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!

Post-Thanksgiving Haze

Luffy eating
This may have been me yesterday.

D’OH!  I seem to have completely forgotten to write and schedule a post for today.  It’s been such a weird week that it completely slipped my mind.  And being that it’s (hopefully) going to be a quiet day here at the Day Job, hopefully I can take care of other things that slipped my mind and/or didn’t have time for.

Such as making some headway on the Apartment Complex story outline.  I finished the initial revision run-through for Meet the Lidwells just the other day, and I’m letting it simmer for a few days before I go through it one more time…so this is the perfect time to kickstart that next project.  [I do need to futz with the MtL cover some more, but I think I’ll do that on the weekend when I have more time and space to breathe.  I know what I want, I’m just having a hell of a time trying not to make it look like it’s a craptacular botch job finished in five minutes on Photoshop.]

I’m hoping things quiet down on the Day Job from here on in so I can a) relax a bit, and b) sneak in some writing work if needed.  Things usually do start winding down post-Thanksgiving (with one last short burst in late December), so this is when I get to unwind and not have to stress out about all that much.  And I am so looking forward to that!

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.

 

 

 

 

Writing During Q4

anime yawning
I feel your pain, kid.

It’s that time of year again, I see.  When the Day Job teeters between being completely dead and boring to being so insanely busy I lose all track of time.  While I’m thankful that I’m no longer working in retail (or in a warehouse, or on a phone branch) during Q4, the bipolar quality of the job still tends to drive me crazy sometimes.  I never quite know whether it’s going to be one or the other until the day comes.

With my current Day Job, I’ve firmly stood by my rule: I do not think about the Day Job once I clock out for the day.  What if I still have outstanding work to do?  Don’t care.  What if I — DO. NOT. CARE.  It has nothing to do with how I feel about the job.  It’s got everything to do with maintaining sanity and energy for things other than Day Jobbery.

It’s the only way I can deal with the sheer volume when and if it comes.  I work in first-in-first-out fashion on cases that come my way — even and especially if they’re labelled as OMG requests.  These are most often the ones dumped on us at last minute, usually because the requester has forgotten to forward it to us two months ago.  The only ones I’ll drop everything for are critical escalations (and even then I tend to be a bit cynical when they’re labeled such, because sometimes they’re really not).

All this is so I still have that reserve of energy at the end of the day to work on my writing.  You know how I get when I miss a day due to circumstances beyond my control…I get irritable and cranky.  So even if my beloved writing time is spent working on minutiae or revision or low-level preparation for an upcoming project, I’ll at least have gotten that much further.

With this particular Day Job, I have a very vague idea of when it gets superbusy:  mid-month (a few clients send big monthly files then), close to month-end (clients trying to make their metrics), and end-of-quarter (tax season).  And I know that once the last few weeks of December roll around, it’s mostly about wrapping things up, finishing off outstanding queries, and taking it easy for a bit until mid-January.

That’s the trick, at least for me: having at least a vague idea of what to expect on the Day Job over the course of the month, so I can plan accordingly.  [Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll spend the first of those quiet, dead days by goofing off.  I figure I’ve earned a bit of a respite, though!]  It’s the only way I can keep up with my writing schedule without tiring myself out to the point of exhaustion or illness.

It’s not ideal, but hey, it’s a paycheck, and I’m willing to work around it.

 

 

 

Keeping Metrics

anime-flipping-pages-notebook-animated-gif

I have a small calendar notebook on my desk that I update on a daily basis; it’s where I log my word counts, blog entries, journal entries, and anything else creative.  It’s something I’ve done off and on for years since the Belfry days.  There’s no real reason for it other than I’m curious to see how much work I’ve done over the course of a certain stretch of time.

I do this because, like most creatives, I feel like I barely get anything done on any given day!  This logging of work actually gives me a little dose of reality to combat that.  I may grouse that I only got four hundred words done on a novel project (I’m not happy unless I get at least 500), but when I look at the day’s progress, I see that I’ve also written 800 words on the 750Words.com site relating to another project, maybe a few hundred words on writing blog post that’s not due until next week (like this one, for instance) plus a few hundred more for a music blog post, and cleaned up emails.  And maybe noodled around on my guitar for a bit as well.

And it all adds up, because I’m pretty consistent about it.  Hitting 500-600 novel words nearly every day for six months got me finishing Meet the Lidwells in record time.  And with all those outtakes and notes on the 750, I’ve got a serious amount of worldbuilding done for the Next Project already.

So yeah.  Sometimes I need a slap upside the head to show that I’m doing a ton of work, it’s just spread out over five or six different things.

