Keeping the Pace

Image courtesy of K-On!

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!

Writing/Life Balance

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I probably shouldn’t be here in Spare Oom and staring at this screen all day long. Most days I’m good with this; I’ll do some local errands or take the day off to go shopping somewhere. Other days I’ll just sit here and crank out the words all day long (and almost forgetting to get up and stretch). I’ll get frustrated when I take days off from writing, of course, because no one else is going to tell these particular stories and I’d rather not waste more time keeping them hidden.

The balance, I suppose, is allowing myself to get up leave the PC for a length of time. I don’t have to get these words out specifically before noon, yeah? I mean, it’s a good deadline but it’s not set in stone. Today I spent most of the morning doing some non-writing work and then doing our taxes. I’ll give myself a pass in this instance, considering one of them is time-sensitive. That’s why this post is late. Later this week A will have a few days off, which we’ll be spending at the zoo and at one of the local museums. My Writer Brain of course is twitchy because it’s time spent away from the PC, but Reality Brain is already calming WB down (You can always write AFTER we come home, you know.), so I’m not overly concerned.

I’ll get there eventually. It all balances out, really. I have slow days as well as extremely productive days. And if that’s true, I can also have PC days and I can have Real Life Outside days too, yeah?

Getting those words down

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop

Sometimes a writing session contains more than just writing or typing things. Sometimes it’s staring into space as I work the scene out in my head first. Sometimes it’s looking up a word or two in the dictionary or online. Sometimes it’s thinking ahead a scene or chapter ahead so I can work my way there. (And sometimes, I admit, it’s looking to see what’s going on in the Twitterverse or what song is currently playing. But we won’t count those.)

I tend to start off a little slow with each session. I’m rereading the last few paragraphs of what I’d previously written, just to refresh my memory. I’m having a snack or sipping my coffee. I’m putting on an album to listen to. Getting into the groove can take time now and again, especially if it’s a tough passage that I’m trying to crack. But once I get going, I can usually get up to a decent speed and power my way through.

That “getting myself going” can be tough sometimes, though. Whether it’s a can’t get my sh*t together day (I have at least one a week) or just that my brain just does NOT want to work on this sort of thing today, all I can do is either power through or chalk it up as a day off. I of course get frustrated when I have those days, but thankfully I don’t have too many.

More often than not, once I’m in the groove, I stay there. It’s a bit like a runner’s high, I suppose. I just manage to reach a moment where I’m coasting through the words and they’re coming fast and easy, and I’ll just ride it until it wanes or until I have to stop for other reasons. I don’t get this as often as I used to back in the Belfry days, but I know when they’re there and I treasure them when I can.

I try not to overthink what I’m writing, especially when I’m in that zone, but sometimes it happens. It often happens when I’m searching for a certain word — not a perfect one, just the right one that fits the meaning of the passage — and that will trip me up momentarily. I give myself a minute or so to either find the right word or just use a close one and move on.

Getting started be a bear. Sometimes I’m just too distracted — that’s when I need to close all my browsers and maybe even not put on any music — and just DO the damn thing. Other days I’ll come in prepared and hit the right pace immediately. Either way, once I’m where I need to be, that’s when I focus on just getting all the words out that I can.

Cutting it out

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

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

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

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

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

First Chapter Flailing

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop.

What I want to do is write a perfect opening when I start a new project. A great powerhouse opening that reels you in, or alternately, a poetic entrance that captures your interest. Opening scenes that get stuck in your memory.

More often than not, however, what I get instead is rambling and flailing crap. And each time, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to write a terrible opening. Or no opening at all.

In My Blue World, I think, is the only novel I’ve written where the original opening is the one you see in the end result, but that’s because I knew exactly how to open up that story as soon as I started it. I knew that Zuzannah had to enter the world of the Meeks sisters very unconventionally, literally ripping the fabric of space and time in front of their eyes. It’s been revised of course, but for the most part it remained very close to the original attempt.

Meet the Lidwells, on the other hand, started out as a series of Q&A sessions between the band and the unnamed interviewer, whom I later completely edited out, leaving their voice only as section headers and side notes. A Division of Souls had three completely different and unrelated opening attempts before I returned to the original idea of Nehal√©’s awakening ritual. The other two Bridgetown books also started off slightly differently. And nearly all of my trunked stories had alternate openings.

