On Writing Sequels

Image courtesy of Boruto

Sequels can be a tricky thing to write sometimes. Such projects can end up being a lesson in frustration when you realize that you haven’t really written a new story in the universe you’d created so much as you’ve just attempted to rewrite the original story again, and that can be a huge problem in itself.

I’ve been working off and on with a sequel to the Bridgetown Trilogy (which I’ve been referring to as MU4, as in ‘Mendaihu Universe Book 4’) and as tempting as it is for me to write another story about the dysfunctional shenanigans of Vigil or the PoeKaina and CarNando ships (heh) or whatever, that’s the last thing I should really be doing. That’s why one of the first rules I’d come up with when I first started playing with the idea was to have Book Four set seventy years after the events of The Balance of Light, ensuring the original cast was already in the past tense, at least in the physical sense. I had to come up with new characters, each with their own histories and drives, yet somehow tie it in with the Mendaihu Universe. That in itself wasn’t too hard, as I’d left myself wide open for all kinds of exploration in this particular world.

No, the hard part was how to tie it in with the original trilogy yet not write the trilogy again. So how do I do that?

With In My Blue World, I deliberately left the story open-ended to a degree that its main characters could go on further adventures with Zuzannah and the rest of the alternate universe gang. That kind of sequel is in a ‘continuing adventures of…’ format, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, or Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Conversely, Diwa & Kaffi evolved out of a world I’d already created for a multi-short story project involving different species of beings on a college campus, so that one will end up sort of going in reverse when I get to writing those stories. That format is simply standalone stories in a shared world.

So with MU4, I had to give everyone a new directive: it had to relate to the supernatural/spiritual goings-on in that world, with many of the rules that Denni/The One of All Sacred laid down by Book 3…and then twist them somehow. Historical knowledge tends to warp and evolve over the years; what really happens and what we want to remember can often be two completely different things, especially when spirituality and religion is involved. That ends up being the main rule of the new version of this universe: Bridgetown (and the world) is filled with loyal Followers of the One…yet do they truly follow the tenets Denni laid down so many years ago? And then follow it up by imprinting these new characters onto that rule and see where it goes.

There are many ways to go about writing sequels, and of course how you decide to write them totally depends on how you want to approach them. My favorite way, as you’ve noticed, is to keep my original stories open for such possibilities! My only caveat then is to keep a finite number of ground rules…and the rest is fair game.

Shifting Gears

Image courtesy of Steins;Gate

So I was working on two different projects over the last moth or so, writing out a synopsis/outline for each with the future plan of starting the writing soon after I felt comfortable with what I had planned out. So what happened?

Well, two other projects kept nagging at me. Two that have been on my back burners even longer than the two I’d been working on. Two that I pretty much knew inside and out already, they just needed sprucing and leveling up to make them better. I kept them at arm’s length for the last couple of weeks of May, focusing on the ones I already had going but letting these two sit a bit and germinate a bit more. I figured, if by the start of June these two other projects refused to go away (or alternately, started hanging out rent-free in my head all day long), then maybe that was a sign that I should focus on these first.

I mean, it’s not as if any of these have a specific deadline other than a self-made one. I want to get something new done by the end of this year! But no, there’s no agent or publisher chasing me about any of these.

So. June arrived, and I figured, why the hell not? These are two projects that I’ve already done a lot of work on in the past, so it’s not as if I’m starting with a blank Word document here and scratching my head, trying to figure out where to begin. I fired up the 750Words site and did the same thing I’d done with the previous projects: worked out a synopsis, a cast of characters, and the style and mood for Project A. [I say “mood” here because several of the older versions leaned a bit too heavily on the pathos. Which, in retrospect, is precisely why they didn’t work. This version will hopefully avoid that pitfall.] For Project B, I’m going to need to do something a bit different and work out a major outline and piece it all together. Again, most of this has been done several times in the past so the turnaround should be quick and painless.

