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.
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.
There’s an interesting conversation on Twitter going on, mainly between webcomic artists, about working on a magnum opus right out of the gate. Many of the comments don’t necessarily dismiss the idea of writing an Epic Epic of Epicness, but they don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out. And if you do want to write it, then you’d better be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
Me, I blame being a kid of 80s tv and movie culture, when ridiculous bombast was de rigeur. I also blame my mid-90s stretch of reading multiple Stephen King books (the ones like The Stand and others that can also be used as doorstops and paperweights). I didn’t just want to write an exciting novel, I wanted it to be EPIC. Something big and exciting. Because it was what I knew, thanks to Red Dawn and Die Hard and Rambo and Schwarzenegger and wrestling and pretty much anything Russell Mulcahy ever directed (including those Duran Duran videos). I refer to my first completed novel as the Infamous War Novel deliberately because it’s over the top epic in idea, if not scope or length.
When I started writing True Faith in 1994, it was very much the same. My ex-gf and I had even come up with a detailed timeline that would encompass multiple novels. This was going to be a multi-book, multi-year project. Then in 1997 when I started The Phoenix Effect, it too was to be a big story in a big universe.
Which brings me to the Bridgetown trilogy…
See where I’m going with this?
It seemed that with every project I started, it would end up being a Magnum Opus. I even used that as an excuse to say that I was incapable of writing a short story or coming up with a one-book novel idea, because I had no idea how to think small. It took a good twenty years of my life from origin to finish for the Bridgetown trilogy to see the light of day. And that is precisely why, by 2016, I was already committed to writing smaller projects. I knew I could write solo stories; I just needed to learn how to do it.
Writing a magnum opus is very tempting to a lot of writers. It’s the lure of rich world building. It’s the lure of stretching your creative muscles. It’s the lure of creating something huge that will blow away the competition (or at least the minds of your dedicated readers). We often try to convince ourselves that it’ll be a blast, that the long years of toil will be worth it at the end. Even if it gets released and falls flat, it’ll have been worth it.
I don’t regret spending all those years working on the Bridgetown trilogy, because I learned a hell of a lot from it. I don’t mind the fact that it took significantly longer than expected for me to get where I wanted in my career. But sometimes I wonder where my writing career would have been, had I dialed it back a bit (okay, A LOT) and worked on less epic projects over the years. If I’d written standalone stories, maybe even honed my short-story writing chops back in the 90s instead of that one-and-done half-assed attempt. Would I have made it professionally? Would I have had more books out at this point? Would I have gained a significant readership? Maybe, maybe not, who knows.
But at this point, that’s all conjecture. Right now I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s writing, and that’s all that matters.
I’d say my own response to whether or not one should start their career on a magnum opus is the same as many others: if you think you can pull it off, and you’re willing to dedicate all that time to it, then go for it. It’s a worthy goal and it is fun, if time-consuming, and a lot of its success really does rely on luck. But be aware that it’s not an easy-in to the field. It may be a bestseller, or it may fall flat. I won’t say avoid it at all costs…just know what you’re getting into!
Some of you may have seen the above picture courtesy of a tweet from comedian Neal Brennan that came with the accompanying text:
Was talking with friend about how impossibly old the Traveling Wilburys seemed when they released their music in 1988. I’ve listed their ages at the time. For some perspective, three of them are no longer alive. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
While his last comment does make a good point, I thought instead about where those artists were in their career at that point in 1988.
Bob Dylan, at 47: 25 studio albums, 4 live albums. Jeff Lynne, at 41: 11 studio albums, half a soundtrack, and 1 live album under the ELO moniker Tom Petty, at 37: 7 studio albums with the Heartbreakers Roy Orbison, at 52: 23 studio albums and countless singles George Harrison, at 45: 12 studio albums and numerous singles with the Beatles, 11 studio albums and 1 live album
At the time their “Handle with Care” single came out, all five had had careers since the 70s, a few since the 60s. This was a sort of older-generation supergroup brought together for the fun of it, all five having worked with at least one other member in the past on solo work.