With my two latest projects, I’ve had to remind myself, again, that the only way I can really start these novels is to just WRITE THE DAMN THINGS and not worry too much about how the first chapter sounds. I’m sure I’ll be rewriting or at least revising them in the future, once I have a stronger grasp on what they’re about and what the story needs.

Which is why I call it First Chapter Flailing. I’m still trying to discover all the important parts of the story. What kind of tone do I want to set for the rest of the novel? Who is involved in the first scene, and why? What kind of setting am I looking at? How is this going to tie in with the novel as a whole? The problem is not that I don’t know how to write it, it’s that I’m trying to stick the landing the first time out, and I almost always fail in the process. I either start it too early or too late in the story’s timeline. And then I get frustrated and want to start over. I don’t mind wasting a bit of time trying to write a good story, but I hate wasting words and scenes I won’t use. I know it sounds weird, but it happens.

So how to combat this? Well, like I said: just write the damn thing. Don’t be perfect about it. Just have a vague idea of where this particular first scene is going and what I want it to achieve, and run with it. Have a mental short list of points I want to hit right away. Don’t worry about giant infodumps. And by all means, go ahead and give those characters a somewhat mundane conversation, because that’s the perfect place to drop hints on what will come later on.

There are a lot of moving parts in a novel, especially at the beginning, where it sets everything else in motion. Of course the first draft is going to be messy as hell. It’s always going to be crap. Maybe you’ll luck out and nail it first try, but more often than not you’ll be doing a lot of revision and rewriting in a month or two once you have a much better handle on the story.

And that’s okay! It’s all part of the job of writing. You can always forgive yourself afterwards for all that First Chapter Flailing.

Updates and Processes

I took an extra week off from blogging, as you may have noticed, as I felt the need to give my creative processes another rethink. Long story short, I’ll be updating this blog once a week until further notice, and will be posting them on Mondays only. [As for Walk in Silence, those will appear on Thursdays only.] I’ve decided I need to give a lot more focus on the two novels I’m working on.

Yes, I’m doing the dual-project thing again. Not on the 750Words site, mind you — I’m actually putting that on pause as well — but straight into Word. It seems to be working out well so far, even despite the usual First Chapter Flailings I often have to contend with when starting a new work. The trick, I often have to remind myself, is to just keep writing, regardless of any concern that I’m getting nowhere or writing crap that won’t survive the final draft. There are a few reasons for this:

One, this is a good way for me to get to know the characters a bit more. This is where I’m still feeling my way, so I’m giving them a bit of free rein to move around a bit to let them figure out who they are, and in the process give me an idea how the story will revolve around them. I did this with In My Blue World when I gave each of the Meeks sisters specific personalities (the concerned Diana, the curious Katie and the rambunctious Allie) right from the beginning, which in turn created their own plot arcs and character evolutions.

Two, this keeps me from overthinking it. Seriously, I have a terrible habit of overthinking my stories when I start them out. Overthinking creates too many boundaries that keep me from expanding on anything. I figure if I’m going to overwrite any part of these works, it may as well be the beginning. I can edit them out and reinsert the basic points of reference later on. I did this a ton in the Bridgetown Trilogy.

And finally, it creates an output flow that, after a while, can (and often does) become habit. After a few chapters I can usually nail that day’s work in less time and with higher word count because I’m used to reaching for that flow now, and I can easily pick up where I left off. This worked beautifully for the tandem-written In My Blue World and Diwa & Kaffi.

And in order to do all this, I need to give myself a bit more room to maneuver. Writing five blog entries a week (two here, two at WIS and one at Dreamwidth) plus Daily Words just isn’t working for me this time out, so something’s got to go on hiatus, or at least get cut down. I’ll still be practicing my music and my art, since that’s something I can do a half hour a day without providing too much brain power at this point. And besides, they’re great mini-distractions that are fun and relaxing.

I’m not entirely sure how long this change will last or if it will be permanent, but we shall see in a month or three, once I’ve been immersed in it a while. Thanks for your understanding!

Numbers

I’ve always tried not to focus too much on hitting a specific word count, though it doesn’t always work out that way.

