On Writing: Unexpected Ideas

puella magica homura
Homura Akemi from Madoka Magica

I’ll say this: pay attention when ideas pop up, even if they’re weird and unexpected.  Especially when they’re unexpected.

A few weeks back I was listening to the new live album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Wembley Or Bust — it’s quite excellent and contains a lot of ELO classics old and new) when their take on “Xanadu” came on.  I remember being a big fan of that movie as a nine-year-old kid.  It wasn’t just the music that captivated me — I was a fan of the band even then — but I was intrigued by its fantasy elements, of muses come alive.

Amusingly, it occurred to me that it would be quite fascinating to see an update/rewrite of Xanadu as a Magical Girl story.  And then I riffed on that a little: ELO’s next album after that was the cult classic Time, a time-travel concept album which also happens to contain the track “Twilight” (known in anime circles as the track used in the DAICON IV film).  Somehow that album would tie in as well.  I shared that as a tweet and didn’t think too much about it after that.

A few weeks later, and the idea is still stuck in my head, and I think I might be able to do something with it.

I thought about it some: a magical girl sent back in time (Time) to save the world somehow, or at least change someone’s fate (Xanadu).  She realizes she’s stuck in that time stream and can’t escape (Time) and has to come to terms with her own fate (Xanadu).  She changes the lives of a few certain people by teaming up with them (Xanadu) though she’s afraid she can’t completely connect with them (Xanadu, Time).  In the end she’s changed the world, or at least someone’s fate (Xanadu) and is finally able to transcend the time stream to return temporarily (Time).

Of course, I’m omitting the rollerskating and the musical interludes, but still…I’m a bit surprised at how easily this came together.  I’m still not sure if I’m going to follow through with it, but the temptation sure is great.

So yeah…pay attention to those ideas when they come up unexpectedly.  You just might have your next story!

Trying a little something new

hanks-aol

With my Sort of Secret Next Project taking up my daily practice words, I’ve been tearing down some of the boundaries I’ve had set up for ages.  I suppose you could say it’s part of the ‘own it’ mantra I’ve been using lately…instead of trying to find reasons not to write a certain scene for whatever reason, I’m forging ahead and writing it anyway.

These are passages that work within the context of Secret Next Project, of course.  It’s not so much about pantsing the writing as I’m letting myself come up with things that I would normally not write.  Here’s the thing: when I’m writing a character, I have to have at least some connection with them, whether mentally or emotionally.  I get inside their head and see how they tick.  This is all well and good, but there is the tendency to write samey characters, or worse, write Jonc Personality #483.

I tried (and I think mostly succeeded) writing this way for the trilogy, especially when I had to get inside the head of characters like Denni and Amna, who were major players with a hell of a lot of stressful issues going on.  I think this is also partly why I trunked some of my earlier novels, because I’d failed.

The Secret Next Project involves quite the menagerie of characters, so I definitely need to stretch my boundaries there.  In writing my daily practice words, I’ve been doing my best to set as few boundaries as possible.  In the process, over the last couple of days I found myself writing some passages that surprised even me!  And I like that feeling.  It means I’m doing something right.

 

…That said, it also means I still need to focus mostly on Meet the Lidwells.  Which means the Secret Next Project is currently also the I’d Rather Be Working On This Fun New Project Instead Project.

As is typical of any writer, of course.

Balancing

Goats-balancing-on-sheet
….yeah, I’m not sure either.

If I’ve learned anything over the last week, it’s that the downside to coming up with a secondary project to play around with while working on Meet the Lidwells is the temptation to fall prey to the “ooh shiny!” of the newer project, leaving the original one undone.  I love the apartment complex idea at the moment, and I’m quite sure it’s because I’m still in the world-building phase of that one.  Two daily-words entries and I’ve already come up with some neat ideas that I’d like to play with.

BUT!  I really need to focus on my other story!  The one that’s been on my mind over the last few years.  The one I can FINALLY devote my time to.  The last thing I need right now is another distraction!

So how to handle this sort of thing?  All writers fall prey to it sooner or later…the rogue new idea that tempts you and won’t leave you alone, and you know damn well that if you don’t write it down RIGHT NOW it’ll be lost forever.  Often to the detriment of any other deadlines you might be working on at that moment.

Well…I’ve learned that there’s got to be a bit of balance.  From past experience, the worst thing I can do with a completely new idea is to try to create an entire novel out of it.  I definitely don’t have the whole story and its universe in my head at that point.  The end result will be a lot of making stuff up as I go along, thus needing a hell of a lot of revision on the back end.  It’s one of the reasons the trilogy project took so damn long.

I wrote outtakes of Meet the Lidwells via my daily practice words, and I knew that wasn’t going to be the final version.   And I wrote it while I was rewriting and revising the trilogy, so I put just enough into it to keep it alive until it came time for it to be my main project.