Now that I’ve hit Dylan’s listed age this year, the fact that my own output is limited to three self-published novels and an anthology entry probably should make me feel like I’ve been wasting all my time to get to this point. But interestingly, I’m not. I’ve already made peace with having started my professional writing career late. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really. To be honest, it’s hard as fuck to write a novel, a good novel, a professional-level novel, all while dealing with Real Life, Day Jobs, Families, and Other Responsibilities. Pretty much all five Wilburys started out their musical careers at a young age and went pro in their early twenties. Not all of us are able to dedicate all that time.
At 47, I’m happy where I am. I worked my ass off over the last three decades to learn the craft, make all the mistakes and be the best writer I can be. I’m glad I took that route using a minimal number of projects rather than trying to write hundreds of stories that may not see the light of day. It made me the kind of writer I am, and it helped me develop my personal style.
And now that I’m at this point, I can see a much clearer future, where I can face future projects and not feel as though I’m stabbing in the dark. I know what I’m working towards. And because of that, I’ve cut down on my turnaround time considerably. I could conceivably release a book a year if I wanted. [I’m quite sure I’ll have those seasons of writing an epic similar to the trilogy that’ll eat up a good couple of years, but I’m thinking those are going to be exception and not the rule.]
So yeah…I’m fine with being 47 and being right at the beginning of my career instead of somewhere in the middle of it. It means I’ve got a lot more to look forward to.
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!
Every now and again I think of how fans see their favorite writers or musicians or performers when they’re not center stage with a new project. I get to thinking, this band has finished their tour, they’ve already released all the singles from their latest album, and they’re out of the limelight. So what are they doing at that point?
Well, the 80s told us that all the bands were hanging out on the Sunset Strip and getting completely shitfaced and taking an apothecary full of drugs and partying until it was time to start the whole album-tour rollercoaster again. Or something other ridiculous, overblown stereotype of some sort.
The era of social media shows it differently. Nowadays, we find that artists are working at their day job or completing freelance projects and selling their own wares at conventions. Musicians are bringing up a family or helping out a friend at a recording session. Writers are slogging away, trying to make deadlines and heading out on book tours and conventions. Any one of them might be taking a breather so they can just be regular non-famous people.
I think about something Paul McCartney once said about the length of time it took for the Beatles to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.'”
I sometimes also think about the time it takes from a writer saying ‘I’m working on a new project’, maybe giving out vague details about it, to the time they tweet ‘YAY! It’s done! Off to my agent/editor!’, to the time they announce that it’s being released. Back in the internet age you were never sure how long it took, especially when some writers like Stephen King could have multiple books and stories out within the span of a year, while other writers might not see publication until a decade after their last release. Nowadays you can follow your favorite author In Real Time.
I think this might be one of the reasons why some writers are always pleasantly surprised when their book gets a positive response. They’ve lived with that book for anywhere from six months to a few years, and it’s all their own creation. They wrote the score, they built the sets, they sang the arias endlessly to get them just right. Perhaps maybe a few lucky backstage friends got to beta read. They or their production crew (their agent and/or publisher) may have even done the artwork for the program. They put it in the hands of their agent, in hopes that someone will be interested. For all intents and purposes, it’s a one-person show almost all the way to the end. And when they get there, they’re so immersed in their story that they’re really not entirely sure how the public will react.
It’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the creative arts; you create something for the public to enjoy, and yet you’re never completely certain if you’ve done it right until they see it. But if you’re lucky, you have, and all that work will have been worth it.
In a recent issue of one of the few writing magazines I subscribe to, they provide a multi-page article (in garish school-bus yellow, I should add) of “what agents hate.” I only briefly skimmed it, having had the sense that this was going to be little more than a list of personal irritations that may or may not be helpful to the writers reading it. I found it more annoying and self-important than helpful to be honest, but that’s just me.
One that did kind of rub me the wrong way was one in which said, and I quote: If you don’t know how to write a compelling pitch for yourself, you probably should not pursue being a writer.
I mean, I get the context: this agent has a personal issue with writers who fail at trying to sell themselves.
