Don’t mind me…I’m just stuck in that moment in writing. You know the one I’m talking about. The one where you’ve got a decent amount of work done, and you kind of like the idea…but it all sounds like CRAP. That point where everything sounds so awful and stupid that you’re embarrassed to call yourself a writer.
How do I handle that? Well, I just let it pass, really. If it’s really, truly bad work, then I’ll decide whether or not to trunk it, revise it, or start over. And I don’t think I’m at that point (yet). What I have now is what I always have at the start of a novel project: a lot of flailing, a lot of guesswork, and a considerable absence of continuity. I remind myself that I’m still feeling my way, trying to find what anchors it all together. I’m still trying to find the right voice for it. And the only way to find all that is to keep going. I can fix the terrible parts later on.
So yeah, I’ll be a Grumpypants for a little bit, but it’ll pass. Eventually.
Or to be more precise: On Getting Over Avoiding Writing Short Stories. For years I’ve avoided writing them by making myself believe that I couldn’t write them, no matter how much I tried. My brain always slid towards The Big Epic Story Idea and I couldn’t parse how to come up with something so….short and finite. Or so I believed.
My first attempt at seriously writing a short story was during the spring and summer of 1995, and it’s an embarrassing piece of crap and I can’t believe I thought Asimov’s would be interested it. It was a poor shaggy-dog pastiche of the virtual-reality/internet/etc wave of movies that had come out that year, and it read like I had no flipping idea how to end it. At the time I just shrugged and thought well, maybe I don’t have the chops to write like that, and gave up short-story ideas for years.
So what’s changed between then and now? Quite a bit, really. I’ve read a lot more short stories, microfiction, novellas, and novelettes over the years, many of them for Hugo Award voting purposes but also because it’s become a more accessible format with e-books, anthologies and story collections. I studied their flow and volume; how economical the author is with the action and the information, and how it all gets resolved. I taught myself how to write my own short microfiction by riffing on small ideas for my daily words.
Currently one of my many writing projects is to write short stories in a common universe. In this particular instance the common universe is a college campus, but it takes place in the same world as Diwa & Kaffi. No characters from that novel are involved — at least not directly, anyway — but the mood and the setting is similar. The idea was to write several small vignettes focusing on several students (and possibly faculty) and how they’re all just trying to figure out their lives as they mature. Some of the stories are linked, others are standalone. It’s all just one big experiment, both for me and for the characters.
In retrospect, it makes me wonder why I never tried this earlier. I suppose it might be because I was so focused on the epic scope of the Mendaihu Universe and my dedication to it for so damn long. I wrote Big Things and I enjoyed it immensely. It became habit to the point that when I thought of any new ideas, envisioning them as novel length became the default. And most of them failed because I could not flesh them out to that size, no matter how I tried, and they ended up trunked. It took me a long time to break myself out of that school of thought.
I feel different about short stories nowadays, now that I understand the form so much better. I’m still new at writing them, but I’m getting better at it the more I practice. (And that’s why I still do my daily words on top of my novel work.) I’m already seeing them as a viable outlet for submission for my writing career…I mean, that was the original plan anyway, right?
It’s about damn time I stopped looking at it all as hard work and an impossibility and started seeing it as an achievable goal.
I’ve been thinking about how my writing style has changed over the last couple of decades, and I think I can finally admit that I’m no longer a pantser. [For those of you unfamiliar, this of course refers to ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ — meaning that I used to be a writer that barely plotted ahead and just ran with whatever came to mind at that moment.] I’m actually just fine with that, to tell the truth.
Pantsing used to work just fine for me, especially back in the 90s and early 00s, when my main issue was spending far too much time hyperfocusing on whatever scene I was trying to write, and I needed to break out of that somehow. This style worked because it forced me to choose what I wanted to write and run with it. In the process, I’d get a full scene done super quick because I was finding it all out as I went.
Nowadays, though? I’ve become a huge fan of working out complete synopses! I haven’t quite nailed full outlines just yet, but I’m sure I’ll get there soon enough if I keep this up. Writing these synopses out means that I can come up with a solid main plot and maybe a few side plots that will serve as the structure and backbone of these stories. This in turn cuts down on time where I’m sitting here, staring at the screen trying to figure out where I want to go next. I’ve gotten really good at playing out the story a scene or two ahead, so the writing session is really me working from Point A to Point B. The synopses helps me work through that.
Perhaps I’m getting a bit too excited about this, as I’ve managed to work out four or five projects ahead, what with all these synopses I’ve been writing lately, but really, I’m not seeing a major problem with that, other than prioritizing them…and that’s where the whiteboard and daily schedules come in. It’s a matter of “okay, I need to do prose writing work for Project A this morning and Project B this afternoon” and maybe playing around with the world building of Projects, C, D and E when I want some light and fun work at the end of the day. The main idea of all of this is giving myself future projects to work on, or something else I can work on in tandem with whatever is currently going on. It’s so I can have multiple titles on hand to offer while submitting, really. [Jumping into the pro submission biz is another subject entirely, and I’ll be blogging about that soon enough.]
