On Writing a Positive Voice

Don’t get me wrong.  There are things going on in this world that rile me up, get me pissed off, want to dick-punch anyone who’s fucking it up for the rest of us.  It’s aggravating and it’s exhausting.

Back in my high school and college years, I’d write protests — poetry, lyrics, comics, stories — most of which hovered between rose-tinted self-righteousness and vague finger-pointing.  I kept most of it to myself, though; I didn’t share most of it with others for various reasons.  The biggest reason being that I always felt the end result was crap.

Sure, you say.  Everyone’s early writing is in fact crap, because you’re still learning. The only way out of that sludge is to keep working at it until you figure it out.  Thing is, I knew my vitriolic writing was misguided and not fully informed.  It was merely a release of all the pent-up anger and aggravation.  That’s why I rarely shared it with the outside world.

I forcibly shed my Angry Young Male Writer facade when I moved back home in 1995.  I knew that was a dangerous road for me, and would lead me nowhere.  It wasn’t where I wanted or needed to go.  Which is why, when I started writing The Phoenix Effect in 1997, I made sure the book never veered too far into dystopian doom.  I needed to write something with a positive edge to it.  I’m not talking about Shiny Happy People here… I’m merely talking about writing stories that have an uplifting theme somewhere in there.

I’ve been tempted to write dark and gloomy fiction now and again over the ensuing years, especially when world events intervene in my personal life.  But each time I’ll let the mood pass.  Again: it’s not the direction I want to go.

Writing both In My Blue World and the Apartment Complex story is partly a response to that.  The AC project, as I’ve said before, is my attempt at writing in the style of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki; something meaningful and emotional without being overwrought.  In My Blue World takes a slightly similar Ghibli road…there are moments of improbability in there, but that’s just the way that universe is, and the characters accept that as part of life.

Is this in response to the emotions and frustrations of Current Real Life for me?  Maybe, but I’m not making it a key component to the stories.  If anything, I think of it this way:  I’m writing positive stories because they’re needed right now, both for the reader and for myself.  The worst thing I can do right now is go back to my doomcrier days; those did nothing for me except make me miserable.  And if my writing is miserable, I’m making my reader feel the same.  And I definitely don’t want that.

Of course, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t write dark stories or angry songs.  In fact, I feel the exact opposite:  those are also needed right now!  It’s simply that there are many writers, musicians, etc, that can do it so much better than I ever could.  I’m leaving them up to the professionals.

I’m just better at Ac-Cent-U-Ating the Positive than I am at Fighting the Power, is all.

You go with your strengths.  That’s how you win the game.

On Writing: Names

When I’m creating a character, the last thing I think about is what I should name them. More often than not, I’ll do the least amount of work possible to give them one.  Instead, I’ll just give them the first one that comes to mind that sounds good and fits the person to some degree.  If it needs changing, that’s what Find & Replace is for!

For example:  I’ve mentioned before that I came up with the characters of Caren Johnson and Alec Poe for the Bridgetown Trilogy rather simply: for Caren I wanted a name that purposely didn’t pop out, much like her avoidance of being the focus of attention; for Poe I wanted him to have a slightly awkward name that he felt didn’t quite fit him, to match his being adopted and not knowing his true origins.  That’s about as far as I went with them, and that process took all of a few minutes.

In my latest projects, I did pretty much the same thing.  For Zuzannah, the magical girl from In My Blue World, I wanted a name that was normal but had evolved over the course of time.  The three sisters, Diana, Katie and Allie Meeks, are just three girls you know in your home town; no one special, just neighbors or friends.  There’s only one character in this particular story that has an unconventional, obviously made-up name, and that’s done on purpose.  Even with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve had to invent a lot of the names, I kept them relatively simple.  Kaffi, the tintrite co-lead, has a simple, fun name to mirror his friendly demeanor, while his father Graymar has one that commands respect and attention.

