Note Worthy

Notes swiftly written on the back of old team schedules

First of all, I do apologize for the terrible pun in the entry title.

When I was writing the Bridgetown Trilogy back in the early 00s, my process was that I’d start the day by utilizing the slower moments of my work day at Yankee Candle by doing a bit of plotting. Nothing too detailed mind you, as these moments usually lasted no longer than five or so minutes before the next wave of boxes came down the conveyor chutes, but I wasn’t looking for detailed to begin with. This was merely doing a bit of planning ahead of a few scenes. I’d think a bit about what I wanted my characters to be doing while I built those pallets of candle boxes and then write it out when I had a minute. And more often than not these scraps of paper were nothing more than the backs of copied labels that we’d tape to the side of our finished pallets.

Then later that evening during my writing sessions in the Belfry I’d take those notes and start elaborating on them. Sometimes I’d use them to the letter, and sometimes I’d actually go in a slightly different direction, but the whole point of these notes was that I’d be prepared for the session instead of sitting there staring at the screen or distracting myself with whatever music I wanted to listen to that night. When I returned to the Trilogy in 2009 to finish the last quarter of The Balance of Light I realized that the best way to go about it was to do the exact same thing: longhand notes followed by typed elaboration.

I used slightly different versions of this process for most of my follow-up novels, but never to the same degree. Most of the notes for Meet the Lidwells! contained personal information about the characters and a detailed discography of the band. Same for In My Blue World: for the most part that was written on the fly with most of the notes merely being character bios. I think part of the reason for this was that working for a bank, even as a back office drone, didn’t really lend much time or brain power for this sort of thing. I figured out alternate ways to write novels, even if I didn’t feel it was quite the same.

So when I recently decided it was time to return to the Mendaihu Universe, I also decided that the best way to play all of this out was to go back to what worked: a bit of note writing while at the Day Job followed by elaboration at home. And being that I’m back in retail, I’m once again able to steal a few personal minutes during breaks and slow times to write, this time using the backs of the previous day’s team schedule we have set up at each register. I have the time and brain power for this sort of thing again, so why not take advantage of it?

So far I’ve gotten myself maybe two or three scenes down that I can work with. I’ll be starting off the fresh new version very soon, and I plan on continuing this note taking throughout the entire project. I’m even thinking there’s a chance I’ll do a bit more Tuckerization, once again using coworkers’ last names somewhere while I keep them updated on the latest fictional drama.

All told, it’s not only great to be back in Bridgetown, but it’s also great to return to a process that worked really well for me.

Juvenilia

I still have pretty much all of my juvenilia here in Spare Oom. Poems I wrote in fifth grade for an extracurricular project, the origins of the Infamous War Novel (my first completed project) and its several versions, the numerous maps I’d draw in the margins of school notes and on book covers, the various story ideas that lasted a few pages and the novel ideas that lasted just a little longer, the several unused Murph comic drawings, the silly exquisite corpse stories between me and my high school friends. I’m only missing a few things, really…some of my early art, a few stories I may have thrown away in embarrassment, things like that.

I don’t read it all that much, but I do think about it now and again. I do so because it reminds me of where and how I started. My dad was a local news reporter and I grew up with a lot of adults assuming I’d do the same considering I too wanted to write, but even then I knew that style wasn’t for me. I loved the idea of making up stories. I tended to have a vivid imagination and weird dreams and I wanted to use them. I must have come up with a few dozen decent ideas — again, most of them lasting only a few pages — before I sat down and started writing the IWN. [And even that one took multiple tries over a few years before I clicked with the first complete version. That was just the one that stuck with me the longest.]

This is partly why I’m okay with having several trunked story ideas over the years. Some of them I truly enjoyed working on, others not so much. Some were written as an emotional outlet, something that needed purging. Some written with the best of intentions but ultimately with little personal connection. Some written in desperation because I needed to do something to balance out personal real-life issues.

