Kicking Myself Out of the Comfort Zone

polar bear cafe relaxing

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.

Letting It Stew

charlotte carrot stew

After four attempts, one ragequit, and still no official title, I finished writing the first draft of the Apartment Complex story!  It’s a little over 79k words (about what I expected and wanted) and has been copied to a single semi-formatted doc file that I can work on.  So now what?

I’m going to let it sit for a little bit.

Wait wait wait, I hear you say.  You’ve been working on this damn thing for six months and talking about it endlessly about how much you loved writing it.  Why are you NOT working on it now??

And that’s a legitimate question, and there are two answers for it.  The short one: I’m about to start revision edits for In My Blue World, which is next on the release schedule.  This one needs my attention the most right now.

The longer answer is that giving it a bit of distance lets me look at it with fresh eyes.  Even though I feel that the AC story is my best work to date, will I feel the same a few months down the road?  Reading this particular novel with rose-tinted glasses might keep me from seeing possible issues that need fixing.  Alternately, I might end up being overcritical and pick it completely apart and ruin any joy I felt with the story.

My days away from my novel projects are also personal; I’ve just finished a six-month, almost-daily slog, so I’m due a few days off to do nothing except goof around.  Play FreeCell.  Fiddle around with my mp3 collection.  Post fly-by blog entries.  Go outside and take walks.  Work on my exercise regimen.  Vacations from writing are great!  You should always take a few now and again, especially when you’ve just finished not one but two projects that both need revision.  Your brain and body will thank you!

The novel will always be there until I come back to it.  And hey, I might even have a title for it by then!

Letting My Writing Evolve

 

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

Over the past few years, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve learned an amazing amount as I evolve as a writer… and I’ve ‘unlearned’ just as much.  It’s not just the hard-and-fast general rules we all learned in school that I’m talking about, like the grammar and composition and all that.   I’m talking about rules regarding style and theme.

I think of my pre-trilogy work as me essentially learning the basics: in short, how to tell a cohesive story.  They followed everything I’d learned up to that point.  While you can definitely see a personal style coming out of it, the end result isn’t quite up to par.  I’m going by the rules, but I’m really not putting all that much of me in there to make it my own.  [I mean, other than dropping in obscure music references, inserting bad jokes, and general whinging about how life sucks.]

While my work finally evolved over the many years I worked on the trilogy revision, it really wasn’t until Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World where I think I finally understood how my writing needed to evolve even further.  They’re both completely new projects that totally do not read the same way the trilogy does.  And even more so with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve completely broken down any self-made barriers I’d put up in regards to style and story.

I tend to go through certain phases like this with certain aspects of my life; I’ll latch on to a new habit or process, or follow a new interest, and stay with it for a few years until I get bored with it.  This boredom isn’t caused by the thing itself; it’s that I’ve been digging away at it passively and without question until I realize it’s doing nothing for me anymore.  I suppose in the context of the trilogy — where I worked on the damn thing for almost twenty years — it was not just a relief to finally let it go, but to find a new project to latch onto, and in effect, a new writing process and style.

I’m pretty sure that in the next five or so years, I’ll have come up with some new writing projects that the me of today would never expect.  [The Apartment Complex story is a perfect example here.]  I’ve come to fully embrace the shorter turnaround and the shorter project that won’t keep me busy for years on end.  I’m still thinking of writing new stories in the Mendaihu Universe, sure, but they’re not going to be my only claim to fame (so to speak).  I find the quick turnaround much more exciting, and keeps my creative brain on the move.

I enjoy the idea that my writing continues to evolve.  I’m trying to get out of the age-old habit of telling the same stories over and over again, and this is the best way to do it.  I might still possess the occasional tell-tale stylistic quirks that make my writing unique, but the stories themselves will be different.  And that’s how I want it.  It’s how writing will continue to be a joy and an adventure for me.

More On Being a Healthy Writer

polar bear cafe exercise

I’ve said this before:  one of the biggest problems with being a writer, especially one with a Day Job, is that you’re sitting on your butt for long stretches of time.  I’m really horrible at this, to be honest.  I might get up and stretch now and again, but I don’t do it nearly enough.  I’m sitting for most of eight hours, perhaps head to the gym a few times a week, and then sit for another few hours in the evening writing.

