On Trying a New Genre

I do so love the feeling of coming up with a completely new story out of nowhere.

That happened to me last March when a half-coherent waking dream grew into a surge of ideas, which in turn grew into a complete outline later that morning, which eventually grew into Queen Ophelia. It happened yet again Sunday morning when I woke up with an idea for a meet-cute romcom. I’m not entirely sure when I’ll write it, but I’ll at least give myself time to write an outline to see if it’s a workable story.

I suppose it might surprise you to read that I’ve taken a turn into romance, but hell, why not? It’s the same thing I did in ’93 when I pivoted into science fiction. It’s a genre I’ve been fascinated by but rarely gotten around to reading, writing or even understanding until much later in my years. And as it happens, the genre is in a really good place right now, even as it continues to be one of the strongest selling genres ever. Head to that section of your local book store and you’ll see quite a lot of different styles within the genre. In particular there’s been a fresh wave of romcoms with fun titles and colorful cartoony covers. As a self-publisher that does their own covers, I really love the looks of those; they’re eye-catching and they’re great at letting you know they’re going to be an enjoyable and funny read.

I also suppose one might be worried that I have no idea what I’m getting into. I mean, that’s par for the course for most writers anyway, but that’s part of the fun of being a writer. There’s a lot of resonance going on; I’ve always taken notice when a story just hits me the right way and inspires me to write something similar. And with the books that I’ve been reading lately, I can definitely feel that. Again, writing Diwa & Kaffi is partly to blame when I learned that not every conflict in my stories need to be high stakes. And I do love to write different kinds of relationships…it’s one thing I realize I can do really well, especially if it’s important to the overall plot.

You could probably say I’m writing out of my depth here, but I’m willing to take the challenge. After all, Theadia is a space opera and I’ve never written one of those before, either. All of these new projects are telling me one thing: writing in a new genre isn’t just an exercise for me, it’s something I need to do to break out of my safety net. I’m always willing to challenge myself on a story, especially if it resonates with me as much as these have. Part of the adventure here is figuring out how to work past the obstacles and make it work.

The other part is proving to myself that I can do it in the first place. That’s always been a major part of my writing career, and I’m not about to rest on my laurels now.

On Expansion

Image courtesy of K-On!

The other day while I was working on Theadia, it occurred to me that though this novel has already hit 130k words, it’s still missing numerous important parts. While it’s strong in some respects, I’d completely ignored other characters and events that need to be there in order to make this work. I kind of did that on purpose, as I’d started this in a very just run with it and see where it goes style, albeit with a vague-ish fourteen-page rough outline. I wanted to focus on just getting the words down instead of fretting about making them perfect right away. Besides, this is my first space opera, and I’ve got a bit of a steep learning curve going on.

But now that I’ve gotten this far — almost to the important climactic moments of the entire story — I feel like I left a hell of a lot out. Passages where I’d just written a three-paragraph ‘this is what happens in the ensuing three months’ to get to another scene…or worse, scenes of character conflict where I barely touched on the antagonist’s reasons for their actions. Again, I did that on purpose in a ‘we’ll fix it in post’ sort of way.

And then there are the multiple minor characters I introduced, had them stick around for a few moments, and then kind of disappear. There’s one I’d created a few days ago — I’d completely forgotten to give a major character a co-pilot, which is important — which made me realize two things. One, that major character hardly has any scenes except a few supporting parts and one important front-stage scene. Two, I hardly gave her that much character development other than being related to one of the primary titular characters, Claudia.

Which made me think: am I stretching this story out far too long and stuffing it with inconsequential chaff…or is this another case of story expansion?

I’ve told you before about how I’d expanded a story in the past, when I started revising The Phoenix Effect and ended up writing a trilogy instead. And though I can’t say for sure just yet, I think the same thing is happening for Theadia. I love the story, but there’s so much missing. And furthermore, it’s the same exact feeling I felt when I started writing A Division of Souls oh so long ago. I knew I had a good story, but I wasn’t giving it nearly as much breathing room as it desperately needed. It needed expansion.

At this point I’m still debating how to handle this. I have a few options here:

–Continue with the story as is and complete it, then reshape it during revision. Pare down any extraneous subplots and tighten up any weak spots.
–Continue with the story as is, just to finish it so I have something to work on when I expand it. Or…
–Start the major revision now with the plan of turning it into a duology or a trilogy.