I consider my juvenilia reaching into my early 20s. Everything just before I started The Phoenix Effect was written with the idea that I would learn this craft one way or another, on my own terms. It was certainly frustrating to see a number of my college classmates zip by me with relative ease and see print, but I had to remind myself that I wasn’t writing the same thing. I had my own reasons to do this. The Phoenix Effect (and to some extent the unfinished novel before it, True Faith) was different. It was the dividing line between sunny-eyed ‘I wanna be a writer!’ dreaming and ‘I am a writer’ determination.

I’ve used a few ideas from this trunked work elsewhere. Meet the Lidwells! has a few ideas nicked from my abandoned coming-of-age idea Two Thousand, for instance. That novel also uses a few song lyrics I’d written years ago. The universe of Diwa & Kaffi originated from a horror story I’d come up with in high school that I retooled into something completely different. This sort of thing is normal for most writers, actually. There’s no rule against borrowing some of your favorite unpublished scenes elsewhere! But for the most part, I’ve kept them stored away in notebooks and folders in a few bookshelves here. They’re well sorted (I did a major sorting project a few years back) and well-kept so I have no worries about them ever being lost, damaged or misplaced.

Will I ever use any of it in the future, though? Who knows. Probably not, but I’m okay with that too. Maybe I’ll post bits of them in the future, or maybe I won’t. Some writers have donated them to their local library. I doubt I’ll ever get that popular to warrant that, but it’s certainly fun to dream that.

It doesn’t matter that they may or may not be worth to anyone else, but they’re worth something to me, and that’s what matters.

More on putting my novels on hiatus

Okay, so maybe I’m not torching my work. That’s not my style! No, this is just a follow-up from last week’s mention that I’m putting Theadia and Queen Ophelia on hiatus.

To put it bluntly, these were both Pandemic Novels.

Theadia was my novel about my frustrations with the Former Day Job. I’d started it in the final months of that particular position, when I’d been forced to head back into the office four days a week. The novel, on the whole, was about Terrible Managerial Decisions versus Doing the Right Thing, set as an unconventional space opera. There’s a lot of that job in this novel…trying to squeeze actual answers out of an ineffectual manager (in this case, a colonel), questioning bad decisions and getting a shrug and a what can you do? as an answer, and of course choosing to do the right thing because no one else will, and the list goes on. I also wrote it because I’d become worried that I no longer had any further stories in me to write because the Former Day Job had become that overbearing over time, and I knew I had to write something before I started to believe that. This was my ‘this is now fucking aggravating this job has become’ outlet.

Queen Ophelia, on the other hand, was my novel about going on a personal journey of discovery. I’d started that one in the first couple of months into the pandemic, when I’d left the Former Day Job and chosen to do some long overdue cleaning out of my anxieties, bad habits and personal issues. This novel, on the whole, was about Giving Yourself a Blank Canvas. The main character, literally an artist with nothing important and no projects weighing down his life at the moment, is offered the chance to learn about his mother who’d left him and his father when he was a baby. Come to find out, she is not just a beast from another world but royalty as well. This was my ‘you’re free, you can be and do anything you want now’ outlet.

Thing is, I no longer need these novels as personal outlets. They were my therapy for those two strange years and they served me well, but now I’ve moved past that need for them. That was the problem with The Balance of Light as well, the third Bridgetown Trilogy book; I no longer needed that trilogy as an outlet or as therapy by 2004 and I felt a bit creatively lost because of it. But also like that novel, I plan on returning to them after some time and distance. I still believe in them, I just have to see them as the entities and creations they are.

In the meantime, I and my creations are both a blank canvas once more, ready to discover new things.

Talking End of the Month Refresh Blues

Image courtesy of hackaday.com

I talked a little bit about this over at my Dreamwidth account, but I think it begs a bit of commentary here: I’m happy to say that I think I’ve finally broken myself of that niggling feeling at the end of every month that I’ve failed in keeping up with my writing schedule. For years, and with the best of intentions, I’d start each month looking at my whiteboard calendar and think, yeah, this time I’ll make it to the end with new words and productivity all over the place!, and inevitably crash and burn about two-thirds of the way through.

It took me until recently that to realize that I’ve been looking at this in totally the wrong way.

