On writing the magnum opus

twin peaks

There’s an interesting conversation on Twitter going on, mainly between webcomic artists, about working on a magnum opus right out of the gate.  Many of the comments don’t necessarily dismiss the idea of writing an Epic Epic of Epicness, but they don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out.  And if you do want to write it, then you’d better be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Me, I blame being a kid of 80s tv and movie culture, when ridiculous bombast was de rigeur.  I also blame my mid-90s stretch of reading multiple Stephen King books (the ones like The Stand and others that can also be used as doorstops and paperweights).  I didn’t just want to write an exciting novel, I wanted it to be EPIC.  Something big and exciting.  Because it was what I knew, thanks to Red Dawn and Die Hard and Rambo and Schwarzenegger and wrestling and pretty much anything Russell Mulcahy ever directed (including those Duran Duran videos).  I refer to my first completed novel as the Infamous War Novel deliberately because it’s over the top epic in idea, if not scope or length.

When I started writing True Faith in 1994, it was very much the same.  My ex-gf and I had even come up with a detailed timeline that would encompass multiple novels.  This was going to be a multi-book, multi-year project.  Then in 1997 when I started The Phoenix Effect, it too was to be a big story in a big universe.

Which brings me to the Bridgetown trilogy…

See where I’m going with this?

It seemed that with every project I started, it would end up being a Magnum Opus.  I even used that as an excuse to say that I was incapable of writing a short story or coming up with a one-book novel idea, because I had no idea how to think small.  It took a good twenty years of my life from origin to finish for the Bridgetown trilogy to see the light of day.  And that is precisely why, by 2016, I was already committed to writing smaller projects.  I knew I could write solo stories; I just needed to learn how to do it.

Writing a magnum opus is very tempting to a lot of writers.  It’s the lure of rich world building.  It’s the lure of stretching your creative muscles.  It’s the lure of creating something huge that will blow away the competition (or at least the minds of your dedicated readers).  We often try to convince ourselves that it’ll be a blast, that the long years of toil will be worth it at the end.  Even if it gets released and falls flat, it’ll have been worth it.

I don’t regret spending all those years working on the Bridgetown trilogy, because I learned a hell of a lot from it.  I don’t mind the fact that it took significantly longer than expected for me to get where I wanted in my career.  But sometimes I wonder where my writing career would have been, had I dialed it back a bit (okay, A LOT) and worked on less epic projects over the years.  If I’d written standalone stories, maybe even honed my short-story writing chops back in the 90s instead of that one-and-done half-assed attempt.  Would I have made it professionally?  Would I have had more books out at this point?  Would I have gained a significant readership? Maybe, maybe not, who knows.

But at this point, that’s all conjecture.  Right now I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s writing, and that’s all that matters.

I’d say my own response to whether or not one should start their career on a magnum opus is the same as many others:  if you think you can pull it off, and you’re willing to dedicate all that time to it, then go for it.  It’s a worthy goal and it is fun, if time-consuming, and a lot of its success really does rely on luck.  But be aware that it’s not an easy-in to the field.  It may be a bestseller, or it may fall flat.  I won’t say avoid it at all costs…just know what you’re getting into!

On Calling It

cat throw away
Source: spoon-tamago.com

I’ve been frustrated with my work on the Apartment Complex story for the last few weeks.  Not the prose itself; that’s actually been pretty good.  What I am producing is stuff I can work with and revise.  I’m talking about the overall production.  It’s too scattershot.  There are too many gaping holes where I hung a cardboard sign saying ‘put something here later’.  I think I’ve proven to myself that I’m not good at writing out of order; I’m definitely more of a linear writer.

In short, I don’t think my longhand idea is quite panning out the way I wanted.  It feels like I’m wasting time.

I didn’t plan it out as well as I thought I did, and I’m paying the price for it.  I don’t necessarily think I need to revisit the outline; more that I need to be more immersed in the story.  It’s the writing style I’m used to and the style I’m good at.  By writing in a linear fashion and immersing myself into the story and the characters, I begin to understand what is needed and what I should avoid.  I’m also able to pay attention to minor details that I could use further down the line.

That’s not to say that I’ll never work this way again…I actually enjoy writing longhand.  It’s more relaxing, for starters.  I’m not focusing on a screen for hours at a time, for another.  Not to mention I get to write anytime and anywhere.  I just have to remember next time to start it when it needs starting, and not sooner.