Option 1 is not what I want to do, however. I don’t want it to be a single self-contained volume because the story would be too cramped and incomplete. Option 2 makes sense to me, but it also feels like I’d be wasting much-needed time, knowing full well that I’d be rewriting it anyway. (And besides, I know exactly how it’s going to end.)

Option 3, to start the major rewrite/revision now, makes the most sense. Just like the trilogy, this process would give me an even deeper immersion in the world, to further understand all of its weblike connections, and give the characters and events the breathing space they truly need.

I mean, sure, part of this is my brain thinking hey, this is a year ending in 2, which means there’s gonna be some awesome writing music coming out, and I’ve always wanted to relive the best parts of writing a trilogy…it’s gonna be great! [Granted, the more sedate adult part of my brain, while it does have those high hopes, knows that it won’t be exactly the same.] I knew I’d be returning to writing plus-sized stories again, sooner or later. I love writing them, and I love everything about the process of writing them.

I had a good run of writing four publishable standalones after the trilogy, just to prove to myself that I could write in that size and style…but I really want to return to the Big Stuff again. The physical world of Theadia is vast, as is its cast. Like the Bridgetown trilogy, it starts of with a single person’s focus and grows to become something affecting everyone. It’s a story about connections, community, and responsibility. Its recurring theme is about the often mundane yet absolutely critical points in any event that need to happen in order for everything else to go right. [I admit there may be a bit of influence from my Former Day Job in there.]

So if this unfolds the way I think it is, this is going to keep me busy for the next several months, no doubt. Not that I’m complaining, just good to know ahead of time.

More as this unfolds, dear reader. And yes, there will most likely be more writing soundtracks involved.

(Image courtesy of Gall Force 2: Destruction)

Taking Notes

I’m at that point in both Theadia and Queen Ophelia that I’m going to need to start taking revision notes. I’ve come a long way on both of them, and after doing a few reread sessions, I think it’s time I started writing down what I’m going to need to fix/change/rework/etc. in both novels. This is a process I’ve done with all my books after I finish (or get close to finishing) the rough first draft.

My process for this takes place during the rereads. In particular, any moment where I react to the novel — any reaction, such as finding bad grammar or typos, or knowing a scene needs fixing because it affects something else further on, or anything in between — that’s when I take notes. It’s the longhand part of my process, where I use a small legal pad (because it’s easiest to use while reading in bed) to mark it all down.

I already know of several scenes in both books that will need revision; as always, these are the ‘flailing’ first chapters where I’m still trying to feel the book out. I find that it’s just easier to riff with whatever I come up with in the knowledge that something better will go there later. I know some writers completely skip these problem scenes with a trusty old ‘WRITE THIS LATER’ note, but that tends to be a bit too unwieldy for me. I’ll write a rough scene that I think is close to where I want it to go instead. For instance, I know I’m going to need to completely rewrite a scene early in Act I for Queen Ophelia, but I wrote that outtake scene anyway because it was pretty close to what I wanted, if not perfect. There are multiple early points in Theadia where I’ve changed how certain characters meet each other or how they react upon their first meeting.

And why do I write those rough outtakes anyway, even if I know I won’t use them? Because part of my process is about mapping out the flow and the pacing of the novel in my head. I’d rather write a filler to be replaced later so that I can maintain that pace. It works for me because when I finally return to replace it, I know a) exactly how the scene is supposed to flow, and b) I know exactly what I want to replace it with. In the end, the revision of that scene takes a hell of a lot less time. And who doesn’t love a speedy, painless revision session?

On Trying New Settings

Image courtesy of Orange

Writing Theadia has definitely been an interesting exercise, to say the least. One reason I’ve mentioned before; I’m purposely writing it in extremely rough-draft form with little revision-as-I-go. Some days it drives me crazy, as I’m used to working it out in my head and choosing the best words I can at that moment. Writing loose like this has given me a lot more breathing room, and has also let me explore the characters a lot deeper than I normally do. Writing Althea and Claudia (and their cat) has been so much fun because of that.