Coming into each month with the determination to Do All The Things regardless of real life (and Day Job) getting in the way always leads to failure. And that’s the other mistake I made: seeing that as failure in the first place. In the final weeks I’d always get frustrated that I’d failed to follow my plans once more, and every single time I’d needlessly get angry with myself. It would only be exacerbated by thinking, okay, THIS time I’ll get it right! and setting myself up for failure once more.

What I need to do instead is see the start of every month as a refresh. I run cleaning software on this PC every weekend without fail (and it’s kept Spare Oom’s computer up and running smoothly for over three years so far, thank you very much), and it occurred to me that I really should see my writing habits in very much the same manner.

When I start the new month tomorrow — including participating in Inktober — the whiteboard schedule will once again be full, once again be seen as a guide rather than an assignment, once again allowing myself days off when Real Life intrudes. The whole point of the whiteboard schedule has always been to keep me working instead of procrastinating or distracting myself, nothing more. It’s my coping mechanism that’s kept me from otherwise faffing around on Twitter or playing with my music collection all day long.

What I shall do differently starting tomorrow is just do my best. That’s all. If I miss a day, I miss a day. And come the end of October I’ll do the same thing I’m doing now, accepting the amount of work I’d done in the meantime and starting it all over again in November. And so on. View it as a refresh, not as a metric.

Putting it all together (in my head)

So the trouble chapter in Theadia has been somewhat successfully rewritten — it could still use a bit of tidying up, but for now it’s a lot closer to what I wanted it to be — so I’m onto the next scene, which takes place maybe a few weeks later. Now that particular scene is okay (again, could be better), but the transition between the two scenes could probably be a little more coherent. The current problem is that I need it to hint at a passage of time without it being a ‘Some Time Later…’ placard.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a lot of moving parts that I need to be aware of and ensure they’re in the correct order and make sense. Like most of my novel projects, this isn’t something I ever have copious notes for…it’s all in my head. Sure, I’ll have some notes, but rarely will I ever have the entire thing mapped out somewhere on paper or online.

With Theadia‘s latest go-round, I find that I’m filling in a lot of the gaps with these sorts of things: fixing the transitional scenes, inserting new passages to strengthen the conflict within the overarching plot line, and of course filling in the ‘Fix This Later’ blanks. All of this in my head…getting to a point in the story where I know I need to insert the action from an antagonist’s POV, or better show a character’s development from passive to active status. Things like that.

It’s certainly making the story a hell of a lot longer, that’s for sure. But I’m fine with overwriting like this, because when it comes time to edit, I’ll have enough laid out that it will be safe to streamline what needs streamlining. [This is what I did with The Balance of Light, where I excised about sixty thousand words or so. That one’s still a long book, but it reads a lot smoother than it had originally.]

I still haven’t actually finished the book yet — I’d say it’s just shy of the final climax of the story right now — but I’m not too worried about that. I’ll get there soon enough. Once everything else is put together.

Third time’s the charm…?

Hmm. I’ve been plowing through this one scene in Theadia for the last two weeks and it’s taking FOREVER to get through. There’s so many things wrong with what’s ending up on the screen that I’m having second thoughts about keeping what I have so far. I know the problem: it’s a tense scene with a lot of important information that comes to the fore, but the execution of the scene is absolutely atrocious. There’s tension there, but it’s the wrong kind. And the whole scene is from a single person’s point of view and she’s so passive in it that I keep forgetting it’s her scene.

I think the issue here is that I’m still not entirely sure how the scene should unfold. It’s an important scene that needs to be there, where multiple story threads lead up to this moment, but the weave is weak and unstable. [Yes, I’ve been using this particular crafting metaphor a lot with Theadia. There is a reason for it.] What I need to do is map it out again. I did that for Take Two, and to be honest, I probably should have followed my instincts when it was clear this version didn’t quite resonate with me either.

So. What do do? I’m going to cut the entire thing again. Take Three. (Take One did the exact opposite and did a lot of telling-not-showing, which didn’t work either.) As always, I’ll paste this current version into my Outtakes file where I can use it for reference for the next attempt. Hopefully third time’s the charm, yeah?