I’ve never really gotten into the habit of coming up with names that have to mean anything; I always felt that process, at least for me, was trying too hard.  I always create characters that you’d meet on the street or hear about from someone, so I find I can’t go out of my way to come up with a name that means ‘faithful healer’ or something like that.  [Mind you, I only did that once in the Apartment Complex story; I chose Diwa’s Filipino name for two reasons: I wanted a gender-neutral name, and it means ‘awareness.’  But the choice for meaning was only secondary here.]

Think about what kind of character this is, and also think about the people around them, how they react to people.  Especially if it’s a made-up alien name — you can have fun with that by giving them a bit of background in the process.  Diwa and Kaffi’s friend Anna-Nassi, for instance, is part of an alien race whose names combine the culture of their own and of humans as a symbol of planetary community.

When you’re coming up with names for your characters, especially during rough drafts, I’d say go right ahead and put in a placeholder if you’re not entirely happy with it.  Diwa’s name was originally the made-up Riksah before I decided to give him a proper one and decided his family is half Pinoy.  If your character merits a symbolic or metaphorical name instead, that’s fine too.

The most important things to remember here, though, is that a) it should fit the character, and b) it should fit the story.  It’s not just about avoiding anachronisms, it’s also about avoiding words that will stick out like a sore thumb.  You probably wouldn’t want to write a serious romance novel where the strikingly sexy chisel-chinned male lead’s name is Petey Bumblewiggins, right?  As they say, you want a name that fits the character.  How much work you put into that is totally up to you, but it doesn’t always have to be that much work if you don’t want it to be.  Just give it enough for it to work for you and for the story.

 

On Writing: The Denouement

that's all folks

Not gonna lie, one of my favorite parts of writing a novel is the ending.  But it’s not necessarily because I’m FINALLY FINISHING a project that has gone on for far too long.

No, I love writing denouements.  I know…I’m weird that way.

Some people see this as the post-climax ‘what happened to the characters’ sequence, or confuse it with the epilogue, and I can understand why some aren’t fond of these types of end scenes because of that.  Like the occasional argument about prologues, this is a sequence that some people think is completely unnecessary.  [A really good example of this not being done well is Tolkien’s The Return of the King, where the main story actually finishes up around three quarters of the way through, and ending with a post-adventure rambling about hobbit life that was much longer than it needed to be.]

Denouement done well, on the other hand, is always a joy.  It’s where all the remaining strands of plot are brought together to complete the story and give it proper closure.  In The Balance of Light, for instance, I used it as a final closure scene for all the main characters.  Everything was as back to normal as it could be, and everyone was content in returning back to their daily lives.   It was definitely needed there; I wrote it as a relaxing exhale (for both the characters and the reader) from the almost nonstop action in that third book in the trilogy.

The trick in writing a good denouement is to treat it as part of the story proper.  Try to avoid the trap of writing a list of what happened post-climax to everyone; that will read like a dusty old classic, and it’s a style that’s very rarely used anymore.  Instead, what you want to do is treat it as a proper coda to the entire story.  Picture how you would react if you were the main character, having FINALLY just completed an intense ordeal; you’d want to take a break, right?  You’d want to clean up all the loose ends, close the case, and then have a nice twelve-year vacation doing absolutely nothing.  That’s the denouement right there: that cleaning up and putting away of everything.

I’m just about to start in on this segment of In My Blue World, in which our main characters have defeated evil and are now going back to their normal lives.  They’ll need to return to their own time, come to terms with what they’ve gone through, and move on.

Why do I enjoy writing these?  I think it’s partly because this is where I’m right near the finish line for the project, but it’s also because I get to do a little bit of last-minute character development.  If they’ve gone through this ordeal, they’ve definitely been changed in some way, good or bad.  I get to look at the characters one more time and decide precisely how they’ll act next.  In The Balance of Light, Denni is relieved that her role as the One of All Sacred has ended, but she’s still worried whether or not her actions have actually made a difference.  In Meet the Lidwells, the siblings and cousins interact with each other once more as adults, finally enjoying their lives the way they truly want to.

