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.

Another day, another few hundred or so words

Courtesy of Makoto Shinkai, of course.

Starting a new project can often provide its own set of obstacles and trip-ups. My first few chapters are always a hot mess, primarily because I’m still feeling my way through it all. There’s the fear that I won’t be able to expand on this new idea past a couple of flashy scenes. There’s the reminder that I’m proud of my last project and that I really want this new one to be just as great. There’s the nagging reminder of past goals I’ve reached, such as hitting over a thousand words a day, every day, or writing two novels in tandem, and wanting to immediately recapture those goals again with the new project.

Instead what I’m doing is ignoring those trip-ups. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s doable. I remind myself that this is a Brand New Project that can’t and shouldn’t be personally compared to anything I’ve done in the past. If that means that I’m only hitting maybe two or three hundred words a day instead of eight hundred or a thousand, so be it. I gently remind myself that I’ll get back up to that count soon enough, once I feel more secure and confident about the project.

Each project creates its own mood, its own set of habits and goals, which are different from those of the past. Because of that, and unless I’m writing a sequel or a story in an already created world, I have to treat this new project as its own entity. It’s part of why I make mixtape soundtracks for them. It’s also why I’m my own worst enemy when I feel like I’m not writing enough or as strongly and fall into the trap of “why can’t this be as fun as Lidwells or as easy as In My Blue World?” Those are questions I should not be asking myself.

I should be asking better questions: Who are these new characters? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What would they do in this particular scene I’m about to write? And once they do it, what are the consequences? And instead of focusing on the word count, I should be focusing on nailing the arc of the scene I have in my head. I have to relearn the process every single time, because the process is different for each story I write.

It surprises me how often I need to remind myself of all this, every single time I start a new project. I understand that it’s part of wanting to repeat a personal success, and sometimes that’s the right way to go, but not always. Every project starts off with its own unique rules and creates its own paths to completion.

If that means I’m only hitting a few hundred words instead of a thousand or more for the time being, so be it. As long as it gets done.

Writing in Spare Oom

The current look of Spare Oom hasn’t really changed all that much over the years, other than an upgrade in PCs, desk, and so on. I got rid of the Former Day Job laptop and phone, and the current PC (a Lenovo ideacentre 720) has been moved from the floor (where it was attracted a hell of a lot more dust) to the far right side of the desk. Most of the wall decoration remains the same, with the addition of multiple “I power KEXP” stickers scotch-taped in various places. A few toys like Chopper, a burger-shaped eraser, and a Yuri Plisetsky miniature. You’ll most likely find a mug of coffee and a snack nearby as well. And always, always some music playing.

The monitor, as you can see, stays over on the left side at an angle, a leftover from my Former Day Job remote days. It’s a comfortable setup because I get to put the wireless keyboard on my lap while I type away. (It’s similar to the setup during the Belfry days in that respect, and why I don’t suffer nearly as much from carpal tunnel as I normally would.) The angle also faces the door so I’m not ignoring A when she comes in to visit.

The rest of the room is…currently a bit of a mess. We have multiple months’ worth of read books piled up against the loveseat, awaiting donation. There’s also a few boxes and bags worth of donatable stuff waiting for Goodwill to reopen (or alternately, for me to get off my butt and get over to the one donation place that’s open down in the Mission). Eventually I’ll have a clearer floor again…

I try not to spend too much time in here. I’ll do all my work and writing here during the day, and join A in the evening for dinner and a bit of tv streaming. We’ll both visit each other at various times throughout the day as well, just to get up and stretch. At the end of the work day, we’ll both go out for a mile or so stroll around the neighborhood.

I also try not to think of this as a ‘man cave’ because it really isn’t. It’s more like a combination office / storage room / library / studio, and while a lot of things in here are mine, there are a lot of A’s things in here as well, including her yarn and jarring stashes. I think the only sports-related thing in here is a dust-covered Niners ball cap that I got for Christmas who knows when.

Sure, I sometimes get distracted here in Spare Oom. If I turn 180 degrees from where I’m sitting right this moment, I’ll be looking out the room’s one window at the rooftops of the neighborhood, the western hill of the Presidio, and the very smoke-and-fog laden southern tower of Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a great view on a clear day (and one of the big selling points when we first moved in). Sometimes I’ll pick up one of my guitars and practice for a while, playing along with music or just noodling around on a riff or two. And yes, there are a few word search magazines underneath the monitor there — don’t laugh, those are a perfect way for me to unwind when my brain is getting frazzled!