About (still) writing poetry

Out of all the creative outlets I talk about here, my poetry and lyric writing get the next to least amount of commentary. [I talk about writing songs the least, alas, but that’s another post.] For a good number of years I just put it aside and rarely wrote any at all. And since the mid-10’s I’d been trying to force myself to write more of it, only to fail utterly. Part of it was that it had lost its enjoyment and no amount of forcing it was going to help at all. Another part of it was that I felt I was essentially writing the same personal themes over and over.

I’m noticing, however, that this latest Mead composition notebook of mine is getting rather full. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it, which is a lot more than the last several aborted tries at personal poetry chapbooks. This one was started a couple of months after I’d left the Former Day Job, and I’d done so on purpose: this was going to be a chapbook of endings and beginnings. Words about letting go of things I’d held for far too long, of coming to terms with things long left behind, and making the first unsure steps at something wanted yet untried.

That was the thing holding me back with the poetry and lyrics, really: lack of emotional movement. In a way it was the same with my music playing — once I gave it that emotional spark it had been lacking, I got better at it. Or more to the point, I’d finally come back around to the creative levels I’d been at in the past that I hadn’t been able to reach again. I had to do some purging of old ghosts before I could move on.

I might post some of these poems and lyrics here — or maybe even self-publish them on Smashwords — at some future point, but it’s not high on my list of projects. This kind of writing has always been personal: written for myself. Sometimes it’s to figure things out, other times it’s just to get something off my chest. Sometimes it’s serious and straightforward, sometimes it’s oblique and metaphorical, sometimes it’s just having a bit of fun.

I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the years, though I wouldn’t know if it’s anything good and worth publishing. But that’s the least of my worries there: if it means something to me, then it’s good enough.

Making notes

I don’t make longhand notes on my novel projects as much as I used to, but I’ll still rely on it when it’s needed. For example, this current scene in Theadia that I’m revising has a lot of intricate interweaving of story threads that need to go together in just the right way that I’ve broken out the small legal pad at my desk to work through how it needs to go.

I do still have a small pad in my back pocket after all these years, something I’ve done since high school. These days it’s mostly for shopping lists instead of music release dates or story ideas. It was probably the candle warehouse job where my writing notes graduated from that pad to folded-up pieces of printer paper.

Somedays I think about that: why is it that I need certain kinds or sizes of paper to work on certain projects? Maybe it’s that back-pocket-pad paper is small, cramped and easily torn, while printer paper is stronger and provides a larger ‘canvas’ to work on. I have some of it folded up and in my pocket that I bring to the Current Day Job. [Not that I have the best time to work on that sort of thing there what with the constant interruptions, but one can hope.] But there’s also that small legal pad I just mentioned — which I’ve been using a lot while working in Spare Oom for working things out. It’s almost like my penchant for the specific spiral notebooks I used to buy for my longhand writing: always a three-subject wide-ruled notebook. Because a five-subject notebook is too big and college-ruled gives the appearance that I’ve hardly written a thing. I know, it’s kind of silly, but so it goes.

Anyway — all this is to remind myself that it’s okay not to get any new words or revised words finished, especially when that time is instead spent figuring things out longhand on paper first.

Influences: Strangers in Paradise

The badass women of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise

Back at the start of my post-college days when I was slumming it in Boston, someone suggested I check out this new comic series called Strangers in Paradise. The first cover was a simple but lovely shot of two women in an art gallery: a moody blonde artist and her seemingly innocent dark-haired bestie. Inside was a story of that second woman having the worst luck with men, specifically a lawyer named Freddie Femur. You’d think this is a classic Bechdel-Test-failing love triangle, yes? Well, maybe not. Because there’s a lot more going on than you think with these characters. A lot more.