It’s been only one week, so far it’s been positive forward motion, which is a very good sign indeed. It means these are projects that I’m enjoying, that they cover subjects I’m confident speaking about. Even when I’m stumbling, I don’t (yet) feel like I’m in over my head. Do I feel that way about the former two projects? Well, not entirely. I feel like I’m still flailing a bit on them. Not nearly as much as previously, but my confidence is not as high with them just yet. So I don’t feel bad about shifting them to the rear burners for a bit while I focus on these.

Current Status: Planning Stuff Out

I’ve been focusing on my outlining and synopsis writing with my current and backburner WIPs this past week, and I’m happy to say that it’s working quite nicely. I’ve managed to reach the end of Act I for one of the current stories, and do some major scene rearrangement and rebuilding for another.

The outcome of all of this is that it’s kind of fascinating to see the difference between “all the ideas are in my head and I have a vague idea where it’s headed” and “here’s the roadmap, have at it”. I mean, I’ve done this kind of preproduction many times before (and to varying degrees) and this time is no different. Just that I’m taking this step more seriously this time out.

Am I going to plan out the entirety of my current WIPs? I don’t know. I probably will with the shorter one, because the more preparation I have ahead of time, the quicker the project is finished. If I keep up with what I’m doing, I’ll probably have a complete synopsis in a couple of weeks and will be able to get to the heavy writing without delay. As for the other one…that’s MU4 if you must know, and that’s going to need a lot of planning due to the way its universe runs, so I think I’ll at least get it to where I feel comfortable with being a few chapters ahead plan-wise, just like the previous trilogy. For every prose chapter I finish off, I’ll add another synopsis chapter as I go.

I’m definitely going to keep this process going if I can. I still want to get back to my plan of self-publishing at least one novel a year, and planning stories out like this will definitely keep me well-stocked in future projects! It’ll also help me when I return to the Day Job World…just like I did with the trilogy, I can easily block out a few chapters ahead during slow time/lunch hour at work, dedicating my evening hours solely to cranking out the prose.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to be where I am at the moment in these projects…I may not actually be getting any prose wordcount done, but this prep work will definitely open up all kinds of time for it later on.

Writing All The Things

A few days ago I woke up super-early in the morning from an amazing dream and had that classic OMG this needs to be story!! moment, so of course I made sure that I remembered it after sliding back into slumber for a few more hours. And yes, somehow I did in fact remember it! So before it went away and before I distracted myself with any other internetty things like comics and social media drama, I logged onto/dusted off the 750 Words site and hopped to it. I’d originally meant to just work out the bare bones of the idea, but before I knew it, I was writing a full-on synopsis and a few hours later I had three thousand words and a full novel plan written out. [Side note: this once and for all proves that I really do need to work more on eliminating distractions.]

Mind you, that NEVER happens, so I didn’t question it…I just kept working at it until I had it done and finished. [And to top it off, I ended that productive day by finishing off the Diwa & Kaffi revision as well. There wasn’t too much I needed to fix, but I was certainly glad to sign that off so I can start submitting it.]

While I basked in my pride for having gotten so much done that day, I started thinking…what if I started doing this on the regular? I’ve only recently started doing synopses and outlines on a semi-regular basis, so maybe it’s time I made it a full-on part of my writing process once and for all. I thought about my other open projects on the various burners and thought, wait…maybe this will work better if I’ve got a map to work with.

So a few days later I opened up the 750 again with a test run for another complete synopsis — this time for a project I’d started/stopped/trunked/revived several times over the years. It’s not an impossible story to write, I’ve just had constant problems figuring out how it should be written. This time out, I just focused on creating a short and tight synopsis, devoid of all the moods, distractions and lingering issues. End result: another success! I figured out why it hadn’t worked in the past, and how I could approach it from a slightly different angle and have success with it. So yay me, another future project!

Which leaves me with the current two front-burner projects, both of which I’m still feeling a bit tetchy about. Neither of them have a synopsis at this time.