There’s also the fact that I’ve long had a bad habit of snacking whilst working and writing.  I’d like to say I don’t have a Junk Food Stash anymore, but that’s not exactly true… it’s smaller, but it’s still junk food, and it’s in the kitchen.  A few boxes of Pocky, an almost empty bag of chocolates we bought at the Heathrow duty-free.  I’m trying to change that up; I’ll have a banana, or some cheese sticks, or hummus and crackers (Trader Joe’s sells a great snack pack of these that I love).  I’m not drinking nearly as much soda as previous.

But it’s not enough.  I’m not moving around as much to burn those calories.  What I need to do is figure out some regimen that I can sneak in at some point during the day.  A few reps of crunches and stretches.  More walks after work.  More frequent trips to the Y.  I need to MOVE more is what I’m saying here.

So why the health kick all of a sudden?  Well, short version is that I’ve found myself on a lifestyle-change kick right now.  A need to change things both inside and out that I’ve either ignored or put off for far too long.  It really doesn’t have much to do with my age, to be honest — I’m forty-seven and change — but to do with personal things; career, emotions, physical issues, and what not.  I’m reasonably healthy if a bit overweight with slightly high blood pressure.  I’m also thinking more seriously about my calling as a writer, and what I want — and need — to do with my craft as a professional.  Among other things.  I think about it this way: it’s not a midlife crisis so much as it’s a midlife clarity.  Time to shed the bad habits and the lifestyle I no longer want or need and get movin’.

This does in fact tie in with my writing.  Over the last few months, while working on the revision for In My Blue World as well as writing the Apartment Complex story — as well as a few smaller personal things I’ve been sneaking in when I can — I realized that my writing can’t truly evolve if I don’t evolve somehow.  I’ve mined as much as I can from what I’ve been working with for years, and I want and need to change it up.  The AC in particular has been helpful here; it’s the first story where I did not hold back for any reason, and the result so far has been eye-opening on many levels.  I’m immensely proud of what I’ve done with it so far, and I can’t wait to share it.

So yes — this is me saying that I need to keep moving, both physically and mentally, if I’m going to get anywhere.  I can’t be half-arsed about it anymore.

All in.

On Submitting a Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-Vacation Exhaustion

that thing you do where was i

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

On Writing: Names

When I’m creating a character, the last thing I think about is what I should name them. More often than not, I’ll do the least amount of work possible to give them one.  Instead, I’ll just give them the first one that comes to mind that sounds good and fits the person to some degree.  If it needs changing, that’s what Find & Replace is for!

For example:  I’ve mentioned before that I came up with the characters of Caren Johnson and Alec Poe for the Bridgetown Trilogy rather simply: for Caren I wanted a name that purposely didn’t pop out, much like her avoidance of being the focus of attention; for Poe I wanted him to have a slightly awkward name that he felt didn’t quite fit him, to match his being adopted and not knowing his true origins.  That’s about as far as I went with them, and that process took all of a few minutes.

In my latest projects, I did pretty much the same thing.  For Zuzannah, the magical girl from In My Blue World, I wanted a name that was normal but had evolved over the course of time.  The three sisters, Diana, Katie and Allie Meeks, are just three girls you know in your home town; no one special, just neighbors or friends.  There’s only one character in this particular story that has an unconventional, obviously made-up name, and that’s done on purpose.  Even with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve had to invent a lot of the names, I kept them relatively simple.  Kaffi, the tintrite co-lead, has a simple, fun name to mirror his friendly demeanor, while his father Graymar has one that commands respect and attention.

I’ve never really gotten into the habit of coming up with names that have to mean anything; I always felt that process, at least for me, was trying too hard.  I always create characters that you’d meet on the street or hear about from someone, so I find I can’t go out of my way to come up with a name that means ‘faithful healer’ or something like that.  [Mind you, I only did that once in the Apartment Complex story; I chose Diwa’s Filipino name for two reasons: I wanted a gender-neutral name, and it means ‘awareness.’  But the choice for meaning was only secondary here.]

