground, a young ghost of a student waited for me. He didn’t look threatening. Maybe a little overtired with heavy eyes and stress lines on his forehead, but other than that he looked like any other student here on campus. A weathered jacket, an overfull book bag slung over his shoulder, worn jeans, and very worn sneakers. He and I locked eyes for a moment. He smiled in response, and slid out of the way.

“Pardon,” I said, well aware that others could have just seen me talk to myself. But I don’t mind that… a lot of students do that here.

My shift started in another twenty minutes, and I always got there early to slide through the music library to pick out the evening’s play list. Another hedraac was finishing up his own show, and was currently running down his own play list. He caught my eye through the studio window and waved. I wondered if he could see the station ghost as well.

This was my third semester at the radio station, and I was slowly making my way up towards the position of music director, something I’d been wanting since I’d discovered college radio when I was a teenager. Some deejays are there for the extracurricular activity or because they have nothing better to do, but me, I plan to stay in the radio field as long as I can. I’m one of those music fans who obsesses over records and bands, knows far too much about them. I’m also one who loves the night shift. It’s not that I’m a night hedraac… I just like the ambience and the fact that I’m alone for the most part.

My shift started as normal and I set the mood by throwing on some of my latest favorites, a wide range of styles that I know most of my fans like to hear. Now and again I’ll get a few calls from them, asking for obscurities or well-known classics, and I do what I can to provide. I may be a music geek, but I’m not a snob about it. I’ve been known to play a few major label tracks now and again.

It’s entering the second hour of my shift when I start hearing the voice.

It’s soft at first, a quiet humming that I mistake for an open feed that I forgot to tune down, and after a few flustered moments of checking and double checking the faders, I realize it’s not going out on the air at all. It’s in the speakers, alright, but it’s not anything I’m playing.

It’s the ghost, and he wants to talk to me.

“I hear you,” I say into the air. “I can’t make out what you’re saying, but I can hear you.”

I feel a tap on my hand, which makes me twitch. He’s trying to guide me to open one of the faders to a test channel. I shiver, but at the same time I’m intrigued.

I turn up the fader in the test channel. “You’re plugged in,” I say, and wait for a response.

Looking for: Stories with a college setting

amherst college
Source: amherst.edu

Not only do I have a Secret Next Project that I’ll be working on once Meet the Lidwells is finished and released, but I have *another* story — set in the same universe as the SNP, but not related — that I’ve deemed Secret Future Project.

This SFP will be set in a Pioneer Valley-like setting.  [For those unfamiliar with the PV, that’s a corridor in midwestern Massachusetts known for containing five colleges (UMass, Amherst, Smith, Holyoke and Hampshire) and thus having quite a sleepy collegiate town feel to it.  I grew up thirty miles to the northeast of it, and it’s one of my favorite places in the world.  For those familiar with the PV, I can hear y’all from here yelling at me to stop talking about it so damn much.  Heh.]

ANYWAY.  I’ve been wanting to write a story set in this kind of place for decades, and I think I’ve found the one thing to write.

The only downside is that I think I’m a little behind the times in terms of my knowledge of stories set on college campuses.  When I think of college stories, unfortunately my mind either goes to John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, F Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, or JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.  I’ve read a lot of stories that are more recent, and numerous webcomics as well (a few like Agents of the Realm, Check Please!, and Questionable Content come to mind).  Movies?  Well, aside from the boomer stories like The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus 7, and Gen-X stories like St Elmo’s Fire and all those drunken-frat-bro movies, I’m still searching for more ideas.

SO!  I’m curious:  what are your favorite stories that revolve about college life?  It can be any style, format, or genre.  I’m definitely open to all kinds of stories, including LGBT/PoC-centric stories; I’m looking to come up with some unique characters, so everyone’s invited.  I’d like to get more of a recent feel of what college is all about nowadays, and I think I need to do more than just listen to the college radio stations that I already listen to.

Thanks ahead of time for your help! 🙂

 

 

 

Trying a little something new

hanks-aol

With my Sort of Secret Next Project taking up my daily practice words, I’ve been tearing down some of the boundaries I’ve had set up for ages.  I suppose you could say it’s part of the ‘own it’ mantra I’ve been using lately…instead of trying to find reasons not to write a certain scene for whatever reason, I’m forging ahead and writing it anyway.