The issue with both is, you guessed it: lack of direction. I know where I’m going and even where I want it to end up, but there’s still a high level of flailing on both. And when I flail, the longer it takes for me to get these projects done.

So my plan for the next couple of days is to work them both out with synopses. Sure, I should have done this a long time ago, but considering both of these were started right at the start of the pandemic (and at the end of my Former Day Job) in early 2020, real life and Diwa & Kaffi sort of got in the way and I kind of forgot that this approach does in fact work sometimes (okay, most times). If I can give myself a clearer path for both of these stories, then I’ll be much happier and I won’t be flailing nearly as much.

Will it work? Who knows. I hope it will. I have faith in it now.

On Writing Transitions

I’m currently at the final quarter of this recent revision go-round for Diwa & Kaffi, which means that hopefully within the next couple of weeks, I’ll be able to get back to my new writing projects again. Yes! I am definitely looking forward to it!

The transition between Writer Brain work (that is, creating new words and ideas from scratch) and Editor Brain work (revision and rewriting words and ideas that already exist) can be tough sometimes, especially when I’ve been doing one or the other for an extended period of time. The transition between the multiyear process of revising, prepping and self-publishing the Bridgetown Trilogy and the start of a completely new project (in this case, Meet the Lidwells!), took a lot of time for me to get used to.

My original plan after releasing The Balance of Light was actually to write the next book in the Mendaihu Universe, but after several false starts, I realized that what I really wanted to do was try my hand at writing shorter standalone stories. The trilogy books are doorstoppers, I’ll admit, so I wanted to learn how to write econo, to borrow a Minutemen phrase. I tried starting up a few other stories and even untrunking a few older ideas, but none of them stuck. This is why I turned to 750Words.com — I needed to force myself to think about writing something clear and compact instead of sprawling and superheavy on the worldbuilding. It forced me to stop looking at my writing in Big Picture format and start looking at each chapter or scene on its own, as part of a larger project. That kept me from a) feeling overwhelmed by it, and b) taught me to dial it all back a bit…each scene didn’t necessarily need to be cranked up to ten every single time.

And when I finished Lidwells, I immediately started working not one but two standalones — In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi — on 750Words, while doing revision work at the end of the day. That’s where I realized that the best way to deal with the Writer/Editor Brains issue was not to hyperfocus on one or the other for extended lengths of time. I could spend some time during the day creating a world and some time during the evening tidying up another one. You can definitely sense it in my books I’ve written so far: the Trilogy is quite intense in numerous places, compared to the lightness of Lidwells and the dreamlike quality of In My Blue World. You can even see it in Diwa & Kaffi (whenever it finally becomes available to you!), which I’ve described as “a small story in a much bigger world”.

There is no one single way to transition between the two brain settings, to be honest…it’s whatever works for the writer themselves. I’ve learned that daily multitasking in microbursts is the best for me. I find fresh word count during the day makes me feel productive, making the evening revision work enjoyable and less like a chore.

Comes and goes

Madara coutesy of Naruto

The other day I was thinking about how my list of active story and project ideas seems to fluctuate. This time last year I felt kind of frustrated and empty-headed for various personal reasons and trying to write anything felt like an absolute chore, but now I’m champing at the bit to get multiple projects up and running!

A lot of the time it can be a reflection of what’s going on with me in real life. This can be on the macro-level — such as my frustrations with the former Day Job — but it can also be on the micro-level as well, and it’s the latter I don’t often talk about. I do have days now and again where I just can’t get my shit together mentally, and working past that can be hard. Sometimes it’s because I’m heavily distracted, whether it’s by simple fun things or by lack of focus. I try to soldier on regardless, even if it feels like an uphill battle at times, but by the end of the day I might end up having completed a hell of a lot more than I expected.