That said… I’ve called it this past Wednesday.  I’m starting the Apartment Complex story over and trying again, this time straight to PC, as linearly as possible.  I haven’t gotten too far in the story, so I should probably be back up to speed by the end of the month if I keep up the same speed and dedication.

‘Calling it’ has to be one of the hardest things a writer has to do sometimes.  It’s definitely not a decision that comes lightly.  The biggest weight is the bitter truth that we’ve just wasted all that time on something that isn’t working for us.  Well, maybe not wasted per se, but it certainly feels that way.  There’s also the frustration of having to decide whether to continue or restart the project in what feels like the correct way, or to put it aside and start something else.  It causes us to take a good hard look at our project and make the decision whether it’s truly worth following through or trunking.

I’m already dedicated to the Apartment Complex story; I’ve been looking forward to writing it since I was in the middle of writing Lidwells. [I’m feeling the same exact way about In My Blue World, to be honest, and that one’s further down the road.]  I’ve decided I can salvage what I’ve done over the last month, and I can turn this around.

But it’s still one hell of a hard decision.

On Multi-Tasking

anime busy

One of the biggest changes to my writing schedule that I’d been looking forward to once I signed off on the trilogy was being able to multi-task.  I love working on a main project, but working on the same one for a long time (especially as long as that one) can definitely be detrimental.  I often find myself itching to work on something different now and again, and that certainly comes to the fore when I’m doing major revision work.

When I decided to write outtakes for Meet the Lidwells while working on the trilogy revision, it gave me a much-needed creative outlet to keep my Writer Brain going in a way that my blog entries and other outlets couldn’t.  If I hadn’t done that, it would have taken a lot longer for me to start a new project.  I’d have had to spend some time thinking about what to write, how to write it, and not really know if I have a viable story or a trunkable one until I’ve invested a lot of time on it.  Multi-tasking projects lets me cut out a lot of that possible wasted time.  The daily-words outtakes put the story idea to the test to see if I can graduate it to Main Project status.

This process worked so well for me that I’ve kept it going with the newer projects, and I’ll keep it going until it doesn’t work for me anymore.

Granted, it is a process that’s kind of tough to maintain if you’re juggling all this with a Day Job.  There are days when I’m amazed I can get anything done when the DJ kicks my ass.  The trick is to make it happen.  Find slow moments where you can write a few hundred quick words.  Use your work breaks and lunch if you can.  Worst case scenario, schedule out your writing days; one day for revision, another for new words, and so on.

It’s not a process you need to take if you don’t want to, but it works well if you have a lot of projects you’d like to work on, and you’d like a quick turnaround.  YMMV, of course!

On Character Development

polar bear cafe wolf tiger
Source: Polar Bear Café

Creating the backgrounds for characters can be both fun and excruciating when you’re starting out a new project.  You can come up with interesting, unique people to write about, give them all sorts of back stories — their background, their culture, their quirks, their powers and their weaknesses — but at the same time, they don’t exist in a vacuum.  You need to also remember that they’re also there to interact with your other characters and the story itself.  Otherwise they’re just placeholders, or worse, redshirts — the throwaway characters put there for the sole purpose of getting rid of them later on.

I’ve been dealing with this quite a bit for the last few weeks, with both the Apartment Complex story and In My Blue World.  A lot of the central characters are springing forth rather easily, and that’s because I already have fully-planned purposes for them.  A few of the other characters, on the other hand, are still a bit vague and need more research and planning.  I only have vague purposes for them.  By vague, I mean that they support some of the main characters, but other than that, they’re kind of inconsequential.

Granted, both projects are still in their rough draft iterations and haven’t gotten the MS Word transcription/revision yet.  I’m not giving up on them just yet.  They’ll shine on their own eventually, once I flesh out the story and get a clearer picture of who they are and why they’re there.  I just have to be a bit patient about it sometimes!

So how do I know if I can trust this character to blossom during a later draft?  Or will they end up being a redshirt that I’ll have to edit out later?  Good question.  Often times I don’t. The point here is to let them give the old college try.  I put there for a reason, so I just need to figure them out.  I’ll give them just that little bit more TLC when I’m revising; I’ll think a bit more about their relationship to the story and the others within it.

Eventually, they’ll become part of the main entourage instead of a throwaway.