These are passages that work within the context of Secret Next Project, of course.  It’s not so much about pantsing the writing as I’m letting myself come up with things that I would normally not write.  Here’s the thing: when I’m writing a character, I have to have at least some connection with them, whether mentally or emotionally.  I get inside their head and see how they tick.  This is all well and good, but there is the tendency to write samey characters, or worse, write Jonc Personality #483.

I tried (and I think mostly succeeded) writing this way for the trilogy, especially when I had to get inside the head of characters like Denni and Amna, who were major players with a hell of a lot of stressful issues going on.  I think this is also partly why I trunked some of my earlier novels, because I’d failed.

The Secret Next Project involves quite the menagerie of characters, so I definitely need to stretch my boundaries there.  In writing my daily practice words, I’ve been doing my best to set as few boundaries as possible.  In the process, over the last couple of days I found myself writing some passages that surprised even me!  And I like that feeling.  It means I’m doing something right.

 

…That said, it also means I still need to focus mostly on Meet the Lidwells.  Which means the Secret Next Project is currently also the I’d Rather Be Working On This Fun New Project Instead Project.

As is typical of any writer, of course.

Balancing

Goats-balancing-on-sheet
….yeah, I’m not sure either.

If I’ve learned anything over the last week, it’s that the downside to coming up with a secondary project to play around with while working on Meet the Lidwells is the temptation to fall prey to the “ooh shiny!” of the newer project, leaving the original one undone.  I love the apartment complex idea at the moment, and I’m quite sure it’s because I’m still in the world-building phase of that one.  Two daily-words entries and I’ve already come up with some neat ideas that I’d like to play with.

BUT!  I really need to focus on my other story!  The one that’s been on my mind over the last few years.  The one I can FINALLY devote my time to.  The last thing I need right now is another distraction!

So how to handle this sort of thing?  All writers fall prey to it sooner or later…the rogue new idea that tempts you and won’t leave you alone, and you know damn well that if you don’t write it down RIGHT NOW it’ll be lost forever.  Often to the detriment of any other deadlines you might be working on at that moment.

Well…I’ve learned that there’s got to be a bit of balance.  From past experience, the worst thing I can do with a completely new idea is to try to create an entire novel out of it.  I definitely don’t have the whole story and its universe in my head at that point.  The end result will be a lot of making stuff up as I go along, thus needing a hell of a lot of revision on the back end.  It’s one of the reasons the trilogy project took so damn long.

I wrote outtakes of Meet the Lidwells via my daily practice words, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the final version.   And I wrote it while I was rewriting and revising the trilogy, so I put just enough into it to keep it alive until it came time for it to be my main project.

I’m doing the same with this new story idea.  Right now I’m looking at it from a workshop level, throwing stuff at it to see what works.  Coming up with characters, names, settings, and other background details that I can reference a little later.  And I’m sure sometime within the next few months I might even draw a layout of the main setting, maybe even some of the characters.  Bits will change along the way.  It’s all up in the air right now, malleable.

And that’s just for fun, at the moment.

The heavy work is on Lidwells, and that’s where it’ll remain until it’s done.  That’s my evening writing work, the stuff I’ll treat more seriously.  Attending to details, focusing on the feel of the story in my head, contemplating what needs work and what needs excision.  And besides…this one has a deadline that I don’t want to break.  If I have to put New Shiny Idea aside to devote more time to Lidwells to get it done on time, so be it.

Finding that balance is a bit of crazy work, but I believe I can get it done.

 

Rough Draft: Untitled New Project

For your enjoyment…something I wrote Thursday afternoon for my daily 750 Words.  It’s a rough draft of an idea I’ve had for the past month or so.  The setting is an apartment complex in a suburb of a sprawling mega-city, where its tenants are of all kinds: humans, aliens, monsters, mythical beasts.  It’s a Studio Ghibli-inspired story about a young kid living at this complex (whose family owns and runs it) and his adventures meeting all kinds of beings, getting to know their lives, eccentricities, and maybe even starting a few friendships in the process.

This is most likely going to be my next project after Meet the Lidwells, and I’m looking forward to writing and self-pubbing it.

I’ve put the passage under this here cut.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

 

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