On the other hand, I personally know a hell of a lot of writers and artists out there who can write phenomenal prose or brilliant dialogue or draw beautiful sequences…yet doing something so compact and microscopic as a one-page advertisement for yourself is a fucking nightmare. Trying to distill a hundred-thousand-word story that you’ve worked on for lord knows how many months into twenty sentences is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. It’s two completely different types of creative thinking, and it’s hard as hell to switch easily from one to the other. Some writers/artists just aren’t as good at the elevator pitch as they are at telling the story. [Speaking from experience, I should add.]
If anything, I’m thinking they should have maybe rephrased that to be a little less, I don’t know…snobbish? Soul-crushing? I’m not sure what word to use here, other than they’re an agent I will most likely not submit to, just on attitude alone. You’re an agent, you’re supposed to help the writer, not chase them away with Fame platitudes about ‘only the best survive’ and turn them away before they even start. Yeah, I know, it’s a small field with a crapton of wannabes. I’m still not a fan of that kind of thinking.
Anyway. There were also your usual bingo-card points of advice: kill the adverbs, kill the non-‘said’ dialogue tags, don’t self-edit, farm it out to your writing group, submit only your best work, follow submission directions on the website, don’t hassle the agent/publisher, etc. Be gracious. Be patient. A lot of it does make sense, of course. YMMV, as they say.
And as I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, some of these are reasons why I’m a self-published author. I want to be able to successfully edit my own work. I want to go against the grain. I’ve gotten better with the pitch. I don’t think I’m at pro-level yet, but I’ll get there eventually. I like working on my terms instead of shoehorning myself into everyone else’s.
So. Anyone else come across some questionable writing advice lately?
I’ll be honest, the first bit of writing advice I’ve always given to people, especially now that I’m making the occasional appearance on convention panels is this:
Have fun with it!
No, seriously, have fun with your writing! I could give you stodgy advice like ‘write [x] words a day’ or ‘read so-and-so’s book on writing’ or ‘you should follow these certain rules to be successful’ or something like that, but I won’t. And I certainly won’t provide pithy quotes you can Photoshop against a picture of your local picturesque creek bathed in sunlight.
I don’t necessarily dismiss those things; if they work for you, by all means, keep using them! They may have worked for me in the past, but I realized they really didn’t do enough for me. It was a bit of cheerleading, but didn’t necessarily give me the drive.
No, I realized my drive came from having fun with it. This isn’t just about breaking grammar rules, though. I’m talking about all the parts of it. Go places you (and your readers) wouldn’t expect to go. Write something a bit outside your comfort zone. I’ve said it before, my default reaction to writing rules is often: well, why not? And then I’ll see if I can pull it off. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I’ll have learned something out of it either way.
I’m not saying be a rebel for the sake of being a rebel; this is more about making the process of writing enjoyable for you, the writer. Go for what excites you about the craft, no matter how big, small, epic or esoteric. Whether it be fan fiction, memoir, expanded universe, or experimental, it’s all about whatever enthralls you while you’re writing it. The canvas is a hell of a lot more welcoming than you might think.
In a perfect world, writers, artists and musicians would be thrilled to be able to put their creation out there into the world, and have a positive (or at least constructive) response. It’s not a perfect world, so we’re reasonably okay with whatever we get, be it a bunch of lukewarm responses, very small but amazingly positive responses, or, if we’re really lucky, a snowball effect of growing positive responses. So we at least owe them something they’ll enjoy.
Do we owe our fans perfection? Well, that depends on who’s defining ‘perfection’ here. In normal situations, the writer defines it as ‘the best damn version of my creation that I can give to you, to the best of my ability.’ In this case, yes: we owe our fans our best work. Anything less than that, and we’re phoning it in. And fans can see phoning it in a lot more clearly than we as creators can. You don’t want to cut corners, say ‘fuck it, it’s done’ or ‘…oh HEY LOOK OVER THERE’ [whoosh of handwavium]. And if our creation is in an extended universe, the last things we want to do is kludge it with a bit of poorly applied spackle or reckless retconning, or worse, not even bother with the continuity.
However, we don’t owe our fans what they would consider a Perfect Story.
We do not owe them their perceived headcanon. Yes, our fans have invested time and care in our creations, and that’s really cool! But they’re not the ones driving this bus. The creator is the one dedicating a hell of a lot of personal and creative time planning how each intricate bit of action is going to unfold. If the creator decides to do or not do something in the story, I can pretty much guarantee that 99% of the time, the creators have a reason for it. We especially don’t owe them an explanation when we go against their perceived headcanon.