The few times I’ve actually had nothing on my plate — or having cleared off a majority portion, such as when I’d finished and released the Bridgetown Trilogy — can feel a bit unnerving. With the trilogy done and away by 2017 (just in time for a twentieth anniversary of its creation), it took me a long time to get used to not having a major epic project constantly in the works. This was precisely why I chose to write multiple shorter and self-contained stories…I knew if I tried writing another large-scale project right away I would burn myself out and fail. But that initial time of a year or so, when I’d started playing around with Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi, I focused on smaller projects. I didn’t even know if I’d be able to see them through, to be honest. All I could do is just keep going, day by day. Rewire my writing brain and create new styles and processes. In the end, I was extremely proud of all three.

Right now I’m actively writing two novels in tandem*, which I know I can do, having done it with IMBW and D&K. In addition to that, I have two further book projects I want to work on that are in pre-production mode (notes and ideas, maybe a few outtakes and a mixtape, but no major writing just yet). So right now I’m in a good place — consistently busy working.

[* – These are actually temporarily on hold while I finish the D&K revision, but I’ll have them back up and running in about a month.]

Do I worry about running out of ideas (or fuel, for that matter)? Not really. I’ve worried about that before, but I’ve always bounced back eventually. Something will eventually inspire me to start something new.

This time last year

Source: Makoto Shinkai’s ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’

This time last year, I’d left the (Former) Day Job after what…thirteen or so years?…and took some time off to get my head together. I’ve been thinking about just how frustrated and angry I’d been then, and for how long. The job had effectively cleaved my writing time (and personal time) to almost nil. By the start of 2020 I was barely writing anything worth talking about. I’d fleshed out some story ideas here and there, but I’d barely written any new words at all.

After that time off, I started from the beginning again. I asked myself several questions.

What made me want to write? What stories did I want to tell? What was my writing style? What did I no longer want to write about? Did I really need and want to write what I was currently working on?

And then I just…started writing again. Learning from the beginning again.

It took a few false starts, but I got there eventually. I was aware of my processes now; I knew when something wasn’t working, when something needed more work, when something resonated with me so much that I knew I could see this project to the end. I compared it to other moments in the past: instead of thinking if only I could write like this again, I was thinking this is just like that previous project I enjoyed so much. And I just kept at it.

It’s been a year, and right now I have a full stove with things on many burners: a submission-ready revision of Diwa & Kaffi, the fourth Mendaihu Universe story, a new project based on the work I’d done in those final Day Job Days, and a few possibilities I’m yet to start work on. I’m still working for a replacement Day Job — preferably one in the city that doesn’t maliciously carve away at my cherished writing time — and I’m actively getting in better shape. I’ve been extremely busy, but in a good way. A way that challenges me the way I love to be challenged.

BRB, doing some much-needed revision

So yeah, over the last few days I did a Reread What I Have So Far of my current WIPs, which is something I normally do at various points of their production.

I often do this near the start of every project for a few reasons: one, to see if any of it holds up and holds my attention (which yes, both do, yay!), and two, to get a firm grasp on the story and its many moving parts. This second reason is the more important of the two, as it’s my way of establishing continuity.

And let me tell you, my novels ALWAYS start off with the shittiest continuity ever. This is mainly due to me trying things out just to see where they go. This includes character traits and personalities, extended family and friends, time of day, whatever. I used to say I was ‘flailing’ at this point, but I don’t think that’s a good word for it. More like ‘feeling my way’, honestly. After maybe four or so chapters, I’ll do a Reread What I Have So Far and see what works and what needs work. The end result is that Project A is going in an unexpected but fun direction and I’m quite happy about that, but I definitely need to get its continuity under control. Project B, on the other hand, is going a bit slow but the continuity is just fine. Woo, go me!

Added to that, I’ve decided that I’m going to spend a bit more time doing another revision of Diwa & Kaffi, because I’m taking a writing friend’s suggestion to heart: it needs more description. Not a lot, but after doing a Reread after distancing myself from it a little bit, those bare spots definitely stick out a lot more now. There aren’t going to be any major revision issues with this one, no inserts or deletions…this one’s just to give it a bit more needed meat to it.