On Longevity and Starting Late

 

traveling wilburys
Edited picture courtesy of @nealbrennan on Twitter

Some of you may have seen the above picture courtesy of a tweet from comedian Neal Brennan that came with the accompanying text:

Was talking with friend about how impossibly old the Traveling Wilburys seemed when they released their music in 1988. I’ve listed their ages at the time. For some perspective, three of them are no longer alive. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

While his last comment does make a good point, I thought instead about where those artists were in their career at that point in 1988.

Bob Dylan, at 47: 25 studio albums, 4 live albums.
Jeff Lynne, at 41: 11 studio albums, half a soundtrack, and 1 live album under the ELO moniker
Tom Petty, at 37: 7 studio albums with the Heartbreakers
Roy Orbison, at 52: 23 studio albums and countless singles
George Harrison, at 45: 12 studio albums and numerous singles with the Beatles, 11 studio albums and 1 live album

At the time their “Handle with Care” single came out, all five had had careers since the 70s, a few since the 60s.  This was a sort of older-generation supergroup brought together for the fun of it, all five having worked with at least one other member in the past on solo work.

Now that I’ve hit Dylan’s listed age this year, the fact that my own output is limited to three self-published novels and an anthology entry probably should make me feel like I’ve been wasting all my time to get to this point.  But interestingly, I’m not.  I’ve already made peace with having started my professional writing career late.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really.  To be honest, it’s hard as fuck to write a novel, a good novel, a professional-level novel, all while dealing with Real Life, Day Jobs, Families, and Other Responsibilities.  Pretty much all five Wilburys started out their musical careers at a young age and went pro in their early twenties.  Not all of us are able to dedicate all that time.

At 47, I’m happy where I am.  I worked my ass off over the last three decades to learn the craft, make all the mistakes and be the best writer I can be.  I’m glad I took that route using a minimal number of projects rather than trying to write hundreds of stories that may not see the light of day.  It made me the kind of writer I am, and it helped me develop my personal style.

And now that I’m at this point, I can see a much clearer future, where I can face future projects and not feel as though I’m stabbing in the dark.  I know what I’m working towards.  And because of that, I’ve cut down on my turnaround time considerably.  I could conceivably release a book a year if I wanted.  [I’m quite sure I’ll have those seasons of writing an epic similar to the trilogy that’ll eat up a good couple of years, but I’m thinking those are going to be exception and not the rule.]

So yeah…I’m fine with being 47 and being right at the beginning of my career instead of somewhere in the middle of it.  It means I’ve got a lot more to look forward to.

On Longhand: The Very, VERY Rough Draft

parks rec no idea

I’ll be honest, I’m not used to writing this rough of a draft.  I usually start the the first draft straight to MS Word and fix it as I go along — quite often I’ll draft and revise at the same time.  So why am I still slogging away with some of the most randomly disjointed writing I’ve done in quite some time?

Well, one reason is that this is the only time I can afford it at the moment, considering I’m still working on the Lidwells final revision and prep for release.  Another is that while I do have a lot of outtakes from the daily warmup words, there’s a lot of in-between work that I still haven’t quite worked through yet.  This disjointedness is being done on purpose, to dive a little deeper with this story and its characters.  Once I have a better grasp of them, the plot and character evolution gets tighter.

Normally this happens during my initial MS Word draft, quite often around chapter five or so, when I’ve finally figured out who everyone is and what I can do with them.  The rest of this draft then ends up being pretty tight and straightforward with not that much major revision needed.  The downside to this is that I then need to do said major revision to the first four or five chapters.  This can be harder than it sounds, because not only am I creating the opening to a story, I must also make sure that I plant enough seeds of ideas that will show up later in the book.

As I’d mentioned many times earlier, writing longhand is how I wrote the pre-trilogy Bridgetown story The Phoenix Effect.  It wasn’t just about ease of writing anywhere I wanted to, though.  I did a lot of making-it-up-as-I-go for quite a bit before I finally figured out the story.  The final version of that story is quite different in many ways to the original longhand.

This is precisely why I’m still digging through the longhand of the Apartment Complex story.  Once more time opens up for me in the evenings, I’ll be able to do the same exact thing once more: rough draft during the day, and transcription/revision at night.  The longhand is there for me to write down the ideas; the revision is there to make those ideas work, and work better.