This is what I meant earlier about having good distractions. All this is keeping me busy and productive. I may have been able to pull this off as a pantser back in the day — I mean, I was too broke to do anything else, plus this was also back during my dial-up years so I wasn’t online nearly as much either — but things in my life have changed enough that it only makes sense that my writing process evolves along with it.
As long as I’m going in the right direction, as I often say!
If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that I find writing queries and synopses for novel submissions infinitely harder than writing the novels themselves. I can keep tabs on multiple plot threads in my head without ever writing them down. I can write two completely unrelated novels in tandem and not have any unexpected crossover issues. I can even update my blogs at some point during the week and have time left to focus on the big work.
But sit me down and ask me to write a query letter and explain my novel in one or two paragraphs? Ask me to write a short synopsis with the barest of details? Say I just need to do an elevator pitch? That’s when my brain stutters to a halt and I end up looking at you in anime-dots-for-eyes confusion.
I mean, I can write them. I did just that the other day so I could send out a novel project to a prospective literary agency. But it took me nearly all day to do both, even though I knew the novel backwards and forwards. I might joke that I’m a New Englander of French-Canadian descent and that talking about anything quickly and clinically is nigh on impossible for me, but it really is a frame of mind that’s super hard for me to shift over to. [Side note: I saved these documents soon afterwards so I can reuse them elsewhere if need be. I’d rather not repeat that work again, thank you very much.]
It’s not just the question of what definitely needs to be in this synopsis and what can I leave out?, but crafting it in a way that makes sense to someone who has not read the story yet. It kind of feels like a job interview in a way: I’m trying to upsell my abilities while at the same time not overwhelming them with detail. I’ve talked to agents at cons many a time, and they always come across as nice and easy to approach, and yet I always feel super nervous and that I’m about to fail the most basic of introductions because I freeze up and flail and blather and my thought process is rarely in chronological order.
One of the many assignments I’ve given myself over the last couple of weeks is to fix that mindset once and for all. After that massive exercise the other day, I was confident enough that I’d gotten my point across and managed to edit everything down to a normal requested size. I sent out the submission without feeling like I was about to make a fool of myself. [Side note: Synopses can still be tricky, as I’ve had agents and publishers say they should be three paragraphs or three pages, depending on who you ask. I’ll adjust as necessary, but whoo doggie is it hard for me to adjust either way sometimes.] And usually when I get through this kind of thing once or twice, I’ll be comfortable enough with it so future attempts won’t be as agonizing. As with most things, I just have to do it.
It’s tough as hell sometimes, but with experience, I’ll get used to it soon enough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m usually good at this, but every now and again I get ahead of myself and the result ends up looking like a half-assed mess of a rush job. Which means I need to do some serious revision to calm it down and stretch it out.
This time I’m talking about the pacing of the story. I’m usually quite aware of how fast or slow a scene needs to be when I’m writing it. I visualize it like I’m making a movie, but I also see it like the deliberate pacing of a song or a musical passage. I like a slow dramatic reveal, but I also like a super-dense action sequence, and each of them needs to have a specific pace. Like movies and music, it’s not just the words that tell the story, but how it’s told.
I used this multiple times with In My Blue World for each character. For example, most of Krozarr’s scenes are slow (but not glacial) and extremely deliberate because that’s how his own mind works; he’s been put in a situation he hates but has to endure, so he takes every action and thought at a pace that keeps him from losing control…and this is ends up being his downfall. Allie, on the other hand, is always, always moving, so her scenes are often frenetic — and when she stops, things around her are not good.
I love writing character scenes like this, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to be able to tell a story with little nonverbal accents like that. It’s got to be done right, though, and it can’t be a constant thing or it’ll be too obvious and detract from the story.
I say this because I’m doing yet another revision of Diwa & Kaffi and the other day I discovered that an extremely important scene, one that changes the course of our two lead characters, was dashed off far too quickly. This is a scene that should have a deliberately slow pace, where they both are hyperaware of each other’s reactions and emotions and do not want to ruin them, and a scene that should end with a bright and happy resolution. Instead, it reads…well, it reads like an outline, really. A zipped-through scene where I mentally made a note to Fix It Later and completely forgot to do so. I’m pretty sure this was a scene where I got overexcited about the idea and forgot to expand on it! I’m a bit embarrassed at how flat the entire scene is, to be honest, so I’m going to need to give it some heavy TLC in the next few days.
This is also why I do multiple rereads when I’m in Revision Mode: I’m not just paying attention to the story or the continuity, I’m also focusing on the pacing. These rereads force me to see where I went too fast, or where I just stumbled and shuffled too slowly. This in turn helps me figure out how I’m going to fix it, whether it’s to rewrite the whole scene, slow it down by expanding it, or deleting the filler to speed it up.
I don’t always catch them right away, but once I do and it’s up to my standards, I’m usually super proud of the result!