Play

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.

On Writing Multiple Projects at Once

nichijou shrine
TFW you plan on getting a lot of work done today.  Source: Nichijou.

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.

Letting It Stew

charlotte carrot stew

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!

Everyday

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.

Write every day.  It all adds up.

Letting My Writing Evolve

 

naruto confused
Yeah, I feel the same way sometimes, Naruto.

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.

Other Voices

I’d say one of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer, especially when I was younger, was learning how to give each character their own distinct voice.  By this, I mean letting each character sound unique.  [Let’s just say that a lot of my high school-era writing sounded like a lot of Jonc clones spewing bad puns, whining about how life sucks, and making obscure music references.  It makes for extremely embarrassing and painful reading…]

I learned to do this in different ways over the years.  During my film college years I paid attention to differences between characters in the numerous movies I had to watch for assignments.  In the mid to late 90s and into the 00s I became a voracious reader, not just of fiction but comic books and manga.  Nowadays I keep my eyes and ears open for even more unique voices out there.

It becomes a focus on how the author or director wishes to let the story unfold.  There’s often a reason why this character is written the way they are, and why they act the way they do. It’s easy to fall into safe character tropes.  They’re not inherently bad, but I try not to rely on them too often, as I feel that makes for samey characters and stories, and I don’t write those very well at all.

My personal way to get around this is often to go beyond the tropes and make them unique.  Twist them a bit.  Instead of the Disheveled Investigator nursing a hangover and trying to find out why no one’s talking about a murder, turn it on its head: Disheveled Investigator is stone cold sober for personal reasons that tie in with a previous case, and the murder is being covered up by a rival investigator who’s a raging alcoholic and also his best friend.  Et voilà, unique characters and a nifty use of conflict for your plot!

I’ve also made it a point to read a lot of different writers — not just in terms of gender, but in race.  I’ve long had a love for Japanese literature, and that’s expanded to Latinx, Chinese, and more recently, Arabic/Middle Eastern literature as well.  I love to witness how a story unfolds in different cultures; why they unfold the way they do, the tropes they use in their own culture, and so on.  It gives me grist for the mill.  [I should probably state here that I’m not purposely appropriating here; I’m paying attention to how other characters in other cultures work within the context of the story, and contemplating if this is the kind of character I could write myself.]  There is indeed a little bit of Method Acting involved, at least for me.  I like to get inside each of my characters’ heads a bit to learn how they tick.  And I learn a little bit in the process!

This process of learning how to write other voices other than your own can be tricky, but with time and practice, you’ll eventually get it.

 

On Submitting a Novel

I’m trying to remember the last time I tried submitting one of my novels to a publisher or an agent, and I’m thinking it may have been at least five or six years go, when I’d just finished the final edits of A Division of Souls.  I’d submitted it and other projects off and on over the years before that, with no success.

That part was frustrating, sure, but I won’t hold it against the publishers and agents.  I get why it’s so hard to get past the slush pile.  I got over it, and it helped me take the idea of self-publishing a hell of a lot more seriously.  It also made me a better writer in the process.

During our vacation a few weeks back, I reread what I have so far of the Apartment Complex story, and I was struck at how different the style is from most of my other novels.  It’s not as frantic as the Bridgetown Trilogy, or free-floating as Meet the Lidwells, or as fantastical as In My Blue World.  It feels like a style I could really sink my teeth into with future novels.  At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think this is some of my best stuff yet.  [Even after threatening to ragequit the project in frustration earlier this year, at that!]

Dare I say, I’m rather proud of it right now.

It got me thinking — maybe this one has a good chance of being picked up somewhere?  I mean, yeah, I have a wish list of publishing houses and agencies where this would fit in quite nicely, and that’s a good place to start.

So why now, and not with the other novels?  I think part of it is due to the fact that my previous work does feel rather indie.  I’d like to think they’re decently written, but they purposely don’t have that Manhattan Literary Sheen™ to them.  [I’m not saying that as a put-down.  I say this as a parallel to, say, the loose noise of early-era Dinosaur Jr or Sonic Youth on indie labels versus their much cleaner late-period major label releases.  I produced my self-published novels to be indie on purpose rather than to attempt to conform to something more commercial.]

Simply put, the Apartment Complex story, I feel, is a story that deserves a strong platform.  I’d rather not see it fall through the cracks due to my inability to get it seen by potential readers.  It’s a story that I truly would like to share with a lot of people.

That said…I’ll have to start doing my submission search soon, because it’s been ages since I’ve looked at a Writer’s Market to see who’s out there nowadays and who’s accepting and who isn’t, and what format they prefer.

But that part’s easy.  It’s getting the thing done and all cleaned up that’s the hard part!

