More on the upcoming year, in regards to writing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about voices in my stories. It’s a tough subject to tackle, especially in a short-form blog like this, because there’s so much nuance packed in there. What kinds of voices? Whose voices? Am I talking inclusiveness of characters, or am I talking about the style of storytelling I happen to be using? Am I talking about dialogue or am I talking about language? All of the above or something else entirely?
Sometimes I feel as though I keep writing the same story over and over again, just using different backdrops. Granted, I’m reading and rereading and revising my own words over and over again for so long, to the point where it all starts to blend together and I can’t help but see all the similarities between a character in A Division of Souls and a character in Meet the Lidwells, two completely different stories with completely different settings and styles. What I have to remind myself is that I’m not hearing the different characters…I’m hearing me writing those characters.
This was one of the reasons I was thinking of taking some time off in 2019 before embarking on another novel project. I want to find a new voice within myself. I want to continue to tell my stories, but I feel like I’ve written everything I wanted to write with my current voice. And that voice has changed over the years, but my stories haven’t. It’s time to get realigned and bring that new voice to the forefront.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working out how I’ll do this and start fresh on January 1, like I always do. I’ve already done my Year End/Year Ahead post the other day, so I can just post my whiteboard schedule plans and call that done.
I do still love the holiday season, despite the weather and the crowds and the heightened insanity. The only thing I don’t love is not being able to provide enough energy for my writing. I wish I could be as productive at this time of year as I am, say, during the slow spring and summer seasons. I can still do it, but each year I wonder if I shouldn’t be reviewing my schedule and figuring out a new way to get those words out.
There’s also the unexpected distractions that usually make me irritable for the rest of the day; for instance, I’ll be reporting for jury duty today and thus providing zero productivity until I get home. [Well, that’s not entirely true. I usually bring something writing related to jury duty for reading material. Otherwise I’d be goofing off on my phone while I wait to be called.] It’s not that I can’t handle distractions or multitasking, it’s the “drop everything and do this instead” mindset that bothers me. I can’t stand having to completely stop a process to complete a different and unrelated process and then finally go back to the original process if I have time for it, while trying to figure out where the hell I left off. I say all this because that’s been my Day Job situation for the last couple of months and let me tell you, IT GETS TIRING VERY QUICKLY.
Anyway. As a writer, I still run on dogged determination and personal priority. I need to give myself at least two hours for writing projects — this can mean anything from the daily words to whatever major project I’m working on, and it can be split into all kinds of available time throughout the day. I can usually squeeze in more than that, but my hard fast rule is Two Hours.
It can be tough to work through it all at this time of year, so one does tend to need a bit of determination and a whole lot of stubborn will. Some days it’ll be fun, but other days it will be a slog. Some days I’ll push through and get more done than I’d planned, and other days I just want to log off and go read a book instead.
All that said, I also need to remember not to overdo it. If I truly am exhausted and don’t have the focus (or the mental acuity or the spoons or the energy, etc.), it’s okay to skip a day. It annoys me when I have to, but I have to give myself that time off to recharge.
I mean, back in my Belfry days, I’d been known to zonk out in my chair after staying up far too late working on stuff. I don’t think I need to do that anymore. Just get the rest when needed, and start fresh the next day. Everything will still be there when I log back on.
I’m still on schedule for revising In My Blue World, but MAN does it feel like it’s taking forever. Some days there’s not too much to fix and I get get a good chunk done, and other days — like yesterday — I have to completely rewrite a major scene. I’m about halfway through the novel and working off the revision notes I’d made during our UK trip a few months ago. There are chapters where the notes will say “good — lengthen a bit — tidy up” and others where the notes go on for almost a full page explaining what I need to change. Such is the writer’s life.
But I’m soldiering through. I’m not sick of the book (yet) and I’m not at the ‘oh god this sucks’ level yet (which is always a good sign), but I really wish I was a little closer to finishing it up!
Still, I’m still on schedule to release it at Smashwords sometime in February. The book cover’s already done of course. I might follow through and do a trade for this one as well, depending on if I can get interest in it.
In the meantime, as soon as I’m finished with this one, I’ll FINALLY be able to work on the Apartment Complex book! I might even have a title for it by then!
It’s all well and good to find your own comfort zone, of course. It’s always healthy to have that stable ground to come back to when things get crazy. You can hibernate there for a little bit and recharge, so you can come back out, rested and ready to go.
This is the same for my writing as well. I have certain comfort zones I stay within, at least for my rough drafts. I use them as a baseline to work off of, so I know precisely how far I’m letting the plot threads evolve. This is how I’m able to read the feel of my stories, how I’m able to control how they will affect the reader.
But sometimes it’s good to break out of that comfort zone, and head towards unknown territory.
I realized this when I wrote the Apartment Complex story; one of the reasons it wasn’t working for me was that I was trying to keep it in a stable comfort zone that it didn’t belong in. So instead I let fate and instinct take the reins on this one. The end result was that I’d created character styles I hadn’t written before, doing things I had never written about previously. I definitely wasn’t pantsing it; I knew exactly where this story was supposed to go. I just let the characters tell me how they wanted to evolve. They knew more about themselves than I did. In the end, the story ended up being, in my opinion anyway, one of the best ones I’ve ever written. I can’t wait to share it with everyone in 2019!
Breaking out of the comfort zone doesn’t necessarily mean doing the exact opposite of whatever your idea of living a safe, comfy life is. I’m not about to take up free climbing or whatever it is middle aged Manly Men are supposed to do. But it’s definitely given me a lot to think about in terms of my life at the moment. This is about getting rid of those old blinders and barriers you’ve been hanging onto for so long, and seeing how far you can go. You’ll be surprised how big the playing field may have gotten while you weren’t looking.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.