Back in my Belfry days, I’d assigned myself a daily word count of 500, if only to ensure that I wasn’t just turning on the computer, typing a paragraph, and spending the rest of the time playing FreeCell and faffing about with my music library. Once I got into the groove, however, the daily word count goal shifted to 1000. This was around the time I was writing The Persistence of Memories and I knew that with the schedule I had, I could hit it easily.

The downside to that run, which lasted until 2004 while writing The Balance of Light, was that hitting word count started becoming a sport. I’d been so excited by that incessant creative drive that I was pushing 1200 on a daily basis, even weekends. So when the Day Job was getting to me mentally and physically (not to mention a budding long-distance relationship that would soon change my life significantly), I was burning out. And that caused my productivity to suffer.

Nowadays I keep tabs on my word count, but I no longer see it as a sport. I see it more a series of small achievements, like the KonMari cleaning system: a little at a time adds up to quality work as a whole. I keep tabs on the numbers in a little calendar notebook, purely for reference and curiosity. Between the 750 Words site, revision work, and new words for new projects over the course of a day, it adds up. I could hit a few thousand pretty easily on any given day, but I rarely think about it.

For a while I used to take these numbers and crunch them on a spreadsheet, but I soon realized that the actual numbers didn’t interest me in that format. While it was interesting to see how productive I could get during various parts of the year, I’d also get frustrated because I knew I wouldn’t be able to hit the same numbers during a heavy fourth quarter. Besides, I’d completely forget to update the spreadsheet for months on end, so I figured…maybe recording metrics is not what’s needed here.

I just want to write, and enjoy the process. I love having a busy and extremely productive day, especially when I finish off a chapter or a major scene. Adding metrics to my productivity only causes me to think maybe I’m not doing enough. [The Former Day Job may also have something to do with that.] It’s not how my brain works, because numbers don’t mean all that much to me in that context. I’m more focused on schedules anyway. It’s why I have my whiteboard, why I have those ‘assignments’ I hit every day. It all adds up to the same productivity goal I want to hit.

I don’t focus on the solid numbers; I just focus on getting it done.

More on focusing smaller

Yet another gif courtesy of Makoto Shinkai

It’s been a week since my previous post about focusing smaller when it comes to writing, and so far this process seems to be working well for me. Every time I started overthinking the idea I’d been working on that particular day, I stopped myself with the reminder: patience, you’ll get there. The biggest problem I’d been having with Theadia and MU4 over the last few months wasn’t that I was writing crap, it was that I was too eager to get to the goal. And the worst thing I can do is write impatiently.

Some people can write novels out of order. I’ve done it myself a few times…for instance, some of the scenes from Meet the Lidwells were written well in advance as practice sessions at 750Words. And that’s just fine! I’ve been doing precisely that with Theadia lately, just to get the words out and get my brain in the proper mindset for that story. But in the bigger picture, I tend and prefer to write chronologically. I’m a big fan of keeping the Big Story Arc clear in my head so I’m better able to pull all the smaller arcs and characters in the right directions. Thing is, sometimes I let the Big Story Arc thoughts take over, and that’s not good for my writing process.

So what I’ve been doing all this week is focusing on one scene in each project. (As it happens, it’s the opening scene in MU4 and a mid-book scene in Theadia. Perfect example of my occasionally writing out of order.) The main purpose for these exercises was not to convince myself that I was FINALLY working on a new project… it was just to get the creative juices flowing, that’s all.

What’s helping me refocus? Music, of course! Just like the trilogy mixtapes, I’ve been throwing together some interesting mixes for both of the new projects. Theadia‘s mixes have been especially interesting as I’m going out of my way to pick songs I wouldn’t normally choose for this kind of thing. MU4‘s mixes have been similar to the early Eden Cycle mixes of ’97-’98, collecting songs from different genres that evoke a particular mood. I suppose in a way I’m revisiting my old Miami Vice soundtrack style of writing. Hey, whatever works, right?

Another way I’ve been training myself to achieve this new focus is actually a fun project that takes no more than maybe a half hour a day but it’s like a treat for me: storyboarding Diwa & Kaffi! I do one page of six squares a day, just rough visualization sketches in pencil. It’s doing two things for me: One, it’s super fun and something I’ve always wanted to do with my novels, and Two, the daily exercise is helping me get better.

