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.

On writing the magnum opus

twin peaks

There’s an interesting conversation on Twitter going on, mainly between webcomic artists, about working on a magnum opus right out of the gate.  Many of the comments don’t necessarily dismiss the idea of writing an Epic Epic of Epicness, but they don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out.  And if you do want to write it, then you’d better be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.

Me, I blame being a kid of 80s tv and movie culture, when ridiculous bombast was de rigeur.  I also blame my mid-90s stretch of reading multiple Stephen King books (the ones like The Stand and others that can also be used as doorstops and paperweights).  I didn’t just want to write an exciting novel, I wanted it to be EPIC.  Something big and exciting.  Because it was what I knew, thanks to Red Dawn and Die Hard and Rambo and Schwarzenegger and wrestling and pretty much anything Russell Mulcahy ever directed (including those Duran Duran videos).  I refer to my first completed novel as the Infamous War Novel deliberately because it’s over the top epic in idea, if not scope or length.

When I started writing True Faith in 1994, it was very much the same.  My ex-gf and I had even come up with a detailed timeline that would encompass multiple novels.  This was going to be a multi-book, multi-year project.  Then in 1997 when I started The Phoenix Effect, it too was to be a big story in a big universe.

Which brings me to the Bridgetown trilogy…

See where I’m going with this?

It seemed that with every project I started, it would end up being a Magnum Opus.  I even used that as an excuse to say that I was incapable of writing a short story or coming up with a one-book novel idea, because I had no idea how to think small.  It took a good twenty years of my life from origin to finish for the Bridgetown trilogy to see the light of day.  And that is precisely why, by 2016, I was already committed to writing smaller projects.  I knew I could write solo stories; I just needed to learn how to do it.

Writing a magnum opus is very tempting to a lot of writers.  It’s the lure of rich world building.  It’s the lure of stretching your creative muscles.  It’s the lure of creating something huge that will blow away the competition (or at least the minds of your dedicated readers).  We often try to convince ourselves that it’ll be a blast, that the long years of toil will be worth it at the end.  Even if it gets released and falls flat, it’ll have been worth it.

I don’t regret spending all those years working on the Bridgetown trilogy, because I learned a hell of a lot from it.  I don’t mind the fact that it took significantly longer than expected for me to get where I wanted in my career.  But sometimes I wonder where my writing career would have been, had I dialed it back a bit (okay, A LOT) and worked on less epic projects over the years.  If I’d written standalone stories, maybe even honed my short-story writing chops back in the 90s instead of that one-and-done half-assed attempt.  Would I have made it professionally?  Would I have had more books out at this point?  Would I have gained a significant readership? Maybe, maybe not, who knows.

But at this point, that’s all conjecture.  Right now I’m doing what I want to do, and that’s writing, and that’s all that matters.

I’d say my own response to whether or not one should start their career on a magnum opus is the same as many others:  if you think you can pull it off, and you’re willing to dedicate all that time to it, then go for it.  It’s a worthy goal and it is fun, if time-consuming, and a lot of its success really does rely on luck.  But be aware that it’s not an easy-in to the field.  It may be a bestseller, or it may fall flat.  I won’t say avoid it at all costs…just know what you’re getting into!

On Longevity and Starting Late

 

traveling wilburys
Edited picture courtesy of @nealbrennan on Twitter

Some of you may have seen the above picture courtesy of a tweet from comedian Neal Brennan that came with the accompanying text:

Was talking with friend about how impossibly old the Traveling Wilburys seemed when they released their music in 1988. I’ve listed their ages at the time. For some perspective, three of them are no longer alive. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

While his last comment does make a good point, I thought instead about where those artists were in their career at that point in 1988.

Bob Dylan, at 47: 25 studio albums, 4 live albums.
Jeff Lynne, at 41: 11 studio albums, half a soundtrack, and 1 live album under the ELO moniker
Tom Petty, at 37: 7 studio albums with the Heartbreakers
Roy Orbison, at 52: 23 studio albums and countless singles
George Harrison, at 45: 12 studio albums and numerous singles with the Beatles, 11 studio albums and 1 live album

At the time their “Handle with Care” single came out, all five had had careers since the 70s, a few since the 60s.  This was a sort of older-generation supergroup brought together for the fun of it, all five having worked with at least one other member in the past on solo work.

Now that I’ve hit Dylan’s listed age this year, the fact that my own output is limited to three self-published novels and an anthology entry probably should make me feel like I’ve been wasting all my time to get to this point.  But interestingly, I’m not.  I’ve already made peace with having started my professional writing career late.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of, really.  To be honest, it’s hard as fuck to write a novel, a good novel, a professional-level novel, all while dealing with Real Life, Day Jobs, Families, and Other Responsibilities.  Pretty much all five Wilburys started out their musical careers at a young age and went pro in their early twenties.  Not all of us are able to dedicate all that time.