Think about what kind of character this is, and also think about the people around them, how they react to people.  Especially if it’s a made-up alien name — you can have fun with that by giving them a bit of background in the process.  Diwa and Kaffi’s friend Anna-Nassi, for instance, is part of an alien race whose names combine the culture of their own and of humans as a symbol of planetary community.

When you’re coming up with names for your characters, especially during rough drafts, I’d say go right ahead and put in a placeholder if you’re not entirely happy with it.  Diwa’s name was originally the made-up Riksah before I decided to give him a proper one and decided his family is half Pinoy.  If your character merits a symbolic or metaphorical name instead, that’s fine too.

The most important things to remember here, though, is that a) it should fit the character, and b) it should fit the story.  It’s not just about avoiding anachronisms, it’s also about avoiding words that will stick out like a sore thumb.  You probably wouldn’t want to write a serious romance novel where the strikingly sexy chisel-chinned male lead’s name is Petey Bumblewiggins, right?  As they say, you want a name that fits the character.  How much work you put into that is totally up to you, but it doesn’t always have to be that much work if you don’t want it to be.  Just give it enough for it to work for you and for the story.

 

Keeping Busy

makoto shinkai tgow2
Source: Makoto Shinkai, The Garden of Words

Despite possibly overburdening myself a bit lately and falling prey to exhaustion and sore throat for a day or so, my latest writing regimen seems to be paying off.  I’ve been consistently been hitting an average of 900 words per project Monday through Friday, with the occasional run on the weekend as well if time and inclination lets it happen.  Add the four blog entries and other small things to the mix, and I’m probably averaging around 11k words a week.

That’s a LOT of words.

Mind you, it’s not all at once, and I’ve got it down to a strict schedule.  The Monday-Tuesday blog entries are written on Sunday afternoon, and the Thursday-Friday entries on Wednesday.  In My Blue World is written during my Day Job afternoon break, and the Apartment Complex story during the evening sessions.  I keep the creative writing separate from the clinical writing Day Job.  And I let myself have a breather every couple of hours a day so I don’t run myself ragged.

So yeah, I’ve been keeping busy.  Writing two novels at the same time is definitely a trip, and not for the faint-hearted.  More than once I’ve opened up one of the project pages and sat there for a minute, trying to remember if this was the magical girl story page or the boy and his alien friend story page.

How do I keep two completely different and unrelated projects straight in my head?  Good question.  I’m not sure myself.  I just manage to keep them separate because I work on them at different times of the day.  Since both sessions are in the latter half of the day, this gives me most of the day to come up with a general idea of what I want to write.  I also try to write complete scenes, or scenes that will be completed in the next session.  Again, this is almost exactly like my process when I wrote the trilogy; I would prep myself during the day so no evening session time would be wasted.

Will I keep this going on the next projects?  Who knows.  I’d like to, but if I have to adjust it along the way, so be it.  As long as I’m going in the right direction.

Picking Out the Writing Soundtrack

Between the two new projects I’m working on, I’m listening to a lot of newer albums lately. This is quite the change from the older projects I’ve spent tons of time on (such as the trilogy) or ones where I need to focus on a specific time period (such as the 90s and Meet the Lidwells!).  It’s part of returning back to deep immersion with the music.

Mind you, I do give a lot of my purchases a deep listen as it is, or else I wouldn’t be gushing over albums over at Walk in Silence like I have for the past few years. This is about really getting into the meat of the album, and I find I often do that best when I can assign a mnemonic to it.  That way the album will stay with me that much longer.  [This is precisely why albums like Beck’s Sea Change are forever connected not just to the trilogy, but to my writing sessions in the Belfry.]

I’m doing this again with a handful of new albums that have become soundtracks of a sort for the Apartment Complex story and In My Blue World:

Beach House, 7. Unlike their more Cocteau Twins-like previous albums, this one ramps up the noise a little bit and sounds more like Slowdive and a bit of My Bloody Valentine as well. The dreamy atmosphere works really well for the otherworldliness of IMBW.