Doin’ a Whole Lotta Nothin’

doing nothing
doot doot just sitting around

I had a vague plan that I’d do a bit of writing on the weekend, even if it was just a page or so.  I figured we’d go out, spend the day at Disneyland, have our fun, and then we’d get back to the hotel and I’d do some work.  I even packed the Apartment Complex story notebook.  If I wasn’t doing my daily words or my blog posts or anything else, I’d at least do something.  Right?

Yeah, we all know how that was going to go, even before we boarded the plane down to Orange County.  Heh.  I didn’t do a damn thing.  I didn’t even take it out of my bag.

But you know, I’m okay with that!  I’ve finally made peace with the fact that I’m due a few days off now and again.  I’d been writing for eleven days straight on not just that project, but on daily words, scheduled blogs, and whatever else I’ve been working on — on top of the Day Job.  But that’s not why I took the days off.  I wasn’t exactly exhausted mentally or physically.  I could have easily kept going with it if I wanted.  And the moment I admit to myself that I should take days off, I’m going to abuse that and not get anything done on time.

No, this was basically to accept that part of the process of writing is not writing.  I’ve gotta let myself just think about the story instead of trying to bleed it out of my brain.  I can instead listen to an album on the flight (The Sound of Arrows’ Stay Free, if you’re playing along) and think not about the story but about the characters in general.

That said, physically I’m still exhausted from the 8.6 miles we walked on Saturday and 7.7 miles on Sunday (plus the two today, thanks to travel through airports and whatnot), but mentally I’m ready to go come Tuesday.  Everything will be back to normal.

So yeah, I’m not too worried about not missing out on writing this past weekend.

PS – This seemed to be a perfect song for this post. It’s also a melody that keeps on popping into my head while writing the Apartment Complex story.

Sometimes changing it up works too.

pbc impulse
Source: Polar Bear Café.

The last few days at the Day Job have been ridiculously busy for some reason, and it’s all I could do to juggle that with my writing.  I’ve been using my work breaks and the occasional slow moment to get some daily words or revision or blog entries done.  (As it happens, I’m writing this during my afternoon break on Thursday.)  It seems that right off the bat my Day Job wants to scupper all my Best Laid Plans.

Well, not this time.

Instead of saying hell with it and chalking it up as another lost day, I’m going in the exact opposite direction.  Easier said than done, of course, but it can be done if I put my mind to it.

One thing I noticed was that trying to write longhand during the day wasn’t quite working out, as it was too much of a mental whiplash from the number crunching I get paid for.  So that’s been moved to the evening, and my former evening work — the final revision of Lidwells — was moved to the afternoons.  I saw a huge improvement almost immediately on both projects, as I don’t need as much concentration for revision as I do for writing new prose.  I may change it back once things settle down, but we shall see.

And as for the blogging and the daily words and whatnot…well, those are still floating around under the banner of ‘whenever I happen to have a few spare minutes’.  Sometimes I’ll write these during those slow Day Job moments, sometimes I’ll squeeze them in just before I start my evening work.  But they’re getting done regardless.

Point being, I’ve learned — remembered, really — that sometimes I have to get a little creative if I want to Write All The Things.  I say ‘remember’ because this is the exact process I used during the Belfry years.  Now as then, it’s a matter of committing myself to it and carving out the time.  If that means sneaking in a quick 300-word blog post during office hours, I’m fine with that.  That work email can wait another fifteen minutes before I get back to it.  I consider this a brief and healthy mental distraction so I can get back to Day Job work with a bit more clarity.

Looking Forward to 2018

bleach fireworks
Credit: Bleach

I’ve got a busy 2018 ahead of me, that’s for sure.

A good busy, though.  I’ve given myself a lot of goals to hit, and I’m sure I can hit most if not all of them.  A few will be harder than others.  Some will most likely roll into 2019.  A majority of them will take most of the year.  And I’ll be juggling it all with the Day Job, of course.  But I think I can pull it off.

The trick here is to have a long-term schedule going, which I’ve been playing around with over the last few days.  It’s a little like how I write novels: multiple threads going at the same time, fully aware of how to orchestrate them, put them in order, and make them flow.  It’s only taken me how long to figure out that I can (and should) do this with the non-writing part of my writing career?  Sheesh.

