Back Burner Projects vs Trunked Novels

shikamaru sigh
What a drag.

As mentioned on Wednesday, the Apartment Complex project (and by extension, the College Campus story, as they’re both in the same universe) have been put on the back burner.  Not trunked, just put aside for now.  I’ll get back to them sooner or later.

So, what’s the difference between trunking a project and putting it on hiatus?  Well, for me, anyway, trunking is when I’ve all but made my peace with it and given up.  It can be for any reason, really: loss of interest, failure to find any kind of strong plot, or growing dissatisfaction with the project overall.  I’m okay with those outtakes doing little more than just taking up space on the bookshelf next to my desk.  Every now and again I’ll think about them, but I won’t do any more writing on it.

But what about putting projects on the back burner?  There’s many reasons for that as well.  I don’t want to give up on them, not just yet.  They still show promise, they just need a hell of a lot more work than I’ve given them.  More often than not I put them on hiatus because I’m stuck.  I did this with The Balance of Light, and I’ve done it with a few other projects as well.  I need to distance myself from the project for a bit so I can get a clearer head.  Maybe I’m diving far too deep into the project and I’ve lost direction.

Or worse, maybe it’s that I’ve got some really cool ideas for it, with a lot of nothing in between.  That’s the main problem with the AC project.

How does one make this decision, whether to put it aside or to put it away?

I suppose it’s different for every writer.  Personally, if every moment feels more like a chore and I’ve lost all excitement about it, chances are I should trunk it.  I’ve trunked stories that at one time I really wanted to write, but the spark just isn’t there anymore.

On the other hand, if every moment feels like a chore but I still think the idea is worth working on, I’ll put it aside.  I’ve found over the years that these projects fall into one of two columns: either A) I just don’t have the emotional and/or intellectual energy to dedicate to it, or B) The story is far from coherent in my head.  The Balance of Light was in column A, while AC is in column B.

If I’m at either point, it’s best for me to back away and get my shit together.

Either way, it’s moved to the ‘Backburner’ subfolder on my PC.  I’ll get back to it soon enough.  Sometimes it’ll take a few months, sometimes it’ll take years.

But I’ll get back to them.

 

shikamaru temari
When A. stops by and slaps some sense into me.

On Calling It

naruto shikamaru facepalm
I feel your pain, Shikamaru.  I really do.

It’s 8:21pm on Tuesday the 17th, and I’m officially calling it:  The Apartment Complex story is on hiatus.  On the back burner.  Put aside for a bit.

It’s been three and a half months of thinking I could write the damn thing.  I’ll get some really good work done, and it’ll work for about two weeks, and then it’ll crash and burn.  Each and every damn time.

It’s not that it’s a story I can’t write.  It’s definitely not that I don’t enjoy the story.

It’s that it’s not yet ready to be written.  There are still far too many gaping holes in it.  I don’t quite know what it needs, and just throwing more words at it isn’t helping.  Nor is trying to restart it again and again.  And trying to make myself believe it’s just a rough patch definitely isn’t helping.

I’ve decided, it’s time to call it.  It’s at the point where I’m just wasting my time now.

So.  Now what?

As it happens, I’m actually doing just fine with In My Blue World, so I’m going to continue with that as my 750Words project.  I’m really enjoying writing that one and I’m having minimal issues with it so far.  I’m glad I started that one, because that one’s saving me from feeling the “OH GOD I SUCK” that every writer gets.

Which gives me the evening writing session to do…what project?

Good question.  I’ll have to think about that.

At least I’m finally starting to go through my spiral-bound notebooks that have been collecting dust.

dbz midle finger
TAKE THAT, AGGRAVATING WRITING PROJECT!

 

 

My daily writing process, told in anime gifs

Trying to think through the scene I’m about to write:

anime-thinking-sasuke

What the inside of my head looks like at that very moment:

naruto screaming

What I probably look like at the same time when A. walks into Spare Oom to see what I’m up to:

anime blank eyes

When I suddenly decide maybe I need some brain food if I’m going to get anywhere:

spike spiegel eating

Post-snack, back to thinking about what I should be writing:

anime thinking smoke ears

SUDDENLY: An idea emerges!

fullmetal idea

And now I write.

umaru-kawaii

That moment when A. decides to come in and check up on me again:

anime blink blink

Kicking ass and banging that scene into shape:

anime ergo proxy

Getting into the groove and hitting a damn fine word count:

naruto killer bee

Almost forgetting to save my work. ALMOST.:

anime shocked

Realizing I’ve been working for an hour and a half straight with no break:

tired panda

Calling it a day, heading to bed:
anime-tired

Breakthrough!

doctor who brilliant

On Tuesday evening I finally had a breakthrough with the Apartment Complex story!