But other than that, I do get a lot more done than I sometimes expect. Once I get into the groove of a project, sometimes I don’t notice that it’s an hour and a half later and the KEXP DJs have switched and it’s nearly time for lunch. I’m not writing dual novels at the moment, though I am working on multiple things. The quick things — the blog entries, the personal journal writing, the daily 750Words entry, and so on — I can finish up quickly, leaving the rest of the time for me to focus on novel writing.

Theadia is being written directly on MS Word, something I haven’t done in quite some time. It felt right to return to a classic process this time out rather than trying to prove something to myself with longhand or using 750. I’m not overplanning it this time, other than a vague outline and some story notes. (And yes, I’ve already made a mixtape soundtrack for it.) No big plans other than just wanting to rediscover the joy of writing.

It’s not a flashy life, but it’s a life I enjoy, and that’s all that really matters!

Starting a New Project

I’m happy to say that I’ve been consistent on the Daily Words all week so far, and I’m hoping to keep it up until further notice. I’m super excited to return to it! After backing away for a good number of months and for varying reasons (most of which I’ve already explained in previous posts), I felt I was more than ready to get back to what I’d like to think I do best.

What am I writing, you ask? It’s a new-ish project, something I’d been playing around with during the waning days of my Former Day Job. Right now it’s going under the project name of Theadia. It’s about two best friends who find themselves in intrigue much bigger than their immediate surroundings. I’d say it’s a mix of the lighthearted approach of Diwa & Kaffi and the immersive world of the Bridgetown Trilogy. Best of both created worlds! Heh.

This is the second new project of mine where I’m following my new and improved approach to writing. A lot of the processes are still the same — I’m still a bit of a pantser with minimal outlining, and yes there is already a playlist/mixtape in the works — but like D&K, I’m approaching the story organically by letting the characters tell me what the story is. With the Trilogy (and to some degree, both Meet the Lidwells and In My Blue World), there was a set universe and I had to ensure the characters worked within its confines. This time out, I’m letting the two main characters discover themselves as well as the bigger story that surrounds them.

Is this a sane way to write a novel? Sure, if one remembers to set up certain rules and boundaries, as well as a final goal. Yesterday I wrote up some rules and regs of the place where a good portion of the story takes place. I also started building up the framework of The Long Term Plotline. This is the plot that I’ve borrowed from anime shows for the last few projects: the one that’s only hinted at near the beginning (which, on the other hand, focuses mostly on character development and single episode arcs) but grows and expands as the overall story goes on, until it becomes the main plot that drives the rest of the novel.

Am I worried it’ll crash and burn? Sure, I always feel that way at the start of every project. It’s either that, or I’m so excited by it that I crash and burn before it’s finished. But if I have faith in the story, I’m willing to see it through. I’ll know if it’s a success once I’m done.

Writing in the time of viruses

Everything is still groovy here in the northwest corner of San Francisco. A and I have a well-stocked fridge (thanks to multiple weeks’ worth of shopping instead of panic buying), the only thing bothering our health at the moment is allergies from the airborne pollen, and we know well enough to was our hands thoroughly and frequently.

While I’m still concerned about having to continue going into the office at this time (as Sunday evening I have not heard any updates from the Day Job), I’m not overly worried. I sit somewhat away from a lot of other people — purely by chance — so my social distancing has been working out reasonably well so far. If they finally call it and we end up working remotely, I am totes fine with that.

I’m still working on my writing, regardless. I’m doing an edit of the Diwa & Kaffi synopsis that should be done by the end of next week, and I’m hoping to squeeze in some new words or at least new ideas for the possible new story ideas I have milling about in my head. My writing schedule is continuing as normal.

I do, however, remember the occasional winter evenings back in my Belfry days when I felt annoyed and frustrated when I was too sick to be productive. This was the end result of trying to hit a deadline, continue my streak of writing a thousand words every day, having a smoking habit, downing multiple Mountain Dews daily, and working extended hours during fourth quarter at a shipping warehouse. Guaranteed by late December my immune system was shot, my sciatica kicked in, my head was spinning, and my sinuses were pounding. The most I could do is play a game or two of FreeCell and call it done.

I know better now. I try to be creative about my writing time (read: I take it where and when I can get it, including slow moments at work), not give myself deadlines I can’t possibly keep, and I’m a hell of a lot healthier. I’m okay if the only writing I can manage is a paragraph or two in my personal journal. I’m annoyed, but I’m not hung up about it. I write when I can write.