Writing the End

the end

The beginnings of my novels and stories usually get the most revision, mainly due to the fact that there’s a bit of flailing involved.  I’m still trying to figure out the voice and the focus of the story, so there’s going to be a lot of dead-ends and extraneous filler that gets cut out, once I find my footing.

The endings, on the other hand, can go either way.  Usually I know exactly where I want to stop; it’s just a matter of laying out how I’m going to get there.  It’s a balancing game at that point…I don’t want to rush it, nor do I want to pad it out with unnecessary rambling.

I’ve made all kinds of errors in my years of learning how to write stories. I’ve written corny cliffhangers, implausible wrap-ups, unimportant ‘where are they now’ passages, and everything in between.  [I can proudly say I have yet to write an ‘…and then he woke up, and it was all a dream” ending.  Even I have my standards!]  I usually spend as much time focusing on nailing the end as I do nailing the most important climactic scenes that come before it.  I want to do it just right.  Or right enough, where it can be fine-tuned in revision.

With Meet the Lidwells — I’m currently writing the last chapter at this time, and I should be done most likely this week or next — the ending has definitely been a tough one.  As this is a story written in the format of a music biography, I can’t give it a nice poetic ending, or a roll-credits ending.  Those books tend to resolve themselves in a slightly different way.  The focus characters go on with their lives and careers, so this ending has to be more of an emotional closure.  That part of their lives is over now, and they’ve moved on.  And that’s been a hell of a tough one to capture just right.

I’m not looking to nail the ending perfectly, at least not right now.  But when revision comes along, hopefully I’ll be able to do it justice.

Anime Nights

A. and I decided to restart our Anime Nights, something we used to do at our old place in North Beach but hadn’t done in ages since.  I’ve always been a huge fan of anime since the mid-90s, though my watching habits always tend to come and go, depending on how much time I can devote to it and when it’s available. I was a huge fan of Cartoon Network’s Toonami back in the ’00s, and it introduced me to some great titles like Naruto (of which I’m still a fan), One Piece and more. We would also rent out anime through Netflix, checking up on some great titles like Haibane Renmei, Ergo Proxy and Trigun.

I kind of let it go for the last few years, mainly due to wanting to focus on finishing and publishing the trilogy, and also needing to get myself back into a consistent writing habit.  But lately I’ve come to realize that maybe I should at least take a night off and watch more of the things that inspire my writing in the first place.  Maybe in the process I’ll be inspired once more by newer, different stories.

Last night’s viewing, courtesy of Funimation, was finally catching up with Yuri!!! on Ice, which I believe all of our otaku friends have already seen when it was first released not that long ago.  It’s a lot of fun to watch (and I now understand the plentiful shipping that went on back then).

I should also point out this was a great example (one of many) of why I love anime so much: it’s a cartoon series about competitive figure skating. It proves you can write a compelling story about pretty much anything, whether it’s about sports or cooking or high school girls starting a rock group. As a writer, it reminds me that no idea is too weird or too corny or too goofy.  It really is the storytelling that counts.

It’s also made me think about finite serial storytelling. For instance, something like Cowboy Bebop. It tells a specific story over the course of its twenty some-odd episodes and its film, but it also has many shorter stories within the span of each episode. That gave me a lot to think about as a writer; it made me rethink how to interweave the main story arc around several smaller subplot arcs.

[I should add that I recently rewatched an episode while on our flight home from Boston, and realized just how great that show really is; I definitely need to watch it again.]

Then of course there’s my favorite movie of this year, hands down: your name.

I’m totally a fanboy for this film, because a) it’s beautifully made with some absolutely stunning shots, and b) its storytelling is amazingly detailed (I pick up more bits the more I watch it) and woven together in a really creative way. On the surface it looks like a girly ‘star-crossed lovers’ story but it’s not. I’ve watched it three times already this year (twice during our UK trip earlier this year) and I’m pretty sure I’ll watch it again before the year is over, just to study the storytelling.

So yeah…I’m looking forward to watching more anime in the coming months again.  It’s not only fun, it almost always inspires me to come up with new story ideas and storytelling styles.

Writing Econo

The great 80s punk band Minutemen from San Pedro, CA had a wonderful motto: “we jam econo.”  Tight playing, minimalist lyrics, dispensing with frivolous musical wankery.  Economical writing, playing and touring, in other words. Their songs rarely hit the two minute mark; many were even under the one minute mark.  [Despite the brevity of their songs, they state their name was actually making fun of the 60s rightwing fringe group of the same name.]