Another reason is that this is essentially a non-military space opera. Well — there are military characters and subplots involved and some subspace gate travel, but it’s not the main plot. It’s all about the two loveable goofball leads and their (and their family’s and friends’) connection to the military plot stuff. The novel also takes place partly on a large space station and partly on its related planet. I’ve only ever hinted at that once, with the setting of the Bridgetown Trilogy, but never to this extent. I’ve done my best to adhere to the general rules of science and physics so it remains believable, but I’ve kept the focus mostly on the day-to-day of civilian life on planet and station. Think of it as more Carole & Tuesday than Robotech. It’s very inspired by Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer stories. The conflict focuses more on how a possible war affects those civilians, and how frustrating it can be when it feels like no one in charge is doing their job correctly.

I’ve always wanted to write a space-themed novel, but figuring out how to write it always eluded me. I didn’t want a story about a generation ship suffering from entropy, or a grimdark Expanse story of possibly dangerous aliens, or even a rebels-win story where every main lead is hyperknowledgeable about tech. I wanted an everyday story, just set in an extraordinary setting. [I find myself really enjoying writing that sort of thing lately.] Earlier this year I finally figured out what I wanted from Theadia and set about writing the outline and then the story itself. I’d continue to build the worlds around them, setting the rules as I go.

It still needs a lot of work, but what I have so far is probably the furthest I’ve ever pushed myself in terms of setting and story. And strangely enough, I’ve been finding it incredibly enjoyable!

Not All Words Are New

Every now and again I have to remind myself that not all word counts I get on any given day have to be new words. Sometimes they can be revision or ‘Do This Later’ notes.

The other day I found I didn’t have enough time to work on Theadia due to other errands and concerns, so instead of worrying about failing to get anything done at all, I figured that what I could do instead was do some note insertion over the last several chapters instead. What ended up being a quick twenty-minute session actually produced some much-needed revision notes over several chapters explaining what I need to add in order to improve the story. They were only a paragraph or two long, but I hit as many concerns as I could that had come up during recent read-what-I-have-so-far sessions. Most of them were related to the overall story arc rather than the scene itself — background events that aren’t the main focus but help drive it further regardless.

I’ve noticed that over the course of writing this (and Queen Ophelia), my writing processes have definitely evolved and/or changed over the years. My pacing has become tighter and I’ve become better at inserting the “early fiddly bits” that are supposed to affect the story further down the line. At the same time, my writing sessions have become much looser — never mind grinding gears to find the perfect word or phrase, just get the idea down first — and my productivity has sped up in tandem with that. Theadia is a longish book (it’s currently at 112k but will most likely be put on a word diet in revision) but I’m still shocked that I’ve gotten this far in so short a time.

Especially since I’ve been letting myself have those occasional no-new-words days more often than in the past.

Autumnal

A and I were walking up to the Clement Street Farmer’s Market yesterday and she’d noted that the weather felt quite autumnal: clear, bright, and cold. Of course, our weather here in the Richmond District rarely gets truly autumnal. Depending on the fronts coming in, some days it’ll be clear and chilly, other days it’ll be forever overcast and damp.

I still miss autumns in New England, to tell the truth. I miss the chilly mornings driving into work with a large coffee to warm me up. I miss the back roads canopied with yellow, orange and red. I miss the quiet whispers of wind through the trees, helping the leaves fall.

These are the kinds of things I like peppering into my novels. In My Blue World‘s universe is New England-y, with several moments taking place in leaf-strewn woods, apple orchards and hilltop cabins at the start of the season. Meet the Lidwells! has the kids writing songs inspired by New England seasons. Diwa & Kaffi also sees the change of seasons as a passage of time and life. And even Queen Ophelia gets to experience weather changes as well. It’s my way of inserting some personal memories of autumnal moments. And I’m sure I’ll keep doing it with future stories as well.

Nearing the Finish Line

My first three books — the Bridgetown Trilogy — took so damn long for me to finish, clean up and get out into the world that six years later, it still feels kind of weird when I find myself coming close to the end of new projects in a much shorter span of time. I definitely felt it with Meet the Lidwells! and In My Blue World; how could I have possibly turned these novels around so quickly? I must be doing something wrong! These can’t be good if I worked this fast on them! I tend not to listen to that particular voice all that much, to be honest. Heh.

Diwa & Kaffi took me a bit longer, as I purposely took my time to get that one right, and I’m still shopping that one out. (I promise, I’ll get it out there one way or another.) And two of my current projects are inching closer to their respective ends as well. Have I told you about them? Not really! I’ve been hinting about them for ages, partly because that’s my one quirk: I have a terrible habit of tweeting/blogging/posting about a seemingly great idea that ends up getting trunked or put aside out of frustration…aka my Best Laid Plans stories. After a while I felt it was a bit more professional (and less promise-breaking) if the details remained on the QT until I felt confident enough that they’d see completion and potential publication.