Think of it as a kind of poetic coda to a song.  Perhaps like the “The End” off the Beatles’ Abbey Road:  after the songs and long medleys, this track brings the band together one last time, with the three guitar styles playing off each other, followed by a final verse that ties it all together (“And in the end, the love you make…”), all brought to a close with a final melodic statement.

The denouement should always provide that final relaxing exhale.  And if you’ve done it right, it’ll provide one for the writer as well.

On Revision: Paying Attention

erasing
Yeah, that’s gonna need to go.  [Source, Makoto Shinkai (of course), The Garden of Words.]
While on our little weekend trip up to Mendocino this weekend, I chose to bring my tablet along and read what I have so far of In My Blue World.  I haven’t done this since I started writing this version back in… *checks date* early April.  So far I’ve found a few things worth noting:

–The first entry needs work.  A LOT of work.  Interestingly the very next day’s work is just fine and pretty close to what I was aiming for.  So perhaps that means that I’m getting better at openings!  Heh.
–It remains in the eldest sister’s point of view for most of the first third until I suddenly go into multiple first-person POV.  [They have their own chapter or scene, so I can easily slap a chapter header on there to help the reader.] Which is fine, because I did that on purpose.  I’d written multiple partial scenes before starting this draft which are in other POVs.  I purposely left gaps in this section to insert them in.
–As expected, many characters aren’t quite nailed down until about a quarter of the way in.  [For instance, I had Zuze’s sister Trischa be younger and weaker in the opening, but later on she’s older and more of a badass.]  Thankfully this too is easy to fix, with a bit of revision and rewriting.  Nothing that will ultimately unravel the story for me.
–I need to nail down the rules of magic just a bit more, as they seem a bit too bendy for my tastes at the moment.  They make sense for the most part, though there are a few moments where they kind of drift into MacGuffin territory.  Again, easily fixed.
–I have exactly two characters that started out with promising fates, and I kind of forgot about following through.  That tends to happen a lot when I have far too much fun writing the other characters!  Again, easily fixed.
–The Antagonist/Evil Overlord/Bad Guy needs to be reined in just a tad bit.  This one might be tricky, as his character is very much a reactive, calm-but-insane sort of dude.  The balance here is to show him acting in what he fully believes is logical and right, but others seeing him as completely batshit dangerous.  The good thing is that I have him nailed down already, so I just need to work backwards to fix his earlier scenes.
–Secondary Antagonist needs to have her backstory straightened out.  She too is nailed down at this point, so it’s just her earlier scenes I need to revise.

Thankfully, that’s all I found (so far) that needs work.  I don’t plan on doing any of this revision just yet, as I’d like take the next few weeks to finish the novel.  All the revision, cleanup and post-production will take place in July, and maybe into August if it’s needed.  I’m thinking the drop date at this point will be mid-September.

The tricky part here is paying attention.

I call it such, because whenever I do a ‘read what I have so far’ session, I try to remember all the fiddly bits that might need work.  It’s a mix of self-critique and a line edit.  I pay attention to my reaction to certain passages.  I see a scene and remember how it’ll tie in with another scene further on.  I’ll also think about the story as a whole.  It’s kind of a giant jigsaw puzzle where I keep tabs on the image shown on every single piece.  What seems weak or out of place will get the revision.

I should probably add that I do the copy-edit and the proofread during the e-book formatting sessions.  That’s where I’ll distance myself from the story a bit more and look at it as a reader than a writer.  That’s usually when the formatting and editing errors pop up, and those are the easiest to fix.  And once I’m happy all around, that’s when I’ll upload it to the publishing site and set a drop date.