Too Much Information

During a Worldcon panel the other weekend, someone had asked one of the panelists about detail in your prose; when do you need more, and when do you have too much?  It’s a very good question indeed, because it’s one of the biggest mistakes a beginning writer often makes.

I should know, because I’ve gone through both extremes.  Back in my school days, my writing lacked so much exposition that it read more like a shooting script than a novel.  A few years and a handful of trunked projects later, I finally got the hang of balancing exposition with the action and dialogue.  However, I soon slid to the opposite end of the spectrum: my prose was far too verbose.  It took a few more years before I finally found and stuck with a happy medium.

How do I handle keeping a fine balance between prose and exposition in my writing?  Good question, because half the time I’m going by instinct.  I suppose all writers have their own balance they’re comfortable with, and mine is achieved by being aware of my pacing.  It all goes back to my equating novel writing to songwriting: I go with what sounds right to me musically.

When I’m writing a scene, I’ll know ahead of time whether or not this is going to contain a lot of action and detail (fast beats, layered production, a high-powered chorus, and perhaps a middle eight to provide a quick breather before moving on again), if it’s going to be a highly emotional scene (slower pace, minimal production with detailed focus on the melody, a memorable chorus, and a solo to pull at the heart strings), or if it’s just going to be a connecting scene (short, sweet, and to the point, and the barest hint of a motif borrowed from a previous piece).

With this in mind, I’ll know when I need to fill out the scene with exposition or detail, or when it needs the barest of touches.  A connecting scene will be tedious and drag on if I decide to put an infodump there, but it’ll make much more sense if I spread it out over the course of an action scene.  Perhaps as a character slowly coming to the realization that the cousin was the murderer after all, and that all the pieces suddenly fall in to place and giving him even more reason to keep chasing this now-familiar shadowy figure in the alleyway.

Most of this is instinct to me now, because of my decades of listening, studying and memorizing different pieces of music.  I write the scene according to the pace and the emotion I’m looking for.  This is my particular style of writing so it may not work for everyone, but it certainly works great for me, and hasn’t steered me wrong yet.  I even use it now and again when I’m writing these blog entries; even if it’s only a quick five hundred words, it’s still worth it for me to make the flow and style enjoyable to you, my readers.

I can’t tell you exactly what works for you as a writer, but I think keeping all this in mind might give you an idea of providing your own answer to that question:  when do you need more information in your prose, and when do you have too much?  Listen to the pace you’ve set, and let it provide the clues for you.

All at once

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Yeah, I’m having one of those months.

I won’t go into detail, but it’s one of those times where Best Laid Plans are thwarted by no other reason than Unexpected Events.  And this time out I have a few personal issues that have popped up that are causing stress and frustration.  All I can do is deal with them, and balance them alongside these same Best Laid Plans.

It can be incredibly frustrating when this happens when you’re a writer.  You don’t want to ignore the personal issues going on, but you’d rather not put your livelihood on hold, especially when you’ve worked so hard over the years to make them happen.

The most you can do is soldier on somehow, same as if your Best Laid Plans were thwarted by the Day Job, or whatever has come your way.  For me, the most I can do is continue to find the time to push through these projects the best I can, despite it all.

Post-Vacation Exhaustion

that thing you do where was i

Note to Worldcon newcomers who typed in the URL from my freebie cards:  Hi there, and thanks for your interest!  I talk about writing a lot on this here blog, so if you have any questions on that sort of thing, by all means feel free to ask.

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Note to self: even with the best of intentions, heading out to a major convention fifty-plus miles away the day after a ten-hour flight back from London isn’t the best of ideas, no matter how you slice it.  We have been moving almost nonstop in one way or another for the last sixteen days.  Lesson learned.

We’d decided to take Sunday and Monday off from everything and just relax and catch up on what needs catching up, that way we’re somewhat conscious and rested come Tuesday when it’s back to the Day Job.  We’ve been on vacation for almost the entire month, having flown out of SFO on the 4th and joining the working world again tomorrow.  It’s only two weeks and an extra day, but it feels so much longer than that.

While I didn’t get any new words done on any projects at 750Words, I did do a hell of a lot of reading of both In My Blue World and the Apartment Complex story (as you see from the previous fly-by posts).  I focused most of my attention on the former since it’s first in the release queue, and worked my way up to about the first third of the novel.  I’ll keep this up until the run is complete and then jump in on the Big Honking Revision Process.

Which brings me to the following: I’ve noticed that my revision process has definitely changed over the past five or so years.  I’ve taught myself newer and quicker techniques, discarded my bad habit of flailing the story into shape, and paid a lot more attention to the details.  I’m sure I still have a long way to go, but I’m definitely getting there.

That said, I’ll be back to normal on Friday with more writing insights — I gave myself some time to think about new and different subjects to blog about here, and I hope you’ll enjoy the entries when I post them!