So, what are they? Glad you asked! Because one is fast approaching Act 3 and the other is well into it and nearing its climactic scenes, and my confidence is high on both. Here’s a quick peek:

The one I’ve been referring to as Project A is currently entitled Queen Ophelia. It’s a story about a man who, upon his father’s death, finds that his estranged mother is not the human he was told she’d been: she is in fact a part-demon part-fae queen of a world filled with magic and war. He learns that he has not only inherited her magical blood but must help her defeat an unexpected enemy. During his adventures and travels, he learns more about the demon and fae world than he’d ever expected. This one’s theme is all about finding comfort and acceptance in others, and accepting oneself. This one was inspired by a dream I’d had in May, wrote out the entire outline that next morning, and have been writing on the 750 Words site since September. [Surprisingly, this one does not have a playlist. I may need to rectify that.]

Project B, meanwhile, is currently entitled Theadia, and it’s a story that popped into my head during my last days at the Former Day Job. It’s about two young women coders living on a space waystation who become embroiled in a border war, useless upper management and terrible engineering. As I’d said yesterday on my Twitter feed: “the source of conflict isn’t just an antagonistic world threat. It also includes the conflict of active avoidance: the ‘not my job’, the ‘it has to be this way because reasons’ and ‘it’s too expensive to make better’. [The main characters] refuse to fall into that avoidance trap. Winning because they stepped up, not because they’re superpowered or invincible.” It’s super geeky fun and doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, but it’s right up there with IMBW as one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve written. Oh, and this is the one that features the Maine coon cat, Grizelda!

[There is indeed a Project C, and it’s what I’ve been referring to as MU4, aka the fourth book in the Mendaihu Universe. I’m taking my own sweet time with this one because there’s a ton to do. Suffice it to say, the story takes place in Bridgetown seventy years after the trilogy, and focuses on how belief systems change and evolve, for better or for worse, and how different they become the further they get from their creators’ original plans and intentions. And yes, a few Trilogy characters do show up!]

…so yeah, that’s what I’ve been up to over the last several months. Queen Ophelia and Theadia should be done soon enough, and they both definitely need a lot of revision work, but I’m quite proud of both of them already. It’s been quite the trip and I’ve had a blast writing them all. In the process I’ve taught myself perseverance, better focusing, and alternate ways of problem-solving. And I’m really looking forward to getting these out your way as soon as I can.

Readjustment (Again)

Image courtesy of From Up on Poppy Hill

It’s been a very long and exhausting weekend here, between the three days of Outside Lands (Friday through Sunday) as well as grocery shopping and laundry (today). This would of course explain the lateness of this post! Now that I have a minute, I have a few things on my mind.

For the most part I was extremely successful doing my daily sketch for Inktober! That’s a first in years, as I’d usually end up crashing and burning about halfway through. I only missed two days (one because the prompt was just too esoteric for me to think of anything decent, and one because I just plum forgot), so that’s a win for me. I did learn a few things: first, I’m still more of a doodler than an artist but I think with time and consistent practice, I could definitely get better at it. Second and semi-related, I finally figured out the ‘consistent practice’ part of it that always eluded me, and essentially that I just needed to find a good time to do it; in this case, it fit in perfectly with my morning journaling. Third, that I really do need to practice on keeping the overthinking to a minimum.

This third one’s the most important one for me, because that’s always been my biggest problem in writing, especially when I’m assigning myself things. I’ve said it before: you ask me to write a simple bit of microfiction about a goat in ten minutes, my brain will automatically try to extrapolate so many extraneous details — what kind of goat, where is the goat, why a goat, what weird plot can I come up with, and so on and so on — and it’s always driven me crazy. Maybe it’s undiagnosed ADHD or something else, I don’t know, but my brain’s always been that way, even when I want to do a simple and fun throwaway exercise.

So how did I work past it? Well, with Inktober, my initial plan was to make it simple: take the prompt and draw the first thing (or second if the first is too hard) that comes to mind, and running with it. Also, don’t take more than a minute or two on it. So in short: have fun and don’t think too hard about it!