Being healthy is just a tad bit more important, especially right now.

And yes, I time my hand washing via running through the twenty-seven seconds of The Beatles’ “Her Majesty.”

More on Tropes: The Personal Twist

Source: Carole & Tuesday

I’ve been thinking a bit more about using tropes in my writing. As I’ve posted previously, using well-worn tropes can be a good thing, especially when I’m starting out on a new project. I’ve tried building up new stories organically in the past, but to be honest it really is like trying to reinvent the wheel sometimes, and perhaps I don’t need to put myself through that much toil. I can just as easily build the foundation and framing of the story I want to write based on well-used and well-trusted ideas, then make it my own.

It took me some time to learn how to do it successfully when I was just starting out, though. A lot of my trunked stories were 100% pantsed and suffer from having little to no sense of that foundation; I just had a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go, but none about how I was going to get there. There’s a reason those are still trunked.

One way I learned was to watch anime. I’ve stated many times before that my obsession with the form is not on the otaku level but more on the creative. My favorite anime series and movies have always been the ones that took a well-used idea and gave it a unique and often non-Western spin. The ‘star-crossed lovers’ trope of Your Name inserts not just the Asian ‘red string of fate’ mythology but skews with the idea of time as well. The ‘army of misfits’ trope in Dragon Pilot is subverted by their flights being, well, dragons (which ready themselves for flight by literally swallowing their pilots). The ‘young adults finding their way in the world’ of Carole and Tuesday has the extra twist of taking place on a semi-terraformed present-day Mars, where all popular music is literally created via algorithms and little to no human input.

It’s this kind of unconventional twist that inspires and influences my own work. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the process is always a lot of fun. I have different ways of going about it: often I’ll be writing a scene and get to the point where, if I was going to follow the tried and true plot trope, I’d have the character act a specific way. I’ve trained myself to always be conscious of when this happens, so that when I get to that point, I can make a conscious decision: do I want them to follow this path, or do I want them to do the unexpected instead, thus taking the story in a different direction? I do this all over In My Blue World, because my aim was to show that its main characters were all unconventional women that didn’t always do what people expected of them. Sometimes it got them in trouble, but more often than not their irreverence undermined the expectations of the antagonists.

Another way I play with this setup is to take a page from Studio Ghibli: the world of my story is pretty much the same as this world, only the rules are slightly different. The world of Diwa & Kaffi is the same as real life, just that there are sentient beings other than humans living in tight knit communities. This is more tied in with the world-building side of things, but it’s equally as important, especially when it’s an integral part of the story.

I’ve learned from experience that I don’t necessarily need to go above and beyond, creating extremely detailed twists and backgrounds (perhaps like I did with the Bridgetown Trilogy, though that was done purposely due to its ‘epic’ tone I was aiming for). Sometimes all you need is just that quirky little detail that will set things going off in an intriguing direction. And not only does the reader enjoy that, the writer often does too!

Busy Weeks and Long Weekends

Last week at the Day Job was very long, busy and headache-inducing, so I did not get a chance to update my blogs. On the plus side, I did spend a considerable amount of time in the evening finishing up the first draft of my synopsis for Diwa & Kaffi! Plus, it was a nice relaxing (and relatively clear!) long weekend here so I decided to just enjoy it while I had it. Got caught up with emails, slept late-ish, cleaned the house, and completed other errands. And we also walked quite a few miles in and around the neighborhood to get our exercise in!

Sometimes that’s the best thing to do for extended weekends. I know some writers will immediately think: Brilliant! Now I can spend hours on end working on my WIP! And if that’s your jam, that’s cool too. I used to be that writer back in my single days, staying up far too late working on stuff and goofing off online at my leisure. But now I find that taking the weekend to just enjoy it is a really neat idea as well. We’ll maybe hit the gym one morning (like we did today) and go out for lunch, then spend the rest of the day streaming tv shows or catching up with easy errands. Like catching up on my blogs!

The older I get, the more I appreciate taking weekends off from writing. Not because I Am An Old, but because I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I don’t have to work at top speed all the time. The weekend is here to recharge, so why not do exactly that? It gives me more energy, but it also lets me think about my current WIP at a slower speed. I don’t always have the time for that during the week, so I cherish the slower, calmer moments when and where I can.