Anyway…I’ve got a novel to prep for self-publishing (Meet the Lidwells!), a new novel to start writing (untitled Apartment Complex story) and one, maybe two others to outline when I have the time.  I’ll be going to three conventions, with the plan of being on a few panels and possibly a few readings.  I’ll be resuming my photography for book cover and image library purposes.  I desperately need to do restart the document scanning (it’s something I’ve put off for far too long).  I’d like to record some more mp3 demos, maybe pull them together into full completed tracks.  And most importantly, I need to move forward with the Mendaihu Press entity, using it as an umbrella for both my self-published novels and cover artwork.

This is going to be a very complex symphony to orchestrate, and I’m quite sure I’ll hit all the typical obstacles along the way, but I’m in it for the long haul and I’m too stubborn to quit easily.

This coming year is going to be one hell of a challenge for me, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.

An overview of 2017

img_20171221_1548508657809012133565527.jpg
The Bridgetown Trilogy — finally DONE.

It’s been an interesting year, I’ll say that much.  Personally we’ve all had one hell of a bumpy ride.  I’ve certainly had my highs and lows.  And somehow I persevered.

Anyway, looking back over the past twelve months, I’m proud to say I went a hell of a lot further in my writing career than I ever thought I would.  A project that I started in all seriousness twenty years ago was finally signed off as complete.  I started not one but two completely new projects and sowed the seed for even more ideas.  I kept a solid blogging schedule.  I took part in panels on two different local science fiction conventions.  All while still holding a Day Job.

The Balance of Light e-book and trade release, and completing a long-term project.  That was the toughest of the three to revise, so it took me most of 2016 and early 2017 to finish.  Even the cover was a bear to get right.  But at the same time, overcoming the hurdles I faced on this one made me an even better writer; it taught me to take all the time I needed to get it right before I released it upon the world.  It was worth the wait, as that book went from the Troublemaker for a good few years to a novel I’m proud of.  And added to that, it truly did feel like a weight lifted off my shoulders when I realized I did not need to work on that project any longer.  I still miss it, of course, but I’m definitely glad it’s done.  Most importantly, I saw a very long-standing goal to its conclusion and I couldn’t be happier.

–Daily words at 750words.com.  I’ve been quite consistent with this as well, much more so than previous years.  I trained myself to use this site as a place for playing around with ideas instead of trying to force myself to use prompts (suggested or otherwise).  I just went with whatever popped into mind.  In 2015 and 2016 I used it to write an extremely rough and incomplete draft of Meet the Lidwells, and in 2017 I used it to plot out most of the project after that.  I’ve taken this month off from it for various reasons, but I’ll be picking it up again come January.

Meet the Lidwells!  This one surpassed all of my expectations, to be honest…so much so that I spent the first half of the project questioning whether or not I was doing it right!  This project hit a lot of goals: writing a complete outline ahead of time, writing a shorter novel, writing a story that had a personal connection (music), and writing in a minimal amount of time.  Because of this I have a minimal amount of post-writing work to do: some minor revision, shooting the cover picture, and prepping it for self-publication.  Quite possibly the shortest novel project I’ve had to date.

–Untitled ‘Apartment Complex’ story.  Having written out a few key scenes and plot ideas for this story using 750Words, I’m now working on the outline in the same manner that I did MtL.  That way when MtL drops, I can immediately focus on writing this one. This too has goals: to see if I can pull off ‘writing econo’ again.  I’m using the same process as the previous project, to the extent that I’ll play around with ideas on the project after this one for my daily words.

–Consistent blogging.  I wrote two different blogs twice a week for nearly the whole year, with very few lapses.  There were moments when it was tough, given that I always wanted to write something of interest and/or purpose, and did my best to avoid the fly-by entries as much as I could.  I also wanted to avoid repeating myself whenever possible; I’ll totally cop to writing the same damn nostalgia piece over and over, and I’m doing my best to break out of that rut.  And in the process, I’m learning how to expand my palette by expanding my interests.

–Participating in Convention Panels.  This was another big one for me.  I’ve gone to a number of cons over the years but always as an audience member, but never as a participant.  After releasing my books I knew that this would be a great way for me to get connected to the non-writing part of the business.  [Mind you, my very first panel was a reading, which went over well but I think could have been better.  Once I got past that first one, the jitters were no longer there.]  In 2018 I’ll be attending three more cons, and I’ve signed up as a participant at all three.

*

All told, I’m ecstatic with what I achieved as a writer in 2017.  It was an extremely productive and fruitful beginning to my career as a professional self-publisher.  There are some goals I wish I’d have hit, but I’m not going to let that bother me.  I’m definitely looking forward to reaching those plus many new ones.