Two, to be exact!  One, I have a title for it!  Though I’m not sharing it just yet… it’s a special word in the conlang of this story that means ‘bonded friend’ and ties in with the main theme of the story.  I’m going to play around with it, tweak the spelling and the pronunciation, double-check it with Google Translate to make sure it isn’t a word in another language, and reveal it when it’s ready.

Secondly, on the same evening, I finally sussed out what style the story needs.  That had been the main hang-up all this time; I knew I was doing it wrong, but it took me multiple tries to figure out which style was right for it.  And ironically, it’s the same style I used in the trilogy — rich in texture, world-building and characterization.  It’s definitely an ensemble piece; given the theme, it kind of has to be.  SO!  Now that I know how to write this damn thing, I can forge ahead!

I have to say, I do love it when I get those breakthrough moments.  Getting to that point can be the biggest pain in the ass ever, but once I hit that moment, it’s worth all that hard work.

Changes of Influence

makoto shinkai tgow
Source, Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

The other day I was thinking about how my writing influences have changed over the years.  My current influences — the works of Makoto Shinkai, the novels of Haruki Murakami, numerous YA authors like Rachel Hartman, Susan Dennard and AM Dellamonica, and genre authors like Yoon Ha Lee, Ann Leckie and Becky Chambers — are quite different from the influences I had about twenty years ago when I was first writing the trilogy.

In addition to that, some of my old influences don’t seem to inspire me all that much anymore.  I find that particularly interesting.  It’s not to say their works haven’t stood the test of time; it’s more that what amazed me about them doesn’t seem to catch my eye now.  I’ve moved on to other styles and stories.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s partly due to the way time moves on.  What was breathtaking to me then seems a bit old hat now.  It could be caused by oversaturation — after all, Hollywood is certainly known for making a eight hundred different flavors of the same Explodey Action Film, right?  Or it could be overindulgence — I stopped reading dark fantasy and cyberpunk a long time ago when it just didn’t excite me anymore.

But there’s always that one thing, the make-you-stop-in-your-tracks book or film that changes the game completely.  The Matrix is definitely one good example.  Your Name is another one (for me anyway).  Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy are also very good examples.

That seems to be the only constant for me over all these years; the books and films that don’t just blow me away but make me rethink my own writing processes.  These are stories that are told, maybe not from a fresh or unique perspective, but are so different from the status quo, that it reminds me: you don’t have to play by the rules, you know.  They’re stories, like Your Name, that are so intricately woven with life (yet done so unobtrusively) that I’m emotionally and spiritually moved by the level of detail put into the work.

This constant is what influences my writing the most.

And the amazing thing about all of this is that, maybe five or so years from now, my influences will have evolved even more by something that hasn’t even been written or filmed yet.  Something will pop up that will make me rethink the whole game all over again.

I have to admit, I’m looking forward to that.

Instinct

dareka no manazashi
Source: Dareka no Manazashi by Makoto Shinkai

Meanwhile, the Apartment Complex story is slowly — finally — taking shape.  I’m trying not to give away too much, for fear that it’ll blow up in my face once more, but I’m feeling a little more hopeful this time.

Instinct is something that doesn’t get talked about when we talk about writing, except maybe in a clinical sense.  We talk about rules that we follow and rules we break.  We talk about inspiration.  We talk about styles, processes, all kinds of things.  But we don’t always hear about the instinct of a writer.

For me, it’s a very large part of how I create a story, to know if it feels right to me.  It’s more than just looking at a rough, just-written passage and feeling the frustration of how horrible it reads.  It’s more than keeping to the notes of future plot points written on my index cards (or in my head).  It’s more than knowing if I’m following the rules, mine or others’.