And that, really, is the whole point of this exercise in narrowing focus: getting better.

On Focusing Smaller

Source: Paprika (Satoshi Kon)

I’ve often said that I tend to be a pantser rather than an outliner, but that isn’t entirely true. I’ve done complete outlines before. For example, the outline for Meet the Lidwells! was more or less complete because it was focused on the band’s discography.

On the other hand, I have a few complete outlines for books that I’ve backburnered or trunked. For years I thought the reason for the story’s failure was because I was too hyper-focused on it and gave myself far too many rules and limitations. I’d lose interest because I was trying too hard to make this rigid plan work, even when I constantly told myself it was never set in stone.

A few days ago I was reading someone’s Twitter feed and they happened to mention how, with some creatives with ADHD, they sometimes lose interest in a big project once their brain has solved the problem. That is, they’ve run the whole idea through their head and completed the plot before any work has even been done, leaving the person unable to maintain interest in the creative part of the work.

Suddenly it made sense to me: why do I still feel the pull of some of these backburnered and trunked projects but can never get far with them? Why am I having issues getting anywhere with Theadia and the fourth Mendaihu Universe novel? For years I thought it was because it just wasn’t resonating with me. But why wasn’t it? Disinterest and personal issues don’t seem to be the complete answer, because I’ve felt that with far too many of my completed projects at one point or another.

I had to put it in perspective. Again, with the Bridgetown Trilogy: why did I have almost no problems with that (not including the end of Book 3)? Easy: it was because the bulk of those books — and In My Blue World, Diwa & Kaffi and Lidwells — were written with me only focusing ahead maybe one or two scenes at most. I wrote most of that by sketching out a few ideas during the day job and expanding on those when I got home. [I’ve talked about this process plenty of times, of course.]

There was a reason I kept wanting to get back to that particular process, and for years I misunderstood that yearning as reminiscence and a longing for how enjoyable that process was.

But once I saw those tweets the other day, it occurred to me that maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe my brain really is telling me that this particular process worked for me, and worked well at that, and maybe it’s time to return to it. I was looking at it wrong; I needed to understand this longing in a clinical sense. I can have a long-term goal with my writing — knowing the direction and final destination of the story — but I have to maintain a much sharper and smaller focus on the scenes in front of me at almost all times.

The reason for that is because when I work out all the moving parts of the entire story and plan it all out ahead of time, I lose interest in it. I’ve already done the brain work and now I’m bored with it. The fact that I keep thinking about these projects, especially when I read older blog posts, notes and outtakes, is because it’s not the story that bores me, but my brain reacting to the idea of the work it involves.

This, by the way, is most likely why my academic years were so damn scattershot.

SO. What this means is that I’ve started adjusting accordingly. My daily words are now focusing on writing short outtakes again. My plans for Theadia, MU4 and other projects are to work on them a little at a time, chapter by chapter, scene by scene. Referring to those outlines only as a road map, and only when needed.

I’m very curious to see where this will take me.

Yeah, no.

If I’ve learned anything about being a writer over the last few decades, I’ve learned to notice when I’m bored with my own work. And unfortunately, Theadia is heading in that direction almost directly out of the gate.

BUT! I’ve also learned that this is a good sign. What this really means is that I’ve just gone in the wrong direction, which is completely normal for me when I start a new project. It almost always takes me three or four tries before I get it right. I just have to keep at it.

Why does this happen so often? Good question. I think it’s because so often I start with a pretty sturdy long-game story arc, but I don’t put enough thought into the short-game subplots as I should. This was exactly why Diwa & Kaffi stuttered to a halt a few times. It’s all part of the process.

So what do I need to do to fix this? Simple: start over. Think of the short-term goals and story arcs that I need to hit first before I can introduce the long-game arc. And if it doesn’t work the second time, try it again from a different angle. Start in medias res if I have to. Effectively what I need to do is raise the stakes a lot more than they’re currently at.

Recently I started thinking about why I’d suffered the same fate with Mendaihu Universe book four, and I can see I made the same mistake there as well. It had nothing to do with the story idea itself…it was that I started it wrong. And I think I know what I can do with that particular project as well, so who knows…maybe I’ll be writing more tandem projects again soon? Heh.

Onward and upward.