So yeah… being a self-published author who wishes to do everything himself, there’s a lot of hats to wear.  I have to be vigilant and professional while working on a hell of a lot of different moving parts.  It’s definitely not for everyone, and I would not blame you for not wanting to take the insane route I chose.  But it can be done.

A lot of it really is about paying attention.

Planning Ahead

tenor
I’m usually not this bad, folks.

I know it’s only mid-June, but I’m already thinking two months ahead to August, specifically Worldcon weekend.  [Okay, I’m also thinking about our week-and-a-half vacation to London just before it, and about how I’ll be a walking zombie by the time the con is over, but that’s another blog entry altogether.]

At present, I can safely say that I’m nearing the climax to In My Blue World.  If I time this right, I should have this draft done by the end of June, leaving me the entirety of July to revise it and ready it for self-publication.  I may or may not have it ready in time for the con, but I’m not too worried about it.  If I’m successful, I may be able to snag a reading panel then to read from it.

I’ve done this for pretty much all my books so far…once I know I’m nearing the end of the first draft, that’s time for me to start working on the post-production things.  I’ll start playing around with book cover images.  I’ll start thinking about promotion items and platforms.  Working out the final release schedule.  Those sorts of fiddly things.

I work on those things very early on and in a piecemeal fashion so I’m not crushed under the weight of doing it all at once at the end.  It’s also so I can give myself time to make final decisions or if I should go in a different direction.  And also, these fiddly things are often quite enjoyable to me when they’re not breathing down my neck!

As a self-published writer, I find that I often have to plan out my post-production work in very much the same way I plan out my novels.  I need to think about the overall plot and how each scene and sequence fits together to form the whole.  Or in this case, plan out where I’m going to be when, and what needs to be done to make it all happen.  There’s a lot of multitasking going on, but if I spread it out a bit, I can handle it.

My plan is to do a reading at the con, and if I don’t have the book available, I’ll at least have postcards to give away with the book cover image.  I’d like to have the book out into the wild by September, at least in e-book form.  [I’m also thinking of other platforms for physical copies, but that’s another long term project and another post entirely.]

So yes…even though I’m wrapping up another novel, I’m just getting started on the post-production, which should keep me busy for a few months longer.

*

And for those curious, here’s a very rough draft outtake for the cover of In My Blue World.  This is by no means the final cover, of course, but it’s along the lines of what I’m aiming for.

050418 shutterstock outtake 1

Keeping Busy

makoto shinkai tgow2
Source: Makoto Shinkai, The Garden of Words

Despite possibly overburdening myself a bit lately and falling prey to exhaustion and sore throat for a day or so, my latest writing regimen seems to be paying off.  I’ve been consistently been hitting an average of 900 words per project Monday through Friday, with the occasional run on the weekend as well if time and inclination lets it happen.  Add the four blog entries and other small things to the mix, and I’m probably averaging around 11k words a week.

That’s a LOT of words.

Mind you, it’s not all at once, and I’ve got it down to a strict schedule.  The Monday-Tuesday blog entries are written on Sunday afternoon, and the Thursday-Friday entries on Wednesday.  In My Blue World is written during my Day Job afternoon break, and the Apartment Complex story during the evening sessions.  I keep the creative writing separate from the clinical writing Day Job.  And I let myself have a breather every couple of hours a day so I don’t run myself ragged.

So yeah, I’ve been keeping busy.  Writing two novels at the same time is definitely a trip, and not for the faint-hearted.  More than once I’ve opened up one of the project pages and sat there for a minute, trying to remember if this was the magical girl story page or the boy and his alien friend story page.

How do I keep two completely different and unrelated projects straight in my head?  Good question.  I’m not sure myself.  I just manage to keep them separate because I work on them at different times of the day.  Since both sessions are in the latter half of the day, this gives me most of the day to come up with a general idea of what I want to write.  I also try to write complete scenes, or scenes that will be completed in the next session.  Again, this is almost exactly like my process when I wrote the trilogy; I would prep myself during the day so no evening session time would be wasted.