Regarding the Apartment Complex story, my continued frustration with the previous versions was that instinct kept telling me: this is not the way the story is supposed to go.  It was telling me: this is not the story you want to tell.  The prose was weak and the plot was forced, sure.  But instinct kept telling me I was going in the wrong direction.

With many of my projects, it’s instinct that tells me whether a possible plot point is worth it or just filler.  This is how I edit my own work, to some degree.  During the Great Trilogy Revision, I relied on instinct almost exclusively; I knew the story inside and out, so I could tell what was weak and need to be excised.  There are numerous scenes — many of them in The Balance of Light — that were cut for precisely this reason.  It just didn’t feel right to me.  In the context of the rest of the story, if it felt like a weak point, or a useless ramble, out it went.  But I was also putting the trilogy in the context of an extremely long single novel; I had to rely on instinct that what I was editing and revising in Book 3 connected on a deeper level to the other two books, and the entire story as a whole.

It’s not a magical thing, instinct.  But it’s something I’ve relied upon quite a bit over the years with my writing.  I connect myself to my writing on a level where I try to understand its spirit, if that makes sense.  Or perhaps it’s like music, my other obsession.  I understand the melody and where it’s going, anticipating its flourishes and quietness, connecting with its tempo and its ambiance.  And I try to sculpt the story into what I hear within me, waiting to come out.

It definitely took me years to learn this, but it’s never let me down once I did.

Wait, it’s April already?

nichijou calendar
What the year feels like sometimes.  Source: Nichijou, of course.

I think I’ve trained myself to the point where I’m not looking at a calendar and going ‘Wait, it’s April already?  I haven’t done jack!  MY LIFE SUCKS’ anymore.  Well, not as often, anyway.  Right now I just look at every new month as a way to start off fresh with my whiteboard schedule and see how far I can go with it.  I don’t even feel bad when I miss a day for whatever reason (even if that reason is ‘laziness’).  I just do what I can in thirty-odd day increments.

Typing this made me think of something I’d said during a panel at FogCon a few weeks ago, when someone had asked about the ability to get anything done when one already has a full schedule.  I’d told them about my whiteboard calendar, telling them that it’s not a matter of getting everything completed in one go; it was a matter of doing doing a little bit at a time, and that would add up.  Don’t aim for the finish line every single time…sometimes all you need to do is aim for the end of the chapter, or maybe even a few hundred words.  It does indeed add up by the end of it.  That’s how I was able to write 80k words for Meet the Lidwells in such a short amount of time.

I will fall back into the occasional ‘I’m not even close to getting any shit done’ stress-out, of course.  I’ve been fighting it a lot lately, what with my multiple attempts at trying to write/rewrite/restart the Apartment Complex story.  It’s partly why I’m trying out a rough draft of In My Blue World using 750Words; I’m tricking my brain into thinking that I’m being twice as productive instead of spending all that time freaking out over a single project.  [I’m actually kind of surprised it’s working, to be honest.]

So yeah, I’m not too worried that it’s April already.  In fact, I’ve embraced it — it’s getting warmer here in the Bay Area to the point where I have the window open in Spare Oom to let some fresh air in.  It’s also given me the impetus to get my writing work done early so I can get back into the habit of going to the gym after the Day Job!

It’s just a matter of taking it a bit at a time, apparently.  Or in this case, a month at a time.

Getting back on the horse

cat on horse
Yeah, I’m not sure, either.

After all the frustration of the last couple of weeks, I’m glad to say I’ve got my writing back under control.  I’m back to getting my daily practice words working on a rough draft of the next project, while spending my evening sessions working on attempt number four of the Apartment Complex story.  I’ve given that project a lot of thought over the last couple of days, figured out (I hope) what works and what didn’t, revised how I’m going to approach it, and I’m just going to go ahead and write the damn thing without any reservations.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered numerous false starts, and I know it won’t be the last.  That’s part and parcel of the writing biz, unfortunately.  All I can do is soldier on, one way or another.

Getting back on the horse can be frustrating in itself, especially when your brain wants you to be running full tilt from the beginning.  That rarely works out though.  Sometimes you just have to be patient and relearn the process to fit the kind of story you want to write.  Take it as it comes, and eventually you’ll suddenly notice you’re back up to your normal processing speed.