So why do I bring this up? Well, part of it is due to Sunday’s reaction to the unveiling of the thirteenth Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker — the first female to play the role. It’s an awesome decision and for the most part everyone is thrilled by it. It’s the usual small-yet-vocal male contingent that are having issues with it. How dare they mess with an always-male institution?, they cry.
But it’s also partly due to frequent conversations I see between webcomic artists (frequently female) and their fans, where the reader (frequently male) has ragequit the series or released a Twitter tirade — or worse, harassed the creator through the comments sections of their work — due to their headcanon not actually being canon. And I’ve also seen it in a lot of anime and manga fandoms; for example, the ending of the Naruto manga series (and in effect its anime) was faced with a bizarrely antagonistic American backlash due to certain characters ending up romantically linked and others not linked. It was weird, a bit unsettling, and completely uncalled for.
I admit I haven’t had this kind of response to my books as of yet. That’s partly due to my relative obscurity at this point in my career, but I would not be surprised if it was because I was a male writer, either. That said, though, I still think about it. I write knowing that I’m probably going to piss someone off for one reason or another. I won’t let that stop me writing what I want to write, though. I can deal with that if need be. But it still baffles the hell out of me. It’s fandom expanded to bizarre extremes. It’s an extreme emotional reaction to something harmless and fictitious. It’s reactions unchecked.
I don’t owe anything to fans with that kind of reaction.
I just owe them a damn good story that I hope they’ll enjoy reading. That’s all.
It wasn’t as if I’d had an energy-draining day at the Day Job on Friday. In fact, it was smooth sailing for most of the afternoon. I kept myself busy by catching up on personal emails and listening to some new release tunage. After work we went for a walk to the Legion of Honor Museum up on the hill (it’s just a little over a mile from our house by foot, uphill 98% of the way) for a sneak preview of their Degas, Impressionism and the Paris Millenery Trade exhibit. A bit tired from the walk but otherwise just fine.
Did I get any writing work done, though? Not a word.
Nor did I get any work done Saturday, when we went to see a movie at the Opera Plaza (the documentary Letters from Baghdad) and afterwards stopped by Green Apple to buy a few books I’d been looking for. I did turn on the PC to update a few drivers and software, but spent the rest of the day catching up on webcomics that I’d been backed up on. [I’m a big fan of webcomics for multiple reasons and will most likely have a future post on them at some point!]
Sunday was shopping day, so hopefully some time tonight I’ll be able to squeeze in some Lidwells work. If I’m not distracted by other things! Heh.
It’s not all that often that I’ll take a day or two off without feeling some sort of guilt. I’m at that point in my writing career where I’m once again comfortable with my processes, that I don’t feel the need to rush to get things done. [I’ll still kick myself for procrastinating, but that’s more about getting my daily processes started in the first place.] I can afford a few days off where I’m living a normal life, watching TV and going out into the world and whatnot.
It’s a struggle of many writers, considering many of them are like me, juggling their writing career with their Day Job. You can’t really decide ‘I’m gonna play hooky from my Day Job, I deserve to do it now and again’, at least not without consequences and/or lost pay. On the same token, you don’t want to do that with your writing either, because a) that’s admitting your writing is less important (which you do NOT want to admit), and b) that’s one less day you’re moving forward, one more day your story is just sitting there, doing nothing. It’s also why, when writers do take a day off from writing AND their Day Job, it’s usually for vacation purposes and purposely doing nothing, and STILL feel guilty about it.
Still, it’s a struggle I’ve gotten under control. I’ve been hitting over 2000 words daily, between blog posts, personal journalling and occasional poetry writing, the 750 practice words on Secret Next Project, and Lidwells. My deadline stress is light. My near-future plans are clear. The docket is a hell of a lot clearer than it was just a few years earlier. I can afford to take a writing day off…especially if that day is spent reading and watching other people’s creations with an eye on what their own processes were! [See what I mean about Writer Brain never being completely turned off?]
I can afford to be lazy every now and again, and not feel the least bit guilty. I just need to remember to enjoy it!