Will I keep this going on the next projects?  Who knows.  I’d like to, but if I have to adjust it along the way, so be it.  As long as I’m going in the right direction.

Clarity and Action

edward-elric-gif-13
Source: Fullmetal Alchemist.  Edward Elric provides me with a Damn, wish I’d written that! moment.

I try thinking about new ways I can play around with storytelling.  I’ve often said that the stories that inspire me the most are the ones that have moments of brilliance.  I’m not talking award-winning prose here… I’m talking about moments of damn, I wish I’d written that!

Like the above gif, from Fullmetal Alchemist, where Edward Elric uses his alchemical powers (major character trait) to not just pull the atoms of metal from the nearby pipes (major ability) but to reshape it (another major ability) into a rod that he can use for fighting.  Moments where three or four separate character traits come together in creative and sometimes unexpected ways, and propel both character and story forward. It’s both a moment of clarity for the viewer (‘aha, that’s right, he can do that!’) and a moment of action for the story (‘oh man, he’s about to beat someone’s ass, isn’t he?’) and it’s all threaded together beautifully in one five-second moment.

I try to work those kinds of moments into my stories when I can.  I try to put a spin on them as well, by not always relying on expectations.  That way when these seemingly different points come together, it’s often unexpected.  Those are my favorite moments to read and watch, and they’re definitely my favorite to write.

Mind you, the story doesn’t have to have wall-to-wall moments like that.  But they’re certainly one of my favorite weapons in my writing arsenal.

It’s just fine if your book has a message.

dr who books

Lately there’s been a bit of a dust-up on Twitter (no big surprise) about whether or not books should have an ulterior motive.  More to the point, there are a few complaints out there stating that there’s been an uptick of them, and they bemoan that they’d rather have stories that aren’t all messagey or ‘political’.

Well, recent politics (and politicians) aside, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that kind of thing actually happens with alarming regularity.   During wartime, during peacetime, during revolution and during calm, these sorts of stories pop up all the time.  Either these people are oversensitive to this kind of story, or the supposed ‘agenda’ is right out front and impossible to ignore or pass over.  Sometimes these agendas are there to make you feel uncomfortable.

If anything, I’m sure I have agendas in my novels.  The trick to writing them is not to make them overtly obvious or overbearing.  Novels with Very Obvious Metaphors or Thinly Veiled Critiques are hard to accept for some readers; it’s better to work with nuance instead.  The trilogy’s agenda was all about Doing the Right Thing for Everyone, Not Just Yourself.  I even came out and said that numerous times.  Meet the Lidwells‘ agenda (if there was one) could be Don’t Be an Asshole to Everyone.

I’m well aware of those who see any kind of inclusion as political.  So what if it is, though?  The agenda there is simple, then: I’m Here, So Deal With It.  I’m talking about novels that contain a minority main character or someone with some kind of disability; I’m talking about stories featuring these characters, doing what characters are supposed to do in the context of the story, nothing more.

Agendas are part and parcel of who people are.  They make for good characters, and they make for good stories.  And sometimes they’re fun to write, especially when you need to use it for story conflict.  In the trilogy, the conflicts between Denni and Saisshalé were always a blast to write, because they pushed the limits.  I kept pushing their agendas until it finally got to the point where they both had to stop and say ‘okay, this is getting seriously fucked up, we need to stop this.’  That’s when they both realized that their universe was bigger than just the two of them.

So yes!  Don’t be worried that your novel might have a political underpinning to it.  Chances are good it’s supposed to be there, and that’s a good thing.

 

On Calling It

naruto shikamaru facepalm
I feel your pain, Shikamaru.  I really do.

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.

dbz midle finger
TAKE THAT, AGGRAVATING WRITING PROJECT!

 

 

Changes of Influence

makoto shinkai tgow
Source, Makoto Shinkai’s The Garden of Words

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.

I have to admit, I’m looking forward to that.