At 47, I’m happy where I am.  I worked my ass off over the last three decades to learn the craft, make all the mistakes and be the best writer I can be.  I’m glad I took that route using a minimal number of projects rather than trying to write hundreds of stories that may not see the light of day.  It made me the kind of writer I am, and it helped me develop my personal style.

And now that I’m at this point, I can see a much clearer future, where I can face future projects and not feel as though I’m stabbing in the dark.  I know what I’m working towards.  And because of that, I’ve cut down on my turnaround time considerably.  I could conceivably release a book a year if I wanted.  [I’m quite sure I’ll have those seasons of writing an epic similar to the trilogy that’ll eat up a good couple of years, but I’m thinking those are going to be exception and not the rule.]

So yeah…I’m fine with being 47 and being right at the beginning of my career instead of somewhere in the middle of it.  It means I’ve got a lot more to look forward to.

On Writing: Unexpected Ideas

puella magica homura
Homura Akemi from Madoka Magica

I’ll say this: pay attention when ideas pop up, even if they’re weird and unexpected.  Especially when they’re unexpected.

A few weeks back I was listening to the new live album from Jeff Lynne’s ELO (Wembley Or Bust — it’s quite excellent and contains a lot of ELO classics old and new) when their take on “Xanadu” came on.  I remember being a big fan of that movie as a nine-year-old kid.  It wasn’t just the music that captivated me — I was a fan of the band even then — but I was intrigued by its fantasy elements, of muses come alive.

Amusingly, it occurred to me that it would be quite fascinating to see an update/rewrite of Xanadu as a Magical Girl story.  And then I riffed on that a little: ELO’s next album after that was the cult classic Time, a time-travel concept album which also happens to contain the track “Twilight” (known in anime circles as the track used in the DAICON IV film).  Somehow that album would tie in as well.  I shared that as a tweet and didn’t think too much about it after that.

A few weeks later, and the idea is still stuck in my head, and I think I might be able to do something with it.

I thought about it some: a magical girl sent back in time (Time) to save the world somehow, or at least change someone’s fate (Xanadu).  She realizes she’s stuck in that time stream and can’t escape (Time) and has to come to terms with her own fate (Xanadu).  She changes the lives of a few certain people by teaming up with them (Xanadu) though she’s afraid she can’t completely connect with them (Xanadu, Time).  In the end she’s changed the world, or at least someone’s fate (Xanadu) and is finally able to transcend the time stream to return temporarily (Time).

Of course, I’m omitting the rollerskating and the musical interludes, but still…I’m a bit surprised at how easily this came together.  I’m still not sure if I’m going to follow through with it, but the temptation sure is great.

So yeah…pay attention to those ideas when they come up unexpectedly.  You just might have your next story!

Behind the Scenes

Vienna Opera Backstage, Austria
Vienna Opera House pic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every now and again I think of how fans see their favorite writers or musicians or performers when they’re not center stage with a new project.  I get to thinking, this band has finished their tour, they’ve already released all the singles from their latest album, and they’re out of the limelight.  So what are they doing at that point?

Well, the 80s told us that all the bands were hanging out on the Sunset Strip and getting completely shitfaced and taking an apothecary full of drugs and partying until it was time to start the whole album-tour rollercoaster again.  Or something other ridiculous, overblown stereotype of some sort.

The era of social media shows it differently.  Nowadays, we find that artists are working at their day job or completing freelance projects and selling their own wares at conventions.  Musicians are bringing up a family or helping out a friend at a recording session.  Writers are slogging away, trying to make deadlines and heading out on book tours and conventions.  Any one of them might be taking a breather so they can just be regular non-famous people.

I think about something Paul McCartney once said about the length of time it took for the Beatles to record Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.'”

I sometimes also think about the time it takes from a writer saying ‘I’m working on a new project’, maybe giving out vague details about it, to the time they tweet ‘YAY!  It’s done!  Off to my agent/editor!’, to the time they announce that it’s being released.  Back in the internet age you were never sure how long it took, especially when some writers like Stephen King could have multiple books and stories out within the span of a year, while other writers might not see publication until a decade after their last release.  Nowadays you can follow your favorite author In Real Time.

I think this might be one of the reasons why some writers are always pleasantly surprised when their book gets a positive response.  They’ve lived with that book for anywhere from six months to a few years, and it’s all their own creation.  They wrote the score, they built the sets, they sang the arias endlessly to get them just right.  Perhaps maybe a few lucky backstage friends got to beta read.  They or their production crew (their agent and/or publisher) may have even done the artwork for the program.  They put it in the hands of their agent, in hopes that someone will be interested.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a one-person show almost all the way to the end.  And when they get there, they’re so immersed in their story that they’re really not entirely sure how the public will react.

It’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the creative arts; you create something for the public to enjoy, and yet you’re never completely certain if you’ve done it right until they see it.  But if you’re lucky, you have, and all that work will have been worth it.