[Yeah, I know… I’m going a bit overboard with all the idioms in this post.  Sorry about that.]

ANYWAY!  The good thing about all of this is that I’m going in the right direction, and that’s the most important part.

Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again

One of the worst habits I have as a writer?

Trying to convince myself that my current project is going okay and just needs a bit of TLC and revision…when in reality it needs to be completely tossed and restarted.

I’ve been trying to convince myself — and you, the blog readers, when I mention my progress here — that the Apartment Complex story is just suffering from growing pains.  It was far from my best work, but I said that all my beginnings are crap, and I’ll eventually nail it a few chapters in.  I said that maybe I was just looking at it from the wrong angle, that maybe I was writing in one format when I should be writing another.  I said that I’ll fix it in rewrite.

Yeah, that’s all bullshit, and it’s about time I owned up to it.

I don’t hate this story, far from it.  I believe in it, and I’ve got some great things to say with it.  So I’m going to start over — AGAIN.

Which of course begs the question: am I trying to convince myself this is a story worth saving when it actually isn’t?  Well, no.  Most all of the outtakes I’ve written for this project using 750Words are of infinitely better quality, so I’ve already proved to myself that this story is worth writing.

I know exactly what’s wrong with it, and it’s what I call my ‘let’s go out for some hamburgers’ mistake.  [It’s named after an embarrassing story attempt I wrote in fifth grade.]  It’s a problem of static characters: I have great characters that I know I’ll have fun writing, but all they’re doing is standing around talking.  What little action there is, is forced and pointless.  I’m trying to steer this story in a direction it does not and should not go, and that’s a big problem indeed.

That’s not how fiction works, and it’s really not a fun way to write it, either.  When it happens, I’m hit with a feeling of disappointment almost immediately, that I’m just wasting my time and words.  It feels like there’s a big freaking gap in the plot between the opening and the second half.  I’m not doing my story justice, and to continue in this manner is folly.

So.

Time to start over.  Again.

Either that, or put this aside for a little longer and start writing a different project, like In My Blue World.

I’ll keep you posted.

*

Credit where credit’s due: Victoria Schwab’s recent tweet that she’d completely rewritten her latest project, Vengeful, was the impetus for this decision.  She’d originally written it last fall, only to come to the same conclusion I have about mine: this is not how I want the story to go.  She tossed that version and restarted it on January 10, and finished it 116k words later just the other day.  Kudos to her!

I’m not looking to hit that same insane goal in that short of a time, mind you.  I’m just looking to write this story the right way!

[Also: Yes, this is one of the reasons I took last week off from blogging.  I wanted to have a good long think about it first before I made my decision.]

Writing without a net

sw tfa jb

After three attempts at starting the Apartment Complex story, I think I finally have it under control.  I’ve nailed down the introduction of the characters, established the setting, and started them down Main Plot Line Boulevard.

That was a hell of a lot tougher than I expected.  Now for the fun part of writing the rest of it!

In retrospect, I don’t think I had as much of a problem when I was more of a pantser writer.  Probably because I didn’t really pay too much attention to such things as weak openings and so on.  I just riffed until I got the hang of it and fixed it later.  I’ve been trying to move away from that ever since, and let me tell you, it’s harder than it sounds.  I’m learning to trust my instincts more, instead of freaking out and getting nowhere.

The irony is that this is exactly what my characters are going through as well.  One of the biggest themes of this story is learning to trust someone completely and without any second-guessing.  In writing this story so far, I’ve been fighting the Writer Demon — you know the one, the ‘OH GOD THIS IS ALL CRAP’ Demon that wants you to purge all these words and take up golf or something.  But I’ve also been fighting it with self-trust.  I believe in the story, I know I’ve built up a strong plot and strong characters, so all I need to do is shut that demon down and forge ahead.

This is what I mean by writing without a net.  For me it used to mean writing in my old pantsing ways, but now it’s about moving forward despite all my doubts and worries.  It’s about trusting that I’ll pull this off, one way or another, and I’ll be proud of the result.

It’s stressful as hell sometimes, but the payoff is almost always worth it.

 

annette funicello
A NET.  I SAID ‘A NET’.  STOP THAT.