I wrote Meet the Lidwells with the same idea in mind; after the sprawl of the trilogy, I wanted to ‘write econo’ — dispense with as much subplotting as I could, tighter writing, constantly pushing the story along.  As of this post, I’m writing the last chapter of the first draft.  It looks like I may even complete the novel within the next week or so.

I started it on 28 April (not including a few weeks’ worth of outlining on index cards, as well as outtakes on 750 Words), and if I end it by the end of October, that’ll be exactly six months.  Its word count is around 75k, and by the time I revise it, it’ll probably be just a little higher.  If I play my cards right I might even be able to have it up on Smashwords and Amazon by the end of the year.

Those are new records for me, I think.

As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I wanted to try writing econo is to see if I could do it.  And if that worked out, then maybe I could continue with it.  I love writing sprawling genre fiction, don’t get me wrong…just that sprawl doesn’t always work with some of my ideas.  [Another reason of course was that after working on the trilogy for so damn long, I wanted to work on shorter, quicker projects where I could turn it around in a year or less.]  Sure, I did waste some time in between with distraction and procrastination, but still…six months ain’t bad at all.

I still have to revise Meet the Lidwells once I’m done with it, but at this point I’m thrilled that I was able to pull this off as quickly and as smoothly as I have.

 

Behind the Scenes

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria
Vienna Opera House pic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every now and again I think of how fans see their favorite writers or musicians or performers when they’re not center stage with a new project.  I get to thinking, this band has finished their tour, they’ve already released all the singles from their latest album, and they’re out of the limelight.  So what are they doing at that point?

Well, the 80s told us that all the bands were hanging out on the Sunset Strip and getting completely shitfaced and taking an apothecary full of drugs and partying until it was time to start the whole album-tour rollercoaster again.  Or something other ridiculous, overblown stereotype of some sort.

The era of social media shows it differently.  Nowadays, we find that artists are working at their day job or completing freelance projects and selling their own wares at conventions.  Musicians are bringing up a family or helping out a friend at a recording session.  Writers are slogging away, trying to make deadlines and heading out on book tours and conventions.  Any one of them might be taking a breather so they can just be regular non-famous people.

I think about something Paul McCartney once said about the length of time it took for the Beatles to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.'”

I sometimes also think about the time it takes from a writer saying ‘I’m working on a new project’, maybe giving out vague details about it, to the time they tweet ‘YAY!  It’s done!  Off to my agent/editor!’, to the time they announce that it’s being released.  Back in the internet age you were never sure how long it took, especially when some writers like Stephen King could have multiple books and stories out within the span of a year, while other writers might not see publication until a decade after their last release.  Nowadays you can follow your favorite author In Real Time.

I think this might be one of the reasons why some writers are always pleasantly surprised when their book gets a positive response.  They’ve lived with that book for anywhere from six months to a few years, and it’s all their own creation.  They wrote the score, they built the sets, they sang the arias endlessly to get them just right.  Perhaps maybe a few lucky backstage friends got to beta read.  They or their production crew (their agent and/or publisher) may have even done the artwork for the program.  They put it in the hands of their agent, in hopes that someone will be interested.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a one-person show almost all the way to the end.  And when they get there, they’re so immersed in their story that they’re really not entirely sure how the public will react.

It’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the creative arts; you create something for the public to enjoy, and yet you’re never completely certain if you’ve done it right until they see it.  But if you’re lucky, you have, and all that work will have been worth it.

Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?

high fidelity bruce

Best Laid Plans were once again thwarted, and I’m pretty sure it was because they weren’t Best Laid after all.  I seem to have forgotten to take into account vacation days off, busy Day Job days, and other events.  But that’s okay!  I’m back, we have nothing of import on the schedule for the next few weeks — in fact, I have today off and other than going around the corner to go see Napping Princess at the 4-Star, I have the entire day to get caught up on things.  Sounds good to me!

[Update: My movie plan was not so much thwarted but delayed today.  As you may have heard, there are currently some nasty wildfires burning north of us, and late last night much smoke drifted our way.  This caused me to barely get any sleep, so I wasn’t really up to seeing a film today.  Perhaps next weekend if it’s still there!]

One good thing that’s come out of this sort of thing is that I no longer feel like a failure.  Sure, the frustration of going past deadline and not hitting my goals as quickly as I’d like is still there, but Everything Is Not Ruined Forever.  Just gotta get up, brush myself off, and start again.

I’m nearing the end of the first draft of Meet the Lidwells and I hope to get it done by the end of this month, at which time I’ll start revisions.  I’m not sure how long that’ll be, but hopefully I can give it a quick turnaround (there won’t be nearly as much triage as I had with the trilogy) and get it out by the end of the year.  Here’s to hoping!

Onward and upward.  Only way to go!