I’m doing the same with this new story idea.  Right now I’m looking at it from a workshop level, throwing stuff at it to see what works.  Coming up with characters, names, settings, and other background details that I can reference a little later.  And I’m sure sometime within the next few months I might even draw a layout of the main setting, maybe even some of the characters.  Bits will change along the way.  It’s all up in the air right now, malleable.

And that’s just for fun, at the moment.

The heavy work is on Lidwells, and that’s where it’ll remain until it’s done.  That’s my evening writing work, the stuff I’ll treat more seriously.  Attending to details, focusing on the feel of the story in my head, contemplating what needs work and what needs excision.  And besides…this one has a deadline that I don’t want to break.  If I have to put New Shiny Idea aside to devote more time to Lidwells to get it done on time, so be it.

Finding that balance is a bit of crazy work, but I believe I can get it done.

 

I Write the Songs

I don’t think I’ve written more than a dozen or so songs since I moved out here to San Francisco in 2005.  Probably much less than that.  A few clips of melody, maybe a riff or two, but nothing concrete, not like my last songwriting wave in the early 00s when I was jamming with Bruce and Eric in jeb!.  The latest actual song milling about in my head is an instrumental I created using the sound of London’s District Line clacking down the tracks near Earls Court as percussion (which I recorded to my phone); I have not yet had time to lay it down as a demo, though I did get as far as making a very rough loop of the train as a trial run.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, it seems my next writing project involves songwriting.

What’s this, you say?  Has Jon gone off the deep end in a severely misguided attempt to write a multimedia book?  I mean, he’s a pretty decent writer and makes cool covers, but music?  What the hell is he thinking?

Well, I blame Wesley Stace for this.  Formerly known as John Wesley Harding for you 90s alternative rock people, he wrote a fun novel called Wonderkid about a quirky band that, against all odds, became a huge hit in the 90s, primarily due to having an extremely large preteen audience.  It’s a hell of a fun book and worth checking out.

Sometime later, I was chatting online with a friend about the Osmonds (I forget the context), when I came up with an idea of writing a music-based novel myself.  Thus the family band The Lidwells were born!

That said…

Now that I’m at the point of wanting to do some prep for the Lidwells project, I’m not just thinking about making character sheets and a working discography (yes, I’m going that deep), but may be writing a few of the songs mentioned in the text.  All told I’m hoping to write about a dozen or so songs during the course of writing this book.

Added to that, this story takes place in the 90s during the alt.rock boom, so I’m going to have to write music that sounds like it would have fit then.  Will I record them as demos and post them here?  Yeah, there’s a good chance of that happening.

This should be interesting…

I’m not sure what to write next.

portlandia
courtesy Portlandia

Yes, I’ve blogged about this before.  I have a bunch of ‘maybe’ projects simmering on the back burner, waiting to be picked up and worked on, or trunked and forgotten.  It’s not going to take center stage until I finish and release The Balance of Light, so it’s going to be a while, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start with the pre-production.  I can certainly start playing around with outlines, character sheets, timelines and whatnot.  Just that the bulk of the project won’t begin until at least sometime this autumn.

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of starting a new project.  As I’ve said before, it’s been so long since I’ve come up with a completely new idea that sometimes I wonder if I’ve forgotten how to do it.  [I don’t always think this, though…one of the ‘maybes’ came out of nowhere during my 750 Words exercises, so I know I can do it.]

I know I sometimes overthink this part of the process; it’s the most stereotypical of writer’s blocks: what should I write?  We focus too much on wanting/needing to start something.  It’s like when you need to start that term paper for English class, but you have no idea what to write about…and that’s when you start stressing, because you’re focusing too much on getting it done before deadline and not enough on the writing itself.

I try to keep my mind open when new ideas come to me; more to the point, I try not to rely mainly on chance and random inspiration, because that almost never works.  The trick is to sow some kind of seed of an idea and work with it for a bit, see if you can make something out of it.  I tend to be a pantser in terms of writing, so what I consider my best ideas usually come from something only distantly related to it: one of the ‘maybes’ I have on tap came to me out of someone else mentioning the Osmonds in passing on their blog.  Out of that came the idea of writing a fictional music biography.

I have an idea jar here in Spare Oom, a long narrow glass jar with a plastic stopper that I bought for a dollar-something at the kitchenware store up the street.  I haven’t used it in some time, but there’s a few years’ worth of scrap paper in there of passing ideas.  Thoughts that came to mind that I didn’t have time to follow up on.  Just images, scenes, or characters that popped into my head while I was doing something else.  I haven’t even looked at these notes for some time, so now I’m curious as to what’s listed.  I used a few of them for my daily practice words a year or so ago.  Perhaps it’s time to do that again.

I’m not sure what I’m going to write after the Bridgetown Trilogy is done, but at least I’m going to be somewhat prepared.