Katina “Katchoo” Choovanski, the ‘angry blonde’, is the girl literally from the wrong side of the tracks with a past she’d rather keep quiet. Francine Peters is actually not so pure and innocent and just wants a bit of stability. Freddie, of course, wants to be the slimy alpha male but fails badly at it. And somewhere along the line, Katchoo gets a visit from a fourth character: a kind, quiet and nerdy guy named David Qin, who just wants to take her out for coffee and get to know her.

And that’s only the first three issues. What happens in the next hundred-plus issues that were released between 1993 and 2007 is what truly pulls the reader into this wild universe of criminal underworlds, black ops action, political intrigue, hidden pasts, frustrations in creativity, unrequited love, marriage instability, emotional violence, and spiritual redemption. For some of them, life eventually brings them peace. For the others, not so much, but their downfall is always of their own doing.

What I love about this series is that Moore has chosen to make each female character in this universe as badass as possible in their own unique way. Whether they’re trying to escape their violent past or helping someone battle anorexia or coming to terms with their sexuality or merely just learning how to love and trust someone without any strings attached, these women’s stories very rarely fall into trope or stereotype. These are characters with a vibrant back story and an individuality that sets them apart from each other.

Reading Strangers in Paradise helped me learn how to write and understand my own characters, and how to make them interact. Moore will occasionally throw in silly humor, timely pop culture references, and perfect comedic timing, but when things are serious, he doesn’t hold back. From SiP I learned about pacing, about when to utilize a perfect show-don’t-tell plot device, and how different characters should and could interact. I also learned when to subvert a trope to make the story that much better. And most of all, I learned how a simple back-and-forth dialogue can tell the reader a lot more than just what they’re saying, whether by what’s not being said, or by how it’s being said.

I highly recommend giving the series a try! Moore is a wonderful writer, and he’s also a self-publisher!

**NOTE: If you’ve got $30 to spare, head over to Humble Bundle today or tomorrow, as his complete Abstract Studios bibliography is available in pdf form! If you miss out, check out his work at his Abstract Studios website!**

Revising, rewriting, reworking…

Some days it seems I’m never going to finish Theadia. I still think it could be better, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet. Mind you, I know well enough never to fall prey to overworking it; I’ve always kept a keen eye on when my projects are veering towards that edge and knowing when to reel it back. It’s better than it previously was…but it’s still not at the level I’d like it to be at.

Part of it is that I know there are segments that are still missing. Situations and subplots that need to be beefed up so that our protagonists’ actions make more sense. Small patches of vague world building that need to be clarified to make the story more real. Things that could be improved upon. This is the level I’m at now…going through what I have so far and filling in all those blanks.

Part of it is also that I need it to have more emotion. I’m trying not to talk myself into thinking that I’m merely comparing it to the Bridgetown Trilogy (which had quite a lot of it), only that I know the story could be livelier. Making the characters more personal. Giving them lives that the reader could empathize with. It doesn’t need to be high drama, it just needs to have more of that active spirit that pulls the reader along.

My writer brain occasionally reminds me of the possible idea of doing a complete rewrite to make it more vibrant creatively and emotionally, just like the Trilogy, and though that is of course tempting, I’m not sure if that’s something this story needs. Then again…my creative instincts tell me that this is precisely what Theadia needs right now, and I’ve since relearned that following my creative instincts have rarely steered me wrong when it comes to projects I believe in. And if I choose to follow through, then I will need to dedicate as much time to it as I possibly can.

[That, of course, brings up my long-standing creative foe, Distraction. If I’m going to do a total rewrite, I’m going to need to manage my time a hell of a lot better than I have. But that’s another post entirely.]

I can see this with the last several projects I’ve been working on: MU4, Diwa & Kaffi, Queen Ophelia and Theadia. They’re all stories that I want to tell, and stories I believe in…but my instincts are telling me they’re not quite told to my satisfaction just yet. I can do better. I can write them better. I can give them more of my spirit to make them work the way they should.

Will this mean several more years of not releasing anything? I don’t think so…I’m hoping I’ll have something out later this year, though I’m not sure which one it will be. Maybe it’ll be something utterly different. Maybe it won’t be any of them. Who knows…?

Still. Whatever I do next, I’m going to need to start working on it, and very soon.