So yeah, this is going to be my job in the next couple of weeks. My Writer Brain of course is a bit irritated because I won’t get any new words out for a while, but it’s the price I have to pay. I’ll get back to those new words soon enough.

That idea that just won’t go away

Image courtesy of Depeche Mode

I had this idea for a coming-of-age-in-the-80s story back in the 80s, of course. It had numerous titles and unfinished outtakes, one sort-of complete extremely rough draft, and countless attempts at restarts over the years that all ended up in the trunk. Then I posted a short memoir about that time of my life on my LiveJournal. Then I had an idea to write about the music of that era that I loved so much…which has been on the backburner and in the trunk for a good number of years now, even though I named my music blog after it.

And now, thanks to the imminent release of the movie Shoplifters of the World (a ‘one crazy night’ film based on city kids shocked by the breakup of the Smiths in late 1987) and my, shall we say, adverse reaction to the trailer (this is totally not how I remember the 80s being, at least in central Massachusetts at any rate), I’m contemplating reviving the idea AGAIN.

Considering that I’m already writing two novels, I’m not sure if I have the time or the brainspace for a third — although my brain is of course responding with ‘you never know until you try’. I’m not taking it too seriously right now, but I’m playing around with how I’d properly work on it so it’s a sustainable project and not just another moody roman à clef. I want it to be enjoyable and relatable. I want it to be funny as well as emotional. I want it to show that you can write a story about outsider kids in a small town finding and supporting each other without having to resort to the tired trope of drugs, sex and ennui. And of course I want it to have a killer soundtrack filled with all my favorite college rock favorites and some great obscurities!

It’s one of those ideas that keeps kicking at my shins and demanding attention even when I should be focusing on the other two projects I have going. I’ve already contemplated using the currently-neglected 750Words platform to plan it out (or alternately, going full lo-fi to set the mood by working it out with notebooks and index cards). And I’m even thinking of writing it in tandem with a fourth project: the long-delayed Walk in Silence music book itself. And more to the point, it’s an old project that I’ve always put aside mainly because I’d never quite figured out how to approach it. But now that I have the time and the inclination, it’s tempting me more than ever.

I’m not promising anything, but we’ll see where this takes me…

Cutting it out

On the plus side, I’ve finally nailed down the main theme of Project B. I know exactly what the entire story should revolve around. And now that I know that, I can move forward at a much smoother and more consistent pace. I had an idea that this one particular section I’d written a few years ago might work as the true opening to the novel, and much to my surprise, it works perfectly in that position.

On the downside, I’ve cut two full chapters that didn’t relate to it all that much. One chapter I knew I was going to throw in the Outtakes bin because I was just writing something for the sake of writing and getting into the mood of the story. The other chapter was an older bit from a few years ago that I can actually still use later on in the story. So all in all, it evens out.

Still, I’m not too bothered by writing scenes that I won’t use. It’s all part of the writing process. I have tons of outtakes from different projects over the years hiding in folders and notebooks in Spare Oom. And like most writers, I might sometimes dig them back out to use elsewhere. Meet the Lidwells, for example, has quite a few scenes that were originally for a trunked idea of mine called Two Thousand, which worked quite nicely. And there are a LOT of Mendaihu Universe outtakes just waiting to be used elsewhere.

Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating when I do that, but I don’t feel too guilty about it, to be honest. I’m not being lazy, far from it. I’m recycling and reusing something that works much better elsewhere. Sometimes it’s a scene that I think is a fantastic idea, and I may have even written a rough version during a Daily Words session, just waiting for a forever home. But really, the most important part is when I place it where it’s supposed to go, and the entire project suddenly comes into clear focus and makes so much more sense.

That’s when I feel most proud of my work — when it all falls into place like I want it to!