And in the process, this has helped me learn how to work past writing blocks and Don’t Wanna/Distraction days — of which I had one not that long ago. I had to do a few needed errands and in the process my productivity just completely bottomed out that day. It got me thinking: why did something so simple as driving A to the BART station and some food shopping throw me so completely off my game? It’s not that I couldn’t find the inspiration…it’s just that I just could not get started. (Which really does make me wonder about that ADHD thing.) I was totally fine the next day, once I returned to my daily schedule. All I had to do is what I’d been doing over the last several months: compartmentalize these tasks. Write the journal. Do the daily Inktober sketch. Get my daily words for Project A. Get the daily words for Project B. Just one step at a time.

All of this is stuff I know I’ll need to adjust and readjust over time, depending on whatever life throws at me from here on in. But now that I know how to do it, I think it’ll be easier to handle.

Back to work

Monday morning is here and it’s time for me to get back to writing. So what is it that I do on the weekends, anyway? That is, when we’re not out and about in the neighborhood or going on an afternoon roadtrip?

Well, for the most part I keep it as my catch-up-with-cleaning days, mostly house errands. Sometimes I’ll drive up the street to shop or get our car washed, but for the most part it’s the Sunday laundry and the Saturday walk around the neighborhood.

Then I attempt to catch up with my email inboxes. I have a terrible habit of sliding a lot of them in one of many TBR subfolders — I’m organized enough that I’ll have a general TBR for store ads and whatnot, a music-related one (no big surprise there), a creativity-related one (writing, art, and so on), a local one (opera, symphony, museum, etc) and a mailing-list one for the Patreons, Substacks and Kickstarters I follow. For the most part I’m good at keeping on top of them, but every now and again I’ll fall behind and next thing I know I have like thirty or forty piled up and a month old. Most of them I’ll delete as they’re mostly shopping mailing lists and news updates I already know about, but eventually I’ll get around to answering some of them. [So yeah, if I don’t get back to you for a bit, I’m not ignoring or avoiding you. I’m just behind.]

But anyway! Monday morning starts the whole daily schedule off again. I do All The Writing while listening to tunage with the occasional mental break to keep myself from overdoing it (and to shift out of that terrible slouch AGAIN), and by afternoon we’re doing our sort-of-daily walk around the block once we both clock out.

Yeah, I know, this is sort of a boring mundane post, but that’s the life of a writer when we’re not in our heads coming up with all sorts of wild and entertaining things for you to read!

Juggling different stories

GIF source unknown, but it’s amazing animation, isn’t it?

So, what’s it like writing three novels at the same time?

Good question. To borrow my ‘homework’ description from the previous post, it’s a lot like that. Each project gets a certain amount of focus time during the day. Just like doing math homework, then doing some foreign language exercises, then reading a chapter for English class, and so on.

And yes, just like my school days, there are times when I Just Don’t Wanna, but I need to do it anyway or else I’m going to get a terrible grade. Or in this case, I’ll just be one day behind and be angry with myself for being a lazy whiny brat. Thankfully those days are few and far between, and I do allow myself a day off now and again.

Is it hard to do? It can be if you’re not used to it. These are three different stories in different created universes, so often times I need to prepare myself a little bit before I even write a word. Project A is written in a fairy tale sort of way and has a full outline, so for that one it’s a matter of knowing what scene I’m at and what style I need to use. Project B also has a full outline but the style is much looser on purpose, so I let myself be more playful and irreverent here. Project C doesn’t have a full outline (which needs to be rectified very soon) but is set in a previously written universe so I can slide into it quite easily.

Like I said previously, the trick is to always view them as separate things with a reasonable and finite goal. Instead of thinking of it as three thousand words per day, I think of it as three one-thousand-word exercises spread throughout the day. Most times I’ll hit it, but some day’s I won’t. And that’s fine too! I missed getting any words for Project C on Wednesday because I had some non-writing things I had to tend to.

Is this going to be the norm for me? I doubt it. I’m doing it now because I still have the time and the inclination. Eventually I’ll have something else come up and I’ll probably go back to one or two projects. I’m simply doing it because I know I can and because I want to. Doing this now, by the way, gives me some extra works to reserve for submission. If one doesn’t work, I can send another. (And alternately, I’ll have enough backlog to upload to Smashwords if I decide to continue down that road.)

Either way, I’m doing what I love and doing my best to make it work.