The Naked and Famous, A Still Heart. I keep coming back to this one for the Apartment Complex. TNaF are a much louder band with walls of guitars and soaring melodies, but this ‘stripped’ album takes out the volume and leaves beautifully delicate reimaginings.

Lucy Dacus, Historian. “Addictions” is one of those tracks you hear on the radio and then get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. The music is laid back and unassuming, but the melodies go in really interesting places. This one’s been getting plays for both projects lately.

Editors, Violence. I think pretty much every project I’ve ever worked on since 2005 has had Editors playing in the background at some point. They’re just an amazing band with a unique and adventurous sound. This one often gets played when I need to write an exciting action sequence.

Pinkshinyultrablast, Miserable Miracles. I gushed over this band on the other blog last week, and I still love them to bits. Russian shoegaze is all I need to say, and it’s all kinds of fun. IMBW has been getting most plays of this one, not to mention the rest of their discography!

GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star. Same thing — a recent discovery and now I play all of their releases during sessions, mostly for the Apartment Complex. Intriguing jazz sounds that remind me to keep the setting just a little bit on the odd side.

This is the fun part of my writing sessions…I love listening to music while I write, so connecting to a new album while working on a new project makes the sessions — and the albums — that much better for me.

Changes

[NOTE: This is a slightly updated repost from the original Dreamwidth entry from Wednesday night.]

I’ve been thinking long and hard about my writing lately, especially in regards to what processes have been working and what have not, and how to minimize the latter.

One thing in particular that had been bothering me was the fact that I had two projects in a row — the Apartment Complex story and now Can’t Find My Way Home — stutter to a halt, and both for the same reason.  And that reason being that it just didn’t feel right.  I know, I know…that sounds a bit silly and I’m probably talking out of my ass, but at the same time, the last two projects — Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World — did feel right to me.  Instinctively it felt like I was doing the right things, going in the direction the story needed to go.

Now, I knew it wasn’t just because of the story I was writing.  Both ideas have a created world that I could have a lot of fun with.  And I’ve definitely had my moments of the Don’t Wanna’s and the Oh God This Sucks with every project I’ve ever worked on, good and bad.  But there’s so much less drama with those two well-behaved kids.  So I had to really think about it — WHY was I having drama with the AC and CFMWH?

And then it occurred to me:  maybe I need a change of platform.

Yes, I know, on the face of it, that sounds like one of the worst and lamest excuses I could come up with, but hear me out.

As you all know, Bob, I’ve been writing the first rough drafts of the successful stories in short bouts on 750Words.  And all the rough outtakes of the AC that were well-behaved came from there as well.  They were working well for many reasons:

–I’m always writing at a specific time.
–With each session, I’m writing a complete or almost-complete scene arc, which also sets up the next scene arc that I’ll write during the next session.
–I’m focusing only on the scene at hand.  The novel-as-whole is secondary here.
–I’m allowing minor editing as I go, when I know that I can write something better.
–Each scene or partial is on its own screen; I can only access the other scenes by backing out of the one I’m currently on.
–I need to hit at least 750 words before I can call the session done for the day.
–These sessions are often very productive, as well as fast.  And quite enjoyable nearly every single time.

And then I realized: This is the exact same process I used when I wrote The Persistence of Memories, which I consider a personal benchmark.  Slightly different platforms, but the process was the same.  It was enjoyable and exhilarating to write because I’d laid all those ground rules and stuck to them.

So I thought:  what if I set up another 750Words account?  I’d follow the same leads as above with whatever second project I happen to have going.  This can be my evening writing session.  MS Word would only be used for localized save points, revision, rewriting, formatting, and other post-production work.

So that’s what I’ve done, starting it Wednesday night.

And I started it with another trial run of the Apartment Complex novel.  Despite my frustration with it over the past few months, my brain returned to it at least once a day.  I took that as a sign that I should definitely return to it as part of this newly-implemented process.  No giant outline, but just enough pre-planning to know where I need to go for the next couple of scenes.

One entry at a time, enjoying the moment.

Here’s to hoping this works!